Archive for May, 2013

A 9/11 Truther Comes in from the Cold

May 30, 2013

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The British 9/11 Truther, Charlie Veitch, has recanted. He reportedly changed his mind after a demolitions expert explained to him why the Twin Towers could not have been brought down by controlled demolitions. He was friends with Alex Jones and David Icke, and he had his won website. Since he announced his change of mind, he has received death threats, and both he and his mother have received harassing e-mails.

The Telegraph has an interesting article about Veitch that is worth reading in its entirety. One of the more interesting passages tells how Veitch became a Truther:

    And at six o’clock one morning, after a night out at a club, it pounced.

    “I was absolutely spangled from the nightclub when my best friend said ‘Charlie, you know you’re Right-wing and you joined the Army? Well, they were lying to you.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘9/11; it wasn’t as you think.’ It was almost like an initiation into a cult, a religion. You’re being given special knowledge.”

Truthers have often seemed to me to be almost like religious cultists. The idea of a 9/11 conspiracy is like a revealed truth to them. And it’s one that can seem empowering. Somebody who has never even taken a calculus course can suddenly become an expert on structural engineering, pedantically lecturing other people on controlled demolitions and what a hole left by an airplane looks like.

What’s interesting is how the 9/11 conspiracy theories have begun to bleed over into other more bizarre theories held by people such as Jones and Icke. A conspiracy theory can be like a rabbit-hole. Having embraced an idea that most people reject, the conspiracy theorist begins to associate only with other like-minded people. Eventually he or she learns about the Bilderburg Group, the New World Order, and the Illuminati, until finally the seeker is initiated into the ultimate mystery: shape-shifting reptilian overlords from another dimension.

CounterPunch readers who want to believe that anti-Semitism is not a problem may want to read this part:

    In essence, the modern conspiracy narrative is the same as the one that has existed since at least the 19th century: that the few (often termed the “Illuminati”) control the many. This, of course, is the nucleus of the dangerous anti-Jewish myth. When he was an insider, did he experience anti-Semitism? His eyes open wide: “Loads. Loads. I was once accused of being a Jew because of my olive skin and my nose. They said, ‘We can’t trust him’.” And when they say the ‘Illuminati’ or ‘Reptiles’, do they actually mean Jews? “It’s slightly complicated but, mostly, yes,” he says.

This article in Slate is also worth reading.

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It’s Worse Than You Think

May 28, 2013

Census Poverty

The U.S. is a poorer country than most people realize. According to Alternet:

    The IRS reports that the highest wage in the bottom half of earners is about $34,000. To be eligible for food assistance, a family can earn up to 130% of the federal poverty line, or about $30,000 for a family of four.

There is also this:

    The median debt level rose to $75,600 in 2009, while the median family net worth, according to the Federal Reserve, dropped from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010.

There’s not a lot of talk about this in the mainstream media. They don’t like to talk about depressing topics such as poverty and unemployment. They prefer to talk about crime, terrorism, political scandals (both real and imaginary), and, of course, celebrity gossip. What also makes talking about poverty difficult, however, is the fact that Americans tend to believe that they are better off than people in other countries. They are taught this in public schools and by the media. When you tell some people that the U.S. lags behind some other countries in some respects, they simply don’t believe you. Part of the problem here is cultural. With the exception of Native Americans, native Hawaiians, and perhaps some Mexican-Americans, Americans are all descended from immigrants. These immigrants came here thinking they would be better off here than in their native countries, and in some cases this was actually true. However, this belief has been handed down through the generations, with the result that many Americans believe they have somehow lucked out, when they actually haven’t. There sometimes seems to me that there is a collective state of denial about the fact that wages have been declining for the past thirty years. (It doesn’t help that the decline in labor unions has led to a decline in class consciousness.) The interesting question here is: how long can people deny reality?

Letter from a Young Radical

May 24, 2013

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Bhaskar Sunkara

Bhaskar Sunkara, the young editor of Jacobin magazine, has an article in The Nation entitled Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical. He begins by making a critique of liberalism that is both non-dogmatic and non-sectarian. He writes:

    Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power. Much of its discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the “Republic of Letters,” which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence.

