Monday, December 01, 2008

Important Notice Of Change In Terms

The Eye of the Artist, c. 1898
Victor Dubreuil, born in New York to French emigre parents
The administration of President Grant, who's on the 5 dollar bill along with the mysterious pyramid we stuck on our money, is remembered for its financial corruption.
In mountain light, all sounds
return to silence.
All that remains, the temple
---Ch'ang Chien
Unexpectedly you find it, welling upwards in the empty tree.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
The meadows were a-drinking at their leisure; the frogs sat meditating, all Sabbath thoughts, summing up their week, with one eye out on the golden sun, and one toe upon a reed, eyeing the wondrous universe in which they act their part; the fishes swam more staid and soberly, as maidens go to church,
---Henry David Thoreau
There is only one rule of economics for me, and that is I pay my bills on time. I prefer to pay for anything at the moment I buy it, but that isn't always possible so I get bills. My wife and I argue about some things, but we seem to agree about politics and money. We don't borrow. There's a car payment and we have a second mortgage for environmental improvements to the house---which already are saving us money on energy costs. Ilona probably is going to college shortly, so we may need someone to make us a loan then. Otherwise we have lived within our means for 27 years---despite rocky times.
I've been broke and down and out in my day. I've had everything I own in my car, with nowhere to go. I've sat on a curb in New York City, without a job, and wept. I've been grateful for government programs. I support them gladly through taxes, now that I have some money. I celebrate economic simplicity in my life, which principles I probably learned through some hardship and a sound upbringing. I learned only the basics of how a capitalist market is supposed to work in theory, in the single required course on the matter in college. Quite frankly, I haven't been able to see that the market---take gasoline for instance---actually works that way. But then maybe, for the last 10 years, the market hasn't really been working at all.
That seems to be the contention of a growing number of economic writers, at least those I can understand---or bear to slog through. Paul Krugman writes well for us uneducated masses, and seems to write from an economic perspective rather than directly to it. He's off into political and foreign policy issues quite often, considering implications and results of Wall Street decisions. He doesn't think much about the smalltown banks and credit unions, I guess, where I've done my saving and investment. I do not "play" the market, and find the term "player" loathsome in this regard. But Krugman's view from Princeton of Wall Street has had some peripheral value to me in this last decade. I think he's a good teacher.
Now Paul Krugman is stepping up to the plate in the clutch. Talking heads I hear on the radio (we don't watch much TV anymore) seem to enjoy all the attention they're getting in this global crisis. They're analyzing the day-to-day ups and downs, but during the last week Krugman has shifted gears and put his cards on the table. He knows with President-elect Obama choosing his team, now is the time to make some influence felt. His regular New York Times column clearly doesn't provide the space he needed to stretch out his thoughts. He wrote his article on November 20th, and sent it to the New York Review Of Books which publishes bi-weekly. The new issue is out and I'm going to buy a copy today.
It's online for free, but that's all the more reason to get some money to them. The whole issue this time is fascinating. Paul Krugman's article starts like this~~~
Volume 55, Number 20 · December 18, 2008
What to Do
By Paul Krugman
What the world needs right now is a rescue operation. The global credit system is in a state of paralysis, and a global slump is building momentum as I write this. Reform of the weaknesses that made this crisis possible is essential, but it can wait a little while. First, we need to deal with the clear and present danger. To do this, policymakers around the world need to do two things: get credit flowing again and prop up spending.
The first task is the harder of the two, but it must be done, and soon. Hardly a day goes by without news of some further disaster wreaked by the freezing up of credit. As I was writing this, for example, reports were coming in of the collapse of letters of credit, the key financing method for world trade. Suddenly, buyers of imports, especially in developing countries, can't carry through on their deals, and ships are standing idle: the Baltic Dry Index, a widely used measure of shipping costs, has fallen 89 percent this year.
What lies behind the credit squeeze is the combination of reduced trust in and decimated capital at financial institutions. People and institutions, including the financial institutions, don't want to deal with anyone unless they have substantial capital to back up their promises, yet the crisis has depleted capital across the board.
The obvious solution is to put in more capital. In fact, that's a standard response in financial crises. In 1933 the Roosevelt administration used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to recapitalize banks by buying preferred stock - stock that had priority over common stock in terms of its claims on profits. When Sweden experienced a financial crisis in the early 1990s, the government stepped in and provided the banks with additional capital equal to 4 percent of the country's GDP - the equivalent of about $600 billion for the United States today - in return for a partial ownership. When Japan moved to rescue its banks in 1998, it purchased more than $500 billion in preferred stock, the equivalent relative to GDP of around a $2 trillion capital injection in the United States. In each case, the provision of capital helped restore the ability of banks to lend, and unfroze the credit markets.
A financial rescue along similar lines is now underway in the United States and other advanced economies, although it was late in coming, thanks in part to the ideological tilt of the Bush administration. At first, after the fall of Lehman Brothers, the Treasury Department proposed buying up $700 billion in troubled assets from banks and other financial institutions. Yet it was never clear how this was supposed to help the situation. (If the Treasury paid market value, it would do little to help the banks' capital position, while if it paid above-market value it would stand accused of throwing taxpayers' money away.) Never mind: after dithering for three weeks, the United States followed the lead already set, first by Britain and then by continental European countries, and turned the plan into a recapitalization scheme. where his suggestions and explanation continue. His column today takes a look at the tremendous debt the US is incurring with all this, and how much do we have to worry about that.
Undoubtedly you've heard things like This is only the beginning. Not only will more cash be needed by the banks, big and small, but the next crunch may be in your mailbox today. There was a time I wouldn't go near credit cards. Cash and checks were good enough for me. But about 30 years ago they began to harden the sell. Various premiums began to show up, at stores, at the pump, wherever I looked. I began to think I'd take the premium, never use the card, and who'd be the wiser? I started to have a pocket full of cards, I thought that was a bad sign, so I limited myself to 2 major ones. Around that time I met a psychologist who was going to another one himself to get therapy for his credit card addiction. He had been made to sit there during a session and cut up all his credit cards, except one, and throw them away. His debt in interest was mounting every month because he couldn't pay them off. Another guy I knew, with even more impressive credentials, had to work 7 years to pay off all the interest...which eventually was more than the principal.
Last week I got a notice in the mail about interest rates on my Mastercard, which is sponsored by my union at work. I have this particular one, which is handled by a bank in California, and our Visa card, from an East Coast bank, because they pay me an interest rate on all the purchases I make with them. It's not a lot, but I don't have to pay them anything for the cards except the total every month. This I do religiously, no matter what. I'm glad I have that habit because, as everyone is finding out, the interest rates on accounts that are held over into the next month and beyond are in the double digits. The notice announces this Mastercard is doubling its annual percentage rate to 25% immediately. With the notice comes a little translation pamphlet, which is only slightly less dense than the original announcement. Welcome to the next phase.
What is going on? Those who have a special interest in business and markets may read the columns of Joe Nocera, also in the New York Times. Last week he outlined the credit card crisis...or rather he once again published remarks from an anonymous banking tipster he knows. Why is this banker anonymous? Because he says things critical of his own bank. At the top of his column from Tuesday is a link to another message this guy sent to Joe last month. I suggest you read that too, and some of the hundreds of comments that came in---including a response from Anonymous Banker as well. Here's the new column~~~
The New York Times
November 25, 2008, 9:00 am
The Worst Is Yet To Come: Anonymous Banker Weighs In On The Coming Credit Card Debacle
By Joe Nocera
Today, we are bailing out the banks because of their greedy and deceptive lending practices in the mortgage industry. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. More is coming, I’m sorry to say. Layoffs are being announced nationwide in the tens of thousands. As people begin to lose their jobs, they will not be able to pay their credit card bills either. And the banks will be back for more handouts.
I received a catalog today from Casual Living and in big bold print on the front page, it said “BUY NOW, PAY NOTHING”. Then in significantly smaller print underneath, it said, (until April). That mantra has been sung throughout the credit markets over the last 10 years. The banks waive a carrot in front of the consumer and reel them in and encourage them to go deeper and deeper into debt. They do this by prescreening customers through credit reporting agencies, mailing offers to apply, and to transfer balances at teaser rates or zero percent financing. They base it on credit score and not on capacity to repay. A good credit score does not equate to the ability to repay debt.
Over my career, I have seen thousands of consumers that have credit card lines in excess of their annual salaries. Some are sinking under their burden. Some have been fiscally responsible and have minimal amounts outstanding. My 21-year-old daughter, who’s in college, gets pre-approved offers all the time. She has no ability to repay debt, yet the offers flow in just the same. We all know how these lines are accumulated. The banks, in their infinite stupidity, keep upping credit lines because the customer pays the minimum payments on time. My daughter’s credit line started at $1,000 and has been increased over the last two years to $4,400. She has no increased earnings to support this. But the banks do it without asking. And without being asked. The banks reel in the consumer, charge interest rates higher than those charged by the mob, increase lines without the consumer asking and without their consent, and lure them into overextending. And we can count on the banks to act surprised when they aren’t paid back. Shame on them.
As a banker, let me describe what we do wrong when we accept and review an application for a credit card. First, we don’t verify income. The first ‘C’ of credit: Capacity to repay, is completely ignored by the banks, just as it was in when they approved subprime mortgages. Then we ask for “household income” — as if other parties in the household could be held responsible for that debt. They cannot. And since we don’t ask for any proof of income, the customer can throw out any number they think will work for them. Then we ask if they rent or own and how much they pay. If their name is not on the mortgage, they can state zero. If they pay $1,000 in rent, they can say $500. (Years ago we asked for a copy of the lease to verify this number.) And finally, we don’t ask how much of a credit line the consumer is looking for. The banker can’t even put that amount into the system. There isn’t any place on the application for that information. We simply put unverified information into a mindless computer and the computer gets the person’s credit score and grants them the biggest line that score and income (ha!) qualifies for.
I recently had a client apply for a credit card. She is a homemaker, with no personal income. The house she lives in is in her husband’s name. She would have asked for a $3,000 credit line, just to pay miscellaneous expenses and to establish some credit on her own. So the computer is told that her household income is $150,000; her mortgage/rent payment is zero. The fact is that her husband’s mortgage payment is $7,000 a month (which he got with a no income verification loan). She had a good credit score, but limited credit since she has only lived in this country for the last three years. The system gave her an approval for a $26,000 line of credit!
This has got to stop. People are going to be learning hard lessons over the next years. It would help, though, if the banks could change their behavior now, before things get any worse. Tomorrow is already too late.
In 2003, Congress passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. This law was implemented through regulations issued by the Federal Trade Commission in consultation with the federal banking and credit union agencies. It requires all credit card and insurance solicitations to include a disclosure for “prescreened offers.” We are all familiar with them. They are the dozens of credit card offers that are sent, unsolicited, to consumers, usually by mail. The law allows the consumer to opt out of receiving prescreened offers by calling an 800-number.
I think Congress did this backwards. Perhaps it could amend the law. The regulation should have required the consumer to opt in, if they so desire, instead of opting out. That would mean that no one would get an unsolicited credit card offer. If a consumer needs a credit card he or she could be given an option to call an 800-number to opt in. Or the consumer could go to their local bank and apply for a credit card in person. Or the consumer could go online and apply for a credit card. The consumer can also view all the best credit cards, nationally, at is an invaluable tool for consumers.
Some other benefits: (1) It would halt the message being sent that credit is free and perhaps limit irresponsible accumulation of credit lines. (2) It would force the banks to become more competitive in their rates. The consumer is going to need a break and they will need it soon. And credit card rates, which are quite often above 22 percent, is piracy. (3) Eliminating mass mailings would save a lot of trees.
I’ve been reviewing many of the banks annual reports over the last month and there is no question that the default rates are on the rise. If Congress doesn’t act today, the bankers will have their hats in their hand before we know it, and doing another a tap dance before the Senate Banking Committee, and asking to be bailed out once again with our tax dollars. Sad, but true.

