Sunday, December 30, 2007

On the turntable--Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer

I love old timey music--and any genuine attempt to recreate the raw and unfettered, anguish, joy, heartache, and glee that old timey music brings. Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer fits into that category nicely. Helm, former drummer and singer for The Band (Dylan's original electric back up band), has recently come out of retirement following a bout with throat cancer to put together a wonderful piece of Americana. A compilation of traditionals and covers of recent artists like Steve Earle, Paul Kennerly, and Buddy and Julie Miller, Dirt Farmer successfully captures a jug band feel in an age of overproduced and over hyped pop music.

Telling tales of farmers, miners, love lost and love found, Helm's album reflects his musical upbringing. Helm's father, an Arkansas cotton farmer, bought him his first guitar when he was nine, and fashioned his sister a bass out of a washtub. And thus began Levon's musical career. Dirt Farmer is also a family affair, featuring Helm's daughter Amy, on vocals, drums, and mandolin. The familial intimacy is felt throughout the album, particularly on the sweet harmonies between Helm and his daughter.

Helm's voice is remarkably good given his struggle with throat cancer and, based on his NPR interview, that he has trouble talking. Overall, the album is not over produced--thankfully--sounding like it could have been recorded in Helm's living room (I'm sure he has a living room with good acoustics). Helm's cover of Steve Earle's "The Mountain," a sorrowful tale of resignation to a life in the mines and the love of the land, stands out as particularly representative of the work. Also, Paul Kennerly's tongue and cheek look at love, "Got Me a Woman," is excellent.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Mitchell Report

Former Senate MajorityLeader George Mitchell just released his report regarding steriod use in baseball. The results aren't terribly surprising at a number of levels. Largely based on hearsay and testimony from suppliers, it appears as if steroid use was an institutional problem in baseball going back to the early 90s, accelerating after the 1994 strike. The report presented evidence (mostly circumstantial or based on secondary testimony) that major names such as Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Paul Lo Duca, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield among many others used steriods, BALCO, or human growth hormones over the past 15 years. Additionally, according to statements made by former players and coaches somewhere between 20% and 50% of players were using performance enhancing drugs in the early 1990s. It looks like the moral outrage so focused on Barry Bonds has a lot of other targets--I am just curious how many will get hit with the same public ire as Bonds.

The other component of the report that isn't terribly surprising is that it lets the owners off the hook--at least in comparison to the Players' Association. Although the report indicates that baseball (owners and players) were "slow to develop" a response, by implication it suggests that the owners were interesting in doing something about steroids in the MLB but their efforts were obstructed by the Players' Association. According to the report, the Players' Association blocked testing for 20 years--which assumes that it was something the owners wanted. Following the 1994 strike, owners were very eager to get fans back in the seats, and what better way than increasing offense? Juiced players and juiced balls made the late 90s and early 2000s the most offense oriented era in baseball history. This was noticed by Joe Morgan who suspected steroids but states that he was discouraged from mentioning it on-air by ESPN because it might hurt viewership.

The fallout from the report is yet to be known. I hope it doesn't turn into a witch hunt, but I fear that it might with baseball weeding out the "bad apples" as a form of damage control. In reality the problems of baseball run much deeper. Steroids has been an institutional problem for two decades and I sincerely hope for the health of the players and of young people who aspire to be professional athletes that the owners and players can come to an agreement to effectively end steroid use while preserving the dignity of the players. Also, baseball has a salary and ownership problem. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer--and fans are frustrated. Is there any reason to think that the Pittsburgh Pirates have a chance for next year? And the season hasn't even started. And of course, baseball has an image problem. Steroids and an uncompetitive salary structure have turned America's past time into a farce.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Review: Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture

I suppose it is odd to review a book that is seventy-years old, but I do tend to procrastinate. I have been doing some research on the intellectual foundations of libertarianism and decided to read some neglected classics and reread some works that I had not read in a long time. On that list was Rudolf Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture (1937), his classic work exploring the intellectual and cultural foundations of modern nationalism.

Written in the wake of the Nazi takeover of Germany, Rocker, a German expatriate and anarchist, traces the history of nationalism and the “will to power” that is associated with the state. The epic tome is impressive in its scope and intellectual breadth. Freely interweaving examples from Roman, Greek, German, American, English, and Italian history, Rocker’s work is honestly amazing. It is much more than a discussion of the origins of fascism, but how nationalist ideology has permeated and debased so much of human society and been so destructive to the human spirit.

Rocker’s intellectual project is two-fold—he wants to expose the corrupting influence of nationalism on the struggle for human freedom and to demonstrate that libertarian socialism is the best alternative for humanity. For Rocker, classical liberalism, defined as the principled defense of individual liberty, and socialism, defined as the opposition to capitalist economic inequality, can only truly be realized in conjunction with one another. Although I am familiar with many of his arguments through other scholars, part of what I found amazing about the book is how he has prefigured later scholarly arguments which have challenged the nation-state paradigm.

