Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Hustling then and now

Oscar season, now past but still fresh in memory, reminds me of non-winner American Hustle from last year because that tawdry tale has just replayed itself in British politics. Hustle was based on the notorious 1970s ABSCAM FBI sting operation that netted several politicians and the Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner, en bouffant. It was based on an elaborate and quite incredible scheme cooked up by the FBI to entrap dirty politicians with suitcases of cash.

The difference is that the ABSCAM defendants of yesteryear faced indictments and charges and even jail and certainly public opprobrium whereas the British pols snared—one foreign minister each from the two main UK parties, Straw (Labour) and Rifkind (Tory)—proudly assert that they did nothing wrong and have “a clear conscience.” On the latter point, I do not doubt their word for one minute. Politicians for Hire, the documentary produced by the Daily Telegraph reporters on their escapades as deep-pocketed businessmen from Honk Kong shopping for influence, will be aired later today on British TV. Yum yum.

In the 50 years that have elapsed between the US version of mock-political bribery and the recent one staged by the British reporters, profound shifts in our beliefs about governance have evolved in both countries. Whereas once it would be shameful to accept payoffs and peddle influence for one’s corporate contacts, it is now considered not only normal but almost virtuous. We have stopped believing in public goods or public well-being and now see only clan- and network-based interests, to which one mans up and hitches one’s wagon or gets left in the dust, i.e., is a loser and a nobody.

In short, we have developed the mentality of a mafia state. As there are many stages in this process of gradual rot, we can still compare our situation favorably with that of, say, Mexico or Nigeria. But the momentum and the direction of the decline are clear enough.

In a non-mafia state there are rules and standards of fairness that, while never fully honored, exercise a certain degree of social control over the natural biped tendency to cash in for self and friends. Thus the congressman who was taped stuffing his pockets with cash from the FBI agents pretending to be Mideast sheiks—and whom I personally questioned about his belief system during a Capitol Hill news conference—was the object of scorn. Today, he would be criticized for crudity and sloppiness, but not ostracized. Similarly, Straw and Rifkind can rebut the charge that they and their influence are for sale by saying, So what? A guy’s gotta earn his living somehow, and who can get by on a lousy hundred thou a year? They will neither go to jail nor be dropped from party invitation lists.

I recognize this growing trend toward mafiosism having lived in South America for two decades. There, no one really believes or even pretends to believe that merit is the standard for advancement though it may be taken into account (or not). Instead, one has to have connections (cuña in Chilean slang, or “wedge”) and mobilize them; the relevant skills and competence may or may not also be required, but cuña is essential. This process will include all sorts of cajoling, ass-kissing, gift-giving, stroking, relative-schmoozing, and relentless buttering up until the goal is achieved. Sexual favors, of course, are often welcome.

The ideal form of this system is the political party, which is why the anti-Pinochet coalition that replaced the military regime in Chile in 1990 quickly degraded itself into a corrupt network of hustlers amassing and passing out favors. While there were people in the coalition trying to represent the interests of the entire population in the new government, they never constituted its core. Parallels with the Democratic Party, USA, are so obvious they barely need mentioning. (The GOP, now a whorehouse without even a beaded curtain to hide behind, even less.)

How much of this is inevitable? After all, government officials will always be biased toward their favorites, and economics inevitably drives decision-making. Democracy cannot pretend to operate at a remove from the overwhelming influence of profit. But when a society no longer believes in the nation, the collective polity as the repository of an ideal of fairness and equity and not just a jumble of jockeying clans blindly intent solely on their own exclusive advancements, the seeds of collapse are sown. No wonder we keep hearing so much about how Obama or some other enemy “doesn’t love America.” In psychology, it’s called projection.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Ukraine v/s Greece, the double standard in EU romance

Ukraine just sealed a deal with the IMF for a cool $17.5 billion, which probably will help it limp forward in the war our bosses are so eager to pursue against Russia. It’s been clear from the beginning that our war-hungry leaders favor hostilities in Eastern Europe as they systematically explode avenues for resolution and act with maximum belligerence. If they were inclined toward peace-making, you wouldn’t have heard careful pols like Hillary make inflammatory comparisons of Putin with Hitler when the situation first started to spin out of control, which she carefully repeated to make everyone sure that they hadn’t just made a slip of the tongue.

Last week there was a new ceasefire agreement, which the EU promptly tried to sabotage by announcing a new sanctions regime against Russia. Huh? You make peace and then immediately punish the adversary for doing so? For reasons beyond my modest ken, Washington and its Euro-allies are determined to keep this dangerous outbreak stoked—no doubt the war-profiteer class pululating around the Beltway is delighted that it won’t face austerity any time soon.

