Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dave Zirin: Bad Sports

This is the last book I read of 2011. Somehow that feels worth mentioning, though It is not altogether that monumental. If I've labeled my posts correctly, I read approimately 35 books this year. I lost count about 7 times while trying to count back, so I'm not even going for an exact count. That would be ludicrous.  "Bad Sports" weighs in in the bottom third of those books: Dave Zirin is a man I respect deeply as a public figure, but perhaps doesn't translate into book-dom. I highly recommend you tune into his podcast, "Edge of Sports" and follow him on Twitter: as he says, the man is fabulous at commentary "where sports and politics collide."

Zirin's thesis (and subtitle) in this book is well taken and generally well articulated: "owners are ruining the games we love." Professional sports- football, basketball, baseball and hockey- are owned by a bunch of really rich men who are living and leaching off of increasingly impoverished cities and managing to drive away fans at a time when fans need sports more than ever. This is particularly poignant to me right now as the A's ownership continues to sell of player after player- Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey have all been traded for next to nothing in the past two weeks- in the hopes that the A's will get a new stadium Anywhere Else.  The threat of the A's moving is being held over Oakland's head: fund a new stadium or else. Of course Oakland can't fund a new stadium for Oakland in a time where police can't afford to police, schools can't afford to educate, and I'm pretty sure that I popped a tire on a pothole again last night. So we've got a quagmire: ticket prices will continue to rise, fans will continue to be driven away, and someone, either Fremont or more likely San Jose, will pass a measure to publicly fund Lew Wolff and John Fisher's new stadium.  John Fisher has a net worth of 1.1 billion and Lew Wolff owns a whole lot of stuff. Oakland will lose unless they pony up a bajillion dollars they don't have or the A's move, which ever comes first. Supposedly San Jose will not pay to have the A's, but I'm hardpressed to believe it. In the meantime, San Jose's arguments for the move- revenue stream, jobs, etc, are bogus: Zirin conclusively demonstrates that any jobs created are crappy, seasonal, and underpaid service jobs. Revenue streams may be accurate if you're talking about for the rich owners who win no matter who comes to the stadium through TV deals; average fans can't afford to come to the games as seat prices spike and concession fees rise.

I love Zirin's argument, which boils down to no more taxes for rich owners and community ownership of teams, ala Green Bay Packers. He does a great job articulating my beef with sports and over-the-top nationalism at the ball park, which I've ranted and raved about before. I had no idea I had it so good. In some places, faith nights involve post-game prayer sessions, hosted by the owners. In others, Sarah Palin gets top billing. But my situation is not unique. The sad thing is that the Packers' situation IS unique, and that pro football has written it into their bylaws that no teams like the Packers- team owned, with 60% of proceeds going to charity- will ever exist again. Sadly this also means that no team will be so enmeshed with their community, and no community so enmeshed with their team. I believe Zirin wrote (I've returned the book to the library) that there are 50,000 fans on the wait list for season tickets. Can you imagine if this were the case in Oakland? I can imagine, in a distant dream. A girl can dream.

The Year of the Bug and The Year of the Bugs



So this is the last shot of the year for The Year of the Bug and the first shot of my new project: The Year of the Bugs: 52 Weeks of Sofafree. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Alice Ozma: The Reading Promise

Alice Ozma has written a book on fathers and daughters and reading that is almost the exact opposite of the last book I read on fathers and daughters and reading, Alexandra Styron's "Reading My Father." Where Styron wrote the depressing story of her famous father, their strained relationship and his descent into madness, Ozma has written the story of an unknown single dad and his daughter muddling through it very much together. Where Styron's memoir is painful, Ozma's is poignant. Styron wrote years after the fact and Ozma is in her early 20s. Styron's book could win "most depressing expose of a famous father/daughter pair of the year," which is why it's exactly the kind of book I normally read, and Ozma's is much more of a fast, feel-good read, which is why I was surprised at how much I liked it. Together they make a great set. I found myself laughing out loud in a slightly embarrassing way at this book- reading is Serious Business for me, and this Ozma has an endearing personality that is captured perfectly in her writing style. I'll sum it up this way: My dad will hate this book, my mom will love it, which is strange, since the book is the story of dad reading to daughter every night for 3000+ nights. If you like reading, and you like funny, sweet stories, this one's for you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Julie Guthman: Weighing In

Once upon a time, I believed Michael Pollan. I'll be honest, that once upon a time and long ago and far away wasn't actually that long ago- it was last year, in this same bed that I'm writing in now. He has a pretty unassailable slogan, after all: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I'm not very good at following the majority of his instructions, even as a vegetarian: I'm very good at eating food, but not at the "not too much part," and even as a vegetarian, I eat a lot of non-plant matter. I'm pretty sure diet coke is not a plant, no matter how hard I try to wedge it into that food pyramid in the "vegetable" category. But something has been bugging me ever since the anti-obesity campaign hit stride a few years ago: it feels like a fad. I grew up when eating disorders were rampant, and now it seems like eating disorders were a fad. And I don't think either of these things are true: body image issues and weight issues are so much more than fads or trends, but the current focus and attendant billboards about healthy snacks and books and magazine articles and talk shows seem like we've moved from an age of plenty (the late 1990s) when the issue was rich people with too much, trying to starve themselves to look too thin, to the late 2000s, an era of a lot less, with poor people being seen as too fat. And all of this seems really simplistic. In the late 1990s we were told (without much to back it up) that people of color (excluding Asian Americans as usual) didn't have the same issue with eating disorders because of cultural acceptance of different body weights. Now, we're told by experts, including Pollan, that weight issues are especially prevalent in low income neighborhoods (read: people of color and poor whites) because of lack of education about and access to healthy food.  These people can be thin and healthy, too, they too can "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," with the right programs and policies in place, and less subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup, the enemy.


Well, not so fast. Did eating disorders (the kind leading to starvation and binge/purge, not the over-eating kind) go away because people were educated about eating more and/or lost their money in market crash? Sidenote: Julie Guthman has written an amazing book in "Weighing In," but it's not at all about eating disorders. I picked up the book, though, because of the way the back of the book (yes, I judge books by their covers) manged to say both "obesity" and "obesity epidemic" in quotes in three sentences. And I was not disappointed. Well, a little, because I do feel like there is a connection that Guthman left unmade between the anorexia decade and the obesity decade, but I understand why she left that alone: "Weighing In" takes on (and conquers) much bigger topics, and if you understand and apply Guthman's arguments, eating disorders can be explained, as well.  Guthman takes on a lot- Pollan is a formidable foe with lots of influence- so I forgive her for not getting to this detail. After all, eating disorders are my hangup, and this book is about a lot more: the subtitle reads "Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism." Yeah, that's a big one.


I am not going to be able to sum up Julie Guthman's very big, very cogent, and very persuasive take on why Pollan et al's tactic falls short and perhaps even is dangerous.  It's too multifaceted, and she's an expert. I've tried, and failed to explain to my family, avid foodies and Pollan fans (remember,  was one of them till last week), though in my defense, I hadn't finished the book. This short piece from 2008 gives a sense of some of Guthman's main points (though not all): Pollan's critique of corn subsidies is great, but his argument fails dangerously when the discussion turns from farm policy to fat bodies. First, the evidence between food consumption and size is weak. Second, discussion of weight serves as "admonishment" and creates anxiety about weight, leading to obesity. (Guthman drops this argument in the book and picks up a much more solid argument about the missionary zeal with which the Pollan-ites go about their health mantra in a new form of the white man's civilizing project.) Third, authors like Pollan, Jane Goddall and Marion Nestle along with Morgan Spurlock of Supersize me take on a holier-than-thou position: if they can control themselves around the enemy (HFCS) and fast food, surely obese people must be of a weaker strain.  
At best, fat people are seen as victims of food, genetic codes, or metabolism; at worst, they are slovenly, stupid, or without resolve. Meanwhile, she notes, many thin people can indulge in all manner of unhealthy behaviors without being called to account for their body size. In other words, fat people are imbued with little subjectivity no matter what they do, while thin people are imbued with heightened subjectivity no matter what they do.
These are only three short issues that Guthman brings up in this (very) simplified article. I won't convince you if you're sold that the end of food commodity subsidies and the bringing of fresh fruit to school lunches is the way to a Better Life and Skinnier Children.  
 
