The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Monday, April 26, 2010

"We need to fight back against corporatism!" OK, sure. How?

I was recently asked about my anti-corporatism stance (actually, it's more of an "anti-corporate-personhood" stance, as I have no problem whatsoever with corporations per se, just with them being granted the rights of human beings when they have none of the limitations). In response to a statement I had made, "...the corporate monstrosities we've allowed to be created must be dismantled", I received the following response:


Good question.

Democracy Inc.
(Book cover from Sheldon S. Wolin's "Democracy Inc." (2008, Princeton University Press; original image and new 2010 edition of the book are available at

I never claimed it would be easy. The problem began in 1886 when corporations were anointed by the Supreme Court of the United States as "people" and they've had nearly 125 years to get to this point. And I will admit, it may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Globalization has created a worldwide economic dependency on cheap trade; our country and others have shredded old tariffs and regulations that served quite well for decades; transnational non-state corporate actors are beholden to no particular government (much less possess a sense of "national pride"); and as Sheldon S. Wolin puts it in his book "Democracy Inc.", a sort of "inverted totalitarianism" has been instituted in the United States and other countries that doesn't use force to get it's way as in the bad old 20th Century, but instead relies on the apathy and perceived helplessness of the populace to do what it wants. And the "it" in that sentence doesn't even have a face, as old-fashioned totalitarianism did; it is an amorphous blob of largely anonymous corporations, their paid-for political public faces, and constant media disinformation and entertaining distractions.

Before any effective effort can be made to eliminate the forces of "inverted totalitarianism", however, the first target must be to raise awareness and break the hold on the minds of the populace, who have been lulled into a frustrating but paralyzing sense of apathy, a "that's just the way it is, you can't do anything about it" mentality. We all know that this mentality has been broken before many times in our history, and it can be broken again, but we're up against a foe that is by comparison almost supernatural in power. Corporatism pervades every aspect of our lives, is largely unseen and unfelt, and yet is all around us, all the time. We have become so dependent upon the fruits of corporatism, that we can only perceive it now when those fruits are taken away. It seems insurmountable for mere individuals to wrest control of their lives back from these seemingly invincible "super-persons".

There are ways to fight back, though. And these ways use the one advantage we have over the corporation: we are individuals, capable of both individual and group action at the local level.

One suggestion (buy local and avoid the big corporations) often sounds pie-in-the-sky, but it actually works, as long as we get enough people to buy from businesses and farms in our own communities. Even then, we're helping the big corporations, because the local businesses have to get their products, bank loans or fertilizers from somewhere (usually eventually tracking back to China and Indonesia), but it's a start.

Other ways we can fight corporatism is to work to get anti-corporate leaders into local elected seats. Try for higher offices too, but don't worry too much about those until we have city councils, county boards, local judges, etc. who will fight corporatism and stand up for their local businesses again. When you have tens of thousands of small communities push back against the big corporations across the country, we'll see some changes at the national level, and to some extent worldwide.

And as city and county anti-corporatism takes hold, it will be easier for it to spread to state legislatures and executives and eventually to the national level. As more state and local judges are selected who fend off corporate attacks and set local precedents, those may also filter up into the federal courts, first in the districts, then appellate, then perhaps the SCOTUS. No matter at what level, though, precedents in law will be set that will serve as the sand around which the pearl will be formed, until one day, perhaps in another 125 years, we will finally overturn the last of the "corporations as people" rulings and we'll be free of corporatism once and for all.

But that's just here in the U.S. We created this mess, and it's spread like a cancer worldwide. So as we're doing this locally, we have to work to change trade agreements (we can do this at a local level as well, at first, and work up), we have to rebuild regulations, we have to work to re-establish worker-based unions (many of the big unions today have become as bad as the big corporations... the elites run them just as they run the corporations, the government, and the courts).

Corporatism, just like globalization, isn't "all bad". There are good aspects to them as well. Globalization does help "flatten" the economies of the world (much as I hate to agree with Thomas Friedman), and does serve to raise living standards in developing countries. Corporatism in and of itself isn't bad; it provides economies of scale that allow us to accomplish things unheard of a century ago. But both of these, allowed to operate with no regulation or controls, is destroying local communities, local businesses, and local jobs. It is a madness that simply must stop before the last tree is cut down and the last frog goes extinct, and before the planet is completely uninhabitable.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Progressives: Making Progress or Points?
Something-Or-Nothing vs. All-Or-Nothing


In the United States (as opposed to most other democratic nations on earth) we tend to have a pretty one-dimensional political spectrum. There is a bit of two-dimensionality about it, and nobody fits entirely into one category (and in fact some fit two or more, depending on the issue), but basically it looks like this:

There are extreme right-wing radicals.
There are libertarians.
There are conservatives.
There are right-leaning moderates.
There are centrists.
There are left-leaning moderates.
There are liberals.
There are progressives.
There are extreme left-wing radicals.

(By the way, these are not my terms; these are definitions provided by most political science texts).

The terminology of "extreme" and "radical" seems easy to nit-pick... it's all a matter of opinion, right? Not really. The key characteristic that most social scientists use when applying the "extreme" and "radical" labels to the political spectrum is based on two measures:

1) "Extreme" is based on the size of the population per capita that hold such beliefs, and;
2) "Radical" is based on the rigidity of the beliefs (ie. ideological purism)

What this means is that those who fit either end of the spectrum and earn the labels of "extreme" and "radical" are people who represent a tiny minority that is uncompromisingly hidebound to their beliefs. They see any deviation from ideological purity as (at best) selling out or (at worst) treason. They refuse to believe, or even deeply investigate, explanations that do not fit within their worldview. They eject anyone from their "inner circle" who openly disagrees with the circle's views (or who accepts the views of those outside of the circle). They are easily convinced that there are "those in power" who seek to "squash" their "movement" or ideas, and the most radical tend to encompass the realms holding the highest concentrations of conspiracy theorists.

