Our Economy Is Built Around a Bunch of Scams and Pure Greed -- and the Alternatives Are Staring Us in the Face
Wall Street is only one of several financial roach motels in what has become a giant slum of a global economy. Notional “money” scuttles in for safety and nourishment, but may never get out alive. Tom Friedman of The New York Times really put one over on the soft-headed American public when he declared in a string of books that the global economy was a permanent installation in the human condition. What we’re seeing “out there” these days is the basic operating system of that economy trying to shake itself to pieces.
The reason it has to try so hard is that the various players in the global economy game have constructed an armature of falsehood to hold it in place — for instance the pipeline of central bank “liquidity” creation that pretends to be capital propping up markets. It would be most accurate to call it fake wealth. It is not liquid at all but rather gaseous, and that is why it tends to blow “bubbles” in the places to which it flows. When the bubbles pop, the gas will tend to escape quickly and dramatically, and the ground will be littered with the pathetic broken balloons of so many hopes and dreams.
All of this mighty, tragic effort to prop up a matrix of lies might have gone into a set of activities aimed at preserving the project of remaining civilized. But that would have required the dismantling of rackets such as agri-business, big-box commerce, the medical-hostage game, the Happy Motoring scam, the suburban sprawl “industry,” and the higher ed loan swindle. All of these evil systems have to go and must be replaced by more straightforward and honest endeavors aimed at growing food, doing trade, healing people, traveling, building places worth living in, and learning useful things.
All of those endeavors have to become smaller, less complex, more local, and reality-based — rather than based, as now, on overgrown and sinister intermediaries creaming off layers of value, leaving nothing behind but a thin entropic gruel of waste. All of this inescapable reform is being held up by the intransigence of a banking system that can’t admit that it has entered the stage of criticality. It sustains itself on its sheer faith in perpetual levitation. It is reasonable to believe that upsetting that faith might lead to war. After all, a number of places organized as nation-states will be full of angry, distressed citizens clamoring for sustenance and easy answers — and quite a bit of their remaining real capital is stored in the form of things that blow up.
There is an awful lot that President Barack Obama has to answer for after all this time. But there is almost no public chatter (let alone true debate) about his failure to discipline the banking system. He should have commenced to restructure the biggest banks in January of 2009. He should have proposed through his congressional proxies the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall act. Almost nobody besides Bill Black has remarked on the remarkable record of the SEC under Obama in making no criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, not to mention the stupendous dereliction of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Of course, Barack Obama is not the only eminent office holder in the land. The behavior of all the others the past decade represents such a titanic failure of nerve and action that the younger generation must think that only revolution can avail. I believe they’ll get their chance. Everything on the horizon — most particularly the idiotic chorus of financial “bulls” — points to an ever more harrowing outcome of the orchestrated pretense that governs money matters in this moment of history.
More of the moment is the anxious decision of the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury in the matter of Michael Brown’s death. The race hustlers so prominently showcased on CNN want to put over the story that there is only one possible just decision. If it doesn’t work out the way they like, this will be a bloody holiday and perhaps the beginning of something much bigger.
As a general rule, I try not to write about hypocrisy in politics. It’s such a constant, such a fact of life, that it can feel a bit like complaining about traffic or the weather.
But just as there’s a difference between waiting an extra 20 minutes during rush hour and being stranded in your car for five days — or between a typical snowstorm and what’s happening currently in Buffalo — there’s a difference between the routine hypocrisy of politics and the kind we saw this week from Republicans in the House. One kind is an annoyance to be quickly forgotten; the other leaves a mark.
Before getting into why they’re so egregious, however, let’s pause to recap the Congressional GOP’s recent machinations.
Aware no doubt of how President Obama’s announcement this week on immigration reform would dominate both the media and the public’s attention, Republicans in the House, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, have been working to make sure the next head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — which acts as Congress’s honest broker when it comes to scoring fiscal policy — is not a nonpartisan technocrat, as has usually been the case, but rather a loyal member of the conservative movement. And, as former CBO chief Peter Orszag recently explained, because the CBO has no institutional protections from partisan hackery, and maintains its integrity mostly through tradition, there’s precious little anyone can do to stop them.
While there are no doubt many changes ideologues like Ryan would like to see the CBO make, reports indicate that the main reason GOPers want to install a right-wing hack as its chief is in order to make the agency integrate “dynamic scoring” more fully into its estimations. “Dynamic scoring,” for those who don’t know, is a phrase conservatives like to use to give a tenet of their anti-tax religion — lower taxes lead to more revenue! — an intellectual gloss. More importantly, dynamic scoring is generally the special sauce right-wing “wonks” put into their projections in order to claim that massively cutting taxes on the rich won’t lead to fiscal ruin. Remember the absurd claim that Bush’s tax cuts wouldn’t explode deficits? Thank dynamic scoring for that.So that’s what’s happening under the radar with the CBO. And if that were the whole story, it’d probably fall under into the “routine traffic and weather” category of hypocrisy I mentioned earlier. What makes this more of a Buffalo snowstorm-level problem is the context — specifically, the fact that Republicans are destroying yet another norm of American politics, the nonpartisan CBO, at the very same time that they’re waging a relentless and disingenuous campaign to persuade the media (and thus the American people) that the way the Affordable Care Act was written was a breach of democratic norms without precedent.
Yes, this is where “Grubergate,” the most recent of the GOP’s seemingly endless supply of manufactured outrages, comes in. If you’re not familiar with this tempest in a teapot, I recommend you catch up by reading my colleague Joan Walsh. But for our purposes here, all you need to know is that Republicans have been devoting a ton of energy toward making MIT’s Jonathan Gruber’s admission, that the White House designed Obamacare with the likely political ramifications of the CBO score in mind, equivalent to the 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes. Because the president knew that calling something in the bill a “penalty” instead of a “tax” would make it harder for conservatives to scream that Obamacare was the tax hike to end all tax hikes — as they did (and are still doing) with Hillarycare — that means, conservatives argue, that the bill itself was only able to pass through the most dastardly lies.
As BuzzFeed’s Adam Serwer noted, the Grubergate politicking is most likely an attempt to lay the groundwork for defending a possible future Supreme Court gutting of the ACA. (Although Gruber’s confirming the right’s suspicions of liberal technocrat elitism and piggishness, by calling voters stupid, is operational, too.) But when you see it through the lens of Ryan’s dynamic scoring push, you’re confronted with a level of bullshit that is flabbergasting — even in the context of partisan politics. According to Paul Ryan and other Republicans, it is absolutely not OK for a president to design a bill in a way that makes it harder for its opponents to demagogue. It is not OK to write a bill and think of the CBO at all. What is OK, apparently, is corrupting it from within.
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One reason that media coverage of drugs so frequently sucks is that few reporters follow the subject regularly enough to develop any real expertise. But the opposite is true for British journalist Mike Power.
He leads the world in his reporting on “legal highs”—a class that includes drugs like Spice, K2 and “bath salts,” which are sold online and in convenience stores as alternatives to illegal substances like marijuana and amphetamine. Because these chemicals are new to the market, they occupy a gray zone—not technically illegal because they haven’t specifically been banned, but not exactly legal, either, because they haven’t been tested or approved for human consumption.
Once relegated to the back pages of High Times or the dark corners of head shops, they are now so popular that by 2012, one in nine high school seniors reported having tried one, meaning that more teens have taken these untested substances than have tried prescription painkillers, heroin, ecstasy (MDMA) or cocaine. The combination of the Internet and Chinese labs that can make chemicals to order with few questions asked is upending the drug trade.
An updated version of Power’s excellent book, Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, was just published in the US. (It was previously released in the UK under the title Drugs 2.0.) I spoke with him about his work and why “legal highs” present a unique challenge to drug prohibition.
Maia Szalavitz: What got you interested in legal highs?
Mike Power: The thing that interested me was when, in about 2008, supplies of ecstasy, which is the most popular club drug in the UK, completely dried up. There wasn’t any MDMA to be had, which is unusual in a market with 500,000 participants every week.
That was the question I set out to ask in my book: “Why is there no MDMA? Suddenly, after almost uninterrupted supplies for decades.” The answer was, the United Nations [Office of Drugs and Crime] in 2008 burned 33 tons of safrole oil [a precursor used to make MDMA, which it had confiscated in Cambodia].
And how did that affect legal highs?
The [ecstasy] market was incredibly toxic and very desperate, and into that gap came mephredrone. In the space of 12 months, it became the fourth most popular drug in the UK.
The concept of “legal high” was kind of nonexistent. The legal highs before mephedrone, which is 4-methylmethcathinone [a synthetic stimulant], were normally caffeine or ephedrine and didn’t really have an effect. Whereas mephedrone has an extraordinarily powerful effect.
And [eventually] it started to become rebranded as a “legal high” rather than, as previously, a “research chemical” [which was used by a few drug geeks on the Internet].
The role that the internet plays in this is fascinating because the very early Internet was populated with Deadheads and psychonauts of various types.
In those early days it seemed to offer a space beyond hierarchy that was ungovernable. It was part of the whole antediluvian hippie dream, where we could all just communicate and do what we wanted.
What is mephedrone like, compared to ecstasy?
Personally, I couldn’t tell you.
But you have taken some drugs yourself…
I took ecstasy [aged 18] and it was a wonderfully revelatory experience. It taught me a lot about music, sound, dancing and about human interrelations. I smoked pot when I was 16 and 17, loved it and thought it was a wonderful waste of time, a wonderful way to relax and listen to music. For me drugs are always connected to music and socializing.
How has your own experience affected your reporting in this area?
I always wanted to understand ecstasy. I think it’s a fascinating chemical. My experiences of ecstasy were so positive and so discordantly different to the prevailing [media coverage of drugs].
I thought, I understand the drug story really well—I’ve got the background in having a kind of insight into the drug culture from my teens and early 20s—and I was looking at [the reporting on] this mephedrone story, and everyone was talking nonsense. Nobody had any scientific, academic or cultural rigor at all.
So how do they describe the mephedrone high?
The reports are that it is a very fast and harsh buzz. You have a very quick onset, like a quick empathetic beginning, and then it trails off to become more speedy, followed by a kind of jittery anxiousness. That just sounds very unpleasant, but compared to [the alternatives that were available] it was better.
It sounds like mephedrone interrupted the drug markets in the UK just as profoundly as crack did in the US, but it didn’t cause the same kind of violence. Why?
Because it was virtualized, it was online. And the market was big—it was the fourth most popular drug. And we don’t have [so many] guns in the United Kingdom.
And it’s less addictive?
It was a nightclub drug, a party drug rather than a drug of hardcore social deprivation and abuse, although since it’s been banned, it’s become that. People are compulsively injecting it.
[But] even when it was just being snorted, it had a compulsive use profile because it crossed the blood brain barrier very quickly. [It] lasts 45 minutes and then it falls off a cliff, so people would be high as a kite and then down, high as a kite and down.
It was like a cross between crack and ice [smokeable methamphetamine]. It seized the more economically deprived sections of the drug user community. Max Daly has written about compulsive mephedrone injectors who just lost every vein in their body.
You wrote a story for the online magazine Matter in which you had a Chinese lab make an analog of a type of speed taken by the Beatles. What gave you the idea to do that?
