Thursday, October 27, 2005

Doldrums and questions of blind faith

Talk about Peak Oil and the end of our highway travelin’ ways and you invariably get handed the mantra, “technology will save us.” We have this illogical and I’d add, pathological, faith in the ability of technology and mankind’s ingenuity. Take for instance the irrational belief so many Americans (and Europeans?) have in the free market to save our asses.

While I’d love to believe that some scientist will discover another substance that will give us 150 years of affluence and unlimited growth, I’m dubious about that epiphany occurring. Actually, I’m not sure our planet can take another 150 years of progress, or even another 15 years of our current abuse of the environment.

Human beings, with our unfounded arrogance and belief in our superiority, continually hold onto hope that science and technology is capable of solving every problem. Did you say global warming? Not a problem—we’ll just create new ways to cope with rising tides, increasing temperatures and frequency of natural disasters and approaching pandemics. Many in the scientific community, puffed up with pride in their perceived ability to forecast trends and shifts in climate, thought global warming would increase storms and consequently wind. As a result, there was a flurry to build windmills in the Netherlands and Germany to harness this abundance of natural energy and turn it into electricity. There is only one problem—these scientists apparently were wrong!

New research shows scientists could have been wrong when they forecast years ago that global warming would cause more storms and wind in northwestern Europe, Albert Klein Tank of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) told Reuters.

"We said that 10-15 years ago and what we see in the observations is that the climate is warming but the number of storms is actually decreasing," said Klein Tank, who leads a team making climate scenarios for the Netherlands.

"We don't have a good explanation for that," he told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

It’s hard for us to accept that we don’t have all the answers. In an age of reality television and documented decreases in our cognitive capabilities, humans continue to believe that someone has the capability to figure things out. Despite the evidence that most humans have all they can handle trying to find their way to work in the morning, they continue to prostrate themselves to the gods of science and technology. Meanwhile, evidence clearly indicates that the future may not be as rosy as so many hoped for.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Frank talk for the left

Lately, I haven’t felt particularly driven to write. That’s odd for me, as I have managed to put up content on both of my blogs fairly consistently. Maybe it’s the post-publishing blues, or the depressing weather. Possibly, the reason might be the inevitable need to follow-up one’s first book with another scintillating release. Being a writer who seems doomed to turn out niche books, that last reason appears dubious at best—there really isn’t any pressure at all to turn out another book that a 1,000 people might read, if I’m lucky.

While I haven’t been writing regularly, I have tried to do a bit more reading. I just finished Joshua Frank’s Left Out! How Liberals Helped Elect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005). A writer who contributes to such leftist muckraking rags as Counterpunch, Z Magazine and Earth First! Journal, Frank uses his allotted space to dissect the failed reasoning that gives us a choice of the lesser evil each election cycle.

Showing that the Democrats have marched to the same corporate beat as the Republicans for much too long, Frank peels back the façade of our two-party disaster and honestly looks at the options, moving forward, post-2004. Refusing to live in the land of denial that so many progressives have escaped to, Frank squarely lays the blame for George W. Bush’s reelection where it rightfully belongs—squarely on the door step of the Democrats. Not allowing the ABB (Anybody but Bush, in case you’ve forgotten) crowd any wiggle room, Frank writes, “I certainly don’t buy that this election was stolen like so many liberals are convinced. But hypothetically, if election ’04 was rigged, it should never have been close enough for Bush to steal. John Kerry should have won by a landslide. The Democrats simply failed to distinguish themselves on a host of critical issues.”

Frank spends a good portion at the beginning, deconstructing the myth of Howard Dean as progressive savior. Showing just how far to the right Democratic ideals have shifted, Frank clearly portrays Dean as the craven politician that he is—worse yet, he’s nothing more than a run-of-the-mill governor, a political rerun of the same show and sponsors that gave us Gore, Lieberman, Kerry, Clinton, etc. Yet, progressive Democrats, desperate for someone to lead them out of the swamp of triangulation and welfare reform (thank you, Bill Clinton), hitched their wagon to the Dean pony. Once that sideshow crashed and burned, then it was off to the main attraction—the sleep-inducing main feature of Kerry/Edwards.

