I didn’t put up this corner of the web with the intention of reviewing books (or anything else, really), but I read something not too long ago that deserves a mention. It’s a satirical novel called The United States of Air, by a guy named J.M. Porup. As one might expect of a work by an author who makes note of his intention to renounce his American citizenship, it is not overly enthusiastic regarding the current policy objectives of the United States government. It’s also very funny.
Porup has billed his work as “A satire that mocks the War on Terror,” which is a pretty complete description, actually. The basic premise is that rather than a war on terror, the U.S. has declared a global war on fat, and is promoting air as an alternative to food. This allows Porup to make use of a number of absurd and hilarious security technologies – such as “toilet taps” to identify “food terrists” – as nakedly unsubtle but very funny stand-ins for the currently expanding security state we’re now dealing with. It’s all shamelessly over the top, ridiculous, heavy handed and somewhat bitter, which is exactly what one should want in a political satire. I’d characterize it as the sort of thing Jonathan Swift might have produced had he ever been employed by National Lampoon, with a dash of South Park. It’s not going to persuade any Patriot Act fans to shape up in the ethics department, but it is funny, inexpensive and easy to get over at Smashwords. It is not a profound or brilliant piece that might save us all, but it is an honest, hostile and often clever look at post 9/11 cognitive dissonance through a simultaneously absurd and banal dystopia. Besides, government agents ranked by waist size hunting food criminals in smart cars pretty much can’t miss if you’re looking for a laugh. I found it a welcome bit of on topic comic relief in my otherwise serious and depressing reading list.
Happy new year. Let’s review. We’ll start small:
Status quo in another revolving door election between party A and party a. (No other result was possible, so we classify this as small).
Stepping up now:
We were treated to the holy wisdom of Richard Mourdock from the heart of Indiana as he revealed to us the Almighty’s position on rape. (A note on the lighter side: Shouldn’t someone who might be nicknamed “Dick” generally avoid commenting on gender issues?).
Moving on from troglodytic verbal gaffes, we reach domestic surveillance:
It seems the Occupy movement was closely watched by the FBI and Homeland Security even before the start of public protests. Apparently, the FBI’s Memphis Joint Terrorism Task Force actually described Occupy as “domestic terrorism.” Apparently, the FBI communicated their findings to corporate America. So, what we have here are government agencies (the FBI and Homeland Security) coordinating a national crackdown on a nonviolent protest movement according to the needs of the cash engorged corporate world. This is nothing less than part 2 of the Palmer Raids. Why mention this now? Well, because this surveillance is still going on as Occupy plans for the coming spring.
And now manipulating public opinion:
CNN decided to go ahead and selectively gather data on drone casualties from obviously suspect sources in order to cheerlead for Obama-as-war-president. Here’s an article from The Atlantic that covers the bases, but frankly isn’t critical enough.
On to the real big leagues – death and wrongful imprisonment:
Gaza is still blockaded.
The drone wars of Bush-Obama continue to kill civilians.
Bradley Manning is still not free.
Leonard Peltier is still not free.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is still not free. (Three is good enough for now. We only have so much space, after all).
We had a school shooting, following which a president whose personally authorized drone attacks have killed more children than died at Sandy Hook gave what I can only consider a deeply hypocritical speech. We then had to be dragged through the requisite media find-some-music-or-movie-or-videogame-to-blame-this-on routine before arriving at gun control as an issue. Once there, the limit of the national discourse seems to be an assault weapons ban not substantially different from the one we had not too long ago. (Never mind, of course, that that ban only expired in 2004; those of my generation who were finishing up high school in 1999 ought to be acutely aware that this ban was in effect during the Columbine shooting, so hooray for useless legislation). There’s a great post over at SMBIVA suggesting what should have been obvious from day one: there’s a common element to all school shootings that no one seems to want to talk about – schools. Check it out.
