Thursday, December 27, 2012

Blue Christmas

Much to my surprise, I found, in a recent PBS Christmas special by Andrea Bocelli, that the most beautiful, moving and apt song was Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” What surprised me even more was that Bocelli sang the song in a duet with country singer Reba McEntire. While this prepared me for something trite and mushy, the song revealed, in Bocelli’s Italian-accented, pitch-perfect rendering, an elegantly simple melody—which, with the familiar melancholy lyrics, made it almost perfect for the season.

            I’ll have a blue Christmas without you,
            I’ll be so blue thinking about you,
            Decorations of red on a green Christmastree
            Won't be the same, if you're not here with me

And when those blue snowflakes start fallin'
And when those blue melodies start callin'
You'll be doin' all right, with your Christmas of white,
But I'll have a blue, blue Christmas.

            Now clearly, Elvis wrote “Blue Christmas” as a kind of love song: while his love will be “doin’ all right with her Christmas of white,” he’ll be having a blue, blue Christmas without her. But the song works for almost everyone. Christmas is traditionally white and bright, sparkly and happy with friends and lovers and family all gathered in joyous harmony to celebrate the birth of the savior whose arrival promises peace, salvation and forgiveness to the world. As everyone knows, though, the reality is anything but. To begin with, the man-god of Christianity is almost nowhere to be found in the modern American (and increasingly worldwide) Christmas. The trading of gifts has become the centerpiece of this once holy day. Rather than a celebration of spiritual renewal, the day has become an orgy of gift buying and bargain hunting that stresses out even the most relaxed shopper. One has to calculate which friend or family member to gift, and in what measure: what did he/she give me last year, will my gift be a fair exchange, will he/she like it, will the kids remember this Christmas as the best ever, will their gifts induce sufficient envy for show-and-tell at school, and on and on. Frantic shopping for exhausted parents consumes the weeks before the holiday, as do arrangements for dinners, parties, card sending and painful decisions about whom to include and not to include. Whether or not one is staying within prudent bounds monetarily, the season’s spending is constantly being rated by economists as either sufficiently reckless to rescue the retailing year, or anemic to such an extent that businesses will be hard pressed to stay solvent. For the Christmas shopping season has become so central to all retailing, and retail sales to the economy, that if consumers don’t overextend themselves and max out their credit cards, the whole economic structure trembles. It is as if not shopping—being reasonable—has become the primary sin in America. All of which is a roadmap for the “blues.”
            And this doesn’t even get to the interpersonal spectrum. All the pressure to perform, whether with the right presents or the proper and traditional Christmas decorations, ritual fare on the table, and holiday hilarity every minute, can’t help but result in disappointment and strife. No one really ever gets precisely what he or she wants, and if by some miracle (or pre-Christmas agreement) it happens, it’s simply not surprising enough to satisfy that inner childhood memory everyone carries around. The food never quite measures up to that inner family memory either. Then the undercurrent of resentment either stays suppressed and causes what the Italians call “agita,” or it explodes on the wings of too much egg nog and brandy into open warfare. We all know what that’s like.
            So when Elvis Presley wrote his corny love song, he wrote more than he knew. Our modern Christmas is always without a “you” we are missing—whether through breakup, as Elvis meant it to be, or through absence of a more permanent kind. More, it is without the central “you” of the holiday, Christ himself. It is without his central gift to the world—peace and love and harmony and forgiveness. It is given over, instead, to the opposite of his humble birth in a manger: to the exaltation of pride and wealth and excess and an orgy of consumption that is sickening in its wastefulness, but is a boon to the profit mongers who rule the holiday as surely as if they had invented it. And though it is surely understandable that people everywhere in the northern hemisphere want and need a little light festival to fend off the coming blues of winter, there can be little doubt that blue has increasingly become its emblematic color.
            Who knew Elvis would be the one to provide its most perfect expression?

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Good Guy With a Gun

You really can’t make this stuff up. The National Rifle Association, after a long period of silence, has finally responded to the Newtown Elementary School massacre. Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, held a press conference today (Dec. 21, with no questions allowed), to offer his solution to mass school shootings. Here’s what he said:

"I call on Congress today to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation."

La Pierre explained that his proposed program, which he dubbed the “National School Shield,” would be headed by former Arkansas Republican representative, Asa Hutchinson. After adding, apparently in agreement with Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert, that “Innocent lives might have been spared,” if armed security had been present at the Newtown school, he summarized the NRA position with this well-prepared sound bite:

            "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Now there’s a philosopher for you, and one with great sympathies for innocent children too.  LaPierre resembles the aforementioned Louis Gohmert in that regard. Gohmert, on December 16 (perhaps anticipating LaPierre) expressed sorrow at the death of Sandy Hook principal, Dawn Hochsprung, by saying to Chris Wallace on Fox News,

"Chris, I wish to God she had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids…"

            So there it is, folks, the simple solution of our right-wing geniuses. Just arm teachers or principals to shoot first and ask questions later, to make schools more like prisons than they already are—with armed guards at every gate—and you solve the problem just like that. As to what little children or even big ones will think about having to be locked in and guarded (with assault rifles?) to ensure a “safe” environment for learning, well that’s a possible downside we’ll just have to put up with. Guns, are, after all, one of the constants in American history that kids should learn about anyway.

            Now that I think of it, perhaps a little history would be appropriate here. Robert Parry, a fearless journalist and creator of Consortium News (, provided us with some of that history—that behind the adoption of the Bill of Rights, including the 2d Amendment so dear to gun owners and the NRA. The Bill of Rights was in truth a late concession by conservatives like James Madison, who actually considered such a bill unnecessary because the already-agreed-upon Constitution specifically “set limits on the government’s power and contained no provisions allowing the government to infringe on the basic liberties of the people.” But Madison finally agreed to 10 amendments to spell out the people’s rights, and thank god for that.

            As to the second amendment, which reads—“A well regulated militia(,) being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”—its meaning was clarified, according to Parry, at the Second Congress when the government enacted the Militia Acts (there were two: the first on May 2, 1792, the second on May 8, 1792). They decreed that all white males of military age were conscripted, and should provide themselves with a bayonet, a musket, shot, and other equipment needed to serve in a militia. This lends credence to the long-held idea, and plainly implied in the amendment’s actual wording—recently overturned by the current idiots on the Supreme Court—that serving in a militia was central to the right to bear arms. The idea, again according to Parry, was to ensure the “security” of the young nation. To do this, there needed to be militias armed and ready not only to counter possible aggression from European powers like Britain, France and Spain—all with claims in the Americas—but also to subdue Native American tribes on the frontier, and to “put down internal rebellions, including slave revolts.” The wealthy southern planters who made up a large portion of the new nation’s most prominent citizens—Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe—were especially concerned about keeping slaves under control. Real estate speculators like George Washington were likewise concerned about keeping restive Indians from decreasing the land value of his western holdings.

            Thus, it is clear that the Second Amendment so precious to conservatives had nothing to do with some idealistic ‘freedom’ for nature’s individual noblemen, Americans, to possess guns. If anything, those who wrote the Second Amendment would be alarmed at the numbers of the “masses,” whom they feared above all, running around with high-powered lethal weapons. Their chief concern was security—and security, as we have seen so vividly in the past fifty years, is compromised by the free availability of millions of lethal weapons (300 million weapons in a nation of 310 million).

            The only thing that is really secured by our absurd gun policies is the ability of weapons manufacturers to take advantage of the American male’s adolescent power fantasies to make huge profits.

            Profits before life—it could almost be the mantra of American capitalism.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown, Oh Newtown

I feel compelled, more than usual, to write about Friday’s massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. To begin with, I grew up in southern Connecticut, though in the once-industrial center of Bridgeport, not in the much tonier community that is Newtown. No matter, Newtown yet has a ring for me made grimly relevant by the massacre: my mother used to say, when we kids were driving her nuts, “I’ll end up in Newtown.” That’s because its claim to fame in those days was a state mental hospital, known as Fairfield State Hospital, which operated from 1933 to 1995 when it was shut down. It housed 4,000 patients at its peak, encompassed many many buildings, and used to do sweet things like shock therapy, electroshock therapy, and frontal lobotomy.
            Today, the site has been taken over by the town, most buildings razed, and new municipal and sports complexes erected on the grounds, but its legacy remains—most grimly when I heard about Friday’s shootings, and was thus already prepared for my conclusion: yet another nut case with access to America’s favorite weapons. 
            As it turned out, that wasn’t a bad guess. The shooter’s name was Adam Lanza, and so far we know that his mother, whom he apparently killed first, at home, was somehow connected to the school—not as a teacher, as initially reported, but perhaps as a classroom aide. Adam, around 20 years old, fit the typical mass murderer profile: not very sociable, nor competent at anything useful, but quite bright. According to most reports, on Friday he dressed himself up in combat gear—black fatigues, bulletproof vest—and, after shooting his mother in the face, drove her car to the Sandy Hills Elementary School and burst in firing. He had the weapons we’re all familiar with by now: a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol (probably with extended 30-round magazine), a Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistol (also with extended magazine) and, either with him or in his car, a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle. All were said to have been registered in the name of his mother, which makes one wonder whether she was a gun fan too, or whether she did the craziest thing of all and purchased the guns for her son. I heard one analyst last night speculate on what may have been the motive: Adam, a son living in a home absent of a divorced father, may have been jealous of his mother’s attention to her little students, and so killed her, and then as many of them as he could to magnify his statement.
            But, in truth, the latest reports cannot find any school connection for Nancy Lanza, so this could be nonsense. More important, this speculation about motive misses the real point—one I’ve made several times before. It’s not what prompted yet another American kid to murder. It’s the fact that someone in this chaotic mental state had easy access to the most lethal weapons on the planet. Police speculated that he probably fired 100 rounds or more. Imagine. Hundreds of bullets spraying everywhere in a school, or a classroom (one gets ill thinking of what may have gone on in a single classroom) filled with little kids, in seconds. Minutes. And in their wake, six or seven adults, mostly teachers protecting their charges, lying dead (including the school principal); and no less than twenty children, mostly kindergarteners, their worst nightmares having come true. My first reaction was “who could slaughter children like this?” “What species of monstrosity could do such a thing?” (Again, recent coroner’s reports say that most victims were shot at close range—very intentionally) But again, that’s not the key here—though the emotional impact of babies being willfully snuffed out like this might have some effect in the main debate. The key is the weapons. Insane people (and, in my view, anyone who keeps such weapons in a home is insane) can buy weapons like these, and even more lethal ones, with little more than a credit card. Gun shows proudly display these and other high-firepower wares for the great “sportsmen” of America; for the legions of paranoid assholes who argue that the only way to stop violence is to be armed to the teeth oneself.  There have been photos online today of Israeli teachers with assault rifles over their shoulders watching over their kids. And one idiot commented that American teachers and schools should do the same: every teacher in every classroom should have a weapon in her desk or closet and be prepared to use it. Christ Jesus (the great unwashed no doubt would argue that even Christ would use a gun if he were an American).
            So get ready to hear the whole weary song being repeated in the coming days. It’s already started. We need more gun control. We need to have stricter licensing. We need a prohibition on assault weapons (pistols, like the Glock, are just fine; as are hunting rifles, in this view). But then the counter-attack: what about our Constitutional right to bear arms? What about our need to protect ourselves from all the criminals out there? all the terrorists out there? all the dark malcontents who plot daily to rob us blind out there?
            And the whole history of America will come into play once again. The nation, these United States, and before that these thirteen colonies, were born in violence. Guns were viewed as the prime necessity in a land that was being occupied, brazenly stolen, from its original inhabitants. Because these ‘savages’ had a nasty way of resisting their dispossession; so the only ‘good’ one was a ‘dead’ one. Guns were also the prime necessity where human beings were shipped in chains from Africa and sold as chattel laborers—because these slaves had the nasty habit of resisting the ‘natural law’ of their enslavement and tended to run away. So the only way to keep one’s ‘property’ from disappearing, or worse, turning on its owner, was to keep it sighted down the barrel of a gun—and to lynch a few every now and then for didactic purposes. What’s sad is that the very same arguments are used now—updated for popular modern consumption, but essentially the same. Property must be protected. Rights must be protected. No true American can depend on the government. So the best protection, the only way to protect what you have, is a good gun. Or several.
            We all know what comes next. The pusillanimous pieces of excrement we elect to the United States Congress, some of them, will make a few noises about this latest tragedy, and wring their hands over the challenge of balancing American freedoms against the safety of our children, and give heartfelt interviews on news programs and talk shows. And then every proposal will be talked out and delayed and the deaths lamented and regretted until finally the whole issue will die of neglect, and fear. Fear not of the hundreds of thousands of shootings, the deaths of innocents. But fear of the National Rifle Association and its ability to mount phone and letter-writing campaigns threatening to vote against the ‘traitorous bastards’ who would strip red-blooded Americans of their gun-toting rights.
            And we will all wait for the next massacre, and wonder, ‘now how did a nut case like that get his hands on weapons of mass destruction like that?’
            And the deaths of innocents will continue.
            Unless—and one barely has the temerity to hope—this time is different. Unless..we remember the opening line of John Milton’s most famous sonnet:
            “Avenge, O Lord, they slaughtered saints…”
            And avenging takes the form, at long last, of a gun-control law that can begin to remove, if not the occurrence, at least some of the probability that a crazy person can so easily, so quickly, slaughter so many innocents.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, December 14, 2012

Michigan's 'Right to Work'

Everyone knows by now that the state of Michigan, one of the strongholds of American labor, on Wednesday passed a “right to work” law—meaning that non-union workers can work in jobs that are protected by union efforts, but without having to join the union that protects them. The new law was rushed through in a lame-duck session of the legislature by a solid block of Republicans, many of whom lost their seats in the recent election. The Repugs knew that if they didn’t pass the law now, they’d probably never get it through the new legislature. They also knew that their governor, Rick Snyder, elected two years ago as a ‘moderate,’ would sign the bill despite his promises not to. Michigan thereby joined 23 other states with ‘right to work’ laws—a movement that seriously threatens the very existence of unions in the United States.
            What is the result of leaving workers without union help? A story in the Dec. 12, 2012 Bloomberg News (reprinted on Yahoo News) by Leslie Patton provides some indication. The story, comparing the salaries of a McDonald’s line worker with a McDonald’s CEO, focuses on the life of Chicago native Tyree Johnson. In his 40s, Johnson works at two McDonald’s in Chicago (he needs the two jobs to try to make ends meet) as a fry cook for the princely sum of $8.25 an hour. McDonald’s CEO until July, Jim Skinner, meantime, earned $8.75 million per year (580 times what Johnson, a 20-year employee, makes). This means, as Patton points out, that Tyree Johnson would need to work about a million hours—more than a century of work—to equal the yearly pay of his boss, Skinner. This is consistent with what we’ve been hearing for years now: that the pay of America’s CEOs and other “winners” in the economic lottery has been skyrocketing (when Johnson started at McDonald’s 20 years ago, the CEO ‘only’ made 230 times his pay), especially compared to the earnings of middle and lower class Americans. And it’s gotten worse since the economic collapse of 2008-09. Patton points out that the ‘recovery,’ such as it is, has been the most uneven in recent history: the top 1% saw their earnings increase by 5.5%, while those in the bottom 80% saw their earnings fall by 1.7%. And that doesn’t even count the top 0.1% who are really raking it in. But for the likes of the bottom fifth like Tyree Johnson—whose ranks are increasing due to the downturn, with the numbers
 employed in fast-food restaurants and retail giants like Wal-Mart expanding exponentially, all at minimum wages, while the net income of their employers (McDonald’s, Yum [owners of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken] and Wal-Mart) has increased by a whopping 22% since the downturn—life just keeps getting harder. Just to pay his single-occupancy hotel rent of $320 a month, Johnson needs both of his McDonald’s jobs. As to buying the $99 computer he found online (Johnson actually trained for a year and a half at a computer school), forget about it. This is one of the reasons he is attending meetings of a Workers Organizing Committee of low-wage employees hoping to get a $15/hour wage in Chicago—but it has to be done beneath the radar. McDonald’s fires workers who even hint about unions or organizing. They actually have a hit squad of skilled union busters whom they fly in to areas where union talk gets started.
            And that is the key link between Johnson and Michigan’s new law. Without unions, low-wage workers are in precisely the position factory workers were in at the end of the 19th century (and workers in Bangladesh are in now). Any one worker trying to fight the power of a corporation with money to burn and power to match was helpless. Only if workers banded together and thus wielded the power of numbers and the threat of a strike could they begin to get some traction in the struggle for better wages and better working conditions. But it wasn’t easy. Trying to organize a union could get you at least fired, and perhaps killed. But over the 20th century, conditions improved. American workers could earn a living wage sufficient to support their families, move to a decent dwelling, even send their kids to college. And most important, they had a kind of job security. Not anymore. Employers have grown increasingly bold about firing workers who try to organize—a number that has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, according to Dorothy Sue Cobble of Rutgers University. Because if workers had union protection, a corporation like Applebee’s wouldn’t be able to get away with paying some of its workers $4.95 an hour—the wage allowed for waiters and others who get tips—when they were actually washing dishes and mopping floors. Without a union, it took years, and a class action lawsuit by four workers to finally get a ruling in their favor.
            What’s hard to understand is how workers became so powerless. Workers are, after all, the most numerous group in any nation. They are the ones who turn the wheels of industry, of farming, of construction. How did it happen in a government 'of the people' that a few legislators could pass a law that eviscerates the last vestiges of people power?
            This is the story that economists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson tell in their 2010 book, Winner Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned its Back on the Middle Class. It is not a pretty story. Basically, it is the story of money and how the conservatives with money—corporations, Wall St. financiers, professionals like doctors and lawyers—decided in the late 1960s and early 1970s that they needed to act, and soon, to organize, organize, organize and use their power to influence the legislative process. A key memo from Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to be a Supreme Court Justice, sounded the alarm and was passed to virtually every boardroom in the country. It urged corporations and businesses to use their money and power to turn the legislative process in their favor and away from unions and workers—mainly by means of intensive organizing and lobbying. It urged the formation of foundations to provide the intellectual propaganda to promote the glories of business and capital and “free” enterprise allegedly ‘free’ from government interference—foundations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and countless others.
            The corporations succeeded beyond anything they could have imagined. The surprising part is that money began to corrupt the legislative process not with Ronald Reagan, though it did then as well, but with the Carter Administration. In 1978, a major labor law reform bill to restore some rights of workers was a top priority of unions, and seemed to have the votes to pass Congress. But a delaying effort by Republicans and southern Democrats stalled the bill in the Senate by means of a filibuster. The bill faltered, and then failed. The message was clear to all: business now had the upper hand in Washington. With Ronald Reagan’s success in firing Air Traffic Controllers when they tried to strike, thus breaking their union, the power shift was almost complete. Violations of the National Labor Relations Act rose; strikes plummeted; more and more factories moved to the non-union states of the South. The results have been catastrophic for average American workers and a bonanza for upper management. In 1965, average CEO pay was about 24 times the pay of an average worker. By 2007, it was 300 times the pay of an average worker, at about $12 million per year. Nor is this just the result of a global trend, for American CEO’s earn more than twice the average for other rich nations. And when you get to the real mandarins, the hedge fund managers, the rise has been obscene: as Hacker and Pierson point out, in 2002 a hedge fund manager had to earn $30 million a year to be one of the top twenty-five managers; by 2007, a hedge manager had to make $360 million/year to make that level, and the top three managers were each earning $3 billion per year!
            Now the myth has always been: well, this is what can happen in a free-market economy. Brilliant entrepreneurs can drive the economy to ever new heights, and the government has little or nothing to do with it. Hacker and Pierson say this is nonsense. They say it very plainly: “The winner-take-all economy was made, in substantial part, in Washington (i.e. by government).” How? In three simple ways. By the way government treats unions; by the way it regulates executive pay; and by its policing (or non-policing) of financial markets. What Hacker and Pierson do is to lay out, chapter and verse, how this is done. Sometimes it is done with the passage of specific legislation, such as the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. This bill, cleverly inserted into a budget bill, essentially prohibited any regulation of derivatives trading. And it was the pet legislative project of Senator Phil Gramm, the Republican chair of the Senate Banking Committee (who made his wife, Wendy, the head of the new Commodity Futures Trading Commission). This was the bill that allowed the wild derivatives trading that essentially brought down the economy in 2008. By that time, of course, Gramm and his wife had left the government (she to become a board member of Enron, with salary and stock income of around $1.8 million), he to the board of UBS (the Swiss-based global financial giant), which needed a massive bailout when the financial sector nearly crashed in 2008.              
            That’s right. There is always a payoff to those in government who do the bidding of the corporate giants. This is mainly done through PACs, or political action committees. The growth of corporate PACs compared to labor PACs is instructive: in 1976, there were 224 labor PACs, while in 1986, there were 261. Modest growth. Corporate PACs, though, exploded: in 1976 there were 922; by 1986, there were 2,182, outspending labor by two or three to one. This of course had its effects, and not just in reducing the power of labor unions. It also had positive effects for the top earners. First, when Jimmy Carter tried to reform the tax code by instituting more progressive taxes—especially a hike in the capital gains tax—he was met with a major offensive from business interests: they had their bought-off reps insert an amendment that not only did not raise capital gains taxes, but cut the capital gains tax rate in half. And Carter’s own Democratic Congress passed it, reducing the rate from 48% to 28%. Reagan followed with his so-called Economic Recovery and Tax Act of 1981, which reduced capital gains once again, cut the highest tax rate from 70% to 50%, and substantially reduced the estate tax (benefiting mainly the wealthy). As Hacker and Pierson summarize it, “Both parties were now locked in a struggle to show who could shower more benefits on those at the top.”
            As to the 2001 tax cuts now at issue in the struggle between President Obama and the Repugs, “more than a third went to the richest 1% of Americans—a staggering $38,500 per household per year when all took effect” (the Repugs cleverly delayed the full effects of this tax cut to the wealthy: they gave an average $600 rebate to middle income earners right away, but delayed the full benefit for their upper income cronies—7% of benefits the first year, but 51% ten years later!) And as everyone knows, people like Mitt Romney and Lloyd Blankfein now pay only 15% on their capital gains.
            Again, the key to all this has been the greater organizational money and power of the corporate and financial barons, and the reduction in organizational power on the progressive side, mainly with the demise of unions—the only organizations that used to be able to curb corporate power. Now it becomes clear why corporate-funded organizations like ALEC and all the PACs supported by the Koch Brothers and their cronies always try to initiate legislation in state houses to limit or outlaw unions—as in Michigan, Wisconsin, and so on. With unions marginalized, there is no power in the nation that can compete with corporate money and organization. The middle and poorer classes simply have no organization. And when they do manage to get something going—as with the Occupy movement of last year—they are viciously attacked both externally, by police, and internally (by agents provocateurs urging mindless violence).
            The key here, as always, is understanding. The corporations and financiers know what’s at stake, they know they’re at war, and they take appropriate, deadly action.
            What about you?

Lawrence DiStasi