Contrast the easy money made available to enable front-line Ukraine to continue bleeding itself with the Stern Daddy attitudes copped in negotiations with Greece, trying to get back on its feet despite the six-year kneecapping performed by its EU overlords. (“Fiscal waterboarding,” in Greek finmin Yanis Varoufakis’s phrase.) There, we hear about nothing but the sanctity of “agreements” that the prior Greek governments signed while Angela Merkel and her chief gringch, Wolfgang Schäuble, held a glock to their heads. Greece has no particular strategic importance, and the previous “bailouts” enabled German and French banks to get paid off in full for their foolish loans to the insolvent (an exact duplicate of the joint Bush/Paulson and Obama/Geithner strategy in saving the U.S. banks from their own folly). So Greece gets bupkis, and the Ukrainians a mountain of cash.

Not that the Ukrainians are so lucky—the pay-back terms are so onerous it is hard to predict whether Putin or the IMF will be more successful in bringing what was once a miserable and corrupt country to a state of dystopian collapse. But it’s amazing how quickly the IMF’s own rules about not lending to countries at war or to insolvent ones go out the window when geopolitics take priority.

Europe is courting disaster of a magnitude we can only imagine when reading historical fiction from the past century. The Greeks are offering reasonable terms to get the continent out of its demented marriage to a failed program of Freedom through Work, a.k.a., prosperity through penury. Instead, the banker class now running things throughout the western world insists that it should get all the goods, all the money and all the fixed wealth (they’re insisting that Greece sell off its infrastructure like ports and airports, even the Acropolis, to pay the impossible debts), that they and their children must rule like pharaohs while the little people toil in silence and survive on crusts. It’s happened before in human history, and if they get their way, it will return in due course. And they won’t hesitate to bring us World War III into the bargain.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Sad, sad days

I helped my friend Billy say goodbye to his partner, who died after a brief illness at the obscenely young age of 38. The funeral took place in his Mohawk Valley hometown of Herkimer near Utica in upstate New York. He came from a big Italian-American clan with innumerable kids, grandkids, nephews, food and drink everywhere, and a massive turnout at the six-hour visitation: 1000 people, which had to be a sizable percentage of the local population. The lost brother was a dancer and had performed as late as October, so there was a strong atmosphere of disbelief. I could only imagine how keenly the deceased yearned to get back to his joyful life, with his artistic pursuits in the city, his boyfriend of six years, and his adoring sisters and gregarious brothers waiting for him back in the familiar village where he knew every street and every backwoods hideaway where he’d gone drinking as a teenager. He had wanted to avoid the hospital and get home for the holidays this year. But for the usual unfathomable reasons, he didn’t get his wish.

Times certainly have changed around the presence of the same-sex partner, even in a conservative zone like our upstate. On the train heading north, I was party to a long conversation among other riders about how much they hate Governor Cuomo (for his gun safety law), their disdain for poor people (though many are skating on the edge themselves) and the usual litany of Fox News-inspired complaints. And yet no one would dream of disrespecting Billy, the bereaved boyfriend. The preacher caught himself in time on the verge of leaving out Billy’s place among the listing of heartbroken relatives and preached a sweet, thoughtful eulogy citing Psalms about dance as a celebration of God's bounty.

There was a slide show of highlights of his life, which was wonderful and touching and terribly painful to watch. At the wake at the local Elks Lodge, I circulated among the relatives and a few New York dancer friends who had come up, a couple of whom will now have to rethink their careers and find new collaborators. My job was unobtrusively to be around and available, listen when needed, and resist the temptation to say anything “helpful.”

I’m familiar with small-town America and come from it. It has a warm, welcoming aspect and an ignorant, bloody-minded side, too. At the train station in Utica, I expected to get a taxi to take me the 12 miles to Herkimer, but none were around, and the barbershop gave me a phone number to call for one. Turned out they were all booked, but then the guy who took the call was curt, rude and hung up on me in mid-sentence. The funeral would be over in 90 minutes, and I was stuck.

So I said, Piss on this town, I’m getting there on my own, found my way down to the highway intersection and stuck out my thumb just like in the old days. Granted it was about 12 degrees and windy, so this might have looked imprudent to some, but in less than 10 minutes a guy pulled over to pick me up who not only was from Herkimer himself, but was headed there and knew the family. He dropped me off at the door to the funeral home. I was confident people wouldn’t leave an unthreatening, 60-plus-year-old white guy standing by the road in that weather for long. And I was right.

