Category Archives: Parallel Universes

Occupy’s Two-Year Anniversary: It’s All in the Data

occupy

Occupy Wall Street was the first major event that I wrote about on this blog. Until this day I feel fortunate for working in such close proximity to Zuccotti Park. It afforded me an opportunity to be part of an event that I believe will eventually define the coming historical era. While the original occupations fizzled out due to general disorganization and authoritarian repression, that does not mean the movement itself will not resurface at some point in some form in the future, bigger than before. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to agree with this prediction if they were in downtown Manhattan a few days ago on the second anniversary of Occupy.

Walking past Zuccotti Park at seven-thirty in the AM on that day was a depressing sight. The entire perimeter was blocked off with metal police barricades, not to mention police. They were allowing the first trickle of protesters in as I was on my way to work. Seeing 5 or 6 young protesters in the middle of the square setting up shop while dozens of officers ringed the park was a far cry from what the place looked like two years ago. Back then a sea of humanity overflowed the benches, the floors and the sidewalks while the police tenuously occupied a sliver of the curb on Broadway, helplessly looking on as people exercised all types of freedoms right in front of them. Now it was the police who overflowed the park, firmly entrenched on all four sides while protesters sheepishly trickled in between the blue uniforms.

Later in the day, as I stepped out to grab lunch, I bore witness to a tame march of protesters circling the block of Zuccotti Park. They were relatively quiet, controlled in their movements and all held up signs with exactly the same size fonts and lettering. Each sign hearkened back to many of the messages of the original protest: “Stop Stop and Frisk”, “Get Money Out of Politics”, etc. But the spontaneity, the disorganization and the general exuberance were gone. The police looked on seemingly pleased at the good behavior of the young people who quietly passed through the narrow corridor of sidewalk they had left available. As the old police cliché goes, there was truly nothing to see here.

In fact, the real spectacle was on my side of Trinity Place across the street from the park. As I loitered by the phone booths smoking a post-lunch menthol, a different sea of humanity was passing by me as well. This humanity was much nosier and much less organized than the protesters across the street. Instead of holding signs with political messages, this sea of humanity was holding cameras and maps of Manhattan. That is right: it was a sea of tourists stopping to gawk at, and snap pictures of, the puny exercise in democracy taking place across the street. Ironically, this sea of unruly tourists did not have any NYPD officers circumscribing where they could walk.

It was at that point that I realized I was watching history unfold. On the Zuccotti side of the street, you had the protesters who stood against everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. On my side of the street, you had the tourists who reveled in everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. My side represented the era of repression and commercialism that is on its way out. The Zuccotti side represented the era of free association and community that is yet to be born.

To the tourists who pass through downtown Manhattan, everything is a spectacle. While Trinity Church, Federal Hall and even the giant-testicled bull at the foot of Broadway are nice photo opportunities, the tourists take things much further. Most of these out-of-towners are either coming from, or trying to get to, the 9/11 Memorial. They skip lightly with their children in tow, oftentimes herded down the street by tour guides with light blue 9/11 Memorial shirts on. “Let’s keep moving. We’re almost there” these tour guides can be heard saying to their pliant charges. They usually form a bottleneck along Cedar Street outside of the Ho Yip Chinese buffet as they shuffle along. Some of them even return the death glares that one lone history teacher throws them as they pass by, although they cannot return the menthol smoke he directs into their faces.

It is always a party atmosphere along Cedar Street. The only problem is that they are going to see two giant holes in the ground where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives 12 years ago. They will snap some pictures and then come back outside where they can stop at the 9/11 Memorial gift store to pick up World Trade Center memorabilia. The entire spectacle, from the obnoxious digital cameras to the pushy tour guides to the oblivious foreigners to the cackling children, is a giant Bloombergian farce.

One cannot totally blame the tourists for what downtown Manhattan has become. Thanks to Pharaoh Bloomberg, Larry Silverstein and the bloodsucking state politicians in Albany, what should be hallowed ground and a national reminder of our shared history is instead a hokey exercise in commercialism. Compare the 9/11 Memorial to the monuments in Washington, D.C. like the Lincoln or FDR or World War II memorials. Sure, those places can have floods of tourists too. However, at the end of the day, they are public spaces. They are shared spaces. They are civic spaces. There are no gift shops around them. There is not a constant parade of tour groups being led single-file by obnoxious guides who admonish them to keep up, monopolizing the small strips of public space that exist. Visitors to these places are not asked or guilted into making “donations” to the monument. One cannot buy a mug with an image of the D-Day invasion down the block from the World War II Memorial.

Even if there were all of those things around our national monuments in D.C., it would still be more tolerable than what has become of what used to be the World Trade Center area. Lincoln was killed 148 years ago. FDR died and World War II ended 68 years ago. There is a good chance that people involved in those events are not living and working in the D.C. area anymore. On the other hand, downtown Manhattan still has many residents and workers who were there in 2001. Some of them might have even narrowly escaped with their lives. Some of them might still suffer illnesses from breathing in the acrid smoke. Some of them, including police and firefighters, might have even saved people’s lives or lost friends that day. And yet, the survivors of this national tragedy have to look on each day as downtown Manhattan turns into a circus. While Bloomberg is not totally at fault for this, it is certainly in step with the Bloomberg plan for the city.

This is what I saw on the 2nd anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To the tourists, the Occupy protesters were a curiosity and a spectacle much like the 9/11 Memorial. They did not expect to see democracy in action when they showed up that day with their maps and their cameras. Metaphorically speaking, the three-ring circus was featuring the dancing bear but the out-of-towners got the bearded lady as a bonus as well. They oohed and aahed throughout both acts, snapping pictures the entire time.

Bloomberg can say that downtown Manhattan has bounced back. The independent eateries and souvenir shops that were around before 9/11 are certainly crammed with tourists now, many of whom have American dollars burning holes in their pockets after converting from Euros. The Freedom Tower is more or less complete, all 1776 feet of it. Yet, just like Bloomberg’s “successes” with public schools and fighting crime, it is a success on the surface only. One only has to dig an inch deep to find the rot that Bloomberg’s gild conceals.