I’ve been asked to do this a dozen times. Every editor said to me, “Can you make us a drug?” and I said, “Yes, but what would the point be?” And they couldn’t give me an answer. [Then] I started talking with Bobby Johnson, an editor at Matter. I said, “What was the point at which, culturally, drugs actually became part of the weave of every day society?”
My contention would be that that was the birth of LSD and the Beatles and the ‘60s. So I thought, What was the first drug experience that the Beatles had? And it was Benzedrine, but I didn’t fancy making Benzedrine [an amphetamine] because it isn’t as unusual.
The legal high story represents a pivotal change in the way that drugs are manufactured, consumed, experienced and mediated in a society, and I wanted to find a drug that was taken by the man who introduced LSD to the United Kingdom.
There is a picture of the Beatles holding tubes of Preludin. I thought, that’s no different than young kids posing on Facebook with a pile of mephredrone—except for the way the whole world is so interconnected.
It just tied together a few strings for me: privacy, publicity, the consequences of drug use. [I wanted] to make a legal version of John Lennon’s favorite drug. It’s a great headline, isn’t it?
What was your scariest moment when you were having the drug made?
When I went to collect it, walking through the streets of London with a bag of five grams of white powder. If the police stopped me, I would have to tell them that it was actually a legal version of Preludin that I had had synthesized in a Shanghai laboratory.
I don’t fancy my chances that the police would have believed me. I think I would have been taken to the cells while they sent it off for testing. That was really scary.
Now, politicians in the UK are considering trying to ban any substance that could get you high and then making exceptions for alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. What’s wrong with that approach?
Where does that leave a drug like nitrous oxide [laughing gas, which can be bought for use in making whipped cream]? And on a moral basis, why those three drugs? Why should alcohol, which kills several hundred thousand people per year, be allowed to remain legal?
This whole issue shows that drug prohibition is a result of prejudice, not an attempt to protect people. Historically, we’ve banned drugs in bouts of racist hysteria, while generally allowing those that white Europeans have decided are acceptable.
Absolutely. The legal high question just shines the light onto the logical fallacy of all prohibition. It’s like, “OK, so this drug is bad because it’s banned, but this one is legal, even though it’s more harmful. In that case, why is it legal?” Because we haven’t quite banned it. It’s circular logic.
Also, if you say, “We’re banning everything except alcohol, tobacco and caffeine,” how does a pharmaceutical company know what’s legal? It seems unenforceable.
Medical research could be limited severely by such moves. One of the key [insights] that I had in my study of the new drug market is that the only reason that people take these drugs is that they can’t get the ones that they want.
Out of the 75 new drugs in the European Union last year, the vast majority were cannabinoids. They are trying to replicate a completely safe, nontoxic plant that doesn’t kill anybody.
I interviewed a woman whose son died from three tokes on one synthetic cannabinoid joint. The boy died because his blood pressure suddenly dropped, he had a stroke and then a catastrophic system failure and died— that’s from a synthetic cannabinoid that he bought legally down at the shops, when, if there was a more rational drug policy, if he were allowed to buy marijuana, he would be alive today.
So what do you think should be done?
Let’s legalize: “Anyone can buy and sell marijuana.” If we had courage to do that, straightaway we would cut out at least 60% of the legal high market.
What do you think is the future of drugs?
I think it’s digital: More and more people will buy their drugs on the Internet. On a policy level the future of drugs has to be to dismantle prohibition because it’s discredited. It does not work.Related Stories
The Texas State Board of Education approved several dozen social studies textbooks after a contentious battle over their treatment of subjects including climate change, the role of slavery in the Civil War, Islam, and biblical influence in America’s founding. One major publisher, however, withdrew a book from consideration, saying that it was unable to meet all the standards set by the school board.
The Texas Freedom Network, which live-blogged today’s vote, said that some problematic material had been removed from the proposed textbooks, including climate denial and “offensive cartoons comparing beneficiaries of affirmative action to space aliens,” but that references to Moses as an influence on the Constitution and the Old Testament as the root of democracy remained. But TFN notes that publishers posted a number of last-minute changes to the textbooks yesterday, leaving board members and observers without time to figure out exactly what was in the approved texts:
The Texas Education Agency posted scores of pages of publisher comments and textbook revisions after the last public hearing on Tuesday. Miller said scholars did not have an opportunity to review and comment on the numerous changes publishers have submitted since the last public hearing on Tuesday. Some of those changes appeared to have been negotiated with state board members behind closed doors.
During a months-long process, publishers made a number of improvements to their textbooks. Those improvements included removing inaccurate information promoting climate change denialism; deleting offensive cartoons comparing beneficiaries of affirmative action to space aliens; making clearer that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War; and revising passages that had promoted unfair negative stereotypes of Muslims. Scholars and the general public had ample opportunity to review and comment on those revisions.
However, the new textbooks also include passages that suggest Moses influenced the writing of the Constitution and that the roots of democracy can be found in the Old Testament.Scholars from across the country have said such claims are inaccurate and mislead students about the historical record.
The textbooks were approved despite a last-minute attempt by Truth in Texas Textbooks, a group with ties to the anti-Muslim organization ACT! for America, to remove accurate information about Islam, reduce coverage of civil rights (which it found to promote unsavory “racial politics”), and insert information about Young Earth Creationism sourced to the conservative website Conservapedia. [TFN’s summary of Truth In Texas Textbooks’ complains is in this pdf.]
The Texas Tribuneadds that the group’s last-minute request also included downplaying the environmental impact of coal mining and noting in a chapter about colonization that Native Americans already discriminated against and oppressed each other:
The Truth in Texas Textbooks Coalition, all but unheard from for months while new social studies textbooks and instructional materials were being vetted, submitted a 469-page report in late October identifying more than 1,500 “factual errors, omission of facts, half-truths and agenda biases” in proposed materials.
Among its objections: A passage on coal mining should say it has “minimal effect on the environment"; a chapter on Spanish colonization of Latin America should point out the “continuous discrimination and oppression practiced by the native American peoples on each other”; and a statement that Shariah law requires religious tolerance of non-Muslims should be removed.
The group was formed by retired Lt. Col. Roy White, a Tea Party activist who also leads the Bexar County Chapter of ACT! for America, an organization dedicated to fighting extremist Islam. Its founder, Brigitte Gabriel, is known for her views that Muslims in the United States pose a danger to national security.
TFN tells us that it appears that Truth in Texas Textbooks did not succeed in getting any "substantive changes" into the books.
A startling change for the worse has occurred in the physical appearance and occupancy of central Houston over the last few years. Entire historic neighborhoods, while superficially modernized, have had their character destroyed. How can change on this scale take place so fast, despite the lessons of the recent national housing collapse? Who are the people behind this transformation, how do they get what they want, and who gets hurt by their callous disregard?
My neighbors and I are currently being affected by what I consider the most monstrous example of gentrification in Houston. I want to expose its sordid aspects, hoping that Houston will do the right thing and that other cities in the early stages of gentrification will take note of what is at stake.
Steel Street at the intersection of Kirby and Alabama, in the heart of Houston's cultural district: 35 100-year-old live oak trees dominate the street amidst historic 1940s housing set to be torn down. (Anis Shivani/May 2014)
Artists, writers and eccentrics from around the country descended in droves in the 2000s to take advantage of Houston's livability. They flocked to the legendary “gayborhood” of Montrose and brought other neighborhoods around downtown to life. I called Houston in those halcyon years "Austin-plus" because it had a lot of the capital's aesthetic attractions in addition to remarkable diversity and friendliness. Despite the influx of the creative class, Houston remained affordable and blissfully free of alienation.
Alas, for many of us the dream has ended. Houston has transmogrified into a city ruled by a brutal strain of neoliberalism, and the city's well-known tendency to be disrespectful of history has been taken to gothic extremes. It took only a few short years for developers to displace the original population of the central neighborhoods, while converting the core city into an exclusive playland for the rich.
The metamorphosis has received little coverage in local media, which are beholden to the same growth-at-all-costs advocates who fund politicians. Houston now has comparable rents to New York City, and corporate indifference—which I had never known since I moved here almost 20 years ago from New England—stamps out neighborhood intimacy. Houston has ceased being what it was, as rampant commodification destroys its inherent Southern gentleness and live-and-let-live philosophy.
Gentrification is the process of replacing deteriorating inner-city housing stock with upscale residences—townhouses and condos—while the original lower-income residents are evicted. Gentrification, as it started occurring in North American cities in the early 1970s (following the lead of London in the 1960s), goes through certain well-known cycles, typified by what happened to New York's Lower East Side. In the first wave, gentrifying pioneers (typically educated and older, intrigued by the cultural possibilities of the inner city) move back from the suburbs, followed by a younger wave of gentrifiers (students and artists) who give the inner city a stronger cultural aura, followed at last by yuppies and then even richer and more homogeneous upper-class people for whom moving in has more financial than cultural meaning.
What is happening in Houston does not fit the classical definition of gentrification. Montrose—the quintessential bohemian district—is close to historic wards like the Third, Fourth and Fifth, home to generations of minority homeowners. The condition of these neighborhoods was nothing like the slums of Los Angeles or Detroit, despite the damage caused by freeway construction after the war. There were isolated areas of blight, but on the whole they were vital and functioning. The bohemian areas were ideal as they were.
To call what is happening gentrification or even redevelopment dignifies the current violence. When existing vibrant neighborhoods are torn down and those being displaced are crucial members of the community, we’re not just talking about gentrification. We are witnessing a full-scale sellout to developers, who are working closely with municipal government for short-term speculative gain.
Houston's geographical patrimony is up for sale to the highest bidder, and politically unaccountable corporations are in a purchasing frenzy. Boosters rationalize their investments as a means of broadening the tax base or making the city more attractive for business, but in fact the city is being hollowed out for future generations. This is asking for big trouble, as we will recognize when the bubble inevitably bursts. By then the mega-builders will have made their pile of cash and moved on to other cities to destroy whatever is humane and urbane about them. Houston is late to the game, but this is the same process of leveraged gain for the few leading to profound human misery for the many.
* * * * *
Houston's bohemian section (Montrose) is adjacent to our most elite neighborhood (River Oaks), both of which are in turn close to the inner-city neighborhoods; this juxtaposition once created possibilities for interaction among different classes. The geographical jumble made segregation all the more difficult once it started being phased out in the 1950s, which had a positive influence on the rest of the city as well, radiating beyond the inner loop of the 610 freeway. But Houston has undergone dramatic resegregation under the guise of development.
My neighbors on Steel Street—at the Kirby and Alabama intersection, arguably the single most desirable location in Houston, with everything interesting located within a few miles' radius—and I have become victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space by those who falsely assert that the market alone decide outcomes.
There is no prettier street in all of Houston, with a magnificent vista that opens up as one enters Steel Street from Kirby Drive or Virginia Street; people mention North and South Boulevards as comparisons but the trees on our street are more impressive. Family members of Roy Huffington, the renowned Texas oil baron and philanthropist, are said to have lived in the very townhouse I live in (they combined adjoining townhouses and made delightful alterations including cavernous bookshelves). Even River Oaks does not have a contained urban forest such as this one, so it's no wonder that the Dickey family, which owns all of the property on the street, invited their friends from River Oaks to maintain residences here.