Guthman's book is divided into nine refreshingly easy to read chapters, each with a title in the form of a question.  Wisely, "What's Capitalism Got to Do with It?" is left till the very end (right before the conclusion) so that by the time Guthman gets to the meat of her argument- like what I did there?- we're left nodding along with the argument that capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal incarnation, causes obesity. Placed earlier in the book, we'd be tossing away "Weighing In" as a Marxist piece of trash cashing in on the Pollan fad (yes, I'll be here all week).  Guthman argues that "bodies have emerged as a growth industry in the context of contemporary capitalism." It's a complicated economic argument, but essentially Guthman uses a theory David Harvey's 1982 "Limits to Capital" where capitalism is self-limiting. Eventually capitalism runs out of ways to earn profit, and then comes the crisis of "overaccumulation." This is especially true in the case of food: there is a limit to what humans can eat. One of the ways to fix these crises, according to Harvey is the "spacial fix": "the displacement of the problem of overaccumulation elsewhere in space." Previously this could read as a new colony or globalization. Guthman argues that the new spaces are our bodies: "in the interest of economic growth, contemporary US capitalism has helped to create obesity as a material phenomenon and then made it a moral problem that must be resolved in a way that is equally kind to capitalism."  The way this works is complicated, but it starts in the food production and distribution chain: farmers all the way through food service wrokers are paid a tiny amount, thus creating demand for exceedingly cheap food (this is one of the main places she finds fault with Pollan's arguments that subsidies are the problem. Low wages are the problem).  Wages are kept low so purchasing power drops, creating a market for the credit and banking system that kept the economy running, until it didn't. The poor people who make this food were the vast majority of people who lost the biggest when capitalism hit its limits during the market crash. Not coincidentally (these issues were dealt with in previous chapters), this is the population most likely to be obese, and not to be able to afford the Good Food the Pollan advocates (and admits is more expensive). In the meantime, the health care, weight loss and pharmaceutical industries are all winning from this man-made epidemic: "weight loss itself is a commodity."

This book reads like a butterfly and stings like a whole bunch of bees.  I was convinced by Pollan and Raj Patel and now feel like a racist dupe. It's not enough to go to the farmers market, which Guthman points out, makes those of us who can afford it feel like we're Doing Something- shopping local isn't enough. And I've been humbled when thinking about my passion regarding food justice and food deserts: I try to be aware of how activism affects agency, but Guthman called me out.  Bringing a box of organic okra to black people in the ghetto is not really going to change the system. It's insulting. The only place Guthman falls short is ending without real constructive Next Steps. She criticizes Pollan for this very shortcoming, but I'm left not knowing what next. I am left like it doesn't matter what I eat- both biologically, ecologically, and ethically- though I don't think that's what Guthman would tell me. The conclusion, "What's on the Menu?" is a blank slate. Looking forward to ordering the chef's special.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Fading Away

Week 51: Fading Away

This is the second to last week of the project. Mac is so happy to be out of the spot light.

On Christmas, a Note About Hannukah

To Goyim everywhere: Merry Christmas.  And to goyim (including: makers of Christmas and holiday pageants, sellers of holiday greetings and holiday schwag, makers and givers of holiday cards, government institutions, schools, "inclusive" givers of cheer, and in some cases, Jews) everywhere: a note about Hannukah.

Hannukah is not the Jewish Christmas. Christmas is a Very Important Holiday for Christians, as on Christmas day in the morn, Jesus, the savior was born. This, one might say, is the basis of an entire religion(s), let alone the Reason for the Season.  Hannukah is No Such Thing.  In the Torah (aka the Old Testament), Jews also have Very Important Holidays.  Hannukah is not one of them.  In fact, Hannukah is what's known as a festival commemorating a historical event in the 2nd century, and is generally considered to have been written later than the rest of the Torah, and takes place later than the rest of the Torah (the rededication of the Temple).

So why all the fuss about Hannukah? Well, because Jews matter, too, dammit! And we're an understandable "other" if we all celebrate and give presents at the same time! So, why not have a Hannukah bush and give gifts for 8 days right around the same time as Goyim are giving presents around a tree? Why not eat fried food and chocolate? (Okay, Jews never need an excuse to eat, important holiday or not!) Hannukah is much more tolerable than our real Very Important Holidays: New Years in the middle of autumn (Rosh Ha Shona) or even worse, the terrible day where we fast and atone- I suppose Catholics can relate to atoning, but Catholics aren't exactly the most understood religious group in America, either.  And the fasting we do on Yom Kippur isn't really that normal either.  Much, much easier to consume consume consume along with the Goyim in December.

I'm not laying the blame at the feet of Christians. I like to blame Hallmark and Walmart as stand-ins for all the corporations that need Jew's money as badly as they need everybody else's.  I'd also like to blame a general assimilationist culture that can only figure out one culture at a time really needs to understand Jews because we're a vocal bunch, and giving a token nod in our direction is a good idea. See, we're inclusive! Blue and white lights! Menorahs downtown! We GET you! And it's not like Jews don't play along. Historically Reform Jews are even part of the assimilationist process- bringing organs and wood pews into our temples to look just like good old American WASPs. And I'm complicit: I love my WASPy temple, and I love getting gifts every December.  But I felt guilty this month introducing my boyfriend to Hannukah: I think he heard his first dose of Hebrew when we lit the candles. My family exchanged gifts like good modern Jews.  We ate latkes. It was the only "Jewish" I did all year. And my dad put matzoh meal on top of the bread. Joke or where we've come? Only the Hannukah bush can tell.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

John Gibler: To Die in Mexico

It is very hard to legally obtain a gun in Mexico. For one thing, there is only one gun store in the country, and it is run by the military.  But according to at least one source (and they're hard to find), 80,000 firearms were seized in Mexico in the four years between 2006 and 2010. Those years are significant, because 2006 was the year that Felipe Calderon took over the office of President of Mexico and launched his war on drugs with the support of the United States. The war, it turned out, was actually a militarization or para-militarization of Mexico that has basically involved supporting one drug cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, while targeting the other, smaller cartels, perhaps in the hope that if this cartel controls everything, Mexico's problems will go away.  Or perhaps, more likey, Calderon understands what is really happening: without drug money and gun money, the Mexican, US, and world economy will be in even worse shape. John Gibler writes
High-level federal officials in United States government know all of this and go along with the theatrics, because, among other reasons, the US economy is also buoyed by the influx of drug money.  The defense industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police, and the drug gangs themselves; the police are addicted to asset orfeitrue laws; prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases; and the criminalization of drugs has proven a durable excuse to lock people of color in prison in a country still shackled by racism.
The US needs the drug war, no matter how bloody and deathly it is for Mexico, and "To Die in Mexico" is a reminder of just how bloody and dealthy the drug war is for Mexico: really bloody and really deathly.

I read and write about Mexico and la frontera a lot.  Maybe I can't get over Mexico in some Freudian way that Laura Kipnis talked about in "How to Become a Scandal": Just as societies need scandals to have clear examples and deliniations (borders) of the edges of proprietery, maybe I (and the US) need Mexico to denote the Other, the not-us, the "see what could happen but won't happen here?" Even in Oakland, there are no statistics like in Mexico: Gibler calls the unsolved and uninvestigated murder rate of 95% a "95 percent impunity" rate, and we're talking about more than 38,000 homicides in the years since Calderon launched the drug war redux: 2006 to May 2011. That's approximately 20 murders per day in Mexico; Oakland's rate of over 100 per year, while extraordinarily awful, becomes somehow tolerable in the face of this violence. Further, Oakland's murder victims have names and their killers usually (often?) face some kind of justice.  In Mexico people are killed twice, according to Gibler: "First the obliterate your world;... then, once you are gone, they will turn your body from that of a person into that of a message." The message (or the scandal) is that of impunity: the murder becomes a photograph in one of the "Nota Roja" papers that specialize in bloody depictions of murder scenes, and a sin of omission in journalism, crime reports, and policing. "Those who look on you will see only death."

Gibler has written a wonderful little book for those interested in Mexico, journalism and violence. He gives some, but not enough, look at the bigger picture both in Mexico and at how the US has created and extended the problems. The book is a fast read, if you can stomach the violence which is interspersed with moments of hope, if hope can be found in mothers fighting for investigations that will never be investigated or journalists maintaining integrity in the face of murder attempts.  It's a glimpse into territory that is hard to glimpse, for the reasons that Gibler writes about: the government and cartels have created a culture of silence that makes exposure impossible, and death is a pretty high price to pay for investigating the truth. Further, the US has a lot at stake in preserving the story that Mexico is telling about itself, so Americans also have little incentive to put out any real information. Gibler has opened a dialogue in the face of lots of obstacles.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

John Seabrook: Nobrow

Here's "Nobrow" in a nutshell.  It would be very possible to end this review here: John Seabrook has culled his book down to the essentials. The "story" lays out the premise of the book, the style the book is written in, and sums it all up: once there was "highbrow" and "lowbrow"- a way for Americans to divide make class judgements by culture, and now this is rendered useless by "nobrow": consumer culture as a source of status. He even uses some of his examples: fancy mass-produced furniture, buying produce, installation art, etc.