At the end of the day, whether it is tourist dollars, test scores or crime stats, the only thing that has been accomplished under the reign of Pharaoh Bloomberg in NYC is an artful manipulation of numbers. Those numbers bear very little resemblance to reality. Tourist bucks are flowing in, yet downtown Manhattan still bears a national scar that has not been properly treated. Test scores are up (or at least they used to be), yet our students still have trouble making their way in the world after they graduate. Crime is down (or at least it used to be), yet many average New Yorkers are being robbed by a ridiculous cost of living. For the poorest New Yorkers, the NYPD has terrorized them in their own communities thanks to stop-and-frisk.

That is why when I was standing there between the Occupy protesters and the tourists, I was able to feel the tide of history wash over me. One side represented the dying Bloomberg era of optimistic data that continues to fool so many people. The other side represented the coming era of a mass awakening of what that data was always concealing.

CHECK OUT THESE EUROPEANS

I think it is healthy to take a break from all of the depressing anti-teacher ed reform babble to share in something (sort of) positive.

Last year I encouraged everyone to watch Ross Kemp’s documentaries. He has ventured into some of the most dangerous and grittiest places in the world. Even though he has come face-to-face with some unsavory people, he never judges and his documentaries always come off as fair and sympathetic. Here is one he did about street gangs in St. Louis:

In a similar vein, British journalist Louis Theroux covers the dangerous, strange and bizarre. Like Ross Kemp, he suspends his judgments and tries to portray the people he meets in a sympathetic light. He also has an innocent manner of questioning that gets to the bottom of things for his viewers.

Here is my favorite Louis Theroux documentary about a Miami jail. Most of the men in this jail have not been convicted of a crime (after all, it is jail, not prison), yet many have been languishing behind bars for years. Both parts really bring home the horrendous conditions in our penal system and how it does nothing but steep people even further in criminal culture:

Also, check out his San Quentin piece which is on Youtube divided into several parts.

On a totally different note, Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger is in the tradition of Gonzo journalism (a la Hunter Thompson). He tells a story while playing a part in the story. Both of his films can be found on Netflix.

His first film was called The Red Chapel. Mads creates a fake comedy troupe called The Red Chapel. He is the fictional leader of the troupe, which consists of two Danish-Korean performers: Simon and Jacob. Jacob is a paraplegic and self-described “spastic”. Their mission is nothing less than to perform a totally unfunny stage variety show in North Korea.

When they first get to the DPRK, Simon and Jacob rehearse their awful sketch in front of their government minders. These minders then censor and edit every last bit of the performance to make it “suitable” for a DPRK audience. Their ultimate performance, shown towards the end of the movie, is not nearly as important as their journey getting there.

It has long been rumored that handicapped people in the DPRK are sent off to prison camps. The government is keen on using Jacob for propaganda purposes as a way to show the world these rumors are false. Ms. Park, their official guide, smothers Jacob with a scary amount of affection. This has led some critics to accuse Mads Brugger of allowing an evil government to play him and Jacob, so to speak. While these criticisms are understandable, Mads and the crew are able to get away with some very subversive things, things that no other sanitized DPRK documentary has ever shown.

The most powerful scene is during the “peace day” celebrations which is, ironically, the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Jacob and Mads are in Pyongyang around thousands upon thousands of participants all chanting in unison. The only person not chanting is Jacob. While Mads goes along with the celebration, Jacob staunchly refuses to participate, even speaking against it when the crowd went silent so that EVERYONE in the area could hear it. This is not as dangerous as it sounds since, according to Brugger, the Koreans cannot understand Danish, especially “spastic Danish”, as Brugger says.

They are then forced to march with the crowd. When Mads is not pushing Jacob in his wheelchair fast enough, one of their government minders literally push them into the crowd forcing them to keep up so they can get on camera. Who is playing who in this movie? See if you can find all of the instances where Mads, Jacob and Simon poke fun at one of the most monstrous dictatorships that ever existed right to its face. Warning: an attention span might be required.

Brugger’s next documentary is even more bizarre, if that can be believed. It is called The Ambassador. This time he travels to the Central African Republic in search of blood diamonds. In order to do this he needs access to the highest levels of the CAR’s government. For Brugger, this means getting himself appointed a diplomat. He purchases phony diplomatic credentials in Europe that certify him as a consul in CAR representing Liberia. Yes, this very white and very European man was able to finagle fake documentation that made him a member of the Liberian diplomatic corps in Africa.

The cast of characters in this film is too long to describe here. Perhaps the most bizarre character of all is Mads himself, who plays his role as an intrigue-seeking diplomat to the hilt. His character is so over-the-top that it is a wonder that he is able to get away with so much in such a dangerous place. Yes, as some of the critics have pointed out, Brugger sometimes gives himself over to stereotypes about   Africans being “childlike”, “corrupt” and/or “dishonest”. However, it is not at all clear that he was not doing it totally on purpose as part of his gaudy character.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this movie, not the least of which is the legacy of European imperialism in Africa. One of the more fascinating characters is a Frenchman named Guy-Jean Le Foll Yamande, the head of state security in the CAR. According to Yamande, he had his French citizenship revoked due to “mercenary activities”. In his conversation with Mads, he describes many of the ways the French continue to ransack the resources of the CAR while keeping the country mired in poverty. As Yamande put it, when you want to stop someone from running, you put a “stone in their shoe”. France is the “stone in the shoe” of the CAR. Did his privileged knowledge and position lead to his murder, which is mentioned towards the end of the movie?

Does Mads ever get his hands on the blood diamonds? Watch this movie and find out. It is really a fascinating, bizarre and sad look into the problems faced by many  central African nations today. If you do not have Netflix, I believe the movie is also split into parts on Youtube.

Both of Brugger’s movies obviously put himself and the people around him in serious danger. The threat of a brutal death or some other horrible fate hangs over both documentaries like a pall. He has an admirable amount of guts, if you want to call putting yourself in constant danger in a foreign country “guts”.

Happy viewing. I hope some of you are able to find the time to watch these great filmmakers. You will not be disappointed.

