30 August 2012

Roger Baker : Converging Global Crises and Why We Deny Them / 2

An unraveling earth. Graphic from Sound of Cannons.

Converging global crises
and why we deny them  / 2
If the total human impact on nature is approaching a natural limit, we face difficult choices.
By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / August 30, 2012
"Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." -- Kenneth Boulding
[Second in a series.]

One revealing way to understand the total human impact on the natural world is by examining the implications of this formula: I = P x A x T. The formula tells us that the total human environmental impact is proportional to the total population, times its average affluence, times the impact on the natural world of the prevailing technology.

Meanwhile, the science is telling us with increasing urgency that we are headed into dangerous territory by ignoring the total global human impact of growth itself.

If the total human impact on nature is approaching a natural limit, we face difficult choices. Voluntarily reducing population is very unpopular, except through immigration control. So is voluntarily reducing affluence, since almost everyone seeks to "improve" their own personal circumstances.

Only a decrease in the impact of our technology has much popular support. It would call for a transition away from, and a reduction of the impact associated with, a prevailing technology highly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. The expectation is not very realistic, but it's way more than good enough when judged by our current standards of political spin.

The ideology supportive to growth will fight the growing pressure of evidence to the contrary; it will strain to convince us that the growth of our impact on nature will somehow lead to the best result. When the natural limits to growth themselves become a barrier to economic expansion, the science that warns of natural limits will itself meet with widespread opposition and denial.

Given the weight of the evidence, it is clear that capitalism and its integral expansionist philosophy represent the prevailing outlook of our time. The same outlook is shared by many liberals and socialists who likewise promise to get at least the domestic sector of a globally struggling economy back on the "right track."

An economic road map arguing for the best of a list of unhappy, but still achievable, choices might be a smarter goal. But bad news does not sell very well in competition with optimism, concerning the prospects for an eventual economic recovery. The best basis for hope is really quite achievable and is moving forward, it being the earliest possible cessation of our denial.

Now for a closer look at the details of five core crises we face and their interactions. They all have different time frames and dynamics so nobody can now see very well where they are leading us. Hopefully this will help serve as an introduction and inspire further study. Despite denial, there is a growing awareness that converging crises might well lead to rapid change and the need for advance preparation. This is helping to stimulate a rapidly growing transitional community movement in the USA.

1. The Political Denial Syndrome; buying public opinion

The last century of economic expansion, based on cheap fossil fuels, has been highly profitable to a small politically powerful elite, who have in recent decades become active in preserving a profitable status quo. Since the dawn of the industrial era, the accumulation of capital has been constant, based on advances in science and technology. An increasingly for-sale political system has helped to encourage the beneficiaries of this long expansion to mobilize political opposition to reform, using private media funds for persuasion.

The climate change denial lobby has become so politically influential that President Obama has been avoiding the topic. Obama had anticipated last spring that he would soon be obliged by political pressure to talk about global warming. That hasn't happened. In an April 2012 Rolling Stone interview he had said, "I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way."

The deniers seek to delay a united government policy response, which would mean abandoning trillions of dollars worth of investments tied to a world built with cheap energy. Here Naomi Wolf discusses the past focus on global warming denial:
As the U.S. faces record drought and an Old Testament-level pestilential heatwave in the midwest, American environmental denialism may be starting to change. The question is: is it too late?

America has led the world in climate change denial, a phenomenon noted with amazement by Europeans, not to mention thinking people around the world. Year after year, the U.S. has failed to sign global treaties or curb emissions, even as our status as a source of a third of the world's carbon emissions goes unchanged.

It is fairly well-known what has been behind that climate change denial in America: vast sums pumped into an ignorance industry by the oil and gas lobbies. Entire think-tanks to obfuscate man-made climate change have been funded by these interests, as have individual congressmen and women.
A recent book documents the reach of the science denial lobby, showing how it extends well beyond climate change:
In their new book, Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.

In seven compelling chapters addressing tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, and DDT, Oreskes and Conway roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.
Recently the science deniers have gone on the offensive. ClimateDepot has it all: peak oil denial, climate change denial, and denial of any limits to growth. Climate Depot is sponsored by CFACT, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which has teams of paid organizers, starting chapters at college campuses across the USA.

2. Population growth in the face of peak food per capita

The gradual increase in global population to a current global level of about seven billion has been, by its nature, exponential, with a big acceleration during the last several hundred years, based on cheap fossil fuel energy. Even a slow but exponential growth in population must reach a limit at some point, historically a limit marked by periodic famine.

High agricultural output is in various ways tied to the the cheap energy which is now running short. In the absence of other limits, and especially in the context of global warming, food production tends to be erratic and has now nearly reached the limits of arable land globally available. Since food, and grain in particular, is now widely traded as an international commodity, global shortages tend to be more manageable by means of the richer countries which are able to outbid the poorer countries.

We saw a 2008 global food price spike related to the oil price spike, which led to a global outbreak of food riots. Current food price indexes are again approaching the levels that caused earlier unrest. The result is that a combination of worse global warming and a high price for oil tends to be reflected in rising food cost, which expresses itself through food riots and political unrest which Michael Klare terms "hunger wars".
The Great Drought of 2012 has yet to come to an end, but we already know that its consequences will be severe. With more than one-half of America's counties designated as drought disaster areas, the 2012 harvest of corn, soybeans, and other food staples is guaranteed to fall far short of predictions.

This, in turn, will boost food prices domestically and abroad, causing increased misery for farmers and low-income Americans and far greater hardship for poor people in countries that rely on imported U.S. grains. This, however, is just the beginning of the likely consequences: if history is any guide, rising food prices of this sort will also lead to widespread social unrest and violent conflict.
Currently, about 60% of the total corn crop in the USA is not consumed by humans at all, but is being used for legally-mandated but energy-inefficient ethanol production, and for animal feed. This diversion creates some slack in the system, since the corn could be used to feed humans.

Global warming tends to reduce food production, but in such an unpredictable way that it is still possible to deny climate change and to blame the worsening heat waves, droughts, and floods on bad luck. Notwithstanding, an increasing incidence of crop failures is leading to food shortages and higher food prices.

Meanwhile, the groundwater used for irrigation is running short globally.

3. Global warming and climate change

Climate change is seen as a gradually emerging crisis by its nature, but it has become more noticeable over the last several decades. Scientists have been warning us that the current global temperature increase of about .8 degrees centigrade is only about half of what we can expect once the delayed effects kick in, as Elizabeth Kolbert tells us in her New Yorker story.
Before many effects of today’s emissions are felt, it will be time for the Summer Olympics of 2048. (Scientists refer to this as the “commitment to warming.”) What is at stake is where things go from there. It is quite possible that by the end of the century we could, without even really trying, engineer the return of the sort of climate that hasn’t been seen on earth since the Eocene, some 50 million years ago.

