Monday, February 28, 2005

Lannan Readings & Conversation: Gilbert Sorrentino with Michael Silverblatt

Gilbert Sorrentino has published over 30 volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays. For much of the 1950's and 60's he published literary journals and magazines and in 1965 took a job at Grove Press where his first editing assignment was Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Sorrentino's first novel, The Sky Changes, was published in 1966 and was soon followed by Steelwork in which Sorrentino draws upon memories of his Brooklyn childhood. Next came Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, about the art and literary avant-garde community of 1950's and 60's New York.

Michael Silverblatt, dubbed "the best reader in America" by Norman Mailer and "a national treasure" by Susan Sontag, is host and producer of public radio's premier literary talk-show Bookworm. Silverblatt, a Lannan audience favorite, has participated in more than 25 Readings & Conversations programs.

Gilbert Sorrentino Reading & Conversation

Sunday, February 27, 2005

I'm a Hopeless Cinema Geek!

or is that a cineaste?

Best Picture:
Million Dollar Baby

Best Actor:
Jamie Foxx, Ray (Unfortunately I haven't seen Hotel Rwanda or Finding Neverland yet--I like Don Cheadle a lot and it would be great to see him win--Johnny Depp deserves any award.)

Best Actress:
Tie in my book: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby and Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace

Best Supporting Actor:
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways

Best Supporting Actress:
Laura Linney, Kinsey

Best Director:
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby

Screenplay Original:
Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Mind

Screenplay, Adapted:
Paul Haggis--Million Dollar Baby

Documentary Feature:
Super Size Me (should have been nominated for best picture--seriously, damn it was better than Sideways?)

Doonesbury: For How Much Longer...?

For How Much Longer...?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Naomi Klein: The Tyranny of the Brands

(for my students)

The Tyranny of the Brands
Naomi Klein
The New Statesman (January 24, 2000)

What are we to make of the extraordinary scenes in Seattle that brought the 20th century to a close? A New York Times reporter observed that this vibrant mass movement opposed to unregulated globalisation had materialised “seemingly overnight”. On television, the reliable experts who explain everything couldn’t sort out whether the protesters were right-wing nationalists or Marxist globalists. Even the American left seemed surprised to learn that, contrary to previous reports, it did, in fact, still exist.

Despite the seemingly unconnected causes that converged in Seattle that week, there was a common target: the multinational corporation in general and McDonald's, The Gap, Microsoft and Starbucks in particular. And what has given the movement against them a new energy and a new urgency is a profound shift in corporate priorities. That shift centres on the idea of corporate branding and the quest to build the most powerful brand image. It will, I believe, be one of the issues that shapes the first decade of the 21st century.

Branding seems like a fairly innocuous idea. It is slapping a logo on a product and saying it’s the best. And when brands first emerged, that was all it was. At the start of the industrial revolution, the market was flooded with nearly identical mass-produced products. Along came Aunt Jemima and Quaker Oats with their happy comforting logos to say: our mass-produced product is of the highest quality.

But the role of branding has been changing, particularly in the past fifteen years: rather than serving as a guarantee of value on a product, the brand itself has increasingly become the product, a free-standing idea pasted on to innumerable surfaces. The actual product bearing the brand-name has become a medium, like radio or a billboard, to transmit the real message. The message is: It’s Nike. It’s Disney. It’s Microsoft. It’s Diesel. It’s Caterpillar. The late graphic designer, Tibor Kalman, said that a brand used to be a mark of quality; now, it is “a stylistic badge of courage”.

This shift in the role of the brand is related to a new corporate consensus, which emerged in the late 1980s. It held that corporations were too bloated: they were oversized, they owned too much, they employed too many people, they were weighed down with too many things. Where once the primary concern of every corporation was the production of goods, now production itself — running one’s own factories, being responsible for tens of thousands of full-time, permanent employees — began to seem like a clunky liability.

The Nikes and Microsofts, and later the Tommy Hilfigers and Intels, made the bold claim that production was only an incidental part of their operations. What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but ideas and images for their brands, and their real work lay not in manufacturing, but in building up their brands. Savvy ad agencies began to think of themselves as brand factories, hammering out what is of true value: the idea, the lifestyle, the attitude. Out of this heady time, we learnt that Nike was about “Sport”, not shoes; Microsoft about “Communications”, not software; Starbucks about “Community”, not coffee; Virgin about a “Fun-loving Attitude”, not an airline, a record label, a cola, a bridal gown line, a train — or any of the other brand extensions the company has launched. My favourite is Diesel, whose chief executive says he has “created a movement”, not a line of clothes.

The formula for these brand-driven companies is pretty much the same: get rid of your unionised factories in the west and buy your products from Asian or Central American contractors and sub-contractors. Then, take the money you save and spend it on branding — on advertising, superstores, sponsorships. Based on the overwhelming success of this formula, virtue in the corporate world has become a sort of race towards weightlessness: the companies which own the least, keep the fewest employees on the payroll and produce the coolest ideas (as opposed to products) win the race.

I have come to think of such companies as transcendent brands because their goal is to escape almost all that is earthbound and to become pure idea, like a spirit ascending. This is a goal that is available not only to companies, but also to people. We have human brands as well as company brands and they, too, are cutting ties with what might be broadly described as “doing things”. Bill Gates has quit as chief executive of Microsoft so that he can tend to his true mission: being Bill Gates. Michael Jordan has stopped playing basketball and has become a pure brand-identity machine. And not only does he now have his own “Jordan” superstores, he is the first celebrity endorser to get other celebrities endorsing his label. Michael Jordan is no longer an athlete, he is an attitude.

It wasn’t until the Internet stock explosion that the extent of this shift became apparent. It marks the complete triumph of branding: the ascent of companies, most of which have yet to make a profit, that exist almost purely as ideas of themselves, leaving no real-world trace at all. What they are selling to Wall Street is unadulterated brand.

This shift to branding explains many of the most fundamental economic and cultural shifts of the past decade. Power, for a brand-driven company, is attained not by collecting assets per se, but by projecting one’s brand idea on to as many surfaces of the culture as possible: the wall of a college, a billboard the size of a skyscraper, an ad campaign that waxes philosophic about the humane future of our global village. Where a previous generation of corporate giants used drills, hammers and cranes to build their empires, these companies need an endless parade of new ideas for brand extensions, continuously rejuvenated imagery for marketing and, most of all, fresh new spaces to disseminate their brand’s idea of itself.

In this way, these corporate phantoms become real. If we think of a brand-driven company as an ever-expanding balloon, then public space, new political ideas and avant-garde imagery are the gases that inflate it: it needs to consume cultural space in order to stave off its own deflation. This is a major change. Marketing, in the classic sense, is about association: beautiful girl drinks soda, uses shampoo, drives car; soda/shampoo/car become associated with our aspiration to be beautiful like her.

Branding mania has changed all that: association is no longer good enough. The goal now is for the brands to animate their marketing identities, to become real-world, living manifestations of their myths. Brands are about “meaning”, not product attributes. So companies provide their consumers with opportunities not merely to shop but to experience fully the meaning of their brand. The brand- name superstore, for instance, stands as a full expression of the brand’s lifestyle in miniature. Many of these stores are so palatial, so interactive, so hi-tech that they lose money hand over fist. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t working. Their real goal, since they are never the company’s only source of sales, is to act as a 3D manifestation of the brand, so grand that their rather mundane products will carry that grandeur with them like a homing device.

But this is only the beginning. Nike, which used just to sponsor athletes, has taken to buying sporting events outright. Disney, which through its movies and theme parks has sold a bygone version of small-town America, now owns and operates its very own small town, Celebration Florida.

In these branded creations, we see the building blocks of a fully privatised social and cultural infrastructure. These companies are stretching the fabric of their brands in so many directions that they are transformed into tent-like enclosures large enough to house any number of core activities, from shopping to entertainment to holidays. This is the true meaning of a lifestyle brand: living your life inside a brand. Brand-based companies are no longer satisfied with having a fling with their consumers, they want to move in together.

