Thursday, October 12, 2017

California Burning, America Vanishing

Parts of California are burning. October and November are fire season in the Golden State, but what has happened in the Napa area boggles the imagination -- some neighborhoods look like they were bombed by an invading army. Houses reduced to smoldering ash, cars torched, as if Mother Earth pitched a temper tantrum and decided to retaliate for how shabbily we have treated her. Climate scientists have been warning for years that one potential result of human-caused climate change will be fiercer storms, floods, and wildfires. Houston, Puerto Rico, Napa. Get the idea now?

I have Trump fatigue. How about you?

The Orange Buffoon embodies the most reprehensible and vile aspects of the American character: ignorance, bombast, greed, cruelty, racism, arrogance, and violence. In less than a year, Trump has turned the White House into a risible shitshow. His approval rating is in the low 30’s and will not climb any higher unless he launches war against North Korea or Iran, in which case the political class and corporate media will grovel at his feet and a majority of Americans will rally around him as if he were the reincarnation of George Washington. All occupants of the Oval Office understand this reliable escape route from tanking poll numbers or domestic scandal.

Neal Gabler wrote a piece for the Bill Moyers website recently that put forth the idea that we are viewing Trump and his entourage of miscreants through the wrong lens. We can’t, Gabler wrote, view Trump through the standard political lens but must view him through the lens of entertainment, of ratings and clicks and social media traffic, the same lens through which we see Kim Kardashian. Trump, with his incessant demand for attention and adulation, is flipping the usual script, replacing politics with entertainment, and as long as people keep tuning in, he will keep attacking African-American athletes, US senators, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the people of Puerto Rico, his own Secretary of State, and the corporate media; he will constantly up the ante and create false drama with arch comments like, “You’ll see.” An approval rating in the low 30’s matters little when you can still command all the media attention, and when that attention is all you care about. Gabler’s hypothesis is intriguing and might be the only way to understand the disaster that is Donald Trump.

While Trump preens, postures, lies, attacks, threatens, and makes an ass of himself, the kleptocrats around him are doing serious damage to the nation, making every economic, social and environmental problem worse by dint of their greed and incompetence. The Trump Administration’s response to the devastation of Puerto Rico is criminal, but no matter how many Puerto Ricans suffer or perish, you can bet that no one will be held accountable. That is, unfortunately in this awful year of our lord 2017, how our system works -- the political and economic elites, the wealthy, play by a completely different set of rules. Like white police officers who gun down unarmed black men, there is never a penalty to pay.

When our country is this jacked up and corrupt, nobody is obligated to stand for the national anthem, salute the flag, or recite the pledge of allegiance. No matter what Trump and Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions say, dissent is never unpatriotic. Dissent is the essence of patriotism. If we don’t demand an end to predatory capitalism, rigged elections, shitty medical care, endless wars, racism, gun violence, jingoism, and ecocide, nothing will change. Kneel, sit, bow your head, turn your back, raise a clenched fist, be an American, stand for something and demand better before it’s too late.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

World Leader in Death

“Violence runs through US society like an electric current offering instant pleasure from all cultural sources, whether it be the nightly news or a television series that glorifies serial killers.” Henry A. Giroux
Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. By some estimates I’ve read, there are 300 million firearms in the United States, and every single day in this country, 92 people are killed in firearm related incidents. After a mass shooting I always feel the same sense of unreality, numbness, and then outrage because no matter how murderous the rampage -- and the scope of the Vegas massacre is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around -- nothing changes. The NRA still presses campaign donations on easily purchased members of Congress, and launches a PR blitz designed to blunt any criticism, and of course remind us all of the sacred Second Amendment. Politicians wring their hands, offer prayers, tell us to honor the innocent victims, but in the next breath declare that now isn’t the time to have a debate about sensible firearm protections. (If not now, when?) Whoever the sitting president is makes a speech condemning the violence, knowing full well that the carnage will continue in another place, at another time. Obama’s rhetoric after a mass shooting brought people to tears, but his beautiful words never changed a thing. (As emotionally stunted and inappropriate as ever, the current occupant of the White House offered his “warmest condolences.”)

Firearms are historically, politically and culturally embedded in our American DNA. Violence is as much a part of our creed as the Declaration of Independence and the Star-Spangled Banner, as college football and NASCAR.  

