The Fifth Shelf

Last night, I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. This completed my fifth shelf of “politics-plus” reading since middle of last August. Back then, I’d picked up Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some in hopes it’d answer some new-to-me questions about the troubling state of so-called U.S. democracy.

In my hometown for the fiftieth anniversary of some of my adopted parents, I’d get my kids in their hotel beds nightly. Then I’d pace the length of our hotel room, back and forth, back and forth, unable to read such horrifying things sitting in place.

I really thought one book would do it for me, but … you can see how that turned out.

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As I discovered after finishing my first Greenwald book, even an excellent book can only answer so many questions, doing so while opening many more: Continue reading “The Fifth Shelf”


Costs masquerading as conveniences

I don’t use Uber. I don’t use Lyft. Apart from being concerned with pretty much all apps’ privacy settings, I’m also concerned with the way these particular services transfer risks and costs from employer exploiter to individual.

These companies are the veritable face of neoliberalism, wherein anything that can be privatized is privatized. This is one process by which public wealth is effectively transferred to extraordinarily wealthy private citizens.

Uber and Lyft didn’t dream up this kind of exploitation. It’s been underway in various forms for decades, and sprang from the predatory logic that inspired colonialism. Historian Mike Davis helped me understand these connections with his Late Victorian Holocausts, about which I wrote here.

I finished Davis’s 2006 Planet of Slums a few days ago. Davis’s use of language is antithetical to most U.S. politicians’; where they use vague, ambiguous language to present the illusion of having communicated meaningfully, he breaks apart the terrible, terrifying details of globalized poverty. Each page is an onslaught of facts and details. Continue reading “Costs masquerading as conveniences”

The Language of Politics

Have you ever listened to a politician speak and wondered, “What are you even saying?” or “Why are you even talking, since you’re not actually communicating anything?” I have, and often. In fact, there’s an almost 100% overlap between my hearing a politician talk and asking myself these questions.

Until now, I’ve assumed this as a universal, historical given. Reading Geoffrey Wagner’s essay “The Language of Politics” in Language in America (1969), I was astonished to see laid bare the chasm between what is (ambiguous nonsense presented with gusto) and what could be (practical, clear statements of intention and planned action).

Now, in the rare case where I DO bother listening to American politicians speak (generally a waste of time; see first paragraph), I’ll listen carefully for answers to questions like:

  • When you say you’re “bringing democracy,” what exactly do you mean by “democracy”?
  • What are the specific actions you’re planning on taking?
  • What are the estimated dates for these actions?
  • Do you have the consent of a majority of those who’ll be most impacted by these actions?
  • What specific assessments went into establishing these?
  • What does the best case scenario look like?
  • What is the worst case scenario?

Unless any politician answers questions with specifics and then routinely (1) publicly follows up with specific facts capable of independent verification and (2) commits to being held accountable for deviant outcomes, they’re not worth the time of listening. They’re speaking with the intent of avoiding accountability.

American politicians’ track record stretching at least decades back is far too abysmal to trust without verification. Most have routinely, tactically used language to create illusions of trustworthiness via language ambiguous enough to be interpreted many ways. Indeed, it “is because political utterances about democracy and so forth demands to be translated that politicians choose wooly language, on a high level of abstraction, behind which they may maneuver.”


  • “Orwell condensed this well: ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.’”
  • “The word peace is totally fractured when it is forced to contain within itself children and old people horribly burned and maimed.”
  • “The nicety of being anointed with incendigel rather than napalm must seem to an Asiatic peasant the luxury of a very rich society, indeed. He has still been burnt raw by gelled gasoline fluid.”
  • “Pentagonese is an insulating attempt to create another form of language” (its euphemisms protect its agents, and no one else)
  • “Used as they have been in the past decade, words like democracy and freedomend up as no more or less significant than so many street cries, or the sounds of engines.”

This 4/9/17 post transferred from L2SP 7/15/17


Destruction courtesy consumption

Last night, my sister Rache called me at the beginning of a longish drive she was taking. Our first call didn’t work out, but we got to really talking soon enough.

Rache happened to mention a noxious tweet she’d seen earlier. It was, she told me, deriding poor people with too damn many kids–decrying the terrible burden they’re placing on the planet.

By now, you might be able to predict what I said in reply: “George Monbiot wrote a perfect article about this exactly!

I’d read the essay in a book, but the book was a collection of essays from The Guardian. I googled “george monbiot rich people carbon” (or, if you want to be precise, “george people.carbon”) and found what I was looking for within the first couple results. I read the essay, “Stop blaming the poor. It’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet,” aloud to her.

Early on, Monbiot writes that “the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2.”

Monbiot drives this home in one particularly scathing paragraph:

While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few super-yachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they are accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 litres per hour. But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres per hour when travelling at 60 knots. That’s nearly a litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.

While population growth is expected to peak this century, Monbiot sees no end in sight for the excess consumption of those wealthy enough to pass the environmental buck to the rest of the planet with nary a (government-mandated) consequence:

But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less – they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth”. It is the worst kind of paternalism.

Rache loved the article, so I sent her the link. Since our discussion was one of the first things that came to my mind when I awakened this morning, I wanted to share it here.

