Monday, August 31, 2009

Hurricane Katrina, Four Years Later


In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the property and lives of thousands of New Orleansiens. Indeed, 1,836 people died in the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Over 700,000 applications were made to FEMA for housing following the hurricane. Four years later, over 100,000 still live in the nearly 38,000 trailers provided by the government. There has been a lot of talk about security over the last eight years. Sadly the term has been largely applied to military preparations. Katrina was a poignant example of how government social security is absolutely necessary in any humane democracy where we have obligations to each other, not just to ourselves. That kind of humaneness and moral duty requires some financial sacrifice in the form of taxes. A private corporation can't provide this security. Who would pay for it but citizens, and their motive would be profit (sorry to even have to point this out, but extreme anti-government sentiments have recently reared their heads in the healthcare non-debate). IN addition, lack of resources or re-located resources in downsizing government, cutting taxes, cynically in the name of "security" was reportedly part of the reason the levees were not repaired and strong enought to protect thousands of citizens in New Orleans.
Let us have a moment of cyber silence for those who died, and those who are still suffering, their livelihoods, families, and possessions completely devastated by an act of nature and an act of government negligence (which many of us are complicit in, as we supported its ideologies).
Here's what I had to say about it three years ago:

"[Also appears atBlogcritics: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2006/08/30/042440.php]

copyright 2006 Jayson Harsin

One year after Hurricane Katrina, the mediated remembrance of that American political (as much as natural) disaster remains sadly selective and, well, typical. On Katrina's first anniversary, American media cheerfully circulate a renewed barrage of stories about glorious private generosity in a time of need; and hackneyed political slogans about security, freedom, duty, compassion, and an ownership society. Those who deliberately use such words are obviously cynical since they imply that democracy does not require careful discussion of complex and emotionally powerful words/ideas such as freedom and security, so they use them with clear consciences to gain consent for their own agendas.

The material insecurity of thousands of American citizens in New Orleans (representative of millions of others in that country and the world) so terribly evident in the images of floating bodies, on the one hand, and an exodus of SUVs, on the other, was the bitterest of ironies since it came at a time when political speech and news media inundated the American public with platitudes about national security and freedom. Recent attempts to exploit the occasion of the uncovered London bombing plan have generated a similar mediated political climate on Katrina's anniversary. Yet such powerful but contested words, as Abraham Lincoln noted, must in the name of ethics be defined and their competing interpretations discussed:

Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty. (Address at a Sanitary Fair, 1864)
A year ago, it was obvious to many Americans (certainly to those waterlogged and praying on their rooftops for rescue of their bodies, since the material markers of their American dream were gone forever) that it was time for a re-thinking or rediscovery of security and government and citizen responsibility for the minimal wellbeing of all American citizens. This latter issue should not have to be argued here, but for those doubters, consider the caution of some of the world's greatest thinkers on the health of democratic republics. Katrina has everything to do with the health and future of American democracy as an example for the world.

Aristotle, for example, argued that it was in the interest of all that a democracy did not have great extremes in wealth (Politics 6.5, and discussed in relation to the founding of the U.S. by David Hopp): "Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. "

He does not say that everyone should have the same amount of wealth, but just that great extremes are dangerous to the health of democracy, since they produce envy, faction, hate, and possibly even revolution. Ironically, George W. Bush has even unwittingly acknowledged this truth, applying it to Iraq and not to his own country:

I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again. As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. (State of the Union Address 2004)
America is a great force for freedom and prosperity. Yet our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society. (State of the Union Address, 2006; See Also Second Inaugural)
One of the greatest leaders in the history of democracy, the Athenian Pericles, went so far as to argue that this kind of equality and commitment to one another in a democracy even made its armies more formidable, as they had so much more to lose, unlike those forced to fight for regimes with huge discrepancies in power. One might recall this, too, as over 2,600 young Americans have now died and nearly 20,000 have been wounded in Iraq in the name of the duty to spread freedom and to insure American security by pre-empting terrorism.

One year later, the cutting irony than Katrina occurred in a media and political culture saturated with security and freedom talk has not abated. This is not wholly the fault of opportunistic politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats, who deliberately stultify such lofty terms as freedom, democracy, and security to suit their agendas. It is also the fault of the news media.

Political Communication scholars note the short-life of new stories or cycles. Newsgathering business values privilege certain orientations over others in the coverage of events--what scholars call news "frames." A frame refers to "persistent patterns of selection, emphasis, and exclusion which furnish an interpretation of events." An episodic frame is one the most popular news frame in U.S. news culture. Episodic frames fit into action entertainment genres. Something erupts out of a state of equilibrium, which then passes, resolved by the triumph of good and the punishments it metes or the healing process of grief. These events give way to another major newsworthy event designed to sustain interest for a short while. Thematic frames, on the other hand, give publics a deeper historical and causal explanation for events, and they would, ideally, provide voice to many different sources in the production of such explanations.
Sadly, though Katrina received some more complex explanations and discussions, they were not terribly widespread, and this partly due to the short time constraints of mainstream news presentations, which due to the structure of their productions, favor limited sources and soundbite explanations, if any at all (often viewers are left to infer what might be the cause of a huge event, such as the LA riots of 1992 or the Seattle Protests against the WTO). So it was with Katrina, and after quick rhetorical fixes and false promises to address the puzzling issue of unequal opportunities and conditions (even to exodus a disaster zone) with "bold action." Katrina, like the news frame that largely accompanied it, swept in like--a hurricane. Then it rolled out almost as quickly, as if such threats to security of citizens and the health of democracy itself were just another episodic news story. Such media and political treatments of the most serious threats to American security have resulted in an ignorance of the magnitude and roots of the problem.

