Monday, August 3, 2020

The Wonders Of Harper's Magazine

I was a “free-rider” for many years when it came to magazines with Internet pages. Long ago, I would copy the free stuff to Word and then print the articles out. More recently, I obtained a Kindle, and I sent the Word files to the Kindle. I hunted among the better magazines, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Harper's, and others. They never gave away the entire content of an actual copy of the magazine, but they'd give you some. It varied. The New Yorker, like the New York Times, will give you a certain number of articles every month. Then you get cut off. The New York Review of Books gives you a few of the articles every month, adding new ones every week or so. You can help yourself to as much as they put up. They're very generous, actually, but then again, the Review contains a lot of material, and most of it isn't free. Harper's is on the stingy side. Their web page lists all of the contents for the month, but most of the articles have a red dot next to them. “Subscribers only.” That way you can see what you're missing. The Atlantic? I think they give it all away, except the archive. The sum of the free stuff from all sources was already more than I could find the time to read. I grabbed new stuff whenever I ran out.

We say “free-rider” in English to describe someone who hovers around the campsite like a wild dog waiting to pick up some scraps. The Germans have a better term, as often happens. They call you a “Schwartzfahrer,” or “black-rider.” You hear the term most often associated with public transportation. Almost everyone has a monthly pass, and they just get on the bus or streetcar and sit down. No one says anything, and usually no one checks. If you have no “Monatspass,” you tell the driver how far you're going and pay in cash. Every so often, though, someone in uniform will get on the bus and check everyone's proof of having paid, either by showing the monthly card or showing the ticket that you got from the driver when you paid the fare. I got the impression that not having either thing was considered a serious breach of the public trust. People shuddered at the thought. No jail time, but they were going to embarrass you and hit you with a substantial fine. My advice if you ever go to Germany is to follow all of the rules. They're very friendly if you do, but their patience quickly runs out if you don't.

The recent general assault on democracy and human decency, and on the free investigative press in particular, made me rethink my casual abuse of those magazines. I began to subscribe to some of them. Right now I have subscriptions to the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Harper's. I am most happy about the Harper's.

I love getting the Harper's Index every month. (“Percentage of Democrats who believe that their personal incomes will rise over the next year: 60.” “Of Republicans who do: 83.”) The May issue had a few very long articles that were fascinating and educational. One by Thomas Frank about the way that populism has been treated in American politics. Another by Ian Baruma about the democracy situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And one shedding light on a major scandal that hardly raises an eyebrow in America: the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. That would be the theft of many billions of dollars from a Malaysian sovereign-wealth fund called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad. The Ringit dropped about thirty percent on that one. Goldman Sachs is heavily implicated.

There are also shorter articles and reviews that often seem to coincide with my own interests. Writers that I like (in May, Walter Lippmann); artists that I love (in May, film maker Jacques Tati). The magazine finishes up with “Findings” on the last page. Findings is a string of random facts strung together in a manner that seems casual but probably isn't. In the May issue, we were told that, “[d]amage to parts of the right frontotemporoinsular lobes that spares the anterior hypothalamus was linked to the emergence of acquired pedophilia.” This sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph, between two totally unrelated sentences. Fascinating, certainly, and interesting, but also a bit disturbing. I am almost motivated to find out more about how someone could go about carefully avoiding such injuries. That would be a terrible malady to come down with by accident.

I also love Harper's because they have a deep respect for tradition. All of the others sold me a “digital” subscription, but Harper's insists on sending me a physical copy. I also have digital access to their archive, but there is no option to save some money by foregoing the physical copy. Something like two out of three actually arrive at my mailbox, due to the vagueries of international mail. I love being able to throw one in my attache case. It's much lighter than my Kindle, and I never leave the house without emergency reading.

My plan is to rotate these subscriptions somehow. Maybe next year I'll drop the Atlantic and subscribe to the New Yorker. I'm almost afraid to subscribe to the New York Review of Books. There are only so many hours in a day, and I don't want to give up history books or novels. I humbly recommend that we all do more to support our quality investigative press. That's the key phrase to remember, the investigation part. It's expensive for a magazine to put something like that together. Most of the typical websites just have a bunch of “content providers” sitting at home terminals turning out short articles full of typos about things that they are familiar with. Think of that Ian Baruma article about Chinese democracy. Harper's sent him to Hong Kong and Taiwan for that one, and he interviewed numerous scholarly individuals whom he has known personally for decades. That kind of thing costs money.