Along with the heat and the drought and the super derecho, the country this summer is also enduring a Presidential campaign. So far, the words “climate change” have barely been uttered... There’s no discussion of what could be done to avert the worst effects of climate change, even as the insanity of doing nothing becomes increasingly obvious.
The political impact of global warming is being driven by an increasing pattern of weather extremes that everyone can see for themselves as droughts and wildfires. There are power grid failures even in the rich countries like the USA. Climate change is experienced through political unrest in poorer areas due to higher food prices as Michael Klare has explained.

Already the effects of global warming have been enough to convince about 70% of the general public that climate change is real. However climate awareness has not yet become a strong political motivation issue compared to chronic unemployment.

Affluent supporters of a free market and the status quo can still manage to ignore climate change, aside from having to turn up their air conditioners and pay a bit more for food and fuel. After running short of the cheap oil that used to run our world, we have been turning to unconventional oil in an attempt to maintain a constant level of liquid fuel output to power the economy.

Producing unconventional oil and fracking to produce gas and the like really means using a lot more fossil fuel as the input required to produce the same barrel of liquid fuel. This is like running harder and harder to keep up, and ultimately makes global warming that much worse. In the USA, we have been straining to burn enough coal electricity to run air conditioners, whereas India has been straining to use its coal to pump enough irrigation water to maintain food production.

4. Peak oil and peaking power generation per capita

When inflexible global oil production meets an inflexible global market demand the economic result can be dramatic. An oil price spike has the capacity to cause a serious economic shock that can, in combination with weak credit regulation, cause the global economy to stall without a lot of advance warning.

We saw this in 2008. The resource reality behind peaking oil and its economic consequences were described in detail in a Jan. 26, 2012 article in Nature (Vol 481, p 433): "'Oil’s tipping point has passed; The economic pain of a flattening supply will trump the environment as a reason to curb the use of fossil fuels,' say James Murray and David King."

The scientists are being joined by economists saying much the same thing. Due to the pervasive role of fossil fuel energy in powering the global economy, there is a growing awareness that high oil prices can initiate recessions. The following from McClatchy offers one example:
For President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney, the race for the White House seems indisputably centered around one issue: Who can do more to bolster the sputtering U.S. economy. But to some experts, spikes in oil prices over the last several years have signaled an ominous turn that could make it nigh on impossible for any president to expand the economy as it has in the past.

Unlike previous oil price jumps stemming from turmoil affecting Middle East oil producers, prices surged over the last eight years because tightening supplies couldn’t keep pace with Third World demand, researchers have concluded. “The question is how much can we keep growing without a growing supply of energy?” said James Hamilton, a University of California-San Diego economics professor who has been on the leading edge of research into the impact of high energy costs.
The context of this crisis is that the cheap conventional oil production has already peaked in 2005. Since then, the broader category of global liquid fuel production in all forms has risen to a plateau hovering near a probable peak of about 90 million barrels per day. Whenever the economy recovers enough to demand more liquid fuel than this, the price spikes.

This rationing by price tends to send the economy back into recession. The fossil fuel peak thus tends to conceal itself by generating an economic recession that temporarily reduces demand. This tends to lead to bust and boom cycles that decrease in amplitude over time, finally tending toward stagflation and permanent recession.

This boom and bust interaction confuses the cause and effect relationship between oil and the economy in the eyes of the public. We have recently seen a spate of denial stories proclaiming that peak oil is a myth, and that higher prices can provide all the oil we need from alternative sources like tar sands, but this myth has been skillfully debunked.

We cannot; make a smooth transition from the past world built with cheap conventional oil to a new world trying to keep on growing as usual by using $100 a barrel non-conventional oil, such as the oil that the Canadian tar sands produce. This core economic problem was described in a recent James Howard Kunstler interview in Rolling Stone.
The bottom line is, once you are trying to replace a shortage of easy-to-get conventional oil with unconventional, expensive oil, you’re stuck in a trap. There is a paradox there: you really need a cheap oil economy to support an expensive oil economy.
Some are now claiming that our electric power production problems can be managed by "fracking" to provide natural gas that is cheaper to burn than coal. While there has recently been a glut of cheap natural gas, what is probably going on is that a fracking binge has led to gas supply overshooting demand within the areas served by the pipelines. Cheap fracking gas is a Ponzi scheme, according to industry experts.

If we look at the recent oil market, we see that global oil prices, after a dip in benchmark Brent prices in recent months, have been recovering fast to over $110 a barrel. That is probably about all that a very weak global economy can pay, without falling back into contraction.

Consider the following: If the U.S. economy is increasing its dependence on Saudi oil, as stated in a New York Times article by Clifford Krauss, but the Saudis are now pumping flat out, where does that leave the U.S. economy in its attempt to buy the additional oil that the economy would need to recover or to restructure? The same article has charts useful in understanding the basic trends.
The United States is increasing its dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia, raising its imports from the kingdom by more than 20 percent this year, even as fears of military conflict in the tinderbox Persian Gulf region grow... “This is strictly, totally business,” said Sadad Al Husseini, a former executive at Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. “Saudi production is flat out. Where you send it is a matter of where you make the best profit.”

5. An unpayable debt burden in the wake of unregulated credit extension

The natural world is finite, whereas the world of unregulated expansion of credit and debt is not. The dollar, as a fiat currency, is not backed up by anything other than public faith in its presumed future exchange value; the worth of our dollar is now based on little more than psychology and tradition. This fact alone offers a considerable potential for abuse.

Experience has demonstrated that -- given the absence of laws to prevent such activity -- loan sharks are inclined, by the nature of their business, to try to extend credit in such a way as to lead borrowers to assume perpetual debt. According to a similar principle there has been little oversight to prevent an unregulated system of finance capital from doing much the same thing, but on a much larger global scale.

Our prevailing global system of unregulated finance capital has thus offered a powerful motivation to expand the debt on the books of its component institutions like investment banks to the maximum, just so long as someone, somewhere, can be held legally responsible for paying it back. The global expansion of private debt, secured by credit default swaps and similar paper promises, has been encouraged by central banks like the U.S. Fed, which sets the interest rates.

Meanwhile, the public sector of the U.S. economy, the U.S. Treasury, must always print or tax enough money to balance its books, including paying back a huge overhang of accumulated federal debt. And, as we have seen, the world we have inherited was built with cheap oil. Both borrowers and lenders are trapped in a transition to a much less profitable world, which is becoming constantly more costly to maintain in good condition.