Friday, November 28, 2008

"Change Is Coming"

Photo: Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images
The head is through, but the body is still sticking out.
---Zen saying
A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.
Kassan had a monk who left and went all around to the various Zen temples, seeking. But no matter where he went, the name of Kassan was mentioned to him as the name of a great master.
Finally the monk returned, interviewed Kassan, and asked: "You are reputed to have the greatest understanding of Zen. Why did you not reveal this to me when I was here earlier?"
Kassan said: "When you boiled rice, did I not light the fare? When you passed around food, did I not offer my bowl to you? When did I betray your expectations?"
With that the monk was enlightened.
---Zen mondo
The title of this reluctant article is on the subject line of the latest message from David Plouffe, campaign manager of Obama For America. It came Tuesday, and suggests the grassroots hold house parties the middle of next month to energize supporters in continuing the message of hope. In the weeks before the election, David or someone from used to email us every day, as did other Democrats and independent progressives. The others either have quit campaigning, fallen in a holiday heap of exhaustion, or gone back to work. Some of the progressive groups seem to be casting about for something to do or new issues to keep contributions coming in. But the Obama organization is trying to keep things together and the momentum going. At no point in Mr. Plouffe's message does he mention growing doubt as a matter for concern. The man isn't even President yet, but the Internet is groaning with disappointment.
My personal reaction to the election, as far as the Internet is involved in my life, was to sigh relief and vow not to bother readers with any more political writing. People who have known me for a while, and who encouraged me to write and post stuff, remember I used to compose reminiscences and pastoral observations of nature. I got very nice responses to that...and still do. But in the Roman tradition of the gentle farmer who must leave the plow and go to battle when the republic is under attack, I started to write political things several years ago. I lost a lot of readers doing that. They didn't want to know about it, or if they did know didn't want to read it on this piece of furniture many use only for recreation. I thought they'd be happy if they found out I was back!
And Thanksgiving yesterday at my home seemed to reflect the wisdom of this perception. We have a pretty animated political group of people who come here---and that includes some who have given up completely various dreams for the future. Everybody is vocal, and in past gatherings we've discussed current affairs in loud speeches. With the Hillary/Obama schism, there came debate and argument. But yesterday---I shall be corrected if wrong---I don't think a political notion was uttered. We talked about babies and traveling and food and shopping---actual normal American conversation. Our worries will be addressed and taken care of, and we can return to our gardens.
But then...but then, I venture into the news sites and blogs this morning, and I find no such peacefulness prevailed in cyberspace yesterday...or in the columns of newspapers. I'm sure there are plenty of articles about things to be thankful for, the usual ones, and we did a lot of gratitude in our house. But in reading today I have to say I soon was overwhelmed with crisis and gloom. So much so, that I hate to tell you I need to share it...not so much to spread it around, as to offer up a reality check. Is a sense of relief really called for?
It started with what appears to be an inordinate number of voices raised about the very nature of Thanksgiving and its origins. I don't suppose we need our noses rubbed in this anymore---or do we? Somebody sent me a link to a entry, where I do some posting too. The Fourth World is a blog organized by Juan Santos, a writer and editor in LA, and the particular essay, from a couple years ago, is entitled Immigration: A Nation Of Colonists And Race Laws. You see where this is going.
"You hear it everywhere. Even from Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the vicious anti-migrant legislation that has polarized the US. 'We are a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws,' he says.

"And like almost everyone else, he’s got it wrong.

"The original Europeans in the Americas were not immigrants, but colonists. And the US is not a nation of immigrants - it is a white colonial settler state, like South Africa under Apartheid, the former Rhodesia, Australia and Israel.

"And like those states the US has always operated on a sometimes hidden, sometimes overt system of Apartheid.

"Like those places, the US is a nation of colonists – and race laws.

"It is just another place where white colonists arrived, seized the land, and dispossessed, exterminated or attempted to exclude the original 'non-white' peoples – all of them.

"They did so at the point of a gun - by open terror and genocide, which was the precursor and the necessary pre-condition of European immigration. And, of course, they didn’t only use guns and overt terror. Where 'necessary,' they operated by 'law.'"

Then the Information Clearing House sent along a cheery little suppressed speech by a surviving member of the Wampanoag tribe, who were the people that "helped" the Puritans through that first killer winter at the Plymouth--uh--Plantation. You may have read this already or know about it but it seems in 1970, the Massachusetts Department of Commerce wanted to have a big 350th Anniversary celebration of the First Thanksgiving. They located a Wampanoag named Wamsutta---or as he is know around there, Frank. B. James. He agreed to give the keynote address...but the Department asked to read it first. When they did Wamsutta was sent to the back of the bus, and somebody else told the assembly what they wanted to hear. His written draft still is around and starts like this~~~

"I speak to you as a man -- a Wampanoag Man. I am a proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict parental direction ('You must succeed - your face is a different color in this small Cape Cod community!'). I am a product of poverty and discrimination from these two social and economic diseases. I, and my brothers and sisters, have painfully overcome, and to some extent we have earned the respect of our community. We are Indians first - but we are termed 'good citizens.' Sometimes we are arrogant but only because society has pressured us to be so.

"It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.

"Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry."

Then I went over to Time Magazine and read Joe Klein's appraisal of George Bush as the lamest duck ever. If I was looking to get cheered up, I probably shouldn't have done this.

"In the end, though, it will not be the creative paralysis that defines Bush. It will be his intellectual laziness, at home and abroad. Bush never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and regulation that was necessary to make markets work. He never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and equity that was necessary to maintain the strong middle class required for both prosperity and democracy. He never considered the complexities of the cultures he was invading. He never understood that faith, unaccompanied by rigorous skepticism, is a recipe for myopia and foolishness. He is less than President now, and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one.",8599,1862307,00.html

Speaking of the markets, Paul Krugman spent Thanksgiving dashing off his analysis of why-didn't-anyone-see-this-coming, and it's in this morning's Times.