So I don't mind paying, within limits.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Celebration! And A Book Plug

Thanks to Kool Bell and the crew for helping me celebrate the warm welcome for the post below this, "Things That No Longer Seem to Matter." Over six hundred reads, and they don't look like bots either. Three serious comments from real people! That's all a rare thrill for me, so thanks everybody.

Perhaps I should take this opportunity to plug my book! A rare moment of self-promotion. Here's the direct link to Amazon. The e-book is still specially priced at ninety-nine cents.

Political Rants: Lefty Vitriol in the Age of Obama and Trump. It was drawn from these very pages. The text was cleaned up a bit, but none of the content was altered to make me look smarter after the benefit of hindsight. There are so many posts in the archive by now that it would be difficult to follow the thread of politics since 2008. It's all in the book, in chronological order. Watch the nightmare unfold in real time! 

I deeply appreciate any time that people spend reading my work. I enjoy writing it, but it's more fun if I know that someone is reading it. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Things That No Longer Seem To Matter

Most people seem not to have noticed, but enormous changes have been made to the list of things that are considered important. Many of us are becoming alarmed at this growing lack of interest in things that until very recently were considered crucial to the continued maintenance of peace and the further development of prosperity in the world.

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that if you point out to some people that one of these formerly important things is no longer valued, you may immediately be called a “Marxist anarchist terrorist.” This is especially true if you have pointed it out on the Internet. Our population has been conditioned to used this or other similar phrases to describe anyone who notices that the American way of life is being degraded beyond recognition.

Our population has also been conditioned to believe that they are very well informed, that their media-induced beliefs are true, and that their opinions mean something. All three things are wrong.

Okay, it's list time! In no particular order:
Checks and Balances: It is no longer considered important that the three branches of our Federal Government work together in a polite, cooperative manner. This was clearly part of the Founding Fathers' dream for their new political experiment, notwithstanding the fact that they were all being pretty uncouth about it in those days, you know, with the dueling and everything.

But men will be men of their times, so looking at the documents is more instructive. The men were bound by the habits of their times, but the documents that they wrote were aspirational. The inclusion of checks and balances, forcing the branches to work together, was considered important. The inclusion of ratification, impeachment, the veto, and the Constitutional authority of the Supreme Court, was designed to prevent abuse of power by any branch that had achieved a temporary advantage over the others. This dream has died, and has been replaced by a long, steady expansion of executive authority, the refusal of the party in control of the Senate to even consider bills passed by the House that had been written by the other party, and the general refusal of anyone to work together on anything.

Consider the situation in the nomination of Federal judges. Merrick Garland, anyone? The Year of the Eight Justices? Consider the utter failure of the Federal government to pass any legislation at all during the first two years of Trump's presidency, in spite of the fact that the Republicans controlled all three branches of government and had quickly assumed a dominant position in the Supreme Court to boot. They couldn't even cooperate with themselves. Now the Democrat controlled House approves and sends bill to the Senate for their consideration. They just stack up on a desk somewhere collecting dust. The Republican controlled Senate again refuses to perform its function. Most people do not seem to find this level of dysfunction problematic.

Party Line Supreme Court Voting: It is not considered noteworthy that the Supreme Court has taken to voting along party lines without regard to the law or precedent. They are supposed to follow precedent; the Common Law requires it. Follow the cases or overturn them on well-considered legal grounds. Consider the election of 2000. In the face of a genuine dispute over the winner in a swing state, the Supreme Court threw the election to W. Bush. The vote for Bush went this way: Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia (all four Reagan appointees) and Thomas (G.H.W. Bush appointee) all voted to give it to G.W. Bush; Bryer, Ginsberg (Clinton appointees), Souter (G.H.W. Bush) and Stevens (Gerald Ford) voted to let the counting continue. Souter and Stevens were holdovers from the old days when cases were decided according to the law, not politics.

By now it's obvious that the court majority decides first which result suits them better politically and then drums up a colorable legal argument in its favor. If someone calls bullshit on this behavior, like a minority justice writing a dissenting opinion, most of the majority justices reply with that grin that means, “don't you know that we are in charge now?”