Rocker views nationalism as a secular religion—a belief system that reflects man’s anxiety regarding his own weaknesses and his willingness to place his trust in some sort of higher power that will protect him. Modern nationalism evolved during the breakdown of the authority of the Catholic Church due to the Protestant Reformation and from the anti-clerical intellectual movements of the Renaissance. The discovery of America and the ascendancy of the mercantile class produced an increase in economic power of the privileged minority of commercial capital and enhanced state power to protect said interests. What these movements shared was not simply a desire to overturn older forms of authority, but to supplant new forms of authority in their place and the nation-state was their mechanism for achieving that end. According to Rocker, the “nation is not the cause but the result of the state. It is the state which creates the nation, not the nation the state.” The state creates “fictitious unity” between pre-national communal groups, separating humanity into hostile camps under leadership elements. It is fundamentally reactionary in nature, looking to mythical and romantic pasts to create a “tradition” which can be utilized for current political aims. It capitalizes on man’s instinctual and benign attachment to home and cultural achievements (what Orwell called “patriotism”) and transforms them to state worship. It seeks to homogenize language and culture, suppressing the true to creative spirit of the people, subordinating the popular will to the “will to power.” Speaking out against the nation is the new heresy, akin to the Albigensian, Cathari, Brethren, and Bogomil movements following the consolidation of the Catholic Church.

In opposition to the development of the nation-state stood classical liberalism, a distinctively individualistic philosophy that believed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the “government that governs best, governs least” and hopefully, according to Thoreau, “governs not at all.” Rocker sees liberalism as a philosophy least susceptible to nationalistic appeals, drawing from international revolutionary Thomas Paine’s statement that he is a “citizen of the world.” Conversely, ideologies like democracy and socialism are susceptible to nationalism because, in practice, they have been connected to rights and parliamentary efforts attached to particular nation-states. Historically, this has left popular democratic and socialistic movements disarmed in the face of nationalistic appeals, their failure to stop WWI or the rise of fascism being case and point.

Although Rocker champions the liberal tradition as being integral to any philosophy of liberation, liberalism’s association with the rights of property and capitalism are problematic. The abuse of liberal ideas, which have elevated the rights of property in the form of collective capital above the individual and the universalizing appeal of natural rights have combined with American nationalism to naturalize the US imperial project. Just as Trotsky imagined that the Soviet Union could export communism through “permanent revolution” so has the inverted Trotskyism of American neo-conservatism sought to export Americanism through the revolutionary ideology of liberal capitalism.

Rocker is clearly aware of the corrupting influence of capitalism to the liberal tradition; however, living in the current epoch, I would say that Rocker underestimates the ability of moneyed elites to pervert liberalism. Capitalism has grown hand-in-hand with the nation-state. Despite the laments of modern “free market capitalists,” the expansion and centralization of capitalist economic operations have developed in an almost mirror image to that of the “Great State”—each capitalist crisis requiring greater involvement of bureaucracies, both public and private, to manage dissent, and in the most extreme cases, save capitalism from itself. This not to say that all government expansion has been at the behest of capitalist elites, some of it come s from parliamentary reforms, careerist politicians, and military officials, but the state has been and remains a central component of capitalist development. This trend is pronounced in the United States going back to the origins of the Republic. More recently, it has become increasingly obvious as the New Deal welfare state (America’s version of social democracy) has given way to the warfare/nanny state—where hard won reforms like Social Security and Medicare are “in crisis” and “going bankrupt” but in reality are gutted to subsidize the Pentagon and provide tax abatements to corporations meanwhile the government tries to utilize the remaining welfare and education expenditures to shape public morality.

Rocker also predicts the globalizing trends of our period. He sees capitalism outstripping the nation-state, moving towards large regional blocs (America, Europe and Asia) and ultimately towards an integrated and Taylorized world-system. The growth of international trade arrangements and the attempts to use the UN to facilitate the needs of international capital are examples of the "state" moving beyond the reach of populations as a means of limiting popular input into decision making. It is the tension between “national interest” and the imperatives of global capital have created so much consternation as of late in the United States. The neo-conservative imperialists seek to reconcile the two by connecting American living standards to the health of transnational capital through wars of aggression and “free trade” agreements. A powerful counter trend is the development of “state capitalism”—the concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of the state. Modern examples of this would be China, which despite its “communist” label, functions relatively harmoniously within the capitalist system under the direction of “the Party.”