"A few months ago I found myself at a meeting of economists and finance officials, discussing — what else? — the crisis. There was a lot of soul-searching going on. One senior policy maker asked, 'Why didn’t we see this coming?'

"There was, of course, only one thing to say in reply, so I said it: 'What do you mean "we," white man?'...

"Some people say that the current crisis is unprecedented, but the truth is that there were plenty of precedents, some of them of very recent vintage. Yet these precedents were ignored. And the story of how 'we' failed to see this coming has a clear policy implication — namely, that financial market reform should be pressed quickly, that it shouldn’t wait until the crisis is resolved."

Last month Jim Hightower went even further and lined up his suspects against the wall for identification. Hightower's not an economist I think, but he knows the value and power of a buck. The article must have gone up on Halloween, but I didn't see it until today---which I am recalling now is called Black Friday. Gloom.

"You don't have to be in Who's Who to know What's What, do you? The fundamentals are NOT sound.

"Wall Street and Washington (excuse the redundancy there) want us commoners to believe that this viral spread of economic grief was caused by those lower-income homeowners who couldn't pay their subprime loans--merely an unforeseeable glitch in a complex and otherwise healthy financial system. Hogwash. The source of today's pain is the same as it was in America's previous financial collapses: the unbridled greed of economic elites, enabled by their political courtesans in Washington.

"This unbridling has been the long-sought goal of a cabal of deregulation ideologues who dwell in laissez-fairyland. During the past two decades, they have relentlessly pushed their economic fantasies into law. Their theory was that (to use Ronald Reagan's simple construct) 'the magic of the marketplace' would create an eternal rainbow of prosperity through financial 'innovation'--if only the market was unshackled from any pesky public regulations. What the dereg theorists missed, however, is that magicians don't perform magic. They perform illusions."

Which brings us to the President-elect and his appointments thus far. This man carries around a lectern with him that says "The Office Of The President-Elect." I guess that's kind of clever because as long as he's not in the Oval Office yet, his office is wherever he shows up. But the sign also implies a president-elect is an "office" in government of some kind, a position of elected power, an indication he's only being polite by not taking over right away. In other countries defeated leaders are just swept out. Many economists are saying that's what should happen here, the crisis is too great to hang around for 2 months while the current guy does nothing. So Obama has been announcing who's going to be doing what, and holding press conferences to do so. On Wednesday he finally was asked, "Where's the change you talked about?" The President-elect seemed a bit sharp in his response.

"President-elect Barack Obama essentially said Wednesday that he is the change, striving to assure Americans that he'll shake up Washington despite filling his administration with old hands from the Clinton administration and the capital's corridors of power.

"'Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost,' Obama said. 'It comes from me. That's my job, is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going, and to make sure, then, that my team is implementing.'"

The Boston Globe maybe fired the first shot, heard at least as far as Ohio, by going a bit further into the story.

"However, liberal activists contend that Obama so far has gone too far in one direction, bringing in too many of the same Washington insiders and undermining his own message of change. Obama, they complain, hasn't given a top cabinet job to a true liberal, and grumble about the expected appointments of rival Hillary Clinton -- a centrist Democrat -- as Obama's secretary of state and of Robert M. Gates, a Republican appointed by President Bush, to stay on as defense secretary for at least a year.

"'I'm not in the camp that says, "Give him a chance, because his vision will dominate,"' said Tom Hayden cq, a high-profile liberal and antiwar activist who said he supports Obama despite misgivings over his cabinet picks. 'I don't know what he's doing. This is not governing from the center. This is governing from the past.'

"Liberal bloggers, who helped fuel Obama's grassroots fund-raising and volunteer armies, are particularly vocal in their critique of Obama's choices so far.

"Some of them argue that competence and experience aren't substitutes for the right ideology. 'How can selecting only pro-war Cabinet members and advisers be justified on the grounds of "competence' -- as though one's support for the War has nothing to do with competence?' asks blogger Glenn Greenwald, who also writes for the online journal Salon.

"Since he was elected three weeks ago, Obama has tapped several people who worked for President Clinton, including Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff and Lawrence Summers as his senior economic adviser. Reports say that the president-elect has settled on at least two other Clinton-era officials -- Eric Holder for attorney general and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for commerce secretary.

"Criticism of Obama's personnel picks, however, intensified when word leaked out that he will select Clinton as secretary of state. Antiwar activists decried her vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which Obama hammered her about during the Democratic primaries. And after reports Tuesday that Obama would keep Gates at the Pentagon, some suggested it could mean Obama was reconsidering a campaign pledge to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office." Good comments too.

Ramzi Kysia, an Arab-American writer at Counterpunch, on Monday went so far as to assemble a list of people Obama should have appointed...if he truly believed in progressive change. His list follows this beginning~~~

"I feel cheated. I feel betrayed. And I’m not even a Democrat.

"Our nation hasn’t yet finished counting all the election returns, but the outlines of a future Obama Administration are already clear: Clinton at State, Geithner at Treasury, Summers to head the National Economic Council, Holder at Justice, Emmanuel as Chief of Staff, General James Jones as the likely National Security Advisor, and Robert Gates likely to stay on at Defense.

"There not a progressive among them. Not even one. If Obama was vague about his personal politics during the primaries and general election it was for a reason: he doesn’t have any.

"I’m not sure what I honestly expected, but I know it wasn’t this."

But then I looked at the Thanksgiving Day edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, and there's the Obama family continuing its 4-year tradition of handing out food to the needy on the preceding Wednesdays. Hope stirred in my sinking breast.

"President-elect Barack Obama and his family spent an hour handing out chickens, potatoes, bread and other Thanksgiving food to poor families on Chicago's South Side Wednesday morning after Obama introduced his latest economic advisors. Then he shook hands with Catholic grade school students ecstatic to see him.

"Many of the poor and homeless -- some of whom come for food every Wednesday -- screamed in disbelief as they entered the parking lot of St. Columbanus church at 71st and Calumet and realized the reason they had been wanded by the U.S. Secret Service was because Obama, his wife and daughters, were standing there ready to pass out the food usually handed out by volunteers.

"'At Thanksgiving, it's important for us to remember people in need,' Obama said. 'They told me the number of people coming here is up 33 percent from last year.'

About 600 families got food, said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. That's up from 270 families last year, said the Rev. Matt Eyerman.,Obama-food-pantry-112608.article

Monday, November 24, 2008

American Justice: Any Hope?