Foreign Diplomacy: The United States is no longer interested in building coalitions in the world, influencing international organizations, or engaging in any diplomacy at all. One of Trump's first acts was to withdraw America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the TTP). His response to the COVID crisis was to withdraw America from the World Health Organization. We are one of the very few countries that seem to think that these things no longer matter. The rest of the developed world is horrified at this state of affairs. I am horrified myself. The developing world is making new plans for a “Post-America” world. Does this all matter?

Vigorous Federal Agencies: The Federal Agencies are mostly standing nearly empty as I write this. Trump's first official act was to fire all Obama appointees, replacing only the agency heads and cabinet secretaries. Then he started a program of pushing all of the career diplomats and various experts towards the door.

So if a problem arises now in Tajikistan, the few remaining employees in the State Department struggle to find it on the map. If they have any maps left. Open the Google! Before Trump, you would just ask the in-house Tajikistan expert to prepare a memo. Now they'd probably farm the job out to a former alligator wrestler from Coral Gables. This destruction of our government institutions has flown completely under the radar. It no longer matters.

Presidential Diplomacy: Obama, much to his credit, was disposed to working with foreign leaders in a framework of mutual respect. He got along well with almost all of them, and he got a lot done. Trump has nothing but contempt for other countries and their leaders. He complains about them publicly, unless it's one of the guys that scare him, like Putin or Xi, or that he looks up to, like Erdogan or Duterte. Evidently, it no longer matters.

Discouraging Racism: Number six, and we haven't even mentioned racism yet! Between World War II and the election of President Obama, there was an increasing awareness of discrimination, segregation, inequality, and racism in America. The armed forces were successfully integrated, the Jim Crow laws were mitigated, albeit not eliminated, and voting rights were extended. It seemed like a fair beginning. (And kudos to the military. They, especially the Army, made it look easy.)

I know for a fact that many white Americans had negative emotions about this process, but they mostly kept their mouths shut because it was becoming less acceptable to hold racist beliefs. Then came “change,” and all of the poisons that had been buried in the mud hatched out. (Pace, PBS, “I, Claudius.”) Obama, a gracious and dignified man, and his wife Michelle, a model wife, mother, and First Lady, were subjected to eight years of intensely racist obloquy. There was an increase in police violence directed against black Americans. Trump has magnified this latent American racism enormously. Now we have white supremacists and all kinds of Nazis out in the open, with a good deal of encouragement coming from the White House.

There is a lot of complaining about this racism. Unfortunately, much of it has a “but” in it. Like, “but ALL lives matter!” or “but shootings in Chicago!” A simple thing like Black Lives Matter, something that we should all be in agreement about, is now just another dividing line between Patriots (anti-black) and Marxist anarchists (pro-black). Many white people have allowed themselves to be convinced that the demonstrations, like kneeling football players, support the proposition that “ONLY black lives matter.” Let's just say that our struggle against racism should matter more. For many people, it doesn't seem to matter at all.
People in Camps: China has detained “a million” Uighurs in camps variously described as prison camps or reeducation camps. The detainees receive classes in Chinese and English language (!!!) and vocational skills, like learning to run an industrial sewing machine. Many Uighurs are being bused far from their homeland to work in factories while living in dormitories. This is also uncompensated rehabilitation of some kind. This is a big yawn all over the world. Even the Europeans don't want to upset China. Many authoritarian Muslim countries, whom you might expect to be upset, just tell Mr. Xi not to worry, no big deal. Trump enviously tells Xi that it's fine. Trump believes that it's the right thing for Xi to do. It doesn't seem to matter though. Almost no one seems to notice.

We have our own camps here in America. I would compare our new mass-incarceration tendency to the old Soviet Gulag, although even Joe Mustache understood the irony of sentencing human beings to hundreds of years in prison. (He just gave them ten, and then another ten, etc. The result was the same: death in custody.) We also have camps for immigrants run by the new Federal police agency, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Trump likes to hint at an idea that he has for a perfect solution to our growing homeless problems, which Trump believes occur only in “Democrat run” cities. He wants to get the now semi-permanent homeless encampments off the streets, because they are an eyesore. I don't think that he has new public housing or hotel rooms in mind. No, I think he sees it as a new corporate opportunity for privately run camps. My guess is that these will also be called reeducation camps, and that “vocational skills” will be taught. The owners of the camps will, of course, profit from the work of those being saved from destitution.

All of you protesters out there, you can also look for camps in your future if you are not careful. Why not? That would discourage people from exercising their rights to assemble freely and air grievances. And it would no longer matter to most people, so watch your ass.

Government Policies to Enrich People's Lives: I am not someone who believes in a mythical American past that was perfect. My own grandparents were born, grew up, and started families in a world of early death, no-work/ no-money, health care only for people who could afford it, little likelihood of retirement (unless you had grown children that you could live with), infant mortality, dangerous working conditions, long hours, and little pay. And that was for everybody, including the white people! For black Americans, of course, things were even worse. Things got a little better in the Twentieth Century, through the miracle of people voting for Democrats.

The income tax gave the Federal Government the cash it needed to help people. The money funded the New Deal, which not only provided a way out of the Great Depression, but also enabled programs that greatly assisted working people. There were new labor laws that provided support for unions, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, the weekend, paid holidays, and vacations. The New Deal also made it possible for the Federal Government to finance building programs that were too big for private industry. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam would have been impossible without the New Deal. The corporate shills that push market solutions for everything always forget that part of the equation. The IRS schedules required very wealthy Americans to pay a fair share of their income, and estate taxes required them to pay a fair share of their accumulated wealth. Please note that paying their fair share never seemed to hurt the rich very much. They were still very rich.

Social Security raised older Americans out of poverty. That's a strong statement, but it's true. Social Security is a stand-alone program that pays its own way, and it was a great success while it was fairly administered.

All of this should matter greatly to all Americans, but beginning in the 1970s there began a major push-back against all New Deal programs. Republican presidents, starting with Reagan, began looting the Social Security fund simply to make the program look “underfunded.” Under the rubric of “deregulation,” we have lost many of the gains listed above. Now people are required to work multiple jobs because corporations have figured out how to avoid paying overtime and sick leave, and to avoid providing holidays and vacations, simply by making their work forces “part-time employees.” Worker's Comp varies from state to state. Unions have mostly shriveled and died. Watch a YouTube video about workers in Amazon warehouses to see how working people fare under politicians of both parties these days.

Also starting with Reagan, the IRS system as it had been practiced was dismantled. The rich have paid less and less, until by now they pay an almost nominal amount. An amount that is inconsequential to them. The new system allows people to pay less of their income in taxes as their incomes rise. It is a travesty of the original intent of the income tax. This has left the government without money to fund programs that are necessary for infrastructure maintenance, disaster relief, and social safety-net programs.

There were also many civil rights advances in the mid-Twentieth Century, but a recent resurgence of racism and homophobia is knocking those aside, and recent Supreme Court decisions haven't been encouraging. Think of the recent dismantling of the Voting Rights act, and the resultant suppression of voting rights, specifically targeted against black and other Democratic voters.

Social Security? The last refuge of many Americans in their old age? Don't count on it. Expect the payouts to continue shrinking, and COLAs to continue to be insulting. Myself, I expect them to stop mine all together, for reasons that I do not wish to commit to writing. No sense in giving anybody ideas.

Government policies now clearly favor the “liberty” interests of the super-rich over the “equality” interests of everyone else. Simple math should prove that this situation is against the interests of almost everybody, but when I bring it up people roll their eyes and call me a Casandra. I guess that it doesn't matter anymore.

Public Corruption: Should we not identify and punish public officials who abuse their power to enrich themselves? Shouldn't this kind of naked self-interest be discouraged? And yet the behavior is rampant and barely disguised. We can see them doing it, it is reported in serious media, and all of their bank accounts seem to go up dramatically while they are in public office. Public officials get big book contracts for books that will be ghost-written and almost unnoticed when published. The children of congressmen get high paying jobs for which they are unqualified. Somehow it is all brushed aside, although occasionally some poor sap will be made an example of, for appearances sake.

This should matter. It's our money that they are stealing. Or, if the money comes from corporations courting congressional votes, it is our interests that are being harmed. Somehow, it no longer seems like a big deal. Business as usual! As long as the politician in question is one of yours. If he or she is from the other party, it's just terrible! Nothing will be done, either way. None of them want the money stream to stop, so lip-service is all we can expect.