P.S. – here is Brugger’s Danish television miniseries/documentary called Danes for Bush, a comical look at some of George W. Bush’s most ardent supporters in the U.S. It is not as refined as his two movies but it does have its value. Do not be put off by the Danish speaking in the first part, most of the series is in English:

http://www.dr.dk/Bonanza/serie/Unge_og_satire/Danes_for_bush.htm

 

 

THE LEGACY OF LYNDON JOHNSON

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

It was announced over the weekend that Robert Caro has won yet another literary award, this time for the fourth and latest volume in his majestic biography of Lyndon Johnson entitled The Passage of Power. It covers Johnson’s non-campaign in the 1960 Democratic primaries through those first heady months of his presidency. Even though I bought the book the day it came out, I did not start reading it until last week. I have had a fascination with Lyndon Johnson before I started devouring Caro’s volumes. Caro’s work has served to deepen my fascination and understanding of one of the nation’s most controversial presidents.

Being born in the post-Vietnam era, I never inherited the knee-jerk hatred that many Americans from the previous generation seem to have for him. It is a shame that the Vietnam War will follow Johnson’s legacy throughout history, even though it is a shame that Johnson brought upon himself. Scared to death of looking weak in the face of what he perceived as communist aggression, Johnson  was the president most responsible for leading the nation into the war for which the term “quagmire” seemed to be coined.

Looking at Johnson’s pre-presidential career, it seemed unlikely that a war for independence halfway around the globe would be the thing that ended up destroying him. Born in the Texas Hill Country in 1908, Lyndon’s focus had always been local. Whether local meant rural Texas, Capitol Hill or the United States of America, matters of foreign policy rarely ever drew his attention. Maybe this was the problem. He was so domestically focused that he was ill-prepared to deal with Cold War geopolitics when forced to do so as president.

His father was once an important man who had fallen from grace and died penniless. Word got around the Hill Country that Old Man Johnson was a failure.  Lyndon, by all accounts, very much resembled his father physically. For his entire life, he strove to ensure that he did not end up resembling his father in any other way. He was going to be somebody. He was going to be the President of the United States, not a failure. Ambition would be the driving force of his entire life, but it was by no means the only driving force.

The Hill Country was not only cruel to his father. It was a large pocket of rural poverty and backwardness where most people lived as they had since the 19th century. It was one of the last places in the United States to have electricity. Johnson had seen how poverty affected his neighbors. During his brief stint as a teacher of children of Mexican migrant workers, he had seen up close how poverty affected people of other races as well. He would take these experiences with him throughout the rest of his life. If he ever got the chance he was going to do something to help people in need, no matter their race.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he idolized Franklin Roosevelt. He came of age when FDR just started implementing his New Deal, the first real effort by the federal government to help people who had fallen on hard times. When the opportunity to be part of the New Deal presented itself, Johnson jumped at the chance. It was his involvement with the federal programs of the New Deal that helped him cut his political teeth. Few politicians in American History have cut their teeth so well and so successfully.

It was not only the New Deal that drew Johnson to FDR. Roosevelt was a consummate politician. More than any other president, he was able to be all things to all people. Running in his first presidential campaign in 1932, FDR promised a “New Deal for the American people”. History now shows that FDR did not really have much of an idea of what this would mean. However, to a country wracked by the worst economic crisis it had ever experienced, a “New Deal” sounded pretty good. Roosevelt was convincing because he knew what people wanted to hear. Johnson would take these lessons with him too, much like he took with him the lessons of the Texas Hill Country. It was Roosevelt after whom Johnson tried to pattern himself by using his initials LBJ. While tuning up for his abortive presidential campaign in 1960, he would tell his aides “it’s important the people start thinking of me in terms of initials: LBJ, FDR, LBJ, FDR, get it?”

It is little wonder then that FDR took a shine to LBJ. If they were peas in a pod it was because Johnson was making the effort to be so. His relationship with Franklin Roosevelt helped propel him into national elective office. He spent several years in the House of Representatives where he forged an alliance with Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn would be one of the most powerful men in the United States, certainly the most powerful southern politician and the most important ally in Lyndon Johnson’s career.

LBJ spent 12 years in the House of Representatives but it was in the Senate where he forged his reputation as one of the shrewdest politicians in the United States. Shortly after he was elected, LBJ strolled into the Senate chamber after hours to look over his new work place. He muttered the words “it’s the perfect size”. As a Representative, Johnson was one of a crowd. As a Senator, he was part of an elite club. More importantly, the Senate was small enough for him to work his powers of persuasion. He could hit Senators one-on-one with the “Johnson Treatment” until he got the votes he needed.

Johnson was a tall, lanky fellow. He would always be impeccably dressed: tailored suits, hair slicked back, “LBJ” cuff links glistening in the light. That is why when he cornered a Senator, leaned his face into theirs and threatened, promised, flattered or cajoled, the Senator would usually give him what he wanted. This was the “Johnson Treatment”. Thanks in part to this tactic, Johnson would go on to be the most powerful Senator in the United States.

In a very short time he would be the Senate Majority Leader, gathering into that job powers that it had never seen before. LBJ would say “power is where power goes” and he certainly knew which people held the power. To the men of the Beltway who could do him harm (or favors), he was sickeningly obsequious.  To men and women who he did not need or who needed him, he was sickeningly rude. Stories of LBJ treating his staffers, and even his wife, with cruelty have become legendary.

Like when his wife, Lady Bird, would host parties for the Washington elite. Johnson would have no problem ordering his wife around like a maid, yelling out “Biiirrrrddd” in a high-pitched voice very much resembling a “Suey” call on a hog farm. It caused Bird a great deal of embarrassment and indignity to the point where many Washington wives pitied her.

Then there are the times when he would require staffers to take dictation while he was sitting on the toilet. He would open the door to the bathroom, lean his face out so a staffer could see him and then motion the staffer over with a “come here” motion of his index finger. All the while his face would be stone cold, letting the staffer know he was indeed serious. It was a way to test their loyalty, as well as test how far he could push his subordinates before they would push back.