In this context, in memory of those who died and lost their homes and other possessions, it is worth thinking carefully about how our political leaders, media, and society have remembered the tragedy.

Security after New Orleans: What Time Tells Us

Poignant images of poor New Orleans residents retreating from the deluge touched a nation and a world, raising troublesome questions about security and the cyclical issue of poverty in the United States. For some older Americans, these images evoked an earlier security panic—the Great Depression. We heard talk about New Deals: both the rediscovery of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and the promise of George W. Bush’s. Beneath the surface of apparent similarity, however, the two deals and the insecurity they promised to relieve were fundamentally different. Bush’s affinity for the New Deal does not run deep, and this is not the first time that he and his predecessors have used its keywords to support policies that undermine its spirit of securing freedom for all Americans.

Roosevelt’s deal was new by comparison to the security and freedom doctrine that came before him. His predecessor Herbert Hoover responded to a condition of national insecurity with ineffective solutions of rugged individualism and minimalist government. Roosevelt argued for a more activist federal government, not to expand government-for-government’s-sake, but because the Depression had shown that individuals could no longer be held completely responsible for their own security. In a time when small shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and farmers were fast disappearing, Roosevelt identified the primary threat to security as the market free of public interest. He promoted a vision of Abraham Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people as a citizen’s vehicle for dealing with the inevitable and sometimes catastrophic whims of nature, markets and businesses. He maintained this mature vision of security even in the throes of World War II, emphasizing the equal importance of military and social security. For Roosevelt, the social and economic aspects of security were so critical to American freedom that he went so far as to call for an Economic Bill of Rights to supplement the already existing political Bill of Rights.

At the heart of Roosevelt’s New Deal was his argument that freedom could not be viewed as a natural state individually embraced through work or willingly denied through sloth when 1/3 of the American nation was ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. In fact, Roosevelt viewed such poverty as a threat to the nation’s political, social and military security.



The poverty laid bare by Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that obtrusive conditions confronted during the Depression do in fact persist today, in terms of housing, education, healthcare, leisure, political access. Bush’s response to this has been far from “new.” Like Hoover, Reagan, and his own father before him, Bush continues to promote self-discipline and private cures, includig voluntarism, as solutions to large-scale security problems. In this decades-old argument, the federal government should cut all but verbal support for those living in insecure economic conditions, leaving the relief work to good Samaritans who represent the best of the American spirit. But the private sphere of charities could not deal with the magnitude of the security fallout in New Orleans.

The media unwittingly promoted this voluntarist line, telling the New Orleans story almost exclusively through the melodramatic frames of individual heroism and natural disaster. Largely absent from this coverage was an analysis of how Bush and his predecessors’ attempts to repeal the (old) New Deal directly contributed to the un-natural disaster that was Katrina. Katrina was a necessary cause for New Orleans, but it was not sufficient. By relentlessly trimming the “fat” of FDR’s legacy from the federal budget—including income supports, transportation, and public works such as levee repair—the Bush administration has left behind a skeleton security state unable to withstand any significant threat.

In the wake of the hurricane, Bush promised support for minority-owned small businesses but failed to specify how education, public health, and other key resources would be permanently secured for vulnerable citizens. On the contrary, he and some Republicans argued that reconstruction could be financed by trimming more "fat" (part of the plan to promote freedom and prosperity for all). Additional cuts only aggravate the insecurity of poor Americans. Besides, why reconstruct if only to abandon citizens to insecurity again?

George W. Bush staked his reputation on security and has said repeatedly that his number one duty is to protect U.S. citizens. But security has many meanings and demands. The deep floodwaters of New Orleans revealed just how shallow Bush's understanding of security really was. A year later, the president and the media have made little effort to face the deep responsibilities of national security.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Bye Bye Public Option?" Dangerously Misleading Headlines.


"Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters."
(Gitlin 1980: 6)

So I awoke to Facebook link-posts this morning to news that "The White House Appears to Drop 'Public Option,'" or even "'Public Option' Proposal Dead". Sure enough my mailing of political headlines from Slate Magazine reconfirmed the supposedly irrevocable: Obama had given in to the astroturf mobs and Rightwing Rumor Bombers. "Bye-Bye Public Option," Daniel Politi wrote in Slate. Looking further into those articles, I realized that this was a dangerously misleading frame/interpretation/emphasis of some comments made by Administration officials.

