Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Give it away, give it away, give it away, now

A couple of U.S. billionaires have decided to do something with their riches, rather than stuff their green under their mattresses, or hoard cars and mansions. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two wealthy Americans who recognize that with wealth, also comes great responsibility.

Unfortunately, despite the examples of Gates and Buffett, liberally distributing their wealth for the betterment of society, the model for wealth redistribution too often follows the lead of rich debutantes such as Paris Hilton.

Too often, religious leaders and others display their hypocrisy and cop out, by misappropriating the passage attributed to Jesus, where he says, “You will always have the poor with you…” Like much of scripture, this text is used to justify the legions of poor in America and elsewhere, when just a little generosity on the part of the nation’s wealthy could cure, or at least alleviate poverty as we know it.

Buffett’s largesse amounts to some $1.5 billion per year, given to the Bill & Linda Gates Foundation. The money has been earmarked by Buffett himself to go towards curing some of the world’s worst diseases. Buffett isn’t wasting any time after his announcement on Monday, either. His first donation is set to be distributed to the foundation, next month.

This philanthropic announcement has the potential to shake loose change from the pockets of others in the super wealthy category, as Buffett is viewed as an icon in certain circles, particularly the business and investment community.

How much money would it take to eradicate poverty? While inequality in the world seems destined to persist, what figure could make a significant improvement in the conditions of the world’s poorest citizens?

Financier, Jeffrey Sachs, thinks the amount is $150 billion per year. Others, such as Pierre Omidyar, eonomist/philanthropist and the founder of eBay, list the figure as being much less than that. Omidyar, through his own philanthropic giving, seeks to promote self-empowerment and development through microfinancing and other means.

Whatever the amount, when people of means, such as Gates and Buffett, as well as others, like Sachs, recognize the responsibility that comes with wealth, then, we are on the right road to making a difference. I’m hoping that others will follow their examples.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Progressive writing on sports

Whether you follow sports, or not, it is nearly impossible to argue that athletics and the accompanying spectacle that make up competitions between athletes, particularly the professional variety, are insignificant. Sporting events like the World Cup, have the potential to bring the world together in a way that diplomacy and political machinations rarely can. It can also be a source of conflict and even violence. Despite soccer’s paltry following and anemic performance on the American side, citizens from across the globe tuned in to follow their countrymen as they battled it out on the world stage.

In the United States, professional athletics is the tenth largest industry, generating annual revenue to the tune of $220 billion (check it—I said billion, not million!). Whether professional sports is your cup of tea, or not, it is big business and unless you are living in some shack in Montana, without electricity, pretty damn hard to ignore.

Professional sports wasn’t always this big. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, sports was seen primarily as a working class preoccupation. Bare-knuckle fighting, cock fighting and animal baiting ruled the world of sports, not baseball and football. Yet, 100 years later, we find pro sports clearly in the category of big business, clearly holding sway and influencing the decisions of the American consumer.

While the sports of the early 20th century were hardly the force that we find them to be today, America’s wealthy industrialists and politicians certainly understood the potential that sports and athletics contained, as tools to socialize the masses. It wasn’t by accident that men like Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan and others began funding organizations like the YMCA, using it to teach sports and ultimately, “values” to the young.

As the popularity of sports grew among workers, factory owners saw great value in starting company teams. The Green Bay Packers, were one such team, as were the Chicago Bears, who began in Decatur, Illinois, as the Decatur Staleys, named after the A.E. Staley Company, a local manufacturing firm.

With the dramatic rise in popularity of professional sports after the first World War, the era of corporate sports had begun. Like any other corporate entity, the world of athletics is rife with both patriotism and profit. Interestingly, despite the corporate orientation of sports and the other negative connotations that this entails, there has been very little writing done that critiques the world of sports. Occasionally, someone like Noam Chomsky will write something about America’s devotion and even, obsession, with professional sports, but even one as erudite and scholarly as Chomsky, misses the mark in his criticism of pro sports.

Recently, I’ve come across a writer named Dave Zirin. Not the first, but certainly one of the few, who have the ability to channel an obvious passion for sports, with an ability to zero in on the elements of money, race and celebrity that tarnish the inherent beauty and qualities of sports.

What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books, 2005) chronicles the connections that exist between the world of sport and the larger political and social sphere that sports operates within. Zirin, who is both a political progressive and a passionate fan of sports, turns his journalistic abilities towards helping sports fans understand the larger context within which their favorite players and teams operate.

