/home/ketcham99/mail Habeas Corruptus

Let It Collapse: On the Social Benefits of Creative Destruction

So the tax-payer hand-out will “save” Wall Street from its own predations. Any reasonable man, of course, would wish the pig-fuckers to fry in their own feces. Let the free market carry out their corpses to the gutter. And mine too, perhaps, for as a magazine writer I depend on the thoughtlessness and blind-mole cupidity of credit-card consumerism – the credit system now imploding – to feed the ad-market that feeds the magazines that pay my bills. Without dumb blondes buying Manohlo Blahniks and metrosexuals fawning over prawns in overpriced restaurants, my paycheck turns to dust.

But the fact is that our economic system is a lunatic and suicidal system, and it deserves to go down. Why lunatic and suicidal? It is predicated on the delusion, accepted on every level in every modern society, that unlimited Mahnolo Blahniks are possible on a planet of limited resources. Growth without horizon is simply not possible, but the delusion remains in force, a mass glue-huff and consensus trance hallucination. Endless growth on planet earth is by definition entropic; it implies its own end. Its pursuit is therefore suicidal.

What might replace the current insane system I couldn’t venture to say. Certainly, a lot of people will be hurt if we go down the rat-hole that appears our proper and fitting end. If events trend badly enough, a period of contraction, unemployment, economic depression, homelessness, tent cities, rising crime, boarded up storefronts, abandoned homes will be upon us faster than imaginable – the last five developments are already in our midst in the post-subprime wastelands of suburbia. Perhaps the crisis will bring about the devolution of the American living standard to something like sustainability. Perhaps it will only bring out a lot of pissed-off middle-classers who refuse to accept that the American way of life is sick and crazy and has no future. That kind of infantile resentment historically either leads to reform or fascism.

Gerald Celente, a self-described “trends forecaster” who last year predicted the “Economic 9/11” that hit this week, dropped me an e-mail the other day: “THE PANIC IS ON,” he wrote. “Depression to follow…” Celente, who has famously tended to be right, augurs that the big Wall Street failures will extend far beyond the financial sector. “In the coming weeks, months and years,” writes Celente, “we’ll see a steady stream of banks, giant retailers, consumer product companies, manufacturers, leveraged buyout firms and home builders going under. The next economic shoe to drop,” he avers, “will be in the commercial real estate sector.”

Bring it on. I envision a trickle-down benefit here in Brooklyn, which when I was growing up in the 1980s served fine as a natal ground defined by burglaries, homelessness, murder, empty streets, and the pervasive sense that bad things could happen at any time, which tends to raise consciousness to a fever range, the kind of sharp-sword animal consciousness where the coyote and the rat operate. Empty streets, spartan and lean and dark – that’s what I most remember about old Brooklyn. The place had the feeling of desert. It was replete with open spaces. The “maggot called man,” in Nietzche’s memorable phrase, was not swarming in the foreground.

There was very little that was considered upscale – meaning you could afford the restaurants and bars, what few there were, without making $100,000 a year in the salary prisons of corporate Manhattan. When I was 19, in 1992, I rented an apartment in a neighborhood of old brownstones then known as Park Slope – hallucinating realtors in the New York land rush of the last 20 years have since divided the streets into a Babel of sub-markets. I paid $400 a month for two rooms and a bathroom that leaked shit-water and a fridge that shut off periodically to fill with cockroaches (they ate ham while I slept!). My girlfriend at the time, Carole-Anne, with whom I’d later have a daughter, had just gotten off a plane from Paris. One day I came home to find her crying. “A man – no head! La tete, la tete,” she said. She was hysterical. A man had been shotgunned around the corner and Carole-Anne had walked onto the crime scene minutes after the shoot-out, before the cops could sanitize. That was Brooklyn. And it was okay – well, not okay, but it was part of the facts of life in a city that warded off those who weren’t trained in that high keening consciousness to accept it. One night we borrowed my father’s Honda and took a midnight drive into a cliffy forested park at the northern tip of Manhattan, and a car came up behind us in the lightless road and tried to cut us off. A car-jacking. The men in the car screaming out the window, waving guns. Carole-Anne hysterical (poor girl, from the suburbs of Paris!). High-speed chase along the winding roads. The cars screeching. We escaped down a wrong-way road at 70 miles an hour – god save us we didn’t smash into someone coming the other way – and when we were home in Brooklyn, we were alive. Alive and overjoyed and it was a beautiful moment. That was New York.

This is all romanticized drivel, of course, and to be car-jacked or see a man shotgunned is not to be interpreted as normal or fun or desirable. But at least it was affordable. You didn’t have to work 60 hours a week to watch the cockroaches eat your dinner inside the fridge. You worked enough to pay the rent, and no more (I was a bike messenger, she worked as a secretary at a real estate office that I’m convinced was also trafficking narcotics). I think of the accounts I’ve read of primitive societies, in the sea-girt islands, say, of Micronesia, where perhaps three or four hours a day are lost to the work required for daily survival. The balance of waking is dedicated to nothing at all that could be construed as productive, which means it was for playing with the kids, it was for sex, for sleep, for lazing and going back to sleep. A little work, mostly play makes Jack a happy boy.

Today the same shit-house Carole-Anne and I lived in costs $1900 a month, and it probably still has a cockroach problem, but this is considered “character,” and the main avenues all around are swallowed in the caterwauling of commerce by which the newly-ripped-off resident is bombarded with the temptations of more junk than is affordable or desirable. Whereas on 5th Avenue in Park Slope in 1992 I used to be able to find a hooker and cocaine and run away from a fist-fight and learn Puerto Rican Spanish doing it, whereas I used to be able to find nothing at all on the street, no people, no rushing, nothing to buy or sell, just about every storefront today is taken over by the glad-handing smiley-face of the idiot consumer economy gone to its nth-degree madness. There is growth on all sides, it saturates, it feels like hysteria, and like hysteria it will end in collapse. There are too many amenities, there is too much foolery and surfeit disguised as worthiness and bottom-line necessity. The restaurants where crappy food, the same crappy food you might have gotten for a twentieth of the price ten years ago, is proferred as if it’s Jesus’ bread broken in your mouth – as with religious ritual, the profligate consumption bar/restaurant scene is as ritualized and hyperbolic as a funeral. Money is the password to all social relations. Bubble-economics on all sides: How many of the new jobs offered to the newly-rich in Brooklyn are based on anything more than the usual hallucinated sectors of finance, banking, media, fashion? Fashion, that New York engine of silliness, has for its purpose the slathering of rich people in expensive uselessness made by slave-wagers overseas – it is the industry of children playing at dress up. Once upon a time New Yorkers made their own clothing – right there in Manhattan, in the garment districts, where the art galleries of Soho now peddle emptiness on canvas. But emptiness is today our butter: entertainment, the “news cycle,” the so-called “arts,” the ever-increasing pestilence of a media that informs not at all. Are there any jobs in New York City that actually produce something other than a fart in the wind on a website or in the windows of mannequins at Saks Fifth Avenue or in the ledgers of bankers and brokers, the parasitic middlemen?

Which brings me back to the collapsing markets, the product of fart-in-the-wind economics. I can foresee on 5th Avenue in Park Slope a beautiful resurgence of shuttered shops, rotted storefronts, the end of money’s welcome in its hypocrite hug, the end of surfeit, a return to normalcy. No more strawberries in January at the store on the corner – the strawberries were never meant to be eaten in winter anyway. Perhaps we might even see a return to the city of people who manufacture something other than air. I will be driven out first – because this screed is all air! So be it!

(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT COUNTERPUNCH.ORG)

Where the Buffalo Roam on the Welfare Ranch

My most recent article in Harper’s — find it here — chronicles the several weeks I spent in May 2007 wandering around with the Yellowstone buffalo herd, the last free-roaming unfenced genetically pure herd in the world. In what amounts to the usual sad and sorry spectacle called “government at its best,” the animals are harassed, chased, shot at, and killed during their spring migrations, courtesy of state and federal “livestock agents” working at the behest of the ranching industry.

Montana cattlemen claim the wild herd threatens to spread disease among their stock, threatens the availability of grass on public lands, threatens the ranching industry itself. This is simply not true. The real reason for the persecution of the buffalo, I argue, derives from psychological factors as old as the colonization of the West by white men. In a land where extremes of drought and flood often play out in the same year, those who extract a tenuous living from the land are adversaries of the land: To survive they exert a violent control, eliminating any and all competition. Free-roaming buffalo aren’t part of that cowboy equation. What’s most interesting in all this mess, though, is that the “rough and independent” rancher is in fact a welfare queen — sucking hard on the tit of your tax dollars and mine. Read more in the Harper’s piece.

Selected Aphorisms to Jaundice Your Day (by C. Ketcham)

Regarding the abortion debate, I tend to think that life starts when a child develops irony.

The hope of the human race is that we will learn to disagree without believing in anything.

Only brothers could hate each other the way Arabs and Jews do.

The frugal man in a time of prosperity is as wise as he is despised.

When I hear someone say “I’ll pray for you,” I know nothing will get done.