The illustration is a movie poster for a film that is making its impact felt increasingly through word-of-mouth. Since it may be a bit hard to find here's a synopsis: In a world of six billion people, it only takes one to change your life. Sixty-two-year-old Walter Vale is sleepwalking through his life. Having lost his passion for teaching and writing, he fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. When his college sends him to Manhattan to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek, a Syrian man, and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go. In the first of a series of tests of the heart, Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay with him. Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, insists on teaching the aging academic to play the African drum. The instrument’s exuberant rhythms revitalize Walter’s faltering spirit and open his eyes to a vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. As the friendship between the two men deepens, the differences in culture, age and temperament fall away. After being stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation. As his situation turns desperate, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. When Tarek’s beautiful mother Mouna arrives unexpectedly in search of her son, the professor’s personal commitment develops into an unlikely romance. And it’s through these new found connections with these virtual strangers that Walter is awakened to a new world and a new life.
We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men...trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make journeys, not very extensive ones, it is true; but our own little comings and goings are only little more than tree-wavings---many of them not so much.
---John Muir
Sit just to sit. And why not sit? You have to sit sometime, and so you may as well REALLY sit, and be altogether here. Otherwise the mind wanders away from the matter at hand, and away from the present. Even to think through the implications of the present is to avoid the present moment completely.
---Alan Watts
The universe came into being with us together; with us, all things are one.
As so often happens, particularly on Mondays when I review the weekend papers, most of the computer work I'd planned to do this morning got scrapped by a single item. Then one sidetrack led to another, and soon I was wandering in the woods again. The piece that did it was in The Times of London yesterday, and some editor there I guess had seen it in its complete version in the current edition of Spear’s Wealth Management Survey magazine. It was written by the former "proprietor" of the London Daily Telegraph, who currently resides in a federal prison here in the United States. He's been there for 8 months. I know nothing of the case nor how long his sentence is. Whatever it is, he's appealing it and apparently has had some success.
What he has to say that interests me is about the present legal system here. Of course laws can be changed. Even the Constitution can be changed. But through all that shines a spirit of America that all of us used to be raised to believe in. It has to do with equality before the law. If there are mistakes, OK, we understand that. But if there are injustices, Americans feel their freedom threatened. We respond. Or should. If we don't, or lose track of how we can respond, we begin to sink into the kind of daily despair that has plagued humanity around the world and through time, since our conception.
Let me not preach about the last 8 years---or 16, or 32. Let us simply look at where we are, and the work to do. I know attorneys, and my family boasted some prominent ones. I set about at university to become one---until Dylan Thomas crossed my path. My daughter has such plans in the environmental field. I'm supporting her in this---despite all indications of the futility of working for the EPA. Futility. Ah, there's the rub. When a people allow themselves to believe it is futile to go up against the system---either because that system is invariably right in what it pursues, or because it is hopelessly decadent, we surrender to a prison state. If I am barred from dissent by a privately contracted army, as I have been in an attempt merely to glimpse President Bush in person, I am in a prison state.
Ah, but now I'm preaching. [There are ministers on the other side of the family. :-)] Let me step aside for this gentleman in his jail cell. Then follows an editorial from yesterday's New York Times about Guantanamo.
From The Sunday TimesNovember 23, 2008
From my cell I scent the reeking soul of US justiceConrad Black
I write to you from a US federal prison. It is far from a country club or even a regimental health spa. I work quite hard but fulfillingly, teaching English and the history of the United States to some of my co-residents. There is practically unlimited access to e-mails and the media and plenty of time for visitors.
Many of the other co-residents are quite interesting and affable, often in a Damon Runyon way, and the regime is not uncivilised. In eight months here there has not been the slightest unpleasantness with anyone. It is a little like going back to boarding school, which I somewhat enjoyed nearly 50 years ago (before being expelled for insubordination) and is a sharp change of pace after 16 years as chairman of The Daily Telegraph. I can report that a change is not always as good as a rest.
However, apart from missing the constant companionship of my magnificent wife Barbara, who visits me once, twice or even three times each week and lives nearby in our Florida home with her splendid Hungarian dogs, I enjoy some aspects of my status as a victim of the American prosecutocracy.
My appeal continues. Given the putrefaction of the US justice system, it is an unsought but distinct honour to fight this out and already to have won 85% of the case and 99% of the financial case. The initial allegation against me of a “$500m corporate kleptocracy” has shrunk to a false finding against me - that even some of the jurors have already fled from in post-trial comments – of the underdocumented receipt of $2.9m. There is no evidence to support this charge.
It has been a grim pleasure to expose the hypocrisy of the corporate governance establishment, who have bankrupted our Canadian company and reduced the share price of the American one from $21, when I left, to a miraculous two cents (yes, two cents). They have vaporised $2 billion of public shareholder value; fine titles in several countries have deteriorated; and for their infamies, the protectors of the public interest have cheerfully trousered more than $200m.
US federal prosecutors, almost all of whom would be disbarred for their antics if they were in Britain or Canada, win more than 90% of their cases thanks to the withering of the constitutional guarantees of due process – that is, the grand jury as an assurance against capricious prosecution, no seizure of property without just compensation, access to counsel, an impartial jury, speedy justice and reasonable bail.
We did not know the grand jury was sitting, have never seen the transcript of its proceedings and I was denied counsel of choice by the ex parte seizure, which the jury later judged to be improper, of the proceeds of the sale of an apartment in New York that I was going to use as the retainer for trial counsel.
The system is based on the plea bargain: the barefaced exchange of incriminating testimony for immunity or a reduced sentence. It is intimidation and suborned or extorted perjury, an outright rape of any plausible definition of justice.
The US is now a carceral state that imprisons eight to 12 times more people (2.5m) per capita than the UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany or Japan. US justice has become a command economy based on the avarice of private prison companies, a gigantic prison service industry and politically influential correctional officers’ unions that agitate for an unlimited increase in the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences. The entire “war on drugs”, by contrast, is a classic illustration of supply-side economics: a trillion taxpayers’ dollars squandered and 1m small fry imprisoned at a cost of $50 billion a year; as supply of and demand for illegal drugs have increased, prices have fallen and product quality has improved.
I wish to advise Lord Hurd that when I return to the UK I would like to take up more energetically than I did initially his request for assistance in his custodial system reform activities.
Obviously, the bloom is off my long-notorious affection for America. But I note from recent comment in Britain and Europe that the habit of blaming anything that goes awry in the world on the US is alive and well. However, the United States has not disintegrated and American capitalism is not dead, nor even in failing health. The recent financial upheavals have exposed the folly of the US Congress and Federal Reserve and will aggravate a cyclical recession and take some time to shake out.
The United States has just retained the riveted interest of the whole world, most of which does not wish it well, in the billion-dollar vulgarity of its election process for an entire year. And it surely has earned the respect of the world in elevating a very capable leader as the first non-white man to head any western nation.
I would be distinctly consolable if the United States really was in decline and I have more legitimate grievances against that country than do The Guardian or the BBC, but it is still a country of incomparable vitality even as its moral, judicial soul atrophies and reeks.
This is an edited version of an article by the former Daily Telegraph proprietor that appears in the current edition of Spear’s Wealth Management Survey magazine
Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.

The New York Times
November 23, 2008
The Price of Our Good Name
Americans have watched in horror as President Bush has trampled on the Bill of Rights and the balance of power. The list of abuses that President-elect Barack Obama must address is long: once again require the government to get warrants to eavesdrop on Americans; undo scores of executive orders and bill-signing statements that have undermined the powers of Congress; strip out the unnecessary invasions of privacy embedded in the Patriot Act; block new F.B.I. investigative guidelines straight out of J. Edgar Hoover’s playbook.
Those are not the only disasters Mr. Obama will inherit. He will have to rescue a drowning economy, restore regulatory sanity to the financial markets and extricate the country from an unnecessary war in Iraq so it can focus on a necessary war in Afghanistan.
Even with all those demands, there is one thing Mr. Obama must do quickly to begin to repair this nation’s image and restore its self-respect: announce a plan for closing Mr. Bush’s outlaw prison at Guantánamo Bay.
The prison is the premier example of the disdain shown by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for the Constitution, federal law and international treaties. Most sensible governments cannot see past Guantánamo to even recall America’s long history as a defender of human rights and democratic values.
We are under no illusions. Closing the prison will not be easy, or quick, but it can be done. It does not mean that the United States will set free heinous terrorists. But it may mean that these prisoners will have to be tried on other very serious charges than the ones supposedly for which they were sent to Guantánamo.
That is Mr. Bush’s fault. His decision to authorize the torture of detainees has made it highly unlikely that the evidence collected at Gitmo and the C.I.A.’s illegal prisons around the world would stand up in a real court.
In closing down Guantánamo, there are some basic requirements: The prisoners must be dealt with as openly as possible. Those who are charged here must stand trial in federal courts, not the tribunals created by the disastrous Military Commissions Act of 2006.
It would compound the disaster if, as some suggest, Congress tried to create a new system combining military and civilian justice. We have seen what happens when the government creates special systems to deal with special classes of prisoners.
Human Rights Watch has offered a good template for closing Guantánamo. It includes:
That announcement would send a powerful signal that the new administration has rejected Mr. Bush’s abusive and unlawful policies. It would make other countries more likely to cooperate. The taint of Guantánamo is so great that right now even close allies will not consider resettling prisoners who should be set free because they committed no crimes of any kind. There may be at least 60 of these detainees at Gitmo. Selected countries might also be willing to take back their own nationals to stand trial.
There are about 250 detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Human Rights Watch sensibly proposes creating a task force run by the Justice Department with input from the Departments of State and Defense and the director of national intelligence to separate out those who may be truly guilty of terrorist acts — a minority — from the larger population who either committed much more minor crimes or no crimes at all.
This must be done carefully. There are believed to be 30 to 50 detainees from places like Algeria and Libya who have justified fears of being abused or tortured if they are sent home. The Obama administration should provide these prisoners with advance notice of plans to repatriate them and give them a chance to contest those plans.
Prisoners with a credible fear of abuse cannot be sent to that fate. They will have to be sent to other countries to live. The best way for the United States to get other governments to cooperate is to accept some detainees for settlement in this country.
Americans will hear from former members of the Bush administration and supporters of its system of injustice that the federal courts cannot handle these cases because they involve sensitive secrets, or that terrorism is not appropriately handled as a law-enforcement issue.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal courts have successfully prosecuted about 100 terrorism cases, and the courts deal routinely with national secrets. The real reason Mr. Bush and his team avoided the federal courts for the Gitmo detainees was that the evidence in so many of these cases is wafer-thin or unusable because it was obtained through coercion and torture.
The world saw more proof of that last week, when Col. Stephen Henley, a military judge at Guantánamo, refused to admit evidence obtained through torture or coercion at the trial of Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan national who is one of the few prisoners at Guantánamo who has been charged and put on trial. Evidence that cannot pass muster in Guantánamo’s kangaroo courts is certainly not going to be admitted by a civilian judge in a duly constituted court of law.
The Jawad case has become emblematic of everything that is wrong with Guantánamo Bay: he was captured in Afghanistan at the age of 16 or 17 and thrown into indefinite detention without hope of eventual release because he allegedly threw a grenade at two American servicemen and an Afghan interpreter. The prosecutor resigned in September, saying he could not ethically proceed, and the judge threw out Mr. Jawad’s confession because it had been tortured out of him by Afghan interrogators.
Does this mean that truly dangerous men will be set free, to go back to plotting more attacks against America? No. But it will require smart legal thinking by the new administration.
Take the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It is obvious that the confession he made to plotting the 9/11 bombings will not hold up in court. It was obtained through torture. But this prisoner is a suspect in numerous other terrorist attacks, including the murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. There is an existing 1996 indictment against him for a plot to blow up 12 United States-bound commercial airliners. The evidence in that case was obtained, we presume, legally.
It may be that compromises of this kind will have to be made in other cases as well. It is understandable that some Americans will find that less than satisfying. But it is important to remember that this is the price of Mr. Bush’s incompetent and lawless conduct of the war against terrorism. It is a price worth paying to restore the rule of law and this country’s good name.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Day John Kennedy Was Shot