Too often, political writing dismisses athletics as being both shallow and unimportant. Zirin argues to the contrary, clearly illuminating for his readers, the role that sports plays in our lives. What I like about the book is how he lays a historical foundation, which serves to accompany his commentary on contemporary issues.

Zirin fills in the blanks of our national love affair with sports, showing its legacy of racism, sexism and support for maintaining the status quo. There are chapters devoted better known athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Barry Bonds. Where I found the book most interesting was when he highlighted lesser known, but equally engaging examples of athletes willing to challenge the status quo, such as Manhattanville College women's basketball captain, Toni Smith, who began turnig her back on the American flag during pre-game rendetions of the national anthem.

Of interest to baseball fans of New England, the real curse foiling Red Sox Nation's hopes of post-season glory, had little to do with The Babe and much to do with the fact that the franchise was one of the most racist in the history of major league baseball. While this will come as a shock to the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy and similar sports hacks, who built a profit center during the 90's with their routine trotting out of the "The Curse" to explain every Red Sox failure, the true culprit was the racist culture that permeated the team's management. The Red Sox had opportunities to sign both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, but chose to wait until 1959, when they finally brought up a marginal African-American player, Elijah "Pumpsie" Green as their choice to break the color line. The Sox were the last team to integrate, waiting a full 12 years after the Dodgers broke the color line with Jackie Robinson. Zirin also writes about another member of Boston’s sports pantheon, Bill Russell, former Celtic great, who helped the Big Green to 11 NBA titles over his storied career. Russell endured Boston' s racist tendencies with a dignity and fierce pride that amazes to read about it today. Boston still has its share of racist apologists today, as a listen to talk radio inThe Hub will reveal.

For those of us who love sports, but find it hard to stomach the excesses of consumerism, hyper-patriotism and sport's role as apologists for all that’s wrong with America, Zirin’s book, as well as his regular columns at Edge of Sports, are a welcome breath of fresh air and might just be the catalyst that brings us back to the sports we grew up playing and watching, with a renewed understanding and critical appreciation.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Putting in the home garden

[Preparing the soil and readying for planting]
[Pulling weeds by hand and enjoying some early morning sun]
[Applying some old-fashioned people power to the soil]

A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has his mind precisely against what is wrong with us. . . . What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of the earth, but also the earth's ability to produce. -Wendell Berry

With rain washing out planting opportunities the previous two weekends, we finally got our garden planted on Saturday. With the soil just the right texture due to the more than ample rains we’ve received, our garden plot, a combination of sandy soil, with healthy measures of clay mixed in, seemed grateful to receive the good working it received from a combination of hand tools and manual labor provided by my wife and I.

Saturday, with its summer-like temperatures and abundant sunshine, allowed us the chance to catch up on many outdoor projects that had previously been neglected. The best part, for us, was working the soil and putting in six rows, including green beans, squash (two varieties), radishes (two varieties), some mesculan and other green leaf lettuce and two tomato plants.

There is something inherently therapeutic about getting your hands in the soil. Maybe it’s reestablishing a tenuous connection with the earth that is severed by our tendency towards technology. Whatever it is, having a garden again (after last summer’s absence) feels right.

Monday, June 12, 2006

That other sport

With nods to my fellow blogger, Wisdom Weasel, I have decided to do my part to promote the World Cup. I admit my utter cluelessness about one of the greatest sporting competitions in the world. Just because my fellow Americans choose to remain ignorant of the proceedings, doesn't excuse their jingoistic fixation on baseball, basketball and a few hockey bandwagon riders in Raleigh, N.C.

During the previous World Cup, in 2002, I was working for one of Maine's insurance giants, occupying my time, Dilbert-style, while plotting my writer's escape from the corporate merry-go-round. I had the good fortune of working a few rows away from a Brit, named Andy, who was a huge Arsenal fan and kept a wealth of soccer paraphernalia tacked up on his cubicle walls, including his own handmade World Cup bracket. I enjoyed learning about the matches from him, especially the nuances of the sport, which I knew little about. I'm sure some of my questions were stupid, but he never let on.

Thanks to Andy, I learned a little bit about the 2002 World Cup (won by Brazil, 2-0, over Germany), as well as the finer points of British politics.