Even around men of power he could be incredibly crude. At state dinners, where foreign dignitaries would dine, he would scarf down his food, let out a loud belch and leave the table all in the course of 10 minutes without saying a word. As majority leader, when his seat was in the front of the Senate chamber so that everyone could see him, he would turn to them and administer his eye drops in the most histrionic fashion possible. Or, with his back to them, he would dig out his wedgies and scratch his butt in the same dramatic way. When swapping tales of womanizing with his fellow Senators (LBJ had several extra-marital affairs), he would often brag about the size of his penis, saying things like “Old Jumbo sure got a workout last night.” He was caricature of himself on the Hill.

It is amazing that a man like this ever became president. Of course, it almost never happened thanks to his ill-conceived run at the Democratic nomination in 1960. He ended up accepting the Vice Presidential nomination when it was offered by John Kennedy, even though he disliked Jack and absolutely hated his brother Robert. However, in LBJ’s calculations, the Vice Presidency was the best road to the White House. Without it, he would have to wait another 8 years and probably run against men who had been in the national spotlight more than him. With it, he would be in the national spotlight himself and be a heartbeat away from the presidency, although nobody expected the young Jack Kennedy to die in office.

His 3 years as Vice President were probably the most miserable of his career. JFK surrounded himself with Harvard-educated men who had no use for the homespun LBJ. They gave him the unflattering nickname of “Rufus Cornpone”, made fun of him behind his back and isolated him from most of the important decisions. For his part, LBJ had no use for them. Before the election, he said that JFK was not a man’s man, which was one of the worst insults LBJ could throw at someone. He saw JFK’s inner circle in general as a bunch of spoiled brats who had everything in life handed to them.

And then the impossible happened. The young president was shot dead in Dallas. All of the sudden, Lyndon had the job he had always wanted, the job that meant he was a somebody. He had beaten the odds by becoming the first truly southern president since Zachary Taylor, and the first from the state of Texas.

The rest is history. He deftly attached himself to the dead president’s legacy by using his ample parliamentary skills to get JFK’s programs pushed through Congress. Part of this program was enacting the first substantial civil rights law in 100 years, a law that went on to become one of the crowning achievements of the entire Civil Rights movement. The biggest irony of all was that it was done by a southerner, one who never had a good reputation in liberal circles. His actions led to the biggest political realignment of the 20th century. Southerners bolted the Democratic Party for good. Minorities, liberals and other northeasterners would forever hitch their wagon to the star of the Democratic Party. Much of what we take for granted in the political world today is a direct legacy of President Lyndon Johnson.

Then, when running for election in his own right, he trounced Barry Goldwater. Sure, Goldwater was seen as a reactionary and ran one of the worst campaigns of any presidential candidate ever. But Johnson deserves credit for running a great campaign, one that included a television ad that set the standard for all future presidential campaigns:

Johnson went on to win in a landslide, the first elected president from Texas, the first elected president from the south since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

With Johnson reaching the height of his ambition, and with new elections another 4 years away, he was able to give reign to his sense of justice. He declared a War on Poverty and promised America that he would help lead them to a Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid are direct descendants of this promise. LBJ expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (what would be known as “welfare”) through expanding the rights of poor people. He hired a Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, to head up a War on Poverty. Federal funds started flooding the poorest areas of the nation. The idea of community control allowed these areas to spend the money as they saw fit. Not since the New Deal had the federal government gone to such lengths to help the most downtrodden people in America.

If Johnson’s life taught him that the federal government had the ability and the duty to help the poor, it also taught him that he needed to keep the rich and powerful on his side. Johnson was a friend of big business  and big business had been lobbying the government for years to institute meaningful immigration reform. They wanted to rewrite many of the laws that had closed off the borders since the 1920s. Johnson gave them the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened America to an extent not seen since the late 1800s. Unions had been fighting this type of immigration policy for decades out of fear that it would lower wages. Business had been fighting for this policy for the same reason. The law would end up being the Rosetta Stone for the New Democratic Party, one less reliant on labor unions, more compliant with the whims of big business and anxious to brandish its liberal credits by fighting for “diversity”.

All of these things would be overshadowed by Vietnam. Johnson had lived through McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had seen how being “weak” on communism both destroyed political careers and led to international embarrassment for the United States. When the forces of Ho Chi Minh seemed poised to take control of Vietnam, both north and south, LBJ was determined to prevent it from happening. Using his skill at getting Congress to bend to his whim, he got them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) which gave him full control over the U.S. response to the Vietnam conflict. When asked by his advisors if America was able to fight a war on poverty at home on top of a war against Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, LBJ responded “we’re America, we can do it all.”

This quote, more than anything else, represents the type of optimism permeating the United States since after World War II. LBJ was expressing the common assumption at the time, one that put stock in both the righteousness and omnipotence of America’s role in the world.

And it is a shame that this quote, more than anything, signaled America’s pride before the fall. Johnson started his presidency like a house of fire, making progress on civil rights, poverty and immigration. He would end his presidency in disgrace with the country mired in Vietnam, riots in every major city and a youth culture thoroughly alienated from authority. Johnson’s presidency is the hinge between America’s golden age and America’s downfall. The quote that “we’re America, we can do it all” would be unrealistic today. Our leaders would never say this now. We are living in an age of limits.