Trust me, this little political science lecture really does have a point; before I get there, though, let me indulge in pointing out where I think things have gone horribly wrong.



I have listened carefully to the arguments presented by well-respected leaders within the Progressive Movement who argued strenuously against passing the new health insurance reform bill. I have read the links, the articles, the interviews, and pros and cons. Many of the arguments are very impressive and quite detailed, some tend towards the passionate and away from the factual. But none of it is convincing me that some of the folks on the Left who opposed passing this bill give more than lip-service empathy about what's going to actually happen to PEOPLE.

Here's why:

Every argument I've heard from the Left's "kill the bill" folks is that this is a huge giveaway to insurance and Big Pharma. That Congress-Critters will be filling their pockets and glad-handing themselves over how they got away with another big handout to the corporations. That anything that does anything good for people is only going to empower the corporations more.

Strangely, I hear very little, and nearly nothing specific, about the good things that will happen for real people when the bill's provisions take effect. If anything, even many of the good things are twisted around to actually seem bad... a "sop for the masses", "doesn't go far enough", or even that they will backfire and actually turn into a monstrous hundred-headed hydra upon the American people.

In fact, I hardly hear a peep about the affect the bill will have on your average, normal citizen. Some breast-beating about premium costs going up (which is not necessarily accurate, more of a wait-and-see issue) and that individuals won't get the benefits of ending pre-existing conditions and recissions for many years (largely true, except for certain groups like children). Overall, I have heard lots and lots about corporate giveaways and the power of corporations: little about people.

So I've studied this issue over the last few weeks as the final versions of the bill got hammered out and we got closer to passage, and I have seen this recurring theme:

"It lines the pockets of the powerful and political, therefore it is bad. That's all you need to know; what else is important?"

In some extremes, I've even had it more plainly spelled out: "We've got to HURT these soulless, heartless corporations. They're evil incarnate. We must damage them utterly. Down with the corporate overlords!"

It has seemed to me, from all of the rhetoric on the Left's "kill the bill" side, that they are far more concerned with making an example of corporations than actually helping people. It comes across as a 21st Century version of the hippie era's "sticking it to the man"... making a political point for ideological reasons is more important than anything else (including making any kind of actual progress).

And that's just as heartless, just as soulless, just as evil as the corporations supposedly are being. It is holding an entire nation of people in dire need hostage to a political ideology... for no other reason than to prove a point.


I was in conversation concerning the recent health insurance reform bill with a friend who eagerly and angrily denounced people like Dennis Kucinich, Anthony Weiner, Alan Grayson, Michael Moore, Dr. Howard Dean, and others as "corporatists" "sell-outs" and "back-stabbing charlatans". These leaders, who had been on the front lines for single-payer healthcare, who had reluctantly agreed that a public option compromise would be better than nothing, and finally in the end supported the final bills because they at least provided a stepping stone towards future changes that probably wouldn't come again for a generation, were, in my friend's opinion, "no better than Republicans" and had "caved".

When someone tells you that everyone who formerly fought for their cause but now has decided to accept compromises that move us forward is a sell-out or traitor, you are hearing the words of an "extreme radical". On the Left, it is most certainly NOT the mark of a liberal/progressive. Why? Because both liberals and progressives know when to keep fighting even against all odds, and when to make peace and accept the ground they've won. That is, by definition, what "progressive" means. "Extreme radicals", on the other hand, will continue the battle to the last person standing, set fire to any form of truce or peace treaty, and send any fellow warrior who even suggests accepting a reduced form of the prize to the firing squad.

It should also be noted that those who slip from either the far-left or the far-right into the "extreme radical" category join a very small and very exclusionary club, which only serves to drive away anyone else who is more readily accepting of compromise and mutual agreement between rivals.

Which makes it really odd to hear these folks who are either headed in that direction or already there call themselves "Progressives". They're not. They are the left-wing version of the Tea Party. Progressives, as the term would suggest, seek progress, and are willing to achieve it over time, not demand it all now, all at once, exactly as prescribed, or no deal.

I am a progressive. I believe in making progress, not making political "points" that achieve nothing. I believe it takes time, effort, and perseverance to do so. I believe it takes convincing people, not shouting them down, and that to do so requires a willingness to accept that even if they hold opposing views, it doesn't necessarily make them wrong, it means I need to educate them. I believe it requires patience, and an real understanding of history and the political process (both of which are a lot messier and more complicated than most of us understand).

If you believe that it is unthinkable to accept compromise and be willing to accept that we may have to take this step-by-step over many years; if you believe that passing no HCR bill was preferable to passing a flawed bill even though it helps 32 million people and ends some of the worst practices of our current health-scare system; if you believe that anyone who disagrees with you is a sell-out or at best a mindless automaton of the corporate state; if you believe these things, then you are NOT a Progressive, you are an extreme left-wing radical.

If you believe these things, then you are in the margins of society, you have given up your right to be taken seriously along with your willingness to compromise, and you will never see those things happen in this country that you and we so strongly desire. We will never achieve these things, because by continuing to identify yourselves as "Progressives" when in truth you are not willing to accept "progress" but only "All Or Nothing", you are Fifth Columnists within the Progressive Movement; you are using your small numbers and remaining influence to disrupt, damage, or kill the efforts of those less rigid than yourselves, hurting us all as a nation and a people by trying to blend your more radical message along with ours.

You have forgotten that political change is about helping REAL PEOPLE, not a CAUSE.

