My latest for Harper’s, published in the January issue, is about the normalized criminality of the banking and mortgage industry, as the plundering of the American homeowner continues apace. The American Prospect last December published a piece of mine about Occupy called “The New Populists: The Rise and Fall of Zuccotti Park.” Also in the Prospect is a piece this spring about the slaughter of wolves in Idaho.
Behold homo sapiens lashed on the wheel of the digital social network: held frozen over a computer which is tied by a cord to a wall wherein the fiberglass cable carries the message; staring into the lit screen, the face pale in the unnatural light; or, with head bent in the street, the appearance sullen, running fingers across the blinking object of desire. The creature is secretly harried: Constant updates are necessary, the user must tend the machine whenever and wherever possible – which is all the time and everywhere – and god forbid there is too long a lapse in the slipstream. On Facebook, new friends and old are counted – may they always increase in number! Some are in fact “friends,” in the now rotting sense of the word: the person who is to be confided in, who listens, cares what to listen for, knows secrets, keeps them, knows who you are to the extent that a friend can – the friend as he or she who might look into your eyes and, with affection and even love, claim to see the windows of the soul.
As we know, however, many Facebook “friends” bear no relation to how we want to understand the term. Perhaps known to the user at work or at school in the flesh, yet they cannot be counted as real friends. Some are strangers, known only via the interface of the machine, attracted to the user by an algorithm calculating the databit “likes” and “dislikes.”
Let’s forget for a moment that Facebook is probably the most ingenious info-aggregator yet invented for governments to spy on citizens. Forget that the citizens are willingly doing the work for the intelligence agencies in building the database. I worry about the matter of efficiency in friendship. Facebook makes friendship efficient, in the manner of the assembly line, which is exactly what friendship should not be – if it is to remain human, if the friend as person is not to be degraded. Friendship is dirty. It’s difficult. It smells – it sometimes has bad breath. It’s unpredictable, and sometimes hazardous. The issue is about persons and about friendship defined, for if we are to take Facebook seriously, then we must recognize that the form of friendship it is promulgating will by technologic necessity reduce the nature and meaning of the friend. Personhood on the Facebook page can only go so far. It is a managed self. It is degraded personhood.
I watched my daughter in Christmas of 2010 using Facebook. I had never seen the social network machine in action. Lea is 15, lives in a suburb of Paris with her mother, bored to tears like all suburban kids, and of course has perfected a Facebook personality. Many pictures of herself, and friends, at parties and events attended, and much else: commentary on this or that pop culture item of interest – musical acts for the most part, but also the usual amalgam of commodities sought after. I watched for a moment and then, abruptly, she shut it down, want me to see no more of the Facebook self. I wondered how many “friends” she had, but she wasn’t talking.
A few months later, in the springtime, she was in Utah, in the town of Moab, where I used to live and where I return every few months or so to hide out and write in a cabin I rent from a friend. Moab was once a lost little place in the desert. Today it is invaded by people like me, who want to be in a lost little place and who thereby nullify each other’s desire for solitude. Lea had a Blackberry, courtesy of complaining to her mother or grandmother – I never got a straight story as to who gave her the gift – but of course it had no signal at our cabin. Disconnection today is a wondrous event; it’s almost like being punched in the face. To be shut off from the global chatter, to not have to field the unending course and scrum of digital information, to be human in the primary sense of being merely person to person – this is what cabins in Utah are now apparently made for. Lea and I sat in this informational darkness and ate big American breakfasts in the morning and lazed about in the afternoon sun and read books – she with “Lord of the Flies” – and went on hikes in the long spring light, carrying extra water but no cell phones.
Still, the connection was sought, and we were both sad little addicts. Wherever there was wifi – at the neighbor’s house nearby the cabin, at the library in town, at the restaurants – I wanted my e-mail. And Lea looked to connect and find the latest news on Facebook. Being a hypocrite – having gathered up my own email and touched on my “friends” via the simpler (Lea would say archaic) interface – I chided her about Facebook. She didn’t laugh. This is a 15-year-old. Social connection is tragically important.
Yet she admitted there was something not quite right in what Facebook asked of her. “Facebook is good,” she said, “but it’s weird too. You have to be constantly social,” she said. “But with people – with friends – you should also have” – she’s bilingual in French and English but here searched for the right word – “some kind of recule.” Recule meaning a stepping back, a moving away.
“Okay, recule,” I said.
“You’re not always there, you’re not always connected. You have your own experience. That’s what vacation is for. You’re apart. And then you come together and you talk, you know, face to face, and you tell everybody what happened on the vacation.” Weird indeed, Lea. You sound like a Luddite.
Would that there were more like her among the adults. Not a week goes by that people who I’d otherwise consider mindful and intelligent do not fail to invite me on to Facebook. Which prompts the immediate question: Why would any mindful and intelligent person be on Facebook? I have a friend in Brooklyn, admittedly a vulgarian and not much in tune with the melodies of political correctness, who considers Facebook the province of “people standing in mirrors tarting themselves up and bullshitting and mincing around. Facebook is the biggest waste of time since television.” The man has a point. Facebook is the ideal venue of expression for a society in which narcissism, as Christopher Lasch long ago pointed out, has become the rampant personality disorder. Facebook as sociopathology, as a symptom of social disorder and disease? Perhaps.