A cascading financial crisis, a sort of domino effect of called-in loans, is unpredictable by its nature, but in our time of instant global transactions, such a crisis can be very fast moving. The scale and speed of federal action to prop up the credit markets after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, associated with an oil price spike, was an indication of what can happen, and how quickly, in response to loss of trust in the various securities and agreements which are basic to the world of global finance.

The scale of global finance capital debt on the books of the global lenders is impossible to repay in terms of its anticipated buying power, as Europe is beginning to realize. U.S. federal debt now appears to be growing at about $5 trillion a year.

It has long been accepted that any attempt to call in a substantial part of bank loans would reveal that the money isn't really there, especially on short notice. This has led to fractional reserve banking to prevent bank runs, and to maintain lender confidence.

To actually earn all the money loaned out would demand the extraction of profit by such extreme and counterproductive exploitation of the natural world that the emphasis has shifted toward concealing and postponing an ultimate global debt crisis. Domestically and globally the debt on the books of the central banks cannot be repaid, in current terms of its promised purchasing power.

The same banks that are too big to fail are too smart to try to call in their loans, or to make their true condition too obvious. The economic warnings are now becoming more common. Jim Rogers is one recent example of those spreading the alarm.

Richard Duncan is another. This is from Terry Weiss at Money Morning:
Richard Duncan, formerly of the World Bank and chief economist at Blackhorse Asset Mgmt., says America's $16 trillion federal debt has escalated into a "death spiral," as he told CNBC. And it could result in a depression so severe that he doesn't "think our civilization could survive it." And Duncan is not alone in warning that the U.S. economy may go into a "death spiral." Since the recession, noted economists including Laurence Kotlikoff, a former member of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, have come to similar conclusions...

One member of this team, Chris Martenson, a pathologist and former VP of a Fortune 300 company, explains their findings: "We found an identical pattern in our debt, total credit market, and money supply that guarantees they're going to fail. This pattern is nearly the same as in any pyramid scheme, one that escalates exponentially fast before it collapses. Governments around the globe are chiefly responsible.And what's really disturbing about these findings is that the pattern isn't limited to our economy. We found the same catastrophic pattern in our energy, food, and water systems as well."

According to Martenson: "These systems could all implode at the same time. Food, water, energy, money. Everything." Another member of this team, Keith Fitz-Gerald, the president of The Fitz-Gerald Group, went on to explain their discoveries. "What this pattern represents is a dangerous countdown clock that's quickly approaching zero. And when it does, the resulting chaos is going to crush Americans," Fitz-Gerald says.
Here Chris Martenson, in part of his celebrated "Crash Course," explains how the three big E's; the economy, energy and the environment, are linked by an ultimately futile effort to maintain exponential growth in a finite world.

Things are not just unsustainable on the federal level. One recent pattern of federal policy has been to try to expand the defense industry budget at the federal level, while pushing the social welfare obligations down to the state level. The state budgets are now often in precarious shape, such that their condition has the potential to lead to a crisis starting at the state level.
Ravitch and Volcker also recommended that federal and state officials work together on Medicaid and health care costs. States, the report said, should carefully monitor the financial health of local governments and address infrastructure maintenance. Ravitch said state and federal leaders need to address the issues immediately. "It is getting worse every day," Ravitch said. "We have to stop bullsh---ing."
[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Association and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]

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Robert Jensen : Learning to Hate Longhorn Football

Bevo goes to college. Photo by Mose Buchele for KUT News. Inset photo of Texas cheerleader by Donn Jones / AP.

Learning to hate Longhorn football
Dealing with UT’s jock-obsessed culture is easy -- I critique it, without hesitation. Dealing with student athletes is more complicated.
By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / August 30, 2012

[The opener of the 2012 Longhorn football season is Saturday, September 1. In this essay UT-Austin journalism prof Bob Jensen reflects on the downside of the team that is so beloved in Austin and around the state.]

I have never much liked football. But after 20 years as a professor at the University of Texas, I have learned to hate football, and really hate Longhorn football.

I’ve also learned that some players hate the football machine as much as I do.

As a child, I liked running, jumping, and throwing a ball around; like most kids, I enjoyed the games that let us enjoy our bodies. But I developed a distinct distaste for organized sports, especially football, as I learned about the different kinds of damage that the sport could do.

I grew up short, skinny, and effeminate in a small Midwestern city in the 1960s and ‘70s, which meant I was unlikely to measure up to the norms that football players seemed to embody -- the celebration of domination and aggression, conquest and control. Boys like me dreamed not of playing football but of avoiding being beaten up by football players. My younger brother, the only one in the family with any serious athletic talent, had it worse -- he played football well and by junior high he was on his way to knee problems. The smartest thing he did was to walk away from the sport while he could still walk.

Today, I dislike almost everything about football -- the senseless violence, the fans reveling in that violence, the pathological glorification of competition, the sexual objectification of female cheerleaders and dancers, the obscene amounts of money spent on the spectacle.

Yes, I know that for some young people football can be a great character-building and teamwork-enhancing experience. But weigh it all up, the positive and the destructive, and football is a loser.

I have some of the same complaints about other sports, too, but I have learned to hate football -- from the junior leagues to the NFL, with a special disgust reserved for big-time college football.

This presents a particular challenge at UT, home of the storied Longhorn franchise. Like many faculty members, I don’t hesitate to criticize the university’s obsession with athletics or to ask students to reflect on what that obsession teaches us about the university’s priorities and values. Such critique is easy when the head football coach’s salary gets bumped to $5.2 million a year as the university struggles with budget cuts.

Dealing with UT’s jock-obsessed culture is easy -- I critique it, without hesitation. Dealing with student athletes is more complicated. I don’t dislike jocks; like any other group of students, athletes run the gamut from smart to dull, from hard worker to slacker. When we interact in my office, roles and rules are clear -- I act professionally and they are generally respectful. At a university where football players are demigods, the real accomplishment is to treat them like normal students, and I pride myself on doing that.

The complication comes in my desire to help them, given the limits imposed by the system. Not surprisingly, many of the athletes’ problems are the same as students working a job (or two, or three) -- students who work full-time need extraordinary focus and great time-management skills to succeed in class. The athletes in the high-profile “revenue” sports are unpaid fulltime employees, but the fact that they aren’t paid doesn’t mean their coach-bosses cut them any slack.

For example, one student was routinely late and missed the quizzes at the beginning of my 8 a.m. class. When I noticed that the lost points left him with a failing grade, I asked him to come to my office and explain his tardiness. He was a football player, and required weight training in the morning was delaying him. Why hadn’t he asked the coaches to let him leave early? He said that he had asked, but nothing changed.

