Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Day of the Autodidact

Oh what did you see, my blue-eyed son

and what did you see, my darling young one?

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Bob Dylan

“Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise; redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15

This post continues the theme I have been considering in my posts, The Liars' Channel, Hunting Fox (And Other Varmints), and to a lesser extent, in Crime, The Informal Economy, And Dark-Skinned People.

I still remember the day, over thirteen years ago, when I bought my first guitar. That decision was made under strange circumstances, as I was in a strange state of mind – you see, I was tired of the music I had listened to for years, I no longer believed that most bands and singers on the radio had anything new or insightful to say, I more than half didn't want to buy a guitar at all, and I thought I was making a dumb decision that I would soon abandon. Anyway, I bought the cheapest guitar I could find, an entry-level Samick, along with a Hal Leonard book of chord shapes and a copy of You Can Play Guitar by a guy named Peter Pickow.

The Samick mostly sat in my bedroom closet for a few weeks while I tried to figure out what an acoustic guitar was good for. At times I would pick it up and try to play some of the chords I saw in the chord book. I also listened to some pop songs on the radio and tried to copy them. However, listening to that sort of thing convinced me even more that my guitar was useless and that most musicians had run out of things to say.

Then an acquaintance of mine started loaning me CD's by bands labeled “acoustic alternative”. Intrigued, I started listening, and was turned on to some intricate, acoustic guitar-driven, complex music with complex lyrics. I was hooked.

Trying to play the stuff was a challenge, though. For one, I didn't know what I was doing. The Peter Pickow book wasn't much help either, as its primary goal seemed to be teaching people to play yesterday's pop hits. It wasn't a very useful guide to navigating the fretboard and the large world of music theory. The things I heard on CD's continued to be a mystery to me, a mystery I could not reproduce. Lastly, playing up the neck (especially barre chords) was very hard with the Samick.

One day I decided to replace the Samick, and bought a Mitchell guitar from Guitar Center (hey, I was still a cheapskate), along with an beginner's book on fingerstyle playing. The fingerstyle book was a good introduction to right-hand technique and altered tunings, but it wasn't the fretboard/music theory roadmap that I had hoped for. Also, the Mitchell was even harder to play up the neck than the Samick had been. I also started taking lessons from a teacher at a local music store. His form of “teaching” consisted of looking at the book I was trying to study, then telling me, “Yep. Go ahead, keep practicing that.” I stopped seeing him after only a few weeks.

I might have given up guitar altogether, except that someone loaned me a CD of a totally unplugged Dave Matthews concert. It was just him and another guitarist, and the things they did with their guitars were amazing. That, and someone suggested to me that if I really wanted to advance in my playing, I needed a better ax. Soon afterward, I picked up a Larrivee, and haven't looked back since.

Hearing Dave Matthews (and later, other players like Paul Simon (on an unplugged Simon and Garfunkel live album), John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Pierre Bensusan, and others) inspired and pushed me to really learn my instrument. I soon found that the weakness of the Peter Pickow book was shared by many books targeted for people just starting to play: that their aim was simply to teach people whatever pop songs were popular at the time the book was written. I had to spend many hours in music stores to find books that promised something more.

In all that research, I began to put together a road map of what I wanted in learning the guitar: first, an understanding of music theory in general; second, a thorough knowledge of the fretboard; and third an application of theory to the fretboard, such that I could compose (on the fly, if necessary), while working within the unique strengths and limitations of the guitar. After the disappointing experience I had with my “teacher,” I decided I'd have to figure out all these things on my own. So I bought the books I believed to be helpful, and got to work. It's been a long journey thus far, and I still feel as if I'm just beginning (although I did teach myself to play John Renbourn's version of The English Dance).

In teaching myself the guitar, I was functioning as an autodidact. What I learned, I had to figure out for myself, due to the lack of an adequate teacher. I had to construct a knowledge system for myself, and I had to learn to find the missing pieces of that knowledge system for myself, by myself. That experience is something of a parable for the kind of thinking that's needed by those who would understand and navigate our present times.

The trouble with trying to understand and navigate these times is that there are rich and powerful men and women who don't want most of us to succeed in this task. They want to navigate us into enslavement to them, while we remain deluded about our present situation. Their ultimate goal is to consume us until there's nothing left of us. This is easier to do to willing, duped victims than it is with victims who understand their situation and who are trying to fight back.

The task of these rich people is aided by the fact that they own most of the media in Western (European and American) society, and that most of us eat up their stories like cereal. We've been trained to do so by memories of our parents who sat at the breakfast table and read their newspapers and watched TV news at night and believed every word. And who knows, maybe many of those writers and talking heads weren't lying then, but many of them are now. How can a person find out the truth for themselves?

Well, let's take the climate change controversy for starters. Many conservative commentators, along with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp are foaming at the mouth with allegations that scientific warnings about global warming are simply part of some liberal conspiracy to keep Americans from getting rich. They point to hacked e-mails and they scream “Climategate!” and allege that climate change scientists have made such serious mistakes that their case holds no water.

These climate change deniers have their disciples and true believers, including one gentleman I know, an engineer with over thirty years experience and some post-graduate coursework, yet who reads Fox News at lunch and believes every word. How he can live with such a cognitive disconnect I have no idea, as he took chemistry and physics just like I did, and he ought to know how carbon dioxide absorbs longwave infrared radiation. If I were in his shoes, I'd at least want to hear both sides of the story. So, having heard the Fox News side of the story, where would I look to hear the other side?

I might start by looking on the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and downloading some of their publications, like their “Fourth Assessment Report,” as well as some of their supporting material. If I really wanted to be intellectually honest, I'd read such publications completely. If there was something I didn't understand (like some of the math or statistical analysis, for instance), I'd figure out what knowledge I needed to gain in order to understand. In short, I'd become literate enough regarding the science to make a judgment for myself – and I'd do it by going directly to the source. And if I wasn't satisfied with the IPCC alone, I'd consult other climate change scientists such as NASA's climatologist Dr. James Hansen. I might also check old newspaper records of average annual temperatures in various locales over the last fifty years. I might even visit some towns on the Oregon and California coasts and talk to residents who have seen the sea bury their properties in recent years. Then I'd make my judgment. At least that's how I'd do things if I wanted to be intellectually honest.

How many people know how to sort fact from fiction regarding Iran? Or health care reform? Or our economy and the causes of its present weakness? Or environmental damage? How many Americans are content merely to say, “Well, I heard on the news...” Are there any Americans are willing to do the hard work of furnishing themselves with an accurate picture of the world? How many are willing to consult multiple sources, to do the work of verifying the accuracy of sources, to do research, to do the math? “It's hard!” some will say, but then again, so is learning to play the guitar.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Primary Health Care in the U.S. and Partnership With the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) - An Interview with MEDICC

This week, President Obama is hosting a “health care summit” with leaders of the Republican Party in order to facilitate passage of a national health care plan. The President's proposals are basically a copy of the Senate health reform bill recently passed. That bill would require all Americans to purchase a health insurance policy, with the Federal Government providing subsidies for people with low incomes to purchase health insurance. However, the bill would do nothing to rein in health care costs arising from explosive growth of health insurance fees, as well as excessive growth in pharmaceutical and medical technology costs. This is not surprising, as the fundamental problem with health care in the U.S. is that it is a for-profit “industry,” and the leaders of this industry seek continual profit growth. These leaders are controlling the present health care “debate” in this country.

However, there are resources for implementing alternative models of health care for communities in the U.S. that are interested in setting up their own systems of effective, truly affordable care. One such resource is the medical outreach program of the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in Cuba. ELAM is a renowned medical school that produces top-notch doctors skilled in disaster medicine and promotion of community health with limited resources. (In fact, Cuba itself has become a renowned source of medical expertise.) ELAM has an outreach program in which students from disadvantaged countries as well as disadvantaged communities in the U.S. are invited to study medicine at the ELAM campus in Cuba, free of charge. Afterward, these students become board-certified primary care physicians. All that is asked of them in return is that they make a commitment to return to their communities to provide low-cost, high-quality health care to their fellow citizens.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Rachel True, MPH, Academic Program Director for the Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), a non-profit organization that facilitates Cuba's medical outreach to other countries. We discussed the work of ELAM, the unique competencies and emphasis of Cuban medicine and the doctors trained at ELAM, and lessons that could be applied to the United States. We also talked about how disadvantaged communities in the United States could sponsor their own young people to become students at ELAM, in order to build a network of primary health care providers in American communities. This is very important for the times we are now facing, in which the profit-driven U.S. model of health care (and education of health care professionals) is becoming ever more unsustainable. ELAM offers an exceptional education free of charge, and produces doctors who can deliver effective health care solutions at low cost.

I was able to save an audio file of my interview, which can be found at It should be accessible to computers running on either Windows or Linux operating systems. I will also be creating a transcript of the interview for a future blog post. And I am planning on interviewing a student who is currently enrolled at ELAM. God willing, I hope to post that interview in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hunting Fox (And Other Varmints)

This post will examine some of the ins and outs of a typical major English-speaking media outlet. I'll focus on Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (known more widely as News Corp), and its “news” arm, Fox News. (Why is News Corp typical? First, because they're huge, and second, because the other huge players are starting to imitate them – even as far as the bias in their “reporting” of the news.)

Anatomy of a Fox

According to Wikipedia, News Corp is the world's 2nd largest media conglomerate (behind Disney), and is the third largest in entertainment (2009). News Corp's own website states that it is “...a diversified global media company” with total assets as December 2009 of approximately $56 billion, and whose activities “...are conducted principally in the United States, Continental Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, Asia and Latin America.” News Corp is publicly traded on NASDAQ and secondarily on the Australian Securities Exchange. Revenue as of 30 June 2009 was $30.42 billion, while operating income was $5.6 billion. Almost 70% of its sales come from US businesses. News Corp has 152 subsidiaries in low-tax or no-tax countries, one of four companies to have more than 100.

The Murdoch family holds a controlling interest in News Corp, owning about 30 percent of the shares. All shares held by the Murdoch family are voting shares. (Some of the shares sold by a corporation entitle their owners to a paid dividend, but do not allow the shareholder a vote in corporate governance.) Three members of the Murdoch family are on the board of directors, with Rupert as chairman of the board and CEO. News Corp's holdings include two book publishers; 54 newspapers in seven countries; 30 magazines in the U.S. and Australia; one music outlet; three radio networks; three sports teams; fifteen motion picture studios; tons (I got tired of counting) of television networks spanning cable, broadcast and satellite TV; and at least 30 Internet media outlets, including Beliefnet, a site dedicated to discussing religion, which was acquired by News Corp in 2007.

Wikipedia has an extensive history of News Corp, and of Rupert Murdoch's activities in building and guiding his empire. Some highlights include union-busting activities in England in 1986-1987 involving printers' unions versus Murdoch's papers; the buying of US papers and media in 1973; and the purchase of 20th Century Fox in 1981-1984 and of the Metromedia group of stations in 1985 in order to form a fourth independent American network. The same year Murdoch became a naturalized US citizen in order to satisfy American broadcast law (which forbade foreign owners of US television stations).

(One sidelight: in 1989, Murdoch bought the publisher Collins, which he combined with Harper and Row which News Corp had bought two years earlier. HarperCollins, as the new company was named, in turn bought out Zondervan, a publisher of Christian books and media. Thus did Murdoch begin his forays into the world of Christian media and publishing. Those who visit “Christian” bookstores nowadays and wonder what on earth happened to “the Faith once for all delivered to the saints” can start looking right here. I discussed these very matters in a blog post many months ago, titled Money and Christian Books.)

In 1996, the Fox News Channel was launched as a competitor to CNN. Just prior to this, a legal complaint was brought before the Federal Communications Commission to the effect that News Corp's Australian base made Murdoch's ownership of Fox illegal. The FCC ruled in favor of Murdoch, stating that his ownership of Fox was in the public's best interests. (And this happened during the Clinton presidency!) In 2007, News Corp bought Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal, and started the Fox Business Network.

In short, News Corp has become a huge and powerful megaphone, broadcasting the heart and soul of Rupert Murdoch.

That Lyin' Fox Tongue

News Corp speaks with a loud voice. But what is that voice saying? And what are the motives of the owner of that voice? Those motives become quite clear when one examines much of the video media produced by the Fox Broadcasting Company, especially that media that is produced by Fox News. This examination reveals News Corp to be a radical promoter of big business, and of the unrestrained prerogatives of the rich captains of big business. Murdoch's message is that anything that restricts or restrains the rights of the wealthy or their pursuit of ever more wealth is to be opposed and demonized.

The world according to Murdoch should be a place where nonwhite nations are subservient to Europe, Australia and the United States, and their lands are open to being plundered by the U.S., Australia and Europe; where nonwhite residents of Europe, Australia and the U.S are subservient to a white majority; and where all who are poor, no matter their color, are subservient to the rich. Those who suggest that the rich should share with the poor are branded as “Socialists!” Those who suggest that the greed of the rich is destroying other peoples are branded as “evil people who hate our freedoms!” Those who suggest that our unrestrained pursuit of wealth is destroying the earth are accused of “fudging the data!”

From a moral standpoint, this mindset makes no sense, and those who believe such things are forced to lie in order to justify such a mindset. Thus it is no surprise that many of the things broadcast by News Corp are propaganda and blatant lies. Here are some examples:

News Corp and Racism: In 2009, the New York Post (a News Corp paper) published a cartoon depicting Barack Obama as a chimpanzee shot dead by the New York Police. They were forced later to apologise. This was hardly the first incident of racism for News Corp. During the 2008 US Presidential campaign, Fox News called Michelle Obama a “baby-mama,” referred to Barack Obama as “Osama,” and attempted to portray him as a secret Muslim. (See “Fox smears Sen. Obama, says he 'covered up' Muslim”, “The Man Behind the Whispers About Obama” and “Fox News Admits Obama/Muslim Story Was Toxic”.) Fox News also used false reporting to blame minorities for the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2008, (See “Fox News Special Report on The Banking Crisis”, “Minority Meltdown” and “FOX News: Loaning to minorities is a disaster'”. And for a look at the true role of banks in pushing subprime loans on minorities, see this: “Wells Fargo, Ghetto Loans, and 'Mud People'”.) There's much more to this side of News Corp, but we shall move on... (But not before I sneak one more video in: “Fox News' Racism”.)

News Corp and the Defense of Big Business: In 1994, Monsanto developed a synthetic version of bovine somatotrophin, a naturally occurring growth hormone found in cattle. This hormone was produced artificially via recombinant DNA technology and marketed under the brand name POSILAC, although its trade name was rBST or RBGH. Monsanto sold it to dairy farmers in the U.S. as a means of stimulating milk production beyond natural levels. Monsanto was able to influence the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the use of rBST in dairy cows in the U.S., but such approval was harder to win outside the country. Eventually Canada and the European Union refused to approve rBST for use in their dairy farms. This was due to health problems arising in cows who were treated with the hormone, as well as demonstrated abnormal growth in organs of lab rats who were fed milk from rBST-treated cows. rBST has been linked to increased incidence of certain cancers, and has been implicated in the dramatic rise of early puberty in boys and girls since 1990.

In 1996, two journalists employed by Fox News uncovered some of the damaging information about rBST, including documents from Monsanto which described some incriminating test results. These journalists wrote a story for their local TV station, which began promoting an upcoming series on the risks of rBST. However, Monsanto pressured Fox into covering up the story and firing the journalists, who sued for wrongful termination. They ultimately lost their case when an appeals court ruled that FCC policies regarding reporting the truth by news agencies are not legally binding, and that Fox has no legal requirement to tell the truth in a news story. (See “Bovine somatotropin” and “Interview with Jane Akre and Steve Wilson” for more details on this.) Since then, it's been open lying season at Fox (as documented here.)

News Corp and War: News Corp was a vocal and vehement promoter of the American takeover of Iraq. Rupert Murdoch has also been very candid about the oil, I mean, real reason for the Iraq war, as noted in a Guardian piece titled “Their master's voice.” News Corp has constantly put a positive spin on the war and its aftermath, even when actual evidence was contrary, as shown in this article: “Fox News and the Iraq War: Fact vs. Fox-tion,” and this: “Fox News Spins 9/11 Commission Report.” Fox has never openly criticized the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction or the absence of any link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.

Now, Fox News and News Corp are trying to make the case that Iran is foaming at the mouth to build nuclear weapons so that they can blow up the rest of the world. The thing that makes Fox so hard to believe (and much of the rest of the MSM, along with Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney) is that a) we've been down this road before, only to find out that the allegations were false that were made against a country with stuff we wanted; b) Iran is like Iraq in that the stuff we want over there is oil (and natural gas); and c) our misadventure in Iraq killed over a million civilians, while maiming countless others, not to mention needlessly killing several thousand of our own troops.

News Corp and the Environment: It's no surprise that News Corp has been very aggressive in attacking the notion that climate change is real, that it's a bad thing, and that it's caused by industrial activity. News Corp has also been very aggressive in attacking the reputations of many climate scientists and research organizations. Their attacks have not been against the science so much as attempts to smear the personal reputations of climate scientists. (See “ - Why You Should Be Hot and Bothered About 'Climate-gate'” for instance.)

The trouble is that News Corp has been very quiet regarding all the evidence that proves the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change, including this report authored by scientists commissioned by the Global Climate Coalition, which stated that “...the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.” (See “Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate - NYTimes,” and “Global Climate Coalition Ignored Own Scientists' Advice.”) Think about that, you Portlanders, as we enjoy an unseasonably warm late winter, decked out in our shorts and T-shirts. Summer is coming...

There's more to mention, including News Corp's role in manufacturing the “Tea Party” and the “Angry Renters”. But time is short; I must wrap this up. Maybe one day I'll dedicate an entire post to the lies of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.

The Faltering Fox

News Corp is a big bad corporation run by a rich sociopath. Many people are understandably frightened by this monster, and are wondering what to do in the face of what seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut. But there have been stories over the last year that suggest that this juggernaut may not be quite as invincible as many of us think. A look at News Corp's financial health and financial missteps over the last several years reveals what may be a soft underbelly.

News Corp's relentless drive for growth has required the buying of rival corporations in order to expand market reach. Some of those acquisitions haven't turned out very well. As far back as 1992, News Corp amassed huge debts due to its ownership of the British Sky Television satellite network, which was operated below cost until it could force a rival network out of business. Years later, in 2010, News Corp was forced to sell some of its ownership in BSkyB in order to comply with British antitrust laws. And in 2009, News Corp took a write-down of $8.4 Billion, due in part to the devaluing of the company's newspaper unit, which includes the recently acquired Dow Jones publisher. This was on top of a second-quarter loss of $6.4 billion, due to the loss of profit in its television and movie units. (See “News Corp records £2bn loss,” “News Corp Cuts Cloth as Friedman Moves On” and “Rupert's News Corp Swings to $203 Million Loss”for later snapshots of News Corp performance.)

News Corp has lost money on MySpace, the social media/blogging site that Murdoch bought in 2005. This has led to the resignation of its CEO, along with talks of possible divestiture. According to the UK Telegraph, MySpace will likely lose over $100 million this year.

News Corp is projecting a return to profitability this year, but a closer look reveals that much of that return will be achieved through staff cuts. It's like selling blood to pay the bills. (Source: “News Corp revenue slumps 4.1%.”) At least one analyst sees in the MySpace saga a typical portrait of Rupert Murdoch's failure to manage his media holdings and acquisitions. The MySpace story also highlights a fundamental failure of Murdoch to “get” the Internet and the rise of social media, and his missteps in dealing with this new reality. (See “Turmoil at MySpace blamed on News Corporation” and “Why MySpace and the Internet Could Kill Rupert Murdoch.”) This is seen in his desperate move to try to kill free content on the Web, starting with his oft-repeated threat to start forcing people to pay for access to News Corp sites, including Fox News. (Go ahead, Rupert. Make my day.)

These realities suggest a possible triple threat to Murdoch and his empire. The first threat is that which Murdoch poses to himself, due to his mismanagement. He started losing on MySpace the moment he began trying to control the content of the site. There are many articles on the Web that address his censorship of MySpace bloggers and the deleting of accounts that published things he didn't like. That turns people off, and makes them look for alternatives. The second threat comes from the open nature of the Web, and the incredible power now available to the masses to cheaply create and publish their own content. Not only is it no longer possible for one man or one corporation to control all publicly available media, but it is no longer possible for one man or one corporation to reap all the profits from publicly available media. Anyone can become a creator and publisher of digital content, up to and including high-quality video, for less than $500. Murdoch might survive if he were willing to accept a much smaller, more sustainable piece of the media pie.

The third threat consists of the facts concerning the actual financial health and missteps of News Corp, and the wide publishing of those facts. For while News Corp may exist as a propaganda machine, its main purpose is to make money. If its profits are not growing, this will cause investors to pull out, further collapsing revenue and assets. Companies which suffer this process for any length of time usually find themselves on the road to demise. Our present economy is contracting, along with all the large players in it. Those who don't deal realistically with this contraction will fail. The financial health of News Corp may well be a vulnerable systempunkt that can be exploited through aggressive research and factual reporting of its financial health and management missteps.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Crime, The Informal Economy, And Dark-Skinned People

This week I read a post on Sharon Astyk's blog, Casaubon's Book. The title of the post was “The Recession is Dead, Long Live the Recession: Life Without Jobs”. Her post dealt with recent economic data and analysis that indicates that the job losses arising from this current recession will take a very long time to be recovered, if they are recovered at all. She also talked about the stresses that would likely be felt by families (particularly the men) as they struggled to deal with unemployment. Lastly, she mentioned the important role played by the unofficial, informal economy in providing for the needs of people worldwide.

All in all, it was a good post, with many points that are well taken (at least by me). However, I'd like to comment on this quote from her : “...I argue in Depletion and Abundance that the informal economy, the world outside of GDP statements that includes subsistence labor, household labor, under the table labor, barter, crime (note, I'm not suggesting crime as a career here, just including this for the sake of accuracy - at this point, crime is often the only segment of the informal economy available to people, as Peck points out in his sections on minority and urban unemployment - strengthening the non-criminal informal economy is obviously to everyone's advantage) and other work that exists outside conventional calculations can do something not only to mitigate the economic costs of unemployment, but also to mitigate the social costs...” (Emphasis added.)

I'm all in favor of strengthening the informal economy and getting government out of the way of the informal economy. But it's curious that so many writers who study Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse naturally assume that many of us are bound to become criminals, and that there's nothing anyone can do about it. What's more troubling is the assumption that crime is or will be the only option available to many minorities.

This assumption arises from the belief that crime is at present a disproportionately minority problem (especially for black and Latino communities), a belief that arises from negative media portrayals of minority communities, coupled with selectively harsh enforcement/punishment of crimes committed by minorities. But as I pointed out in my post, “Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods,” black people are no more likely to act criminal than any other ethnic group in America. To repeat statistics on one form of crime, namely drug infractions, in 2006 black Americans made up an 15 percent of drug users, but accounted for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

Even the crime that does occur in minority communities is often instigated from outside. To the extent that outside commentators notice patterns of crime in minority neighborhoods, it behooves them to ask why – just as those media talking heads commenting on the poverty in Haiti ought to be asking why. The truthful answer to “Why?” would be quite shocking.

What would be really helpful is for those with the loudest voices and the biggest podiums to take a little time to describe some of the things members of minority communities are doing to make their neighborhoods and communities more resilient. We face a perception problem, and that problem can lead to powerful people justifying taking extreme measures against our communities where such measures are unjustified. It looks like we're going to have to work much harder at getting our own story out. (For an example of this, see “Vice Magazine's Liberia Documentary Comes Under Fire”.)

I myself will be working hard to get our story out. For the story of societal collapse and of the response of resilient communities is the story of us all. I want to make sure that my brethren are included in those resilient communities that survive. Toward that end, I have a few more weekend posts to write on the American mainstream media, and how to get out from under its corrupting influence. I also hope to post another very useful interview, God willing. Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Liars' Channel

Ahab came into his house sullen and angry because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He laid himself down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread. But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said to him, “Why is your spirit so sad, that you eat no bread?”

He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite, and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you another vineyard for it.' He answered, 'I will not give you my vineyard.'”

Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern the kingdom of Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be merry. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who were in his city, who lived with Naboth. She wrote in the letters, saying, “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. Set two men, base fellows, before him, and let them testify against him, saying, 'You cursed God and the king!' Then carry him out, and stone him to death.”

The men of his city, even the elders and nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, according as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them...Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned, and is dead.” It happened, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreeelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” – 1 Kings 21:4-15, World English Bible (a public domain translation).

In 1921, the famous American journalist Walter Lippmann said that the art of democracy requires what he called the 'manufacture of consent.' This phrase is an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S. where the government can't control the people by force, it had better control what they think. The Soviet Union is at the opposite end of the spectrum from us in its domestic freedoms. It's essentially a country run by the bludgeon. It's very easy to determine what propaganda is in the USSR: what the state produces is propaganda...Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism...For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the propaganda system to which we are subjected and in which all too often we serve as unwilling or unwitting instruments.” – Noam Chomsky, Propaganda, American-style, Interview with David Barsamian of KGNU Radio in Boulder, Colorado.

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives...I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” – U.S. Marine Major General Smedley Butler (30 July 1881 – 21 June 1940).

There is general agreement that an independent, pluralistic press is a requirement for an effective democracy. There is also general agreement that a crisis exists in the press's ability to protect and advance democracy...Thus, although there exists an unwritten professional creed that the role of journalists is to inform the citizenry in order to advance democracy, the creed is sorely out of touch with reality...In addition, the suggestion by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky that the media, in a democratic capitalist society, function as a propaganda arm for the government certainly undermines the historical image of journalists as protectors of democracy.” – “The role of the press in a democracy: heterodox economics and the propaganda model,Journal of Economic Issues, 1 June 2004.

Many of the most famous members of the D.C. Press corps – the true power elite of American journalism – accept high-paying corporate speaking engagements and have direct personal ties to the political candidates...But the real compromises lie deeper – in corporate sponsorship that defines the very parameters of what is considered acceptable discourse. Take the pundit talk shows, where a parade of center-to-right-wing talking heads appear each week to engage in what passes as political debate. From 'This Week With David Brinkley' to “The McLaughlin Group,' two corporate sponsors predominate: General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, two of the biggest corporate recipients of subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts in the country.” – “Strange bedfellows: Journalists as corporate shills,Salon Magazine, 1999.

Unfortunately, CNN and Cooper's combination of great TV and bad journalism are not idiosyncratic; television news routinely falls into the trap of emphasizing visually compelling and dramatic stories at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex. The absence of crucial historical and political context describes the print coverage as well; the facts, analysis and opinion that U.S. citizens need to understand these events are rarely provided. For example, in the past week we've heard journalists repeat endlessly the observation that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Did it ever occur to editors to assign reporters to ask why?” – “Great Television/Bad Journalism: Media Failures In Haiti Coverage,Op-Ed News, 25 January 2010

The quotes cited above form a pattern, and are part of a larger truth: that ruling elites resort to manipulation of public opinion and of public perceptions in order to advance their own agenda. In Biblical times, this was done by a word-of-mouth campaign instigated by members of the ruling elite in order to rob a man of his inheritance. In modern industrial society, particularly in the United States, this is done via a highly developed, technologically advanced media, the ownership of which is concentrated in the hands of a very few.

Of course, this is well known to many people, and readers of this blog may know that I covered this very topic many months ago in my posts, A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Citizen Media and Telling Your Story As Self-Defense - Necessary Tools. Lately, though, this theme has come back to my mind in the wake of several newsworthy events, and the resulting coverage by the mainstream media.

I think now of the continual drumbeat of American media hostility against Iran on account of its supposed “nuclear weapons program.” (How quickly the press seems to have forgotten the 2007 stories about the U.S. Government's National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had not been pursuing nuclear weapons since at least 2004. I still have a copy of the newspaper in which I found that story, just in case anyone needs a cure for selective amnesia.)

Then there's the Newsweek cover I saw a few weeks ago when I stopped in at a store on the way to work, the cover that showed a picture of a Nigerian teenager with a caption about the “New Al-Qaeda Threat.” A discerning reader of its lead article would conclude that it was just so much more unquestioning rah-rah cheerleading for the “war on terror.” There's also the media coverage of Scott Brown's election “victory” in Massachusetts, with all the news agencies talking of signs of a huge Republican 'resurgence.' What is not mentioned is that Brown's opponent conceded the race at least an hour before the polls closed, and long before any news organization was ready to call the race. And there's the coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, in which various news outlets immediately began describing the country as “dangerous,” with the potential for massive “looting and rioting” – coincidentally, just before a massive injection of U.S. troops into that country.

Connect the dots between media portrayal of various countries and peoples, the resources of the countries portrayed, and subsequent U.S. military or political action against these people, and it starts to get a bit...maddening (as blogger SoapBoxTech recently put it)...for people who like honesty and fair play.

Our media are next to useless at best, and downright dangerous at their worst. When I say “useless,” I mean that they don't actually report news so much as offer visceral, frequently voyeuristic, often sensationalist, attention-grabbing sound bites and photo op's. This is when their focus is turned outward toward the larger world. Too often they fail even to turn outward, and they report as news what are actually their own internal workings. So we find out that Avatar is a box-office hit, we hear about the winners of American Idol, we learn about the “beautiful people” from Star and Us and People magazines, and KFWB in Los Angeles, which used to be an “All News, All the Time” station is now reduced to reporting mainly on happenings in Hollywood (along with airing conservative talk shows!).

Ah, but what about “dangerous”? It should be obvious by now that the mainstream media in this country have been used and are being used to justify the taking of things from poor people and poorer nations by the rich, and to justify the continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the rich. The purpose of the media is not to inform or educate, but to put a good face on a mess of very bad situations, shaping our responses to suit our handlers' wishes while making us stupid.

This would be bad even in ordinary times. But these are not ordinary times. Over all our lives looms a triple threat: the collapse of industrial society due to energy descent, the ruining of our environment, and the dysfunctional responses by the rich and the powerful to these things. To deal with this threat requires a nation that is educated and informed, and thus able to make intelligent decisions. But intelligent people are a threat to corporate profits. So we keep getting lied to, and corporate media continues to train us to make emotional, knee-jerk responses to complex problems.

The biggest liar by far is Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, which owns Fox TV and Fox News, although other mainstream outlets are trying hard to imitate Fox. Over the next few weekends, I'd like to share some new observations and thoughts that have occurred to me as I have again begun to think about the mainstream media, our relation to it, and possible avenues for breaking free from its influence.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In All Fairness To Barack Obama...

Some of them knew pleasure, and some of them knew pain,

and for some of them it was only the moment that mattered.

And on the brave and crazy wings of youth, they went flyin' around in the rain

and their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered.

And in the end, they traded their tired wings

for the resignation that living brings

and exchanged love's bright and fragile glow

for the glitter and the rouge.

And in a moment they were swept...

before the deluge.

Jackson Browne, Before The Deluge

The President of the United States has been the subject of some (seemingly) searching media examination lately. Both Time and Newsweek magazines have featured articles describing Obama as a stymied president facing challenges that may well be insurmountable. Even our own newspaper, the Oregonian, jumped in with their own two cents' worth.

Opinion in the street has not been altogether favorable to Obama lately. I remember how I had misgivings about him even as I voted for him, and even as I defended him in conversations with some of my acquaintances who were true believers in Fox News, the National Enquirer, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. This last Christmas, a relative (who believes to this day that Obama is a Muslim) asked me again what I thought of him (this question was related to health care “reform”). When I said, “I think he's a liar,” you should have seen the look of triumph in my relative's eyes. That look of triumph made me angry, however, as I didn't want to have to go into a fact-based defense of my statement in the presence of someone who feeds on professionally-spun rumors.

Me, I think it's time to give Mr. Obama a bit of a break – but not too much of a break, because, unfortunately, I still have to be truthful. So let's talk a bit about the challenges facing this President of the United States at such a dark time for the nation and for the world, and some missteps that could have been avoided.

In all fairness to Barack Obama, the mess into which he stepped by becoming President is not a mess of his own making. Many of the trends which comprise this present mess began before a lot of us were born – including Obama. Free-market predatory economist Milton Friedman had already hit his stride by the time Obama came into the world. The liabilities of our present industrial society were only beginning to be discussed in the 1970's – a time in which Obama was just turning from a kid to a teenager, learning to shave and to drive. The arrangements of empire by which Europe and the United States exploited the rest of the world have been decades in the making.