A view of the front of my house on Steel Street. (Anis Shivani/Nov. 2014)
The 370-unit 30-story high-rise Hanover Co. wishes to put in its place. (Swamplot.com/Aug. 2014)
In the 1890s, William Dickey, a physician, bought a huge tract of land alongside Kirby Drive stretching all the way to Buffalo Bayou, including parts of River Oaks and the Avalon neighborhood and what is known as Upper Kirby. Upon the death of William Dickey's son in 1999, the current owner, Tommy, started selling chunks of this vast property bit by bit, taking advantage of tax incentives to "redevelop" a large stretch of Kirby Drive, from River Oaks to the 59 Freeway.
Tommy Dickey, the current owner of Steel Street, often recognized by the city for his contributions to "redeveloping" the already elite Upper Kirby area. (Upper Kirby District Street Talk/2011).
Such tax incentives (called TIRZ's, Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones) are common to the gentrification narrative in other cities so it's disingenuous to claim that market forces alone determine outcomes. Municipal policies guide urban transformation, spurring developers to focus on areas that are already well-developed. Before Dickey started selling it off in pieces, Kirby Drive already had thriving independent restaurants and businesses. Perverse tax incentives for the destruction of distinctive neighborhoods should have no place in rational urban planning.
Our immediate neighbor, a pretentious luxury condo called Gables River Oaks (they keep changing names, hoping that the next one will lure in occupants), remains largely empty, and the retail businesses within it keep closing down. The new residents have little loyalty to local businesses. And an infamous high-rise building that went up on Kirby remains largely empty five years after construction, so it's not as if the development is all in response to pent-up demand from young professionals moving into Houston by the tens of thousands.
All over Montrose and Upper Kirby one sees boosters carrying signs on the streets, as empty luxury apartment towers try to lure in occupants. (Anis Shivani/Nov. 2014).
Tommy Dickey tried for a while to get the city to "abandon" Steel Street, so that the oak trees would no longer be in the right of way and the developer could do whatever he wished with them. He met with success at last when Hanover Co., with presumable help from the planning commission, came up with a scheme that would fly: present the plan as developing only a portion of the street, get everyone accustomed to the idea of losing the incredible vista, and take care of the rest piecemeal.
Before the planning commission meeting on August 21, the developer announced that only five trees would be affected, and that the high-rise involved only a section of Steel Street. Since then, however, things have been moving rapidly, as the rest of the property has been sold off. Dickey apparently didn't hold out for a higher price for the rest of Steel Street, afraid of possible resistance.
The planning commission meeting was a revelation to me. I have never seen a more hardened bunch of 27 people gathered in one place (city council members often seem to have their hearts in the right place, but this is not so with the planning commission). Developers make their pitch (the proposals are predeveloped, formed in conjunction with the city to offer whatever suits public consumption, as was true of gentrification in New York and elsewhere) and the planning commission staff invariably rubber-stamps it. Members of the public are free to comment but the commission may go ahead with the original decision anyway.
Hanover's representatives, primarily David Ott, came off as gangsters dressed in nice suits. They made obvious misrepresentations while the planning commission just sat there and took it with a wink and a nod. Hanover claimed that an arborist had done a study for them showing that the trees would be "helped" and "improved" by construction. It isn’t hard to imagine that in a few years the company will say that the trees are dying—which they surely will because of the damage caused by the construction—and should be taken down for public safety.
A man rose in support of the highrise as a member of the "Steel Street Townhome Owners' Association"; he may belong to a part of Steel Street on the other side of Kirby, but has nothing to do with our section of Steel Street. The planning commission (headed by Patrick Walsh, director of Planning and Development) asked politely if the public would continue to have access to the trees (assuming they would continue to exist) and Hanover replied that the public would be happier than ever. I imagine a ghastly private walkway like the one at Gables River Oaks, the trees (if any survive) nestled amidst failing high-end stores for the private enjoyment of those who can afford a million-dollars-plus for one of the 370 units in the high-rise.
But Houston is not known for leaving well enough alone. Three years ago I was traveling to national parks in the mountain west and came back to discover that the entire tree cover for Memorial Park—oaks that were planted in the 1920s by the city fathers—was gone! The drought had supposedly killed the trees and they were in danger of falling over runners so the city had to prevent the risk. I haven't encountered anything like Memorial Park's vast acreage of ancient trees anywhere in the country. There is no such place, in the dead center of urban density, set aside in quite the same manner, yet in the blink of an eye, without public discussion, the trees were demolished. It became an excuse to "redevelop" Memorial Park; Council Member Ellen Cohen (who wants to be the next mayor) is a fierce advocate for this $150 million boondoggle, courtesy of a New York company. The idea is to take down pristine ecological systems and rebuild them for commercial ends.
Council Member Cohen (whose district includes most of the central neighborhoods that have been devastated) is a recurring presence in these scenarios. Buffalo Bayou Park, connecting downtown with River Oaks/Upper Kirby/Montrose, was another ecological treasure, yet—without much public input—its pristine wilderness was also demolished, leaving a massive redevelopment project in its wake. There was a bit of a fuss about the riparian forest that will give way to commercialization, but this being Houston, the conclusion was foregone.
* * * * *
It has become almost a rite of passage for liberal-minded Houstonians to get a 30-day eviction notice.. Over on Steel Street, my neighbor Angela works at Whole Foods and has three young daughters, one of whom attends the prestigious Lanier Middle School. Angela has been preparing her daughters for a massive downgrade and is even considering abandoning her nine-year-old dog. Like many others here, Angela has little idea of how to proceed because there is no affordable housing within the city. Buying is out of the question, as tiny houses cost half a million dollars and decent-sized houses a cool million.
Long-time Steel Street resident Angela Tawater Amundsen with her 13-year-old daughter Emma. (Anis Shivani/Nov. 2014)
Kat Kearns is an artist who has had a tough time finding a place that would accept her rescue dog Birdie. Eddie Graber, with a law degree from UT Austin, has lived here for 40 years, and cannot comprehend the loss. Don Williams lived here for 30 years and was proud of his vegetable garden. Mark (a University of Houston graduate student in literature) and his yoga-teaching wife Lisa also grew a vegetable garden; they have since reluctantly departed to east Houston, the reservoir du jour for the displaced. My next-door neighbors have had three children since they moved here and are unlikely to find any comparable housing elsewhere in the city.
We are real people who make up a real community, only to be displaced by unoccupied zombie high-rises which are pure investment vehicles for global investors. People like us find our lives irreparably damaged by gentrification. We're not homeless, we're not welfare recipients, we're the backbone of Houston, tens of thousands of hardworking residents who put the city in the position of promoting itself as a cultural destination in the first place. We ride bikes or walk; we loyally support local establishments; we love our neighborhoods and treasure them, yet we are the ones whose lives are destroyed.
The real faces of displacement: the Hodge family, my immediate neighbors, Willow, Sidney and Oliver, in front of their house on Steel Street. (Liana Bouchard/Nov. 2014)
In Portland or San Francisco lawsuits would be flying all over the place to save the trees. But the ordinary citizens of Houston feel powerless amidst the development frenzy. Houston's center has already been transformed beyond recognition,with countless skyscrapers going up, while the original population has been dispersed to distant ramparts or are considering other cities now that Houston has become as unaffordable as Los Angeles or New York.
In Montrose there has been a precipitous decline in foot traffic—which leads to more crime—because the yuppies are content to turn their backs to the world, preferring windowless standardized townhouses, and patronizing establishments that close down early in the evening (because they have to go to their oil and gas industry jobs early the next morning). Taco Milagro, at the intersection of Kirby and Westheimer, used to be a lively public-private space. The food was very healthy and people from all over the city danced the night away and congregated on the large patio. But at the gateway to River Oaks, with condominiums going up all around, this open space was unacceptable, so Taco Milagro suddenly shut down.
The look of old Montrose (Anis Shivani/Oct. 2014)
New Montrose (Anis Shivani/Oct. 2014)
This is how ruling oligarchies kill a city: one business, one person at a time, pretending that market forces are doing all the work, when in fact all sorts of incentives and disincentives are at play. Certain websites—Culturemap.com in particular—have emerged during the same period as cheerleaders for gentrification. Culturemap sent Houston's leading society reporter, Shelby Hodge, to take pictures of the doomed trees, while breathlessly cheering on the Hanover high-rise as a great favor to the environment. The commentators at the real estate site Swamplot.com are often boosters locked into the developers' myopic viewpoint; not a day has gone by in recent years when Swamplot hasn't reported the closure of yet another historic restaurant or bar or antique shop. But after about five years of this, there's nothing distinctive left to shut down anymore.
Like the Houston Heights, one of the earliest planned communities in Texas (which has had its own troubles with gentrification), the entire Montrose/Upper Kirby area, along with the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, should long ago have been declared historic neighborhoods, untouchable by developers. This would have preserved vital public space which is now gone forever, replaced by a scale of construction that does not suit a quintessentially low-key, low-density city like Houston.
If the city were truly interested in broadening the tax base and making it a metropolis with lasting appeal, it would focus on improving the old neighborhoods outside the 610 loop. Incentives should be provided to increase livability and expand the range of options for every class of people. Instead, those neighborhoods remain static and ignored, while the mega-developers keep tearing down and rebuilding the stock of inner-city housing that is already solid. The logic of gentrification is to continuously package and commodify and leverage the same bit of land for speculative purposes. Save the neighborhoods that need to be saved and leave those that are doing great alone.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the narrative that is being promoted. Once developers' spokespeople—like David Ott of Hanover—preemptively reach out to local media to provide what are essentially press releases for new developments, media outlets consider their reporting job finished. The glossy arts magazines cater to the vanities of the nouveau riche rather than question an issue which goes to the base of the wealth of the very people who fund them. Television is missing from this conversation, as is progressive radio. An organization called Preservation Houston has carefully kept distance; supported by the rich folks in River Oaks, they seem interested only in fighting minor battles to embellish their own reputation rather than challenging the real balance of power among the different forces. It remains to be seen if organizations like Trees for Houston will remain content to plant saplings in remote suburbs rather than take forceful legal action in a transformative case like this one.
The final indignity is that while only a part of the street is to be used for the high-rise, all the rest of us have received summary eviction notices. This is gratuitous violence against helpless tenants. Some say that demolition will save them property taxes, but how do you measure the suffering of tenants who have lived here for decades against some tax savings, if that is even the case? If we'd had more time, we would have made better choices. No doubt it will take several years before the high-rise is finished, so the majority of tenants on the rest of the street did not need to be evicted now.
The real reason for urgent eviction is to make the destruction of the idyllic aspect of Steel Street a fact and kill any potential protest. This is in keeping with the rough style of the mega-developers. The evictions alone should be grounds for a lawsuit, as would happen in a more progressive city. I'm sure I'll be visiting the ruins of Steel Street a year from now and see little in the way of actual construction.
How beautiful Houston could have been, how livable, how egalitarian, how aesthetically and environmentally pleasing; in parts of the city one can see signs that we could easily have been a greener Portland of the South. The city can still choose to go the humane way and secure its future, which does not come from short-term gains in property values and associated tax revenues but creating the kind of place that people fall in love with. Despite the city's benign indifference, such a spirit already existed and flourished, but it's been stabbed to death.
Houston used to work despite the low-wage, low-service economy, but the unaffordable cost of living spells an end to that path. The distant corporate types who have taken over will not be around when the fiscal crunch soon comes. To be a world-class city, Houston's political leadership must care about leaving behind a social geography derived from the real sum of human endeavor, not abstract financial maneuvers. Let us not dignify high-stakes real estate deals which destroy the lives of ordinary citizens with the word "gentrification."
