Sunday, August 26, 2012

Best Places to Work? Based on What Criteria?

The Maine State Council of the Society for Human Resources Management has released a list of 42 companies designated, "Best Places to Work in Maine."
(From the Maine Sunday Telegram, 8/26/2012.)

I would be curious to know these companies' practices on collective bargaining and union representation. I also find the surplus of banks, financial institutions and insurance companies rather odd. From what I understand, banks in particular have a high turnaround. I have a friend and an uncle who were fired from local banks in recent years--both after considerable time of employment and based on seemingly innocuous criteria.

And where is L.L. Bean? Isn't part of their reputation based on their positive employee treatment?

One way to make "significant improvements in... workplace culture" would be to allow the employees to collectively own the institutions they work at. Another would be to then pay those employees a living wage. Yet somehow I doubt either of these concepts were factors in determining the companies on this list.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Forgotten War

Amid the media din over Senator Todd Aiken this week, the Afghanistan war approached a dubious milestone that went largely unnoticed by the talking heads: The death of the 2,000th soldier. He was Specialist James A. Justice.
Save for a front-page story in Wednesday’s New York Times, the growing death-toll for the nearly 12-year-old war received scant news coverage. And don’t hold your breath waiting for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney to weigh-in on a conflict intrinsically linked to the economic recession.
Instead, both camps remain fixated on Sen. Aiken’s admittedly misogynist comments, and the larger debate on abortion his remarks seem to have re-ignited. Of course, the glaring irony of the refusal of “pro-life” conservatives to acknowledge (let alone oppose) the continuation of bloodshed in Afghanistan (not to mention Iraq, Yemen, Syria, etc.) does not go unnoticed by thinking citizens outside the Washington Beltway.
Truthdig columnist William Pfaff may have summed up the general malaise of the war succinctly with the headline of his most recent piece: “Did Someone Say ‘War’?”
The 2,000th soldier death comes amid growing pessimism about both the capability and trustworthiness of the U.S.-trained Afghan police force, which will be charged with maintaining security when American forces (theoretically) withdraw from the country in 2014. (I anticipate troops will “withdraw” from Afghanistan by that time, in much the same way they “withdrew” from Iraq, leaving behind some 30,000 “noncombat” forces, private, for-hire mercenary guards, military contractors and corporate oil representatives.)
The NY Times (8/22/2012) story also notes the sharp increase in U.S. deaths from members of the Afghan training coalition. These attacks are often committed by “Afghans dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces.” According to the article, nine soldiers have been killed by such “insider” attacks in the past two weeks, and at least 39 in the last year.
Just as with the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. once again finds itself embroiled in a war where the goal remains nebulous and undefined, against a people and culture we do not truly understand.
The Afghanistan war is now the longest war in U.S. history, having outpaced the Vietnam War in June of 2010. Yet while the vocal, ubiquitous antiwar movement of the 1960s and ‘70s ultimately contributed to the latter war’s end, there has been little comparable resistance to the Afghanistan conflict.
While the lack of a civilian military draft seems the most obvious reason for the absence of visible protest, this view is somewhat misleading. The truth is, despite the mislabeling of our armed forces as “volunteer,” those who enlist are, in many respects, victims of an economic draft. Indeed, for young Americans who cannot find work in the anemic job-market, cannot afford college, and have no other career prospects, the military is, for them, not only a “noble” option, but in fact the only option.
As Pfaff writes about the forgotten war in Afghanistan, “…nobody in the U.S. and the allied countries, except for the relatives of the victims, gives a damn.”
Case in point, Portland’s nonprofit, Peace ActionMaine has all but shut down due to lack of funding. The group’s closure is perhaps symbolic of an election year in which citizens are concerned about gay marriage, abortion and the economy, but seem to have grudgingly accepted the “new normal” culture of permanent war. (Not, mind you, that I believe the above issues are unimportant. Though, as I mentioned earlier, the wars and the economy are not two separate issues, even though the media routinely frames them as such.)
Yet, despite the lack of mass protest, when surveyed on the issue of the Afghanistan war, respondents routinely register their opposition. An AP-GfK poll back in May found 66 percent of Americans now oppose the war, while a mere 27 percent support it. The poll results, which appeared on the Huffington Post (5/09/2012), also noted “about half of those who oppose the war” believe the U.S. occupation there is “doing more harm than good.”
Unfortunately, even when independent or web-based media sources cover Afghanistan, they often do so within the same narrow parameters as the corporate outlets. Take, for instance, a recent video interview from Russian Television (RT News) with blogger/activist, David Swanson. Swanson is the co-founder of the popular activist website, After Downing (now renamed, War Is a Crime), and has written extensively about U.S. wars and imperialism in his 2010 book, War is a Lie.
But while Swanson is intelligent, informed and clearly committed to ending the war(s), it is disappointing his “what-viewers-can-do” recommendations amount to little more than “re-elect Obama, and push him to end the war.” Well, that was pretty much the strategy for President Obama’s first term, and yet, four years later, we’re still there. Then again, given that candidate-Obama campaigned on re-directing U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan (which he claimed was “the good war”), this was a flawed strategy in the first place.
It is well past time to leave Afghanistan. There is no military victory there. The British and the Soviets failed to take over the country. It is only through arrogance and imperial hubris that America’s leaders believe it can prove successful. Let Specialist Justice be the last soldier to die for this war.     