The most widely circulated article about the alleged Obama dropping of the Obama healthcare hot potato was by the AP. "Bowing to Republican pressure and an uneasy public," the AP wrote, "President Obama's administration signaled Sunday it is ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system." Okay, "ready to abandon." That's strong stuff, considering all the Town Hall hoopla of the last week.

Still not getting to the real kernel that allowed this defeatist inference, the article frames the public-option as a "liberal" (real universally positive label) initiative, the dropping of which could allow Obama the option of compromising with "GOP" (not "conservative or right-wing) lawmakers: "Such a concession probably would enrage Obama's liberal supporters but could deliver a much-needed victory on a top domestic priority opposed by GOP lawmakers."

This liberal/GOP frame makes it look like noone but a "liberal" (whatever that is) could be for the program. But the real evidence or statements from which this inference were made came half-way down the page. The dead public option claim is based first on a comment by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is paraphrased to have "said that government alternative to private health insurance is 'not the essential element' of the administration's health care overhaul. The White House would be open to co-ops, she said, a sign that Democrats want a compromise so they can declare a victory." They took "not the essential element" and inferred that the "public-option" was dead for Obama and everyone else?

They finally get to Obama's Press Secretary and Obama himself. Yet they say Press Secretary Robert Gibbs "refused to say a public option was a make-or-break choice." It's a powerful interpretation, one might say biased, to then headline these comments that the public option is "dead" or that Obama "appears ready to drop" it. It's big, big news. But it's a dangerous hyperbole.

Here's what Gibbs said: "What I am saying is the bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market."

The story also frames Obama as having back pedalled the day before at a townhall meeting in Colorado. "Obama appeared to hedge his bets," they said before the following quote:

"All I'm saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform....This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it."

Well, it may be fair to assume Obama has opened the debateable options, but interpret that he has abandoned the public option, or that it's "dead"? That's a very political, biased framing of the statements.

It's also dangerous because many people may have the impression that the fake grassroots disrupters (astroturfers) at town hall meetings were actually representative of the majority of Americans. Some public opinion scholars would suggest there could be a bandwagon and a spiral of silence effect based on those representations. People often don't want to feel like they're a small opposed minority and so they keep quiet, thinking they're outnumbered. Or they want to be part of the majority, so they hop on the wagon. Then there's the problem of all the Death Panel and other Rumor Bombs and the difficult-to-guage effect they've had. (Also note how some of these defeatist frames have a visual frame that symbolizes Obama as weary, wiping the tired sweat from his brow) Framing Obama as having caved into opponents here invites a perception that the Rumor Bombs and the thugs at town hall's were right all along.

But now tonight, I read just the opposite, as if Obama is responding to the media framing snowjob of this morning. "Obama Still Favors Public Health Plan," says CNN tonight. Even the Heritage Foundation Blog notes that the administration is trying to correct this wrong impression about the President's position. They also claim the Administration says Sebelius "misspoke": "An anonymous administration official told that Sebelius “misspoke” and White House health reform communications director Linda Douglass released a statement explaining:
"Nothing has changed. The president has always said that what is essential is that health-insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and it must increase choice and competition in the health-insurance market. He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals.”
Obama's comments Saturday (perhaps even Sebelius's yesterday) were probably a trial ballon (testing the waters) or misspoken, or a combination thereof. But even so, there is nothing in them to warrant the leap that Obama was ready to give up on the public option. Framing matters. It can also be viral and function like a rumor bomb. Who knows what damage has been done. Tomorrow's frames will surely tell the story.





Monday, May 11, 2009

Album Review: Steve Earle's Tribute to Townes VanZandt


Steve Earle
Townes 

by Jayson Harsin

A distinctively Earle-stamped tribute to one of the greatest American songwriters of all time. Read on

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

May Day: To the Folks Who Brought Us the Weekend!

[I wrote this a few years ago for this blog, and now I re-post it every year. If you like it, please digg it or yahoo buzz, etc.]

I used to think "May Day" was a distress signal uniquely reserved for hapless pilots and captains. In fact, it wasn't until graduate school while taking an American rhetorical history course that I learned about the Haymarket Riots/Massacre and that Labor Day for many people around the world (International Workers Day), except for Americans, is May 1, in memory of those who died in Chicago on May 3 and 4, 1886 and in celebration of the humanist accomplishments of the international labor movement.

On May 1, labor unions had organized a strike there for the eight-hour day, better working conditions ("The Jungle" is hard to beat on this), for an ideal of international proportions: that one's labor and the person from whom it issues must be respected. For some people such respect meant that laborers deserved certain rights of negotiation and safety to avoid a new feudalism in the age of mass production.

On May3, they organized a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., where a fight broke out on the picket line; police intervened, killing two workers and wounding several others. Workers across the city were enraged. Anarchists then distributed flyers for a labor rally at Haymarket Square the following day. Reports vary in this highly politicized event, but many note that people listened peacefully to anarchist leader August Spies's address. Then apparently someone threw a bomb over the crowd, which landed on the police line killing a police officer and wounding other policeman who died later. Policeman fired into the crowd killing a number of people (there are no uncontested counts). Eight German immigrants associated with anarchism were rounded up and convicted on no evidence. The motive was that they were anarchists. Seven of them were sentenced to death. One committed suicide. One's sentence was commuted to life in prison. And five were hanged publicly.