Mega-developers like Hanover should be taught a lesson so that this sort of cavalier treatment of precious environmental resources ceases. Will Houston media and activist organizations step up? Will the city do the right thing by calling it off and preserving the entire street, both the trees and the historic housing? Will interested lawyers take up the cause? Hanover will claim in a couple of years, once the construction has done its damage, that the trees were always dying (though they're as strong as ever, sprouting fresh growth even now), and request the city to abandon Steel Street at last.
Houston happens to have an enlightened mayor, Annise D. Parker, and I hope she will put these bread-and-butter issues squarely on the table. This is a struggle against the power of corrupt oligarchies that are erasing every trace of distinction about Houston. Our entire land-use policy should be up for reconsideration. Houston cannot become a mature city until it introduces equality between the business elite and the low-wage workers who have been exploited since the city's formation.
Should landlords be allowed to evict tenants with decades worth of residency in just 30 days? Substantial compensation is the least they should be offered, but the first resort should be to allow tenants to form co-ops and buy the properties they have proudly cared for. Tenants should know from the outset what is in the works rather than be confronted with facts after the game is over. In our case, we received setback variance notice on August 11 with the hearing set on August 21—this small window being our only chance to have our opinion heard (and that too on a matter of detail, not the larger issue of whether construction should take place). That is the only point where the public intersects with the city. Predeveloped proposals should be disbarred as manifestations of outright corruption.
There is a way to grow without destroying natural resources and harming vulnerable citizens. Mature cities undertake balanced growth to create shared prosperity, rather than benefit only the global financial elites. In addition to declaring all of Steel Street, both the trees and the housing, as untouchable historic landmarks, Mayor Parker should give thought to the following basic initiatives in the spirit of developing a more progressive urban policy:
- Projects with a huge public impact should be available for review well before the final stage. Neighborhoods should be equalized rather than pitted against each other.
- An arbitration committee should provide a mechanism for future disputes between neighborhoods and developers, to reduce the power of developers working through the planning commission. The planning commission's arbitrary powers should be severely curtailed.
- Rents should be regulated in central districts to retain the kind of people who create urban vitality. A plan should be set in place to make aesthetically appealing housing available at modest cost in historic neighborhoods, in order to counter renewed segregation.
- There is talk of legislation to do away with even the current minimal checks on developers' powers, such as weakening of historical preservation guidelines and setback variance rules. Instead, the opposite direction should be pursued to prevent developers from converting beautiful neighborhoods into instant wastelands.
- Property conversion should have to follow restrictive new guidelines so that the constant cycle of tearing down and building up to inflated proportions can be rechanneled into citywide development of culture and infrastructure.
A 12-year-old African American boy was shot by Cleveland police oficers in a playground Saturday afternoon, according to cleveland.com.
Tamir Rice died Sunday morning at a local hospital. Police officers htearrived at the playground after a caller dialed 911 to report that someone was pointing a gun at kids on the playground.
"There's a guy in there with a pistol, you know, it's probably fake, but he's like pointing it at everybody," according to the audio obtained by CNN. "He's sitting on a swing right now, but he's pulling it in and out of his pants and pointing it at people. He's probably a juvenile, you know?"
When cops arrived, the boy didn't point the toy gun at them, but according to Deputy Chief Ed Tomba of the Cleveland Division of Police, he did reach into his pants for what appeared to be a weapon.
"The officers ordered him to stop and to show his hands and he went into his waistband and pulled out the weapon," he said.
Both officers involved in the shooting have been placed on leave as the investigation into what happened takes place. Neither the race of the officers nor their names have been released. The family of Tamir Rice has hired attorney Timothy Kucharski to investigate the case. He was quick to say the shooting wasn't about race but "right and wrong."
"You have to look at this in the context that this is a 12-year-old boy, not a 35-year-old man with a criminal history," Kucharski said. "You can't expect adult reactions out of children."
It's easy to understand why Kucharshi doesn't want to focus on race; he may very well see it as a "distraction." But research proves that police officers or white people in general have a tendency to be more trigger-happy when confronted with a black suspect. A 2002 study revealed how undergraduate students reacted to video simulations in which they were asked to shoot if they though a black or white person was armed. The white students had higher rates of error when it came to unarmed black suspects.
For those who say this study doesn't apply because the Cleveland boy had a gun, a 2005 study by Florida State University researchers revealed that white cops were more likely to shoot an unarmed black suspect than a white armed suspect.
Charing Ball of Madame Noire created a list of white men who were armed, yet weren't killed by cops when confronted. Derrick Daniel Thomas of New Orleans walked into a stranger's home with a handgun, committed robbery and shot at the house before fleeing. He also threatened some construction workers and shot at the contractor five times, and led the cops on a chase. When police caught up with Thomas and told him to drop his weapon, he allegedly refused, pointed the gun at the cops and said, “No, you drop your [expletive] gun!”
Yet somehow, the cops were able to take Thomas into custody unharmed.
So why did police have to shoot and kill BB gun-carrying 12-year-old Tamir Rice? Seems like race might have everything to do with it.Related Stories
Paul Krugman is not exactly optimistic about the new Congress that will be sworn in in January. That's because both houses of legislature will be dominated by the party that has essentially failed to grasp the fundamental economic realities of our day, which is that when the economy is at rock bottom where ours has been for the past six years, everything changes. As Krugman explains intoday's column:
As I wrote way back when, in a rock-bottom economy “the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly.” Government spending doesn’t compete with private investment — it actually promotes business spending. Central bankers, who normally cultivate an image as stern inflation-fighters, need to do the exact opposite, convincing markets and investors that they will push inflation up. “Structural reform,” which usually means making it easier to cut wages, is more likely to destroy jobs than create them.
This is neither wild-eyed nor radical, despite appearances, Krugman explains. It is rather what both mainstream economic anaylsis says will happen, and what history tells us. Not that either history nor economics has swayed the Very Serious People who have influenced our policy makers. Since 2008, we've had economic policy that relies on gut feeling rather than good and careful economic analysis, Krugman writes. And Congress's insistence on cutting spending has wreaked havoc on jobs and infrastructure. Europe, meanwhile, is "flirting with outright deflation."
Thanks to the Fed, the U.S. is in marginally better shape than Europe, with a dropping unemployment rate, and the Fed is expected to raise interest rates next year. "But inflation is low, wages are weak, and the Fed seems to realize that raising rates too soon would be disastrous," Krugman writes. We are far from being out of the woods, and the country just elected leaders who really don't get it. Will they read Krugman? He concludes:
The counterintuitive realities of economic policy at the zero lower bound are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come, which makes it crucial that influential people understand those realities. Unfortunately, too many still don’t; one of the most striking aspects of economic debate in recent years has been the extent to which those whose economic doctrines have failed the reality test refuse to admit error, let alone learn from it. The intellectual leaders of the new majority in Congress still insist that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel; German officials still insist that the problem is that debtors haven’t suffered enough.
Not a lot of reason for optimism.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) is more focused on “black on black” crimes than police violence against African-Americans because of the “defense mechanism of white supremacy at work” in his mind, according to Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson.
Ahead of an anticipated grand jury decision on whether or not to charge Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson with the murder of Michael Brown, Giuliani told a panel on Meet the Press that they should be focusing on blacks that are “killed by other blacks.”
“I would like to see the attention paid to that, that you are paying to this,” the former mayor told Dyson and NAACP President and Brown family attorney Anthony Gray.
“First of all, most black people who commit crimes against other black people go to jail,” Dyson pointed out. “Number two, they are not sworn by the police department as an agent of the state to uphold the law. So in both cases, that’s a false equivalency that the mayor has drawn, which has exacerbated tensions that are deeply imbedded in American culture.”
“Black people who kill black people go to jail,” he added. “White people who are policemen who kill black people do not go to jail. If a jury can indict a ham sandwich, why is it taking so long?”
“It is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community,” Giuliani replied. “What about the poor black child that is killed by another black child? Why aren’t you protesting?”
“Those people go to jail. I do protest it, I’m a minister. They go to jail,” Dyson shot back. “Why don’t you talk about the way in which white policemen undercut the abilities of Americans to live?”
“So why don’t you cut it down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?” Giuliani asked.
“They don’t have to be. It’s a matter of the effect of the state occupying those forces, sir,” Dyson observed.
“How about 70 to 75 percent of the crime in my city takes place in black cities?” Giuliani insisted.
“Your attitude reinforces the problematic perspective that prevails in the culture, sir,” Dyson countered.
“How about you reduce crime?” Giuliani grumbled. “And then the white police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 to 75 percent of the time.”
“Look at this,” Dyson concluded. “This is the defense mechanism of white supremacy at work in your mind, sir.”
Watch the video below, upload by Truth Revolt.
“Look what I got,” my father said, holding up a little plastic bag.
I’d never shot heroin before, but I was curious about it, and always open to any substance that would alter my consciousness. I sat down next to my father, the man I’d grown to trust above all others, and held out my arm. That was the first day I did heroin with my father, but it wouldn’t be the last. What started out as an experiment quickly became a habit, a way of existence.
“People would think I was nuts to do this with my daughter,” my father said one afternoon as we sat in his room, surrounded by stacks of art magazines and CDs, sketchbooks and palettes. My father was a hoarder in the most creative, intellectual sense. “But this,” he gestured at the empty syringe and singed spoon on the table, “is a means to an end. Nothing else would facilitate the kinds of conversations we’ve had, the realizations we’ve come to.”
He was right. Heroin stripped away every painful memory that had ever stood between us, every trace of guilt and resentment, everything that had ever prevented anything but the purest possible soul communication. And contrary to what many would have you believe, heroin is not an instant, one-way ticket to ruin. Heroin did not take over my life – until the day it ended my life.
* * *
I can honestly say I never expected to become so familiar with a drug, but then, I never expected to become familiar with my father, either. I was 18 years old when his letters started showing up in my mailbox. Each one addressed in his trademark penmanship, some strange cross between calligraphy and a madman’s scrawl, the envelopes were postmarked from various Louisiana locations: Houma. Baton Rouge. Seemingly exotic places I’d never seen or heard of growing up in Stamford, Connecticut – the same town where my father was born and raised. Of course, by the time my second birthday rolled around, he’d already cheated on my mother multiple times and made his subsequent escape to the booze-soaked bayou. He would tell me later that he was doing me a favor, that I was better off without him all those years.
He was probably right, but I didn’t know it at the time.
As a stubborn, melancholy 18-year-old, all I knew was that my father’s letters were too little, too late. “Happy birthday, darlin’,” he wrote in the first letter. “Your birth was certainly one of the most memorable occasions of my life.” You could’ve fooled me, I thought, remembering the endless stream of birthdays that went unmarked by any sort of communication from my father. About a month later, he sent me a book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. I would have liked the book if I’d bothered to crack it open. Instead, I stuffed it in my backpack with a roll of my eyes, thinking that with all the money he saved by not paying my mother child support he could’ve afforded a better gift. I said as much when the paperback tumbled out of my bag the next day during sculpture class and my friend Dan spotted it on the floor. “Thanks a lot, Dad,” he said, laughing. His snide comment made me feel better, like somebody understood. It shouldn’t have. In reality, Dan was less than a friend, just some guy I hooked up with occasionally because he was arrogant and disrespectful and, like so many young girls with “daddy issues,” that’s all I thought I deserved.