These companies are forever on the prowl for new and creative ways to build and strengthen their brand images. This thirsty quest for meaning and virgin space takes its toll on public institutions such as schools, where, in North America, corporate interests are transforming education, seeking not only to advertise in cafeterias and washrooms but to make brands the uncritical subjects of study. Maths textbooks urge students to calculate the circumference of an Oreo cookie, Channel One broadcasts Burger King ads into 12,000 US schools and a student from Georgia was suspended last year for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on his school’s official “Coke Day”.

Another effect is to restrict choice. Brands, at the core, are selfish creatures, driven by the need to eliminate competitors and create self-enclosed branded systems. So Reebok, once it lands a deal to sponsor campus athletics, wants to exclude not only competing brands but also, as was the case at the University of Wisconsin, all disparaging remarks made about Reebok by officials of the university. Such “non-disparagement” clauses are standard in campus sponsorship deals. Disney, after it bought ABC, decided that it would rather ABC News no longer covered Disney’s scandals, and focused instead on promoting its movies in various feats of “synergy”. We can look forward to more of the same, no doubt, from this month’s merger of AOL and Time Warner.

There is another, more tangible, effect of the shift from products to brands: the devaluation of production itself. The belief that economic success lies in branding — production is a distant second — is changing the face of global employment. Building a superbrand is extraordinarily costly. A brand needs constant managing, tending, replenishing, stretching. The necessity for lavish spending on marketing creates intense resistance to investment in production facilities and labour. Companies that were traditionally satisfied with a 100 per cent mark-up from the cost of factory production to the retail price have spent the decade scouring the globe for factories that can make their products so inexpensively that the mark-up is closer to 400 per cent.

That’s where the developing world’s “free-trade zones” (free, that is, of taxes and wage or other labour regulations) come in. In Indonesia, China, Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines and elsewhere, the export-processing zones (as these areas are also called) are emerging as leading producers of garments, toys, shoes, electronics and cars. There are almost 1,000 zones around the world, spread through 70 countries and employing approximately 27 million workers.

Inside the gates of the zones, workers assemble the finished products of our branded world: Nike running shoes, Gap pyjamas, IBM computer screens, Old Navy jeans, or VW Bugs. Yet the zones appear to be the only places left on earth where the superbrands actually keep a low profile. Indeed, they are positively demure. Their names and logos aren’t splashed on the facades of the factories. In fact, where a particular branded product is made is often kept secret. And unlike in the brand-segregated superstores, competing labels are often produced side by side in the same factories; glued by the same workers, stitched and soldered on the same machines.

Regardless of where the zones are located, the hours will be long — 14-hour days in Sri Lanka, 12 in Indonesia, 16 in southern China, 12 in the Philippines. The workers are mostly young women; the management, military-style; the wages, sub-subsistence; the work, low-skill and tedious. The factories are owned by contractors or subcontractors from Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong; the contractors meet orders for companies based in the US, Britain, Japan, Germany and Canada.

These pockets of pure industry are cloaked in a haze of transience: the contracts come and go with little notice (in Guatemala the factories are called “swallows” because they might take flight at any time); the workers are predominantly migrants, far from home with little connection to the place in which they find themselves; the work itself is short-term, often not renewed. Many factory workers in the Philippines are hired through an employment agency inside the zone walls which collects their cheques and takes a cut — a temp agency for factory workers, in other words.

We tend to think that globalisation moves jobs from one country to another. But in a brand-based economy, the value of the work itself moves to a drastically degraded rung of the corporate hierarchy. What is being abandoned in the relentless quest to reduce the costs of production is the Fordist principle: that labour not only creates products but, by paying workers a decent wage, creates the consumer market for that product and others like it. In Indonesia, the young women factory workers making Nike shoes and Gap jeans live a notch above famine victims and landless peasants. And though it may seem indecent to compare them with the relatively privileged retail workers in the western shopping malls, the same pattern is at work. In developed countries, too, jobs are increasingly temporary, part-time, contract-based. Just as factory jobs that once supported families in the west have been reconfigured in the developing world as jobs for teenagers, so have the brand-name clothing companies and restaurant chains — Wal-Mart, Starbucks, The Gap — pioneered the idea that fast-food and retail-sector jobs are disposable and unfit for adults.

And so we are left with an odd duality: brands have never been more omnipresent in our lives, nor have they ever generated as much wealth. All around us we see these new branded creations replacing our cultural institutions and our public spaces. And yet, at the same time, these same companies are oddly absent from our lives in the most immediate of ways: as steady employers. Multinationals that once identified strongly with their role as engines of job growth — and used it as leverage to extract all kinds of government support — now prefer to identify themselves as engines of “economic growth”.

The extent of this shift cannot be overstated. Among the total number of working-age adults in the USA, Canada and the UK, those with full-time, permanent jobs working for someone other than themselves are in the minority. Temps, part-timers, the unemployed and those who have opted out of the labour force entirely — some because they don’t want to work but many more because they have given up looking for jobs — now make up more than half of the working-age population.

We know that this formula reaps record profits in the short term. It may, however, prove to be a strategic miscalculation. When corporations are perceived as functioning vehicles of wealth distribution — trickling down jobs and tax revenue — they get deep civic loyalty in return. In exchange for steady pay cheques and stable communities, citizens attach themselves to the priorities and fortunes of the local corporate sector and don’t ask too many questions about, say, water pollution. In other words, dependable job creation served as a kind of corporate suit of armour, shielding companies from the wrath that might otherwise have been directed their way. Only now, without realising it, brand-driven multinationals have gradually been shedding that armour: first came their inability to respect public space, next came their betrayal of the central promise of the information age — the promise of increased choice — and, finally, they severed the bond between employer and employee. They may be big, they may be rich, but suddenly there is nothing to protect them from public rage.

And that is the true significance of Seattle. All around us we are witnessing the early expressions of this anger, of the first, often crudely constructed lines of defence against the rule of the brands. We have, for example, the growth of “culture-jamming” which adapts a corporation’s own advertising to send a message starkly at odds with the one that was intended. So, for example, Apple Computers’ “Think Different” campaign acquires a photograph of Stalin with the slogan “Think Really Different”. The process forces the company to foot the bill for its own subversion, either literally, because the company is the one that bought the billboard being altered, or figuratively, because whenever anyone messes with a logo, they are tapping into the vast resources spent to make that logo meaningful.

I’ve never been thoroughly convinced by the powers of culture-jamming: in a war fought strictly with images, surely the one with the most images will win? But the principles of culture-jamming — using the power of brand-names against themselves in a kind of brand boomerang — are being imported to much more direct and immediate political struggles. People are beginning to fight the big global economic battles by focusing on one or two brand-name corporations and turning them into large-scale political metaphors. They are having more luck with this strategy than they had with decades of fighting these battles on a policy level with governments.

Think of the campaigns that trace the journeys of brand-name goods back to their unbranded points of origin: Nike sneakers back to the sweatshops of Vietnam; Starbucks lattes back to the sun-scorched coffee fields of Guatemala and now East Timor; and virtually every ingredient of a McDonald’s hamburger dissected into its bio-engineered beginnings.

There is a clear difference between these campaigns and the corporate boycotts of the past, whether against Nestle for its baby formula, or against Union Carbide for its infamous toxic accident in Bhopal, India. In those cases, activists had targeted a specific corporation engaged in an anomalously harmful practice. Today’s anti-corporate campaigns simply piggyback on the high profile of their brand-name targets as a tactical means of highlighting difficult, even arcane issues. The companies being targeted — Disney, Mattel, The Gap and so on — may not always be the worst offenders, but they do tend to be the ones who flash their logos in bright lights on the global marquee. It may seem unfair to single such companies out for their “success”, as some have argued, but it is precisely this success which is becoming an odd sort of liability.

Take McDonald's. In opening more than 23,000 outlets worldwide, the company has done more than spread the gospel of fast, uniform food. It has also, inadvertently, become equated in the public imagination with the “McJob”, “McDonaldisation” and “McWorld”. So when activists build a movement around McDonald's, as they did around the McLibel Trial, they are not really going after a fast-food chain, but harnessing the branding might behind the chain as a way to crack open a discussion on the otherwise impenetrable global economy: about labour, the environment and cultural imperialism.