The author and first wife, The Bronx, autumn 1963
Ever the same,
unchanged by hue,
cherry blossoms of my native place.
Spring now has gone.
LIVE the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.
---Simone De Beauvoir
In June of 1963, I was just out of university, didn't have any money left to speak of, hadn't ever held a "real" job in the world, had no set prospects for one, and was getting married. Five years later, that wife and her mother concluded I wasn't really ready to be a married person. A judge in Bridgeport agreed, so they took our 2 kids and went away. But that summer in '63, I felt ready and eager nevertheless. I remember red roses everywhere in full bloom and beautiful.
A job came through, in The Bronx. The principal of the school hired me to teach English to the upper grades at secondary level. In July he called to ask if I could teach some social studies. He knew I had taken courses in a number of fields in college. Frankly I had chosen English finally, because that thesis was the easiest to do. So I said OK. In August, a couple weeks before we were to have moved in our first apartment, the man called again and said the English teacher had decided to stay. Could I teach all social studies? Just married, my first job, I was nervous. I said I'd do it, but I needed the department chairman to get me materials immediately so I could prepare. He said, "You are the department chairman."
Thus did I stride into the wonderful world of love, marriage, and work---at least work in the weedy field of education. But there was much more to learn. In 1963, the New York World's Fair was getting started over at Flushing Meadows in The Queens. Elvis made a movie about it. Part of the place would end up the ball park for a new major league team in New York. Our school decided to take a field trip over to see it. We took the subway, a rather long ride. The principal had decided to come along. When we changed trains in Manhattan, he spotted a beggar at the stop and nonchalantly remarked, "There's one of my former students." I think I said something about government programs to enable the poor to enter the work force. The boss replied, "Oh, so you're a Kennedy pinko."
I remember just where we were when he said that to me, as one does when one's illusions are shattered. I had grown up during the McCarthy era and knew how serious a charge along those lines could be. This guy was kidding just a little bit, but I never had been called anything like that by someone in authority. I didn't tell him this, but the fact was I didn't even support John Kennedy particularly. I had seen him once, in 1960 during his campaign for the presidency, but the voting age wouldn't be lowered for another 10 I couldn't vote and didn't feel particularly committed one way or the other. A professor drove me to wherever it was in Maine that he appeared, and I know we waited forever for him so show up. But there was no doubt about it: the man absolutely radiated charisma.
I had participated in picketing his White House in March of '62. We were protesting his policy of continuing above-ground nuclear bomb testing---or at least I think that's what it was. We were up to our ankles in slush in Washington, and most of us wore beatnik tennis shoes with holes in them back then. Pete Seeger led the march from the Washington Monument to the White House. There we walked up and down, back and forth, had to keep moving. We were freezing as the sleet continued to fall. My fiancee had come along, and this was her first real dip into the world of radical politics. We knew Kennedy was inside, and ultimately a van came down the driveway and a guy in a suit got out. He said the President sent his greetings and wished us well. And here were cups of hot chocolate for everyone. That's how JFK dealt with protest.
Ten years later, Nixon would surround our White House with school buses to "protect" him from ongoing dissent by students. I guess we didn't know how good we had it with Kennedy. When we got back to Bates, where my girl friend and I were in college, she was asked to report on our trip in front of the entire school. I think the people who asked her knew she had been moderately normal up til then, and would be more respected than the rest of us. She accepted, the morning came, and she began her talk. Midway through, she was interrupted by an alarm clock going off. She stopped, and we all looked high up into the rafters of the building to see what was going on. Lowering down, wound around the knob on the back of the windup clock, came a thread, on the end of which was tied a brassiere. The place exploded in hilarity. Dean Zerby walked across the stage, removed the article of female apparel, and her talk continued. I guess the part about Kennedy's gift of hot chocolate was lost to the significance---and brilliance---of the prank.
I took it personally. I don't want to be grandiose, but the fact is my girl friend had been the special pet, before I came along, of the guys who I'm sure had pulled that off. They lived in a particular dorm, were mostly pre-law and business students, and were incubating a new brand of conservatism. The name William F. Buckley was bandied about and that man was declaring something called the Culture War against the "liberal arts." The bra on the alarm clock may have been an opening volley in that war.
The bra and the pinko remark could have tipped me off as to how much and what kind of resistance there was to John Kennedy and to folks thought of as liberals. But it didn't. And I guess most other people weren't on any kind of alert either. No one had tried to kill a president since an attempt made on Truman in 1950. It's true a 73-year-old man had packed some dynamite into his car and was going to ram into Kennedy's car a month after the election, but he changed his mind---and I don't think people even heard about it. No president had been assassinated since McKinley in 1901.
On the morning of November 22nd, I was teaching a class at 11:30 Eastern Standard Time. At about 20 til noon, I happened to glance out the window and I saw everybody in the junior high school across the street was running out of the building. Once out there they weren't really doing anything, just standing, some talking, others looking up at the sky or into blank space. At that point, someone came to my classroom door and announced the President had been shot. I turned on the radio, heard that he was dead, and then we too felt tragedy transform our bodies and being into something new, something we had no idea how to manage.
School was dismissed, students went their way and I went mine, home to my new wife. I guess we heard on WQXR or somewhere that people were congregating at Carnegie Hall, so we got in the car and drove down. Leopold Stokowski came out and conducted a concert with an assembled symphony. We went home and, like everyone, spent that Thanksgiving in front of the TV. But it was only the beginning of the shootings. Malcolm X would be gunned down in 1965, and an attempt made against civil rights leader James Meredith a year later. Martin Luther King was killed in April 1968, and Robert Kennedy two months later.
After that, no American president has gone through his term of office without an assassination attempt. There were threats made against Nixon in 1972 and 1974. Ford survived two in September 1975. A plot against Carter was foiled in 1979. Reagan was wounded in March of '81. A group allegedly employed by Saddam Hussein brought a car bomb into Kuwait where George H.W. Bush was giving a speech in April 1993, 3 months after leaving office. Clinton ordered a missile attack on Baghdad in retaliation. Two attempts were made on Bill Clinton in 1994, including the guy who landed an airplane on the White House lawn. At least two tries were made at George W. Bush.
It's hard to believe there have been 45 years since our bright prince was blown away in the streets of Dallas. All the bullets and bombs have kept us busy. Did we ever take the time to come to terms with tragedy? The ancient Greeks advised there are profound lessons a civilization should learn from it. The world stops and everyone just looks around, stunned, as we did that morning in 1963. One can lash out in rage, as perhaps happened in Viet Nam---and here at home in protest. On 9/11 2001, we went through it again. Maybe it was anger and resentment, instead of the wisdom in tragedy, that brought us to bully the entire world...a world that at first offered only condolence and support. Now, finally, have we learned something? Are we at a new beginning?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Now, About Bill Ayers...

Photo of Bill Ayers by Chris Walker of The Chicago Tribune.

Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control---these three alone lead to sovereign power.

---Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Growing older, I love only quietness:
who needs be concerned with the things of this world?
Looking back, what better plan than this:
returning to the grove.

---Li Po

...on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

---John Keats

Some of us have been on a particularly pink Cloud Nine since Barack Hussein Obama was elected the next President of the United States. But this is 5 days later and here are the Sunday papers. If we haven't been jolted out of our reverie yet by the reactions of people not sharing it, it should happen today.

I was not a total convert to Senator Obama, even after being in the midst of one of his ecstatic rallies, but I ended up on the team knocking door-to-door on Election Day. While wearing an Obama button, I nevertheless saw myself as enabling both friend and foe to get to the polls if they wanted to. While cautious and frankly very worried about the shotgun fringe around here, who loudly refused to vote for any of those liars anywhere, I wasn't prepared for the aftermath among Republicans, Libertarians, Evangelicals and those even farther to the right.

