Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Understanding Power

I finished reading "Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky" (2002), Edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, 416 pages. This is a collection of some of Noam Chomsky's seminars and discussions from the time period 1992 through 1999. I started reading a few weeks ago and was going through it rather quickly before spending a (very pleasant) weekend with my wife and my middle daughter in Ithaca, NY, and then the following weekend spending most of my time watching the NCAA basketball tournament.

Chomsky's speaking style is extremely straight-forward and understandable. At one point he dismisses a lot of modern intellectualism for using fancy words to obfuscate easy concepts as a form of self-aggrandization. He has done a lot of reading including lots of formerly classified government documents.

The first thing that is most striking about the book is how, 15-20 years before the Occupy movement, he has dead on anticipated their arguments. And in the end, it doesn't come down to republican vs democrat or liberal vs conservative, it comes down to class war: rich and powerful and of course doing every possible to keep it that way vs poor and powerless -- or as he says, "superflous population", who are not involved in producing profit. The 1%, or the 0.5% who own 50% of everything via the stateless multi-national corporations, are clearly who is in charge.

It was striking too when he talks about the (never ending) "War on Drugs": incarceration of inner city blacks for drug use or dealing on the street, while in the 1980's $260M in drug money was being laundered by US banks annually, with never a thought of prosecutions or jail time. And here we are 20-30 years later, and now HSBC alone is laundering close to $1B a year in drug money, and still there are no criminal prosecutions, no jail time -- "Too big to prosecute". Similarly, in the 1980's, studies showed that 90% of the chemicals being exported by US companies into Latin America were going into drug production. Were there any investigations or prosecutions of US chemical companies and/or their executives and their bonuses? Of course not! "War on Drugs" my ass!

It's kind of hard for me to try to summarize this book, there is so much there. I've known about Chomsky, the Father of Modern Linquistics and a Linguistics professor at M.I.T., since I was there 40 years ago. I'd always kind of dismissed him as being kind of on the lunatic fringe of the left. But, now that I finally read his words, he is just thinking simple thoughts, drawing simple conclusions, and speaking the truth of these.

Eight years ago (surely not!), I read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States". I blogged about it at the time, I thought it was leftist-slanted to the point of being unbelievable at times. I had pretty much none of that reaction reading the Chomsky. So I wonder if Chomsky's thinking is actually better, or if I have just evolved that far to the left in the last 8 years? Since I quit working so much and finally retired, I definitely have more time to think about and get involved in politics, and, I think ever since the Tea Party started I've been moving left rapidly. Funny, the Zinn and the recommendation on Chomsky, and "Occupy World Street" before that, all came from my oldest daughter Erica. We seem to be sliding to the left together. She has been very active with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy and I am very proud of her.

The Chomsky book starts with a discussion of how the US and to a lesser degree the European press are locked into the narrative of "the US is the good guy always starting the peace process" vs "the US is the world's foremost terrorist state; it has not been attacked since 1812 but still manages to invade someplace (basically defenseless) every year or so; and the entire world is scared shitless of it". I had to agree how, every time we start a war with some poor chump, there's always "evidence" -- which no one can verify then or later -- that we've been attacked or are going to be attacked, and we all get called on to support our troops, and, damn it, it's hard not to get sucked in. But, how many times can they keep doing this? I wonder if Obama will be able to complete his 2nd term without invading somewhere.

There's some LOL stuff on the semantics of the mainstream press. A "moderate" government is defined as one that "follows U.S. orders". A "radical" government is of course one that "doesn't follow U.S. orders". See also "terrorist state".

Meanwhile, he gives many examples of cases where maybe 1 courageous reporter finds out that, say, Saddam is willing to get out of Kuwait peacefully, but then basically no newspapers will carry the story. Once the drums start beating, no one want to be a "traitor". He also talks very believably about how reporters and writers who don't want to follow the narrative that their editors want wind up having to find a different career. Because newspapers are businesses, and their main customers are not their readers, their main customers are their advertisers, who are mostly businesses. And the main point here is that, the Republican and Democratic parties are not really different parties, they are just factions of the same party that has ruled the US for the last 150 years or so: the Capitalist Business Party. It's the same message of Occupy, that US domestic and foreign policy are both completely determined by what is best for corporate business interests.

There is a thread that runs through all the sessions: are the corporate interests so entrenched that it is hopeless? Or can people organize and get things changed? In general, he says, keep plugging, keep the faith, keep organizing, have hope. And he also points out where there has been progress. For example, the fight against the popular Sandinistas in Nicaragua had to be done via clandestine operations rather than outright invasion because the public would not support invasion. It comes back to, the people in power will listen to the rest of us if we get loud enough to scare them -- otherwise, they could care less. Discouraging tho that in the 10-20 years or so since he talked about this, the situation seems to be continuing to get worse rather than better. But, still, what choice do we have but to keep fighting the old lizards? Every person in the world has the right to live.

One of his contentions that was new to me was that the US defense budget has for 60 years been about channelling tax dollars into the development of new tech, that can then be exploited by business. I guess that makes sense, the Internet came from DARPA, and that's probably true of the majority of non-medical tech as well. So this is yet another subsidy for business and the rich, as is the NIH budget on the medical side.

I didn't come away with a clear feeling for, why do our .01% rulers want to kill the social safety net so much? It costs much less than the entitlements of the corporations and the rich. I think what he said on this was by suppressing the general populace they are suppressing rivals for power. Hungry children don't grow the brains they should, so they stay an underclass, available as labor if necessary, otherwise they can be held in the prisons (for nice profit margins).

Also interesting, Britain used to have General Welfare and Corn laws up until the 1840's, which basically guaranteed food to everyone. Those got repealed to force people to go to work in the new factories of the Industrial Revolution. This was also when general public education started, to give workers the limited literacy they needed to work in a factory.

I also did not realize that, just as oil has been the crux resource of the 20th century, the crux resource of the 19th century was cotton. The Industrial Revolution started with textiles for clothing.

He also debunks The Great Man Theory, which I've talked about before, in answer to a question about, what about the need for Great Leaders, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King? His take is, these types show up late in the process to take the credit, when most of the real work was actually done by 1000s of nameless, faceless feet on the ground. The standard narrative of The Empire pushes The Great Man Theory to disempower the average person, who is actually who makes the change happen. I couldn't agree more.

Similarly, he has great mistrust of the intellectual class. On the political left and in US labor unions, there is a leader class that wants to hobnob with the capitalists and hand down decisions to the rank-and-file. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There have been very few actually socialist and democratic movements in history. The Spanish Anarchists in the 1930's were one. And at the start of the Russian Revolution, there were workers' councils and coops before Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks took over and instituted state-controlled capitalism aka Communism.

There are many, many more details and facts in this book. It is an easy, easy read. I read it in 16 hours (thank you for that data point, KoboReader). I strongly recommend it. Now to check out what Noam's been up to lately. Wow, here's his Wikepedia page. 84 years old, still going strong. FTW!

Hmmm, reading the Wikipedia article, the start 3rd paragraph in the section on politics may well be the base principle of all Chomsky's anarchist politics:

Chomsky asserts that authority, unless justified, is inherently illegitimate, and that the burden of proof is on those in authority. If this burden can't be met, the authority in question should be dismantled. Authority for its own sake is inherently unjustified.
Back in the book, he also says at one point that he was a horrible organizer, so he wound up being a writer. I can identify with that. I made phone calls for Obama in 2008 and hated it. I've never been much on meetings or crowds, so I can't see myself getting involved there. Plus, this seems like Yet Another Thing that it would be more appropriate for me to leave to the younger people. Well, maybe I'll find my niche to contribute eventually (I certainly don't consider myself a writer). For now at least I can still do $$$.

Hah, I should point out how, in passing, Chomsky mentions modern sports as the "circus" part of "bread and circuses" that our plutocrat masters provide to keep us distracted from how much they are fucking us. How many NASCAR owners (Romney's "friends"), NFL and NBA team owners are members of the plutocrat class? All, maybe? Now, if we could just get them to give everyone "bread" to go with the "circus". Still, I love University of Louisville Cardinal basketball! Go Cards!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sandman Slim, 2-4

Well, as blogged last time, I thought that "Sandman Slim" by Richard Kadrey, was a decent supernatural noir comic book novel. The library had the other 3 in the series, so I went for it. I read them in 2 days, 4 days, and 2 days -- the OverDrive reader that the library uses shows you the number of days left on your (7) day subscription in its listing of books, so it's easy to notice. I got kind of tired of them. I think the main thing they have going for them is lots of smart-ass, cheap detective dialogue -- or should I say "patter". There are also a lot of pop culture references, which makes me afraid that these won't age well. Also, after a while, I found the christian mythology getting on my nerves. Of course, any christian would I'm sure find these books horribly blasphemous, but still, how about Brahmah creating the universe instead of Elohim? He does introduce lots of other species of magical creatures, which I think is fun, whether in stories like this, or in the trashy SyFy channel series that I enjoy (guiltily) like "Warehouse 13", or "Lost Girls".

The 2nd book, "Kill The Dead" introduces an interesting new character: a Czech female porn star zombie hunter -- nice!. The 3rd book "Aloha From Hell" takes place mostly in Hell, as does the 1st half of the 4th book, "Devil Said Bang". The pacing of these books is of course whiz-bang, and each one does come to enough of a conclusion that you are not left resenting being hung over a cliff too much.

So there will clearly be more of these, I guess I'll keep reading them. I have concluded tho that I did like the Harry Connolly Twenty Palaces series better -- too bad it's been discontinued.

Meanwhile, I have three more novels by new authors, most suggested by tweets or retweets of people I follow on twitter. So, should I read some economics or politics, or am I still on vacation? We'll see, I guess.