Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Arundhati Roy: a conscience

Maybe it's because women were selected out of the machinery of our times. Maybe it's because they really are not men in disguise (though some, like Hillary Clinton, have managed to make curious transformations), but these days it seems like some of the most insightful political commentary comes from women. I'm thinking of Naomi Klein, Arianna Huffington, and Arundhati Roy, specifically.

What Have We Done to Democracy? Of Nearsighted Progress, Feral Howls, Consensus, Chaos and a New Cold War in Kashmir

by: Arundhati Roy | TomDispatch.com

"What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?"

Tom Englehardt: Introduction: Arundhati Roy, Is Democracy Melting?

So you, as a citizen, want to run for a seat in the House of Representatives? Well, you may be too late. Back in 1990, according to OpenSecrets.org, a website of the Center for Responsive Politics, the average cost of a winning campaign for the House was $407,556. Pocket change for your average citizen. But that was so twentieth century. The average cost for winning a House seat in 2008: almost $1.4 million. Keep in mind, as well, that most of those House seats don't change hands, because in the American democratic system of the twenty-first century, incumbents basically don't lose, they retire or die.

In 2008, 403 incumbents ran for seats in the House and 380 of them won. Just to run a losing race last year would have cost you, on average, $492,928, almost $100,000 more than it cost to win in 1990. As for becoming a Senator? Not in your wildest dreams, unless you have some really good pals in pharmaceuticals and health care ($236,022,031 in lobbying paid out in 2008), insurance ($153,694,224), or oil and gas ($131,978,521). A winning senatorial seat came in at a nifty $8,531,267 and a losing seat at $4,130,078 in 2008. In other words, you don't have a hope in hell of being a loser in the American Congressional system, and what does that make you?

Of course, if you're a young, red-blooded American, you may have set your sights a little higher. So you want to be president? In that case, just to be safe for 2012, you probably should consider raising somewhere in the range of one billion dollars. After all, the 2008 campaign cost Barack Obama's team approximately $730 million and the price of a place at the table just keeps going up. Of course, it helps to know the right people. Last year, the total lobbying bill, including money that went out for electoral campaigns and for lobbying Congress and federal agencies, came to $3.3 billion and almost 9 months into 2009, another $1.63 billion has already gone out without an election in sight.

Let's face it. At the national level, this is what American democracy comes down to today, and this is what George W. Bush & Co. were so infernally proud to export by force of arms to Afghanistan and Iraq. This is why we need to think about the questions that Arundhati Roy -- to my mind, a heroic figure in a rather unheroic age -- raises about democracy globally in an essay adapted from the introduction to her latest book. That book, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, has just been published (with one essay included that originally appeared at TomDispatch). Let's face it, she's just one of those authors -- I count Eduardo Galeano as another -- who must be read. Need I say more? Tom

What Have We Done to Democracy?

Of Nearsighted Progress, Feral Howls, Consensus, Chaos, and a New Cold War in Kashmir

By Arundhati Roy

While we're still arguing about whether there's life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By "democracy" I don't mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.

So, is there life after democracy?

Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defense of democracy. It's flawed, we say. It isn't perfect, but it's better than everything else that's on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: "Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia... is that what you would prefer?"

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all "developing" societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn't meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It's meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy -- too much representation, too little democracy -- needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?

Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly -- our nearsightedness?

Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do), combined with our inability to see very far into the future, makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. It would be conceit to pretend I have the answers to any of these questions. But it does look as if the beacon could be failing and democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.

A Clerk of Resistance

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.

Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, "apply-through-proper-channels" nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world's favorite new superpower. Repression "through proper channels" sometimes engenders resistance "through proper channels." As resistance goes this isn't enough, I know. But for now, it's all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.

Today, words like "progress" and "development" have become interchangeable with economic "reforms," "deregulation," and "privatization." Freedom has come to mean choice. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. Market no longer means a place where you buy provisions. The "market" is a de-territorialized space where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling "futures." Justice has come to mean human rights (and of those, as they say, "a few will do").

This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being "anti-progress," "anti-development," "anti-reform," and of course "anti-national" -- negativists of the worst sort.

Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, "Don't you believe in progress?" To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs, and whose homes are being bulldozed, they say, "Do you have an alternative development model?" To those who believe that a government is duty bound to provide people with basic education, health care, and social security, they say, "You're against the market." And who except a cretin could be against markets?

To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.

Two decades of "Progress" in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it -- and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts, and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines, and Special Economic Zones. All developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

The hoary institutions of Indian democracy -- the judiciary, the police, the "free" press, and, of course, elections -- far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite. They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colorful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.

