Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

America’s Unfunniest Home Videos

June 7, 2010

Nothin’ to see here, move along now.

Anybody with the privilege of an Internet connection can do a search for “police brutality” on YouTube to see that there are tons of cops out there doing ruthless, illegal shit to innocent people all the time. I’m not talking about kicking a murderer while he’s handcuffed after a high speed chase. Cops are out there every day engaging in sociopath behavior that would make Joe Pesci’s character from Goodfellas proud: tazing little kids and old ladies, shooting people in the back, pushing women down stairs, yelling racist slurs while stomping on innocent bystanders, kicking people off their bikes, shooting people’s dogs, and pretty much everything short of water-boarding baby panda bears.

This is nothing new, of course – check the story of Jon Burge for a good example of how systemic this behavior is. Burge was a Chicago cop who used Viet Cong tactics to torture false confessions out of black men for decades and was promoted for his viciousness and even protected from prosecution by Chicago’s current Mayor, Richard Daley. Fortunately, the ubiquity of camera phones has finally given regular people a safety net against unchecked police brutality. I use the term “safety net” because catching cops in the act is really the only chance of protection against the wrath of police – it might not save you, but at least you have a chance.

Usually after the cops assault (or murder) an innocent person, they blame the victim. Good luck trying to win your case or pursue a civilian complaint against the police when it’s your word against theirs. Video evidence has been the smoking gun that’s saved an increasing number of people from false charges and in a few cases, the tables have even been turned when public outrage resulted in cops actually being charged with their crimes (gasp!).

Since cops only like rules when the rules are on their side, now they’re trying to destroy our only safety net. According to Wendy McElroy, “a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer. Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.”

What’s next – are they going to take a cue from Jennifer Lopez and pass a laws that makes it illegal to look a cop in the eye?

If the cops beat your ass, but no one was around to film it, did your ass ever really get beaten?

The “no filming cops” rule could dovetail interesting with another emerging trend in law enforcement: the Blackwaterization of police departments. The San Francisco Chronicle revealed this week that the relatively affluent town of San Carlos may deal with its budget crisis by “dissolving its Police Department and outsourcing the job of law enforcement.” The mayor of neighboring Google City – oops, I mean Redwood City – said “There’s no question in my mind that this is the wave of the future.” (Bummer. I was still hoping that hover-boards would be the wave of the future.)

Anyway, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to speculate on the disastrous confluence of these unconstitutional trends of not being able to record the police and outsourcing police departments.

Just remember: Power will always seek to turn the odds in its favor, justify even the most unjustifiable atrocities and humiliate anyone who dares oppose it.

Let’s check out a few stories from this week’s news to see this equation in action: Sarah Palin blamed environmentalists for the BP disaster; a Clear Channel radio station in Ohio sponsored a contest to send listeners to Arizona “to chase aliens and spend cash in the desert;” Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, wants to prosecute U.S. citizens aboard the ship that was attacked by Israeli commandos for supporting terrorism while the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer denies that there’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza…

As this never-ending list of laugh-until-you-cry hypocrisy, nihilistic celebration of misery and proud ignorance unspools like ticker-tape charting the crash of what Jeremy Rifkin called “the empathic civilization,” I get the feeling that humanity is not too big to fail.

And for better or worse, there won’t be any bailout when this market collapses.

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Salt: Still Safer Than Anthrax and Tastier, Too!

June 1, 2010

You'll know that the food industry lobbyists have won when you start seeing ads for this new "protein shake" popping up at your local health club.

Despite government health experts’ claim that cutting salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year, the processed food industry is “working overtly and behind the scenes” to “delay and divert” potential regulation or guidelines.

According to the New York Times, trying to get corporations like Kellogg, Kraft Foods and Cargill to cut back a little on the salt is like trying to get a tweeker to reduce their meth  consumption – they just don’t wanna give up those little white crystals.

Corporate “flavorologists” argue that processed food tastes like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair” without added sodium, so unless you want crackers that taste like a homeless guy was sleeping inside of them or cookies that taste like a mutt’s wet ass, you better just learn how to deal with that hypertension, grandma.

Well… actually, they admit that you can make processed food taste better simply by using fresher ingredients instead of just dumping more salt into them, but that would “risk losing profits.” So instead of investing in healthier food, the food industry is throwing millions and millions into a massive marketing push with junk science and PR front groups like “The Salt Institute.

This is how the folks from The Salt Institute unwind after a long day at the propaganda factory.