So please either stop the radicalization, or stop pretending you're Progressives. We'd prefer the former, so that we can work together on meeting the enormous challenges we all face today; but if not, then get out of our way and quit sabotaging our efforts to improve the lives of millions of people in America.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Globalization (And Our Children's Future) Demands That We Restructure the Military

The United States military budget, just taking into account figures going back to 2002 (before the Iraq War), made up 45% of the entire WORLD'S military expenditures. Represented in cartographic form (mapped according to the proportion of military spending per nation) our world looks something like this:

© Copyright 2009 SASI Group (University of Sheffield)

In other words, our taxes (which conservatives are always so keen on lowering) largely go towards supporting nearly one-half of all the money spent worldwide on military expenditures (and with the Iraq War figures not being accounted for in this, perhaps much more). A good deal of this is spent on stuff that simply gets destroyed (and a good deal of that is NOT destroyed in acts of war, but in training exercises).

A huge portion of that money goes to supporting around 4700 military bases and installations both domestically and on foreign soil (see page 11 of the PDF in the link... and that was just 2004, prior to huge budget increases, and does not include secret sites).

Combine that last with the fact that the reasoning for keeping most of these military bases, as well as the hardware and personnel required to keep them operational, are based on projecting power for a now non-existent Cold War; some are even running on inertia left over from WWII.

So three questions based on the following postulate: if America makes up 4.5% of the world's population, occupies 2% of the world's landmass, is running neck and neck with China and the EU as one of the world's premier economic powers, and is still the undisputed superpower in military technology and delivery capabilities, then:

1. WHY DO WE NEED EVEN 10% OF THE BASES OUT THERE? Can't America "project its power" with 80 foreign bases, if we represent such a military superiority while at the same time having such a small population and proportion of land? We have already demonstrated that we can move personnel and hardware around the world in a matter of hours using only a handful of major bases; what is the purpose for the rest of them?

2. WHY DO AMERICANS FEEL THE NEED TO BE THE "WORLD'S POLICEMAN"? This did not exist until Pearl Harbor, except in our own "back yard" with Central and South America vis–à–vis the Monroe Doctrine. Could it be that we are so anxious and afraid of being attacked again (as in Pearl, and as in 9/11) that we feel the need to be the biggest, toughest “bully on the playground”, or is there something less archetypal and more rational about it? Could it instead be something as simple as a desire to protect our markets by planting military bases right on top of strategic resources?

3. IF CHINA AND THE EU ARE RAPIDLY EQUALING OR EXCEEDING OUR ECONOMIC POWER, SHOULDN'T WE LET THEM SHOULDER MORE OF THE BURDEN OF PROVIDING MILITARY SUPPORT IN TROUBLED REGIONS OF THE WORLD? If we accept the obvious (though morally dubious) fact that a semi-capitalistic country such as ours uses its military to protect its markets, but we are now a global marketplace as the "Friedman Flat-Earthers" like to promote, then would it not make sense for every nation with a stake in globalization also do their part to provide security for trouble spots around the globe?

The next time you have a conversation with a conservative who thinks globalization is a wonderful thing and advocates a strong military, and who blanches at the thought of cutting military spending (while touting our need to cut social programs as "unsustainable"), perhaps you could ask them to answer these three questions. While I am sure there are some rational arguments they could present to support our present military budget, I have a feeling that most other arguments will simply devolve into circular logic.

In my view, since we have dramatically reduced the chances of worldwide nuclear annihilation with the end of the Cold War over 20 years ago, and the chances of an old-style "invasion" of our country are virtually nil, then our military is no longer primarily protecting American SOIL: they are protecting the American ECONOMY. While this fundamental shift in our military's purpose is important in many ways, it came without a fundamental shift in overall mentality from the top to the bottom. We have a military that is still structured as though we are going to, any day now, fight yesterday's war. And that leaves it enormously bloated.

Now think about the logic of this huge military budget that is now primarily tasked with protecting our economic well-being around the world: we are spending trillions of dollars over many decades to protect our ability to generate trillions of dollars in a global economy that we ourselves created.

Isn't that kind of like hiring a full security team costing $50,000 per month to protect your corner store that produces $100,000 per month, when you could do just as well with an electronic security system (cameras, alarms, etc.) that has a one-time cost of $10,000 and perhaps one security guard costing $3,000 per month? Imagine what your store could do with that extra money. Why, you might think of investing it in growing your business!

Imagine what we could do in our own country and around the world if we restructured our military to meet the needs of the present and future instead of the past. What would you do differently in America with, say, an extra $300-$500 billion per year? Universal healthcare? Fully-funded education through college? Pay off the national debt and re-invest that interest money into domestic needs? Invest in infrastructure improvements and sustainable transportation? Pour money into researching ways to wean ourselves off of foreign oil and gas? Colonize the Moon and Mars and leave the cradle of Earth before an asteroid comes and wipes us all out?

Imagine a future where the greatest desires of both liberals and conservatives are met: a future in which our grandchildren are not paying off a huge debt burden left behind by previous generations, are able to drink safe and clean water and food, where taxes are lower but are still able to fund great social programs to meet the needs of the people, and peace in the world is possible because America is no longer seen as the "bully on the playground" but is instead a co-partner with the rest of the world. It won't be Utopia, and there will still be vast areas of improvement necessary in areas like income inequality and poverty, cleaning up the mess left from advancing climate change, and much more. But at least for America, NONE of this will be possible unless we cut back on spending.