The politicians whose rise to power facilitated America's state of denial about limits to growth entered office while he was still a college student. I think particularly of Ronald Reagan, who was aided and abetted by his friend across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher. Obama was far from the centers of power that gave us Reagan, Bush the First, and Bill Clinton, and was thus not in much of a position to do anything about them.

By the time Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate, America and its leaders had already begun to decline. Our manufacturing had largely been outsourced, our technical work was beginning to be outsourced, our main exports were starting to consist of “financial products” instead of real goods, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement were being quietly reversed, we were already fighting wars of hegemony (such as Bill Clinton's invasion of Haiti), the rich were claiming an ever-larger share of the nation's wealth and were in fact running the country while the rest of us were being trained to “aspire” to ever more lavish lifestyles, even though we were getting poorer, our resource base had long since started declining and we were having to buy more and more things on credit. By the time Obama became a U.S. Senator, the country had become mired in an unjust war of conquest in Iraq, and our collective debt was already becoming unsustainable. This was all taking place against the backdrop of the end of cheap oil and the resulting stresses on the American society and economy, and the first real beginnings of the derangement of our planet's climate. Anyone who became President in 2008 would have had one huge mess to clean up.

But in all fairness to Barack Obama, (and by “fairness,” I mean telling it like it is), I have to say that many of us who voted for him in 2008 did so because we realized that the U.S. and the First World were facing limits to our way of life – limits so profound that they would require a total change of our way of life. We clearly saw the problems we were facing – resource depletion; the decline of our “prosperity”; the blood on our collective hands and the unwillingness of other, poorer nations to allow themselves to keep getting jacked in order to keep America fat, dumb and happy; the destruction of the environment due to our excessive consumption and industrial activity.

We correctly identified these all, not as mere “problems” that could be solved by technology or trickery, but as a predicament to be gracefully accepted and endured. And we looked at Bush, McCain and Palin, and the Fox News/neocon/neoliberal crowd as children who were refusing to acknowledge reality. We saw in Obama the possibility of an adult who would speak the truth, who would tell us, “We're not going to return to the glory days of unending prosperity. It's not right that we should want to. We're in for a difficult time. Let's learn to gracefully adapt to it; I'm here to help you and to lead by example.”

Instead, he lied to us.

Just like all the Presidents from Reagan onward. And he proved to be a stooge of the rich, just like the members of the other branches of the U.S. Government and all the major political parties. Which is why there are American troops still in Iraq, there are American troops in Haiti and Colombia and the African continent and Afghanistan and Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan, there are still torture bases in Guantanamo and elsewhere, and any country that has things we want is bound, sooner or later to be described in our media as a “terrorist threat.” Oh, and the rich (especially those on Wall Street) are still getting bailed out by the Federal Government, and the “official” unemployment rate is still below 11 percent, but real unemployment is much higher. And atmospheric CO2 is at nearly 390 parts per million and 2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record, globally.

And yet, in all fairness to Barack Obama, he only told us the lie that most of us wanted to hear. It's the lie being told by every major American political figure, as well as their media mouthpieces – even though the finer details of that lie differ from liar to liar (and they fight convincingly over those minor details). It's the lie that our present troubles are “solvable” in a way that would return America to prosperity or “keep America strong!” without forcing any fundamental change in our way of life.

I am thinking just now of some conversations I've been having with people who identify themselves as conservative or sympathetic to groups like the Tea Party, who get their news and views from Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Some of these people even claim to be "well-informed." Yet they all cling rabidly to the promise held out by ultraconservative American politicians and organizers that say, “Support us, because we have The Solution. You don't have to give up your way of life. The threat to our American Way comes from them liberals and illegals and dark-skinned people and foreigners and socialists and scroungers and 'terrrists' who hate our freedoms! If we just get rid of these people, we can have prosperity forever!” In the event that these people actually seized political power in this country, they'd simply install their own liar as spokesman to tell them the kind of stories that are about to be swiftly be disproved by reality.

But the so-called American “Left” is just as much to blame in talking about clean coal, carbon capture, the promise of renewable energy and unbridled faith in the power of technology to grant us unending prosperity. I think of a guy I know... (But then, I'm trying to stop talking widely about these things around some people. Talking just makes me a bit of a pest, not to mention making me mad. Maybe I should duct tape my mouth shut.) Anyway, this guy regularly listens to KPOJ, “Portland's only progressive talk station,” where he regularly hears that the reason the economy is falling apart, the ecosystem is dying and people are jobless is because of the greedy Republicans, and that somehow a better system run by Democrats would solve all problems while guaranteeing prosperity for everyone.

It is true that many of our problems are being exacerbated by greedy rich people in places of power. But the underlying problems would still have to be faced by all of us anyway. Whenever I mention resource depletion and the resulting inevitability of the decline of the industrial economy, this guy's eyes glaze over.

So Obama's a symptom of a larger problem. We want to be lied to. We are facing a predicament, but we want to be told that it's merely a problem, a solvable problem – so we can continue driving our Escalades and Suburbans and Explorers and Yukons and Expeditions and monster trucks, so we can continue aspiring to be rich and living gluttonous and materialistic lives without thinking that such lifestyles must soon end. No matter who was President, we'd have quickly turned him into a liar. And it would soon have become obvious that he could not keep his promise to "solve" our problems.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

City of Portland Fix-It Fair, 30 January 2010 - A Summary

Here's a follow-up post regarding the Fix-It Fair I attended last weekend. The Fairs are a series of workshops hosted each year by the City of Portland staff, volunteers and nonprofit groups. The City flyer announcing the fairs describes them thus: “The Fix-It Fair is a FREE City of Portland event where you can learn simple ways to save money and connect with resources. Join your neighbors and talk to the experts about how to spend less and stay healthy.”

The Fair I attended consisted of a hall filled with exhibits and booths whose staffers gave presentations on weatherization, health and nutrition, water and energy savings, recycling and composting, environmentally friendly home maintenance and cleaning, gardening, affordable housing and resources for people on limited budgets. In addition, there were formal classes on the following topics:

  • household energy conservation (including weatherization, lighting, appliances and so forth)

  • creating a safe home environment ( including dealing with mold and lead contamination)

  • bicycle commuting

  • household budgeting for debt reduction (including one very interesting class titled, “Community Resources for Living On A Limited Budget.” I made an audio recording of that class, and I hope to post it to the Internet soon.)

  • composting and gardening (including gardening basics, raised-bed gardening and tree care)

  • stormwater management (including downspout disconnection, rain gardens and ecoroofs. I made some videos of the ecoroof class. Unfortunately, they are rather large, even though they are not that long, and uploading them to Youtube has been problematic.)

  • and disaster preparedness and crime prevention (including a class titled “Know Your Neighborhood” as well as another very interesting class titled, “Emergencies: Beyond 72 Hours.” The “Beyond 72 Hours” class covers many things that are of interest to people adapting to a low-energy future in a collapsing economy.)

And that brings me to an observation about resources like this – namely, that while the City probably had nothing more in mind than simply trying to be helpful when they created these Fairs and their classes, resources like these can yet have applications far beyond their original intent. The Fix-It Fairs and their associated classes function to foster a resilient city – a city that is more resistant to damage caused by economic downturns and resource scarcity.

That is the goal of post-Peak planners and “preppers” generally. Our trouble is that it is very “late in the day,” so to speak, and many opportunities and resources that could have been applied to adaptation to a post-Peak world have been squandered. Our remaining resources are limited, and are dwindling. What better way to use those remaining resources than by teaching people to take care of themselves and connect with each other? This is what the City of Portland is doing. (And I'll bet that many of them haven't even heard of the “Transition Towns” movement.)

But one note of caution. While it is true that Oregon in general and Portland in particular have some very bright, foresighted and altruistic people working hard to make our place more resilient, this by no means applies to everyone who lives here. There are still many voracious, compulsive, shopaholic consumatrons speeding around in their SUV's. And there are still people (including some very rich and well-connected individuals) who would like nothing better than to dismantle all community-based safety nets and alternative arrangements, so that they can more efficiently loot this state for their own profit. I think in particular of people like Kevin Mannix and Bill Sizemore, and their attempts to collect signatures to put anti-tax initiatives on the Oregon ballot. Ironically, they also are trying to pass extreme pro-punishment ballot measures in order to swell the Oregon prison population with people convicted of non-violent crimes. This is in order to grow the “prison industry” in Oregon. My question is, who is going to pay for this? Mannix and Sizemore are using a for-profit signature-gathering firm, “Vote Oregon,” to try to get their measures on the ballot (you can see some of these “Vote Oregon” people at work if you ride the MAX a lot).

Then there's the Oregonian newspaper, which recently voiced strong opposition to Measures 66 and 67, designed to raise the tax on the wealthy and corporations by a few percentage points in order to make up for budget shortfalls. The Oregonian later published articles attacking the City of Portland's plan to increase bicycle commuting to 25 percent of all commuting trips by 2030. Surprising for a paper that's supposed to be “progressive,” isn't it? I think I'll buy a Sunday edition of the Oregonian this weekend (I need more newspaper anyway, so I can sheet-mulch some more of my backyard), and I'll count the number of ads there are for auto dealers.

Anyway, on to more pleasant subjects. Below are links to videos I took while I was at the Fix-It Fair.


  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 1 – A video of Keith Berkery from the Portland Office Of Emergency Management, describing the class he teaches, titled, “Emergencies – Beyond the First 72 Hours.” He taught this class at the most recent Fix-It Fair, and is available to give special presentations to neighborhood groups.

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 2 – Brett, a staffer with the City, explains a bit of the “Portland Plan,” the development of the City's strategic plan for the next 25 years. He also explains how City residents can provide input to the plan.

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 3 – A staffer from the City explains how homeowners can reduce stormwater runoff by disconnecting their downspouts and redirecting roof runoff to rain gardens and rain barrels.

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 4 – an explanation of consumer electronics recycling by a staffer from Free Geek, a local volunteer group that recycles consumer electronics, including computers, and donates them to poor and disadvantaged individuals.

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 5 – A staffer from the Portland Housing Bureau describes the “211 Program,” an initiative to provide affordable housing to low-income residents.

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 6 – Clay Veka from the Portland Bureau of Transportation describes the “Safe Routes to School” program, which focuses on providing schoolchildren with safe biking and walking routes from their homes to their schools. (She also talked about the bike tune-ups and repairs performed by volunteers at the Fix-It Fair.)

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 7 – Kate O'Donnell from the Josiah Hill III Clinic describes the free blood lead level tests offered by the Clinic. These tests are important for people living in older housing where walls may have been painted with lead-based paint.

  • Portland Fix-It Fair Interviews, Part 8 – Nicole McKinney from the Multnomah County Commission on Children, Families and Community explains the County's free financial planning resources for households. (After I recorded this video, we got to talking about neighborhood resilience and threats, such as predatory lending, that are faced by minority neighborhoods. I told her that I had covered these topics before on this blog (for those of you who are interested, see “Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods”, “Breaking Neighborhoods For Fun And Profit” and “Homeboy Culture And The Solari Index.”).)