Here’s my favorite clip from the Salt Institute’s Web site (and when you’re reading this, just remember that this is all funded by corporations that sell globs of chemicals designed to look and smell like food with names like “Green Slime” (a children’s cereal) and “Chicken Rings”):

Most are unaware of the 14,000 known uses for salt, how it’s produced and our success in ensuring the environmental compatibility as it provides the foundation for the quality of our lives. Mankind evolved from the sea and we have a saline “sea” within us as do all fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Environmental author Rachel Carson is best known for her book on birds, but she also wrote The Sea Around Us offering this insight: “When the animals went ashore to take up life on land, they carried part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origins in the ancient sea.”

Excuse me while I wipe a salty, delicious tear from my eye – but you’ve just gotta love the corporate behemoths responsible for FrankenFoods and the dominance of factory farms quoting the godmother of the modern environmental movement. These guys must have giant, genetically modified balls to feed us propaganda so ridiculous that if irony was a dude his head would have just exploded.

Cargill’s “Salt 101” campaign is another wonderful case study in corporate psychology and ethics. In response to more and more scientists warning us that excess salt leads to terrible health problems and premature death this company launches an pro-salt advertising blitz that suggests “sprinkling it on foods as varied as chocolate cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream and even coffee.” This would be like if the gun industry put up ads saying “Shoot More People!” so they could increase bullet sales.

Cargill even recruited Food Network celebrity chef Alton Brown to push the “put salt on everything” message. “You might be surprised,” Mr. Brown says, “by what foods are enhanced by its briny kiss.”

Mr. Brown, you can kiss my briny ass – I hope my butt sweat enhances the flavor.

This is the only Salt that I think we need more of…

Teapublicans Want You to Bomb the Capitol Building (Metaphorically, of course)

April 25, 2010

The new face of the Republican Party is pretty creepy... but its definitely an improvement over Dick Cheney.

Ever since the election of America’s first black president, Republican leaders and pundits have been invoking some pretty dubious role models. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions compared Republicans to the Taliban. Sean Hannity called a gathering of Tea Partiers “a bunch of Tim McVeigh wannabes” and they responded with wild applause. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman organized an anti-health care reform rally on Guy Fawkes Day last year, where she described her followers as “insurgents” and urged these “freedom fighters” to storm the Capitol building to “scare” members of Congress.

Now, some might find it hypocritical for Bachman, a woman who has received more than $250,000 in welfare checks (in the form of corn and dairy subsidies for her family farm), to choose Guy Fawkes as the mascot for her anti-government crusade. Fawkes, after all, was a “terrorist” who was executed for attempting to detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the UK Parliament with the King and all the noble aristocrats inside.

Guy Fawkes: Hero of the Left or Paleo-Teabagger?

However, Bachman did resign from a school board over controversy involving the movie Alladin promoting “witchcraft;” belonged to a church that thought the Pope was “the anti-Christ;” and recently advocated armed revolution in response to Obama’s energy policy, so the Fawkes thing actually rates pretty low on the Bachman Wack-o-meter.

Anyhoo, getting back to the point, the Republican Governors Association just unveiled a new campaign called “Remember November” that not only rips off its title from the Guy Fawkes legend, but uses the famous “V” logo created by Alan Moore for his Fawkes-inspired comic book “V for Vendetta” (the “V” is subtly inserted into the word “NoVember” at the end of the video.)

Are they serious? It was silly when RNC chairman Michael Steele was co-opting dated rap lingo to sell an “off-the-hook” “hip-hop makeover” for the GOP, but this is just ridiculous. I knew that RGA President and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was looney tunes when he said that not mentioning slavery in a proclamation about Confederate History Month “doesn’t matter for diddly,” but now he’s running a campaign that’s culture-jacking from Alan Moore – a vegetarian, anarchist pagan?!

Alan Moore: Serpent-Worshipping Hermit or the Next Karl Rove?

Plus, people dressed up like the “V” character were a staple at anti-Bush rallies for years. Republicans can’t steal this from left-wingers – that would be like if progressives started wearing tri-corner hats at street protests or if Glenn Greenwald wore a bow tie during his next MSNBC appearance. Some lines you don’t want to cross.

And, frankly, this is unfair. Right-wingers have so many action heroes to choose from. They made Arnold Schwarzenegger a governor. Chuck Norris was Mike Huckabee’s body-guard/confidant. Sylvester Stallone has recruited a whole horde of washed-up ‘roid-heads for a new anti-Hugo Chavez movie. Besides the blue guy from Avatar and Matt Damon, what kind of ass-kickers do the left have? Emma Goldman?

