Friday, September 29, 2023

Can You Power A Car on Hot Air?

Electric cars are all over the news in the USA, but there aren't many of them on the streets.

With the UAW on strike and both future presumed presidential candidates visiting Michigan (coincidentally on the same day that I arrived in the state), electric cars and the future of the auto industry is all over the news.  It's amusing timing for me, because my family have very recently joined the ranks of electric car owners, and it's been an education.  On the off chance that my experience contains any lessons useful for the broader public, I'll tell you about it.

I've long been a fan of electric cars, as a concept.  The idea of a battery always made more sense to me than containing a raging, toxic fire under the hood everywhere you go, with an internal combustion engine.  It's no panacea for the climate crisis by any means, but in any case, we're finally clearly entering the electric car age, with countries around the world making firm plans for when petrol-burning engines will no longer be sold.  

This is often in the news.  And I'm also often in places like Oslo, where most of the cars on the streets seem to be electric.  Huge tax incentives and lots of free downtown parking and charging successfully got most car-buyers in that rich country to go electric.

I figured there might be issues with things like long-distance travel, and insufficient charging infrastructure out in the boonies.  But when Reiko and I realized that between the various schools and workplaces we were constantly driving to, given where we live and the lack of other good options, we were compelled to get a second car, I thought it would be cool to get an electric one.  

Looking at the prospects in our meager price range initially dissuaded me from the idea, as going 35 miles before needing to charge the battery didn't seem workable.  But when a relative of more means than me offered to double our budget, suddenly a much more recent model car with a viable range was feasible, so we got one.

We knew we were operating under the circumstances of living in an apartment complex that, like the overwhelming majority of other ones I see around the city, lacks EV charging ports, or even easily-accessed outdoor electrical outlets.  I also understood that finding places to charge your car was going to involve downloading lots of apps, just like parking does these days.  

I had the PlugShare app ready to go, and located a charging place after dropping one of the kids off at preschool.  Everything worked fine there at the Beaverton Library's parking lot, though I discovered that the slow chargers are indeed slow.

Downloading a new app to use the fast-charging place not far from our apartment, it worked great, and had the car fully charged in an hour.  The next time I went back to that same place, the charging station I had used before was saying it wasn't working, so I hooked up to the one that was.  This one wasn't working with the app, but swiping a card got it going.  The car charged fine once again, but then the charger wouldn't unlatch from the charging port.

I of course at first figured I was doing something wrong, but nothing I tried was working.  I called the number on the charging station for help, and eventually got someone on the line, who took me through all kinds of paces, restarting this and that, and he restarted the charging station from a distance, but nothing worked.  Going inside the supermarket nearby and asking the security guy if he happened to know anything about detaching from these chargers, he said he had noticed this happening to people at least ten times before, who got stuck with that charger, and he explained how it was a purely mechanical problem, and unsticking it could be achieved with a butter knife.

Of course I didn't think to ask people in the supermarket about it until two hours after trying to figure it out with the gentleman on the phone, and talking to random passersby, and one other guy, a jazz musician on tour from France, who was charging his electric rental car.  After consulting with the security guy, with the help of a friend who had a knife, we got the charger unstuck.  If we had had to wait for someone from the EV charging company to come help, the wait might have been at least another two hours, I was told over the phone.

Luckily there were other parents I could call on to pick my kid up at preschool while I was stuck in that parking lot with the charger situation.

A few days later I had planned to get a fast-charge again, after dropping visiting relatives off at the airport.  I ended up making two trips to the airport, because of delayed flights, and by the time I was heading towards the charging station, the car was saying 0% battery.  Panicking slightly, not wanting to stall out in the middle of a four-lane road, I headed towards the nearest charging station on the map, which was a slow-charge place in front of a healthcare corporation of some kind.

There were two charging stations run by a company called Blink, and one was being used.  When we pulled up to the other one, everything seemed to be working, but whenever we'd get to the point of plugging in our car the screen said "error."  So I called this company's tech support number.  Eventually getting through, the nice man on the line this time checked, from his remote location, the veracity of this charging station, and found it was kaput, not functional at all.  Blink was on the blink.  He recommended nearby charging ports that, according to his information, were working and ready to plug in to.

Heading there, to the parking lot of a fast food restaurant, the two charging stations were both in use, with cars belonging to the restaurant, and there seemed to be doubt over whether they were available for anyone else's use.

Off to another parking lot, this time a Kohl's department store, with another couple of slow-charging stations, these run by another company, called Charge Point.  It seemed somewhat unlikely, but once again, we had machines that appeared to be in working order at first glance, but once you try to use them, error messages.  Once again calling tech support for this company, when this person ran their tests they found these chargers were not working.  They were the charge points that weren't.

At 0%, the car kept going, so I guess it's a very relative 0%, which is nice.  We went to yet another charging station, this one a fast-charging one in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and it worked like a charm.

These were my experiences during the first two weeks of driving around this car in the Portland metro area, which is a part of the country reputed to be advanced when it comes to this sort of thing.  It was just after that last charge that I was listening to NPR and they mentioned that there were now 70,000 registered electric vehicles in the state of Oregon.

That doesn't seem like many, I thought.  I looked up how many other cars there were in the state.  Four million.  That's quite a contrast.  Given the price for a decent electric car and the apparently questionable state of the infrastructure, it's not surprising that Oregon is nothing at all like Norway in this regard.  

Listening to the pundits and politicians of whichever stripe, you'd get the impression that electric cars are about to take over.  But the facts on the ground in the Portland area, at least, tell a story about an idea being adopted very slowly by very few people, which is depending on very dodgy infrastructure.

In other parts of the world it's obvious that they mean business with their plans to go electric, as far as all the cars, trucks, and buses go.  It's all very visible to the naked eye, if you find yourself in certain countries.  In the USA it mainly gets a whole lot of hot air from pundits and politicians.  Hot air which doesn't charge a single battery -- although it may turn out voters to the polls, and give the social media corporations fuel for some of the arguments that will guarantee their next billion dollars in advertising revenue.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

A Statement of Principles

Is the left mainly a bunch of censorship-happy, empire-supporting, virtue-signaling clowns?  Or is that just the impression we get from social media?  You can also find this at davidrovics.com/principles.

What gets called "the left" in US society, and others, is a contradictory and confusing phenomenon.  People who identify their political orientation with words like anarchism, communism, socialism, social democracy, may support exclusive and even authoritarian policies and organizing tactics, while others identifying with supposedly the same ideologies engage in inclusive forms of organizing and support things like open discourse and free expression.

What gets called "the left" may include people involved with organizing workers, tenants, or members of other communities of people to stand up against the nefarious plans of the capitalists.  But it also will tend to include a lot of people engaged in grandstanding, showboating, virtue-signaling, and cancellation campaigning on corporate social media platforms.

Who are the people that believe in and are maybe even engaged in effective organizing, and who are the ones throwing virtual bombs into every space where such organizing is trying to happen?  The corporate advertisers and political dividers know who we all are, but we don't know each other.

If you agree with the basic orientation represented by the 10 no-brainer points below and you'd like to put your name to a public statement to that effect, email me at david@davidrovics.com with your name and any other relevant info to put along with it, such as your occupation, or organization you may represent.  When we've got a good collection of names we'll add them to this statement and publish it in other places.

In case it's not abundantly obvious already, if you have come to agree with these points only very recently and up until last month you were acting like a horrible troll on Twitter, you're just as beautiful a human being, and we want you!

Also, if you're generally in support of these points but have suggestions for improving the presentation or content of them, or if you have profound disagreements with any of them that you might like to tell me about in an email, I'm interested in those emails, too.

1) We embrace organizing for a purpose and reject showboating and performative virtue-signaling.  Organizing is about building networks, finding common ground, establishing common goals.  Posting about who is pure enough for you to have contact with and who isn't has nothing to do with organizing, and much better serves the purpose of dis-organizing.

2) We embrace real justice and reject anonymous attacks intended to smear people.  Although people may commit terrible offenses and holding people accountable for their behavior may be very important, anonymous attacks, smear campaigns, and vigilante justice is a terrible way to try to seek justice or accountability, and is a perfect tool for use by nefarious actors, especially when broadly accepted by a kneejerk "believe the victim no matter what" mentality that has been instilled in much of the population.

3) We embrace diversity and we reject identitarianism.  Diversity of all kinds in society is a wonderful thing, to be celebrated, not just tolerated.  And that has nothing to do with the tokenistic Oppression Olympics that has taken over left discourse.  We must not let our diversity get used against us like this, as a tool for divide and conquer, as a means of getting us all to squabble over crumbs dropped from the tables of the billionaires.

