'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, October 30, 2009

Film Notes: 24 City 

Prior to 1979, China pursued economic and social policies consistent with the creation of an industrialized proletariat, often associated with the production of armaments, within a planned economy. Peasants subsidized it through the supply of agricultural commodities at state controlled prices while subject to restrictions upon their movement that made it extremely difficult for them to leave their villages. With the increasing emphasis upon market liberalization by Deng Xiaoping and his successors, state owned industry entered a period of inexorable decline, resulting in plant closures and commercial redevelopment.

Several years ago, Wang Bing profiled this phenomenon in his epic, West of the Tracks, a nine hour documentary set in the massive Tie Xie industrial district in Shenyang, Manchuria. With an astonishing visual and narrative sensibility, one marked by neorealistic characterization and striking industrial compositions, Bing patiently presented the last months before the closure of the few remaining factories in the district, the attachment that the workers had for them and the breaking of the iron rice bowl, as housing for the workers was being torn down to make way for commercial development. A communal, collective way of life was destroyed as part of the price for admission into a neoliberal, globalized economy. Bing gently presented the workers to us with an intimacy absent sentimentality or voyeurism.

In the US and Europe, indeed, perhaps, most of the rest of the world, the Cultural Revolution is accepted as the most turbulent period of recent Chinese history, but Bing suggests that market liberalization has been equally traumatic. Jia Zhangke appears to have come to a similar conclusion in his most recent film, 24 City, or, perhaps, more accurately, he has determined that the entire period of Chinese Communist Party rule has been one characterized by the harsh ebbs and flows of modernization. He imputes great significance to his protagonists, the workers within Factory 420: The story of these characters represent the last fifty years of Chinese history.

As you might expect, Jia is being hyperbolic. The peasant experience is pretty much absent in 24 City. Even so, the experiences of the workers of Factory 420 opens a window towards understanding the social transformation resulting from the embrace of market liberalization, as he interviewed over 130 people who worked there. The film itself is an innovative blend of documentary and fiction, with Jia presenting the stories of four people connected to the factory through five of the interviewees themselves and four subsequent ones through actors and actresses. He made the decision to adopt this technique because of his belief that history is a mixture of fact and imagination. As a consequence of the incorporation of fiction within a documentary narrative structure, the film is more straightforward than Jia's previous ones which are noteworthy for their elliptical storytelling methods, although engagement with the content of what the interviewees, both real and fictional, say presents the challenges common to his other films. His mastery of color, along with his feel for architecture and interior design, are everywhere in evidence as expressed through his compelling compositions, with the most startling departure being his interweaving of more realistic scenes, such as an interview of an elderly former 420 employee traveling across Chengdu on a bus, seemingly recorded with a hand held digital camera in one long take.

By way of background, Factory 420 was opened in Chengdu in southwestern China in 1958 for the purpose of manufacturing parts for military aircraft. Prior to that time, facilities for the manufacture of military weapons were located in Manchuria, but, after such facilities were subjected to American bombing during the Korean War, the Chinese Communist Party adopted Mao's strategy of moving such production outside the reach of both American and Soviet airstrikes. One suspects that he was influenced by the Soviet experience in World War II, wherein much of the country's industrial platform was successfully transported away from the Ukraine to Siberia. During the 1980s, the workers shifted from producing military aircraft parts to appliances for the consumer market. Within the last few years, as has happened many times across China, investors brought forth a proposal for destroying the aging factory, relocating it somewhere else on the periphery of the city with modern manufacturing technology, and undoubtedly fewer workers, so as to free the land for residential and commercial development. The site was quite appealing, because of its centrality within the city, and the developers christened the project, 24 City, a name purportedly taken from a classical Chinese poem about Chengdu.

During an appearance at the New York Film Festival, Jia said that he first thought about making 24 City after he finished Platform in 2000:

This makes sense as the narratives of Platform and 24 City traverse similar terrain within their own unique social contexts. While Platform deals with the coming of age of a young music and theatrical troup forced to adapt to the rapid transformation from Maoism to the market in the 1980s, the industrial protagonists of 24 City live through a similar experience over a longer time frame. Both groups experience the turbulence of migration, market liberalization and the abandonment of collective ideals for individual ones. At the conclusion of each, a sympathetic young character, in Platform, a male one, in 24 City a female one, finds themselves esconsced in a new world of consumption and commodification, where, ironically, their new found individuality, and the individuality of those around them, have been fused into a mass of conformity. Baudrillard recognized such an outcome forty years ago when he observed that the young woman who selects a hair style popularized by a famous model or actress sees herself as engaging in act of personal expression even as thousands, if not tens of thousands, select the same one.