More details about the Vegas shooter emerge in fits and starts, as they always do in the aftermath of a mass shooting, though his motive remains murky. Was his intent only to inflict death and pain and trauma, to forever alter thousands of lives, or just to etch his name in the history book as the architect of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history? Job accomplished on all counts. The man is in the annals now, the latest, but not the last, deranged white man with demons running around his brain and a huge cache of weapons and ammunition in his garage.

The numbness returns. A woman who trains in the dojo I attend was at that concert in Las Vegas on Sunday night. She survived unscathed, physically, but her husband told me that she has descended deep within herself, suffering from wounds unseen.

This madness never ends. America has never been great, and only good when it suits the powerful, but nobody can argue that we are not the world leader in death, at home and abroad.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Take a Knee

But even he knew that things would turn out all right in the end. They would, because they had to.” Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Where to begin? Puerto Rico? The NFL? College basketball? Another week of Donald J. Trump’s vicious idiocy. Another week in which the United States is diminished in the eyes of the world. The mind reels, the gut convulses, but this is a logical juncture in a country that rewards the most perverse incentives, that puts profit above human life, that wages war indiscriminately, that thinks tax cuts for those with the most is sound economic policy, and that refuses to come to grips with the fact of climate change.

Which brings me back to Puerto Rico, our island colony. I wrote an angry e-mail to my congress person, complaining about the tepid response from Washington to the humanitarian crisis on the island. Imagine, I wrote, if Santa Barbara County had been hit by back-to-back magnitude 7.5 earthquakes. Would you accept the foot-dragging currently on display in Washington? Our idiot president is too busy attacking African-American athletes for exercising their first amendment right to protest injustice, racism, and violence to fret about Puerto Rico; besides, we’re not talking about aiding white Americans, right? Puerto Rico was in distress before Irma and Maria devastated the island, held in bondage by an unelected Fiscal Control Board hellbent on extracting every last nickel to satisfy bankers and hedge fund managers and God knows who else. Capitalism and humanitarian impulses are not compatible. But don’t worry, Puerto Rico, Trump is going to pay you a visit soon. Don’t be surprised if he tries to sell you some hats.

So, it appears that the FBI has determined that some NCAA basketball programs are cheating. The shock! Of course NCAA colleges and universities cheat. They do it because there is inordinate pressure to win, to build a team that can go far into the annual March tournament and thereby rake in big money for the school. I hate college sports. I don’t watch them. The day I might watch is the day college athletes are paid to play the games. As it stands, many college athletes are being exploited, as are most workers in a capitalist system. Add the NCAA to the long list of American institutions soiled and compromised by greed.

I don’t watch NFL games either, not simply because I find American football utterly boring, which I do, but because the NFL -- more than any other professional sport league -- is a die-hard promoter of the American war machine. If the NFL wants to hawk beer, automobiles, cell phones, carbonated beverages or artery-destroying fast food, go ahead, but get the hell out of the war promotion racket, tell the Pentagon to fuck off.

Ah, but are we not Americans who love violence? Yes, we are.  We can’t live without bloodsport. Our president acts like he’s a tough guy, but it’s clear that Trump is a pussy who wouldn’t last 10 seconds in a street brawl. Sad, pathetic excuse of a white man, draft dodger, insecure blowhard. Can you imagine Trump as a soldier in a war zone? He’d shit his fatigues in thirty seconds and start wailing like a baby, probably call for his nanny or Melania.

Don’t be surprised that Tom Price has resigned in disgrace for flying in luxury on the people’s thin dime. If you are a regular reader of this page you know that I refer to the Trump administration as Trump and the Kleptocrats. Every last one of these motherfuckers signed onto the Trump team thinking it would lead to a trip to the bank. These people are punks and thieves.

Take a knee, and then rise up.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Welcome to Oregon

I made a short trip to Tillamook, Oregon to visit my brother. We hadn’t seen one another for eleven years. I flew into Portland, rented a car, and drove west in the rain. When I crossed into the Tillamook city limits I was pulled over by an Oregon State trooper for speeding. The trooper politely introduced himself and said he clocked me doing 68 in a 45 mile per hour zone. I didn’t realize I was traveling that fast. The trooper asked what brought me to Tillamook, I told him, he handed my license back and advised me to slow down.

Welcome to Oregon.