Many superbrands are feeling the backlash. With typical understatement, Shell Oil’s chief executive, Mark Moody, states: “Previously, if you went to your golf club or church and said, ‘I work for Shell’, you’d get a warm glow. In some parts of the world, that has changed a bit.” That change flowed directly from the anti- corporate campaign launched against Shell after the hanging of the Nigerian author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was fighting to get Shell to clean up the environmental devastation left behind when it pumped oil out of the Niger Delta. Had the campaigners focused on the dictatorship alone, the death of the activist could well have been yet another anonymous atrocity in Africa. But because they dared to name names — to name Shell as the economic interest behind the violence — it became an instantly globalised campaign, with protests at petrol stations around the world. The brand was the campaign’s best asset. Something similar happened in the campaign against the brutal regime in Burma; almost all the major brand-name companies have now pulled out. The campaign against Monsanto — which has abandoned its plans for “terminator” seeds, genetically altered so as to yield only one crop — worked because the pressure was put on the heavily branded supermarkets and packaged food companies.

At the heart of this shift in focus is the recognition that corporations are much more than purveyors of the products we all want; they are also the most powerful political forces of our time, the driving forces behind bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. By now, we’ve all heard the statistics: how corporations such as Shell and Wal-Mart bask in budgets bigger than the gross domestic products of most nations; how, of the top 100 economies, 51 are multinationals and only 49 are countries. So, although the media often describe campaigns like the one against Nike as “consumer boycotts”, that tells only part of the story. It is more accurate to describe them as political campaigns that use consumer goods as readily accessible targets, as public-relations levers and as popular education tools.

I doubt this current surge of anti-corporate activism would have been possible without the mania for branding. Branding, as we have seen, has taken a fairly straightforward relationship between buyer and seller and — through the quest to turn brands into media providers, art producers, town squares and social philosophers — transformed it into something much more intimate. But the more successful this project is, the more vulnerable these companies become to the brand boomerang. If brands are indeed intimately entangled with our culture and identity, then, when they do wrong, their crimes are not easily dismissed as another corporation trying to make a buck. Instead, many of the people who inhabit these branded worlds feel complicit in their wrongs, both guilty and connected. And this connection is a volatile one, akin to the relationship of fan and celebrity: emotionally intense but shallow enough to turn on a dime.

Branding, as I have stated, is a balloon economy: it inflates with astonishing rapidity but it is full of hot air. It shouldn’t be surprising that this formula has bred armies of pin-wielding critics, anxious to pop the corporate balloon and watch it fall to the ground.

Behind the protests outside Nike Town, behind the pie in Bill Gates’s face, behind the shattering of a McDonald’s window in Paris, behind the protests in Seattle, there is something too visceral for most conventional measures to track — a bad mood rising. And the corporate hijacking of political power is as responsible for this mood as the brands’ cultural looting of public and mental spaces.

All around the world, activists are making liberal use of the tool that has so thoroughly captured the imagination of the corporate world: branding. Brand image, the source of so much corporate wealth, is also, it turns out, the corporate Achilles’ heel.

Article Link

The Politics of Meat

I basically agree that eating meat in itself is not immoral, at least that is what I have told myself as I continue to eat it. For me, the issue is the "way" in which we currently raise animals and slaughter them--factory style, injecting drugs, inhumane (kind of a stupid word, but at least it communicates a sense) conditions, environmental pollution, issues of sustainability...

Has anyone read Michel Faber's brilliant novel Under the Skin that acts as a parable about factory style slaughter of animals (in the dystopian tradition of 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lord of Flies, We)--allowing us to see it from the animal's viewpoint (particularly vivid for a male perspective).

Melissa, who is a vegetarian, has Carol Adam's The Sexual Politics of Meat sitting by our computer as I write this and the first chapter "The Patriarchal Texts of Meat" has very vivid examples of how we raise our food and what we eat plays a strong role in our attitude toward our fellow humans (in Adam's case of men toward women--which she demonstrates with visual advertisements that sexualize meat eating).

Many Holocaust survivors made strong connections between their experiences and the factory style breeding and slaughtering of animals, becoming vegetarian/vegan as a result. Richard Rubenstein in his brilliant book The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the the American Future makes the same point in the development of a ruthlessly efficient technocratic-bureaucratic order that understands only the bottom-line of efficiency--the most bang for your buck. As a reader of Rubenstein's book states:

Modernity laid the foundation, and bureaucracy provided the means. Bureaucracy's roots are deep in military organization. Both require a hierarchical structure with decisions made only at the top. Both require layers of non-individuals who follow orders without thought or input, even if the end of the process is massive death. We were (are) just following orders. Just let me do my job. Don't bother me. Bombing cities, manufacturing cigarettes, dealing drugs, killing the earth become matters not of choice but of necessity. To make a moral judgment - any moral judgment - is to set oneself outside society.

Can we make the same assumption along the lines of those who work in the trade of factory style slaughter--anyone see the recent videos of the chicken factory workers in the Kentucky Fried Chicken scandal? Furthermore, anyone who has choosen the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle understands very vividly how our society treats anyone who chooses to step outside its dominant order.

If we can understand the setting up of camps for the apatrides (history being repeated in the "War on Terror") as leading to the atrocities of the concentration camps of WWII, could we also make the argument for the development of factory style slaughtering of animals as a step in the same direction?

Cunning of History

Giorgio Agamben in "The Open: Man and Animal", "Means Without Ends," and "State of Exception" has been wrestling with these philosophical issues. A review of his work states:

1. There is a certain humanist line of thinking that suggests that violence is invariably accompanied by what can be described as ‘dehumanisation.’ According to this standpoint, the instigator of violence suspends the humanity of his or her victim, in order to circumvent the ethical deterrents that would normally prevent the use of violence. In many respects this strikes us as true: the human subject of violence is frequently ‘objectified,’ they are treated as ‘pigs,’ ‘vermin,’ ‘dogs,’ as sub-human. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the greatest acts of violence against humans appear to be accompanied by a dehumanisation that is of commensurate intensity. The Holocaust was no exception to this. Dehumanisation was found in the Nazi labour and extermination camps, not only in the forms of violence and death prevalent there (for example cattle cars and mass exterminations), but in the plight of those in the camps, who as a result of starvation, brutal working conditions, indignity and violence, are said to have lost touch with their ‘humanity.’ A survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau recalls: "You could watch human beings turning into animals" (Volkel in Steinhoff, Pechel and Showalter, 1991: 236).

2. The humanist will say "Stop treating humans like animals: respect the human and violence will not be possible." But there is alternative line of thinking that responds in an apparently oblique way to the humanist: "Stop treating animals like we treat animals; then it will not be possible to treat humans like animals." Understood in this fashion, human violence represents not only a capacity for dehumanisation alone, but is tied closely to the justification of violence against the non-human. This reflects not only the capacity for humans to harm each other, but draws attention to the sustained incarceration, torture and violence that is directed towards animals in slaughterhouses, experimental laboratories and factory farms. It was perhaps this line of thinking that prompted novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer to observe "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

Should we introduce the concerns of animals into the "political sphere"? How disconnected must we be from the environment to think that they do not deserve the same considerations that humans do... is our domination, exploitation and mistreatment a sign of our collective (in)sanity. If we can make a designation of the slippery slope of the "state of exception" leading to the destructive depersonalization of humans, can we not delineate that same process in our treatment of animals?:

Giorgio Agamben: Means Without Ends

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Barbara Kingsolver: Small Wonder

Barbara Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky where she learned the art of storytelling and an appreciation for the natural world. Her background in biology and ecology led to work in scientific writing and journalism. In her fiction she combines this technical background with her interest in social justice issues. Writing, she believes, is a form of social and political engagement. Her books include: The Bean Trees, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, Prodigal Summer and Small Wonder. The Poisonwood Bible won the National Book Prize of South Africa and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards.
Bio Link

From Small Wonder (Perennial, 2002)
by Barbara Kingsolver

In my darkest times I have to walk, sometimes alone, in some green place. Other people must share this ritual. For some I suppose it must be the path through a particular set of city streets, a comforting architecture; for me it's the need to stare at moving water until my mind comes to rest on nothing at all. Then I can go home. I can clear the brush from a neglected part of the garden, working slowly until it comes to me that here is one small place I can make right for my family. I can plant something as an act of faith in time itself, a vow that we will, sure enough, have a fall and a winter this year, to be followed again by spring. This is not an end in itself, but a beginning. I work until my mind can run a little further on its tether, tugging at this central pole of my sadness, forgetting it for a minute or two while pondering a school meeting next week, the watershed conservation project our neighborhood has undertaken, the farmer's market it organized last year: the good that becomes possible when a group of thoughful citizens commit themselves to it. And indeed, as Margaret Mead said, that is the only thing that ever really does add up to change. Small change, small wonders - these are the currency of my endurance and ultimately of my life. It's a workable economy.