A New Cold War in Kashmir

Speaking of consensus, there's the small and ever-present matter of Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hard core. It cuts across every section of the establishment -- including the media, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, and even Bollywood.

The war in the Kashmir valley is almost 20 years old now, and has claimed about 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured, several thousand have "disappeared," women have been raped, tens of thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir valley, making it the most militarized zone in the world. (The United States had about 165,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at the height of its occupation.) The Indian Army now claims that it has, for the most part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that's true. But does military domination mean victory?

How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in Kashmir have had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged state election of 1987 was the immediate provocation for the armed uprising that began in 1990. Since then elections have become a finely honed instrument of the military occupation, a sinister playground for India's deep state. Intelligence agencies have created political parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and destroyed political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who decide what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from the people of Kashmir.

In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, nonviolent uprising. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and policemen -- who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of people -- and thronged the streets. From early morning to late in the night, the city reverberated to chants of "Azadi! Azadi!" (Freedom! Freedom!). Fruit sellers weighed fruit chanting "Azadi! Azadi!" Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet sellers -- everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted "Azadi! Azadi!" The protests went on for several days.

The protests were massive. They were democratic, and they were nonviolent. For the first time in decades fissures appeared in mainstream public opinion in India. The Indian state panicked. Unsure of how to deal with this mass civil disobedience, it ordered a crackdown. It enforced the harshest curfew in recent memory with shoot-on-sight orders. In effect, for days on end, it virtually caged millions of people. The major pro-freedom leaders were placed under house arrest, several others were jailed. House-to-house searches culminated in the arrests of hundreds of people.

Once the rebellion was brought under control, the government did something extraordinary -- it announced elections in the state. Pro-independence leaders called for a boycott. They were rearrested. Almost everybody believed the elections would become a huge embarrassment for the Indian government. The security establishment was convulsed with paranoia. Its elaborate network of spies, renegades, and embedded journalists began to buzz with renewed energy. No chances were taken. (Even I, who had nothing to do with any of what was going on, was put under house arrest in Srinagar for two days.)

Calling for elections was a huge risk. But the gamble paid off. People turned out to vote in droves. It was the biggest voter turnout since the armed struggle began. It helped that the polls were scheduled so that the first districts to vote were the most militarized districts even within the Kashmir valley.

None of India's analysts, journalists, and psephologists cared to ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including bullets and shoot-on-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy -- who practically live in TV studios when there are elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast and exit poll and every minor percentile swing in the vote count -- talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment (an armed soldier for every 20 civilians).

No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialized out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir valley. Where had they come from? Who was financing them? No one was curious. No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls.

Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to de-link Azadi and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only about municipal issues -- roads, water, electricity. No one talked about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades -- where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any time of the day or night -- might need someone to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.

The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for India) once again. The most worrying fallout was that in Kashmir, people began to parrot their colonizers' view of themselves as a somewhat pathetic people who deserved what they got. "Never trust a Kashmiri," several Kashmiris said to me. "We're fickle and unreliable." Psychological warfare, technically known as psy-ops, has been an instrument of official policy in Kashmir. Its depredations over decades -- its attempt to destroy people's self-esteem -- are arguably the worst aspect of the occupation. It's enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all between elections and democracy.

The trouble is that Kashmir sits on the fault lines of a region that is awash in weapons and sliding into chaos. The Kashmiri freedom struggle, with its crystal clear sentiment but fuzzy outlines, is caught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies -- Indian nationalism (corporate as well as "Hindu," shading into imperialism), Pakistani nationalism (breaking down under the burden of its own contradictions), U.S. imperialism (made impatient by a tanking economy), and a resurgent medieval-Islamist Taliban (fast gaining legitimacy, despite its insane brutality, because it is seen to be resisting an occupation). Each of these ideologies is capable of a ruthlessness that can range from genocide to nuclear war. Add Chinese imperial ambitions, an aggressive, reincarnated Russia, and the huge reserves of natural gas in the Caspian region and persistent whispers about natural gas, oil, and uranium reserves in Kashmir and Ladakh, and you have the recipe for a new Cold War (which, like the last one, is cold for some and hot for others).

In the midst of all this, Kashmir is set to become the conduit through which the mayhem unfolding in Afghanistan and Pakistan spills into India, where it will find purchase in the anger of the young among India's 150 million Muslims who have been brutalized, humiliated, and marginalized. Notice has been given by the series of terrorist strikes that culminated in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir dispute ranks right up there, along with Palestine, as one of the oldest, most intractable disputes in the world. That does not mean that it cannot be resolved. Only that the solution will not be completely to the satisfaction of any one party, one country, or one ideology. Negotiators will have to be prepared to deviate from the "party line."