I didn’t mention Dan when I finally started writing back to my father, but I did mention my sculpture class, and the other classes on my schedule at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. The school was where my father met my mother in the late 1960s, and his obvious pride at hearing that I had been accepted at their alma mater made me ridiculously, unexpectedly happy. “Stay focused,” he wrote. “Work until you can’t stand not to.” I should have followed his advice, but I couldn’t, not yet. He couldn’t either, at my age.
In fact, as our correspondence evolved, I began to see that my father and I were more similar than I’d ever suspected. But it wasn’t until he sent me a certain poem that I would recognize just how alike we truly were.
My father didn’t write the poem (attributed to “Anonymous”), but it didn’t matter, because he could have – and as I read each stanza, sitting on my bedroom floor with tears streaming down my cheeks, I realized that the photocopied words could just as easily have been my own. I can’t remember those exact words now, nearly 20 years later, but the verses spoke of a deep-seated shame, an inherent sorrow and self-loathing carefully hidden from the world. How did my father know me so well? Only when I got to the last line, “I am an alcoholic,” did I get it: The poem was meant to serve as a sort of paternal mea culpa, not an eloquent declaration of like-mindedness. It ended up being both. Dan didn’t understand me, nor did any of the equally arrogant, disrespectful guys who preceded him, but my father did – even if he didn’t know it yet.
I was not, and would never become, an alcoholic. In that respect, my father and I were different. I was, however, vulnerable to vice and chronically depressed. In that respect, we were the same. When my father decided to move back to Connecticut permanently, our mutual demons would bond us in a way that no idyllic, two-parent childhood ever could have.
The first pharmaceuticals my father “turned me on” to were antidepressants – and in doing so, he probably saved my life.
“If these had been around when I was your age, I probably never would have started drinking,” he told me over iced tea and American Spirits in his mother’s backyard. My father didn’t introduce me to cigarettes; I’d been smoking for about six months before his return. We filled countless ashtrays together, talking about anything and everything: the time my father ran away with Timothy Leary as a teenager; his preferred brand of oil paints; how to make an authentic Louisiana gumbo. When he spoke, my father’s blue eyes burned like white-hot fire. When he laughed, he positively roared. But my father’s body was different than I remembered from my early childhood. A few years earlier, a hit-and-run driver had shattered his once lanky frame. His back now had a slight hump and his rib cage protruded. There was a jagged scar across his forehead. He was in a near-crippling amount of pain at all times thanks to a degenerative bone disease brought on by the anti-seizure medications he took when he was still drinking (it was a seizure that led to the hit-and-run). As a result, he’d begun consuming a staggering amount of Oxycontin, prescribed to him by more than one doctor.
“I could use an existential painkiller,” I joked one afternoon when we were hanging out, talking about life and watching Eric Clapton concert videos. My father pointed to a tidy pile of blue powder in a tin on his dresser and handed me a short red straw. Having gone through a significant cocaine phase myself, I knew what to do with that straw. Existential painkiller, indeed.
That’s how it started. Whenever I showed up at my dad’s, there would be a pile of blue powder waiting for me – I didn’t even have to ask. One night, as I was driving to his place, “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones came on the radio. Just a shot away. I got a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. When I walked through the door, my father’s face lit up. There was a gleam in his eye I’d never seen before.
I should say that the days I spent doing heroin with my father were a waste of time – a sordid void from which I would never return. But that would be a lie. Those days were among the happiest of my life.
I never wanted to believe that my father’s absence all those years was responsible for the nagging deficiency I’d felt growing up, the stunted sense that I was always somehow missing something – some essential fuse that would have made my fundamental human wiring function the way it was supposed to. To chalk that unrelenting emptiness up to textbook feelings associated with paternal abandonment seemed too easy, too reductive. Surely the truth behind my damaged psyche was more complicated than that – except, it wasn’t. Because finally having a relationship with my father made all of those feelings go away. Spending time with my father, shooting heroin, I felt complete. Whole. Strong. Alive – until the day I died.
It was a more powerful strain than what we usually got, which is often the case when an overdose occurs. The last thing I remember before being swallowed up by blackness is holding my arm out for my father, like so many times before. I was shocked awake on a cold steel table in the ER. I screamed at the brightness of the lights.
“Well. We didn’t think you were coming back,” said the doctor, looking at me in disgust.
When they let my father in to see me, his eyes were the bluest I’d ever seen them.
“You joined the club,” he said.
“What club?” I whispered.
“The flatliners club,” he said.
That’s the last time I saw my father alive. I closed my eyes again and he was gone, and though he tried to contact me after I went back home to my mother’s house, I didn’t answer his calls or return his messages. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see him – on the contrary, I missed him so much it twisted my stomach into knots. It wasn’t even that I blamed him for the overdose. It was simply that I didn’t trust myself around him, was terrified that his presence would make it too easy to start using again.
Besides, how could I justify my relationship with my father to the rest of my family after what happened? Already suspicious of our relatively recent alliance, my near death experience merely served to confirm their worst fears about him. And so, just as my father had disappeared from my life all those years ago, I disappeared from his. In the end, the demons that brought us together are what drove us apart. Staying away from him was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Several years later, when he slipped at last into the same darkness that almost claimed me forever, a part of me died with him.Related Stories
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“Iraq no longer exists.” My young friend M, sipping a cappuccino, is deadly serious. We are sitting in a scruffy restaurant across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It’s been years since we’ve last seen each another. It may be years before our paths cross again. As if to drive his point home, M repeats himself: “Iraq just doesn’t exist.”
His is an opinion grounded in experience. As an enlisted soldier, he completed two Iraq tours, serving as a member of a rifle company, before and during the famous Petraeus “surge.” After separating from the Army, he went on to graduate school where he is now writing a dissertation on insurgencies. Choosing the American war in Iraq as one of his cases, M has returned there to continue his research. Indeed, he was heading back again that very evening. As a researcher, his perch provides him with an excellent vantage point for taking stock of the ongoing crisis, now that the Islamic State, or IS, has made it impossible for Americans to sustain the pretense that the Iraq War ever ended.
Few in Washington would endorse M’s assertion, of course. Inside the Beltway, policymakers, politicians, and pundits take Iraq’s existence for granted. Many can even locate it on a map. They also take for granted the proposition that it is incumbent upon the United States to preserve that existence. To paraphrase Chris Hedges, for a certain group of Americans, Iraq is the cause that gives life meaning. For the military-industrial complex, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Considered from this perspective, the “Iraqi government” actually governs, the “Iraqi army” is a nationally representative fighting force, and the “Iraqi people” genuinely see themselves as constituting a community with a shared past and an imaginable future.
Arguably, each of these propositions once contained a modicum of truth. But when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and, as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell predicted, broke the place, any merit they previously possessed quickly dissipated. Years of effort by American occupiers intent on creating a new Iraq out of the ruins of the old produced little of value and next to nothing that has lasted. Yet even today, in Washington the conviction persists that trying harder might somehow turn things around. Certainly, that conviction informs the renewed U.S. military intervention prompted by the rise of IS.
So when David Ignatius, a well-informed and normally sober columnist for the Washington Post, reflects on what the United States must do to get Iraq War 3.0 right, he offers this “mental checklist”: in Baghdad, the U.S. should foster a “cleaner, less sectarian government”; to ensure security, we will have to “rebuild the military”; and to end internal factionalism, we’re going to have to find ways to “win Kurdish support” and “rebuild trust with Sunnis.” Ignatius does not pretend that any of this will be easy. He merely argues that it must be -- and by implication can be -- done. Unlike my friend M, Ignatius clings to the fantasy that “Iraq” is or ought to be politically viable, militarily capable, and socially cohesive. But surely this qualifies as wishful thinking.
The value of M’s insight -- of, that is, otherwise intelligent people purporting to believe in things that don’t exist -- can be applied well beyond American assumptions about Iraq. A similar inclination to fanaticize permeates, and thereby warps, U.S. policies throughout much of the Greater Middle East. Consider the following claims, each of which in Washington circles has attained quasi-canonical status.
* The presence of U.S. forces in the Islamic world contributes to regional stability and enhances American influence.
* The Persian Gulf constitutes a vital U.S. national security interest.
* Egypt and Saudi Arabia are valued and valuable American allies.
* The interests of the United States and Israel align.
* Terrorism poses an existential threat that the United States must defeat.
For decades now, the first four of these assertions have formed the foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The events of 9/11 added the fifth, without in any way prompting a reconsideration of the first four. On each of these matters, no senior U.S. official (or anyone aspiring to a position of influence) will dare say otherwise, at least not on the record.
Yet subjected to even casual scrutiny, none of the five will stand up. To take them at face value is the equivalent of believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy -- or that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell really, really hope that the Obama administration and the upcoming Republican-controlled Congress can find grounds to cooperate.
Let’s examine all five, one at a time.
The Presence of U.S. Forces: Ever since the U.S. intervention in Lebanon that culminated in the Beirut bombing of October 1983, introducing American troops into predominantly Muslim countries has seldom contributed to stability. On more than a few occasions, doing so has produced just the opposite effect.
Iraq and Afghanistan provide mournful examples. The new book “Why We Lost” by retired Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger finally makes it permissible in official circles to declare those wars the failures that they have been. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that U.S. nation-building efforts were as pure and honorable as successive presidents portrayed them, the results have been more corrosive than constructive. The IS militants plaguing Iraq find their counterpart in the soaring production of opium that plagues Afghanistan. This qualifies as stability?
And these are hardly the only examples. Stationing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after Operation Desert Storm was supposed to have a reassuring effect. Instead, it produced the debacle of the devastating Khobar Towersbombing. Sending G.I.’s into Somalia back in 1992 was supposed to demonstrate American humanitarian concern for poor, starving Muslims. Instead, it culminated in the embarrassing Mogadishu firefight, which gained the sobriquet Black Hawk Down, and doomed that mission.
Even so, the pretense that positioning American soldiers in some Middle East hotspot will bring calm to troubled waters survives. It’s far more accurate to say that doing so provides our adversaries with what soldiers call a target-rich environment -- with Americans as the targets.
The Importance of the Persian Gulf: Although U.S. interests in the Gulf may once have qualified as vital, the changing global energy picture has rendered that view obsolete. What’s probably bad news for the environment is good news in terms of creating strategic options for the United States. New technologies have once again made the United States the world’s largest producer of oil. The U.S. is also the world’s largest producer of natural gas. It turns out that the lunatics chanting “drill, baby, drill” were right after all. Or perhaps it’s “frack, baby, frack.” Regardless, the assumed energy dependence and “vital interests” that inspired Jimmy Carter to declare back in 1980 that the Gulf is worth fighting for no longer pertain.
Access to Gulf oil remains critically important to some countries, but surely not to the United States. When it comes to propping up the wasteful and profligate American way of life, Texas and North Dakota outrank Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in terms of importance. Rather than worrying about Iraqi oil production, Washington would be better served ensuring the safety and well-being of Canada, with its bountiful supplies of shale oil. And if militarists ever find the itch to increase U.S. oil reserves becoming irresistible, they would be better advised to invade Venezuela than to pick a fight with Iran.
Does the Persian Gulf require policing from the outside? Maybe. But if so, let’s volunteer China for the job. It will keep them out of mischief.
Arab Allies: It’s time to reclassify the U.S. relationship with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Categorizing these two important Arab states as “allies” is surely misleading. Neither one shares the values to which Washington professes to attach such great importance.
