More Apologizing to the Dead

Start your weekend right by listening to Alan Grayson and Ed Shultz discussing how to fight back. When hit by Republican smears that Grayson is “unstable”, Grayson replied:

GRAYSON: My response is WHATEVER. America is sick of you, Republican Party. You are a LIE FACTORY – that’s all you ever do. Why don’t you work together with the Democrats to solve America’s problems instead of making stuff up?

Personally, I can’t get enough of this guy’s attitude. Go Alan!

Capitalism: A Love Story

The opening credits to Michael Moore’s latest film appear against a backdrop of bank surveillance videos, shot during actual bank robberies. As I sat through this assortment of real life holdups – showing robbers sticking guns into tellers’ faces, jumping over counters, quickly grabbing the cash and stuffing it into bags – criminal human behavior that most of us have never experienced – it dawned on me that these bank videos depicted greed at its most intense and personal. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.

A 1960s Encyclopedia Britannica educational film, like the kind many of us saw in grade school, follows next, explaining the fall of the Roman Empire. The clip shows how Roman decadence, including a vast gulf between rich and poor, as well as bread and circuses for the poor, brought the empire down. This is brilliantly intercut with scenes from contemporary America, scenes that the original producers of the Britannica film could never have imagined. It’s as though the decades-old voiceover is describing our own time, instead of the Roman.

Moore then does a great job showing how the general prosperity of post World War 2 America gave way to Reaganism, from whence the looting of this country shifted into gear. Having grown up in a rust belt town in the 1960s – not unlike Flint Michigan – what Moore showed from his youth paralleled my own experience of how good those times were; this must seem unbelievable to younger generations.

A central, if not explicitly stated theme of the movie is how unbridled capitalism is turning our country into a nation of serfs. Wall Street dictates to an impotent government, even to President Ronald Reagan. Destitute citizens are hired by companies to issue foreclosure notices to those who are still clinging onto their homes. Those being evicted from their homes are hired and paid by the bank to clean up their home, before the bank takes it over.

For most Michael Moore films, I have found – because I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet – that I pretty much already know the subject matter going into the theater, and am simply thrilled that someone else gets it, and has the guts and vision to put it into a film. This movie went beyond that for me. I learned about Dead Peasant insurance – life insurance policies taken out by major companies on their employees. When an employee dies, the benefit goes to the company. While this might make sense in the case of hard to replace, highly valuable individuals, Moore shows that this practice is widely used on thousands of ordinary employees simply to make a buck, to add to the bottom line.

There were two other segments that opened my eyes. One was a memo written by Citigroup to (I believe) its biggest investors. It spoke of how the USA has become a Plutonomy – an economy run by and for the benefit of the wealthy. It openly talked about threats to this arrangement, notably the fact that everyone still has a vote. I have long realized that this was the state of affairs in the US, kind of a dirty secret that most people know to varying degrees; but to see this explicitly revealed, with all the implications, in black and white from a major player in the oligarchy was stunning.

The other segment is rare footage of FDR delivering a speech on a Second Bill of Rights, shortly before his death. None of these rights – for example, the right to a job and a good education – essentially elements of economic security – ever became part of the American way. Moore argues that they did become part of Germany and Japan, whose constitutions were rewritten after World War 2. He shows how the Japanese and German carmakers survived despite this, while American automakers have faltered and failed. Moore shows us a few worker owned companies in the US, and how their wages and conditions are much better than their top-down, capitalist competitors.

The villains in this movie are less the Republicans – although George W. Bush makes quite a few appearances via his speeches – and more the plutocrats who are behind both the Republicans and Democrats. The major heroes in this movie are: Marcy Kaptur (Rep-OH), Elizabeth Warren (chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, formerly known as the TARP program), and William Black, a senior regulator during the S+L crisis. The minor heroes are many: among them are the Republic Window and Door workers who staged a successful sitdown strike to force the company’s bankers to pay them withheld wages; a poor family in Miami who organized their neighborhood and successfully rebuffed the bank’s (and the law’s) attempts to evict them.

Of course, there are the usual Michael Moore stunts of trying to speak to some corporate executive by storming the front gate – these are annoying but probably a necessary comic relief given the density and impact of the surrounding material. I felt that this film is probably Moore’s finest, most polished work. Having a large budget with lots of assistants to find the best archival footage, the best subjects to interview, and great music really helps. There are brilliant gems and nuggets throughout. It’s not easy to fit a critique of a huge subject like capitalism – something that all of us live and breathe in, to the point of being unaware of any other way of life, a sacred part of our national mythos, into a powerful 127 minute film.

Capitalism: A Love Story opened September 23 in NY and LA; it opens nationwide October 2.


Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

News item: Beatles Stars Reunite at Concert, dedicate song "Blackbird" to President Obama.

