Wednesday, March 30, 2011

R.I.P. Joe Bageant

A master of wit, wisdom, and razor sharp social commentary, whose truly unique perspective will be sorely missed. Part philosopher, comic, and humanitarian, I count him among my significant influences.

Thank you for being who you were Joe. That's all.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


This is an interesting case because many of us have found ourselves having a difficult time forming a definitive position on what is taking place. On the one hand, a tyrannical dictator was using fighter jets, tanks, and other heavy military equipment to attack a civilian population. This certainly qualifies as a humanitarian crisis. Nevermind that much of said military equipment is probably of US and European origin. It can be argued that the mass slaughter of civilians presents a moral obligation for a dominant, allegedly pro-democracy and pro-human rights country like the United States to intervene on behalf of the civilians who find themselves under attack.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. However, a fair counter point is made. What of other similar cases of innocent people being slaughtered en masse where the US did not intervene?

It is an excellent question and the fact is, when you look at US military action over the past twenty years, there is no clear or consistent standard of what constitutes justification for US intervention. This is one part of the problem for me. But the real problem is, historically, when has US military action in middle eastern countries ever had a net positive outcome? Our track record is abysmal. We have a spectacular ability to turn a bad situation into a hellish one and create a host of determined new enemies in the process. The term is blowback. And it’s what happens when you blow up lots of innocent people. Friends and relatives of blown up people do not give a shit about the US’s proclaimed intentions – even in the rare instance that our intentions are not blatantly self-serving.

As to the legality of Obama’s actions, the fact that the decision for a no-fly zone originated within the UN and was mandated through a security council resolution (unlike Iraq) absolves him from any legal wrongdoing. The United Nations Participation Act passed in 1945 excuses the president from needing congressional approval for a case like this. No domestic or international laws have been broken by participating/leading the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. Anything beyond that is questionable.

However, just because it is legal does not automatically mean that it is right. Other points have been made concerning the will of the Libyan population. It has been argued that that should be the foremost consideration concerning US involvement. I wholeheartedly agree with this argument. The weakness of this argument is that it views an entire civilian population as a monolithic bloc, which is really an impossible assumption. But every indication I have seen suggests that yes, in general, the Libyan rebels (which we are again assuming is representative of the larger population) asked for and support a UN implemented no-fly zone.

It could be that I have succumbed to spin or propaganda from the various information sources I’ve used to form my opinions. As a rule I take every measure to avoid that but it’s not out of realm of possibility. Aside from the various news reports, it makes sense on a gut level. When civilians are being bombed by fighter jets and tanks it stands to reason that they support action alleviating that situation. With that in mind, I do break from some of the voices out there that I generally agree with on foreign policy issues, and find myself highly sympathetic to the view that the US/UN has a moral obligation to intervene and prevent the mass slaughter of civilians by the heavy firepower of their own government.

With that being said, Middle Eastern as well as American citizens have every reason to be highly skeptical about this (and any) US military intervention. Reluctance and reservation are not just understandable, but – at this point – are the only sane and rational response to any military aggression by the US.

And while I lean towards support of the no-fly zone, anything beyond that is suspect. Anything outside the specific mission outlined by the security council resolution is an immediate game changer. If US ground forces enter Libya, we’ll know we’ve been had (again). At this point one just hopes that this is that one out of twenty times when our intentions are pure and our action is justified.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pursuing Happiness

Hat tip to JRB at ladypoverty for his always insightful commentary and for directing my attention to this article from the WSJ.

At the risk of (re)stating the obvious it should be pointed out that ours is a society that overwhelmingly emphasizes instant gratification, pleasure, and relentless pursuit and adoration of the superficial. Whether or not that is intentional isn’t important. What is important is understanding the effects that this particular trait of the collective psyche has on our overall health and well-being.

The WSJ article talks about two kinds of happiness: eudaimonic – which refers to an overall sense of well-being, and hedonic – which refers to a more short term, fleeting kind of happiness.