Instead of co-opting V for Vendetta, here’s a list of movies that I think would be more appropriate for the Teapublicans to use for their next campaign:

Grumpy Old Men
Why: Self-explanatory.

The Wrestler
Why: I think a lot of Tea Partiers should be able to relate to Mickey Rourke’s character: a creepy, over-the-hill white guy who is addicted to pain-killers (like Republican patron saint Rush Limbaugh).

300
Why: The violent, xenophobic nature of… actually, forget it. I don’t want to any super-sized wingnuts running around in loincloths and capes.

Groundhog Day
Why: Because Republicans always make the same mistakes over and over again (failed imperial military adventures; driving up the Federal budget after the say they’re going to “shrink government”; passing “family values” laws and then getting busted for gay affairs and/or soliciting sex workers; etc.)

A Day Without a Mexican
Why: I don’t think they would like the actual movie, but the GOP’s widespread support for Arizona’s new law that makes having brown skin probable cause for arrest indicates that most Republicans are supportive of this concept.

Road Warrior
Why: Mel Gibson, ultra-violent militias and everyone is obsessed with fossil fuel. ‘Nuff said.

OK, since I’ve given all this free advice to the Republicans, I really owe at least once suggestion to the Democrats. If the Dems decide to base a new campaign on movie, I think it should be…

The New Star Wars Trilogy
Why: It didn’t live up to the hype, it was hard for fans to follow the plot, and it didn’t close Guantanamo, just like the Obama Administration, so far…

"Yeah, I know I said I was going to ban corporate lobbyists from working in my administration, but if you don't quit bugging me about that I'll slice your arm off!"

Maybe They’re Too Big To Fail Because They Ate So Much Pie

April 10, 2010

This is like America's richest 1%, but with money instead of corn.

Imagine the wealthiest one percent of America as a single person. Obviously, he’s an old white guy. Now, picture Mr. Moneybags inside a bank vault that contains all the cash in the entire country and he’s using a vacuum cleaner to suck up all the money.

The vacuum cleaner is so big that he can’t run it all by himself, so nine of his closest friends are in the vault helping him capture the towering piles of cash stacking up all around them. The reason why the mountains of money keep getting bigger is because there are 90 people outside of the vault who keep bringing them money.

Since the 10 people running the vacuum cleaner already have more money than they could possibly ever spend, they use about a quarter of the money inside the vault to keep this nice little arrangement running smoothly. They make sure that the bank tellers get some benefits and that the security guards have enough to feed their families. Some of these tellers and guards are living pretty comfortably, so they don’t complain and do what they’re told… because they don’t want to be on the outside.

On the other side of the bank’s heavily guarded gates, there are 50 people – the rest of America. Most of them think that if they just keep working hard enough, they can get a job inside the bank, too. Some of these folks outside are too hungry or sick to even try. The rich guys know that maintaining this arrangement is a balancing act, so they don’t take money from the poorest outsiders – they just keep a steady trickle of small bills and pocket change flowing to help them survive for a while (but not so much that they won’t want to work “for themselves.”)

This is the America I see when I look at this graph:

The world is not a simple place. Our country’s vast and unequal distribution of wealth is not a conspiracy – it’s the result of many influences ranging from complicit corporate media to our “pay-to-play” democracy. Rich people are obviously not all amoral money-grubbers. “Upward mobility” – while increasingly difficult – is still more possible for America’s working class and poor than in many other parts of the world.

But, really – don’t you think we can do better than this?

These charts are from a collection called “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America.”  I would like to see people print out poster-sized versions of these charts and walk around Tea Party rallies with them. That way, when a Tea Partier starts screaming about how wealth is being redistributed, you can point to the sign and say, “Yes, the wealth of America is clearly being re-distributed. Which way do you think it’s going?”


*Note: I know that these figures are pre-Obama, but these trends have not changed significantly, and any “re-distribution” is certainly not of the radical, socialist variety that Glenn Beck is crying about.

Regarding my suggestion to confront Tea Partiers with the facts... don't even bother with clowns like this guy. There are lots of good folks out there who have been brainwashed by FoxNews and a little reality check could go a long way.

Anarchists + Tea Party = Black Tea Party?

April 4, 2010

Not Likely

A call to disrupt Tea Party protests scheduled for April 15 was recently posted on Infoshop.org, a popular anarchist news site and forum. Once right-wing Web sites found out about the anarchists’ plan to invade their rallies, the cyber-insults and threats quickly piled up like clogged assembly line. That is to say, there was a lot of cookie-cutter trash talk from both sides, but it didn’t lead to productive results*.