America had been able to interfere in Korea, Berlin, Cuba and a million other places without embarrassment or losing a tremendous amount of face. Vietnam put a black eye on all of this. It made the U.S. afraid of getting involved in any large-scale conflict in the future, lest the government lose credibility and another generation be bled white. Instead, the U.S. would relegate itself to small-scale conflicts with limited aims. Or, in the case of Iraq, the U.S. would expand its aims without giving away too much to the media lest they stir up opposition at home.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Americans were still poor after the War on Poverty. Civil rights leaders were still dissatisfied after LBJ’s laws. Riots broke out in every major city during the 1960s. “Black Power” became the watchword of black leaders. Native Americans at Wounded Knee were gearing up to defend their way of life and battle centuries of mistreatment. The government was doing more than ever to help people and yet people were still unhappy. LBJ, watching the riots on TV in the Oval Office, mouthed the words “what more do these people want?” It was a question that many people would ask. A backlash started brewing which contended that poverty and racism could not be solved by the government. The next generation of leaders, represented by California Governor Ronald Reagan, gained popularity on the idea that people would have to solve their own problems through rugged individualism and the market. The nanny state that took care of its people would be dismantled after the supposed failure of the 1960s.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Before becoming president, Johnson was always sure to keep his distance from the oilmen who ran Texas. He knew that he would never get elected to the White House if voters thought the oilmen had purchased him. Yet, Johnson was a fan and a friend of big business. Moreover, he never had a good relationship with labor. Labor leaders threatened to bolt the Democratic Party when JFK chose LBJ for his ticket. Johnson would slowly lead the party away from labor and towards big business. The Immigration Act was a taste of what the Democratic Party would become in the future, what the Democratic Party is today, which is a pro-business, luke-warm-to-hostile towards labor party.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Finally, Johnson’s personal hatred for Bobby Kennedy would split the Democrats. The two men had hated each other since the day they met in the 1950s and that hatred had grown since that time. When Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968, LBJ from behind the scenes was determined to prevent it from happening. He threw his full support behind his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be seen as the “establishment” candidate (even though he had a track record just as, if not more, liberal than RFK). Kennedy, through his compassion for the poor and opposition to Vietnam, was the choice of the younger generation. The Humphrey(LBJ)/RFK split would tear the Democrats apart in 1968. RFK was killed before he could officially get the party nomination. The candidate who claimed his mantle, Eugene McCarthy, was no RFK . When Humphrey was chosen at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it led to a full-scale riot that became the symbol of the excesses of the youth movement and counterculture. Never again would young people be as involved in, or as successful at, shaping the political landscape.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

There is no telling what the world would have been like if Johnson had stayed out of Vietnam. Few presidents have possessed ambition, compassion and effectiveness as completely as LBJ. His ambition was his guide. It would be what led to his undoing, not to mention his party’s and the nation’s undoing. At the same time, if he did not have this ambition, it is doubtful he would have ever become president so he could be in a position to help right some of America’s wrongs. Maybe the U.S. would have still progressed without Johnson, although probably not as fast.

Too much, too fast, too soon, these could be the things that define Johnson’s legacy. For all of his faults, the United States has not seen a president as compassionate as him ever since. Nobody says anymore what America can do, what the government can do. Nobody says anymore “we’re America, we can do it all.” Instead, our leaders tell us what America cannot do, what the government cannot do. The Neoliberal Revolution that defined the post-LBJ era has been all about “can’t”, all about limits. Obama’s and Congress’ solution to our problems has been austerity, which is one large policy of “can’t”.

It is not at all clear that America has been better off by rejecting the policies for which LBJ stood. LBJ is a scary reminder of all that we have lost over the past 50 years.

WIKIPEDIA IS NO PLACE FOR OPEN DISCUSSION

Prove your arrogance and stupidity by wearing a shirt that shows which economic religion you follow.

Prove your arrogance and stupidity by wearing a shirt that shows which economic religion you follow.

Those of you mired in the teaching world may or may not be familiar with the so-called “Austrian School” of economics. Turgidly, the “Austrian School” holds that markets are perfect and the government should stay out of them so that they can work their magic. There is tremendous, if not total, overlap between Austrian economics and libertarianism. Ron Paul is an adherent of the Austrian School, as he and his followers constantly like to remind us.

You can get a quick introduction to the Austrian School by visiting its Wikipedia page which, apparently, has been locked in an internecine editing conflict. The conflict involves a criticism of the Austrian School by Paul Krugman which used to show up on the page. Certain libertarian acolytes have been taking down the Krugman part because they say it misrepresents Austrian economics. Others say that Krugman is a well-respected economist whose criticism should be included. Wikipedia has prevented the article from being edited for the rest of the month.

For my part, I do not see why Krugman’s criticism cannot be left up there. If the Austrian folks think his argument is a straw man, then they can always include a rejoinder from another economist demonstrating how. This would assume rational dialogue and open debate is also part of the Austrian School. Unfortunately, Austrian economics has become a fundamentalism to many of its followers and they live in a constant state of jihad.

There are Wikipedia pages about heroes of mine, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault (my avatar), that contain criticisms that I think are unfair. Never did I think of editing them out of existence. This is probably because Wikipedia is one very limited source of information. Those of us familiar with the ideas of these thinkers encountered them through the books they wrote. We have probably also read many books written by others that attempt to elaborate on these ideas and the criticisms they have faced. Therefore, when I read the Wikipedia pages of my intellectual heroes, I am already largely familiar with everything on the page. It is not a shock or an affront to read something negative about them.

This seems to be the crux of the entire Austrian School Wikipedia fiasco. It is a philosophy nay, an ideology, that has gained many converts in this age of the internet. People like Ron Paul have become heroes in cyberspace. His stances on issues like imperialist war, the War on Drugs and government surveillance appeal to a young crowd naturally and rightfully mistrustful of the system. On top of that, a generation of half-digested internet documentaries and websites convey many libertarian ideas in easily consumable sound bites and slogans. Someone who is honestly looking for news from a non-mainstream source cannot help but encounter these things, especially since many of them are the first, second, third and fourth entries that come up on Google searches.

Unfortunately, the whole anti-government tenor of the Austrian School is intellectually untenable. It posits that rules of the free market are immutably written on the face of nature, that a free market is the “natural” state of human society and that the existence of any imperfections in the market is the result of government interference. It is a system of beliefs that are not falsifiable. How does one “prove” that a “free market” is “natural”? This is such a loaded statement that it does not pass the giggle test. The Austrian folks take this as an article of faith, thereby betraying the spirit of economics as a social science. What sets science apart from most other fields is the fact that its conclusions are falsifiable through observation and analysis.

The great economist Joe Stiglitz called such people “free market fundamentalists”. He was referring to economists but the label can be easily applied to the laymen who consider themselves adherents of the Austrian School. Its tone of anti-authoritarianism appeals to people who mistrust the system. It just so happens that the internet attracts these types of people.