Prior to the production of the film, Jia also said that his purpose was to tell a story about three women in the 50s, the 70s, and the present day, as society makes the transition from collectivism to individualism. By doing so within a larger narrative that also interweaves male experience as well, he grounds gender within a complex mosaic of social transformation. First, there is the paradox that within the collectivism of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, people retained a surprisingly high degree of individuality within their personal lives. Or, rather, people carved out more and more individual space for themselves over the course of this collectivist period, so much so that, upon the introduction of market liberalization by Deng, it disintegrated. By the beginning of the 21st Century, with the collectivism of the past a fading memory, the workers of Factory 420 discovered that they were now at the mercy of a new social system that considered them and their experiences as superfluous.

Consistent with this, Jia has also observed that it is important to record memories that are disappearing all over contemporary China. So, much so that he has abandoned previous notions of films as entertainment. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, and it is not limited to China. One of Fassbinder's greatest, most idiosyncratic films, In a Year of 13 Moons, confronts precisely this subject, the extent to which the lived experiences of marginalized people are erased with the passage of time, with the assistance of finance capital. In this film, even the wealthy Jewish commercial real estate developer, the man who had participated in the postwar destruction of many of Frankfurt's old residential neighborhoods and the expulsion of the people who lived in them, finds himself facing obsolescence and irrelevance. In the world according to Fassbinder, everyone faces the prospect of becoming marginalized as a result of the acceleration of social change generated by finance capital, an acceleration too seductive to reject. There are echoes of this in the conclusion of 24 City, as Jia's last, fictionalized interviewee, a young woman raised by 420 workers, looks out from the roof of a highrise office tower across an urbanized, commercialized Chengdu that spreads in all directions as far as the eye can see. No one, not even the investors and developers of 24 City itself, can resist the reductionist power of capitalism in its current form.

Second, upon hearing the interviewees, one is tempted to ascribe a male cast to the collectivism of the past and a female one to the individualism of the present. To a certain extent, this is true, as the female characters reveal the attainment of more and more independence with the passage of time. Accordingly, it is hard to resist associating such independence with the adoption of the market liberalization measures associated with neoliberalism. And, there is some truth to this, although the use of the word independence to describe it may not be entirely accurate. Instead, it is evident that women have obtained greater autonomy within their families and their societies during this neoliberal era, even as they, in most instances, become more and more financially insecure, and the interviewees give concrete expression to this over the course of the film: an elderly woman relates how difficult it was for her to find a job in the early 1990s are being laid off at Factory 420; a middle aged one describes how she left Shanghai to work in Factory 420 and refused all suitors for marriage, living, she says, as many of her divorced female friends who got married and divorced do; a young, twenty or thirtysomething one expresses her shock at seeing her mother, also laid off at Factory 420, working elsewhere under brutal conditions at a telephone pole manufacturing plant even as she now travels to Hong Kong as a fashion buyer for wealthy Chengdu women.

Conversely, men, who, during the collectivist period, were exhalted as the embodiment of a privileged, industrial proletariat, exhalted, in effect, for their physical labor, are now defined by other achievements. The first interviewee, one of the people who actually worked in Factory 420, relates the pride that he and his coworkers took in their work ethic, their skill and their commitment to one another. He recalls a beloved supervisor who told them that must not casually dispose of an old tool because they should remember all the hands through which the tool had passed. Upon being prodded by the off camera interviewer, he theerafter notes the Cultural Revolution, but says little about it, so it remains the story that remains untold, at least in a Chinese social context outside the literature generated by its educated victims, the source of memories that even Jia cannot record. The interviewee does, however, imply that his supervisor was removed from his position during the Cultural Revolution, and that it initiated an irreversible process whereby working class support for collectivization and the planned economy unraveled.

Fast forward to the last, fictional, male interviewee, and one hears something very different. Like the last, fictional female interviewee, he is a child of Factory 420 parents. He recalls being sent to Manchuria when he was 16 years old to apprentice in a factory there. He briefly enjoyed performing his assigned task, a repetitive one that involved smoothing a metal component of some kind. But, after about an hour, he decided that he wanted to go back to Chengdu, and, against the wishes of his father, he did so. Here, Jia takes aim at the fact that, unlike the generation of the first interviewee, subsequent generations of people connected to Factory 420 found work industrial manufacturing work increasingly tedious, and seized almost any opportunity to do something else. After returning home, the last interviewee succeeded in becoming an anchor of a popular Chengdu television program. Just as with the young woman who goes to Shanghai to select and buy clothes for wealthy Chengdu women, he is considered emblematic of a generation that now defines success by one's ability to escape the factory and obtain a well paying position within some form of the culture industry. In their shadow are millions upon millions of Chinese who continue to work in a contemporary manufacturing sector under conditions that Isabel Hinton has described as evocative of those of 1840s Manchester.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

So, We Are Fighting Right Now Against Two Enemies, Internal Enemies and External Enemies 

Malalai Joya describes the tragedy of Afghanistan:

A very different perspective than the one currently espoused by Code Pink.