Finally, stuff of global import:
2012 was the warmest year on record, with tons of extreme weather. Climate change deniers would be well advised to wear sunscreen when they go outside to yell at the rest of us about how climate change is a hoax. Unless, of course, sun burns and skin cancer are also hoaxes.
The 2012 Mayan apocalypse failed spectacularly. Granted, it was based largely on a blatant misinterpretation of Mayan beliefs. But hey, at least a horde of ignorant rubbernecking tourists did irreparable damage to a couple of archaeological wonders as part of their world’s end party.
You know, I’m getting some serious déjà vu here. In ’99, we had a horrible school shooting, I finished an academic program, and a prediction of apocalypse (Y2K) didn’t deliver. In 2012, we had another horrible school shooting, I finished another academic program (if we include high school, that makes four now and still no lucrative, fulfilling career. Ever wish you could place a call back in time to your high school guidance counselors?), and another apocalypse fizzled.
We lost both Alexander Cockburn and Gore Vidal. I can only see this as a severe blow to the left and to the United States in general. We don’t have that many good people left, and these losses only hasten the end of the era of the public intellectual, already being replaced with talking heads and credentialed idiots. With Howard Zinn already gone, things look pretty bleak to me. If Noam Chomsky, Jeffrey St. Clair and Cindy Sheehan ever travel anywhere together, maybe we should insist they take separate flights. The flame is low, and there’s a big wind coming. The liberals capitulated big time (again) and think the Democrats have saved them from some thug named Cliff whose nickname appears to be “Fiscal.” As usual, there will be no meaningful help from them. This year, my eyes will once again be on Occupy. Here’s hoping.
On the bright side, I did read a pretty damn funny satire recently. I’ll probably add more on that soon.
What can be said about the uniquely American quasi-religious retail holiday known as Black Friday? This year’s observance happened to coincide with a Walmart worker’s strike that almost no one appeared to care about. Well, that’s not quite true; I’ve heard of several stories indicating that many shoppers expressed support for and approval of the Walmart strike – as they crossed the picket line to shop AT WALMART. (This account of some of the more successful actions may lift spirits a little. Let no one say I’m more than 95% gloom). In addition, I’m aware of an incident of mass pepper spraying by a shopper looking for a cheap Xbox (California), two people shot dead in a Walmart parking lot over a parking space (Florida) and a man who tried to punch his way to the front of the line outside Sears, until he happened to attack a man with a concealed carry license, who drew his weapon and chased the attacker away (Texas). While I’ve never been a fan of concealed carry (if one must carry a weapon, surely open carry is both more honest and a better deterrent), the Texas Sears incident is probably the best argument in its favor I’ve yet seen. Of course, the Florida parking lot shooting seems a more potent argument against it. But back to the matter at hand: How has this de facto holiday achieved such significance that people are prepared to kill for it? Why also do so many see no contradiction in indicating their approval of the Walmart strike even as they cross the picket line to shop at Walmart?
