Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Mink Coats Don't Trickle Down"

So how to begin to describe this latest protest movement, Occupy Wall Street, anyway--is it fish, flesh, fowl, or (as my mother used to say) good red herring?

Reactions vary extremely across the board, all the way from it's "the beginnings of a possible second American Revolution" to the crude referencing of "growing mobs that are pitting Americans against Americans" by Eric Cantor. So is this really "class warfare," as the Republicans would have it, or rather "a holy space between the towers of money?" as Naomi Klein describes it? Is what we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park just a few "soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism" or is it "a wide-open place for people to find each other" during "an inevitable moment for America"?

The answer is that nobody really knows. That is why both Zuccotti Park's cheering supporters and its mocking detractors are all holding their breath in anticipation of how this will turn out. What is yet to be determined is whether we are, finally, in the past 5-6 weeks of an unforeseen occupation, witnessing a brave new world rising up out of the ashes of right-wing nihilism and corporate greed, or the beginnings of a nightmare scenario that will end in chaos and destruction--an updated version of the French Revolution where the streets were running with blood.

So where am I, in trying to assess all of this? Caught, I expect, in the crossfire of my own acute emotions, somewhere between elation and fear. There seem to be as many ways of responding to what is happening as there are protesters out there protesting. No one knows for sure whether the movement can continue (the protesters claim to be unstoppable and insist that they can and will continue indefinitely). So far, what they have accomplished is to annex a park near the New York stock Exchange, hold marches and meetings, fend off eviction, spur similar protests around the nation and even the globe, and set up a leaderless mini-society that functions, so far, in a remarkably orderly way, with working groups that run everything from meals and media technology to sanitation. They have even organized a library, as well as "family sleep-overs" so that sympathizers, who feel that their children's futures have been compromised, can bring them along and spend the night.

No one really knows, however, whether Occupy Wall Street will change anything or has a chance of succeeding, given the entrenched forces arrayed against it. One thing we do know is that when leaders pursue their own agendas and stop thinking about the interests of their people, they lose the support of their people. The movement, with its motto of “we are the 99 percent,” has been criticized by many for its lack of coherent demands, but one of the organizers, Yotam Marom, claims that's silly. "We're occupying Wall Street. It should be pretty well clear what we want changed." OWS is fighting both to strengthen democracy, and to end the domination of the big money interests which are seeking to destroy it.

"I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific demands," says George Lakoff, the world's expert on how best to frame your agenda to get the results you want. "If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed." In his essay "A Framing Memo to Occupy Wall Street" published in the Huffington Post, Lakoff proposes that the OWS movement is moral in nature, and that what the occupiers really want is for the country to change its moral focus.

"It is easy to find useful policies; hundreds have been suggested," he writes. "It is harder to find a moral focus and stick to it. If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands." If the moral focus of America changes, new people will be elected, and the policies will follow. "Without a change of moral focus," Lakoff says, "the conservative world-view that has brought us to the present disastrous and dangerous moment will continue to prevail."

For the moment, I'm totally happy with his idea of trying to change the moral focus of our country. Let's see what happens when crosses are painted over with polka dots. If it works--if somehow, against all the odds, OWS manages to steal the right-wing Putsch--then maybe, in some better future, crosses will stand, not for the crucified Jesus, but for some new, emergent X chromosome in our species that will no longer be hellbent on its own destruction.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Herman Cain Is Not Red Riding Hood

I was amused almost to the point of desperation at Deborah Ring's characterization (Oct.13th in the Roanoke Times) of Herman Cain--the former Godfather's Pizza CEO who has recently catapulted to the top of the GOP presidential race--as someone who will clean up the mess in Washington because he is a "new face," and not an insider. "He does not owe any PAC, union, or corporation anything," she writes.

Cain may not come from the ranks of professional politics, but he is absolutely marbled with the financial fat of those corporate billionaire backers of the Tea Party, the Koch brothers. This is meant to be a well-kept secret,Tea Party affiliation no longer being quite the passport into politics it was just a year ago--and so far, the connection seems to have gone unnoticed by political and talk-show pundits. It was not surprising, therefore, that on his kick-off bus tour in Tennessee the other day, Cain told the crowd he will not name his policy advisers to protect them from attacking critics. "They're my advisers, not yours," he snapped.

If you want the real scoop on exactly how lily-white the latest Republican front-runner really is, you can check out the particulars online in Scott Keyes' article about the relationship between Cain and his billionaire pals at There you will find a spectacle with a kick: Cain's rise from niche radio host and pizza CEO to presidential front-runner appears to have been largely fueled by the Koch network.

In an article thick with well- documented links, Keyes maps out the history of this extensive connection, showing how, dating back to 2005, Cain held an official position in the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity that offered him immersive opportunities to barnstorm the country, give speeches, hold town-hall meetings, and generally spruce up his skills for an eventual presidential bid. Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, was a former president of Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter and is credited with persuading Cain to run for president. Block also has a history, it seems, of electoral dirty tricks, and was once fined $15,000 for violating Wisconsin electoral law.

In January, Cain attended the Koch brothers private biannual meeting in Palm Springs of top right-wing corporate and political figures in order to coordinate strategy and raise money for the conservative movement. He also traveled to Wisconsin to support Governor Scott Walker's union-busting efforts, which were equally fueled by the Koch brothers, as well as to a Koch-based anti-climate rally in New York in June. If Cain's catchy "9-9-9" across-the-board tax plan were ever instigated, the Koch brothers would personally see their tax rates fall from 23 percent to around 11 percent.