The Constitution: Americans talk a good game about our beloved Constitution. We will fight to the death to protect our Constitutional rights! Some of us, anyway, and only for some of them.

In reality, no one seems to respect the Constitution anymore. Certainly not congress! Especially the Republican members. Remember the “Year of the Eight Justices?” When a Supreme Court Justice dies, the Constitution mandates that the president shall nominate someone to fill the spot, and that congress must then decide on ratification. Well that last bit turned out to be a mere suggestion, didn't it? We found out what happens when congress refuses to lift one little finger off of the table regarding the president's nomination. Nothing at all! All of you democracy fans, that was the end right there. That was our situation in a nutshell. None of it matters anymore, and the party in power now has all of the authority that it needs to do any damn thing at all that it wants to do.

It's not just congress that is ignoring Constitutional mandates. It's the courts as well. Lovely legal principles, some going back to the beginnings of the Common Law in England, have been discarded or degraded beyond recognition. Probable cause, corpus delecti, habeas corpus, these have all lost focus and meaning, mostly over the last twenty years. Since the Patriot Act, I'd say.

Everybody can see what our current public officials think of our beloved Constitutional rights to free speech and to assemble peacefully to air our grievances. Unmarked state secret police from God knows where, driving rented mom-vans, have been violating the principles of Due Process daily for a few weeks now.

Speaking of Due Process, things like abortion rights, the right to sexual privacy out of the public eye, the right to love and marry the person of your choice, these are all Due Process rights created by Supreme Court cases. Those cases were based upon rights that were implied from the words in the Constitution. The Constitution is silent on the issues of homosexuality, abortion, and miscegenation. Does anyone trust our current Supreme Court to follow the precedent set by those cases? Some of the more recent cases are attached to longer lines of previous cases, expanding rights created or recognized by the earlier cases. The Supreme Court, any standing Supreme Court, can, if the matter is properly brought before it, overturn the old cases and substitute its own judgment, creating new precedent. With the right (wrong) Supreme Court in place, homosexuality and abortion could suddenly become illegal again. It will happen fast when it happens. This is why your votes matter so much. If you vote for serious people who respect the law, you get Supreme Court justices who respect the law. If you vote for selfish political hacks, you get Supreme Court justices who are political hacks. Your votes matter.

Human Decency: Anthropologists now agree that empathy played a big part in humanity's assent from the mud of deep history. Going back, let's say, 50,000 years, the scientists are discovering signs that members of those hunter-gatherer bands cared for each other. They find human remains close to ancient habitation sites for individuals who had lived long lives, relatively speaking, and even some who show signs of old injuries that had healed long before the person died, but would obviously have left them impaired in some way. They must have been sustained by the group, receiving food and protection in return for whatever service they could perform. This is considered to have been an evolutionary advantage. Caring about their fellows, considering the suffering of others, and helping the helpless, all contributed to the survival of the group. We seem to have forgotten this principle.

Ayn Rand had it exactly backwards. Ruthless self-interest is a terrible way to organize a society. Elementary social justice allowed us to survive those early millennia, when we were feeling our way into creating tools, expanding food sources, language, cooperation, astronomy, and eventually on to agriculture, cities, warfare, and religion.

The earliest religions were probably innocuous. Those were fertility cults, or sun worshipers, simple expressions of things that were of the utmost importance to survival. The movement of the sun across the horizon was doubtless the earliest way that they could track the changing seasons. My guess is that religion became authoritarian as soon as agriculture and cities enabled a hierarchy. Advances in metallurgy would have accelerated this trend by enabling warfare. Monotheism arose in the western tip of the fertile-crescent a few thousand years ago. The Jews may have been the first; they were in the trend early, in any case. They were certainly an authoritarian culture at first, and for a long time. Slowly, there appeared among the Jews social justice prophets who brought new ideas into the mix. “People have a right to petition the king for grievances.” That sort of thing. I prefer to think of Jesus as a Jewish social justice prophet in a long line of them. His message was certainly one of forgiveness of trespasses, greater acceptance of diversity (prostitutes; outcasts), helping the poor and the sick, favoring good behavior over religious observance, things along those lines. Although I am not religious, I credit the historical Jesus with a practical, common-sense approach to human decency. This was a revolutionary message at the time, and we see where it got him.