The highest purpose of gun ownership is to shoot back at governments.

It’s almost a certainty today that to be anti-United States is to be pro-American.

The Internet and portable phones have made waste efficient.

The ubiquity of the belief in God is proof only that a lot of people can agree to be wrong.

Priests and judges both wear black robes and they’ll both fuck your children in the ass when you’re not looking.

In the United States, echolalia is called debate.

The wildest law-breaking is usually that done in the name of God and country.

When I hear the American justice system pronounces a man guilty, I will wager on his innocence.

I trust governments only when I am certain they are lying.

I will no way endorse any political platform in which people agree with me.

The brain-damaging effects of cellphones explains a lot of conversation today.

Wherever human beings mass, they are ugly.

Finally, a snippet of wisdom from Ed Abbey explaining a little bit of America’s “Texas problem,” from his recently published letters:

“Why pick on Texas? Because it typifies, concentrates and exaggerates most everything that is rotten in America: it’s vulgar — not only cultureless but anti-cultural; it’s rich in a brazen, vulgar, graceless way; it combines the bigotry and sheer animal ignorance of the Old South with the aggressive, ruthless, bustling, dollar-crazy brutality of the Yankee East and then attempts to hide this ugliness under a facade of mock-western play clothes stolen from a way of life that was crushed by Texanism over half a century ago. The trouble with Texas: it’s ugly, noisy, mean-spirited, mediocre and false.”

ATLANTIC YARDS, THE E.I.S. GAME, AND THE GENIUS OF THE DEVELOPMENT INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

Money has proved the most dangerous of modern man’s hallucinogens.
-Lewis Mumford

Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.
- Robinson Jeffers, from “Shine, Perishing Republic!”

Pack Creek Ranch, Moab, Utah
Rats, like human beings, need enough space to stretch and relax and breath free. Consider a study that researcher John Calhoun conducted in 1962 by gathering 80 Norway rats in tiny pens, conditions far beyond the tolerance level for the average rattus norvegicus. Rodent society went crazy. Mating rituals, nesting, social organization, and health collapsed, while an oligarchy of the super-fattened few took over the high reaches of the pen, gathering a harem and forcing the rest into tenement living. Among the females miscarriages rose sharply; ditto disorders of the mammary glands, sex organs, ovaries, uterus, Fallopian tubes. The males, for their part, became sociopaths: they bit and fought constantly. Ambush tail-biting, generally impermissible in rat society, became the order of the day. In normal conditions, the rats would have policed themselves and punished such aggression. But now, in the perverted conditions of the “behavioral sink” – which scientists define as the pathologic outcome of any situation in which too many animals are crowded in too little space – it was a war of all against all, each rat for himself on what appeared to be a sinking ship. Some rats simply gave up and went into fugues of passivity. What was most compelling is what happened to the kidneys, liver and adrenal glands in the behavioral sink – all were enlarged and sickened. In particular, the adrenals suffered. The condition in many of the rats was in fact something close to adrenocortical hyperactivity – a constant dosing of adrenalin due to stressor conditions. And the adrenalin was killing them.

I was thinking about Calhoun’s rats and spacing and crowds and the death-espresso of the behavioral sink in New York City as Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled his “sustainable New York” plan last spring, at a time when I was leaving town for the lonely old canyons of Utah. It was on a Sunday, in the first warm days, and people were out to enjoy the weather and not listening to the mayor. On Atlantic Avenue and 4th Avenue many of them were stuffed in cars backed up and unmoving, awful constipation. On Court Street, more crowds. At the park at the bottom of Atlantic Avenue where the avenue falls into the bay, the handball courts with too many players; baseball diamonds overrun; too many people everywhere in the behavioral sink. I mention all this because the mayor’s big plan for “sustainability” and a “green” future and the reduction of greenhouse gases etc. is to welcome another million people into New York over the next 23 years. You may ask: How do you reduce greenhouse gases by growing the population? Who knows – who cares! The people will come, we’re told. Is there no way to stop them? Won’t mustard gas work? The people are coming! And it is a good thing. So we are told. We must grow – build more houses, shopping centers, retail strips, malls, towers, and, not least, sports arenas to watch grown men chase after leather balls. The consensus trance that all growth, always, everywhere is good is of course insane and comic at once and has been the bane of civilization since men laid mortar in the agglomerations of cities. Because rationally one must ask: Will New York really be a better place to live with another million people added into it? Of course not.

***

With this on my mind I went up the canyon not long ago and shotgunned the face of Bruce Ratner, one of the most fearsome developers in New York and certainly the most publicly demeaning face of the growth consensus that I’ve come across. Good feelings all around – Bruce’s laser-printed smugness now shredded wheat; the Remington’s aim true at 70 paces. The occasion for fury, found in my mailbox here in Moab, was a movie called “Brooklyn Matters,” which deconstructs the lies and trickery and vicious bigotry that Ratner has employed in furtherance of his $2.4 billion boondoggle known as Atlantic Yards. Not so foreign material for the deserts of the southwest, where cowboy simulacra of Ratner subdivide the mesas into condos – the same real estate scam everywhere in the fair land.

But, like my Remington, the movie also misses the key target, which is not so much beady-eyed developers but the government that lets them loose from the cage in an old-boy game of wink-wink.

The game is called Developers Gone Wild. Non-sustainability, waste, carelessness, the privatization of public resources, and, of course, the packing of too many rats into too little space are its hallmarks. In New York City, a primary playing piece in the game, if not the queen on the board, is the ironically-named “environmental impact statement,” or EIS, which for decades has greased the skids for development by creating the pretense of public environmental oversight. The artfulness and deceit of the EIS process underscores the fact that the most dangerous players in the game are not the private sector’s array of bankers, mortgage lenders, construction companies, unions, big name developers, lawyers, consultants, investors, and speculators and elected officials-qua-boosters (think of the inane yet somehow insidious Marty Markowitz, porcine borough president of Brooklyn) that together comprise what we’ll call the development industrial complex.

The threat, rather, arrives from public agencies that abet the private sector’s predatory ways. The chief offender to sign off on the EIS process is the New York State boosterist agency known as the Empire State Development Corporation. The corrupt collusion of ESDC with developers has had predictable results: During a decade that saw a rush to re-zone or bypass zoning in favor of uncontrolled growth – the boom-time of roughly 1997 to the present – billions of dollars in new development was sausaged through the system without meaningful environmental review, without realistic assessment of impacts, and, by extension, without the public getting a fair understanding of the effect these megaprojects would have on the streets where people live, shop and play. As a political and corporate tool for profiteering, and also as a means of disarming the citizenry, the ESDC is indispensable – and in Brooklyn it has become the key to the kingdom.

***

Atlantic Yards, a basketball arena and 16 towers on three superblock platforms, is the largest single development in Brooklyn’s history and among the largest in New York history. But it has no roots in any public planning effort. The owners, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, eyed the air-rights as a salable asset to help fill its budget gap. The serendipitous solution was to morph the childhood dream of cheerleading Borough President Marty Markowitz – who wanted to avenge the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers – into the ultimate trophy of development moguls: ownership of a major league team. Ready to respond to the call was a Clevelander who strategically sat on or chaired almost every major board in Brooklyn. Bruce Ratner used urban planning lingo to seduce BP Markowitz – who had campaigned against the “Manhattanization of Brooklyn” – into believing that Manhattan-like towers, originally 18 for both offices and apartments, were necessary to finance the arena. For more panache, Ratner enlisted peacockish architect Frank Gehry, even though Gehry had accomplished nothing of the scale of Atlantic Yards. The governor, the mayor, New York’s senior senator Chuck Schumer and sundry local politicos early on signaled that their united front would allow nothing to stand in the way of an approval schedule dictated by contract terms of Ratner’s purchase of the New Jersey Nets. Even the Markowitz representative on the City Planning Commission was a major investor.

But it was the grease of ESDC that proved most vital to the machine. That the Empire State Development Corporation greenlights growth without mitigation is part of its purpose – the promotion of “progress,” the expansion of commerce, the creation of wealth. The agency website says no less: “NY Loves Business!” Former City Planning commission-member and Yale professor Alexander Garvin writes that when in 1968 the ESDC emerged from the governor’s office as an autarchic answer to urban blight, it was by definition “a superagency with truly amazing powers,” powers like no other in the history of modern New York government (except perhaps those accrued to Robert Moses). The ESDC “could condemn [land], ignore zoning and building regulations, and even issue tax-exempt bonds to finance development. Its most remarkable power was the ability to do all this without obtaining the approval of any other city, county or state agency.”

Its “amazing powers” are superbly on display in the case of Atlantic Yards. Volumes have been blogged online (see, for example, the vociferous Norman Oder) and logged in court documents as to the dishonesty, the deficiencies, the outright idiocies of the Atlantic Yards EIS as vetted by ESDC. The non-profit Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, headed by area resident Daniel Goldstein with the backing of 16 co-plaintiffs, reports the fundamental falsehood in the ESDC’s study: using the blight pretext for the application of eminent domain, the study pretends that an organically developing post-industrial mixed-use stretch of Brooklyn land is in fact a congealing tenement slum circa 1910.