The book is much more than just a bashing of Howard Dean, however. For someone like me, a registered Independent who often is enticed over into the two-party camp every four years, Frank was just what the doctor ordered. Recognizing that I’ll never get what I want by voting for what I don’t want, Frank clearly delineates what our strategy needs to be—working at the grassroots level, building third parties like the Greens and electing candidates to local office. Cynics (of which I am an honorary member) will say that third parties don’t stand a chance. That reason has been used quite successfully by our corporate puppet-masters to keep us in line with the two-party charade they’ve left us with. Yet, I don’t believe we have much of a choice, unless we are content to continue down the road of political cronyism, unending war, and media confusion.

On my most optimistic days, I hold out this illogical hope that a third party—one that acted with vigor, intent and possessing stamina—might come along and run a candidate that offered clear choices to voters. I imagine the millions of disenfranchised voters turning out and voting in droves for someone who offered real, tangible options, not the same old warmed over ideas of our two-party plutocracy. A young Ralph Nader, with charisma? Of course, there is the small issue of our winner-take-all, geography-based, political system, that assures us of the lesser of two evils every four years. Instant run off voting (IRV) might be a solution to lift us out of our current quagmire.

Frank is an unabashed supporter of the Green Party, although he takes them to task in his book, for their disastrous safe-state policy. He clearly shows in the book that Nader’s run in 2000 had the party moving in the right direction, only to see it implode with infighting, caused primarily by good and principled people succumbing to the ABB mentality that plagued so much of the left side of the political spectrum in 2004.

If you enjoy solid political writing, as I most assuredly do, then Frank’s book is a worthwhile read. At just over 200 pages, it’s an easy book to plow through over the weekend and I recommend it for clearing one’s head of faulty notions about our political process.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Grudge match

Well, it’s World Series time and there are no Red Sox, or even Yankees playing this year. Sadly, our beloved BoSox lost unceremoniously to the Pale Hose from the Windy City. My friend and fellow blogger, Wisdom Weasel alluded to my “grudge” in comments he made over at Listmaker’s site, so I thought I’d give the details, still fresh in my mind, after more than a decade.

Having lived about 45 minutes from the fabled working class city immortalized by the likes of Carl Sandburg and Studs Terkel, I have a fondness for this city by the lake. I even attended a White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field, then known by its non corporate name of Comiskey Park. This might lead you to think I’d be rooting for the team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1917. I’d correct you with an emphatic, “hell no!”

You see, I hate the White Sox, or at least their organization. While it has undergone changes since the ill-fated game in 1993, attended by my then 9-year-old son, Mark, and my wife, Mary, the White Sox have always seemed like a second-rate professional franchise to me. Helping to cement that opinion, is that while I lived in the Midwest, the Sox were always the city's second team, regardless of how well they played and how poorly the beloved boys from Wrigleyville performed. At the time, the general manager was former major league journeyman pitcher, Ron Schueler, and the ownership consisted of Jerry Reinsdorf and little Eddie Einhorn, frequently vilified figures on the pages of the Tribune and Sun-Times.

Having gone back for a visit to the birthplace of my son, we decided to settle for a Triple-A version of a major league game, since the beloved Cubbies were out of town. That didn’t keep us from visiting the hallowed ivy-covered confines of a ballpark that epitomizes what ballparks should be. Even though the team was on the road, management had the good sense to recognize that fans might want to come in and have a look around and even snap a few pictures.