Of course, we haven't yet reached the stage where the government of India is even prepared to admit that there's a problem, let alone negotiate a solution. Right now it has no reason to. Internationally, its stocks are soaring. And while its neighbors deal with bloodshed, civil war, concentration camps, refugees, and army mutinies, India has just concluded a beautiful election. However, "demon-crazy" can't fool all the people all the time. India's temporary, shotgun solutions to the unrest in Kashmir (pardon the pun), have magnified the problem and driven it deep into a place where it is poisoning the aquifers.

Is Democracy Melting?

Perhaps the story of the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from the elements.

The glacier has become a garbage dump now, littered with the detritus of war -- thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents, and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly.

While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They're good people who believe in peace, free speech, and in human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the U.N. Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, the Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan… it's a long list.)

The glacial melt will cause severe floods on the subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight. We'll need more weapons. Who knows? That sort of consumer confidence may be just what the world needs to get over the current recession. Then everyone in the thriving democracies will have an even better life -- and the glaciers will melt even faster.


Arundhati Roy was born in 1959 in Shillong, India. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives. She has worked as a film designer and screenplay writer in India. Roy is the author of the novel The God of Small Things, for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize. Her new book, just published by Haymarket Books, is Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. This post is adapted from the introduction to that book.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


American Myth of the Frontier Sells Huge Gas Hog Rigs

Not much to say about this:

Hummer Owners Claim Moral High Ground To Excuse Overconsumption, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2009) — Hummer drivers believe they are defending America's frontier lifestyle against anti-American critics, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Authors Marius K. Luedicke (University of Innsbruck, Austria), Craig J. Thompson (University of Wisconsin–Madison), and Markus Giesler (York University, Toronto) researched attitudes toward owning and driving Hummers, which have become symbols to many of American greed and wastefulness.

The researchers first investigated anti-consumption sentiments expressed by people who oppose chains like Starbucks and believe they are making a moral choice by shunning consumerism. To these critics, Hummers represent the ills of contemporary society. As one extreme example, on a website, people have posted thousands of photographs of middle fingers directed at Hummer vehicles.

They investigated various Internet expressions of anti-Hummer sentiment, but they were equally interested in the ways Hummer owners framed themselves as "moral protagonists" in the ongoing debate over consumer values. They conducted in-depth interviews with twenty U.S.-born and raised Hummer owners and found among these consumers an equally strong current of moralism.

"As we studied American Hummer owners and their ideological beliefs, we found that they consider Hummer driving a highly moral consumption choice," write the authors. "For Hummer owners it is possible to claim the moral high ground."

The authors explain that Hummer owners employ the ideology of American foundational myths, such as the "rugged individual," and the "boundless frontier" to construct themselves as moral protagonists. They often believe they represent a bastion again anti-American discourses evoked by their critics.

"Our analysis of the underlying American identity discourses revealed that being under siege by (moral) critics is an historically established feature of being an American," write the authors. "The moralistic critique of their consumption choices readily inspired Hummer owners to adopt the role of the moral protagonist who defends American national ideals."

Journal reference:

  1. Marius K. Luedicke, Craig J. Thompson, and Markus Giesler. Consumer Identity Work as Moral Protagonism: How Myth and Ideology Animate a Brand- Mediated Moral Conflict. Journal of Consumer Research, April 2010 (published online September 18, 2009)
Adapted from materials provided by University of Chicago Press Journals, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS


New Math? Old realities.

General McClatchey—according to a report I saw—thinks we will need 500,000 soldiers in Afghanistan if we want to thoroughly trounce the troublemakers. Afghanistan has about 36 million people, according to the CIA world fact book.

That means about one soldier for every 750 Afghanis.

At the peak of our intervention in Viet Nam, we had about 500,000 troops there. And the population was, in 1965, say, about 38 million people. Hmm. We couldn't win in Viet Nam with about the same ratio of soldiers per civilians. It's interesting to note that the French General LeClerc, who had commanded the French army of occupation said it would take 500,000 troops to hold the country—"and then it couldn't be done," he's supposed to have said. He was right. Too bad he isn't around to give a commentary on our current mess in Afghanistan. Hey, but we're America! We can do anything because God is on our side! Right? Right? Huh, right, huh? Huh...?