And we have a choice: do we cut back on already-inadequate social safety nets upon which millions depend, or do we cut back on a bloated, inefficient, and antiquated military superstructure and redesign it for our modern age? And why do I even have to ask this question?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Influences of Western Musical Culture in Iran, Post-1979

Iran has a long, rich cultural history of musical innovation stretching back to the earliest days of the Persian Empire. Iranian Classical music pins its beginnings to pre-Islamic days, and operatic forms were in vogue long before they became popular in Europe. More recently, the 20th Century C.E. saw the development of a thriving pop-music culture blending elements of both Western and Persian artistic styles to form a uniquely Iranian sound. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Beethoven and Bach were as often heard as Minbashian and Mahjoubi on Iranian radio stations and at concerts. Rock music using Western instruments (especially the electric guitar) also grew in popularity among Iran’s younger generations.

The Islamic Revolution and Repression of Western Influence

The musical scene in Iran took a sharp turn after 1979 following the Islamic Revolution. Seeking a fundamentalist Islamic society, the new regime outlawed all things Western, including Western influences in music. Rock music was banned, as was the use of Western instruments and musical styles. Only music which fit with the limited acceptability of Islam, as determined by the leaders of the Revolution, was allowed: traditional folk music, Revolutionary songs praising the regime and Islam, and religious music were allowed; all else was banned. The forms of this ban were haphazard and often confusing: sheets of music deemed unacceptable were confiscated and destroyed, while pianos (a Western musical instrument) were largely left alone; violins were prohibited, while trombones were not. These restrictions and their enforcement varied and shifted over the years, and for those who felt the sting of being unable to play the kind of music they cherished, helped to lead to a vast and thriving underground music culture in Tehran and other cities throughout the country.

The leaders of the Islamic Revolution sought to remove all aspects of Western culture and influence and create an ideal Islamic state. While they succeeded in many areas, when it came to the more esoteric arena of the arts, success has been fleeting at best; in fact, many of their efforts have been counter-productive, in no area more so than in music. With each new wave of repression, musicians simply took their music and their compositional efforts underground; in addition, the flow of Western musical influence continued unabated through such avenues as black-market recordings, Voice of America and other internationally-broadcast music sources, and of course the constant communication with expatriated friends and family around the world.

From Repression to Reform

In diplomatic circles, it is often said that music is the ultimate cultural exchange program. Even when political and cultural tensions are high, musical influences still seep through any barriers. Despite the tense relations between the West, especially the United States, and Iran following the 1979 ousting of the Shah, Western music has continued to influence artists within the Islamic Republic in remarkable ways. During the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose strict control forced many Western-influenced musicians to flee the country, harsh punishments were often handed out to violators of “Islamic sanctity”. This continued through a series of leaders, especially during the Iran-Iraq War when Western (especially American) backing of Iraq and Saddam Hussein resulted in further backlashes against Westernization, until the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, who brought a reform-minded agenda and an easing of restrictions on Western influences. Khatami’s presidency was marked by a number of reforms, including those for women’s rights, democratic principles, the rule of law, and perhaps most importantly a greater freedom for the arts, including those with Western influences.

In the period of Khatami’s leadership from 1997 until 2005, despite ups and downs caused by restrictions on legislative and social actions by the conservative clerics making up the ruling Council of Guardians, Iranian music once again began to flourish with the addition of Western influences and new trends in the art. New instruments, including synthesizers and computerized composition, began to come into use in a uniquely Western-Persian mix, and entirely new genres of music gained popularity, including electronica, rock, heavy metal, rap, and hip-hop. Iranian rock bands gained ground, and performed both in Iran and Europe. It seemed for a time that Westernization, at least in music, was due for a comeback.

A New Crackdown, But a Different Iran

With the election of the ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, however, the comeback was pushed back to the days of Khomeni. All Western-style music was banned from state-run radio and television, even as “background” music without lyrics. The playing of Western music, especially American, was once again outlawed and carried stiff penalties for those who violated the new bans. A return to Revolutionary styles and religious music was favored and pushed by the ruling elite. A number of things had changed, however, since the Islamic Revolution that made these new restrictions sit less well with Iran’s musicians and listeners.

The eight-year long Iran-Iraq War had devastated the country in many ways, not least of which was the decimation of a huge section of the population of fighting age. The war had left a large divide in generations between the old and the very young. As this younger generation grew up, they had far less connection to the original Islamic Revolution and its memes; in addition, they felt far less threat from, and in fact a greater attraction to, Western culture, including music. As these young people gained adulthood, their exposure to the freedoms of Khatami’s administration fed a musical culture that was both vibrant and innovative, adopting some of the newest trends from the West while fusing them with traditional musical styles and “officially acceptable” lyrics. This younger generation grew up being exposed to artistic styles that were exciting and provocative; thus, the failure of the reform movement with Ahmadinejad’s election and the subsequent restrictions and bans chafed these younger people greatly. A rebellious underground musical movement soon began, under threat of persecution by the state, and far more than in the past has grown extensively despite numerous crackdowns and arrests.

Some elements of this underground movement have used creative means to get their music out: one rock group, immensely popular in Iran, called “O-hum”, used the ruse of recording their music while outside the country and having it distributed hand-to-hand throughout the country. Others have used their respect and fame to leverage more flexibility for their music, such as Hafez Nazeri who has worked to combine Western and Persian symphonic styles into a unique fusion of “East meets West”. Despite harsh restrictions on lyrics (even including ancient poetry; some is considered too “worldly” despite being from famous and respected Persian poets), the rise of even hip-hop and rap groups in the underground music scene has been met with wide acclaim by Iranian youth.