He and I worked out an alternative assignment so he could recover the points. But I couldn’t help him with the coach who treated him like an employee. I asked the student if he wanted me to inform the athletic department about his situation, and he made it clear that would not be a good idea. He didn’t trust the athletic department and feared retribution. Even if he was wrong about that, his fear says something about the atmosphere in which he works.

After 20 years and several interactions like that, I have come to hate the football machine more than ever, just as some football players do. These players are not naïve and know, perhaps better than anyone, how they are used. They know that the university athletic department, like any other employer, is primarily interested in productivity, not the long-term welfare of employees.

My most memorable lesson in the system’s disregard for athletes came in a conversation near the end of a semester with a football player who came to my office hoping to make up enough points to pass my class. I don’t remember the details of the missed assignment, but the student seemed honest and sincere, and we quickly worked out a plan for him to make up the work.

He also was searching for the right questions to ask about his future without football. He was a scholarship player at the end of his junior year with a serious injury that meant he would never play again, but the university was letting him finish his last year on scholarship.

What’s next? I asked. If his hopes for a pro career were over, what would he do?

He said he wanted to be a high school coach. That means teaching as well, and I asked how he planned to get certified. He had no idea what that entailed; no one had advised him on that process. I suggested that he not rely on the advising in athletics and get the information from the College of Education for himself, and we talked about how to do that.

I told him bluntly that my main concern was that he understood what it took to be a good teacher and that he not become one of those coaches who treated teaching duties as a footnote to their “real” job on the field. There are enough bad teachers in the world already, I said. If you are going to do this, know that it’s rewarding but hard work.

Then I asked him what he wanted to teach. History seemed most interesting to him, which made me smile as I remembered my experience 30 years earlier as a college student getting certified to be a high school history teacher. I told him how intimidated I had felt standing in front of a class as a student teacher. We kept talking. I asked him what his favorite part of history was. U.S. history? World history? Any particular era?

He didn’t have an answer. I asked him what he knew about history. He acknowledged that it wasn’t much. Thinking back on my student teaching, which included several weeks of trying to get seventh-graders interested in the War of 1812 (something I wasn’t much interested in at the time, and must confess that I have never gone back to study in detail), I asked him what he knew about that war. Nothing, he said. Which countries fought the war? He didn’t know.

I wasn’t surprised, because I routinely talk with students who have significant gaps in basic historical knowledge. He was neither ashamed nor angry at me for pushing him; he was struggling to create a new life and knew he needed help. We talked about the inadequate schooling that he had endured. He was struggling, honestly, to understand who he was now that football was over. He knew he had a tough year ahead.

We kept talking. He told me a bit about why he loved sports. I told him why I loved books. We didn’t dwell on the fact that he was a jock and I was the antithesis of a jock, or that our childhood experiences had been dramatically different. He was black and I was white, he had grown up in poverty and I had been a middle-class kid, and we talked about what that meant for each of us.

I talked to him about why I went into teaching, about my own development as an intellectual. If his playing days were over, he was going to have to find a new identity, pick up new habits, see the world in a new way. After an hour, he got up to leave. I told him I would be happy to talk more, if he wanted. He thanked me, and I thanked him. Then he looked at me and said something I will never forget.

“No one has ever talked to me this way before,” he said. I asked what he meant, afraid I had been too harsh and he had felt disrespected. Instead, he was grateful that I had spoken honestly, that I had assumed he was capable of the conversation. His experience with education up to then had been sadly predictable: Few had cared about his mind as long as his body was performing on the field.

I told him I had enjoyed talking with him, which was true. I told him I hoped to see him again, which I knew was unlikely, simply because most students -- athletes or not -- don’t come back after such a conversation.

After he left, I sat by myself for a long time, thinking about how toxic masculinity norms in a white-supremacist society defined by economic inequality had structured both our lives. All the abstractions about the hierarchy in gender, race, and class were palpably real at that moment; he and I were individuals, of course, but we had lived our individual lives within those categories that had so profoundly shaped our choices.

I don’t really hate football, which is just one of many children’s games. But I do hate most of the things adults do with football, the way the destructive hierarchical values in patriarchy, white supremacy, and a predatory corporate capitalism are woven into big-time college sports.

I hate what the reality of football does to ideals of a university.

I hate what Longhorn football does to the University of Texas.

[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times (City Lights, coming in 2013) His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

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Paul Krassner : Are Rape Jokes Funny?

Comic Daniel Tosh. Image from The Hollywood Gossip. Inset images below: Sarah Silverman and Louis CK.

Are rape jokes funny?
Rape is a crime. Rape jokes aren’t. They are the risk of free speech.
By Paul Krassner / The Rag Blog / August 30, 2012

Abortion was still illegal in 1970. At the time, as both an underground abortion referral service and a stand-up satirist, I faced an undefined paradox. Irreverence was my only sacred cow, yet I wouldn’t allow victims to become the target of my humor.

There was one particular routine I did that called for a “rape-in” of legislators’ wives in order to impregnate them so that they would then convince their husbands to decriminalize abortion. But my feminist friends objected. I resisted at first, because it was such a well-intentioned joke. And then I reconsidered.

Even in a joke, why should women be assaulted because men made the laws? Legislators' wives were the victims in that joke, but the legislators themselves were the oppressors, and their hypocrisy was really my target. But for me to stop doing that bit of comedy wasn't self-censorship. Rather, it was, I rationalized, a matter of conscious evolution.

* * *

Now, in July 2012, more than four decades later, rape-joking triggered a widespread controversy when a woman who prefers to remain anonymous went to a comedy club, expecting to be entertained. She chose the Laugh Factory in Hollywood because Dane Cook was on the bill, but he was followed by Daniel Tosh, and she had never heard of him.

In an email to her Tumblr blogger friend, she accused Tosh of saying that “rape jokes are always funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape jokes are hilarious.” She was so offended that she felt morally compelled to shout, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” Tosh paused and then seized the opportunity, responding, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”

The audience laughed raucously. After all, isn’t anyone who yells at a comedian practically asking to become an immediate target? But this woman was stunned and humiliated, and she left. In the lobby, she demanded to see the manager, who apologized profusely and gave her free tickets for another night --admitting, however, that she understood if this woman never wanted to return.

In her email, she concluded that, “having to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophobic room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.” She added, “Please reblog and spread the word.” And indeed, it went viral.

Coincidentally, on the same night that Tosh, in his signature sarcastic approach to reality, provoked the woman, Sarah Silverman was performing at Foxwords Casino and she touched upon the same taboo subject:
We need more rape jokes. We really do. Needless to say, rape, the most heinous crime imaginable, seems it’s a comic’s dream, though. It’s because it seems when you do rape jokes, that the material is so dangerous and edgy, and the truth is, it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy ’cause who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape. They’re just traditionally not complainers.
Ironically, in The Aristocrats, a documentary entirely about a classic joke of the same name, Silverman complained that she was once raped by show-biz legend Joe Franklin.