Hat tip to Yoshie of MRZine.

UPDATE: Eight US troops killed in Afghanistan by improvised explosive devices.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Rightist on BBC Panel Draws Protests and Viewers 

No, the New York Times isn't talking about a Tory, some especially obnoxious backbencher known for making inflammatory comments to turn out his Olde England base. No, it's Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party:

The occasion was the appearance on “Question Time,” the BBC’s flagship politics program, of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, whose goal to “take back Britain” includes incentives that encourage the mass repatriation of Britain’s nonwhite immigrants, coupled with a deep hostility to Islam, which Mr. Griffin has described as “a wicked and vicious faith.” He has also spoken of his “repugnance” for lesbians and gays, and advocated the end of civil contracts for same-sex relationships.

His record includes having denied the Holocaust, suggesting that some of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were built after World War II for the purposes of Jewish propaganda, and conceding, under questioning by a biographer, that Hitler may have made some mistakes. “Yes,” he said, according to the biographer, Dominic Carman, “Adolf went a bit too far.”

Awfully big tent they have over at the Times, one that accidentally supports the conflation of Anglo American imperialism, both domestically and abroad, with racism, religious intolerance and homophobia. One can only imagine what Jack Nelson would have said about it. After all, the Times couldn't even describe Griffin accurately in the headline as a racial separatist, but, I guess that designation is reserved for black nationalists. As to the larger, more troubling problem regarding the legitimation of the BNP as a respectable political movement, lenin, over at Lenin's Tomb, has addressed it extensively over the last month or so.

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Journalism of the Highest Quality 

Former Atlanta Constitution and Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson is dead. Very few journalists successfully challenged the official version of history as he did:

The next year Mr. Nelson went to Selma, Ala., when Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies and state troopers arrested more than 3,000 demonstrators there, beating many of them, as they demanded that blacks be allowed to register to vote. Mr. Nelson covered the Selma-to-Montgomery freedom marches, including Bloody Sunday, on March 7, 1965, when 600 marchers were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas.

Then came a scoop. On March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, was killed by gunfire from a passing car as she and another civil rights worker were driving from Selma to Montgomery. The next day four Ku Klux Klan members were arrested.

“Nelson sensed immediately that there was an untold story in how the F.B.I. had cracked the case so speedily,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in their book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation” (Knopf, 2006).

“He began tapping the network of law enforcement sources he had started cultivating during his years as an investigative reporter,” the authors added. “Within days, he supplied readers of The Los Angeles Times with the answer: One of the four men in the Klan car when the shots were fired was an undercover F.B.I. informant. It was a remarkable exclusive.”

Another exclusive came in February 1968, when three black students were shot to death and 27 others were wounded by state troopers at South Carolina State College, a black college in Orangeburg. The troopers claimed that the students had charged them, hurling bottles and bricks.

Mr. Nelson went to the local hospital, introduced himself as “Nelson, with the Atlanta bureau” — he did not say “F.B.I.” — and asked to see the victims’ medical records. What he revealed became known as the Orangeburg massacre.

“It was eye-popping; they were shot in the soles of their feet, in the back of the head,” Mr. Nelson said in the interview. “Even today, if you ask somebody about the Orangeburg massacre, hardly anybody has a clue. But if you ask about Kent State, where it was white people, everybody knows about it.”

In 1970, Mr. Nelson learned that the F.B.I., in a sting operation, had given two Ku Klux Klansmen $36,500 to enroll Kathy Ainsworth, a sympathizer, pretending that it was for a plot to dynamite the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Miss. When she and another Klansman arrived with the dynamite, a gun battle broke out and Ms. Ainsworth was killed.

“Nelson’s story of entrapment and the use of agents provocateurs raised more moral and legal questions than the F.B.I. was prepared to answer,” Time magazine wrote in October 1970. “Ever since, Nelson has been on the F.B.I.’s list of untouchable people.”

Most people under the age of 40 probably have trouble believing that journalists have been anything other than stenographers for the power elite. And, admittedly, a lot of them always have been. But not Jack Nelson.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Face Time with the Poodle (Part 2) 

After his expensive Vancouver lunch time event for the corporate elite, an unannounced free mosque appearance by Tony Blair.