Most of the anarchists’ online comments were little more than slight variants of the over-generalized description from the initial Infoshop article, which described the Tea Party movement as “a coalition of conservatives, anti-Semites, fascists, libertarians, racists, constitutionalists, militia men, gun freaks, homophobes, Ron Paul supporters, Alex Jones conspiracy types and American flag wavers.”

Most of the Tea Partiers’ comments involved at least one of the following three themes:

  • “I hope anarchists really do try to confront us so I can shoot them / attack them with my dog”
  • “All anarchists are smelly idiots/confused college students/entitled bums/narcissists/undercover provocateurs/fascists/liberals/Democrats”
  • “I’m confused. I thought anarchists were anti-government. Why do they want to fight us in order to protect government programs?” (This theme is in response to a line from the Infoshop article that says “If the tea party movement takes over this country they will really hurt poor people by getting rid of social programs like food stamps, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, student aid, free health care, etc.” Frankly, I wouldn’t expect Tea Partiers to up-to-date on the somewhat paradoxical nature of modern anarchist theory, so I can’t really blame them for being flabbergasted by what would seem to be a major philosophical contradiction. But I’m not going to get into that.)

OK, so that’s a quick and admittedly over-generalized overview of the situation so far. What will happen next? I’m no Miss Cleo but here’s my prediction:

On April 15, groups of anarchists confront larger groups of Tea Partiers. There will be screaming and name-calling along the lines of “You’re a fascist!” “No, you’re a fascist!”. There might be some minor skirmishes, but a lot of cops will be on hand to prevent anything too crazy. The cops will probably arrest a few anarchists. Both sides will go home confident that they “won” and spend the next few weeks re-hashing their triumphs. The animosity will continue to simmer.

Maybe next time, a few months from now, somebody will really get hurt. A Vietnam vet will re-assert his patriotism by pumping a bullet into some kid wearing black clothes and a black bandana over his face. Or maybe an anti-capitalist revolutionary will hurl a brick into a crowd and it will crack some old lady’s skull. Maybe the next level of violence will be instigated by an undercover government agent. That last option is just about the oldest trick in the book when the government wants to crack down on a movement – or two.

Either way, more government “attention” on both of these groups would be the inevitable next step in this utterly predictable sequence of events. History as well as current events informs us that the Feds are already keeping close tabs on organizations at both ends of the political spectrum. Moles and provocateurs are common.

This surveillance is understandable with situations involving violent factions like the Hutaree militia, who were arrested last week for plotting a mass murder, or animal liberation groups that send mail bombs to scientists. However, well-documented revelations of illegal spying and infiltration of totally peaceful anti-death penalty and anti-war groups like the Raging Grannies in recent years proves that if the government wants to spy on you, they will, whether you’re violent or not.

The point is that it could get much, much worse.

First they came for the Raging Grannies...

While I’m neither an anarchist nor a Tea Partier, I share some principles advocated by both sides. Resistance to unjust, unconstitutional invasions of privacy and anti-democratic policies is at the top of that list. In a nutshell, I don’t think the government should be allowed to violate people’s rights.

There are obviously irreconcilable differences between Tea Partiers and anarchists. I’m not naive enough to advocate for any kind of Tea Party/anarchist coalition (“the Black Tea Party”?). But as a confrontation that would seem to have no potential for a positive outcome draws near, I worry that these two movements will squander energy that could be focused on legitimate, mutual concerns involving serious threats to freedom that are rapidly emerging because they’ll be too busy arguing with each other.

Here’s one example: The government and corporations are teaming up for a massive crackdown on Internet freedoms.

Check out “Cyberwar Hype Intended to Destroy the Open Internet” for a great overview on a growing push by the military-industrial complex (including telecom and tech corporations) to “re-engineer the Internet.” According to a new Wired article, former national intelligence director and current Booz Allen Hamilton VP Michael McConnell is “talking about changing the internet to make everything anyone does on the net traceable and geo-located so the National Security Agency can pinpoint users and their computers in retaliation if the U.S. government does like what’s written in an e-mail, what search terms were used, what movies were downloaded.”

There’s already a Senate bill that would give the President “emergency powers” to take over the Internet and a bill in the UK that would outlaw open Internet connections, so some of these crackdowns could be right around the corner. While there are some cyber-activists organizing against this, a few groups like the nonpartisan Electronic Frontier Foundation are shouldering much of this burden (and there are lots of easy ways to plug into their campaigns to protect online freedoms).