Friday, September 25, 2009


Old-fart Freaks, Slackers, Deadheads and Dreadheads

We actually went out last night: a friend is in a sort of neo-Grateful Dead band here in town. First time I've heard them. The setting was something called a "roots" festival, with a couple of venues over on the west side. It was at a popular yuppie breakfast restaurant, across the street from a popular slacker bar and grill and kitty-corner to a Mexican cafe (witch, under different ownership , was busted a while back for selling drugs through their take-out window, and thus became famous for selling "meth-ican food."). Quite the neighborhood around there.

We had a good time. The stage was in the cafe's parking lot and several hundred people were there. There were old fart freaks, slackers, a few dazed looking overdressed couples, dreadheads and deadheads, a few older activists I know from around town, kids, dogs—you know, all out for an early, warm, evening of Dead-ish rock. There was a lot of beer being drunk, but also a lot of soda pop and bottled water. Several times I got whiffs of patchouli oil and once or twice even a lyrical scent of weed. Some people danced, but other than some young boys, they were all female. The men hung, mostly.

The music was, well, good. Dead-ish without being copy-cat. Our friend did some old Jerry Garcia licks and took most of the vocals. His guitar playing didn't have the drug-addled noodling Garcia would get into, but it was inventive and pretty melodic. The rhythm guitarist sang more like Bob Hunter and that was OK, too. What the hell: it was free, it was fun, it was a Thursday night in the fall, and that was enough!


Naomi Klein, Michael Moore: what else is there to say? (well, I'll come up with something...)

Michael Moore has been a bright lamp for years. Witty, smart, insightful, and, above all, funky. He's a product of the working class and has stayed true to those roots longer than, say, Springsteen (nothing against the boss, but the man is a celebrity, and thus The Boss—and no more bosses, OK?). Moore is kind of like Pete Seeger: consistent and true.

"Capitalism: A Love Story" is Moore's latest movie. As you probably have heard. He's on a good big promo tour and I hope the movie gets a big audience. He's been interviewed by Leno, he's been on "The View." The more people who realize that 1% of our population has 95% of our wealth, the better. We need to spread that wealth around; until we do, we really have an oligarchy rather than a democracy. Or a republic. We're not much better than one of those old not-quite legendary "banana republics," only with a very smooth p.r. machine filtering out awareness of the excesses. Moore keeps sliding around the p.r. machine. Way to go.

Naomi Klein is a smart and well-informed interviewer. That puts her several levels above the fluff-folks on TV.

Read on.

Naomi Klein Interviews Michael Moore on the Perils of Capitalism

By Naomi Klein, The Nation
Posted on September 25, 2009, Printed on September 25, 2009

Editors Note: On Sept. 17, in the midst of the publicity blitz for his cinematic takedown of the capitalist order, filmmaker Michael Moore talked with Nation columnist Naomi Klein by phone about the film, the roots of our economic crisis and the promise and peril of the present political moment. Listen to a podcast of the full conversation here. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Naomi Klein: So, the film is wonderful. Congratulations. It is, as many people have already heard, an unapologetic call for a revolt against capitalist madness. But the week it premiered, a very different kind of revolt was in the news: the so-called tea parties, seemingly a passionate defense of capitalism and against social programs.

Meanwhile, we are not seeing too many signs of the hordes storming Wall Street.

Personally, I'm hoping that your film is going to be the wake-up call and the catalyst for all of that changing. But I'm just wondering how you're coping with this odd turn of events, these revolts for capitalism led by Glenn Beck.

Michael Moore: I don't know if they're so much revolts in favor of capitalism as they are being fueled by a couple of different agendas, one being the fact that a number of Americans still haven't come to grips with the fact that there's an African American who is their leader. And I don't think they like that.

NK: Do you see that as the main driving force for the tea parties?

MM: I think it's one of the forces -- but I think there's a number of agendas at work here. The other agenda is the corporate agenda. The health care companies and other corporate concerns are helping to pull together what seems like a spontaneous outpouring of citizen anger.

But the third part of this is -- and this is what I really have always admired about the right wing -- they are organized, they are dedicated, they are up at the crack of dawn fighting their fight. And on our side, I don't really see that kind of commitment.

When they were showing up at the town-hall meetings in August -- those meetings are open to everyone. So where are the people from our side? And then I thought, wow, it's August. You ever try to organize anything on the left in August?

NK: Wasn't part of it also, though, that the left, or progressives, or whatever you want to call them, have been in something of a state of disarray with regard to the Obama administration -- that most people favor universal health care, but they couldn't rally behind it because it wasn't on the table?