This second question is made more interesting in light of the revelation that the term “Black Friday” was used by factory managers in the 1950s not to refer to crowds of shoppers, but to the large number of workers who called in sick. Only later did the day transition from a headache for manufacturing into a for profit free for all for retail. One might characterize the transition in this way: 1950s Black Friday was a day for workers to tell the boss “piss off, I’m extending my holiday and there’s nothing you can do about it,” while present day Black Friday is a day for consumers to say “it’s great that you’re standing up to this evil company I’m about to make more profitable. I’d stay home or shop elsewhere and actually support you in a meaningful way, but I can’t show any real solidarity. I mean, seriously dude – there are plasma screens at stake!” Between the violence and the disregard for workers, I think the following ought to be the official Black Friday slogan (or mission statement, if you’re the corporate type): “Plasmas over people!” This attitude shouldn’t surprise us. It makes perfect sense in the context of a society in which people have come to identify as consumers rather than workers. This is what becomes of six decades of local news reports on who’s getting ripped off at the register instead of who’s getting ripped off on payday. Yet the culture of Black Friday doesn’t really favor the consumer, either. The desperate violence, after all, ultimately stems from the once a year availability of products that most consumers ordinarily can’t afford. This is another effect of the worker-consumer disconnect. The exploitation of American workers is what sets the stage for the annual struggle over products that are temporarily affordable. This is what leads to actual human beings calmly considering the pros and cons of unleashing pepper spray on their fellows in the name of savings, and this is what leaves us with shoppers who seem totally unaware that the bargains they’re hunting come at the direct expense of the striking workers they’re largely ignoring. There is no understanding that the workers and consumers are the same people; even the workers and consumers themselves seem unaware of this. Everything is simply part of the environment. Deploying pepper spray against a rival for a game system seems as natural as two predators fighting over a gazelle carcass if it’s perceived as an environmental necessity. Ignore the man behind the curtain, peon. This contrived retail scenario has nothing to do with him. Now face your opponent and fight to the death! Two shoppers enter, one shopper leaves – with a discount!
While I was occupied with the thanksgiving holiday (or more accurately while I was occupied at work instead of having a thanksgiving holiday) the usual suspects went at it over Gaza. Better bloggers than I have already addressed this in more or less the same way I would have; check out my blogroll if you’re curious. VastLeft and Chris Floyd would be good places to start. Even so, I feel it necessary to chime in. Criticizing Israeli policy is not for the weak of stomach in the US, where the slightest suggestion that maybe Israel shouldn’t be bulldozing Palestinian homes or might want to consider not defying world opinion and UN resolutions regarding illegal settlements can get one branded an anti-Semite. I, however, have been shacking up with one of the chosen people for 12 years and fear no reprisal. To anyone gearing up to play the “Israel has a right to defend itself” card, I present this map:
There are two possibilities here: Either offense really is the best defense, or this isn’t ’defense’ at all. If the Palestinians are as dangerous to the integrity of Israel as Netanyahu suggests, then they clearly aren’t very good at it. HuffPost (Yeah, I’m not a fan either, but they have the most recent count I could find) claims the following as of 11/19: 87 Palestinians killed (50 of them civilians), 720 wounded vs. 3 Israelis killed and “dozens” wounded. Seriously, who holds the power here? Since when does the right to self defense encompass this kind of aggression against a densely populated, blockaded region? The recent UN decision to recognize Palestine as a state, opposed by only nine nations including the US, obviously, seems to show the direction of world opinion. Apparently, I’m not the only one noticing this stuff. Whether it actually changes the behavior of the Israeli right on the ground is another question. To be clear, I’m not trying to sweep the significance of Hamas rocket attacks under the rug here, but responsibility is not a zero sum game. There’s plenty to go around, and the vast disparity in power and influence between Israel and Hamas suggests that the bulk of it ought not be placed on the weaker party.
Professor Sergio Pergola over at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has done some work on Israeli and Palestinian demographics that addresses one of the more common views of the whole mess. He breaks it down like this: Israel has three major objectives: First, be a democratic society, second, remain a Jewish society and third, retain the occupied territories. Here’s the issue: they can only really have two. In order to keep the occupied territories (West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza), Israel must give up either democracy or its Jewish character. At the moment, it appears to have opted to off democracy, as in order to protect its traditional Jewish character it must operate in the manner of an apartheid system by excluding – and often confining – Palestinians. Were it to include them, it could no longer claim to be a ‘Jewish’ society due to the resulting demographic shift. Pergola doesn’t take a strong position regarding what should be done, but I think it’s pretty clear that releasing the occupied territories is the way to go, now that everyone seems to have abandoned the one state solution. The Israeli right, however, has opted to keep up the apartheid model.