For my part, I have had many discussions with libertarians both at Occupy and in my salad days as an internet troll. When I ask what they would do with things like education, police, transportation, energy and other big government programs, their answer is always a simplistic “hands off” ideology for the government. For them, the role of government should be to merely hang back and enforce private contracts. When I would then ask them what happens if a monopoly starts to develop which is anathema to the free market, the answer either is “it won’t happen” or “there should be laws in place to prevent such things”. The first response is hokum with no basis in reality or history, another belief that is not falsifiable. The second response starts a slippery slope where every free market eventuality can be corrected with laws. In that case, free markets need the very same government that Austrian types blame as the cause for all of the free market’s ills.

What I have found is that people who believe this type of stuff fall into one of two categories. They can be wealthy people who have embraced an extreme “small government” idea that amounts to a bunch of self-serving nonsense. Or, more frequently, they are people with a simplistic, individualistic view of society who believe that everyone has full control of their destiny at all times. It is the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” crowd. They are the people who watch a video of starving children in Africa and ask “why don’t they just move to where the food is?” or “serves them right for being lazy”. They are the people who think that the fact they can go camping in the woods for a weekend means they are “self-sufficient”, the meaning of that term apparently being totally lost on them. They are the people who believe that over 100 million unemployed Americans are just being lazy. They are the Ayn Rand fans and other assorted lickspittles of the wealthy.

It is no surprise that the page on Austrian economics is being purged of every criticism by its acolytes. To them, the internet is everything. Anything that is worth knowing about the world comes from cheesy documentaries and simplistic slogans delivered in pixels. The one idea that they have latched onto must be the correct idea, despite the fact they have not bothered to expose themselves to any other ideas. They are allergic to books, especially works of history since they tend to have a “liberal bias” or are a product of the filthy system. It is like the child who learns something at school and cannot wait to share it with everyone they know, assuming that they are the only ones privy to this awesome knowledge.

Despite what the Austrian folks think, they are not the guardians of knowledge and truth. Another person’s rejection of their beliefs does not automatically make that person an idiot. The world contains a vast array of ideas and perspectives. Knowing one theory about one discipline does not make you an expert on anything.

A Wikipedia page is not an indoctrination tool where every word has to follow the party line. It is supposed to contain a range of ideas associated with a subject, including criticism of that subject. This might not comport with the dogmatic, fundamentalist world in which they live but, after all, we do still live in the United States.

Although if the free market fundamentalists, Neoliberals and austerity hawks keep having their way, then I might not be living here for much longer.

 

NRA SATURDAY

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From Happy Place:

Aaaand that didn’t take long. Less than a week after a Michigan charter school announced that they’d hired Clark Arnold, a retired firearms instructor, to be the school’s armed security guard, Arnold hastily endeavored to demonstrate what a terrible mistake they’d made by leaving his (unloaded) handgun in a student restroom unattended. The school has responded by putting “additional security procedures in place,” procedures that will hopefully include, “Anyone in charge of protecting students from school shootings should refrain from giving students stuff to commit school shootings with.” The NRA hasn’t commented yet but we’re relatively certain they’ll say the students were safer with a gun lying around unattended and they think he should have left two guns.

 The argument for gun control summed up in one shockingly stupid photo
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YOU KNOW JACK ABOUT GUN CONTROL

amendment

Gun control is the issue of the moment. The talking points are being presented within the usual left versus right matrix to which we’re accustomed in this country. The Fox News crowd screams about how the 2nd Amendment is a right given to us by the Founding Fathers to protect against tyrannical government. The MSNBC lot points out that less gun control means more guns, and more guns means more gun violence.

As usual, the two camps are not budging an inch. What is particularly remarkable in this debate, especially as it has played out in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, is how both sides are completely wrong. The networks have muddled the issue so much that one wonders if any of the talking heads they place in front of the cameras have ever placed their noses in a history book.

Only a sane minority have the right stance on gun control, a stance I will explain to you free of charge. With this knowledge you will be able to bludgeon your coworkers with cold logic and historical fact.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution were added by the first ever Congress. They were included to safeguard some of our rights, both as individuals and as states, lest the federal government get out of control. Collectively, these ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights.

So far we agree, no? So stay with me as we get to the meat and potatoes of this argument.

The Founding Fathers were profoundly shaped by their experiences as subjects of the British Empire in both good and bad ways. One of the good ways was their inheritance of British Whig sensibilities, which carried with it a belief that the individual was entitled to certain rights.

The Founding Fathers experienced first hand all of the methods a monarchy employed to subvert the rights of individuals. One of those ways was by employing a standing army. Standing armies were dangerous because they were loyal only to the crown, were totally unaccountable to the people and were always at the ready to enforce the arbitrary will of the king (or Parliament) when softer methods of coercion were exhausted.

If the new federal government of the Americans had control of a standing army, it would have been just a matter of time until it used that army in dangerous ways. At least this was the article of faith held by the Founding Fathers. All of them knew, including the general George Washington, that standing armies had no place in free republics. It is a well-known fact that one of Washington’s heroes was Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat who led an army that saved the Roman republic, then relinquished all of his power to return to the life of a simple Roman patrician. On at least two occasions Washington relinquished power when he could have easily continued to wield it absolutely: first when he relinquished command of the Continental Army and then when he stepped down after his second term as President.

The Founders would be damned if a standing army became part of any republic they created.

Yet, there was no ignoring geopolitical realities. The British, still hot at losing the  War for Independence, dominated both the seas with their navy and the land immediately west of the Appalachians by continuing to garrison troops there. (Despite the fact that it was American land by the terms of the Treaty of Paris.)

Spain still held sizable colonies on the American continent, including control of the Mississippi River. The Father of Waters was a valuable artery of commerce for the fledgling American republic. At any point they wished, the Spanish could cut off America’s access to it. Indeed, Spain did do this from time to time as a way to entice the western American states to join them. The prospect of unlimited access to the Mississippi did lead to serious talk of secession in states like Ohio and Kentucky.

And then there were the Native Americans. The tribes west of the Appalachians were readying themselves to defend their hunting grounds against the inevitable flood of American settlers to come. They were armed and trained by the British in this endeavor, making tribes like the Shawnee formidable, dangerous and determined opponents of the new American republic.