* * *

In the fall of 1981, I booked myself for a cross-country tour, from New York to Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

While I was in New York, a nun was raped. When I got to Chicago, the rapist was also there. He had given himself up to the police. On stage I explained the true reason why: “He heard that the Mafia, in a rush of Christian compassion, put a $25,000 contract out on his life.” That part was true.

“So now I'm asking the Mafia to use their clout to end the war in El Salvador since four nuns were raped and killed there.” They must’ve heard my request. By the time I got to Los Angeles, the Herald-Examiner was reporting that the Mafia was “probably the largest source of arms for the rebels in El Salvador.”

In the spring of 1982, there was a Radical Humor Festival at New York University. That weekend, the festival sponsored an evening of radical comedy. The next day, my performance was analyzed by an unofficial women's caucus. Robin Tyler (“I am not a lesbian comic -- I am a comic who is a lesbian”) served as the spokesperson for their conclusions. What had caused a stir was my reference to the use of turkey basters by single mothers-to-be who were attempting to impregnate themselves by artificial insemination.

Tyler explained to me, “You have to understand, some women still have a hang-up about penetration.”

Well, I must have been suffering from Delayed Punchline Syndrome, because it wasn't until I was on a plane, contemplating the notion that freedom of absurdity transcends gender difference, that I finally did respond, in absentia: “Yeah, but you have to understand, some men still feel threatened by turkey basters.”

* * *

Although Tosh is a consistently unapologetic performer for the sardonic material he exudes on his Comedy Central series -- which features a running theme of rape jokes, even including one about his sister -- for this occasion he decided to go the Twitter route: “All the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize.” He also tweeted, “The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”

According to Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory, Tosh asked the audience, “What you guys wanna talk about?” Someone called out “Rape,” and a woman in the audience started screaming, “No, rape is painful, don’t talk about it.” Then, says Masada, “Daniel came in, and he said, ‘Well, it sounds like she’s been raped by five guys’ -- something like that. I didn’t hear properly. It was a comment -- it wasn’t a joke at the expense of this girl.” Masada claims that she sat through the rest of Tosh’s performance, which received a standing ovation, before she complained to the manager.

Fellow comedians defended Tosh with their own tweets. Dane Cook: “If you journey through this life easily offended by other peoples words I think it’s best for everyone if you just kill yourself.” Doug Stanhope: “You’re hilarious. If you ever apologize to a heckler again I will rape you.” Louis C.K.: “your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes” -- except that he wrote it after watching Tosh on TV, but before he learned about the Laugh Factory incident. Nevertheless, he was excoriated and accused of being a “rape apologist.”

But C.K. himself is no stranger to sexual-assault jokes. Onstage, he has said that he’s against rape -- “unless you have a reason, like you wanna fuck someone and they won’t let you, in which case what other option do you have?”

Conversely, on the second episode of his series, Louie, on the FX channel, he reversed such roles. After leaving a bar with an especially aggressive woman, Laurie (played by Melissa Leo), he had inadvertently met earlier, she performs fellatio on him in her pickup truck, then insists that he in turn perform cunnilingus on her. And he refuses.

So, she attacks him physically with unabashed viciousness, mounts him, and he gives in to her demand. In other words, Laurie rapes Louie. No joke. To watch this scene was positively jaw-dropping. It served as a reminder of how often comedians--and their jaded audiences--find prison-rape jokes not only to be funny, but also, as in the case of Jerry Sandusky, an act of delayed justice resulting in laughter that morphs into applause.

Meanwhile, reacting to the Tosh tirade, Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, stated:
If free speech permits a comedian to suggest a woman in his audience should be gang-raped, then it certainly permits us to object, and to ask what message this sends to survivors or to perpetuators. Tosh’s comment was just one extreme example of pop culture’s dismissive treatment of sexualized violence, which desensitizes audiences to enormous human suffering. Internet outcry is encouraging, but popular media needs to push back too.
And the original blogger posted another message:
My friend and I wanted to thank everyone for there [sic] support and for getting this story out there. We just wanted everyone to know what Daniel Tosh had done and if you didn’t agree then to stop following him. My friend is surprised to have gotten any form of an apology and doesn’t wish to press any further charges against [him].”
What? Press charges? Rape is a crime. Rape jokes aren’t. They are the risk of free speech. The blog concluded, “She does plan on returning to comedy shows in the future, but to see comedians that she’s seen before or to at least look up artists before going to their shows.” Wait till she finds out Dane Cook suggested that she kill herself.

* * *

What’s funny is always subjective but not incapable of alteration. Now, over 40 years since I stopped presenting my concept about a rape-in of legislators’ wives, I have changed my mind about that decision in the process of writing this piece. I sent the first draft around to several friends, and I was particularly touched by a response from Emma Cofod, production manager at my publisher, Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press:
Thank you for sharing this! I truly appreciate your thoughts here. I read about this woman's complaint last week, and the whole event turned my stomach. What Tosh did was personally threatening, which is not OK. But even though I fall neatly into the feminist camp, I think your original joke is hilarious -- within context, and coming from a comedian whose philosophy I identify with. Color me conflicted.
I think that kind of conflict is healthy. And then the other shoe of my epiphany dropped when I saw Louis C.K.’s appearance on The Daily Show. This is what he told Jon Stewart between interruptions:
If this [controversy about Tosh] is like a fight between comedians and bloggers -- hyperbole and garbage comes out of those two places, just uneducated, unfettered -- it’s also a fight between comedians and feminists, because they’re natural enemies, because, stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke, and on the other side, comedians can’t take criticism. Comedians are big pussies. So to one side you say, "If you don’t like a joke, stay out of the comedy clubs." To the other side you say, "If you don’t like criticism, stop Googling yourself every ten seconds, because nobody’s making you read it." It’s positive. To me, all dialogue is positive. I think you should listen.

If somebody has the opposite feeling from me, I wanna hear it so I can add to mine. I don’t wanna obliterate theirs with mine, that’s how I feel. Now, a lot of people don’t feel that way. For me, any joke about anything bad is great, that’s how I feel. Any joke about rape, a Holocaust, the Mets -- aarrgghh, whatever -- any joke about something bad is a positive thing. But now I’ve read some blogs during this whole that made me enlightened at things I didn’t know. This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives, they have a narrow corridor, they can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t dress a certain way, because they might -- I never -- that’s part of me now that wasn’t before, and I can still enjoy the rape jokes.