I don't think I've seen, after any of the elections in my lifetime, the opposition explode in such disarray. I snuck a listen to rightwing AM radio Wednesday night, and heard Sean Hannity blasting the Republican Party as a bunch of phonies, too scared to stand up for any of the real conservative values. Evangelicals at work, particularly those with single-issue concerns about abortion, haven't spoken to me since Tuesday. I wrote a piece honoring folk singer/songwriter Holly Near, posted it on the Internet (I was trying to change the subject) and the comment thread blew up into flames and personal invective about Obama. As I look around at other blogs and comment pages to analysis, I see I wasn't alone in having this happen.

Yesterday the UK Guardian published an article with the subtitle "The Right Tears Itself Apart In Pinning Blame For McCain's Defeat." It begins,

"As the implosion of the defeated Republican campaign continued yesterday, the landscape of American conservatism was dotted with signs that these were very strange times indeed.

"Rush Limbaugh, behemoth of rightwing radio, took to the airwaves to declare war on two enemies: Barack Obama and the Republican party. Bloggers at, an internet hub for conservatives, announced a boycott of Fox News and John McCain's aides fell over one another to leak embarrassing details about the campaign to the press.

"Liberals, indulging in what the writer Andrew Sullivan termed 'Palinfreude', were presented with a smorgasbord, ranging from the tale of how McCain's pro-Palin foreign policy adviser had his Blackberry confiscated in the closing days of the race, to how the party had paid for Todd Palin's silk boxer shorts."

This morning The New York Times is carrying opinion columns not only from the usual Sunday commentators Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, but from their other writers too, like Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof---and even more, including Al Gore. And there are the blogs in there and other columns too, all about the election...and what's next. Take your choice~~~

What I decided to do was open space for the most extreme rants anybody's still got bottled up. Let's just get it all out and hope that after a few days of venting, we can return to the business of our everyday with normal composure and focus. The Republicans pinned a lot of their attack on a supposed underground relationship and influence with Chicago resident, professor, and activist Bill Ayers. As far as I know, Mr. Ayers said nothing in public about all this during the campaign. Now he does. What do you think?

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
Friday 07 November 2008
by: Bill Ayers, In These Times
Bill Ayers looks back on a surreal campaign season.

Whew! What was all that mess? I'm still in a daze, sorting it all out, decompressing.

Pass the Vitamin C.

For the past few years, I have gone about my business, hanging out with my kids and, now, my grandchildren, taking care of our elders (they moved in as the kids moved out), going to work, teaching and writing. And every day, I participate in the never-ending effort to build a powerful and irresistible movement for peace and social justice.

In years past, I would now and then - often unpredictably - appear in the newspapers or on TV, sometimes with a reference to Fugitive Days, my 2001 memoir of the exhilarating and difficult years of resistance against the American war in Vietnam. It was a time when the world was in flames, revolution was in the air, and the serial assassinations of black leaders disrupted our utopian dreams.

These media episodes of fleeting notoriety always led to some extravagant and fantastic assertions about what I did, what I might have said and what I probably believe now.

It was always a bit surreal. Then came this political season.

During the primary, the blogosphere was full of chatter about my relationship with President-elect Barack Obama. We had served together on the board of the Woods Foundation and knew one another as neighbors in Chicago's Hyde Park. In 1996, at a coffee gathering that my wife, Bernardine Dohrn, and I held for him, I made a $200 donation to his campaign for the Illinois State Senate.

Obama's political rivals and enemies thought they saw an opportunity to deepen a dishonest perception that he is somehow un-American, alien, linked to radical ideas, a closet terrorist who sympathizes with extremism - and they pounced.

Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) campaign provided the script, which included guilt by association, demonization of people Obama knew (or might have known), creepy questions about his background and dark hints about hidden secrets yet to be uncovered.

On March 13, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), apparently in an attempt to reassure the base,- sat down for an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News. McCain was not yet aware of the narrative Hannity had been spinning for months, and so Hannity filled him in: Ayers is an unrepentant "terrorist," he explained, "On 9/11, of all days, he had an article where he bragged about bombing our Pentagon, bombing the Capitol and bombing New York City police headquarters. ... He said, 'I regret not doing more.'"

McCain couldn't believe it.

Neither could I.

On the campaign trail, McCain immediately got on message. I became a prop, a cartoon character created to be pummeled.

When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin got hold of it, the attack went viral. At a now-famous Oct. 4 rally, she said Obama was Ïpallin' around with terrorists.- (I pictured us sharing a milkshake with two straws.)

The crowd began chanting, "Kill him!" "Kill him"- It was downhill from there.

My voicemail filled up with hate messages. They were mostly from men, all venting and sweating and breathing heavily. A few threats: "Watch out!" and "You deserve to be shot." And some e-mails, like this one I got from mhtml:%7B940C49A4-58E2-4565-9227-8B5FE6DD2A8F%7Dmid://00000121/! "I'm coming to get you and when I do, I'll water-board you."

The police lieutenant who came to copy down those threats deadpanned that he hoped the guy who was going to shoot me got there before the guy who was going to water-board me, since it would be most foul to be tortured and then shot. (We have been pals ever since he was first assigned to investigate threats made against me in 1987, after I was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.)

The good news was that every time McCain or Palin mentioned my name, they lost a point or two in the polls. The cartoon invented to hurt Obama was now poking holes in the rapidly sinking McCain-Palin ship.

That '60s Show

On Aug. 28, Stephen Colbert, the faux right-wing commentator from Comedy Central who channels Bill O'Reilly on steroids, observed:

"To this day, when our country holds a presidential election, we judge the candidates through the lens of the 1960s. ... We all know Obama is cozy with William Ayers a '60s radical who planted a bomb in the capital building and then later went on to even more heinous crimes by becoming a college professor. ... Let us keep fighting the culture wars of our grandparents. The '60s are a political gift that keeps on giving."

It was inevitable. McCain would bet the house on a dishonest and largely discredited vision of the '60s, which was the defining decade for him. He built his political career on being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

The '60s - as myth and symbol - is much abused: the downfall of civilization in one account, a time of defeat and humiliation in a second, and a perfect moment of righteous opposition, peace and love in a third.

The idea that the 2008 election may be the last time in American political life that the '60s plays any role whatsoever is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, let's get over the nostalgia and move on. On the other, the lessons we might have learned from the black freedom movement and from the resistance against the Vietnam War have never been learned. To achieve this would require that we face history fully and honestly, something this nation has never done.

The war in Vietnam was an illegal invasion and occupation, much of it conducted as a war of terror against the civilian population. The U.S. military killed millions of Vietnamese in air raids - like the one conducted by McCain - and entire areas of the country were designated free-fire zones, where American pilots indiscriminately dropped surplus ordinance - an immoral enterprise by any measure.

What Is Really Important

McCain and Palin - or as our late friend Studs Terkel put it, "Joe McCarthy in drag" - would like to bury the '60s. The '60s, after all, was a time of rejecting obedience and conformity in favor of initiative and courage. The '60s pushed us to a deeper appreciation of the humanity of every human being. And that is the threat it poses to the right wing, hence the attacks and all the guilt by association.

McCain and Palin demanded to "know the full extent" of the Obama-Ayers "relationship" so that they can know if Obama, as Palin put it, "is telling the truth to the American people or not."

This is just plain stupid.

Obama has continually been asked to defend something that ought to be at democracy's heart: the importance of talking to as many people as possible in this complicated and wildly diverse society, of listening with the possibility of learning something new, and of speaking with the possibility of persuading or influencing others.

The McCain-Palin attacks not only involved guilt by association, they also assumed that one must apply a political litmus test to begin a conversation.

On Oct. 4, Palin described her supporters as those who "see America as the greatest force for good in this world" and as a "beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy." But Obama, she said, "Is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America." In other words, there are "real" Americans - and then there are the rest of us.

In a robust and sophisticated democracy, political leaders - and all of us - ought to seek ways to talk with many people who hold dissenting, or even radical, ideas. Lacking that simple and yet essential capacity to question authority, we might still be burning witches and enslaving our fellow human beings today.

Maybe we could welcome our current situation - torn by another illegal war, as it was in the '60s - as an opportunity to search for the new.

Perhaps we might think of ourselves not as passive consumers of politics but as fully mobilized political actors. Perhaps we might think of our various efforts now, as we did then, as more than a single campaign, but rather as our movement-in-the-making.

We might find hope in the growth of opposition to war and occupation worldwide. Or we might be inspired by the growing movements for reparations and prison abolition, or the rising immigrant rights movement and the stirrings of working people everywhere, or by gay and lesbian and transgender people courageously pressing for full recognition.

Yet hope - my hope, our hope - resides in a simple self-evident truth: the future is unknown, and it is also entirely unknowable.

History is always in the making. It's up to us. It is up to me and to you. Nothing is predetermined. That makes our moment on this earth both hopeful and all the more urgent - we must find ways to become real actors, to become authentic subjects in our own history.

We may not be able to will a movement into being, but neither can we sit idly for a movement to spring full-grown, as from the head of Zeus.

We have to agitate for democracy and egalitarianism, press harder for human rights, learn to build a new society through our self-transformations and our limited everyday struggles.