It’s curious how often in my past deaths have intersected with shifts I am undergoing in my personal life to the point where some profound sadness emerges during the departing one’s final illness or at the funeral, and I feel almost embarrassed to be piggybacking on others’ grief when, as in this case, I have just the most glancing acquaintance with the deceased. But one reacts as one reacts, and it doesn’t have to make sense. Perhaps that’s another reason why it didn’t feel at all like a chore for me to make this trip—on the contrary, I was delighted to be of some small service for a grieving friend, and in addition, odd as it sounds, I felt I was saying goodbye—to something—for myself as well.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Virtuous Germany v/s naughty Greece

We’ll be hearing a lot about the need for countries to pay all their debts and not shirk them, coming from German government officials full of piety about sacred contracts, prudent budgeting and all sorts of similar family values. They’ll insist those naughty Greeks that they mustn’t think of getting out from under their duly acquired obligations, whatever the new Syriza-led government has to say.

They ought to be reminded that a certain European country had its debts forgiven by half in 1953 when creditors recognized that the war-ravaged country was never going to pay in full. That country was Germany, the beneficiary of sensible policy by the victors of World War 2 who did not want to repeat the debacle of the 1919 Versailles settlement. They saw that the decision to impose impossibly harsh conditions led to the instability of Weimar and eventually the rise of Naziism (despite multiple, too-little-too-late rounds of debt forgiveness in 1924, 1929 and even to Hitler in 1934).

Greece is never going to pay off its accumulated debt, which anyone with a grasp of seventh-grade arithmatic can see. Greece’s Depression-level conditions, imposed by the German-led bankers, make it impossible to accumulate enough income even to pay off the interest. Facile talk about structural “reforms” and fiscal prudence are cruel jokes, like telling a child to get an education by chasing after a speeding schoolbus.

Greece will default or being given new loans to roll over the old ones because it cannot pay. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. The only debate is whether the country is to be crushed under north Europe’s thumb permanently or be allowed to come back to life. The default should have happened years ago, but that would have harmed the German and French banks that were on the hook due to their foolish lending to the Greek kleptocracy, the existence of which the whole country now has to atone for. The EU cleverly paid those banks off with new loans and saddled Greek citizens with repaying them, who are now expected to do so by starving and living on the streets. If they have nothing left to hock, well then, sell off the Parthenon—I’m not making this up.

So why is Germany the only country in modern times to be granted debt relief but refuses to do the same when it is holding the credit chits? Perhaps because it can exercise moral authority over the rest of Europe due to its sterling record as a good neighbor?

Syriza has an almost impossible task, and the EU banker mafia, convinced it holds all the cards, thinks it can dictate terms to whomever the Greeks happen to elect. That may be true for now, but the continent has given us ample lessons in unintended consequences. The financier class seems determined to sow the wind, and the ultra-right is standing by ready to offer its peculiar alternative. Europe should pray for Syriza’s success.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lemebel and "la diferencia"

I’m sure a thousand people in Santiago could tell stories of Pedro Lemebel, the Chilean author who died last week: the guy did not enter a room undetected. That said, here’s mine.

We (a half-dozen Chilean men and I) established a storefront HIV prevention and advocacy group in the late 1980s, which for years was located on Porvenir, a street one block off Avenida Matta in a gritty, commercial section just to the south of downtown. We didn’t have a dime and spent a lot of time—in between cooking up public health strategies that we didn’t know a thing about—just finding a way to pay the next month’s rent. This was before AIDS had become big business when everyone wanted in on the largesse. But we were the only outfit providing information to the gay boys who were quickly getting the infection without knowing it.

(Digression: The Dutch gave the new, post-Pinochet government a million dollars to deal with the epidemic, but none of that ever reached us—it was quickly siphoned off by the party-connected professionals and nonprofit entrepreneurs linked to the new “democratic” health ministry. Four mega-projects were funded with the divvied-up cash, none of which targeted the population that comprised 98% of the early infections. One of them dealt with “street children at risk”, which must have sounded good to someone in a development office in Europe. We funded ourselves by staging a monthly drag show and selling clandestine piscolas.)

Lemebel and his performance-art partner Francisco Casas were active by then doing their famous numbers as the Locas del Apocalipsis, “locas” being Chilean slang for “queen”. They were explicitly homosexual (not “gay”, a term they disdained), and so it wasn't surprising to find them one day sitting on the front step of the office when I showed up around 4 p.m. to open up for that evening’s activities. I knew who they were and invited them in.

