Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: "The Wrong Thing"

Graham, Barry.  The Wrong Thing.   PM Press, Switchblade Series:  2011.

 "The Wrong Thing" was a serious genre stretch for me--I don't read a lot of crime fiction, and only picked this up because of my PM Press membership. I read the novel, or more properly novella, on a lazy Saturday morning, and for that purpose it was enjoyable. The book follows the brief life of The Kid, a young man of Latino heritage who falls into a lifestyle of crime in Santa Fe. The book is deadpan with a lot of social commentary on the traps of poverty and marginalization. Perhaps the best moment of the book actually comes at the end when we meet the narrator for a moment; had this part come earlier, I think it would have been a stronger tale. I wasn't particularly impressed by the book's craftmanship while reading it, but now that it's over the short saga is sticking in my head, and I am baffled by how to feel about The Kid--surely a guilty human being, but also one whose every impulse towards good has been maligned by evil systems. This is a relevant text about the problems of "criminals," especially those who commit crimes that would be wrong in any conceivable good society (as opposed to those who merely break silly or immoral laws). Should one be judged only on the worst actions in one's life, or the best? How could we break away from a punitive justice system? Would a more restorative system have saved The Kid and his victims? The book poses excellent questions and a case study to complicate the answers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Scattered Thoughts, Post-yoga

In the alley between the Bourgeois Pig and Z's Divine Espresso, there is a wonderful picture of Brownback.  We should enshrine it.  Blessed be its creator. 

I am wondering these days if Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are anti-revolutionary in disguise.  Last night, they made me laugh so hard I forgot about the need for revolution, for a little bit, and I felt like there might be good people in the world even in places of power.   Like there are enough comrades that the world is about to turn, for real.

This is my third-to-last week of yoga class, and after yoga I'm in a stupor.  Today, I think it's mostly because of the pain.  Up until this week I was able to do everything the instructor asked us to do, but some of the new poses she introduced this time were just not possible for my body.  But it is nice to have to focus so entirely on my body and what it's doing that I can't think about anything else--for physical activity to be a strong cognitive task.  Also, I never knew how hard standing still was until I started taking yoga.

Oh yes, and today in crappy news from Kansas politics:  The legislature commissioned a study to find out if social security net benefits had an impact on marriage rates.  They wanted the study to demonstrate that people avoided marrying because they might lose welfare benefits, thereby bolstering claims about welfare encouraging cohabitation, bad poor people not getting married on purpose to con the government, immoral poor people just not getting married because they are totally motivated by money, victim-blaming, etc, etc.  Shockingly, the study concluded that people get married because they make a personal decision to do so or not.  Apparently, researchers found that there were some "loopholes" in the program that might provide a financial disincentive to marriage; however, in interviews, they found that virtually no one based their decisions to marry or not based on those "loopholes."  Didn't you know the poor based their marital statuses entirely on taxpayer-conning and not affection and circumstance like good people?  Dang.  

Now the study has contradicted the preconceived notions of the legislature, and they are demanding a different study.  This highlights the importance of a scientific mindset.  When evidence suggests that your preconceived notions are wrong, the notions must change, not the evidence.  This set of preconceived notions is ridiculous--offensive--dehumanizing to human beings and their complex relationships.  When not even evidence that you commission supports your bigotry, it's time to back up and look for evidence-based solutions rather than the other way around.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The State Being the State

I wake up to NPR in the morning.  This might have to change, as I realized that this last week my first word every morning was a curse word.  They keep giving air time to life destroyers, right about quarter to six, and my cursing them out first thing when I wake up does not actually communicate with them; it just makes me unhappy.

Anyway, it's been a long week of the state being the state, its inherent violence out in full force, its lack of "by the people for the people" qualities on display, the state as a mechanism for the preservation of privilege exposed.

On Wednesday night, late, the State of Georgia murdered Troy Davis.  Despite very strong evidence that the man was innocent of the murder they convicted him of, evidence that most certainly established a reasonable doubt, a poison filled his blood, and he died with many witnesses to the indignity of death.  The Law spoke, and no reasonable people, no kindness, no mercy could halt that death.  Of course there were those who could have stopped the murder--judges, juries, the governor of Georgia--but they hid behind legal proceedings, and said, no, we have done what we can, the execution must go on.   The power of the State must triumph over any remaining concerns about innocence. 

I thought about my students who are black males, who are at so much higher risk than the rest of my students of being murdered by their government. My vivacious, bright, talented students--Troy Davis could have been one of them.  No One should be murdered by their government.  I remember, again, today, that our Lord Jesus Christ was the innocent victim of capital punishment. He calls us from the cross to resist, to protest, to fight until the state can kill no one else, especially not in his name.  We must not forsake those under threat of death.

