Sunday, March 25, 2012

Local Rag Does Wrong

The Failures of the Star-Tribune

In the last month the failure of the Star-Tribune (“ST”) as a source of in-depth reportage has been egregious. The consistent bias of the editors is to ignore or soft-peddle violations by various societal scared cows. I’ll take three examples.

The most glaring, and massive is 'Rolling Stone’s' February 16th in-depth, nationwide article on the suicide cluster in Anoka County related to the policies of the Anoka County School Board, and by reference, the influence of the fundamentalist Christians around Michelle Bachmann in that district. The Tribune’s reporting concentrated on some vague disputes about ‘gay’ policy in Anoka County’s school district, ignoring, and not high-lighting, the suicides plaguing young gay, lesbian and even hetero-sexual students in that district. Of course, the suicides are what give this story its real meaning. I had to read this story in Rolling Stone, for chrissakes, to understand what was going on.

The second is coverage in the February 15 'City Pages' (“CP”) about the scandals around the “TIZA” charter school in Minneapolis. Again, almost invisible in the news pages of the Star Tribune, a paper I scan everyday on-line. I was vaguely aware that ANOTHER charter school was a bankrupt fraud, but that was it, connected to some lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The CP story went into great detail, however, showing how the bankruptcy was connected to Islamic Relief ‘patrons’ that were supposed to monitor the school and never did; about early-afternoon ‘after-school’ classes on Islam that were virtually required, as buses did not leave until they were over; that assemblies were held where ‘God is Great” was one of the cries; where paperwork was filled with forgeries; and that a shadow company whose building TIZA was housed in, MET, got some of the monies from the State. Even Keith Ellison stood up for this travesty. This is what the Democratic and Republican parties want to do with our tax dollars related to education.

CP has gone on to detail the myths of the stadium debate repeated by proponents of the Vikings in the March 14 edition. This is a story that will never be done by the ST, which never met a stadium it didn’t like. After all, the wealthy businessmen in Minneapolis need somewhere to get brutal but safe entertainment for a high price. Hunger Games anyone?

The third story was done by the March 2012 'Southside Pride,' which reported on a failure of water levels at the Prairie Island nuclear plant, which either escaped detection or were caused by a leak. This could have lead to a heat-up of the reactor core, similar to what happened at Fukushima. According to Eddie Felien’s story, this was not reported by the Star Tribune, but it was reported by papers in other parts of the country.

What do downplaying or ignoring all three stories have in common? Protecting the conventional ‘multi-culturalism’ of religion; protecting the bi-partisan political consensus support of charter schools and protecting the reputation of a giant, powerful utility, Excel. The Star Tribune is only a tribune for the 10% that control this society. They are a tribune for no one else, not even the stars.

I have a button that says’ Big Media” with a slash across it that I wear occasionally. When a reporter for the ST saw it, he challenged me for my supposed troglodyte ways. I must say, after this last month, I won’t be apologetic for continuing to wear it. If the union members at the ST want to challenge management there, one thing they can do is attempt to control what is written in that paper. This is as good a reason for worker control as any. The management editors have made a hash of in-depth reporting, and this is because of political reasons. That would be one way to bring readers back.

Red Frog
March 25, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

And We Shall Now Praise the Homeless, the Drunk and the Poor

Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy, 1979

Cormac McCarthy has filtered into popular culture twice now – first when the Cohen brothers adopted his book to make “No Country for Old Men.” And then when his dystopian masterpiece “The Road,” went visual. ("The Road" reviewed below.)

McCarthy’s “Suttree” is a humorous cross between Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, TS Eliot, James Joyce and Steven King. Scientifically, the book is ‘modernist’ in Zizek’s sense – combining myth with ‘humdrum’ everyday details. For my money, McCarthy is one of the two or three best modern living writers, alongside TC Boyle and Russell Banks. I have avoided his westerns, except “Blood Meridian,” which is based on a true and bloody story. Some have called “Suttree” his best book.

McCarthy’s use of words and phrases is what bites one first. After all, he is a writer. He creates words, combines words and dredges up archaic words – much like TC Boyle in ‘World’s End’ - and keeps going for 450 pages. That is no small jump. Here is McCarthy poetically describing the sights out of a streetcar window: "Blinking at the transit of these half-empty frames slapping past. Beyond in a yellowlit housewindow two faces fixed aspectant and forever in some domestic vagary. Rapid his progress who petrifies these innocents into stony history."