I don’t recall a thing about the conversation we had that day except that we were not understanding each other in any language. It was clear that they wanted us to join them in some sort of action or campaign, but we were not at that moment engaged in gay-related advocacy, except indirectly by pointing out the need for a coherent approach to the sexual practices of people endangered by a sexually transmitted disease. In retrospect, we probably were excessively cautious, but this was at a time when no one in our entire organization dared to go on TV even to say the word “AIDS” for fear that grandma would figure out that they were gay (which she would have). So the first public face of the group was your humble blogger, on the Catholic station, channel 13. I believe it was early 1989.

I tried to listen respectfully to what Lemebel and Casas said they were doing, and why, while explaining that we were doing something else. That somehow did not compute for them; they went on their way. Later, Casas denounced me during a public reading as some sort of envoy of U.S. imperialism, which was a rare form of criticism during my many years there. He and his bohemian-intellectual crowd loved to challenge people by asking “desde dónde hablas tú?”, that wonderfully academic posturing about one’s supposed biases that substitutes for a debate about ideas. But he got over it and was cordial later.

But the most memorable encounter with the inimitable Lemebel occurred a few years later at some sort of public event in a bar, the specifics of which escape me, except that I was sitting with Leslie Crawford of the Financial Times when Lemebel pulled up, sat himself down at our table and helped himself to our wine without being invited. He turned to Leslie, who was dressed for an evening out, and said, “How elegant you are—like an international prostitute!” No doubt he meant it as a compliment.

Leslie was not amused and said to me, in English, “Did you hear what he said?” Yes, I replied, so we will now speak to each other in a language he does not understand. Which we did. It was quite effective in our goal of driving him off, and I never had the occasion to ”speak with” Pedro Lemebel again. However, I enjoyed his writings and understand that he could be a warm-hearted friend.

Pedro was an artful provocateur, and to say he didn’t know when to quit is both true and meaningless. He startled people; we organized them. While he shook up Chilean culture with his unique style and content, we established an HIV prevention and testing operation and brought awareness and solidarity to many people who fell in the grip of the virus in the terrible early years. No one could do what he did, and our work didn’t interest him in the least. Everyone contributed his part. Vive la différence!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Mayor de Blasio and Patrick Lynch @ Reichenbach

In the Conan Doyle series, the final struggle between Sherlock Holmes and archfoe Moriarty ends when they both tumble, locked in a final embrace, into the Reichenbach Falls. Moriarty hates Holmes for frustrating his criminal activity, and he is a far cleverer adversary than the mundane evildoers that Holmes easily hoovers up with his detective skills. But the price of his hatred is mutual destruction.

I fear that’s the outcome we can anticipate in the ongoing war between the NYPD union chief Patrick Lynch and our remarkably decent mayor, Bill de Blasio. While more public and private jockeying will follow last year’s disastrous events as the city and its cops figure out how to coexist, the brands of both, the hothead cops-do-no-wrong-ever Lynch and the clumsy political neophyte de Blasio, are damaged, probably beyond repair.

Lynch cashed in on the murders of two cops by a deranged gunman who cited the Garner and Brown cases, thereby trashing weeks of patient, largely pacific protest by thousands of New Yorkers concerned about racial targeting and abuse (myself included). He immediately blamed the protest movement and the mayor for the assassinations just as half of Washington will accuse Edward Snowden if another major terrorist attack ever takes place on U.S. soil. It’s outrageous but resonates with many citizens.

But Lynch overplayed his hand and began to act like someone had elected him mayor. The back-turning funeral incidents and the work slowdown made Lynch look juvenile and dangerous. He successfully demonstrated to one and all that he sees the department as a sort of Praetorian guard that possesses the city rather than merely policing it, a sovereign entity whose corporate spirit mystically brings New York into existence and without which the metropolis will sink back into the primordial slime.

That was a fatal error on the part of the mostly-white leadership of the police union, and the city has turned against Lynch specifically as a demagogue. The work stoppage also exposed the corruption built into everyday police work here as cops are driven to fulfill quotas of arrests and generate lucrative fines that are extracted from mostly minority detainees (a la Ferguson), upon which the city has shamefully come to depend for income. Lynch’s illuminating comment directing the force only to make “necessary” arrests will come back to haunt him both for what it implies (they normally arrest “unnecessarily”?) and for the blatant usurpation of civilian authority.