Back in New York City, after three months of marginal grace in the cabin, I am confronted again with the mass of my fellow humanity carrying Blackberrys, SmartPhones, i-Phones, i-Pads, i-Pods – these electroplastic appendages without which modern survival is apparently impossible. The urge is grab the things, with banzai scream, and smash them under my boot. An intolerant, and intolerable, attitude, and certainly anti-social. Still, there is something at once pitiful and repulsive – nauseating – in so many fellow human beings doing the same thing with the same electroplastic appendage hooked up to the same global network: the hand outstretched with device cupped, the eyes locked on the singular object, hooked into the Singularity. The appendage, always making some sort of rude noise demanding attention, appears to be doing the living, the leading, the looking, and the human holding it is afterthought, necessary only to point it like a divining rod to determine the next step forward. A savage dropped from the sky into the city would say it looks as if the user is servicing the machine.
I read an essay by one Damon Darlin, a “technology editor” at the New York Times, who makes the classic argument of the technocrat, the scientific manager, that the benefits of efficiency trump whatever cost to humanness imposed by new technologies. Probably a perfectly decent person, Darlin has at the same time clearly replaced his mind with a microchip. He writes how he “learned to stop worrying by loving the Smartphone.” “For most people,” he writes, “a smartphone will change their lives and most likely for the better.” And what are these “improvements”? Poor Damon is “never lost” anymore in New York, or, presumably, anywhere that he can get a signal – the machine tells him where he is. He is “never bored” – the machine entertains him. He is “never without an answer” – the machine provides the answers. He “never forgets anything” – the machine remembers. “Google,” he writes, “begins to substitute for my memory.” He writes that the Smartphone “can help us recall events in our own lives.” The machine, says Darlin, becomes “an auxiliary memory of everything I do.”
To never be lost or bored or forgetful or without answers is to be something less than human. That Darlin’s article was not satire, indeed was grimly serious, is an indicator of how far along we’ve come in the degradation of personhood to make the machine look useful. Yet his thinking is the gospel of the age. It is a demented vision of human life, a form of technology-induced insanity – accepted almost totally as the norm.
Couple pieces to check out: I’ve been spending time hunting in the Bronx and Manhattan for the wild coyotes of New York City, which I write about in the latest issue of Orion magazine. Earth Island Journal published my piece about night-hiking in the canyonlands of Utah and the disappearance of true night in America. Also, for those who missed it, my latest piece in Harper’s is out electronically, here.
Finally, if you use Google or its applications such as Gmail – and of course you use Google, given its monopoly control over the search engine market and much else on the Web – you’re feeding the beast with data that in turn is likely being fed to the US intelligence services, or, at the very minimum, is being catalogued and archived by a corporation whose wealth and power depends on the privatization of the informational commons created by user data. Read about it here in my piece, co-authored with writer Travis Kelly, called “The Google Panopticon.” So much for Google not being evil.
The most radical antiwar candidate in the US is not Dennis Kucinich or Rand or Ron Paul or any of the usual suspects. It’s a 42-year-old Vermonter named Dennis Steele, who is running for governor of his state as an open secessionist. From what I can tell, Steele is just an average dude. He wears Carhartts and a baseball cap and drives a pickup truck and lives with his wife and two kids in a little Vermont village called Kirby (pop. 500), off in the wild hills of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. On occasion, he feeds his family by hunting deer and butchering the meat himself. He served three years in the US Army — working for “the Empire,” as he puts it — and he tells me his main reason for running is that he doesn’t want his kids serving in the Army. Or any other branch of the Empire. He wants the Empire to drop dead. And he thinks the best way to start that process is by getting Vermont to secede from the union. Destroy the empire by undermining it from within. That’s the goal.
Steele is no Tea Partyer, not a Palinite, not a Paul drone, not a liberal or a conservative, not a Democrat or a Republican, is endorsed by no official party, has no corporate donors. He’s the kind of candidate who, spending his own money and taking time out from his work and family, drives around the state crashing gubernatorial debates to which he is clearly not invited. Last April, organizers for the Democratic Party in Barre, gathered in that town’s Old Labor Hall, called the state police after Steele repeatedly shouted out from the crowd to his fellow candidates on the rostrum: “$1.5 billion dollars — our pro-rata share of a failed foreign policy — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — what could be done with all that money right here in Vermont?” The cops grabbed him by the arms and hauled him away, amid fearful yells from the crowd that he might be tasered. He wasn’t, but instead was booked on disorderly conduct — for saying something no one among the Democrats wanted to hear.
So much for the vaunted political tolerance in granola-eating, tree-hugging, gay-marriage-condoning Vermont.