If the EIS itself was corrupt, it was merely the inevitable product of a corrupted process – particularly where the ESDC and the private sector commingled. The corruption was open-air and normalized, and vaguely legal, though far from ethical. What’s clear is that the private developer, Forest City Ratner Corporations, asked ESDC, a public agency funded by taxpayers, to employ individuals and groups preferential to the private interests of Forest City Ratner. ESDC’s reaction? It followed orders. A February 18, 2004 letter from Forest City Ratner to ESDC asked that the agency hire a well-known pro-development lawyer named David Paget, once upon a time a respected figure in the environmental law community. Paget’s hiring was par for the course: he is the go-to hitman for developers working with ESDC who want to insure that their EISs are bulletproof in court. The same Feb. 18 letter also asked that ESDC hire the consulting firm AKRF, a $100 million-a-year company that grinds out EISs for scores of private sector developers in New York City and is known for its skewed pro-development preparation of environmental impact statements. Again, FCR’s orders were followed. AKRF was hired.

ESDC’s hiring of David Paget should have raised eyebrows foremost. Paget had already been retained by Forest City Ratner since probably 2003 for the Atlantic Yards Project. Indeed, for an undisclosed period of time, Paget was working both for the public oversight agency (ESDC) and for the private development firm (Forest City Ratner) that was attempting to avoid oversight – a brazen conflict of interest. It was David Paget who, as counsel to Forest City Ratner, helped write the March 2003 memo of understanding between FCR, ESDC, and New York City assuring that at the Atlantic Yards site there would no longer be requirements for contextual design, or a mix of retail and residential use – i.e., that Forest City Ratner would freely evade city zoning laws. The Paget memo of understanding also gave to ESDC total reign over the target area: ESDC would become the fiat power for the 22 acres where Bruce Ratner hoped to plant his mega-complex, thus removing this controversial project from City government and their more restrictive and participatory Uniform Land-Use Review Process. Removing the project from the ULURP process was in effect a master stroke.

As in most corporate welfare enterprises, the returns to the public are not just questionable; they are negative. First, the developers claimed the project would bring $6 billion in tax revenues for the city and state over a period of 30 years. Now that the project is greenlighted, Forest City Ratner admits the revenue for the same period is likely closer to $1 billion. At the same time that real public oversight is tossed out the window, the public is asked to pay for the project at a cost of up to $2 billion over the next ten years. Not mentioned, of course, are the externality costs of the project’s expected traffic, some 100 million added miles a year producing an estimated $80 million in losses from increased congestion, increased fuel use with contributions to global warming, the addition of more traffic accidents with huge costs not covered by insurance and all the environmental damages from air and water pollution and traffic noise. Opponents have taken to calling the project Ratopolis.

State and federal courts have repeatedly struck down objections to the project by groups such as Develop Don’t Destroy. The courts have also struck down conflict of interest objections in the hiring of Ratner’s cat’s-paw David Paget by ESDC. The mind-set of the courts is that wherever the state intervenes in the marketplace for the benefit of large corporations whose effort can be shown to bring “tax dollars” and “progress” and “productivity” – however chimerical – then the government must stand in support. Corruption normalized? Indeed. State courts refuse to challenge or second guess a city or state agency in their support of a project. When the court decides on behalf of developers and approves an EIS, it is cast in stone – the circle is closed.

***

Wherever you find the ESDC’s greasy fingers on projects far and wide across the five boroughs and beyond, you’ll find the same modus operandi, the same crew pulling the job. One mile to the west of Atlantic Yards, where Atlantic Avenue drops into New York Bay between Piers 6 and 7, there was once an idea for a park on the old piers, open to all and world class, offering views of the Manhattan skyline and the beacon of the statue in the bay and the lights of the bridges on the river.

Today, the plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park has been hijacked and replaced with Miami Beach-style waterfront condos complete with yachts, private security patrols, “world-class” views open to the few who can pay. The new “park” would enrich politically-connected real estate developers, compliments of New York’s taxpayers. Future real estate taxes have also been hijacked, becoming PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) designated to support the park – instead of police, fire, schools, sanitation and other city services. PILOTS are one more scheme to cheat the rest of us of taxes that would otherwise pay for public needs, like park expenses. Instead, PILOTs are funneled back into the developers’ pockets via the people who are living there. Here, as with Atlantic Yards, the plundered object is not simply the treasury, but space, air, light, streets, sidewalks – all in the name of questionable “economic progress” driven by private interests.

Who wrote and vetted the EIS for the farce that is now Brooklyn Bridge “Park”? ESDC, in collaboration with David Paget and, yes, AKRF. These same three actors also account for the morbidly flawed EIS connected with the renovation of the Upper East Side 7th Regiment Armory theatre and arts venue. Their hands are on similarly flawed EIS’s for the 42nd Street Redevelopment Plan, the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning Plan, the Javitz Center, the Upper East Side Armory, Metrotech – the smeared prints everywhere. AKRF and Paget are also connected with upstate developer Dean Gitter’s proposal for a Catskill resort in the New York City watershed – threatening the very sustenance of the city.

Which brings me back to the question of sustainability. Look at the case of Phoenix, Ariz., my mega-neighbor 600 miles south of Moab, a poison-sprawl across the low desert where no city should be…or its foul sister, Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S. and sometime in the next 60 years soon to be the fastest to dry up and blow away. Does New York want to be Phoenix or Las Vegas? We want to be the model of sustainability, a city for the survival of the human race in what assuredly is a coming cataclysm where demand smacks head-on into a failure of resources.

***

The urbanist and humanist Lewis Mumford described in the 1970s what he called the “pentagon of power” that was driving American civilization into a collective ditch. His analysis of this five-fold aggregation of forces quite accurately describes the sociopathology of the land rush in New York City today. The five points are 1) more power; 2) more profit; 3) more productivity; 4) more paper property (e.g.. abstractions such as stocks, bonds, hedged capital, etc.); and 5) more publicity. “Commitment to the power complex and relentless pursuit of pecuniary gains…define the power system and prescribe its only acceptable goal,” which Mumford identifies as the abstraction known as “progress.” And in the name of progress, “the most striking thing about this power complex,” Mumford writes in his 1970 book The Myth of the Machine, “is its studious indifference to other human needs, norms and goals: it operates best in what is historically speaking an ecological, cultural and personal lunar desert.” The power complex, Mumford notes, recognizes no quantitative limits in the name of “progress.”

He makes the comparison to laboratory monkeys hooked up to electrodes which permit a microcurrent to stimulate the nervous tissue in the pleasure center of the simian brain. The test monkey is given a device to control the current. The resulting behavior is sad, and it approaches suicide. “Apparently the stimulation of this pleasure center is so rewarding that the animal will continue to press the current regulator for an indefinite length of time regardless of every other impulse or physiological need, even that for food and even to the point of starvation. The intensity of this abstract stimulus produces something like a total neurotic insensibility to life needs.” The pentagon of power, writes Mumford, appears to operate on the same principle.

There’s a particularly awful moment illustrative of this insensibility in the film “Brooklyn Matters.” The camera closes on the December 2003 announcement of the Atlantic Yards in its fanfare: Here were Ratner and his assorted camp followers – friends and consultants and lawyers – side by side with the big politicos draped in oversize basketball jerseys, giddy like children, thinking to redeem the borough by the addition of the great stadium and a home team, together on the dais in a kind of hallucinated pep rally: Pataki, Schumer, Bloomberg, Ratner and Markowitz, himself proud as a sow in the wallow, the paradigm of the mindless booster, prattling in the usual language about, yes, progress and profit and productivity, and, needless to say, loving the publicity. In Atlantic Yards was a legacy that would cement a place in the history books for Markowitz, a place in the bank ledgers for Ratner, and, most importantly, much money in lobbying largesse, consultants’ fees to operations like AKRF, continued happy employment in the bureaucracy at ESDC. As for reality – the real human concerns and needs of the borough – this was not the matter of concern.

Poem for the recent eclipse

Notes on a total eclipse of the moon, Aug. 28, 2007

Pack Creek Ranch, Utah

The moon didn’t pay its electric bill
so says Petra on the solemn lights off
Irreverent from sleep as fast as quips the moon pulling
its cheshired up-drawn wings of a white lip
How it fades, curtain drawn, exeunt
natural as nothing I’ve ever seen
foregathers night to its why, even the coyotes ask
They cry longer this night than I’ve heard the summer long packs
usually one loner cramped and curmudgeon
Now singers chirp, gargle, gong
not settling for the moon going away.

But the moon goes – it goes! And the coyotes can’t quite believe it,
the hourglass goes, the curtain goes, the eye goes, the meadow up high goes
and the rock down low goes and the pinyon forest goes
the land goes, our camp ends
Drawn down, a wink and a wink, the pearl goes
and the quicksilver goes
The poured light goes, and the fire goes, and the tin pan goes
and the last match goes
to red milk and umbre and sienna and red fog and Pluto’s ashes
the one precious pearl seething in the south sky goes
towns wink out, the last men go
to their valley and to the river between the cliffs
on boats of patch and clay they go, never to come back.

