Archive for February, 2009

Reaganism and Reality

February 27, 2009

When I was in the ninth grade, in 1966, I was formally introduced to the topic of Capitalism. My social studies teacher, Mr. Lacey, explained that while it was the best system in the world, it had experienced difficulties in the 1930s, due to a form of Capitalism called “Laissez-Faire,” a form that had been thoroughly discredited. Since that time, we’d learned how to regulate the system, and instances such as the Great Depression were unlikely to happen again.

The place I grew up in was not at all liberal. And I doubt that what Mr. Lacey expressed was merely his personal opinion. It was the middle-of-the-road, official position of society as a whole. I was aware that there was a stain of nut-cases who went around doing things like erecting billboards that called for the impeachment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. I was surprised when one of those nut-cases got himself elected Governor of California—Ronald Reagan. For years, that man uttered some of the most extreme and violent comments made by anybody on the American political scene. I was appalled later when they were able to pass him off as a kindly old man and get him elected President. He was not a kindly man; he was mean. He was an actor. He lived in a fantasy world and told people what they wanted to hear. And because he believed in his fantasies, people had faith in him and voted for him.

When Reagan re-opened the door to “Laissez-Faire,” I remembered Mr. Lacey. I’ve never studied economics, but some things are self-evident. I’ve been predicting this economic crisis for years. The ideas that greed is a virtue (as some have insisted) and that markets are purely independent, self-regulating systems like the weather have always struck me as transparently absurd. To set up a system where the mass of people depend on the benevolence of the wealthy is dangerous. It’s unbalanced. I saw the dot.com disaster coming. I knew that what was happening in real estate could not continue. All these things were easy to see. I’m not claiming an especially keen intelligence. It’s just that I never got caught up in and blinded by the fantasies that Reagan was selling. I’ve known plenty of other people who saw this coming, but we were all on the sidelines. So now we’re paying the price for the materialists’ fantasy. And it’s going to get a lot worse. That’s the truth. But we’ve been needing this. Life is not about money.

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A Good Line from Paul Krugman

February 26, 2009

From his blog today:

The political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. 

Anti-war

February 23, 2009

While I’m happy that Obama is President, I think his Afghanistan policy is a big mistake—potentially a catastrophic mistake. I’ve never supported the so-called “War on Terror,” which is simplistic and deluded. It’s a cover. And when it’s not a cover, it’s just plain ignorance. We always walk into these situations certain that we can succeed where everybody else has failed. Then we pay a huge price. We never learn. We don’t understand or acknowledge the true cause and effect that’s in play. Obama is smart enough and well read-enough to know this. But I have little doubt that he feels heavy pressure from the deeply entrenched military/corporate complex, which will attempt to destroy his presidency if he does anything other than aim for “victory.” We need to support him loudly if he shows any inclination to move toward withdrawal. If it comes down to it, I’ll be out marching against this war.

A Political Disagreement

February 21, 2009

Today Judy and I went for a bike ride, and along the way we made a pit stop. Judy went inside a store, while I remained outside to watch over the bikes. I was sitting on a bench next to a young black man who had just finished work and was waiting for a ride home. We got into a conversation—first about the weather, then about the economy. We agreed that both situation look grave—drought and depression. I said that at least the economy was in the hands of a good man. He expressed the hope that people would give Obama enough time to turn things around. I voiced my honest opinion that Obama is the smartest president of recent times. And there, we had our disagreement. He thought John Kennedy was the smartest. I simply couldn’t buy that. Yet we both maintained our civility, and we parted on amicable terms.

Progress Report #7

February 16, 2009

I finished the second draft of Chapter Six, “Rain on the Freeway,” a short chapter. The next one, Chapter Seven, called “A Tree With Roots,” will be a long one. Work starts tomorrow.

The Bipartisan Effort

February 14, 2009

I’ve disagreed with those who think that Obama is foolish for trying to make an effort at bipartisanship with the Republicans. I’ve had no doubt that the effort will fail, but it has to be made, and made honestly. The Republicans are being given an opportunity to participate, but they have demonstrated that they have every intention of purely obstructive. At some point, it becomes foolish to continue down that path. The Republicans claim they are defending their principles. But that isn’t true. Private greed and the love of power are not principles. Principles are positive values. The Republican Party is the most negative entity in this country. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a restrained description.

Clinging to Our Fantasy

February 11, 2009

I read a book review in the New York Times that got me all het up. Both the author, Thomas P. M. Barnett, and the book’s reviewer, Dwight Garner, live in a fantasy world, I think. A lot of Americans do. It’s largely the result of our belief in “American exceptionalism.” No one is exceptional. Karma is karma. Cause and effect. That’s it.

The passage that got me all in a lather was the reviewer’s praise for an earlier work of Barnett’s called “The Pentagon’s New Map.” I quote:

Mr. Barnett’s sane idea: bring the world’s rowdy, hormonal, emotionally tortured teenage countries to the adult table, and teach them to prosper through capitalism, cooperation, and openness. The enemy “is neither a religion (Islam) nor a place (the Middle East), but a condition — disconnectedness,” he explained.