But de Blasio has probably wrecked his tenure as well with his handling of the admittedly awful situation. While his comments before the cop killings were unpopular with the rank and file, they weren’t false—everybody knows his mixed-race son has to be more careful with the cops and exactly why that is. While de Blasio needed to show understanding of cops’ fears after the killings, he should have simultaneously called them out over their disrespect, not just of himself but of us, the voters who put him in office and who are the cops’ ultimate superiors in our republican form of government. We needed to hear de Blasio remind Lynch and his mob that the people are sovereign, not the NYPD nor its union, and that the city that provides them with firearms has the right to tell them exactly how those weapons will and will not be used. He should have chastised them for thinking and behaving otherwise while holding out the olive branch.

Instead, de Blasio has looked weak, and that never ends well. He’s backed away from the sympathy he once expressed with the protest movement, indirectly reinforcing Lynch’s blood libel. He talks about better protections for cops as if the public’s fear of them has magically dissipated—it hasn’t. Nobody is coming out of this sorry episode looking like they know how to lead the city through the minefield of racial politics and racialized policing. While we await the inevitable next deadly incident, the mayor and the policeman remain locked in mortal combat and heading for the rocky falls below. Conan Doyle was forced to resuscitate Holmes after Reichenbach and bring him back for more stories, but I suspect not even the creator of Sherlock Holmes could write either Lynch or de Blasio into a new chapter.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The question Obama sidestepped

Unless one is amused by Washington theatrics, there were few reasons to watch the State of the Union address last night. No one thinks for a minute that the Republican Congress will pause from its baby-eating program to cooperate with a president that they have largely neutralized with their program of massive resistance to anything he proposes, suggests or even thinks.

“Massive resistance” was the term Virginia Senator Harry Byrd introduced into the national lexicon in response to the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Byrd called for the white overclass in the South to dig in its collective heels and defend the Jim Crow system by any and all means; the strategy was unapologetic, sometimes violent and quite effective. Even as the overt racism of the times slowly weakened and was discredited in its crudest forms, the mobilization of the white population to resist integration arguably succeeded. While blacks and whites in the South now mingle in lunch counters and universities, in many meaningful aspects their lives unfold in very separate spheres.

The film Selma shows something of the coalition that gradually pushed back against “massive resistance”: a mass movement of persons ready to face state-sanctioned violence, expert leadership both at the grass roots and recognizable icons, determined allies in the federal government. What is particularly compelling about the movie is that is shows us without explicitly stating it that blacks’ steady organizing and willingness to risk their lives gave the leaders and the politicians an arena in which to act. Without the patient groundwork of the SNCC organizers, who come off in the movie as somewhat unreasonable hotheads, the Selma march could not have taken place.

Obama knew, or should have known, that he was facing a new round of “massive resistance”—his enemies announced it from the rooftops. Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” at an earlier State of the Union address merely flagged it symbolically for all to see. (I often wonder what would have happened if Obama had called him out on the spot, told him off and reminded him that he had won the election and thus spoke for the people.)

That’s the question Obama has never chosen to address: what should his approach have been given that the white people’s party had no intention of giving him an inch. Like the southern segregationists thumbing their noses at the highest court of the land, the GOP used Obama’s electoral mandate as toilet paper. They were so determined to see him fail that the country’s failures domestically and overseas continued to be a source of sniggering delight.

But for the president, none of this is happening. He’s like the patient alcoholic’s wife who calls in to the office to say her husband slipped on the ice or has a nasty cold instead of admitting that he’s hung over. It’s remarkable to sit and listen to the guy pretending to direct the country’s affairs while staring at a roomful of white men (and a few of their horrible women) determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The 1950s and 1960s were a prosperous time in the United States, and the role of economic opportunity and spreading wealth in the post-war period in the burgeoning civil rights movement is largely unexplored. Black Americans had ways to earn a living, both down South and in escaping northward to the industrial belt to earn good union wages. Those days are over, and it’s no surprise that with much narrower possibilities for getting ahead and a shredded safety net, people are less combative.

With no mobilized base nipping at his heels, Obama could substitute rhetoric for results. So we got expanded health insurance, but not the right to health; Race to the Top-style corporate education for some, but no relief for the ragged public schools now populated increasingly by poor minority children. A black president watching impotently while the Voting Rights Act that made him possible is dismantled and various forms of poll tax restored.

Obama had a chance to reverse the pauperization of the populace at the end of the disastrous second Bush Administration, and he carefully destroyed it by siding with Wall Street. Now that the alliance of the financier class and the reactionaries of the neo-Jim Crow Republicans has been cemented, they no longer need an Obama to save them from the mess they made in the 2000s. He’s still the boss and can make some interesting moves with his powers like the opening to Cuba and executive action on immigration and the like. But politically he’s used up. The next two years will be a holding pattern while the country decides whether to give the architects of the new “massive resistance” further rope with which to hang themselves and us.