Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Celebrating Maya Angelou

As I’m sure you already know, the magnificent Maya Angelou died this morning in her North Carolina home at the age of 86. While I certainly extend my sympathies to her family, friends, and the many members of the worldwide public who felt a strong even daily connection with her (she was on Facebook and was a frequent tweeter), I don’t feel a sense of loss as much as I feel a sense of celebration of and for her spirit. As a writer, she leaves behind a strong and sensitive body of work; and as a human being, teacher, and leader, she leaves behind such a courageous, proactive, and never-ending legacy, that I feel Dr. Angelou has a kind of immortality.

If Rosa Parks was the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Maya Angelou was it’s brave, bold daughter. After Bayard Rustin died, she took his place as the SCLC’s (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) New York Office Coordinator; that was the organization that Rustin and others had founded with Martin Luther King, Jr. She later worked with Malcolm X, helping him put together the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – the date of her 40th birthday – she stopped celebrating her birthday for many years after. But before, during and after these significant events, hers was a booming voice and substantial presence in the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights. For the rest of her life, she lived and worked around the world as an organizer, administrator, teacher, speaker, writer, and the human embodiment of inspiration for millions of people, but most especially women.

For me personally, she entered my life with her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in the years after I’d been awakened and inspired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kurt Vonnegut, and Allen Ginsberg, and, irritated by Nikki Giovanni and Ntozake Shange (I appreciated the politics of those women but their personalities and language left me cold). Maya Angelou’s prose was clean and had the imagery of poetry; her poetry was visionary and had the clarity of good, clean prose. She spoke like she wrote and wrote like she spoke, which to me is the totality of a born writer. Her spirit, her essence, was always with me, even when I didn’t know it. Which may be why I don’t feel a sense of loss now so much as a sense of celebration.

The other reason is that I’m a natural intuitive (clairsentient meaning clear knowing, as opposed to clairvoyant, meaning clear seeing), and for five years I also took psychic development classes with an amazing medium, the late Gene Sterling. A few weeks before Maya Angelou recited her great poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at Bill Clinton’s first Inaugural, I channeled an energy that gave me the first real sense of being a channel, because the following words certainly weren’t coming out of my consciousness (or attitude towards nature) as they fell out of my mouth: “The rocks have feet, the trees have feet, the rivers have feet.” I don’t remember the rest of the message, but I’ve never forgotten that line and the whole stunning experience.

So can you imagine how I felt on that January day when Maya Angelou began to recite On the Pulse of Morning and I heard her say: “A Rock, A River, A Tree.” I later bought the recording of that poem, for which she won a Grammy, and I still have it. Listening to her, and listening to that poem, convinced me like nothing else could, that ideas, messages, language, energy, are all around us all the time, and we can pick them up if we’re able to put our egos aside and listen. That’s why, in a way, I’ve long felt that Maya Angelou and I have been tuned into the same otherly frequency. She did much more and a whole lot better with it than I have. But it is in that spirit that I say to her this evening, “Thank you for everything, Dr. Angelou, for all you endured, all you did, all you said, and for just being here. Rest in peace and live well in spirit. I’m still listening.”

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mind Games (no class warfare involved)

Let me give us all a break from the subject of class warfare and write about something more mundane that simply annoys (and I think damages!) us in the course of our everyday lives – namely wildly intrusive advertising on TV and online. 

I watch a lot of TV – both for news and entertainment. And I go online a lot – primarily for email, news, research, shopping, pictures for this blog and to decorate my computer desktop, and to play mind-improving brain games. I’m not into social media and I don’t find the Internet entertaining, but I do find it useful. 

However, no matter which online site I go to, even The New York Times, I am barraged with ads: ads that jiggle on the sides of my screen, ads that pop up when I click on something I want to read, ads that pop up in the middle of something I’m already reading, ads I have to endure before the video I’ve selected plays. I don’t keep my speakers on as a rule, but I suspect that if I did, I’d be equally barraged by audio ads. This crap is unavoidable and I find it very intrusive. It really pisses me off. And it feels relatively new. It seems I wasn’t being slapped in the face with an ad with every click of my mouse as recently as a year ago. What the hell is going on? 

Television is even worse. I stopped watching regular commercial TV long ago, particularly major networks. I can’t focus on a program when, literally, I get to see five to seven minutes of a show, then it’s interrupted with five to seven minutes of fast-paced ten and 15 second ads. By the time the commercials are over, I’ve often forgotten what show I’m watching and a dizzying headache begins. I’d like to watch more cable channels than I do, but they’re chock full of ads, too.