MM: Yes. And that's why [President Barack] Obama keeps turning around and looking for the millions behind him, supporting him, and there's nobody even standing there, because he chose to take a half measure instead of the full measure that needed to happen. Had he taken the full measure -- true single-payer, universal health care -- I think he'd have millions out there backing him up.

NK: Now that [Montana Democrat Sen. Max] Baucus' plan is going down in flames, do you think there's another window to put universal health care on the table?

MM: Yes. And we need people to articulate the message and get out in front of this and lead it. You know, there's close to a hundred Democrats in Congress who had already signed on as co-signers to [Michigan Democratic Congressman] John Conyers' bill.

Obama, I think, realizes now that whatever he thought he was trying to do with bipartisanship or holding up the olive branch, that the other side has no interest in anything other than the total destruction of anything he has stood for or was going to try and do.

So if [New York Democratic Congressman Anthony] Weiner or any of the other members of Congress want to step forward, now would be the time. And I certainly would be out there. I am out there.

I mean, I would use this time right now to really rally people, because I think the majority of the country wants this.

NK: Coming back to Wall Street, I want to talk a little bit more about this strange moment that we're in, where the rage that was directed at Wall Street, what was being directed at AIG executives when people were showing up in their driveways -- I don't know what happened to that.

My fear was always that this huge anger that you show in the film, the kind of uprising in the face of the bailout, which forced Congress to vote against it that first time, that if that anger wasn't continuously directed at the most powerful people in society, at the elites, at the people who had created the disaster and channeled into a real project for changing the system, then it could easily be redirected at the most vulnerable people in society; I mean immigrants, or channeled into racist rage.

And what I'm trying to sort out now is, is it the same rage or do you think these are totally different streams of American culture -- have the people who were angry at AIG turned their rage on Obama and on the idea of health reform?

MM: I don't think that is what has happened. I'm not so sure they're the same people.

In fact, I can tell you from my travels across the country while making the film, and even in the last few weeks, there is something else that's simmering beneath the surface.

You can't avoid the anger boiling over at some point when you have 1 in 8 mortgages in delinquency or foreclosure, where there's a foreclosure filing once every 7.5 seconds, and the unemployment rate keeps growing. That will have its own tipping point.

And the scary thing about that is that historically, at times when that has happened, the right has been able to successfully manipulate those who have been beaten down and use their rage to support what they used to call fascism.

Where has it gone since the crash? It's a year later. I think that people felt like they got it out of their system when they voted for Obama six weeks later and that he was going to ride into town and do the right thing. And he's kind of sauntered into town promising to do the right thing but not accomplishing a whole heck of a lot.

Now, that's not to say that I'm not really happy with a number of things I've seen him do.

To hear a president of the United States admit that we overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran, that's one of the things on my list I thought I'd never hear in my lifetime. So there have been those moments.

And maybe I'm just a bit too optimistic here, but he was raised by a single mother and grandparents, and he did not grow up with money. And when he was fortunate enough to be able to go to Harvard and graduate from there, he didn't then go and do something where he could become rich; he decides to go work in the inner city of Chicago.

Oh, and he decides to change his name back to what it was on the birth certificate -- Barack. Not exactly the move of somebody who's trying to become a politician. So he's shown us, I think, in his lifetime many things about where his heart is, and he slipped up during the campaign and told Joe the Plumber that he believed in spreading the wealth.

And I think that those things that he believes in are still there. Now, it's kind of up to him.

If he's going to listen to the [Robert] Rubins and the [Tim] Geithners and the [Robert] Summerses, you and I lose. And a lot of people who have gotten involved, many of them for the first time, won't get involved again.

He will have done more to destroy what needs to happen in this country in terms of people participating in their democracy. So I hope he understands the burden that he's carrying and does the right thing.

NK: Well, I want to push you a little bit on this, because I understand what you're saying about the way he's lived his life and certainly the character he appears to have. But he is the person who appointed Summers and Geithner, who you're very appropriately hard on in the film.

And one year later, he hasn't reined in Wall Street. He reappointed [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke. He's not just appointed Summers but has given him an unprecedented degree of power for a mere economic adviser.

MM: And meets with him every morning.

NK: Exactly. So what I worry about is this idea that we're always psychoanalyzing Obama, and the feeling I often hear from people is that he's being duped by these guys. But these are his choices, and so why not judge him on his actions and really say, "This is on him, not on them"?

MM: I agree. I don't think he is being duped by them; I think he's smarter than all of them.