At the turn of the last century, Eugene Debs, the great Socialist Party leader from Terre Haute, Ind., told a group of workers in Chicago, "If I could lead you into the Promised Land, I would not do it, because someone else would come along and lead you out."

In this time of new beginnings and rising expectations, it is even more urgent that we figure out how to become the people we have been waiting to be.


Bill Ayers is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of "Fugitive Days" (Beacon) and co-author, with Bernardine Dohrn, of "Race Course: Against White Supremacy" (Third World Press).

TruthOut also posted the article, and the comments there have been fast and furious. This one, by a VietNam veteran particularly stands out~~~

Mr. Ayers, As a VietnamSat, 11/08/2008 - 04:13 — hourglass (not verified) Mr. Ayers, As a Vietnam veteran let me add my thanks for having the courage to see wrong as wrong and trying to agitate to right it. I was terrorized by my government and the support for the war by my fellow Americans throughout my high school years. As my family slipped into a ruinous split up, I had a choice to go to jail or Vietnam or give up my citizenship. I managed some college courses on my own, but then my gov again changed the rules for deferment - within months I was wearing green. I live in Asia now and returned to Vietnam last year to lay some ghosts to rest and offer prayers for the forgiveness of my countrymen. The country smelled differently. Fresh fruits and vegetables were everywhere. Korean and Japanese company presence was everywhere. Everyone was busy with life and not with fear and death. Now that our actions in Iraq have insured that religious fundies will be in control, I wonder how long the American conscience will allow the Iraqis - who also never threatened us - to live with the fear and death we have brought them too in the name of freedom and democracy? p.s. As Gore Vidal recently noted, the myth of the hero McCain is of McCain's own making. p.s.s He's right. I was there.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sing Out The Vote

The vote gets sung out in Ohio. Photo by Michael Gruber.

My epitaph? My epitaph will be, "Curiosity did not kill this cat."
---Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912-October 31, 2008)
A school of trout
passed by:
the color of water!
People are like stained glass windows: they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.
---Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Maybe it was the Depression, and how all the people had to pull together to get us out of it. Maybe it was the New Deal, and all those agencies planting trees, building dams, cleaning up towns, cities, the countryside, encouraging art, literature, music, theater, movies. Maybe it was uprooted people, from the Dust Bowl and lost jobs, traveling around, bumming around, looking all over this great land for a new home. Maybe it was whole families of folk music collectors and performers: the Seegers, the Lomaxes, the Carters. Maybe it was radio, broadcasting jazz and country from small towns, heard by producers passing through, who stopped and brought them to the big cities for us all to hear. Maybe it was Woody Guthrie, riding the rails, writing down and singing out what he saw. Maybe it was World War II, making us all get together again to fight Fascism. After all that there was such relief, we just had to celebrate ourselves.
So it was that we kids, just entering school in the mid and late nineteen forties, got taught folk music in our classes. In my small city in western New York, where Sicilians and Swedes shared each other's very different cultures in order to manufacture furniture, we didn't sing that stuff every day. A few classes had pianos and teachers who could play them, but most of the time we had to depend on just one itinerant music teacher who visited each of our half dozen neighborhood grade schools once a week. But when she came she taught us the great American cowboy and folk songs those families of collectors had found in the mountains and prairies. We developed a pride in being American by learning our heritage that way.
By the early 1950s, folk music had gained such popularity we heard it on the radio. You could hear live performances like the Grand Ol' Opry and big bands and jazz groups from Chicago and New York and New Orleans at night, when AM radio carried a long way. But there were records on the juke box too. Probably most popular of all was a singing and playing quartet called The Weavers. Their records were on Decca, and they had big arrangements, with dozens of violins and choral singers, of tunes we had sung in 3rd grade. Wow! On Top Of Old Smoky...and then one we hadn't heard before, called Good Night Irene. And around that time, I heard them sing another "new" song, which was called This Land Is Your Land...and I loved it so much I was overjoyed to learn some people even wanted it to replace our National Anthem.
But then when I was in 6th grade, some kind of trouble came...and it lasted through the rest of my public schooling, and The Weavers disappeared and folk singing stopped being heard widely. We learned that underneath all those happy songs of celebration, those singers actually were being unAmerican. There was an UnAmerican Activities Committee in our Congress, and they had investigated The Weavers and a lot of other movie stars and radio announcers and people like that. They found those people had been involved in "Red tactics" all this time and so, especially in the schools and on the public airwaves, they weren't allowed to be taught or heard or seen anywhere anymore.
On our new televisions, the investigating committes held their hearings in our living rooms every afternoon. They even replaced the soap operas! A famous broadcaster named Fulton Lewis Jr. sent his son to my hometown to investigate our school libraries. He went on the Mutual Network every evening to report his findings. We had some questionable John Steinbeck for kids to read. He said The Weavers didn't choose that name because they were sitting around knitting sweaters. He said The Weavers were a communist labor movement in Europe that tried to take over the factories. Our superintendent of schools, Dr. Carlyle Ring, the father of a school friend of mind, was forced to resign. He died shortly after that. Pete Seeger refused to testify, but did offer to sing some songs to the Committee.
When I went off to college, I had met only one Democrat (that I knew of) in my whole life. He was Herbert Beckman, and had taught social studies in my high school. He admitted to me one day after school that he was a Democrat. I don't remember what we were talking about, but it may have been Harry Truman. I remember distinctly when he said it and how I felt. I admired Mr. Beckman but now he looked something like a creature from outer space. At the time I had no idea there were people in my own family who were Democrats...and the really Swedish ones were further to the Left than that! But many things were hidden in America now, not spoken about. "Under God" got added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
day my freshman year at Bates College, way the heck up in Maine, I walked toward Parker Hall, where I was living, and to my astonishment I heard folk music playing from a little speaker a guy had pointed out the window of his room toward campus. Even more amazing, it was The Weavers...and they were singing alone, without the orchestra and chorus---and it was wonderful. Another time I went past that guy's room and Charlie Parker was playing in there. That did it, I had to find out who he was, and so I just walked in. I said, "I thought all you guys were squares in here!" The guy with the little record player looked up from his book and said disdainfully, "You sound like a square coming in here like that." And of course he was right.
It was 1958, and Fred was from Upper Manhattan. Paul, who didn't live in the room but was draped in a chair all the time, was from Greenwich Village. Nick was from the Boston area, and Gray was a kind of woodsman from the even further outer reaches of Maine. I was a hick from the sticks in the Midwest dairyland somewhere beyond the Appalachians. My limits and boundaries began to stretch and open up. A couple of years later we were picketing the local Woolworth's in Lewiston, Maine, because we heard the chain of variety stores had a policy of not serving black people at their lunch counters in the South. We began to attend rallies in Boston, and Pete Seeger was there leading us with folk songs, and Hubert Humphrey was there, and Steve Allen, and Erich Fromm got pelted with eggs.
Civil Rights, and the War Resisters League, the SANE nuclear committee, and Fair Play For Cuba, all came along in the early '60s. Rallies brought us a new generation of folk singers too. There was Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Folk revival was in the air, and we heard the music again...and many new songs. Rock 'n roll became affected, and Dylan plugged in. We picketed John Kennedy's White House in the slushy winter of '62, and he sent out greetings and hot chocolate. By the late '60s and early '70s, young people were "dropping out," going back to the land to make their own folk music and babies, or heading to ashrams to clean out their heads. We and the music were losing our political edge.
With the end of Carter and the beginning of Reagan, we all went underground again. The glitz of Las Vegas and the Crystal Cathedral of Evangelicals took over. "Family Values" were advocated, and eventually Lawrence Welk appeared every week on National Public Television. America was all flat and cardboard once more. Ugly, scowling faces told us what to do. Eventually the Supreme Court decided a presidential election and we got a man who celebrated ignorance and decision-making from the gut. Football triumphed over baseball. Big box stores offered ultimate convenience---as long as you had a car to get to them...and even then people hated to walk the distance of the parking lots. Local shops and inner cities died. We declared war on terror. Guns and gasoline-power on road and off road are sacred. "Ease your finger off the trigger" to achieve universal peace seems an insane suggestion.
That line in the last sentence is part of a lyric to a new song I heard last weekend. Through the whole ghastly period of recent history I've just described, from my point of view, that tradition of folk music and songs of social change has been carried on by "Woody's children," Arlo Guthrie being among the most visible from time to time. He and Pete Seeger even traveled and sang together sometimes. Most incredibly for a month or 2 in 1984, they even gathered Ronnie Gilbert, from the original Weavers, and another member of the new generation of singers, Holly Near, to form HARP and perform old and wonderful new songs here and there. In some ways HARP was just as wonderful as The Weavers, and certainly more so in that Pete and Ronnie passed on the tradition so visibly to Arlo and Holly. If you're curious about the group you may be glad to learn Holly Near recently reissued a glorious HARP concert in a double CD album, available on her own label.
Which brings me again to that song from last weekend. Four weeks ago Holly Near got the idea to gather a bunch of mostly new folk groups and individual singers that she knows about, and bring them "on their own dime" from all over the States to Ohio, from which many say the current election again may swing. A week ago Friday and last Sunday, my family got to see them here in Athens and over in Marietta, an hour to the east. I really was so preoccupied with other things I hadn't bothered to investigate Heather Cantino's announcement they were coming. Had tickets not fallen into my wife's lap, we might not even have gone. I learned Friday afternoon, the troupe was going to sing on a street corner in front of the county courthouse. I went down, spotted Holly at once, and got her to autograph my LP copy of the original HARP release. I didn't know anybody else among the group, but I liked the spirit.
Nothing could have prepared me for that rally Friday night, or for the quite different show Sunday afternoon! It was like hearing The Weavers again that afternoon in 1958. Joy stirred inside my body, and a song of hope came dancing out. My 17-year-old daughter was at work Friday night, so I made sure she was in the audience Sunday afternoon. She was jumping up and down and clapping her hands. Thankfully the torch got passed. Others have written now about the Sing Out The Vote Ohio tour, and I'll refer you to a couple of sites. Four of the songs, from the Columbus appearance, are at YouTube, and Holly is considering putting something together to release. Whatever happens Tuesday, songs of social change have happened here and will resonate through my being into my future and matter what!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Obama In Ohio