4) We embrace free discourse and reject no-platforming.  No-platforming is a longstanding, inherently authoritarian tendency rife in certain areas of the left over the past century or so, in modern times more known by variations to the theme such as cancellation campaigning or cancel culture.  It is a sort of grassroots form of censorship, it has consistently backfired everywhere from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it's a tactic easily exploited by nefarious actors, and it's morally repugnant for anyone who believes in free speech.

5) We embrace free expression while rejecting corporate control.  Freedom of speech is not some bourgeois idea that we should throw out along with imperialism.  Freedom of speech is a radical concept that we embrace as the thing that is obviously preferable to the alternative (censorship).  We don't want to kick anyone off of any platform for having the wrong opinions.  But this is not an endorsement of Big Tech or their plans for world domination!  Their monopolistic practices and conflict-producing algorithms need to be exposed and opposed -- but not by making the whole situation worse by calling for people or outlets to be banned from platforms.

6) We embrace being the media and reject censorship campaigns.  The fact that a handful of gigantic corporations control our means of communication and most of the news we consume is a terrifying fact.  We need to do a lot about that, by taking on these corporations and the governments that facilitate them in all kinds of ways -- but not by passing laws allowing governments to censor or throttle content on social media platforms or anywhere else on the internet.

7) We embrace finding common ground and reject efforts to polarize, divide, and cancel.  The main point in talking about things that divide us is not to make some people feel guilty and others feel virtuous.  The point is to find ways to work together to achieve common goals despite these divides, and perhaps even to overcome these divides in that process.  This is very different from forming sub-groups within sub-groups in order to further highlight divisions within divisions, for no apparent purpose aside from claiming some amorphous form of higher ground.

8) We embrace communication and education and reject harassment, vilification, doxxing and other personal attacks.  Nobody learns from being attacked and harassed.  In fact, attacking and harassing people tends to just make them angry, and cause them to become more entrenched in their feelings or positions.  How did the notion become so widespread that harassing and vilifying rightwingers or other people you don't like is useful in any possible way?  It's not.  It's the opposite, in fact.  It's completely counter-productive.  We need to find common ground, build bridges, understand how we're being used, not shout at each other, either online or downtown.

9) We embrace real organizing and reject word policing and other forms of elitism.  Real, effective, useful organizing means diverse people working together to achieve common goals, such as organizing a union at a workplace to collectively demand higher wages or organizing tenants into a tenant union to collectively demand lower rent.  Any such group will inherently involve people with all kinds of differences.  In order for a group to function, it can't have some kind of vetting process where anyone getting involved has to know all the right vocabulary words to use in order not to offend the modern liberal.  This is not the way forward.  Popular education does not occur in the process of calling people out for using the wrong pronoun or acronym.

10) We embrace differences of viewpoints and reject ostracizing people who don’t share ours.  Yes, we can actually form a union with millions of people all calling for the same demands, even though they have different views on who killed Jesus, who invaded Ukraine, who should or shouldn't get to have an abortion, whether there should ever be drag shows at their local libraries, and all kinds of other vitally important issues.  And, in fact, this kind of coalition is the only way anything useful ever happens anywhere.  Opposing such coalitions on the basis of someone or some group within it having the wrong views on something is a means of dividing and conquering unions, not a way to build anything, and not a way to win hearts and minds of all of those whose hearts and minds we -- and hopefully not the capitalists and imperialists hellbent on global domination -- need to win.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

DIY Movement, DIY Media, DIY Music

The revolution actually will not be televised.  That hasn't changed.  If we want to build a real, lasting movement, it needs to be well-organized, it needs to produce its own media, and its own music.

As Gil Scott-Heron pointed out a long time ago, the revolution will not be televised.  It also will not be streamed on Netflix, or promoted by social media algorithms, I would add for modernity's sake.

My half-century or so of direct observation informs me in abundance that occasionally significant elements of the media and other corporate or mainstream political interests will align in one way or another with a social movement, whether for opportunistic reasons or because of the valiant efforts of some fine upstanding journalist who is going against the grain -- and there have been and continue to be many like that.

But when it comes down to it, my decades of observation also indicate beyond any doubt whatsoever that we can never rely on the media, the news cycle, or the decisions of editors and owners about what to cover and what not to, and how to cover it, if we're hoping for coverage -- and preferably sympathetic coverage -- of a social movement we're trying to organize.  

We have to do it ourselves -- get the word out ourselves, build organization, recruit participants, and, very importantly, collect their contact info in order to continue to communicate with people by various means after meeting people in one form or another, whether in a chat room or at a demo in the real world.

What I've just said in that last sentence is raising some alarm bells, whether that's happening within you or not, I promise it's happening with some, so let me address that:  security culture doesn't work.  We don't live in a dictatorship where you're going to get executed for attending a protest or even blocking an intersection.  If you behave as if you live in such a society by being secretive about your identity, using a pseudonym, avoiding signing up to email lists, text mobs, etc., for fear of being implicated in some plot or whatever, then you are just doing the work of the security state for them.

If we want to live in a free society, we first have to act as if we do.  Secrecy only benefits those who already operate in secret.  Without us being able to openly organize and know who each other is, we're just handing a victory to the Stasi.  If we don't know how to communicate with each other without relying on anonymous accounts controlled by corporate social media algorithms and other mechanisms of divide and rule, or if we're relying on the local NPR station to announce the next protest for us if it's going to be well-attended, then we've already lost.

I have particular examples of DIY organizing, DIY media, and DIY music on my mind.  First I want to talk about lists. 

Lists are powerful things.  We want to avoid being on certain lists -- no-fly lists, wanted lists, etc.  Keeping those lists helps those in power maintain the status quo.  Similarly, corporations get us on myriad lists, these days using cookies and all sorts of other invisible techniques, and these lists are crucial for them to maintain their hegemony and make lots of money.  And perhaps we use cash and delete cookies and make other efforts to not be on too many of these lists.  Maybe it helps, I don't know.

I think what is probably more helpful than avoiding getting on the wrong lists is paying attention to the right ones.  That seems to be exactly what the corporate social media platforms thought, too.  Which is why, when they started out, they served the role of being a lot like the old email lists, but with various bells and whistles that tended to make them a more interesting alternative.  Once they captured our attention so successfully, they pulled the rug out from under us and remade our new universe to suit their interests -- selling ads and making money, of course, not helping us organize a social movement.

Be that as it may, we can still stop relying on social media so much as a platform for communication and organizing, and focus on traditional methods that have been so effective through the ages.  Taking the example of past movements, the telephone tree has been a fabulous tool for quickly getting the word out that something is happening that requires a quick response, such as an eviction taking place in Chicago in the 1930's, or a squat being raided in New York City in the 1980's.  One person calls ten people, and each of those ten call ten more.

During the golden age of the internet -- that brief decade or so after internet access became commonplace but before it became dominated by a handful of giant corporate platforms -- email lists were a primary organizing tool, along with websites such as the network of Independent Media Centers.  Along with all that was the text mob, which was employed widely in the global justice movement, before the same technology was adopted by social media platforms.

The text mob -- signing up to receive a text message on your phone to be alerted about something that is happening right now that you might want to participate in -- is, for our purposes here, nothing more or less than a modern version of the telephone tree.  Either way, it requires getting on a list, rather than relying on other, far less dependable means of hearing about something that people are trying to organize.

The text mob list that's on my mind is the one we have going on at abolishevictions.org, for those of us trying to build a rapid eviction response squad here in Portland, Oregon.

The text mob can be found at a website, which is not controlled by social media platforms and can't be shut down by them.  Of course it can be shadowbanned in all sorts of ways, and there are all sorts of methods to minimize any useful impact of talking about this website or anything related to it on those corporate-controlled platforms.  But the website, and the text mob hosted on it, are independent, to the extent that this is possible.

Another DIY tactic for disseminating information and hopefully planting an idea that may spread is a longstanding one, which goes back thousands of years, as far as recorded history goes, and that is known as the song.

For anyone out there thinking I'm being a bit esoteric, impractical, or hippie-ish here, I'd point out that pretty much every corporation on the planet uses music to sell their products.  They do this because it works.  It helps people recognize their products, develop a positive association with them, and even to foster a sense of community around that product.  If this can be done with a moped or a laundry detergent, imagine the possibilities for trying to promote something meaningful.

The song I just wrote to try to draw attention to the text mob at abolishevictions.org is what has been known since long before my birth as a "zipper song."  Classic examples of zipper songs include "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome."  (Pete Seeger was fond of the word, "shall.")  In the instance of the song I just wrote, "Join the Mob," it means that if you wanted to use this song to promote a text mob or other such device for organizing an eviction defense squad somewhere other than Portland, Oregon, you'd only need to change the one reference to the website in the song and replace it with a different website, and perhaps swap the reference to Blackrock with a more appropriate evil corporation active in your area.  In neither case is coming up with a new rhyme required.