Liberals see politics as a conflict of ideas, when it is actually a conflict of class interests. This misapprehension leads liberals to view the Democratic Party as their party, when it is actually a party representing corporate interests. Most of them have lined up behind President Obama, who is not a liberal, not even on social issues. (Consider the frantic efforts of Obama’s justice department to prevent the Morning After Pill from being sold over the counter.) In effect, liberals are in an impossible position politically.

Sunkara is more optimistic about the situation of radicals, despite the defeat of the Occupy movement, citing the emergence of new radical thinkers and journals, but he believes that radicals need to reach out beyond their narrow circles. He writes:

    Which is to say that the left needs a plan—a plan that must incorporate more moderate allies. American radicalism has had a complex and at times contradictory association with liberalism. At the peak of the socialist movement, leftists fed off liberal victories. Radicals, in turn, have added coherence and punch to every key liberal struggle and advance of the past century. Such a mutually beneficial alliance could be in the works again. The first step is to smash the existing liberal coalition and rebuild it on a radically different basis.

Sunkara cites the recent struggles against school closures in Chicago and in Philadelphia as an example of an issue on which radicals and liberals can work together.

I think that Sunkara’s arguments are worth consideration and discussion. It certainly doesn’t appear that anyone else on the Left has any better ideas at the moment. The “red-brown” strategy favored by websites such as Counterpunch and Dissident Voice is obviously a dead end. Kasama Project is trying to revive Maoism – as if a peasant rebellion were a real possibility in this country. And the ISO’s particular brand of Trotskyism appears to have only limited appeal. We need to find a way for the Left to move forward.

Homeland Security and the Politics of Helplessness

May 22, 2013

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A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy documents how this nation’s anti-terrorism police collaborated with businesses to attack the Occupy movement of 2011 to 2012. Alternet reports:

    The report specifically looks at the activities of “fusion centers,” or law enforcement entities created after 9/11 that transform local police forces into counter-terror units in partnership with federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. The fusion centers devoted a lot of time–to the point of “obsession,” the report notes–to monitoring the Occupy movement, particularly for any “threats” to public safety or health and to whether there were “extremists” involved in the movement.

Those of us who worried that the Department of Homeland Security created after the 9/11 attacks would be used to suppress political dissent have seen our worst fears realized. The government and corporations did everything they could to crush a non-violent movement that spoke people’s anger at the greed of the banks and of Wall Street. The result has the near stifling of any resistance to the corporate agenda.

In such an atmosphere, it is no surprise that people turn to conspiracy theories to explain their problems. Conspiracy theories are the opiate of the politically defeated. Greg Palast’s good buddy Alex Jones – who last month claimed that the Boston Marathon bombings were a “false flag operation” – has suggested that the recent tornado in Oklahoma was the work of a government-owned weather machine. According to Media Matters:

    Following a long tangent, Jones returned to the caller’s subject. While he explained that “natural tornadoes” do exist and that he’s not sure if a government “weather weapon” was involved in the Oklahoma disaster, Jones warned nonetheless that the government “can create and steer groups of tornadoes.”

    According to Jones, this possibility hinges on whether people spotted helicopters and small aircraft “in and around the clouds, spraying and doing things.” He added, “if you saw that, you better bet your bottom dollar they did this, but who knows if they did. You know, that’s the thing, we don’t know.”

The price that we pay for having let Bush and Obama create a police state is a long descent into national infantilism.

Mapping Hate

May 17, 2013

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Students at Humboldt State University have put together a map of racist and homophobic tweets that were made between June 2012 and April 2013. They looked at 150,000 tweets in all. You can find the map here. The map indicates tweets that expresses prejudice against blacks, East Asians, and Latinos, as well as prejudice against gays and disabled people.