Actually, my knowledge of soccer isn't as anemic as I'm letting on. While in high school, public television used to broadcast English Premier League soccer and my best friend, Greg, and I, got hooked. We even used to go up to our local high school football field and play some pick-up soccer with friends. My 6'3" frame and the fact that I was a woefully slow runner, convinced me that I'd never be a soccer star. Nevertheless, it was fun to kick the ball around. Greg, on the other hand, could have been a good high school player. Sadly, our high school didn't begin the sport until a year after I graduated, which was two years too late for Greg.

My son, Mark, actually played soccer for three years in middle school, and was an excellent goalkeeper. He played freshman soccer for Greely, as a fullback, before focusing on baseball and hockey. His coach, Mr. Hutchins, was a legendary figure at Greely, having led the Rangers to numerous championships as the varsity coach. During Mark's freshman year, "Coach," as everyone called him, was semi-retired and enjoying the laid back atmosphere of teaching the game to future varsity stars and others, like Mark, who had never received much proper instruction in the finer points of the world's most popular sport.

Unfortunately, the U.S. drew a very tough Czech team today, as their first opponent and went down to defeat, 2-0 (edit-actually 3-0), extending their European World Cup losing streak, to seven games. The loss does little to increase the paltry interest and U.S.-centric focus that is par for the course, anytime a U.S. team is entered in any international competition (ala the Olympics).

So Weasel, and all you other soccer fanatics, I'm giving the World Cup more than a passing nod and will try to watch some matches and become a bit more sophisticated about the sport.

Here's an article, by Tony Karon, about the World Cup that takes a somewhat different tack than the standard sports piece.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Summer baseball reality check (or how I wish my son was a professional baseball slave)

Nearly every player who first picks up a glove and dons a Little League uniform has aspirations of someday playing professional baseball. For the fortunate few, the ones with the talent and perseverance to rise up through the ranks of organized baseball, they’ll one day sign a professional contract. Interestingly, very few fans of professional baseball understand the exploitive nature of baseball’s draft and free agent system.

While the elite major leaguers—marquee players such as Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez and others—routinely command contracts measured in the millions, first year minor league players sign their first contract and make $850/month, all for the privilege of riding busses, playing under substandard lighting, and fighting the fear of failure. Certainly, players drafted in the early rounds (usually 1-10) of baseball’s major league draft, held each summer in early June (the 2006 draft occurred this past Tuesday and Wednesday) receive signing bonuses, some as hefty as $1 million-$2 million (White Sox outfielder Joe Borchard, signed for $5.3 million in 2000), most receive much less. In fact, major league baseball has worked diligently to get a handle on bonus signings over the past few drafts. Part of this campaign has been to demonize agents like Scott Boras, as greedy money-grubbers, bent on destroying baseball's "pristine" image. For high school and college stars, high-powered agents such as Boras, are their only hope of ever getting a small fraction of value from their baseball talent, before it fails them and leaves their dreams and aspirations shipwrecked by their final unconditional release. In today's market, a first or second round pick might receive $1 million signing bonus and a great deal of fanfare, but by the time prospects are taken in the 10th round, the bonuses are rarely more than $5,000.

(Note: It is interesting to me, how often the Major League Baseball Player's Association receives the scorn of anti-union pundits, when in reality, it does little, or nothing, to reverse the practice of enriching the highest echelon of its fiefdom, while those toiling in baseball's equivalent of the sweatshop, never receive a scrap from the elite's buffet table.)

For all the prestige assigned to a high school or college star signing their first professional contract, the reality of the economics quickly becomes apparent. For the majority of farmhands, toiling in professional baseball’s lowest rungs of its system of professional wage-slavery, better known as the minor leagues, most players make less than the federal minimum wage. Here’s a good example of a first year player, either drafted in the lower rounds of the draft (the draft traditionally runs about 50 rounds), or signed as a free agent:

**$850/month salary (the standard amount paid to first-year minor leaguers signing their first professional contract)

**6-8 hours/day (the typical day spent at the ballpark preparing, playing and winding down; this would be for a home game and doesn’t take into account the time spent riding a bus between 6-8 hours, or more, for the typical road trips encountered by minor league players at the lower levels.)