I particularly can’t watch movies that are constantly interrupted because I'm totally robbed of the mood and continuity of the film. In years past, I watched a lot of Sundance, Independent Film Channel and AMC when it was American Movie Classics (I don’t know what it is now), but even they have been overtaken with the 5-7/5-7 ad-to-program ratio. And what’s worse, Sundance is editing films (Sundance!) “for content and to fit the time allotted for this program.” Are you kidding me?

For escape, I watch a lot of free On Demand channels, where there were often no ads or you used to be able to fast-forward through them. But increasingly, the fast-forward function is being disabled just for the ads, so I’m in the same position as when I watch things in regular time. But at least I have the option of stopping programs for bathroom, kitchen and phone breaks, so they’re still worthwhile.

And of course there’s TCM, thank God, which is still commercial free and since I’m an old movie fan, I watch that a lot. But it both amuses and distresses me that “old” movies now include the 60s, 70s and 80s. They still have the 30s through 50s, which is what I consider old, but that’s because I’m old. For viewers in their teens, 20s and 30s, my old movies are ancient and young viewers don’t like them because they move more slowly and are in black & white; ‘nuff said.

As a result, I watch a lot of public television, which I love, and so far their commercials (they have them now) are at the start, end, and between programs. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, since public television is now so desperately underfunded, they may have to resort to intrusive ads; indeed, they started experimenting with them in selected markets in 2011. (I also enjoy the uninterrupted panel discussions and Book TV on C-Span.)

And then there are the pay-extra-for-them premium channels, a commercial-free panacea, but a pricey treat. Years back I had them all, then for a very long time I cut back to just HBO. Recently, I added on Starz and Epix – after a lot of negotiating for lower rates, but it still bumps up the cable bill. I justify this because I rarely go anywhere and do anything, especially go out to a $15 movie in a theater, and at home I hardly ever rent newer on-demand fare, so I think it’s a reasonable indulgence.

But it’s not really an indulgence at all, it’s a necessity. At my age, 62, I’m increasingly concerned with brain health and not falling prey to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. I genuinely believe watching heavily commercial-laden programming is harmful for me and just as bad – perhaps more so – for younger viewers, because it truly lessens attention span and, I believe, increases ADD (or ADHD, but I never remember what the “H” stands for).

I recognize that advertisers, who pay a lot of money for TV airtime and Internet space, are desperately trying to get their sales agenda across and audiences are now so dispersed, they’re trying to capture eyeballs when- and however they can. I think what they don’t recognize is that most of us view them as an unwelcome interruption and I for one make a deliberate effort to ignore them and not even notice what they’re for. I don’t really have any sympathy for their marketing crisis because much of what they’re trying to sell us is crap and most of us are already buying more crap than we need anyway. But like insects, they’re determined to work their way in – and I shudder to think what they’ll try to do next.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Class Warfare 2

I got two emails about my first post on the need to fight back hard against the class warfare being waged by the Right. One came from a Conservative friend who is by no means a rich man but is very, very concerned about the economy and our national debt and deficit, and believes that if you push the rich too hard they’ll go away, and jobs and the very underpinnings of our economy will disappear. It seemed that all he got from that post was that I was advocating for higher taxes on the rich. The other came from a Liberal friend who said he and his wife had been politically active for decades, often to no avail and frequently suffering harsh and ridiculous response from within the ranks, which is why he’s now a burnt-out recluse and won’t do much anymore.

While I am all for increasing taxes on the rich (not the 80%-90% it was during the Eisenhower years, but a healthy 30% they can’t avoid through tax loopholes, hiding their money offshore, or special privilege), higher taxes on the rich wasn’t all I had in mind. And, I too was more politically active for decades than I am now, and learned that victories are often minimal and your “friends” can be really annoying, short-sighted, easily distracted, rigid and hostile. Trying to organize the Left is like trying to corral a bunch of smart kids suffering from ADD wandering around a large room.

So let me get to the guts of this hopefully more explanatory post by saying this: class warfare – which, ironically, the rich usually accuse the poor of initiating with their commie-inspired protests and other carrying on – is not just about money. It’s about a combination of economic fairness, social justice, how we view each other, and how we view the role and responsibility of government. We, the 97% who are struggling, for the most part see things differently than do the 3% who are very rich. Politically, the 97% isn’t united. What we have in common is that we’re all having a very hard time – a situation created by the 3%. Which is why, God help us, we have to try to get together and push back.