When the Music Stopped

There are those rare moments in the flow of daily life, about as rare as a solar eclipse, when history does a quiet, tectonic shift, and the ordinary landscape suddenly looks irrevocably dated, in an unannounced, unnerving way. Mark Morford – at the San Francisco Chronicle (give yourself a treat and subscribe to his feed) – writes what it was like during a recent trip to Lowes:

…One fine and sunny Saturday just recently, I visited a sparkly new Lowe’s home-improvement megastore to spec out a replacement oven for my apartment, an experience I was dreading not merely because it was the last place I wanted to spend a pristine Saturday, but because on weekends those places tend to be crammed and torturous and teeming, and such crowds generally give me hives.

I needn’t have worried.

It was like walking into a private game reserve, or some sort of museum of the long-lost American dream, a spectacle not unlike being the last person on the planet. The huge doors swooshed open, and I was greeted with the eeriest scene imaginable, aisle after aisle of shiny new roto tillers and chainsaws and barbeques, lawn furniture and rolls of sod and lighting fixture and every exotic gorgeous manly power tool imaginable.

And not a single human in sight.

Check that: a handful of humans milled about, but most were sales clerks looking equal parts bored, lonely, confused. The few actual customers I finally noticed were barely visible at all, swallowed up by the gleaming mountains of unsold goods, like a few tiny ants in a farm designed to hold ten thousand.

It was, in a word, disquieting. It was, in six more, strange and dreamlike and unexpectedly sad.

I had the same experience a few weeks ago – of walking into a big home improvement store, with mountains of shiny, pristine merchandise on shelves stocked to the gills, aisles and aisles of it, and no customers in sight. A few days ago, I visited a gigantic Whole Foods Market – which had plenty of customers – but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the moment has passed for ever-bigger retail stores. This store seemed as big as a football field, with who knows how many tens of thousands of square feet. How they could possibly run it at a profit baffled me. At the checkout, high end boho lifestyle magazines with names like "Simplify" called out, but they too, seemed to be published from an earlier age when there was such a thing as "discretionary income".

I felt like getting a camera and taking pictures of the inside of Lowes and Whole Foods to show my grandkids, what the full-blown consumer lifestyle was like, in all its glory, back in America, before the crash.

Frank Schaeffer Roars

Start your week off right, by watching this powerful interview of Frank Shaeffer, as he plugs his memoir, Crazy for God. Schaeffer’s parents, Francis and Edith, were well-known evangelicals during the 70s and 80s, and helped architect the religious right. Franky, as he was known back then, went along, but eventually he turned his back on what the religious right became. I found this interview on Huffington Post, where Schaeffer has an Open Letter to the Republican Traitors (from a former Republican) – it’s pretty scorching, and is excerpted below. I have rarely heard anyone speak so powerfully to the kinds of things we’ve been talking about on this site for ages:

You Republicans are the arsonists who burned down our national home. You combined the failed ideologies of the Religious Right, so-called free market deregulation and the Neoconservative love of war to light a fire that has consumed America. Now you have the nerve to criticize the "architect" America just hired — President Obama — to rebuild from the ashes. You do nothing constructive, just try to hinder the one person willing and able to fix the mess you created….

As the father of a Marine who served in George W. Bush’s misbegotten wars let me say this: if President Obama’s strategy to repair our economy, infrastructure and healthcare fails that will put our troops at far greater risk because the world will become a far more dangerous place. So for all you flag-waving Republicans who are trying to undermine the President at home — if you succeed more of our troops will be killed abroad.

When your new leader Rush Limbaugh calls for President Obama to fail he’s calling for more flag-draped coffins. Limbaugh is the new "Hanoi Jane."

For the party that created our crises of misbegotten war, mismanaged economy, the lack of regulation of our banking industry, handing our country to rich crooks… to obstruct the one person who is trying to repair the damage is obscene.

Just imagine where America would be today if the 14 to 20 million voters — "the rube base" who slavishly follow the likes of Limbaugh — had not voted as a block year after year thus empowering the Republican fiasco. We would have a regulated banking industry and would have avoided our current financial crisis; some 4000 of our killed military men and women would be alive; over to 35,000 wounded Americans would be whole; we would have been leaders in the environmental movement; we would be in the middle of a green technology boom fueling a huge expansion of our economy and stopping our dependence on foreign oil, and our health-care system would be reformed….

The worsening economic situation is your fault and your fault alone. The Republicans created this mess through 8 years of backing the worst president in our history and now, because you put partisan ideology ahead of the good of our country, you have blown your last chance to redeem yourselves. You deserve banishment to the political wilderness

The Obama Code

George Lakoff dissects Obama’s moral vision in The Seven Intellectual Underpinnings of the Obama Code. It appeared in concert with Obama’s SOTU address, on several websites – you may have already seen it. If not, it’s a bit long but well worth reading. Some excerpts: st obama

…Obama’s second …move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy—putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better—what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.

Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy—to be “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper”—and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.

The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality — for everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.

This is key:

Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have called “progressive” values are fundamental American values. From his perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American.

