Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lads and Lasses of the World Unite!

Well, I’ve not been my groovy self lately -- feeling just a bit off. This is partly due to Brother Jonathan’s reminding me of the horrendous environmental/economic collapse that threatens humanity in this century. A collapse, I hasten to add, that the global warming deniers and pro-capitalist fanatics are pushing us toward.

On a lighter note, I’ve been reading Keith Richards’ memoir Life, and when I say “reading,” I mean listening to while driving around town. Aren’t books on CDs great?? Suddenly my optimism stirs anew!!

Anyway, there is a lot of interesting stuff in Life, including tales of Keith’s childhood (kind of lower middle class) and his early days with Mick Jagger and the other Stones. What strikes me most in this section is his dedication to musicianship. He talks at some length about how his aim (and presumably Mick’s as well), was to be the best blues band in London. They weren’t thinking in terms of world fame and all that in the very early 1960s.

Young Keith as Mod

He describes living together, five or more to a tiny apartment, surviving partly on whatever food they could pinch, and, all the while working, working, working to master the Chicago blues style. Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters are all featured as people Keith admired and tried to imitate, sometimes struggling for months to figure out a particular guitar riff from one song or another they had recorded.

He also comments on the way the younger generation, led in the UK largely by the Beatles and the Stones, overthrew a longstanding mafia-like establishment in the music industry. At one point he describes a bargaining session in which his manager, Andrew Oldham, instructs the boys to show up at the negotiations wearing shades and to not say a word, but let him do all the talking. The Stones did as they were told, and, according to Richards, they garnered a groundbreaking deal that overturned the old guard forever.

More than once he describes the younger generation as creating a new world, while those in charge of the old one stand by helplessly or, in some cases, get swept away.

Which reminds me of an interesting article in this week’s Time magazine (of all places). I have a long history of looking down on Time since in the old days, e.g., the Nixon era, it played the same role that Fox News does today: It was the unofficial propaganda branch of Republican conservatism. But Time seems to have redeemed itself, at least to some extent.

The Japan story says, in essence, that there is a generation of young Japanese who have long seemed complacent and disengaged from society, but the recent tragedy may have succeeded in activating a yearning to serve and possibly even to reshape Japanese society.

Japan has suffered a period of economic stagnation that has lasted for over 20 years so far. It may be that part of the problem is that Japan’s tradition of deferring to elders has enabled this stagnation, since it is almost always the young, it seems, who lead us into new worlds when the old one falters.

If the Beatles and the Stones (and Bob Dylan) could have been the point men in their day, could there be a young leadership in Japan today that will finally shake that country up and put it on a new and dynamic road? Could it be, as Time suggests, Yujiro Taniyama, a 38-year-old (which is young, by Japanese politician standards) who has launched a Facebook-based political campaign? I hope that some young leader manages to take the reins in that troubled country because it is a country that has a lot to offer the world. And besides, since I continue to harbor the sentiments of a Young Turk in my own tattered, not very young heart, I cherish the prospect of yet one more youth rebellion shaking up the world as we know it.

Lovely Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Will We Endure?

Civilization is

a. Doomed
b. Going to be here for the long haul
c. Going to be here for the long haul, which is totally depressing

This quiz is prompted by a debate I had with our friend Jonathan last night, in which he essentially chose “a,” while I went for “b.” I feel obligated to point out that answer “c” has some supporters, who were not represented in our discussion.

The issue came up via Stuart “Whole Earth Catalog” Brand’s notion of a super-slow clock that would be big enough for people to actually walk around in, and which would provide information relevant to what Brand calls “The Long Now.” It would, for example, give us not just the year, but also the century and millennium as well as other chronologically and astronomically significant data.

Stuart Brand's World-Changing Catalog

The problem, as Jonathan sees it, is that eventually people won’t be able to read or understand Brand's 10,000 Year Clock because the languages and symbols of our civilization will be incomprehensible to future generations, just as cuneiforms were incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Here is why Jonathan is so very wrong:

We now have

1. widespread literacy,

2. replicated texts, both electronic and in duplicable hard copies, and

3. an international political/economic system that has apparently eliminated the kinds of catastrophic wars that in the past routinely toppled civilizations (e.g., Sumeria, Rome, Ming China). It is, after all, wars like these that resulted in the trashing of the information of the deposed civilizations making them largely lost to future generations. (I did not get to make all of these points last night, but they are still very, very valid.)

To my arguments, Jonathan replied, “Bob, you bumptious popinjay! Darla, how could you have married such a bloody optimist?!*

Jonathan is wrong to think the information available to us will vanish in a millennium or two, because, in my opinion, the Internet, in some form or another, is here to stay. I don’t believe it’s going the way of cuneiforms or the Library of Alexandria. There are, after all, multiple nations and organizations, both friends and rivals, now cooperating to keep it going, and I don’t see them just giving it up or being forced to abandon it by some greater entity.

Furthermore, you can read this. What I mean to say is that widespread literacy is the norm today, even in countries whose literacy rate was about 10% as recently as 100 years ago. I would guess that cuneiforms, when they were the basis of literacy, were accessible to fewer than one out of ten Sumerians. Limited literacy like that makes the texts much more vulnerable to eternal obscurity than literacy rates of 90 or 95%, which are now common.

Finally, War: The hippies won! We have peace in our time! (Sort of.)

As I write this, President Obama has announced possible military action in Libya, so maybe some clarification is called for. What I mean is, really catastrophic wars have become things of the past. The horrific, civilization-toppling wars of the last five millennia typically pitted the most powerful nations of the day against each other: UK, USSR, France, China and the US against Germany and Japan…and, I guess, Italy. Or, going further back, Arabs against Persians, Chinese against Mongols, etc.

But for the past 40 years, major powers have not gone to war directly against each other. This is no doubt partly due to the dangers of nuclear war, but probably more due to the elites of the great powers recognizing that their elite status is tied up in the international economy -- which would be demolished were, say, China and the US to go to war.

There are still some dangerous situations, as between India and Pakistan, but the tensions, even there, seem to be on the decline. The wars we’ve seen have been mainly either great powers vs. smaller ones (US vs. Vietnam, Iraq or the Taliban) or civil wars (Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone).

Given the ever decreasing likelihood of catastrophic, great-power wars, our precious body of knowledge will, I believe, endure. Generations to come will be able to enjoy the music of Mozart, the plays of David Mamet, tapings of the Jerry Springer Show, tales of the Kardashians, and so on.

Of course, in the really long run -- when the earth becomes a lifeless rock hurtling silently through empty space -- then Jonathan may have a point.

Here for the Duration


*These may not have been Jonathan’s exact words, but he has been known to use this phraseology on other occasions. Anyway, it captures his scornful tone.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Big Government and Big Tea

Tea Partiers would like us to see them as implacable foes of Big Government. But this they are not, as the ongoing showdown in Madison, Wisconsin, makes clear. This showdown pits Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Tea Party against teachers and other ordinary citizens. The governor’s aim is to strip these citizens of their right to defend themselves through collective bargaining. He is so fanatically devoted to this goal that offers by the teachers and other public employees to yield to him on key budgetary issues have not softened his attack on collective bargaining.

The Tea Party backed Governor Scott during his campaign, as did the Koch Brothers who pumped all the cash the law allows into his coffers. In a sense the Tea Party and the Koch Brothers are the same thing, given that these Kansas billionaires have poured millions into the Tea Party and have worked to make its actions helpful to their own corporate bottom line. On this point, refer to the revealing article by Jane Mayer in last August’s New Yorker.

This "governor & fat cats vs. teachers" showdown calls to mind a similar clash: the Colorado coalminers’ strike of 1913-14. The Colorado struggle was triggered by the murder of a labor organizer in September 1913. The miners immediately went on strike for higher pay and safer working conditions, but were promptly kicked out of their homes by the company they worked for: the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company or CF&I.

CF&I belonged to the Rockefellers, and the shacks that were the miners' homes belonged to CF&I. Suddenly made homeless by the Rockefellers, the workers responded by setting up tent cities in the vicinity of the mines and continued their strike, despite the oncoming Colorado winter and the aggressive moves made against them.

The Rockefellers hired professional gunmen (the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency) to subdue them, but the miners fought back, suffering casualties as they did so. Finally Colorado Governor Elias Ammons called up the National Guard and, with the Guards’ pay covered by the Rockefellers, the Guardsmen continued the harassment of the miners’ tent camps. This harassment came to a horrifying climax in April of 1914 when the Guard assaulted the main tent city in Ludlow, Colorado, and burned it to the ground. This assault, known to history as the Ludlow Massacre, resulted in the deaths of two of the miners’ wives and eleven of their children.

The coalminers’ strike ultimately failed to attain its goals, but it did bring to national attention the feudalistic conditions under which some Americans were forced to live. The incident was also memorialized by a monument constructed by the United Mineworkers of America which still stands today. Woody Guthrie composed a song about the massacre which is now on youtube.

Monument Commemorating the Ludlow Massacre of April 1914

At this point, I think it’s appropriate to pause and thank Governor Walker and the Koch Brothers for their restraint. Though many of their actions are reminiscent of those surrounding the Ludlow Massacre, they have not, at least, hired gunmen or called up the National Guard to physically assault the teachers and other Wisconsin employees. So far, they have merely threatened to deprive these citizens of their livelihood.

We might also pause to consider the essential role that organized labor has played as a bulwark of democracy here and around the world. For example, when the American occupiers of Japan attempted to construct a democratic society there following World War II, they insisted on a law guaranteeing the right of employees to unionize and forbidding Japanese corporations to refuse collective bargaining with said unions.

It is particularly important, given the steady erosion of our public elections by private corporate money, to remember that votes alone do not a democracy make. The capacity of people to organize and resist exploitation by the rich and powerful is also an elemental democratic right, though it is one that Governor Walker seems determined to suppress. Notice, that as he does so, he portrays himself as an advocate of small government. But the only thing "small" about Wisconsin’s government today is its regard for the democratic rights and well-being of its public employees.

(My account of the Ludlow Massacre comes from a variety of sources, including a visit I made to the site when I lived in Colorado some 30 years ago. A good, compact published account appears in Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States.)