This is the historical Jesus. The coffee-colored Jewish Aramaic speaker born in Nazareth, in Judea. The carpenter; the boat builder. The social-justice-warrior. You don't have to like it, but it's the truth.

America is full of self-professed Christians now, but there is very little of those original messages in their belief system. At least outside of a few mainstream Protestant churches. Most American Christians associate themselves with one of the mega-church pastors, or the TV ministries. As a whole, they are intolerant, selfish, and unhelpful. The “Prosperity Gospel” is now in favor, and it speaks the language of money. They stubbornly believe that “Jesus was white,” and they will not listen to reason on the subject. (Santa Claus too, a white man!) To our new Christians, and to many Americans of every stripe, human decency no longer matters. May God have mercy on them.

Traditional Fairness Guidelines: Although it was not always apparent in the conduct of American business, there was a general importance attached to fair-dealing, honesty, and transparency. There were implied covenants in place to insure fairness in many situation. All contracts included an Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing. Violation of the covenant was a breach of the contract, whether it was written into the contract or not. Landlords were bound by an Implied Covenant of Habitability. I've seen living spaces available for lease on the Internet that violate both of these covenants. (Under three hundred square feet, no windows, no cooking allowed, bathroom available at the gas station next door, and a large pillar in the middle of the space.)

America was once famous for fair-dealing. Thailand, in the early Twentieth Century, sought to renegotiate its contracts with the European powers because the old contracts were very one sided, favoring the European countries. They met with mixed success in that effort. They specifically mention in contemporary documents that the American contracts do not require modification, because they were fair from the beginning. It's a similar story with China. America, since its inception, has done a great deal of trade with China. Recall the China clippers, the fast cargo ships designed and built specifically to speed up the China trade. China also notes that their contracts with America were mutually beneficial, not like with those other bastards, the English, the Germans, and the French.

Fiduciary Duty technically still exists, but strange things are happening. A Fiduciary Duty is a duty that arises from a relationship of special, professional trust. The fiduciary, the person providing the service, is bound to put the interests of the client before her own. Self dealing, or conspiring with other parties, is forbidden. Strange things? I'm thinking of the new rules applying to financial advisers. They are now permitted to push investments to clients that would make money for the adviser and a third party. The client assumes the risk. So the spirit of the covenant is under attack.

The entire medical services community was run on a non-profit basis until about 1970. All hospitals, and all health insurance providers, were non-profits. Now all health insurance is for profit, except maybe Kaiser, and although many hospitals are nominally non-profit, they are run on a for-profit basis. Whereas the American health care system was one of the best in the world, it is now a side-show full of con men.

It doesn't matter anymore. You can no longer trust anyone that you do business with. Your lawyer will treat you as an adversary from the first day. He will proceed under the assumption that you will sue him some day, and he will squeeze as much as he can out of you in the meantime, while leaving a dense evidentiary trail to prove that he is not guilty of fraud or negligence. An ambulance ride to the local hospital may cost anywhere from $500 to $15,000, often from the same company in the same vehicle. All of the games are rigged, and you have been warned. It no longer matters.

Government Regulation of Corporations: This was once an important part of the work of government. Corporations, let's face it, seek only profit for the rich individuals that own them. Given a choice of building a factory that will produce waste in either state A or state B, where both states are equal in terms of access to a water way and a rail head, and the cost of the property is about the same, with plenty of available workers in either state, but only state A has a strong Clean Water Act, any sensible corporation will put the factory in state B. The directors would be negligent to do otherwise! Only a Federal Clean Water act can protect people from being poisoned and allow the directors to be sued for violations. This once mattered to Americans.

Many of these popular and beneficial regulations have been eliminated, again starting with that prick Reagan. People have been conditioned to prefer the “freedom” that results from the absence of regulation. Even though it kills people while it makes money only for the rich owners of corporate stock.

The Rule of Law: You may not think often about probable cause, but it would suddenly become very important to you if your daughter was arrested on charges of participating in a vague criminal conspiracy to distribute cocaine. You may not often worry about prosecutorial overreach, but the subject would come into focus quickly as the charges against your daughter grew to include things like enhancements for crack cocaine (because the regular coke could easily have been converted to crack, and other similarly situated criminals did just that), and a gun enhancement (because a co-conspirator had a concealed carry permit, although she had never carried the gun while participating in the conspiracy). By the time the prosecutors are done, your little girl is looking at 275 years in a Federal prison, where there is no parole, by the way. Then the prosecutor offers a deal. Plead guilty to two or three of these charges, and we'll drop the rest and we'll drop the enhancements too. Nine years, and you're out. That's how our prisons became so crowded.