Only fools sing that the summer is gone and lament the season
of the high light – it’s over
The rains will come and snuff out the fires we built once high
on the mountain
There will be no more waterfalls born in the gold of rainbows
run over by our cars
no more ten million stars falling, no more breasts of women
or girls naked as girls
no more of the lakes and the rivers so warm
we slept in the water
The moon goes, it goes, I want to bang drums
call on my tin pan burn my tent and eyes
but none of this, not one fool extravagance
of the old superstition holds the moon still nor the season from its chance
because it goes, it goes, it is only aureole only shadow
and then, in the sentence at last, it is out
The coyotes have learned the lesson, stopped their song
gone to sleep
I imagine they have found a canyon
in the new darkness to their liking
the men are gone down the river
the towns are abandoned
only the fools wait for the ashes to come back.

Dependence Day: What the Bald Eagle Told the Desert Rat

Art by Travis Kelly

Good party for the 4th here at Pack Creek Ranch: beer, fried turkey, music, starlight and moonrise and many friends. But little talk about independence, or the U.S., or the Constitution, its crafting under duress. No surprises: I am 34 and for my entire life the 4th of July has been meaningless except as an excuse to drink, gather, eat meat, watch explosions in the sky. Which is fine. The dudgeon and pretense of the holiday should therefore be excised and July 4 renamed “Get Wasted and Blow Shit Up Day” or something more in tune with the American mind.

Better yet, if we wish to commemorate the degeneracy of our historical moment, our peculiar fallen stature as a people and a republic, we might try simply Dependence Day. Here in Moab, Utah, the dependence is utmost: strung out at the far ends of industrial foodism and carbon fuel addiction in the red rock, a desert people piling too many into a place with too few local resources for real sustenance: the trucks on the highways bring us the life of a 2,000-mile supply line, and the long strings of the power plants bring us air conditioning in the 108 degree days (growing hotter every year), the phone line that keeps me jabbering onto the Internet, the fridge that keeps the ice to cool the brain – all of it the function of large-scale, far-flung, giantist systems of dependence whose links, if severed, would render our partying, this writing, intellect, politics, freedom itself moot.

A few facts we know, ought to know, or know and don’t speak of because unacceptable in the current hologram of wellness and self-regard: it comes home to me in the memory of a crack whore among the warehouses at 9th Street and 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn, a toothless creature no more than 30 years old and looking 70 who was starved and told me, “Mistah, I’ll suck yo dick for five dollars – please.” I bought the woman a sandwich and avoided the blowjob…but here she is in the sage and under the moon haunting my imaginings of the U.S. as “independent”: We suck the dick of foreign oil, imports whose slightest shiver in supply would send us into chaos; we suck the dick of foreign lenders, the Chinese and Japanese buying up our bond reserves, propping up our markets with cheap goods that we hoover like apes at the totem of a banana and without which the sand and spit foundation of U.S. home mortgages would collapse like beach to the sea. The perversity in these overseas relationships is that we bow for blowjobs while pointing a gun at the blow-jobbee, crying out By god we will keep sucking dick or shoot you.

Which brings me to the issue of the bald eagle as national symbol: I went hiking a few days ago in Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands park, finding again and always that the flora and fauna of the redrock country serve as a kind of metaphor and lesson plan for a true conservative conduct that so-called conservatives in the U.S. have abandoned. Here heat, sun, lack of rain, the thinness of soil, the vastness of scarcity makes moderation, modesty, self-reliance the norm and the virtue. And the eagle has no place.

The bald eagle with its great strength and noble visage and razor talons is a fraud. He survives not by prowess and creativity but by theft and the strong-arm, by dive-bombing smaller birds to make them drop the rats or rabbits or fish these more enterprising avians catch through lone hard work. The behavior of the bald eagle hence falls under the rubric of kleptoparasitism, which makes the bird a fitting symbol of the U.S. government, especially as regards foreign policy.

But kleptoparasitism is an aberration in the desert, which is why the vicious beady-eyed bald eagle finds a hard row to hoe in zones of self-reliance such as the redrock country. Instead, desert life teaches more admirable lessons, lessons that jibe, for example, with the so-called paleoconservatism – awful usage – of a Barry Goldwater, himself a desert rat who late in life rafted the Green and Colorado Rivers where they confluenced in Utah, toppling down the canyons in whitewater, and who was thus converted from conservatism to conservation in understanding that wild places should be kept wild. Desert flora foremost show that wildness – a sense of distance, keeping an arm’s length, not getting in each other’s way or invading mutual space – is key to a happy co-existence: among the top flora such as the sagebrush and the pinyon pines and the juniper, there is always spacing for each to have enough water and to cull the nutrients from that thin soil.

Hence no ostentation among these plants, no waste, no profligacy. The flowers such as the evening primrose or the four o’clock show-off bloom white and cream or magenta and crimson only when night falls, but come daybreak they close to no one’s notice (the scream of the sun would take their life in an hour’s time). Modesty is their virtue and also their survival. Meanwhile, some of the most beautiful and most damned of the lifeforms are armed to the teeth, showing that the best defense is a good offense: the claret-cup cactus, spiny to the point of impossibility; the scorpion, who hunts little bugs but rarely deploys his terrible piercing stinger against human beings. Above all, there is self-sufficiency in these lifeforms, suffering terrific extremes and the better for it, more economical, tougher, more muscled, more careful, more free than their counterparts in the easy climes of the temperate East.

The notion of a desert conservatism is not new and it haunts the thoughtful newcomer to the desert as much as an idea of Eden: it has its precedence in the mountain men loners who came west before the en masse migrations of the pioneers, before the gold bonanzas and the cattlemen welfare queens (the hardest tit-suckers of the West), before the railroad corporations conjured the first of the big real estate scams. And, in modern times, it finds expression in the throwback orneriness of writers such as Ed Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire of 1968 envisioned the deserts of the Southwest as a safe house of political liberty, the “base for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.” (Goldwater, an Arizonan, also spoke about this).

Abbey wondered aloud in Desert Solitaire as to the necessary steps an American government might take to quash democracy. First, he suggested, encourage overpopulation and “concentrate the populations in megapolitan masses,” where they are easily surveilled and controlled. Second, mechanize agriculture so that food production sits in the hands of the few, eliminating the fundamental source of independence in self-sufficient communities (siege starvation is the ultimate strong-arm, barring the bullet). Then, fight wars against distant, mostly chimerical, threats overseas, “divert[ing] attention from deep conflicts within the society” and rendering “support of these wars a test of loyalty.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the wilderness is to be razed, paved over, developed, rigged with roads and cellphone towers and WalMarts and utility corridors, means of access, centralization, control – because it is here that the last of the self-reliant tribes will find their hold-out, a perch unacceptable to forces of dominion. In short: create a system of dependency and thou wilt prevail…not news and surely an algorithm in the books of the sociopaths in the White House. Like his peer of a generation earlier, poet Robinson Jeffers, Abbey saw in the vanishing of desert wilderness the perishing of the republic, the freedom for which it stood.

And here in my hypocrisy of this screed, sitting up late burning the coal of the power plants, I notice that even Google shows an image of the bald eagle, wings spread, descending in hero’s flight…holding perhaps an olive branch…or a stolen sprig from the mouths of children.

Roads in Wilderness, Roads to Nowhere: Investigating the Latest Western Land Grab


“Land grabbing is the oldest con game in the West,” Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt once said. Cartoonist Travis Kelly — check him out here — nails the madness of the latest con-job, which centers on an archaic 1866 public lands law known as Revised Statute 2477. I write about the issue in the July/August issue of Mother Jones (“Off-Road Rules”) and its threat to tens of millions of acres in national parks and unprotected wilderness controlled by the US Forest Service and the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management. RS 2477 provides local government with wide powers of land seizure, for he who controls the roads also controls access for industry and tourism, for off-road vehicles and oil rigs — for use and abuse of the land.

The funny thing is that under the outmoded rubric of the 1866 law, a “road” is just about any kind of track — a cow-path, a foot-trail, a wagon rut. Extractive industries and county governments who wish to pre-empt new wilderness protections on public lands — lands otherwise exploitable for the profit of grazing, mining, energy and off-road vehicle interests — need only cite RS 2477 to get their wish. This is because the Wilderness Act of 1964, which serves as the legal foundation for protecting public lands, is clarion in noting that wilderness, among other criteria, must consist of at least 5,000 contiguous roadless acres.

Which means that any public lands parcel crossed by an officially recognized “road” — be it ever so specious, an overgrown cow-path, an arroyo of boulders and cliffrose — can never be considered for wilderness protection. It is forever lost.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Rangers for Responsible Recreation, a coalition of retired land managers from the BLM and Forest Service, has declared ORVs the single biggest threat to the health and vitality of public lands (arguably cows are more widespread and more damaging, but we’ll leave that for another debate). As a seminal National Science Foundation study found long ago, in the 1970s, “The deleterious effects of ORVs on native plants and animals is undeniable.” Where off-roading is uncontrolled, the study noted, “virtually all existing life is ultimately destroyed.”