Visiting the “new” Comiskey was a major disappointment, from the nosebleed seats in the upper deck, which made it impossible to enjoy the game, to the lousy concession food (and melted ice cream—you’ll have to ask Miss Mary about that one), but the ultimate insult was the way White Sox management treated the youngsters. Prior to the game, several hundred youngsters (including Mark) waited about 45 minutes for an autograph. This ’93 White Sox team was a young club on the rise with players like Jack McDowell, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura (and of course, Guillen), so it should have been obvious to management that young fans might would want their autographs. Just as the players were coming to the dugout, this 14 or 15-year old usher with an attitude began telling the kids wanting autographs to move. He was rude and insulting and I went down to see what the problem was. I ended up getting into it with a couple of other older ushers and told them this was horsesh*t!

I couldn’t believe that a major league team, especially one with such a small following as the White Sox, would be so arrogant as to treat their fans, particularly young fans, in this manner. The entire time I lived in the Chicago-land area (from 83-87), the White Sox always played second fiddle to the beloved Cubs. Maybe this is why? The Cubs never treated their youngest fans like this and neither did the Red Sox or the Montreal Expos, all teams that Mark had received autographs at their home parks. We even have had meaningful exhanges with visiting players such as Dale Murphy, Tim Burke, Tom Glavine and even managers, such as Jimy Williams.

I wrote a long letter to Schueler and this former big league piece of sh*t didn’t have the decency to even acknowledge it. So yes, Weasel, I have a grudge against Ozzie Guillen and the Sox and I will be rooting for the Clemens-led Astros this weekend.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

We own the airwaves

Payola—the practice of record companies paying to have their songs played on the radio—has made its way back after being dormant for decades. In 1960, Cleveland DJ Alan Freed was convicted of accepting $2,500 to play certain songs. While Freed insisted this “token of gratitude” didn’t affect what he played on the air, the FCC disagreed—it passed regulations banning the practice of payola.

Fast forward it to today. With radio consolidation, a handful of large radio conglomerates control stations across the country. From Clear Channel, which owns over 1,200 stations in 189 markets, to Infinity and other large conglomerates, commercial radio has had the lifeblood squeezed out of it. Whether you turn on the radio in Portland, Maine or Orlando, Florida, it all sounds the same. (Maybe that’s what Led Zeppelin meant by “The Song Remains the Same").

Free Press, a national, non partisan organization, is working to increase informed public participation regarding media issues, such as this one. They have a “crib sheet" posted on their website on payola, as well as many other issues pertaining to the media and public access of the airwaves. They have a map of stations currently under investigation.

In our own Portland, Maine market, WCYY, owned by conglomerate, Citadel Broadcasting, is currently under investigation. I happen to listen to their modern rock format when I’m out of reach of college stations from Bates or Bowdoin, or community radio such as WMPG in Portland. While ‘CYY’s format is derivative, the station does program some local music. Interestingly, if I hadn’t seen the Free Press page on payola, I would not have known anything about the investigation of a local station, which says quite a bit about our local paper, the Portland Press Herald. Actually, I cancelled my subscription to it because it just plain sucks! Possibly they ran that story in the last two weeks and I just missed it?

Media consolidation continues to be a major issue, as corporations controlling the airwaves and eliminating diversity of opinions, views, as well as entertainment is not a good thing. If you care at all about local access issues, I highly recommend the Free Press site for its content on this important issue.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Saturday matinee

With another rainy weekend upon us, and a plea for more books from Longfellow Books in Portland, Mary and I headed into Portland. Recognizing that it had been awhile since we had attended a film at The Movies on Exchange Street, we decided to catch an afternoon matinee, the perfect foil for the blowing rain and generally inhospitable conditions, outdoors.

The movie on the matinee was Junebug, the new film from Phillip Morrison. Morrison, a NYU film graduate, has been receiving favorable reviews and generating comparisons to directors such as Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, with his first full-length feature film.

Junebug is a story about family and place of origin. Son, George, returns to his hometown in North Carolina with his new bride, Madeline. Madeline, an art dealer, with a gallery in Chicago, where she and George met, specializes in “outsider” art. They come to George’s hometown to visit the eccentric David Wark and his collection of uniquely strange Civil War paintings and artwork. The decision is also made to visit George’s family.

