Saturday, December 24, 2011

...And to All a Good Night

Merry Christmas.
Jesus died so you could go shopping...or something.

While I honestly do not really know what Christmas is about anymore, it is still a nice excuse to relax, enjoy family and time off from work and reflect on the theme of "peace on earth." Guerrilla Press remains dedicated to making that sentiment more than an abstract, once-a-year theme, but a reality.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Imprisoned in Kafka's America

The Bill of Rights died last week. More specifically, our Fourth Amendment rights which protect citizens from illegal and unreasonable search and seizure. Or, rather “protected.”

Last Thursday, Congress passed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which allocates yet another $662 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (wait—I thought those were both ending…) and elsewhere. While the misplaced priorities of continuous and unnecessary spending on war and “defense” while states are facing deep budget cuts to healthcare, unemployment, and social security are themselves worthy of debate, this is not even the worst aspect of this spending-bill.

What makes the NDAA such a frightening piece of legislation is the provision granting expanded executive authority to the president in carrying out the “war on terror.” The bill essentially allows the president to detain anyone, anywhere at any time for, well…anything.

Specifically, the NDAA according to a New York Times editorial will, “strip the FBI, federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it over to the military… The legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial” (“Politics Over Principle,” Dec. 15, 2011).

Furthermore, the bill dramatically expands the “battlefield” of the terror war, and all but makes the new age Cold War permanent.

Indeed, this bill seems to be the last nail in the coffin for what has been a steady erosion of our civil liberties since Sept. 11.

The Patriot Act, with its grand, sweeping new powers of surveillance, was the first domino to fall. Next, President George W. Bush enacted the horrific Military Commissions Act of 2006, which allows the president to detain anyone suspected of engaging in or aiding terrorists indefinitely without trial or due process. And now, we have this latest affront to our Constitution.

Yet what is truly frightening about this bill is how much broad, bipartisan support it received. While President Obama was expected to veto the NDAA, he once again went back on his word, and instead signed the bill into law. (Maine senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe both voted for the bill. House reps Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree did not.) editor, Robert Scheer writes of the bill (“There Goes the Republic,” Dec. 15, 2011):

“What’s alarming is not just that one pernicious aspect [the expanded executive authority] of the defense spending bill, but the ease with which an otherwise deadlocked Congress that can’t manage minimal funding for job creation and unemployment relief can find the money to fund at Cold War levels a massive sophisticated arsenal to defeat an enemy that no longer exists.”

Constitutional lawyer and blogger, Glenn Greenwald takes this criticism further. Countering the misperceptions of liberals who believe President Obama is opposed to indefinite military detention Greenwald argues the president's stance is, in fact, quite the reverse.

“Obama’s objections to this bill had nothing to do with civil liberties, due process or the Constitution,” he writes in a recent blog post ("Obama to Sign Indefinite Detention Bill into Law," Dec. 15, 2011).

“It had everything to do with Executive Power. The White House’s complaint was that the Congress had no business tying the hands of the President when deciding who should go into military detention, who should be denied a trial, which agencies should interrogate suspects… In other words, his veto threat was not grounded in the premise that indefinite military detention is wrong; it was grounded in the premise that it should be the President who decides who goes into military detention and why, not Congress.” (Italics his.)

So much, it seems, for change we can believe in. In fact, Obama’s dogged continuation of Bush’s most egregious, police-state policies smacks of something right out of a Kafka novel—The Trial, to be exact.

In Franz Kafka’s final unfinished novella, a nondescript, law-abiding citizen named Josef K. is mysteriously arrested and charged with a crime—the precise nature of which he is never informed of. K does not know what he is guilty of. He is never once allowed to know the evidence against him and, as a result, is unable to legally defend himself. All he knows is the state has determined he is guilty.

“Who could these men be?” K. wonders of the secretive agents that arrest him. “What were they talking about? What authority could they represent? K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?”

Whether Kafka’s ominous tale was meant as a prescient warning of coming totalitarianism or a postmodern account on the meaninglessness of twentieth century, post-industrial life is debatable. But the parallels remain clear.

If we as a nation do not do something to break free of this war-mongering two-party duopoly we may all soon find ourselves arbitrarily imprisoned in Kafka’s America.       

Monday, December 19, 2011

Noam Chomsky Weighs in on "American Winter"

Noam Chomsky spoke to a packed audience at Westbrook’s Performing Center for the Arts on Monday. His talk, titled “Arab Spring, American Winter,” compared the democratic uprising in Egypt with the Occupy Wall Street protests here in the U.S. Chomsky noted, while Egyptian protesters fought to gain basic freedoms and democratic liberties from a repressive, dictatorial regime, Americans are finding their own freedoms and worker rights stripped away.

Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Philosophy at M.I.T. He is author of dozens of books, a celebrated progressive activist, and widely considered the world’s leading intellectual. Yet, despite all the man’s accolades not one member of the press was present in the auditorium, which was filled to capacity.

“He really has been a voice in the wilderness,” noted the person sitting next to me before the talk began.

Indeed, at 83 and still as mentally sharp as ever, Chomsky remains something of an anomaly in modern American discourse. While Europe has a long tradition of celebrated public intellectuals, it is difficult to identify a modern day peer (save perhaps, for Ralph Nader, or the late Howard Zinn) of Chomsky's.

Chomsky’s views on foreign policy and media propaganda (most acutely spelled out in Manufacturing Consent, which he wrote with Wharton School professor, Edward Herman), have been indispensable to my work as both an academic and activist.

Professor Chomsky’s latest book, Hopes and Prospects, is a compilation of recent speeches, essays and articles covering the economy, U.S. global hegemony and accounts from the frontlines of progressive activism.

Ever the iconoclast, Chomsky remains committed to rebuking official doctrines (of the right, but more often than not the left), concepts of American exceptionalism and other sacred cows.

Chomsky’s commitment to speaking truth to power, notes author Chris Hedges in his book, Death of the Liberal Class is what makes him so feared by the liberal intelligentsia.

Chomsky, Hedges writes, “...reminds us that genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to aggrandize ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. And genuine inquiry always makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.”

By that account, Hopes and Prospects finds Chomsky at his best. Much of the book is devoted to in-depth examinations of the destructive neoliberal polices the U.S., the World Bank and the IMF (or the “Unholy Trinity” as Chomsky labeled the groups in his speech) impose on developing nations, particularly in Latin America.

In writing on the hypocrisy of the so-called “war on drugs,” Chomsky observes:

“Even if we adopt the imperial premises, it is hard to take seriously the announced goals of the ‘drug war,’ which persists without notable change despite extensive evidence that other measures—prevention and treatment—are far more cost-effective…”

He goes on to describe the establishment of the war on drugs in the 1970s as the “perfect remedy” to rising opposition to the Vietnam War, and the growing populist unrest amongst the counter-culture movement.

Chomsky writes:

“With the enthusiastic participation of the media, a tale was concocted of an ‘addicted army’ that would bring down domestic society as the shattered troops returned home, all part of an insidious communist plot…”
“The ideological construction fulfilled these functions admirably. The United States became the victim of the Vietnamese, not the perpetrator of crimes against them, and the sacred image of the ‘city on the hill’ was preserved. Furthermore, the basis was laid for a ‘law and order’ campaign at home to discipline those who were straying beyond the bounds of subordination to power and doctrine.”
For me, the highlight of the evening came during the question-and-answer portion of the talk. Responding to a student who asked if there is anything he does like about U.S. foreign policy (the four pre-selected questions were all asinine), Chomsky promptly invoked his view of the responsibility of intellectuals in a democratic society.

“I’m here,” he said. “I have a share of responsibility for what the U.S. government does. And to an extent I can do something about it, especially in a free country like this one.”

Click here to hear Noam Chomsky’s “Arab Spring, American Winter” lecture in its entirety.

And click here for Lance Tapley’s article on the talk in the Portland Phoenix.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Responding to Occupy Maine Critics

Reading the editorial section of today’s Portland Press Herald brings to mind Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Readers sounding off in Wednesday’s issue (Dec. 14, 2011) on Occupy Maine rely on the same misguided arguments and uninformed accusations of the movement. Being the polemicist I fancy myself, I figured I should set the record straight.

In his letter to the editor, Richard Prince of South Portland calls the Occupy protesters “entitled,” and accuses them of leeching off their “fellow Americans’ tax payments.”

“What we have now can be called ‘the entitlement generation’,” Prince writes. “It is Americans who believe that by merely existing they are entitled to a host of unearned benefits…”

Prince clearly does not understand anything about either the Occupy movement, or the social ills our nation currently faces.

Occupy Wall Street protesters are not selfishly demanding money for nothing. They are calling attention to the vastly unequal distribution of wealth in this country—most of which is currently held by the wealthiest one percent of the nation. When all of the nation’s wealth is held by a small minority of super-rich, that is money that is denied to public schools and universities; to repairing decaying roads and bridges; to local businesses; to the elderly, disabled, or poor; and to Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

If anyone exhibits this sense of entitlement Prince decries, it is the super-rich. They are the ones who, due to their immense wealth and power, believe the world is literally theirs for the taking. Indeed, Mr. Prince would do well to read Chrystia Freeland’s excellent Atlantic story, “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” from earlier this year.

A similar letter, by Robert W. Brandenstein of Buxton, echoes Prince’s “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality.

“From what I can gather,” Brandenstein states, “[the protesters] are upset that some in our country are better off financially than others, and they don’t think this is fair.”

This is a gross over-simplification of what they are protesting, but let’s explore his letter a bit more, first.

“My wife and I have been married for more than 50 years. When we were first married, I worked three jobs to provide a good living for my family… We’re not rich, but comfortable. Not because we took from those who were better off than us. And not because things were more fair [sic] for us than others.”

He finishes with this: “We worked hard for what we have, and if those who stand with their hands out and cry that things are not fair would follow the example we, and others like us, have set, they just might find things get more fair the harder you work.”

Wow, I don’t think Horatio Alger could have said it better, himself, Robert.

What Mr. Brandenstein does not seem to understand is many of the Occupy protesters are also working three jobs—not out of some holier-than-thou, protestant work ethic, but because it is the only way we can make ends meet. Not to mention the fact that he is speaking from the luxury of retirement. If Brandenstein were attempting to provide for his family in today’s economy, he would find an anemic job-market wherein employers simply refuse to hire people, having decided a solid, reliable work-force is simply not a financially feasible investment.

I find it, frankly, offensive when gainfully-employed, Baby Boomer-aged individuals decry Occupy Wall Street’s demands. These people speak from the comfort of a steady, full-time job, often with benefits, health insurance and a decent lifetime savings. What further infuriates me is many of them do not realize they will likely be the last generation to enjoy those luxuries for some time.

Finally, we have Howard Spear from Westbrook, who contributes the sort of rambling, inarticulate opinion-piece the Portland Daily Sun’s Bob Higgins routinely produces.

I cannot really follow Spear’s argument, but perhaps others can do better. First, he applauds the Portland City Council for its ruling last week denying a permit to the encampment. “It is baloney that they [the protesters] claim they are an ‘amazing community of self-government’,” he writes.

Why, exactly, Spear believes this claim is “baloney” is unclear, as he offers zero evidence to support his assessment. Has he personally observed the site at Lincoln Park, or does he just criticize from afar?

He then goes on to criticize the protesters’ creation of a “police raid support team,” page on Facebook, which he claims (again, with no supporting evidence whatsoever) is a call to violence against the Portland Police Department.

He writes, “So now they are going to turn their peaceful protest into a violent one? They really are the 1 percent. Perhaps someday they will smarten up and when/if they do, they will then become part of the 98 percent.” (That is funny: I cannot find anything threatening any use of violence on the Occupy Maine Facebook page.)

Huh…? Sorry, I don’t follow. Is Spear implying the majority of Americans are smart and informed, while the Occupy protesters are not…? Or, are we just all going to become suddenly rich in our sleep?

In fairness, the Opinion page does feature two pro-Occupy letters (although, at a ratio of four-to-two, the paper’s editors cannot really claim to be making serious strides toward a “balance” of views). And the PPH has featured two surprisingly favorable staff editorials on the encampment recently.

Still, my general impression from these three letters to the editor is many residents are simply uninformed about both the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the destructive economic realities that have afforded them comfort and financial stability while leaving the rest of us to fight over the table scraps.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pushed Out of the Public Sphere

Two seemingly disparate local news stories from the past week offer a striking bit of irony.

On Wednesday, the Portland City Council voted to deny Occupy Maine a permit to remain in Lincoln Park, essentially shutting down the three-month long encampment. Then, a few days later, the Urban Outfitters retail chain opened its first store in Portland.

What, you ask, do these events have in common? Space, dear reader. Public space to be precise.

Consider: Progressive activists are forbidden from gathering in a public park and engaging in their First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly and free-speech, yet a multinational, high-end clothing store can swoop into an abandoned part of Portland’s Old Port and essentially “occupy” the space indefinitely.

The distinction is, of course, obvious here. Businesses (especially those that “create jobs”) are sacrosanct and necessary to help the local economy. Citizen activists, however, are a noisy, visual “blight” and too much of a headache for the police department.

In other words, Urban Outfitters (or Starbucks, Reny’s or any of the stores at the Maine Mall) may occupy each and every corner of the city, state, country and globe. But heaven forbid if a motley crew of anti-capitalist activists attempts to do the same.

Indeed, public space has become something of an antiquated luxury in the twenty-first century. Big box stores, fast-food franchises and other corporate, brand-name consortiums are rapidly gobbling up more and more public avenues. Even public institutions like libraries, schools, and universities, once thought to be the last haven from non-commercial space, have become increasingly hijacked by corporate slogans, banners, advertisements and sponsorship.

As a result of this rampant corporatization of nearly every nook and cranny of public life, there are fewer and fewer avenues where we can interact as citizens, rather than consumers. And this poses a dire threat to our democracy.

Naomi Klein traces this erosion of democratic, public space in her book No Logo. Much of the encroachment of corporate advertising into more and more aspects of our lives, according to Klein, is related to the advertising industry’s strategic epiphany that companies do not sell products, but brands. Starbucks, for instance, does not sell mere coffee: It sells community, a place of peaceful, quiet relaxation.

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s corporations aggressively embraced this marketing mentality. In doing so, they have become less focused on the physical products they sell and more on their brand, or the “idea” the product entails.

“With this wave of brand mania,” Klein writes, “has come a new breed of businessman, one who will proudly inform you that Brand X is not a product but a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea. And it sounds really great—way better than that Brand X is a screwdriver, or a hamburger chain, or a pair of jeans, or even a very successful line of running shoes.”

As companies became ever more disentangled from their actual physical products (most of which are manufactured by children toiling in sweatshops overseas for less than a $1 a day), they were able to focus more money on advertising. This, in turn, lead to larger, more intrusive billboard advertisements, brand-name products on buses, or even entire concert festivals sponsored by your favorite beer.

Once the maxim of “brands, not products” became the norm for companies, they had more space—literally—to work with and, thus, takeover.

Klein’s book goes on to document what she saw as a growing anti-corporate movement to reclaim public space. Ten years later (No Logo was published in 2000), it is tempting to view the book as a clarion call that all but predicted the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And now the Occupy Portland encampment faces eviction. Yet the encampment itself is not the only casualty of this fight. The public sphere—that is, the area where citizens can come together and discuss the pertinent issues of the day, free of corporate or authoritative demands—is eroding and in danger of disappearing completely from civic life.

The people want democracy. Instead we got Urban Outfitters.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Gatekeepers of Democracy

The gatekeepers of democracy were successful in silencing free-speech Wednesday night.

In a lengthy session that went well past 11:00 p.m., the Portland City Council voted 8 -1 to deny Occupy Maine protesters a permit to continue their encampment of Lincoln Park. Despite three hours of public testimony, almost unanimously in support of Occupy Maine, city councilors voted against a permit that would allow the protesters to create a 24-hour free-speech zone in Lincoln Park.

While the council’s decision was indeed disappointing, it is hardly surprising given its conservative, pro-business bent. Councilors used the recent isolated incidents of violence in the park, as well as the Portland business community’s accusation the encampment is an “eyesore” to justify shutting the protest down.

While the majority of public comments expressed impassioned support for Occupy Maine (there were about three speakers who opposed the permit), the councilors—save for David Marshall, the lone dissenting vote—remained unmoved.

A colleague of mine speculated that most of the councilors had likely already decided how they would vote before the meeting began. The fact that, throughout the three hour public comment session, many of the councilors sat staring at their laptops, or making snide jokes amongst each other, suggests this to be the case. A few speakers even called the council members out on this. They did the same thing my students do when I intentionally direct a question to those who are clearly not paying attention to my lecture: They temporarily stopped what they were doing and acknowledged the speaker, then eventually shifted their focus back to their laptops.

In other words, the allowing of public comments is merely a formality, perhaps to further the illusion of democracy and public representation. Indeed, Wednesday’s vote provided further evidence that representative democracy as it is currently practiced here in Maine and nationwide, is a sham.

At one point during the debate, Councilor and former mayor, Nick Mavodones justified his vote against the permit by claiming he had heard from many Portland residents who opposed the measure, and that the majority support for Occupy Maine amongst the attendees was “lopsided”. Yet, where was this opposition at the meeting? If Portland were run like a genuine democracy, where majority opinion rules, then the protesters would clearly have won the day. Instead, it took only one Chamber of Commerce spokesman to squelch free-speech.

As the Clash observe on the song, “Know Your Rights,” “You have the right to free-speech/As long as you are not dumb enough to actually try it.”

Perhaps the one moment of honest clarity during the debate came when Councilor John Anton told the crowd, “We’re the bourgeoisie. We’re the burghers. To expect us to do anything other than reflect the views of the bourgeoisie is…optimistic.” Well, at least one of them was upfront about it.

The council’s denial of a permit for the Portland branch of Occupy Maine does not necessarily spell the end of the beleaguered movement. Frankly, the fact they were made to seek a permit to express their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly is absurd. Furthermore, the protesters should have realized seeking any sort of approval from the city council was foolish. But Wednesday’s decision is nonetheless a blow to the movement—one echoed by similar, albeit more violent crackdowns elsewhere.

The irony of all this is one of the goals of the wider Occupy Wall Street movement is to create a grassroots, democratic alternative to representative government, which most participants agree has failed the country. Yet, it is the apparatus of "representative" government which is now forcing the group to disband. Once again, the official gatekeepers of democracy have shut the door on average citizens.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mayoral Malaise

On November 8, voters in Portland will elect the mayor for the first time in almost 90 years. Last year Portlanders voted on a charter referendum to create a popularly-elected mayor selected by ranked-choice voting. (Previously, Portland’s mayor has been selected by the City Council.) There are fifteen candidates vying for the position.

I will get my number one endorsement out of the way right now: I support Portland City Councilor and artist, Dave Marshall for mayor. In fact, I have been campaigning for Marshall over the past two months.

Door-to-door canvassing is often a laborious and unrewarding job, and I readily admit I am not always the best pitchman. Every once in a while you will have a positive encounter with an enthusiastic supporter of your candidate. For the most part though, voters tend to be indifferent, uninformed, and sometimes outright hostile. (I have had the door slammed in my face—after saying only a few words—on more than one occasion.)

Of the approximately 300 doors I have knocked on in Portland over the past two months, the majority of residents were completely uninterested in anything I had to say either about Marshall, or the election in general. (The vast majority of residents are not home on the weekends when I do most of my canvassing.)

Many have admitted to knowing nothing about any of the candidates, despite the fact that all 15 have now been profiled in the Portland Press Herald and other local papers. Others tell me they are confused by the ranked-choice voting ballot, but appear completely uninterested when I attempt to explain it to them. A surprising number simply tell me they do not vote. And most simply tell me they “don’t have the time right now.”

Based on my first-hand observations, it seems the city’s first popularly-elected mayor position has been met with a collective yawn.

(Curious side note: It seems the farther away one is from downtown Portland, the less knowledgeable residents are of the mayor’s race in general, thus contributing to the claim those living “off peninsula” are less engaged in city politics.)

There are, of course, a number of factors contributing to this attitude. First and foremost, this is an off-year election, so enthusiasm is not going to be what it was in 2008, or even in last year’s midterm election.

The biggest factor, however, is the sheer number of candidates. This is the one comment I have heard over and over from people: “I just can’t keep them all straight.”

To be certain, fifteen candidates are a lot. Sorting through each and every one of them takes a great deal of time and curiosity—neither of which the average voter seems to possess in large supply. Older voters used to the traditional two-party horse-race and alienated by the “complicated” ranked-choice ballot are easily turned off from the entire process.

Progressive voters, on the other hand, who frequently lament the lack of real choices in an election, should be elated by all the options. Yet, outside of local political groups like the Portland Green/Independent Party and the League of Young Voters, the young people I have spoken with do not seem any more interested in the upcoming election than the baby-boomer crowd.

Personally, I have little sympathy for Portlanders who have been unable sort out the candidate field. There are ample outlets available (including this thing called the Internet) to find information about any of the mayoral candidates.

At the risk of sounding preachy, it never ceases to amaze me how citizens who “lack the time” for civic engagement still seem to have plenty of time for other indulgences—such as the World Series, for instance. According to Entertainment Weekly, Friday night’s airing of “Game Seven” of the World Series garnered 25.4 million viewers—a ratings record. So it is clearly not a lack of time that is plaguing voters in Maine and elsewhere—it is a lack of priorities.

Bill Hicks said it best: “Go back to bed, America… Here’s ‘American Gladiators.’ Watch this. Shut-up… Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom.”

Still, as someone who is a fan of choices, I find it curious that the more electoral options voters are presented with, the more the majority of them throw up their hands and tune out. Perhaps American voters have simply become so accustomed to the limited two-party system, they do not know how to respond to anything different. So, to review: Multiple choices in brand-name products in the shopping aisle—good; too many choices in candidates for elected office—bad.

Valid arguments about the overall impact of voting notwithstanding, the act of showing up to the polls on Election Day remains one’s basic duty as a citizen. Indeed, voting is the absolute minimum amount of civic engagement one can participate in.

Regardless of the reason for the mayoral malaise, I think the alt-weekly The Bollard summed things up succinctly in a recent headline: “Vote or Quit Bitchin’.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Slow Death of Print-Culture

In a recent episode of NBC’s 30 Rock, Tina Fey and the cast are forced to rethink their career options when the fictitious “TGS” TV show is forced into “indefinite hiatus” due to the extended absence of Tracey Morgan’s character. This prompts Fey’s Liz Lemon to seek out new writing opportunities, only to realize what few “employable” skills she actually possesses. “I have a degree in Theater Tech with a minor in Movement,” she laments. “Why did my parents let me do that?”

Furthermore, she becomes concerned society no longer values the work writers like her do. “Our craft is dying while people are playing Angry Birds and poking each other on Facebook,” screenwriter guest-star Aaron Sorkin says.

While the episode is played for laughs, Fey’s observations on the diminishing value of writers in contemporary society strike at something very near and dear to your humble blogger. Not only does society no longer value writing as an art, but the loss of print culture threatens the intellectual health of our nation.

There is the decline in reading as a leisure activity, for one thing.

According to statistics from the National Institute for Literacy and the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book in 2007. Forty-two percent of college graduates do not read another book (for pleasure or otherwise) after college, nor do one-third of high-school graduates.

Newspapers and print-based magazines have not fared any better in recent years. The average reader spends about 45 minutes with a print copy of The New York Times. (And about seven minutes on the Times’ website, so don’t try to tell me people are obtaining all their news online.) Contrast these disheartening statistics with the two hours a day Americans 15-24 spend watching television, and the close to eight hours a day they spend online, according to a 2007 story by CBS.

Indeed, I have noticed a disturbing new trend when I frequent my local library. I see many young patrons, but they are almost exclusively relegated to the computer station, while only the elderly and middle-aged peruse the book shelves.

Those who choose not to read (or are incapable of doing so; 30 million people cannot read a simple sentence) have effectively cut themselves off from high-culture. They are left ignorant of history and current events, local and national politics, and the great works of fiction and literature that have, for centuries, enriched and given greater meaning to our lives.

Their lack of reading denies them the means of self-reflection, and the ability to think critically and independently. They flock, instead to visually-oriented mediums like TV and the Internet, that promote a sort of hive-mind mentality, and quick browsing as opposed to in-depth reading.

Most of all, I fear these young people will never experience the revelatory joy of having your life forever altered by a book. “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it,” Henry David Thoreau states in Walden. “I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

This transition from a print-based society to an image-based one is proceeding rapidly, according to author and journalist, Chris Hedges. In his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, he observes:

“The illiterate, the semiliterate and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present. They do not understand the predatory loan deals that drive them into foreclosure and bankruptcy. They cannot decipher the fine print on the credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt. They repeat thought-terminating clichés and slogans. They are hostage to the constant jingle and manipulation of a consumer culture.”

A nationwide decline in literary habits inevitably leads to a population that receives all its news and information from deceptive, right-wing propagandists like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

To this day, many Americans erroneously believe U.S. soldiers discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite all the evidence to the contrary. A growing majority do not believe global-warming is a reality, despite the mounting scientific consensus otherwise. And conservatives continue to blame public workers and teachers for the national deficit, despite recent reports that major corporations like General Electric do not pay any income taxes.

I am certainly not suggesting one should believe everything printed in corporate newspapers, either.

But those who do not read are more prone to the spin of faux journalists who often promote corporatist agendas, and do not back up their claims with facts or references. Given the homogenous nature of the corporate television media, non-readers often have nowhere else to seek out an alternative viewpoint on a given issue, or become aware of facts that CBS or NBC have omitted.

But then, I am not entirely sure who I am trying to convince here, since I am pretty certain nobody reads this blog. Which, ironically, also proves my point.

At one point during the aforementioned 30 Rock episode, Liz observes a child pointing at a newspaper dispensary box and asking her mother, “What is that?” Sitting in my small apartment, surrounded by my aging, dog-eared collection of books, I found the scene more heartbreaking than hilarious.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Businesses to LePage: "Tear Down This Painting!"

I have intentionally avoided writing about Republican Governor Paul LePage in this blog for two practical reasons.

First off, I am aware there are countless other bloggers in Maine focused almost exclusively on LePage, and I do not want to appear redundant. The Portland Phoenix, for example, has spent nearly every issue since LePage’s election commenting on his every move.

And second, I hate writing about Paul LePage for the simple fact it completely bums me out the man is actually our governor. LePage makes me genuinely embarrassed for my state.

Alas, recent events in Augusta have forced me to cave. Gov. LePage’s decision to tear down the now infamous worker mural in the Labor Department deserves Guerrilla Press’s attention. So here we go.

As of this writing the mural has been removed from the Labor Department’s walls despite the protests of Maine labor activists and artists on Friday. The removal came as a swift surprise. According to a story in the Portland Press Herald, LePage staffers will not disclose the mural’s current location. Initial speculation that the mural may be relocated to Portland City Hall has been dampened, as many of the Council members now express opposition to the move. The Council has delayed vote on the issue “indefinitely” according to the story.

(On Friday, when a local TV news network asked LePage how he would respond to protesters’ threats to literally block officials from removing the mural his response was typically juvenile: “I’d laugh at them, the idiots. That’s what I’d do. Come on! Get over yourselves!”)

On the face of it, it is easy to see how the mural controversy may seem like much ado about nothing. “It’s just a painting,” you may be thinking.

But the issue is about more than the painting itself. It is the piece of history the painting depicts. The mural is a celebration of the rich and involved history of organized labor groups and unions in the state of Maine—and how those groups have impacted the plight of working people here for the better.

However, it seems LePage and the big business interests he is loyal to would rather Maine residents remain ignorant of that history. In their view, workers should have no labor protections, union representation or any worker rights whatsoever.

As it is, many Americans are quite ignorant of the pivotal role labor unions played in shaping this nation. After the stock market crash of 1929, there arose a general consensus that free-market, laissez-fare capitalism had failed the country. Many Americans began to seriously consider socialism as not only a viable alternative to capitalism, but a far more desirable one.

It was during this time the railroad workers went on strike, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions. Socialist leaders like Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair rose to the forefront of American politics, with Debs running for president under the Socialist ticket five times—once from prison, after he was arrested under the Espionage Act for publicly denouncing World War I.

But try quizzing your parents or neighbor about the historical significance of people like Debs, Sinclair, Emma Goldman or Helen Keller (beyond the “Miracle Worker” story that is). They have likely never heard of these individuals. That is because the entire history of socialism and the labor movement has been mostly erased from history. Students learn about the Great Depression in high school history class, sure. But I learned about Debs largely through my own interest and independent study. (The late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States gave me a fuller, far more complete understanding of American history than any class I ever attended in high school, college or graduate school.)

Whether or not it was his intent, LePage’s dismounting of the Labor Department mural is another step in this process of historical sanitation and corporate revisionism. Simply put, Big Business does not want Maine citizens to know the power of labor unions in helping organize and advocate for working people, because that power represents a threat to them.

One more note on this issue. Gov. LePage claims he removed the mural because it is “biased” against businesses and employers. (This, despite the fact the painting is located in the Labor Department—not the Chamber of Commerce.) “You cannot have workers without employers,” he tried to justify his decision in a recent news piece.

If the issue here is really about “balance,” and making the business leaders that frequent the Maine Labor Department feel “welcome,” why not simply add a business-oriented painting or picture of some sort elsewhere in the building (perhaps even directly beside, or across from the mural)? I have no idea what such a picture would look like (depict a corporate logo, perhaps?), but that is beside the point. You do not strike a “balance” by removing one aspect of history and replacing it with another. (LePage claims the mural will be replaced by a “neutral” picture, but this remains to be seen.)

Even LePage’s justification for removing the mural does not make logical sense. But then, very little our new governor says or does make any sense to rational, thinking people. Which is precisely why I do my best to avoid writing about the man. I have a headache now just thinking about it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

It's (Still) the Economy, Stupid

I’ve got some bad news, America.

Remember that “Great Recession” you used to hear so much about in the news? You may have thought it ended. It hasn’t. The economy still sucks.

Of course, if you are one of the hundreds of unemployed Americans still struggling to find work, this is not news to you. You are well aware of the economic reality. But those lucky enough to have a job seem to have completely forgotten about the recession.

Contrary to what you may have read in the corporate newspapers, the nation is still struggling to recover from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Robert Christensen is one of the unlucky ones. The 49-year-old Portland resident lost his job as a marketing director last June and has been looking for work ever since.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see any sign of improvement,” Christensen said. “If the economy is improving, I certainly have not benefited from it. I have applied to every job I can find. But so far nothing has worked out. I have been rejected from them all.”

Christensen was one of 700 attendants at a Portland Press Herald-sponsored job fair, at the Italian Heritage Center, on Tuesday. According to a job fair staffer, the economy is getting better, but “it’s a very slow growth.”

Some of that growth includes a noticeable rise in consumer spending. charts a $5.9 billion increase in credit accounts for January 2011. (However, rising gas prices, and expected surges in the cost of items such as cotton, grain and coffee, may halt this rise in spending in its tracks.)

Unfortunately, many economists are using these incremental, short-term signs of improvement to overemphasize the economy’s overall health.

Let’s look at the indications of economic improvement, shall we?

A recent story in Kiplinger’s offers ten mundane though not insignificant signs the economy is on the rebound. These include the “latte factor,” or the increase in sales of expensive, Starbucks-style coffee drinks, which many may have viewed as an unjustifiable luxury when money was tight. The article claims such caffeinated beverages are “one of the first little luxuries that consumers find worth shelling out for when they start to feel more comfortable with the direction of the economy.”

Another source citing economic growth is even more dubious—Warren Buffett.

In a recent interview with NBC’s business network, CNBC, the billionaire investor made grand claims of an economy on the upswing.

Buffett’s source for this claim? The continued success of his own businesses, which include Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. and the Burlington Santa Fe railroad. While Buffett has become something of a go-to economic pundit in recent years, one must wonder if indeed there ever was a recession for billionaires like him. Seeking Buffett’s views on the economic hardships of regular, working-class citizens is like asking an American what it is like to work in a Chinese sweatshop.

The fact is the increased financial earnings of Starbucks and Warren Buffett are no accurate barometer of the economy’s health. Things are (slowly) getting better, yes. But to claim the recession is “over,” or “behind us,” is downright insulting to those who are still out of work.

“Washington has lost interest in the unemployed,” writes New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Paul Krugman in a recent piece (“The Forgotten Millions,” March 18, 2011).

“It might not be so bad,” he continues, “if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record.”

Part of the problem, Krugman explains, is while the mass layoffs that marked the start of the recession have decreased, most companies are still not hiring new employees.

Corporations’ modern view of employees as another expense (as opposed to an integral investment) means many of them are literally sitting atop piles of income that was not earned the old-fashioned way, but saved by skimping on the workforce. (Add to this, another disturbing modern development in which many employers are refusing to even consider a job application from a person who is currently unemployed.)

Krugman writes, “Put it this way: At this point, the U.S. economy is suffering from low hiring, not high firing, so things don’t look so bad—as long as you’re willing to write off the unemployed.”

The other problem, according to Krugman and other economists, is the Obama administration’s initial stimulus bill was too small and timid—especially when compared with the gargantuan trillions lavished on Wall Street.

And that, in many respects, represents the root of our economic troubles. We have money for Wall Street banks, but not for regular Joes. While the Republican Congress is focused almost maniacally on cutting spending on things like public workers, welfare programs and NPR, none of the money we are saving has been allocated for job-creation. And, as I noted in my previous post, we still have plenty of money for the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya.

So, no: The recession is not over. Far from it. But try telling that to the corporate media and the Warren Buffetts of the world.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

As the War Machine Keeps Turning...

Today marks the eighth year of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

While anti-war protesters plan to march in Washington on Saturday to observe the anniversary, their numbers are not likely to be as great as they were during the run-up to the invasion in 2003. Eight years after President George W. Bush used lies and fabricated intelligence to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, Americans seem to devote precious little attention to the conflict.

As Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzales noted in yesterday’s installment of the news show, “because of the lack of media coverage, most people have almost forgotten certainly Iraq, if not [the war in] Afghanistan as well.”

As protesters calling for an end to the eight year conflict descended upon the Capitol, about 20 activists held a companion vigil in Portland’s Monument Square. Participants tried to link the enormous financial cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the troubled economy with signs that read, “Bring Our War $$ Home,” and “How Is the War Economy Working for You?”

“Using the money we’ve spent on these wars,” protest organizer Wells Staley-Mays said, “we could create a system of single-payer, universal health care that would cover all Americans.”

Another protester expressed disgust with President Obama’s failure to end either war. “I received a call from the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] looking for a donation the other day. I was on the phone with her for about half-an-hour explaining how disappointed I am with Obama. I told her the Democrats would not receive one dime from me until I see some real progressive changes.”

I have attended a number of anti-war protests like this one, and they always seem to attract the same handful of dedicated people. As is typical at these events, young people were scarce. (I spotted about three who looked like colleges students.) While drivers and passerby honked in approval, or flashed us the peace sign, none of them heeded our encouragement to come and stand with us.

At one point, a scruffy-haired young person approached two members of the crowd to question their motives. “Why was it OK to ‘take out’ Mubarak, but not Saddam Hussein?” he asked, videotaping the answer on his cell phone. Then he implied the protesters were hypocrites for owning cars if the “war is about stealing oil.”

The two protesters argued with him eloquently, but he did not seem truly interested in their answers. This person is emblematic of the juvenile “hipster” attitude—quick to criticize the motives of those willing to take a stand, but seemingly devoid of any such moral conviction, himself. Perhaps this is why every anti-war rally I have ever attended is composed primarily of middle-aged baby-boomers. The millennial generation, as far as I can tell, does not believe in anything.

Of course, Iraq is not the only war the United States is currently engaged in. The war in Afghanistan is entering its tenth year. And Congress just voted to keep it going. Yes, you read correctly. On Thursday, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted against a bill to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and end the funding for the conflict.

Again, this bill received next to no coverage in the mainstream media and the vote itself went down with little fanfare. Maine’s two representatives, Mike Michaud (D) and Chellie Pingree (D)--both of whom have emerged as reliable opponents of war-spending--voted in favor of the bill.

Unfortunately, on Thursday they proved the exception to the rule, as a majority of Democrats voted to continue the misbegotten Afghanistan occupation. Time after time supposedly anti-war Democrats like Steny Hoyer (Md) and Carl Levin (MI) vote to continue paying for wars they claim to oppose. Indeed, I am uncertain of a clearer example of the two parties’ uniform agreement when it comes to matters of foreign policy.

(Ironically, during the Afghanistan vote, the House also passed a measure to cut-off all federal funding for the “liberal” NPR. Just to keep track here, we have got money for war and endless empire-building, but heaven forbid U.S. taxpayers are forced to shell out another dime to public radio.)

To date the Iraq War has claimed over 4,400 U.S. soldiers’ lives. Over 32,000 have been seriously wounded. And more than 1,000,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003 according to a comprehensive study by the British polling firm, Opinion Research Business.

According to the website cost of, the state of Maine will pay $464.1 million for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the fiscal spending year 2011. For the same amount of money, the website indicates, Maine residents could fund the following:

- 8,340 elementary school teachers for one year.
- 48,208 scholarships for university students for one year.
- 185,561 households with renewable electricity for one year.
- 103,283 people receiving low-income healthcare for one year.

With these numbers in mind, I reiterate the question:

How is the war economy working for you?

Friday, March 11, 2011

On Pop Music

Mikal Gilmore contributed a great article on the Clash in last week’s issue of Rolling Stone. A key passage, for me, came in the story’s closing paragraph:

“That sort of vision [of rock n’ roll as liberation music] feels like something from a long time ago, another story of death and glory,” Gilmore writes.

“Popular culture rebellions have grown smaller; popular fears loom bigger. The tragedy of the Clash isn’t about the Clash itself—that they fought for something honorable yet defeated one another. The tragedy of the Clash is that we no longer allow the room for their sort of voice.” (“The Fury and The Power of the Clash,” March 3, 2011.)