To counter such trends, those interested in social justice and equality must draw from the best of the intellectual traditions which have critiqued capitalism, respected individual rights, but also be sensitive to corrupting influence of nationalism. Rocker favors the libertarian tradition because it fuses the classical liberal notion of natural rights with socialism. Although he is favorably disposed to Marx’s contributions to political economy and his critique of capitalism, Marxism is not sufficient, because it offers little in the way of an alternative method of social organization. It is a revolutionary ideology whose goal is to seize the nation-state, but without a clear goal for the “day after,” which has led to its corruption by nationalism. Conversely, libertarianism has been more open to “utopian” experimentation (even if such experiments are failures, there are still lessons) and is more sympathetic to Martin Luther King’s notion that the "means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means."

Although anti-statist sentiment in the United States is quite powerful, it seems to be slowly eroding, largely due to the “War on Terror,” the increased militarization of the economy, and the emergence of political Christianity. The increased concentration of capital and the central role the United States plays in orchestrating international capitalism have further prepared the American public for the centralization of authority, whether it be political or economic. Unfortunately, “libertarianism” is almost totally divorced from socialism and often is used as an ideological bludgeon against popular reforms imposed upon the state and corporations by workers in favor of the “free market,” which is little more than the right of collective capital it impose its will upon workers. Of course, the relatively weak labor movement in the US compounds the problem, in part a victim of its own economic nationalism, thus leaving the political field open to right-wing statism. This creates an even greater imperative among the political left in the United States to redefine itself as the libertarian choice, to build upon existing forms of popular dissent, to resurrect the labor movement, to forge bonds with international liberation movements, and to recapture the popular mind. Although I believe it is necessary to defend existing, solidarity based reforms, like Social Security and public education, and to exploit openings in the current power structure to curtail corporate power (free health care!), leftists and progressives should resist the urge to run headlong to the state to solve every problem that capitalism creates. We must find ways to create alternative institutions, which aren’t connected to the state, which can provide the basis of a more just and egalitarian society.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Some thoughts on Chavez

(from RealNews)

Last week Hugo Chavez lost his referendum which would have made substantial changes to the Venezuelan constitution, forwarding what he considers to be "21st century socialism." The barely restrained glee from the Bush Administration and most of the US news media was obvious. Analysts were very quick to argue that Chavez had been wounded in international affairs and the Bush Administration has begun to pressure Columbia to move forward with a Free Tree Agreement to further stifle Venezuelan influence.

Of course, the gross misreporting of the situation was enough to make Goebbels cringe. According to the US media, the referendum was the latest effort by a dictator and strongman to become even more dictatorial. Focusing almost exclusively on the constitutional changes that would eliminate term limits and expand presidential emergency powers, the US media presented Chavez as trying to use the referendum to make himself "president for life." The level of disinformation was even greater in Venezuela as the opposition, possibly aided by the Orwellian named, and US funded, National Endowment for Democracy, spread unsubstantiated rumors that the referendum abolished private property and would allow Chavez take people's children. At face value, much of this doesn't make sense--since when do dictators have to resort to public referendums to expand their power? And if they do, why would they allow public dissemination of information against the referendum, particularly false information? Such subtleties seem to be lost among the mainstream American press.

The reality is much more complex. The more substantive changes in the constitutional granted more rights to indigenous peoples, protected women and homosexuals from discrimination, shortened the work week, provided for an expanded social safety net, and protected communal property. It is these latter changes which make the proposal so threatening to the US, not the whole "dictator thing." Chavez is offering an alternative model for economic development that is at odds with the US dominated neo-liberal order--and the Bush Administration simply can't have that. The real problem with the referendum for Venezuelans was that it was too broad, to
complicated, and too much to grasp all at one time--in effect mobilizing anyone who opposed any one thing against the entire proposal. On a more practical level, Chavez's support for expanded presidential power is potentially dangerous, although I am less concerned about him than if he were to lose a future election to the opposition--the mechanisms of dictatorship would be dangerously close to reality (for a historical corollary look up the Bruning Administration). Of course, Venezuela was and remains a constitutional democracy, Chavez is not a dictator, and hopefully he has learned a lesson. And even more so, I hope the more redeeming aspects of the the Bolivarian revolution can continue, without unjustified and dangerous expansions of executive power.

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Review: Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus

In Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Joe Bageant offers an enlightening, humorous, sad, and often scary look at the rural white working class. Ghettoized and economically oppressed in a manner that often defies widely held beliefs regarding race and class, “redneck” workers--ignorant, angry, and propagandized--have become the populist backbone of the conservative political resurgence, repeatedly voting against their own economic interests, and recreating the very causes of their anger driven, irrational political behavior.

Bageant, a journalist, former editor of Military History, and progressive populist, grew up in the working class community of Winchester, Virginia, a town of 25000 tucked between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. He escaped what Marx referred to as the “idiocy of rural life,” thanks to the Great Society social programs, and subsequently joined the ranks of the New Left. Recently, however, Bageant returned home--to the people that "smell like an ashtray" and "praise Jesus for a truck with no spare tire." Thus, Bageant speaks with an interesting voice—he is redneck by birth, godless commie by choice. Although thematically similar to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, it is more stylistically similar to Jim Goad's Redneck Manifesto--non-academic and more targeted to a general audience. It is largely comprised of illustrative anecdotes interwoven with witty, ironic, and sardonic commentary: exchanges between himself and his old high school buddy; run ins with locals at the Royal Lunch; and discussions with his brother, a Baptist preacher.

The picture he paints is quite bleak—that of workers who have never heard the words “class war” and therefore are desperately losing it. Economically and politically dominated by local business owners, mired in debt by unscrupulous mortgage agents, and suffering from a lack of education and health care, most of the working class residents of Winchester are beat down, frustrated, alienated. Their primary means of understanding their oppression comes from right wing talk radio, internet urban myths, and the local prayer revival---all which place the blame for their problems squarely on the shoulders of the “liberal elite.” Local business people, often Republican Party operatives, reinforce this world view—repeating Limbaugh-esque sound bites drawn from NewsMax, FrontPage, and other right wing news sources; and in a world where few people question direct authority, it may as well be from God’s mouth.

The world of Winchester is characterized by a na├»ve belief in the way the world should be, with an irrational hatred of anyone that might want to actually bring that world about. Bageant comes across an old school mate who is convinced that revenue from “Support the Troops” magnets (probably made in China) actually goes to the troops—because why else would they make them? Bageant’s best buddy from high school has totally internalized the sound-bite defense of the American Empire, an Empire that offered him up as canon fodder in Vietnam and constantly threatens to outsource his job at Rubbermaid because American labor is too expensive. A lot of it simply comes down to symbolism—or what Bageant refers to as the American hologram—the blue collar denizens of Winchester would rather vote for a candidate that implores the public to “support the troops” and pretends to cut brush in his free time than a candidate that actually went to Vietnam and pretends to wind surf.

What is to be done? Bageant offers few specific prescriptions, his case is largely implied. The key difference between Bageant and “his people” is that he left and got an education. As Bageant argues, widespread access to quality education has a liberalizing effect upon society, and the post-integration withdrawal of many whites from the public school system has been to the detriment of both. The erosion of support for public schools and the rising expense of higher education have produced a new generation of under educated individuals, happily unable to sort fact from fiction—anti-intellectual in thought and practice. Moreover, the development of Christian academies and homeschooling has produced a new generation of highly indoctrinated individuals—convinced that the world was created in seven days and the rapture is nigh with the political goal of recreating a Christian Republic that never was. And of course, the Republicans have eagerly played into this—seeking to hasten the breakdown of the public education system and thus reproducing cohorts of ignorant and pliable workers for generations to come. The Left must work to reverse these trends through the aggressive defense of our public education system and resist attempts to privatize schooling through vouchers or other machinations of the tax code. Additionally, making college education more affordable to the working class is imperative.

The Left also needs to get “right” with the Second Amendment. As Bageant correctly points out, during the heyday of New Deal liberalism, being a Democrat and a gun owner were perfectly consistent, today, not so much. Few issues have been more cleverly manipulated by the Republicans than gun ownership. The beauty is that the solution is very simple—support the right to bear arms—the Black Panthers did, if that helps. Additionally, the Left needs to pressure the Democrats to be more aggressive in supporting class based legislation—protecting Social Security and establishing a real National Health Care Plan.

Alone, none of this will make much of a difference, because through the American hologram, all of these things will become distorted beyond repair. The only way to counteract this eventuality is if the Left and the Democrats step out of their comfort zone and talk to these people. Few people in Winchester know a real live liberal, much less a “red,” therefore mischaracterizations and stereotypes are easily held and reinforced. Rather than talking down to Evangelical Christians and redneck labor, it is time to learn to change our own oil and maybe change a few minds.

Make no bones about it, at times, this book can be tough to read. As someone who shares Bageant’s political sensibilities and certain aspects of his background (I can’t honestly state that I grew up a redneck, but my extended family is from rural Indiana, and the world of Winchester is not outside my experience), I am sensitive to terms like “white trash,” “hick,” and “redneck” as class based put-downs. I have as little use for middle class whites who mock lower class whites as I do for racism, and more than a few times Bageant’s mockery of “his people” rubbed me raw. But as I read, the more I realized there is a method to his madness. Bageant challenges us to rethink an implied assumption of many on the Left—that the white working class should be written off. Although it may very well be true that the remaking of the American working class is causing the rural white working class to be less significant numerically, the reality is that the white working class will remain a substantive part of American society for the foreseeable future and, in the worst case scenario, could serve as the shock troops of a fascist America—a looming possibility as oil prices threaten to undermine American living standards and the US becomes more dependent on the military to prop up its ailing domestic economy and to enforce its will overseas.

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