OK, lecture over!



Wednesday, September 13, 2023

In Sight But Out of Mind

The way press coverage of the housing crisis is done, including the relative lack of it, is an insidious and terribly destructive example of social engineering.

Over last weekend we had a visitor from the east coast.  Like most visitors from other parts of the country or the world, she was mainly struck by the sight of impoverished people living squalid lives on the sidewalks wherever we went in the city.  As soon as we left the city to visit a state park a bit more than an hour's drive away, as we drove past the beautiful rolling hills, forests and fields of the Willamette River valley on i-5, our guest seemed both relieved and perplexed.

"There's so much space," she said at one point, looking out the window.  "Why are there so many people living on the sidewalks?"

It's normal to interpret the world through lenses such as one's own economic reality, and the reality we see around us in the physical environment in which we live, perhaps work, drive kids to and from school, and whatever else.

But I always have the distinct impression that my reality is somehow radically different from the reality the corporate press and the politicians live in.  I find it very challenging to reconcile the tremendous difference between the understanding of how things work and how things could be improved, from Portland to the US more broadly to the many other countries about which I hear constant commentary -- as is my tendency, as an active consumer of news, or what passes for it.

The way all the stories are separated from each other, each in its own little box, can be just as nefarious as which stories are covered, and which aren't.  Keeping each story separate helps prevent either the journalists or those they're talking to from complicating the matter with inconvenient realities.  It helps the self-interested corporate owners of our "free press" avoid covering issues they'd rather ignore, without actually censoring anyone, head-on -- it's a sort of sideways censorship, but even more effective than the more overt variety.

Half of the population in the US rents their home.  Most of the other half pays a mortgage to a bank, and is at risk of losing their home if they lose their jobs and fall behind on the payments.  A minority of those who don't rent their home actually own it outright.  To say this is a nation of homeowners would be inaccurate.  This is a nation of renters and debtors, overwhelmingly.  And it's a nation of renters and debtors who are increasingly finding their cost of housing, whether they rent or "own," to have gone in recent years from expensive to completely unaffordable.

I awoke the other morning in the bedroom I share with my wife and our two youngest children.  Our teenage daughter has the other bedroom.  My wife and I believe in co-sleeping with young kids -- which is completely normal in Japan, where she's from, and also very common in the more hippie corners of America, where I'm from.  But if we didn't share such beliefs, who knows where we'd put the kids.  Hopefully we'll figure that out by the time either of them starts talking about having their own room.

Reiko was away for the day, so I was tasked with taking the little ones to their respective schools.  A lot of people move to Portland to take advantage of the public schools here, but our experience with them has been very mixed.  Lots of good people trying to do good work, but stuck with archaic structures and woefully insufficient funding and staffing.  

And there is no public preschool anyway -- this is America.  So we take our seven-year-old to a private Waldorf school in north Portland, and we take our four-year-old to a preschool near Beaverton, on the other end of town.  When we're both home, we do this in two separate private cars that we own.  This is America, there's no other practical way to get from our little apartment to either of these locations efficiently.

Driving from one end of the city to the other, southeast to northeast, then northeast to southwest, my children and I see the same sights every day.  I have no idea how they make sense of it.  It's too much for me to make sense of, and I've been living in this country for 56 years.  

Starting about a block from our apartment complex, on average about every fifty feet or so we see the walking dead, the mentally deranged, physically ill men and women covered in dirt, wearing clothes that sometimes stink so strongly of urine that the tent encampments in which people are forced to try to live can be identified first by smell before you spot them visually. 

As we view the dystopia in every direction along the drive, we listen to a CD of Japanese children's songs, which my little daughter chirps along to.  My son wants to hear Daft Punk (his favorite band), but daddy still can't figure out how to reconnect his phone to the car's bluetooth, sorry, kid.  (More Daft Punk next time mama's driving.)

I've got an earbud in one ear, listening to Al-Jazeera as we begin our journey.  I'll switch to the car radio, and NPR, after I've dropped off both of the kids, and gone shopping at a supermarket.  We've got money on our food stamps card again, so helpful with compensating for the skyrocketing rent, not to mention the skyrocketing price of food.

They're talking about the earthquake in Morocco, which sounded horrendous, people had no time to get out of their homes before they just collapsed like quicksand on top of them, across the Atlas Mountains.  Marrakesh fared much better, they're saying, but everybody is sleeping on the sidewalks, afraid to go inside their homes, in case they might be damaged, or in case there are more earthquakes, as they tend to come in a series like that.  

As they're describing people sleeping on the sidewalks, setting up makeshift tents for each other, cooking together, crying together, it seems so incongruous to be looking around me, driving down Martin Luther King Boulevard, seeing exactly the same sorts of scenes they seem to be describing on Newshour.  There they are, making shelters for each other, looking after each other, feeding each other, while thousands and thousands of cars, buses, and trucks of every description drive past them.  Unlike in Marrakesh, though, these cars are not coming from less damaged or wealthier neighborhoods and stopping to give away food, blankets, and medicine to people in need.  They're just driving past.  Some of them are listening to Japanese children's music as they go.

We haven't had an earthquake here in Portland, Oregon (though we're waiting for a very big one and we're completely unprepared for it).  No fires, lately, or floods.  These thousands of people in tents, or lying in doorways and abandoned storefronts, are not refugees from anywhere but here.  The vast majority of them were living somewhere in this area before they had to move out, unable to pay the rent and/or unable to find the kind of care they may need for their mental illnesses or addictions.

These American reporters on the ground in Marrakesh are from cities like Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of people live in tents and more than a thousand of them die on the streets every year.  Aren't they also thinking about the permanent refugee camp they're surrounded by when they commute into Culver City every day?  I'm sure they are, but they know they're not being paid by NPR to fly to Morocco and make such observations.

We cut away from this national broadcast to bring you your local news.  Ah yes, yet another story on the deterioration of downtown Portland.  

Lately the laser focus on all such stories in local media has been connected to the supposed damage done by the statewide referendum we passed in Oregon in 2020 that decriminalized all drugs.  Local Portland political leaders are desperately trying everything they can think of to recriminalize drugs, at least when it comes to the homeless population.  If they can't be arrested for camping next to the highways, and they can't be arrested for smoking crack in their tents, what can we arrest them for?  This would seem to represent the furthest reaches of political vision available from our alleged leaders these days, especially since the most progressive women on the city council were purged through the usual means of political corruption that we call "speech" in this country.

One story after another is on the latest effort to recriminalize hard drugs for the most marginalized of the marginalized, those with nowhere to call a home, somehow never manages to discuss the notion of solving these problems by housing everyone.  Discussions about housing people are generally relegated to human-interest stories focusing on some nonprofit that managed to buy a building in order to give temporary housing to abused trans youth of color, who are somewhere on the autism spectrum.  Occasionally we'll also be featured to a story about the drastically rising cost of housing generally, but this story and the story about homeless people overdosing on the streets shall be kept separate from each other, lest anyone reach any abundantly obvious conclusions -- like that the idea of even talking about the problem of people shooting up on the sidewalks without putting that into the context of the housing crisis is totally bizarre, and unreal.

These stenographers for the owning class, whether hesitantly or not, just keep repeating the local headline of the year, in one form or another, incessantly:  they promised if we decriminalized drugs, this would make things better, but it's only getting worse.  The faulty logic employed in these stories is the kind of faulty logic a sharp elementary school student could easily expose as such.  To think that drugs and drug reform exist in a bubble that is somehow unaffected by the fact that housing just got 20% more unaffordable over the course of the past year, when the housing crisis is itself at the very root of the ongoing crisis of unhoused and increasingly unhinged people dying on our sidewalks every day, getting through life, such as it is, with whatever drugs make that possible.

The next piece of news we're featured to is about the potentially imminent strike of auto workers across North America.  There's the usual effort at presenting "both sides."  The company has to retool in order to be competitive in the electric car market.  The workers need a massive pay increase just to keep up with the increase in the cost of living since the last time they got a cost-of-living increase, prior to 2008.  There has been, an expert tells us, an "uncoupling" of any connection between corporate profits and how much workers get paid.

One might think it might be worth noting that the main reason the cost of living has risen so much is because of the unregulated housing market, dominated as it is by investment banks and oligarchs.  But apparently not.  Anyway, wealthy Americans can't be oligarchs, and regulation is for communists.  One might think that the fact that the average auto worker used to easily be able to afford to buy a house, whereas today that is far from the case, might be a central theme in a story about this upcoming strike.  But no, that's a separate, unrelated story, and when it runs, it will focus on the difficulty certain racially or sexually marginalized elements of the working class have in finding affordable housing, not that the vast majority of the entire working class can't find it.  And the term "working class" will not be used, they'll find a way around that one, too.  We're all middle class now, until we move onto the sidewalk.