When one thinks in terms of economics – which, sadly, seems to be the best lens for gleaning cause and effect relationships in the real world – it’s easy to understand why the hedonic is more highly valued than the eudaimonic. The key word is value. Value means dollars, profits. Pursuing immediate, short-lived happiness keeps us spending because repeating those temporary thrills somehow, almost always, translates into buying something; something that we will either consume, discard, or lose interest in shortly after purchasing it. This works out great for companies selling us junk we don’t need and employers that appreciate employees who remain in a perpetual state of financial insecurity because they promptly blow their entire paycheck in a hedonic frenzy. (Financially insecure individuals are amazingly amenable to employer demands requests!)

Probably as a result of the increasingly obvious perils of crass materialism starting to seep into the mass consciousness, more attention is being devoted to understanding how people might achieve authentic happiness. This could prove to be entertaining as any newly “exploding” field is destined to be latched onto by the marketing world as they seek to answer the question: how can this rising sentiment be exploited to sell our product?

Self-fulfillment, purpose, and meaning aren’t concepts that easily lend themselves to the consumerist model. That doesn’t mean there won’t be, and haven’t already been, cynical attempts to do just that (designer yoga mats, $1500 meditation retreats?).

I appreciate the WSJ article because the cited study provides empirical evidence strongly suggesting something that most of us have observed and intuitively felt: that our culture’s extreme emphasis on materialism is harmful to our psychological and physical health.

Just what the rising awareness of this will mean in practical terms remains to be seen. There will be no sudden shift in American values, that much is certain. Human nature being what it is and the all-pervasive, highly sophisticated marketing machine being what it is both ensure this. But I don’t think resistance is futile. And it’s encouraging to speculate on how society might gradually reshape itself if our collective ideas of success and ambition are redefined to include meaning, purpose, and authentic self-fulfillment.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gone Acoustic

A month or two I set a goal to write something new on this blog at least twice a week. That hasn't quite worked out as intended because life happens, and things come up. Things always come up. Amazing, that.

Here's my excuse this week...

This weekend, in anticipation of a modest but much welcomed tax-refund, I finally broke down and purchased an acoustic guitar. It was something I'd been thinking about for months if not years. That seems to be the way I work. I get an idea in my head, it lingers there and marinates for some length of time, and eventually I manage to act on it. Occasionally I do something impulsive but usually, for whatever reason, it takes awhile for my visions, ideas, or whatever to come to fruition. For instance, I've been thinking of planting a small vegetable garden because the idea of eating food that I've grown has become very appealling. Who knows when this will actually happen, but chances are that it will.

So anyway - I bought this guitar Sunday morning, after playing maybe ten different prospects the day before. I didn't want to break the bank but I did want something decent. I ended up with a Seagull Entourage. (I'm too lazy and hurried to put up a picture or link right now.)

I've played (or attempted to) guitar for a number of years now but I've always been an electric guy. For the longest time acoustic just didn't appeal to me. But lately the simplicity, portability, and versatility of acoustic has kind of gradually drawn me that direction; possibly another outward expression of my inner state.

I've had the guitar since Sunday and there hasn't been a tremendous amount of free time since then but what free time there has been, has been spent with the acoustic. It really is alot of fun and challenging in its own way. It's physically harder to play than the stratocaster but the quickness and ease with which you can learn songs is amazing. It's a totally different vibe and has really reignited my interest in playing music. Undoubtedly our trip to Austin two weekends ago tipped me over the edge on this.

And thus goes my latest excuse for neglecting the blog. Maybe this weekend I can introduce the acoustic to the blog via the dinky iFlip camera, and we can have a little infomercial for Seagull guitars here. (And my adoring throngs of blog readers can see why I have a day job.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On Spiked Penises And Union Busting

The cool thing about having your own blog is that you can write about whatever you want. And this evening seems as good as any for an impromptu discussion on how, if not for evolution , male human beings might have penises studded with "small, hard spines". That's right, spiked penises ladies and gentlemen. Female humanoids might take this opportunity to send gratitude out to the Universe for the evolutionary forces that intervened on their (and our) behalf. Crazy stuff, yo.