For decades, Saudi Arabia, Planet Earth’s closest equivalent to an absolute monarchy, has promoted anti-Western radical jihadism -- and not without effect. The relevant numbers here are two that most New Yorkers will remember: 15 out of 19. If a conspiracy consisting almost entirely of Russians had succeeded in killing several thousand Americans, would U.S. authorities give the Kremlin a pass? Would U.S.-Russian relations remain unaffected? The questions answer themselves.
Meanwhile, after a brief dalliance with democracy, Egypt has once again become what it was before: a corrupt, oppressive military dictatorship unworthy of the billions of dollars of military assistance that Washingtonprovides from one year to the next.
Israel: The United States and Israel share more than a few interests in common. A commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Palestinian problem does not number among them. On that issue, Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s purposes diverge widely. In all likelihood, they are irreconcilable.
For the government of Israel, viewing security concerns as paramount, an acceptable Palestinian state will be the equivalent of an Arab Bantustan, basically defenseless, enjoying limited sovereignty, and possessing limited minimum economical potential. Continuing Israeli encroachments on the occupied territories, undertaken in the teeth of American objections, make this self-evident.
It is, of course, entirely the prerogative -- and indeed the obligation -- of the Israeli government to advance the well being of its citizens. U.S. officials have a similar obligation: they are called upon to act on behalf of Americans. And that means refusing to serve as Israel’s enablers when that country takes actions that are contrary to U.S. interests.
The “peace process” is a fiction. Why should the United States persist in pretending otherwise? It’s demeaning.
Terrorism: Like crime and communicable diseases, terrorism will always be with us. In the face of an outbreak of it, prompt, effective action to reduce the danger permits normal life to continue. Wisdom lies in striking a balance between the actually existing threat and exertions undertaken to deal with that threat. Grown-ups understand this. They don’t expect a crime rate of zero in American cities. They don’t expect all people to enjoy perfect health all of the time. The standard they seek is “tolerable.”
That terrorism threatens Americans is no doubt the case, especially when they venture into the Greater Middle East. But aspirations to eliminate terrorism belong in the same category as campaigns to end illiteracy or homelessness: it’s okay to aim high, but don’t be surprised when the results achieved fall short.
Eliminating terrorism is a chimera. It’s not going to happen. U.S. civilian and military leaders should summon the honesty to acknowledge this.
My friend M has put his finger on a problem that is much larger than he grasps. Here’s hoping that when he gets his degree he lands an academic job. It’s certain he’ll never find employment in our nation’s capital. As a soldier-turned-scholar, M inhabits what one of George W. Bush’s closest associates (believed to be Karl Rove) once derisively referred to as the “reality-based community.” People in Washington don’t have time for reality. They’re lost in a world of their own.Related Stories
There are so many to choose from. Every one of these selections is an act of corporate treachery that takes billions of dollars from the American people.
1. Selling Medication For Up To 100 Times More Than It's Worth
Pharmaceutical companies reap billions of dollars in subsidies for research and development, but they've successfully lobbied Congress to keep Medicare from bargaining for lower drug prices. An extreme example is Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of the drug Sovaldi, which charges about $10 a pill to its customers in Egypt, then comes home to charge $1,000 a pill to its American customers.Other outrageous examples are noted by Ralph Nader.
As a further insult, Americans are cheated when corporations pay off generic drug manufacturers todelay entry of their products into the market, thereby forcing consumers to pay the highest prices for medicine.
2. Paying Their Employees With Our Tax Money
Walmart made $19 billion in U.S. profits last year, and the four Walton siblings together made about$29 billion from their personal investments. That's about $33,000 per U.S. employee in profits and family stock gains. Yet they pay their 1.4 million American employees so little that the average Walmart worker depends on about $4,000 per year in taxpayer assistance, for food stamps and other safety net programs.
3. Giving Money to Executives Rather Than Investing in the Future
Corporations are spending trillions of dollars on stock buybacks, which use potential research and development money to pump up the prices of executive stock options. Apple alone is spending $90 billion to repurchase its own stock through 2015. Walmart doesn't provide a living wage for its workers, but its company management spent $7.6 billion, or about $5,000 per U.S. employee, on stock buybacks, in order to further boost the value of their stock holdings.
The buyback surge is dramatic. In 1981, major corporations were spending less than 3 percent of their combined net income on buybacks, but by 2008-9 they were spending 75 percent of their profits on this greed-driven process.
4. Making Money on Dirty Air and Water
Charles Koch once said, "I want my legacy to be...a better way of life for...all Americans."
Koch Industries dumps more pollutants into rivers and streams than General Electric and International Paper combined. One of Koch's products is petcoke, which Rolling Stone notes is "denser, dirtier and cheaper than coal." Too toxic to burn in U.S. coal plants, it's sold instead to countries with weaker environmental regulations, like Mexico and China. But storage facilities are needed. So the besieged city of Detroit became the dumping ground for a three-story pile ofpetroleum coke covering an entire city block near the Detroit River. The mound of toxic matter spewed thick black "fugitive dust" over the homes of nearby residents. The ugliness was later repeated in Chicago.
5. Making the Highest Profit Margin in the Corporate World -- And Demanding a Tax Cut
The trading volume on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) reached $1 quadrillion in notionalvalue last year. That's a thousand trillion dollars, about ten times greater than the world economy.
With the collection of transfer fees, contract fees, brokerage fees, Globex fees, clearing fees, and surcharges, the company achieved a profit margin (54%) higher than any of the top 100 companies in the nation from 2008 to 2010, and in the past three years it's risen to nearly 60%.
Despite being the most profitable big firm, CME complained that its taxes were too high, and they demanded and received an $85 million tax break from the State of Illinois.
6. Skipping Out on the Country that Made Their Business Possible
Walgreens (which later backed down), Burger King, and Medtronic are the biggest names in the so-called inversions that allow companies to desert the country that made them successful. They don't want to pay for decades of publicly funded research in technology and medicine; a legal systemthat protects patents and intellectual property; infrastructure, including roads and seaports and airports to ship their products; unprecedented amounts of local and national security, and a nationwide energy grid to power factories.
7. Group Ripoff: $74 Billion in Profits...and a Tax Refund
It seems incomprehensible that Boeing, Ford, Chevron, Citigroup, Verizon, JP Morgan, and General Motors, with a combined income last year of $74 billion, would pay no taxes, and in fact receive a combined refund of nearly $2 billion. The data comes from a new study called Fleecing Uncle Sam, which goes on to note that the unpaid taxes of almost $26 billion could pay for Pre-K education for every 4-year old in America.
Is there an answer to all this? Only if we victims work together toward the singular goal of stemming corporate power, especially in the financial industry. To do this, as Les Leopold says, "we will need something like an Occupy 2.0."
Otherwise the ripoffs will continue.
Sleazy. Everyone thinks the “trained” pickup artist is a sleazy, predatory lizard stalking women. The truth is some are like that, but quite a lot of them, I can tell you, are painfully shy guys who break out in sweats at the thought of even speaking to a girl.
When I joined an intensive weekend course in London in picking up women, all I had to go on was the The Game, the bible of the pickup artist. It had been a publishing sensation a few years previously when it lifted the lid on the international “seduction community”. It was full of terminology: “negs” (comments designed to subtly reduce a woman’s self-esteem so that she seeks your approval); “HB10s” (hot babe or hard body 10/10); “F-closing” (getting a girl into bed). But that weekend opened my eyes to the reality of the scene, which is a lot more downbeat and often a lot more depressing.
The course was run by a celebrated pickup artist known as Gambler (real name Richard La Ruina). He wrote a book a few years ago entitled The Natural Art Of Seduction – a more British approach based on less aggressive techniques than The Game, but with the same intended outcome. His methods certainly have nothing in common with the violent techniques espoused by Julien Blanc, the US pickup artist who was banned from entering Britain last week.
So 15 students, aged 25-35, assembled in a private bar in the centre of town that had been hired for the weekend, eagerly awaiting our induction into the pickup artist lifestyle. It became quickly apparent that the class split neatly into two groups: there were a few wannabe Don Juans, who claimed they were already having quite a lot of sex yet felt they should be having more, and a much larger group of shy and very genuine guys who would normally panic if they were within five feet of a woman.
For them it was a form of anxiety disorder. Most admitted to being virgins. They were there to learn some techniques that would act as armour so they could at least talk to a girl. Gambler empathised with their plight. “Most of you know my story,” he told us. “Until I was 21, I was a shy, geeky virgin. But then I changed.” And now he was going to change us in the same way. He explained that if we believe we are “a force of nature” then women “won’t be able to keep their hands off you”. To do this we need to dominate the physical space by standing with our legs apart, cut out any fidgeting, and wave our arms about when dancing.
Once you had taken ownership of the space, there were other tricks for getting closer. You could be distracted by her earring, reach out and touch it and say: “This is nice. Is there a story behind it?” – because there would always be a story behind it and you had then made physical contact. “Be bold and assume she’s attracted to you,” Gambler explained.
Alongside him were a number of trainers who were apparently specialists in certain aspects of pickup artistry. One would give us a 30-minute seminar on body language, then another on opening lines. “Your opener is the first words out of your mouth. Most guys leave it to chance. Not us,” said Gambler. We then got to try them out on a team of female models hired for us to practise on.
We were also taught to confidently make decisions for the group, such as where to go next after the bar. Women love a leader. Gambler told us to watch Don Draper from the 1960s-set drama Mad Men for a masterclass in old-fashioned male dominance. The character may be a better model than he intended, because Don Draper turns out to be a fraud who has built a fake persona that slowly unravels.
And this fakery is not just for girls in bars. The pickup artist industry is built on self-mythologising – it’s all about marketing. Marketing yourself to girls, sure, but also to younger and more desperate guys in their bedrooms who want to be like the character you have created, who watch your online videos and buy your DVD tutorials.
This became apparent when the course culminated in a trip to a nearby bar where we had to try out our new skills “in the field”. We had been encouraged to make up our own openers, so with my “wing man” I approached a girl who was laughing with a friend.
“Hi, this will only take a second,” I said – a time constraint means she won’t worry about you outstaying your welcome – “We’re going dancing, do you know the best place near here?” I ended up dancing the tango in the street with her and she gave me her phone number.
Meanwhile, a couple of the other more confident students were happily chatting away to the girls they had targeted, but most of the dozen or so painfully shy students were just standing at the bar watching the rest of us, unable to get over their nerves. It was apparent that they had paid £700 for the weekend and were going to come out of it with little to show but a dent in their bank balances.
The pickup artist scene is a house of self-myth. The “master pickup artists” really don’t have much more going for them than a bit of self-confidence and, it seems, enough time on their hands to approach hundreds of women in bars and play a numbers game. After all, the videos they post on the internet don’t tend to include the times they are politely ignored.
And for their part, the acolytes, the guys who spend a lot of money on these courses, are often living their lives vicariously because they have low self-esteem. They watch their idols in the same way that teenage boys watch James Bond and hope one day to be just like him. It just doesn’t work out that way.