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On the Road with Gaius 

Gaius ventured out of Pittsburgh the other day, and, it is fair to say, his experiences were not evocative of those of Jack Kerouac and Charles Kuralt. Through his encounters with people that he describes as Pennsylvania hillbillies, he discovered:

(a) that Obama is a communist and a nigger,
(b) that he is destroying the country,
(c) that he wants old people to die as proved by a scheduled increase in the Medicare Part B premium and a government announcement that there will be no Social Security cost of living increase this year
(d) and as proved by many things told to America by Glenn Beck;
(e) that there’s going to be a revolution led by tea-baggers,
(f) that American doctors and scientists are arrogant swine who won’t listen to anyone,
(g) that that is why they deny the marvelous curative powers of crystals
(h) and the equally astonishing curative powers of professional faith healers,
(i) and the astonishing abilities of psychics, though there is one well-known locally who helped the Pittsburgh police find the body of a murder victim along one of the rivers,
(j) and the consoling communication with the dead made possible by various well-known local mediums.

Does this help explain why there are so many white working class people voting Republican?

Certainly, it is easy to ridicule people from Appalachia, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. But it is important to step back a moment and think about whether characterizing many of the people who live there as ignorant and irrational is an accurate reflection of their social experience. Furthermore, is such a characterization so inherently pessimistic that it precludes the prospect of any meaningful social transformation?

To some extent, we traveled over much of this ground during the primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Even so, I think that it is worth revisiting from a more avowedly left perspective. Hostility towards Obama in Appalachia is a difficult subject to address, primarily because it raises that eternal dilemma in US history, the interrelationship of race and class in shaping the social perceptions of white workers.

No doubt, there are a lot of racist people in Appalachia who detest Obama, and they are very open about expressing it. Even so, we should proceed with care before drawing any broad conclusions, such as the notion that white Appalachians are most racist than whites elsewhere. For example, one of the primary demographic features of Appalachia is the near uniformity of its population. In many parts, whites constitute more than 90% of the population, although, as I noted in April, Latinos have made inroads in north Georgia and western North Carolina. Accordingly, are whites in Appalachia more racist than other whites, or, do they merely appear to be more so, because whites constitute a higher percentage of the population overall?

This is an important question, because the answer may assist one in determining whether Obama faces an entrenched, racist white opposition that is regional in character, or, whether, it is, more seriously, national in scope. As you might expect, I tend towards the latter perspective, as, apparently does Gaius as well, given his generalization of his experience as applicable to the white working class. His willingness to do so opens a door on a related subject that one rarely sees addressed, the extent to which white working class hostility towards Obama is a politically understandable response to Obama and his policies.

Upon examination, there is good reason for such a response. Obama bails out bankers, while letting the auto industry die on the vine so that he can extract concessions from the UAW. Health care reform has morphed into health insurance reform, as health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers dictate the content of legislation moving through Congress. His stimulus plan has revived the economy just enough to protect corporations and financial institutions from the creative destruction of capitalism, while millions of people remain out of work, with a record setting number of foreclosures.

Gaius, as one who blogs frequently about religion and spirituality in the US, pokes fun at Appalachians for their superstitions, but there is nothing uniquely Appalachian, or, for that matter, white working class about it. Living in Sacramento, I can readily find numerous New Age publications directed towards an audience of middle and upper middle class people, all announcing upcoming appearances by uniquely talented people capable of enlightening us, along with an array of related DVDs and sundry products, such as, yes, you guessed it, crystals. There is definitely a story to be told here, a story about how the cresting of the modernist left wave in the 1960s and 1970s ushered in an era, still ongoing, of crackpot spiritualism, but that is something for another day.

Finally, there is the question, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as to whether characterizations of the white working class, symbolized by the Pennsylvania hillbillies that Gaius encountered, as bigoted and irrational necessarily implies a pessimism about the possibility of any meaningful social transformation. If so, that's a scary thought, because the people Gaius describes have been at the center of both the anarchist and Marxist projects since their inception.

While anarchists have cast their net more broadly than Marxists, rejecting the notion of the industrial proleteriat, and adopting a definition of the working class that includes peasants and artisans as well as industrial workers, one finds both significantly represented in the white working class encountered by Gaius. One can read his post as suggesting that the white working class is so prone to bigotry and religious quackery that it will never be capable of participating in a liberal, much less socialist, destruction of the neoliberal order. The End of History, as it were, but in a very different way than contemplated by Fukuyama.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

They all knew what they had to do 

October 16, 1859
Harper's Ferry, Virginia

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Death of Health Care Reform in Real Time (Part 4) 

Now that the industry friendly Baucus bill has escaped the Senate Finance Committee, it is going to move through the Senate and the House like a greased pig, with the approval of the President. But, don't worry, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are now, finally, going to come off the bench to derail it:
[Gerald] McEntee, [president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], said Emanuel called him and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on a Sunday last month and asked them not to oppose the legislation while the Finance Committee was considering it. “We didn’t talk to any senators about our opposition,” he said.

Emanuel pressed labor again last week not to oppose the bill once it was approved by the committee, according to McEntee. “That was not the commitment we made,” he said.