Morrison captures the tension of returns to one’s birth family, with the changes that accompany growth and maturation. Can one ever truly go home again—yes, but not without awkwardness and the realization that life is more than black and white choices.

George’s family and Morrison’s character study is refreshing. Avoiding clichés, without denying that they exist, the film captures the interesting family dynamic that exists for most of us. Madeline, British-born and sophisticated, does her best imitation of accommodating daughter-in-law. George’s mother, however, views Madeline with suspicion, bordering on contempt. George’s younger brother, Johnny, is an angry, brooding character, whose pregnant wife, Ashley, is so happy to have a new friend in Madeline.

The movie shows George’s rural roots, deeply steeped in the church, with a poignant scene of a church supper, where his former pastor asks George to sing a hymn. Probably, it's been years since George has embraced his southern Baptist faith, yet, after initial reluctance, gets up and performs an impassioned version of a well-known Christian hymn. His wife Madeline’s face is captured and you see elements of her recognition of a side of George that she hadn’t known.

With the original score for the movie written and performed by one of my favorite indie rock bands, Hoboken, New Jersey’s scenesters, Yo La Tengo, I found Junebug to be an indie film worthy of one’s attention.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Law and order

Apparently the state of Deleware has some problems with how they care for those unfortunate souls locked up in their jails. Wilmington’s News Journal recently concluded a six-month investigation into the state’s prison system. Uncovering an ongoing issue of inadequate medical treatment for inmates incarcerated and under the care of the state, the News Journal exposes an issue that I’m sure is widespread across the U.S.

It was 20 years ago that yours truly worked for the Indiana Department of Corrections, as a med tech in their medium security prison in Westville, Indiana. At the time, I was a wide-eyed 22-year-old, in need of a job in a state with a paucity of living wage options. With a young family and not many other options, I drove the 30 miles up U.S. Route 30, making my way to the walls of Westville Correctional Center, with hopes of a job that paid more than minimum wage.

That experience almost two decades ago, gave me a first-hand look at conditions inside many of America’s jails and correctional institutions. As I read sections of this four-part expose on Delaware’s incompetence and blatant disregard for the welfare of those under their care, I marvel at how many Americans are comfortable with our country’s archaic and barbaric treatment of many who made a mistake and got caught. Granted, there are those sociopaths and others who have committed violent crimes. But in our country, growing numbers of those locked up behind bars, with ever-increasing sentences, are for drugs and other non-violent offenses.

With an AID’s death rate that is the highest in the nation, the incompetence displayed by the state-contracted private health provider, CMS, reveals conditions that routinely violate constitutional provisions that require that states provide adequate medical care to inmates. CMS is one of the country’s largest providers of contracted medical services to correctional facilities across the fruited plane. They provide care to some 285,000 inmates in 360 facilities, located in 25 states.

For those right-wingers who subscribe to the philosophy towards prisoners that says, “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”, I might point out that the U.S. Constitution has prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishment”. May I direct you to the Eighth Amendment?

With over 1.3 million Americans behind bars, the U.S. rate of incarceration is 2nd in the world, behind only Russia. Add to that number, nearly 1 million more in local and county jails, and you get a clearer picture of this country’s obsession with law and order and a form of justice that’s problematic at best.

Like so many aspects of life in America—capitalism and the drive for ever-increasing profits, makes a caricature of concepts such as justice. When prisons became just another tool for economic development, then dealing with issues of right and wrong, retribution, and rehabilitation take a back seat to good ole’ fashioned greed.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Price-gouging of the finest sort

Here are the friends of those in power, the oil companies. Everytime you go to the pumps to fill up your vehicle, remind yourself that those in power are not your friends and could care less whether working class Americans suffer--this is truly class warfare in its most basic form.

From the Center for American Progress:

Americans are feeling pain at the pump. According to a recent CBS News poll, 86 percent of people have been affected by higher gasoline prices "some" or "a lot." A recent Associated Press/Ipsos poll showed that 70 percent believe that higher gasoline prices will cause financial hardship for them or their family. Yet while ordinary Americans suffer under the weight of high gasoline prices, the world's largest energy conglomerates are enjoying record breaking profits.