**7 days per week (minor leaguers and major leaguers typically play every day, with very few off days.)

**$3.29/hour (the average hourly wage of a typical first-year minor leaguer, for the prestige of wearing the uniform of the Brockton Rox, Lansing Lugnuts, or San Diego Surf Dawgs, based upon a 60 hour work week.)

Of course, if that player is promoted, rather than released, after his first summer, he’ll receive a whopping increase of $200/month the following summer and see his hourly wage rise to just over $4.00/hour!

Since most dads secretly harbor hope of their sons playing professional baseball, those dreams and aspirations play into the exploitive practices of the American capitalist model of exploitation. Since many players are drafted out of college, playing minor league baseball merely prolongs the inevitability of having to leave the four-year cocoon that is American higher education.

Of course, I don’t know many fathers who wouldn’t love to brag to friends, family, and co-workers that junior just signed his first professional contract, the reality is that their young athlete would be better served marching down to the local McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s, and applying for a job flipping burgers. They’ll at least be making more than the federal minimum wage, and after three years, they’ll probably have been promoted to a shift manager and may even have availed themselves to each one of these corporation’s management training programs. Now I’m no fan of the fast food industry, but in our money-driven system, a management track in fast food is a better option than filling a roster spot for some minor league owner, who profits from the exploitation of your baseball talent, to fill some seats, sell some hot dogs and receive the benefits that derive from a lease agreement that plays on our unhealthy elevation of baseball above other businesses that benefit the community more.

It’s always interesting to me how so many liberal do-gooders like to rail against their favorite targets, such as Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Exxon-Mobil and other corporations, who arguably deserve every bit of scorn heaped upon them. Yet, you’ll find a good many of these very same people occupying seats at their local minor-league ballpark, perpetuating a system of labor profiteering that is much worse than those practiced by other, non-sports entities. So this summer, when you buy that ticket for your favorite minor league baseball team, just keep in mind the unfair system of indentured servitude that you are supporting.


Baseball's Free Agent Draft (notice the irony of this site--while clearly laying out a case against why any young man would want to roll the dice in a system stacked against them, it turns around and offers help in entering the baseball machine.)

Player's salaries (based on 2004 numbers--I have little reason to believe it has changed dramatically.)

A rant (and accompanying article) on baseball's exploitive wage system

Monday, June 05, 2006

Community-based solutions

There are a number of issues that are becoming increasingly important and yes, even urgent, as we press forward into the 21st century. Peak oil is one of these and I’ve written about it numerous times. Additionally, global warming and climate change is an issue that requires society’s focus, as are the issues of out of control sprawl, which threatens our farmlands and wilderness habitats and in more populated areas, creates large scale traffic congestion, which further adds to wasteful use of dwindling petroleum stocks.

New Urbanism is a design movement where these issues are openly addressed and alternatives are offered to sprawl (which Jim Kunstler calls, “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world) and big box development. In fact, Kunstler has one of his more trenchant (and less polemical) posts on the importance of this visionary design movement.

While in Wisconsin for the College World Series, in Appleton, I spent some time walking the downtown area and visiting the neighborhoods just off West College Avenue (near Lawrence University). I’ve always enjoyed the grid like design of the Midwest, with its criss-crossed neighborhoods. What I liked about the city center of this community of 70,000, was the number of parks, neighborhood schools and areas that could be accessed by foot, or bicycle. Maine’s very own city of Portland, a city that is composed of various neighborhoods (Deering, Munjoy Hill, the West End, Bayside) is another good example of walkable design, although the I-295 spur that brings the suburban workers, from their McMansions, into the city, continues to become a greater and greater area of concern. One disastrous solution being proposed is adding additional lanes for traffic into the city, which will only enable those commuters traveling one to a car, each morning.

While there might be discussion and debate about the seriousness about some of the above mentioned issues and how far along we are on the peak oil continuum, New Urbanism offers proactive solutions that are workable and community-based. I urge readers to familiarize themselves with this movement because in my opinion, it offers reasonable and non-ideological answers to many questions and pressing concerns that are facing America, at this crucial juncture.

Friday, June 02, 2006

American Death Machine: From My Lai to Haditha

On the morning of May 16, 1968, a group of soldiers from Charlie Company, a unit of the 11th Infantry Brigade, entered the Vietnamese village of My Lai. They were conducting a “search and destroy” mission, intended to root out the Viet Cong and any enemy sympathizers. The My Lai massacre was a wake up call to average Americans about the savagery that was being carried out in their names, during the Vietnam War. Up to that point, despite the widespread protests, mainly carried out on college campuses, most Americans were immune to the nightly body counts displayed on their black and white television screens.