Suttree is a homeless man in 1952 Knoxville, Tennessee, who takes over an abandoned houseboat on the Tennessee River under a bridge, selling caught fish to survive. (He calls those who live under the bridges, 'trolls.') He has a mysterious wealthy background, wife and child that he abandoned. He has a fondness for the bottle that he drowns in chocolate milk. Suttree is a decent man, and attempts to help the down and outs that surround him. Harrowgate, a country half-wit; the rag-picker who lives under the bridge; the trainman who lives in a wretched and abandoned train car on the weedy tracks; a giant black who fights the cops every chance he gets; various unemployed rummys and beer fans; transvestites and witches; whores and beautiful river girls.

This book has been called ‘semi-autobiographical.’ If McCarthy lived through this shit – and I think he did – he had a very rough 3 years in Knoxville. He’s thrown in jail; pukes on himself in a black whorehouse; suffers tuberculosis almost to death, a broken body in a whirlwind bar fight and too many nights of days in unprotected heat and cold. At one point he stumbles through the adjacent Smokey Mountains in the winter, freezing white, lost, until ending up in North Carolina, many miles away. Some kind of Yeti dressed in rags.

How he lives in Knoxville is not clear – his paltry earnings selling catfish and carp cannot account for his being able to feed himself all winter. The group he hangs with refuses to work for the most part - just drink. Did he have a secret bank account not mentioned in the book? Fiction, of course, is not kind to fact. The issue of black segregation and oppression is touched on, but McCarthy considers it just part of the scenery. However, he is not a southern segregationist, like Robert Penn Warren. (see review of "All the King's Men", below). This book is a view of the underside of that southern city – aching poverty, unpleasantness and death, wrapped in beer, comradeship and humor. If Orwell had written it, it would be called “Down and Out in Knoxville.” The back-side of the American century and the myth of the glorious '50s - told in a magical language you won't forget.

Red Frog
March 20, 2012

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Snake Slithers Up the Mississippi

Who Allowed this to Happen?

Since slavery, the southern United States has been home to the most reactionary forces in the U.S. - forces now concentrated in the Republican Party and the oil barons of Dallas and Houston. Slave labor and wage labor have several things in common - especially if wage labor can be made to more closely resemble wage slavery. So if you thought the Civil War ended in 1865, you'd be sadly mistaken. Georgian Jimmy Carter prepared the ground for Reagan by moving to the right. Ronald Reagan made it official, establishing 'small government' as the goal of U.S. society. Arkansas Bill Clinton incorporated Reaganism into the Democratic Party by echoing Reagan and declaring the 'era of big government over' in 1996, adopting a form of rampant libertarianism that continues to this day. Some local and national Democrats oppose this neo-liberal trend, but they have been on the losing end of the debate inside the Democratic Party for 30 years. Now big city neo-liberals like Obama and Rahm Emanuel exemplify the northern mirror of southern Reaganism. So who remains as the real opposition? Certainly not the wobbling Democratic Party. Which is why the snake has moved north.

Why is this important? The recent vote in the Minnesota legislature to hold a referendum on so-called "Right to Work For Free" is merely the southern chickens coming home to roost. And you thought this shit would stay south? After all, it was the southern United States and their 'union-free' or 'union-lite' environments that first decimated northern industries in the 70's and 80's - it was not Mexico or China. And that process is still going on - witness all the automobile manufacturing plants located in Alabama and the Carolinas. Turning the whole U.S. into a free-fire, cheap labor zone for capital is the ultimate goal. And destroying or weakening unions is key to that goal. That is capital's "American Dream."

As unions have shown, wages, working conditions and social conditions are worse in every single 'Right to Work for Free" state in the U.S. These laws forbid the closed shop - essentially weakening the power of a union to bargain or strike even if they win a union vote. It would be like forbidding businessmen from working together if one businessman disagreed. It holds the majority of workers to the standard of the most conservative minority - essentially an anti-democratic move. Breaking up working-class solidarity is the goal of every single capitalist. Oh, except maybe for those ice cream guys in Vermont.