When he first appointed them, I had just finished interviewing a bank robber who didn't make it into the film, but he is a bank robber who is hired by the big banks to advise them on how to avoid bank robberies.

So in order to not sink into a deep, dark pit of despair, I said to myself that night, That's what Obama's doing. Who better to fix the mess than the people who created it? He's bringing them in to clean up their own mess. Yeah, yeah. That's it. That's it. Just keep repeating it: "There's no place like home, there's no place like home ..."

NK: And now it turns out they were just being brought in to keep stealing.

MM: Right. So now it's on him.

NK: All right. Let's talk about the film some more.

I saw you on [Jay] Leno, and I was struck that one of his first questions to you was this objection -- that it's greed that's evil, not capitalism. And this is something that I hear a lot -- this idea that greed or corruption is somehow an aberration from the logic of capitalism rather than the engine and the centerpiece of capitalism.

And I think that that's probably something you're already hearing about the terrific sequence in the film about those corrupt Pennsylvania judges who were sending kids to private prison and getting kickbacks. I think people would say, "That's not capitalism, that's corruption."

Why is it so hard to see the connection, and how are you responding to this?

MM: Well, people want to believe that it's not the economic system that's at the core of all this. You know, it's just a few bad eggs. But the fact of the matter is that, as I said to Jay, capitalism is the legalization of this greed.

Greed has been with human beings forever. We have a number of things in our species that you would call the dark side, and greed is one of them. If you don't put certain structures in place or restrictions on those parts of our being that come from that dark place, then it gets out of control.

Capitalism does the opposite of that. It not only doesn't really put any structure or restriction on it. It encourages it, it rewards it.

I'm asked this question every day, because people are pretty stunned at the end of the movie to hear me say that it should just be eliminated altogether. And they're like, "Well, what's wrong with making money? Why can't I open a shoe store?"

And I realized that [because] we no longer teach economics in high school, they don't really understand what any of it means.

The point is that when you have capitalism, capitalism encourages you to think of ways to make money or to make more money. And the judges never could have gotten the kickbacks had the county not privatized the juvenile hall.

But because there's been this big push in the past 20 or 30 years to privatize government services, take it out of our hands, put it in the hands of people whose only concern is their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders or to their own pockets, it has messed everything up.

NK: The thing that I found most exciting in the film is that you make a very convincing pitch for democratically run workplaces as the alternative to this kind of loot-and-leave capitalism.

So I'm just wondering, as you're traveling around, are you seeing any momentum out there for this idea?

MM: People love this part of the film. I've been kind of surprised, because I thought people aren't maybe going to understand this or it seems too hippie-dippy -- but it really has resonated in the audiences that I've seen it with.

But, of course, I've pitched it as a patriotic thing to do. So if you believe in democracy, democracy can't be being able to vote every two or four years. It has to be every part of every day of your life.

We've changed relationships and institutions around quite considerably because we've decided democracy is a better way to do it. Two hundred years ago, you had to ask a woman's father for permission to marry her, and then once the marriage happened, the man was calling all the shots. And legally, women couldn't own property and things like that.

Thanks to the women's movement of the '60s and '70s, this idea was introduced to that relationship -- that both people are equal and both people should have a say. And I think we're better off as a result of introducing democracy into an institution like marriage.

But we spend eight to 10 to 12 hours of our daily lives at work, where we have no say.

I think when anthropologists dig us up 400 years from now -- if we make it that far -- they're going to say, "Look at these people back then. They thought they were free. They called themselves a democracy, but they spent 10 hours of every day in a totalitarian situation, and they allowed the richest 1 percent to have more financial wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined."

Truly they're going to laugh at us the way we laugh at people 150 years ago who put leeches on people's bodies to cure them.

NK: It is one of those ideas that keeps coming up. At various points in history it's been an enormously popular idea. It is actually what people wanted in the former Soviet Union instead of the Wild West sort of mafia capitalism that they ended up with. And what people wanted in Poland in 1989 when they voted for Solidarity was for their state-owned companies to be turned into democratically run workplaces, not to be privatized and looted.

But one of the biggest barriers I've found in my research around worker cooperatives is not just government and companies being resistant to it but actually unions as well. Obviously there are exceptions, like the union in your film, United Electrical Workers, which was really open to the idea of the Republic Windows & Doors factory being turned into a cooperative, if that's what the workers wanted.

But in most cases, particularly with larger unions, they have their script, and when a factory is being closed down, their job is to get a big payout -- as big a payout as they can, as big a severance package as they can for the workers. And they have a dynamic that is in place, which is that the powerful ones, the decision makers, are the owners.