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Tea Party movement for people on the left – and why it’s hard for anyone from mainstream Democrats to the crustiest anarchist to take their movement seriously – is that they waited until now to get angry. They certainly weren’t in the streets showing any concern when there was a white Republican in the White House violating the constitution, expanding executive power and driving up the national deficit to record levels. But now they’ve emerged as the biggest populist movement in recent history… and the only reaction from the left so far seems to be mockery and unfocused scorn (some of this is well-deserved), but it can’t be the only response.

Of course racist elements within the Tea Party are inexcusable and must be exposed. Regarding the Tea Party’s supposed platform of fiscal responsibility, their commitment to cut government spending would be a lot more believable if they focused on the most bloated and costly source of government expenditures, defense spending, instead of obsessing over welfare programs with budgets that are pocket change compared to military costs.

Along with “less spending,” the other vague pillar of Tea Party economics is “small government,” which has been the code language for irresponsible deregulation since the Reagan-era. In practice, “shrinking the government” is usually just a Trojan horse for exploiting people by, for example, lowering labor and environmental standards, and siphoning wealth into already deep pockets. However, the Tea Party has also made questioning the government and demanding accountability a top priority, and that streak of anti-authoritarianism is promising.

Even the wild-eyed hysteria and fact-challenged, paranoid hypocrisy spewed by demagogues like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh occasionally contains kernels of truth. Regardless of your political persuasion, even if you’re the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road centrist, there are tons of legitimate reasons to be really angry at the government. This much we should all be able to agree on.

I just hope this anger isn’t wasted on anonymous online pissing matches and street corner posturing. There are more productive ways for groups that disagree with each other to “confront” each other – ways that aren’t as likely to end with poor results for both sides.

[*Since I started writing this post, I’ve started to see some more thoughtful analysis, like “Tea Parties & The White Working Class” by Andrew Epstein, so hopefully that signals a shift towards less knee-jerky rhetoric.]

People Who Live in Glass Bunkers Shouldn’t Throw Stones

February 16, 2010

You can't handle the truth.

Over the past few days, news that a Taliban-affiliated military leader recorded videos depicting the rapes of young girls in Afghanistan has been generating excitement in the conservative blogosphere. While I fully support the exposure (and hopefully punishment) of such heinous scumbags, the holier-than-thou tone that characterized much of the right-wingers’ reaction to this news was not only creepy, but incredibly ironic.

Many of the “patriots” who weighed in on this story reacted with the following two arguments:

-Muslim men treat women like shit (Example comment: “These people are pigs. I read somewhere that when Muslims invade a village or are in a war, they carry ‘marriage certificates’ with them, then it’s all legal, because the wife must submit to her husband.”

-The “liberal” media that spent so much time trying to embarrass the Bush Administration by covering the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib will ignore this story (Example: “I seriously doubt you will see anything about this on any station except FOX!!! The MSM sucks!!!”)

I have no interest in defending the media or the way that women are treated in many Muslim countries, so I’ll just jump right into why these points are ironic coming from people who are generally so emphatic and unquestioning in their support for the US military: one-third of women serving in the US military are raped.

According to a Los Angles Times op-ed by Rep. Jane Harman, “Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.”

These statistics are sickening, but its Harman’s description of the details that really makes you want to puke: “The stories are shocking in their simplicity and brutality: A female military recruit is pinned down at knifepoint and raped repeatedly in her own barracks. Her attackers hid their faces but she identified them by their uniforms; they were her fellow soldiers. During a routine gynecological exam, a female soldier is attacked and raped by her military physician. Yet another young soldier, still adapting to life in a war zone, is raped by her commanding officer.”

To be fair, the Department of Defense has created a Sexual Assault and Response Office, but the problem of sexual assault in the military remains a horrifying epidemic that has barely generated much media attention (or reform within the military) outside of a few particularly salacious scandals. So, while I share revulsion with the right-wingers who are understandably appalled at rapes happening in tribal regions of Afghanistan thousands of miles away, I think that the motivation to demand accountability for rape would be more effective if focused on the thousands of sexual predators currently serving in the US military.

But when it comes to the sex and the US military, conservatives’ attention spans seem to have been monopolized by another policy: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In order to avoid accusations of homophobic intolerance, most mainstream conservative pundits claim that the military needs to keep out LGBT folks to protect “the morale” of straight soldiers. Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Foreign Policy Research Institute summed up this argument in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “To maximize the chances of battlefield success, military organizations must overcome the paralyzing effects of fear on the individual soldier… This they do by means of an ethos that stresses discipline, morale, good order and unit cohesion… The reason for excluding open homosexuals from the military has nothing to do with equal rights or freedom of expression. The primary consideration must be military effectiveness.”

If the military seriously wanted to prioritize effectiveness, would it make sense to discharge homosexuals who are fluent in Arabic despite a serious shortage of translators? If unit cohesion was really that important, would they have lowered the bar to allow people with white supremacist tattoos to enlist in order to achieve recruitment quotas? And, if commanding officers were so concerned with overcoming “the paralyzing effects of fear on the individual soldier,” you would think that more of them would be doing something about the kind of fear described by Helen Benedict in the new book “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq.

Describing her experience, Army specialist Chantelle Henneberry told Benedict, “Everybody’s supposed to have a battle buddy in the army, and females are supposed to have one to go to the latrines with, or to the showers – that’s so you don’t get raped by one of the men on your own side. But because I was the only female there, I didn’t have a battle buddy. My battle buddy was my gun and my knife.”

Somehow, I’m sure there’s a self-proclaimed patriot out there who would still find a way to blame gays or Muslims.

Women serving in the US military are more likely to get raped by a fellow soldier than get killed by enemy fire in Iraq... and this is what people are freaking out about.

The Future Only Looks Bright Because Everything is on Fire and Radioactive

February 7, 2010

Hello God, are you there? It’s me, Public Frenemy. (Photo: Katherine Westerhout)

While the hype over iPads, bullet trains and robot teachers continues to push visions of a magical, sparkling future upon the masses, signs that progress is actually sputtering to a halt are everywhere.

Sure, billionaires like Richard Branson are zooming into tomorrow at the helm of underwater jets designed to whisk the elite off to private islands… but the rest of us should expect the path forward to be much rockier. Literally.

According to USA Today, “High costs and tight budgets have prompted communities in Maine, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont to convert or consider converting their cracked asphalt roads back to gravel.”

That’s right. Unlike the optimistic vision of flying cars presented in Back to Future, the USA is instead turning back the clock and replacing safer, cleaner and faster asphalt roads with their dusty, tire-grinding precursor. Now, I’m certainly not advocating a “pave it all” mentality – I would much prefer to see transportation policies promote more sustainable practices like denser urban corridors connected via mass transit – but these decisions to downgrade the quality of our roads aren’t being driven by environmental intentions (or any other consideration of the public’s benefit).

Our political leaders are allowing roads to go to shit because we’re broke.

The decision to grind up roads and replace them with the crumbled-up remnants is an apt metaphor for the decline of US public education, health care, social services and the other institutions that used to stand for our nation’s prosperity and leadership. Even Disney, the corporation that perhaps more than any other symbolized the cheerful optimism of the American imagination during the post-War era, has degenerated to the point where its child stars are now shilling creepy pseudo-lingerie for kids who want to look like pre-pubescent Tila Tequilas.

The post-Jersey Shore generation: 9-year-olds gone wild

When asked by USA Today about what she thought of the plan to gravel-ize the road in front of her house, Gaile Colby said: “Have you ever lived on a gravel road? In the summer, it’s like clouds of dirt coming through your house.”

As the income gap widens and our government increasingly serves only those with connected lobbyists, rural folks who live in poor counties aren’t the only ones being left in the dust. Reporting on a new national study, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday lead with the news that “De facto segregation is alive and well in virtually ever state” and added that “the trend is particularly severe for African American students.” The UCLA study found that increasing racial isolation in charter schools is contributing significantly to the growing number of “apartheid schools.” I don’t think the charter school concept deserves all the blame for this problem, but the fact that California recently eliminated the state cap on charter schools and the Obama administration is promoting charter schools as a feature of education reform without confronting this troubling trend epitomize the short-sighted mentality of  most “reform” efforts in this country, education and otherwise.

I mean, its great that we have a black president and all, but the fact that more and more kids are spending their childhoods in what are accurately called “apartheid schools” should raise some serious red flags. Wasn’t this a problem that we were supposed to be fixing half a century ago? (Gil Scott-Heron’s famous line about “whitey on the moon” comes to mind)

What’s next  – A tuberculosis outbreak? The return of the dust bowl? Collapsing bridges?

Oh, I almost forgot: All of those things are already happening.

Am I over-hyping the doom and gloom? Are these examples taken out of context to paint an unnecessarily bleak picture of the near future? Well, in the middle of writing this post, I took a break and rode my bike over to Electric Works gallery a few blocks from my apartment to check out a new exhibit called “Rust Belt” by Katherine Westerhout. The show features photos of once-prosperous cities like Detroit and Buffalo in various states of epic decay. The images capture formerly grand hospitals, factories and churches slowly rotting away beneath grimy layers of asbestos dust and mold – the dying American city as a post-industrial Pompeii.