That is a crucial intellectual move.

Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider—who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire “free market,” which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone’s interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states—with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world….

We talk all the time about how empathy is crucial distinction between left and right.

The third crucial idea behind the Obama Code is biconceptualism, the knowledge that a great many people who identify themselves ideologically as conservatives, or politically as Republicans or Independents, share those fundamental American values—at least on certain issues. Most “conservatives” are not thoroughgoing movement conservatives, but are what I have called “partial progressives” sharing Obama’s American values on many issues. Where such folks agree with him on values, Obama tries, and will continue to try, to work with them on those issues if not others. And, he assumes, correctly I believe, that the more they come to think in terms of those American values, the less they will think in terms of opposing conservative values.

Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals. He shares Obama’s views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his “courting” of Republican members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values…

Biconceptualism is central to Obama’s attempts to achieve unity —a unity based on his understanding of American values…

Finally, as a consequence of low empathy…

Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral—and economic—values is fallacious. Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis…

I’ve often said that conservatives cannot see past the ends of their own noses. Read the whole thing.

BBC Panorama: Health Care in America

This explosive BBC documentary, unlike anything you’ll see on American MSM, shows how bad the healthcare situation is in America. You’ll see a charity originally set up to deliver healthcare to third world countries, drawing hundreds of clients in Kentucky. The clip effectively shows the enormous chasm between rich and poor in America. You’ll see rich Republicans who think our system is the greatest in the world, and who are fighting to keep the status quo. The political situation is spelled out as well. The last segment interviews a woman who is getting chemotherapy while living in a tent – she had to choose between rent or medicine.

Several thoughts (feel free to add your own):

We used to have a functioning media in this country that would take risks and report on this kind of thing. Now it distracts, silences, and shapes public opinion, instead of being challenging or revealing. While never perfect, who the media is supposed to serve has changed over time.

The victims in this documentary – the ones too poor for health insurance – come from states that usually vote for those whose policies overwhelmingly ensure the perpetuation of their victimhood. How these people were bamboozled into voting against their own best interests is explained in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Maha wrote earlier about the delusions of the very wealthy. The healthcare situation in this country is a symptom of the same. At some point, all of us choose to shut out the plight of others from our awareness, and we come up with rationalizations for this act – liberals to a lesser extent, conservatives to a greater extent. So much of the political battle is consumed by efforts to cut through defenses of this sort. Keeping explosive documentaries such as this out of the public eye is hugely strategic, because an angry public won’t put up with excuses. Documentaries like this, that have the potential to foment public anger, torpedo all the defenses.

There is a spiritual dimension to this that all contemporary writers and documentaries show or talk around, but which can never seem to directly discuss. It’s as though we don’t have the language for it, or we’re not permitted to directly speak about it – which by itself silently screams obscenities against our culture. We simply feel the moral outrage that some deep spiritual laws are being violated. But without a common language to articulate and address this outrage, this energy is stymied from changing anything. It’s the result of conservative efforts to trivialize and confine spirituality to personal matters, such as who you’re having sex with, blastocytes, and so on, and to keep spirituality away from anything that would seriously challenge the conservative worldview.

Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here. You’ll want to watch all three.

Link to the original BBC program is here, but viewers outside the UK can’t see it.

h/t to nyceve

Say Good Night, Dick


So, what are your reflections on these last eight horrible years, as our wreck of a country struggles to emerge from the dark machinations of these malicious sociopaths? My view is along the lines of Jim Kunstler‘s:

To me, GWB will remain the perfect representative of his time, place, and culture. During his years in Washington, America became a nation of clowns posturing in cowboy hats, bethinking ourselves righteous agents of Jesus in a Las Vegas of the spirit, where wishing was enough to get something for nothing, where “mistakes were made,” but everybody was excused from the consequences of bad choices. The break from that mentality will be very severe, and we may look back in twelve months and wonder how we ever fell for the whole package. The answering of that question will occupy historians for ages to come.

Kunstler’s take doesn’t begin to capture the horror I felt, of living through these last eight years, of watching much of the country go mad. Like waking up one day in a coast-to-coast version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I remember the shock of seeing nearly everyone around me lose their minds, believing in ever more stupid things announced from on high. What was truly frightening was envisioning the trajectory of where this national insanity could take us. Didn’t we have a Constitution or something to protect us from this, or a media that would finally come forward and tell us what was really going on? The whole experience taught me how fragile the achievements of American civilization really are, and how easily and silently they can be lost (and in some cases are still lost). Fortunately the force of this madness eventually peaked, but not without huge, debilitating costs, that have yet to be fully reckoned.

But enough of my own dark memories, what are yours? What are your plans for January 20th?

My brother and I are getting together to commemorate a number of things: the New Year (belatedly), the new administration of course, and our departed mother’s birthday (Jan 20). She was a life-long New Deal Democrat and would’ve been pleased with Obama.