As an example, take a look at the hipster town of Athens/Clark County, Georgia - the south. It is home to the University of Georgia at Athens. It features a cute downtown with lots of music venues and bars, and now a foodie culture. Yet is is one of the 10 most unequal counties in the United States. Why? Can you say 'overpaid college bureaucrats' and a professorial elite on the one hand, and non-union service and small manufacturing employees on the other? Only unionization will bring a living wage or some kind of small equality to Athens. Certainly not more REM songs.

This is our Scott Walker. If the legislature passes the bill to put this on the ballot, the war is ON here in this state. Like Ohio, the working class can stop this attack. Every union, every non-union worker, every student and every activist in every disparate, separated, minuscule, isolated organization in Minnesota should come together and fight against this proposal with everything in their power. A united front of community groups and unions should be formed. I understand as one example the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor will be attempting to work with unions to bring the message of defeating this slave labor law to the general public. After all, it is non-union workers that will also see their wages and working conditions decline if this law passes, as their benefits are partly calculated based on competing with union scales.

Defeat this proposed vote. Complete the civil war. Organize the South.

Red Frog
March 15, 2012

Hungarians Mobilize Against Virtual Book Burning

'Milla' Demonstration for Democratic Rights

Today a mass demonstration has been called in Budapest to demand freedom of speech and the press in Hungary. March 15 is a national holiday commemorating the 1848 revolution. This is in response to the shutting down of independent television, radio and print voices by the authoritarian Fidesz government. The demonstration is to be held at the statue of Sandor Petofi, one of the national poets of Hungary, who in 1848 read 12 demands to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, including 'freedom of the press' on the steps of the Hungarian National Museum. His statue is on a street named "Freedom of Press Street." Organizers, who are not directly connected to any political party, hope for a million people. Unions have joined in these protests.

In other Hungarian news, the museum and research library of the Marxist Gyorgy Luckacs in Budapest has also been shut down by the Fidesz government. Is a book burning next? Another Hungarian writer, Akos Kertesz, was given refugee status in Canada, due to harassment by the Fidesz authorities. Note that Hungary is a member of the European Union.

Statues of progressive poets and writers in other parts of the Hungarian capital, like the "Red Count," are under consideration for removal from public places as well. This follows the practice after the pull-out of the Soviet Army in 1989, which lead to the collapse of the Hungarian Communist government. All memorials or monuments to socialism, the Soviet Red Army, Marx, Lenin, Hungarian revolutionaries or the working class erected during the period of the Hungarian workers' state were relocated to a private park outside Budapest.

March 15, 2012
Red Frog

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Last glimpse of the Soviet Union

‘Soviet Women – Walking the Tightrope’ – Francine Du Plessix Gray, 1989

Francine Gray didn’t know it, but her visits to the U.S.S.R. provide some of the last glimpses of civil life there. After she left, the Soviet government collapsed in December 1989, followed in 1991 by the shelling of the ex-Soviet parliament by Yeltsin's military. After that came the ‘free market,’ plunging the ex-Soviet peoples into an instant 10-year depression, one of the worst economic collapses in history. (See “Reinventing Collapse” by Dmitry Orlov, reviewed below) One of the architects of that counter-revolution “Dr. Shock,” Jeffrey Sachs, now admits he thought the West would ‘aid' Russia. Actually, the only thing the West wanted to do was steal the USSR’s assets for a song.

But this tumult is just approaching as Ms. Gray tours the Soviet Union during perestroika and glasnost. Her method is to personally interview many mostly female intellectuals, journalists, scientists, psychologists, government bureaucrats, factory workers, artists and doctors in the span of 3 or 4 visits. As a middle-class American feminist with a Russian background, (her mother had been engaged to Mayakovsky before emigrating to Paris), she looks into the issues of sex, abortion, contraception, womens' roles, the 2nd shift, child care, health care, working conditions and female leadership in the USSR. .

Gray acknowledges the legal gains of the 1917 revolution – formal sexual equality, the right to vote, equal inheritance laws, improvements in divorce, the lifting of the veil in the Muslim Republics – and social benefits like child care, social feeding, long leaves and access to all jobs. But she points out, along with some of the Russian women she meets, that these gains under Lenin were undermined by the Stalinist period and then the long ‘stagnation’ of the Brezhnev years – called “zastoy.” Gray calls it ‘re-domestication.”