But wait, there's hope.  Sometime on the trip between dropping off the second kid and heading home to take advantage of having the corner of the living room that I call my studio/office to myself to do some recording, there's a happy-ending kind of story about Cambridge, Massachusetts' experiment with a very limited form of Universal Basic Income.  It actually has very little to do with Universal Basic Income, but that's what they're doing a story about, so they found an example that's vaguely in the ballpark.

Cambridge has been giving away federal pandemic money to 2,000 of its poorest residents in the form of monthly checks of $500 each.  The host interviewed a woman who lives in an apartment with her two kids, and works at a nonprofit, making $65,000 a year, as the woman explains.  The interviewee is suitably happy about being a recipient of the monthly $500 checks, which, she notes, will run out after 18 months.  

She answers the requisite questions about what she does with the extra money, and she explains that given that her rent is $5,000 a month for a three-bedroom apartment in this most expensive of American cities, she has very little left over for other expenses like food or clothing for her and her kids.  As I do the math, they're left with less than $500 a month for anything other than rent, not counting that extra $500 a month from the municipality.  And making as much as she makes, she said she doesn't qualify for food stamps, because the food stamp agency doesn't take into account how much you're paying for rent, and what's left over afterwards.

What I heard was a woman drowning in financial misery, but what the host heard was someone who's financial reality had been at least temporarily stabilized by Universal Basic Income.  

Nowhere in this discussion of UBI did I hear mention of the idea of tying any such program with the cost of housing, specifically.  "Cost of living" is so vague, and skirts the issue they're trying not to talk about head-on -- that the most basic thing for all of us is increasingly impossible for most of us to afford.  The one most valuable thing that a significant percentage of the population might at least aspire to someday own -- a home -- is not even worth thinking about as a realistic prospect to even consider seriously for at least half of the country at this point.

After picking up both of the kids at their respective schools, we hear news of the Biblically catastrophic, mass-casualty floods in Libya which they're blaming on climate change.  There is mention of the fact that Libya has been a failed state for the past twelve years, but no mention of this being the direct result of NATO's invasion in 2011, when the government that built those dams in the 1970's was violently overthrown.

Driving past the tent encampments, past the makeshift plywood houses by the side of the highway that look like color versions of Depression-era photos, past a guy who kept on acting like he was about to leap into traffic, I suppose to get some attention and feel slightly less invisible for a few seconds, past a ghost bike and a DIY memorial for a young man living in a tent in my neighborhood who was inexplicably shot to death in the middle of the night by someone who never got caught, I arrive with the kids at one of their favorite city parks.

The playground at this park was cool before, but now it has a rubbery surface that the kids love to bounce around on.  I often sit and play the mandola somewhere on the edge of the playground while the kids run around and do their thing.  I apparently look suspicious, and the only people who usually dare approach me are little kids.  Yesterday, though, one of the other dads had been drinking beer, and was ready to initiate conversation with a couple other parents, including me.

He had bought a house in Portland over ten years ago, and put a lot of work into it.  He was happy in this city, but then it all started going to hell.  He was aware that part of the problem was the rising cost of housing, and that although his own home had appreciated in value dramatically, this had happened everywhere else he might want to relocate to, so he felt stuck in Portland, though he was sick of all the crime.  He had had a lot of stuff stolen, he explained.  (I have, too, but I didn't bother mentioning this.  He had a story to tell, and I was listening.)

The other day, he told me, someone was rummaging through his garbage.  He didn't like that, and he told the guy to get lost.  The guy didn't appear to be listening, so he went into his house and came back out with a gun.  At that point the guy going through his garbage left.

"If he had come at me, I would have shot him," the other dad said proudly.

Walking around many neighborhoods in Portland these days, I get the impression a lot of people feel the way this other dad does.  I've noticed the rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter lawn signs have largely been replaced by the Stars and Stripes.  From a media-driven protest movement to a media-driven patriotic backlash.  All the while with the backdrop of an ever-worsening housing crisis that goes mostly unmentioned except with the occasional announcement that the emergency continues to exist, with no serious solutions even being discussed in the state legislatures or in the Congress, and no end in sight but the cliff's edge.

With no coherent explanation for what we're all seeing around us being provided where most of us are looking for information or "news," while millions of poor and indigent Americans will blame themselves for their failings in life, millions of those still hanging on to their nominally "middle class" realities are also apt to blame the homeless for ruining the neighborhood, and feel compelled to "stand their ground" against these dirty people invading their property.

One of the other knock-on effects of the chronic lack of press coverage of the depth of the housing crisis is that so many people will blame themselves for their problems with meeting their basic needs, rather than massive landlords fixing prices.  They'll blame their own lack of a sufficient work ethic, rather than the fact that the scarce resource of land and housing is treated in this country as nothing more than an investment market, where the cost of housing has nothing to do with earnings of those needing housing, but about what's most profitable for those investing in this market -- a market which does not tend to include much in the way of affordable housing, at least for people making less than six figures, since it's not so profitable to build.

Another of the impacts of all this in the realm of "social media" -- perhaps also affected by secret algorithms, or even plain old censorship, who the hell knows -- is that essays like this one will be read, shared, and discussed by very, very few people, while the next one I write about whatever song is at the top of the charts, or about electoral politics, might stand to be widely disseminated.  Though maybe not as much as the next selfie I post from an airport -- the algorithms like those the best.  Anything but the elephant in the living room.  Unfortunately, ignoring the problem won't make it go away.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Playlist 9/11

If not for the CIA, would either 9/11/1973 or 9/11/2001 have happened?

We can't change the past, nor can we predict the future.  But if we take a cursory look at what's gone on on Planet Earth in my lifetime, it would be overwhelmingly reasonable to assume that neither 9/11/1973 or 9/11/2001 would have happened without the existence of the CIA and its practices in support of US foreign policy.

At this point I'm probably losing most of my readers, aside from the most conspiracy-obsessed ones.  This is by design, on the part of the social engineers.  You're supposed to be thinking of emotionally unstable incel nerds with aluminum-foil hats ranting about secret societies, and your eyes should shortly start glossing over.

But I wonder if I could reel your attention back in with a little fantasizing.  Imagine with me a world where everything else remains more or less the same, but in which the USA disappears.  It's preposterous, I know, but what if the world woke up on New Year's day in, say, 1970, and the United States was just gone, like Skull Island or something.  What would be the geopolitical ramifications, specifically with concern to these two famous September 11ths?

Before I even go there, let's dwell in the brains of the Cold Warriors whose minds will be veritably screaming at the notion that anything might transpire short of a Soviet invasion and occupation of the rest of the world, and just say that this was never in the cards in the first place, and if you believed this was ever a serious prospect, you were drinking NATO Kool-Aid.  If the Soviet Union ever had such global imperial ambitions, they would have invested in an air force and a navy, but they never developed the kind of military machine necessary to transport large numbers of troops across oceans like that.  If the USSR ever had ambitions of continuing much further to the west after the occupation of Berlin in 1945, certainly the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that would soon be governing direct military interactions between the nuclear powers would make any such move in 1970 pretty impossible.

And what of the two 9/11's?  Without the School of the Americas to train the soldiers, and Henry Kissinger and the CIA to participate in the destabilizing of Salvador Allende's government in Chile, together engineering shortages, industrial sabotage and disinformation campaigns, without the CIA to provide money and Nixon to provide political cover, would there ever have been a military coup that would successfully overthrow this popularly-elected government on 9/11/1973?

It seems exceedingly unlikely, especially in the absence of another imperialist actor taking the place of the United States.  If all things are to be as they were, aside from the disappearance of the USA, there wasn't another imperial power playing this role.  Without the history of the Monroe Doctrine and all that, would another power have taken the place of the US?  Realistically, if the corporation that owned Chile's copper were from another country, maybe that country's government would want to pursue the organizing of a military coup against the government nationalizing their corporation's mining operations.  Or maybe they wouldn't.  Other countries have managed to nationalize resources without having their elected governments overthrown.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan.  If our fantasy is based in the magical 1970 disappearance of the USA, in 1970 it was still quite safe to travel the old Silk Road, by land, all the way from western Europe to India and back.  I know lots of people who did that back then.  They'd go right through Afghanistan, with rave reviews of the place to boot.

Afghanistan today is known as a "war-torn country," pretty much by definition at this point.  In 1970 it wasn't, though, none of that had started yet.  What if the US was out of the picture?  When Soviet help was invited by the new Afghan government, would there ever have been such widespread hostility to the schools for girls and other modern institutions they were helping to build there, if not for the massive military aid the CIA was funneling into all the most wackiest elements of the Afghan government's Islamist opposition?  