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

But Is it Art...?

If you live in Portland, you have likely seen this car driving around Congress Street.

The car belongs to local artist, Michael Shaughnessy. His “hay ball” art is meant to be a conversational ice-breaker, and according to a recent story in the Portland Press Herald ("Hay! What's That For?" 7/31/2012), so far it is succeeding. Shaughnessy is planning to travel the country using his “hay ball” the same way John Steinbeck used his dog Charley in his road-tripping book, Travels with Charley.

Now, Mr. Shaughnessy seems like an affable guy (I’m pretty sure I have seen him at a few Occupy Maine rallies, so he can't be all bad), and given that he teaches art at USM, I would not presume to know more about the subject than he does.

But this tumbleweed he drives around with on the top of his car is not art. Certainly, it is unusual. It is authentic. It is, perhaps, even a bit eccentric. But it is not art. (It should also be noted, Shaughnessy is hardly the first person in Maine to drive around with strange crap protruding out of his vehicle.)

Shaughnessy’s decorative car and the Press Herald story on it got me thinking about the nature of art. What is art? Is art, as many artists claim, merely whatever one designates as “art”? Or does a work need to meet certain aesthetic, visual or cultural criteria in order to be considered legitimate “art”?

While I realize many MECA (Maine College of Art) students will disagree with me, art is not “whatever you say it is.” There are specific aesthetic standards or principles used to judge, analyze and evaluate art--just as there are for evaluating film, music, acting or writing.

Indeed, as a writer, I would like to think I have a pretty good understanding of what constitutes “good” writing. (And as I have long maintained, many contemporary authors are highly imaginative story-tellers, but by traditional standards, lousy writers.) Call me a snob if you must, but you cannot arbitrarily throw a bunch of words or phrases onto a piece of paper and call it poetry.

This is essentially what Jackson Pollock made a career out of. Pollock aficionados defend his unconventional, postmodernist paintings as “open to interpretation.” This is fancy way of saying Pollock’s work means something different to everyone, which is just another way of saying it does not mean anything at all.

Pollock, along with his peers in the abstract expressionist, Dadaist and surrealist movements shifted the focus of art away from political and social commentary, and toward the novel, irreverent and, frankly, inane. The goal for these artists was to defy traditional artistic conventions simply for the sake of doing so. They had no guiding principles or artistic ideals of their own. There was nothing they wanted audiences to attain or learn from their works. It was rebellion for the sake of rebellion. Their manifesto, to the extent that they had any at all, was best summed up by Frank Zappa in the 1970s who famously defined art as, “Anything you can get away with.”

Then again, Shaughnessy is hardly the first artist to take a mundane, everyday object and call it art. In 1917, French surrealist painter, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal (which he titled, “Fountain,” and signed as “R. Mutt”) to the Society of Independent Artists.

Though the work was initially rejected, it has since become a revered piece associated with the Dada movement and its attempts to “demystify” the artist. The urinal was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by a board of 500 British art professionals in 2004. Indeed, it is difficult to determine which is more ridiculous: The fact that Duchamp did not even create the toilet himself, or the vast amount of ink art critics have spilled assessing the work’s supposed brilliance. As artist Alan Magee notes of “Fountain” in Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class, “Duchamp’s point, intended to repudiate genteel aesthetics and to ‘shock the squares,’ was timely and well made, but it didn’t need to be repeated for a century.”

Art, at best should act as a mirror for the human experience. It should strive to connect with the audience politically, socially, culturally or even religiously. “The job of the artist,” wrote playwright Arthur Miller “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.” Consider Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” which he painted in response to the Spanish Civil War. Or Edvard Munch’s classic, “The Scream” which depicts a person conveying an expression of agony under a menacing, blood-red sky.

Local artist, Robert Shetterly carries on that tradition of politically-oriented art with his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series. Shetterly has painted elegant portraits of such famous, rabble-rousing Americans as Howard Zinn, Rachel Corrie, Ralph Nader and Henry David Thoreau.