Okay so I don't really intend to defile the hallowed ground of this blog with an essay devoted to penises. But I did come across this today and thought it was kind of disturbing and unique and I thought my distinguished readers might also find it as amusing, interesting, and grotesque as I did. So enjoy.

One thing I do feel compelled to comment on, completely unrelated to the spikey penis thing, is this brouhaha in Wisconsin; and by brouhaha, I mean this latest assault on people who work for a living - the lower 99%, economically speaking.

Wisconsin republicans managed to pass their cynically and euphemistically named "budget repair" bill last night. Many conservative, working class Americans are very enthusiastic about this because hey, now public employees in Wisconsin will be that much closer to sharing the same level of powerlessness, job-insecurity, and lowered standards that they currently enjoy.

Teaching school is a very modestly paid and noble profession. And God knows it's a difficult profession, dealing with insolent, sometimes gun-toting, and heavily medicated kids, and apathetic or belligerent parents. One can't imagine a person making that career choice for the financial rewards. I know it's cliche, but there are few outside figures who will have a more lasting impact on a person than one's school teachers. Yes, like any profession, there are bad ones. But there are also really, really good ones. It's hard to think of a profession that contributes more to society and that we have somehow been persuaded to demonize school teachers is appalling and embarrassing. Only in a society that's gone horribly wrong can public school teacher become a symbol of greed and extravagance.

Make no mistake, this move on the part of Governor Walker has nothing to do with balancing the budget. The teachers union agreed to the pay and benefit cuts that were requested. What they did not agree to was surrendering their collective bargaining rights, without which their union would be effectively neutered and meaningless. This bill was not about saving taxpayer money, it was about striking a blow to what's left of organized labor in this country. Solidarity among working people, public or private sector, terrifies the corporate oligarchy and must be crushed by whatever means necessary.

They started this assault back when His Holiness The Ronald Reagan fired the unionized air-traffic controllers and made it cool to hate unions. Union membership in the US has fallen from almost 30% of the workforce in the late 70s to less than 8%currently. And the American middle class has suffered accordingly, as can be seen in the various studies that compare income/wealth inequality trends over the past 40 years.

And it's not just wealth and income that has deteriorated for the working class. Long before public sector unions existed, private sector employees once enjoyed guaranteed pensions and generous health benefits. As political power and therefore policy has shifted further in favor of the economic elite, these benefits have eroded for private sector employees. Pensions have been replaced with 401Ks, shifting risk and expense from employer to employee, and the amounts employees contribute to their health insurance premiums have exploded.

The Wisconsin situation is just another move to disempower the working class, ensuring cheap labor for the corporate elite. And if busting public employee unions becomes the trend it will affect more than just public employees and will be a significant factor contributing to further economic inequality in the US. Class war at it's finest.

Monday, March 7, 2011

McMurtry Live @ The Saxon

This weekend I had the privilege of attending a live, solo, acoustic performance by James McMurtry at The Saxon Pub in Austin, TX. My familiarity with McMurtry is a result of his song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”, which could be the theme song for the US’s current state of affairs. It is a raw, poetic expression of what has been happening to this country; a more honest national anthem for post-1980 America.

The show itself was an unforgettable experience. The Saxon is a tiny, intimate venue. And when I say intimate that can be quite literal in the standing room only areas as moving from point A to B ensures the mutual violating of personal space. Luckily when McMurtry took the stage the desire to go anywhere quickly vanished. One was grateful just to be standing there.