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) during a campaign rally at the Ross County Courthouse on Oct. 10, 2008 in Chillicothe, Ohio. (Mark Lyons/Getty Images)
While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover. There is one certainty of the future of a people of the resources, intelligence and character of the people of the United States---that is, prosperity.
---President Herbert Hoover - May 1, 1930
Losing a job is painful, and I know Americans are concerned about our economy; so am I. It's clear our economy has slowed, but the good news is, we anticipated this and took decisive action to bolster the economy, by passing a growth package that will put money into the hands of American workers and businesses.
---President George W. Bush - March 7, 2008 on news that the economy lost 63,000 payroll jobs in February.
The singular feature of the great crash of '29 was that the worst continued to worsen.
---John Kenneth Galbraith.
Barack Obama campaigned in Ohio before this week, but his emphasis consistently had been upon the cities in the northern part of the state. Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown. He had touched Columbus, in Central Ohio, and even swooped down for an invitation-only appearance at Hocking College in Nelsonville before the primary. I didn't get an invitation or even hear about the visit, as there was a huge push to get-out-the-vote that day at Obama headquarters in our town. I resented that his visit wasn't open to all and, even more, that he didn't make a surprise stop down here to cheer on the thousands of OU and Athens City students who were knocking door-to-door. It's a 10 minute drive, and would have made up a bit for ignoring Southeast Ohio.
I'm not stung because it's an ego thing. Southern Ohio is very different from Northern. Southwestern Ohio is dominated by Cincinnati but Athens, despite Ohio University's presence here, is too small a city to dominate anything. As my conservative friend at work reminds me constantly, Athens is a little blue island in an ocean of red. A couple hours drive 2 weeks ago along Route 50 from Athens west to Chillicothe took me past yard after yard, farm after farm, loaded with McCain-Palin signs, flags and spangles flapping everywhere. As Governor Strickland said in Athens last month, if Kerry and Gore lost Ohio it's because of politics right here.
It's true Michelle Obama appeared at OU during primary season, and I'll bet you it was one of the highlights of her campaigning. But that's not the same as the candidate himself showing an interest in the "West Virginia part of Ohio," and maybe providing a convenient opportunity for some Republicans to check him out. His 2-day tour of Southern Ohio featured spectacular appearances in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Portsmouth on Thursday, and Chillicothe and Columbus yesterday. It's a straight shot northeast from Portsmouth to Chillicothe to Columbus---and it cut us out completely...unless we wanted to take the time off yesterday for the workday-scheduled speeches, or stagger through Friday after arriving home past midnight from 2 hours of travel, which we did (if you drive the speed limit, which we didn't).
Opening speeches started 10 minutes early at Shawnee State in Portsmouth, with the school's president giving us heartfelt welcome. I was optimistic Obama actually was going to show up on time. A few addresses from local candidates and organizers and the next thing had to be the candidate himself. On came that Obama music, which is so good it's almost worth a visit in itself---but an hour and a half later, this writer really was starting to sag. The loop reached the end with Springsteen, and then Aretha started us over again. Where the heck was he? I figured Cincinnati had to be the most important stop down here, but that rationalization took me only so far.
Finally Sherrod Brown came out to introduce Ted Strickland, who's managed in the past couple years to become a simply terrific political speaker. We were steamed up by the time Barack Obama hit the stage. My 17-year-old daughter said she started to cry at the sight of him. It's true, he's every bit as phenomenal in person as they say. THE One, THAT One, well...I don't know about going that far, but we all forgot our impatience within seconds. He apologized for being late, and immediately launched into the Georgetown diner anecdote that clearly he was making up on the spot.
Georgetown, Ohio, is a little town about a third of the way down 125 from Cincinnati to Portsmouth. I've never been on that road, but I presume it's a 2-lane. It was suppertime (gates opened in Portsmouth at 5:30 for the 7:30 appearance) and the 3 men decided to stop along the route for a bite to eat. Once inside the place, however, things got predictably complicated. Patrons and workers were astonished---as anyone would be. Photos had to be taken, especially with the waitresses and guys behind the grill and at the dishes. We're deep in Republican territory here, and they said the owner was "diehard" for the other side. They planned to enlarge the photo, frame it, and get it up on the wall as a surprise. But at that point the owner showed up, thanks to an obvious cellphone call. The dialogue that ensued between this small business guy and Barack Obama is classic. A number of papers have picked it up, including a couple I'm linking below. I guess the delay was worth it.
Obama's tour of Ohio was fortuitous in that the baddest news about the economy kept on coming this week. He gave nearly half of his 45-minute speech to it, launching immediately into those issues. His quote line about the AIG people at the $450,000 spa is making headlines. Here was the government's first chance at "oversight" and what happened? Obama told us what he would do---and that was first, demand a check of repayment to us taxpayers and second, fire them all then and there. The response from us 6000 assembled was tumultuous.
He is radical, compared to what we've heard from such candidates in the past 40 years. And he's resolute, and he's plausible. Big money's had its fun, and now it's time to pay the piper...and that's us. Barack Obama's a reminder of what many of us old-timers learned in school of what the United States is about. But it's been a long while, and many liberals believe the population has been so dumbed down in the meantime the situation may be hopeless. McCain actually brought himself to correct one of his supporters yesterday who referred to Obama as an "Arab."
When we established ourselves as a republic there was a catch. Yeah, sorta you got the right to pursue whatever happiness you want---but the Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, warned without public education the mass becomes a mob. During the Bush years, educators have been mandated to "leave no child behind"---but "behind" is a test measurement for this administration. It's a measurement produced by private contractors, who make up and grade the tests, many of whom never have been teachers. These are test results that punish schools that don't make the grade, that withdraw funding to them...and even can shut their doors. There are school administrators across this land that think the whole plan is to privatize everything else.
I'm not going to allow myself to go off on a tangent rant here, but Obama gives indication he will not continue this approach. I wish he had talked more about it, but he did promise "no more teaching to the test." That means teaching gets restored to work with your students, where they're at and what they need. I've gone pretty far out in my days in the classroom, but I've prided myself that if an administrator came in at any moment I could tell him/her exactly what I was doing and why. I've always told kids on the first day that I teach because I consider it a matter of life and death. That philosophy never has been borne out so obviously to me as the state of intelligence of this nation right now.
Barack and Michelle Obama are dignified and very smart people. But to call them elite is slander. Perhaps many in the audience at Shawnee, where Ted Strickland taught for 10 years, were educated people...but a large proportion, at least to me, did not particularly appear to be. I think what strikes everyone who goes to an Obama rally is the incredible diversity of people there. It's the opposite of a Republican convention, where everybody dresses the same---in their red, white & blue outfits and funny hats---and behaves the same, disparaging those who are "different." Forty years ago Yippies were arrested for wearing American flags as shirts and blouses. There was singing, there was dancing, there was laughter in Portsmouth, Ohio, a ravaged town at a big bend in the River. It's a town with a lot of spirit and pride. Revival's in the air there, and I hope Barack Obama caught some of it himself---and inspired even more.
Half of these links are to Ohio newspapers and their reports on the tour. The first 3 are exceptions. This is from Agence France-Presse this morning, and I think reflects well the feel of what Obama was trying to do down here~~~
The second is MSNBC's report on Obama's plan to encourage small businesses---which are hurting tremendously at present, since expanding inventory usually takes loans which are increasingly difficult to get~~~
and this is the Washington Post's story on the same thing~~~
Here's Dayton's coverage~~~
and Cincinnati~~~
The Toledo Blade covered the Portsmouth rally~~~
as did the Columbus Dispatch~~~