In sum, we are not talking about some free-wheeling pizza populist here, with no campaign structure and very little money. Herman Cain is not quite the untainted, folksy, down-home "new face" that Ring makes him out to be. Rather, he is quite the clever teacup, whose bristling subtext is that of being front man for the most dangerous right-wing corporatists now threatening to take over our country. Cain has already named Paul Ryan and Jim deMint for unspecified slots in his administration. Does all this make your radar system flash on red alert? It does mine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Black Marbles

"I have never had so challenging an assignment as finding people who approve of Congress," Joel Stein writes in the 10/10 issue of Time. Stein has spent the last two weeks on assignment in Los Angeles, searching for people who would join him for a meal and tell him why they don't hate Congress. "It was the hardest job of my life," he says. Recent polls show a 12 percent approval for Congress, which matches the lowest rating ever recorded, and Stein considers even that has got to be over-inflated. Finally he did manage to track down five people willing to talk with him, two of whom wouldn't allow him to print their names because they didn't want anyone to know they actually think Congress is okay.

Three of the five who ended up convening with him for brunch at the Alcove Cafe were Tea Party enthusiasts, one of whom declared, "A Congress that doesn't get anything done delights me." This was a doctor who wanted to remain anonymous because he feared if his patients were to know his views, they would leave him. One of the others, a housewife with a PhD, proclaimed her nostalgia for the time Newt Gingrich succeeded in shutting the government down. When asked by Stein to name something they thought the Senate and House did well, a lawyer answered, "Give me a second. I know it's there. It'll come to me."

For almost three years, Barack Obama tried to work with both parties in Congress "to get things done," until he finally got it that he would never get any cooperation or support from Republicans. So now, with his approval rating at an all time low, he has taken to the hills to campaign for his American Jobs Act--a mixture of tax cuts and government spending totaling $447 billion--entirely on his own, looking exhausted and demoralized, but hanging tough, like Atlas holding up the world. Republicans may never even bring the bill to the table for a vote. For them, nothing happens unless the rich get their tax cut.

"The country needs a leader," Peggy Noonan crooned on "Meet the Press," this Sunday, back to her latest refrain--Obama hasn't managed to bring the parties together, nor has he succeeded in making Republicans fear him. Meanwhile, America's politics have turned into a chicken-and-egg game over which came first: Republican obstructionism or Obama's failure to lead. Meantime, the rest of us have become like black marbles caught in a whirlpool of blame.

In The New Yorker [09/26], James Surowiecki presents reasons the GOP could actually get away with their obstructionism without being punished for it at the polls. Responsibility for the economy, he claims, now belongs to Obama and and the Dems, and since Republicans control only one house of Congress, they can more easily dodge blame because they've had little chance to enact anything on their own. According to polls, most swing voters are strongly in favor of reducing deficits, and voters in general don't expect Republicans to do much about jobs anyway, so they are not penalized as much for their inaction. (This last has got to be an argument that depends, in all good faith, on the rain.) In fact, uncooperative Republicans are really just delivering what their constituencies expect. In the run-up to last year's midterms, Republicans were explicit in their opposition to stimulus programs and to any tax-and-spend policies--and they won a landslide victory. Surowiecki concludes that Americans may want the government to get the economy moving again, but when push comes to shove, they vote for a different story. So, for now, he claims, it is not only our representatives who are to blame. It's ourselves. We are the culprits who voted them in. And, as black marbles caught up in the whirlpool of blame, which of us can honestly claim NOT to have felt all the emotions as itemized below?

To BLAME, [per Roget's Thesaurus] = to disapprove, not admire, fail to appreciate, have no praise for, not think much of, take a dim view of, censor, disfavor, lament, shout down, boo, hiss, throw mud, pour vitriol, lambast, call names, curse, vilify, reproach, denounce, stigmatize, sneer, taunt, trounce, come down on like a ton of bricks, revile, think the worst, condemn.

Who, at this point, is not in search of a wailing wall, not feeling a need to cram hair balls down somebody's else's throat? In doing so, however, we ignore at our own peril (in the words of Ray Bradbury) that "poison can destroy minds even as it can destroy flesh." "Teach me, he writes in "Zen in the Art of Writing," "how to be sick then, in the right time and place, so that I may again walk in the fields, and with the wise and smiling dogs know enough to chew sweet grass."

If these are really our choices--becoming black marbles or chewing sweet grass--which of them should one choose? I ask Virgil, my trusted alligator-muse, to give me his opinion. Considering the state of everything today, how can one NOT want to play the blame game? It would be like asking tribes give up their bingo rights on the reservation.

In the winking of a lighthouse, Virgil has his answer at the ready "Your country lost its legal standing when it argued and convinced the Supreme Court that corporations are people and have rights. Now, all the cases in which you are still hoping to defend your rights are prepared by skeletons in a bone court."

So what does that mean?" I ask. "Listen," says Virgil, "you people are insane, without a doubt insane. Not every donna can be prima. You're going backward into the future, where you are surely going to lose. To paraphrase from one of your most illustrious poets, you would rather be ruined than change. The national debt is rising at $46,000 per second, so I would bag the marbles and ditch the sweet grass. It is already known that resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die. Personally, in a predicament like yours, I'd reach for pistachios, with maybe a dash of wild ginseng."

After dropping that bit of alligatorial advice, Virgil brushes the dust from his leather trousers and rises to go. He has new orders to fill from more than a dozen states and countries, and even though his percentage is pretty low, he still earns more than he needs to expand his empire and add to his collection of ladies' shoes. Riding waves of electrified delirium, the crafty alligator quickly disappears, sleek as a Bedouin in the night.