Many of the residents of these rust belt cities have already evacuated. Now that everything else is starting to crumble, where do the rest of us go next?

“The World” is melting: New aerial images of the man-made island complex off the coast of Dubai reveal that the development intended as a luxury archipelago for the super-rich is disintegrating back into the Persian Gulf... so at least we got that going for us.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent, So Shut Up

July 28, 2009
Prove it.

Prove it.

In the first days following the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr, before the story got put under an electron microscope and dissected from a million different angles, much of the debate was focused around interpreting the police report. As the initial headlines appeared, everyone from mainstream pundits to bloggers seemed to include some variation of the phrase “I read the police report” into their commentary. The tone of this phrase often seemed to imply that the police report could be taken at face value.

After President Obama learned the hard way that even mildly criticizing police is like wading into a pool of piranhas, much of the conversation has remained within the confines of discussing relevant and complex, but relatively predictable, issues such as racial profiling. Even among the pro-Gates crowd, most voices seem to be demanding more “sensitivity” from the police, instead of more accountability. Instead of using this as a “teaching moment,” as Gates has called for, to discuss racial dynamics around law enforcement, why can’t this be teaching moment to ask why so many cops lie in police reports and get away with it?

The woman who called 911 on Gates finally came out today and said, through a lawyer, that Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, completely fabricated a conversation that takes place in the official police report – so this incident would seem provide a good case study to examine this issue. I’m not saying at all that racial factors should be absent from this conversation or even that I necessarily believe this woman any more than Crowley or Gates. I’m just pointing out that police demand to be taken at their word – as their collective reaction to Obama’s common-sense remark that arresting an old man with a cane inside his own house after he’s show identification is stupid – proves.

But if the police are going to demand such unquestioning trust, they need to prove that violent psychos aren’t using the power of the badge to go around starting fights, beating the crap out of people in order to steal their fajitas, tasing kids, assaulting women… and getting away with it! Although a new, outrageous police brutality video seems to be popping up every few days now, the police still seem systematically determined to protect every brutal maniac with a badge instead of reforming their organizations. In this example, the cop who pushed the woman down the stairs and charged HER with felony assault was not fired or arrested – he was punished by losing 8 vacation hours and he continues to patrol Orlando with a gun and a badge:

Sometimes, as in the case of this video featuring a drunk off-duty Chicago cop whaling on a female bartender half his size, the lies in the police report are just too egregious to withstand the visual evidence, and the officer actually loses his job. However, even in these rare instances when cops get fired for their criminal behavior, the system still works to protect them from the laws that apply to everyday citizens. Despite the unprovoked ass-whooping he unleashes on this unfortunate woman, Anthony Abbate was sentenced to only two years of probation and anger management classes (mainstream media in Chicago defended this sentence as “fair”):

I could post dozens of other videos from the last year alone that are equally horrifying, and that fact alone should be enough to raise questions such as: Why is demanding police accountability seen as somehow subversive; Why is this systemic abuse of power generally tolerated in our society; and How can we be expected to trust the police when they have proven, as an institution, over and over and over again, that they seem more willing to cover up their own criminal behavior than eradicate this corruption?

Of course, there lots of people and organizations out there asking these questions and working to demand accountability, but if the Gates episode wasn’t enough to elevate these questions into mainstream debate, I wonder how many more Amadou Diallos, Sean Bells and Oscar Grants it’s going to take.

Considering the fact that some cops have actually weighed in on the Gates arrest to say that anyone who mouths off to a cop is lucky not to get shot and that Taser just unveiled their new model of souped-up stun guns (despite the fact that the regular old version has been involved in 351 deaths in the U.S., according to Amnesty International), it doesn’t seem likely that we’re about to see a new wave of “sensitivity” wash over the boys in blue any time soon (Yes, I know there are lots of female cops, but it almost always seem to be the bros who are causing problems).

Now, I’m not trying to say that there aren’t plenty of cops out there who are trying to be the good guys and provide a much-needed service, since there are obviously a lot of scum bags out there. But don’t expect me to take a cop’s word over anyone else’s until I see the police keeping themselves in line instead of just lashing out at everyone who tries to make them play by their own rules. For example, would you still have your job if you called someone a “bitch ass nigger” (just like Tony Pirone did as he was attacking Oscar Grant right before Grant was murdered)? Didn’t think so…

I'm not talking about you guys, you guys seem cool... I'm just going to walk away now.

I'm not talking about you guys, you guys seem cool... I'm just going to walk away now.

What’s Next – Are They Going to Try to Block Out the Sun?