Photo by ProtoplasmaKid
The Mexican government, welcomed as a partner of the Canadian and U.S. governments in continental economic development (North American Free Trade Agreement – NAFTA) and continental security also happens to partner in crime and the slaughter of its own people. The murders and disappearances of the students from the Rural Normal “Raúl Isidro Burgos,” of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico on September 26, 2014 in Iguala, was a crime of the State, as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have claimed in their protests. The governmental investigation that followed the September 2014 attack on these students has been deliberately incompetent and not aimed at getting to the roots of the crime as these roots, in fact, are the tangled web of state-drug gang corruption and the state’s dirty war in defence of the neoliberal transformation of Mexico. The investigation has been staged, quite ineffectively, as a public relations operation to calm foreign investors and to cool out protest, efforts that have completely failed within Mexico. By claiming that the blame was at the local level, the corrupt collusion of a local mayor and his avaricious wife with a brutal cartel, it seeks to present itself, the national government, as the defender of justice.
But as Luis Hernández Navarro shows in his article, “La matanza de Iguala y el Ejército,” (The Iguala Massacre and the Army), there is – and has long been – a deep entanglement between the Army, the local government of Iguala, and drug production. Sixty per cent of the Mexican production of poppies and opium gum for making heroine comes from the state of Guerrero. The cities of Iguala and Chilpancingo are key centers for its storage and transportation. The Army is viewed by many as the real government of the state, a state with a history of guerrilla groups, militant protests and a long dirty war carried out by the army. As Francisco Goldman wrote in the New Yorker:
Intertwining of Government, Army and Drug Gangs
The intertwining of the government and armed forces with the drug gangs has a long history in Guerrero. Plaza Tamarindos in Iguala, a retail commercial center, built on land donated by the armed forces to José Luis Abarca, sits across from the military barracks. Abarca, now under arrest, accused of ordering the attack and having links to Guerreros Unidos, the drug gang, had been accused of ordering the murder of three protesters earlier. The investigation was not pursued. And Colonel Juan Antonio Aranda Torres, commander of the 27th Battallion, stationed in Iguala, claimed that he and his troops knew nothing of the attacks, though they took place within 100 meters of the army barracks. At the time, he was attending a fiesta organized by María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, the wife of Mayor Abarca, now also accused of ordering the attack and being connected to drug gangs. Though Aranda Torres was trained as an intelligence and counter-intelligence officer, he claims, like the three wise monkeys to have seen nothing, heard nothing, and he certainly has said nothing. (“La matanza de Iguala y el Ejército,” The Iguala Massacre and the Army).
This was not an isolated event. Unfortunately, torture, killings, and assassinations have become commonplace in Mexico with different levels of the police or armed forces involved as well as drug gangs. The 27th Battallion participated in the dirty war of the 1970s and 1980s. And Human Rights Watch, in a 2011 report, “Ni Seguridad, ni derechos” (Neither Security nor Rights) wrote that there is strong evidence that the 27th Battallion participated in the disappearance of six young people in Iguala in March 2010. These state crimes against humanity, sadly, are the rule not the exception in Mexico. Several months earlier, in June, 2014, the federal army carried out a mass execution of 22 young people in the same region, in the town of Tlatlaya, in the neighboring state of Mexico. The army and the federal government then attempted to cover up these executions in Tlatlaya. After journalists and human rights groups exposed the cover-up and mass execution, the government arrested some low ranking soldiers.
Though we may never know the immediate motives for the killings and disappearances of the teachers’ college students, we do know that there has been a pattern of ruthlessly destroying opposition to the neoliberal transformation of Mexico. This has been as true in the sphere of education as it has been in natural resource development. The push by the World Bank as well as the key organizations of business in Mexico – as is also happening in Canada and the U.S. – to destroy teachers’ unions, teachers’ rights and privatize education, has led to an intensification of the attacks on the normales, the rural teachers colleges, attacks that have been underway for several decades but have recently intensified. The Rural Normal “Raúl Isidro Burgos,” was part of a system of teachers’ colleges set up to recruit students from poor rural communities to become teachers and community organizers, a system that was established during the Cárdenas presidency (1934-1940). These schools have a history of developing community leaders and union activists as well as a tradition of fighting for social justice and for the preservation of the land rights of their communities. Seventeen of the original 33 normales have already been shut down in spite of militant resistance from students, alumni (many of whom are involved in the dissident teachers’ movement, and the local communities. Ironically, the students from the Rural Normal “Raúl Isidro Burgos” were only passing through Iguala en route to near-by Mexico City to participate in the annual October 2 march commemorating the 1968 massacre of student protesters in Mexico City.
The use of violence by the government, including torture, killings, and even massacres, has a long history in Mexico that predates the rise of the drug gangs and the neoliberal offensive. These events, however, should not be viewed as simply related to the internal dynamics of repression, resistance and the drug wars in Mexico. They are closely related to the neoliberal transformation imposed on Mexico by its own capitalist class and state in conjunction with the capitalist classes and states of Canada and the United States and, most vividly expressed in NAFTA (Roman and Velasco Arregui, Continental Crucible: Big Business, Workers and Unions in the Transformation of North America, 2013). The killing fields and investment opportunities in Mexico are intimately related. They don’t exist on different planets. The neoliberal capitalist transformation of the Mexican economy requires repression to prevent or quell resistance to the massive destruction of socio-economic rights, livelihoods, and hope for a better future. The killing fields of Mexico help reduce interference with the ‘free market’ transformation of Mexico. Just as the neoliberal transformation of Chile came through the bloody repressions of the U.S.-supported dictator, so the neoliberal transformation of Mexico is accompanied by the bloody slaughter of tens of thousands of Mexicans. The Mexican killing fields are not the bloody handiwork of the drug gangs alone; in fact, the interlacing of the various drug gangs with the various levels of the government, army, and police make it difficult to know where one begins and the other ends. There is a brutal war going on in Mexico but it cannot be seen simply as a war of the government against the drug gangs as the two are interlaced in a variety of ways and symbiotically linked. Only part of the violence against ordinary people, journalists, and community activists is related to the struggle within the government-army-drug gang institutional complex over turf and transportation routes. Much of the violence is an intensification of the dirty war of the 1970s, a war against the Mexican people carried out by the government to defeat resistance to the regime in the ‘70s and now being carried out to discourage or defeat resistance to Mexico’s neoliberal transformation.
Open for Business
While the most powerful business organizations in North America – Business Roundtable (BRT), the Canadian Council of Chief Executives CCCE), and the Consejo Mexicano de Hombres de Negocios (CMHN) propose deeper and closer ties within North America, the Mexican state continues terrorizing its own population. The image of Mexico promoted by these three peak business organizations, their related think-tanks and the three governments (of North America) is that of a Mexico at the edge of a great leap forward in economic development, democracy and socio-political stability, developments being propelled by the ‘opening of Mexico’ and the ‘free market’. The punishing reality for the vast majority of Mexicans is state-enacted and state-tolerated slaughter of its own population to complement deteriorating living standards, deteriorating social rights, the loss of land rights, and the sell-off of natural resources. Mexico has been en route to becoming a paradise for foreign investors and a hell for the vast majority of Mexicans. The Constitutional reforms passed in 2013-2014 and their implementing legislation have opened Mexico’s oil to private development as well as increasing the ability of the government and mining companies to dispossess rural communities from their lands. The attack on the rights of the Mexican people will be sped-up by these recent reforms unless they are derailed by the growth of the already massive popular response to the massacre.
The capitalist offensive in North America and its particular expression in Mexico is a major part of the explanation of the bloody state of Mexican society. Much of the violence is either being carried out – or being used opportunistically – as part of a strategy of dispossession in the interests of domestic and foreign capital, particularly that of the resource sector. Much of the violence is being carried out by the Mexican government. The extreme brutality of the violence, whether initiated individually or jointly by state agents or gangs facilitates – intentionally or as a convenient side-effect – the clearing of areas and the dispossession of their populations for private development of resources.
The armed forces, which carry out much of the violence against the civilian population, are linked both to drug gangs and to the U.S. government which provides massive military aid and training through Plan Mérida. The drug wars, fights within the drug gangs-state complex, provide a cover for the Mexican state’s intensification of its pre-existing dirty war aimed at preventing civil resistance or quelling it quickly. Much of the resistance being smothered is resistance to the neoliberal transformation of Mexico.
The complicity of the government in carrying out or tolerating a state of terror against society is (well) described in a recent statement by Human Rights Watch discussing the tidal wave of disappearances in Mexico since 2006. The sub-heading of the statement describes the efforts of the government as involving “Inexplicable Delays, Contradictory Statements, Limited Results.”
Without adequate support, it will be impossible for prosecutors charged with this monumental task to succeed in finding the missing and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Officials in the special unit told Human Rights Watch that even though the attorney general had made this effort a priority, they did not have sufficient resources to handle their large caseload. Yet in September, the government announced that it would cut the special unit’s budget by more than 60 per cent, according to press accounts.
The situation is similar for killings and for the femicidio that has been taking place in Mexico since 1994, especially in Ciudad Juárez.
Formal Governmental Institutions and Shadow Institutions of Power
Mexico’s culture of impunity has to be understood as an important element in a power system of alliances between caciques (political bosses), government officials, military and police officers, businessmen and, more recently, drug gang bosses, a system of interlacing of formal governmental institutions with shadow institutions of power. The power structure was more monolithic in the days of the extremely powerful central state institutions during which the President could impose his power on Governors, Mayors, the Supreme Court, the national Congress. Deals could be imposed on rival political factions and shadow groups. The break-up of the national power of the one-party state through electoral competition, albeit constrained and corrupt, the sharply increased power at the sub-national levels of municipalities and states, the deliberate neoliberal-inspired policies of weakening the regulating power of the national state, were accompanied after the ’90s by the break-up of the centralized hierarchical structure of the drug gangs. The 1990s witnessed the development of a handful of major drug gangs and growing conflict among them. The continuing fragmentation of the drug gang structure into many gangs at different levels has involved the intensification of warfare among the gangs and their varied government partners at different levels. This fragmentation has created a more pluralistic, more violent and more brutal struggle for controlling plazas (shipping nodes) and production in the drug industry as well as a diversification of activities into production of other commodities (eg, mining in the state of Coahuila) and protection (Michoacán – iron ore to China), kidnappings and a variety of other criminal activities.
The Mexican national state has become more repressive while at the same time increasingly losing its monopoly on coercive power. The armed forces of the national state have grown tremendously since the Zapatista uprising of 1994. The army grew from 216,000 in 1994 to 266,000 in 2014 (212,000 members of the army and 54,000 of the Navy). If we add the 57,000 members of various federal security agencies, which include 40,000 members of the counter-insurgency national police force, the PFP, created in 1999 largely from officers and soldiers from the armed forces and the five thousand members of the new federal gendarmerie, the federal forces now amount to 323,000 members.
However, there are several inter-related processes that undermine the monopoly on violence of the national state: 1) the fusion and/or co-optation by the drug gangs of local governments, including police forces, as well as sections of the national police and armed forces, in effect a form of privatization of violence/coercion – municipal and state police forces, funded locally and poorly paid, have grown from 95,272 people in 1980 to 503,753 in 2010; 2) the growth of private-for-profit military forces working for big business (domestic and foreign) and the rich to protect them against sections of the state-cartel complex or to keep workers or local communities in line. The number of these private security personnel officially recognized by the government is around 60,000; 3) the massive size of well-armed drug gangs, now estimated to be about 500,000, though divided into many different irregular armies and, 4) the significant and escalating growth of non-governmental community self-defence militias. Many of these militias are genuinely community-based organized and have organized themselves to protect their communities against the violence of the army and gangs. Others started as or have been co-opted to be power instruments of local political bosses or economic elites. And yet others have been developed by the government as counter-revolutionary para-military forces. Mexico is a society in arms with most of the arms in the hands of state and private forces that continually carry out human rights violations with impunity.