One final note: Pergola, deep in demographer mode, appears to have missed something ominous: the central issue he’s identified is remarkably similar to the racist paranoia of certain American pundits. Remember the O’Reillys of the world bemoaning the alleged loss of “white America” after the election? (Relax, Bill. It’s right where you left it, on the right hand counter next to the kill list and the predator drone owner’s manual). Is this not reminiscent of retrograde blood and soil nationalism? We really ought to have left this behind by now, yes?
In case anyone blinked and missed the mainstream news coverage of this, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala were arrested outside of the 2nd Obama – Romney debate. While they were officially grabbed for “blocking traffic,” the charge may as well have been “being in a third party.” I’m reminded of the Bush-Gore debate in 2000 at UMass, Boston. I was student there at the time (way back in my undergraduate days) and was offered a chance to “win” one of the set-aside-for-students tickets. I passed, as I was already at the breaking point with the dems over a number of things (GATT, NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Madeleine Albright’s horrific take on Iraqi children, etc.). One of my fellow students did get his hands on a ticket, however, and did something great. He gave it to Ralph Nader. This is what happened. Kind of feels like we’ve been on an exercise bike for 12 years, doesn’t it? Actually, forget that. An exercise bike stays where it is. We’re going in reverse.
I stumbled on these last week. It seemed appropriate to put them here, now that I’ve officially registered to vote before this, the first election since I moved (and, apparently, the most important election in the history of time). My presence far from any polling place will now be properly noted on election day. Unless I go third party again. We’ll see.
For about a year now, my girlfriend/partner/fiance (whichever label she currently prefers) has been trying to find employment – at a PETCO. Of course, she didn’t emerge from childhood gazing starry-eyed at the pet supply giant, a wistful smile on her lips, the sound of barcode scanners in her ears and the aroma of accumulated hamster feces lingering around her. No, this was not always her dream. She went into debt training as a massage therapist, earning high marks (that employers didn’t care about).
After some initial success at two terrible jobs, the first at a gym that never retained a manager longer than two weeks, the second at a local spa that routinely stole her tips and expected her to do marketing work on her own time for free, the collapsing economy swallowed up the spa (which in turn swallowed her last paycheck before closing). For awhile, she found a string of massage jobs as an independent therapist, where she had the delightful opportunity to explain over and over again that she was not a prostitute. Pretty soon, the cost of license renewals and insurance outpaced the available work. Now her license is expired and she has no insurance, but at least she got to keep her student loan debt. Always fond of animals, she was very excited when she noted our apartment’s proximity to PETCO, and so the applications began.
Like everything else these days, PETCO’s application process is entirely online. Like every online form, much of it is meaningless space filler, including the most insulting element of all – a psych test. Yes – PETCO requires applicants to fill out a psychological profile to operate cash registers and mop up urine. In total, it took her about two hours to complete the application. When she called to follow up with the hiring manager, she was told – by the hiring manager – “I’m not really sure we’re hiring right now.” Huh?
After repeating this process several times, she finally caught the hiring manager in person at the store and discovered the horrible truth about her unanswered applications: She had “failed” the psych profile. When I heard this story, I was struck forcibly by a line from “Alice’s Restaurant”: “Sargeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself, I mean, I mean, I mean that just, I’m sittin’ here on the bench, I mean I’m sittin here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.” Edited for PETCO: “I’m takin’ a psych test, I mean I’m just takin’ a psych test ’cause you wanna know if I’m sane enough to restock cat food after havin’ father issues.” She wondered: did she appear too sensitive? Not sensitive enough? Not willing to rat out fellow employees? Did they suppose she’d have a breakdown while feeding the tropical fish, perhaps due to repressed memories of childhood emotional abuse suffered at Sea World?
The working poor in this country are, of course, the only ones who must endure abuse this asinine. In short: they deliberately waste your time. A psychological profile, personality test, whatever they want to call it for an $8-$9 an hour job no one wants. Fantastic. I imagine the only reason we don’t put our heads of state and captains of industry through similar tests is that we’re already well aware of their sociopathy.