Friday, July 27, 2007

You Tube You Can’t: The Failure of a Medium

You Tube is democracy on the cheap, with all its anti-elitist pretensions. The world’s intellectual elite took one look at it, and probably had an apoplectic fit. But so did the politicians – initially suspicious by its all-too-democratic overtones. Dross and drivel mark its promotions, but perhaps that’s the point. Keep the public happy, a chattering channel that enables this amorphous creature to vent opinion and bile.

Then came along CNN, that Centre for Neutered News. It has happily taken a medium that was theoretically for the public, to promote its name. Politicians have hopped on board. Here was a chance for collaboration: a ‘debate’ by U.S. presidential candidates might be jointly had. Members of the public would film clips and post them to a panel to be forwarded to the aspirants. Evidently, the public is not allowed to run the show with its own amusements. That would be akin to allowing the spillage of Onan’s seed, with all the self-pleasuring that supposes, before an ever watchful priest.

The Democrats came first, courting You Tube and CNN at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C. on July 23. MSNBC called it a ‘provocative, video-driven debate’. One wonders what they were looking at. The same sad themes were hammered home with all the custom-made drudgery that modern politics spouts. Suddenly, You Tube was not simply about idiotic dogs dazzled by hoses or sizzling rip-offs from pay-television networks. We just had to let the politicians in on the game.

We could gauge that the most interesting videos were mere fizzle to the censors of the neutered news brigade. A video, featuring a bespectacled individual, asks the candidates what they can do about a voting public (at least in California) where 88 percent believe its governor Arnold Schwarzeneger to be a cyborg. Such is the state of ‘reality’ in the CNN sieve that such a statistic, far from being a worry, was just ‘fact’. Supposedly in a state once run by a man Gore Vidal considered a ‘triumph of the embalmer’s art’ (Reagan), one might understand.

As for the video, it could not be put to the candidates, for all its merry reflections. All is serious and monochromatic in the get-real world of CNN and Capitol Hill.

The questions got dimmer as the You Tube sessions heated up – or rather petered out, a bland rehashing of mantra and Democratic neuroses. Obama had to justify whether he was ‘black’ enough, at least for those voters who probably still think he is either Osama or white. Given that CNN has spelling difficulties with the name Obama, this might have provided the viewer with some comic relief.

Hillary Clinton had to justify why she was not simply some other de-sexualised woman with the erogenous zones of a mannequin. ‘I am woman enough,’ and all that that entails. Senator John Edwards refused to accept the vote of anybody who would otherwise not vote for either a black man or a woman (sexual or de-sexualised), then rallied behind a more sophisticated fa├žade to steal his own march. To paraphrase his efforts of the deep thinker tormented by the age’s moral messages, he was wrestling with the idea of a civil partnership. Predictably, two men in the sack struck him as irksome, though is wife apparently does not object.

Technology cuts both ways: the radio, George Orwell reminds us, did nothing to help democracy and everything to build the bunkers of totalitarian states. There is a fine line between a medium that emancipates and the Ministry of Truth. The point here is that You Tube, now in the lecherous arms of the political elite, will see battle again done for the ‘grass roots’ with political tofts and populists.

Once such media becomes the standard practice of viewers, it is inevitable that private and public interests will muscle in. Politicians, and Ted Turner, have now worked out that they must do battle through another medium rich with propaganda. The Republicans are following suit. You Tube is simply becoming another idiot box, and one that is no longer ours.

This piece was first published in Counterpunch, July 24, 2007.

Ethanol and Iowans

I recently made a trip to Iowa where I learned about ethanol. Corn and soybeans abound in North East Iowa, where you're more likely to 90-degree-turn your way for hours through farm land then you are to see a stop light. I already new ethanol was important and with rising fuel prices and a depleted supply of fuel there was more love for ethanol than I every really understood.

Ethanol has brought many benefits to agricultural producers in Iowa. Counties are now building economic development strategies around attracting new ethanol plants. Farm land has become more and more expensive as the demand for ethanol soars.