Monbiot is not alone in saying these things. Like points have been covered in many of my readings, including/especially one of my most informative reads so far, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Where Monbiot shines–apart from his riveting descriptions of experiences out in the wild–is in his ability to say so much so succinctly, and with such delectable wryness.

I hope you’ll read this Monbiot essay … and not stop there!


Kinda, thanks to Johnson

One of my adult students in Japan survived the American (nuclear) bombing of Nagasaki. She took me into her home and showed me her pictures, explaining how she survived the bomb’s chaotic aftermath. I took notes with the intention of writing about her experiences, but those notes disappeared when my home was burglarized in 2006.

I remember my elderly student. I remember our conversations. More than that, I remember a view shared by my many adult students: “I hate America. We hate America.”

They were always quick to add, “Not you! You’re lovely! The American people are very kind.” And I was quick to smile, showing that I understood the animosity wasn’t personal.

But I didn’t really understand. I didn’t understand until a few months ago, when I picked up a Chalmers Johnson book at random in a bookstore.

If you’d like to understand why my (lovely) Japanese students hated America, please read Johnson’s Dismantling the Empire. It is succinct, well sourced, and the best (genuine) answer you’re apt to find to the question, “Why do they hate us?”

I thought I understood, a decade ago. Now, I (kinda, thanks to Johnson) actually do.

This 4/4/17 post transferred from L2SP 7/10/17


A library trip

Late yesterday, I walked my seven-year-old to our neighborhood library. He grumbled about having to go, preferring to watch a little TV, but found several books.

This morning, I noticed he’d sorted his books into two piles. “Wait, what?” I said aloud. I picked up the stack including the book I’d seen Li’l D reading at bedtime. I carried them to my bedroom, where my kids have (for whatever reason) decided to congregate today.

“Did you already finish reading these?!” I asked.

“Yeah,” he intoned, not pausing his video game to reply.

“Dang! Good job, kid.” 

With four books read in fourteen hours and four books left unread? We might just be back at the library when it reopens on Tuesday …


Hope in history

My last post, “Austerity the Dangerous,” summarized what I’d taken away from Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. I mentioned I’d had to read slowly to ensure I grokked enough to proceed.

After I wrote that post, I picked up a copy of Richard D. Wolff’s Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. Within reading the first couple of essays, I wished I’d read it first. Wolff explains a lot in clear, straightforward language. The “key purposes of austerity policies,” for example, are “to (1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint of the government, and (3) reduce creditors’ concerns about rising US debt levels.” 

(As to number three, Wolff sums it up thusly: “because big banks and other large capitalists are among the major creditors of the US government, they wanted signs that their crisis-increased holdings of US debt were safe investments for them. Austerity policies provide just those signs.” Basically, to sum it up, austerity policies show investors that the government ranks paying lenders back as a far higher priority than, say, the health or employment of its citizens.)

While walking my dog a few minutes ago, I saw a chart that (1) made my blood boil and (2) reminded me yet again why understanding history is important.

From my last year of reading, I understood that a memo written by then-future Supreme Court Justice Powell in 1971 hugely shifted the U.S.’s economic and political history. Basically, Powell said that U.S. business was getting the shaft and needed to combine its various actors to change that situation. In response, U.S. business began acting in concert to ensure it succeeded–over labor and human rights advocates–in shaping the nation; the more resources for business, the better.

While lots of folks point to 1980–the beginning of Reagan’s presidency–as the beginning of U.S.’s takeover by corporation (“inverted totalitarianism,” per Wolin), business won some huge victories against its “detractors” in the couple years just prior. Powell had had his way, so that the foundation had already been laid  for Reagan and his cronies. 

(So sad for so many lives that this jackhole later became a Supreme Court justice! Business and other elite interests were given great power long before Citizens United.)

With each page of just about everything I read, I understand how the foundation for business supremacy was being crafted for at least decades before Carter’s presidency. Still, some sentences jar me especially as they remind me how much our (mis)understanding of history influences what we understand of now.

Referring to the above grid, Wolff writes, “After the war, corporations went to work to change the federal tax system. Not only did they succeed in shifting the tax burden from corporations to individuals already by 1960, but that shifting had gone on steadily to the present.”

Further, he summarizes more succinctly than anyone I’ve read so far, “The US federal tax system that right wingers portray as burdensome to the richest Americans allowed them for the last two decades to gather still greater income than everyone else. The US federal tax system enabled greater inequality.”

None of this was inevitable. It was shaped by people with shared vision and commitment. To move toward a different system–one which favors human life over corporate profits (and their executives’ obscene pay and bonuses)–will take like shared vision and commitment by people with different ideals.

In my vision, food, education, health, and shelter are human rights which want of profit cannot overcome. The U.S. tax system is completely overhauled so that corporations pay much, much higher portions of their income to taxes than do individuals with actual bellies to feed and thirsts that cannot be quenched without funds, given how privatization has granted these things to corporations (for their profit) at the expense of human wellness. Storing funds in offshore tax havens is criminal, with consequences for evasion that would help dramatically increase tax revenue to pay for life-improving human benefits. If corporations thrive, in my vision, it is because they’re bringing just benefits to all, not crushing more and more human lives so their balance sheets warrant gross bonuses.

Seeing anything like this come to fruition seems impossible … but then, the more I read history, the more I understand how today’s impossible was yesterday’s actual.

I didn’t see it a year ago, but today it’s crystal clear:

There’s hope in history.