The trial produced some of the most eloquent criticisms of American industrial society and its political butresses. Some, such as George Engel's, even provide an explanation/argument for how one came to be a socialist/anarchist. Here is an excerpt from George Englel's address to the jury, which I recommend reading in its entirety by clicking on this link.

[...]On the occasion of my arrival at Philadelphia, on the 8th of January, 1873, my heart swelled with joy in the hope and in the belief that in the future I would live
AMONG FREE MEN,
and in a free country. I made up my mind to become a good citizen of this country, and congratulated myself on having left Germany, and landed in this glorious republic. And I believe my past history will bear witness that I have ever striven to be a good citizen of this country. This is the first occasion of my standing before an American court, and on this occasion it is murder of which I am accused. And for what reasons do I stand here? For what reasons am I accused of murder? The same that caused me to leave Germany-
THE POVERTY-THE MISERY
of the working classes.
And here, too, in this "free republic," in the richest country of the world, there are numerous proletarians for whom no table is set; who, as outcasts of society, stray joylessly through life. I have seen human beings gather their daily food from the garbage heaps of the streets, to quiet therewith their knawing hunger.
I have read of occurrences in the daily papers which proves to me that here, too, in this great "free land," people are doomed to die of starvation. This brought me to reflection, and to the question: What are the peculiar causes that could bring about such a condition of society? I then began to give our political institutions more attention than formerly. [...]

"I came to the opinion that as long as workingmen are economically enslaved they cannot be politically free. [...]
Of what does my crime consist?
That I have labored to bring about a system of society by which it is impossible for one to hoard millions, through the improvements in machinery, while the great masses sink to degradation and misery. As water and air are free to all, so should the inventions of scientific men be applied for the benefit of all. The statute laws we have are
IN OPPOSITION TO THE LAWS OF NATURE,
in that they rob the great masses of their rights "to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I am too much a man of feeling not to battle against the societary conditions of today. Every considerate person must combat a system which makes it possible for the individual to rake and hoard millions in a few years, while, on the other side, thousands become tramps and beggars.
Is it to be wondered at that under such circumstances men arise, who strive and struggle to create other conditions,
WHERE THE HUMANE HUMANITY SHALL TAKE PRECEDENCE
over all other considerations? [...]

As this article demonstrates, the radical democratic history of May Day has been coopted in a few places in the world (in an attempt to rob it of its radical history as a resource for current politics), namely the U.S. Like other rights and practices many people hold to be sacred today, the eight-hour day was the result of social struggle and bloodshed (I'm just testifying about it; don't try this at home) by those considered "extremists."

In that same graduate school class where I learned about the history of May Day, a Polish student who had grown up in the last days of the Soviet Empire told an interesting story. Apparently on May Day, a Polish TV news correspondent was sent to Chicago to report on May Day. He went to the site of the Hay Market, where a monument to the police had been constructed then vandalized. (Only in 2004 was one constructed to acknowledge the workers who died there too. The politics of memorializing this event is quite a story in itself--see "Haymarket Square in the Aftermath"). The Polish reporter went around Chicago asking citizens if they knew that May Day was an international holiday in memory of the Haymarket riots and massacre. No one knew what he was talking about. He responded on their Communist state-run TV broadcast, "This is how capitalism perpetuates itself. Citizens here are robbed of their own history and live in a dreamworld." You don't have to like the Soviet Union to find truth in his observation. (and please, neo-liberals, don't be so cynical as to characterize this memorial as an extreme argument for state ownership of property;it's rather about some redistribution for equal opportunity and the basis for participation in civic life, and limitation of the most powerful who set the terms for the labor market)

The testimony of Engel and others at their fateful trial is also a causal argument about what desperate human beings will do when they suffer political exclusion to work out conflict peacefully. The fact that this event is largely a ghost in American history speaks to how unwilling some people are to look at the ugliness of our history (not that forgetting isn't best in some situations from a certain point of view), the struggles of citizen against citizen because such knowledge is threatening to myths of nation and its tenuous coherence. It's also threatening to those whose interests invested in criminalizing critiques of a consumer society that is killing our planet, not just its people. Part of the reason why it may continue is the suppression of other knowledges of the past and critiques of the present. Just as many wounded laborers were afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested when police opened fire on the crowd on May 4, 1886 (after the bomb exploded) , so today one faces being branded an extremist, a radical, a revolutionary, merely for remembering this past.

Today (yesterday for some people reading this) is May Day. Today, let us remember these people who brought us the weekend.