The Shea Memo: Mapping out the Israelis Next Door to Mohammed Atta

In the autumn of 2004, on the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a retired international corporate lawyer named Gerald Shea drafted an extensive memo that detailed the operations of alleged Israeli spies suspected of surveilling the 9/11 hijackers in the year prior to the attacks. Written in the cold logic of a courtroom complaint, the 166-page memo gathers up most of the evidence available in the public record regarding possible 9/11-related Israeli espionage. Shea, who was educated at Yale and Columbia and worked for 20 years at one of New York’s top law firms, said his purpose in writing the memo was to spur a Congressional investigation “for the sake of U.S. national interest.” “I’m a lawyer first and foremost,” Shea wrote me in an e-mail. “I wanted to separate these difficult factual problems from the politics in the hope that people who have the power and obligation to do so will conduct a public inquiry to resolve the issue.”

Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, confirmed that the commission received the memo in mid-September 2004. But Felzenberg noted it was three and a half weeks too late: the commission closed shop on August 21, 2004, its security clearances and investigative power limited by act of Congress. According to Shea, copies of the memo were also sent to the private offices of specific members of the 10-member 9/11 commission. These included: Thomas H. Kean, commission head and now chairman of THK Consulting; commission vice chair Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Richard Ben-Veniste, partner in the Washington law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; Washington, D.C., lawyers Fred Fielding, Jamie S. Gorelick, and Slade Gorton; and Bob Kerrey, former U.S. Senator, now president of the New School for Social Research. (None of the commissioners returned phone calls for comment on the Shea Memo.) Shea also forwarded his report to the offices of members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, including then-committee chair Jay Rockefeller, and Sens. Trent Lott, Olympia Snowe, Chuck Hagel, Richard Durbin, Carl Levin and Evan Bayh. Also included in the mailings, says Shea, were at least six members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, including Reps. Peter Hoekstra and Anna Eshoo. For good measure, Shea sent a copy to the office of his Boston senator, Ted Kennedy. He also peppered the news media, submitting copies to the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, PBS’ Frontline, ABC News’ investigative team at 20/20, and various smaller venues.

With the sole, and notable, exception of the tiny Philadelphia Times-Herald, which ran a brief overview of the memo, the document was ignored. Not a single member of the major media, not a single Commission member or U.S. lawmaker responded, “not even Richard Ben-Veniste, who was in my class at law school,” says Shea, referring to Columbia Law’s 1967 graduating class.

Die, TV! Notes from a Super Bowl Sunday with the TV-B-Gone

By Christopher Ketcham

The TV-B-Gone, which fits in the palm of the hand, is a universal remote whose sole purpose and power is to shut down televisions. During last year’s Super Bowl Sunday, it resulted in at least one thrown bottle, two near fist-fights, twenty-seven (by my count) disappeared Hail Marys, touchdowns and tackles, one half-time show half-seen (or seen, rather, in a kind of slow motion shutter effect – I with TV-B-Gone closing the screen, the bartender mashing finger into the on-button like a man poking out eyes), and one near-hammering-into-pulp of a writer waving a TV-B-Gone. I deployed across Brooklyn that fateful Super Bowl 2006 with a single unit for a test run, assaulting mostly sports bars and taverns and also one restaurant (where no one in the crowd, not even the staff, noticed the quieting of the television – for me, a key indicator). I have since been terrorizing televisions almost daily. I go nowhere without the TV-B-Gone. I have killed televisions in Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Heathrow, on the streets of Paris, in the restaurants of small Utah towns, in a Virgin Megastore on Manhattan island, and in countless Brooklyn bars.

Mitch Altman, the 50-year-old inventor of the TV-B-Gone, tells me that when he feels depressed he arms himself and heads into the streets. “It’s almost a compulsion for me. When I see a TV going in a public place, I go out of my way to turn it off,” he says. “Imagine a room where there’s an uptight person wearing really bright clothing and jumping up and down and yelling. It’s hard to be relaxed when that person is present. When a TV goes off, I notice people’s shoulders and arms relax – the body language changes completely. When I’m feeling blue, I turn off a television or two and life just seems a whole lot better.”

Altman is a California technophile, a computer whiz, a self-described “geek.” He pioneered virtual reality technologies in the 1980s and early versions of voice-recognition software. He built disk drives that were always smaller and faster, and eventually co-founded a company called 3Ware, which perfects disk drive “controllers.” He was also a television addict. “I used to collect TVs off the street,” he says. “I had 50 TVs in my mom’s basement. She was very patient with me. I watched TV every waking moment of my life. But even as a little kid, I remember watching TV and telling myself, ‘I don’t like this, why am I watching this?’ I was five years old when I asked that question. But I kept watching. The one show that I really hated was Gilligan’s Island. But it delivered just enough to keep me coming back for more. That is the process of addiction.”

Then, in 1980, Altman was watching TV as always, and the question came up that had been dogging him since he was five years old, and suddenly TV was over for him. “I was watching Gilligan’s Island – nothing against Bob Denver, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I went cold turkey. And I’ve never had a TV since.”

It wasn’t just Gilligan’s Island. It was the physical and psychological awfulness of the experience of watching television. It was the fact that Altman one day sat down in a restaurant with old friends he hadn’t seen in years, “but there was a television playing nearby and we found ourselves watching the TV – unable not to watch the television – instead of talking to each other, being with each other.”

TV is unique in the EEG activity it summons in the human brain, and unique as well in that it drastically reduces the metabolic rate of the human organism. When you sleep, you use more energy than when you watch TV. When you stare at a painting or read a book or knit or fart in bed, you use more energy. EEG activity during television-watching is marked by alpha waves, those dreamy, spacey waves that also exist between sleeping and waking – a passive state in which sustained intense critical thought is pretty much impossible. Alpha waves are also associated with coma.

The technology that Altman devised to counteract this horror was simple. The TV-B-Gone consists of a computer chip programmed with a database of all the power codes of televisions in existence that Altman could track down from the public domain. The diode eye uses infrared light, which makes it felicitous to zap through clothing or across window panes or from a distance. “The chip speaks 214 power codes that work on thousands of different television sets,” Altman says. “The power code for a Panasonic is the same as for a RCA. The TV industry made it so easy on me! I’d love to have a Cell-Phone-B-Gone, a Bush-B-Gone. But those things aren’t so easy to get rid of.” I suggested a unit that expands and clarifies the purpose, a unit that permanently disables the offending television. “There’s no remote control code for ‘blow up the tv,’” Altman tells me. “You can always buy a brick. Certainly a bomb is a technology that’s been around for a while.” One possible avenue is the use of a concentrated electromagnetic pulse that would burn out the circuits. “But how,” Altman asks, “do you make it directional enough that it wouldn’t harm the button-pusher? That’s the question.” Researchers should get to work.

Since Oct. 19, 2004, when Altman launched his product, more than 112,000 units have been sold in every state and territory of the US, and worldwide in over 80 countries. In 2005, Altman traveled on a TV-B-Gone tour across Europe, appearing on BBC TV sixteen times in two days – ironic enough. “My main reason for going to Europe,” he says, “was for field-testing on European TVs.” In January, a host on New York’s WBAI talk radio, which was giving away TV-B-Gones for its winter fundraiser, noted that enthusiasts are now suggesting ingenious modifications. For example, one might mount the tv-killing diode eye in a hat, with the clicker device linked by cable in one’s pocket. Or you might build an amplification unit with multiple flood-eyes that literally, as Altman put it, “turn off televisions any direction you look.”

Super Bowl 2006 was effectively my own field test. Why go after the Super Bowl? The Super Bowl by its attraction of those scores of millions of human eyes brings to bear what is arguably the most expensive and sophisticated marketing and propaganda apparatus in history, and therefore it represents television’s awfulness par excellence. Also, there is the issue of the essential but unspoken pathologic weirdness of men who never exercise gathering to peer at other grown men who run around on a screen in a plastic box chasing a piece of leather and smack each other on the ass when they catch the leather (at which sight the men watching the ants on the screen in the plastic box clap and jump up and down and touch each other as well).

When employing the TV-B-Gone among lunatics such as this, immense care must be taken. Here are suggested rules for terrorizing the upcoming event on February 4. First off, when the TV goes out, the TV-B-Goner should scream the loudest in protest to deflect suspicion. This makes strategic comrades of strangers who otherwise will want to smash your TV-B-Gone to bits. Second, order your drink before you strike; otherwise, the bartender will be too busy fending off the apes protesting the darkness at noon on the screen. Third, be drunk, even if you’re not; everyone else is. Fourth, frequently throw up your hands in cheers; you can also, to look normal, produce a steady black-pantherish fist to celebrate “your team” (pick one); this allows innumerable angles to grab the eye of the target TV. Fifth, and most importantly, do not stand up in the midst of the horror of the evening to announce, after too many drinks, that you and the TV-B-Gone are the source of the trouble and that the TV-B-Gone is just wonderful and you can buy it anytime at www.tvbgone.com.

Note: this article was originally published at CounterPunch.org.

