OWS, Non-Violence And A Confession

This is something of an “ignosce mihi quia peccavi” moment, so please bear with me.

When I first chose the Twitter handle “@Socialism4USA” I knew I was painting a target on the back of my T-shirt. There are a lot of people out there, especially Americans, who have, shall we say, strong feelings about socialism and aren’t afraid to express them.

For the record, I agree with many of them. I hate their idea of socialism too and wouldn’t want it implemented in the United States or anywhere else. It’s intentionally constructed to look like Hell on earth. (The reasons for that would require a separate post that would look like a lecture in a collegiate Labor History class). My vision of socialism for the US is more like these people’s. But it’s hard to put nuance into 140 characters.

I’m afraid that all too often I’ve succumbed to the allure of snark and wit and come up with uncharitable answers to their taunts. And I need to stop.

I’ve been aware of the philosophies of non-violence advocated by men like King and Gandhi for most of my life. In my day and age, how could I not? Gandhi is as much as the father of India as Washington is of America, and he did it with methods that eschewed violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. is likewise held in high regard because he changed the landscape of this country, again by taking violence head-on with non-violence.

I’ve never really applied them to my life, though. I’m just this guy, you know? I post stuff on the Internet that I think is interesting, or insightful, or funny, or admirable or silly or whatever. Non-violence didn’t seem to enter into it.

Then along came the Occupy movement, and as I followed the occupations of first New York, then Boston and London and Melbourne and Nashville and Oakland and Seattle and LA and Buffalo and on into the nooks and crannies of America, I  came to see a pattern in the protests. By and large, they were peaceful. They didn’t try to bait police or provoke confrontations. They stood their ground and asserted their rights and often, as in New York and Nashville, prevailed.

The anti-Occupy forces hooted and howled. They pointed to instances where someone had defecated on a police car, or reports of sexual assaults, or properly vandalism and attempted through the magic of the fallacies of composition and division to conclude that (1) all of the Occupy movement is guilty of illicit behavior and (2) that the members of Occupy support or are guilty of these behaviors individually. (I don’t live in New York but I’m guessing that any unsavory behavior you could try to attach to Occupy happens hundreds if not thousands of times throughout Manhattan alone every single night, and always has, and always will.)

They bring back the “dirty hipple” and “commie” shibboleths that we all thought had died out in the sixties. They try to tie Occupy to George Soros (through a chain of association worthy of the Kevin Bacon game) and ACORN (even though ACORN is dead). In fact I created the term “trollmonkeys” for the people posting these lies, half-truths and smears, bringing to mind classic Internet trolls who toss . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, shit . . . at the walls to see if anything sticks. Thankfully, so far nothing has.

Then I read Captain Paul Chappell’s article How To Destroy The Occupy Movement, And How To Prevent It From Failing. Chappell left the US Army in 2009 after a tour in Baghdad and is currently Peace Leadership Director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. The article and the comments that follow it are a worthy read, but here’s the Short Attention Span Theater version of it: The way to kill the Occupy movement is to get people to see it as violent. The moment it falls to violence, it starts losing the support of the American people, who right now favor its message. Conversely, the way to ensure its success is to work the principles of non-violence into the movement in such a way that the two are inseparable.

This would not be easy in a movement with a charismatic leader figure like King or Gandhi. It’s infinitely more difficult in a movement like Occupy where there are no leaders and everyone is a leader. It’s all to easy for a group that wants to discredit Occupy, or to cause trouble to further its own agenda, to sneak agents provacateurs into a group and try to gain support for violence. To their credit, most of the Occupy groups have been pretty successful in weeding out these fringe elements, but it’s a constant struggle. It’s especially tough when you hear reports of TV producers telling their reporters and cameramen, “Get me a picture of someone flouting the law!”

Which brings me back to, well, me. Occupy is as much a creature of the Internet as it is of the streets, and I consider myself a member of the support crew for the ground forces who are doing the occupation in meatspace. That makes me liable for any violence I commit in the furtherance of Occupy, and that includes mocking trolls and hurling insults and the like at them. According to Chappell’s article, King never participated in that. He called the white racists who opposed his efforts to create a just society “my sick white brothers and sisters,” defining racism in terms of illness rather than demonizing its participants.

I don’t yet know what waging a non-violent campaign for social justice, real democracy and economic fairness on the Internet looks like. All I know is that I need to be a part of it, and I have a lot of learning to do.

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Remember, remember the 5th of November

One of the reasons I started this blog was to express thoughts that wouldn’t fit comfortably into 140 characters. For instance, this little quatrain about National Move Your Money day, the deadline before which Occupy Wall Street urges all of us 99 percenters to transfer our banking operations from TooBigToFail™ banks to credit unions or local community banks:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
The day when the classes will clash.
I will be with you if on the Fifth you
Remember to transfer your cash.

OK, Shakespeare it isn’t, and there’s a near-rhyme in there, but at least it fits the meter and rhyme scheme of the original. Mostly anyway.

(Not that I want to brag, but I transfered my banking to a credit union several years ago, and every time I hear about something stupid a bank has done or some fee that’s going to get raised just because they can, I’m sooo glad I did.)

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Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street

I’m not a Machead. Never have been. I think they’re cool and for a couple of years I made my living writing programs for them, but I could never justify the price to buy one. No matter how cool it was.

I will admit to spending a great deal of time in front of an Apple //e many years ago. I loved that computer. It was great fun, and there was a community of people who had gathered around it who were willing to share what they knew, to teach you how to do a cool hack you could put into your own programs, It was a sad day when I had to give that machine up in the face of the inevitable march toward the IBM-style PC dominated world, and due to lack of space to put it. It was a great machine, and I still sometimes wish I could pull it out and play some of the old SSI games.

If that was the only way Steve Jobs touched my life, it would have been enough. But there’s just one more thing . . .

Jobs of course was the man who bought the graphical user interface to the common man. If you were born about 1970 or before you probably remember computers with windows of scrolling text, blocky graphics, and being able to only run one program at a time. The Macintosh changed all that.It had beautiful graphics, proportional fonts, and the ability not only to run multiple programs simultaneously, but to be able to see them all running at once and interacting with all of them. Bill Gates is supposed to have started screaming “I want THAT on a PC!” when he first encountered a Macintosh. If it hadn’t been for Jobs my favored desktop environment – Gnome running on Linux – would never have come about. Linus Torvalds might still have written the Linux kernel and Richard Stallman might have still created the Free Software Foundation to write the GNU toolchain, but it would have remained a curiosity of the computer science world without a graphical user interface to run it on. (Yeah I remember early X servers like FWVM in Red Hat 5.0, but I always found it hard to use. Besides, without the cheap commodity hardware developed for Windows machines, it’s doubtful Linux would have had a GUI, and if it did few people would have been able to use it.)

And I still haven’t gotten to the iPod, iPad, iPhone and other more recent Apple products because, frankly, I don’t use them. I’m aware of their impact, they’re just not something I’ve put a great deal of time into.

What does any of this have to do with the crescent Occupy Wall Street movement, which is rapidly growing into an Occupy America movement?

There are those who don’t understand the Occupy Wall Street movement (which I’m going to call the Occupy movement, because it’s expanded way beyond Wall Street). Some of them deride the protesters for using iPhones and Macbooks to spread the word and help organize the movement. “They’re creations of a one-percenter,” these people taunt. “Don’t you feel hypocritical using them?”

Look. First off, Steve Jobs created things. More to the point, he created things people wanted to buy and use, things people could come up with uses for that far outstripped anything their originators could have envisioned. I doubt very much that when Jack Dorsey put Twitter together he envisioned that it would someday be used to take down governments.

I’m just one guy. I don’t speak for Occupy. There are probably 1.4 times as many opinions about what Occupy is about as there are participants. But in my opinion, no one is saying people shouldn’t make things, or sell things, or even make money. The distinction is between someone like Jobs who makes money by creating and selling something, and a Wall Street speculator who makes money flipping convertible debentures (whatever those are) and leaves nothing behind to show for it except an extra zero in his bank account, or worse, actually destroys wealth for someone else as happened in the housing crisis. The problem is unregulated, unbounded Gordon Gecko greed. That’s what Occupy is railing against, not the basic capitalist idea of make something that didn’t exist before and selling it. (I know, exotic financial instruments didn’t exist before, but c’mon, if you can’t tell the difference I probably can’t explain it to you.) Occupy isn’t looking for some reactionary’s-idea-of-socialist agrarian economy. They just want basic economic and political fairness.

Besides . . .

Think back a scant thirty years ago. It’s 1981. (If you don’t remember those days, bear with me. Consider this a history lesson.) Ronald Reagan has just been elected president. The Internet is still in the planning phases, as is the IBM PC. (It was released in August of 1981 and didn’t make much of an impact until the advent of Lotus 1-2-3.) The closest the US has to a national network is Compuserve, which H&R Block is using to make a little money off of its big expensive computer hardware that would otherwise sit idle much of the year. Compuserve is accessed through dumb terminals – text only. The fastest form of communication is a primitive form of e-mail. Few people have Compuserve accounts. The most common ways of getting the word out are telephone, face-to-face meetings, and mimeograph (or photocopying) machines.

With the technology available at the time, I submit to you that it would have been difficult if not impossible to create the kind of financial chaos that ultimately sparked Occupy. Computers have sped everything up, made it easier, and that goes for financial transactions. It’s not unheard of for an automatic trade of billions of dollars worth of stocks to make millions of dollars in profit on moves of the stock of less than a cent. Probably less than a tenth of a cent. You just wouldn’t be able to do that with a photocopier and a copy of AppleWriter, even if you were running VisiCalc.

And I submit that organizing a protest like Occupy would have been impossible back in the day. Oh sure, there were the protests against the Vietnam War, and in the end they helped end that conflict, but those were organized by telephone at best, or by writing up pamphlets and flyers and manifestos and handing them out, or – most often – by people traveling around the country and meeting face-to-face to discuss strategy and tactics. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam protests spanned decades. Occupy has gone from an idea put forward by a magazine to a protest in one city to over 500 separate Occupy events around the world and counting, all in just over a month.

And it’s not confined to those cities. Anyone with a computer and a web browser can participate in Occupy (or, alternatively, sit on the sidelines and heckle and jeer), from anywhere in the world.

And again, I submit to you that this is all possible because of Steve Jobs.

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Your iPhone Is Hurting America

Not that I blame you. It’s not like you’re setting out to hurt America or anything. You just want to make phone calls and maybe play a few rounds of Plants vs. Zombies. I understand.

But consider that every single iPhone out there is made in China. I don’t know how many iPhones were sold in the US last year, but cumulatively they added $1.9 billion dollars to our trade deficit with China. (And that’s not addressing my issues with AT&T, which has exclusive rights to distribute the iPhone at the moment, or lost productivity from messing around with the various apps available, or any of that.)

Now lest you think I’m picking on the iPhone, this goes for iPods, iPads, iMacs, and pretty much any other consumer product made by Apple. Not to mention other high tech manufacturers like HP and Dell. And it isn’t just high tech. From flower pots to electrical testing equipment, a lot of what we buy and use in this country comes from the Middle Kingdom. But let’s stay with high tech for now.

Unfortunately this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Part of the reason for that is that the rare earth elements necessary to build our high-tech gizmos, like neodymium, samarium, gadolinium and dysprosium, are increasingly being mined in China, which currently controls 95% of the world’s supply. In order to move our manufacturing capabilities onshore we would have to ramp up our own production, which experts estimate will take at least 15 years.

Over the last few decades we have increasingly moved our manufacturing capability offshore into cheaper markets like Mexico and China. We say we want to promote jobs that don’t pollute the environment, but honestly, how many of us can work for Oracle or Microsoft? How many of us can sell these imported goods to other fellow citizens who are selling other imported goods to us? Sooner or later we need to make something of our own.

I did a brief inventory this morning of things we still make that we can export to other countries. Unfortunately it’s not a very long list. Movies. Music. Fashion. Cars. Food. Software. Airplanes. Weapons. Soldiers. I’m sure there are more, but you get the idea. (And even these aren’t exclusively American. Boeing gets parts for its planes from overseas now, and numerous software companies have operations in places like India and China.)

Until we can get turned around and start making items for domestic use so we can ease ourselves away from the allure of cheap goods from overseas, we’re going to continue to have this problem. Simply put, we need to start making things again. Even if we have to go ytterbium mining to do it.

Posted in Current Events, Tech | 2 Comments

Be Careful What You Wish For

We Americans are conditioned to be consumers. It’s drilled into us almost from the time we’re born. We grow up thinking those kids on TV are having fun with the toy of the moment. As we grow older we are taught that Coke is the real thing, that we deserve a break today, that dying your hair makes you more attractive, that buying a new car gets you the hot girl.

Well, we’ve been sold to again. Yesterday’s election was as much a triumph of marketing as it was a reaction to a sour economy. For two years the American people have been told that they want something other than what the President and the Democrats in Congress are offering. They were told it so much that many of them bought into it. Whether the message was coming down from the top (the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world) or the bottom (ordinary citizens who feel that they’ve been Taxed Enough Already), they listened, and they believed it.

And so we come to this point, where starting in January the House of Representatives will be controlled by the Republicans. The majority of Senators are still Democrats, but unless there is some kind of major filibuster reform, the Senate will still be the place where legislation goes to die. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering the agenda the incoming Republican Congressmen have announced.

So those of you who voted for Tea Party candidates, or for Republicans in general, enjoy your day. Crow from the rafters. Savor the experience. Because soon the honeymoon will be over and the fun will stop, and those Congressmen you elected will have to get down to the serious business of governing.

That’s when you’ll find out the awful truth about the government. No matter who you sent to Congress or what they said they would do when they get there, they will find that it takes co-operation among 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate to get anything done. Repealing health care, or balancing the budget, or . . . really, anything is going to be pretty hard to pass. They’ll have to try to keep their base happy, but they won’t succeed. What the base will do then is an open question. Will they come up with even more right-wing candidates? Will they vote for Democrats? (Yeah, I know.) Will they try to form their own party? (Of course there’s already a political party that represents the interests of working people, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to TV or read the papers.)

Add to this that there are now effectively two Republican parties. There’s the one spearheaded by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner that represents the Old Guard, and there’s the one led by Michele Bachmann and Jim Demint that flies the Tea-Colored Flag. Once these two factions agree on something it will be hard to keep it from passing in the House (the Senate, as I said earlier, is a different matter); the trick is going to be to get them to agree. What the Tea Party wants isn’t the same as what the Old Guard Republicans want.

There’s an old saying in politics: Democrats are good at governing but lousy at winning elections. Republicans are good at getting elected but can’t govern. I think we’re going to see the Republican side of that play out in the next couple of years; then let’s see if Obama and the Democrats can catch lightning in a bottle again in 2012, or whether, as McConnell hopes, Obama will turn out to be a one-term wonder.

Posted in Current Events, Socialism | 3 Comments

Thoughts On The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear

First, I would like to say that the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear was awesome just from an entertainment point of view. Who knew that Ozzie “Crazy Train” Osborne and Yusuf “Peace Train” Islam would get on so well together? They are part of my musical past. So were Tony Bennett, Mavis Staples and the O’Jays. Even the acts I had never heard of or didn’t know much about like Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, The Roots and the Four Troops were good. Seeing Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman warm up the crowd was a welcome surprise. And of course Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were their usual fantastic, funny selves.

Part of Colbert’s uberconservative schtick involved showing us a bunch of reasons to be afraid. Part of that was a video montage of pundits from Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly to Ed Schulz and Keith Olbermann, all freaking out at the excesses of the right and/or left. And a number of people on the web – including commentators I happen to like and admire and think they are usually right on point – blasted Stewart for “false equivalency.”

And that misses the point by a wide margin.

Sure, the left doesn’t have a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation pushing out talking points and supporting left-leaning candidates and causes like the right does. But Stewart and Colbert didn’t make up those clips. And they do support the point of the rally: America is far too polarized. Everyone needs to ratchet down the rhetoric. We cannot seem to debate even the simplest of issues without resorting to petty partisan point-scoring or “he said, she said.”

Where does “Inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims make us less secure, not more” fit into the idea of “false equivalency”?

Or “The press is our immune system. If it constantly overreacts, we get sick”?

Or “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing”?

Socialism is right in the middle of this. Far too many Americans have a distorted view of socialism that’s been fed to them by those who see the empowerment of the working man a menace to what’s supposed to be the American way of life. They don’t see how socialist ideas helped shape this country. They don’t see how other countries have looked to American social ideals to help shape their societies. And they can’t seem to step back and look at socialism objectively and say, “Are these ideas good for America? And if not, why not? And what would be better?”

I would like to think this rally and Stewart and Colbert’s message could get America pointed in some small way toward sanity, reasoned discourse and the kind of politics the founding fathers imagined. Unfortunately I don’t think the people who really needed to notice are going to.

But that doesn’t mean you and I can’t.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

Any computer programmer will be familiar with the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.” It’s nerd shorthand for “no matter how good your program is, the results it gives you are only as good as the data you put into it.” This is a narrow application of the more general logical principle that there’s a big difference between “logical” and “rational.” You can employ impeccable logic, but if your initial premises are flawed, all the logic in the world won’t save you from coming to an incorrect conclusion based on your starting point.

Sometimes this is a useful literary device. No one did it better than William Gilbert. In The Mikado, he asks us early on to buy into two absurd premises:

1. That the heir to the throne of the Empire of Japan could wander the country unrecognized, disguised as a traveling musician.

2. That the Emperor would issue a decree that the only crime punishable by death in Japan is flirting.

Having bought into these two premises, several other absurd situations follow:

3. A local tailor, sentenced to death (presumably for flirting), is made the Lord High Executioner, the city’s highest-ranking officer, on the grounds that as long as he’s next in line for execution and he can’t cut off his own head, everyone else in town is safe.

4. All of the other officers of the town resign rather than serve under such a lowly personage, paving the way for Pooh-Bah to debase himself by serving in their positions (and accepting the salaries that go with them).

And things just get sillier from there, like a scene where the Heir Apparent and his love interest declare how they would flirt if it wasn’t for the law (flirting all the time, of course). This makes for great fun in a make-believe Japan populated by Victorian Englishmen, but in real life it has predictable consequences.

There’s another term familiar to computer programmers: “Garbage In, Gospel Out.” Again this is a shorthand for “people tend to believe just about anything if it comes from a computer.” Extending this into real life, people often believe things just because an authority figure said so without doing research to verify the assumptions underlying the statements.

This was brought to focus this week in a New Yorker article by historian Sean Wilentz: “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War roots.” Wilentz points to Glenn Beck as one of the Tea Party’s leading influences and shows how Beck’s philosophy was shaped by post-McCarthy radical conservatism.

In an interview recently on NPR’s Fresh Air, Wilentz spoke of the John Birch Society and its founder, Robert Welch. In Welch’s world view the American government and the Soviet government were both run by a secretive cabal bent on imposing communism upon the world. The Soviet side had just been more overtly successful, but they believed that America was overrun with communists, up to and including President Dwight Eisenhower, who was supposedly controlled by his brother Milton. Based on this faulty worldview, many of Welch’s theories seemed logical.

The John Birch Society had influence far beyond its membership. For instance, conservative icon William F. Buckley regularly denounced the Society. He saw its beliefs as an impediment to his goal of a conservative-led government, and was vindicated in this belief when Barry Goldwater refused to denounce the Birchers and indeed made a nod to them in his famous “Extremism in the defense of liberty” acceptance speech for the 1964 Republican Presidental nomination. Goldwater was trounced in the subsequent election.

Welch’s beliefs also made an impression on a professor of religion at Brigham Young University and former police chief, W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen, while never a member of the Society himself, took up their cause in a series of books that purported to show communist influence over the United States.

Which brings us to Glenn Beck. The point of Wilentz’ article is that Beck has largely adopted the ideas of Skousen and through him, Welch. And while Welch’s ideas were once ridiculed as too far “out there” to be acceptable, by giving them a platform that Welch and Skousen could never have dreamed of Beck has re-introduced these ideas to an audience all too willing to accept them.

The ideas are appealing: All this stuff that’s happened over the last few years that make people scared and angry? It’s all the work of a shadowy “Them,” whether the “Them” is communists or liberals or Martians or whether they’re all in it together. And if you just listen to me and learn what I’m willing to teach you, you will know who They are and have the tools to fight back against Them.

It sounds reasonable. It sounds logical. But it’s built on a faulty premise, so no matter how logical it is, it isn’t rational.

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