My brother’s first house in Tillamook was located on Trask River Road, a stone’s throw from the Trask River, but he has since purchased a manufactured home on a cul-de-sac in the city proper. The street is crushed rock and full of potholes, and without sidewalks. The houses of his immediate neighbors are well maintained, but many homes on the adjacent streets are weather-beaten, sagging, yards littered with rusted cars, refrigerators, and motor homes. Maintaining a house in that wet climate isn’t easy, and some folks don’t bother trying. Why park your truck on the street when you can park on your front lawn? Coming from Santa Barbara, a city obsessed with its appearance, its beauty and refinement, and the astronomical cost of its real estate, where the crappiest house costs a Midas-sized fortune, I wasn’t used to seeing dilapidated houses, pot-holed streets or trucks parked on lawns.

About 5,000 people call Tillamook home. There’s an elementary school, junior high, and high school (Home of the Cheesemakers!) in town, a big Hampton lumber mill, the Tillamook cheese factory (major tourist draw), a hospital that appears to be fairly new, and the air museum just outside of town, a relic from World War II. There’s not much to see downtown. On my first day we drove up to the Trask River in my brother’s Subaru station wagon. In less than ten minutes we were in the country, passing dairy farms, houses that were set well back from the road with plenty of distance from their nearest neighbor, pastures where cows grazed on green grass. It rained off and on. I saw a few houses that appeared to be abandoned, overgrown with wild blackberry vines; an excavator parked in a field was suffering the same fate, and I wondered who had parked it and how long it had been sitting there. My brother told me that most of the dairy farmers were members of the Tillamook Creamery Association. We saw some log trucks and some trucks hauling milk. We hiked along the Trask for a mile or so. My brother has a degenerative back ailment and he moves slower than he once did. Water dripped from Douglas firs that towered 60, 80, even 100 feet above our heads onto the damp forest floor. Ferns, tangled vines, rotting logs; thick moss -- thicker than I’d ever seen -- hung from the branches of trees, like long beards. We didn’t see another soul. The sound of the Trask followed us. “The river is pretty tame this time of year,” my brother told me, “but come January and February it rages like you can’t believe.”

My brother is experiencing serious fear and loathing of Donald Trump. I have never known him to be a political person, I didn’t know he voted, but Trump and his band of kleptocrats have knocked my brother for a loop, and, like many, many Americans, he feels an intense embarrassment almost every time Trump opens his mouth or takes to Twitter to spew his violent, vapid, vicious idiocy. He rations the amount of corporate news he watches; most of the time, his television is tuned to the Weather Channel. He doesn’t own a computer, a tablet, a Kindle, a laptop, an iPhone, and has no electronic footprint; he still writes a paper check when he does his grocery shopping at the Fred Meyer store.

We drove all over Tillamook county in the two days I spent there, from the forest to the coast, Netarts, Cape Meares, around Tillamook Bay to Garibaldi. It rained, hard at times, and then the sun would make a brief appearance and steam would rise off the pavement and the pasture land. After nearly 50 years in California I don’t know if I could live in a wet, damp, chilly climate like Tillamook but I enjoyed the beauty and diversity it had to offer, and the experience of walking in the deep woods was rejuvenating. My brother is happy there and lives a simple existence. He manages his back pain by swimming every morning at the YMCA, but by 6:00 p.m. or so he needs to get off his feet. He reads a lot. He fishes for cutthroat trout on the Trask when he can.

It was good to get away, good to renew the ties of blood, good to step off the treadmill of daily routine, work, chores, obligations. When I returned home I felt wealthy.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Doing Time in My Mind

“Trump embodies the decayed soul of America. He, like many of those who support him, has a childish yearning to be as omnipotent as the gods. This impossibility, as the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote, leads to a dark alternative: destroying like the gods.” Chris Hedges

My children were born one day apart, September 3 and 4, five years apart. My son is now 21, my daughter 16. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan my daughter’s entire life. My son was born during the Clinton administration, which, politically, seems a very long time ago. When my son was two or so, the Lewinsky scandal broke and the GOP controlled Congress went after Bill Clinton with a vengeance. The Puritanical streak lodged in the American psyche kicked in and day after day the news was full of lurid speculation about semen stains on a blue GAP dress and Bill Clinton’s insatiable libido. For telling fibs about a blowjob, Clinton was impeached. Today a ridiculous man who fibs spectacularly all the time about damn near everything sits in the Oval Office.  