He is an incredible lyricist. The comparison with Bob Dylan is a fair one, although McMurtry is more grit than ethereal, more storyteller than mystic. His stage presence is…intense. At times it felt like he was almost glaring at you as those haunting, soulful verses poured out. In my case it’s possible he was actually glaring at me as I was blocking the door and he literally had to bump me out of the way to make his way towards the stage. All I can say, Mr. McMurtry, if you happen to read this, is that it was an honor.

The feeling and emotion he put into every tune was astounding, especially when one considers that he’s performed each song hundreds of times. He tells stories with his music; gut-wrenching tales, unapologetically dark, profound, and real…almost too real. One could say depressing. But his refusal to shy away from the harsh and uncomfortable aspects of human existence is part of his greatness. You are pulled into the drama and raw emotion of each song, like a riveting novel or movie.

Being at this show I felt that I was in the presence of a living legend, an American master. In the era of Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga, McMurtry is destined to be an underrated, underappreciated talent who probably never makes it to household name status. His message is not likely to meet the corporate approval prerequisite of attaining mass popularity. Frankly I doubt that he cares much. His is not generally feel good music, but it is music that you will feel, and feel deeply. And I should also mention that he rips it up on the twelve string acoustic guitar. His proficiency with the guitar is up there with his ability to craft soul-stirring verses.

In summary, let’s just say that I will definitely be going out of my way to catch another live James McMurtry performance.

In case any of my illustrious readers are unfamiliar, here's a sample. This is the album version of "We Can't Make It Here Anymore".


Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Culturally constructed ignorance…perfect. An interesting article but anyone who has spent time debating politics online or anywhere else knows that facts are, at best, of secondary importance. That’s the beauty of the information age; you can find “facts” that support your position, no matter how ludicrous it may be. My point being, the argument made by the author isn’t exactly an earth shattering revelation.

I’m too young to remember a time when we could all agree on basic reality (earth round, 2 + 2 = 4, etc) but without that agreement, constructive discussion is impossible. Maybe there was never that basic agreement but one can imagine that without access to thousands of dubious but credible sounding websites and a 24 hour “news” cycle (the term is used oh so loosely) and hundreds of talk radio stations dedicated to constant propaganda and agitation, that it was more difficult for the obfuscators to obfuscate.

And let’s be clear on something. ‘Culturally constructed ignorance’ is a misnomer. It’s not the culture that facilitates and creates its own ignorance. It’s those elements in society that have the means to advocate their agenda in a highly visible way – basically, rich people. You have the right to be informed but only insofar as being informed doesn’t conflict with the preferences of the elites.

I do like the phrase “Disinformation Revolution”. Disinformation is far more profitable as people are more likely to tune in to information sources that confirm their own biases. And truth is generally bad for business anyway. Hard news certainly isn’t sexy. Emotion and hyperbole is sexy. Scaring the shit out of people on a regular basis keeps them coming back like hogs to a trough. Fear is sexy. I can’t quite understand that one but it’s impossible for me to watch more than half an hour of cable news or prime time television and come to any other conclusion.

The author and creator of the term agnotology, being apparently less jaded and cynical than I am, closes on an optimistic note, pointing out that the internet makes secrets harder to keep. Maybe that’s true, but it also makes completely fabricated bull$hit more easy to disseminate. But…with new players like Wiki-Leaks out there, his optimism may be not be unfounded. Censorship has certainly become more difficult if we consider the internet. The question is, is the internet enough to offset the self-censorship and corporate subservience of the tee vee? I’m iffy on that one, but hopeful.

On a closing note, it must be pointed out that ignorance is truly bliss. Who wants bad news? Who wants to confront the fact that driving their car or eating a hamburger might be significantly harming the live-ability of our planet? Who wants to admit that their country has slipped into a kind of corporate feudalism? These are things we’d rather not think about.

At this point you might be asking yourself: How can I know this is credible? How can I be sure this guy has any clue what he’s talking about? Allow me to alleviate your concern and assure you that I have your best interest at heart, and besides, this is the internet…so it must be true!