Monday, December 31, 2012

The House Files Has Returned!

Readers of themacinator may have forgotten all about it, but there used to be a sister blog- The House Files- of ugly houses. Yesterday the blog was resurrected with a new motif: House Portraits, a hashtag/meme from Instagram. Please check it out!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power

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The story of black nationalism and civil rights isn't usually the story of poor white people. Maybe better, the story of poor white people in the late '60s and early '70s isn't usually the story of civil rights, or even class struggle. Today the story of poor whites, especially in the South, and blacks is often told in the vein of racial resentment. Amy Sonnie and James Tracy problematize this relationship with their history of five community groups that organized poor whites alongside black nationalists for economic and social justice and would today be called anti-racist groups: JOIN Community Union, the Young Patriots, Rising Up Angry, October 4th Organization (O4O) and White Lightening. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in the forward, poor, especially rural, whites are a problem for the ruling class of America and easy for those of us in cities to ignore: "They are evidence of the failure of the 'American Dream.' The mythology that they have some rights, some prominence in the national story buys the population's loyalty to the state, even though they have no say in its affairs... All along, they have made up the majority of the military, still cannon fodder, but feeling righteous and 'patriotic.'" Harnessing this patriotism while keeping poor whites from feeling disenfranchised often requires emphasizing racial tensions and us/them mentalities.

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy revive the stories of people who struggled to overcome that mentality and situate poor whites in the struggle for a more just America. According to Sonnie and Tracy, the organizers of poor whites operated on two radical principles: first, that poor whites weren't necessarily any more racist than rich racists (those who tended to be the ones working alongside blacks in the civil rights movement) and second, that, since poor whites "experience the benefits of institutional racism differently," it was key to include class struggle and race in any organizing efforts. Sonnie and Tracy highlight both successes and failures along the way, which is one of the unique parts of "Hillbilly Nationalists," along with the early discussions of the pros and cons of organizing along with or separate from black groups. These poor white organizations recognized and grappled their privilege as whites, as well as their disadvantages as poor people when working with student groups, and negotiated with this identity as they navigated in their communities and work. They sought to work as partners "in class-based coalition with communities of color" without being leaders or agenda setters. Rather, they attempted to "address racism at its core," as the Black Panthers suggested to them. Although this book is case studies, its most powerful moments come with the potential for prescription or advice: how can organizers today think about race and class in their own movements, rather than paying lip service to it? What kind of organizing can be done in poor white communities that might mobilize them to think of the struggle as their own? Rather than talking about "them"- the poor, the obese, the veterans, the high school dropouts, etc- "Hillbilly Nationalists" provides examples of how groups generally thought of as unorganized and unorganizable and maybe even apathetic have actually done the hard work and succeeded.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Airing of Grievances (Personal and Political)

I have never been and never plan to be a Seinfeld fan. I get it- it's funny, dry, Jewish, even. I'm all of those things and can get behind all of those things. But not Seinfeld. But tonight I'd like to honor Seinfeld: It is, after all, the very important holiday of Festivus, which is the annual occasion of The Airing of Grievances. I complain a lot. I have a lot of #firstworldproblems. If you know me in person or follow me on twitter, you know that themacinator sometimes doth protest too much. So I'm going to take advantage of tonight to do some officially sanctioned airing. (In the spirit of the AoG, I give you permission to air away in the comments. Agreeing with themacinator on the amount of complaints she submits throughout the year is, however, strictly forbidden.)

Let's start with the personal slash #firstworldproblems and get those out of the way. My back hurts. I'm thirtysomething going on 94. Some days I wake up and feel like I understand how my 94 year old grandfather feels. My wonderful house is freezing. Seriously cold. I have already broken the "no heat until January" rule instilled in my by THB at least 5 times this month. Rollie is not Mac. Great, funny, warm (see above), but Not Mac, and therollinator has no ring to it at all, to add to the list of grievances that I want to air every time I see him. None of the last five books I have read have been worth reading. I've been suffering from writer's block for months.

Now onto the slightly more important topics. I'm very sick of the Lake Merritt Dog Park Issue. Let me insert a video that will express to those not interested in Oakland politics what this means.

Why Won't You Die, dog park? Okay, I don't really want the dog park to die, but the truth is that this project has been under discussion for ELEVEN years. I've lost count of how many times it's been in front of City Council this year. The dog park near Astro Park was voted down this summer for what was supposed to be the very last time, then, not surprisingly if you've ever worked with dog people or watched an Oakland City Council meeting was allowed to come back for a final appeal. It has since been voted on again twice more- the first time ending in a tie, and Mayor Jean Quan wasn't there to break the tie, and the second time tying again with Mayor Quan unwilling to break the tie and deferring the decision till next year in the hopes that a solution could be found. Because the 12th year is the charm, I heard.

If I had to pick a side, I'd side with the people now seen as NIMBYs- those who want the park somewhere else. Since this is the official themacinator Airing of Grievances, I will admit that part of me might do this just to play the contrarian. There are reasons, though, and they include things like parking, irresponsible ownership of both dogs and children, lack of enforcement capabilities, and, more importantly, better placement options. Other options do exist, and since it seems pretty clear that this pissing match is not doing much of anything besides wasting time (the last two city council meetings each lasted over 6 hours, much of which was devoted to this farce) and money, it could not possibly be worse to discuss other possibilities.