Labor leaders have made clear their distaste toward the committee bill since it was proposed last month by Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and the panel’s chairman. Trumka urged labor activists at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh to make the case against it. McEntee led the convention delegates in a chant denouncing the proposal as “bullshit.”

Some labor unions that were included in a draft of the newspaper advertisement didn’t sign on to the final version, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Service Employees International Union, led by Andy Stern, didn’t sign either version of the ad.

Or are they? And, do really want to? Am I the only one who recognizes what happened here? Passage of the Baucus bill by by the Senate Finance Committee was essential to frame the debate in favor of the insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers. Once out of committee, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with the assistance of the White House and, as we subsequently discovered, Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snow, would ensure that there would be no public option or any other measures to contain costs when it was reconciled with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee alternative.

After full Senate approval, the Baucus bill would, after minor alternations through reconciliation to placate the House, finally reach the President's desk for signature. Hence, it was essential to fight for amendments to change the overall thrust of the Baucus bill while it was pending approval in the Finance Committee, and kill it if such amendments were defeated. Where was the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions while the bill was being debated in the Committee? Nowhere. As the Bloomberg article indicates, they had agreed, at the request of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, to not publicly express opposition to the bill at that time. In other words, during the most critical period for the passage of health care reform in the Congress, they abandoned the field and left it open for financial interests to get their way.

Now, that the bill is out of committee, they are putting on a big act about how they are opposing the bill over the objections of the White House. Everybody comes out looking like a rose: AFL-CIO leadership tells their members that they went to the wall for their members; the White House basks in the glow of showing its independence from the union movement; the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies and health care providers laugh all the way to the bank. Everyone, that is, except the millions of us that will be economically victimized by the "reform".

This isn't the first time that the AFL-CIO has done this since Obama was elected President. Organized labor, which includes the AFL-CIO, as well as its competitor, the Change to Win coalition led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters, decided, after Obama's election, to dismantle a network of field organizers that could have pressured Obama and the newly elected Democratic Congress to enact what they describe as their top legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act ("EFCA"), an Act designed to enhance and protect the rights of people trying to organize unions in the workplace.

Meanwhile, hundreds of business organzations effectively lobbied Congress to place it in dry dock, where it remains today. Even more embarassing, while national union leadership had given Obama and the Congress a free pass on immediate action, state and local union affiliates were turning out members at raucous rallies, such as the ones that I observed at the State Capital in Sacramento, demanding its passage. They didn't know, and their national leaders didn't want them to know, that maintaining good relations with Obama and the Congress were more important than passing the EFCA.

Sadly, in relation to their latest health care ruse, liberals remain in the dark. Liberals actually seem to believe that the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are defying the White House and trying to prevent the passage of the Baucus bill. Nothing could be further from the truth. One wonders how their members are going to react when they discover that, starting in 2013, many of them are going to be facing a 40% surcharge on portions of the health plans, plans that actually provide decent coverage, because they are considered, in the words of the President and others, Cadillac plans.

One suspects that, in the end, organized labor will soften the blow of this provision during reconciliation, without fully eliminating it, and call it a victory after the Baucus bill is signed. During the inevitable post-mortems, after the dreadful consequences of this "reform" become obvious, it will become evident that labor, liberals and progressive organizations were caught off guard by the rapaciousness of finance capital in seizing upon a social welfare proposal that it had historically opposed as a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about one of the most enormous transfers of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy in US history.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Networking with Neoliberals 

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Silver Medal in Obama Sycophancy 

Interesting that the author justifies Obama's Nobel Peace Prize by saying that as all the other previous recipients haven't achieved world peace, either, they must all be failures as well. Leaving aside that many past recipients have a documented history of violence as bad as Obama's, I was ecstatic to read this, because, as many of you already know, I have already launched my campaign for a Nobel Prize in Literature even though I have never published anything.

If Obama is entitled to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, despite having done nothing in the pursuit of peace, I believe that I am equally, if not more, deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. For those of you who are interested in supporting me, it appears that not just anyone can nominate someone for the Prize:

Qualified Nominators

The right to submit proposals for the Nobel Prize in Literature shall, by statute, be enjoyed by:

1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;

2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;

3. Previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature;

4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

My suggestion is that we start with the literature and linguistics faculty at UC Berkeley and Stanford, maybe we can persuade one of them to nominate me. I'm not certain that the Nobel Committee gives much credence to the departments at my alma mater, UC Davis. For those of you on the East Coast, you might try faculty at schools like Harvard, Yale, Duke and Columbia. Unfortunately, I don't have any contacts with any previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature. But, if you do, let me know how to get in contact with them. No stone must be left unturned.