An Iron Fist Spawns a Musical Flood

The current situation for music in Iran is especially exciting, and potentially explosive. The 2009 elections were widely panned both internationally and within Iran as fraudulent. The final ruling power in Iran, the Council of Guardians, decreed that Ahmadinejad had soundly beaten reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, despite claims of obvious election fraud and strong-arm tactics. This set off what many have called the “second Revolution”, usually called the Green Revolution after the color of Mr. Mousavi’s campaign flags (which by chance were the same light-green color symbolizing Islam and the Prophet). Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters have taken to the streets since the elections to protest, but they have not stopped with mass demonstrations.

In the YouTube and Facebook world, audio and video spread messages that cannot easily be controlled by the ruling elite in Iran. A fantastic array of musicians, both inside and outside of Iran, have contributed protest songs and stirring “Green Music” in support of Mousavi and his supporters. Unlike previous songs, however, many of these do not take care to avoid criticism of the regime; on the contrary, they are resoundingly critical of Ahmadinejad, the Guardian Council, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and even the secret police. Many are angry, harsh rock or heavy metal in style, while others are simply singers lamenting what they see as the downfall of the Revolution. Many have compared Ahmadinejad to the deposed Shah Pahlavi or even to Hitler or Mussolini, while some have condemned the Supreme Leader of being anti-Islamic. The combination of anger at what is assumed to be a stolen election with modern telecommunications and social networking has had an enormous influence on Iranian music in a very short time, even including the addition of “death metal” and “rage” genres which had previously enjoyed little attention in Iran to that point.

Can't Stop The Music

The influence of Western culture in Iran since the Islamic Revolution has been greatly enhanced by the virtually non-stop reciprocal flow of music into and out of the country. Despite the best efforts of the ruling conservative elite to enforce “Islamic sanctity”, Western musical culture has continued to have a major influence on the Islamic Republic. With the advent of the Green Revolution and the dramatic inflow of new, Western-based music as well as a harder-edged, combative (and illegal, by current standards) lyrical style, it appears that the younger generation will, over time, win the fight with the old guard to ensure that they have a permanent voice in Iran’s culture and growth, including and perhaps especially in the area of music.

For more on Iran's music scene and the politics of music:

"Iran: More than 20 musicians banned from radio". (2009, November 30). FreeMuse.

"Iran president bans Western music". (2005, December 19). BBC News Online.

"Iran's underground music challenge". (2006, May 8). BBC News Online.

Levine, Mark. (2009, June 18). "Blog Posts From Iran's Metal and Hip Hop Artists: Is Music the Weapon of the Future in Iran?". Huffington Post.

Levine, Mark. "Heavy Metal Islam". Three Rivers Press: New York, NY. 2008.

Pellegrinelli, Lara. (2009, November 14). "Hafez Nazeri: From Iran, Music Beyond Politics". NPR: Music Interviews.

Sadighi, Ramin. (2009, February 19). "Iranian Music: An Unexplored Territory". PBS: Frontline.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Newsflash: Progressives Outraged Again, Uncertain Why; Eating Own In Response

I'm not joining in the circular firing squad just yet. I was very, very disappointed at Rachel Maddow's handling of Jared Bernstein on Monday's show, and her Tuesday show was no better. As I said in a previous post, Bernstein, who kept trying to explain the economic proposal to be highlighted in the State of the Union address, was repeatedly cut off by Rachel. And no matter what he said, she kept going back to her original "OMG it's Hooverism!". We lost a good opportunity to hear about what's actually going to be proposed, rather than what we all imagine it will be, and that's sorely disappointing.


Just for the record, I love Rachel dearly, but that interview was way, way over the top (just saying so I don't get slammed with "Rachel is perfect, and you're a lying scurvy dog conservative-in-progressive clothing for saying otherwise" comments as I did with my previous posting). If you disagree and think Rachel was in top form, then you really need to get out more. That was the most horrific display of one-sided interviewing I've seen outside of Hannity or O'Reilly, and Rachel is far better than that. I hope to see some kind of "talking down" on her part, if not for the substance, then at least for her demeanor and complete lack of objectivity (Remember that? It's SUPPOSED to be a trait in which liberals take great pride).

And this goes for just about every liberal blog and news-site in the last 48 hours. The hysteria has been palpable, while the echo-chamber effect has been so evident that nobody really knows anything about anything... it's all just speculation dumped onto opinion based on rumor. My usual daily rounds through HuffPo, Daily Kos, FireDogLake, and others revealed that virtually everything posted there was, with few exceptions, inordinately and overwhelmingly opposed to this "proposal" that isn't, yet. Everyone is fixated on the "spending freeze" part of it (which doesn't take effect for nearly two years... and freezes spending at 2010 levels which are expected to be much higher than 2009 levels, I might add), while getting the vapors about ANY kind of "spending cuts" that might be in the package. It's a roundtable of no-nothingness expounding upon the dire consequences of imagined and unspecific vagaries. People are pissed off, and they don't even know why, much less if they actually have a reason to be.

And I know I'm stepping on exalted toes here, especially since I'm just an economics minor and don't have Ph.D.'s and Nobel Prizes, but frankly this time I'm in full-on disagreement with Reich, Krugman, Stiglitz, DeLong, and others who have weighed in on this as "appalling" or worse. I have no problem with spending cuts during a recession... IF THEY ARE TARGETED AT THINGS THAT DON'T PRODUCE JOBS OR OTHERWISE DON'T IMPACT OVERALL GDP. I think our beloved progressive intelligensia have jumped the shark here, because nobody knows exactly what's going to be proposed yet. How can they possibly opine about the dangers of the proposal, when nobody outside the White House knows what's going to be proposed? They're all harping on an overly-simplistic "look what happened in 1937, OMG!!!" without knowing what the heck they're even talking about.