But this is also about men and women, because a lot of people are trading blogs with each other, couples are fighting about Daniel Tosh and rape jokes -- that’s what I’ve been reading in blogs -- but they’re both making a classic gender mistake, because the women are saying, "Here’s how I feel about this," but they’re also saying, "My feelings should be everyone’s primary concern." Now the men are making this mistake, they’re saying, "Your feelings don’t matter, your feelings are wrong and your feelings are stupid." If you’ve ever lived with a woman, you can’t step in shit worse than that, than to tell a woman that her feelings don’t matter. So, to the men I say, "Listen to what the women are saying about this." To the women I say, “Now that we heard you, shut the fuck up for a minute, and let’s all get back together and kill the Jews." That’s all I have to say about it.
The audience laughed and applauded, as they did 50 years ago when Lenny Bruce ended a riff on prejudice: “Randy, it won’t matter any more even if you are colored and I’m Jewish, and even if Fritz is Japanese, and Wong is Greek, because then we’re all gonna stick together -- and beat up the Polacks.”

My notion of a rape-in of legislators’ wives in order to impregnate them was no more to be taken literally than C.K.’s killing the Jews or Lenny’s beating up the Polacks. Rape-in was a misunderstood metaphor; a pro-choice parable that, unfortunately, has become timely again.

[Paul Krassner edited The Realist, America's premier satirical rag, was an original Yippie, and has been a stand-up comic. Krassner publishes the infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster. Two of his books -- both are expanded and updated editions -- have recently been released: a collection, Pot Stories for the Soul; and his autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture. All three of those items are available at paulkrassner.com. The above article originally appeared on Reason.com. Read more articles by Paul Krassner on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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29 August 2012

Lamar W. Hankins : What's Conservative about Paul Ryan?

Ryan shrugged. Cover art by Drew Friedman for the New York Observer from his Facebook page.

What’s conservative about Paul Ryan?
Paul Ryan is an extremist on issues of restricting personal liberty and using government to benefit the wealthy to the detriment of middle- and low-income families, and he is a hypocrite when it comes to fiscal conservatism.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / August 29, 2012

Glenn Greenwald did a masterful job for Salon.com the other day outlining much of the evidence that demonstrates Paul Ryan has not acted to constrain government spending, nor to constrain the government during his time in office. For over a decade, Ryan has voted for the expansion of federal debt and the restriction of individual liberty almost every time he has had a chance to do so. How is such a person a conservative?

As Greenwald explains, Ryan presents himself as an Ayn Rand “Super-Hero of Individual Self-Reliance and Working Class Warrior against government debt, waste, and intrusiveness -- whose actual life is a testament to the precise opposite values.”

Ryan managed to go to college after receiving Social Security survivor’s benefits through his high school years after his father died at an early age, benefits which he claims he saved up to pay for college. As Joan Walsh explained recently in Salon magazine, Ryan has “become the scourge of the welfare state, a man wholly supported by government who preaches against the evils of government support,” and he has become famous for “trying to dismantle the very program that helped him go to the college of his choice.”

After receiving a B.A. with a double major in economics and political science from Miami University of Ohio, he spent a few years on the payroll of several politicians and right-wing think-tanks. Occasionally, in the years before he became a Congressman at age 28, Ryan worked briefly for the family-owned construction business when he needed money.

Ryan seems incapable of acknowledging that government is a collective endeavor to cobble together a system that will make possible economic and social endeavors that can make life fulfilling for all the people. That’s the promise of our Constitution and the government it created. But Ryan has tried to fashion an image of himself as a self-made man who wants government to go away because it is not needed.

I recognized shortly after graduating from the college of my choice that I was able to go to college because of the sacrifices made by my parents, the excellent public school system I attended, the public transportation system that took me to school for several years, the public library I used regularly while in high school, the public roads over which I traveled to get to college and return home to visit my parents, the public postal system that allowed me to stay in contact with my family (and receive occasional checks for incidentals), the air traffic control system that looked out for my safety when I flew in an airplane, and the myriad other programs established for the safety of all Americans -- food safety, water purity, air pollution control, mosquito eradication (particularly important where I grew up), flood control, fire protection, and police protection.

It was about the same time that I learned about the large sums of crop support payments paid to farmers in the county where I worked -- payments that no one referred to as welfare, while assistance for other people was frowned upon and derided. I realized that all such government assistance was part of an effort to equal the playing field and create a fairer system so that the entire nation could prosper, no matter what personal circumstances or natural events interfered.

Obviously, there were abuses -- it’s a system organized and operated by humans whose natures need to have some controls. Some people who received assistance did not need it, but the basic idea was to create a system that acknowledged that we were all in this together, and if we worked together, helping one another when needed, we would all be better for it. However, that spirit of cooperation was not infused in everyone equally.

Many years later I began figuring out that the tax system was rigged for the benefit of the wealthiest among us. All during this time when I was working, I paid payroll taxes on my entire salary to support the Social Security and Medicare system, but higher-paid workers did not have to pay those same taxes on much of their income. We allow major industries, such as the coal, oil, and natural gas companies to produce their products or conduct their businesses in ways that pollute our environment and leave the taxpayers to pay for the costs of environmental cleanup and health care for people damaged by pollution.

In a 2009 report, the National Research Council (NRC) estimates that the hidden costs of energy production in 2005 were $120 billion. Economists refer to these costs as external costs, including the economic effects to human health, structural damage, and the reduction in harvests caused by air pollution.

As the study explained, these external costs are hidden “because they are not reflected in the market prices of coal, oil, other energy sources, or the electricity and gasoline produced from them. Health damage from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation was found to be the largest single impact.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, my government spent nearly $600 billion to fight a war in Southeast Asia, a war that I did not support; but I was compelled to pay for it under threat of losing what little property I owned. The same sort of politicians who voted for the Vietnam War also voted for Bush’s two wars that have been continued under Obama and have cost the taxpayers about $3.7 trillion to date, according to Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.

Ryan has supported all of these expenditures as a Congressman and wants to spend even more on defense in the years to come. His support for wars and interventions overseas suggest an extremist view about the role of the U.S. in the world, believing that "American Exceptionalism" gives us the right to tell the rest of the world how to act. In what way are these the actions of a fiscal conservative, or any kind of conservative?

Ryan voted for the expansion of Medicare to pay for prescription drugs (in a way that favored the pharmaceutical industry) and for the Wall Street and bank bailouts at the end of Bush’s second term. In fact, Ryan seems to have no problem with propping up the too-big-to-fail banks with an annual $60 billion subsidy, while extolling the virtues of the Free Enterprise system.

Also, Ryan is all for the government-sponsored patent system that gives pharmaceutical companies 20-year patents on prescription drugs. Dean Baker reports that these government-created monopolies cost taxpayers $270 billion more a year than they would pay in a free market system, and that there are efficient alternatives to financing drug research (see the Center for Economic and Policy Research report authored by Baker in 2004). In what way are these the actions of a fiscal conservative?