The liberal progressive machine that runs the state — its chief beneficiaries Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy — tends to have a lighter view of empire. When Vermont National Guardsmen are called to arms to be killed or maimed in the wars, Sens. Sanders and Leahy are there for the send-off, the photo-ops, the patriotic gibberish and the bowing of heads. When it is proposed that squadrons of killer drones and the newest F-35 fighter jets, costing taxpayers $115 million each, are to be deployed out of the military airfields at Burlington International Airport, they’re for it. When nuclear weapons developer Sandia Corp. expresses interest in setting up operations in the state, bringing to Vermont good jobs in service of the imperial arsenal, Sanders lobbies in favor.
Unsurprising that Steele, who views Sanders and Leahy as “collaborationist,” is shut out from the debates about the political future of Vermont. Still, he’s not so lone a voice as might be expected. His running mate, for the position of lieutenant governor, is an ex-Subaru salesman named Peter Garritano, who keeps it short and simple in his campaign statement: “I do not want my tax dollars,” says Garritano, “being used for war and killing.” Seven other secessionist candidates are contending for seats in the state legislature (these include a consultant to Oracle, a former U.S. Army lieutenant, and an executive from one of the largest solar energy companies in the Northeast). A professor emeritus of economics from Duke University, Thomas Naylor, 74, a Southerner by birth and a bombthrowing contrarian by nature, is the white-haired intellectual voice of the movement, founder of the thinktank Second Vermont Republic (the name is homage to the fact that there was a first Vermont republic, founded in 1777 as an independent nation and enduring for 14 years, until 1791). The secessionists have partnered with a successful publishing base, the Chelsea Green Publishing Company — the company’s founder, Ian Baldwin, is a raging secessionist – and they have a bi-monthly newspaper, Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence, with a circulation of 11,000, the latest issue of which features on its cover a pig attempting to fornicate with a sheep (the caption reading “Wall Street Hog Jumping Main Street Sheep”). They even have their own silver “independence coin.” And they have a surprising degree of support from the street: when last polled on the matter of secession, in 2007, 13 percent of Vermont voters were for it.
The Vermonter secesh, particularly Thomas Naylor, have been hammering for political disunion for more than a decade — Naylor was converted, he says, when Bill Clinton in the mid-’90s completed the sale of the Democratic Party down the river to the corporatocracy. The point is: These people aren’t the playthings of the two-party game, and they’re smart enough to understand that a violent, racist empire functions today just as nicely with a dash of melanin in the Oval Office. (By contrast, as recently as last April, 80 percent of typical liberals approved of Obama.)
Granted, we’ve all heard in recent years the secessionist jabber from the right-wing, mostly as tantrum in the wake of Obama’s election. You hear it from Glenn Beck and the 9/12ers and the Tenthers and the Oathkeepers and the neo-Confederates and even from Christian separatists, and you hear it as a kind of sepia-tone sentiment among Texans like Gov. Rick Perry and Ron Paul, who, Saran-wrapped in the Constitution, won’t dare take it beyond sentiment (the good Dr. Paul, for his part, gets re-elected year after year to continue not seceding during his service in the imperial city). No one knows where the right-wing secesh, clutching the sacred parchment, were hidden during the eight years of George W. Bush. Apparently the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Homeland Security superstate, massive increases in federal spending and debt, warrantless wiretapping and executive secrecy, the institutionalization of torture, the erecting of our very own gulag archipelago, state-sanctioned kidnappings sweetly dubbed “rendition,” state terror unleashed overseas in the form of two illegal wars, Congress whored out more than ever to corporate America, corporations preying more than ever on Americans with the help of government — none of this was enough to inspire a rebellion against federal power. Then Obama was elected. And everything changed: The military budget for 2010 climbs to $1 trillion from $700 billion, the wars go on and on (and get expanded in Afghanistan), big government and big business are undisturbed in their marriage vows, the empire unfazed except for some inklings about money troubles. But now a Democrat was chieftain of the empire. That was simply unacceptable to visionaries like Glenn Beck. Wake up, people! Let’s secede! The upshot is that secessionism has been captured by the mindless right as a talking point on Fox News.
What the Vermonter secesh present is something altogether more serious, a new paradigm in American politics: the rise of a left-wing populist peacenik secessionist movement, a leftism that rejects big government, that seeks not a take-over of the federal center but an end to centralized power altogether. Call it a kind of Green Tea Party, shorn of the gun fetishism, the blind rage, the know-nothingism. Or call it the thinking man’s secession, arising as a reasonable answer to the cold facts of our national impasse. What’s gone wrong with the US government, argue the Vermonters, is that it has been totally captured by the corporatocracy, corrupted to the core, a lost cause, unreformable. Its laws are written by and for the rich and the powerful, whose predatory business models — Walmart, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs et al — operate against the interests of average Vermonters. It blows Vermont’s precious tax dollars in bailing out insolvent banks and piratical financiers, bombing children in Pakistan, kidnapping and torturing foreigners, slapping military bases on every continent (over a thousand of them across 153 countries), etc. etc. ad nauseum. The Vermonter secesh see no good future for the US. Instead, the country will likely flush itself down the toilet of its own corruption and hubris — ruined by unsustainable debt, unwinnable wars, military overstretch, pathologic dependence on cheap oil.