Entry-level macroeconomics (at least the Keynesian-influenced versions) says don't cut spending during a downturn. Fine. Then you take higher-level macro courses and they say "well, most of the time". If folks only have an entry-level understanding of macro, they'll be screaming about this. If you have a more nuanced understanding of macro, you're not so quick to start screaming. Which is why I'm so baffled by liberal economists getting all bent out of shape over this... if I can understand that, surely they can too!

Not all government spending is stimulative during a downturn, but from listening to both economists and progressive bloggers, it's as though ALL government spending is the same in their eyes, and making cuts in ANY area is absolutely horrific. This is simply ludicrous: even the least politically aware people out there know that huge sums of money go to what amounts to little more than paper-shuffling activities. They don't produce anything more than a few paper-shuffler jobs, so their loss won't even make a tic in the unemployment numbers. However, they cost the taxpayers a huge amount in administrative expenses. Cutting spending in these kinds of things, and then re-routing the savings into job-creating areas, is smart both economically and politically. If, and I stress, IF these are the kinds of things Obama & Co. have planned for their spending cuts, then I'm all for it.

And that's what I think Bernstein was trying to say, from what little I could hear over Rachel's constant interruptions and dismissals: that money from the cuts would be re-routed into job-creating programs and stimulative efforts. He was saying that even though there will be a spending freeze... which won't take effect until 2011... that money saved through these immediate cuts will be used to EXPAND THE STIMULUS. Get that, folks?

I'll say this again:

  • We all know the stimulus package was too small;

  • It's too late to ask for more money; the political energy behind more stimulus money is gone;

  • The only way to get more money to stimulate the economy is through cuts in programs that are ineffective, bloated, and that don't produce meaningful job growth;

  • WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT OBAMA CAMPAIGNED ON IN 2008 (Remember his comment in the debates that across-the-board spending freezes are a hatchet, whereas we need a scalpel?);

  • From what I heard Bernstein trying to say, THIS IS THE SCALPEL, FOLKS.

  • And yet we're crucifying him for using it, because in 2 years time part of what may be in the proposal is that there's a spending freeze (again, frozen at a higher level, and it won't be taking effect until, hopefully, the economy is actually strong again).

    I'm sorry, but is there anyone out there on the progressive/liberal side of things who bothers to take the time to understand the nuances of things before they go off half-cocked and instantly attack something that may actually be beneficial and supportive of progressive goals (like increasing stimulus spending?). I'm including all of the high-falutin' economic wizards in this list too... because unless I missed something, pretty much all of them came out swinging against this as-yet unproposed proposal, and I got little impression they knew any more about what was actually being proposed or what it might entail than anyone else in the blogosphere. And that's a sad, sad day, because these are the folks who are supposed to have a handle on what's going on in the economy from an liberal perspective. In my opinion, they collectively dropped the ball on this in favor of knee-jerk attacks.

    And another thing.

    Jared Bernstein is one of the most liberal economists out there... he's a Democratic Socialist with a Ph.D. in Social Welfare, for g-d's sake! He's written books and papers on allieviating poverty, helping the working class, and reducing inequality in our society. Why would everyone automatically assume that he'd be out shilling for something so entirely alien to everything he believes in? In a HuffPo piece following the Maddow interview, he did a credible job trying to explain how all this is supposed to work; we'll learn more as the details come out in the next few days.

    So unless these folks believe in Pod People and that Bernstein's been converted, it's assinine to toss him under the bus without at least listening to what he's trying to say. If he supports these things, then by g-d we should at least respect the man and his history enough to listen to his reasoning. The blogosphere and yes, Rachel's handling of the interview, have left this man being ripped up one side and down the other as a shill, a toady, a technocrat, and far worse. The same guy that progressives hailed and cheered just a few months ago as he was named Chief Economic Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Talk about liberals eating their own; there is no better example than this. Case in point for how unhinged the progressive movement has become, and why we are rapidly throwing away any semblance of the unity we showed in 2008.

    So in the upcoming SotU speech, I'll be listening closely to what's said, and I'll be reading the economic proposals carefully. But until I see something that says outright, in black-and-white, that Obama and his team have completely gone off the rails of reality, then I'm willing to listen, discuss, and even argue about specifics. And who knows, if it makes even a modicum of sense from a liberal-progressive perspective, perhaps I'll even support the ideas proposed.

    And maybe, just maybe, some of my fellow progressives and liberals will quit sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming "HOOVER-HOOVER-HOOVER!!!" long enough to join me in a rational discussion of what is actually proposed, once it IS proposed, instead of making bloody hash of it using their worst nightmare fantasy scenarios.

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Maddow on Spending Freezes: 1937 Redux? Um, not so fast...

    I had to record the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, and so I'm late commenting on her Monday show. And I'm sad to say my comments aren't as glowing as they normally would have been. I love her just tons and tons, but I have to say she jumped the shark on the interview with Jared Bernstein at the top of the hour regarding President Obama's announcement of spending freezes (the details of which we still don't know, I might add).

    She was too upset to listen to her guest, who kept trying to explain how the spending would (a) not take effect until 2011, (b) was targeted to non-productive and wasteful areas of the budget that had languished for years without pruning, (c) that areas of the budget that PRODUCED jobs would be, if anything, bolstered (including especially green jobs and energy initiatives), and that (d) they were well aware of the Hoover mistakes and were taking pains not to repeat them.

    If she'd not been so focused on her own anger and upset, she might have heard these things, but instead just kept arguing her original position. In doing so, not only did she continually interrupt her guest (which sadly made her sound a lot like a certain other host in a nearby timeslot on MSNBC), but also did a disservice to her viewers, who were unable to get a good explanation from Mr. Bernstein and were instead fed a continual course of "this is bad, horrible, terrifying, disgusting, baffling, what are you people thinking!?!?" from Rachel.