JH

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Economic Crisis and Religious Dictates Against Usury

As I'm preparing a talk on the current economic crisis from the perspective of a history of American popular understandings of democracy and its relationship to economic regulation, I ran across the following article. My own research leaves me amazed at how so many Americans claim to be religious, yet their support of recent economic policies stands in conflict with their religious dictates. The Torah, the Koran, and the Bible all ban usury, and have passages that have been interpreted as obliging redistribution of resources. Why don't people know about their own religions? Certain interests and their selective readings have for various reasons won out recently. Is there chance that will change in the near future?

March 28, 2009

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced sweeping changes in the nation's finance rules, specifically targeting the derivative financial products that led to the credit crisis, mortgage crisis, banking crisis, and the crisis in the American automobile industry.. Predictably, some conservatives have responded that such policies would lead to "socialism," or a similar compromise of the free-enterprise American dream.

In fact, such regulations are as old as the Ten Commandments, and as American as apple pie: they are nothing more than an update of the ancient prohibitions on usury, or the unfair charging of interest. And while today, "usury" has a whiff of the antiquarian about it (or worse, one of antisemitism), if we look closely at what usury laws were meant to do, I think we'll discover that they are much more relevant, and worthy, than we might suppose.

Western civilization's original usury laws are found in the Bible: the Torah contains several prohibitions against lending money at interest, and the New Testament several condemnations of it. Deuteronomy 23:20-21 is representative: "Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto, in the land whither thou goest in to possess it."

I will return to the distinction between Israelite and foreigner below, but first, however, I want to explore rationales for the usury prohibition in the first place. In the Deuteronomy passage above, the reason is somewhat generic: interest is forbidden, like many other ritual and ethical acts, "so that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto."

In Leviticus 25:35-37, however, a more specific reason is given: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. Take thou no interest of him or increase; but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase."

Here, at least two reasons are given: first, the ethical value of caring for the poor, and second, "that thy brother may live with thee." If one were to charge interest, the text suggests, the bonds of society would collapse; rich and poor could not live together. Later commentators developed these dual rationales. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that usury is both morally wrong and an improper form of "double-charging," because money is a means of commerce, not a thing in itself.

"That thy brother may live with me," in other words, is a prudential argument, not a moral/ethical one. The concern here is not only that usury is immoral -- it takes advantage of the weak -- but also that civil society itself would be compromised if usury were allowed. This, not ethnocentrism, is why lending to foreigners was allowed; the concern was with the economic health and civil cohesion of Israelite society, which would are not threatened by lending to outsiders. But if usury multiplied risk and magnified inequity within the community of Israel, chaos would result.

Notice, too, that these twin rationales extend the purview of usury law far beyond the narrow contemporary meaning of charging excessive interest. Today, all states have usury statutes that cap the rate of interest for loans. But the Biblical and exegetical usury statutes are broader: they are aimed at the moral turpitude, societal inequity, and economic instability inherent in making money from money.

Translated into today's economic realities, this has indeed come to pass. Wealthy institutions have lured poor people into unsustainable and unstable credit arrangements, and indeed, the basic cords of our society have begun to fray. As we have seen in the excesses of executive compensation, we have lost the moral compass which once tied pay to some notions of actual work and fairness, rather than to the made-up prices of economic bubbles. Indeed, our current crisis is exactly the economic, societal, and ethical chaos which the usury laws sought to prevent.

Today's derivatives market, for example, is precisely about "making money from money" -- but taken to new and ludicrous extremes. The credit default swaps which were largely responsible for sinking insurance giant A.I.G. were essentially bets about whether certain debts would be paid or defaulted-upon. Now, as it happened, debtors defaulted in such numbers that they brought down the house. But this derivative security should never have been legal in the first place. It is a bet on making money from money; or rather, a bet on making money from lending money at a near-usurious rate of interest, and thus a usurious attempt to make money from making money from making money. As the Bible itself knew, bubbles pop.

The anti-usury value does not and should not depend on the percentage rate of interest. It is a wider prohibition, both ethical and prudential, against making money from money. Of course, it cannot be taken too literally, either; credit is what makes our economy run, as we have now learned the hard way. But in principle, anti-usury values are fundamental to the American experience, and more needed now than ever.

To ban or heavily regulate usurious derivative securities is not socialism. It's the Bible.

Jay Michaelson --from the Huffington Post

Thursday, April 09, 2009

NATO Protests and Repressive Tolerance: State Containment of Free Speech

The tactics of French police directed by the State to thwart the rights of freedom of expression in Strasbourg this week for NATO meetings are a troubling but sobering sign of a recent trend of ever more repressive tolerance in Western liberal democracies, by which I refer to the phenomenon of increasing state caricature of rights to free speech by cordoning it off, thwarting its circulation, which amounts, in effect, to freedom to speak to the wall.

French police literally shut down the entire city and quarantined the protestors. While 40,000 to 50,000 protestors were expected, according to the AP wire, only about half of that estimate were counted on site. There is evidence that the reduced presence is due to police harassment, detainment, containment and arrests of hundreds of protesters. One wonders what tactics were used to reduce the numbers further. The AP Wire writes,

"On thursday night in Strasbourg police detained at least 300 people and forced demonstrators back into a tent camp on the edge of the city."

