December 22, 2014

Race to the bottom

The worst, based on actions, stats & statements over the past year

Government agencies

  • NSA
  • Supreme Court
  • CIA
  • FISA Court
  • FBI
  • Homeland Security
  • Pentagon
  • DEA

Where is the counter culture when we need it?

From 50 years of our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2012 - The other day I got a call from a student working on a college paper about Coffee 'n Confusion, a Washington coffeehouse the local police had tried to close down in the late 1950s as an offense against the community's welfare. I had covered the story as a radio reporter and still had the tape of Texas lawyer Harvey Rosenberg's magnificent plea for unfettered artistic expression:
"We have been accused of a cultural dearth in the United States. Wherever you go in Europe they talk about the cultural lag. Personally, I must admit that I have very little knowledge of poetry, or the bohemian atmosphere that is found in Coffee n Confusion. But I have been informed by personages who have visited Paris that this is the way that numerous writers and poets who have reached the French scene, and are recognized as outstanding authors and poets, began their struggle in the artistic world.

"There must be some area where people can get together and present their views, whether it be on art, politics, chess or women. We have in the fair city of Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the latter search. We have in Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the search for art in the sense of the Mellon Gallery. but we have no place where the poet may congregate and present his work . . ."
In Philadelphia, police official Frank Rizzo didn't have to face such legal eloquence and managed to close down three or four similar establishments. This success, combined with later convincing the mob to do their murders anywhere but in his district, helped Rizzo eventually to become mayor.

But during a time when history insists nothing was happening in America there were still about 1,000 coffee houses across the country catering to the quietly alienated and gently rebellious with poetry, guitars and bongo drums. It would turn out later that the 1950s had been the sleeper cells of the 1960s.

But why was there so much counter-movement in the 1950s - including coffee houses, cool jazz, the civil rights drive, existentialism, and the beats - and so little today? Why, at a time when the country is more bitterly divided and more overflowing with alienation than at any moment in modern history is so little of the angst expressed in alternative action, culture or community rather than largely in criticism, complaints, protests, depression and despair? Where is the counterculture when we need it?

To be sure, elements can be found on a localized, random, or individual scale. Temporary autonomous zones, in Hakim Bey's fine phrase, exist across our land - from persistent strains of rebellion of the west coast to smaller and more fragile manifestations such as the Ugly Fishermen, a book club I visited the other night comprised largely of former peace corps volunteers in their 20s and 30s that was stocked with more conviction, consciousness and thoughtful self-examination than I ordinarily encounter in a whole month. There are also punk musicians, alternative agronomists, utopian urbanists, struggling ministers, stubborn social workers and others whose lack of mention here merely supports my point: although they share courage and conceptions, attitudes and ideals, we don't think of them as one, but only as lonely candles in the dark. And it is easy to forget they are even there.

Some, mainly younger Americans, have told me that a counter-culture is too much to expect. Every promising rebellion in our society these days quickly becomes commodified and corporatized. Certainly the road between Stonewall and Queer Eye has become stunningly short. MTV and record companies have stolen whole age cohorts for their rapacious purposes and Starbucks has even made the word coffeehouse suspect.

This is all true enough, but as one who has spent a lifetime of rebellious non-respectability without even a hint of co-optation on the horizon, there seems to be more to the vacuum of cultural alternatives than just the manipulative mischief of corporate marketers.

For example, part of the problem appears to be an unconscious acceptance of behaviors and ways of thought promulgated by the very forces one wishes to overcome. Big business, big bureaucracy, and big everything else have brought with them a language and routine as well as a faux logic that is semi-autistic in its inability to relate facts, principles and theories to the social ecology in which they exist. We know logically what is wrong and what needs to be done but limit ourselves to the rigid and unresponsive tools and rules of large rigid and unresponsive organizations.

It is what John McKnight noted over a decade ago in describing the difference between institutions and associations:
"The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent. . . You will know that you are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing. You will know you are in an institution, corporation, or bureaucracy if you hear the silence of long halls and reasoned meetings."
I don't go to as many activist meetings any more in part because the laughter and singing has largely disappeared. No more standing in a church holding hands and singing 20 choruses of "We Shall Overcome" because the SNCC speaker hasn't shown up yet. No more interrupting city council meetings with musical parodies celebrating the cause at hand. Instead, an agenda posted on the whiteboard indicates by the minute what is to be accomplished with only six at the end devoted to the cause that brought you there in the first place. And that at a Green Party meeting.

I mentioned this problem to a national figure in the Greens and he explained that the party had become leery of things seen as idiosyncratic, tired of being made fun of for being different and so, for example, hands wiggled in the air as an alternative to applause was on its way out as the Greens tried hard not to act and look too much like Greens.

This started years ago. As far back as the 1970s, activists in Washington were making their organizations appear more like traditional lobbying groups and dressing to match. Gone were the days when Ralph Nader was the only progressive in town who wore a suit and his was never pressed.

Today, the trend has expanded into what might be called corporatized activism, in which the iconic goals are admirably progressive but the means of achieving them virtually indistinguishable from how those being fought would organize themselves.