Alexandra Kollantai, the most prominent feminist in the revolutionary years, was saved from execution by Lenin – a fate recommended by the conservative faction of the Central Committee. Instead Kollantai was sent overseas as an ambassador to get her out of the way. In 1979 the first samzidat ‘feminist’ text since the 1920s was issued in Leningrad. In 1980 four of its authors were expelled from the USSR. Stalin had outlawed homosexuality in the early 30s, and even in 1989 the statute was still on the books. Lesbianism was not recognized as even possible. So it comes as no surprise to Gray to find so few Soviet women willing to call themselves ‘feminists,’ even in 1989.

The funniest part of this book is how Soviet women look down on Soviet men as lazy weaklings. The Russian male evidently was supremely lazy at home – never cooking, cleaning or taking care of the children – instead puttering around reading the newspapers. This is a description of a matriarchal social culture based on work. To Soviet women, their jobs, mothers and children come far before their husbands – and to be single with a child, normal. Marriage is not the exalted state we see depicted in the US culture. Their exhaustion working two shifts proves their social superiority – which is why Soviet women guarded their right to be exhausted. Ah the contradictions. Your husband wants to cook? But that is not a man’s job!

Gray describes the birthing floors of Soviet hospitals, where husbands are not allowed, and birth is a joyless and unpleasant experience – all presided over by women midwives and doctors. The babies are then swaddled until they can barely breathe. The Lamaze method is unknown – even though it originally came from observations of an early Soviet doctor.

In a way, Gray’s visit to the USSR is an exercise in vertigo – reactionary practices and ideas on the one hand, progressive elements on the other. Abortion is legal. Yet it is almost the only form of Soviet contraception, and women endure crude abortion methods and facilities repeatedly. Better contraceptives like the pill are almost unknown or hard to find, or dangerous to use. Daycare is available to everyone – but extremely low grade for many. The ‘professional’ women she meets in Moscow and Leningrad are overwhelmed by poverty – while some of the working-class factory workers have good food available from the factory commissaries, quality daycare and higher pay. Yes - the reverse of the situation in the U.S., where the female factory or service worker gets the low end of the stick.

Yet Gray comments that Uzbek professional women of that period "enjoy some of the most privileged lives in the Soviet Union.” Gray meets a hardened female Brezhnevite apparatchik in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who is incompetent without her Party perks. And a generous, kind female factory director in Irkutsk, Siberia, near Lake Baikal, who entertains Gray with a sauna and simple food. Tellingly, Irkutsk is a town populated by former dissidents, starting with the Decemberists, for generations. Gray spends much time on the portrayal of women in Russian literature, and on their conflicting desires to dress well because they must ‘shoulder bricks.’

All these contradictions reflect the socialized economy and lack of a capitalist class, yet also a corrupt and dying bureaucracy astride society.

Gray’s main theme continues to be the matriarchal social life she and many other Soviets grew up in. It would be interesting if Gray - or one of her graduate students or colleagues - returned to Russia and the now independent Muslim Republics to observe the new status of women, and what changes have occurred, for good or ill.

And I bought it at Mayday’s Used Book Section!
Celebrate International Women’s Day.
Red Frog
March 8, 2012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Traveler’s Tale

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” - Mark Twain

Although given the rubric of the ‘ugly American’ that developed after Twain innocently went abroad, this might not always be the case. Especially if you have to travel overseas to kill people. Ah, do all soldiers in Afghanistan have passports? Answer: You don’t need one if you invade a country! Or get flown in by a U.S. military transport plane.

But I digress. The GAO said 28% of Americans had passports in 2008, and it went up after that due to the requirement for passports to Canada and Mexico. A recent graphic in the Huffington Post, based on another private researcher, thinks the percentage is far higher. Minnesota on both charts ranks in the top group of 15 of those with passports, with New Jersey at the top, while Mississippi and other mostly southern states rank in the bottom. The average is maybe 40% on this list. Why do I even bring this up?

Travel is a topic that many Minnesotans I know avoid. I know one woman who has never been to Chicago. That is only 6.5 hours away, folks, by car. Others have not been to the Black Hills. Some never, or almost never, leave the state – in fact refuse to leave the state. Others fritter away their precious vacation time in individual days. You do find, here in Minne-snapolis, a kind of local patriotism and boosterism, even in people that would never think of themselves that way. Sinclair Lewis wasn’t kidding.