TV-B-GONE ADDENDUM: READERS WARN THAT USE OF TV-B-GONE IS “TOTALITARIAN CENSORSHIP” AND DANGEROUS TO THE DEMOCRACY

In the wake of my little screed at CounterPunch lauding the pleasures of monkeywrenching the screens of Stupid Bowl fanatics, inventor Mitch Altman reported that orders for the nasty little device poured in at tvbgone.com. Others weren’t so enthused. One concerned reader, Chris R. from Scheissville, Penn., wrote to CounterPunch that the use of the TV-B-Gone was equivalent to book burning. He may have a point. Here’s what Chris R. wrote:

Only an asshole walks into a place where people have gathered to watch a TV and turns it off because you don’t like the content….I hope that someday a mob catches you in the act and gives you a good hiding.

Shame on Counterpunch for promoting censorship.

-Chris R.

To which I responded as any thinking person would:

Chris,

My experience has been that only assholes gather to specifically watch TV…..

And from there we were off and running. Following below is our brief degenerative exchange:

CHRIS R. FROM SCHEISSVILLE, PA:

That is a completely infantile statement [ie that only assholes gather to watch TV]. TV is the device which allows us to see and hear events in distant places, that’s all. It’s one of the most amazing inventions of the 20th century. If you don’t like watching something it’s your responsibility to remove yourself from the situation, not to censor. Do you at least accept the fact that you are a censor? There’s no defense for that.

Liberalism doesn’t begin when you allow people to do what you want, it begins when you allow people do enjoy what you wouldn’t. You are a totalitarian and an elitist prick.

-Chris R.

KETCHAM:

Listen…I don’t give a christ about the content. I only care about destroying the medium. TV may have been a fine invention at the outset but it’s been put to awful use as a mass sedative and brainwashing device and for the marketing of all kinds of useless crapola that no one needs….Moreover, 99 percent of the time when I kill TVs in airport lounges, in bars, in restaurants etc etc NO ONE NOTICES! As for being “an elitist prick”…..I am most definitely elitist, and perhaps a prick as well… who knows…..now….enough name-calling. Since we’ve gotten off to such a good start, I was wondering if I could add you to my electronic mailing list….

Cheers,

Chris Ketcham

CHRIS R. FROM SCHEISSVILLE, PA:

I’m copying Counterpunch on these so that someone there can see what an idiot they’ve published.

First you’ve directly contradicted yourself by saying that you don’t care about the content of the medium… and then complaining that the problem with TV are its commercial messages. Which is it?

What, do you think that TV started altruistically and later became corrupted? Just the opposite has occurred, TV started completely commercially and citizen effort has opened some spaces for other messages. In fact in the early days each program had it’s own individual sponsor and there were only commercial stations. In what conceivable way did it start off well at the outset?

You’d better also turn off other people’s radio as that’s mostly commercial. In fact you’d better shut down Counterpunch; they ran Google-driven ads to stay up. And they have book advertising. You’d better burn down bookstores as well, and newspaper and magazine stands – all ad-driven. Better turn off the internet too. I see you’re using Mindspring; don’t they advertise? Better cancel your email account.

Only a complete idiot attacks a medium for its own sake. Only an asshole manipulates other people’s property without permission. Only a coward does it all secretly. Only an elitist ass claims to have magical powers to see through a brainwashing method that ensnares the feeble-minded majority. You have no argument in your favor.

If you claim 99% of the people you turn TVs off in front of don’t notice; then why bother doing it? On the one hand you claim they’re brainwashed by TV, but then they don’t notice its off. It sounds like you’re the one so sensitive to the medium that it disturbs you. Get a story and stick with it.

I have no interest in getting on your list. I use Yahoo and reading your messages would expose me to more advertising. If I read your content I’ll end up brainwashed, right?

Get back to me when you develop an entire thought,

Chris R.

KETCHAM:

Dude — why all the name-calling? From what I read here I am a “complete idiot,” “asshole,” “coward”, and “elitist ass.” All of which I admit to except the “complete” part….But seriously, why so passionate about this issue? It seems that, first of all, you’re really into advertising. Which is fine….but I like to live where there is no advertising….say, in a tent in Death Valley…..which I did once for a month….and there was no advertising anywhere….incredible (a nightmare for you, I know)….no TVs, radios, Internet, magazines, newspapers, and, best of all, no homo sapiens yapping constantly….anyway, chill out, will ya? There is reason for hope: the TV-B-Gone is now being expanded into the TV-B-Totally-Gone, which will employ, as suggested in my piece, a carefully calibrated, digitally-directed 9 mm bullet to permanently disable the offending target…..I have myself employed a 12 gauge, a .303, a .357 magnum and a .30-30 version of this TV-B-Totally-Gone….and it works!!

See ya soon at CounterPunch,

Chris Ketcham

CHRIS R. FROM SCHEISSVILLE, PA:

“Dude” – there’s all of the name-calling because your elitist attitude is exactly what turns a good many people off to the Left in general. I’m passionate about this because I’m a civil libertarian, and because I recognize that humans are social animals and you have no right to disrupt that. You’re deciding what’s best for others because you think that you’re better than others.

It bothers me that you think you’re being clever when in fact you’re being passive-aggressive and difficult. It bothers me that Counterpunch would mix your drivel in with serious articles written from a perspective of respect for individual rights and democratic norms. People like you perpetuate the stereotype that every person left of center is a fun-killing Luddite totalitarian.

And you are very much a coward for using a device to turn off TVs secretly instead of having a conversation with the people who are authorized to turn it on or off. It’s not your property; you have no right at all to manipulate it. None. If you don’t want to be exposed to it, remove yourself from the situation. At a practical level you’re just fucking with people in the service industry, which is what rich pampered bullies engage in.

For your information I don’t even own a television. That’s my choice. Sometimes I enjoy watching particular programming with other people. That’s my choice. But I don’t shove that choice down others’ throats. That’s extremely illiberal. What’s difficult about that?

Even the makers of TV B Gone don’t advocate what you do:

“Q. Won’t I get hurt if I use my TV-B-Gone® remote control in someplace crowded?

When other people gather for the purpose of watching TV together – say, in a sports bar – we see no reason to interrupt their pleasure.”

Indeed. No reason unless you’re an elitist cowardly prick. You’re not funny and not clever. You have hatred for working class America, which you find beneath you. If you hate our species that much then do us all a favor, turn your .357 on yourself (“Jerk-B-Gone”) and leave the rest of us who enjoy socializing and the ability to use technology to hear and see other people at a distance alone.

-Chris R.

KETCHAM:

Dood — Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I was working on something else for the print version of CounterPunch. Anyway, I wanted to tell you about some of my recent forays with the TV-B-Gone. For example, I was in a restaurant/bar north of New York City recently and there were some fellows who were watching television and thereby, per your definition, were Working Class. Anyway, these Working Class guys were watching the death of Anna Nicole Smith repeated over and over on the screen….a real death-march, but without any of the relieving elements, such as shots of Smith with her tits out, which would have made the slog of “news coverage” worthwhile….so I shut that shit down big-time and these salt-o’-the-earth types let out a high-pitched squeal and turned it back on. I turned the TV off again and the working class guys cried out and turned it back on…so I shut it down again…now these Working Class Gods, as we should properly refer to them, put on a show worth recalling. They began a weird sort of dance. They stood up from their stools and began circling each other like drugged pitbulls in a betting ring. They tore at each other’s hair and started clawing at each other’s skin and running around like drunk baboons smashing plates of wings ‘n’ blue cheese over their heads and masticating checkered table cloths and generally making the buffet and dinner service unbearable….In the end, the good news is that the restaurant developed a type of Zyclon-B that can only be used against White Anglo-Scots Working Class People but which Elitist Coward Asshole Types like myself are immune to…. and, thus applied as an aerosal, we were able to wipe out these smelly fuckers who are dragging the morals and culture of the Great Nation into the pits and who should, ideally, be dying in Iraq fighting for “freedom” right fucking now….or, hopefully, sooner. All commerce and activity at the restaurant came to a screeching halt….no food was served, the lights went out, nobody spoke, the heat shut down, the cold rushed in….the only entertainment was Me, my voice disembodied, large as worlds, babbling on and on as the Working Class Drudges collapsed one atop the other in heaving fits, vomiting and shitting on each other in their death spasms….thereafter, the only thing to do was to chop up these Fat Fucking Working Class Swine and serve their corpses to a group of sequined mincing ballet dancers known as Leftists, who came barrelling in and immediately ordered the television turned back on and tuned to the Amy Goodman Show, which was showing over and over on Link TV……the Leftists gorged on the Imbecile Working Class Scumbucket livers and hearts and brains…..all in all a good day for the TV-B-Gone!

-Chris

CHRIS R. FROM SCHEISSVILLE, PA.:

Was that supposed to be funny? It wasn’t.

Clearly Mr. Ketcham has no interest in addressing any issue related to the fact that he is a censor who enjoys screwing with people in the service industry. I expect this from Fox News’ caged pets, not CounterPunch.

-Chris R.

The Horseman of Abbey Road

By Christopher Ketcham Almost all the country within their view was roadless, uninhabited, a wilderness. They meant to keep it that way.  Keep it like it was. — Edward Abbey, “The Monkey Wrench Gang”

Ken Sleight is 77 years old, lean, dusty-booted, hard of hearing, wears old jeans and long-tailed shirts untucked. It is said that as a younger man he was the model for the lapsed Mormon renegade Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which itself became the incendiary model for eco-saboteurs such as Earth First. Sleight owns a horse farm called Pack Creek Ranch, up on Abbey Road, outside Moab, Utah, in the high red desert of the canyon country, where for the last five months I’ve been renting a cabin 33 steps from the door of his lodge. I see him every day in his old blue Ranger pickup, or tending to his Appaloosas and Arabians with his wife, Jane, or laying gravel with his tractor and shoveling manure for shade trees.

I like Sleight. I like him because the other night he drank me under the table, because a few days later I got stuck in a September snow in the mountains above the ranch and he dropped everything to get in the Ranger and winch out my truck. I like him because when he drives long distances he pisses in a bottle instead of stopping at the side of the road. “No time to waste and why pollute the water,” he says. I like him because on his horse a few years ago he charged two bulldozers in the forest near the ranch, refusing to dismount until the drivers shut their engines. I like him because he reminds me of my father, both of them agitators and nostalgics, angry young men more than twice my age, twice as angry as the young men you meet today.

Sleight talks about the way things were in southern Utah before the too-many strangers like me showed up, before Arches National Park, so beloved by his old friend Abbey, was snatched away by the seekers of heat and light and solitude once just his own, before the motor-home panzer units full of speedboats and mountain bikes and grandpas and babies in diapers. Just under 800,000 people flocked to Arches last year, almost a fivefold increase from 30 years ago. Everywhere in the red rock national parks of southern Utah — in Arches, Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce, wherever motorized man can find a way — the people are coming. Sleight calls this “obscene.” Too many “goddamn people,” Sleight says. “In such a conglomeration, it’s like down in Rome when all those masses see the pope. I don’t understand how in the hell they get any meditative spiritual great stuff with so many damn people around.”

Which would sound blinkered, curmudgeonly, elitist, plain mean if it were spoken by anyone else but Sleight, who says it with a sad, generous smile, sipping whiskey at noon. Sleight at first glance has settled down in his old age. He has been a river runner, cattle driver, canyoneer, sheepherder, wilderness guide and, as once denounced by a land developer, a “dangerous saboteur.”

In “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” published in 1975, Sleight, aka Smith, topples road-grading Caterpillars off a cliff, derails a coal train with dynamite, and attempts to incinerate the armatures of three bridges north of Lake Powell, which he refers to as “the Blue Death,” the water having drowned the marvels of Glen Canyon. He prays on his knees atop the dam that created the hated lake. “Dear old god,” the jack Mormon river rat cries out, “how about a little ol’ pre-cision-type earthquake right under this dam?”

Abbey and Sleight met in 1967 at the put-in at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam, which had been completed four years earlier to charge a hydroelectric turbine that, in turn, would power casinos in Las Vegas and electric toothbrushes in Phoenix. Abbey was posted at Lee’s Ferry as a park ranger with a penchant for cadging beer from river-runners. “Instant recognition,” says Sleight. “We sat there and built a fire and drank and laughed until 3 in the morning. Talked about how to get rid of the goddamned dam! That was probably the start of the Monkey Wrench Gang right there.”

So was Sleight really the model for the marauding Smith? “I admit to nothing except the Mormon part,” he tells me.

In reality the character is not as effective as the man has been himself. “Ken has tilted at more windmills than Don Quixote could in 10 lifetimes — he never gives up,” says Jim Stiles, who publishes (and writes and edits) the Canyon Country Zephyr, southeast Utah’s only alternative newspaper.

Sleight indeed has had a very real hand in stopping more ill-conceived and rapacious projects threatening red rock country than probably any other Utahn. He was the first elected chair and catalyzing force behind the radical Glen Canyon Group of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter (his original vision for the group, he would discover, was too radical). In 1999, he was bestowed the David R. Brower Award “for Outstanding Service in the Field of Conservation,” with Brower, the unruly and iconic mountaineer and environmentalist, personally presenting the plaque. For eight years, Sleight honchoed the San Juan County Democratic Club, his chairmanship mostly spent trying to elect Native Americans, more than 55 percent of the jurisdiction, in a county ruled by minority whites. (He himself in 1990 would run for the Utah House of Representatives on an Indian ticket and lose with 35 percent of the vote.)

From what I can tell living at Pack Creek, Sleight doesn’t sleep. Often I see him at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. — “Ken keeps wolf-hours, watch-hours,” says Jane — heading north in his Ranger on the 260 miles of exhausting road to Salt Lake City (bound for a quixotic morning meeting about draining Lake Powell) or driving more contentedly south to work with the Navajo and Ute nations, where corporate prospectors claim the land for coal, uranium, oil and gas, calling it progress; the Indians, left to suffer the cancers and clean up the mess, call it “energy genocide.” At the age of 75, Sleight himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer: “You know what this guy does? He’s getting radiation therapy five days a week in Salt Lake City,” Jane Sleight tells me, “and he’s sleeping in the back of his pickup, in November, in a parking lot. With no heater.”

Today, in Moab and Monticello and Blanding, main habitations in southeast Utah, Sleight’s enemies, a good number of them ranchers, sprawl boosters, oilmen or mining scions with interests in industrializing the high desert to no end, will say (off the record — “in respect for Ken”) that Sleight’s got too much Abbey in his head, too much of Abbey’s doomy vision of technology and sprawl and greed run riot. Maybe this is so.

The drowning of Glen Canyon in 1963 transformed Sleight, but in the end the change had nothing to do with Abbey. If the wilderness needed no defense, only more defenders, as Abbey would write, Sleight was destined for the duty, though his birth would seem to have conspired against it.

——

Sleight was born into a family of Idaho conservatives, ranchers, horsemen, farmers, his father, who ran a feed business, insisting he was conceived in a saddle (his mother loudly demurring). As Sleight understood it, conservatism among his Mormon kin meant “you go slow, you don’t change dramatically,” Sleight tells me. “You conserve!” In 1951, he took a river trip, his first, down the Canyon of Lodore in what is today Dinosaur National Monument. The first white man to run Lodore, the one-armed Capt. John Wesley Powell, wrote in 1869 that the cliffs of Lodore, blood-burgundy and sheer, were “a black portal to a region of doom,” the rapids quickly slicing in half the first of his four boats, the water-roaring walls, awful and without egress, driving his men to bad dreams. Sleight and his crew, 15 drunken guys and gals in three boats, fared somewhat better — only two of the boats flipped but washed up worthy — and Sleight, 22 years old, was reborn.

There was an interregnum of war, college, confusion. He served in Korea, fought with the 48th Field Artillery Battalion at Pork Chop Hill. He soon had a wife and two children, with two more to come. He graduated in marketing and accounting at the university in Salt Lake City, finding a job with Firestone balancing the books for tire sales. He wore a bow tie to work. He went to John Birch meetings, backed Barry Goldwater; the know-nothingism soon wearied him. He remembered Lodore, “the most exhilarating moment of my life to that point.” Within four years, he had quit Firestone and relocated his family to southern Utah and was in the guiding business, buying a fleet of old Army landing rafts, 8 feet wide, 18 feet long, at $50 each, calling the venture Wonderland Expeditions.

Sleight was a good guide, though the business, by its nature, destined him to a glorified poverty. He was puckish, and a flamboyant cook at camp, and he had the right instincts in the canyons. He could read clouds and white water, could smell out springs in the barrenness of rock. Jane Sleight tells me how once they were leading a group of horses and tourists in a canyon under blue sky, and Sleight turned to her, quietly, his nose twitching, and said, “Maybe we’ll get up outta here.” Minutes later a torrent of floodwater the color of smashed tomatoes filled the arroyo — dumped silently from clouds far up the drainage — and would have carried them and their beasts and clients away.

In 1955, Sleight took his first trip down Glen Canyon. If Lodore had shouted to him, Glen Canyon whispered, laid him down. In 1955, it was among the most remote places in the United States, and it should have been ranked as a wonder of the world. “It was inculcated in my soul,” Sleight tells me. “It was heaven on earth.” When Sleight talks about Glen Canyon, his voice goes quiet, almost murmurous — he stops tonguing his whiskey, there is no shaking of fists or banging of tables, no wanting to charge you with his horses.

“The deep canyons, the meanderings, the quiet of the water, the great beaches,” he begins. “I could show you all down those canyons the silhouettes of a woman’s attributes, her body. The sandstone was petrified dune. It was sculpted, had a natural tendency to curve, everything rounded off, sensuous. And the color: oranges, browns, reds, always changing. You’d sit in one place, the sun’d come up and the colors — the feelings of each of the colors! When the sun was straight up in the sky, I’d go off into a little cavish place and watch the little things of the desert, the closeness of the land, the rock, these fleeting images. I wondered how come a certain place is so calm, so beautiful. Why do I feel so good here? I wondered about the glens along the way, how I’d ever get to know them all. Hundreds and hundreds of amphitheaters, alcoves, tucked away in the cliffs, shadowy, full of maidenhair fern, the dripping springs, the green in the yellow rock — the greenery, the fragrance, it hit you all at once. And always there were no rapids. Water smooth and calm. A matter of floating.”

Sleight pauses. “So the places came to you: Cathedral in the Desert. Music Temple. Temple View. Temples! You’d wait for them in the morning, you’d wait in the evening — spectacular. Eliot Porter” — the photographer whose book “The Place No One Knew” is today’s classic elegiac portraiture of the pre-flood canyon — “told me, ‘Wait for it. Just wait for it.’”

Later I looked up the names of Glen Canyon on a map of the river where it ran before the flood. Here was the Cathedral, and here was Last Chance Canyon, Hidden Passage Canyon, Rainbow Bridge, Salvation and Forbidden and Twilight Canyons, all gone now. Looking at the graveyard of the map, I thought of Sleight and his reverie and suddenly I felt like bursting into tears, a ridiculous sentiment no doubt, given I’d never seen the place and probably never will — yet the loss seemed infinitely sad, personally tragic.

——

When, in the 1950s, Glen Canyon Dam began its inexorable ascent at the town of Page, it was to be one of the great works of humanity, 800,000 tons of concrete rising 58 stories above the river, costing $750 million and the lives of 16 men. To Sleight, it was mania, a nightmare. He tried to stop it, forming a group called Friends of Glen Canyon with six other river-runners. But no one heard the plea, no one listened. Even the dauntless David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, cut a deal favoring Glen Canyon Dam in exchange for the federal government’s abandonment of a dam project in Dinosaur National Monument. (Brower would forever curse his compromise, and to Sleight it would be a bitter irony when he received the Sierra Club’s highest award from Brower himself.)

Sleight watched the water rise, tortured himself with its rise. “Growing up on a farm, I learned to feel that the land was a part of you, part of your being, your very mind,” he tells me. “I don’t care if it’s public land, you can call it under any jurisdiction or bureaucracy you want — Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service — but it’s your land, it’s my land. Glen Canyon was part of me. And the water starts rising and covering up all those little canyons that I took people into for years. Sometimes a foot a day, sometimes 2. The most agonizing thing. Would you have your temple flooded? How would you feel if your house was bulldozed down? That’s a hard one to think about. I feel it to this day.”

Stiles of the Canyon Country Zephyr always wondered why Sleight stuck around to watch the disaster unfold. “It was as if he felt the need to die some when Glen Canyon went under, as if it was something he owed the canyon,” Stiles says.

The loss radicalized Sleight — or, rather, he understood that the “conservatives” pressuring for development in the Utah backcountry were in fact radicals in disguise and probably dangerous, the kind of zealots who refused to “go slow,” who wanted to conserve nothing. As the 1960s unreeled, Sleight organized. In the good Mormon town of Escalante, Utah, where he was living in 1965, he helped fight off a multimillion-dollar highway that was to have paved easy tourist entry into the slot canyons and towering folds of what is today the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Mormons of Escalante turned on him and his family, threatening Sleight from the fearless anonymity of crank phone calls; Sleight even found his truck sabotaged, pushed into a ditch in the night.

Stopping useless automotive-tourist-gerbil-wheel roads became a habit. Thanks, in part, to Sleight, the Book Cliffs near Desolation Canyon on the Green River — where a massive road project was planned in the 1990s — today remains the lower 48′s largest roadless area, a place pretty much untouchable except to the toughest traveler. And thanks to Sleight, the canyon that first welcomed me to the Utah — the winding lonely Davis Canyon outside Canyonlands National Park –remains as it was intended and just as it was when I came there in my tent four years ago under the watch of the rims and the buttes.

In the 1980s, a Mormon cowboy tycoon named Cal Black, representing the interests of progress and profit in conservative San Juan County, was pushing for the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste dump to be sited at Davis Canyon. The plan called for a 640-acre floodlit compound, a truck-haul road, a power line, a rail line, and nuclear waste to squat in salt beds underground for 100,000 years or longer. Sleight was his usual nuisance self, writing letters to his congressmen and governor, protesting at the public meetings, questioning the authority of Black, who didn’t like to be questioned, especially not by a Mormon who every Sunday skipped church.

It was on the figure of Black that Abbey based the chief antagonist in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” the unforgettably leather-faced, yellow-toothed, power-obsessed J. Dudley Love, better known across San Juan County as Bishop Love, the veritable Bishop of Blanding. (Like Black, who hailed from Blanding, pop. 3,100, Love the booster was a bishop in the Church of Latter-Day Saints.) Here’s how Abbey has Smith describe Bishop Love: “neck deep in real estate, uranium, cattle, oil, gas, tourism, most anything that smells like money. That man can hear a dollar bill drop on a shag rug.” Per usual, Abbey exaggerated. “I liked Cal,” says Sleight. “He was sure of himself, could speak well, write well, make his case. He used to wear a bolo tie that had a vial of uranium strapped to it, wearing it on his chest, over his heart, to show it wasn’t dangerous.” Black got lung cancer and died in 1990 at the age of 61.

By 1986, Sleight had settled down with Jane at Pack Creek Ranch. In the last years of the decade, Abbey often stayed in the ranch’s cabins, where he completed at least one of his 14 books and conceived his fifth child. When Abbey wasn’t pecking at his typewriter or sucking liquor and ogling teenage girls, he’d head out hiking or on horseback in the summer afternoons, usually accompanied by Sleight. The two men talked, as they always did, about Glen Canyon and the dam. They considered alternatives to its violent destruction: How about just draining it like a bathtub? They drank to the notion. In 1989, Abbey, at 62, passed away, battered from a life of alcohol abuse.

——

Today the National Park Service has made clear that Glen Canyon shall neither exist in memory nor in the history books. “The Place No One Knew” is not sold in the bookstores at national parks. Nor is “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Nor is the DVD of the recent film in which Sleight appeared, “Glen Canyon Remembered,” a documentary of interviews and archival footage and photography of the pre-flood canyon.

If the dam was built in service of gigantism and profligacy — at once an electricity mill for out-of-control sprawl cities and a cash cow for the Colorado River Storage Project, which itself financed out-of-control high-waste agriculture and still more dams across the Southwest — then its net effect on the culture of the canyon country was expected. Lake Foul, as Sleight dubbed the reservoir, allowed access to wilderness that once required days of travel through labyrinths of rock. Now you could find the drowned ruin of Cathedral in the Desert in two hours via houseboat. It was Lake Powell that first welcomed, in organized form and en masse, what Abbey called “industrial tourism,” which depends for success on accessible wilderness and wildness as a marketed commodity, complete with hotel and restaurant chains and the kind of air-conditioned comfort stations that pimple the shores of Powell and the well-paved roads of parks like Arches and Bryce and Zion. Too many people on too many concrete paths, wanting to see too much in too little time, with too many signs telling them what they’re missing, and what they should see next.

Of course, industrial tourism has in part morphed in the past two decades into a cosmetically greener version of itself, but one no less effective at exploiting the land. Now there are the rock climbers and hikers (like me), the canyoneers, the mountain bikers, and the river rafters and their guides. The hypocrisy of attacking adventure tourism is not lost on Sleight, for the adventure tourists are the very class of citizen that he once catered to as income, to whom he revealed the secrets of the canyons. The difference, offers Sleight, is that there are now too many adventurers. “Maybe,” he tells me, “I shouldn’t have guided one damn person into those places I loved so much.”

The people come, and the developers come, faster than Sleight can counter. They come into his backyard, up into the hills behind Pack Creek Ranch, in jeeps, on mountain bikes. The bulldozers come, enforcing the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative, chopping down the juniper and the pinyon trees. “I told the Forest Service, ‘I want meetings on this! Bring us in as stakeholders!’” he says. “They said no public meetings.” So last year, still the renegade, Sleight on his horse blockaded the ‘dozers in a standoff that lasted 15 days. The uranium prospectors come, heirs of Cal Black, smelling money in the soaring price-per-pound of the ore. Operations are set to expand at the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, the only working uranium mill in the United States. The nearby Ute Indians don’t want it. The Utes say the mill fouls their water and their soil. At public meetings, Sleight shouts that the plight of the Utes amounts to “environmental racism.” His is a lonely voice among the whites of San Juan County.

A cynic will say that all of this rings of NIMBYism in its most crotchety form, but what Sleight really hopes for is sustainability, a simple and enduring concept by which he means the limited use of resources for limited ends. “There is a carrying capacity to everything,” Sleight tells me. It’s a phrase he repeats over many conversations.

One day in the cool of autumn, Sleight and I rode on horseback into the forest. We rode up a rocky gulch to a hillock where a petrified log had once lain whole, prone as a body, colored cobalt and rust and amber. I looked along the length of the log. Blocks of it had been chopped out like cake slices by scavengers who’d somehow gotten access, back here, where there were once no roads, no people. Sleight looked depressed, standing over the remnant of the find. “Not much left the way it was,” he said. “I think this’ll be gone in a couple years.”

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