This can be great for some and not so great for many more. Family farms are being replaced by the Monsantos and ADMs of the world. This is not news for most folks who have at least had passing aquitance with the notion of corporate farming. These corporations are heavily involved in ethanol production as well. I saw a 200-car ethanol freight trail rolling down a track just south of Cedar Rapids--the ADM logo affized to every tanker car.

As land prices increase, starting a farm is a difficult if not impossible dream. Farming is expensive and much of that expense is the land. As prices rise, Iowa is facing a "farmer drain" much like many areas without institutions of higher learning or large corporate presences claim to be battling a "brain drain." Young farmers are moving on to school, manufacturing jobs, and other positions that do not require the tremendous outlay of funds.

Is this bad? Yes and no. To think about the agricultural United States slipping away into an antiquated oblivion is surely a tragic thought. Development is good, economic development specifically. Iowa is not the richest state in the U.S. and without ethanol's rise, I wonder how many more families would slip below the poverty line. The landscape is surely changing, but it seems that even though a very central tenant of American identity is fading, economic development is bringing new opportunities and breathing new life into a struggling segment of the population.

Farms will always exit in the United States and Iowa will always farm corn. It runs in the blood. I'm not sure how long ethanol will stay around, but for now King Ethanol rules the land.

We'll have to see where ethanol takes the country and what ethanol does in the long run for Iowa's farmers.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Costs of living

Much political rhetoric on poverty invokes the "vulnerability" of the poor. It's an appropriate term, I think. It does not hold that the poor are helpless or that they are necessarily victims. Neither does it deem poverty a source of shame. What it does emphasize is the capacity of the poor to become victims. The support structures that middle-class Americans enjoy and take for granted cannot be depended upon by those who live on so little. Simple things like health care or a well-funded school that can be so crucial in preventing something like childhood asthma or being held back a year in school from developing into a life-long impediment to success. And I think that, as those examples illustrate, no one is truly more vulnerable than children living in poverty.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation - which takes it's mission to be "helping vulnerable kids & families to succeed" has released it's KIDS COUNT report on children living in poverty. The extensive research reveals a lot of heartbreaking information about the inequalities that are weighing down so many lives.

Local newspapers from Indiana to Michigan are already running stories on the plight of poor children in their states. Perhaps this information will act as a corrective to the apathy with which poverty is treated in so many states. My home state of Texas ranks worst in the nation for children living without health insurance - 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 are not covered for health insurance at any point during the year. What makes that figure all the more troubling is that I know how stricken by inequality Texas is. We have wealthy metropolitan suburbs, communities soaked in oil money. And we have cities, especially along the border where stable jobs and decent pay are too hard to come by. Where people still can't expect to take home more than six dollars for an hour's labor. We have rural areas, where agriculture has been sidetracked to agribusiness and tiny underfunded schools have to service two or three counties worth of impoverished kids. These are the places I lived in and traveled through before leaving to college. And I know that in these places it would be met as a welcome improvement if 1 in 5 kids could be insured.

Growing up my sister had a lot of trouble with allergies. She was sick a lot. In the worst patch, which lasted about two years, she missed so many days that we had to petition the school to let her pass. But she got a lot better after that because we did have a good insurance plan from my Dad's government job, and we could take her to a specialist. She also had a speech impediment but there was a teacher at the magnet school who counseled here through that. She's fine now. You would never know she had those problems. For a family without the support that we had, her health problem could have become more serious. She could have been held back and given up on by the education system. She could have had to deal with the consequences of her speech problem for her whole life - stigmatized in classrooms and in interviews for jobs, But we had the material support we needed and now she is going to graduate in the top of her class and go to college next year.