Was the city effectively closed by police order to deprive the protestors of an audience and to create less of a media spectacle ? In other words, did the state attempt to stifle free political speech?

While there is also a trend of violence among fringe protestors, it is no wonder that violence broke out in Strasbourg given police provocations and the frustration born of this quarantine.

21 March Le Monde: "The mayor of Strasbourg didn't really have a say in the deployment of security forces in the city [for the NATO summit]. It was the French and German governments, in consultation with NATO and the U.S., which decided on the security measures and put them in place." The article continues, "The inhabitants of Strasbourg have the impression of witnessing their city under seige: no parking, transportation by bicycle encouraged, buses rerouted, and public services temporarily closed." Many businesses closed as the result of the policy.

Another independent account states that all bridges were closed and the protestors had no way out. IN other words, they were brutally, strategically quarantined. Why?

A Le Monde journalist Arnaud Leparmentier spoke of how he was allowed, ironically, to be seated two rows behind Obama for the press conference. Police, the journalist said, tightly blocked entrance to the conference, yet no one ever checked his bag, which he noted could have of course contained a bomb, hypothetically. Why the double standard?

Yesterday, Wednesday July 9 I was approaching the Invalides metro, the common site of a great many protests in Paris, to find Tamils, of which there are estimated to be 60,000 refugees in France," protesting the Sri Lankan governments offensive against Tamil rebels. I was shocked to see hundreds of them boxed in like cattle in an approximately 20x10 yards square area. Many were seated on the ground, while others stood and chanted. I witnessed no violence whatsoever. Some police mocked the protesters, while others attempted to block any contact the protesters could have with an audience of passersby. One man leaned over a makeshift fence to offer leaflets to anyone who wished to have them. Several people including myself approached him out of curiosity. Immediately, the police rushed over and took his leaflets, telling him he could not pass them out. Why, I don't know, unless French foreign policy includes silencing protests such as this.

Outside the 2004 Republican nominating convention in New York, protesters were confined to what was euphemistically called a "free speech zone," which protesters referred to as a cage. What is free about free speech in these situations? Is this what founders of Western constitutions had in mind when they spoke of liberty and equality, sacred rights of political assembly and freedom of expression. These are tactics more akin to fascist control of protest, provoking violence, then meeting it with disproportionate force. But most of all they have media effects.

There are few spectacular media images such as the fire hoses being turned on children in the Civil Rights movement. The spectacular images are of the lunatic black block, precisely the undermining of the protest organizers' strategies. None of the stories I read when I googled "Strasbourg," "NATO," and "protests" attempted to discuss why and what is was protesters were protesting. Instead we got tried and true frames that media business values commonly dictate. Conflict and violence. But this frame was lent by the State attempt to control speech. Why these measures? In the same way that states have learned from their mistakes in control (or lack thereof) in war situations, from Vietnam to Algeria. So they've learned ways to defuse the power of protests.

What this means is that the old strategies for effective change via consciousness raising in marches are largely co opted today. They must find other ways of addressing audiences and circulating messages in the way they intend.


more pictures here

Friday, March 06, 2009


"Why should the overthrow of the existing order be of vital necessity for people who own, or can hope to own, good clothes, a well-stocked larder, a TV set, a car, a house and so on, all within the existing order?" Herbert Marcuse once pointedly asked before the cornucopia of postwar Western affluence that made talk of revolutionary consciousness seem more and more lunatic even to champions of left traditions. His answer was a complex theorization of consumer society's exploitation of individuals' creative capacities coopted by organizational culture, office space, and well-paying-enough industrial work. The consumer society underwritten by the state and widespread ideologies of liberal freedom result in a condition of consuming objects as a substitute for unconstrained human creativity.

Marcuse further objects:"Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear-that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls."

How one develops a consciousness of these repressive forces and one's complicity with them is a more difficult question yet. But Marcuse, like others, seemed to think that art and the occasional crises of everyday life, led by the ironic enlightened position of a band of "outcasts and outsiders" held the possibility of revolutionary change and liberation from this sad state of affairs.

In the spirit of Marcuse, as well as other eminent theorists—such as Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists—of everyday life, freedom and exploitation under consumer capitalism, Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road is a dramatic critique of alienation and cooptation of creative, free activity in liberal democratic consumer societies. While Revolutionary Road has the actors, production qualities, and several narrative tendencies of Hollywood dramas, it is vintage Sam Mendes: a critique of historical gender roles, deadening routines, lost dreams and values, and the uncompromisingly conformist American suburbs, which are themselves captive of a larger cultural psychosis.



Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio: the great reunion. This was part of the marketing campaign in reference to the epochal Titanic, now over a decade old. which starred this same duo. Both actors have matured since then across art and offbeat Hollywood films, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to Gangs of New York, and Total Eclipse. Now under the direction of Sam Mendes, Winslett and DiCaprio reunite for a markedly Mendesesque tour de force. Like the Oscar-winning American Beauty, Mendes's follow up identifies with the misfits in the suburbs to make a larger critical statement about the iron cage of American culture, the golden bars of its complacency, and the danger of breaking out—indeed, of the very dream of breaking out.