Political urgencies come and go, but it's a fair enough vocation to strike one match after another against the dark isolation, when spectacular arrogance rules the day and tries to force hope into hiding. It seems to me that there is still so much to say that I had better raise up and yell across the fence. I have stories of things I believe in: a persistent river, a forest on the edge of night, the religion inside a seed, the startle of wingbeats when a spark of red life flies against all reason out of the darness. One child, one bear. I'd like to speak of small wonders, and the possibility of taking heart.


Barbara Kingsolver: Knowing Our Place

Barbara Kingsolver Website

Introduction to Small Wonder

Kinsolver: Letter to My Mother

Remembering the Presidency of Ronald Reagan

I keep seeing reports that Ronald Reagan is considered by many Americans to be one of the greatest American presidents. I know memory is a tricky process so I just wanted to help those that have forgot what went on during Reagan's presidency and add to the historical knowledge of those who are too young to remember what it was like.

Democracy Now

* Ghost Wars: How Reagan Armed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan *

During Reagan's 8 years in power, the CIA secretly sent billions of
dollars of military aid to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in a US-supported
jihad against the Soviet Union. We take a look at America's role in
Afghanistan that led to the rise of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda with
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The
Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet
Invasion to September 10, 2001.

Listen/Watch/Read Ghost War

* Remembering Reagan's Invasion of Grenada *

We take a look at the 1983 U.S.-invasion of Grenada that led to the
installation of a pro-American government to replace the former rule of
the leftist President Maurice Bishop. We speak with Bishop's former Press
Secretary Don Rojas, who was deported from Grenada by the U.S.

Listen/Watch/Read Invasion of Grenada

* Ignoring AIDS: The Reagan Years *

We take a look at the Reagan administration blatant refusal to deal
with the issue of AIDS while thousands of Americans were dying from the
disease. We speak with Andy Humm of Gay USA who confronted Reagan in 1987
when he first addressed the issue near the end of his second term.

Listen/Watch/Read Ignoring AIDs

Texas Students Stage T-Shirt Protest of Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)

(courtesy of a notice from Grandparent Coalition about a report from Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing and Susan Ohanian for the image)

These students make me hopeful for the future of our democracy!

by Kelly Melhart

Haltom City --Maeghan Gibson is fed up with the state's standardized test.

Focus on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is encroaching on classroom learning, Gibson said. Instead of having high-level discussions, the Haltom High School junior honors student said she spends too much time taking practice tests and filling out work sheets.

So she and a few friends waged a silent protest Monday morning outside the school by handing out pre-sold green T-shirts with slogans including "Walking standardized test score," "I am not in the equation of my education" and "Total Annihilation of Knowledge and Skills."

More than 60 students planned to wear the T-shirts today and Wednesday, during TAKS testing. But the T-shirts, deemed disruptive by Principal Allen Roberts, were confiscated until the end of the day, and the students were told not to wear them to school.

The students' efforts earned Gibson a trip to the principal's office, where she was anything but quiet.

"We are losing out on discussion and activities that would promote higher learning," Gibson said.

The shirts, she said, were intended to get the attention of legislators. A test may be needed, but perhaps it should be given once when students enter high school and again when they graduate "to see what kind of improvements they made," Gibson said.

"Instead of measuring how they fail, measure how they improve. That's a great way to do a test," she said.

During the hourlong discussion in his office, Roberts told Gibson that he would help the students write a letter to state Rep. Bob Griggs, the former Birdville superintendent, outlining their concerns about the test.

The students said they were pleased with Roberts' offer to help. Roberts, who did not return a telephone call Monday, will also try to set up a meeting with Griggs, R-North Richland Hills, said Mark Thomas, Birdville spokesman.

The students are not in trouble, but the test will go on.

"The state mandates that we are going to give this test," Thomas said. "The students may not be happy under the pressure that they are feeling at this point. We've got to follow the law."

The exit-level TAKS test, which students must pass to graduate from high school, is first given in the students' junior year.

The students say their protest was not aimed at Haltom High School, teachers or the Birdville district, but rather at state and national policies that require the standardized test.

"It's turned into a real 'Grab a work sheet, go sit down and you have to know this or you will fail' kind of thing. That's not good for long-term learning, in my opinion," junior Chase Robinson said. "We want our teachers to advance our knowledge, not a test."

Article Link

Jerry Lanson: Our Waste Howling 'Cyberness'; My Response to His Article

Jerry Lanson wrote this piece in the Christian Science Monitor:

Our Waste Howling 'Cyberness'

and then republished it at his weblog:

Musing on America 2005

He was thinking along the lines I had been the past couple of weeks and so i wrote a long response at his weblog (reproduced below):

As a blogger for over a year--one used for personal stuff and others for teaching and activism--I agree with you on the Internet's inability to build the sort of community your refer to in your article (which I first read at the Christian Science Monitor, not your blog).

I too am nostalgic for my working class neighborhood in Clairemont, a neighborhood in San Diego, California. The neighborhood was tight and people often gathered imromptu on lawns and corner walls to chat, have beers and eat. Even now when I visit the same place over a quarter-century later I wonder did I imagine it, was it but a dream (me who scoffed at the alarmist thesis of Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone")

My current neighbors in suburban Lexington, KY will barely acknowledge each other and often outright ignore anyone outside their monadic existence (unless it is to curse someone who has offended their sensibility or gets in their way while they are driving their monstrous hummers). At a previous residence in a trendy neighborhood near the university campus, after having our house broken into, I canvassed the neighborhood introducing myself to the strangers that lived near me. People seemed very uncomfortable with my desire to become known, and to know them, so that we could protect ourselves against burglars (there were a dozen B & E's in a week's time in this neighborhood--which no one had pieced together until I went around talking to people).

My parents recently visited our new residence where we had recently moved because we were tired of people trying to break into our last residence (twice in two years and many other attempts). They commented on the beautiful patios in the neighborhood, a corporate owned and operated apartment complex. Me and my wife take full advantage of the patio during warm days, but we never see anyone else using them except for a quick in-and-out barbecue. My parents remarked on the quietness of our neighborhood, how no one used the patios, and how there was no "life" in the neighborhood. The price of "protection"? Its not a gated residence, people wander through all the time. I joke with my wife that we are living in the middle of an FBI witness protection zone because I have actually had people scurry away from me as I try to say hello and introduce myself.

Of course my professional life in academia is also hyper-competitive and fragmented. Barriers between me and my students. I'm an adjunct while I work on my dissertation and thus there are professional barriers between me and most of the tenured professors. I sought to escape the corporate world and have plopped down in the middle of it--complete with an even more alienating and distant administrative beaucracy.

Thus, I find myself writing and reaching out on my many blogs. Shouting into the wilderness so to speak. Writing for electronic journals. Looking forward to the next conference. Desperately seeking others who like to dialogue, think, read and write. While the blogs do not build the communities that you and I lament, they are useful in building counterpublics for those of us who seek alternative information and unlikely alliances (I have made friends and I have met them in the real world). We write and we share information and we discuss the world and we bring-to-light issues/groups/politics that are ignored by the mainstream media/society.

Thanks for your article,

Thivai... shouting into the abyss

What is the Meaning of Radical Democracy?

Orion: Environmental Discourse and Dissent

Green Social Thought

Radical Democracy: A Contested Terrain

Rules for Radicals

The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy

Eric Schlosser: Sex, Drugs, Fast Food and Cheap Labor in America

History of Radicalism in the U.S.

Abolitionist Movement

Civil Rights Movement

Marxist Internet Archive

Eugene Debs, Labor Organizer

Feminist Movement

Marcus Garvey, Black Nationalist Leader

Labor Movement

Abbie Hoffman



Utopian Communities

The Student as Nigger

John Taylor Gatto: Challenging the Myths of Modern Schooling

Raoul Vaneigem: The Revolution of Everyday Life

Why Think About Propaganda

The Memory Hole: Freeing of Information in Action

On the Poverty of Student Life

Language of the War on Terror

Independent Media in a Time of War

Indy Media

Nancy Snow: Rebranding of America

Poet/Performer Saul Williams

9/11 and the Politics of University Teaching

Socialist Equality Party Presidential Candidate Bill Van Auken: "An American Tragedy"

Douglas Rushkoff's Open Source Democracy

Chris Hedges: The Meaning of War

Stonewall Riot and Its Aftermath

Wikipedia: Stonewall Riots

Stonewall Riots, 1969

Nickle and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America

Barbara Ehrenreich

Crucial Texts of Radical Democracy

Thomas Frank: Architecture of a New Consensus

Culture-Trafficking for the 21st Century

Terry Tempest Williams: Open Spaces of Democracy

Skidmark Bob, Musical Activist

Stokely Carmichael: Architect of Black Power

George Soros: The Bubble of American Supremacy

Race and Collective Memory Bibliography

Without Sanctuary: America's Dark History of Racialized Violence (caution)

Ron Strickland's Marxist Cultural Theory

Tony Kushner: Radical Pragmatist

Race: The Power of an Illusion

Ubu Web: Freedom as Creativity

Martin Luther King's Radical Message

Michael Moore: White Frights

Remembering Johnny Cash

U.S. Prison Boom

How the Other Half Banks

Hakim Bey: Poetic Terrorism

Situationist International: Resisting the Society of the Spectacle

Bureau of Publis Secrets

Howard Zinn and Thom Yorke: Truth in the Hands of Artists

Top 25 Censored News Stories of 2003

Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle

Slavoj Zizek: The Passion

Raymond Federman: The Real Begins Where the Spectacle Ends

Emma Goldman: Minorities vs. Majorities

Emma Goldman Archives

Anarchist Archives

Mary Wolstoncraft: Vindication of the Rights of Women

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The Solitude of Self

National Women's History Project

Gloria Steinem

Angela Davis: Radical Activist/Black Feminist

Combahee River Collective Statement: Genesis of Black Feminism

Feminist Writing Space

bell hooks: writing and resistance

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Deborah Meier: On Student Engagement

There's a radical and wonderful new idea here that all [students] could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people's ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world. It's an idea with revolutionary implications. If we take it seriously.

- Deborah Meier (1995)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Manning Marable and Amy Goodman: The Undiscovered Malcolm X

The Undiscovered Malcolm X: Stunning New Info on the Assassination, His Plans to Unite the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist Movements & the 3 'Missing' Chapters from His Autobiography.
Manning Marable and Amy Goodman
Democracy Now

On this the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, we spend the hour with historian Manning Marable who has spent a decade working on a new biography of Malcolm X. He is one of the few historians to see the three missing chapters from "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" that he says paint a very different picture than the book with Alex Haley and Spike Lee's film. Marable has also had unprecedented access to Malcolm's family and documents that shed new light on the involvement of the New York Police, the FBI and possibly the CIA in Malcolm X's assassination. Manning today called on the federal government to release all remaining classified documents on Malcolm X.

The Undiscovered Malcolm X

Lannan Readings & Conversations: Wendell Berry with Jack Shoemaker

Wendell Berry is a poet, essayist, and novelist, who has been called the "prophet of rural America." Mr. Berry, who pursues what he calls "an ethic and way of life based upon devotion to a place and devotion to a land," lives and works on his farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. He has published more than 30 books, including The Wheel, Sabbaths, and Openings (poetry); The Wild Birds, Watch with Me, and Remembering (fiction); and Another Turn of the Crank, What Are People For?, and The Unsettling of America (nonfiction). He received a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction in 1989.

Jack Shoemaker is the editor-in-chief of Counterpoint Press in Washington, D.C.

Wendell Berry Reading and Conversation with Jack Shoemaker

Victoria's Dirty Secret Campus Tour

Passing this along because Victoria's Secret as a corporate culture bugs me. Have you noticed the latest catalog--the women are freakish in their airbrushed perfections (well someone's idea of perfection--the catalog can serve as a lesson in digital manipulation of photographs). Grimacing and posing with their strained come-hither looks... how could you ruin beautiful women dressing sexy? Victoria's Secret has...

Anyways, here is a student activist campaign targeting VS on an environmental issue:

Victoria's Dirty Secret Campus Tour

Victoria's Dirty Secret Campus Tour Flyer

Christopher Rabb: Blogging While Black

Blogging While Black: Blogging is Not a Luxury, It's a Civic Responsibility.
Christopher Rabb


In light of the highly populist and independent panoply of voices in the blogosphere, the mainstream media have dubbed this web phenomenon "participatory journalism." But blogging is not exclusively or primarily about reporting the news; it is fundamentally about grassroots communication between individuals and groups without the filter of government agencies, political parties, corporations and other such entities.

Thus, blogging is inherently egalitarian and democratic because anyone – even those who are not tech-savvy – can set up their own weblog and wax philosophical within just minutes. And to do so is often of little expense, if not free (minus the value of your time, of course). Such blog platforms as,, and are three of innumerable online sites that the curious neophyte can use to make their voices heard amidst an American media universe monopolized by essentially seven corporate behemoths. Moreover, a blog's endemic power comes not from its ability to generate revenues, but is derived from the will and capacity of its readers to coalesce around the sharing, mobilization and analysis of issues the more entrenched institutions do not address. Namely, the issues that have an overwhelming impact on the black community.

For those millions of us Afro-netizens who go online to shop, research, and communicate with one another, the epicenter of black life has become the media. But until the media we rely upon includes blogs in particular, we are literally ceding our best of hope of communicating and organizing amongst ourselves – two bedrocks for any viable movement for a community's uplift.

Those of us fortunate enough to regularly use the internet and who now have an almost addiction to,, and, cannot afford to limit ourselves by so gravely under-utilizing the web and the opportunities at hand. We must blog while black. It is not a fad or a luxury; it is our civic responsibility to do so. And to abdicate this duty, is to succumb to the dangerous mythology that blackfolk must wait for our next messenger from above, all the while not realizing that the messenger is at our fingertips and the inviolable message from generations past endures in our hearts and minds. Where the success of all previous grassroots movements has been measured by feet on the ground, the power and effectiveness of blog activism for black folk and other dispossessed communities will be measured by hands on the keyboard.

Entire Essay

Hunter, You Will Be Missed

Hunter S. Thompson Kills Himself

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Doonesbury: In a Culture of Bling, Bling

In a Culture of Bling, Bling

Lannan Readings & Conversations: Luis Alberto Urrea with Darrell Bourque

Luís Alberto Urrea, poet, fiction, and nonfiction writer, was born in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1955 and grew up in San Diego. Steeped in personal knowledge of US/Mexico border culture, he is best known for his numerous books and essays where he writes "with a tragic and beautiful intimacy that has no equal.(Boston Globe)" His autobiographical Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life won an American Book Award in 1999, and Across the Wire was a New York Times notable book of the year in 1993. The son of an Anglo-American mother and a Mexican father, he says, "Home isn't just a place, it is also a language."

Darell Bourque is Professor Emeritus of English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has served as president of the National Association for Humanities Education and on the Louisiana State Task Force for Literature and Literacy. He recently published The Blue Boat in the inaugural issue of special editions of the Center for Louisiana Studies. Of his work he says, "Poems are, for me, declarations negotiated by imagination faithful to language."

Listen to the Reading & Conversation

FOX Continues To Lie (I would say "whore" but I don't want to insult prostitutes) For the Bush Presidency

Distorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Bennett and Hume claimed father of Social Security system wanted privatization

If you have just recently re-emerged from your cave and are saying "What? I Thought FOX News was 'Fair and Balanced'" may I suggest you check out the documentary Outfoxed (anyone at the University of Kentucky the media library has a DVD copy and Lexington Community College has another copy)

Thanks to Goose where I originally read this and who is supporting a petition calling for Hume's resignation.

Some Students Say First Amendment No Big Deal; Another Student Responds; Grandparent Coalition; Mentoring for Social Justice and Calvin/Hobbes

I was very disturbed when I came across this article a couple of weeks ago:

First Amendment No Big Deal, High School Students Say

Seeking answers I decided to ask the students in my college courses what they thought about this article and whether it reflected their worldview. I assigned the article and a two page response (as extra credit).

This is the first response I received and I think it speaks volumes about the problem that my friends at The Grandparent Coalition are trying to address. What do standardized tests teach our children? What do they remember? What is lost in the process? Please feel free to share your response to the student--she, after all, directly addresses the need for people to care and become involved.

“First Amendment no big deal, Students Say”

When the First Amendment comes to mind, I think – “freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly.” To me, that means that I can say what I want and choose whichever religion I would like. I am free to publish my opinions and gather with others for whatever reasons I choose. Beyond that, however, not much of my thoughts are ever put into the first amendment. Because of this, I think this article is a fair representation of my generation. The article states”…almost three in four students saying they took the first amendment for granted or didn’t know how they felt about it.” I think this statement accurately describes my generation. The article also talks about how most students think that flag burning is illegal and that they government can restrict any indecent material on the internet. Both of those are untrue, and to be completely honest, before reading this article, my thoughts on those two matters were the same as the majority.

I think the reason students think and feel the way they do about the first amendment is because my generation has never been fully educated on the first amendment or even the Bill of Rights in general. Of course most students have probably had to memorize the amendments in one history class or another, but I honestly don’t think any of us have had an in-depth education about the Bill of Rights. I know that I personally have never done much more with the amendments than memorized them and had a test on them. I could probably name all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights but I don’t think I could tell you the rights that all of them protect.

The article talks about censorship and how a majority of high school students do not think that government censorship of newspapers is a bad thing. I think part of the reason for their thoughts is that we have grown up in a time where censorship has been a major debate topic. I remember the topic coming up many times in my high school classrooms, but I do not even remember a time where I learned what is already censored and what is not. To this day I still do not know. Honestly, I did not know that as of right now newspapers could not be censored. After thinking about it, I realize how it would be a bad thing, but until now, I have never really been made to think about it. Teachers in high school, at least my teachers, had never addressed these types of issues before. After reading this article I feel somewhat ignorant and naive, but I do not necessarily think it is my fault. I have just never learned this information.

On the topic of whether or not we should be concerned about this, I really do not think that I can give an unbiased opinion. You had said that you were greatly disturbed by this article. I, on the other hand, am not. I think this is because I have never known anything different and because I am in this generation, I cannot see what the problem is like an outsider could. By your reactions I would assume that you grew up with a different attitude and education when it comes to the amendments. Perhaps, it should be the responsibility of your generation to educate us and make us appreciate the rights that we have and what they actually are. Otherwise, I think this trend is going to continue in the direction that it is heading: less education and less concern about our rights granted through the amendments.

Reflecting on Paul Kivel's "Are You Mentoring For Social Justice

Calvin and Hobbes on the Lesson of the "No Child Left Behind Policies"

Aristotle: Reasoned Speech (and Writing)

Nature, as we say, does nothing without some purpose; and for the purpose of making man a political animal she has endowed him alone among the animals with the power of reasoned speech. Speech is something different from voice, which is possessed by other animals also and used by them to express pain or pleasure; for the natural powers of some animals do indeed enable them both to feel pleasure and pain and to communicate these to each other. Speech on the other hand serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is right and what is wrong. For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust. And it is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household [oika] or a city [polis].

Aristotle. Politics. (quoted in Giorgio Agamben. Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. trans. Liz Heron. NY: Verso, 1993.)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement Statement: "Eyes on the Prize"

(Posted by Bruce Hartford
Webspinner, Civil Rights Movement Veterans on the Cultstud Listserv)

Movement veterans who wish to add their names to this statement are encouraged to do so by sending messages to


Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement
Statement: "Eyes on the Prize"
February 8, 2005

We who are veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s support efforts to open the corporate copyright vaults and allow people to view "Eyes on the Prize."

We strongly defend the original purpose of copyright which was to protect creators, -- artists, composers, performers, photographers, writers, and others, -- from theft of their work, and to ensure that creators could make a living from their craft. But today media conglomerates have imprisoned the copyrights that once belonged to the creators, seizing the income that rightfully belongs to those who did the work, denying access to those who cannot afford to pay their exorbitant fees, and sequestering information that runs counter to their corporate political agendas.

Information, -- and particularly history, -- is as much a necessity of intellectual and economic life as food is of biologic life. Not only is it morally wrong to deny people the necessities of life, it's impractical because when people cannot afford to buy food they steal it. As citizens we know that without full access by all to multiple sources of news and information, democracy itself becomes a myth. And as Toni Morrison told us in 1986, "Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations."

To us, knowledge is a human right every bit as important as the right to vote and the right be treated with courtesy and respect. Therefore, we do not believe that reading, or viewing, or listening is, or should ever become, a crime. Nor should access to information become a luxury sold only to the wealthy.

The events, images, narratives, and songs of "Eyes on the Prize" were not written, created, or performed by the corporations who now have the copyrights under their lock and key. It was those who gave their lives in the struggle, the heroic children of Birmingham, the courageous citizens of Mississippi, the Selma marchers, the school integrators, the sit-ins and Freedom Riders, and the people of a thousand
colleges, towns, and hamlets across the South who created the Civil Rights Movement and we have a right to have our stories told.

Therefore, in the spirit of Southern Freedom Movement, we who once defied the laws and customs that denied people of color their human rights and dignity, we whose faces are seen in "Eyes on the Prize," we who helped produce it, tonight defy the media giants who have buried our story in their vaults by publicly sharing episodes of this forbidden knowledge with all who wish to see it.

Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement

Chude (Pam Parker) Allen
Hardy Frye
Miriam Cohen Glickman
Bruce Hartford
Don Jelinek
Wazir (Willie) Peakock
Jimmy Rogers
Jean Wiley

Friday, February 18, 2005

Chalmers Johnson and Amy Goodman on World Politics

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to public education concerning Japan and international relations in the Pacific. He taught from 1962-1992 at the Berkeley and San Diego campuses of the University of California. Johnson has written numerous articles and reviews and some sixteen books, including Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power on the Chinese revolution and Revolutionary Change on the theory of violent protest movements. He played a prominent role in the development of the PBS television series The Pacific Century, as well as the PBS Frontline documentary Losing the War with Japan. His most recent books are Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire and The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.

Amy Goodman, is the host of Pacifica Radio's daily newsmagazine Democracy Now! She is a 1998 recipient of the George Polk Award for the radio documentary "Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria's Military Dictatorship," in which she and co-producer Jeremy Scahill exposed the oil company's role in the killing of two Nigerian villagers on May 28, 1998. Goodman and Scahill co-wrote two articles in The Nation magazine on the Chevron-related killings.

Listen to the Reading and Conversation

More by/about Chalmers Johnson:

Sorrows of Empire

Iraqi Wars

The American Empire Project

Militarism and the American Empire

America's Empire of Bases

Dissing the Republic to Save It

Third World: Blowback

Nation: Blowback

Counterpunch Critique of Johnson

The Disquieted American

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Problem of "God On Our Side"

The Not So Quiet American
Slavoj Zizek
In These Times

It is the United States that is now, as the defunct USSR was decades ago, the subversive agent of a world revolution. When Bush said, “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in the world,” his apparent modesty nonetheless concealed, in the best totalitarian fashion, its very opposite.

Recall the standard claim of a totalitarian leader that he himself is nothing at all—his strength is only the strength of the people who stand behind him, he only expresses their deepest strivings. The catch, of course, is that those who oppose the leader do not only oppose him, but also oppose the deepest and noblest strivings of the people. And does the same not hold for Bush’s claim? If freedom effectively were to be just America’s gift to other nations, things would have been much easier—those opposing U.S. policy would be doing just that, opposing the policy of the United States as a single nation state. However, if freedom is God’s gift to humanity (and—herein resides the hidden proviso—if the United States perceives itself as the chosen instrument for distributing this divine gift to all the nations of the world), then those who oppose U.S. policy are eo ipso rejecting the noblest gift of God to humanity. No wonder many authentic theologians are appalled by these kinds of statements from Bush, detecting in them a terrifying sacrilege.

Entire Essay

More Zizek Essays on In These Times

Monday, February 14, 2005

Lannan Readings & Conversations: William Gass and Micheline Aharonian Marcom

This is highly recommended--both the reading and the conversation. I have to get a copy of The Tunnel and Three Apples Fell From Heaven. The Lannan Foundation is on my shortlist of institutions that make life bearable for me!

William Gass is a novelist, essayist, philosopher, and teacher. Mr. Gass, whose books include Cartesian Sonata, The Tunnel, and Omensetter's Luck, received the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. William Gass states in his essay Culture, Self, and Society , "A culture morally and functionally fails which does not let its crazies, its artists and its saints, its scientists and politicians, claim, on occasion, a higher law than its own congresses can pass, traditions permit, or conscience conceive."

Micheline Aharonian Marcom was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Los Angeles. Her first book, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, set in Turkey between 1915-1917, depicts the Ottoman government's epic genocide of the Armenian population and was named one of the best books of the year by both The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.

Listen to the Program

Low Power Radio Movement

By John Eggerton, Broadcasting and Cable
Longtime low-power FM-radio advocate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has reintroduced a bill that would allow more of the stations to be added to the radio dial by reducing the separation between them and existing full-power stations.

By Craig Aaron, Free Press
Free Press urges Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act of 2005 and to support LPFM stations

By Rick Karr, National Public Radio
Fans of Low Power FM radio say hundreds of new mini-stations are bringing localism and diversity back to America's airwaves.

By Anita Burke, Mail Tribune
Organizers envision KSKQ will become a home for Rogue Valley artists to showcase their talents

CFP: The New Hampshire Review

Call for Submissions

The New Hampshire Review is seeking poets, artists, political essayists, and book reviewers to help launch our new quarterly journal of poetry and politics. We are interested in work which contemplates the human condition in fresh, meaningful, and interesting ways. Submissions should aim to reach an intelligent, well-read audience.

Our guidelines are available at:

We invite poets and publishers who would like their books to be considered for review to send materials to the Review Editor at P.O. Box 322, Nashua, NH 03061-0322.

If you would like to be notified by email when the first issue is available, please join our mailing list at:
Mailing List

We look forward to receiving your submissions!

The New Hampshire Review
P.O. Box 322
Nashua, NH 03061-0322
New Hampshire Review


The New Hampshire Review is a new quarterly journal of poetry and politics founded by Virginia M. Heatter and Seth D. Abramson in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Although our state boasts such luminaries as Robert Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Charles Simic, and Maxine Kumin, we currently lack a high-profile literary review. By combining our experiences as writers and editors, we hope to present an outstanding quarterly journal to readers both here in the U.S. and abroad.

In each issue, we plan to feature established writers alongside those of exceptional talent who are less well-known. We also plan to feature timely political essays, which will offer a progressive view of the issues and events which shape our times. Finally, we will take advantage of our format to showcase the work of extraordinary practitioners of the visual arts.

As editors we are readers first. Our aim is not to advance any one theory or poetic school, but to present remarkable poems which will interest and affect a diverse audience. As poets whose personal aesthetics diverge as often as they intersect, we feel uniquely suited to the task of selecting such a broad range of work.

Though we are launching The New Hampshire Review as an online publication, we will be working hard to secure the funds necessary to take the journal into print within two years. We are deeply committed to this project's success. It is a life's work, and we look forward to both its joys and challenges with great anticipation.

About the Editors: The New Hampshire Review's Editor-in-Chief, Virginia Heatter, abandoned the corporate sphere to pursue her passion for literature full-time. She has studied at Drew University, Cornell University and Boston College. Seth Abramson, Poetry & Politics Editor, is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. His work has recently appeared in The Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, Pleiades, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Harvard Review. Jeffery Bahr, Contributing Editor, is the former Managing Editor of The Alsop Review. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Pleiades, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Chelsea, and Barrow Street. Contributing Editor R.J. McCaffery's collections of poetry include Anchor Ice (2003), The Hymnal Wheel (2002), and Chaos Theory and the Knuckleballer (2000). The former Editor of Eye Dialect and a graduate of the M.F.A. program at Sarah Lawrence College, his work has appeared in Ploughshares, New Books, The Atlanta Review, and the online edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature.

China's Environmental Move?

"China enforcing green laws, suddenly: Beijing has targeted 22 major energy projects to assess their environmental impact."
By Robert Marquand

As many as 22 major dams and power stations under construction in China, including a key power facility at the controversial Three Gorges Dam, have slowed or stopped work pending an environmental review. In the first instance of its kind, top Chinese leaders appear to be throwing their clout behind laws requiring environmental-impact statements for large energy-related projects.

Even if the projects, which total more than $14 billion and span 13 provinces, soon go back online, Beijing's public support of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), long considered a mere showpiece, seems an official nod to growing numbers of Chinese who support tougher policies to protect nature.

Read Rest of the Essay

Sunday, February 13, 2005

John Balaban Reads His Poetry

Read/Listen to this program

John Balaban is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose, a translator of Vietnamese poetry, and a past president of the American Literary Translators Association.

Reflecting on Paul Kivel's "Are You Mentoring for Social Justice"

This is one of the better essays I have read on mentoring. Although Kivel, in the beginning of his essay, addresses this to his progressive peers 40 or older, I think this applies to everyone no matter their age, their political outlook, or their current place in life.

For instance when I was younger and in a desperate struggle to survive in a violent environment--there were even younger people who needed help and advice just to stay alive or sane. My biggest regrets in my life were those that died or were mentally/physically destroyed--those that I fear I could have saved if I would have done more.

Its not just an elder to younger relationship--I didn't start college until I was 28 and so I have had the unique experience of younger mentors. Age means nothing in the development of wisdom and experience (I mean reflective experience that shapes or moves one to unique conclusions/insights)--I've met old fools and learned from very young intellectuals. Older people lose out if they do not learn from the wisdom of the young.

Also we have the opportunity to mentor through our daily behaviors--how well do we model what we think through our daily life? Are we living the life we talk/write about?

I feel that mentoring is also a process of cross-cultural education... what can be learned from the interaction/engagement with those of a different outlook, a different economic/environmental situation, a different gender, ethnicity, sexuality, place, disability/ability, etc... They teach me through expanding my perspective of experiencing the world--they add to my fragmented, partial understanding of this world. This is why we must listen to those we oppose in order to attempt an understanding of why they think the way they do.

Likewise, we cannot simply dismiss an act/person/group as evil or an aberration, we should seek to understand what they think and why--how have they developed and what are they reacting to in their actions. This is often difficult for my students (and for myself), they are often encouraged to simply dismiss those that contradict their social, political or religious identity--don't engage them for they may change you. Its true you are changed by what you read/view/hear and its not always for the better. But if you want to discuss or deal with anything you must "listen" to what they have to say--listening involves engagement with and consideration of their position.

Finally, at this time when the world is under such an environmental threat, we must not forget what animals and plant life have to say to us. Mentoring relationships can be developed through long, deep engagements with places, through close interaction and observation of animals, and through understanding of the broader ecosystems that encapsulate the limited human frame of understanding.

Are You Mentoring for Social Justice

Lannan Lectures: Tariq Ali in Conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Tariq Ali was born in Lahore, now in Pakistan, then part of British-ruled India, in 1944. While at Punjab University, Ali organized public demonstrations against Pakistan's military dictatorship, and was consequently banned from participating in student politics. At the urging of his uncle, a member of the Pakistani Military Intelligence, Ali was sent abroad to continue his studies as his radicalism put him at risk of imprisonment. In Britain he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford. During the height of the Vietnam War, Ali earned a national reputation through debates with figures like Henry Kissinger.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Los Angeles. Her first book, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, set in Turkey between 1915-1917, depicts the Ottoman government's epic genocide of the Armenian population and was named one of the best books of the year by both The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.

Read Transcripts/Listen to the Program

Michael Pollan: Food Chains, Dead Zones, and Licensed Journalism

Food Chains, Dead Zones, and Licensed Journalism
Michael Pollan, Interviewed by Russell Schoch
Mother Jones

Excerpt from the interview:

You've taken a critical look at what you've called "the cornification of America." What do you mean?