I haven't been back to Texas in awhile. I now reside in Minnesota most of the year. Coincidentally, Minnesota consistently ranks lowest on all the indicators of child poverty. By and large our children are insured, our families make enough money to get by. I've come to like a lot about Minnesota. I even think about living there after I finish school. The people are more tolerant than in Texas, and yes, more liberal. Minneapolis-St. Paul have everything I would want from a city. And even the winters aren't so bad when you've got the right people to share them with.

But as I start to seriously think about what I am going to do with my life, part of me feels that I need to return to Texas. To organize those communities that are so neglected, and so vulnerable, and fight for justice. For a more egalitarian Texas. It wouldn't be easy - not in terms of politics, and not in terms of lifestyle. But how can I turn my back on my home? What am I doing organizing for homeless people and immigrants in Northfield when there are even more poor immigrants and people without homes back in my hometown who don't have a couple thousand idealistic college students willing to go to bat for them? The Texas Republicans won't help them. The Texas Democrats won't fight for them. And our President thinks programs like S-CHIP are irresponsible - as though there could be anything more irresponsible than allowing children to grow up without food and medicine and a decent place to learn. It might take a whole life to just lay the groundwork for a progressive movement in Texas. But if no one is willing to do that work, then there really is no hope. I got out of Texas because I was one of the lucky ones who was never made vulnerable by inequality. That's why, when I'm done with school, I'm going to be able to live wherever I want. Do something I love. That's why I'm even in school right now. And so maybe the only right thing to do is to go back.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Surprise: military culture of abuse

Aimee Allison's truly disturbing post at Alternet reveals yet another facet of the culture of abuse that permeates our military - yet is so often downplayed in order to valorize and glamorize the image of the soldier. This time, the victims are women. And they are being abused before they even put on their uniform.

Recently, the Marine Corps announced a court settlement in a suit brought by two Ukiah, Calif., teenage girls who were raped by recruiters during a 2004 military-sponsored event.

The recruiters, Sgts. Joseph Dunzweiler and Brian Fukushima, were court-martialed and demoted but nevertheless acquitted of serious wrongdoing.


An Associated Press investigation revealed that in 2005 one in 200 frontline recruiters were punished for harassment and abuse. The Army alone had 722 recruiters accused of rape and sexual misconduct in the last decade and called for a recruitment stand down day in 2005. After widespread reports of rape, unwarranted jail threats, cheating drug tests and falsifying documents, thousands of recruiters were ordered to attend ethics training.

So what do we do about abusive recruiters? Oh, right, we let them into our schools.

Recruiters have unprecedented access to girls (and boys) thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act which demands that public schools turn over student contact data to military recruiters so they can "work their market." In addition, the majority of school districts in the country have relaxed rules that allow recruiters to come and go at will. As a result, more young people have personal and sustained contact with recruiters.

I've long supported the anti-recruitment movement, simply on the grounds that I do not think recruiters should be allowed to prey on the most disadvantaged youth at a time in their life - the end of high school - where their future first begins to look unstable. But there is absolutely zero reason to allow a military culture which turns a blind eye to abuse - from Abu Grahib to the 33% of all military women who will be raped by fellow soldiers - cannot be tolerated in our schools any longer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Obama's populism: pro-black, pro-union - Anti-Hilary?

Matt Stoller of OpenLeft recently made some insightful comments on the shift towards populism in Barack Obama's political rhetoric. He pulls some telling bits from Obama's discussion of health care:

On health insurance, for example, Obama repeated his pledge to sign a universal health care bill by the end of his first term, saying, "I shouldn't have better health insurance than you since you're paying the bill for my health insurance."

This is very different than the call for universal health care in January. Today, he's directly blaming the lobbyists and industries. In January, he was blaming cynicism and unnamed skeptics.

"And when some try to propose something bold, the interests groups and the partisans treat it like a sporting event, with each side keeping score of who's up and who's down, using fear and divisiveness and other cheap tricks to win their argument, even if we lose our solution in the process."

It's a good piece. And I had come to a similar conclusion about Obama's new populist posture having read of Obama's recent pro-labor stances.

