Saturday, February 26, 2011

Which Side Are You On?

I've got a cold virus that's making a mess of my week. It's been so long since I had a bad cold that I'd forgotten how to treat it (especially since I can't find the cold pills I used to rely in the stores anymore.) Meanwhile, the ordinary American public has gotten so used to the benefits unions have made possible for everyone, and their crucial role in keeping the middle class above water, that they forgot what life would be without them. But the Rabid Right virus, intent on killing unions as a political and economic force to benefit their persistent very wealthy manipulators, has apparently reminded them.

More than 70,000 gathered on a snowy day in Madison, the epicenter of the Wisconsin real and symbolic threat to all. It was one of many demonstrations across the country on Saturday supporting unions and the hard-won right of collective bargaining. Such peaceful mass protest is in the union tradition, so it was fitting that Peter Yarrow was there as an heir to Woody Guthrie, to lead the crowd in the union song, "Which Side Are You On."

So far I've only seen Talking Points Memo really covering this. Here is their story on Madison written by an eyewitness, and here is their photo album on the other demos of the day. Here's the Kos thread which has more eyewitness accounts from around the country in the comments.

Update: A story in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times and other Sunday editions.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to be — that man may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand. And so beyond the vision of battling races and an impoverished earth, I catch a dreaming glimpse of peace."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Information Revolution: Not All That Great, Not All That Permanent

The information revolution--a quantum leap in the amount of information generated, communicated and stored, and in the speed at which this information can be spread, and in the accessibility of this information to more people.

Let's stipulate that apart from allowing and seemingly compelling people to obsess over a celebrity's every hiccup, this information flood does some good. But there are several reasons why by itself it doesn't transform things for the better--and why (here's the true heresy) it may not last.

Why isn't all this information doing us more good? Because the technology of lying has kept pace with the information flow, and lying in public is acceptable, depending on what you want to hear. Right now FOX News is asserting that the results of a Gallup poll are precisely opposite of what they in fact are. This is not a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of percentages of people who answered a question: a fact. They are doing so repeatedly, and discussing the meaning of these poll results as they've reported them (at least according to this source.) This is hardly an isolated instance, although it is an unusually clear one.

Another reason is the refusal to accept information that doesn't come from a favored source, which could be a matter of judgment about which sources to trust, but also there is the refusal to accept information that runs counter to what one wants to hear. That's a psychological factor. Information that is abstract, that is about phenomena distant from the receiver, is all easier to ignore or refuse to believe. But people are fully capable of ignoring or refusing information about phenomena that stares them in the face, and there is a great deal of institutional support for doing so.

A major problem with the quantity of information now available is that it overwhelms the ability to figure out what it means, or even to track it. It will soon be possible to generate information on the moment to moment activities of millions of people, if it isn't already. But there is no way, not even with advanced computer programs, to pay attention to all of it. Then there is meaning. It used to be believed that mapping the human genome--collecting that information--would revolutionize medicine and life on Earth. It hasn't. It turned out to be only a starting point, with ultimate results still unknown.

But here's the biggest vulnerability of the information revolution. All of these sophisticated systems and devices depend on such clunky infrastructure as the electrical grid, which in turn depends on energy, which in turn depends on a smoothly functioning global economy. All of that amazing software is useless without the materials necessary to make the devices, which also depend on a smoothly functioning global economy. These also depend on an alert, functioning and non-deluded government to maintain infrastructure, and on political stability in this utterly interdependent world.

Right now that global economy is feeling the first tugs of what will all but inevitably be a difficult if not disastrous strain on its fragile web of prices, availability, transportation capabilities etc. The two major factors causing this strain are what's called "peak oil," or the increasing expense and diminishing stores of fossil fuel, and the Climate Crisis which is affecting food and water resources especially in the southern hemisphere, and which are factors right now in the unrest in the Middle East. These factors are not going to diminish for the foreseeable future.

Most of this information is stored in vulnerable systems that can't be accessed without the right technology. As storage mechanisms, books are far more permanent and accessible than anything coded and stored in computer systems and devices. Transmission of information is highly interdependent and insufficiently redundant. Disruptions can come from technological failures and disasters, and from the economic and social chaos that knocks the supports from under these systems.

The Internet is not invulnerable nor immortal. If that be heresy, make the best of it.

American Class War

Faced with the suspiciously coincidental and simultaneous threat in several states to destroy public sector unions and their collective bargaining rights, union members and their supporters are going into action to defend these rights won with the blood, sweat and tears of generations. Both these proposed laws and the opposition are still spreading--even to here in California.