I will now air a very serious grievance. I don't think I have enough information or writerly prowess tonight to do this issue justice tonight, but I haven't figured out why this doesn't seem to bother more people. So there's serious issue part a, and then part b: no one cares! Part A: Alameda County (my county, folks, maybe yours) wants to buy drones. I've known this since mid-October. Seriously. And they only cost 50,000 to 100,000 dollars, which is in the same range as that dog park, just to put things in perspective. Maybe you don't know a lot about drones, or why people who like them like them: check out this rah-rah-type article from the respectable and mainstream magazine Wired that makes drones sound like something even the blue county of Alameda could get behind. They're just a remotely controlled device with a spot to carry something, it's cool! We can all have them! So what if the police want them?

Even Berkeley decided that they weren't going to add "Drone Free" to their "Nuclear Free" signs. And it turns out that the AlCo Sherriff wasn't even on the up and up about how he was going to obtain or use this drone. From the ALCU:
Controversy has erupted in Alameda County in recent weeks after Sheriff Greg Ahern announced his intent to acquire a drone. We filed a public records act request that produced documents revealing Ahern intends to use a drone for surveillance and intelligence gathering purposes despite his claims to the contrary, and appeared with local advocates before the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Without an open and democratic process and privacy safeguards, we noted, the sheriff would be free to engage in dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of area residents. On Nov. 6, the Board agreed to hold an open hearing to address those concerns, but this week we learned of a hidden agenda item seeking the approval of a grant award to the sheriff from the California Emergency Management Agency. We acted quickly and asked the Board to remove the agenda item so that no blanket approval would be given for a drone purchase without public debate. The sheriff then voluntarily withdrew his request. This change of course is good news, but it also highlights the need for continued public engagement with local government when law enforcement seeks out surveillance technology.

Controversy? I'll say. Shenanigans? Bullshit? GRIEVANCE? Yes. And folks, why aren't we on this? Why aren't we at the Oakland City Council meetings telling them to join Berkeley in their entirely symbolic letter to (per Inside Bay Area) Alameda County and its sheriff's office asking them not to take any action regarding drones until Berkeley resolves its drone issue." Unfortunately, it's time for my final grievance. We aren't on this because we're busy fighting over a dog park. City Council is busy allowing Oakland to fight over a dog park.

Happy Holidays, folks. That ham you're eating looks delicious, and the Festivus pole? Genius! I still celebrate Hanukkah, and that drone momma gave me last week has really given me a fabulous view into your living room. Don't worry, I can't see your bedroom, and medicinal marijuana is legal here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paul Berman: Power and the Idealists

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Somehow I ended up reading another book by Paul Berman. I'm fairly sure I didn't put it on my list after reading the first, "The Flight of the Idealists," which I found fascinating but entirely esoteric and somewhat maddening, and I've never heard of the man in the subtitle, Joschka Fischer. I'm also fairly certain that I didn't put this book on my list because of the subject matter, because in the same way as I was hard-pressed to find the point of "Flight of the Idealists," I'm not quite sure I can nail down what exactly Paul Berman is on about in "Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and its Aftermath." I will consider this a note-to-self not to read another of Berman's books unless I have a Very Good Reason.

 As far as I can tell, "Power and the Idealists" (whoever titles Berman's works is a genius and should be employed by any publisher who aims to succeed, by the way), is a narrative of Berman's belief of what he thinks got us to the second Iraq war, at least from a European standpoint. He traces the movements and beliefs of a few influential "68ers" like the eponymous Fischer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Bernard Kouchner, various protesters cum politicians/intellectuals, and how their post-WWII rebellions shaped their political views. Turns out that a lot of modern leaders in Europe had histories either directly or tangentially involved with that time of upheaval, and, according to Berman, that these 68ers, by aiming to distinguish themselves from the Nazis and totalitarianism, often found themselves on the side of movements that were actually directly descended from the Nazis. This is totally confusing, right? Yes, in fact, it is, even more so when told with all these complicated characters that you've never heard of, and in Berman's beautiful but florid prose. Here's the first step in the story I think that Berman is trying to tell:
What was New Leftism, then? It was-it pictured itself as-Nazism's opposite and nemesis: the enemy of the real Nazism, the Nazism that had survived Nazism, the Nazism that was built into the foundations of Western life.
The problem is that along the way, while fighting Nazism, sometimes the New Left, now run by the 68ers-turned-politicians, got in bed with the wrong people or made the wrong choices in the name of fighting Nazis. Here's where Joschka Fischer comes in, although I'm going to make it much more explicit than Berman ever does. Joschka Fischer was a part of the New Left, threw sticks, hated Nazis, wasn't into intervention, and eventually became a powerful and popular member of the German government via the Green party, a pacifist group. Most Greens "still insisted on interpreting anti-Nazism to mean anti-imperialism in the left-wing style. Didn't American hegemony pose a terrible danger to Europe and to the world, perhaps the greatest danger of all?" So, when the massacres were going on in the Balkans, the Germans (sorry about this) balked, and the Greens along with everyone else were surprised when Fischer wanted to send troops. Hitler had sent troops to Bosnia: how could the New Left do the same? He chose according to Berman, "antitotalitarianism, humanitarian action, [and] NATO."