Some of the results are not surprising. Most of the hateful tweets come from rural areas, and, yeah, more of them come from the southeastern U.S. than the rest of the country. Yet there are also some things that seem odd. For example, there appears to be hotspots of homophobia in southeastern New Mexico, on the Oregon-Washington border, at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, and in a couple of places in eastern Wasington. On the other hand, there are few homophobic tweets from Mormon Utah, except for a place just outside of Salt Lake City. There are hotspots of anti-black racism just north of Sacramento, California and in Twin Falls, Idaho. And there are hotspots of anti-Chinese sentiment in central Virginia and in a couple of places in Minnesota. It’s possible that these anomalies may be due to a few people obsessively tweeting over and over again. I would like to know more about the methodology that was used in making this map.

One thing we learn is that “queer” appears to be a more popular epithet than “fag”. And “wetback” is popular in a couple of parts of Texas, but almost nowhere else. The map also gives the impression that anti-black racism is much more of a problem than anti-Latino racism.

However, the most striking thing about this map is how there are far more hate tweets from the eastern U.S. than from the western U.S. (with the exception of the anomalies I just mentioned). The rate of hate tweeting drops off sharply from central Kansas westwards. I know for a fact that there are a lot of racists and homophobes here in the West, so why this huge difference? Without knowing more about how this map was made, I can only put forward the following theory. There is a common stereotype that people from the East Coast are ruder and more verbally aggressive than people from the West Coast. I know from personal experience that there is some truth to this stereotype. (I have lived in Boston and in New York, two cities where rudeness is almost a way of life. People in L.A. can be rude sometimes, but it’s nothing at all like New York.) Could the corollary of this be that people in western states are less likely to vent their racism on Twitter than people in eastern states? I wonder.

I have some criticisms of the way this map was made. The students sought to measure prejudice against people with disabilities by counting the number of times people used the work “cripple”. This word is tactless and insensitive, but it is not hate speech. And it might have illuminating if these students had looked for derogatory words about Native Americans, Arabs, Jews, South Asians, and Muslims. As it is, this map only gives a partial portrait of the current state of racism in the U.S.

American Beauty

May 11, 2013

The 1999 film, American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by Alan Ball, is unusual for a Hollywood film, in that it deals with philosophical issues, in particular: the questions of what is freedom, is it possible for an individual to be truly free, and what is beauty.

Lester (Kevin Spacey), works for an advertising company in a job he hates. He is emotionally estranged from his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and from his daugher, Jane (Thora Birch). Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), which repulses Jane. Meanwhile, she becomes involved with her next-door neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), whose father, Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marine colonel. One night, Lester meets Ricky at a party where the latter is working for a catering service. Ricky invites Lester outside to smoke a joint with him. When they are discovered by Ricky’s boss, Ricky tells him he is quitting. Ricky’s audacity impresses Lester, and it inspires him to change his life. He later gives a sarcastic memo to his boss, who fires him. This sets off a chain of events that result in Lester being killed.

The film makes clear the emptiness of Lester’s life. His efforts to reach out to his wife and daughter both fail. Yet his attempt to break out of his stifling life is deeply flawed from the very beginning. He despises the corruption and dishonesty of the company he works for, yet he blackmails his boss into giving him a generous severance package. He criticizes Carolyn for being materialistic, yet the first thing he does with his severance money is buy a Camaro. Indeed, Lester’s behavior merely becomes more cynical after he rejects his empty life. In a sense he moves from one type of imprisonment to another. However, when Lester tries to seduce Angela, he suddenly realizes that he can’t go through with it. It is at this point that Lester is finally finds peace with himself.

More problematic is the film’s treatment of the concept of beauty. In one scene, Ricky tells Jane how he once saw the body of a dead woman. He says: “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.” Jane asks: “And what do you see?” Ricky: “Beauty.” (The producers reportedly wanted to cut this scene, but Ball refused.) Later, after Lester is killed, Ricky gazes at his body in rapt fascination. This association of beauty with death is questionable in my opinion. I’m told that Ball had originally wanted to end the film with Ricky and Jane being wrongly accused of killing Lester, but the producers talked him out of it. This ending would have at least given some irony to Ricky’s talk about beauty. There is however a scene in which Ricky shows Jane a video he made of a plastic bag blowing around in the wind, which suggests that his idea of beauty is actually something that transcends life.

American Beauty is one of the most remarkable American films of the past twenty years.