The first travel Minnesotans take is to visit relatives. And that is sometimes the only travel style they take for many years. Other beginning Minnesota travelers sojourn to Vegas, or some beach in Florida. And they return again and again and again. Some people take the same trip in the U.S. every year, or every time they travel, a rut one of my relatives used to live in. The next version of safe travel is the cruise – a packaged event closer to a food orgy, moving hotel and occasional visit to an ‘exotic’ island to shop. This might or might not involve a foreign country. Then there is Canada – but why go there, it’s just like Minnesota, they cry. But some go to the Winnipeg Folk Festival – there is always a contingent of ‘Sotans there, so it might not be just like Minnesota. After all, they have single-payer and a great festival. Then, for cold, winter-bound Minnesotans, there is the flight to Mexico. And that can involve a sheltered ‘all inclusive’ stay at a white-man’s resort, with all your food paid, so you do not even have to venture outside except to the airport. Or it can involve a real visit to another country.

Lack of real knowledge of the rest of the world is peculiar to Americans – given our isolation on one vast continent, with two countries next door that most Americans have still never visited. Many are unable to decipher maps, and are unfamiliar with the history, geography and cultures of other countries, except in the most simple-minded way. There is no doubt that increased nationalism is a product of this isolation.

Beaches seem to be the single focus of many American travelers – and myself, I love a good beach too. Nothing like sitting under a palapa from early morning until evening, food, drink and book in hand, swimming at the ready. However, some don’t think there is any travel outside a beach. It is a beach or nothing. Life’s a ‘beach.’

Rick Steves, that guru of middle-aged American travel, recently gave a talk in town about the politically enlightening affects of travel. Seems he’s been listening to Twain. This is a man who has stood in too many cathedrals in every town in Europe, and offers a simple primer of European culture for Americans. He never misses a local meal. At one time, he was an advocate of cheap and simple travel – and I follow his 1 bag / money-belt prescription to this day. Rick, in spite of his cultivated naiveté, supports single-payer and several other progressive causes. He just shit in his pants recently by breaking out of the European ghetto to visit Turkey – and oh boy, was he excited to be in a Muslim country.

Why do I bring this up, dear reader? Well. I bring this up to encourage the shut-ins to go somewhere. If you are interested in history, or literature, or art, or nature, or architecture, or hiking or music or food or politics or sports or just about anything – travel is like a living book that creates itself. It is not just beaches that deserve a destination. It is simply not true that everything you need to know, or everything that will give you joy, is in your backyard. Because what you will know, eventually, is not much, except your backyard. Republicans like to denigrate travel, and many are proud they have never been out of the U.S. It is a big country and nativists feel it’s big enough for them. Some Repugs don't even travel around the U.S.! Some feel money spent on travel is wasted – because what ‘tangible’ good do you bring back? Indeed? Yet studies of happiness show that ‘experiences’ create far more lasting good effects than buying some item. And travel is always an experience.

Just take history. The U.S. is packed with historical sites – from the Civil War to the ‘old’ West to the Revolution to our writer’s homes. Our own Fort Snelling is one. Or the Laura Ingalls Wilder dugout on Plum Creek in Walnut Grove. Or the memorial to the Sioux in Mankato. Imagine what Europe or other countries have to offer. That is … if you care about history, not just beaches.

I know people who will not travel unless they can go ‘first class.’ As a result, they never go anywhere - because they don’t have a ‘first class’ income. Champagne taste on a beer budget – really an excuse to sit home. However, even older people can travel cheaply – if they don’t have to be pampered like babies. If my broke college-age and post college-age kids can go to Europe, anyone can. So, yes, money is an obstacle, as it will be if you treat it like one. A cherished obstacle, to have and to hold, until death do you part. The real problem is this obstacle will grow as time goes on, as jet fuel and every other travel cost is going up.

Is the most beautiful place in the world the Minnesota north-woods? Well, it is one of the great places, yes, but no. Halong Bay, just west of Hanoi in northern Vietnam, is the most beautiful place in the world. And if not there, perhaps somewhere else.

Red Frog
March 1, 2012