Thursday, December 20, 2012

An Ode to Teachers (Sandy Hook's Saviors)

 
 
As the residents of Newtown, Connecticut and the nation attempt to carry on in the wake of last week’s abhorrent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many Americans are understandably searching for some small scrap of hope and humanity among the ruins of the violence. Whether the tragedy prompts a long overdue strengthening of the country’s lax gun laws remains to be seen. But there is another societal change we need to make as well.

We need to end the war against teachers.

Indeed, the media’s coverage of the six slain teachers—the youngest of whom was 27-year-old first-grade teacher, Victoria Soto--represents a curious shift in the press’s typical treatment of teachers. Certainly, there is no question the teachers are heroes. They valiantly gave their lives protecting their young students.
Unfortunately, prior to the Newtown shooting it was quite rare to read the words “teachers” and “heroes” in the same sentence in the average U.S. newspaper. Instead, one was more likely to see “teachers” paired with words like “bad,” “unskilled,” “moochers,” “parasites,” and “Cadillac pensions.” Just three months ago striking teachers in Chicago were lambasted as “greedy,” and “indifferent towards students.” In fact, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera falsely claimed the teachers were striking to “maintain the status quo,” with regards to teacher tenure and termination laws. Untrue.
As blogger David Lindorff writes in a recent post (Counterpunch.org, 12/17/2012):
How many of the politicians in Washington and in state capitals and how many conservative think-tank “researchers” who attack teachers as leeches and drones would have shown such heroism under fire? My guess is damned few—if any. Yet… not one teacher in that unionized school fled the scene and abandoned the children to their fate. They all stuck with their kids.
Since the start of the recession teachers have become the country’s collective punching-bag. Union-hating right-wingers baselessly accuse them of causing the economic crash with their “Cadillac-sized pensions,” and union benefits. There have been many efforts to weed out “bad teachers”--so designated because their students scored poorly on the rigid standardized tests that have become the benchmark of education in the wake of “No Child Left Behind.” And states are rapidly adopting new measures to carefully monitor teachers at all times. (Yet there is no talk of monitoring the Wall Street bankers who actually trashed the economy through their fraudulent and illegal practices. Where, I wonder, is the effort to weed out the “bad bankers”?)
Things are not much better at the college-level, where even tenured professors must endure the juvenile criticisms of students on the end-of-semester course evaluation forms they are forced to distribute. (The forms are ostensibly designed to record students’ overall evaluation of the course itself, but they inevitably turn into scathing personal attacks of the professor.) And do I even need to mention the abject immaturity (not to mention sexism) of the website, RateMyProfessor.com?
Suffice to say, teaching is not easy work. And contrary to popular belief—or the snide mantra, “Those who can’t do, teach,”—teaching is work. A ton of work, in fact.
What those who make this accusation do not realize is only a small fraction of a teacher’s job occurs in the classroom. The vast majority of it—grading homework, designing curriculum, planning lectures and classroom activity, generating tests, papers and coursework, updating and maintaining grade books, attending meetings/conferences, submitting academic papers, meeting with parents—takes place after school and often late into the night. And educators at every grade-level are currently being assigned greater and greater responsibilities, without seeing a corresponding increase in their anemic salaries. Liberal arts professors, meanwhile, have seen university budget-cuts exclusively targeted at their “useless” courses in English, Women’s Studies, Philosophy and the humanities.
Indeed, it is no longer enough for skilled, experienced teachers to impart their knowledge onto their students. They must do so while being unceasingly energetic, apolitical and, most of all, likeable. Those who fail to meet all three criteria will not last long in the profession. Iconoclasts, critical thinkers, and educators who challenge conventional orthodoxy (traditionally the purpose of higher-education) are promptly weeded out of the schools.
To be certain, I have offered a great deal of criticism of our country’s education system on this blog. But, for the most part, I do not believe the educators themselves are responsible for these ills. Most teachers I have had the pleasure of working with—both as a student and a colleague—are honest, dedicated, hard-working individuals who attempt to do the best they can within the increasingly limited confines of their educational setting. Does this mean there are no “bad teachers” anywhere? Of course not. They exist, just as do bad lawyers, bad corporate CEOs, bad police officers, bad doctors, bad businessmen and bad state governors. However, in my experience the bad apples in the teaching profession have been few and far between.
Furthermore, the entire concept of evaluating a teacher’s proficiency through her students’ “learning” (as measured by arbitrary test scores) misses the crucial fact that teaching is a two-way street. Even the greatest teacher cannot make his students learn. Students must want to learn in the first place. As William Johnson, a special education teacher in Brooklyn wrote in an NYT Op-Ed earlier this year (“Confessions of a Bad Teacher,” 03/04/2012):

Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.
In short, the job of educating our youth is clearly no easy task. Teachers are not our nation’s enemy. If we can salvage any lesson from the senseless tragedy in Newtown, it is that we need to stop treating them as such.
Victoria Soto, 27-years-old, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday.
 

Friday, December 14, 2012

A History of Violence



I wrote this back in July after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Just four and half months later, it seems it is once again relevant. My conservative cousin, who works on Wall Street, would likely repeat the familiar mantra that "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." While I am willing to accept that reasoning to a point, let's get real here. A gun is a tool specifically designed to kill or injure someone or something. What the hell else is one to use a gun for? As a paperweight? I am not so naive as to think greater gun restrictions would instantly rid the world of all acts of violence. But it would certainly be a step in the right direction. Regardless...in the wake of today's deranged shooting in Connecticut, I feel this piece deserves prominent position on the blog.
 
We will likely never know what made James Holmes walk into a crowded movie theater, armed to the teeth with deadly, marines-style assault rifles, and fatally shoot 12 people last Friday. Such an act of violence is simply incomprehensible.

Is the man psychologically disturbed? Was this a pre-planned attack? And, if so, what provoked it? Was he, as his now infamous claim of “I am the Joker” seems to suggest, inspired by the latest Batman movie, which was showing at the scene of the shooting? Again, we will probably never know the true motive for his horrific actions. All we know is tragedies such as the Colorado shooting simply do not make sense. They defy rational, human comprehension.

The Aurora shooting once again painfully demonstrates this country’s need for stricter gun laws. This need should have been evident after last year’s Arizona shooting, in which former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded. Or after the horrific Virginia Tech campus shooting in 2007. Or the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, also in Colorado.

Sadly, I would not hold my breath waiting for stricter policies on handguns anytime soon.

The Democrats lack the political courage to take on the NRA or the other various right-wing gun-rights groups. And the Republicans cloak themselves in the Constitution, casting any talk of even mild reductions of Americans’ Second Amendment rights as tantamount to treason. Instead, Republican leaders cling to the childish fantasy that if all citizens were armed at all times, the responsible “good guys” could shoot the psychotic “bad guys” before more innocents are harmed. Only in the conservative world-view does real life resemble a Clint Eastwood shoot-em-up movie.     

My heart goes out to the victims of the massacre. All they wanted to do was see a movie. That was their only crime. It is a stark reminder that life is fragile and unpredictable. We naively believe we have some control over the events and circumstances of our lives—that we can anticipate our day’s end. But the truth is we cannot.

“As flies to wanton boys we are to the gods,” Gloucester exclaims in King Lear after he is tortured and blinded. “They kill us for their sport.”

Gloucester’s bleak observation sums up, not only one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, but in many ways the human condition as well. As the tragic events of the story unfold, Gloucester and Lear—both the privileged elite of their time—are forced to come to terms with their own human frailty. Lear in particular, comes to understand that, in the grand scheme of things, he too is insignificant. In the end, the universe remains utterly indifferent to the characters’ suffering.

The Aurora shooting is, furthermore, another example of our violent culture. Though we prefer to believe otherwise, America is an extremely violent nation.

We maintain 761 military bases throughout the world according to the late Chalmers Johnson in his now-classic book, Sorrows of Empire. (The precise number of military installations, however, is nearly impossible to pinpoint. Some estimates place the total at closer to 1,000.) The U.S. has been involved in countless wars, invasions, coup d’états, and covert military campaigns since the end of World War II—from Panama, Nicaragua, Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Chile, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan and Haiti. Indeed, Orwell’s dystopian vision of a nation locked in a state of permanent war has come to pass.

Perhaps the most telling indicators of our collective approval of the culture of war are the revered terms we reserve for military soldiers. The troops who fight our wars are praised as “heroes,” who “fought for our freedom.” Teachers, social workers and other public employees, meanwhile are derided as “parasites” and collectively blamed for the economic recession.

Yet we rarely make the connection between seemingly random domestic acts of violence like the Colorado shooting, and our aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. Instead of asking “What happened?” to Holmes to drive him to commit such violence, perhaps the question should be redirected to the United States.

“What happened [in Aurora, Colorado] is horrifying but it doesn’t frighten me,” Maine visitor, Doug Horwich told the Portland Press Herald Tuesday (“Moviegoers shocked, not deterred, by tragedy,” 7/24/2012). “I believe it was a unique experience, an anomaly.”

I wish I shared Mr. Horwich’s reassuring outlook. Frankly, it strikes me as highly naive. Unfortunately, our country’s long, sordid history of violence, empire and bloodshed would suggest this was no “anomaly.”

“So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies,” wrote philosopher Elbert Hubbard, “private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.”

One thing is clear: Something must be done to restrict the ease of availability of firearms. Furthermore, we must as a society, create a culture in which individuals no longer believe they need guns, rifles and other weapons in the first place. And we must evolve beyond our barbaric infatuation with war, imperialism, and violence.

Until these things happen I fear we will see more deranged individuals like James Holmes who succumb to the sinister urges of human nature that, despite our efforts to deny them, exist in all of us. 

Lear's epiphany of his own insignificance comes, alas, too late in Shakespeare's tragic play.
  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Is Maine Really the "Worst" for Business?

 

Re: “Forbes names Maine worst state for business for 3rd time in a row,” Bangor Daily News, 12/12/2012.

I am beginning to feel like the editors at Forbes magazine have something against us, here in Maine.
Still, if we are to take the ranking at face-value and accept the premise that Maine is the worst state to do business, then let’s explore why that is the case.
First and foremost, our primary income comes from tourism. This is a great industry for what it is worth, but it is hardly a stable, steady source of revenue. For one thing, tourism is seasonal. More importantly, when the economy nose-dives, people travel less, take fewer vacations, and generally cut-back on nonessential spending. That does not mean people are no longer visiting Maine in the summer—believe me, they are. But a state cannot rely solely on tourism (again, especially in an economic downturn) as its main source of revenue.
As for our aging population, it is true: Maine has the oldest median population in the country. And many of them are still working because they either have not yet reached retirement age or, those that have, are not financially secure enough to retire.
Whichever the reason, Baby Boomers’ reluctance to leave the jobs they have held for over 30 years prevents young people from getting a foot in the door. And, despite middle-aged job seekers’ frequent complaints about employer age-bias, the fact is older workers have a distinct advantage over recent college graduates in that they have years of experience. Employers do not need to train them at all—a fact they love. As a result, young Mainers become fed up with the lack of employment opportunities and leave for Boston or farther. The entire state suffers from this “brain drain” because it deprives us of young people’s skills, talents, and innovation.
And while I cannot speak to Maine’s allegedly high business tax rates (said to be the highest in the nation, though I have never seen any credible study confirming this to be the case), my feeling is business owners will always find something to complain about. They will not be happy until their taxes owed are $0.00. Meanwhile, they make their own hours, serve as their own boss, and largely have the freedom to pursue the employment of their choice. That is a luxury many do not enjoy in this economy. A lot of my friends hate their jobs.
The rest of us must pay taxes. I do not understand why the business community feels it should be exempt from them.
I do not doubt Maine has many barriers that drive away businesses. But given the various factors one must consider (climate, geography, median income, overall population, number of major cities versus rural towns, weather, etc.) I also do not know how it is possible to categorically generalize an entire state as the “best” or “worst” for business.
Regardless, I think the Democrats’ first act in the new Legislature should be to tear down the ridiculous “Open for Business” sign that now greets motorists on the highway, and replace it with Maine’s original state motto, “The Way Life Should Be.” If we’re to believe Forbes, the new sign is clearly going unnoticed.   

The Disease of Capitalism


 
Filmmaker Michael Moore makes a poignant observation at the end of the documentary film The Corporation. Acknowledging the irony that his anti-corporate films are produced and distributed by major film studios, Moore suggests this is because corporate capitalists “don’t believe in anything” other than making money.

“I’ve been able to get my stuff out there because I’m driving my truck through this incredible flaw in capitalism, the greed flaw,” he says. “The thing that says that the rich man will sell you the rope to hang himself with if he thinks he can make a buck off it. Well I’m the rope.”

Of all economic systems, only capitalism seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction. As journalist Chris Hedges explains to Moore in a deleted scene from his film Capitalism: A Love Story, “Built into capitalism is a self-destructive quality--a form of self-annihilation.”

The real question, however, is whether it will destroy us first.

Corporate capitalism (or “corporatism” as many political theorists have termed the merging of business and government) is so narrowly focused with short-term profit it turns everything—including human lives and the environment—into a commodity. While the Ayn Rand-worshipping Republicans running Congress call themselves “conservatives,” capitalism, even in its purest “free-market” form, is an extremely radical system. As Karl Marx observed in Capital (Vol. 1), the concept of using money to generate more money, rather than purchasing commodities (the process of “Money-Commodity-Money,” instead of “C-M-C,”) represented a fundamental shift in the economic structure of society.
Under capitalism even essential human needs like health care, education, and affordable housing are debased into transactional commodities. The system is unjust, unequal, inhuman and antidemocratic. And it is literally destroying our planet and the ecosystem that sustains life upon it. 

Those who dismiss me as hyperbolic are clearly not paying attention to the headlines.

Last month, the World Bank issued a startling report which predicts a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if nations do not take measures to radically reduce CO2 levels worldwide. This estimate is double the 2 C rise in temperature scientists already claim would be catastrophic for the planet. Such a rise in global temperature will ensure floods, droughts, hurricanes and other climate-related disasters will become the “new normal” according to the report titled “Turn Down the Heat.” The authors also note poor nations are likely to suffer the worst effects.

 “We will never end poverty if we don’t tackle climate change,” World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim told reporters upon the report’s release (The Guardian, 11/19/2012). “It is one of the biggest challenges to social justice today.”

We know, thanks to author and environmental activist, Bill McKibben and his worldwide movement, 350.org, that 350 represents the earth’s “safe zone.” Three hundred fifty parts per million is the total amount of CO2 the earth’s atmosphere can comfortably handle, according to leading climate scientists. Any CO2 concentration greater than that, according to NASA’s James Hansen, is not compatible with “a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” Global CO2 concentration currently stands at 392 ppm.  

One would think such urgent information would prompt the executives of giant oil corporations like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP and the like to, at the very least, rethink their business model. Alas, it has not. Quite the reverse, the fossil fuel industry is charging full-speed ahead with its plan to ultimately extract and burn the remaining reserves of coal, oil and gas on the planet—roughly 2,795 gigatons according to London’s Carbon Tracker Initiative. That is five times more than the 565 gigatons scientists believe we can safely pour into the atmosphere without hitting the 2 degree mark.

This is the disease of capitalism. It is not that CEOs at Exxon-Mobil truly do not believe the science of global warming (although many of them claim not to). It is that their corporate profits ultimately depend on continuing to rely on cheap, dirty fuel. (Last year Exxon raked in $9.45 billion according to Think Progress.org.) Or, as Naomi Klein puts it, “Their [the oil companies’] business model is to wreck the planet.”

And therein lies the dilemma of corporatism. Corporations and citizens do not meet each other in the metaphorical “marketplace” as equals, because they are not equals. Corporations have far more money, power, political influence and economic authority than the average citizen. The two entities are about as equal as David and Goliath.

Furthermore, the interests of corporations are completely at odds with those of citizens. Consider the for-profit, pay-or-die health care system. The only way the health insurance companies can make a profit (which, remember, is their overall goal; not providing health care) is by denying a customer’s claim. If the company covers every treatment, illness, and medication, it will not make a profit. If this means the patient must die in order for the insurance provider to cash-in, so be it. People are often offended when I put it in such stark terms, but this is the nature of capitalism. It is not about saving lives, promoting the common good, or protecting the environment. The system is about making money. Period.

As Marx writes in Capital:

[T]he valorization of value…is his [the capitalist’s] subjective purpose, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist… Use-values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making. (p. 254)

How is such a pernicious system compatible with the inalienable “rights of man” enumerated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (you know—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness)? It is not. Capitalism provides these ideals for a select few, certainly. But it does not ensure them for all. It is by nature an exclusive, elitist system—the very antithesis of an open, citizen-powered democracy. And, as I mentioned before, it is destroying our planet.

So…who’s ready for revolution?

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Skills Gap" is Really a Wage Gap



Re: "Augusta emphasis: Skills gap education," Portland Press Herald, 12/07/2012.

The "skills gap" is about as bogus a concept as the "fiscal cliff." Reporter Steve Mistler writes:

"A recent report from the Manufacturing Institute showed that more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide were unfilled because employers couldn't find workers."

This is business-speak for "Employers were too picky and/or too cheap to pay applicants a decent wage."

According to Peter Cappelli, management professor, director of the Wharton School's Center for Human Resources and author of the book, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs (2012), employers' constant lamentation of a "skills gap" is largely a "self-inflicted" dilemma (Time, 06/04/2012). As he explains in his book, at least 10 percent of employers, "when pressed" concede "the candidates they want won't accept the position at the wage levels being offered."

"That's not a skill shortage," Cappelli writes, "it's simply being unwilling to pay the going price."

Cappelli also points to employers' aversion to training new employees, as well as the highly selective computer software now commonly utilized to screen resumes and cover letters for precise keywords. (Because, you know, having actual people read the resumes rather than machines would just make too much sense.) As the author notes in an interview on NPR (Morning Edition, 06/12/2012), one HR Director, in an experiment, applied for his own job using the software and was deemed unqualified.

The problem, clearly, is not the "unskilled" job applicants--it's the employers' unreasonable expectations.

Furthermore, I worry that this myopic educational emphasis on skills--and the overarching concept that college is little more than glorified job-training--comes at the expense of traditional liberal arts education. You can read my further thoughts on that topic, here.

 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Citizenship 101



"Class, today we are going to learn about people power."
 
MPBN’s lunch hour show Maine Calling recently aired a notable edition which posed the question, “What does it mean to be a good citizen?” The hour was part of the show’s on-going “What Does It Mean…?” series, and offered a fascinating discussion which I believe warrants further examination. Suffice to say, as a politically involved individual, the concept of “citizenship” or, more broadly, civic engagement, as it was defined on the show, is something I have given a considerable amount of thought to.

Much of the discussion focused on the degree to which Americans have become disengaged from politics and civic matters in recent years. Indeed, this is a trend I can personally attest to, having witnessed this apathy firsthand.

I spent most of this year working with my friend and Green Party colleague, Asher Platts in his campaign for the Maine Senate. (As readers are likely aware, we received 30 percent of the vote—a highly respectable finish in a two-way race against a popular Democratic incumbent.)

While most of the voters I spoke with were generally receptive to Asher’s platform, several told me flat out, “I don’t vote.” And it was not just young people I heard this from. I encountered quite a few middle-aged non-voters. Overall, Maine tends to have higher voter turnout compared with other states. (Maine and Minnesota boast the highest turnout rates in the nation according to the Christian Science Monitor.) Still, given the relative ease and minimal effort involved in the simple act of voting, it is frustrating that more Americans cannot be bothered to engage in this most basic civic activity.

Yet, if we consider the idea of “citizenship” to encompass broad, diverse forms of civic engagement—beyond the solitary, biannual act of voting—then we arrive at another problem.

 Just as a large percentage of Americans refuse to vote, those that do are likewise limited in their civic duties in that voting is the only major form of political participation they engage in. For these Americans, democracy essentially starts and ends in the voting booth. For all the liberals, for instance, who expressed frustration and disappointment during the last four years of Barack Obama’s first term, how many of them actually got involved—by contacting their representative, organizing a local sit-in or demonstration, taking part in an anti-war or Occupy Wall Street action, writing a letter to the editor, etc.—to influence the President’s actions?

This severely myopic view of citizen democracy all but ensures that nothing will ever fundamentally change in our country. There needs to be more than just voting. For all my qualms with the League of Young Voters’ unyielding Democratic partisanship, they hit the nail on the head with their “Obama Manifesto” on this year’s voter guide: “Disclaimer: Ballot is not effective when voter remains disengaged after election.”

“Cast your whole ballot,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “not a strip of paper merely, but your entire influence.”

So why is it so many Americans are, as Maine Calling host, Keith Shortall puts it, “tuned-out, turned off or too distracted” to extend their civic activities beyond voting? Certainly factors such as ignorance, apathy, isolation and a purported “lack of time” all play a role.

However, I suspect the main cause of this disengagement from civic life is the fact that modern day Americans are first and foremost not citizens, but consumers. The creation of the consumer culture (what Adorno and Horkheimer termed the “Culture Industry”) combined with the false needs and hedonistic ambitions fostered by corporate capitalism have essentially shifted the role of Americans to that of passive consumers. Case in point, we just witnessed a nearly week-long, post-Thanksgiving spending-spree from “Black Friday,” to “Cyber Monday” that encourages Americans to literally camp outside for discounts at big-box stores. (Camp on Wall Street to protest wealth inequality and corporate greed, however, and you are bound to be pepper-sprayed and arrested.)

Furthermore, our education system no longer impresses upon students the importance of civic engagement. For instance, Baby Boomers often talk about something called Civics when they were in high school. People my age are unlikely to be familiar with such a class. The closest thing to Civics I took at Kennebunk High School in the late ‘90s was U.S. Government. And the only thing I actually remember from that class, was watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

High schools and colleges do not teach students how to be citizens. They do, however, teach them to be loyal consumers. Consider some of the popular courses at your average university: Marketing, Public Relations, Advertising, Communications, Accounting, Graphic Design, Business Management. All of these disciplines are in the commercial arena. Critical thinking? Ethics? Literature? Philosophy? Environmental sustainability? These things will not make anyone rich, so colleges and parents do not push them and, as a result, students are not interested in them. No wonder we lead such poor civic lives.  

As Ralph Nader explained at a 2008 campaign stop at the University of Vermont (Oct. 5, 2008) if students do not have “citizen-skill courses,” they will be left with an education that does not prepare them for “empirical engagement in practicing democracy.”

“Why don’t we revolution the salutation?” he proposed. “Why don’t we say to people, ‘Hello. How’s your civic life?’ Try that with someone… Watch their expression. After a while maybe they will start saying, ‘Robust.’”
 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music Makes the People Come Together


All other worldly matters aside, this has been an incredible year of live music for residents of Portland.

Morrissey and the Melvins were here last month; Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo both played solo shows (Ranaldo was actually here twice within the span of a few weeks); and in a matter of hours, I will be seeing the reconstituted Dinosaur Jr. for about the third or fourth time (I've lost track).

Additionally, Fionna Apple performed songs from her amazing new album, The Idler Wheel... The Deftones made it up to Bangor. Snoop Dog and Barack Obama visited Portland on the same day (for whatever that's worth). And, while I do not particularly care for them myself, Mumford & Sons generated a lot of interest when they played the Pier this summer.

This Saturday, the (also reconstituted, but with a new line-up) Smashing Pumpkins will compete with a sold-out Steve Earle show at the Port City Music Hall. And the new record the band is touring behind, Oceania, is actually pretty solid, in my opinion.

Say what you will about us folks up here in Maine, but we certainly do attract some great musical acts. You can celebrate below with videos for Dinosaur's "Little Fury Things," and a live, acoustic clip of Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now" from the album of the same name. (Do I really need to explain why it's my favorite?)




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

When Austerity Attacks


 
Coming soon to a country near you (likely your own): “Austerity Attacks II: The U.S. Version.”

In all seriousness, lawmakers seem poised to bring the same devastating budget-cuts and austerity measures that have crippled Portugal, Spain and Greece here to the United States. Under the pretense of averting the “fiscal cliff,” Congress is eyeing so-called “entitlement” programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
And here you thought these programs would be safe under President Obama. Silly liberals.
Let’s fill in the details for the uninitiated. The so-called fiscal cliff—for those who have been living under a rock for the past two months—is the dramatic, sound bite-worthy name given to the series of spending cuts (including the Bush-era tax-cuts for the very wealthy) which are set to automatically expire at the end of 2012. Economists (well, some of them, anyway) fear a failure to determine which spending programs to maintain will send the U.S. “over the fiscal cliff”—i.e. the shit will hit the fan, economically speaking. President Obama has signaled for weeks now that he is willing to work out a “Grand Bargain” to avert economic disaster. Many fear Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid—the crown-jewels of not just liberalism, but social democracy--could be part of this bargain.

As I said, not every economist is convinced the fiscal cliff is really as menacing as the cable news talking heads make it out to be. As Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman points out in the New York Times (11/09/2012), the fiscal cliff “isn’t really a cliff.”
“It’s not like the debt ceiling confrontation where terrible things might well have happened right away if the deadline had been missed,” he writes. “This time nothing very bad will happen to the economy if agreement isn’t reached until a few weeks or even a few months into 2013.”
Author, James K. Galbraith takes this criticism even further. In an article for AlterNet (“Six Reasons the Fiscal Cliff is a Scam,” 11/22/2012), Galbraith calls the debate “policy-making by hostage-taking,” and a “contrived crisis.”
He writes, “Stripped to essentials, the fiscal cliff is a device constructed to force a rollback of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as the price of avoiding tax increases…”
A trumped-up crisis or not, there are a few things readers should know.
First off, it is important to understand these programs are not really “entitlements” as they are routinely referred to by critics so much as earned income benefits. Social Security and Medicare are programs Americans pay into, through paycheck deductions, throughout their working lives.
Furthermore, Social Security does not contribute one dime to the federal deficit. And, contrary to Republican talking points, there is nothing wrong with Social Security's overall sustainability. The program may need some minor tweaking down the road, but all reports indicate it is structurally sound for the foreseeable future. Medicare, likewise, is projected to remain financially viable until at least 2024, and even then there will still be enough left in the fund to pay 87 percent of benefits.
Indeed, I suspect much of the misinformation about how we can “no longer afford” these cherished programs, which are crucial to helping provide for the elderly, the poor and citizens with disabilities, is being promoted by free-market-obsessed elites who never approved of them in the first place. Now they see their opportunity to obliterate them forever.
Second, there are two main drivers of this fiscal disaster which the media seem all too willing to overlook: The Bush tax-cuts for the rich, and our two unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Raise taxes on the wealthy and bring our troops home from both countries (yes, there are still “non-combat” forces in Iraq), and there would be no cliff.
It angers me to no end when the uber-rich mock and deride the “freeloaders”— “parasites” in their Randian lexicon—as a financial drain on the system, when most of them are getting unwarranted and undeserved tax-cuts.
Yet Wall Street robber barons—the very same people who crashed the global economy—under the guise of a group called Fix the Debt have no qualms about publicly calling for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and the like. One such member of the Fix the Debt crusade, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein stated on a recent appearance on CBS Evening News (11/19/2012):
“The entitlements and what people think they’re going to get…they’re not going to get it.”
But wait, you ask: Surely Blankfein’s view was juxtaposed with a critic of cutting benefits, right? You know—in the interest of “objectivity” and all that?
Well, I must have missed that segment of the program. In fact, throughout all of last week, CBS’s Scott Pelley only spoke with corporate CEOs from the Fix the Debt clan. No contrarian voices were featured. Hmmm… I wonder if this is an example of the media’s “liberal bias” I constantly read about in the Portland Press Herald’s letters to the editor section?
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are part of the New Deal promise to society’s most vulnerable that they would be taken care of. They are not “handouts,” and those who receive them are not “moochers.” To jeopardize these federal programs while millionaire CEOs continue to rake in record profits, and many global corporations avoid paying income taxes entirely is unconscionable.
The ever-growing income disparity in this country is not only immoral, it is ultimately unsustainable. As John Steinbeck observed in The Grapes of Wrath, the poor, exploited masses will not tolerate their oppression forever. “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?” he wrote. “You can’t scare him—he has known a fear beyond every other.” 
  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Greens Support Wal-Mart Flashmob on Black Friday

 
 
Members of the Portland Green Party participating in a Black Friday Wal-Mart "Flashmob" (to the tune of Ke$ha's "Tick Tock"). Nice foot-work, guys!
 
Note the absence of local Democratic legislators. Where is Rep. Diane "Queen of the Labor Movement" Russell? Or Justin Alfond? I don't see either of them in this video. Just sayin'....

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dawn of the Shopping Dead



I wrote this one two years ago, but somehow "Black Friday" has only gotten more out-of-hand in that time.

It’s that time of year again: The annual post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping orgy known as “Black Friday.” Shoppers are expected to take to the malls and retail chains in droves this weekend, hoping to get early discounts on Christmas gifts.

Despite the economic recession and the fact that hundreds of Americans remain unemployed, retailers have beefed up their “Black Friday” promotions and advertisements. Popular stores at South Portland’s Maine Mall opened at 4:00 or 5:00 am Friday morning in anticipation of early shoppers hoping to be the first in line. (Wal-Mart and Old Navy opened at midnight.)

The National Retail Federation predicts 138 million shoppers will take advantage of Black Friday bargains, with an estimated 70 million preferring to do their shopping online. Should those numbers hold up, they will represent a slight increase in shopper turnout from last year.

It seems, despite the painfully slow economic recovery, we remain a nation of consumers. Indeed, one could view Black Friday as Day Two of a weekend-long binge-fest that starts with Thanksgiving. After gorging themselves with high-fat, calorie-loaded meat, gravy, pies and desserts, Americans then move on to overindulging on new laptops, cell-phones, Kindles and video games. The American feeding frenzy, the endless thirst for more, never ceases. George Romero was right: We are a nation of shopping zombies.

It is fitting then, that I recently re-watched Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—perhaps the best horror film to satirize consumer culture with the shoppers-as-zombies metaphor. Those themes are worth examining again in light of our recent Black Friday feeding frenzy.

(For purposes of clarity, I am referring to the original 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead—not Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake.)

In the sequel (what would be the first of many, for better or worse) to Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, the nationwide “zombie-plague” introduced in the first film has reached Doomsday proportions. All forms of local and federal government seem to have collapsed as the few remaining humans struggle to escape the mayhem.

Four such survivors take refuge in an abandoned (well, abandoned of all human life, anyway) shopping mall in the center of town. Though initially weary of how they will escape their fortified shelter (zombies in pursuit of the humans descend upon the mall, surrounding the outside), the group members quickly realize anything they need (food, clothes, medical supplies) is readily available in the empty mall stores, free for their taking.

Though judicious at first—“Let’s just take what we need,” one character suggests—the humans are unable to resist the temptation to grab expensive bottles of wine, fur coats, chocolate, and a TV. (At one point during their raid, the character of Roger walks by a store mannequin that bares an eerie resemblance to him.) Even during times of crisis, Romero seems to suggest, citizens cannot suppress their consumerist urges.

A key scene occurs when the group first arrives at the mall. Wondering what leads the zombies to aimlessly roam the empty mall’s corridors, the character of Stephen suggests they are drawn to it by “instinct.” “Memory of what they used to do?” he offers. “This was an important place in their lives.” Romero is never particularly subtle with his social observations, no. But the truth of Stephen’s statement nonetheless stings. Ironically, a number of Black Friday shoppers told local newspaper reporters how “important” the post-Thanksgiving shopping tradition was to their families.

What is interesting is the almost imperialist attitude the humans take toward the mall. Throughout the film, the mall is never a safe haven so much as it represents unoccupied space for the protagonists to conquer. In the film’s second-half, when a moronic group of bikers attempts to commandeer the mall, the humans fight them off to defend it. “It’s ours,” says a furious Stephen, as he fires at the goons. “We took it.” (The characters become particularly angered when the bikers begin helping themselves to the unguarded money in one store’s cash register.)

Finally, Dawn of the Dead, like all the films in Romero’s series, invites critical analysis of exactly who the undead are meant to represent.

Like many scholars, I choose to view Dawn’s zombies as the underprivileged poor, or some other minority group. Romero drives this view home in the film’s first-half, wherein a SWAT team descends upon the home of zombiefied Puerto Ricans. During the ensuing fight, one SWAT officer makes crude racist remarks, leaving viewers to wonder which group (the zombies, or the Latinos) his hate is directed at. (Perhaps both…?) Similarly, Romero’s more recent Land of the Dead (2005) further emphasizes the zombies-as-underclass theme.

Clearly, one could write a lengthy academic essay on the cultural themes Dawn presents us with. Indeed, what I have provided here is a brief overview of the film’s social insights. Though typically associated with Halloween, I find Dawn of the Dead highly appropriate (prescient even) for this Black Friday weekend.


The Punk Patriot Says, "Support the Hostess Strike!"


My friend and Green cohort, The Punk Patriot weighs-in on the Hostess strike. You can read my piece on the strike here.

Just think Portland: This guy could have been our state senator. But you chose to re-elect the obnoxiously rich guy with the family name. I don't hear Alfond talking about democratizing the workplace. Followers should send Senator Alfond this video, and then ask him what his position is on democracy in the workplace. Seriously.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Race-Baiting in the NYT


Re: "In Wyoming, Conservatives Feeling Left Behind," New York Times, Nov. 19, 2012.

What is the purpose of this story? It is not often I read an article in the New York Times, or any newspaper for that matter, and ask that question but nonetheless... I mean why was reporter Jack Healy assigned it? What are the text-book "news values" (timeliness, proximity, impact, bizarre/unusual) it conveys?

Here's what I got from the article: Two weeks after the presidential election, racist, white red-necks from a deeply conservative southern state can't get over the fact that a black man is still president. That's the entire story in a nutshell. I was pretty "baffled" after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, but no national newspapers ran to my town to interview me about it.

Which begs another curious question: Why would the "liberal" NY Times run a story like this at all? I mean isn't the Times a Communist paper? Indeed, Healy paints a rather sympathetic picture of these racist dinosaurs, err, I mean "Republicans."

For that matter, the story is not particularly "balanced" in the typical objective journalism tradition. Healy talks to five Wyoming residents who clearly are unhappy with the election results. Traditional "objective" reporting (I use quotation marks because, of course, there is no such thing) would suggest he then "balance" those five out with another batch who are supportive of Obama. But Healy does no such thing. The picture he paints of Wyoming is one exclusively populated by "self-reliant," white conservatives.

The story's one saving grace is its acknowledgment that Wyoming, like most "red states" collects more federal money than it contributes--which makes the comments of those interviewed about Obama supporters being "parasites" smack of hypocrisy. As FAIR's Jim Naureckas writes, "the story is roughly one part reality to 12 parts self-congratulatory race-baiting."

I would have to concur.

   

Workingman's Blues (#2)


 
In a particularly humorous episode of The Simpsons (“Them, Robot,” Season 23, Episode 17), the wealthy, penny-pinching Mr. Burns fires the entire Springfield Nuclear Power Plant staff and replaces them with robots in order to avoid litigation costs for employee radiation poisoning. “This is the last time I pay the price for the irritating mortality of the human worker,” Burns sneers to Smithers.

They keep Homer on, of course, because, according to Smithers, they will need one human employee to oversee the robots and serve as “a scapegoat in case of a meltdown.” (Homer promptly accepts the job when Mr. Burns assures him he will have a reclining office chair.)

In reality, when workers become a nuisance--by striking against low wages or unjust working conditions, for instance—employers don’t need to turn to futuristic automated staff to run their company. They just shut the place down.
This is precisely how Hostess responded to a nationwide employee strike (which included the factory in Biddeford). The Associated Press reported Friday the snack-maker will liquidate its remaining stores, laying off over 18,000 employees in the process.
Hostess predictably blames the union and the striking workers for the company’s closure. In a memo posted on the company’s website, CEO Gregory F. Rayburn singles out “union wages and pension costs,” as the driving factors in its bankruptcy. What Rayburn does not mention—and the AP story conveniently relegates to the very last paragraph—is the fact that Hostess, maker of such high-fat desserts as Ding Dongs and Twinkies, has fallen out of favor in recent years as Americans increasingly become more health conscious.
Could it be that Hostess was brought down, not by greedy, demanding unions, but by basic supply-and-demand, free-market capitalism? Nah, it’s got to be the unions.
Either way, readers need not waste time worrying about Rayburn and other Hostess executives. They will likely sell off their assets and remain financially set for life. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the bakers who are now unemployed because they had the audacity to demand better pay and working conditions.  
The greatest irony of democracy is our constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly do not extend to the arena we spend the majority of our waking lives: The workplace. Indeed, your office can at best be described as a benevolent dictatorship. (And I have had plenty that were not even all that benevolent.)
As a result, much of the progressive gains of the twentieth century have been aimed at democratizing the workplace. The struggles of early labor organizers lead to common-sense worker protections like the eight-hour work day, weekends off, child labor laws, the minimum wage, collective bargaining agreements and the right to organize. In fact, most of those agitating for these laws were socialists—another bit of irony given the rancorous tone historically illiterate Americans have toward anything remotely resembling the dreaded “S-word.” Like that 30-minute lunch break your boss is legally mandated to give you during a regular work day? You can thank a socialist for that.
Any business—large or small—that cannot afford to pay its employees what they are worth does not deserve to be in operation. This is not a radical statement or something only “fringe” Greens believe. It is basic economic decency and is as American as apple pie.
I quote Abraham Lincoln: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” So much for Ayn Rand’s dismissive view of working stiffs as “parasites,” mooching off the exalted “job creators.”
So why does it seem business is often contemptuous of its own work force? It was not always so. It used to be employers viewed a competent, well-paid workforce as a vital investment in their business. Managers understood a content, appreciated staff was the key to their success. Pay your employees a decent wage, offer them necessary health benefits and treat them with basic human dignity, and they will be happy at their job and increase work production.
But somewhere along the line, profit-driven employers came to view their staff as another burdensome expenditure. Industrialization, globalization and the 2008 economic recession have all contributed to an extremist, almost sociopathic form of corporate capitalism that places profit over human lives. In the current economic climate employers are increasingly selective in their hiring practices because they can afford to be.
In fact, capitalism, by its very nature, necessitates a certain permanent level of unemployment (what Marx termed a “reserve army of labour”). This way, when workers begin agitating for higher wages, managers can promptly point to the hundreds of desperate unemployed, and snidely remind the staff how easily they can all be replaced.
And, as I have pointed out numerous times, business tax rates are in no way related to an employer’s unwillingness to hire an adequate, full-time workforce. The idea that small business owners cannot “afford” to hire people (or, conversely, are forced to lay workers off) in order to “cover” their taxes, is a deliberately misleading right-wing lie. It is in no way grounded in any economic reality.
“Capital is dead labor,” Marx wrote in his 1867 economic treatise, Das Kapital, “which, vampire like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks.”
By the conclusion of the aforementioned Simpsons episode, the robots become sentient and rebel against their human, slave-driving masters. Perhaps we should take a page out of their book before we, too, are all replaced by machines.

Join Wal-Mart workers this Friday, Nov. 23 ("Black Friday") when they initiate a nationwide strike on the busiest shopping day of the year. Click here for more information.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Glenn Greenwald on Barack Obama's Re-election




 
Greenwald's analysis of the insipid "lesser evil" argument (from today's Democracy Now!, 11/14/2012) is spot-on. He and Chris Hedges are two contemporary reporters/thinkers who really see the broad, big picture the rest of the mainstream media seem perpetually blind to.

I make similar predictions of liberals' approach to Obama's second term, here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bill McKibben Speaks Tonight in Portland



Leading environmental activist and author, Bill McKibben will give a talk on climate change at Portland's State Theater this evening.

McKibben's talk is part of his "Do the Math Tour," based on his urgent story in Rolling Stone this summer, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."

McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is the founder of the climate change action group, 350.org, and the author of dozens of environmental books, including The End of Nature, The Age of Missing Information, and Deep Economy. His latest book is the intentionally misspelled Eaarth ('cause it's a tough new planet).

McKibben's message--essentially that we are losing the fight against global warming--is, no doubt, a dire one. But his chronicles of successes with the international 350 campaign show how all of us can take action. He is, perhaps, the Rachel Carson of our time.

It is bound to be a stirring and educational discussion for anybody who cares about the future of the planet. Plus, members of the Portland Green Party will be there, so if that isn't reason to attend, I don't know what is.