According to The Washington Post, the 2004 profits for ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and ConocoPhillips broke records across all industries. In fact, last year, at over $25 billion, ExxonMobil booked the highest profit of any company in any year in history. Yet, oil company memos show that they made part of these profits by constraining refining capacity to drive up prices. These record profits have not only more than doubled CEO salaries, but they have driven up political contributions, a staggering $450 million in the past six years. So, while consumers are paying at the pump, oil companies are getting billions in tax breaks and sweetheart deals from the Bush administration and their congressional allies. You can read more, here.

And then there is this. I for one would be happy if the opposition party would openly oppose the thuggery of those in power on a daily basis. If not now, then when would be a more convenient time?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The dying art of statesmanship

I’ve often remarked that America feels like an “alternate universe” to me. Interestingly, former VP and the winner of the 2000 election, Al Gore, mentioned that very phrase in a speech he gave on Wednesday.

Gore has become an intriguing figure and member of the elite landscape, albeit, offering an alternate viewpoint than the current wisdom in vogue. While I don’t intend to lionize him, he’s given some extremely provocative and dead-on speeches over the past year or two. I’m not sure why he didn’t fare better in his run for president in 2000? I mean, he did actually win, but my point is, why did someone with his obvious intelligence end up in a photo finish race with El Dumbo? Then again, we are living in a time when intelligence and analysis are liabilities, rather than assets. Hence, his great oratory and keen analysis are ignored by our friends in the MSM.

Not surprisingly, Americans, like the citizens of Rome, have given themselves over to “bread and circuses,” i.e. the pursuit of the trivial and mindless self-gratification. As Gore notes in his speech, our democracy is now threatened by the general ill-informed citizenry that now constitutes our nation. Gore speaks directly to the role that media plays in this dumbing down of understanding.

“Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather - who was, of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House - television news has been 'dumbed down and tarted up.'

The coverage of political campaigns focuses on the "horse race" and little else. And the well-known axiom that guides most local television news is "if it bleeds, it leads." (To which some disheartened journalists add, "If it thinks, it stinks.")”

As a reader of history, there is a certain sense of déjà vu that occupies my thinking, observing the American experiment increasingly resembling that of the Roman Empire, as it began to unravel and eventually implode.

As Juvenal, the Roman satirist noted, the empire’s glory days were behind, as his fellow citizens had become so preoccupied with entertainment and personal pleasures that they no longer cared about the great civic virtues of the past. They were content, as his famous phrase that we refer to states, with “bread and circuses” and blindly following the weakened succession of civil authority. How is that any different from where we find ourselves in our time?

Gore’s speech is worth reading in its entirety. Rarely, does one hear a leader and someone from the ruling class speak with clarity and truth any longer. Gore, for whatever reason (maybe he actually cares about the future of our nation), has seen fit to speak some truth to those in power—hopefully someone is still listening.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

An old-fashioned ass-whooping, in Chicago

My level of interest in professional sports is about 25 percent of what it used to be. While I respect the abilities of players who are good enough to reach the pinnacle of their sports, the corporate co-option of so much of sports leaves me disinterested and apathetic.
Looking back on how much energy I invested in caring whether some anonymous group of players won or lost makes me wonder what was lacking in my life at that point. Recognizing how we’ve shifted our focus from local sports to the national level, also bothers me, having studied this phenomenon rather extensively over the past year.

Having said that, I do find myself mildly interested in the fate of the Red Sox, mostly for my own selfish reasons. I figure that if the Red Sox can make another heroic late season run for post-season posterity, then baseball will remain on people’s minds. If baseball stays on the minds of book buyers, then maybe I can squeeze out a few more sales of When Towns Had Teams.