When you know, for example, that it took the Afghan government years to fall to the Mujahideen after the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops, rather than hours, in the case of the US withdrawal decades later, you realize that what was going on throughout the 1980's was a proxy war, which would never have been anything like it was without billions of dollars of CIA intervention.

Without the CIA, and the Afghan war, there would never have been an Al-Qaeda, and Osama Bin Laden wouldn't have had Afghanistan as a staging ground for building his international movement against the infidels.  There would never have been an Al-Qaeda to turn its attention from the godless communists to the American capitalists (if they hadn't disappeared in 1970), if not for the CIA and the Afghan war of the 1980's.

I figure when you look around and most everything out there seems pretty dismal, it's a better time than ever to dream about how things could be.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

In between having my Facebook account hacked and my wifi signal jammed, I heard an interview with Roger Lucey, and my imagination went wild.

In August I heard from a friend who noticed nothing from my catalog of albums was coming up in a search on Bandcamp.  Sure enough, it was true, for me and everyone else who searched for me on the platform, worldwide.  (It was slightly confusing for a lot of people, because songs of mine did come up even while the search ban was in place, but they weren't from my catalog, they were songs of mine that other people had covered or put up for some other reason.)  Bandcamp never notified me that this search ban was going to be put into effect.  Some Bandcamp users told me the messages I sent out on the platform to my fans were disappearing from their inboxes.

I wrote Bandcamp asking about me not showing up in their search results.  Twelve days later I got a brief response, informing me that my account had been flagged because I had used tags like "antisemitism" or "Hitler" for songs that were about things like antisemitism, and Hitler.  These are obviously important, current, and historical subjects much talked about in the news, and which I have written many songs about.  Why I wasn't notified about my account being flagged and impacted in such obvious ways that adversely affect the bottom line of both Bandcamp and this Bandcamp artist, and whether it would ever have been unflagged if I hadn't asked them about it, is still a mystery, but a day after I was told my account had been unflagged, my artist account, album names and song titles once again appeared in searches on the platform.

A few days after my Bandcamp account was removed from Bandcamp purgatory, my Facebook account was hacked.  

Waking up one morning and checking notifications on my phone, there were messages on my Page popping up that appeared to be from me, but I wasn't writing them.  At first I thought maybe it was one of those automated messages you can set up, telling people who write that you'll get back to them soon, or something like that.  I never set up such messages on Facebook, but I thought maybe I had done so by accident.

Looking more closely, this was not what was happening.  Someone had managed to get some malware working with my Facebook Pages, probably because another hacked account had access to one of them.  Until the problem was apparently taken care of through getting rid of the malware, removing access by the other hacked account, resetting passwords and all that, the hacker was writing messages to anyone I'd recently been in touch with on one of my Pages (not from my personal account).  Many people believed it was actually me saying hello and wishing them well, as it appeared to be (despite being greeted with the term "mate," and despite the profligate use of emojis employed by the hacker), and some still thought it was me when they began to be asked personal questions.

Two days after my Facebook account being hacked, I was recording, uploading, and editing various video files for a new podcast episode.  I probably had to restart the wifi router at some point, but otherwise it was working well, uploading and downloading video files efficiently enough. 

Streamyard is a platform I've used regularly for years, including much of that day, with those aforementioned video files.  It was working fine all day.  When I got onto the platform in preparation for my interview with David Cobb, for his new podcast, everything was working fine, and we were seeing and hearing each other just fine.  This continued to be the case for the first few minutes of the interview, and then everything went to hell.

If I have connectivity issues, restarting the wifi router always does the trick.  This time, although the only thing using the wifi was my laptop and the only app it was running was Streamyard, even after restarting the laptop, the signal went in and out every few seconds, and for about half of the planned interview, I wasn't there.  At the top of the hour, my teenage daughter texted me to ask if I was done, and she could bring her younger siblings back into the living room, where my studio, such as it is, is located.  I didn't get her text until 24 minutes after the hour, and it was at the moment I received her text that, as if a spell had been lifted, my laptop started behaving normally again, quickly loading websites and all that.

As these things were happening, I wondered if having these kinds of problems is normal for most people over the course of a typical couple of weeks?  Is it all just down to the rise of AI, and this sort of thing is happening to everybody lately?  If not, then am I just experiencing another of those series of freak coincidences?  Am I paranoid for wondering if this is something other than a series of freak coincidences?

What was indeed probably a coincidence was that the day after my Facebook account was hacked, but before my wifi signal was jammed (if that's what happened), I was awake in bed at 4 am listening to BBC World Service, as I often am, and I had the pleasure of listening to a fascinating interview with a South African guy named Roger Lucey.  He was a popular anti-apartheid white musician in the late 1970's, whose career was methodically destroyed by the secret police.  As part of the Truth and Reconciliation process, decades later he got to find out exactly how they went about destroying his career, back then.

Not being prone to jumping to unnecessarily conspiratorial conclusions about anything, and knowing, as I do, that there are many people out there with the time and dedication to put a lot of effort into ruining someone's career if they think doing that is a useful project for one reason or another, I have always tended to assume that although I've seen the evidence that I'm on a government watch list, that doesn't mean there's any government involvement with every bad thing that happens to me, like for example when it comes to those self-proclaimed antifascists who try to get all my gigs canceled.

But every time I write about these sorts of activities that some people are regularly involved with like that, many people postulate in their comments that this smells like Cointelpro.  With the caveat that you don't need to be an intelligence agent to do the traditionally disruptive work of the FBI for them, if your brain has effectively been captured one way or another, what if the things happening to me were all part of a program to throttle my career?

Entertaining that notion for a moment, it all sure seems very consistent with past campaigns to throttle the careers of dissenting artists, updated for the digital age.  Roger Lucey's career was essentially demolished by the activities of one agent who was assigned to his case, given the job of making sure he can't do gigs in his own country anymore.

What if these things were not only coincidences, but were all related to each other?  I know I'm going out on a bit of a limb here, but what if there is someone choosing key moments to jam my wifi signal, and this is the same person who also got me flagged on Bandcamp and banned on search there?  Perhaps it's the same person who eventually managed to successfully edit my Wikipedia page to reflect the fact that this person (perhaps the same one) has also written anonymously-penned articles denouncing me as an antisemite and fascist collaborator?  And perhaps it's the same person making sure each time I go on tour, someone contacts venues, gig organizers, and fellow performers, to tell them I'm an antisemite, or a Nazi?  Perhaps it's the same person notifying other countries when I'm about to try to enter their country, in order to try to get me deported because of something I wrote in my blog?

Just one person with lots of time on their hands on a regular basis to pursue these various sorts of activities could do it all.  They could be employed by a government agency, or perhaps a "radical" nonprofit of some kind.

The most frustrating thing about having these things happening to you is the plausible deniability of everything.  It could be that none of these things are related.  Other than whoever is calling venues to get my gigs canceled, the deportations, hacks, search bans, connectivity issues, etc., could all be chalked up to coincidence, or technical snafus.

So many of the new developments that have been devastating to the careers of artists like me, as well as the efforts of organizers, have been devastating across the board, having nothing to do with the politics of the artists or even the organizers.  

Things like the capture of the world's attention by Facebook, which then introduced algorithms into everything, making what was temporarily a very useful platform into one worse than useless, since it has supplanted other, more effective forms of mass communication, such as email lists and Indymedia centers.  Things like music streaming platforms essentially taking away the artists' ability to give away or sell their own music on their own terms (contrary to whatever else you might have heard from the tech propagandists).  Perhaps most especially things like the changing of the rules governing student groups on campuses across the country that essentially ended what had been a thriving economy supporting a lot of independent speakers and performers, up until the turn of the century.

With those big trends, here again, except perhaps with the de-funding of student organizations, it could all be chalked up to the natural development of technology under a system of capitalism that doesn't want to seriously regulate it in any way.  It could have just been convenient that social media platforms are using algorithms and other methods that tend to make useful communication or effective organizing much more difficult than it used to be.  Or it could be part of a bigger agenda, with social engineering more overtly at play.  Actually we know this is the case, if you're paying attention to the Twitter Files.  Though social engineering by intelligence agencies working with social media corporations is probably not entirely why everything is so dystopic in recent years, it has surely played an outsized role.

In the BBC interview Roger Lucey says when the secret police agent was actively working to ruin his career, Roger had no sure idea what was going on.  He thought maybe he was paranoid, he blamed himself, he self-medicated a lot as a result, and he and his family had a very rough time.  He ultimately changed careers entirely.

It's so poignant because in retrospect it seems abundantly obvious that there was a campaign to ruin his career happening that probably involved the secret police, and you'd think this would have been obvious to a lot of people, or even press outlets, at the time.  But no.  

When I make comparisons, in any case, I feel lucky.  No one has pumped tear gas in through the ventilation system at any of my concerts.  Between gigs in Europe, Patreon, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, I can still be a fulltime whatever it is that I am.  But I often wonder, if not for the constant obstacles, what this line of work could have been like, for me and a lot of other people, many of whom have had far bigger obstacles and harder times than I.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Remembering Al Giordano

Sometime late last month I saw a post on an email list that mentioned that Al Giordano had died in July.  It took well over a month since Al's death from lung cancer at the age of 63 on July 10th, 2023, for the news to reach me.  That in itself was the first thing that seemed significant to me.

Not especially surprising, though.  The last time I seem to have had any contact with Al, at least the last time I've got any digital record of it, was in 2010.  So I wouldn't say we were close, but I knew him, loosely followed his work, and saw him at different points along the way.

As anyone who has read any number of different versions of my bio over the decades can attest, Al Giordano was one of my earliest and most profound influences, in his role as a musician and an organizer.  I was 12 when I first met him, and he was 19, in the summer of 1979.  I was a child, and he was an adult, as I looked at it then.

I guess I've been busy since 2010, or at least busy enough that, although I've thought of Al now and then, I've never gotten around to looking him up and seeing what he might be doing or writing about.  If I had looked for him at the last place I associated him with on the web, NarcoNews, I would have found a lot of good but old reporting.

Searching for his name, I come up with a mix of articles he wrote in different publications from ten and twenty years ago, a couple articles about his plan to run against Bernie Sanders for his Senate seat in 2016, several articles about allegations of sexual misconduct that came out in 2018, and several obituaries from people that knew Al from his days as an antinuclear organizer in western Massachusetts in the 80's, or his days writing for the Boston Phoenix in the 90's.

I don't know what I have to say about Al that's any more illuminating than what's been said about him to date.  It's not at all unusual for people to travel in different circles at different times, and Al most certainly did that, with changing geography and evolving politics.

When I heard that he had died, I mostly just thought I'd share my fond recollections of Al from Rowe Jr. High Camp, circa 1979.  But after reading what's been written about Al in recent years, maybe I have a bit more I can add, even if it's nothing more than a few random observations, post-1981.

Rowe Camp and Conference Center is in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, just south of the border with Vermont.  It's a beautiful, forested, mountainous area with former mill towns and, back when I was a camper there, the oldest online nuclear reactor functioning in the country.

Rowe Camp at that time was a hotbed of hippiedom -- the counselors, campers, and others involved as well.  Noted aspects of life for us campers attending a typical 3-week stint involved things like having a protest at the nuclear plant, attending a performance of the Bread and Puppet Theater Company in Vermont, and going to a nude beach.  Traditions I especially remember include having an annual Sex Change Day.

Al, along with a guy I only recall knowing as Waffles, were Rowe Camp institutions, representing the anti-nuclear movement, and doing so in a very musical, theatrical, as well as very tasty way.  They talked, Al sang songs and played the guitar, the kids got old bottles and put stickers on them identifying the contents as radioactive, and then we went to the local creek that was downstream from Yankee Atomic to fill them up.  The next morning, we all made and ate radioactive waffles together.

The whole thing made a huge impression on me, both the theatrical gag with the bottles, and Al's playing and singing.  I remember memorizing one of the songs, with the refrain being something about being six feet underground.

I remember noting, back when I was 12 and Al was 19, that although he was roughly the same age as the counselors, as I looked around me at Rowe, the counselors were all physically and emotionally open, happy people, with clear hippie vibes.  Like Al, they would have been born too late to experience the 1960's as adults.  (Al was actually born the day before the 1960's began, on December 31st, 1959.)

The impact of the 60's was still everywhere at that time, as evidenced in the attitudes, appearance, and language used by most of the counselors, campers, and staff at Rowe in 1979.  Al was, according to my 12-year-old observations, not part of this scene.  

I have no idea if he thought of himself as part of the scene or how he differentiated things in his teenage brain at the time.  But Al had the demeanor of the working-class guy from the Bronx that he was, and did not adopt any of the obvious airs of hippiedom, although he was a fully-committed campaigner against nuclear power at the time.  When the rest of us were growing our hair and taking off our clothes, Al kept his hair short and his clothes on.  At least that's how it looked to me as a middle school kid.

Those summers around 1979-81 represent most of the quality time I ever had with Al, but it would be hard to overstate how formative it all was for me.

According to what I've been reading recently, it was just after that time, in 1981, when Al met Abbie Hoffman, who he apparently worked with in antinuclear movement circles throughout the 1980's, until Abbie's untimely death.

Abbie Hoffman was a theatrically-inclined antiwar organizer and author who faced many hardships, getting frequently beaten by police, but he was also voted the sexiest man in America by readers of a fashion magazine.  He got a lot of media, was right at the center of that whole "make love, not war" phenomenon, and was (and is) deeply loved and appreciated by millions.  Though by the 1980's the media had most definitely moved on, and whatever Abbie did did not result in him or anyone else getting the kind of media attention he was swimming in when he was a young man.

It was sometime after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994 that Al resurfaced for me.  I don't know which year it was, but sometime in the 90's, when he was starting to do news stories out of Mexico.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of the Zapatistas on left-oriented sorts around the world.  Some folks like me just wrote a song about them and read a lot of reportage.  Others, like Al, packed their things and went to southern Mexico.

For many years, NarcoNews had the feel of a very well-run Indymedia site, with a really solid feed of material.  Its heyday was during the heyday of Indymedia websites, and centers, around the world, just looking at the archives attests.  People involved did lots of great reporting on all kinds of nefarious goings-on that a lot of other media was afraid to touch.

Connected with NarcoNews was Al's School of Authentic Journalism, which he was telling me about when he asked me to come to Rowe to sing at a little conference he was hosting there.  By this time it was the GW Bush years.

Roughly twenty years ago now, so it's all a bit vague.  I always love having any excuse to visit Rowe, and I was happy to be back, and happy to see Al, though he did not seem healthy.  He always had the grey pallor of someone who smoked and drank too much, even when he was much younger, but now, as an adult, I recognized it as such.

I remember being under the impression that I was being invited to do a concert at this conference, and then discovering there was only a handful of people, and it was going to be more like an open mic than a concert, with Al singing some songs as well, but that was fine.

In the intervening years since I had seen Al, he had become a great journalist and I had become a pretty good singer/songwriter.  His musical skills had not been improving in particular since last I saw him, but I enjoyed hearing him play.  He had been, after all, the first person doing this sort of thing -- singing protest songs around a campfire -- that got me on this road.

Al was telling me I should come to Mexico for one of his School of Authentic Journalism events.  He wasn't offering to fly me there or anything, nor did he have that kind of budget.  I remember asking him the same question I would ask anyone talking to me about performing somewhere where I was seriously thinking about going.  If they have no budget for paying me or for getting me there, and if I came anyway, on my own dime, would I need to line up my own lodging, too, or would they at least have a room for me to stay in?

I had at this point been on the road as a full-time performer for a number of years.  In terms of fame and size of audiences I was playing for, in retrospect, it was the height of my career thus far, the beginning of it.  (I'm much better now than I was then, but these things are about timing much more than talent.)  I had learned early on that if you don't tell gig organizers with great specificity the kind of lodging you require -- like, a private room, with a bed (and bedding) in it, a door that closes, access to a nearby bathroom with hot and cold running water, things like that -- then you never know where you might end up sleeping, at least in some cases.

I don't remember Al's exact response to my private room question, but it wasn't "yes," and it included a cryptic comment about sleeping arrangements that gave me chills, and made me wonder what was going on at these journalism retreats.  I never developed enough enthusiasm in seeing what was happening at his school to make the trip to Mexico for one of the sessions.

In 2010 I seem to have resurfaced in Al's world when I wrote an article that got widely circulated, including on websites that were evidently within his radar.  In the article I was criticizing "diversity of tactics" and what in the 60's they called "trashing," these days a tactic summed up in the image of a burning dumpster.  The first paragraph of the article could have given the impression I was instead praising this sort of tactic, which I believe is how far Al got into the article before sending me an angry message.

I responded that he hadn't really read the article, and that he shouldn't talk to old friends like that.  He became more contrite, and we had a fairly lengthy conversation on Google chat about the state of the world and the state of the US left (which Al told me had died in 1980).

The main point at that time in 2010 that he wanted to convey to me was that summit-hopping was dead, and he had written an article to that effect.  I agreed with him that there may not be much of a point in protesting a meeting of the G20, given how different some of those countries are from each other in so many ways.  But I had just been hired by the Teacher's Union to sing at that rally, I explained.  He seemed to think I should be doing something else, but he didn't say what.  Probably learn Spanish and apply my skills somewhere where the left isn't dead, like he did.  (Which, for the record, indeed seems like a fine idea, in principle.)

Anything I've learned about what Al has been up to since that conversation comes from what I've read in the past few days.  Most notably a plan for a not-very-serious run against Bernie Sanders for Senate in Vermont, interrupted by getting cancer; a plan to write a book; and allegations of manipulative and vindictive behavior from a bunch of different women, who all have the same sorts of stories -- of being devastated to learn that whether Al liked their journalism often seemed to depend on whether they wanted to be his lover, and if or when they didn't, the consequences could involve being cut off from the rest of the group for ostensibly unrelated reasons, and other devastating things.

I was curious about the women who spoke out against the behavior they experienced working with Al.  Curious for a lot of reasons, but especially to see if they all fit the profile of undercover agents of the Mexican government assigned to disrupt Al's work there, which some people might naturally wonder.  Many of them were easy to find on X/Twitter, and are working as journalists in one form or another today.  If they're agents, it's deep cover.  At least a couple of them are folks I've met along the line, because it's a small left.  None of them seem to make a habit of slinging such allegations at other men, it's not like the MO for any of them as far as my brief investigation revealed.

As it happened, I guess they were taking down a journalist who was nearing the end of his life, and thus his career, suffering from chronic health problems that led to his death a few years later.  Which is sad.  Sadder still if Al had had a long life in front of him, and might have encountered the kinds of problems getting published that he apparently made sure some of these women had to encounter.  

You only need to follow the archived links on the NarcoNews website that aren't broken to see that Al and his team did a lot of great journalism, along with all the necessary self-promotion inherent in keeping an operation like that going.

All of this good work Al did stands on its own two feet, in my book.  It's good work, whoever did it.  For that matter, whoever is responsible for getting the Yankee Atomic nuclear reactor in Rowe shut down -- and Al played a significant role there -- that work stands on its own two feet as well.  Shutting down a reactor is shutting down a reactor.  Blowing the whistle on government corruption is blowing the whistle on government corruption, whoever takes credit for the investigation, whatever their shortcomings as individuals.

It's a world full of people with shortcomings, sometimes really big ones.  Perhaps it's sometimes necessary to publicly denounce those who engage in behavior that adversely affects the lives of so many young, aspiring journalists -- even at the risk of ruining the career of someone with such a track record as a journalist.  I don't know.  

And then I wonder if those targeted for denunciation keep getting published, do the publications sharing their work get implicated as facilitating abuse?  Here we encounter the slippery slope involved with such callouts.  They say they resorted to the public callout tactic after less public efforts at accountability had failed.  Given his declining state of health by the time of the callout, I guess we don't need to wonder about these things, with concern to Al.

Al was not that well-known, but he certainly was a minor celebrity in leftwing journalism circles.  The fact that there are so few remembrances of Al out there online, the fact that it took me over a month before I even heard that he had died, speaks volumes.  It's easier to be silent, when faced with the complex death of someone who lived a complex life.  Like when people kill themselves, you often figure out that's how they died because nobody is talking about how they died, or even that they died at all.

It feels wrong to be silent, for me, even though I didn't know Al particularly well.  He had a profound -- and profoundly positive -- impact on me, my life, my career path, my music, and my politics.  Especially when I was 12 and he was 19.  I have no idea what direction my life would have taken, had I not met Al Giordano, and caught that "protest singer" bug from him. 

But along with the many positives Al brought to the world, and into the lives of people like me, there seem to have been some notably troubling things as well, which certainly for now dominate his legacy as far as anything newsworthy involving Al over the last five years of his life goes.  

We all probably have relationships that end in conflict and bitterness, and we all probably have people out there who don't have nice feelings about us as a result of such history.  We all probably also know people who can't seem to ever end a relationship without lots of conflict and bitterness and lashing out.  We all know people who seem like nice adults, until they get into an intimate relationship with someone and suddenly adopt the emotional maturity of a toddler.  There are many among us who are deeply wounded people, who have been robbed at an early age by their circumstances of the ability to do intimacy without acting like a small child having a tantrum, for whom something happened early on that ended their emotional development.

When I was 12 and Al was 19, I saw a passionate organizer and entertaining performer, and I also saw a very wounded guy, who was already on a sort of path in life, with the sorts of influences he embraced, that would involve a lot of self-medicating and not many therapy sessions -- and coming out of a society where falling back on your childhood training with regards to social norms and how to do relationships was a very bad idea.  It might not have helped any that his mentor throughout his twenties was a guy who had not long before been voted the sexiest man in America, who had recently been accustomed to regularly meeting women who were ready to fornicate with him at the drop of a hat.  Fame, and proximity to it, can twist people in many ways as well.

We've all got to deal with the influences that created us, some of which are good, some bad; some of which we overcome, others of which we don't.  For me, the bottom line here, if there is one, is that multiple truths can exist at the same time.  A person can be a great journalist, contribute in important ways to the history of several countries, be a profoundly positive influence for many people, and also be the same guy who caused a lot of pain to a lot of people who never should have been treated the way they were.  Such is the complexity of the human experience.

Friday, September 1, 2023

The Social Engineering and Paralysis of the US Left

Ever wake up one morning and realize you've been a pawn in someone else's game, when you thought you were making history instead?

Turning on NPR this morning we were treated to yet another story about how the politicians in the Congress are aging, and are generally much older than the average American on whose behalf they allegedly govern.  This is one of dozens of stories on this subject which have been featured on national NPR programs this year alone, according to my recollection.  As to stories about how wealthy most members of the Congress are -- how much more wealthy most of them are in comparison with the average American -- it's crickets.  I can't remember the last time I heard a story in Morning Edition on that subject.

This is an example of social engineering.  With the repetition of stories about the age of the politicians and very rare references to their wealth, the suggestion is clearly instilled that age is an acceptable subject to explore, while wealth is not.  Only weird conspiracy-oriented types would talk about things like how rich the politicians are, so say the voices in our heads.  Otherwise these reasonable-sounding people on the radio would talk about it, too.

Throughout the 1980's, Afghanistan was the battleground for a terrible proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, during which time the entire country was laid to waste.  Journalist Robert Fisk was there, documenting it all.  In his epic summary of that war and so many others he covered on the ground, The Great War for Civilization, Fisk writes about how the CIA's role throughout the period was to systematically give their financial and logistical support to the most anti-democratic, Islamist-inclined opponents to the Soviet-backed Afghan government, while ignoring or undermining the elements of the Mujahideen that had a more progressive vision for the future of their country.  This is another example of real-world social engineering, of the most violent kind.

We have the social engineering conducted by the corporate overlords of the media outlets who, in so many ways, tell the attractive young reporters what types of events, people, and groups to cover and how to cover them.  Just as importantly along with how much media attention and what kind, we have the social engineering involved with which sorts of people, campaigns and organizations get funding and other resources, and which sorts don't.  In what I think of as the trifecta of social engineering today, aside from the media and the money, there's the various methods of social engineering built into "social media," such as algorithms intended to foment and exacerbate conflict and confusion.

Prior to 2005 or so, when throughout the last quarter of the 20th century up until then any kind of social movement activity on the streets or anywhere else in the US was studiously ignored by the corporate and "public" media, this was obviously a very blatant form of social engineering.  Don't talk about it, and anyone who wasn't actually at the demo would have no idea it even happened, or that there was going to be another one coming up.  Don't talk about it, and if you do come across thousands of people marching through the center of the city, you might think them to be a very strange and perhaps inappropriate or even terrifying sight.

Prior to 2005, although neither the antiwar movement nor the global justice movement received national news coverage to speak of, the authorities were still desperately concerned about us.  Although we were already censored from news coverage, they went to great lengths to censor us in other important ways.  I think of this when I mention how some people could be terrified of seeing an approaching group of thousands of people marching and chanting.  I've seen middle-class folks from the suburbs tremble at the sight.  The main reason this could possibly happen with our marches at that time is down to one factor:  time after time, the police found a reason to invade whichever warehouse space had been rented by David Solnit and the many other artists who would come early to these events in order to collectively create vast numbers of beautiful, giant puppets which would tower over the marchers, marching with us, visually illustrating what our movement was all about.  That is, if the police didn't confiscate all the puppets first, which they did, on multiple occasions, in very large numbers.

Although they weren't covering us or our antiwar movement in the news prior to 2005 (with or without confiscated puppets), it was made clear on occasion (for example in Fresno, California), that the tactics of the authorities involving infiltrating the movement with undercover police that we were all familiar with from the days of Cointelpro were still going on.  Historically, when undercover operatives infiltrate antiwar groups or other groups, they don't just sit there and take notes.  They are often tasked with sowing divisions within the group, often by advocating for the kinds of actions and ideas most likely to be broadly opposed by large parts of society, thus serving to marginalize the movement, rather than pushing for things to move in a direction that might be supported by a society that sees the connections between, say, American militarism abroad and endemic poverty, homelessness, child abuse, addiction, suicide, and massacres at home.

With the advent and then the ubiquity of "social media" came the US corporate media's move to polarize itself into Democrat and Republican camps.  Coincidentally or not, these trends happened at roughly the same time, according to my real-time observations.  And of course while all that was happening, we can assume that the work of the authorities to infiltrate, divide, and marginalize the opposition to US militarism and capitalism continued as usual.

Everything about the past seems simpler in retrospect, years after the FOIA requests and leaks have helped some people to clarify what the hell was going on fifty years ago.  One of the pressing questions for our times, more challenging to answer while it's all happening, is what are the goals of the social engineers among the ranks of the corporate media overlords, corporate social media overlords, and domestic spies, and how are they going about achieving them?  Some aspects of all this are becoming increasingly clear, as it all continues, and seems to get gradually more and more blatant.

Most especially from 2015 to the present, when national media covers a protest or other social movement activity, it's almost always going to focus on certain national issues about which there is much disagreement in society, such as with questions of racism, immigration, abortion, featuring endless human interest stories on related subjects, along with the ever-present question of whether the Republican Party has finally now become a fascist organization.  We are thus trained to see these issues as the pressing ones that should concern us, and these protests as the ones that are actually happening --  often helpfully announced by the media in advance, if it's an anti-Trump or anti-Republican or antifascist protest or riot, no distinction is usually made, as it's apparently now racist to do so -- while groups or movements supporting rent control, universal housing, universal health care, or that are involved with a local struggle around mass evictions, gentrification, resistance to the clearing of tent cities, or endless numbers of other things, are methodically ignored or drastically underemphasized.

So much of what goes on on social media is derived from corporate media -- discussions, praise, and criticism related to what's in the news, who's got a hit in the charts, the latest Netflix miniseries, etc.  A  lot else goes on on social media as well.  All kinds of people impacted by the media's framing of everything then make posts, critique others, moderate Subreddits and Facebook Groups, and engage in grassroots, DIY forms of censorship and efforts at thought control, banning, blocking, and conducting organized cancellation campaigns against the many dissidents who don't seem to be towing the line.

How did the lines as they are now come to be drawn?  What has been the impact of which topics and events get covered by the press and which ones don't?  What about which groups get funding from foundations, and which ones don't?  And then how does the atmosphere and functioning of social media impact how these lines get drawn? 

Thinking about these things the other day a bit as I was writing the last missive I sent out, which was mostly concerning differing conclusions between me and a prominent antifascist podcaster on our analysis of important historical events, it occurred to me that there seems to be a pretty clear pattern when it comes to which types of radicals have been more likely in recent years to be adopted by the corporate media as one of their own, and which ones haven't.

If your main interest is investigating the far right and all the various things they're up to since Trump was in the White House, then like it or not, your interest may align very well with the interests of the Democratic Party leadership, which would of course like to associate the far right with the Republican Party, in the hope of diminishing support for Republicans in the next election.  Thus, some of the folks doing this kind of research end up with big corporate megaphones with which to amplify their message, while the tenants rights campaigners and union organizers tend not to.

Between the social engineering involved with giving anti-Trump protests massive coverage on the corporate platforms of both polarized varieties, and adopting some of those voices from the anti-Trump movement and the racial justice movement into the corporate media platforms themselves, in the many broadcasts produced these days about the far right's organizing efforts, armed marches, drag library hour protests, and election campaigns, a lot is accomplished to shape the narrative we all encounter from people in society, online and off, around how we understand our particular current variety of polarized politics in the US -- from the nature of the problems we think we face to the way we think we should talk about them, and of course what should be done about them.

So we are treated to many stories from and about people who are social or political dissidents in many ways, but almost exclusively in forms that are convenient for the narrative supported by the Democratic Party, in its current form, which emphasizes certain specific, limited forms of antiracism, certain limited forms of support for certain other marginalized people, opposition to the Republican Party's efforts to ban abortion, and opposition to the Republican Party's plans to form a fascist dictatorship.

I've often been excited to hear such voices of reason increasingly appearing in the corporate press.  But over time, as the pattern became clearly established, my excitement began to rapidly diminish, as my fear of the social engineering involved here grew.

When you systematically heavily emphasize one set of concerns but systematically completely ignore other sets of concerns, this is social engineering.  And it can all be done while those participating in it on corporate media platforms and on social media may have no idea about the role they are playing in this great game of molding a society.

What seems to have happened is we have among us in large numbers now a group of people who have been cultivated to see the Republican Party, in its current form, to be the biggest threat our country, and perhaps the world, faces.  Which may be true, but when this potentially true thing is only relevant because it's being used as a means to elect the other of the two parties of the rich, this does not facilitate anything like an honest discussion, of anything.  The corporate-approved pundits of the left seem also to generally believe that aside from preventing the Republicans and (whoever some social media corporation considers to be) the far right from having platforms or winning elections, the main thing society needs to do is listen to each marginalized group, however defined, and to their concerns, and to talk about what they need to prosper in society -- as long as such talk doesn't become critical of the market economy, supply and demand, or capitalism in general.

Once again, at first I found a lot of this kind of coverage to be really refreshing, until the pattern started to become clear.  I liked it that they were finally talking about how prevalent racism and far right politics are within the ranks of the police.  But if Black lives or the lives of working class people in general really mattered to these people and the corporations they work for, where were the stories about the ongoing unaffordability of housing for half the country, and the skyrocketing rate of evictions?  Where were the stories about how the US is not even coming close to doing anything serious about the climate catastrophe we're facing?  Where were the voices speaking out against US militarism, about how vast our military budget is, and how great the needs of the people of the country are, that could be housed and fed and cared for with the money we're spending on all of these nuclear missiles and fighter jets?  Not to be found on All Things Considered.  That's social engineering.

The consequences of this social engineering seem to be clear.  With the suffering of so many people almost totally ignored, with the class war being waged against us on such a massive scale receiving just no mention, as so many people fall deeper and deeper into poverty and desperation, social lines are shifting along with party affiliations, media, and social media habits, as people seek a community or a platform where their biggest concerns might be understood.

The presence of what we might call certain types of radicals but not others on corporate liberal platforms has become just as much a phenomenon on "the other side of the aisle," with the right-associated media doing much the same thing, helping midwife the new political realignment in society -- all while people like me and many of my friends brighten up now and then to see certain faces appearing on Fox who have been ignored in the liberal end of the corporate media for years, such as advocates for imprisoned journalist, Julian Assange.

The types of radicals adopted by, working for, or regularly featured in the liberal wing of the corporate press vary in terms of their interests and appearance.  One of the many things they tend to share in common, though, is they are not free speech fundamentalists.  They tend to be firmly in the camp that believes in tactics like protesting against and shutting down events they don't like, which is now considered to be a basic and accepted part of the antifascist toolkit.  They tend to be the sort to support getting people banned from platforms who have, according to someone's judgment, committed a violation of the norms, even if it wasn't illegal.  This orientation on the part of most of the more progressive pundits these days sets the stage for a toxic atmosphere on social media platforms that are already so susceptible, by design, to conflict and to the atomization of society.  And it is social engineering.  There is no shortage of prominent intellectuals from the left who are free speech fundamentalists -- you just won't hear them interviewed on CNN or MSNBC, unless the moon is blue.

Looking at the overall combination of social engineering projects being done to us through the various means of media, social media, government policies and funding sources, it seems to me the aim on the part of the social engineers has been to keep the society divided, and keep those who want to form an effective opposition to capitalism and imperialism unable to do so.

One of the profound contradictions with this project is that those very voices against fascism and racism being featured so prominently in the corporate-liberal end of the press are being methodically used by the social engineers to undermine the very causes they support, when they're being promoted in an overall media atmosphere that systematically suppresses reporting on the class war that the working class of all races and genders is currently so badly losing.  (And if you're looking to Reddit for perspective such as that which I'm laying out here, good luck -- I've already been banned from posting on the Anarchism and Socialism Subreddits, among others.)

I'm not blaming the pawns in this game at all, in case anyone is looking for someone to participate in that sort of nonsense.  I'm one of those pawns, after all!  But if there's any hope in overcoming this paralyzed condition most of what we might call the left seems to find ourselves in today in the US, we've got to first understand how it is we're being manipulated on such a tremendous scale.

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