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Face Time with the Poodle (Part 1) 

Life is pretty good for Tony and Cherie Blair these days:

Snaking round the buffet tables of a corporate-looking ballroom at a Vancouver hotel on Tuesday, a queue of local businessmen and minor dignitaries chatted nervously among themselves in excited anticipation of meeting their celebrated guest of honour.

Waiting to greet this procession of the great and the good was Tony Blair, tight-grinned and expensively tanned, beaming fixedly in the manner of an American game-show host welcoming his latest starstruck contestant on stage.

As each of the 100 guests was ushered forward to meet the former Prime Minister, there was time only for the very briefest of handshakes, snapped by a waiting photographer, before they were quickly led away and another eager delegate stepped forward for their fleeting audience with our ex-leader.

As they filed out, each of those lucky enough to meet him was invited to place his or her business card on a tray so a photo of their lightning-fast encounter with Mr Blair could be dispatched in the post.

These days, even such snatched ‘face time’ with the former Labour PM comes at a price.

Each guest at the Canadian event was asked to stump up £180 just for the privilege of having their picture taken with the great man.

Facilitating the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqs in the service of the American Empire pays quite well, apparently, as the remainder of the article, well worth reading in its entirety, demonstrates. It is also a good career move, as it is rumored that the Presidency of the European Union awaits the Poodle.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Gold Medal in Obama Sycophancy 

Apparently, according to the author, despite escalating the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and despite moving forward with the increased militarization of Central and South America through Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia, with a substantially increased US military presence there, Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is justified because the positive perception of the US around the world has increased dramatically since he took office. For those of us incapable of acknowledging it, the author describes us, in quite sophisticated fashion, as haters. Maybe, the committee will award the prize to Hill & Knowlton next year.

If one is insistent upon trying to discern a rational reason for the honor, don't dismiss the possibility that the committee presented it to Obama to discourage him from launching airstrikes against Iran. It would be rather embarrassing for a recipient to do something like that, now wouldn't it? Alternatively, the committee, with its Eurocentric orientation, may actually consider the violent actions of the US and NATO in the Middle East and Central Asia as an effort to promote peace, so, to the extent that Obama is successfully relegitimizing this effort, his achievements are, from the perverse perspective of the committee, achievements justifying the award. In any event, I think we have just experienced the high water mark of Obama glorification. Anyone with the slightest understanding of what has transpired since he became President knows that the award is ludicrous.

As for me, I'm launching my campaign for a Nobel Prize in Literature today. Of course, I haven't published anything, but I'm not letting that deter me. If you have a similar inclination, please, as a courtesy to me, direct your efforts towards a Nobel in science, medicine or economics. There are more than enough to go around.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Sub-Proletarianization of America (Part 7) 

From today's San Francisco Chronicle:

It's a testament to something sad and strange that we're no longer shocked by the stories of people like Kassy Fatooh.

Not long ago Fatooh was living an ordinary middle-class life. A mother of two, the San Anselmo native was working as a grant writer and copyeditor. Her husband worked at a hotel. The monthly mortgage payments on their Cazadero home were decidedly reasonable, less than many in those parts pay for rent.

What happened next was at once an unlikely constellation of bad luck, and an all-too-common illustration of how the threads of a stable existence can so easily unravel these days. Fatooh's husband lost his job. The two divorced. She and the kids came down with mono. The bills piled up as the illness worsened -- she and her teenage son were diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, triggered by the mono. Finally they joined the ranks of millions: The bank took their house.

As with so many other Americans lately, misfortune cascaded for Fatooh and her family. Too ill to work, she can now no longer afford rent; an old friend eventually let her and the kids move temporarily into a house in Inverness that had belonged to his mother. To leave the house just for groceries can deplete her for days. Her son, formerly a kayaker and generally active young man, is bedridden. Fatooh's car has been repossessed.

Sadly, people like Fatooh and her family are being victimized by the global recession in precisely the ways anticipated here and elsewhere in 2007:

. . . but what about the people who are losing their homes? What is going to happen to them? The answer, as we all know, is that it is going to be brutal. Many of them are going to be pushed into the rental market for the rest of their lives, and many are going to have to leave the locations where they currently reside because even the cost of rent is going to be too much for them. So, we are looking at the prospect of two migrations, one from houses to rentals, and the other from expensive parts of the country to less expensive ones. Furthermore, quite a number of communities built for home owners will rapidly become rental ones. Some may even resemble ghost towns, as it becomes impossible to fill all of the homes with residents.

Left academics would say that the socioeconomic life of the US will subtlely display more and more features of sub proletarization, as more and more people in the lower middle class and even the middle class find themselves forced to migrate internally within the country (an economically generated group of internally displaced people?) and live under conditions of financial insecurity.

Shockingly, very little has been done to prevent the catastrophe that is befalling people like Fatooh. Direct billions of the financial bailout approved by Congress in October 2008 to prevent millions of Americans from losing their homes? Stabilize the communities in which they live by enabling them to stay in their homes and supporting their local economies so that others, like Fatooh's ex-husband, can stay employed? Forget about it, said Jason Furman, an economic advisor to Obama, after John McCain amazingly proposed it during a debate. After all, as he said with a straight face: The biggest beneficiaries of this plan will be the same financial institutions that got us into this mess, some of whom even committed fraud. McCain's brief moment of compassionate sanity was thereafter quickly forgotten.

Condition the receipt of bailout funds by financial institutions upon a resumption of lending? Never seriously considered, because, apparently, it was understood from the inception that the purpose of the bailout was to improve the quality of balance sheets of insolvent banks, not facilitate continued access to credit. Permit homeowners to force banks to renegotiate their mortgages in bankruptcy court based upon the current appraised value of their property. No, can't permit that, either. So, the process of driving as many as 7 million Americans out of their homes grinds on. As James Cramer predicted in relation to the predicament of these homeowners back in August of 2007: No one is going to protect the public from rapacious capitalism.

For people like the Fatooh family, the election of a new President and a new Congress is something far removed from the pressures of their difficult daily lives. The collapse of the housing bubble, the ensuing global recession and the remorseless government response is a financial Katrina, with its numerous victims scattered and isolated all around the country. Facing criticism that they don't recognize the severity of the related unemployment crisis, Obama administration officials strain mightily and come up with . . . yes, you guessed it, a proposal for yet another corporate tax credit.

Meanwhile, expect tens of billions to cover losses within the Federal Housing Administration. In the 19th Century, corporations craved the privileges that went with being considered a person under Anglo-American jurisprudence. Now, it looks like we should be seriously considering the opposite, a movement centered around giving people the privileges of corporations. Or, perhaps, we should think even more radically and abandon the concepts of private property and corporate control that turn people like the Fatooh family into collateral damage.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Death of a Comrade 

Tariq Ali pays homage to a inquisitive intellectual of the international left.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Very Interresstting 

As Sergeant Schultz used to say on Hogan's Heroes. From the SF Appeal:

1:56 PM: A tipster who works in the Sutter/Grant area says their "managers informed us that there was a suspicious package outside Charles Schwab." We're still working to get confirmation on these and other details.

1:58 PM: A tipster says "It is a bomb scare. The SF Bomb Squad is using two robotic devices and have removed a small blue bag out of the newspaper stand on the corner of Post at Kearny, right in front of the new Charles Schwab building."

2:05 PM: A tipster confirms the other reports we've received, saying "The bomb squad is currently investigating a newspaper stand near the corner of Post and Kearny. The area is closed off and they are using robots."

2:19 PM: Tipsters in the area are saying that it "Looks like it might be all over" and that "the robots are being put away and people are being allowed back on the streets."

2:39 PM: BCN says that:

At about 1 p.m., someone saw a man placing a package into a news rack at the intersection of Post and Kearny streets, San Francisco police spokesman Sgt. Wilfred Williams said.

The witness approached some firefighters who were in the area on an unrelated call, and the firefighters contacted police, Williams said...

Shortly after 2 p.m., police determined the package was harmless and the area was reopened to traffic. Williams said the item placed in the news rack was a shopping bag. It contained some items but none that posed a threat, he said.

Given that earlier this afternoon, another bomb scare was prompted by an empty suitcase left near a State Building elevator, one could assume that authorities are a little jumpy. Probably a bad day to leave your laundry on BART.

3:00 PM: MTA spokesperson Judson True says that the Muni lines in the area (the 30 Stockton, 45 Union and 9X Bayshore Express) are back on their regular schedules. Whew! Everything's OK. Is it safe to start making jokes like "this is the most action those newspaper stands have gotten in years!" yet?

Am I the only person that considers this unusual? Don't at least a few people leave bags and packages around in odd places in large cities without resulting in the arrival of the bomb squad? After all, San Francisco has a lot of homeless people, people who store things and dispose of things in a manner quite foreign to middle class sensibilities, and, of course, people misplace things, even suitcases, and forget them fairly often. I can't help but wonder, has the Department of Homeland Security, state or federal, issued a terror advisory to local law enforcement? For example, look at what is happening across the border in Mexico these days. Or, maybe, I've just got it all backwards, and this happens all the time in our post-9/11 world.

UPDATE: Perhaps, it has something to do with the Obama administration's insistance that Congress must act promptly to reauthorize surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act?

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Newspaper Bailout? 

In a story that got little attention a several days ago (with the exception of the ever alert Gaius), President Obama expressed a willingness to provide tax breaks to struggling newspapers:

The president said he is "happy to look at" bills before Congress that would give struggling news organizations tax breaks if they were to restructure as nonprofit businesses.

"I haven't seen detailed proposals yet, but I'll be happy to look at them," Obama told the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade in an interview.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced S. 673, the so-called "Newspaper Revitalization Act," that would give outlets tax deals if they were to restructure as 501(c)(3) corporations. That bill has so far attracted one cosponsor, Cardin's Maryland colleague Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D).

Gaius is supportive, quite rightly expressing concern about the prospects for information in a world without newspapers, raising the spectre of an endless diet of corporate sponsored information. But I'm not sure that I agree. First, the quality of newspapers has declined significantly in the last 20 years, with my local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, being a classic example. Like most papers outside of the major metropolitan areas, it runs the same syndicated columnists, with minor variations, from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune over and over and over again, supplemented with a few uninspiring locals.

Second, much the same can be said of the national and international news articles that they publish, with some exceptions at the larger papers (to its credit, McClatchy, the parent company of the Bee, has retained much of the excellent core of international journalists that it inherited from Knight-Ridder, even if it doesn't quite know what to do with them). Smaller papers have almost completely abdicated any independent role in the coverage of national and international stories by relying upon articles from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Post, if not wire services like the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters. Next time you get a chance, go through your hard copy, printed newspaper, and see how many articles come from these sources.

Local coverage? Don't even go there. Through a combination of staff cuts and transparently self-serving political and economic motivations, the Bee reads a lot like the greensheets of 30 to 40 years ago, you know, those small town papers financed by the advertising dollars of car dealers, real estate agents and local businesses, resulting in a bland, inoffensive product that met with their approval. Young, inexperienced Bee reporters rarely get the stories right, and the overall perspective of the coverage is pro-business, pro-developer (no matter who much public subsidy they get) and, of course, anti-union. My guess is that most papers around the country are similar to the Bee, if not more blatantly right-wing and pro-business. No wonder the British paper, the Guardian, gets so many visits to its website from Americans, and even started publishing a weekly for the US market in recent years.

As a consequence of consolidation, staff reductions and investor pressures for profitability, newspapers display a degree of conformity not seen in my lifetime. If large papers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the wire services are dictating most of the content of the opinion pages as well as the content of many of the articles of the vast majority of US newspapers, why should any of these papers get bailed out? Why can't we just go directly to directly to the source and read the articles there? It's a hard question to answer, isn't it?

With conformity also comes ideological rigidity. Quick, name 5 newspapers that editorialized against the invasion of Iraq? Hard to do it, isn't it, although I'm sure that there were a few. Name 5 newspapers that editorialized against the invasion of Afghanistan. You'd have to do an hour Google search to answer that one. And, of course, we all remember the obsequious coverage afforded the Bush administration in both instances, if not outright complicity, as with Judith Miller and Michael Gordon of the New York Times, with their stories about WMDs reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst's successful effort to get us into a war with Spain in 1898.

In relation to economics and workers rights issues, it is arguably even worse. I can't think of a single newspaper in this country that opposes the free trade policies enshrined by NAFTA and GATT, although they must be some. Most papers cover business and investment stories avidly, but cover ones affecting people in the workplace with less and less frequency. Not surprising, given that most newspapers are part of national and international media conglomerates. Beyond this, newspapers are increasingly focused on entertainment and sports, and not hard news.

There is, however, a larger problem. People just don't read as much anymore, and, by and large, get their information through television and the Internet. Providing subsidies to newspapers, institutions that have been uniquely hostile to the emergence of competition from the Net, will do nothing to change these trends. The public no longer wants to get information from sources centered around the illusory objectivity of corporate newspaper chains. Of course, there are significant social implications to this, as we will live a world where it be more and more necessary to read subjective sources of information with a critical eye, but then, we really had to do that with so-called objective newspapers, anyway. Newspapers remain quite arrogant about their essential gatekeeping function of deciding what is credible information and what is not, despite their desultory record in recent years, and no amount of tax credit subsidy is going to persuade the public to respond to that favorably.

Ultimately, if the government is going to subsidize any media, including newspapers, it should instead focus upon the creation of diverse, inclusive institutions that run counter to the recent trend of consolidation and control by finance capital. Analogous to the bailout of transnational banks and brokerage houses, there is the objection that, if newspapers are so important, why should we preserve them in the hands of the same people who have failed so miserably, and stripped them of their journalistic credibility?

The answer apparently lies in the fact that, just as banks and brokerage houses constitute the monetary spine of the global neoliberal economy, newspapers are a part of a transnational medium of communication, along with television, radio, and, possibly, even music and movies, necessary to establish its credibility. Accordingly, given the control of our political institutions by capital, as evidenced yesterday in the health care debate in the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, and the fondness of the Obama administration for the expansion of oligopolies throughout the US economy, the prospects for an inclusive alternative are nil.

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