The facts involved appear to be irrelevant. Public sector wages and benefits have nothing to do with the fiscal distress of state governments, and these proposed actions won't make the situation better anyway. Unions in Wisconsin have already agreed to the cuts in benefits that bill proposes, but the governor and Rabid Right supporters are doing the bidding of the wealthy and the corporations (who will be getting new tax breaks in Wisconsin, meaning that state revenues will decline and the deficit grow.) They are out to destroy the unions.

So what matters now it seems are the feelings, the recognitions. Will the voting public see these efforts as some courageous stand by cost-cutting heroes, as they did when Reagan fired air traffic controllers and destroyed their union? Or will they see this for what it is--politically motivated, racially tinged class warfare?

Though some believe that the Rabid Right has succeeded in masking the class war with anti-government deficit-reduction rhetoric, there also seems to be more support and understanding of the role of unions-- and more memory. Public sector unions aren't exactly like the old industrial and craft unions. Their members are well aware of their responsibilities to the public as well as to themselves and their families. By and large, their bargain has been to take lower wages in exchange for good pensions and benefits, which helps the state and local governments partly because the costs are spread out over time.

But their unions--the last really strong unions--are heir to union history that has all been about rich capitalists and their political minions opposing every right and benefit that working people have ever requested, and then demanded. Including an end to child labor, a living wage, a reduction from 12 and 10 hour days, workplace safety, health and retirement benefits.

That history is a living history, at least for me. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where the very ground is soaked with the blood of those who died for the right to unionize. One of my grandfathers--and his father before him--were coal miners, and part of those decades of struggles from the late 19th century into the 1940s. Without the union, my grandfather would not have received a pension and benefits for black lung disease that provided for his old age. And for all my education, all the celebrities I've met and all the big name publications I've written for, I am without a union and I have no such assurance.

In my childhood I can remember secretly listening to stories my father and his brothers and their father told as they played cards in the basement of the house that the coal company had built and owned--a house without an indoor toilet until the 1950s-- about the strikes, the hunger and the violence. The landscape was full of that history. I remember a high school classmate pointing out the valley where coal miners had lived, and where the company had ringed searchlights along its rim trained all night on the houses below, to watch for any movement that might suggest a union meeting. The photo above is of Pennsylvania state troopers getting ready to attack workers at the Homestead steel mill--a piece of landscape not far from where I lived in Pittsburgh in the 90s.

Labor unions never were perfect institutions, nor are they now. But they are all that working people have to protect them against the predations of the uber wealthy, like the Koch brothers who some believe may be directly behind this union-breaking push. That's true for union members but also others, through the protections and policies that unions advocate. Without unions, the corporations funding the most insane and self-destructive political policies in American history will have free reign.

People are in the street in the Middle East fighting for their freedom. People in the United States have risked just as much--they've risked being beaten and shot in the street--to establish unions and collective bargaining rights. They are in the streets again to keep those rights, and not go back to the penury and near-slavery of the past. Does that sound overdramatic? Ask somebody depending on the pension they worked all their lives to earn. Ask somebody without a pension who is listening to the Rabid Right talking about destroying Social Security and Medicare.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lucubrations, Presidents Day Edition

Speaking of the ocean, the floor of the Gulf of Mexico is still covered in oil from the BP oil gusher, and is basically dead.

One thing I've never understood about this virulent opposition to health care reform is what kind of health insurance do those folks have? Don't they have the same experiences that just about everyone else does with this insane system? If they need more evidence, how about the experience of this woman who was denied health insurance because of a corn on her toe.

The battle goes on in Wisconsin, and Paul Krugman succinctly describes the stakes in terms of political power and the class war.

The Rabid Right takeover of the House resulted in the most absurd budget cuts in the nation's history. It is unlikely that all will stand, but enough will to wound this country and its people. Meanwhile, this insane view of government and the commonweal allows shit like this: "Of the nation’s 85,000 dams, more than 4,400 are considered susceptible to failure, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials."

None of this is new, of course. We're still being swept away by the currents that began to dominate in the regime of Ronald Reagan, who on this Presidents Day has won the poll for the greatest President ever. It was deep in the 1980s that Kurt Vonnegut wrote this:

"If flying-saucer creatures or angels or whatever were to come here in a hundred years, say, and find us gone like the dinosaurs, what might be a good message for humanity to leave for them, maybe carved in great big letters on a Grand Canyon wall?

Here's this old poop's suggestion:


We might well add this: