Friday, April 27, 2012

May 1, 2012: General Strike

Here in Portland, Occupy Maine and Occupy USM will engage in a march and day-long strike. Be there!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole: Life in the Society of the Spectacle

My favorite line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is delivered by the Red Queen during Alice’s trial. When the Queen prepares to deliver the sentence, Alice objects the court has not yet issued any verdict. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” the Queen responds. Such is the nature of the backward courtroom procedures in Wonderland. It is an incongruous world of baffling logic made up of people who are, in the words of the Cheshire Cat, “all mad.”  

Americans currently find themselves living in their own version of Wonderland. We live, not in an age of information and enlightenment, but ignorance. We amuse ourselves with the cheap, vapid commercial entertainment that dominates our airwaves. A majority of citizens are either incapable, or uninterested in reading a book or newspaper, so they remain ignorant of news, politics, science and facts.

We ignore, at our own peril, the ever-worsening impacts of global-warming, the steady erosion of our civil liberties, and the impending collapse of our economy. We are losing the war in Afghanistan—a conflict, not of necessity, but choice—though you are unlikely to hear that from the talking heads on Meet the Press. Then again, given that 88 percent of college students cannot locate Afghanistan on the map according to a 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, such debates of “victory,” versus “failure” are irrelevant.

We are the modern day Nero. We fiddle as our country—indeed, as the world—burns around us.

Perhaps worst of all, we cannot separate fact from fiction. We confuse politicians’ personality characteristics and how they make us feel with the actual policies they support. Liberal voters labor under the delusion, despite all factual evidence to the contrary, President Barack Obama is one of them—that he supports progressive goals. Conservatives who dislike Obama, conversely, foolishly believe Mitt Romney’s corporatist agenda would be substantially different. Both candidates are marketed and sold to voters no differently than any other brand-name product like a Ford truck, or an Apple computer. In fact, Obama’s 2008 campaign won Advertising Age magazine’s “Advertiser of the Year,” award.

Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President, an account of Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential election, remains the definitive account of the modern day marriage of advertising and politics. “It is not surprising…that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another,” McGinniss writes. “And once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising that they began to work together.”

McGinniss tagged along with Nixon’s “mad men” campaign team, all of whom had previously worked on marketing plans for Coca-Cola, Nike, Ford and other brand-name companies. He notes how the advent of television has irrevocably altered the way politicians are “sold” to the public. He writes:

The TV candidate…is measured not against his predecessors—not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy—but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside? Style becomes substance. The medium is the massage and the masseur gets the votes.

Television has thus distorted our concept of reality. Americans have abandoned traditional understanding of science, history and literature for pseudo-science, popular conspiracy theories and trash novels. A majority of Americans do not believe in human-induced climate change, despite the staggering amount of scientific evidence confirming the phenomenon. This winter was the warmest ever recorded, yet conservatives continue to dismiss the threat of climate change.

An equally striking amount of the public does not believe in evolution. In place of science, Americans have embraced religion, mysticism, pop-psychology and the paranormal. In her 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby notes the disturbing rise in Americans’ belief in the supernatural. She cites statistics finding, “More than half of American adults believe in ghosts, one third believe in astrology, three quarters believe in angels, and four fifths believe in miracles.”        

No wonder China, India and much of Central America are outpacing the U.S. economy. How can we hope to compete in the science and engineering fields when our citizens, not only lack the most basic understanding of science, but have become outright hostile to the discipline?

In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates uses the “Parable of the Cave” as a metaphor for the goal of education. Socrates tells of an underground society in which men are prisoners, forced to watch shadows projected onto the wall by an unseen fire manipulated by their captors. The prisoners have lived in the cave their entire lives. All the knowledge of their world comes from watching the shadows on the wall.

One day, a prisoner is released and brought above ground. Though the bright sun initially blinds the man, he soon adjusts, and his discovery of the real world outside the cave becomes a spiritual and intellectual epiphany for him. Now free from the darkness, he realizes he can never return to the cave. And, Socrates muses, if he ever were to, the other prisoners would surely greet the man’s tales of the real world with dismissive scorn, thinking him crazy.

“Men would say of him,” Socrates says, “...that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”

We are all prisoners in Plato’s cave, now. The shadows we watch are those of our TV, computer and cellphone screens—the reality shows, social-networking sites, Internet games and celebrity news stories. Like those in the cave, we cannot separate reality from illusion. And there will be no "Supermensch," no Neo, if you will, to save us. As in Plato’s parable, only education, only true enlightenment of our current political, economic, cultural and environmental situations will lead us to salvation.

Alice eventually escapes from Wonderland by waking up. Americans would do well to follow her example, though I fear time is running out.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Angus King: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Though the election is still six months away, the local media are already declaring the outcome of Maine’s U.S. Senate race a foregone conclusion, having essentially anointed Angus King the de-facto winner.

“Barring an act of God, utter stupidity, or an unexpected explosion of well-financed excellence from one of the second-stringers…in Maine’s Democratic and Republican United States Senate primaries,” writes the Portland Phoenix’s Lance Tapley in a story last month, “…Angus S. King, Jr. will be the state’s next US senator.” (“Angus for Real,” 3/21/2012.)

The same publication’s cantankerous curmudgeon, Al Diamon, begins a recent column likewise: “Picking the next US senator from Maine is a no-brainer now that independent Angus King is officially in the race.” (“Little King,” 3/14/2012.)

And a piece in the Daily Kos by David Jarman (04/06/12) is simply headlined, “ME-Sen: Angus King Begins March to Coronation.”

That last story shows King leading potential opponents by a whopping 56 percent of the vote. Indeed, House representative Chellie Pingree found the prospect of running against the popular former governor so unnerving she opted not to throw her hat in the ring. Most likely, the Democrats want to avoid the 2010 scenario, wherein Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler split the progressive vote, thereby handing the election to right-wing wack-job Paul LePage. (It was, incidentally, a feat to Cutler that he managed to fool enough progressives into thinking he was one of them.)

Yet, I find myself in the odd and highly uncomfortable position of actually agreeing with Diamon, for once.

Despite his popularity and reputation as a thoughtful, bipartisan moderate, as senator, Angus King would not represent any significant change for Maine or the country. King would not break the much bemoaned “partisan gridlock” in Washington, D.C., for the simple fact there is none. When it comes to broad matters of war and peace, civil liberties, health care and the economy, the Republicans and Democrats are in complete agreement. King will not uphold outgoing Senator Olympia Snowe’s “moderate” voting record, because she is not truly moderate. Snowe is a traditional Republican who only looks moderate compared to the rest of her party, which has moved extremely far to the right.

In short, Angus King is not the progressive—or even the moderate--champion the media make him out to be. Like Cutler, King is basically GOP-lite. As local independent journalist, Sam Smith puts it, “Those the media insists on calling moderates are basically right wingers who aren’t as mean to women and gays as some of their colleagues.”

Indeed, in Tapley’s story King claims he will be “economically conservative, socially liberal.” And while he offers up a range of progressive views on the issues, readers will pardon me if I put little stock in what politicians say during their campaigns. I am far more concerned with how they vote once in office.

My guess is Senator King would be a lot like Snowe: Frequently breaking with the Republicans (or Democrats) to quibble about minor details or policy procedures, yet ultimately supporting the overall measure. This is the role of so-called “moderates,” or “independents.” Voters are attracted to their seeming lack of strict ideology, and willingness to “reach across party-lines,” but such Congressional members typically work to uphold the power structure. King, in other words, will be no Bernie Sanders.

“The middle of the road,” Jim Hightower famously proclaimed, “is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

And yet the media remain obsessed with both “moderate” politicians and the strategy of courting the political center. This is especially true for the Democratic Party, which corporate media outlets routinely urge to move to the center, if not the right of the political spectrum. But there is no corresponding push for Republicans to move to the left--or, in the case of the contemporary Republican Party, back to the center. This routine strategy practiced by media elites like Joel Klein, Dana Milbank and Thomas L. Friedman is part of the establishment “wisdom” that electoral and political success resides in the center of public opinion.

FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) correspondents, Peter Hart and Steve Rendall examine this phenomenon in a 2006 story for the media-watchdog group’s magazine, Extra! (“Move Over—Over and Over,” July/August, 2006.)

They write:

While few commentators would disagree with the conventional wisdom that Republican success depends on the care and feeding of the GOP’s conservative base…pundits who make the same argument for the Democrats are virtually non-existent in national media. Instead, many of the most prominent political journalists in the country have made it their business to press the Democrats to move the party rightward.

The writers go on to observe that these elite pundits frequently pressure Democrats to spurn their natural supporters. Case in point, former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel caused a brief controversy a few years back, when he publicly proclaimed progressives to be “fucking retarded.” Shortly afterward, former White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs derided liberal critics of Obama as belonging to the “extreme,” or, as he termed it “professional” left. No doubt these White House insiders were taking their cues from centrist-oriented media pundits.

Of course, Angus King would not be subject to this sort of partisan pressure since he is, by his own design, already thoroughly enmeshed in the center. And with Pingree opting out of the race, and only token, establishment Democrats running for the seat, Maine voters are left with no progressive option.

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” they say. But with Angus King as Senator, Maine is sure to continue running in place.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Independents shape political scene | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

The article states: "About 32 percent of [Maine] voters are Democrats, 28 percent are Republicans and 37 percent are independent. A small number typically belong to alternative parties, such as the Green Independent Party."

To which I respond: The Green Party is no longer the "alternative." The Green Party is the imperative.

Independents shape political scene | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

Exile From Hopeville: Liberal Apologists in the Age of Obama

The 2012 presidential election has officially begun. With former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney all but assured of winning the GOP nomination and President Barack Obama now singling Romney out by name, Campaign ’12 is underway. And with it comes the left’s routine flight from reality, back into the comforting, partisan-colored glasses of “hope,” and “change.”

All the liberals who rightly—albeit, belatedly—became disappointed with Obama are now jumping, without hesitation, onto his re-election bandwagon. “Change takes a long time,” these Democratic apologists insist. “The president is doing the best he can.” 

Truthdig’s usually reliable Robert Scheer is the latest spurned acolyte to re-enlist with the president. “The incumbent president has his failings,” Scheer writes, in a column titled, “Obama by Default,” “but compared to Mitt Romney he is a paradigm of considered and compassionate thought.”

While the accuracy of this statement is not in doubt, Scheer makes the oft-repeated mistake of confusing personality characteristics with a candidate’s policy goals. Of course Obama is smarter than Romney. What does that have to do with his track record, thus far, as president?

Let’s review, shall we?

Obama has increased the war in Afghanistan, the drone strikes in Pakistan, and, despite claims to the contrary, has maintained the U.S. occupation of Iraq. While Obama has dropped the Bush administration’s phrase, “War on Terror,” he has continued to pursue the very same foreign policy approach the term describes.

Like Bush, President Obama has unilaterally claimed hitherto unprecedented executive authority—including the right to assassinate the U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, and his two sons.

He signed the horrific National Defense Authorization Act, which gives him the blanket authority to imprison any American, anywhere in the world for anything deemed “associating with terrorists.” Perhaps worst of all, Obama and the Democratic leadership have steadfastly refused to bring criminal charges to any of the members of the Bush administration for illegal and unconstitutional abuses of power.

Here at home, Obama has coddled “too big to fail” banks like Citigroup, J.P. Morgan-Chase and Bane, err, I mean, Bank of America. Indeed, Obama’s cabinet upon entering the White House was deliberately composed of the very Clinton-era economic elites who paved the way for the financial crisis. And Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act—a compromise from the Public Option, which was itself a compromise from single-payer, universal health care—is likely to be deemed unconstitutional by the most radically conservative Supreme Court in decades.

Speaking of radical conservatives, yes, I acknowledge Obama has been consistently sidelined by an obstructionist Republican Congress whose only goal is to see him lose in November. But liberals forget that the only reason for the Republican takeover in 2010 was because the Democrats were unwilling to enact real progressive policies. Upon Obama’s initial election, the Dems controlled the White House and both branches of Congress. And they still could not enact any of the changes they had promised.

Contrary to the claims of pundits like Scheer, Barack Obama is not the only choice progressives have in the presidential election. Jill Stein, Kent Mesplay and comedian Roseanne Barr are all vying for the Green Party’s nomination. Former Utah mayor, Rocky Anderson is also running in the newly formed Justice Party

Yet, due to a combination of lack of media coverage, and liberals’ calculating fear they must accept the “lesser of two evils,” none of these candidates are anywhere on voters’ maps. Independent candidates “cannot win,” liberals dismissively claim.

But this is only true because progressive voters who agree with their platforms refuse to actually vote for them out of fear that vote would be “wasted.” This phenomenon is what some have termed the “progressive dilemma.” I prefer to call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If progressives were to throw their collective weight behind a third-party candidate like Jill Stein and vote for her en mass, she would not “spoil” the election—she would win it. When liberals tell you cynically that a Green or Independent candidate “can’t win,” what they seem oblivious to is their own complicity in preventing the candidate from winning (or at the very least getting more than five percent of the vote).

“I’d rather vote for what I want and not get it,” Socialist presidential candidate, Eugene Debs famously proclaimed, “then vote for what I don’t want, and get it.”

“If you go for the ‘least-worst’ as a voter you’ve lost your bargaining power,” Ralph Nader told blogger, Davis Fleetwood (aka “The Hermit”) during his 2008 presidential run, “because the least-worst candidate…knows that he can take those votes for granted.” He goes on:

You can’t have a least-worst attitude as a tactical voter and not push or pull your candidate…into progressive areas, because then you have lost your moral compass. Every four years there’s going to be a “least-worst.” What is your breaking point?

Sadly, Obama supporters do not seem to have any breaking point. As long as the Republicans are just that much worse, the Democratic Party knows it can take them for granted. And so liberals’ mass delusion of “hope,” “change,” and empty “Yes, we can!” sloganeering marches on into the fantasy-world of “Hopeville.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Work of Art in the Age of Right-Wing Repression

Remember the labor mural which Gov. Paul LePage removed from the Department of Labor in what became one of the biggest local news stories of 2011? Well, it’s back in the news. And its resurgence in the local discourse revives the ongoing debate as to the true nature of art.

First the news, though.

Last week, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. ruled Gov. LePage has the authority to remove the mural—a sprawling, 11-panel tapestry that depicts the history of the labor movement in Maine—from the first-floor waiting room of the Department of Labor in Augusta. The ruling represents a blow to progressive activists who viewed the governor’s removal of the painting as a blatant act of both censorship and disrespect to the hard-working Mainers who helped build the middle-class in this country. The citizen-lead lawsuit charged the governor with violating the Constitution as well as the state’s contract with the mural’s artist, Judy Taylor.

Conservative blowhard, M.D. Harmon praised the judge’s decision in a recent (and particularly virulent) Op-Ed in the Portland Press Herald (“With mural ruling, judge sides against propaganda,” 3/30/12).

Calling the labor mural “propagandistically one-sided,” and a “piece of minimally talented hackery,” Harmon tries to make some grandstanding comment on the true nature of free speech versus censorship—and how liberals are apparently incapable of differentiating between the two.

As usual, however, Harmon’s condescending, “told-you-so” attitude and flawed logic get in the way of any halfway insightful views he may have on the topic. Particularly pathetic are his dismissive, utterly simplistic views on what he considers “art.” In essence, Harmon seems to consider the mural more “propaganda” than art because it only depicts “one-side” of history, and features “no business owners.” You know—society’s “job-creators” who create nothing of value themselves, but are exceptionally skilled at exploiting the workers who do. He writes:

“The…mural was so neutral that it depicted no business owners whatsoever, but included past and present state occupational figures and union leaders…”

Harmon goes on, “…they [the mural supporters] took a piece of minimally talented hackery in the service of one particular political point of view and elevated it to a work of art…”

But since when was art beholden to the same standards of “balance” and “objectivity” (in of themselves thoroughly flawed and misguided) as journalism? The answer, it turns out, is never. The object under consideration is a painting—not a formal history lesson. Indeed, Harmon's bland, narrow definition of art would automatically exclude such great works as Picasso’s “Guernica” which he painted in response to the bombing of Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War. Such a painting could not be considered authentic art by Harmon’s standard, as it only depicts “one side” of the war.

There is a tendency among the general public to hold up topical or “political” works of art as something separate from traditional artwork, as if they belong to their own unique artistic genre. But the fact is all art is inherently political. Like history, art cannot be divorced from the politics of its time. Art, after all, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, even artwork that appears to be devoid of political or societal concerns (pop music, for instance) is still political in that the artist has made a conscious decision to ignore such pressing issues. These artists, whether or not it is their intent, produce work that serves to maintain power structures and reinforce the status quo—the essence of right-wing, conservative politics.

“History provides abundant examples of how social relations impact art,” writes artist Mark Vallen in his essay, "Why All Art is Political."

Traditionally the church, state and wealthy patrons have funded the arts in order to increase their political power and prestige. Clearly that paradigm is overloaded with political relationships. But today it is largely market forces that determine the success or failure of art, and who among us will declare capitalism’s various mechanisms to be free of politics? Since labor and commerce are realms understood to be political spheres, then art, which is inextricably bound to those spheres, is automatically part of a political process.

Vallen adds, “It is an ironclad fact that an artist must eat and pay rent, so it is also an irreducible fact that we are bound to political arrangements.”

Thus, if Taylor’s labor mural is indeed “propaganda” as Harmon claims, then all art must be considered as such. Gov. LePage’s removal of the mural should be seen for precisely what it is: a blatant attempt at censorship by a radical right-wing administration, hell-bent on rolling-back worker rights and protections while expanding those of corporations.

“The job of the artist,” wrote Arthur Miller “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

This issue is about more than just a painting. It is about acknowledging and celebrating a crucial part of American labor history. LePage and his ignorant cronies like M.D. Harmon are free to disagree—or even dislike—the painting, but they should not deprive the public from viewing, appreciating and learning from it.

And Harmon should not pontificate aimlessly on topics he clearly knows nothing about. The man is, to use his own words, a minimally talented hack.