The problem with "Nobrow" (the book, not the story) can be summed up quite simply: Seabrook is a New Yorker writer. This in itself is not a problem; in 2009 I even mentioned one of his articles as one of my favorites. The problem is that sometimes New Yorker authors can translate their long articles into books and sometimes New Yorker authors can't translate their long articles into books. Unfortunately I think that Seabrook falls into the latter category. His subject (summed up in the subtitle "The Culture of Marketing + The Marketing of Culture") is fascinating but his approach falls short. Seabrook strings together some New Yorker articles that he's written- a piece on (then) child prodigy Ben Kweller, an inside look at George Lucas and merchandising, even a fascinating look as the New Yorker as a purveyor of culture before, during and after the Tina Brown years.  The book is a look at the relationship between culture and marketing that is part personal journey with hints of Bret Easton Ellis, part investigative journalism, with a hint of academic sociology writing. It just doesn't work. Do read the short version, as the concept is quite interesting. I'd love to see Seabrook put together a follow-up, post-internet version of his thesis, also as short version. Seabrook, you out there?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Santa Got Left Behind

Poor Mac didn't get to go to Santacon because themacinator can't drink and Mac.


Week 49: Santa Got Left Home


Only 3 weeks left and he's off the hook. Onto bigger and sofafreeer things!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Laura Kipnis: How to Become a Scandal

Depending on who you believe, Freud has either been debunked or remains the key to understanding all of humanity.  If fall into the "Freud was right, and the it's all about shit and sex" camp, then you will probably enjoy "How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior." If, like me, you are somewhat skeptical of claims that diapers make for the best scandals because they're about bodily functions, this book may fall short of credibility. I had high hopes, too, because celebrity scandals really are a fascinating modern phenomena, but Laura Kipnis tempers all of her great insights with noxious Freudian references, leaving the foul taste of oozing poop in my mouth. (Really, the vivid details are necessary, according to Kipnis, to get the sense of primal disgust across.)

We all have guilty pleasures: I can't get away from Diet Coke or reading in bed All Day Long or CSI. Some people look down on me for this, or shake their heads in disbelief. But everyone understands that these are pleasurable endeavors; we're supposed to enjoy sugary drinks, relaxing, and craptastic entertainment.  On the other hand, most people are also sucked into what Kipnis calls "one of the few reliable growth industries," scandal-tainment (my word), and I'd venture that most of us feel somewhat bad about watching celebrity train-wrecks.  Sure, the media plays them out for us day in and day out, but that doesn't mean we feel good about being desperate to know the next update in some one's stalking story or weight loss story or whatever.  But we all do it, even people like me who hide their heads in the sand from the majority of pop culture. I'm not talking about stopping for a moment of silence for the death of a famous person. Tragedy, Kipnis writes, "is supposed to concern noble feelings and high motives," and when there is a tragedy, we don't feel guilty about rubbernecking: we also don't care for very long. Think about the deaths of Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs. In the latter case, the world has mourned the loss of an innovative thinker.  In the case of MJ, his life and death meet Kipnis's criteria for a "genuine scandal": "pathos and tragedy, it should have gravitas. It should jar our sense of social tidiness a little, it should incite unanswerable questions about human propensities and the moral compact and the ongoing battle between the anarchy of desire and the sledgehammer of social propriety." Over a year after MJ's death, the trial of his doctor/murderer is still big news. I have a feeling there will not quite be the same kind of stir over the tragedy surrounding Jobs.

The best part of Kipnis's book is that she validates our sleazy fascination with scandals. (More on low-brow culture next week when I finish my current book.) She goes further than okay'ing scandal, she backs it up with academic-sounding arguments thus taking away any guilt one might feel in following the rise and fall of one's favorite stars. The only drawback is that much of her argument is propped up with Freudian psychology, which I've already said is not entirely convincing, but in order to feel good about ourselves and our scandal addiction, let's suspend disbelief for a minute.  "Culture," Kipnis writes, "needs scandal." (Italics belong to Kipnis.) Cultures are built on social norms, and scandals serve the vital role of reminding us a) what the norms are by breaking the norms and b) showing happens when the norms get broken. It's bad, real bad.  She continues: "It appears we're the kind of people who enjoy watching people 'get what's coming'- probably not the most admirable trait in a population, but after all, it's our norms that are being violated. (Communities are enclaves of shared norms-scandals are what define a community.) The media may whip things up for motives of their own, but it's our standards that have to be breached, and we care about these breaches, deeply." Basically, Michael Jackson enabled us to talk about race and sex, because he was so outrageously scandalous that we could "other" him, and say that is NOT us, that is NOT our values, our community would not do x, y, or z.  The community could then reestablish guidelines by punishing him for his supposed sins: in fact, the job of society is to make the scandalizer feel their punishment in public. You can't change your predetermined race, Michael! You can't touch little boys! And monkeys? What's up with monkeys!? Shame On You! Scandals can't happen without us, Kipnis writes, and remember that culture needs scandal. So sit back, drink your Diet Coke, watch CSI, then read all day. Don't feel bad if you're reading about people going down in flames of scandal.  Just don't read this book about it.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Shimmer

Week 47: Shimmer

totally forgot to post this one.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Paul Berman: The Flight of the Intellectuals

In the days since I've finished reading Paul Berman's "The Flight of the Intellectuals," I've thought of a number of ways to write this review. One is to write a book just like it. Paul Berman has an issue with the way current influential intellectuals deal with Islamism, and he sums it up in the last two sentences of his book, while spending 200 pages on something entirely tangential. But the book itself is a (short) full-length response to an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2007.  Journalist Ian Buruma profiled Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim of Egyptian descent (his father was exiled from Egypt).  Berman dislikes pretty much everything about this article, and the intellectual trend that it stands for, and is either lucky, privileged, smart, well-respected or some combination of these things, enough to have authored an entire book in response.  So my first thought is to write a book in response to a book. Or at least to write a book in response to an article I didn't like and add an aside, ala the many asides Berman throws in: "By the way, this book is a followup to reading "Flight of the Intellectuals," wherein Paul Berman explicates his feelings after reading a New York Times Magazine article for 200 pages. Which is not to say that this book has anything to do with that book, just that this is where I got the fabulous and slightly self-aggrandizing idea."

I ruled that one out though, because I'm not upset enough with any one particular article to write an entire book, or even a short book, and I'm not famous enough that anyone would publish it. (Paul Berman is author of the best-selling "Terror and Liberalism.") Then I thought I would write a sort of summary of what this book is about, but really, it's about a long and complicated subject that I don't know anything about and would bungle if I got anywhere near summarizing Berman's summary. The subject is Islamism, and its supporters and detractors, and the semantic complications of words like "fascism," "totalitarianism," "terrorism," "moderate," etc, and how these words seem to have caused modern scholars to follow the wrong Islamist leaders down the wrong path. This review does a nice job of summarizing the book.

I ruled both of these approaches out.  I ruled out not reviewing the book at all, because I actually did like the book, which reads like an extended lecture from a very entertaining and engaging college professor, and I learned a lot about a very interesting and timely subject. The book was extremely well-researched: it seems like Berman may have read every book in every language remotely related to his subject. (Sidenote: strangely, while he refers to each book in his text, he does not use footnotes, end notes, or include a bibliography.) I also ruled out not writing up anything about the book because right before picking up this book, I put down another book, something I really really have a hard time doing, and am still feeling guilty about. I tried so hard to read "Triumph of the City" by Edward Glaeser, and failed. The book is written in a style tried to emulate an entertaining and engaging college professor, and while it appears that Glaeser also knows his subject thoroughly, he throws in examples like they are common knowledge. The book is written for popular audiences, and, being part of this audience, I have no idea what he is talking about.  The book fell flat, where "The Flight of the Intellectuals" kept my interest for all 200 pages of a response to a magazine article. Strangely, Berman's polemic works.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ross Perlin: Intern Nation

Sometimes a thing is so ingrained, so taken for granted, so normalized that the thought of challenging it is almost embarrassing.  Internships, at least for Generation Xers and forward, are one of those things.  In order to get a "good job," a person of a certain background goes goes to the best school she can, and while studying, either during the school year, or most definitely during the summer, does at least one unpaid internship. This is not considered demeaning or ridiculous, even though from the outside, the thought of someone working for free is counter-intuitive and perhaps even illegal.  It's just "what you do."  After college, this person of a certain background hopes to find a job of a certain status, and all of these types of jobs require "work experience," and internships are seen as the way to have "work experience" on a resume, regardless of the type of work, the quality of work, or the the payment received.  But this is the status quo, and to challenge it seems ludicrous: pay me? For an internship? Where I am learning? And getting free resume padding? Possibly at a nonprofit where they can't afford to hire me?

Ross Perlin's "Intern Nation" is a counterattack to these prevailing and dangerous ideas.  He challenges interns to stand up for themselves, governments to enforce existing laws, businesses to do right by their flexible employees, unions to pay attention to all employees, universities to correct the institution of internships that they have started, and on and on.  It's a mess. Little known fact: The underpaid or unpaid internship (or internships) you did before, during and after college were illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938 and modified in 1947 to exempt a group called "trainees:" a broad group that has come to include the people we now think of as "interns." Only, this group is not really that broad, and employers everywhere have figured out how far to stretch the exemption.  The FLSA did things like establish the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and end child labor. Pretty nifty, and pretty unimpeachable. Per Perlin, no one really argues with "the elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well being of workers." Then came the 1947 exemption: "trainees" were allowed to receive a "training wage" that fell below minimum wage or even no wage at all, in exchange for vocational training.  There are VERY specific criteria which must be met for a position to qualify however, and EACH one of these must be met:
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Ask yourself if this list sounds like any internships you are familiar with or have participated in. The last two items on the list are perhaps more for the protection of the employer, so that they don't get left with some obligation of payment to the intern/trainee, and are the only ones that I've actually seen in practice. But I have never seen/heard of an internship with *any* of the criteria listed in numbers 1-4, let alone all 6, and remember, all 6 must be met for an internship to be exempt from the FLSA standards. This means that the thousands and thousands of unpaid and underpaid internships taking place each year are illegal. And no one is fighting it. Employers and universities (more later) are taking advantage of young people, students, unemployed people, sector switchers, under-employed, etc, in an enormous, unregulated way.


There are a multitude of problems with this.  Legally, unpaid interns are not considered employees, no matter how long they've worked there. No pay=no rights. Perlin describes the case of one student in New York who was required to do an internship in order to receive her degree in social work.  Immediately on beginning her internship, where she did the same work as a paid employee (a clear violation of numbers three and four above), she was the subject of sexual harassment.  She attempted to sue the harassing doctor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but the case was thrown out of district and appeals courts "holding that Bridget didn't count as an employee, and therefore had no right even to stand in the courtroom and make her case." The reason she wasn't counted as an employee? She was unpaid. As Perlin writes: "no wages, no benefits, no vacations, no overtime or sickpay--therefore also no rights in court."


Here's one of the places where the universities come in.  Bridget was required to do an internship to complete her degree, under the theory, one supposes (I don't know exactly how it went down at Bridget's school) that work experience is a) complimentary to classroom experience and b) vital to post-graduation employment success, especially in a field like social work. In this way alone, universities are condoning the industry of internships whereby kids go and provide unpaid labor to a variety of employers. In the meantime, universities help employers feel better: "a convenient myth has been making the rounds that interns earning academic credit fall outside the FSLA. A significant percentage of employers using unpaid interns now hide behind this urban legend, requiring their interns to be enrolled in college and to submit proof of the credit received for an internship." Even better, the colleges make money for each credit- and sometimes substantial money. "Colleges and universities have allowed the academic credit myth to spread in part because these credits, closely linked to tuition, now form a significant revenue stream at may institutions." Perlin gives numerous examples of the ways people make money off students' unpaid labor: some colleges won't give credit for internships, but studetns want the "jobs," so they find colleges who will give credit and pay close to 5,000 for the "privilege" of a useless credit. Other colleges accept the credits, and why not? They don't have to teach the students anything, or really do much of anything: the students find the internships, pay for the privilege of having a credit on their transcript, and the college has no overhead.  It's free tuition. Additionally "situated learning" and "experiential learning" are in right now, along with the idea that a kid needs an internship to get a job. So what if not much learning is done? So what if no skills are learned at the job? Academies respond, necessarily to pressure from persuasive, influential, and monied parents, and internships are hot on the lips of these folks. So what that academia was behind the initial move towards the FSLA and the end of child labor in the first place? Internships are educational!

I'm working backwards: maybe we could call it saving the best for last.  Because Ross Perlin starts "Intern Nation" with one of my favorite subjects: Disney! Way back in 1955, Disney created "Disney University" as the training division of the mega-corporation, and starting in 1972, outside universities really started sending students there.  First came a hotel management department in New York, then a culinary school in Rhode Island who wanted to use the much bigger kitchen space (get it? schools saving money by partnering with corporations?), and in the 1980 the "College Program" was born. Interns lived on site, paying for room/board out of their tiny paycheck, and do pretty much any shit work you can think of at the park: cleaning hotel rooms, making french fries, etc.  Unionized Disney workers are being slowly replaced by sleights of hand: "casual workers" (interns, college program interns, part-timers, casual temporaries, etc) cannot exceed more than 35% of hours worked at Disney World. At this point, these casual workers make up 1 out of every 4 hours worked, but the numbers can be tweaked deceivingly, and Disney doesn't really care how they are balanced out.  Further, there's been a hiring freeze on full-timers, but of course no freeze on (underpaid and untrained) interns who rotate in and out. Add this to my long line of concerns about Disney.



Beyond the basic issues I've laid out here, Perlin goes through a whole list of equally or more disturbing effects of internships. There's the Washington DC internships that are basically filled through nepotism, or at the very least through connections, which means there is no sense of meritocracy, or a chance for anyone new to make it in.  This, of course, has racial and class implications: how can new leadership emerge if they can't get the resume padding needed from the posh internship if they can't get the posh internship in the first place? Further, most internships have this risk: unpaid and even underpaid internships are a financial hardship for all but the wealthy, which means that the average student cannot afford to pay to play at work.  Colleges requiring internships are thus solidifying an already existing unequal playing field.  Further, with no evidence that these internships lead to real jobs, real WORK during the school year or summers might actually be more important than internships, but is downgraded: no internship, no credits, no resume padding. 


And no one is saying anything. Read it and fight back.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupation Continues

So I never wrote the Promised Part 3 of my Occupied Oakland blog, but it's still coming. I didn't write it because I've been literally torn up inside about Oakland: a crazy, messed up, beautiful city that is really part of my identity. It seemed like it couldn't get worse after Scott Olsen, the war vet, was nearly killed by a canister of tear gas to the head, and then someone was murdered a few yards from the Occupy Oakland camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza. At first it appeared, and OPD confirmed, that the shooting was completely unrelated to OO: the murder was the cities' 101st murder of the year, and it would be completely thinkable that, based on these numbers, someone would get shot downtown.  But everyone in City government who was on the fence about the movement was quickly off the fence and demanding the removal of the encampment, citing this kind of violence and misuse of police resources.

It was clear to me (and everyone in the world audience, probably), that Occupy Oakland was about to be kicked out.  And I'm also pretty sure that it was clear to everyone that the Occupiers didn't want to go.  Mayor Jean Quan managed to bungle the situation repeatedly- telling the protesters that they could move to a different space, causing one twitterer (?) to write that "We've reached a semantic impasse. You can't just say "Would you guys move your occupation over here please?" That's not an occupation." Recently, she mentioned a conference call with 18 mayors, and the story went viral: Occupiers everywhere have taken this as proof that there is a conspiracy to evict camps in a coordinated manner all over the country.  Members of the City Council held a press conference about OO, saying it had to go, and got shouted down. (I'm still unclear why they chose to hold the presser by Lake Merritt, unamplified, and then why they lost their cool and returned the jeers of the protesters with chants of their own, making buffoons of themselves.)

I'll cut to the chase: I practically didn't sleep until the camp was evicted.  I don't watch the news because it's overwrought and full of half-truths, but it's REALLY hard to turn off twitter, especially when you know some of the people writing, and you've learned to know others, and whose feeds to trust. The problem is, it's a constant influx of information, and of stressful information. I knew Alex had been shot at Occupy Oakland within 2 minutes of it happening (literally), and I can follow along with General Assemblies online.  It was common knowledge that the police were going to raid the camp, and it soon became common knowledge what date (last Monday in the early AM) the police were going to raid, even as the Council and Mayor said "you have to leave immediately" and served eviction notices with no precise time. And I couldn't sleep, because of how poorly the de-occupation went last time. Strangely, this time, the emptying-out of the camp went smoothly, as these things go. About 30 people were arrested, no injuries or use of force incidents were reported, and the park re-opened about 6pm. The Mayor and the Chief and the City Administrator gave a (ridiculous) press conference thanking everyone for a job well done, and said the park would be open for free speech but never for lodging.  Occupiers, including me, met at the Main Library that afternoon, and marched back to Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they were indeed allowed to assemble, though not "lodge" (i.e. camp).

My first inclination was to be proud of the city- the City and the Occupiers- for a peaceful evacuation of FOP.  I agreed with Desley Brooks (and the later Council Members) that the movement was about more than the patch of grass that the Occupiers were Occupying, but had come to see the Cities' mishandling of the situation as a valid enough reason for the Occupiers to keep on Occupying.  Many of the people in the tents at FOP were homeless, or poor, or mentally ill and were receiving services and basic shelter from other Occupiers. There was food at the Plaza, and books, and religious leaders, etc.  There were tents.  And these people, these "others" that no one in the City (capital "C") wanted to see, were camping on City doorstep, en masse. The City claimed that this was unsanitary, and unsafe, and hurting local businesses, but the truth was, many of the people that were living at FOP were people that the City does not want to see, and certainly not as a big group. Homeless people are easier to deal with one at a time, in a doorway, or alley, or somewhere you don't have to see them at all. It's probably true that some big business chose not to sign a lease in downtown Oakland: the camp was unsightly, and homelessness is unsightly. But it's real, and it's part of Oakland.  I couldn't be proud that the solution the City came up with was to disperse the camp via the police. It was great that nobody decided to respond to the 600 police officers in riot gear with violence, as I expected, but that was besides the point: Occupy Oakland has been removed.

I'm sure the City feels it has won: the encampment has gone. But what have they won? They claimed that downtown Oakland was safer before OO, but I disagree. Tons of money was poured into "Old Oakland" a long time ago, but it sits mostly vacant. I wouldn't walk around there at night, but I did on Saturday, because I went down for the march that OO held in solidarity with Egypt.  I did feel safe: there were people around, which generally makes me feel safer. I have never seen downtown Oakland with that number of people on a Saturday night.  The City claims OO is bad for business, calling on the Chamber of Commerce's threats about companies leaving and being destroyed. But the Chamber doesn't represent local businesses, rather, they are a group of people made up of large corporations.

 Perhaps the real question, then, is what has the City lost? Multiple times in the contentious pre-second-eviction City Council meeting, the Mayor and various Council Members described Oakland as a "progressive" city. But it's clear that the City is beholden to large companies, dependent on outdated, fear-driven police tactics, and feeling very threatened by a small group of people trying to change the world. In the meantime, the weakness of the Mayor has been laid out internationally, the City Council has embarrassed themselves, and the already trashed reputation of the police department has done nothing to repair their image.  Meanwhile, campers are temporarily being allowed to stay at Snow Park, a tiny corner park in an upscale neighborhood right by Lake Merritt, but out of view of the politicians, though the Mayor and Chief Jordan have said that this is is only temporary. On Monday I spoke to a feel people who were staying at Snow Park who were clearly transient: they are Occupying because these tents are their permanent dwellings.  The Mayor has mentioned "vouchers" for homeless facilities at the old Army Base, but is this the answer? Or enough of an answer?

Meanwhile, I'm very intrigued by the Occupy movement, at least its incarnation in Oakland. It's far from perfect, but there is definitely something very real going on. I have not been to a General Assembly yet to see the actual proposals in action, but I have gotten a sense of how the proposals are made and how communication works. The encampment, on Saturday before the second coming of the Police, was similar to when I saw it during the General Strike, though less crowded of course. It did not, contrary to rumors, smell like feces or anything else particularly bad.  I did see a joint being rolled, but this must should be taken in context: downtown Oakland is host to Oaksterdam, including a marijuana university. I'm taken with the process, if not entirely by the crowd or the results. 

I spoke with a man when I was down at the library on Monday, who said he stayed around the corner (possibly at Snow Park), and was a little bemused by the whole thing. We watched a young Asian kid, dressed in an emo-punk style, buy two gas masks from a very large white man in his mid-30s, who looked to be making a killing. Two young indie white mid-20s behind us were shaking their heads: "those don't work." My new friend, a black man in his mid-40s, commented that the Occupiers, who he visits every night, were here, but had no idea what was going on here.  They want to get arrested, he said, they want to get teargassed, but what do they know? I agreed, and shared that sentiment. The speeches we were listening to where very passionate and articulate and idealistic. At one point, someone condemned violence and a tall young white man in expensive athletic gear smoking a cigarette muttered loudly that this was a privileged position to take. I looked at him and looked away before arguing with him. My new friend and I talked about how in my neighborhood, far to the East of Lake Merritt, very few people seemed to have heard about OO, or at least care about it. They are even less likely to come out when surrounded by a crowd of people who seem to tempt fate with willingness need to be arrested. For my neighbors, principles may not be worth going to jail for.  That idea sounds foolish.  We compared the situation: people who are there in body, but unclear on the concept, and people totally clear on the concept, and not there in body.  At least in this context, I feel like OO has an excuse: this is a new movement, and one that has potential, and going through growing pains. The City on the other hand, has nothing of the sort.


Monday, November 07, 2011

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Occupy Oakland (re)Visited Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a little bit (okay, a lot) about what had changed since my I first wrote about original feelings about the Occupy Wall Street movement in general and the more local Occupy Oakland movement. I end up writing forever time-wise and word-wise and decided it would be better for all parties involved if I broke my thoughts up into chunks.  When I first posted, I hadn't had anything to do with Occupy Oakland, and had only participated in a Global Day of Action in San Francisco on October 15th.  After that, and especially after October 25th when the police and the protesters had such a terrible night, a friend of mine started heading down to the General Assemblies that Occupy Oakland holds every night at Frank Ogawa Plaza (side note: OO (the Occupy Oakland Movement) has renamed FOP "Oscar Grant Plaza," as I mentioned yesterday. Somehow I cannot bring myself around to calling the plaza this. I think part of my resentment is that Oscar Grant's murder happened in Oakland but had nothing to do with Oakland. Memorializing the park in front of City Hall after him reiterates that this horrific piece of violence is another piece of Oakland violence.) Every day my friend and I would dialogue about her experiences at the General Assemblies, and about my concerns, as well as my experiences working with police and the city.  I also watched the following video, which I found enlightening about the intelligence of OO and the truly democratic process that goes on. It's almost 10 minutes long, but I encourage you to watch it.


From what I understand from my friend, S, who goes to the meetings, a proposal is made via the "People's Mic." Since the General Assembly does not use amplification, one person says something, and people serving as the People's Mic shout what was just said so everyone can hear it. This part, she says, is long and boring.  Then the Assembly breaks into groups of 20, and discusses the proposal. The groups come to consensus about the proposal, then have someone present the group's view to the General Assembly. The large group then comes to consensus or does not.  There is a huge variety and diversity of views, and not everything goes the way each group member or group would like it; for example, in the above video, the letter which I found incredibly sane and well thought out, did not pass. It was written prior to the eviction, and perhaps would have avoided some of the conflict.  But the democratic process that is going on involves creativity, growth, and mistakes.

I ended last time with a note about my optimistic boss and my total skepticism.  October 25th, she believed, would lead to Oakland as a whole having a better dialogue.  I rolled my metaphorical eyes (I hope I didn't roll my real eyes at my boss.)  But the dialogue did start happening. After October 25th, Oakland became the center of media attention, including internationally. People started discussing what was working in OO and what wasn't working in OO, and what was and wasn't working in other places. Reporters from reputable and progressive news sources sent reporters to OO to live, live-tweet, and report.  People I know from twitter moved their attention from OccupySF to Occupy Oakland. (By the way, for excellent independent and reliable reporting about OO via twitter: @JoshuaHol of AlterNet, @pixplz aka Justin Beck, and @tigerbeat aka Steve Rhodes.) OO was where it was at.  Notably, the Council and Jean Quan weren't really part of the larger discussion.  City Council held off on discussing OO till a special City Council meeting Thursday, October 4th, but more on that later. Meanwhile Quan has held some press conferences in typical politician style: saying a whole lot of nothing. (For excellent coverage both as it happens and with behind the scenes stuff, follow @matthai of the SF Chronicle.)

The Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA) put out a remarkable letter asking for clear leadership after the events of October 25th. The letter stated in part that "As your police officers, we are confused," and asked "the citizens of Oakland to join us in demanding that our City officials, including Mayor Quan, make sound decisions and take responsibility for these decisions. Oakland is struggling – we need real leaders NOW who will step up and lead – not send mixed messages." This was a bold step for the police to take- speaking out of school- and a welcome one: it showed what I had believed to be true, that individual police officers did not want to be in the position that they were in on the 25th, but were thrown into an unsafe situation by whichever combination of authorities. They acted as they were trained (which may need revision), and the situation escalated, but the OO mess was not a situation the police wanted to be in the middle of.

The OPOA letter was put out after OO called for a general strike on Wednesday, November 2nd. The strike was an amazing success. For the first time I went out to Occupy Oakland, and it really was, in most ways, as cool as S had told me.  There were So Many People there. Official estimates have put the numbers at 5000-7000, especially when people were marching to shut down the Port of Oakland, and some (crazy) people have said there were 100,000 people out that day.  Unions came out, families came out, Buddhists came out, individuals came out, Mac came out (of course). Oakland came together and I haven't felt that optimistic about Oakland in a very long time. People were in downtown Oakland all day, and after I took the old dog home, they marched on the port, closing it down. I was worried about this part of the day, since the last action (that I know of) in the port in 2003 went really badly and I thought the crowd would be spoiling for a fight after October 25th. I was wrong. The crowd was not spoiling for a fight, and the police had decided not to respond at all unless there was a call for service. (They eventually came down and basically provided traffic control toward the end of the evening, and late there was another confrontation.) The lack of police presence during the march was noticeable: at every march and parade there are cops controlling traffic. During the strike people on bikes blocked off the street, and the march carried on, peacefully.  I left when windows got broken, but it was clear in later videos that those "outside agitators" really were the culprits: each act of vandalism was clearly someone in all black, who had come spoiling for a fight. When I was walking in the streets, you could see these people, and see that they were a tiny minority of people. Thousands of people came together in Oakland to march for a better world. It was very cool. I didn't go with the marchers to shut down the Port, but you can see the vastness of the numbers who did.

Occupy Port of Oakland 26
photo courtesy of Brian Sims, cc
The general strike happened on a Wednesday, the day before a pre-planned City Council meeting on Thursday that was scheduled to be all about OO. The meeting was interesting for it's calmness: only two people were escorted away from the mic, one who was clearly mentally unstable and the other a young activist who hadn't learned or didn't care about moderating his passion in front of The Establishment. As always happens with the Oakland City Council, nothing was decided. First, City Administrator Deanna Santana gave a summary of her attempts to deal with the Occupiers, and the reasons they had to go, including a fancy powerpoint presentation and lots of big lawyer words. Her assistant, Arturo Sanchez, went over all the things he had done in the camp and all the signs he had posted, and all the times he had been rebuffed, and showed pictures of all the awful things he had seen (like open flames and buried electrical cords.) The Police Chief spoke, and was interrupted, and sounded like perhaps public speaking is something he is not fond of doing (unlike Chief Batts) and basically said his guys did great, and that the encampment was a public safety issue.  The Mayor spoke and defended herself and said she had done some wonderful stuff but couldnt' do it while this was going on.

Then the Council listened quietly to over a hundred speakers, most supportive of the encampment and Occupy Oakland, some supportive of OO but not the encampment, and a few, mostly business owners, ready for the whole thing to go away. The speakers had some great points about what OO is about, about where the city has failed them, and about other alternatives. And then each Council Member spoke. Rebecca Kaplan gave an impassioned speech about how the movement was wonderful and Oakland has always been progressive, and about how police are people too. Desley Brooks unleashed a can of whoop-ass on Kaplan for being inconsistent in public and behind closed doors, but said she supported OO, but that everyone involved needed to think beyond a patch of grass. Pat Kernighan, who represents District 2 which includes one of the wealthiest parts of Oakland, ranted on about getting OO the hell out of dodge.  Nancy Nadel did her best to sound radical while saying she knew she didn't have the votes for her resolution, and Ignacio de la Fuente was incoherent, but got the point across: Occupy Oakland was bad for business. Libby Schaff "agreed with what everyone else had said" which was impossible, since the speakers before her had disagreed. President Reid talked about his pride in the marines and commiserated with Scott Olsen and apologized for the police brutality, and Jane Brunner was AWOL. And nothing got done, because, as always, the Council tabled the important question of the day till the next meeting.


So my boss and I were both right: dialogue *is* happening, between the city and the occupiers, and even within the city. There is great potential for change here. AND the city is incompetent, as usual. The city administrator's attempts to justify the raid on the encampment were feeble, and as someone on twitter said, looked like an attempt at CYA (cover your ass) in the face of potential fallout.  As usual, the City Council sounded like they not only agreed but that they could barely stand to sit at the same dais with each other, let alone do anything but make speeches across each other. And the citizens spoke at the Council, but did not dialogue with them, proving the point that each side was saying: "no one will talk to me!" As of Thursday, cooperation seemed at a minimum: the Police, the City Administrator, the Mayor, the City Council, and the Occupiers seemed to be sitting on separate continents, and no one was willing to hand anyone else a boat and paddle.  But I'm still optimistic.




(Coming soon: part 3 of 3- the Occupy Movement and Race.)

Friday, November 04, 2011

Occupy Oakland (re)Visited

Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong, and sometimes I have to keep learning. A lot has changed in two weeks since I wrote about it, and I've learned a lot and continue to rethink my position on Occupy Oakland daily. In two more weeks I may be embarrassed by this post.

In the timeline of Occupy Oakland events, probably the most famous is the early morning of October 25th, when OPD was ordered to evict the occupiers from Frank Ogawa (renamed Oscar Grant) Plaza.  The city had been warning the protesters to move since October 21st, and conflicting accounts have been given as to how much communication there was between officials and occupiers, but I'm guessing that official accounts of how much they tried are overstated, and that the way Occupy Oakland works did indeed make these attempts difficult. The city doesn't work that hard to surmount difficulties, however, so I am not placing blame on protesters.  Police moved in on the encampment in the early morning hours for practical and safety reasons: there are less people in downtown Oakland at 3 AM, so if the eviction went badly (which it did), less people would be likely to be hurt. After the people were removed, clean up crews from the city would still have time to clean up before the city opened for business. 

The removal didn't go down smoothly.  The protesters didn't want to leave, and the police plan, if there was one, didn't seem to go right.  Non-lethal "defensive" weapons like tear gas, flash-bangs, and rubber bullets were used. It was bad, and it was quickly national news.  That night, it got worse, as the protesters came back, and so did OPD, along with police from something like 14 other agencies.  Tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bangs- it was a scene.  Everything was live streaming all over the world: comments were made on Al Jezeera that this kind of scene would cause a US invasion in the Middle East, and they weren't far off.  Sadly, a war vet who was already on the ground was hit in the head with a tear gas canister in a clear act of police brutality which was caught on video and quickly became a flash point for the whole world. In a city known for its violence and for the violence of the police (not least Oscar Grant, which had the misfortune of occurring in Oakland while not actually involving OPD), October 25th was exactly the kind of event that brings Oakland into the center of media attention.

The whole thing was, unsurprisingly, handled terribly by the city.  Mayor Jean Quan was out of town when the police moved in on the Occupiers. (Note: I've never liked her.)  When asked, and she had to be asked because she wasn't going to take control of the situation and offer information, she said that she had no idea the eviction was going to happen.  This was unequivocally the wrong answer.  Either she really didn't know it was going to happen or she lied, and knew when it was going to happen, throwing her staff under the bus in an attempt to save face in a crisis. If she didn't know, it begs the question of what the hell is going on in this city (as if that question wasn't already begging an answer): police Chief Anthony Batts (fortunately) just quit a few weeks ago and Quan appointed Howard Jordan to Interim Chief, with rumors that she would eventually chose him as Chief.  It later came out that the City Administrator Deanna Santana and Interim Chief Jordan had been working on the plan for five days, and that Mayor Quan had signed off on the plan. It is still not clear to me exactly what Mayor Quan didn't know, or why her fundraising trip to DC was more important than what was literally an occupation on the doorstep of City Hall.

October 25th and the aftermath was, for me, like watching a dog fight at a dog park.  Totally foreseeable and totally preventable.  You put a whole bunch of humans with their lattes in a small fenced area with dogs who don't know each other, and there will probably be a fight. (Leave it to themacinator to throw in a dog analogy.) The dog park is the opposite of setting your dog up for success. The city's job is to set her citizens up for success. On October 25th the city failed both the protesters and the police. (The city also failed the rest of Oakland taxpayers who will foot the immense bill for the operation.)  Mayor Quan had initially told the protesters that they could occupy the Plaza. Then the protesters were told by paper notices that they had a certain amount of time to vacate the plaza.  Communication between police and protesters, between the city administrators and protesters, between any city agency and protesters, it appears, had been minimal.  I believe this is due both to lack of trying on the behalf of the city, and due to the way that the Occupy Oakland movement works. Multiple police agencies, all under the aegis of OPD, each with their own tactics and "tools" were ordered into a situation that quickly grew out of control.  Predictably, escalated police presence led to escalated violence on the occupiers side.  Where previously the Occupy Oakland movement had been almost universally peaceful, a night time operation involving hundreds of under-prepared police and hundreds of passionate protesters galvanized them into another afternoon and night of violence.