June 17, 2009

favela1

My introduction to the “favelas” (slums) of Rio de Janeiro came through watching “City of God” and listening to the speaker-rattling funk carioca music has exploded globally over the past few years. Enjoying these cultural fruits from afar, it’s easy to forget (or completely ignore) the fact that poverty, violence and oppression dominate the lives of those who live in these precariously perched ghettos.

Brazil was the very last country in the Western hemisphere to legally outlaw slavery (in the 1880s) and a vast socio-economic chasm defined largely along racial lines continues to persist in many places like Rio. A journalist friend who used to report from South Africa recently told me that the visceral and widespread animosity against the lower classes was worse in Brazil than anywhere else she had seen.

Like slums all over the world, the favelas in Rio are basically crapped on by the local government. The lack of education opportunities, social services and even basic infrastructure (like functional sewers) in many favelas makes life pretty damn rough. Many of the favelas that the city government has basically abandoned are controlled by gangs. Two years ago, Rio’s governor, Sérgio Cabral Filho called the favelas “a factory for producing criminals.”

Favela photos via JR / www.woostercollective.com

Favela photos via JR / http://www.woostercollective.com

But now that Rio is a finalist to host the 2016 Olympics, the Mayor needs to “clean up the city.”  So what is he doing about that pesky fact that hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised citizens are living in such conditions? Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, his master plan is to build a giant wall around the favelas (apparently starting with the ones that rich people can see from their houses) and then send in 22,000 more cops to crack some heads.

Of course, the justification for these 10-ft cinderblock barriers (which the planners have creatively named “eco-barriers”) is to protect the forests from sprawl — the favelas have expanded geographically by about 7 percent in the last decade. So now the upper classes conveniently have an eco-friendly excuse to support this scheme.

An extreme conclusion would be that Rio’s rich have chosen to prioritize the lives of trees over the lives of people. The favelas inhabit an extreme space.

While building walls between classes of people is certainly nothing new, the goal of the walls is usually to separate groups, not to isolate one of them so completely (with a few notable exceptions, of course).

How could these looming physical barriers not exacerbate the socio-economically isolated position that the residents of the favelas already find themselves in? Rio’s wealthy may temporarily succeed in fortifying the wide, nasty chasm between rich and poor through this “eco-barrier” plan, but the last paragraph of the Wall Street Journal article suggests that this unjust solution will not be a permanent one:

“While laying cinder blocks on a hillside with sweeping views of Rio, Mr. da Silva says, he has had time to think about how to get over the wall he’s helping to build. Grabbing some paper, he diagrammed one idea — break a series of footholds into the cinder blocks. Another idea: Tie a rope to a tree on the other side.”

One more thing: Sure, this is blatant commoditization of culture for purely commercial purposes, but it’s also really cool. Check out this orange juice ad featuring the classic baile funk beat:

T&A B.C.

May 14, 2009
ancientvenus

The 35,000-year-old “Venus of Hohle Fels” was discovered in a cave in southwestern Germany.

A few weeks ago I went back to Chicago to visit my folks. I don’t have a TV, so I was totally blown away when I was exposed to a cable channel called Spike TV by my 11-year-old brother. Basically, Spike TV is the opposite of the Lifetime Network. Its target audience is “bros.”

Although the action flicks and cage fights that fill Spike’s programming schedule are heavily saturated with boobs, there is a Spike original show called “Manswers” that is so obsessed with breasts that Russ Meyer would blush. With its segments like “How big do boobs need to be to crush a beer can?” watching Manswers feels like witnessing a pervy fourth-grader’s wildest fantasies run amok. (see the horrendous video below for proof)

When I saw the pictures of a 35,000-year-old statuette released earlier today, I realized just how far back humans’ obsession with breasts goes… it goes all the way back — this statue was made when early homo sapiens were still co-existing with Neanderthals, during the Paleolithic era. With her enornmous torpedo-like bosoms and bulging vulva, the “Venus of Hohle Fels” gives us a strong hint that cave-bros were focused on many of the same female attributes as modern bros.

But it might be a mistake to write this off as just prehistoric objectification of women. In place of her head, Venus has a ring coming out of her neck. Probably so she can be suspended by a string, perhaps worn as a ceremonial amulet during ancient rituals or hung in a cave to conjure fertility spirits. The exaggerated representation could signify that the female body was considered sacred and worshipped among Paleolithic cultures.

Unfortunately, Manswers seems to provide evidence that a large segment of our population has devolved in the millennia since. Hopefully,Spike TV fans’ attitudes towards women will some day catch up with those of their cave-dwelling ancestors.