Now nearly every member of Congress and the Senate is a millionaire to one degree or another, and both bodies are largely white and male, all of which makes it difficult for them to understand the plights of ordinary people. Add to this the impact of the demented Tea Party, whose original concerns were economic (like my Conservative friend), but which came to include social issues over time with positions based in Christian Fundamentalism. Their strident ├╝ber conservatism completed the co-opting of the Republican party that began when the sanctified Ronald Reagan said our national problems weren’t about dysfunction in government, the problem was government itself. Then Wall Street collapsed and America elected a Black president who intended to use progressive approaches to financial and social issues and all hell broke loose.

When the people who run government don’t believe in government, government doesn’t run well. When government is run by people with money, privilege and power, government will not make policy that creates/provides economic fairness and social justice. When you throw religious ideas into the mix, which have no place in government to begin with, you end up with wildly unbalanced economics, a huge lack of social justice, and very twisted views of one another and the role and responsibility of government. In other words, you end up where we are now.

The Right is telling us that the rich are job creators and the poor have brought their problems on themselves, neither of which is true. They also tell us that unrestricted free-market capitalism is the best and only way to go, which it isn’t. They say it isn’t government’s responsibility to help us, which it is. And their primary goal is to generate profit from everything and to maintain a massively expensive and totally unexamined system of military defense, which is insane. They say government should be small, when what it should be is efficient, regardless of its size.

They say government should not intrude into people’s personal lives, except when it comes to women having control over their own bodies and people having the right to love and marry who they choose, even if they’re of the same sex. They say racism no longer exists, which is a lie; that science is wrong about everything, which is religion talking; and that government can’t afford to pay for things like healthcare, social services, education, infrastructure repair, or to fight poverty and hunger – all of which is precisely what government should spend its money on.

The Left is speaking out against all this, but not very loudly and not in a unified voice. Which is why government is getting nowhere – or moving in the exactly opposite and wrong direction – when it comes to major reforms in tax policy, immigration, unemployment/job creation, the role of money in electoral politics, voter suppression, gun policy, economic gender inequities, environmental protection, the better understanding and use of new technology, creative and enlightened foreign policy, prison policy, drug policy, and all the other things mentioned in the paragraph above. These are the reasons we’re already engaged in class warfare and why we have to fight back harder and better. Nothing less than our survival – individually, as a people, and as a country – is at stake. I hope I’ve made my argument clearer.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Right Has Started Class Warfare. It’s Time for the Left to Fight Back

Income inequality – a polite term for the rich squeezing the guts out of everyone else – is a hot-button issue that frightens the rich (who are obsessed with keeping and enlarging their wealth) and so far immobilizing the rest of us, probably because the rich are united and, uh, very well-funded, and we’re all struggling to survive and focusing on our personal pet issues.

We have income inequality that surpasses the Gilded Age of the early 20th century “robber barons” because the [largely] well-heeled Right has been waging genuine class warfare and we haven’t been fighting back. The working class and [what’s left of] the middle class have been duped into hating the poor, as if the poor are the problem (!) and not seeing that our personal pet issues, be they unemployment, racial civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, human rights/modern slavery, animal rights, immigration, the environment, climate change/science acceptance, energy policy, education, foreign policy, the social safety net, are all connected by money and politics. And as you may have noticed, the rich are in control of money and politics and we have foolishly allowed ourselves to be fucked over by classic divide-and-conquer tactics. We have to shape up, join hands (whatever our differences may be) and fight back.

The first part of our battle must be to wrestle political power back from the Wealthy Right. We can’t afford to be politically jaded or disengaged because even if politics is corrupt bullshit, it does matter who gets elected. The Rich Right understands this. Recent, new, and more-sure-to-come voter ID laws, as well as the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, are clearly a Republican/ Conservative effort to block the voting path of the young, the old, and racial “minorities,” all of whom tend to vote for Democratic candidates. They have created the myth of voter fraud to justify these actions, but it's nothing less than a direct assault on the democratic process and a key weapon in the Right’s class war. And as the saying goes: “It isn’t true class warfare until we fight back.”

It’s also important to remember that part of this class warfare is where and how we live and how we’re treated. I live (born and raised) in New York City, once the most sophisticated city in America with a cultural heart, intellectual brain, bohemian flair and thousands of neighborhoods filled with privately-owned shops and restaurants. We had a diversified population comprised of the poor, working class, middle class, and the rich. Over the past 30 years, New York has been castrated into something resembling a mid-Western Disneyland Nowhere that has gentrified the poor out of town to God knows where (well, they’re still working on that), and combined the working and middle classes into a hostile heap hanging by its fingernails and cow towing to the rich like the little demigods they are.