The virtues of democracy are constantly praised but the responsibilities of the targets of this enthusiasm are largely limited to signing things - letters, petitions and checks - while the practitioners have replaced the rally and the caucus with the self-addressed return envelope. It is not that Move On or Rock the Vote are wrong; it is just that they are merely marketing strategies and not movements.

There is a similar problem with segments of the alternative media. For example, the so-called alternative weeklies are anything but. With sadly few exceptions they foster a compliant corpacool culture in which hipness is defined by one's purchases; dissent is limited to critiques of style, activism is something you do at the gym, and politics the last refuge of the hopelessly dull.

It is a well kept secret that many of the articles in such publications are not meant so much for the reader as for the clip file for when the authors abandon their alternatives ways in favor of employment by more upscale media.

Neither has the Internet, all its virtues notwithstanding, proved particularly effective at building an effective counterculture save for the part-child part-adult world of toys and trends inhabited by the techno-nerd. I'm just not confident that when the revolution comes it will need a grenade shaped like a Pac Man or a MP3 player stuffed into a Pez container.

As for politics and news, one gets the sense hanging around the Web that many people come there not so much for information as for confirmation. With the natural atomization that such a truly free press produces there also seems to be a strong bias towards the journalistically evangelical. 

I do not say this with any clear conscience. After all, criticism is to the journalist as heroin is to the hood. It's a lot more fun to write about what's wrong with the right than to try to get labor and Democrats and Greens and Naderites all working together, or figuring out what the waiting room of utopia should look like, or discovering how to make rebellion a community as well as a cause.

But I also feel the vacuum, the loneliness, the silence, the dehydration of the soul as people who want desperately to save our Constitution, country, and planet still wander the streets without even knowing how to say hi to one another.

Perhaps that's how it could begin, nothing more complicated than a new peace sign or maybe a sort of high five that salutes the decent and the democratic. Or perhaps a song to which we can all nod in agreement. Or perhaps new special places we can meet in order to - as C.S. Lewis put it - discover that we are not alone.

If we think of our rebellion as only a means of destroying the evil around us we will go down with that evil. We must not only bring an end to the wrong but give birth to the good, the community, the culture and the values that will replace it. We can't wait for the former to begin the latter. And if we do, we will have failed.

December 21, 2014

Fox News pulled from Dish Network

Slashdot  - Fox News and Fox Business were pulled by Dish Network over the weekend, as both continue to argue over a fee agreement. From the article: "Dish said in a statement early Sunday morning that 21st Century Fox had blocked access to the two networks after Dish balked when rates for other networks owned by the media conglomerate were made a part of the negotiations. Tim Carry, executive vice president of distribution at Fox News Channel, countered in a statement that "Dish prematurely ceased distribution of Fox News in an attempt to intimidate and sway our negotiations. It is unfortunate that the millions of Fox News viewers on Dish were used as pawns by their provider. Hopefully they will vote with their hard earned money and seek another one of our other valued distributors immediately."

NYC police declare war on mayor

Melissa Melton, Activist Post The New York Police Department has declared “war” after two officers were killed Saturday in their squad car while taking part in an anti-terrorism drill by a gunmen said to be taking revenge for the death of Eric Garner.

In the wake of the shootings, the NYPD’s union New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association issued this bulletin showing that the NYPD are most certainly not taking things lightly:
    Starting IMMEDIATELY: At least two units are to respond to EVERY call, no matter the condition or severity, no matter what type of job is pending, or what the opinion of the patrol supervisor happens to be.

     IN ADDITION: Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest.

    These are precautions that were taken in the 1970?s when police officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis.

    The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words actions and policies and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.
Well, Michael Bloomberg did say the NYPD was his own “army” back when he was mayor.

On a side note (which really shouldn’t be the side note here), what exactly do they mean by “Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest.”

Are they admitting openly what we already know? That not all enforcement actions and arrests are “absolutely necessary” to begin with?

It’s too bad we live in a country where that isn’t the rule all the time.

Some memories

PD James

Lauren Bacall

Maya Angelou

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Great moments with Jeb Bush

Newsweek - The collapse of InnoVida Holdings LLC in 2011 didn’t get much traction in the media. Except in South Florida, where a small group of investors lost more than $40 million on a scheme to market hurricane- and earthquake-resistant homes assembled from prefabricated plastic panels. The company CEO had promised a highly publicized roll-out in Haiti followed by expansion into more lucrative markets. Neither ever occurred.

Even in South Florida, the story had receded into endless litigation (with more than 1,000 pleadings filed in bankruptcy and civil proceedings). It resurfaced in The New York Times in April, because it involved former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is emerging as the preferred 2016 presidential candidate among establishment Republicans who consider New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unelectable.

Bush was both a director on the corporate board and a marketing consultant for InnoVida Holdings LLC while it was the subject of a criminal investigation that sent its two top executives to jail.


Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching. -- Satchel Paige

What's happening

Back in May 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted surveys and found that the more religious an American is, the more likely he or she is to support torture.

There are fewer Americans in prison, jail, probation, or parole than any time since 2003

How well is your state doing?

Jazz break

Chet Baker, "Autumn Leaves"