"I stood on the picket line and marched with workers at the Congress Hotel in Chicago last week," Obama said. "I had marched with them four years earlier and I told them when I left that if they were still fighting four years from now, I'd be back on that picket line as president of the United States and we'll get the Congress Hotel organized."

I definitely respect Obama's conviction. I think that, when/if I raise children, they will know never to cross a picket line from about the same age they know never to steal or start fights. But I have to wonder about how much of this new populism is coming from a more strategic place of interest.

It's no secret that there is something of a divide between the Democratic establishment and the Democratic activists. The former tends to include people with high-school educations, organized labor, working-class folks, etc. The activist wing tends to skew to college students and people with graduate degrees. Right now, as the insurgent candidate, Obama is wildly popular with the activists. He has made himself into a phenomenon largely by ingratiating himself to the intellectual vanguard of the party, due in no small part to his own unabashed intellectualism. But what has made him a phenomenon outside the activist community is that he expertly combines his intellectual posture with soaring rhetoric and a workmanlike affability.

Nonetheless, Obama's deficit in support relative to Clinton and Gore shows that the Democratic establishment, including the parties more populist elements, have yet to be entirely sold on his candidacy. So while I do not doubt the sincerity of Obama's anti-special interest, pro-union politics, I also think it's clear that he needs to emphasize those aspects of his campaign if he is to make any inroads with Hilary's base.

If anything about Obama has been made clear in this campaign, it's that Obama is a fast learner. Mary Mitchell recently compared his underwhelming performance at Howard, where Clinton nailed the most crucial issues affecting black Americans at the expense of a wavering Obama, to his comfortable position as an "in-your-face" black populist before the NAACP.

"The massacre that happened at Virginia Tech was a terrible tragedy, and we were grief-stricken and shocked," Obama said. "But in this year alone in Chicago, we have had 34 Chicago Public School students gunned down, and for the most part there has been silence. We have to make sure that we change our politics so that we care just as much about those 34 kids in Chicago as we do about those kids at Virginia Tech."

Accused by critics of being too "skittish" to address black issues head on, Obama's spirited responses seemed crafted to put those critics to rest.

The pressures of political candidacy in a divided party are legion. Obama is learning to walk the wire between being too black for white voters and note black enough for black voters. Ann at Feministing has noted that Hilary faces similarly perplexing demands from feminist voters. Balancing populism with intellectualism is just one more act that Democratic candidates are expected to perform. While clearly not as linked to identity politics as the concerns of race and gender currently confronting the two front-runners, there is a sense in which candidates, owing to their elite credentials, are expected to prove their populist credentials without resulting to furious Lou-Dobbs-style pulpit-pounding.

As of now, I'm actually glad to see Obama take some more aggressive stands, whether or not it's emergent from some calculated anti-Hilary politicking. A passionate candidate who wants to unite everyone is great, and easy to get behind. But the same passionate candidate who is willing to call the anti-working class, anti-black and anti-democratic interests of the American establishment to the mat is all the more inspiring. Obama's had the insurgent's crown for awhile now - it's high time he's begun to do some in-surging.

Tourture banned... again?

Not that we torture anyway, but we do occasionally lapse into the cruel, inhuman and degrading business. So, George W. Bush has signed an executive order disavowing that too. And this time, he didn't even gut it with a defiant signing statement!

Call me cynical, but I'm not convinced this will do much, especially given the total lack of oversight within the detainee system and the continued assertions by military leaders that there are only aberrant torturers and not a culture which facilitates torture. And the White House is still playing coy. They "declined to say" whether the CIA currently manages a detention and interrogation program. Transparency is clearly not winning any battles here.

I was also struck by the stated intentions of the order:

Mr Hayden said the executive order gave CIA officers "the assurance that they may conduct their essential work in keeping with the laws of the United States".

Military lawyers say the main point of the orders is to offer protection to CIA officers who might get sued in US courts if they were deemed to have abused prisoners.

Those thoughtful military lawyers, always with their hearts in the right place.