You had your U.S. premiere at the AFL-CIO convention. How are you finding labor leadership in relation to this idea? Are they open to it, or are you hearing, "Well, this isn't really workable"? Because, I know you've also written about the idea that some of the auto plant factories or auto parts factories that are being closed down could be turned into factories producing subway cars, for instance. The unions would need to champion that idea for it to work.

MM: I sat there in the theater the other night with about 1,500 delegates of the AFL-CIO convention, and I was a little nervous as we got near that part of the film, and I was worried that it was going to get a little quiet in there.

Just the opposite. They cheered it. A couple people shouted out, "Right on!" "Absolutely!"

I think that unions at this point have been so beaten down, they're open to some new thinking and some new ideas. And I was very encouraged to see that.

The next day at the convention, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution supporting single-payer health care. I thought, "Wow," you know? Things are changing.

NK: Coming back to what we were talking about a little earlier, about people's inability to understand basic economic theory: In your film, you have this great scene where you can't get anybody, no matter how educated they are, to explain what a derivative is.

So it isn't just about basic education. It's that complexity is being used as a weapon against democratic control over the economy. This was [Alan] Greenspan's argument -- that derivatives were so complicated that lawmakers couldn't regulate them.

It's almost as if there needs to be a movement toward simplicity in economics or in financial affairs, which is something that Elizabeth Warren, the chief bailout watchdog for Congress, has been talking about in terms of the need to simplify people's relationships with lenders.

So I'm wondering what you think about that.

Also, this isn't really much of a question, but isn't Elizabeth Warren sort of incredible? She's kind of like the anti-Summers. It's enough to give you hope, that she exists.

MM: Absolutely. And can I suggest a presidential ticket for 2016 or 2012 if Obama fails us? [Ohio Democratic Congresswoman] Marcy Kaptur and Elizabeth Warren.

NK: I love it. They really are the heroes of your film. I would vote for that.

I was thinking about what to call this piece, and what I'm going to suggest to my editor is "America's Teacher," because the film is this incredible piece of old-style popular education.

One of the things that my colleague at The Nation Bill Greider talks about is that we don't do this kind of popular education anymore, that unions used to have budgets to do this kind of thing for their members, to just unpack economic theory and what's going on in the world and make it accessible.

I know you see yourself as an entertainer, but I'm wondering, do you also see yourself as a teacher?

MM: I'm honored that you would use such a term. I like teachers.

Naomi Klein's latest book is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

© 2009 The Nation All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/142871/

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Round and round in the circle game...

Evenings, I enjoy reading history. No specific areas, and usually semi-popular retellings and interpretations of history. A few areas, like north American history, I like reading the primary sources; otherwise, 2ndary sources are dandy.

Barbara Tuchman is one of my favorite writers, of course. She was witty and wise. Her analysis of American policy in the Viet Nam War is devastating. Lately I've been reading Crane Brinton's Anatomy of Revolution. It's a study of the French, the English ("The Great"), the American, and the Russian revolutions. Both books seem relevant to the current scene. Afghanistan and the increasing troop levels bring back echoes from the past. We keep adding troops while knowing the government we're supporting stinks like a cesspool. Afghanistan 's reputation as an Empire Eater is widely known. The dynamics of revolutionary movements, particularly the thuggish stages where the legitimate government is overwhelmed, have parallels in today's far-right demonstrations like "tea bags" actions and the rudeness of town-hall disruptions. History does not repeat itself, but people too often do just that, as Freud and Jung and countless other explorers of consciousness have pointed out.

We got trouble right here in River City, folks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


life within and without me

Got a temporary reprieve from the colonoscopy: at least for a week. Actually, I'd rather just drink the polyethylene glycol and get it over with. But, doctors move in orbits that earthlings can only hope to link with on occasion.

So do capitalists.

Our daily daily, the—well, I'll just call it the Daily Daily—came out opposed to the minimum wage. Great: when people with jobs are squeaking through the checkout lines in grocery stores with food stamps, dodging bill collectors, and wondering what will happen if any of their family members get sick, the paper thinks wages should go lower. That's...really Christian of them. White of them. Thoughtless of them. Cold-hearted. I swear to god that paper would roll us back to the presidency of Wm McKinley if it could. Wages? Too high. Profits too low. Government? Too meddling. Growth? Wonderful! More more more growth!

Edward Abbey, you don't know what you've missed out on.