Meanwhile, a court in California has ruled that ten Muslim students protesting at a speech by the Israeli ambassador were not exercising their right to free speech, but instead violating the Israeli ambassador's right to be heard.  Dang. Why can't people not in positions of power have a right to be heard?  I would love a right to be heard.  My students would love a right to be heard. How odd that it's never been established for teachers or students or working people.

You may or may not have heard that there are people occupying Wall Street in a well-intentioned attempt to bring attention to the shame and guilt of greed.  I think the concept is great--oh, if only, if only progressive elements could ever learn how to organize--but anyway several of them were arrested for non-violent protest.  It's not the fault of individual police, they are caught in the immoral apparatus of the state, enforcing laws and non-laws that society needs to preserve the power of the wealthy.

And, finally, here in Brownbackistan, the SRS (Social and Rehabilitative Services) has announced some changes to benefit calculations.  One of their most astounding actions is a new policy of offering $1000 to families in exchange for them agreeing not to apply for public aid for a year.   In other words, buying off the poor to go away for a while.  Who in a desperate situation will not accept $1000?  And how many children will go hungry from the food assistance they won't be getting?  For people who claim to be rooting out fraud, this seems like an action designed to encourage fraud--change aid for food, housing, medical work, etc., for a wad of undesignated cash.  Then, if/when that money is not spent "well, " they can use that example to say the poor are lazy and don't deserve help, another excuse to direct invective at the vulnerable.

I suppose everyone already knows that Brownback endorsed Rick Perry for governor, and that he said he wants to make Kansas more like Texas.  All I can hope is that he meant he wanted a more racially and linguistically diverse population, right?  Right?  Not that he wanted us to lead the country in minimum-wage jobs, executions, and people without access to health care.  I'm sure that is not what he meant.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Last Garden Update (this year)

Well, it's definitely fall weather now (if not technically until Wednesday), and my tomato plants are on the edge of death; the squash, broccoli, and cucumbers are all extremely dead.  However, the peppers have finally started to produce, even the golden ones, and the tiny little hot-pepper plant has put out its own weight in blazing chilis.  The herbs still produce ferociously. 

This last month, I didn't take the same joy in my garden as I did before the squash bugs laid waste to most of it.  It's hard to weed when you're just making space for dying plants.  Unfortunately, every time I tried to get up the gumption to weed, and I was faced with hideous, living squash bugs, and beautiful, wilting, perishing squash plants, I couldn't help but make connections between our political "leaders" and  bugs, and I know that it is wrong to compare people to insects that you want to squish.  So, not much weeding happened after it became clear that the squash bugs won this round.

Despite my sadness at the deaths, I did have a very productive garden season.  My garden made about the same dollar value of produce as I put into it--around $150. This was in a season when half my crops failed!  The cucumbers are preserved in my cupboard as pickles; many of the tomatoes are in salsa and pizza sauce, also canned in my pantry. 

So, successes of this year's garden included the 15-odd pints of cherry tomatoes, the many delicious larger tomatoes, and the abundant cucumbers, in addition to fragrant herbs that have enlivened our food since April. The garden provided nearly everything for gazpacho, which was my organizing principle for choosing veggies this year.  I also gained a lot of skills this season; I started plants from seeds for the first time.  I learned that you have to put cages on tomatoes and provide dowels for cucumbers to climb.  And, of course, I learned how to can and preserve food!  Strike one against big ag! (At least many websites claim that canning your own produce strikes away at Big Ag and Corporate Food.  I sure hope so!).

But no more dwelling on failure.  Now I'm a gardener, and next summer's focus can be on quality of product, new veggies, increased yield to make more canned pizza sauce of goodness!  Also, all my harvest happened in one quick blast, and then it was over.  Next year I need to plant in a way that staggers harvest, and get some greens in there--something for the beginning and end of the growing cycle here.

After all this, I'm ready for fall, to let the dormancy begin, to start making butternut squash and apple stew, pull out the cardigans, and go on the fall tour next weekend!  Anyone in the Lawrence area, let me know--we can caravan to the various farms if you want!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Revolutionary Memoir Do's and Don'ts

Fugitive Days, by Bill Ayers
Arm the Spirit, by Diana Block
Footnote, by Boff Whalley
Granny Made Me an Anarchist, by Stuart Christie

In my quest to understand the revolutionary movements of the past century, and the ways in which they have and have not succeeded, I've been reading a lot of memoirs by revolutionaries/anarchists this month.  Reading the four above listed tomes brought me moments of euphoria, of hope, of understanding, of disappointment, etc., et. al.  Actually, the American writers left me with some more comprehension of why some revolutionary movements have failed, and unfortunately with less comprehension of how to move forward. The Brits are more inspiring.