So what’s a proud Vermonter to do? “Rebel and say hell no,” says Dennis Steele. “The gods of the Empire are not the gods of Vermont.” Kicking the U.S. out of his state, in Steele’s view, is a matter of life, liberty, happiness for himself, his family, his community. In the short term, it’s about ending Vermont’s involvement in the wars, bringing home Vermont soldiers — who happen to suffer the highest per-capita casualty rate of any state — cutting off the tax base that helps fund the wars, ending the moral support of war that tacitly defines the continued association with the empire.
Objectors will say that Steele and his ilk are treasonous and crazy, that secession is illegal and unconstitutional, that Vermont would shrivel and die as a free republic, that it couldn’t survive on its own. To which the secessionists answer that they’re no more crazy than the colonists who founded the United States, who asserted a natural right of revolution, and who didn’t wait for English parliamentarians and courts, the established law-givers of empire, to rubber-stamp their revolt. They just went ahead and did it and damned the consequences. The Vermonter secesh stand for a return to an aboriginal American idea: the right of revolution against unaccountable power. As Steele tells me, “Let’s always remember that the Declaration of Independence is a secessionist document.”
I often correspond with a long-time Washington DC operator named Leigh Ratiner, who spent 40 years in government, serving under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, with cabinet-level posts in the Defense Department, under the Secretary of the Interior, in the Department of Energy, and in the State Department. Usually I’m prompted to contact him while investigating this or that instance of criminality or stupidity in the federal government. We’re in conversation a lot. “Chris, no disrespect intended,” Leigh once wrote, “but I’m not sure yet that you truly understand how profoundly corrupt the government really is. Lying, perjury, devious deception, law breaking have been a constant pattern in the American government for several decades and have driven us to the point where it has become impossible for an intelligent person to trust the government.” Leigh sometimes goes on for pages like this.
In the annals of lying and devious deception we can now add what will hopefully be remembered as one of the foulest decisions – but not a surprising one – by the Supreme Court to be imposed on the American public, namely the majority opinion in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. I’ll let the New York Times summarize: “Corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.” Or, better yet, as Leigh Ratiner puts it: “Obama’s failures amount to a thimble of sugar compared to this decision, which is equivalent to a truckload of oil barrels filled with rat poison. The spending limits the court overturned were the unlimited sums of money that Lockheed, Boeing or Bank of America can take out of the corporate treasury and give to NBC in exchange for a two minute spot attacking a candidate without the stockholders’ permission. This is gigantic.”
Par for the course in the dying republic, where judges with the regularity of sun-up defend corporate interests against the public interest. But what’s compelling here is that the decision hinges on another longstanding idea, which is that corporations have the rights of living breathing people. The Supreme Court claims in this matter to be defending the corporate right of free speech. The laws of corporate personhood go back to the 1860s, in decisions offered by judges with close ties to the very corporations whose rights they were asked to judge. Corporate citizens, needless to say, have been a plague upon the land ever since (Joel Bakan, the law professor, has correctly observed that corporate citizenship often accords with sociopathic behavior, the kind of behavior that as a society we do not tolerate from individuals). In any case, corporate freedom is not a constitutional right, and corporations do not very much care about freedom of speech, press or assembly as it involves the individual. What a corporation cares about it is its collective endeavor. To provide a collectivist institution with the rights of the individual, to announce a corporation as a citizen, is one of those wonderful juridical inventions that could only be taken seriously in a system where law is exploited to veil reality and to render lies as truth. As Leigh Ratiner notes, no intelligent person can trust such a system. And as regards “corporate persons,” Ratiner asks the right question: “If they are natural citizens and commit crimes, why don’t we liquidate them as punishment (since they can’t be put in jail)? Of course, the answer is that if you liquidate them it will hurt the economy and the innocent shareholders. But doesn’t that make it very clear that a corporation is not a person who can be put in a cage or hung by the neck until dead? That’s the kind of person the Founders were trying to protect.”
Right…so, for example, I can’t take a corporation out in the backyard and bury it alive. I can’t smack a corporation flat across the face and break its nose. I can’t take a corporation’s head and split it with an axe, nor can I chop off all its fingers, nor stab out its eyes with a rusty screwdriver, nor burn off its flesh with a blowtorch, nor flay it with an electric sander, nor stomp its kneecaps with a sledgehammer, nor cut its head off and parade it around the room on a broomstick, nor use its entrails as a rappel rope, nor smash its testicles with a spiked bat, nor do any of the things that really should be done to corporations these days – if they were people – but which one would never do to a human being. If only corporate persons would finally show their fleshy faces.
[Originally published at CounterPunch.org]
[Note to readers: I wrote this for CounterPunch back in May 2009, but was reminded by a friend to re-post it, as the Obama administration descends continuously into the nightmare...]
My good friend Travis, from Moab, Utah, got it into his heat-scarred head that Obama, following the historic election, would soon be taken out – via, you know, the cabal. Why? Because of all his “change” chatter! Because of the “threat” Obama posed to the status quo! “Just like Martin Luther King! Like JFK!” Or like Malcolm X and RFK. “Threatening the system!” And so on, breathing hard. Well, certainly MLK and Malcolm X – following his Mecca conversion – shook things up, and, from the perspective of those who can’t stand the idea of peace, unity, and brotherhood through democratic action, needed to be shot. But beyond the very real achievement of Obama as heir to the civil rights triumphs of the Sixties – no small thing, obviously – the comparison with King is of course laughable.
Travis, a thinking man who in his spare time rafts whitewater and reads too much, comes around fast when he knows he’s wrong. This doesn’t happen easily with the Obama liberal, who can only be characterized as a religious nut. Suffice to say, what we have proof of in Obama is that black people too, rising to the very top, can be compromised and corrupted and befouled by trying to work a corrupt and filthy system. Hell, anyone who gets to be president of the United States is already enough of a lunatic for climbing so high on the ladder that he has to know how low he’s fallen morally, ethically, spiritually, in a “republic,” so-called, whose chief branches of government respect only cash, lies and trick costumes. But expectation was too high: One imagined the cultural weight of Obama’s negritude, those 400 years of lawlessness guised in institutions (slavery, Jim Crow, segregation), would have given him pause to back the same kind of lawlessness among bankers, or continue the pursuit of lawless wars, or defend the kick-in-your-face kind of lawlessness inherent in the torture of people worldwide – as if mere melanin confers this consciousness and conscience. It is only the exceptional man who translates conscience into political action. Martin Luther King, rolling currently in the depth of the grave, was such a man; Obama is not.
So a few of the Obama drones, too few, are beginning to wake up. I get a note from a veteran DC lawyer, now retired, who worked in cabinet posts in four administrations from the 1970s into the 1990s. “There are really important civil liberties issues that we Obama supporters thought would change on inauguration day,” the lawyer writes. “I was shocked (and I don’t shock easily) by the continuation of the expansive use of the state secrets privilege. With that one inheritance from the Bush Administration alone you can stop any case from ever being heard in court. You can even stop a judge from hearing a case in camera to decide whether the government’s claim of state secrets was proper. And the plaintiff will never know why his case was dismissed. This is scary shit in any democracy.” Right: Lawlessness enshrined in secrecy – the old Bush game unchanged.
Radical journalist William Blum, author of Rogue State (by which he means the United States), perhaps puts it best: “I could really feel sorry for Barack Obama — for his administration is plagued and handicapped by a major recession not of his making — if he had a vision that was thus being thwarted. But he has no vision — not any kind of systemic remaking of the economy, producing a more equitable and more honest society; nor a world at peace, beginning with ending America’s perennial wars; no vision of the fantastic things that could be done with the trillions of dollars that would be saved by putting an end to war without end; nor a vision of a world totally rid of torture; nor an America with national health insurance; nor an environment free of capitalist subversion; nor a campaign to control world population … he just looks for what will offend the fewest people.”
That Obama has nothing of the offensive style and scope of the grinning Texas hogfucker who preceded him is exactly the concern. Because, in the end, the clarity of the administration of George W. Bush was a good thing, and sometimes I while away the hours wishing Bush had snatched himself an emergency third term (or has he?). He was the honest face of the United States government, in that he was totally dishonest, happily incompetent, a brute and a child, smashing most things he touched, and didn’t care if you knew it. His greatest achievement was the nakedness that he offered, the exposure of how the republic really works, which is to say how it doesn’t work at all except to gather power unaccountably while stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. It was quite a gift, this disgusting leprotic frame of government laid bare, and it served to galvanize forces that, given time, might have shaped into something like an actual rebellion, in particular among progressives, paleoconservatives, civil libertarians, and among the secessionist movements of the northeast. Now, many of those who had joined up for the fight go easy under the gaze of Obama – pacified and co-opted, because the face is nice. Here in Moab, a progressive island in the Utah desert, one finds the Obamaites, many of them wealthy and educated, walking about with the smile of certainty that smothers thought, knowing it will all work out as long as their guy is driving us off the cliff.
My father, who just turned 70, called from the mountains the other day. He’d been watching television again, always a bad sign. “What the hell is this Max Jackoff business?”
“Dad, what are you talking about?”
“It’s all in the news. Never heard of him before. Some sort of man-boy. Singer. Runs around on stage making chirping sounds. He apparently died of plastic surgery or some such.”
“Michael Jackson, dad. Michael Jackson.”
“Whatever. Can you believe the time and trouble being spent on this weirdo?” My father is an engineer and city planner and tends toward the macro view of things, the big structural view over time, looking at the life of cities, how civilizations organize in cities, much the way geologists look at rock. In retirement, he’s been reading about the coming collapse of the United States due to debt and waste and war and greed – the books pile up on his shelves – and is increasingly radicalized by the macro conclusion that the country is screwed. “Why aren’t the young people out protesting? Why aren’t they going nuts over what’s happening? Why aren’t they taking a gun to the heads of these fucking CEOs?”
“Busy thinking about Max Jackoff,” I offered.
I’ve been lucky enough to have old people around me, mostly my parents and their friends, who are growing more cogently contrarian in mind every year their bodies grow more infirm. If Michael Jackson was beloved and is now mourned by tens of millions of Americans, then my father is sure to disagree. I might venture to craft a probability equation of his thinking: the more people gathered around any one totem in the zeitgeist, the more likely my father is to consider it a waste of time. This thought process is not out of spite or fury or disgust, but born, I’d guess, of the simple reckoning that most popular culture these days, being popular, isn’t worth a shit on a stick.
I’ve gotten to thinking recently of another old man, a friend of the family named A.J. Centola, who went homeless a few years back – the garret he lived in was the top floor of a brownstone converted to condos during the real estate bubble – and ended up sleeping in my dad’s Brooklyn basement for six months. A.J. and I used to sit around gabbing on afternoons, walking around the old neighborhood, Carroll Gardens, where he grew up during the last Great War, when it was an insular little place of Irish and Italians who hated each other, and merchant marines in boarding houses, and dockworkers, ironworkers, grocers, and freelance laborers like him.
Losing his garret, losing the context of the place where he’d worked as an electrician and carpenter for 60 years – he’d never left Carroll Gardens – was agony for the guy, and it was made worse because he was a smart man, he’d read his history, he knew what was happening was part of a transformation of class throughout the neighborhood, the wiping away of the class without money. At that time, in the spring of 2002, all sorts of new and expensive bars and restaurants were going up, places that sold pain au raisin in the morning. And in the summer evenings the restaurants filled with well-dressed crowds of the young. A.J. lived on cigarettes and vitamins, ate maybe once a day, a pizza or a chicken roll or a cheese roll at Sal’s Pizzeria, which had been at the same spot since the War. He walked with a pained-looking half-hunch and he suffered tremors – he said he was like a Jack Russell terrier, too much unused energy, it shot through his limbs and made him shake, but I thought it was coming Parkinson’s.
I’d see him sometimes pacing Court Street, the main stretch of commerce in the neighborhood, without him seeing me. His short slow ginger steps in front of restaurants. Glancing with his heavy neck into the windows at the crowds with a look of infinite suffering. The only eatery he would step foot in was Josie’s Java, a closet-sized ancient-looking dinette which had a bench outside with signs posted, “Buy a cup and get a free video!” Which prompted A.J. to ask, “Yes, free video – but of what?” He liked Josie because she was old and mean and refused to ingratiate herself with customers. “She won’t make it in the new Brooklyn,” A.J. said one day. “And I dunno if there’s anything new about it. Same fools nearly ruined France, nearly ruined England. You have one class now in Carroll Gardens, the mono-class of the rich. No industry, no trades, no jobs for the average person to pull himself up. Now it’s all restaurants on Court Street that the old timers can’t afford. People live their whole lives in the same place, and then this is not their place.”
“Now we got the Television Watchers, the Cell Phone Talkers. Whole class of men and women who watch TV or some version of it, like this Internet thing – stay attached to little machines all day long. A lifetime. Sad: free-thinking goes in the toilet. The Television Watchers start thinking alike, looking alike, buying alike, and they don’t know why. I’m harsh. I don’t forgive the TV for lying so much. Some people do. Ever thought of the rise of the television and that funny little coincidence of the Cold War and the National Security State? National Security Act is signed in 1947. OSS becomes CIA. Five years later – less – first televisions go into mass production, mass distributed. The Television Watcher is born while the state expands. Enormous increases in defense funding, war funding. A standing army is built unlike any you ever seen in the history of the country. Expansion of the secrecy of affairs: the things that can be held from people now include billions of dollars, all that black spending. State grows and grows and grows, and so do the Television Watchers. Cold War was the worst thing to ever happen to this country.”
When A.J. was thrown out of his little garret in July of 2001, he did not exist on paper, he was an unknown quantity to the earmarkers of the state, and he liked this fact. But it posed a question: the owner of the building, an old man who happened to realize in the bubble economy that he had a pile of money in the four floors of his brownstone, offered A.J. a cut of the proceeds from the sale. The owner had known A.J. most of his life and felt bad about evicting him. Total cut was $50,000 – for A.J., an enormous sum. But to receive the gift meant A.J. would have to acquiesce to an existence on paper; the money couldn’t just be handed over in cash, it would wait for him in a bank account, and to claim the account, he needed identification. So how to get the money? A.J. had never paid taxes, never voted, never been fingerprinted or had a credit card or a driver’s license or a social security card or any official identification. “I lived under the radar, and it’s going to stay that way,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of what the government can do when it gets its hands on your identity. You give that up, you might as well march down to the police station and tell ‘em to get it over with and arrest you now, and they’ll say ‘Well, why?’ and you’ll say, ‘You got my identity, you’ll find a reason to arrest me soon enough.’”
“You need I.D. to live in this world,” I told him. I had the odd feeling saying it that I was actually a tape-recorded message, and I immediately apologized.
“This world,” he said. “Which world? I’ve known people my whole life and we never knew each other’s last names, and we were good friends and kept it that way. The people who weren’t your closest and most intimate didn’t want to know those things and I knew there was something as knowing too much about a person, and that could get you killed. There were people whose faces I knew, and that was it. And they knew my face and that was it – it was the trust between us.”
A.J. spat on the sidewalk and said, “Now it’s all about getting your identity down to a science. Devices to track you down and track you out. Everywhere now. The cellphone? Tracking device. This Internet thing? Tracking device. Credit cards, Metrocards, EZ-Passes, bank accounts, saving accounts, mortgages – all keeping a record.” I laughed at him as paranoid, but this was three years before the country learned about the government’s data-mining of exactly these records.
A.J. never took the $50,000. The price of going on the radar was too much. When he finally parted from my father’s basement, he ended up finding another basement, in the Brooklyn brownstone of an old lady, a happy cursing drunkard who puts him to work keeping the house from falling down.
In a society where 2.3 million people are serving time in prison — more than any other country in the world — and many of them are innocent or convicted of harmless drug possession charges, it’s no surprise when you hear the story of Doreen Giuliano’s son, John Giuca, who she claims was wrongly convicted of murder in the notoriously rotten courts of Brooklyn, New York. Doreen, a stay-at-home mom, had an answer to what she perceived as a broken justice system. She went undercover to get the evidence to secure a new trial for her son. I wrote about Doreen’s story at Vanity Fair.
The good news for economy – I use the word in its old, perhaps archaic, sense – keeps on coming, but we are told the current “economic” crisis is a tragedy for the nation’s living standards. Far from it. First of all, let’s define economy. What we are hopefully entering is a period of real economy, which means conserving, scaling down, simplifying, saving, spending prudently and wisely and only for the things that one needs. A decent meal of greens and simple protein (I suggest beans and rice and spinach), good drink (Budweiser works wonders), clothes and shoes that last and can be mended for the long haul (try old military surplus and paratrooper boots), shelter that is modest and affordable but functional and not a credit scam. Having a beautiful wife or girlfriend who doesn’t like to wear clothing also helps.
But everywhere the consensus trance holds that a slow-down of consumption signals the End Time, the shuttering of hope, chance, freedom. Look no further than how the New York Times spins it from the usual gibberishing oracles: “The last few days have devastated the American consumer,” says retail consultant Walter Loeb. Americans, avers Loeb, “all feel poor.” Really? So too we are meant to believe that “when consumers get concerned about…their country, they need entertainment,” per the wisdom of the Entertainment Merchants Association. So too is it “amazing how much even these 10-year-old girls are aware that something is going on,” the chairman and chief executive of Tween Brands tells us, who has been traveling the country to “listen to moms and little girls.” And what does the CEO hear? “Mom is saying, ‘I can’t afford that.’”
Tragic, darkness at noon, a nightmare I tell you. The reporters in the mainstream press, as dimly discerning as dreamers who know nothing but the dream from which they refuse to awake, escort us through the envisaged circles of hell of this “unaffordable” world. The benefits of the descent are manifold but tacitly unrecognized: the malls no longer trap rats with credit cards, the casinos no longer suck blood from the arms of degenerates, the lousy restaurants no longer make you nauseous for $100 a plate (gasp – the Times reports that the ungrateful citizens are eating at home!), the retailers no longer ask you to throw away perfectly good shoes, the jewelers no longer sell to serious adults the silly shiny trinkets meant for the pleasure of cretins, the auto dealerships no longer peddle cars half as efficient as last year’s model, the cellphone hawkers no longer sell the I3869Zed Super-Iphone to burn out the brains and tire the ears, the home builders no longer slap-dab junk homes in exurban fields meant for farms that can sustain something we once called the future.
Nor, according to the New York Times, will the new blah-blah Super-Blah be available, because of the contracting “economy,” and the other new blahs from Blah Inc., and many other new blahs that Blah Investments recommends – because the consumer just won’t make the penny scream, won’t play the game. The game, of course, is predicated on being an infantilized weirdo, a grasping entitled half-fetus on two legs with a college degree crying “awn it awn it” from inside the womb of cash, cycling through the drooled suggestions of the marketeers as if our “freedom” depends on how much money we can waste rather than how much we need to survive.
Like I said, recession is all good news, and not just for our brains and souls, but for the planet and the real chance for Americans to survive in some kind of non-debased, non-infantilized, non-crap-inundated form – a race of fully matured and, dare I say, noble creatures. Every time I hear the New York Times lamenting that the average American refuses to open his billfold for bullshit, I envision less metal in the junkyard, less garbage in the scow, less forest turned into the Times, less pollution in the skies and water, less stupidity in the shape of owning more. I also envision a resurgence of cobblers mending the soles of shoes – cobblers who I can’t seem to find anymore in these fair United States to fix up my boots.