America was beset with enemies on all sides. There had to be a way to defend America from external enemies without falling into the trap of creating a standing army. It was a circle that was easily squared by the Founding Fathers.

The answer was a well-regulated militia. Many Founders deeply admired the Roman republic and Athenian democracy of antiquity. Athens, a tiny city-state beset with menacing neighbors like Sparta and Persia, kicked some serious butt with their version of a”well-regulated militia.” Athens’ military consisted of citizen-soldiers, men who farmed for a living but had arms at the ready in case their city-state needed to be defended. These citizen-soldiers were called hoplites and they came together to form the phalanx, the most fearsome fighting force of the ancient Mediterranean. Their tight-knit formations, the way they compensated for their lack of training by sticking together and fighting hard to defend their farms, wives, children and temples, were able to defeat the biggest, most well-supplied and professionally trained army of the era: the mighty Persians.

America, in the minds of the Founders, was in a similar boat to ancient Athens. They were a free people surrounded by tyrants who commanded massive standing armies. The answer to this was to allow the people of the free nation to keep their own arms at the ready in the event they needed to defend their homeland against attack. What they lacked in training they would make up for in  motivation. What’s more, an armed populace would obviate the need for a standing army that was a hallmark of tyranny.

Hence, the first words of the 2nd Amendment are: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…” It was self-evident to the Founders that the militia would fight America’s wars. They believed that any war in which America found itself would be defensive since offensive wars were the pursuit of tyrants who wished to build empires. Defensive wars as a rule are easier to fight. Quite simply, there was absolutely no reason in the minds of any of the Founding Fathers for America to have a highly-trained professional military ready to strike any moment. There was absolutely every reason for America to avoid such an institution at all costs.

The 2nd Amendment was a no-brainer for the Founders. It was designed to provide for the 18th century version of the ancient Athenian hoplite: the free farmer with musket in hand.

This is where the meat of the argument ends. In all of the palaver coming over the airwaves in recent weeks about gun control, does any of this ever get mentioned? Has there been any effort by either the right or the left to truly educate the country on the meaning of the 2nd Amendment?

In many ways, the story of 19th century America is the story of the slow demise of the militia. General William Henry Harrison’s militia was unable to score a decisive defeat over the Native American force led by Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe. America lost many key land battles to the British during the War of 1812, culminating in the burning down of the President’s Mansion (later called the “White House” after the burns were painted over with the cheapest color paint available at the time). Instead, most of America’s biggest victories during the War of 1812 were won by the navy, the most professional branch of the military. Even the Battle of New Orleans, where General Andrew Jackson decimated a force of redcoats a few weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was officially signed, was won  with a hybrid force of militia and professional military. Jackson had complained throughout the war that his militia men were ill-trained cowards and lobbied vigorously to get more professionally trained men into his ranks, which is what he had at New Orleans.

But the culmination of all of these 19th century conflicts, from Tippecanoe in 1811 until the Spanish-American War in 1898, was the creation of the American standing army. The Spanish-American War was truly our first offensive intercontinental war in the name of empire. After acquiring Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and Asia we fully instituted a standing army to keep guard over them. There was no outcry that this development effectively rendered the 2nd Amendment irrelevant. There was no outcry that it totally went against everything the Founding Fathers stood for. It was self-evident that the 20th century for America was the age of empire. Empire requires a standing army. The 2nd Amendment remained in the quaint 18th-century where it belonged.

The 2nd Amendment was buried the moment America attained an intercontinental empire. Nobody mentioned the 2nd Amendment. Nobody thought about it. Time had passed it by and nobody batted an eyelash. It was not until very recently, maybe within the past 30 to 40 years or so, that certain interests  attempted to resurrect the ghosts of the 2nd Amendment for their own myopic agendas. Namely, gun manufacturers and their lickspittles on the right

The Cold War ensured that the production of weapons, or what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, became a major fact of everyday American life, a healthy chunk of the GDP and the lion’s share of the federal budget. It was only natural that guns designed to kill Commies, built in American factories, would somehow spill onto Main Street, USA. These guns were not the Colt .45s that made every man equal on the frontier. These guns were weapons of mass destruction, implements of modern-age warfare.

And thanks to the slick propaganda of the gun lobby, people began to honestly believe that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted Americans (preferably all Americans), to handle these pieces of machinery as a civic duty. I mean, it’s right there in the 2nd Amendment: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Of course, the propaganda never mentioned the responsibility of those who owned these arms to fight for their country when duty called. Of course not. According to the gun lobby, the only responsibility gun owners had was to clean their instruments of mass death and lock them away in a safe place so grandma doesn’t accidentally get her head blown off. Is this not what the Founding Fathers had in mind?

It is also not a little bit ironic that many of the same people who see the 2nd Amendment in this way vote for political candidates who send the boys and girls of the actual standing army overseas to die in imperialist war. They don yellow ribbons and have bumper stickers telling the world they “support the troops”, yet they have no problems sending those troops off to meet mechanized death.

They support only the part of the 2nd Amendment that says they can have a gun. They ignore the other part that says that having the gun requires them to fight for their country. They fully support our troops by allowing them to fulfill that responsibility for them. “I own the gun. Let someone else do the dying.” This is the real motto of most gun enthusiasts today.

This is the gun debate in America today.  It is gun nuts wrapping themselves in the 2nd Amendment without understanding one bit what it means. They quote the Founding Fathers without one iota of appreciation for the context in which they were writing and the intellectual universe they inhabited. It is liberals who are afraid of calling them out on their ignorance, lest they be accused of opposing the Bill of Rights and being “un-American”. Instead, the liberals relegate themselves to spouting sterile statistics about gun violence in other countries to justify “gun control” laws here in America, laws that merely aim to reduce gun ownership instead of eliminating it.

What is the point of citing the examples of nations that allow absolutely no gun ownership if you’re not going to call for absolutely no gun ownership?

I support your right to bear arms under one condition: the next time America is in a war, you’re the first one in line with your cache of weapons to defend the country. Only then will you be coming close to the spirit of the 2nd Amendment.