Equal protection under the law? People should pay more attention. A friend of mine did twenty-nine months of a two-to-five on a cocaine charge. He was lucky about one thing. He is a very friendly sort, polite and personable, and he had no prior record, so he did his time in a “medium security” facility. He was Hispanic (still is, actually), and while he was at his country-club prison upstate, Abby Hoffman was briefly incarcerated there. Abby got out on a technicality, because he had terrific lawyers, but even if he were not a famous hippie activist, those same lawyers could have gotten the charges dismissed for any white defendant. That was the big joke with the cons there: where the black defendant gets seven to ten, the Puerto Rican gets two-to-five, and the white boy gets off. I don't know if many people have noticed things like this, but more people should. It's not fair, and it should matter.

Everything has been criminalized by now. Legislators love to look tough, to impress their voters. There are more and more strict liability
crimes and higher mandatory minimums. All law enforcement is subject to racist tendencies, which can be proven by the statistics in every state. Who benefits with so many people in prison on felony charges? Why should America, certainly not the most lawless or dangerous country in the world, have a much higher percent of its citizens in prison than any other country? Those questions were rhetorical. There is no answer. But it is the policy of our government, and people don't seem too worked up about it. It should matter more.

The Separation of Church and State: Our new Supreme Court doesn't seem to think that recognizing this policy is important, in spite of its prominence in our Constitution. How strange it would have seemed to us in the 1960s to read about prayer meetings being held at the State Department! Not so strange anymore. Now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Israel and talks openly about the Rapture and Armageddon. Senator Tom Cotton says out loud that the Holocaust was a “necessary evil” because without it the Jews would not have the state of Israel, which of course prepares the way for the return of Jesus, the end-times, and Armageddon. (Yes, THAT Holocaust.) You couldn't make this stuff up!

Great government power has been handed over to the snake-handlers, to people formerly confined to tent revivals out in the woods. Mike Pence; Mike Pompeo; Betsy DeVos. These folks are serious. They do not care about American democracy. They are our home-grown Taliban, wishing only to install a theocracy in place of our present government. Chalk up another one for Reagan, who was the first one to pander to these flat-earthers. He just wanted their votes, so he “acted” out scenes about how his dear mother had told him stories about the end-times. Then he got teary eyed and told the Rubes that he could see the signs (this was in the 1980s). Well, they voted, and they were manipulated into becoming a giant voting block, and now they have hands on the levers of power.

They direct public money to private interests. Churches, religious charities, and religious schools are the beneficiaries of this tax money. Prayer meetings are held on government property, and government employees are encouraged to become “Christians.” This is also happening in the military. Scandals have been associated with the Air Force Academy for decades. It's foolishness, and it should matter.

The Right to Vote: Gerrymandering; voter suppression; the Electoral College; poll taxes. Just this week, Trump floated a trial balloon about suspending the November election. He's been talking for months about how corrupt this election will be, and how he'll wait to see how it goes without committing to honoring the results. We all should have been worrying about this loss of the guarantee to an elected government for thirty years already, yet even now most people display the uncritical faith of a Labrador retriever that the election will happen. Good luck with that. It matters.

The Truth: Objective truth exists. Alternate facts are not allowed. Two plus two equals four. The scientists know a lot more about COVID-19 than Jared Kushner does. It matters that Trump would not know the truth if it jumped up and bit him on his fat ass. His outright lies are not just a rich vein of comedy gold to be mined by late night hosts. The world is laughing at us. We can regain their respect, but not with Trump in the White House and Republicans in charge of anything. Who wants to provide some optimism about changing that situation? I'm out, myself.