You can read my recent piece on global warming here.

And if you like what you read here on Guerrilla Press, become a "Follower" by clicking the button on the right side of the screen. You will also notice I added nifty "Share" buttons so readers can easily pass along or re-post columns they like. (Though I am not on Twitter and, frankly, not entirely convinced I want to be...)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Al Jazeera's "Fault Lines: How the Whitehouse Was Won"


In case you missed the entire presidential election, here's the whole thing--along with all the parts the corporate media didn't show you--in about twenty minutes.

Remembering Peace on Veterans Day


 It is difficult to "Thank a veteran" as we are annually encouraged to do on Veterans Day when you fundamentally believe that war is unjust, barbaric, immoral, and, in the case of some of our recent acts of military aggression, illegal.

The late Howard Zinn, a veteran of World War II, wrote the following for Information Clearing House on Veterans Day, 2006 ("A Veteran Remembers," 11/12/2006):

Our decent impulse, to recognize the ordeal of our veterans, has been used to obscure the fact that they died, they were crippled, for no good cause other than the power and profit of a few. Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches reeking of hypocrisy. Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feelings for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.
 
As a combat veteran myself, of a "good war," against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. At the end of that war, in which 50 million died, the people of the world should have shouted "Enough!" We should have decided that from that moment on, we would renounce war--that there would be no Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama War, Grenada War, Gulf War, Balkan War.
 
...Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.
 
 


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Now What? Democracy Beyond the Voting Booth



 
“So you’ve voted. What next?”

Portlanders have likely seen chalk-written questions such as this on signs, sidewalks and walls around town. At heart, the question asks how Americans will spend the next four years—regardless of how they feel about the election's outcome. What, in other words, is the next stage of civic engagement?
Unfortunately, I fear for most Americans, the answer to the question, “What next?” is…nothing. At least as far as civic engagement is concerned. Americans have pulled the lever for their preferred Wall Street sponsored Corporate Spokesman. Their civic work, at least for the next four years, is done.
Political theorist Sheldon Wolin sums up our limited political system in his book, Democracy Incorporated as such:
“In a truly participatory democracy elections would constitute but one element in a process of popular discussion, consultation, and involvement. Today elections have replaced participation” (pg. 148).
Those who attempt to influence their elected leaders via activism, citizen lobbying and correspondence or other forms of electoral pressure—say, Occupy Wall Street activists, for instance--are derided as “extremists,” or members of the “far left.” The corporate press, when it bothers to cover these activists’ efforts at all, dismisses their message as “incoherent.” Case in point, “liberal” Press Herald columnist, Bill Nemitz called the Lincoln Park contingent of Occupy Maine a “sometimes compelling, sometimes worrisome and occasionally entertaining political drama” (“Council burns midnight oil, but no bridges,” 12/09/2011).
In other words, the democratic process literally starts and ends in the voting booth. Anyone who attempts to continue the process beyond Election Day is simply an unreasonable extremist. Sensible Americans (more commonly known as liberals) prefer to sit back and wait for President Obama to deliver on his progressive promises. And if he fails to do so, well it is because the Republicans thwarted his efforts. Deep down, Obama is a true progressive and a noble, well-meaning president, they claim, and that is all that really matters.
This conception of democracy is far too myopic. We, as citizens, have yet to fully understand Frederick Douglass’ famous words that, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The general consensus among the liberal intelligentsia (progressives like Michael Moore, Daniel Ellsberg, and the editors of The Nation all of whom endorsed Obama for re-election) is we must now push the president and the Democrats to enact real progressive policies a la FDR’s insistence supporters “make me do it.”
The problem with this otherwise sound strategy is they are offering it to the wrong people. If the last four years have proved anything it is that liberals will not challenge Obama—even when he engages in the same war crimes as George W. Bush. And, contrary to popular perception, Occupy Wall Street is primarily made up of Greens, Independents, Anarchists, or devoted activists who abstain from electoral politics entirely. I know several of the members of Occupy Maine, and very few of them are Democrats, let alone Obama supporters.

I certainly agree we need to exert far greater influence on both Obama and the Congress. But let’s get real here. Liberals refused to push back against this president throughout his first term. It is naïve to believe they will behave differently during his second.
Indeed, the gushing adulation liberals have for Obama borders on the absurdly nauseating at times. As one such Obama acolyte posted Monday night on Facebook, “The president just told what may have been the sweetest anecdote I’ve ever heard. Love this man, can’t wait to re-elect him tomorrow!” (Comma splice noted.) Excuse me for a moment while I throw up all over myself.
Look, one can certainly like and admire President Obama. But as citizens we should not be afraid to challenge our elected officials—regardless if we voted for them. Doing so, incidentally, will not “empower the Republicans,” because Republicans are not holding Obama to any sort of standard. They will hate him no matter what he does or does not do.
The problem with partisan politics is it prevents Americans from taking an objective, at times adversarial look at a politician’s actions when he is “your guy.” This sort of knee-jerk partisanship turns voters into pre-teen Twilight fans. Are you on “Team Edward,” or “Team Jacob”? Team Obama or Team Romney? Team Democrat or Team Republican? Never mind that the two teams are both playing for the same corporate masters.
As it is, we do not even have one hundred percent voter turnout in this country. So, for all those who view voting as the single act of democratic participation—a little less than half the eligible population, roughly—there is  a remaining segment that cannot even be bothered to do that much.
The point is there needs to be more than just voting. We need to become, in the words of Ralph Nader, “full-time citizens.” Only then will we be able to create a truly representative democracy—one that is responsive to all citizens and not just the privileged few. I do not always agree with Portland’s League of Young Democrats—err, “Voters,” but I do agree with their “Obama Manifesto” on the back of this year’s voter guide.
“Disclaimer,” it reads, “Ballot is not effective when voter remains disengaged after election.”
Katy Perry, one of many celebrity Obama supporters, dressed as a ballot.