This is hubris, the same old hubris we’ve been suffering from for decades. It seems especially ridiculous to be praising something like that considering what we’re putting the world through right now with the near collapse of our financial system. And the statement is cheap intellectually. For one thing, capitalism and cooperation are inimical to one another. In reality, competition is always given the run of the field. “Cooperation” is just a nice sounding word. But you aren’t supposed to point that out. We never have real debate about something like that. Certain ideas are not to be questioned.

My main complaint is with the author’s and the reviewer’s enthusiasm for globalization. Globalization was one of those things I didn’t give much serious thought to—although I was inclined against it instinctively—until I saw it in action. In the summer of 2007, I went to Greece, my first trip back there since 1969. What I saw appalled me. The culture of Greece has been ruined by globalization. The Greeks used to be an extraordinarily friendly, relaxed, and generous people. But they are grumpy now—sullen teenage girls taking your money at the cash register. I talked to the owner of a laundromat in Iraklion about what I thought I was seeing, and he confirmed it. He said that the Greeks are under a great deal of stress now, chasing money. He hated what it had done to his country. The old life is gone. Everything is commerce now. Greece functions largely as a resort for the affluent Northern Europeans and Americans. The tourists have no interest in the place or the people who live there. They drink and work on their tans. So the Greeks have lost their warmth toward strangers. Who can blame them? Greece has started to look like every other place in the world—same products, same bored teenagers, same pop music, same frantic activity, same plastic architecture. It’s gotten so that there’s really no reason to go anywhere anymore. The global corporations are creating a monoculture that is ruining the spirit.

A truly sane idea is: we have nothing to give the rest of the world until we give up the fantasy of everyone becoming a millionaire and start searching for our soul again.

The Dick Cheney

February 8, 2009

A few days ago Dick Cheney told an interviewer: “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected.” That’s the sort of thing that sounds like wisdom to an egotist. Respect and love are not separate entities. Where there is no respect, there is no love; where there is no love, there is no respect. What Cheney really meant, of course, is that he believes other countries should fear us. But he can’t use that word.

A few years ago, my wife Judy and I were in Jackson, Wyoming to do a presentation on the parrot movie at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Afterward, we were to fly to Denver from Jackson and then on home, but we got held up on the runway. The pilot explained that we had to wait for the Vice President’s plane to give us permission to pass. It was sitting next to the runway, engines off, doors open, ramps down, not going anywhere. It wasn’t at all clear what was going on, and, of course, nobody explained. As the window for catching our connecting flight to San Francisco shrank, my contempt for the son of a bitch—already high—grew by the minute. Finally, they let us go. As far as I could see, nothing outside the plane had changed at all. That little episode reeked of imperial hubris. In a democracy, the people in the government are supposed to be the servants of the people, not their lords and masters. People like Cheney, and there are many of them, don’t care whether we love them or not. They want to rule over us and prefer to be feared rather than loved or respected. They need to be weeded out.

The Music Biz

February 4, 2009

I grew up listening to records. I was obsessed with them. The only thing I loved more than records was girls. Now, I’m constantly hearing about the death of the music business. And that does seem to be happening. Some people are really shook up about it, but I find that I don’t care. For one thing, I stopped listening seriously to recorded music around 1973-74. There hasn’t been much since then that has really moved me.

A lot of people are excited about what’s taking the place of the record companies: People are making their own music at home digitally and distributing it through the Internet. That’s where I get most recorded music today. But I consider it an even worse alternative than the music companies. The current digital model utilizes computer programs like ProTools, where it doesn’t matter if you hit a bad note; the computer will fix it for you. Music today has the depth of wallpaper. Real music is a live thing. It’s not notes on paper, on tape, or on a hard drive. I didn’t really understand that until one day many years ago when I “accidentally” made some live music. The experience made my jaw drop.

People need music. It’s like a vitamin or something. But there are no nutrients in what’s being created now. Songs are just vehicles to stardom, which is completely useless. The best way to hear music, the alternative that is always around and is not dependent on the vagaries of the economy, fashion, or technology, is to learn how to play it yourself. Playing with others is a rush that can’t be duplicated by listening to recordings—no matter how loud you crank up the sound. It’s not so hard to do. It’s a good discipline to study an instrument. It beats sitting around surfing the Internet or watching television. It used to be that a lot of people knew how to play music, at least a little bit. Now it’s seen as something for specialists. You don’t need a vast amount of knowledge to play. The spirit of music can be released through the simplest structures.

Several years ago, I made this point in an online forum (that people should learn to play music themselves), and the hostility of the responses was amazing. I’m still not sure exactly why it happened, except that they all sounded like addicts who’d been deprived of their drug. I play music more than I listen to it. When my dream was to be a pro, it was the other way around! Real music is something pure and accessible to everyone. And I believe it’s purpose is to bring about communion, not to goose you.