The Missing Forty-Three
The atrocities of September 26, 2014 at Iguala, Guerrero shocked Mexican society as never before. Though Mexicans are sadly accustomed to constant reports of disappearances, killings and mass graves, this event was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Shock was followed by outrage and protests grew weekly, especially those of other college and university students. And the tenacious militancy of the parents and relatives of the 43 missing students, continuing to demand that their sons be returned alive has inspired the protesters. Fighting tears and clinging to hope, the families of the 43 have been in the forefront of mobilizations. Three caravans of parents and other family members of the 43 have travelled north, south and east and west to meet with other Mexicans, to share stories of losses and repression, and to demand the return alive of the 43. They have received great solidarity on their journey. Today, November 20, the 104th anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution, these three caravans will converge on the Zócalo of Mexico City joined by marches from 3 different points in the city. Other demonstrations will take place throughout Mexico and in many parts of the world.
The national government has tried many tactics to undermine the growing protests. First, they remained silent, then they declared it a local problem, then they feigned great efforts to find the culprits and the missing students, finally they declared the students dead based on nothing but confessions, perhaps under torture, of members of the local drug gang. All of these tactics have backfired and have made people even more indignant. The government’s hope that the protests would fade with time has not happened. The recent revelations that the President received a $7,000,000 house as a gift from a recipient of government contracts has also hit a nerve. The government is now using a classic tactic of the Mexican regime – the use of provocateurs to carry out violent acts in order to prepare the justification for the possible use of violent repression, as the President recently threatened.
The contrasting images in the press of the luxurious gifted home and the telegenic President and his telegenic soap opera star wife on the one hand; and, the faces of the parents and brothers and sisters of the 43, humble rural people from one of Mexico’s poorest states, but brimming with human dignity, tell much of the story of Mexico today, a country of dramatic contrasts and a burgeoning struggle between the barbarism being imposed on Mexico by the drug gangs and the capitalist classes and governments of all three North American countries and the desire for peace and social justice of ordinary Mexicans.
Part II of this article will look at the strengths, vulnerabilities and dilemmas of the protest movement, the tensions between demands for social justice within the regime and the belief of many that a new regime is a necessary condition for social justice. It will also examine tensions within the regime and the political party system over how to respond to this crisis of legitimacy. As well, it will look at the role that the U.S. and Canada are playing and are likely to play as this crisis unfolds.
Edur Velasco Arregui is a professor in the Department of Law at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, former Secretary-General of SITUAM (Sindicato Independiente de Trabajadores de la Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Independent Union of Workers of the Metropolitan Autonomous University), and a union activist.
Dick Roman is Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, York University, and a member of Socialist Project and the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. They are the authors of Continental Crucible: Big Business, Workers and Unions in the Transformation of North America, Fernwood Publishing, 2013.
This article originally appeared on SocialistProject.ca.
Being intersex isn’t itself headline-worthy, and more importantly, our lives aren’t headlines. We’re just people who happen to be intersex.
But this week, Taylor Lianne Chandler’s claim that she has been dating Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps made headlines everywhere – and not because of his celebrity status or their age difference. This story has been wildly popular because Chandler identified as intersex.
I woke up to a flurry of activity on Facebook this week from friends who were upset about the newest set of articles “revealing” that someone in the media spotlight is intersex. My chest felt heavy, and I hoped this wouldn’t be what it always is.
I scanned the headlines already half wincing, knowing I’d be disappointed: reporters both write that she was “born a man” and refer to her as intersex, as though those are the same thing. The word “scandalous” was used, though it’s hardly a surprise that Phelps has a girlfriend. In one headline, Chandler “admits”that she’s intersex, as if she’s confessing to a crime. Much of the coverageinaccurately refers to intersex to as a gender identity, using it as synonymous with transgender. Some press accounts detail what Chandler’s genitals looked like at birth or look like now. Readers are invited to wonder whether Phelps will continue the alleged relationship with Chandler knowing that she’s intersex – to ponder, in effect, whether anyone accepts intersex people enough to date them at all.
I turned away from my laptop, disgusted.
My life is busy but mundane – and it has a normalcy that’s not reflected in the sensationalized framing of Chandler’s life’s. I can’t relate to the media’s stereotypes of intersex people: they just aren’t about me – and others like me – at all.
Being born with atypical sex traits isn’t something I’m conscious of most of the time – I’m too busy going to work, making plans to meet up with friends, buying groceries, you know, standard life stuff. I have a life, and being intersex is part of that life, but it’s not the only part or even the dominant part. But the part of my consciousness that being intersex takes up is a pretty great one: I love who I am, and I love my body, my identity, my intersex friends. I’m out to many people in my life, and no one treats me weirdly, considers it “scandalous” that I dare to leave the house or wonders how on Earth my girlfriend can “accept” me and find me desirable.I’m a person just like anyone else, who happens to be intersex. So why do our lives and our bodies and our identities continue to be written about as though we’re so different over and over again?
Intersex people in popular culture are still too often portrayed as shocking, used as a plot twist in the medical drama right before the cut to commercial, played for laughs as a cheap punchline about “hermaphrodites” that seems to come out of nowhere. Whenever it happens, it instantly ruins my mood because it feels like, when we’re thought of at all, we’re conceptualized as biologically impossible half-men, half-women. We’re seen as objects of curiosity, or of fetishization; or perceived as medical anomalies and something to be “fixed.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of intersex actually uses the word “abnormal.”
None of that is accurate.
To the media outlets interested in writing truthfully about intersex people: focus on who we are as human beings. Raise awareness that we exist, and that we’re fighting for our basic human rights: it’s been routine since the 50s to medically – often surgically – alter intersex kids’ bodies without their consent, so that we can live as “normal” girls and boys. Intersex activists like myself have been working to stop these violations since the early 90s in the UK and the US – and now globally.
There are some opportunities for journalists to shine an important light on the issues that intersex people face in a responsible way – for instance, but coveringIndian runner Dutee Chand’s ban from competing in the Commonwealth Games and, maybe, the Olympics for having naturally high testosterone levels. (Though,coverage of South African runner Caster Semaya hardly gives me hope for that.) There are articles that I want read, to see exist in the world and in which I could see myself reflected – but we can’t be written about as a props or oddities. Reporters need to write about us as the complex people we are, and about us as more than our identities as intersex people.
The number of articles published about Chandler is probably increasing every minute. I’m not going to read them. Stories that reduce her humanity to her being intersex aren’t worth my time, or anybody else’s.Related Stories
Don’t look now, ladies, but your vagina is getting disrupted. As if this week didn’t have enough Uber-style Silicon Valley dirtbags for you (every week has one too many), a couple of startup bros went and outlined their visionfor Sweet Peach, a probiotic supplement that lets women “bio-hack” their vaginas and supposedly make them smell like ripe peaches.
If you are a woman, you might wonder which problem this is really solving. If you are a woman and have heretofore eschewed the douchebag industrial complex, you might, in fact, be perfectly happy with your healthy vagina’s natural smell and have never felt the slightest urge to have the scent of fuzzy fruits waft up from your lady garden. And you almost certainly would wonder why two guys have such firm ideas of how your vagina should smell.
Well, to give Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome their due, it wasn’t even their company – and the goal of Sweet Peach Probiotics’ actual founder Audrey Hutchinson wasn’t to eliminate vagina-scented vaginas at all. The probiotic wasdeveloped as part of an accelerator program run by Cambrian Genomics, a biotech startup that just raised $10m to fund its DNA-printing systems (Heinz, its CEO, owns a 10% stake in Sweet Peach). She used Cambrian’s technology to print a virus to kills off the microbes that cause things like yeast infections – and, though Gome told reporters that the fruity smell is an added bonus that lets women know it’s working, the name is reportedly only a reference to the fruit’s long history as reference to vagina.
(Gome also offered that, to take an idea from Linda Lovelace in Deepthroat, a women could “hack into her microbiome and make her vagina smell like roses and taste like diet cola”, so apparently the vaginal smell of women’s vaginas is a big focus of his.)
One (male) tech writer has suggested that it’s “unfair” that the media has focused, as Sweet Peach’s story went viral late this week, on changing the smell of a woman’s vaginal secretions when its “product” has these other, nobler, functions. C’mon, ladies, he seems to suggest, you owe it to the creators not to get worked up about making you smell nicer while fixing your nasty yeast issues!
You see, in today’s digital world, it is apparently a tad old-fashioned to think about vaginas as just tubular sex organs that form part of the female reproductive tract instead of as input/output devices whose functions can be reprogrammed. InHeinz’s words: “We print life. Life is very simple, it’s just code.”Still, since it’s called Sweet Peach and not Dead Yeast, the founders of Cambrian Genomics Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome took it upon themselves to explain how sporting a peachy vagina will help women “better connect to themselves”. Heinz, for instance, told reporters “All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you”, and Gome added, “We think it’s a fundamental human right to not only know your code and the code of the things that live on you but also to rewrite that code and personalize it.”
But life is not very simple, and it’s not “just code”. Making women’s mons Venuses smell like they’ve sat on a fruit basket isn’t empowering, but it does reflect the tech industry’s increasingly apparent problem with women. It does reflect the male-dominated, megalomaniac conviction that a complex world can be boiled down to a series of discrete problems to be solved via algorithms, flowcharts, “culture” and an answer that it’s all in the name of “progress” – even if you want to spy on a woman who calls you an asshole.
And when the problem that the bros think needs solving is how vagina-y vaginas smell – even when the product won’t do that and the actual founder never intended it to – it’s no surprise the people choosing what problems to solve are largely straight, white men, funded by other straight white men. According to a recent study, the vast majority of US venture capital investments go to companies led exclusively by men: only 15% of nearly 7,000 VC-backed companies analyzed in the research had a woman executive and only 2.7% had a female chief executive. Even more troublesome is that women are actually losing ground in venture capital leadership – the total proportion of women VC partners dropping to 6% in 2014 from 10% in 1999.
There is a crusader-like zeal to the way in which startup types talk about how they plan to change the world, how they plan to hack the future and disrupt the present – “inspiring”, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick put it this week, “the public at large”. There is a sense that all technological advancements are positive advancements and that while to err is human, to code is divine. (The current controversy around Uber’s internal data-mining feature, referred to within the company as “God View”, is a case in point.) But innovation is only really meaningful if it contributes to a more equitable society – and much of what Silicon Valley terms “disruption” is simply a bleeping, blorping version of the same social status quo.
• This article was amended on 22 November 2014 to clarify that, while Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peach Probiotics, its founder and CEO is Audrey Hutchinson and the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.
Jon Stewart was on the Howard Stern show earlier this week, and of the appearances Stewart’s done to promote his film “Rosewater,” this was one of the most interesting, organic conversations from the media tour.
In the conversation, he discusses everything from interviewing politicians, “Rosewater,” not displaying his Emmys, fatherhood, interviewing Donald Rumsfeld, finding talent — Colbert, Carell, Helms, Oliver — and whether or not he’s burnt out from “The Daily Show.”
At times Stewart even asks for advice, or reverse interviews Stern. The interview is an hour long, extremely revealing and worth a listen: