Saturday, May 30, 2009

On the End of General Motors

Last week it was announced that bondholders who control much of the massive debt owed by car giant General Motors (some $27 billion) had rejected its latest offer. Most opinion then concluded that bankruptcy was inevitable. As I’ve noted before, this strikes one who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s as roughly comparable, if not to the death of god, then at least to the end of an era. What this also portends, though, is the consequence of an idea—one that pervades much, if not all, of American business. That idea is that the important thing, in commerce, is not making an excellent product, but rather persuading the public to like it, and want it.

Now, of course, you won’t hear this from pundits; rather, what you usually hear is a complaint about the benefits packages GM and other American car makers have long been saddled with by those terrible unions. And though this has clearly contributed to the problem, it is not the whole of it, or even the most important part. The problem, in my opinion, lies in General Motors’ apparent inability to respond to its competition, a threat from Europe and Japan that didn’t just arise last year or last decade. On the contrary, I can still remember my first car—a 1962 VW bug. Scorned by most Americans, particularly those living away from the coasts, the German-made VW took certain segments of the population by storm, and this was even before 1962. What this means is that for anyone willing to look, the trend away from those big, finned, clumsy gas guzzlers GM and most other American car companies were famous for has been apparent for upwards of 50 years! Are we to understand that highly-paid American engineers and CEOs were blind to this challenge? Impervious to the superior craftsmanship and durability of the little German car, and then the little Japanese cars like Honda and Toyota? It is absurd to think so. Henry Ford started the mass-production of automobiles using precisely the philosophy that VW and Toyota capitalized on: build simple, well-made, durable cars that your workers can afford.

Rather, General Motors’ problem inhered in a little something called planned obsolescence. Why make products that last? That will simply encourage people to buy only what they need, and keep what they buy for years and years. No. American enterprise, with its contempt for its consumers, thought it was smarter than that. It would be better to produce products with a nice shine to them, but made in such a shoddy, complex way that they would not only break down quickly, but be incapable of being repaired by anyone but a trained engineer (i.e. expensively). Hence cars, and all else, would need to be replaced every few years—the very emblem of throwaway culture. And how get people to buy such crap? Why with advertising and public relations.

The British film maker, Adam Curtis, has produced a documentary called the “The Century of the Self” that traces the source of this idea. In it, Curtis credits the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, with initiating the whole idea of public relations as a way of inducing, through psychological means, the masses to think in regimented ways, and specifically, for consumers to want that which they do not need (Bernays wrote a book called “Propaganda” in 1928 laying out his ideas). The key is to associate a product with someone or something desirable—cars with machismo, cigarettes with women’s liberation (which Bernays actually did), always keeping the unconscious motives hidden. This is the core of the American corporate idea, at least since World War I and especially post WWII. Consumers must be persuaded that a product gives them something they lack personally. Hence, getting things—a car, a washing machine, the latest fashion in clothes, the fastest computer—not only serves a physical need, it fills a psychological hole, and, in the aggregate, becomes one’s entire reason for living. In short, the be all and the end all of life is buying, consuming.

To see how successful this strategy has been, simply consider how critical consumer spending is now said to be in our overall economy. And the bulk of that spending goes for items that are not only useless, but designed to be obsolete in a few years if not sooner. Where once it was cars—trade in that new Oldsmobile, Lucille, every two years—now it is computers, whose operating systems and programs routinely become obsolete in three years or so.

Back to General Motors. Once the world’s largest automaker (as goes General Motors, so goes America), it simply could not believe its operating credo had been undermined by gas crises and the looming end of oil, not to mention global warming. And so, in response to the threat from European and Japanese automakers, whose cars were known, by anyone with half a brain, to be superior in every way, GM simply increased the advertising. Rather than build a better, more efficient vehicle, it built more public relations campaigns. Don’t focus on how big, bulky, inefficient and unsafe, SUVs are; just focus on the machismo of driving one, on how flimsy Japanese cars run for cover when they see a Hummer coming. Chevron does the same. In response to increasing evidence about the despoliation of the environment by the gasoline it produces, and spills, and ruins whole nations to obtain, it runs quietly upbeat, mendacious commercials inviting everyone to join good old Chevron in protecting the natural world. Again, the answer is not investment in new energy forms or a lessening of exploitation; the answer is to convince the stupid public of Chevron’s suddenly “green” intentions.

So don’t weep for General Motors. Or Chrysler. Or all the dinosaurs who will be going down with them soon. Weep for their obtuseness, their lumbering inability and arrogant refusal to see themselves in a mirror. Weep, too, for the ruin they have, with their infinite greed, inflicted upon our nation and our world. But rejoice, too, in the old truth: though you can fool some of the people all of the time, sooner or later the con job is revealed for what it is, the house of cards collapses, and the natural order demands its due.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rembering Whence We Came

Given that it’s Memorial Day, when we’re supposed to remember sacrifice, and given that we have a Black American now presiding in the White House, it struck me as an apt occasion to remember just where this mix of black and white derives from. I know of no better place to start than the recent book by Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. It fully deserves the honor, for what Gordon-Reed has done is to provide us with a look inside the once-secret life of the household run by that quintessential American, Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia, designer of his Monticello residence, Jefferson was our true Renaissance man, especially in those areas related to freedom and the democratic ideal. And yet, what Gordon-Reed shows us is that that household, Monticello (itself an icon of liberty and freedom), was staffed by over 80 slaves (Jefferson owned 200 for his various estates), and more, was inhabited by Jefferson’s personal concubine and slave, the beautiful Sally Hemings, who bore him several children.

Notwithstanding such sensational facts, this is not a history that revels in what in Jefferson’s time amounted to a public scandal. Quietly, and in beautifully shaped prose, Gordon-Reed simply takes us through the domestic history of Jefferson’s family, including the family of his first wife Martha Wayles (who was “given” Sally Hemings as a wedding present), and shows us how slavery worked in those days in Virginia. In so doing, she leads us to an appreciation of what it must have been like to have endured the conflicts and agonies of decision that faced not only Jefferson himself, but those of his concubine, her enslaved family who lived at Monticello as well, and the children she bore him. Along the way, we learn amazing, and to most of us, little-known facts about slavery, how it worked, and the diabolical logic that kept it intact for more than half of our history.

Consider, for example, how convenient it was for Virginia to change its inheritance laws: where English tradition stipulated that you “were what your father was,” Virginia, in 1662, adopted the Roman rule "partus sequitur ventrem", which says that you "were what your mother was.” And why? Because slave owners, realizing that large numbers of African women had been impregnated (raped) by their white owners, would have borne children who, under the English law, would have been free like their white fathers. Under the new law, however, they remained slaves like their black mothers, and hence property owned by the master. The Hemingses of the title were a case in point: Elizaberth Hemings, herself the offspring of a white father, became the concubine of her owner, John Wayles, a white landowner who had earned money in the slave trade. Wayles and Hemings produced six “mulatto” children, among them Sally Hemings, born in 1773 (even with three white grandparents, she remained “black” and a slave.) Adding to the legal plight of slaves was the fact that not only could no word said by a black person be used against a white person in court, but a child born out of wedlock was “filius nullius,” the child of no one.

Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was John Wayles’ legal daughter, and hence the beneficiary of much of the Wayles estate. This came, with their marriage in 1772, to Jefferson, along with most of the Hemingses including Martha’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. When Martha Wayles Jefferson died in childbirth in 1782, she left three children by Jefferson, as well as her half-sister, Sally, then nine years old. A year before he was named minister to France in 1785, Jefferson moved to Paris. He brought with him Sally’s older brother James, to be trained as his chef in French cuisine. But while he was away, Jefferson’s daughter, Lucy, then a two- year-old, died of whooping cough. Distraught, Jefferson insisted on having his remaining daughter, Polly, brought to Paris to be with him and her sister Patsy. Polly’s traveling companion would be none other than Sally Hemings, then about 14 years old.

It was during this Paris interlude, according to most biographers, that the slave-girl Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s half sister-in-law, became his concubine. We know this partly because of reports that when Jefferson and his family returned to Monticello, Sally Hemings was pregnant. The situation, already deliciously complex, was further complicated by the fact that French laws decreed that any New World slave who set foot on French soil could, if he or she petitioned for it, become a free French citizen. Sally Hemings, though a young slave girl, thus had some leverage over her lover/master, knew it, and used it. Here is how Madison Hemings, one of the offspring of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, described it years later:

“But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him, but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” (Gordon-Reed, p. 326)

Though this child conceived in Paris died, Sally Hemings subsequently bore Thomas Jefferson several more children. Of course, neither the President nor his early biographers publicly admitted it, but in 1802, the first public disclosure appeared in a paper called the Richmond Recorder, written by one James Callender: “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.” (p. 557). Until recently, this and other rumors were the only indication that the writer of the most renowned paean to human freedom, the Declaration of Independence, not only kept slaves, but had a forty-year intimate relationship with one of them.

Gordon-Reed thus takes us through one of the most richly improbable domestic dramas in our history. By juxtaposing the life of an almost sainted American founding father with the lives of the people he kept with him, working for him (he made carpenters of two of his sons by Sally, Beverly and Madison), sleeping with him, bearing his children, and finally, freeing them on his terms only after his death, she gives us a sense of the true, if hidden history of this nation. The ringing words “conceived in liberty” begin to take on new meaning. So does the title often given to Jefferson, the “apostle of freedom,” for Gordon-Reed ends with the question of why the great man did not see fit to free Sally Hemings, or any of the other Hemingses, while he was still alive, or even formally in his will. Her answer involves the benefits he derived from having Sally Hemings bound to him, and the damnation of public opinion if he freed her publicly (the law said an owner had to detail how he would provide for a freed slave, as well as petition the Virginia legislature to give that ex-slave permission to remain, freed, in the state) :

“The only way for a man to control a free woman was to marry her, which he could not do. Selfishness and self-absorption seem far too inadequate as reasons for the way Jefferson treated these members of the Hemings family. There is often great power in simplicity, and the simple terrible fact is that the law vested Jefferson, and other slave owners, with the powers of a tyrant, as he said himself. This domestic tyrant tried to mitigate the meaning of that reality by being as benign as he could. That made it easier for him to see himself as a good man as he indulged his impulses and met his needs—economic, social, and affective—through his control of these family members, to whom he was tied by years of intimate acquaintance, experiences, and blood. He created his own version of slavery that he could live in comfortably with the Hemingses. It suited him. There was never any serious chance that he would have given this up." (p. 640)

Still, Sally Hemings, because of her “bargain” with Jefferson on returning from France, did better than most enslaved Africans. She and her children were “given their time,” i.e. freed. In 1826 she went to live in Charlottsville, shortly thereafter moving into his home with her son Madison, and in the 1830 census, was counted, along with her sons, as free white persons. Three of her children would follow her to live in the white world, while one remained in the black world.

As to the other Hemingses, who lacked the same leverage, when Monticello was sold in 1831, several were sold at auction. Some ran away. The fate of others is unknown. Some sense of the inhuman obstacles facing them, and all slaves, can be gleaned from the fate of Joseph Fossett, one of the Hemings children. Fossett managed, after he was freed, to gain ownership of five of his children and four of his grandchildren. That is, in order to free his children, he had to BUY them. Gordon-Reed explains:

"To avoid application of the 1806 law, he [Fossett] kept them in legal bondage until he decided in 1837 that it was time for a change. In September, he formally emancipated his own family members."

This is one of the many benefits of this deeply revealing and troubling book—illustrating how the fiendish legal system created by the slave-owning South proved, in many ways, as binding to African Americans as their chains. A “nation of laws,” indeed.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Face of Evil

It astonishes me that the national media saw fit to give parallel and essentially equal coverage to the speech by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and the recently deposed Vice-President, Dick Cheney. This suggested that the President and the ex-Vice-President were equal in importance, and that they were battling for public opinion—a conclusion that flies in the face of Obama’s overwhelming victory, and the opinion polls which found that Dick Cheney had the lowest approval rating of any vice president in memory, somewhere around 15% as I recall. What’s even more astonishing is that few of the so-called media guardians pointed out the lies pouring from the mouth of this Goebbels of our time. Fortunately, one did, and that one, as usual, was the McClatchy chain, with Jonathan Landay and William Strobel pointing out the flaws. Their piece—“Cheney’s Speech Ignored Some Inconvenient Truths,” dated May 22, 2009 and reprinted on Common Dreams—took apart the most obvious instances of fabrication and distortion from the ex-Vice’s speech and made it clear that when it comes to evil in high places, this man ranks with the greatest Machiavels of our time, perhaps all time.

Landay begins by noting that Cheney insisted that the “techniques” he approved were “legal” and key to preventing the “violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent people.” This is his key message. We did some harsh things, to a few people, but it kept the American people safe. And he quoted the current Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, as reinforcing his position. What Landay does, though, is go to Blair’s April 21st statement, which said that though in some instances the information derived from torture was valuable, “there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained by other means.” In other words, torture methods may well have been unnecessary, especially given the fact that “the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us, and they are NOT essential to our national security” (emphasis mine). Furthermore, the CIA’s top-secret inspector general’s report, Landay notes, found no proof that information from these techniques thwarted any specific attacks. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Vanity Fair magazine the same thing. In short, the whole Cheney thesis comes apart upon even cursory inspection.

There’s more in Landay’s report, and it should be read. What comes at around the same time, though, is yet another reminder of just who Dick Cheney is, what he stands for, and how he operates. The man is an assassin, a ruthless bureaucratic infighter who operates on the principle that he and others in the executive branch know what’s good for America, public opinion be damned, treaties be damned, the Constitution be damned. This is usually characterized as his belief in the “unitary executive,” but it really means that the man has unbridled contempt for people, for the masses, and total confidence in force, stealth and brutality as the preferred methods for fighting “the good fight” (always remembering his trust in a little healthy self-interest, as in feeding obscene profits to his one-time company Halliburton, and therefore to himself). Some call him a patriot. I call him the face of evil. And that face is revealed in yet another revelation via Common Dreams, this time in a piece outing the general that Barack Obama has just put in charge of all operations in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (“McChrystal was Cheney’s Chief Assassin”). It turns out that not only was this career thug the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operating clandestinely in Iraq, he was operating under the direct command of none other than Vice President Dick Cheney. That’s right. According to Seymour Hersh, JSOC was the group that did “high-value targeting of men known…or believed to be planning anti-American activities.” Its operations were so secret that they were kept hidden from the investigations of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which, under international law is supposed to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Hiding prisoners or facilities from the ICRC is a “serious war crime.” But the prison run by McChrystal, Camp Nama, was one of those Special Forces bases that was in fact kept hidden (god only knows how many other “ghost facilities” there were, or which ones McChrystal and Cheney commanded) and which specialized in Cheney’s “special techniques” (and god knows what else; I have always suspected that much of the mayhem in Iraq was the result of our local ‘death squads’ meant to foment fear and chaos and internecine squabbling sufficient to justify our occupation.)

Thus we have the face of evil—the face of Dick Cheney, with its patented sneer, its typical snarl of hatred and resentment still festering from the Nixon years—the face that, in my view, epitomizes all the evil this nation has engaged in: the dispossession and slaughter of the Native peoples, the enslavement and forced labor of Africans, the theft of the bulk of the continent from those who lived there, the invasions and coups and clandestine occupations and exploitations of foreign governments and millions of their peoples around the globe—and it appears that it is a face that will be with us forever. This could be for deep human reasons, or specifically modern reasons, but the fact is plain: something in the American psyche, in the American media, perhaps in all psyches and all media, loves the face of evil. Loves it more than the face of good. It is a stock truism in literature: the villain is always more interesting than the hero. What’s disappointing is to see how well the truism operates in politics, in our politics, for we could tolerate it when the fascinating face of evil was Hitler or Goebbels or Tojo or Saddam Hussein. What shocks us is when it belongs to the man who literally ran this nation for the past eight years, a man with a white face and small sharp nose and even features and an almost avuncular mien only briefly belied by that snarl, and whose romance with evil is commanding our airwaves still. One wonders whether it shocks people in other nations too, or whether, by now, that’s precisely what they expect the face of evil to be.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Trouble with Genetic Engineering

I received an alert this week concerning President Obama’s new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack (former Republican governor of Iowa, a big corn state.) It said that “Upon returning from the G8 summit in Italy, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack pledged to promote Big Biotech abroad as part of President Obama's foreign policy.” The alert went on to explain that “agricultural development” for this administration seems to mean “exporting the United States’ toxic industrial agriculture model, with genetically engineered crops at the forefront.”

Big Biotech. Genetically engineered crops. To get a sense of what all this portends, read Claire Hope Cummings recent book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press: 2008). It’s an eye-opening study, only a few snippets of which I can convey here.

To begin with, no one should underestimate the problem, for as Cummings reminds us, fully 80% of the processed foods now on our grocery shelves contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) From this, and from industry hype, one might imagine that genetic engineering of crops is a successful enterprise. The truth is that it’s one of the biggest money-losing industries of all time. That’s partly because it’s hugely expensive: as Cummings points out, the old way of developing a new plant variety—which farmers and, more recently, botanists have been doing for thousands of years—can cost $52,000. The typical plant-development cost of the transgenic method? Nearly $1.5 million! So the big corporations like Monsanto who develop this stuff have a lot invested, and they will do anything to protect their investment. One early ploy was the invention of the “pseudo-scientific concept” called “substantial equivalence.” This says, without any scientific evidence, that GMO products are the same as their natural counterparts. Therefore, the biotech companies don’t have to investigate reports of the harm their products cause. No tests, no toxicology studies, nothing. As a Monsanto spokesman put it: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” The FDA passes the buck back as well, saying its policy is not to test or even label GMOs. So in the end, it’s not only that no one is responsible; it’s worse: we humans are being used as guinea pigs. As Cummings puts it, “the feeding trials are taking place at our dinner tables.”

Trials are also going on in fields worldwide. Hawaii seems to be testing central for big biotech, with corporations like Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta/Garst and DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred using all five islands as sites for their GMOs. And it has not been without its cost. In one case in 1998, the University of Hawaii developed transgenic papaya trees to resist the rinspot virus. Through cross-pollination, the new variety began contaminating other, natural papaya varieties such that by 2004 “almost 50% of papayas tested on the Big Island were contaminated.” Evidence of other genetic contamination is widespread: Starlink corn, a transgenic variety meant to be used only for animal feed, was discovered in taco shells, which means it’s almost everywhere; Liberty Link 601 herbicide-resistant rice, supposedly not for human use, was found by a consumer in U.S. long-grain rice. Because of this contamination, rice futures for U.S. rice have plummeted. And what is Big biotech’s response? Why to lobby the United States Department of Agriculture to approve the contaminated rice for humans retroactively! (reminds us of the Bush Administration and its successful tactic of getting retroactive immunity for its spies and torturers.) This same tactic is being used for all other transgenic crops: the world, says Big Biotech, should simply accept the “adventitious presence” of transgenes. In other words, genetic contamination is just a natural accident, as when non-native plants turn up in soil not natural to them. The upshot is that we can expect much more of this in the future, including the spread of genetically modified trees, and the increase of “superweeds, which result when weeds develop resistance to not one, but several different herbicides (such weeds have already been found in Canada and several other countries including our own.)

In truth, the more one reads about this chemical industry posing as agriculture, the more the horror stories multiply. Cummings gives us a witches brew of potions that have already been engineered into food plants: “corn that produces the hepatitis B virus, corn with a human contraceptive, corn with rat genes, chicken genes, jellyfish genes that glow in the dark; growth hormones from carp genes in safflowers; human genes in tobacco, sugar cane, and rice; rat genes in soybeans; wheat genes in chickens.” And my favorite, goats “engineered with spider genes so that they produce spider silk in their milk.” Among the fallout from all this tinkering with seeds—the literal source of life—are a serious rise in allergies, stunted growth damage to the immune system in test animals, and a host of other ailments including liver damage and blood cell formation problems. The very first GMO food, the Calgene Flavr Savr tomato, fed to rats, caused stomach lesions, with 7 of the 40 test animals dying. But since there has been an FDA policy against testing, only a few studies have been done, with even fewer done by independent labs. One of the latter showed not only that GMOs affect the immune system, but that “transgenes can transfer out of GMO food and into bacteria in the gut at detectable levels after just one meal.”

The most sophisticated part of Cummings’ book is the material on the supposed scientific basis for genetic engineering, i.e. that DNA is the secret of life, and now that scientists have that secret, and the precision to manipulate it, they can create whatever they wish. The truth is that GMO seed construction is anything but precise. As Cummings points out, “What the successful genetic transformation of plants depends on is not design but random luck.” For though what is called a “cassette” of genes can be inserted into a plant’s cells, no one can really predict where it will end up. The key is to make multiple insertions, thousands of insertions in thousands of trials, discarding all the “monsters” that are created, and saving the few happy accidents. There is lots more in the book about the methods used to insert the desired set of genes—including, early on, using a 22-caliber rifle to shoot the DNA into the cells, and using bacteria to infect wounded plants cells so as to transfer the new DNA. And even when “successful,” the target plants are subject to unexpected mutations and modifications: Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean, for example, has been found to contain some mysterious DNA, which Monsanto, of course, said was “natural,” but was later found to have resulted from the transformation process. In short, no one knows what the results of all this diddling with the basic unit of life will be. And we’re the experimental animals.

The point of all this experimentation, for the biotech companies, is to patent, i.e. have exclusive ownership rights to each new plant product. Then farmers worldwide can be made to pay dearly for new seeds each year, rather than, as farmers have traditionally done, save their own seeds from one year to the next. The Indian physicist/activist Vandana Shiva has raised the cry about this biopiracy worldwide, about the ruination of traditional farmers who are being driven into debt and robbed of their inheritance—their generations of work developing seeds perfectly suited to a specific environment. Now, moreover, they are being inundated with so-called super seeds, and then, if they try to use the seeds on their own, sued by the huge corporations that produce them. Since this is all a bit messy for the biotech giants, their main method of patent enforcement has become “terminator technologies.” Using their DNA-insertion skills, they have now engineered seeds that will not germinate after the first crop; or produced other seeds that are kept from germinating until they are “awakened” by a specific (costly) chemical; or, most bizarre of all, created terminator seeds that are laced with antibiotics designed to turn traits off or on—guaranteeing that farmers can’t re-use them. These “suicide” seeds are labeled “technology protection systems” by their promoters, protecting, they say, plants from being contaminated by transgenes, thus helping farmers.

The conclusion by Cummings, and by anyone else not polluted by the propaganda pouring from the huge agribusiness sector, is chilling: “Seeds, instead of being a source of life, are now becoming a source of death.” And her crusade, via this book, is to wake all of us to the dangers we face, not simply from the fact of contamination of our entire botanic heritage, but from the overturning of the very genetic, moral basis of our world. Here is how she puts it: “I believe that the use of genetic technologies to re-create the world is the defining moral issue of our time. This technology, more than any that came before it, redefines who we are, what makes us human, and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the natural world…Now we are faced with a choice. Do we accept the triumph of the techno-elites, meaning do we let them decide what’s best for us, or do we use our common sense and moral compass to restore the public role of humanity in evaluating and governing technology?”

When we hear the Secretary of Agriculture promising to promote this technology, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, we can only hope that Cummings’ message will somehow get through, somehow attract a large enough counterforce to compel a rethinking of what we’re here for. Because if it doesn’t, we will leave ourselves at the mercy of corporations which seem driven by the idea that inserting a technology of death into that which is meant to sustain us is as good a 'raison d'etre' as any, and certainly more profitable than most.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 11, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Dom DiMaggio

I only met him once, but when I heard the news of his death on Friday night, it felt as if a friend had died. That might stand as one measure of the man. Though he was small for a major league ballplayer, especially compared to his more famous brother, Joe, he was large in that indefinable something called “class” in its noblest sense. In Italian he would’ve been called un’ galantuomo—a man of integrity.

Dominic Paul DiMaggio was born February 12, 1917 in San Francisco, the ninth child of a North Beach fisherman. Though at first his father had contempt for baseball as a frivolous sport for boys, the elder DiMaggio fathered not one nor two but three major league centerfielders: Vince, the oldest, who played for the Boston Braves and several other teams; Joe, the “Yankee Clipper,” and perhaps the greatest of all time; and Dom, who played 10 seasons in center field for the Boston Red Sox. Playing in the shadow of that great Yankee icon might have discouraged most younger brothers. It didn’t hinder Dom, but rather drove him to work harder to compensate for his short stature (he was 5’9” and weighed 140 when he started) and his nearsightedness (he was one of the rare major leaguers of his time to wear eyeglasses). One of the ways the “little professor” did it was by playing “smart.” His knowledge of the game, and of all the little details of batting and especially fielding, were legendary. He studied hitters and where they hit and always seemed to be one step ahead of the ball, always knowing where to throw to cut off a run or an extra base. Oddly, the most famous play in this regard was one he couldn’t take part in—the throw to second base in the 7th game of the 1946 World Series by his replacement for the ninth inning, Leon Culberson. The throw, which allowed the St. Louis Cardinal’s Enos Slaughter to score from first and defeat the Red Sox in the series, happened because DiMaggio had injured his hamstring in trying to stretch a hit the inning before, and had to be replaced. Enos Slaughter himself said that if Dom had been playing centerfield, he would never have scored (“Baseball’s Little Professor, Dom DiMaggio, Dies,” by Tom Fitzgerald, SF Chronicle, May 9, 2009). Ted Williams, Dom’s teammate and close friend, rated Dom at the very top: “He was as good a centerfielder as I ever saw,” said Williams, this from a man who not only saw Dom’s brother Joe, but Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays as well. “Dom saved more runs as a centerfielder than anybody else. He should be in the Hall of Fame.” (quoted in “Dom Dimaggio” by Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated, July 2, 2001.)

Sadly, and despite Ted Williams’ constant efforts to promote him, Dom DiMaggio died without being nominated to the Hall. This is reportedly the result of his short career (10 seasons with the Red Sox), and his batting average remaining just below .300 (.298 lifetime). But as the Ted Williams Museum advertises with its Dom DiMaggio display, he scored 1,046 runs in 10 seasons, second only to Williams himself, and had more hits, 1,679 than anyone else. He also holds the American League record of 2.99 chances per game by an outfielder, and the Boston Red Sox record for his 34-game hitting streak—a streak which, ironically, was ended by a diving catch of a sure base hit by his older brother, Joe. Of course, a key reason for the shortness of his career is that he volunteered to serve for three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, a time when he could have been most productive. Also left out is the fact that when he was benched for the first time in his life in 1953, he retired, deciding that rather than hang on as a pinch hitter or fielder, or be traded as his physical stamina and reputation waned (as most stars do), he would rather walk away on his own terms to pursue other options. Thus began the “little professor’s” second career, as a textile manufacturer. Though his Delaware Valley Corporation, in Lawrence, MA has no connection to baseball, DiMaggio’s intelligence and business acumen made it thrive, and made him very comfortable indeed. In his later years, he spent much of his time either watching the Red Sox or investing in the stock market, which became another passion of his.

It was in these later years that I met him. Having idolized his older brother, and having grown up as a Yankee fan hating “our” arch-rivals, the Red Sox, I remembered Dom all too vividly. He played for the Red Sox teams of the 40s and early 50s that boasted a “murderer’s row” of hitters, with Dom as the leadoff batter who always seemed to be on base, to be driven home by probably the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams. What I never knew about him was his persona, expecting him to be, perhaps, aloof and distant like his brother Joe. Instead, what I encountered was a warm, engaging man who knew who he was and felt no need to advertise it. Our first meeting was by phone: I had been asked to call him to see if I could persuade him to come to Washington in October of 1999 to testify on behalf of the legislation we had introduced—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act. It was a bill that had grown out of the exhibit I directed, Una Storia Segreta, detailing the little-known story of the internment and evacuation of Italian enemy aliens during World War II. Dom’s father, as a San Francisco fisherman, had been one of the so-called enemy aliens severely restricted during the war, and we had a photo of him on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco just before he was banned from fishing. Dom’s presence would not only add specificity to that story, but would no doubt impress both the press and the members of the Judiciary Committee holding the hearings.

When I called, he was at first wary, saying he was quite busy. But as I reminded him of those wartime days, he warmed up, and began reminiscing a little about the prejudice he grew up with, and which, he admitted, sometimes dogged him even as an adult: he had applied for membership to an exclusive club, the Everglades, near his summer home in Palm Beach, he said, and been rejected. He wasn’t sure what the reason was, but opined it could have been his Italian name. His response, he told me, was to say “the hell with them; I’ve got more to offer them than they have for me.” Telling me that story seemed to loosen something, and with a few more questions and a few more laughs, he agreed to come and testify if I thought it would help.

A man in his 80s by then, Dominic DiMaggio appeared at the hearings smartly dressed, with an easy grin, a surprisingly firm handshake, and a mind as crackling as one of his signature line-drives. Despite his major league fame—and everyone, from the other witnesses, to Congressmen Engel and Lazio testifying for the bill they’d sponsored, to the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, wanted to talk to him about his career—he was as down-to-earth as, well, as a fisherman’s son. He chatted easily, he signed booklets and baseballs, he talked knowledgably about the stock market, and charmed everyone, including Doris Pinza, the rather reserved wife of the late opera-and-Broadway star Ezio Pinza (an enemy alien who had been arrested on suspicion during the war) who was testifying before the committee as well. And while DiMaggio’s testimony presented no new revelations, it was evident that his very presence added an extra measure of dignity and weight to the proceedings. When it was over, and we had lunched in the Congressional dining room, everyone sensed that something significant had happened. And it had. Within weeks, Henry Hyde had presented the legislation to the House, had it passed by voice vote, and sent it on to the Senate. The bill would take another few months to be reconciled, but on November 7, 2001, it was signed into Public Law #106-451.

Not long after that, I read David Halberstam’s masterful portrait of a quartet of Boston Red Sox friends from a bygone era—Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams—and the deep affection they still retained for each other. Titled The Teammates, the book turns on the trip two of them, DiMaggio and Pesky, took to see the ailing Ted William (a sportswriter named Dick Flavin filled out the trio driving from Boston to Florida, Bobby Doerr being unable to make the trip due to his wife’s illness), and the loving way they tried to buoy the spirits of their dying friend. Along the way, it fills in the biographies of all four players, as well as some of the highlights of their Red Sox careers, including that devastating score by Enos Slaughter to defeat the Red Sox in the 1946 Series. It recounts how they had always stayed in touch, how Doerr had always been the only one who could criticize or calm Williams in any way, and how DiMaggio eased into that role in later years. One of the elements that remains with me, especially now, is the nickname Williams—always known as a tempestuous, critical, near-misanthrope of a player—applied to DiMaggio: he called him “Dommy.” The name seems so unlikely, and yet so sweetly affectionate, especially coming from a man like Williams who knows he is dying, that it almost brings tears to one’s eyes. So does Halberstam’s account of the great slugger’s last days, when he is finally joined by DiMaggio, Pesky and Flavin, and at which visit Dominic sang him an Italian song he called “I Love Her, But I Don’t Know How to Tell Her,” and finished with the classic “Me and My Shadow.” When he was done, Williams was overjoyed, enthusing, “Dommy, Dommy, you did really well.”

Williams lasted through the winter and spring after that, at which point DiMaggio “called him every morning with the latest Red Sox scores and an update of how they were playing. If he called a little late, Ted’s attendants would tell him that Ted had been asking about him and whether he had called in yet.” In July came the final call, when there was mostly silence at the other end, and DiMaggio was told that his friend had fallen asleep. “Well please tell him I called,” Dominic said; the next day Ted Williams died. (Halberstam, pp 197-98).

I have not been able to determine if Dominic DiMaggio had his own crew of friends tending to him when he died. It would not have included his brother Joe, who died in 1999, and for whom Dom gave the eulogy at St. Peter and Paul’s church in San Francisco’s North Beach. But it surely would have included his wife of 61 years, Emily, and their three children, Paul, Emily and Peter. It would also have included the prayers and good will of anyone who knew him, who felt his loyalty and affection and heart, and who will miss him. For though he never married America’s movie icon, or appeared in an iconic song (the title of this piece is a play on a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”), perhaps he should have, for he was not just a great baseball player; he was a true galantuomo.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ponzi & Pecora: the Yin and Yang of Banking in Crisis

Though it might at first seem highly unlikely, the roots of the present financial crisis can be found in the “work” of two Italian immigrants: Charles (Carlo) Ponzi and Ferdinand Pecora. They are the Yin and Yang, the Alpha and Omega of American finance. As such, their stories are highly emblematic of our current predicament.

Take Ponzi first. So iconic was his meteoric career that his name now identifies the scheme he made famous: the Ponzi scheme, wherein early investors are paid off with the money paid by later investors in a kind of pyramid fraud. It’s the scheme that was used to even greater advantage by Bernard Madoff (in fact, according to William K. Black, the whole fraudulent loan system was a “Ponzi-like scheme”). But Ponzi made it a true American game.

He was an Italian immigrant who claimed Parma as home, but was actually from a tiny Italian village called Lugo. He arrived in New York in 1903 with only $2.50 in his pocket (having gambled away almost $200 he had originally). After several menial jobs like dishwashing, he learned English well enough to become the manager of an immigrant bank in Montreal owned by one Luigi Zarossi, himself a swindler who claimed he paid 6% interest on bank deposits (apparently using a kind of Ponzi scheme himself). When Banco Zarossi failed, Ponzi resorted to forging the check of a former customer, was caught, and sent to prison for two years. Released in 1911, he got involved in a smuggling scheme, spent two more years in prison in Atlanta, and eventually ended up in Boston where he married the former Rose Guecco in 1918 and started a business trying to sell advertising. Though the business failed, Ponzi picked up an idea for his greatest scam: redeeming postal stamps (International Reply Coupons) sent from one country, in the currency of another. Ponzi figured that IRCs could be bought cheaply in Italy and exchanged for U.S. stamps to a higher value. Then the U.S. stamps could be sold at what Ponzi claimed was a 400% profit.

Though his stamp scheme quickly aborted on red tape and volume problems, Ponzi promoted it so skillfully among friends (he promised to double their investment in 90 days) that he was able to start his own Securities Exchange Company and pay off his initial investors as promised. This was in early 1920. Word of the fantastic profits spread, and investors began besieging his Boston office with cash. Ponzi had to hire agents to handle the volume, paying them lavishly for business they were now bringing in from all over New England. By May of 1920 Ponzi had made almost half a million dollars, and deposited so much in the Hanover Trust Bank (in Boston’s Little Italy) that he was soon able to buy a controlling interest in that bank. By July of 1920, he was being called Boston’s “Wizard of Finance,” had purchased a mansion in Lexington, MA, and was able to bring his mother from Italy to join him. He would arrive at work in a cream-colored limousine driven by a Japanese chauffeur, whence crowds would cheer him like a movie star. After one little speech he gave, one fan called him the greatest Italian of all.
“But what about Columbus,” Ponzi asked. “He discovered America.”
“But you discovered money!” was the reply.

Several times, suspicions were raised and there were runs on Ponzi’s company, but each time he paid off his investors and restored confidence. But it was not to last. The financial analyst Clarence Barron made calculations regarding the supposed source of the investment returns, and found that 160 million postal reply coupons would have to be circulating, while in truth, only 27,000 were. Another panic resulted, but Ponzi again managed to dodge the bullet. He hired a publicity agent, William McMasters, who quickly found the secret to Ponzi’s scheme. McMasters, a former newspaperman, took his information to the Boston Post’s editor, got $5000 for his exposé, and on August 2, 1920, the front-page headline blared: “Declares Ponzi is Now Hopelessly Insolvent.” McMasters pointed out that Ponzi was millions in debt, and was paying off early investors with new incoming deposits. To make things worse, on August 11, the Montreal Police identified Ponzi as the Zarossi clerk once jailed for forgery. Federal agents seized Ponzi and his holdings, while swarms of investors screamed for Ponzi’s head.

The new Columbus served a combined seven years on both a federal and a state count, and when he was released, he was deported to Italy for an immigrant violation (having never become an American citizen.) After several more jobs, one for Mussolini’s Latin Airlines in Rio di Janeiro, Ponzi remained in Brazil trying to eke out a living teaching English, but in the end died in a charity ward there, in January 1949, broke and alone at the age of 66.

Ferdinand Pecora, at first glance, seems the opposite of Ponzi. Ponzi hailed from a small town near Italy’s east coast between Ravenna and Bologna, while Pecora was born in the deep south, in Nicosia, Sicily, from whence he emigrated to the United States with his shoemaker father. Where Ponzi was all flash and showmanship, Pecora is described as dogged and implacable, a lawyer and prosecutor who mastered details and never forgot a fact. Where Ponzi presented himself as a mandarin of finance, outfitted like the banker he pretended to be, Pecora is described as an “earthy populist” who liked to play pinochle and smoke inexpensive cigars (his salary with the Senate committee was $255 a month). But in another sense, the two were brethren: like Ponzi, Pecora had a flair for the dramatic and an eye for the limelight, which shone brightly upon him when he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s June 12, 1933 issue. And like Ponzi, Pecora made his name in connection with wrongdoing—only on the opposite side of the law. The irony, of course, is that the fierce upholder law, Pecora, was largely forgotten until recently, while the felonious Ponzi became a household word and the subject of countless stories and reports.

Still, of the two, Ferdinand Pecora is, or should be, the more relevant to our time. This is due to his hero’s stint as chief counsel to the Senate Banking and Currency Committee and its 1933 hearings on the causes of the Great Depression. It was a signal moment in American economic history: since the crash of 1929, 40% of all American banks had closed, with 9 million individuals and families losing their savings. The Stock Exchange had sunk to a fifth of its 1929 value, and 17 million Americans were unemployed. Refugee camps called “Hoovervilles” dotted the landscape, with desperate souls emerging from them to beg for food and work. As for Pecora himself, he had worked his way through New York Law School, become an assistant district attorney in New York, and helped to prosecute more than 100 “bucket shops”—fly-by-night brokerage houses that preyed on gullible investors. This became his on-the-job-training in the seamy side of Wall Street, and the background which led to his selection as the counsel for the Banking Committee.

Beginning in February of 1933, the hearings, which were soon known as the Pecora Hearings, called Wall Street’s most powerful figures—Richard Whitney, president of the NY Stock Exchange, Albert Wiggin of Chase National Bank, Charles E. Mitchell of National City Bank (today’s Citibank) and J. P. Morgan Jr.—before it to testify. Pecora himself interrogated many of them, driving them into corners, forcing them to reveal astonishing bits of chicanery that had helped fuel the 1929 Crash. Where Wiggin of Chase and Mitchell of National City had been praised for their supposedly Herculean efforts to halt the Depression, Pecora showed that Wiggin had actually profited from his bank’s falling prices by selling shares short. Mitchell and his cronies at National City had not only given themselves millions in interest-free loans to get them through the crash, but had also passed off bad loans to Latin America by concealing them in securities sold to investors (sounds a lot like the legendary “mortgage-backed securities” that have poisoned our own global financial system.) Pecora’s greatest moment probably came when he grilled J. P. Morgan Jr., the “Lion of Wall Street,” about his taxes. Pecora asked Morgan if he had paid income tax in 1930. After a silence, Morgan replied, “I cannot remember.” It was a lightning bolt, but Pecora was not finished. He asked Morgan about his taxes for 1931, and again for 1932. Each time Morgan answered in the same way: he couldn’t remember. Bulldogging even deeper, Pecora asked about the Morgan banking partners. The Lion of Wall Street knew nothing about taxes paid by them either. Pecora did know, and stated for the record that the sum of the taxes paid by J.P. Morgan and its partners for 1931 was $5,000. The resultant furor led Time Magazine, in its cover article, to coin a name for the bankers that Pecora had now made infamous: “banksters.”

Pecora’s hearings rocked the nation and are considered key to the passage of the New Deal regulations that followed, regulations like the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 that created the SEC and reined in Wall Street’s worst excesses for more than 50 years. It was not until the 1990s that laws like the Glass-Steagall Banking Act were jettisoned to pave the way for the Wall Street piracy we have witnessed recently. As for Pecora himself, after his investigations closed in July 1934, President Roosevelt made him a commissioner on the SEC his hearings had helped establish. After that, Pecora was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court in 1935, where he held forth until 1950 when he resigned for an unsuccessful try at the Mayor’s job in New York. When he died in 1971, he left his own account of his hearings in the book he wrote in 1939, Wall Street Under Oath: The Story of Our Modern Money Changers. Too bad some of our own Wall Street “banksters” and alleged regulators didn’t read it before the roof fell in. Now they may get the chance, for increasingly we are hearing calls for a new Pecora and new congressional hearings to investigate the “banksterism” that led to our recent financial collapse. As Michael Winship said in his article on Pecora that appeared recently on Truthout:

“Ferdinand Pecora, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Lawrence DiStasi