    As I love Rachel and her intellectual approach to these kinds of things, it was actually kind of painful to watch. I was a bit embarrassed to see her so... un-Rachelly.

    I'm not saying she's not right to closely question this announcement, nor to approach it with great skepticism (as we all did when we first heard of it... trust me, my first reaction was to echo Rachel with "what are they thinking!?!?"). Especially troubling to me was the ban on cutting defense spending, which every breathing soul knows is chock-full of waste and contractor abuse. But her apparent black/white understanding of what happened in 1937 shows either that she doesn't really have a good grasp what happened back then, or that she has completely bought in to the overly simplistic idea that "any spending cuts or freezes during a downturn are a bad idea" (which is, in fact, what she said).

    So I'll offer a bit of history; I apologize for over-simplifying in advance, but it's really just a simple point that Rachel should have known: The 1937 debacle that returned a recovering country back to the Great Depression was caused by ACROSS THE BOARD spending cuts and freezes, and worst, among these were the job-creating programs that had helped put so many millions of people to work.

    The public sector employed millions of folks, and though it seemed that the private sector was recovering, they were not yet ready to hire back all those millions of people; when programs like WPA and CCC were trimmed, folks were tossed out of jobs that had no recourse but to return to the breadlines.

    So that's the lesson of 1937. What it tells us is that if you cut spending across the board, including in areas that are proven job-producers, you are shooting yourself and your fellow citizens in the collective foot.

    But targeted, surgical cuts to programs that do nothing to bolster jobs... that basically eat up money but don't produce anything other than paperwork (and perhaps the jobs of a few Miltons and their red staplers)... and then turning some of that money over to reducing the deficit (which makes conservatives happy) while turning the rest of it on investments in current and future jobs (which makes liberals happy) is actually quite helpful to the economy.

    It's trimming the deadwood while planting new trees. It works in forestry, and it works in economics. The only thing you have to be careful about is how many trees you plant and how fast they grow. The very real danger here, to further extend my woodland metaphor, is that if you don't plant the new trees quickly and in great abundance, the soil will erode and the whole thing will turn into a mudslide that'll swallow the entire landscape.

    Rachel is right to be concerned, and it's not that her questions to Mr. Bernstein weren't called for; it is that she entered into the interview with a one-sided, limited point of view and then proceeded to cut him off during his explanations, and worst, completely ignored what he was saying simply to reiterate her own point. And her repeated comment that "responsible economists" say that the stimulus wasn't enough and that spending freezes or cuts during a downturn are generally a bad idea came across (perhaps only to me) as a not-so-subtle personal insult to her guest, who is himself an economist.

    Of course, this is all just my opinion and others may have a much different reaction to that segment than I did, but if Rachel, after she's had time to further study this and get "talked down" about it, agrees then I sincerely hope she issues some kind of retraction, apology to her guest, or both. Or at least maintains her skepticism, but returns to her usual "I'm willing to listen" approach to things. Because in my view, tonight she wasn't willing to listen to anything but her own preconceptions. And frankly, she's a hell of a lot better than that.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    It's time to change the rules


    Image from

    "We the corporations"

    On January 21, 2010, with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections and run our government. Human beings are people; corporations are legal fictions. The Supreme Court is misguided in principle, and wrong on the law. In a democracy, the people rule.

    We Move to Amend.

    We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, and move to amend our Constitution to:

    •Firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

    •Guarantee the right to vote and to participate, and to have our votes and participation count.

    •Protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate "preemption" actions by global, national, and state governments."

    Sign the Motion:

    It's time to change the rules

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    Letting them know, "Help is on the way!" in Haiti

    I keep hearing reports of people in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere getting frustrated because they see no signs of aid coming (mostly because help can't get through to them yet); it seems like a good idea for teams of helicopters with loudspeakers to flyover the city constantly broadcasting messages that help is on the way, and where to go for help. Some reports have indicated that people have died just blocks away from groups of aid workers simply because they didn't know they were there.

    Otherwise, reports of gangs and violence are only going to go up as people begin to think, with no other information available, that they've been abandoned. No electricity, no water, no food, no shelter; no working radios or TVs, much less Internet. I understand that some cell phone carriers are functioning again, and they should perhaps be sending out text messages to disseminate information. The folks in Haiti need to know that a massive effort to help them is underway, and that they have NOT been abandoned.

    Anyone have any contacts with folks on the ground down there to pass this idea along, or perhaps know if this is already something being done? I haven't seen any reports that indicate anything like this is going on.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    A Progressive Purity Test is No 'Revolution'

    A Progressive Revolution. I admit it's an enticing thought; we NEED some kind of non-violent, progressive revolution in this country to return power to the electorate instead of the monied interests and career politicians. However, as JFK said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable", and we are increasingly finding it difficult to effect revolutionary change through peaceful means with corporations and their paid puppets running just about every level of national government, including voting. The system is rigged, those who rigged the system are in charge, and many people on the left are feeling as though we had better get our groove on fast or we'll lose the whole thing. I tend to agree with this position, but it seems that many want to take it further: they consider the system too broken to fix, and want to bypass efforts to work with what is left of it and just start a real-live revolution... "Damn the torpedos!" style.