I was born too late to have experienced the Clash while the group was active, but they remain one of my favorite bands, regardless. The only rock band from my generation to have a comparable impact on popular consciousness, was Nirvana.

I am hard-pressed to identify this generation’s Clash—or, at least their next-best version. With a handful of notable exceptions, today’s music is insular, uninspired, and highly innocuous. And before you write me off as an aging, punk-rock Originalist hipster, just turn your radio on to any major commercial station, listen for about fifteen minutes and tell me differently. ‘Nuff said.

Vapid, talentless acts like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and the Killers dominate album sales and iTunes downloads. (The ubiquitous Justin Bieber is featured on the cover of the afore-cited issue of Rolling Stone.) The electro-synth beats and retro dance styles of these acts seem to harken back to the equally insipid new-wave pop of the 1980s.

Lyrically, these acts inspire little more than hedonistic pleasures and instant gratification. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” the sultry Rihanna manipulates the rhyme on her new single, “S&M,” “But chains and whips excite me.”

Rap and hip-hop--genres previously so infused with social and political commentary—now celebrate consumer capitalism and material possessions. Rappers like Kayne West, Lil’ Wayne, and Eminem mostly rap about themselves and their celebrity identities—shallow themes compared to the radical, militant lyrics of early genre-innovators NWA and Public Enemy.

Even so-called “indie-rock” (a highly vague and misleading genre label that applies even to the most commercial of artists) bands shy away from pressing societal concerns. Indie darlings like the Decemberists trade in self-indulgently complex song-structures and highly pretentious, antebellum-inspired lyrics, about as far removed from contemporary life as one can get. Sample lyrics: “One night I overheard/The Prior exchanging words/With a penitent whaler from the sea.”

Indeed, Lady Gaga seems to sum up contemporary pop’s primary ambition with the title of one her own hits: “Just Dance.”

“Pop music is predigested,” wrote cultural critic Theodor Adorno in his polarizing 1941 essay, “On Popular Music.”

Drawing a stark contrast between popular artists and what he describes as “serious,” or classical music, Adorno attributes the differentiating factor to pop’s “standardized” song-structures (i.e. repetitive choruses, guitar riffs, or musical progressions).

“The whole structure of popular music is standardized,” he writes, “even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization… Serious music, for comparative purposes, may be thus characterized: Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme.”

Such standardized music, Adorno argues, serves as another means of oppressing individual freedom and personal choice.

He writes, “The necessary correlate of musical standardization is pseudo- individualization. By pseudo-individualization we mean endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself. Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line by doing their listening for them, as it were. Pseudo-individualization, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is already listened to for them, or ‘pre-digested’.”

Music thus becomes another form of distraction from national or global concerns of war, militarization, environmental destruction, the economy or the like. Adorno believes pop listeners become so accustomed to such standardized fare they become blind to its oppressive nature. He points to factory workers who, after spending their work day performing the same repetitive tasks over and over, unwittingly seek out the same form of repetition on the radio when they go home at night.

(Adorno, for his part, saw no room for artistic progression within pop music. He dismissed jazz and other forms of improvisational music outright and likely would have little time for contemporary art-rockers like Radiohead or Sonic Youth.)

Certainly, it is true pop has always been about escapism. But reading Gilmore’s article, it is easy to believe pop culture will never again produce a band as fiery, righteous and politically charged as the Clash.

And, once you arrive at that sad conclusion, it is easy to understand why people tune-out new music as they get older.

As Joe Strummer observes in "White Man in Hammersmith Palais":

"The new groups are not concerned
with what there is to be learned.
They've got Burton suits--you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Workingman Blues

Saturday marked a national day of solidarity with the protesting public workers in Wisconsin, with rallies held in nearly every state capital. Over 500 Maine teachers, public workers, union representatives and activists joined a MoveOn sponsored rally in Augusta.

MoveOn estimates over 50,000 people participated in protests on Saturday throughout the country. According to a statement released by the organization, “The progressive community has not seen coordinated rallies this size on an issue since the height of the anti-war movement during the Iraq war.”

The Augusta rally received front-page coverage in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram the following day. The article (“Convergence in the Capital: Rallying Cries,” Feb. 27, 2011) was particularly notable for its acknowledgement of the Koch Brothers’ role in financing Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s extremist campaign—an aspect of the story ignored by most of the major media outlets. A Press Herald staff editorial earlier last week siding with Gov. Walker (“Our View: Public Workers Protests show System Breakdown,” Feb. 24, 2011) made no mention of the Koch Brothers. (Then again, Sunday’s story was not written by a PPH staffer. The byline indicates it was taken from its sister paper, the Kennebec Journal.)

“We’re in this predicament because of unscrupulous CEOs and corporations that want to fill their pockets,” rally attendant, Emery Deabay said in the story. “They caused this mess and should be in jail. We’re here to make sure the governor [Maine Gov. Paul LePage] doesn’t try to punish workers when he balances the budget and take away their rights and benefits.”

The following day Madison public workers participated in the largest demonstration in the capitol building to date. The state has not seen a march of such scale since the Vietnam War protests.

Indeed, the massive opposition to Gov. Walker’s union-busting bill has been truly inspiring.

For decades now working-class Americans have been under attack by politicians on both sides of the aisle. President Reagan is credited with delivering the first blow when he infamously fired over 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. Many historians believe this single act set the tone for the harsher, zero-tolerance attitude businesses continue to hold toward unions and the labor movement today.

A decade later, Bill Clinton furthered the assault on the working-class with his enactment of NAFTA, which shipped hundreds of jobs overseas and essentially eviscerated the nation’s manufacturing sector. He followed this move up by dropping nearly 2.1 million Americans off of welfare benefits in 1996. Finally, Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act removed the consumer-protection barriers separating Wall Street and investment banks, and ultimately paved the way for the current economic recession.

More recently, Americans have watched with bitter scorn as the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama oversaw massive tax-cuts for the very wealthy, while poor and middle-class workers struggle to find jobs in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Yet, even before the modern day rollback of worker protections, early 20th century labor activists had to fight tooth-and-nail to establish the most basic of worker rights. Things like minimum-wage, a 40-hour, five-day work week, paid overtime, holidays off and child labor laws were all hard won gains by early progressive activists like Eugene Debs and the International Workers of the World. (Indeed, many of these worker protections were initiated by socialists, a highly ironic fact in light of conservatives’ current outcry over President Obama’s “socialist agenda.” It is only because of the early U.S. Socialist movement that we enjoy any worker rights at all.)

One of those socialist reformers was Upton Sinclair, who famously chronicled the plight of the working-class in his muckraking expose, The Jungle.

The 1906 novel revealed the deplorable, unsanitary working conditions laborers confronted in a Chicago slaughterhouse, as well as protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus’ dissolution with the American Dream.

Jurgis is a poor, unskilled immigrant from Lithuania, who travels with his family to America in search of a better life. What he finds instead, is a tedious, physically exhausting job that demands long hours and little pay. Furthermore, Jurgis’ limited command of the English language and unfamiliarity with the dubious underside of American capitalism makes him and his family members easily susceptible to sinister con artists who swindle them at every opportunity.

“They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside,” Sinclair writes of the family. “…They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone—it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost.”

Though published over 100 years ago, Sinclair’s book is all the more relevant today in light of the Wisconsin protests. One hundred years later, it seems workers are still fighting for the most basic of rights. Let’s hope Saturday’s rallies were just the beginning.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cult of Personality

Perhaps the worst thing about looking for work in this dismal economy is the fact that there are precious few job-hunting resources available to unemployed citizens. And those that exist are mostly a joke.

Case in point is the Portland Career Center’s weekly Unemployed Professionals Workshop series, which I attended last week. I had hoped the workshop would provide some useful insight to help me narrow my job search, or even advice on how to craft a 30-second “Elevator Speech,” even though I absolutely abhor the thought of selling myself like a TV advertisement.