When it comes to restraining the power of the federal government, Ryan can always be counted on to support the government and diminish the liberty of all citizens. He voted for the original PATRIOT Act, its later modifications, and then to make its intrusive government powers permanent. He voted for the Military Commissions Act, which provides indefinite detention apparently for both resident aliens and U.S. citizens, who can be denied the Constitutional right of habeas corpus under the Act -- the right to have a court compel the government to justify its detention of such people.

Ryan voted for the Protect America Act of 2007 to expand the power of the government to eavesdrop on Americans without court authorization for up to one year if the conversation involves talking to a person "reasonably believed to be outside the United States." In what way are these the actions of someone who wants to restrict the power of the federal government?

Ryan has voted to deny same-sex couples the right to marry or to adopt children. He wanted to continue the military policy of discriminating against gays in the military. He wanted a Constitutional amendment to make flag-burning a crime. He favors the restriction of abortion rights, even supporting criminally prosecuting women who have an abortion.

He has sponsored legislation to give a fertilized egg the constitutional rights of a person, though millions are destroyed nationally each year in the normal process of nature, making such a declaration irrelevant and foolish. His legislation would criminalize in vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control. In what way are these the actions of someone who wants to restrict the power of the federal government?

Ryan claims to be an Ayn Rand libertarian, but he opposes medical marijuana and needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of diseases among drug addicts. He opposes all drug use, including recreational marijuana. As Congressman Barney Frank said two years ago in a discussion with Ryan and George Will, it should be an embarrassment to conservatives that they want to tell people whom they can have sex with, whom they can marry, what they can read, what they can smoke.

Frank ended the discussion with the observation, “It’s the conservatives who want to intrude on personal liberty.”

As Glenn Greenwald recently concluded, “Whatever one wants to say about Ryan's record, it is the very opposite of constraining the power of the federal government to intrude into the lives of individuals; indeed, it's a testament to massive expansion of intrusive federal government power in almost every realm.”

While I am not happy with how President Obama has handled many of these same issues, it seems plain to me that Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s pick for his vice-presidential running mate, is an extremist on issues of restricting personal liberty and using government to benefit the wealthy to the detriment of middle- and low-income families, and he is a hypocrite when it comes to fiscal conservatism. His views about America’s role in the world can fairly be described as megalomaniacal -- an all too common view among many, if not most, Americans, who seem to believe that America has the right to do anything, anywhere.

I agree with Ryan that our government needs to change its ways. But the change Ryan wants will take us further from a government that honors the purpose of our Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. . .”

Ryan would diminish justice in an already harsh system, destroy the minimal economic supports provided for our most disadvantaged citizens, engage in more interventionist wars abroad, push the government to provide more benefits for the wealthy to the exclusion of all others, and further constrain our liberties.

To call Ryan’s political goals “free market conservatism” is Doublespeak at its most dishonest and shameful.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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SPORT / Dave Zirin : What They Can't Take from Lance Armstrong

Survivor: Lance Armstrong. Photo by Christopher Ena / AP.

He quit the fight but not the war:
What they can't take from Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong, and his ubiquitous Livestrong bracelets, are 21st century totems of survival and the USADA isn’t going to change that.
By Dave Zirin / The Rag Blog / August 29, 2012

If Joe Paterno represents the greatest fall from grace in the history of sports, then many are saying that Lance Armstrong might now have won the silver.

On Thursday, Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France cycling crowns and will be banned for life from any connection to the sport he made famous. Why? Because he withdrew his appeal against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s contention that he time and again rode steroids and performance enhancing drugs to victory.

Armstrong quit the fight against the USADA but issued a statement without contrition, accusing them of an "unconstitutional witch hunt."

As Armstrong said in a statement,
There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, "Enough is enough." For me, that time is now... I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today -- finished with this nonsense. Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances... I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.
With the swiftness of a pro cyclist going 75 miles per hour down a steep hill, the USADA acted immediately, treating Armstrong’s surrender as a legal admission of guilt. Travis Tygart, the USADA's chief executive, spoke as if a jury of Armstrong’s peers had voted to convict, saying, "It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes. It's a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There's no success in cheating to win."

Tygart maintained that Armstrong didn’t give up the fight from exhaustion but because he knew that the USADA had 10 former teammates ready to testify that he was doping. Armstrong, it should be noted, made clear that no matter what any witnesses had to say, “There is zero physical evidence to support [their] outlandish and heinous claims," Armstrong said. "The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of [drug tests] I have passed with flying colors."

I don’t know about Armstrong’s guilt or innocence, but anyone who writes off Armstrong after the USADA ruling and thinks that he's about to enter some sort of Paterno-Pete Rose-Barry Bond pantheon of infamy, doesn’t quite understand his appeal or why he connects so strongly with his army of fans. Of the 70 top-10 finishers in Armstrong’s seven Tour De France victories, 41 have tested positive for PEDS, Armstrong is a hell of a lot more than just number 42.

The Texas native came to public consciousness not just for beating the Pyrenees but for beating stage four cancer. In our increasingly toxic world, I don’t think a family exists that hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way. Lance Armstrong, and his ubiquitous Livestrong bracelets, are 21st century totems of survival and the USADA isn’t going to change that. Nothing ever could.

No adult male saw Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa in 1998 and thought, “Someday I’m going to hit 70 home runs.” No adult female saw Marion Jones and thought, "Someday I’ll win gold at the Olympics.” But legions of adults have watched Lance Armstrong and thought, “Someday, I’m going to beat this damn cancer.”

That’s a deeper connection than fandom or even the virtual-world of fantasy sports could ever provide. If Lance Armstrong has been able to further the connection because he’s white, photogenic, and politically connected (and did I mention white?), then to his credit he’s leveraged those advantages to raise over $500 million for cancer research and access to treatment in poor and minority communities across the United States.

Armstrong, a religious agnostic, was once asked how his belief in God helped him beat cancer, He answered, according to the great sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, “Everyone should believe in something, and I believe in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors.” That response in the end is why he won’t go into hiding. He won’t live in self-imposed exile. He won’t slink to the margins of U.S. society and he won’t lose his fans.

Call him a doper. Call him a cheater. Call him the dirtiest player in a sport that’s as dirty as they come. He’ll call himself the guy who keeps fighting to make sure people have the surgery, chemo, and doctors they need. For people like those in my own family who have through trials of unimaginable courage, earned the right to wear that LiveStrong rubber bracelet, that will always matter more.