I was left very shaken on the afternoon of the 25th (before the night of violence that left Scott Olsen, the Iraq vet injured) and the 26th of October.  Mayor Quan called for protesters to come to the plaza between the hours of 6am and 10pm for "free speech activities" and I felt sick to my stomach. What exactly are "free speech activities" and why can they only take place during certain times?  I felt like dragging her back to Berkeley's invisible free speech monument. I wanted to remind everyone that Oakland has *real crime to fight, not a bunch of people camping and causing a rat problem.  I felt like screaming cliches about violence causing violence, and fighting fire with fire never puts the fire out.  I was not a happy camper.  I came to work the next day and my boss, who believes in positive thinking, was upbeat and optimistic, about how this was a great place for Oakland to start. If it were possible, themacinator would have been rendered speechless. It's not possible, so I answered with ranting about dog parks, Quan, etc. She answered with support for Quan, and that at least the police didn't use machine guns like in the '70s. But, aside from these absurdities, she has been right: Oakland may have found a way to move forward. 

themacinator has been rendered sleepy by all of this blogging and will save the rest for another day.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets

This is the best book I've read all year.  Looking back, I've read 29 books so far in 2011, and I've read some REALLY good books. Daniel Ellsberg is one of those very important historical political figures that I (and you?) had never heard of. I learned of this book when I went to hear Garry Wills talk, and he basically said that "Secrets" is The Book on the consolidation of presidential power. I'm not one to doubt the man who is probably my favorite public intellectual, and he's right: Ellsberg is the man.  The short version of Ellsberg's importance for those, who, like me, are clueless: In the 60s Ellsberg worked for the Rand Corporation, which was and is a Think Tank with access to important government documents. He worked for the government in various advisory positions that allowed him access to ultra top secret documents and high-level officials.  He was trusted and trustworthy, and very good at his job.  He also had combat experience: in the 50s he served in the Marines, and almost uniquely among those at the Pentagon, volunteered to go to Vietnam and learn what was going on on the ground in 1965 to 1967.  Other officials flew in for a day or two and flew out, or relied on word of mouth. Ellsberg, on the other hand, visited every province in Vietnam affected by the American "pacification" project.

 Ellsberg's investment in the war started at an interesting position given the anti-war pacifist he became: at the beginning of his tenure, Ellsberg's main priority was the absolute avoidance of further use of nuclear weapons.  When "Secrets" begins, Ellsberg calls himself "a dedicated cold warrior." His interest in stopping the Vietnam War at that point had nothing to do with the war itself: he was mostly concerned with preventing nuclear warfare should the conflict escalate into war with China, which he believed that the Johnson administration's choices would certainly cause.  In 1964, Ellsberg was a naive Pentagon employee: basically an assistant to the assistant to the Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, and understood that all the insiders agree that the course of the Vietnam war isn't going well, and that the next step would be increasing the US involvement.  As then-President Johnson came closer to deciding what direction to go in increasing the involvment, Ellsberg got a taste of what it means to work in the White House when his boss, John McNaughton, told him that if President Johnson asked for his (McNaughton's) opinion, he would give him the official opinion, the opinion of McNamara, even if it wasn't what McNaughton felt was best.  "I knew why he was telling me this," Ellsberg explains. 
He didn't define what he meant by loyalty, but it was clear enough from his story: Do what's good for your boss, the man who hired you; put that above what you think is bets for the country, above giving the president or the secretary of defense your best advice if that would embarrass your boss... I was shocked.  Lie to the president? Deprive him of your own best judgement, when he was asking you for it, on a matter of war and peace?

As it turns out, this was the crux of the American situation in Vietnam. Loyalty, the absolute necessity not to embarrass anyone and to hide the truth, kept the United States embroiled in a war that was not winnable, or as Ellsberg later decided, was not even a legitamite war (if there is such a thing).  By 1967, Ellsberg came to the conclusion that one of the "lessons of Vietnam" stems exactly from this strange loyalty leading to lies and bad policy:
the impact on policy failures of internal practices of lying to superiors, tacitly encouraged by those superiors, but resulting in a cognitive fauilure at the presidential level to recognize realities.  This was part of a broader cognitive failure of the bureacracy I had come to suspect.  There were situations... in which the US government, starting ignorant, did not, would not learn.
When Ellsberg finally had enough, he leaked The Pentagon Papers: 7000 pages of historical documents (already historical in 1969 when began copying them) of the hsitory of US involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Ellsberg reached a place where he felt he could no longer be a part of the government, but that he had key access to information and important people that gave him the unique position of potentially stopping the war.  With the release of The Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg hoped to pressure Nixon and his adminstration, or Congress, or the public, into stopping the war.   The papers tell the clear story of the lying that the executive branch told the to Congress and to the public. They contain detailed history of what went wrong at every step of the way, starting with French involvement. What the Pentagon Papers don't include are the documents that Ellsberg knew existed: memos to  various presidents from the very beginning advising that involvement in Vietnam could go nowhere good.  At each step of the way, presidents had top advisers saying, in effect, "Don't do this!" and at each step of the way, these statements were hidden away.
This was so not just because of the charges of "weak on communism," "appeasement," and "defeatism" that could be expected... Of more importance, such documents, if leaked, would reveal that a president strongly inclined to escalate had had a real choice... an extrication option that was actually recommended by advisers of great authority.  That revelation would burden the president with personal responsibility for all that followed from his decision to reject their alternative. Hence hte need to keep this advice unusually secret from Congress, from the public, and even from people like me in his own bureaucracy.
Basically, lies got the US into the war (really, the French wanted their colony back, and the US backed them up), lies kept the US in the war, lies kept the parts of the US governement from knowing what was really going on in a war that they were authorizing funding for and kept the part of the government that was involved in waging the war confused about their own war, and kept the public totally in the dark. The first time I realized this was hearing and reading Wills, but Ellsberg said it again: the total secrecy was a bizarre irony.  The public was told that details could not be revealed and that "state secrets" must be kept so that the enemy wouldn't know what was happening. In this way, Johnson and Nixon were able to wage top-secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, without Congress or the public knowing. But the people in Cambodia and Laos, and the government of North Vietnam, from whom the secret was presumably was supposed to be kept, knew exactly what was happening. They were being bombed, and they were fighting back. There was no secret there. The "secret" was the secrecy itself.

In 1967, Ellsberg had an eye opening moment when someone leaks the number of troops that President Johnson was about to request: 206,000. This was the first time the public had heard a remotely close-to-real number, rather than the usual 40,000 or so that Johnson usually talked about. The trick was usually to call up troops, then ask for them after they had been deployed.  After the leak, Ellsberg realizes that there was a "thin- yet almost impermeable- membrane that separated the executive branch from the legislative in terms of infomration.  I had seen for years how effectively the president could lie about his policies, with the safe assumption that his lies would not be exposed... I now saw how the system of secrecy and lying could give him options he would be better without, or it could dangerously prejudice his choice." For example, Johnson was pressured by the military at this point, and couldn't fall back on the checks and balances that Congress and the public might have provided.  At this point, Ellsberg was ready to do something big, something big enough to stop the war, or at least to pressure Johnson to change.  Read the book for the full details on how he went about leaking the papers, and to whom.

While I was reading the book, and getting to the point where Nixon is elected on a vow to get America out of the war "with honor" while knowing that he will do no such thing, President Obama announced that the US would have all soldiers out of Iraq by the end of 2011.  There is really nothing like a White House insider to make a person extremely cynical, and I'm pretty sure Ellsberg's book is the best place to start to wipe any last naivete out of your eyes.  I will paraphrase Ellsberg's understanding of the Vietnam war's history after he completed reading the Pentagon Papers for the first time:

1. There were no 1st and 2nd Indochina wars like the history books say, just one 25 year long conflict.
2. The war was actually an American/Vietnamese war. The war was first French/American v Vietamese war, then just American v Vietnamese, fighting against "American policy and American financing, proxies, technicians, firepower, and finally, troops and pilots." (i.e. There was no civil war in Vietnam.)
3. After the late 1940s, the war would have ended had the US not funded it. After 1954, there would have been no war if the US and their Vietnamese funded allies had not violated an election that had been negotiated in Geneva.
4. This was not a civil war, nor an "aggression from the North." The Vietnam war had "one side [which] was entirely equipped and paid by a foreign power-which dictated the nature of the local regime in its own interest... In terms of the UN Charter and of our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression."