By the way, my inclusion of quotations and direct explanations is medal-worthy: like "Flight of the Intellectuals," "Power and the Idealists" includes neither bibliography, footnotes, nor index. And since I'm still trying to read from the library, I've resorted to sticky tabs where I think something might be important, which means I'm paging through 50 noted pages to find this stuff. A publisher who has a good title-writer and no indexer comes out on the negative side. Berman dillies and dallies around the main theme (I think it's the main theme) of what these New Left guys think is worth giving up their pacifist ideals for- massacres? death? nothing?- for 300 pages, and spends the last few on "the Tragedy of Iraq." This chapter is exceptionally thought provoking. Essentially, he proposes the argument that Bush botched the reasons for the war (duh), the war itself (duh), but was possibly not wrong that Saddam Hussein needed to be overthrown, and that Fischer and others would have helped Bush, had he gone about it correctly. By the time Berman gets to this point, it's hard to avoid the fact that the idea that people under totalitarian regimes should take care of business themselves, that it's Wrong for powerful countries to standby. The repulsiveness of the Nazis, and even of the modern Americans, does not make standing by while Saddam or Kim Jong Un does his thing acceptable. As Bernard Kouchner said after attending a peace march in Boston, "I found myself in the middle of a crowd of Democrats, sympathetic types, and not idiots. But when they demanded that America not intervene, they were doing exactly what Saddam wanted them to do... And then, there was this scandalous statistic, this poll- 33 percent of the French preferred Saddam's victory to Bush's!"

I never thought I would think of it that way. It sounds a lot like "if you're not with us, you're against us." But as Berman puts it, perhaps the best test of where the moral authority for military intervention lies "with the victims." (Actually, Berman doesn't put it this way, he ascribes that to Kouchner. Berman leaves a lot of his opinions to the imagination.) Kouchner was a man who had worked to get resolutions passed in the UN that established legal precedents for humanitarian intervention, (again, Berman ascribing to Kouchner,) "expression in international law... of a victim's right to be represented by someone other than his own government." This is the punchline of Berman's book: a bunch of people variously labeled as socialists, communists, anarchists, New Left, 68ers, etc, realizing that perhaps intervention and/or violence could be used for good.  Berman again: "Maybe the strength of the strong was not, by definition, a crime against the weak. Maybe power was a tool that, decently employed, could do a world off good for the most oppressed of the oppressed, just as, in the past, the power of the big Western countries had all too systematically done worlds of harm. Maybe Western strength and imperialist oppression did not have to be synonymous."  Maybe.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger: A Nuclear Family Vacation

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In 2006, 15 years after the end of the Cold War, according to "A Nuclear Family Vacation," and I have no reason to doubt their numbers, the United States spent essentially the same amount of money- $6.61 billion dollars- on the nuclear complex as in 1984, during the height of the Cold War.  Part of that money funds "missileers": Air Force officers who sit underground awaiting orders to launch nuclear weapons. Two at a time, they sit strapped into chairs awaiting orders to follow a procedure and simultaneously turn two keys that, when turned, "launch their missiles toward enemy targets." In other words, there is no red button for the president or any other government official to press. They give an order, which travels down a chain of command to two lowly, and apparently young, officers do the deed. These officers rotate in shifts underground, and as Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger write, "It was hard to imagine that keeping young, educated, and highly trained Air Force personnel locked underground was really the best use of resources. If nothing else, it struck us as terribly unimaginative. Nuclear deterrence did not always exist, and it seemed somehow odd to think that it always would."

"A Nuclear Family Vacation" is a journey through an entire system that seems both unimaginative and odd. Hodge and Weinberger, a married couple, decided to spend their vacation time over the course of two years doing something rather imaginative: going somewhere they both of them wanted to go, which turned out to be "key nuclear weapons sites." Some of these were more accessible than others, and it seems that almost all of them were made slightly more accessible by the author's journalism credentials, and as the vacations piled up, Hodge and Weinberger realized they were learning more about the nuclear complex than they thought they would at the outset: the Cold War might be over, but as the numbers I gave at the start prove, the nukes aren't gone. Entire labs, even mini-cities, are devoted to the general upkeep and storage of nuclear weapons: both their maintenance and safety, and ensuring that they still work, without testing them. I learned more about the Bikini Islands than I have ever heard before, but only in the most literal, physical sense. "A Nuclear Family Vacation" is a travelogue, which is a slightly strange way to present the information in the book, but it really is possible that Hodge and Weinberger didn't set out to write a book, and it really is a readable, if slightly motley book. On the other hand, for dorks like me with a true pacifist, anti-nuke bent, the information falls slightly short: I kept waiting for More, and the travelogue genre doesn't really allow for that. Perhaps the book is most successful in this way, as a travelogue with a twist that leaves you searching for more.