These things all matter. They need our care and attention. We need to decide if the future of the world is important to us, or if it is to be considered a matter best left to chance. The giant problems that are still circling at a distance will be in the landing pattern before long. Natural disasters, political crises, new health emergencies, economic upheavals. America has adapted the posture of capitalism in a search for short range profits. We are planning only for this afternoon and tomorrow. We need longer range plans. We need more abstract thinking about what kinds of emergencies are possible. We need a much more flexible default posture, the better to respond to events, and we need much more contingency planning. We also need to set up much stronger defensive positions. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we were not even remotely prepared even for something only slightly out of the pattern. This virus isn't even that bad! It could easily have been more communicable, and its symptomatology could very easily have been horrific. The death count could have been ten times what it is. Yet here we stand on the verge of financial collapse due to the effects of COVID-19. Isn't it sad that the countries that responded quickly and efficiently to the virus will suffer economically along with us. At every opportunity, the current crop of geniuses that run America, and some other very important countries, have responded slowly and in stupid ways, making things worse for the entire world. All of this matters!

We need to stop just shaking our heads when we look at the news everyday. We can't just “turn the page” and look for some funny cat videos. Everybody should be in the streets, or shouting from windows. More people should try harder to understand that these current demonstrators are not Goddamn Antifa anarchists, and I for one am trying in a small way to help them to understand. I mean, Christ on a bicycle, people need to use their heads. When you see Federal state secret police brutally throwing around young women in shorts and summer tops, those are not Marxist terrorists, whatever anyone is telling you. That wall of moms consisted of MOMS, whatever Fox “Not the News” tells you. Those weaponized “police” are fascism, knocking on the door at 3:30 a.m., spreading chaos for political ends. That Genie is out of the bottle.

Until Trump it was bad form to compare American politicians to Hitler, but now respected intellectuals and academics are doing just that. The assault on the press; the private army spreading chaos; the intentional destruction of democratic institutions; the repeated lies; the aggregation of powers to himself that presidents have not had previously; the politics of division and racial hatred; the sheer arrogance. Hitler did not hide his true self from the Germans. He wrote a book about his plans, and his subsequent actions had all been described in the book. As soon as he had his foot in the door of political power, he slammed the door behind him and took it all for himself. Trump's true self has been on display for over four decades. We all knew that he was shallow, unethical, selfish, promiscuous, friendless, mean-spirited, racist, and a bully. Like Hitler, he jammed his foot into the doorway of political power, and ever since he has been trying to shut it behind him and grab the power for himself.

I wouldn't be completely surprised if he pulls another win out of the fire, partly because he is totally unethical and will accept any help that presents itself in an effort to steal the election, and partly because being a hero to racist homophobes seems to attract a lot of votes these days. Please, in the name of all that is good and holy, do everything that you can possibly do to avoid that result.

Unless it turns out that none of our old values and traditions mean anything anymore. If that is true, I must yield to the irresistible pull of history like anyone else. Coward that I am, I plan to love Big Brother long before they put the cage full of rats on my head.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Lee Dorsey - Riverboat

The gift of time on one's hands! The Internet, properly used, can really take you places. 

That Betty Harris song (below) had very few comments, and most of them were simple exclamations. There was room for a minor controversy about the identity of the drummer on the cut. Long story short, it's James Black, self-proclaimed "Drummer Impossible." He's on this Lee Dorsey cut too, proving that he earned the right to that nickname. 

The comments also led to a web site that would "settle the issue." The blog is defunct now, but the post that was linked was fascinating. You should read it. This is also James Black on Riverboat (1970). Allen Toussaint wasn't getting what he wanted from the drummer he had originally hired for the  session, so he called Black. Black read the part once, and played it through. "Is that what you want?" Why yes, thought Tousaint, that will due nicely.  

betty harris - there's a break in the road

So Freddy, why you playin all these records we've heard before? Okay, boys and girls. If you've heard this before, I'm jealous. 


Another great Brunswick gang arrangement. I love the interplay of the two mutually supporting guitar parts. Nice work, fellows. And major kudos to this bass player. 

Barbara Acklin - Just aint no love..

1968? I think so. Good song; very good job by Barbara Acklin; and a great arrangement by Sonny Sanders. I guess that means that it was Sonny's idea to bring the bass so far forward, and that idea worked out just fine. 

I'm pretty sure that this is the regular bass player for a lot of great Brunswick Records hits from this period. I don't know the guy's name, but man, he sure can play. Maybe I'll share "Can I Change My Mind?" That's another Brunswick hit with the bass up front.