    American Revolution Drummers

    Not to bore anyone, but I think a little bit of history is in order. We all know the story of the American Revolution: the oppressive British monarchy finally goaded Colonials too far, and the 1775 "Shot Heard 'Round The World" set off a battle that finally resulted in freedom from British rule. What most folks tend to gloss over, if they even know it at all, is that in the decades leading up to the revolt, the Colonial government repeatedly tried to "work the system from within". Representatives made the long ocean voyage back and forth many times trying to get the King and Parliament to see things their way. Sometimes they succeeded, but more often not. And more importantly, EVEN AFTER THE FIGHTING BEGAN, there were still attempts to work within the system, to bring about a peaceful settlement. It was only after such attempts were rebuffed and more and more violent acts by the British and their hired mercenaries occurred that such attempts slowed to a crawl; independence became the goal, rather than remaining under colonial rule. Even so, diplomatic efforts continued and even increased once France and others joined the American cause. Eventually, as we all know, the war ended and our country was born.

    One lesson I take from this is that while many actively desired a clean break from British rule, many others were not quite so quick to want such dramatic change. For some it was loyalty; for others it was economics and business; and for others, it was simply that though things weren't all that great, they weren't all that bad, either. In other words, it wasn't a revolution made up of revolutionaries, it was a revolution made up of enough people who agreed with certain goals or ideas that they were willing to work together, even if they disagreed with, or were ambivalent to, some of the other goals or ideas held by their fellows.

    We're fast approaching something similar in our time. The frustration among many progressives over what seems to be blatant corruption and systemic failure of our democracy at every turn has led to a number of calls for a Progressive Revolution, which may not sound like anything new, but there is increased pressure given today's severe problems to do SOMETHING. This frustration often turns against itself, however; many progressives, growing impatient for change, call for progressives to "throw out the bums": mainstream liberals, moderates, or even "pragmatic" progressives who seek change through incremental or "within the system" means.

    The only problem with exclusionary rhetoric is that progressives NEED liberals, moderates, and "pragmatic" progressives in the same boat, not cast overboard. Just like in the American Revolution, there just aren't enough progressives in the entire United States, even if they were gathered in one place, to effect any real change based solely on "pure" progressive idealism. We spend a lot of time in our progressive echo chambers patting each other on the back and thinking we're part of a huge movement, listening to Thom Hartmann or watching KO and Rachel and getting all fired up, but if we were really that numerous we'd have no problem enacting changes like real universal single-payer healthcare, stopping the wars, repealing DOMA and DADT, implementing same-sex marriage, ending corporatism, enacting real climate change reforms, etc. Compared to the overall United States adult population, though, we're just a handful. We NEED others who at least agree in part with our goals and ideas to get anything accomplished.

    And in today's gilded age of Internet Activism, getting enough people out from in front of their computer screens and marching in person in the streets, and especially in the National Mall in D.C. is a real challenge. When hundreds of thousands showed up to protest Vietnam, not for one big event but on a regular basis; when the Million Man March filled up the Mall; when President Obama was inaugurated and there wasn't a patch of grass more than a foot across without someone standing on it... that's the kind of real activism that gets national attention. If you gathered all the progressives in the nation in one big march, you would have the largest such march in history; but logistically, that simply isn't going to happen. And unless we as progressives work to reach out to, rather than exclude, mainstream liberals, moderates, and those among us who are more "pragmatic", then we never will have such a march... or anything even approximating it.

    Which is why I choose to work with, even if grudgingly, the "incrementalists" and "work the system from within" folks. Because they outnumber us ten to one, for one thing... and because by doing so, we can pull more and more of them into the progressive camp rather than excluding them and making them see us as too radical, too "noisy", to work with. For moderates and most liberals, progressives have, until recently, been seen as the "looney fringe". But we're achieving some inroads into becoming "mainstream".

    And that goal is being met without anything we're doing as progressives, per se; outside forces are doing much of the work for us. The economy continuing to trudge along precariously, more and more jobs still being lost, globalization and free trade agreements sapping what jobs are left, corporate money blatantly corrupting politics, a healthcare crisis that doesn't seem to have any end, a housing crisis that shows no sign of recovery, and on and on. All of these are helping people see that our progressive message, that "IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY", makes more and more sense, and they are able to break out of their status-quo thinking. Once they do, even if they don't become overnight progressives, they find themselves willing to support progressive causes.

    But when some of us continue the rhetoric of "FU, we don't need you, you worthless sheeple" (as is the implied (and sometimes explicit) message being put out by many on the left), it shuts down this process and leaves potential allies seeing all progressives as, once again, the "looney fringe".

    The Progressive Revolution, to succeed, will require people from all camps, and all across the spectrum, to come together and work for change. If they disagree in part, that's fine, as long as they support the overall goal. As in the American Revolution, we might have our equivalent of Jeffersonians on one side and Hamiltonians on the other, but they managed to work together, and so can progressives, "pragmatic" progressives, liberals, moderates, and perhaps even some conservatives and libertarians. Calls by some to "purify" progressivism will only lead to a complete failure of the progressive cause, just as efforts by conservatives to "purify" the GOP are leading to its irrelevance and imminent demise. The trite but true statement that "there is strength in numbers" has never been more true than today; but some progressives who call for a purity test, instant rather than incremental change, and working outside the system threaten to sap the growing strength of the progressive cause.

    So it's no capitulation to progressive ideals and goals to "work the system from within"... it is in fact the only way that we will ever get enough people in this country over to our side. Without it, we will continue to be nothing but a tiny handful of folks on the left who want fundamental change in our government, but who are too intransigent to be seen as viable partners in enacting change by the vast majority of the rest of the country. Exclusionary rhetoric will ensure that our message is lost, and that our country will continue the slide into corporate fascism while a growing majority of Americans lose themselves to reality shows, mindless entertainment, and the meaningless, powerless distractions of partisan bickering.

    For a revolutionary movement to succeed, it must have the people on its side. And that only comes about when we are willing to accept that some who join our cause may not agree with us on everything, or perhaps may even oppose us on many things. What is important is that our goals are clear, our methods are understandable and focused, and our message is inclusive.