Why We Needed George Bush for an Emergency Third Term

    [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.

    God Bless the Cantankerous Old Men: Some thoughts on contrarianism

    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.

    Solution to a Broken Justice System: Brooklyn Mom Doreen Giuliano

    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 End of the Economy: or, Some Thoughts on How to Economize

    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 Assassination Bail-Out Plan for Corporate America? Feeling Fear from an Old Musket

    An Open Letter to Congress

    Dear Sirs/Madams:

    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.

    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.

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