As an example, you need look no further than housing in Manhattan and Brooklyn (the other three boroughs are in the midst of being similarly transformed). Besides being outrageously expensive, housing is increasingly segregated by class. The obscenely wealthy real estate developers of new rental buildings get tax credits if a portion of the property is devoted to “affordable housing.” It is – but many of these new buildings have separate entrances, lobbies, and levels of security for the “affordable” tenants and the “market rate” tenants. If there are “luxury” amenities in the building, such as gyms, spas, roof gardens, children’s play areas, even storage spaces, the “affordables” are not permitted access to them! No contact with the “trash” required.

What makes this particularly infuriating is that, according to a recent article in the New York Times, the average annual income of the “affordables” is $51,010 (we’re not talking candidates for public housing projects here) vs. $103,680 for the market-rate folks. And, on average, the “affordable” cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $1,321 a month, compared with $2,696 at the market-rate. Yes, New York is particularly expensive. But rents nationwide are high and getting higher, especially in big cities – but not exclusively. I’ve lived in my apartment for 36 years and without going into specifics, suffice it to say I’m blessed to be in a co-op building that’s part of a special pricing program that dates back to the 1960s. But this status will change in a few years and I’m likely to end up being a renter in the same apartment I currently own.

Anyone who isn’t filthy rich and sides with the Right is delusional and not thinking in his/her best interest. Economically, the Right are giants; socially they’re dinosaurs. They’re not your friends. I don’t mind that there are rich people. America needs millionaires. But multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires (and multi-multi-billionaires), especially when they make laws, conduct business and cut social services, showing no concern for anyone except others like themselves?

This we don’t need. It’s killing the rest of us, killing the country, killing democracy, killing the economy, killing opportunity. And in combating class warfare, you kill back with awareness and courage. You see the big picture, connect the dots, recognize who your enemy really is. Then you unify, organize, strategize, demonstrate, petition, fundraise, and vote. We may not win, but at least let’s go down trying.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A Global Shame

The kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria happened three weeks ago. I’m glad the world is outraged now, but it took three weeks for American news media to pay any attention to this story. Fox News was busy obsessing about Obamacare and Benghazi, as usual; CNN was focused on every dim ping in the ocean in their can’t-let-this-story-go endless focus on the downed Malaysian jet; and MSNBC was still staring at the George Washington Bridge Over Political Waters, not to mention the political horse races of 2014 and 2016. I don’t know what broadcast network news was doing because I don’t watch them. But even the usually ahead-of-the-game PBS NewsHour let us down. In print…even the New York Times was asleep at the wheel.

Three hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria because a bunch of Islamist terrorist wackjobs don’t want girls to go to school – especially Western-style schools. They would rather sell them for $12.00 each, sending them off into the global child sex trafficking trade, or to individual men who want child brides, or someone, anyone, who wants free, hard labor. Only social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter – stopped sharing recipes and selfies long enough to sound an alarm loud enough for the news media and the public to hear. Good for them. Shame on us.

What happened to these 300 girls – yes, about 50 got away but more have been taken since – is a disgusting outrage. But it is part of a larger global shame that has been going on for years and has been shockingly under-reported, never mind addressed. Every year, a million children, mostly girls, literally from infancy to tweens, are trafficked worldwide, around 300,000 in the U.S. alone, primarily for the unimaginable misery of sex slavery, a lesser number for grueling manual labor. And these are just the stats on kids. The numbers for adult women are even more horrific, and men get roped into this travesty as well.

Throughout human history, human life has been regarded as pretty cheap in many quarters. But now we’re in the 21st century, the bold progressive future, and it’s just as bad if not in some ways worse. Boko Haram may be a new name to us on the roster of terrorists who commit the unspeakable, but they’ve been around for years and our government, and the Nigerian government, and the governments of the world, have known about them – them and others, who pretend to act in the name of religion or culture or tradition or unashamedly in the name of greed run amok. Women, as always, are favorite targets, hardly regarded as human and certainly unentitled to autonomy or dignity. They’re fair game for brutality, especially sexual brutality, because men who are crazy are usually particularly crazy when it comes to women and sex.

And, not for nothing, another thing happened while world news ignored those Nigerian schoolgirls snatched from their beds. The wealthy, dapper, Sultan of Brunei decided that what his little oil-soaked country needed was the mania of Sharia Law, which has a special bug up its Islamist ass for women, gays, and anything resembling the rights of free speech or thought. Stone them! Mame them! It’s what Allah would want! Really?

Three hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria for the crime of being female and getting an education. Now, with international intervention, some of them may be rescued. But much damage will already have been done. The rest, the majority, will be forever lost in the anonymous swamp of child trafficking. Are we, the world, going to confront this issue now? I’m not optimistic. Just heartsick. And really, really pissed.