Such a critical stance toward American culture places the film in a venerable artistic tradition that is The American Dream. The film is saturated with the tropes of American Dream literature. The readers of that depressing tradition immediately recall Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt;Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night; Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman; J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; and John Updike's Rabbit, Run, among others. One thinks of the sociological complements in The Organization Man, The Status Seekers, The Image, The Theory of The Leisure Class, and One-Dimensional Man.There's the dream of actor-stardom and the alcoholic lifestyle depicted by some of them, the obsession with "phoniness" required for mobility, and deviance met by ruthless punishment by the status quo present in all of them.

Winslett and DiCaprio play a slightly offbeat couple, April and Frank Wheeler, from the fundamental opening scene where they meet at a party, apparently part of the theater crowd. Winslett becomes a failed actress-become-housewife; Frank a stifled-creative type-become-sales-department-support staffer. Like the American Dream literature, Revolutionary Road shows the American cultural mercilessness toward those who do not conform, who live at the end of the decidedly un-revolutionary road, and start out into the woods to blaze their own trail. That divergence makes all the difference, but the difference is a tragic one.

However, this film is not just about America, any more than Max Weber's iron cage is only about German modernity, or Foucault's Discipline and Punish is about contemporary France. The condition is somewhat representative of the individual living in all Western liberal democratic consumer societies, despite their comparative nuances. That condition is one that paradoxically celebrates the freedom of the individual to do and say what he/she wants within a social structure that embraces some form of consumer capitalism, where "feeling" the elan vitale is reduced to the commonality of having a spouse, a house in the ‘burbs, a relatively new car, children, a "good" job (white collar), and the dream of having more--of all of this, and with no other goal than the inherent cultural good of having all this. Somehow, it leaves a few stragglers "empty." Where there is power, there is also resistance, said the philosopher Foucault.

Again and again, Frank talks about wanting to really "feel alive." He hasn't been able, for various reasons, to find himself, but within him a creative impulse is banging to be let out. In much of the West, one might refer to it with some repugnance as "artsy," or "irresponsible," unrealistic, and whimsical, as does the realtor-neighbor, a middle-aged 50s predecessor of American Beauty's Annette Benning's character played adeptly by Kathy Bates). But Frank wants out, and partly blames his wife and kids (though she is the repository of outward blame) for "forcing" him into the classic 50s breadwinner role.

Frank's entire office (somtimes like the playful reflections of the film Office Space and TV series The Office--what does it tell us that our culture is producing these "minor" responses) is characterized by people who find their jobs meaningless yet essential to the institutional setting. Frank goes on hating his job, and April starts to hate him and her boring suburban-housewife life. She once had other dreams, and their lack of fulfillment, like his, obtrudes on their relationship. Their marriage on the brink, April wistfully rummages through a box of old photos, as if to magically escape the suffocating outside reality by slipping into the portal of a picture world. Alas, she alights upon a photo of Frank, fresh from the allied battlefront in France, a postcardesque shot with his comrade and the Eiffel Tower as backdrop. "You always talked about how Paris was the one place you've been where you'd like to go back," she cries, like a condemned criminal supplicating her jurors. "We always thought we were better than this," she says in a moment of poignant truth, "but the fact is we aren't; we're just like them." On that provocative note, they resolve that this is their chance to flee the coop. They will sell the house and car, take the kids and their seven grand in savings, and move to Paris where she will find a dreamy high-paid job as a secretary for NATO (clearly pre-DeGaulle) while Frank will discover his creative being within. It's as if April's American suburban alienation will be overcome through a new workplace alienation that will somehow be liberated by the surrounding French culture. There's also no sense that Frank will be taking care of the kids while April's pecking away on the French office typewriter. In this sense, the plan does seem naively escapist.

The neighbors and the officemates unsurprisingly find the plan "whimsical" and "unrealistic," but more for giving up Franks' job and the shamefulness of being supported by his wife, in France of all places. The couple is resolved, however, that they're above these drones.

The brutal recalcitrance of cultural power proves too much for this escape plan when April announces that she's pregnant. This news combined with a tempting offer for promotion to some sort of salesman for the pioneering new office computer business and the haunting memory of his patently mediocre salesman father are enough to spawn Frank's rationalizations that "We can be happy here." April's rational arguments to the contrary are to no avail, which results in her realization that she no longer loves Frank. In Mendes' unhappy hands, this can not end well. The unwanted baby, the unwanted promotion, the unwanted future leaves few escape routes for this 1950s housewife. And there's every indication that Frank's new job, bigger salary and house will eventually result in the same emptiness. As in American Beauty, Mendes (and this time screenwriter Justin Haythe) make their exaggerated point through a culminating death. Unsympathetic viewers will surely find it overly dramatic, but then this is part of the depressing and suicidal American Dream tradition represented by Miller’s Willy Loman. Why depart from a venerable tradition?

Power/resistance are also paired with sanity/insanity. The Shakespearean idiot savant in the film is played by the neighbors the Givings' "insane" son John, a Ph.D. in mathematics being treated for depression with shock treatment. "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness," he says with no little foreshadowing, "but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." That about says it. In Mendes's view, the price of even questioning this system is precarious mentally. The personal is cultural, for that mental health is partly conditioned in relation to how the community and its institutions treat the individual. John the fool appears again to comment on Frank's cold feet, again quite lucidly: "You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don't like." While Frank recognized John as a sage on John's first visit, he is now pushed to the brink of violence, telling John, like the chorus of his society, he is insane and should go back to the "loony bin."

When April dies, the neighbors speak of how Frank now spends any second away from work with his children. At first glance this could strike the viewer as magnanimous. On the other hand, it can be read as not just rising to the occasion of exemplary caring single parent; but rather as escape from the emptiness of work and the empty culture of consumption, with its alcoholic, rock n' roll, and adulterous props. It's one form of rebellion the culture will permit.

Mendes is superb at sketching the cultural pressure to conform, to act pleased to be part of the group, the organization, and at the costs that await those who resist it all. One could say that he is as merciless in his critique of this culture as the culture can be merciless in its treatment of misfits (which here doesn't even consist in a visual refusal of norms, as, say, Punk style would later). What Mendes (unlike the best sociologists, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers) still hasn't been able to do, is go beyond describing social reproduction and focus on what produces these misfits. Why are the Wheelers seen to be exceptional? Why do they feel different? Why do they have desires that push them to question and want something else--symbolized by the imagined otherness of Paris? Mendes leaves us with few clues besides a child's inability to identify with parents at what the psychologist Erik Erikson once called the "formal operational" thinking level of teenagers (Frank's near disgust for his "old man's" submission to an empty job and life). April is even more of a mystery, with her pipedream of becoming a star actress. Is it too many movies and too much press about the glamorous life of stars, making her a Madame Bovary of the American 1950s?

Perhaps there is a particular contradiction in the U.S., with its time-honored clich├ęs of freedom, opportunity, rags-to-riches, and self-made men--already mentioned in its literature, film, and sociology. But finally, is this not a fate that faces millions in America and out, if they be so bold to face it? What one can do with a life is the existential question. What one can do here and now, is the more historical, sociological, and cultural one. After all, we can not all be adored actors, film critics and media professors, and actors, film critics and media professors must also sometimes find their systemic obligations and routines--well, somewhat empty. What one can be once one questions the structures within which one is is almost as terrifying a situation as what one is without questioning the structures within which one can be.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Film Review: Waltz with Bashir: Responsible Dreams

On Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir

"We were the Nazis."

BY JAYSON HARSIN

[D]ream-images are often rapidly forgotten although they are known to have been vivid, whereas, among those that are retained in the memory, there are many that are very shadowy and unmeaning. Besides, in the waking state one is wont to forget rather easily things that have happened only once, and to remember more readily things which occur repeatedly." — Sigmund Freud
Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's Cannes-nominated Waltz with Bashir (2008) is a cinematic standout for many reasons. Genre-wise, it is a unique sort of animated, fictional docu-psycho-autobiography. It also features a well-crafted plot of mystery, anticipation, and discovery (which will not be completely spoiled here) with a first-rate soundtrack that is an important character in itself. Most of all, the film is a brave grappling with the responsibility for genocide from the point of view of an individual, an Israeli veteran thinking under the weight of the Holocaust.1

Waltz with Bashir's opening is a remarkable one — twenty-six wild dogs bounding down the street, frothing at the mouth, trampling everything in their path, but also passing some humans by and fixing on a particular target to tree. It is disturbing, moving, and also a kind of symbolic foreshadowing.

That opening flows into the primary scene triggering the entire plot, a conversation between two Israeli military veterans. One, Boaz, is tormented by nightmares about these dogs, which he relates to his service at the time of the Sabra and Chatila massacres of the 1982 Lebanese war and his own responsibility therein. The nightmares have driven him into psychotherapy. Nervously puffing his cigarette, slamming his drink, and tapping his foot, he asks his friend "Ari Folman," the focal character of the film and a successful filmmaker, if he isn't haunted by the war and the massacres. Strangely, Folman doesn't remember anything at all about this gloomy chapter of human history. The problem is he was supposedly there, or at least very near. Why do the dogs pass him by and go after Boaz? Why don't they pursue Folman? The rest of the film involves the filmmaker-veteran's attempt to recover his memory of what happened, where he was, what he saw, what he did. Continue

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rumor Bombs Away: Gaza, France2, etc

Both sides in this recent disturbing waste of human life, Gaza, used rumor bombs in a public relations war. One of the highlights was a France2 (major public broadcasting network) unwitting use of footage of Gaza carnage. The only probably was it was from 2005. Where did they get it? From the internet, of course. More here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Last Model Standing is France

From Newsweek's International edition: "French-style intervention is gaining the upper hand as other economic models lose credibility..."
Click on title for more.