I'm not an expert on either the Iraq war or the Vietnam wars, and I know that the quagmire comparison has been made endlessly.  In October of 1972, Henry Kissinger, in an eerie prequel of Iraq, said that "peace is at hand." The Vietnam war ended in 1975.  If you have forgotten (and I wish I had), George W Bush told us that the Iraq war was over, "mission accomplished," in 2003. If troops are really leaving at the end of the year, they will have remained 8 years later.  Some things have certainly changed in terms of transparency: where a Johnson or Nixon could send troops to Vietnam and go on fake missions, or have them bomb countries without the public knowing, technology has advanced to the point that the world knows what happens instantly in most of the rest of the world. This type of transparency works up to a point, however. When George Bush started preparing for the Iraq War after 9/11, few people were really surprised, and fewer believed in his pretenses for war. Again, the a foundation of internal loyalty and lies, much in the way that Vietnam-era Presidents and Administrations psyched themselves into starting and continuing an amoral, expensive, and deadly war. It was technically easy enough this time around to find out the lie in the yellowcake story, but just as hard, or harder, to put a stop to the war machine Bush put in motion.

Read "Secrets" and hope that there's an Ellsberg Jr. out there that is already working on something as massively damaging to the war machine. Too many people are dying.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

#OccupyWallSt

I'm having issues with the Occupy Wall Street Movement that is everywhere right now (including the spinoffs OccupySF and OccupyOakland). My issues are not related to the common critiques of "what the hell do they want?" and "how the hell are they going to get them?" since I think there are a *lot* of valid demands, some of which are nicely summed up here. Nor am I particularly concerned with the lack of leadership in the "movement" (can a movement lack a leader and structure?) since this seems to be how a lot of the Arab Spring went down, with some/limited success, and honestly, may be the future of networked organizing and revolution.

My issues are slightly different, and partly brought on the other day when I saw a middle aged white woman on CNN speaking as a Tea Party representative. She was asked if she felt there were any similarities between the Tea Party movement and the OccupyWallSt movement. She looked straight at the camera and said something to the effect of "No! Well, we all hate big companies taking our money. Who the heck [sic] doesn't? But other than that? I mean, what do they want??" But I think there are more similarities than the Tea Party representative was willing to own, and surely more than the Occupiers are willing to own. What leftie or liberal out protesting is going to be willing to take that comparison in stride?

Caveat: my only hands-on experience with the Occupy movement was when I went down to 101 Market on Saturday for the Global Day of Action in San Francisco. I got there a little bit after the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did their thing and arrived right about the time when mass chaos ensued and before protesters started their march, which, it turns out, ended up at City Hall. I left before the end- it had been a long day. Apparently, I missed a very cool thing. The other part of my experience comes from the ever handy twitter which serves as live word of mouth from friends you don't even have. I have been avidly following a couple of acquaintances who are trustworthy sources, and sometims follow the #OccupySF and #OccupyOakland tags. While I wouldn't claim any kind of expertise on the subject, I do feel entitled to a few opinions on the subject.

So here are some of my concerns:

1. Target audience: Per Adbusters Magazine, who, per my understanding, is one of the impetuses behind the movement, one of the stated goals is "to end the monied corruption of our democracy." This is a noble goal, and one I stand behind. The statement includes that OccupyWallSt is "inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas" both of which, also to my understanding, were demands for more democratic governments. So, if the goal is more democratic governments, and transparency, then I suppose I understand camping out in front of City Hall, like the Oakland protesters are doing. However, if the goal is a less corporatized government, than I'm not sure I understand targeting local governments at all. Today the OccupyOakland movement targeted banks (and even got a little disruptive in a Chase branch), which feels more authentically anti-corporate, and the OccupySanFrancisco events often start at 101 Market St, the home of the Federal Reserve, which makes sense: the symbolic home of the nation's money. But local city governments are not responsible for the lack of separation between business and government that I think most of the 99% would agree has caused a lot of the mess we're in both financially and morally.  Sure, there's corruption out there, and some local policies sure seemed tied to corporate ones (the San Francisco Twitter Tax Break comes to mind).  But to me, the target is the state and more, federal government and the corporations who are holding hands, or maybe even being a little more intimate than that.  Local protests on big issues are important, but the Occupy movements seem to have missed their targets, which are perhaps more aptly the folks in DC, corporate headquarters, and locally, state senators/congresspeople, governors, and senators/congresspeople who are more likely to have any real ability to change anything. Right now, I imagine corporations don't really care at all about OccupyEverything: people are out in their tents using internet service, talking on cell phones, driving, and carrying on normal business. This benefits, not hurts the people the Occupy movement are fighting.

2. Misuse of resources: In the same vein, local governments are the ones picking up the tab for these protests.  I discussed this with a friend, who rightly pointed out that this doesn't mean that we shouldn't protest. Every protest involves the use of resources: police come out whether we like it or not, public works cleans up afterwards, etc. But these protests are going on for weeks, taxing the small resources that are available.  Again, this is not an argument against the movements, or protests in general.  However, because of the lack of organization, OccupyOakland, at least, will not talk to the police or the city. (Don't take my word for it: Mother Jones on the ground just quoted this story.) So, when things like the day of action come up, police send out Every Officer for the "just in case" scenario. This does no one any good. Police officers are part of the 99%, and are under orders to be out there: although the public voices won't say it, the officers are people too, who have families and mortgages and payments. A large officer presence alone escalates the situation and creates a cycle where protesters get resentful/violent and officers get resentful/violent, and the whole situation gets out of whack.  Then the brass feel they "need" to send officers en masse to each event, and the protests remain contentious. And each time this happens, more money is drained from the cities' budget. If the movement cooperated, in the form of dialogue, with officials, much of this could be avoided.  I am not suggesting cooptation, or caving, or anything of the like: just another place the movements seem to be missing the mark. I have been to many permitted and unpermitted marches and actions where police are allocated appropriately and inappropriately (most recently the complete overreaction to OpBart).  The difference here is the scale: weeks have passed that could lead to months without dialogue.

3. 99% of who? There is the potential for collaboration and discussion and growth through OccupyWallSt. 


Occupy Oakland, courtesy of S dP, All Rights Reserved
occupysf October 15 Occupy Wall Street solidarity march O15 67
OccupySF, courtesy Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons



But what I've seen, and I think is visible in these two pictures is something that I wouldn't call representative of 99% of the United States, or even the Bay Area.  Perhaps it's different elsewhere, or at different times, but this is what I saw, and what I've seen over and over again in pictures.  White people, dressed in comfortable clothes, mostly young-ish, some families, and some older people.  Some have signs to the effect that they have advanced degrees and can't find work.  Many have fancy cameras, and almost all are armed with smart phones.  Homeless people sleep in the park where OccupyOakland is camped out, but are not, per a reliable source, part of the tent city. They don't have tents (they may have been given tents since I last heard).  These are some onlookers at the march pictured above in SF. Note distinct differences:
occupysf October 15 Occupy Wall Street solidarity march O15 79
Occupy SF, courtesy Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons

Based on the Good article I linked to above, the top 5 demands of the OccupyWallSt'ers are:
1. Affordable Health Care
2. Jobs
3. Home Stability
4. Affordable Education
5. Credit Card Relief
They established these demands/goals by combining a list of posts into these 5 categories.  Taking for granted, for a moment, that these are the most demanded 5 demands of OccupiersOfEverything, it begs the following two questions for me, which I hope are being asked.  1. Are these the demands representative of People of Color? Of people of all economic standings in the 99%? Of which parts of the 99%? 2. What can this movement do to be more inclusive, inviting, and accurately representative of the needs of the 99%? Of people of color? Of the truly poor? Of the entire 99%?   Like the feminist movement claims to be for all women, this movement has the very real potential of claiming to speak for a huge portion of the population while speaking to and for a select, privileged few. I had a small insight into this when I went to the inspiring and inclusive Life is Living event in West Oakland a couple of weeks ago. A couple of young white kids were handing out OccupyOakland fliers there. But they were doing little more than handing out fliers to a bunch of blank faces who were too polite to say no.  For this movement to be anything more than more preaching to the choir, all of the above issues will need to be addressed.

I am part of the 99%.  But I will not be in a tent at City Hall.

Edit to include this awesome piece with Rachel Maddow and pretty awesome intellectual Tim Wise calling it like it is.