Unfortunately, neither of those items was on the workshop agenda. Instead, the audience received a protracted and useless seminar in the importance of personality testing.

The meeting presenter specialized in workplace personality tests (think the Myers-Briggs Indicator Type, which most people have taken at some point in their lives), and walked the group through one. The purpose of this test (the “DISC” personality profile), she explained, was to help us better network with potential employers. DISC identifies test-takers as one of four easily categorized “personalities”: Dominant, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientious.

Discovering one’s individual personality “type” may seem like a fun Friday afternoon bonding activity to some employers, but the fact is these pseudo-psychological exams are not rooted in any scientific basis, whatsoever.

According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves, psychologists have long resisted the concept of categorizing individuals as “types.” Understanding that, as a “C,” you are more prone to careful analysis and questioning than others does not confer upon you any specific workplace skills or knowledge. More importantly, it does not get you a job.

Furthermore, because tests like DISC are based on such generalized, preferential answers, one can take the test four different times and never end up with the same results.

So, why the continued reliance on these pop-psych exams, you ask?

Because—and here is the truly frightening part—obtaining a job in the 21st century has little to do with one’s education, experience, or skills. It is primarily about one’s attitude and personality. Employers want to hire someone who is “likable.” In fact, potential employers focus 85-90 percent on a candidate’s likability and the remaining 10-15 percent on skills and knowledge, according to the Career Center literature. The personality type companies are increasingly looking for resembles that of a high school cheerleader more than a hard-working, educated and experienced professional.

This, in essence, is how an ignorant, inexperienced, uncultured moron like Sarah Palin can become a viable candidate for president.

No doubt a pleasant, upbeat employee is more desirable to share an office with than some of the misanthropically maladjusted co-workers I have had the misfortune of working alongside at various jobs. But, as was often the case with these likable co-workers, at the end of the day, they frequently lacked even the basic skills and education necessary for the job. Indeed, this scenario would be humorous if it were not the reality in most workplaces.

Barbara Ehrenreich comes to similar conclusions in her 2005 book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. In the book the author and social critic attempts to get hired as a PR consultant for a corporation, only to discover how frustratingly difficult it is to get a professional job in America. (The book is a follow-up to her highly praised, Nickel and Dimed, in which Ehrenreich goes undercover as a blue-collar laborer to see if she can make a living on minimum wage.)

“What does personality have to do with getting the job done?” Ehrenreich asks when encouraged to take the Myers-Briggs Test by a perky, overpriced career coach.

She goes on, “For all the talk about the need to be a likable ‘team player,’ many people work in a fairly cutthroat environment that would seem to be especially challenging to those who possess the recommended traits. Cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance: these are the qualities of subordinates—of servants rather than masters, women (traditionally, anyway) rather than men.”

Indeed, intelligence can actually be a character detriment in the job search. Employers loathe critical thinkers for the simple reason they are difficult to control and more prone to dissent.

The late comedian George Carlin put it best: “They [the corporate business leaders] don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and realize how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago.”

And that, ultimately, may be the real purpose behind the Career Center’s emphasis on personality tests and positive thinking. Even so, one wishes local services for job seekers could offer more substantive, practical information. Upon leaving, I was not sure which I found more disheartening: The workshop itself, or the Brave New World-mentality which now permeates the hiring practices of corporate America.

“The owners of this country know the truth,” Carlin adds in the same skit. “It’s called the ‘American Dream’ ‘cause you have got to be asleep to believe it.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Not Getting By in America

You will have to forgive the clichéd metaphor, but for unemployed Americans looking for jobs, it’s a jungle out there. Despite the media’s perpetually rosy economic outlook, the truth is this horrible recession is far from over. Far from it.

While the national unemployment rate reportedly dropped to 9 percent last month, such estimates are misleading. This narrowly focused figure does not take into account the growing number of unemployed Americans who have given up looking for work, nor does it factor in the alarmingly disproportionate rate of unemployment among African Americans. When these additional factors are considered, the real unemployment rate is closer to 20 percent according to most experts.

Meanwhile Wall Street continues to enjoy record profits. J.P. Morgan-Chase, Morgan-Stanley and Citigroup announced massive profit turns at the end of 2010, while regular Americans struggle just to make ends meet. J.P. Morgan posted profits of $4.83 billion last month, according to the Boston Globe.

All of this threatens the financial stability of those in the middle-class. As more and more middle-class Americans are forced to take on entry-level, minimum-wage jobs simply to survive (jobs many of these workers are essentially overqualified for), the working-class poor, who typically rely on such blue-collar, labor-intensive jobs, are pushed further out of the job market entirely. And unlike middle-class workers, the poor usually do not have the benefit of “rainy-day” savings they can rely on in a pinch.

As NY Times columnist Bob Herbert writes in a recent piece (“A Terrible Divide,” Feb 8, 2011), “Standards of living for the people on the wrong side of the economic divide are being ratcheted lower and will remain that way for many years to come. Forget the fairy tales being spun by politicians in both parties—that somehow they can impose service cuts that are drastic enough to bring federal and local budgets into balance while at the same time developing economic growth strong enough to support a robust middle class. It would take a Bernie Madoff to do that.”

Indeed, this country has never seen a greater gap between the rich and the poor. Currently the upper one percent of American society owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent combined. Think about that for a minute.

And this gap only threatens to grow wider. As Chrystia Freeland observes in a recent story for the Atlantic (“The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Jan/Feb 2011) this new generation of super-rich bourgeoisie has little regard for the working-class Americans it is rapidly leaving behind.

“Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few,” Freeland writes. “…But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.”

Meanwhile, Congress continues to shower the super-rich with unwarranted (and undeserved) tax-cuts while public-sector workers are forced to endure greater cuts in benefits and union protections. Many conservative state governments have called for eliminating teacher tenure programs entirely.

And the giant elephant in the room that nobody in the corporate media wants to talk about are the two biggest drains on our economy right now: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. taxpayers will pay a projected $119.4 billion for the 2011 fiscal year spending, according to National Priorities. (The share of the bill here in Portland, Maine, will be $95.7 million.)

The bloated military budget, however, is a sacred cow as far as both Democrats and Republicans are concerned. In America today we have money for protracted wars without end, but not for job creation or education.

“The United States can’t thrive with so many of its citizens condemned to shrunken standards of living because they can’t find adequate employment,” Herbert writes. “Long-term joblessness is a recipe for societal destabilization. It should not be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States.”

Much as it pains mainstream Americans to accept it, Karl Marx correctly anticipated our current economic meltdown. He understood, perhaps better than any modern day intellectual, the economic implications of class-struggle. Indeed, it was class-struggle that largely drove the democratic uprising in Egypt.

Perhaps it is time for Americans to take a page out of Egypt's populist playbook and reclaim our own country.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reagan Revisionism

February 6 was not just “Super Bowl Sunday.” It was also “Ronald Reagan Day,” as declared by Republican lawmakers—including Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage—in honor of what would have been the late president’s 100th birthday.

Besides the incongruity of celebrating the unofficial Ronald Reagan Day on a Sunday (if Congress is to make this an actual holiday, as some conservatives have proposed, let’s at least get a three-day weekend out of it), there are, in fact, a number of reasons to reflect on the legacy of the 40th president—though none of them good ones.

Since Reagan’s death, conservatives (and some Democrats, Obama included) have tripped over themselves to reclaim the “Gipper’s” mantle as representative of true Republican values. And in doing so, they have turned Reagan into a mythical icon that bears little resemblance to the man who actually occupied the White House during the 1980s.

Contemporary Republicans credit Reagan with balancing the federal budget, single-handedly ending the Cold War, maintaining lower taxes, and shrinking the size of the federal government.

But those of us who inhabit what a Bush staffer once infamously referred to as the, “reality-based community,” remember a very different President Ronald Reagan. In fact, in many cases, Reagan actually did the reverse of what many in the media credit him with.

According to Think Progress’ Alex Seitz-Wald, Reagan frequently raised taxes (11 times in total), tripled the size of the federal deficit, oversaw a massive expansion of government, and enacted tax-cuts that caused unemployment to soar to almost 11 percent. (Hmmm… Why does that last one sound so familiar…?)

“…Income inequality exploded,” Seitz-Wald writes of the Reagan tax-cut. “Despite the myth that Reagan presided over an era of unmatched economic boom for all Americans, Reagan disproportionately taxed the poor and middle-class, but the economic growth of the 1980s did little to help them.” Indeed, that gap has only grown wider in the last twenty years.

Author and journalist William Kleinknecht echoes similar sentiments of “The Great Communicator.” His book, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America chronicles how Reagan’s emphasis on deregulation and free-market purism stripped the country of jobs, blue-collar workers of basic worker protections, and were chiefly responsible for the current economic meltdown.

“It is remarkable that Reagan took none of the blame for the corporate scandals that marred the last years of the American century and ushered in the millennium,” Kleinknecht observes, “since they were largely of his making.”

“Without his tax, regulatory, and antitrust policies, there would have been no savings-and-loan bailout, no frenzy of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s, no unseemly scramble for overnight fortunes by arbitrageurs and raiders, no destructive obsession with quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment, no wholesale abandonment of ethics on the part of corporate executives. Nor would there have been an Enron, or a subprime mortgage crisis which sent shockwaves through the global financial system and placed the country on the brink of its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”

And that’s just on the domestic front. There was also that whole business of Iran-Contra—a highly unconstitutional act that should have gotten Reagan impeached, though you are unlikely to hear that assessment from the Reagan-worshipping, “Constitutionalists” in the Tea Party.

As for the claim—perhaps the Gipper’s best known “accomplishment”—that Reagan ended the Cold War, as Will Bunch argues in Tear Down this Myth, the Soviet Union likely would have fallen due to internal strife, regardless of the White House occupant at the time.

Reagan’s real contribution to the Cold War was ensuring the Soviets lost their bid to takeover Afghanistan by secretly funneling money, arms and training to the Islamist mujahidin fighters. One of the most prominent mujahidin commanders we backed was—wait for it!—Osama bin Laden. As Seitz-Wald writes, “…U.S. policy toward Pakistan remains strained because of the intelligence services’ close relation to these fighters. In fact, Reagan’s decision to continue the proxy war after the Soviets were willing to retreat played a direct role in Bin Laden’s ascendancy.”

Finally, despite the hyperbolic praise heaped upon Reagan, it is worth remembering how deeply unpopular he was while in office. According to a 2004 report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Reagan left the White House with a 63 percent approval rating, and averaged a 52 percent approval rating for his two terms. (It dropped to 46 percent during Iran-Contra, the report notes.) Indeed, no other modern president, save for George W. Bush, was as divisive as Ronald Reagan.

Clearly, the media suffers from a bit of selective memory when it comes to Reagan’s true legacy. Perhaps, like the president himself, too many journalists and pundits are experiencing a bit of dementia.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Ugly Truth About War

On December 16, 131 anti-war protesters were arrested outside the White House, while calling for an immediate end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The protesters—which included notable activist, Daniel Ellsberg and author Chris Hedges, as well as regional members of Veterans for Peace—chained themselves to the White House fence, before police officers (literally) dragged them away. According to a recent email notice from Veterans for Peace, the charges of trespassing and failing to obey officers’ orders to vacate the premises were all dropped.

If this is the first you have heard about this major arrest, you are likely not alone. The protest received next to no coverage in the corporate, Tea Party-obsessed media. However, the event serves as another example of how fed up Americans have become of the on-going wars in the Middle East.

A recent CNN poll reveals 63 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should end the Afghanistan war. Another poll by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair finds 20 percent of respondents would reduce the national deficit by slashing the bloated military-spending budget. (The survey also shows majority support—61 percent—for raising taxes on the wealthy.)

It may have taken ten years, but it seems Americans have finally soured on the ill-conceived and undefined Afghanistan war—a conflict initiated by President Bush immediately after the 2001 terrorist attack, and expanded by President Obama. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers remain an occupying force in Iraq, despite many Americans’ erroneous belief that war has ended.

Yet, despite the growing opposition to these military endeavors, President Obama recently announced an additional 1,400 troops will be sent to Afghanistan. Once again, the warmongers in Washington have made it clear they do not particularly care what American citizens want.

According to author and progressive activist David Swanson, this discrepancy between the aims of militaristic lawmakers and the people is, unfortunately, nothing new. As he argues in his recent book, War Is a Lie, this has been the case for every major military conflict in our nation’s history.

“Not a single thing we commonly believe about wars that helps keep them around is true,” Swanson begins the book. “Wars cannot be good or glorious. Nor can they be justified as a means of achieving peace, or anything else of value. The reasons given for wars before, during and after them…are all false.”

Swanson, a blogger for After Downing (now renamed War Is a, then proceeds to debunk the supposedly noble and altruistic motives behind every major U.S. war in history—including such revered “good wars” as the Revolutionary War and World War II. According to Swanson, all of these wars have been based on misleading or distorted evidence, fabrications of intelligence, or outright lies and propaganda. War Is a Lie examines how presidents and the media have routinely used such lies to sell the public on wars they otherwise would have no legitimate interest in fighting in—let alone dying for.

With a historian’s precision, Swanson unmasks the lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident that launched the Vietnam War; the seldom acknowledged fact that the United States had quietly provoked the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor prior to WW II; the propaganda of slain Kuwaiti infants that lead to the first Gulf War; and how the bloody Civil War was only later recast by President Lincoln as a battle to end slavery. Finally, he turns to our two current military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the respective lies concerning WMD and the Sept. 11, 2001 counter-attack (the 9/11 hijackers primarily hailed from Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan) used to sell those wars.

Swanson also tackles oft-repeated media assessments claiming the U.S. “won” in Iraq, or that George W. Bush’s “surge” of troops in that country “succeeded.” He likewise examines the hypocrisy of “anti-war” representatives and senators who consistently vote for additional war-funding bills in Congress (as Barack Obama repeatedly did while in the Senate, even though he claimed to oppose the Iraq War).

Like media critic Norman Solomon’s similarly-themed, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us to Death, War Is a Lie counters the pervasive (and ludicrous) myth that war is always reserved as a last resort, or that our leaders simply had “no other choice.” As Swanson reveals, it is often quite the reverse: Due to corporate interests, the vast influence of the military-industrial-complex and an unquenchable thirst for finite natural resources, war is typically the first and only option government leaders consider.

Arguing against the unassailable necessity of World War II, Swanson observes the battle, “was not fought to save the Jews, and it did not save them. Refugees were turned away and abandoned. Plans to ship Jews out of Germany were frustrated by Britain’s blockade… It was not fought against racism by a nation imprisoning Japanese-Americans and segregating African American soldiers. It was not fought against imperialism by the world’s leading and most up-and-coming imperialists.”

He continues, “Obama claims his only choices are war or nothing. But the reason people know the names Gandhi…and King is that they suggested other options and proved that those other approaches could work.”

With the looming budget wars in the new Republican-led Congress, anti-war activists may finally have the necessary momentum to push for an end to the needless spending in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not, of course, that we should expect the Republicans to suddenly become pacifists. But Swanson’s book serves as a crucial reminder of the civic duty we all have as citizens to do everything within our power to end these immoral, unjust wars.

“War is a meme,” he writes, “a contagious idea that serves its own ends. War excitement keeps war alive. It does no good for human beings.”

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