We have to live in the present but cannot forget the past. Around my children’s birthdays I always think about the passage of time. I think about markers, significant events like birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, Christmases. I think about who I was and who I am, and I wonder if time is my nemesis or my friend. In my day to day life time feels like a weight I haul around. I’m at an age where there is likely more of life behind than ahead. I despair a little when I think of all the books I will never read, the places I may never see. Instead of expanding, my viewpoint seems to wither and shrink. I wonder if something is wrong with me. To look back at one’s life with regret -- and ahead with trepidation -- can’t be healthy. I also think about people I’ve known who have died, and as the years pass the number grows. I see the effects of time on people all around me, in Trader Joe’s on Sunday afternoon, in line at the movie theater: arthritic fingers, swollen feet and ankles, bent backs, mottled skin, gray hair. Evidence of Time’s merciless toll is everywhere. Every human will suffer. Such is the nature of existence. For the most part, we receive no instruction in dealing with the nature of our existence.

Funny how the certainty of youth, the clarity of right and wrong, just and unjust, becomes the doubt of middle age. My son is far less of a fool than I was at his age. At 21 I was serving my third year in the Air Force, in Japan, and because I could sustain myself I felt like a grown-up when in reality I was still an immature, hot-headed boy. In my mind the memory of that time is sepia and dim. I spent hours riding trains, and when I wasn’t riding I was walking, from the train station to my tiny apartment, from the station to the front gate of Yokota Air Base. How many miles? I have journals from that time that I have carted from Japan to Honolulu, and from Honolulu to Seattle, to Irvine in Orange County, and then back home to Santa Barbara, that I refuse to read for fear of embarrassment. I should pile them in the backyard and set them on fire, and one day, perhaps I will. When you’re a hot-headed, foolish young man as I was, you do things that hurt yourself, but also others.

My children will make their way in a world radically different from the one in which I made mine. I fear for them. First, because they are already casualties of a failed economic system. Second, and intimately linked to the first, because of the real prospect of catastrophic climate change. And third, because of the invasive power of the US surveillance state. The balance of power between the government and the governed has never been so out of kilter, and unaccountable power is terrifying. But even more I fear for my children because of the strong undercurrent of cruelty that is loose in our land. As the US has become more fearful of losing its hegemony around the world, compassion for its own citizens has atrophied. Instead of a helping hand, more often than not only a clenched fist is offered.

I feel sad for the people of Bangladesh, Houston, and parts of the Caribbean, who have been severely harmed by natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. It pains me that my country has for so long been so two-faced and craven about our environment, fixated on economic gain and geopolitical advantage to the exclusion of human life.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Forever Unhinged

Market capitalism is simply not conducive to mutual human concern. It is a system based on social warfare, cultivated by its root socioeconomic orientation.” Peter Joseph, The New Human Rights Movement  

The corporate-owned media always acts surprised when Donald J. Trump goes off script and rants, as he did after the murder of a peaceful demonstrator in Charlottesville, and then again at a pro-Trump rally in Phoenix. But nothing Trump does or says or tweets should surprise anyone. Disturb yes, surprise, never. Trump was unhinged when he declared his candidacy for the White House, unhinged on the long primary campaign trail, unhinged through the general election, and unhinged the day he sat behind the big desk in the Oval Office. Trump hasn’t changed. Trump can’t change. Trump won’t change.

What should be clear to the people of the United States, and unfortunately isn’t, is that Trump and the two political parties have no interest in confronting the massive problems facing the country. This isn’t necessarily because all the people in government are evil fucktards -- though some of them (Attorney General Sessions, for instance) surely are -- but because our political and economic system is designed to serve the interests of private property and private capital. Forget all the rhetoric about “We the people” and “all men are created equal”. Our system rewards particular behaviors along a very narrow spectrum that doesn’t include the welfare of the many. In the past, in the New Deal era for example, because the entire system was teetering, the negative consequences caused by unregulated capitalism had to be addressed and some effort to better distribute resources undertaken. This worked reasonably well for several decades. In fact, the financial reforms and social initiatives of the New Deal era worked too well, presented too much of a challenge to the system and those who own and profit from it.

Poll after poll demonstrates that Americans of all political persuasions want affordable college tuition, health care, decent housing, safe roads and highways, clean drinking water, retirement security, and other basic necessities of life. The wealthy individuals and corporations who run the country have no interest in any of these things.

Our failed, stupid war in Afghanistan is set to last a lot longer. When Trump earlier this week announced a change in strategy, which was not much of a change at all, except perhaps to exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan, many corporate media talking heads applauded in their usual knee-jerk way, so conditioned are they to support war. Insert 4,000 troops or 40,000 and the US is still going to flounder, and ultimately fail. Our brave and heroic troops may, as Trump boasted, kill some terrorists, but they will also kill and displace hundreds, if not thousands, more innocent civilians than have been killed and displaced in the past 16 years. This means creation of more fanatics filled with grievance and hatred and hell-bent on revenge.

Obviously influenced by the military men he has surrounded himself with, Trump offered only destruction and death in a country in desperate need of a political solution. Does the US even bother with diplomacy in the age of Trump and the Kleptocrats? Why talk when you can bomb? The majority of the American people are paying no attention to Afghanistan, have probably forgotten that any US troops are there at all. What we should have learned is that   starting a war is easy, ending one is much more difficult; the generals dig in, refuse to face reality, demand more troops, more drones, more cruise missiles, and promise that victory -- whatever that means -- is around the corner, within reach. Defense contractors like Raytheon and Boeing have a huge financial stake in keeping wars going, and their lackeys in Congress are scared to death to oppose them.

Do we ever learn? Of course not. And what does a culture of endless war abroad mean on the domestic front? Can a nation engaged in foreign military conflicts enjoy peace and prosperity at home? Ask the protesters at Standing Rock or activists from Black Lives Matter what it feels like to confront militarized police forces.

The taxpayer money that has been poured into Afghanistan, wasted, lost, funneled to warlords and corrupt officials, could easily alleviate the crushing student loan debt faced by so many Americans.

Opportunity lost in the fog of endless war.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fire & Fury

“By interpreting freedom as the multiplication and the rapid satisfaction of needs, they do violence to their own nature, for such an interpretation merely gives rise to many senseless and foolish desires, habits and most absurd inventions.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The elderly of North Korea know fire and fury very well. They survived carpet-bombing by the US Air Force, the dropping of napalm on their towns and cities. War and utter destruction is their history, never to be forgotten. Yes, the leader of North Korea is as nutty and unstable as the leader of the United States, but let’s keep in mind that North Korea doesn’t stage massive military exercises -- war games they are called -- near the border of the United States.  

I keep reminding myself in these days of August that Donald Trump and his band of incompetent kleptocrats and bigots are a symptom, not a cause. The problem is neoliberalism, imperialism and militarism; I keep reminding myself that American capitalism is a failure, a brutal and inhumane system that works -- spectacularly well -- for only a small percentage of the population and leaves the majority insecure, indebted and in misery; I keep reminding myself that the economy is a castle of sand, sure to be toppled by the next big wave; I keep reminding myself that racism lies at the heart of the American experience, and that it takes little to unleash that wicked genie from the bottle. Look at what just happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. To me it was like being shot back in time, to 1955 or 1860 or 1741. We can say, “this isn’t us,” but it’s not true -- this is us. Racist, violent, intolerant and ignorant.

The author Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking on Democracy Now, placed the inaction of the Charlottesville police in perfect context when he said, imagine if, after the killing of Eric Garner by police, black people had organized a march and flooded into the streets laden with torches, clubs, guns and shields, and brawled in the streets with counter-protesters. Do we think the police would have stood idly by and done nothing? Unarmed black people are gunned down in this ass-backward country for driving a vehicle with a busted taillight.

Fareed Zakaria passes himself off as one of the wise men of CNN, but, like so many of his colleagues, he’s a hack who toils within the narrow confines of what masquerades as public debate. On Bill Maher’s HBO show the other day Zakaria said that illegal immigration has been a long-standing problem in part because it has driven down the wages of working Americans. Maher let this trope pass without challenge. Wages in America have been flat for decades by design. Offshoring manufacturing jobs to China, Mexico, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and other countries where labor is dirt cheap was a conscious decision by American corporations and the allies they bought in government. Trade, tax and monetary policies that favor capital over labor, investors over workers, have also contributed to wage stagnation here. And let’s not forget the effects that union busting have had on wages. Decades of corporate attacks on what once was called Big Labor by corporations, with support from Republicans and Democrats, have done far more than illegal immigration to produce the staggering level of wealth inequality that is not only tolerated in this country, but celebrated.

Every single day King Donald I exposes the deep cracks and fissures in the foundation of our system, the insane and insatiable desire for wealth and power, the complete indifference to human needs, domestically and abroad, the unbridled arrogance with which America deals with the rest of the world. Even if King Donald were driven from his throne tomorrow the system would stumble on toward the abyss, like a blind ogre.

It was 70 years ago that the British partitioned India. Millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of arbitrary lines. The mayhem and dislocation and violence that ensued was monumental and the ramifications continue to this day.

Fear and intolerance are powerful things.