With My Lai, Americans got to see what war does to young men, when they are ripped from their civilian lives of friends, family and work, and are thrust into the killing zone. In the course of about three hours, over 500 innocent civilians, many who had bowed to the soldiers as they entered the village, were murdered in cold blood, killed by American soldiers sent to destroy the Communist threat. During those three hours of carnage, women were gang raped, babies were murdered by soldiers crushing their skulls with rifle butts, and victims were mutilated by having a “C” (for Charlie Company) carved into their chests with bayonet points.

War is hell, or so it is said. Part of its hellishness is the way it takes ordinary people and turns them into animals—basic killing machines—existing simply to kill, or be killed. War, in order for it to be waged properly, requires a psychological metamorphosis. Ordinary mechanisms which prevent sadistic acts, such as torture, must be overridden. One of the ways that this is done is during the basic training of our troops, they are psychologically manipulated, in order to make them “lean, mean, killing machines.” And then we shake our heads when incidents like this occur.

The atrocities of My Lai were covered up for almost a year, before news began leaking out about what had occurred. A combination of loose talk and one conscientious GI, named Ron Ridenhour, who had ambitions of becoming a journalist, provided a conduit for the allegations to eventually reach the corridors of power, in Washington. Ridenhour was having a beer with fellow soldiers, when a member of Charlie Company began boasting about his exploits in My Lai. Ridenhour, horrified that something like this could have been carried out by fellow soldiers, set the information down and sought to substantiate the stories that he heard in the bar. Once back in the states, he sent his story to the top 30 names in charge of the military, where they eventually reached General William Westmoreland, who oversaw the overall operation in Vietnam. Consequently, an investigation into the charges was launched.

Finally, in late 1969, over a year after My Lai occurred, investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, revealed the grisly details to the American public. Hersh’s story indicated a coordinated cover up was conducted by those in charge in Vietnam. While there was enough evidence to convict 30 soldiers for their roles in the atrocities committed in the name of freedom and liberty, only one soldier was convicted—Lt. William Calley—the commanding officer in the operation.

Calley, originally sentenced to life in prison, with hard labor, found himself released after three days, pending instructions of President Richard Nixon. Calley was held under house arrest, at Fort Benning, Georgia. He later was freed on bail, and in 1974, had his sentence reduced to ten years and was later paroled, after serving but one third of the reduction. Meanwhile, the lives of the villagers had been shattered, never to return to the normalcy that they had known before the Americans had invaded their rural community and simple way of life.

In many ways, the revelations that accompanied My Lai were a catalyst in changing America's view of Vietnam and became a tipping point in the loss of support for the war. After this, popular support for the anti-war movement eventually led to Nixon ordering troop reductions and an eventual withdrawal of all American troops from the killing zones.

Despite Nazi-like atrocities conducted by American soldiers, wrapped in the red, white, and blue of American patriotism, we continue to support the masters of war. Allowing ourselves to be duped again, to fight against a menace that few can articulately define, the war on terror, much like the war against Communism, continues to reveal the depths that we’ll allow our young men to be taken to. Manipulated, psychologically scarred and often, permanently damaged by acts of cruelty that many of us will never know the full details of. First we hear news reports about torture by U.S. troops, of Iraqi prisoners. Then, we have the killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha, these reports are but the tip of an ugly iceberg. The incident in Haditha indicates there may have been a My Lai-style cover-up. Initial reports of the deaths were given as caused by bombings, but death certificates show that the victims died from gunshot wounds to the head.

Apparently, U.S. Marines (our elite killers), shot and killed two dozen Iraqis, including children, and a man in a wheelchair, last November. Only now are we hearing reports about it. President Bush was quoted as saying, “I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the… you know, the laws were broken there'll be punishment.” We’ll have to wait and see just how thorough the investigation of this is and just what the president ultimately does about the killing of innocents, in the name of freedom.

I think Dylan had it right back in 1963, when he penned his classic, “Masters of War”, as nothing good has ever come from war, yet we insist on sending our young men (and now, our young women) off to be permanently ruined for the greed and glory of old men, too old, or too cowardly, to do the dirty work themselves.