I watched the early innings of yesterday’s debacle in Chicago, versus the White Sox. As a former resident of northwest Indiana, I made several forays into Chicago, including visiting the former Comiskey Park (the new one). It’s an ugly, extremely fan unfriendly structure, with lousy sitelines and at the time, rude staff. Maybe things are better. I do know that it is located in a South Side neighborhood that most people whisk by with windows rolled up and doors locked (sort of like parts of Worcester).

I am amazed that a big league pitcher such as Matt Clement, can look so awful. I don’t think he’s been right since he took a 95 mph line drive off his coconut. Pitchers that have been hit by line drives haven’t fared particularly well (I was in attendance the night Bryce Florie got smoked). What I was troubled about was Terry Francona’s inability to recognize Clement’s lack of command (or anything else) and remove him. Maybe he was too busy focusing on his between-innings banter for ESPN; I’m sorry, but even managing in the Twilight League in Portland, I don’t want anyone talking to me between innings. I can’t imagine that a big league manager would comply with this request. Just another reason why I’ve come to despise corporate sports.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Support your local downtown

Whenever I travel outside of my own parochial parameters of place, I try to see as much of a new area as possible. Regardless of where one goes, it takes effort to get away from the strip malls, shopping complexes and chain stores and visit the actual places where local people live, work and congregate.

Yesterday, my wife and I traveled to Worcester, Massachusetts, to watch our son participate in a fall baseball game, against the home Holy Cross Crusaders. If you’ve never been to Worcester, it is typical of many former industrial and manufacturing hubs scattered across the New England landscape. With the loss of the manufacturing sector and jobs that supported a former functioning working class, the last two decades have been especially tough.

I’ve heard the comments about Worcester before—“be careful where you go,” or like I heard yesterday from a parent of one of Mark’s teammates, referring to the nearby area as a “rough part of town.” Well, Mary and I drove through some of the “rougher” parts of Worcester, near Federal Square and in the area near Clark University. These areas are “rough” or better, rundown, because any semblance of a local economy has been stripped away by jobs shipped overseas, or the trend towards white flight and urban sprawl that was common during the 1970’s and 1980’s, as businesses vacated downtown for suburban shopping centers and malls. This all adds up to a recipe that leaves the urban center neglected and decaying. As convenient as it is for some to blame the residents that inhabit this urban core, it has more to do with the attitudes of members of the business community and others who could make a positive difference. Even the local visitor’s bureau website seems bent upon keeping folks away from the downtown area.

While it is all too easy to whisk by these areas with the windows up and the doors locked on one’s Lexus, Jaguar, or BMW, Mary and I drove through town in our Toyota Corolla with the windows down and our eyes wide open. Yes, much of the area that we drove through was populated by non-Caucasian individuals, but I’m always curious why that elicits such fear in others? Have we not risen above the level of being able to appreciate someone for who they are versus the color of their skin? Quite honestly, I don’t think so.

I particularly was struck by some of the wonderful architecture and some of the older homes that we drove past. Some of them seemed to have had better days, but I saw so much potential in and around the city center of Worcester that I wondered why it has such an unseemly reputation? Did you know it is the third largest city in New England?

While our lack of time prevented us from getting out and walking around, we did see the Worcester African Culture Center and some neat little local markets and bodegas that I’m sure had some great culinary treasures inside. Just about a ½ mile form Fitton Park, where the day’s games were to be played, Mary and I found Culpepper’s Bakery and Cafe, a local eatery and bakery with pastries and other decadent treats to die for. Located at 500 Cambridge Street, an easy exit from I-290, it’s definitely worth a visit. While I didn’t have a hankering for a full breakfast, I noticed an abundance of $2.99 specials on the board.

I’m sure there are those who grow tired of my cheerleading for the home team/local economy, but I don’t think our economic long-term is served by our current fixation for lower prices and supposed convenience. At some point, the lack of sustainable options is going to jump up and bite us squarely in the hindquarters.

If anyone cares to read more on the issue of inner city poverty and the factors associated with the phenomenom, I dredged up this document from a conference held back in 2001, in Massachesetts. The speaker, David Rusk, is speaking about many of the issues I raised regarding my visit to Worcester.