But if you want to totally fulfill the spirit of the 2nd Amendment, then you must call for the elimination of the standing army. You must call for the shuttering of every single American army, navy and air base both here and abroad. You must pull all American troops out of every foreign country: Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Japan and South Korea. You must then fire all of the men and women of the armed forced. You must want to convert the Pentagon into something else, maybe a museum or low-rent housing for the poor. You must call for the elimination of the entire defense budget.

You must then raise your hand and say “I am here with my gun ready to defend the flag I so fondly wave around and the Bill of Rights in which I so firmly believe.

Then, and only then, will I support your right to bear arms.

Yes, I am a true believer in the 2nd Amendment.

The Obama Phone and Other Nonsense

The “Obama Phone” lady is the latest viral video on the net. Here it is for those who have not seen it:

Not surprisingly, the likes of Rush Limbaugh have already jumped all over it as proof of Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment. One of my favorite comedic radio shows had one of the hosts ranting for 30 minutes about how the woman in the video represents the “entitlement” mindset common to most Obama voters. It is tough to see the planet on which these people are living.

The equation for Rush Limbaugh, the aforementioned comedy show host and the rest of their ilk seem to be the following. Obama is black. Therefore, most black people support him. In return, they believe they will get increased entitlements like welfare, food stamps, public housing and now, cell phones. The fact that black people have been slipping ever deeper into poverty since Obama’s election seems to be lost on them. In reality, Limbaugh and company are thinking in caricatures left over from the days of Reagan’s war on mythical “welfare queens”. It bears little resemblance to actual black people, whether they support Obama or not.

Obama will win this 2012 election. This is something I have said since he won in 2008 and I was not exactly going out on a limb then. This is not because Obama has done such a bang-up job, although there are plenty who seem to think so. Rather, it is because the other viable alternative, which includes not just Romney but the entire apparatus supporting him, has proven too odious and out-of-touch to be relevant to anyone but a small delusional percentage of the population. To be sure, this small delusional percentage comprises an active voting bloc. Yet, I think 2012 will prove that this bloc will no longer be able to swing elections like they did during the Bush Era. It seems the Tea Party was the last dying gasp of their influence, a swan song made possible by the infusion of money and organization from the corporate class.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the “Obama Phone” is nothing of the sort. What the woman in the video is describing is the federal program designed to provide cell phones to low income, elderly and disabled people started in 2008 while George W. Bush was president. My mother had one of these phones. It was a no-frills, antiquated cell phone with 250 minutes a month. My uncle, who is a Vietnam veteran, also has one. Although it was a help when my mother needed to communicate with me, I bought her a Blackberry with an unlimited plan because those 250 minutes never seemed to last her more than 20 days.

Are these the “entitlements” that Rush speaks of? Is this the free ride that 47% of us expect according to Romney? If it is, the ride certainly does not go very far.

One of the other tropes trotted out to buttress the idea that Americans in the Obama Era feel more “entitled” is the fact that the food stamp rolls have increased over the past four years. Is this due to some sort of mass laziness brought about by Obama’s presence in the White House?

When people get hired at Walmart, they are also given an application for food stamps. This is because Walmart welcomes their new employees to the world of the working poor. The food stamp program is available to anyone making enough money under a very strict definition of poverty. This includes people on welfare (whose rolls have been declining in many states, thanks to Bill Clinton’s reforms) and the ever-growing number of Americans who are joining the ranks of the working poor. The new jobs that have supposedly ended the Great Recession are the types that qualify people for food stamps.

Listening to that small delusional part of the population, one would think that this country is saddled with legions of unproductive people sucking at the government’s teat. Our ingenuity and creative energy as a nation are being sapped, the thinking goes. Those who style themselves “education reformers” add the coda that “failing” public schools are graduating incompetent and uncreative workers.

And yet, the Gross Domestic Product of this nation has been increasing over the past 30 years. Even throughout the Great Recession, our GDP has been rising other than the years of the toxic assets brought about by billionaire banks. This means that the American workforce has been more productive. There is something wrong with this picture. If the workers of this country are more productive, why are people poorer? (and how are schools “failing”?)

This is the million-dollar question. The answer seems to lie somewhere within the growth experienced by the wealthiest Americans during this Great Recession. Americans are producing more wealth for the wealthy.

Occupy Wall Street was born of this state of affairs. Now that the occupations have been swept away, the small delusional sect of the population is back to pointing to the “Obama Phone” lady and the mythical caricature she represents as the crowd on the prowl for handouts. Sadly, many in that small delusional sect of the population qualify as poor as well. It is the poor blaming the poor for why they are so poor.

The crooked railroad magnate Jay Gould famously said that he could always get one half of the poor to kill off the other half. It explains why the myth of the lazy, entitled (and black) Obama supporter still has traction. It explains why the corporatists behind the Tea Party were able to find so much support. It explains why Libertarianism has been considered some sort of independent “middle way” between Democrat and Republican, rather than the deformed Neoliberal ideology it is. It explains why the Republican Party still has any support at all, and why the Democrats of today are somewhere to the political right of Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Entitlements in this country are going to predominately one place: up. Steven Perlstein’s Washington Post article over the weekend captured it perfectly:

I am a corporate chief executive.

I am a business owner.

I am a private-equity fund manager.

I am the misunderstood superhero of American capitalism, single-handedly creating wealth and prosperity despite all the obstacles put in my way by employees, government and the media.

I am a job creator and I am entitled.

I am entitled to complain about the economy even when my stock price, my portfolio and my profits are at record levels.

I am entitled to a healthy and well-educated workforce, a modern and efficient transportation system and protection for my person and property, just as I am entitled to demonize the government workers who provide them.

This is where we stand as a nation. If you believe these criticisms are the result of “class warfare” or “envy” of “successful” people, then you also believe that we live in a “democracy” with “free enterprise” and “equal opportunity”. You probably also wanted to end the “death tax”.

What is more likely: that a woman at a political protest talking about an “Obama Phone” is holding us back as a nation, or that our nation is really an oligarchy with corporate socialism that reinforces economic castes?