“It is my belief that art should be, and can be, many things,” he says. "If it is about beauty it must also be about truth, even when that truth is ugly and anathema to the beautiful and powerful… [I]f the survival of human life is in jeopardy, maybe it’s important that some artists explore why with all the urgency and truth that they can bring to bear.” (As quoted in Hedges’ aforementioned, Death of the Liberal Class, 2010).

Contrast Shetterly’s passionate, informed artistic statement of purpose with Andy Warhol’s “ironic” raison d’etre: “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”

In short, we need more Shetterlys and fewer Warhols. Michael Shaughnessy’s tumbleweed is unique and quirky, yes. I will give him that.

But please, let’s not call it art.   

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Guerrilla Press Fact-Checker: Busting Myths about Health Care, Angus King and the "Job-Creators"

Perhaps the biggest problem with the mainstream media is the refusal of reporters to call-out guests or interviewees when they make claims that are patently and objectively false. For instance, the occupation of Iraq is not over—there are some 30,000 U.S. troops, private contractors and mercenary, soldiers-for-hire remaining there. Yet, the corporate media has successfully convinced Americans the war has ended. When reporters refuse to acknowledge—and correct—these falsehoods, they do the public a massive disservice. The following are three oft-repeated media “talking points,” that are completely false.

Falsehood #1:
“The Affordable Care Act/Obamacare/Romneycare is universal health care.”

A number of liberals erroneously believe “Obamacare” is universal health care.

Author Thomas Frank makes this claim at least three times in his otherwise serviceable new book, Pity the Billionaire. A letter to the editor in a recent issue of the Portland Press Herald makes a similar claim (“Voters should know the principles behind policies,” 7/27/2012). In a LTE critical of Mitt Romney and “Obamacare” opponents, Meredith N. Springer of Scarborough writes, “Why should the United States be the only western industrial country without universal health insurance…?” It’s a damn good question, Meredith. But you are sadly incorrect in your inference the ACA is universal health insurance.

Whatever you want to call the new health care law, it is not universal health care. It’s not even close, for that matter. If anything, the law is a bailout for the health insurance industry—and an unnecessary one at that.

The reason for this is simple: The ACA maintains the for-profit health insurance industry—which is the crucial flaw in our health care system. The new law, despite its name, does nothing to make private health insurance more affordable, or manage the costs of co-pays, deductibles or premiums. A “single-payer” or universal health care system would resemble that of Canada or Great Britain. In fact, the U.S. already has the beginnings of such a government-run program. It’s called Medicare. If we were to expand Medicare to every American, we would have universal health care.

Believe me, I wish the ACA offered universal coverage. However, those who claim it does are mistaken. To read more about my views on the new health care law click here and here.

Falsehood #2:
"The rich create jobs."

I blame Ayn Rand for the longevity of this nonsense.

The rich do not create a single job. For that matter, today’s business moguls do not create anything, period. Nearly all of their wealth comes from Wall Street investments, corporate profits, capital gains taxes, speculation and other forms of glorified gambling.

It is consumer demand that creates jobs. Nothing more.

When I want something (say, a cup of coffee) I go to one of the myriad locally-owned coffee shops here in Portland and I buy one. In fact, coffee is pretty popular in Portland. It is a product with a lot of demand. If Portlanders were to suddenly quit drinking coffee (an unlikely scenario for caffeine addicts such as myself, but stay with me) and switch to tea, then all the local coffee shops in town would suddenly go out of business, as there would no longer be any demand for their product. If we all were to suddenly stop spending money entirely, the economy would essentially crash.

If anything, the business people who have amassed their wealth buying up companies and merging them with other large companies—which inevitably result in massive layoffs and job outsourcing—have done more to destroy jobs in this country. Indeed, the rich would be more appropriately labeled “job destroyers.”

Anyway, that’s the fast-food version of that one. You can read my more in-depth argument against the “job creator” myth here.

Falsehood #3:
"Angus King is a progressive."

In 2010, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler managed to fool a majority of Maine’s progressive voters that he was one of them. This despite the fact the former corporate lobbyist supports charter schools, de-regulation, welfare “reform,” and merit-based pay for teachers. But many Mainers looked beyond such trivial policy positions, and focused only on his self-identification as an “Independent.”

In this year’s U.S. Senate race, Angus King is poised to perform a similar sleight of hand. Like Cutler, the former governor is what I like to call “GOP lite.” As governor, King infamously rejected a raise in the state’s minimum wage because he feared it would scare businesses away or something absurd like that. And he recently reiterated his support for maintaining the Bush tax-cuts for the super-rich.

With all due respect to my fellow Mainers, it is almost laughable how easy it is to get elected to office in this state. A politician can hold the most neo-conservative, pro-business views, but as long as he runs as an “independent,” liberal voters will flock his way. Actually, perhaps it says more about liberal voters…

Regardless… you can read my full story on Angus King here.