Bill Ayers may be familiar to many readers for his actions in the Weather Underground, a radical group in the sixties (about which I've written previously).  Diana Block was an important member of many underground movements, and her husband was on the Ten Most Wanted list of the FBI for a while; she herself is not a household name, but she and her family and friends were forced underground because of their support of the Puerto Rican liberation movement.  Boff Whalley is the guitarist/ideas man behind Chumbawamba, my very favorite band, and a committed anarchist in England.  Stuart Christie's book has already received a full review in this blog. He is most famous for his participation in an attempt to assassinate General Franco, the Spanish dictator, in 1961.

In my brief survey of the revolutionary memoir, I notice a few things.
 ** The less sex, the better narrative.  This might be my own personal bias, I suppose, but really--one-night stands turned into one-sentence memories are all the same, and you should keep your own memories on this unless the nudity is integral to the plot of the memoir. 
**Humor and hope are vital.  No one will gather to revolutionary causes unless we can forsee a better, happier future for most people.  No one wants to be harangued (yes, I need to learn that one); laughter is good, evidence of success is good. 
**Being proud of your actions is good; don't disavow your former self completely unless it is legally necessary.  At the same time, none of these guys brought the revolution.  Self-importance can ruin any narrative, and crush the hope you may wish to impart.  
** The audience of a revolutionary narrative is interested in the injustices that outraged the writer and spurred her/him to action.  Include enough info that we can feel the fury with you.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Darren Aronofsky and the Politics of Excellence

We finally sat down and watched Black Swan this weekend.  This was long overdue--I loved Pi and liked The Fountain.  My loyalty to Darren Aronofsky comes almost completely from the fact that he made a movie about a mathematician and about irrational numbers.  I remember watching Pi with some other math majors in college, which greatly disturbed one of us--she concluded that maybe the movie was right, maybe all mathematicians do go crazy eventually.

But Pi and Black Swan aren't exactly about math or ballet, although they do appeal to specific audiences based on those subject materials.  No, they are about obsession, about perfection, about quests for excellence and knowledge.  And (spoiler alert) how those quests destroy the people involved.

It may not surprise you to know that I think anarchotheism poses a strong and important response to these films.  Now, Aronofsky is clearly not an anarchist.  Neither is he a socialist.  Neither is he a capitalist.  Political systems are not what he interrogates in his films--he is an artist, an artiste, one who thinks about art and how it plays out in people's lives. And I think we are supposed to see the sacrifice of Black Swan Nina's sanity and life, the sacrifice of Max's (the mathematician in Pi) sanity and ability to love numbers, as noble, beautiful, tragic.

I say bah.  These are not tragedies in the sense of some internal flaw bringing about a terrible situation.  These movies showcase the logic of capitalism and what it celebrates as the best use of a human life--to be stressed beyond happiness at every point, to lose oneself in a role that profits others, to relinquish all human relationships in pursuit of Excellence.  Nina must push herself to be the best, to obtain honor--but this brings her no joy. She has only fantasies of relationships with other humans, a puppet for others' directions. Max's obsession brings him into contact with people who want him for his product, but he refuses the people who seek a genuine human connection with him.  These are both examples of people unable to live complete human lives because of values incompatible with life.  Good God!  Making art and pursuing knowledge should bring joy and fulfillment; when it only brings a thirst for further perfection, it is pointless.

Let us instead look to Christ and his example of what a worthwhile life entails--spending time with other humans, talking, eating, walking, participating in society, righting wrongs, healing.  Christ IS our perfector--we can be united with the Divine without pursuing a false earthly perfection, instead appreciating all the good things for which God created us.  And the longtime anarchist traditions celebrate similar concepts.  Art is for humans, not humans for art; dance is for humans, not humans for dance; math is for humans, not humans for math.  Anytime these concepts threaten to take over and ruin lives, we should not celebrate but condemn that impulse.  Human life is precious--every second of existence is precious--and we must work against any system that tries to oppress human life and harness it for profit. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Political Atrocities Abound

Well, I haven't provided a recent example of Brownback-watch moments, even though every day that continues provides new examples of abominations in favor of the rich and famous.  I still haven't recovered from anger at the 31.5 million of jobs-creating-money that Brownback returned to the federal government because it would support a federally mandated part of the health-reform bill.  In this difficult climate where we just don't have enough money to pay for schools or for art or for local SRS (Social and Rehabilitation Services)  offices or for health care, apparently we do have enough money to return it to the federal government--and to amp up welfare fraud investigation.  Oh, yes.  In this interview with our new SRS czar Rob Siedlecki, he reveals that we have enough state funds to hire nine new fraud investigators, bringing the total number of investigators to 17.  He claims that they will pay for themselves in no time at all!  How inspiring!  So, I estimate that with salaries and benefits, each of these ***** fraud investigators is probably costing the state around $100,000.  Meaning that our state has an extra $1.7 mil to dedicate to finding all those evil poor people who are defrauding the system.  

If food-stamp benefits represent about $300/month for a family of four, that means that each of those fraud investigators will have to find thirty families a year to remove from food stamps to pay for themselves.  I am sure that, somehow, they will manage it.  Oh, yes.  When you create people whose jobs depend on finding fraud, somehow the fraud will appear, and thirty-six families per investigator per year will be liberated from food assistence.  I am so glad that when resources are supposedly scarce that we can invest $1.7 million a year in making sure that everyone getting them is appropriately poor.

(N.B. Yes, I am sure that welfare fraud actually does happen.  NPR did run a harrowing story this week on a grocery store owner who paid 50 cents on the dollar for people's food stamps.  Yes, this person is an asshole who should be in trouble for defrauding the government.  But still, I can't believe we are creating positions based on criminalizing the people who need services--shouldn't this be part of social workers' domain instead of brownbackers who profit from finding fraud?)

Also NB, I am furious about Lawrence having to pay a large sum of money to the state to get them to do their job providing benefits (see, and I see this as a low-level form of corruption--pay up or we won't give your part of the state services.  But there is nothing more I can do about that now.

Perhaps Brownback's least popular move so far was gutting the budget of the Kansas Arts Commission, which had received legislative support and is in fact the reason why some former Republicans of my acquaintance withdrew their allegiance to him.  It turns out that after slashing the budgets of everything that matters in our fair state, we have a surplus!  Go Kansas!  So some forward-thinking people have suggested that we restore funding to the Kansas Arts Commission,  which is apparently Right Out even though it would also make us eligible again for $1.3 million dollars in out of state funding.  Now, I am not a great mathematician, but I figure that the grand total of $2 million dollars, doled out across Kansas at maybe $10,000 a pop, would provide funding for 200 community organizations and efforts.  Two hundred life-enhancing organizations which provide jobs, rent, positive feelings towards neighbors, youth inspiration, and just make life in Kansas livable...but no.  We cannot have those things because they conflict with a rigid ideology of everything is private, nothing is held in common. 

Not that Brownback is the only person guilty of this right now.  Alas, alack.  I assume that most people have heard that Naomi Klein, Bill McKibbens, Daryl Hannah, and many other fine celebrities and non-celebrities have been arrested at the White House in protest against the Tar Sands oil project.  Naturally, I am sympathetic to their position, and also hope that Obama will decline to approve that pipeline (tar sands provide a particularly dirty source of oil because you have to burn a bunch of fuel to extract the oil, then burn the oil itself--in effect releasing a whole bunch of greenhouse gases).  But I don't see how that is going to happen in a world that is so dependent on oil, where we will look into all kinds of oil-company-profiting alternatives before we simply start trying to use less energy.  I mean, sure, I expect Obama to roll over on this one, but I don't think any potential president would do anything else to appease our oil-hungry world.

However, I would have expected Obama to stand up against smog!  Seriously!  It appears that Obama has backed off from his commitment to returning EPA-required ozone requirements to scientifically supported levels.  (another source:  Obama withdraws suggested EPA changes)  The standards for ozone/smog are supposed to be based strictly on health standards, not on economic considerations.  But cleaning up pollution costs a lot, and large corporations don't want to pay to do that.  So they don't have to! How easy was that?  This made me more depressed than all the other stories put together.  From my anarchist perspective, at least I can help build alternative organizations to meet  some of the social service needs.  I can help dream of a world that doesn't see oil as the ultimate good.  But there is not one thing that I can do to prevent creating that smog and help keep people from needless suffering.   Only a strong government with a lot of regulations and the foresight to see this as ruining the commons, or a mobilized public that destroys any business that causes this kind of needless suffering, can make that happen.  Since option A has failed...but I don't want to have to destroy stuff just yet.  :(