The Daily Daily, to be a bit even-handed, is heavily invested in our town as a growth industry; they agitated for a fourth crossing of the river so that the west side of town could grow faster; they find odious any land-use planning that prohibits growth (I was a bit even handed in that earlier clause), and they object to a recent statistic about the number of homeless in central Oregon (they believe it's way too high and it's bad publicity). A few years ago they moved from an old publishing plant on the east side of the river to a new huge one on the west side, and now their paper is very slender. There are so many houses for sale that few people are even bothering tolist them. There are usually less than two dozen jobs in the "Employment" section. The only growth section of the paper is in the classified section, though, where the foreclosures and sheriff's sales are listed.

And their favorite letters are the ones attacking the current administration, I do believe. Their cartoons certainly do that...

Sunday, September 13, 2009



A night out in the woods, camped along a river. Chipmonks—OK, golden mantle ground squirrels, crested jays, scrub jays, a campfire. Like a long meditation, like being stoned. Sitting, watching, not thinking. Beth pointed out that we were the white trash element, because we had the dirty van, no big 5th wheel rig, not even a newer van and high-tech tent. Well, gee. I'd like to have, I think, a class B van, all self-contained, with room to stand up in it. But, we don't. This one works. No blame.

Anything new? Yeah, the Armed Right had a big rally in D.C., yawn. Once again, I'll mention there are a lot of people preaching sedition and if people had protested as loudly against Bush's policies, there would have been lot more arrests and broken heads. Tom Ridge would have called out the troops; at least Dick Cheney would have. There would have been hell to pay.

There may be hell to pay, yet. There're increasing numbers of attacks on homeless people, who make a good scapegoat. I think it's only a slight notch up to where the cars of liberals—like ones with bumper stickers, get thumped and vandalized. Libs are going to be the big scapegoats for these "tea party patriots." It's always easier to go after non-violent people than ones who might fight back. Assuming Democrats and liberals are passive...which not all of us are...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009



Somebody (aka Anonymous) responded to an old post about Cindy Sohappy, the girl from Warm Springs who died in a holding cell at Chemawa Indian school. This was a few years back. Ms Sohappy came back on campus drunk, was locked up, and subsequently died unattended because nobody checked on her. Kind of manslaughter by indifference. Nobody ever got punished for it.

The school is still there, slogging along, trying to help adolescents graduate from high school and get their heads on straight. Originally Chemawa was one of those Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools where Indian kids were supposed to be taught to become (low-echelon) white people. Thousands of students died in those boarding schools, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Measles, flu, heartbreak—sort of similar to the way Indians died in the Spanish missions down in California. We'll probably never know exactly how many. The kids were whipped for trying to speak their native languages; forcibly, their hair was cut; they had to wear, at least the boys, idiotic little pseudo-military uniforms and the girls were dressed like house-maids. That was the least of what happened to many of them. Do you believe in ghosts, bad spirits? I've been to Chemawa a half dozen times, walked the old grounds, and never found a cemetary. Has to be one, yeah.

Are there bad spirits hanging around a place with such sorrowful history? Like around, say, Big Hole Battlefield or the site of the Sand Creek Massacre or a thousand other places were awful things happened to the First People? I've visited some of those places and always left before sundown. I know there are good spirits around certain places—like Bear Butte in South Dakota, say. So, yeah, I think maybe there are some things at a place like Chemawa that are not healthy. I suppose that sounds like a Steven King plot, but...

Just rambling thoughts on the day after Labor Day.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


September Song?

September song: "Where did August go?"

Lily Tomlin turned 70 the other day: Happy Birthday, Lily, you're an asset! Your quote about satire being too hard because it's so difficult to keep up with things...We're living in a society that has become a satire of itself, right? I mean, who are these people screaming that Obama is a liberal/Nazi/Communist/Socialist who's trying to take over the country? These people are actually preaching Sedition, I believe. That's a major crime in my book. There's also, I think, a covert strategy to get some tinfoil-hat-wearer to whack our President. It may be an unconscious plot, even, but given our history, if you turn the heat up high enough, somebody's going to do something really stupid. Like assassinate the POTUS. I know everybody is stressed by the economy and a clear realization that yes, Virginia, the US did commit acts of torture.

What else is left of the American National Air-Conditioned Nightmare? Not much. We're not god's chosen after all—no more than the Russians, the Germans, Italians, Spanish...we're just nice normal fuckedup people. We behave no better than anybody else. That is a hard realization, especially when scoundrels like O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Palin, and others are still screaming that We Are The Elect.

We're not. Nobody is.

Why not just admit it? Why kill people who keep telling the truth? Because if they'd just shut up then everything will be OK, again. Sure.

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