If it’s true that consumer spending now accounts for two-thirds of the American “economy” – god help us – then there’s nothing economic about it, as defined above. In other words, if it doesn’t economize, then the “economy” is not worth maintaining.
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT COUNTERPUNCH.ORG)
An Open Letter to Congress
You in the corporate execugarchy in this country have forgotten the shape and name of fear – and yes I mean you, dear congressmen, whose work has gone hand in hand with big money for too long, running amok in the sea lanes of American society, piratical, parasitic, treasure-troved, flying the black flag and raiding what the rest of us offer up in the tax season or are imbecilic enough to invest on Wall Street. So let us, as citizens intelligent and discerning, now be raised in answer to this latest monumental predation – the treasonous Bailout of ‘08 – visited from you, the criminals in the nice suits.
A suggestion for further action comes to mind in a recent book of fiction called Tyrannicide, by Evan Keliher, which offers the improbable scenario of the Second American Revolution, which opens, sometime in the near future, with the slow, careful, systematic assassination of the members of the US Senate for their complicity in the sell-out of the old republic. In Keliher’s fantasy, “It was big business and corrupt politicians against everybody else in a scenario that grew ever worse for average citizens and ever more prosperous for the rich, and it was now going to change even if it meant shooting every last one of the larcenous pricks.” Right. Down goes one senator after another, popped between porcine eyes with a .22 cal. bullet fired by experts. Soon, select representatives follow to the grave. The federal government freaks out with martial law and the iron fist and the boot on the throat, the citizens respond with full-scale armed revolt – a delightful vision, as sepia-tone and strange as that of a citizen musketeer on Bunker Hill fighting the injuries from a distant king.
Now if I was to imagine this kind of thing – and I’m not saying I am – as the proper justice for the most treasonous and scheming and syphilitically whored-out figures in our legislature – shoot the diseased little shits, why not? – I think the plan should certainly extend to their friends and co-conspirators on Wall Street. Now I’m not necessarily suggesting that we organize into citizen bands to kidnap and assassinate on video, in good lighting, our various congressmen in tandem with the former heads of Lehman Bros or Goldman Sachs or Freddie Mac or AIG or any of the other current paragons of grand theft who’ve parachuted home with bags of cash. I’m not suggesting that these same gray-skinned little thieves, elected and not, be taken from their homes by hockey-mask-wearing SEAL-trained operatives, gagged with a roll of twenties, and beaten with a DC phone book. Nor should they be waterboarded in a toilet, split at the knees, sawed off at the arms, or beheaded, or shot in a fetal wad into outer space. Nor am I suggesting a simple machine-gunning in the fields of Connecticut or on K Street or at the docks at Nantucket; nor am I suggesting that, a la Rome in the days of Empire, their families, their children, their cousins, friends, servants, wives, mistresses also be killed, their bodies dumped in the streets, their heads displayed on the spiked fences of their estates to be eaten by crows, lobbyists, tax collectors, real estate agents, and rabid dogs. Nor am I suggesting that the citizens gather enough fertilizer and ammonia to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, along with Congress, and be done with the disease altogether.
Though all that is pretty fucking sickly-sweet to imagine, and totally psychotic, and it would signal the end of the American experiment, a descent into barbarism that would only profit the forces of a far more barbaric reaction and clampdown.
What I would suggest is a kinder, gentler solution, based not on lunatic force – which after all is the purview and privilege of the brutes now running the country – but on the common sense notion that comes with being part of a rational polity: Someone has to pay for government, especially a government that routinely loots its own treasury in support of anti-capitalist, anti-American, corporate-socialist wealth transfers. “Let them march all they want to,” former Secretary of State and known motherfucker Alexander Haig once said, “as long as they continue to pay their taxes.” Or, as Thoreau put it during the Mexican War of 1846 – Thoreau who is among the fathers of American tax resistance – “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.” The Algonquin Indians, long before there was a Constitution or Bill of Rights or the rallying cry of aggrieved colonists, did it in 1637: They refused to pay a Dutch tax on the refurbishment of the same military fort that was the arbiter and symbol of their lost autonomy. We pay for the blood and mess on the hands of this foul fortressed government, we can, like the Algonquins, stop paying for it too. Let us, chers citoyens, not pay our tax bills this coming year. It was a mass tax revolt that started this country, and by god a tax revolt could end it. Cut off the funding that keeps the bullets pointed, that fills the coffers for Wall Street welfare; watch you, the bastards in Congress, throw a fit like a bitch in heat.
How would this tax revolt work? I have no idea. But short of tyrannicide, the heads on sticks and the dogs chewing innards – and it could happen here, it’s happened pretty much everywhere republics collapse into the darkness of fallen empire – we need an answer to the corruption of our system that is mature enough to form something new and better and more humane. Right now, all we are seeing is organized chaos – most recently and obscenely in the Big Bailout – that sails as the freebooter under the black flag of the US government.