It appears I have a kind of corn obsession. I'm like that character in Middlemarch, Professor Causabon, who thought he had the key to the universe, the key to all mythologies. In corn, I think I've found the key to the American food chain.

How so?

If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald's meal, virtually all the carbon in it -- and what we eat is mostly carbon -- comes from corn. A Chicken McNugget is corn upon corn upon corn, beginning with corn-fed chicken all the way through the obscure food additives and the corn starch that holds it together. All the meat at McDonald's is really corn. Chickens have become machines for converting two pounds of corn into one pound of chicken. The beef, too, is from cattle fed corn on feedlots. The main ingredient in the soda is corn -- high-fructose corn syrup. Go down the list. Even the dressing on the new salads at McDonald's is full of corn.

I recently spent some time on an Iowa corn farm. These cornfields are basically providing the building blocks for the fast-food nation. In my new book, I want to show people how this process works, and how this monoculture in the field leads to a different kind of monoculture on the plate.

What does this do to the land?

Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you. When you're growing corn in that kind of intensive monoculture, it requires more pesticide and more fertilizer than any other crop. It's very hard on the land. You need to put down immense amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, the run-off of which is a pollutant. The farmers I was visiting were putting down 200 pounds per acre, in the full knowledge that corn could only use maybe 100 or 125 pounds per acre; they considered it crop insurance to put on an extra 75 to 100 pounds.

Where does that extra nitrogen go?

It goes into the roadside ditches and, in the case of the farms I visited, drains into the Raccoon River, which empties into the Des Moines River. The city of Des Moines has a big problem with nitrogen pollution. In the spring, the city issues "blue baby alerts," telling mothers not to let their children use the tap water because of the nitrates in it. The Des Moines River eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the excess nitrogen has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

What is a dead zone?

It's a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn't gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it's arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

Our dependence on corn for a "cheap meal" is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irradiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel--it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we're defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it's four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you've got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

We're paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn't cheap at all.

Entire Interview

Josh Harkinson: Profits of Place

I've never been to the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, but it sure sounds like a "great" place to dine on good food and experience the world. I wish we had something like this in Lexington or around the University of Kentucky (which has one of the worst communal environments centered around a university, especially for a decent size city)


Profits of Place
Josh Harkinson

A SHORT WALK from the University of Pennsylvania, on a block of Victorian brownstones once condemned to the wrecking ball, resides one of the East Coast's great salons for the liberal intelligentsia. A visitor on a given evening might find Eric Schlosser deconstructing fast food, former ambassador to Czechoslovakia William Luers analyzing the United Nations, or a gaggle of TV cameras crammed in to cover a protest of the Republican National Convention. Yet the crowds are as likely to be pulled in by the Sweet Potato Plantain Soup, Crispy Twice-Cooked Quail, and Organic Pear Salad with Jumbo Lump Crab Meat as they are by a lecture on the hydrogen future.

Entire Article

Alexander Cockburn: Ward Churchill and the Mad Dogs of the Right

(courtesy of Henri Mensonge who posted on this at the ASLE listserv)

Ward Churchill and the Mad Dogs of the Right
by Alexander Cockburn
The Nation

When it comes to left and right, meaning the contrapuntal voices of sanity and dementia, we're meant to keep two sets of books.

Start with sanity, in the form of Ward Churchill, a prof at the University of Colorado. Churchill is known as a fiery historian and writer, often on Indian topics. Back in 2001, after 9/11, Churchill wrote an essay called "Some People Push Back," making the simple point, in a later summary, that "if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned."

That piece was developed into a book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. About those killed in the 9/11 attacks, Churchill wrote recently, "It is not disputed that the Pentagon was a military target, or that a CIA office was situated in the World Trade Center. Following the logic by which U.S. Defense Department spokespersons have consistently sought to justify target selection in places like
Baghdad, this placement of an element of the American 'command and control infrastructure' in an ostensibly civilian facility converted the Trade Center itself into a 'legitimate' target."

At this point Churchill could have specifically mentioned the infamous bombing of the Amariya civilian shelter in Baghdad in January 1991, with 400 deaths, almost all women and children, all subsequently identified and named by the Iraqis. To this day the US government says it was an OK target.

Churchill concludes, "If the U.S. public is prepared to accept these 'standards' when they are routinely applied to other people, they should not be surprised when the same standards are applied to them. It should be emphasized that I applied the 'little Eichmanns' characterization only to those [World Trade Center workers] described as 'technicians.' Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9-1-1 attack. According to Pentagon logic, [they] were simply part of the collateral damage. Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that's my point. It's no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians, or anyone else." I'm glad he puts that gloss in about the targets, thus clarifying what did read to some like a blanket stigmatization of the WTC inhabitants in his original paper.

A storm has burst over Churchill's head, with protests by Governor Pataki and others at his scheduled participation in a panel at Hamilton College called "Limits of Dissent?" In Colorado he's resigned his chairmanship of the department of ethnic studies, and politicians, fired up by the mad dogs on the Wall Street Journal editorial page and by Lord O'Reilly of the Loofah on Fox, are howling for his eviction from his job (Loofah? See O'Reilly's lewd fantasies).

Why should Churchill apologize for anything? Is it a crime to say that chickens can come home to roost and that the way to protect American lives from terrorism is to respect international law? I don't think he should have resigned as department chair. Let them drag him out by main force.

So much for the voice of sanity. Now for the dementia of the right. The New Republic's Tom Frank (not the Tom Frank, please note, who just wrote a book about Kansas) describes in TNR how he recently sat in on an antiwar panel in Washington.

Frank listened to Stan Goff, a former Delta Force soldier and current organizer for Military Families Speak Out, who duly moved Frank to write that "what I needed was a Republican like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] who would walk up to [Goff] and punch him in the face." Then upon Frank's outraged ears fell the views of International Socialist Review editorial board member Sherry Wolf, who asserted that Iraqis had a "right" to rebel against occupation, prompting TNR's man to confide to his readers that "these weren't harmless lefties. I didn't want Nancy Pelosi talking sense to them; I wanted John Ashcroft to come busting through the wall with a submachine gun to round everyone up for an immediate trip to Gitmo, with Charles Graner on hand for interrogation." After Wolf quoted Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy's defense of the right to resist, Frank mused, "Maybe sometimes you just want to be on the side of whoever is more likely to take a bunker buster to Arundhati Roy."

Now suppose Churchill had talked about Schwarzenegger's war on the poor in California and called on someone to punch the guv in the face, or have a jovial Graner force Pataki to masturbate what remain of Schwarzenegger's steroid-shriveled genitals, or have Ann Coulter rub her knickers in his face or get blown up by a bomb? He'd be out of his job in a minute.

Right-wing mad dogs are licensed to write anything, and in our Coulter-culture they do, just so they can burnish their profiles and get invited on Fox or CNN talk shows. Why else would Tony Blankley call on the Washington Times editorial page for Hersh to be imprisoned or shot for treason? But it's a PR game only right-wingers are allowed to play.

After savaging Churchill, the mad dogs of the right turned their sights on Shahid Alam, a professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston. Alam, author of the excellent Poverty From the Wealth of Nations, wrote a column for the CounterPunch website in December in which he argued that the 9/11 attacks were an Islamist insurgency, the attackers believing that they were fighting--as the American revolutionaries did, in the 1770s--for their freedom and dignity against foreign occupation/control of their lands. Second, he argued that these attacks were the result of the political failure of Muslims to resist their tyrannies locally. It was a mistake, Alam said, to attack the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Now he has been
labeled "an un-American" professor by Fox News, and there's an Internet campaign to have him stripped of his faculty position. So write to all the appropriate names, defending Churchill and Alam; and if you feel like an outing to execrate Frank and The New Republic, there'll be a demonstration sponsored by the DC Anti-War Network, the DC chapter of the ISO and others at 5 pm on Friday, February 11, outside TNR's DC editorial offices at 1331 H Street NW.

Article Link

Background on the Ward Churchill controversy:

Conservative Censorship-Intimidation of Scholars Continue