[Dave Zirin is the author of the book, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com. Read more articles by Dave Zirin on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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BOOKS / Harry Targ : Van Jones on Rebuilding the Dream

As election nears:
Van Jones on rebuilding the dream
Activists know that building mass movements entails a variety of cognitive and action steps. Sometimes it is useful for a skilled activist like Van Jones to provide us with a framework for discussing how to proceed.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / August 29, 2012

[Rebuild the Dream by Van Jones (2012: Nation Books); Hardcover; 320 pp.; $25.99.]

The central argument of this book is that, to bring back hope and win change, we need more than a great president. We need a movement of millions of people, committed to fixing our democracy and rebuilding America’s economy.

In June, 2011, Van Jones, former White House advisor on Green Jobs and before that community organizer and author of The Green Collar Economy, called on progressives to organize house parties to establish a policy agenda that could serve as the basis for building a new progressive social movement. An inspiring speech to urge organizing at the grassroots level was widely distributed on the internet.

In July thousands of house parties, advertised as efforts to “Rebuild the American Dream,” were held. These were followed by electronic dialogue that led to the adoption of a “Contract for the American Dream;” a 10-point program for economic renewal. Over 300,000 Americans have endorsed the Contract, and the Rebuild the Dream coalition claims to have 600,000 members.

In some communities, including in Lafayette, Indiana, where I live and teach, local Rebuild the Dream Coalitions became the vehicle for networking among representatives of civil rights and civil liberties groups, trade unionists, defenders of women’s reproductive health, and progressive Democrats. Rallies, petition drives, and panel presentations were organized around jobs and justice, protecting Planned Parenthood, and challenges to the connection between big money and politics.

During the fall of 2011, overshadowing grassroots Dream coalition efforts, the Occupy Movement surfaced and spread all across the United States. Already dramatic fightbacks against anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana had begun. Both the activism in the Heartland and in the occupations became more visible (and perhaps more influential).

Reflecting on the possibility of continuing the construction of a mass movement to revitalize democratic institutions and the economy, Jones has written a book assessing these campaigns (including the Obama electoral campaign which preceded them). Most important he presents a conceptual scheme for helping communities decide on appropriate political programs and activities.

Before addressing future needs, Jones makes the important point that the Occupy and Dream movements and the 2008 campaign around the Obama election followed a massive anti-Iraq war movement, new developments in internet organizing, and the construction of movement-oriented think tanks and cable television programs during the first decade of the new century. He believes that social movements build on the successes and failures of those that precede them.

During the first few chapters of Jones’ book, the author discusses strengths and weaknesses of the Obama administration. Among the positive contributions of the administration Jones refers to policies that averted another Great Depression, including saving of the auto industry. Jones applauds passage of the Ledbetter Act. On the negative side Jones discusses the failure of the administration to secure passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, an inadequate economic stimulus package, and weak efforts to regulate Wall Street financial institutions.

From a social movement standpoint Jones included in his critique the successful Democratic National Committee effort to accumulate the power that had been generated at the grassroots to elect Barack Obama. Organizing for America (OFA) groups, Jones wrote, which represented grassroots mobilizations everywhere, were taken over by the formal centralized Democratic Party machinery, thus defusing the energy, passion, and willingness of activists to work for a progressive agenda.

Beyond his review and analysis of 21st century social movements and the Obama campaign, a major theoretical contribution of the book is in its conceptual scheme. By using a 2 x 2 table Jones identifies two critical dimensions of movement building.

The first, involves whether campaigns are organized around rational analysis (thorough argumentation with the use of data and the making of specific proposals) or emotional appeals (referring to emotive symbols, slogans, and inspiring artistic creations).

The second dimension involves politics as conceptualization (generating ideas) or action. Action can be about the “inside game”(bargaining and negotiation, electoral work, lobbying), or politics as an “outside game” (engaging in street heat, mass mobilizations, rallies, and civil disobedience).

Jones calls the process of identifying policies through rigorous analysis as the “head space,” rallying public support through emotions the “heart space,” lobbying, pressure group politics and elections the “inside game,” and going to the streets the “outside game.” For him the political process involves the activation of all four quadrants at different points in time; using concepts and analysis or emotional appeals applied to inside or outside forms of action.

In Jones’ words:
Sometimes the process moves in the order I have just laid out -- from sober analysis and facts (Head Space), to resonant narratives that inspire support (Heart Space), to citizen participation (Outside Game), to official debate, deal making, and rule making (Inside Game). Sometimes it starts in the Heart Space with an impassioned call for change, which activists then pick up on a mass scale (Outside Game), which in turn catalyzes scholars and think tanks (Head Space), and ultimately leads to elected officials changing laws (Inside Game).

...each and every quadrant is the most important one at different stages in the process of making change (121).
The conceptual scheme offered by Van Jones may help grassroots coalitions strategize about their progressive agenda.

First, Jones is correct to argue that politics is about theoretical and policy discussion. Also, politics is about popular, accessible appeals to action. In addition, political activity concerns routinized political action, including the selection of leaders, pressuring them to act on the people’s behalf, and making them accountable. Furthermore, it is about extraordinary public action to demand that leaders defend the interests of the masses of the people (the 99 percent) or be ready to suffer punishment for their inside game decisions.

Second, grassroots organizations must decide, given their local, as well as the national, context where their energies need to be placed: developing theories and programs, generating emotive symbols to build mass support, working in elections and generating lobbying campaigns, and/or hitting the streets.

Third, these four dimensions of politics -- head space, heart space, inside game, and outside game -- are what progressives do. But often we do not reflect on what we are doing; what “stage” in the process of movement-building we are in; and what combination of dimensions -- given our resources -- should be part of our plan of work.

Fourth, all grassroots groups can sit down at a planning meeting, identify the quadrants, list the activities that have been carried out in each somewhere in the country, assess the situation of the local group, and develop a program that is feasible, given resources and local context, to achieve pre-articulated progressive goals.

Activists know that building mass movements entails a variety of cognitive and action steps. Sometimes it is useful for a skilled activist like Van Jones to provide us with a framework for discussing how to proceed. Rebuild the Dream does that. It would be a good resource for study group discussion.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical -- and that's also the name of his book from Changemaker Press which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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28 August 2012

IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Fellow Primates / 2

Bonobos, like chimps, show empathy, theory of mind, and targeted helping. Photo by Dan Caspersz / Bush Warriors.

Fellow primates / 2
Being related genetically to both chimps, who settle sexual issues through conflict, and bonobos, who settle conflict issues through sex, we have the capacity for both.
By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / August 28, 2012

Last time we talked about chimps, who can be pretty nasty. But we are genetically related to bonobos just as much as to chimps.

Among bonobos females dominate, not males; there is no deadly warfare; and they enjoy enormous amounts of sex. This may well have to do with their richer supply of food; there is far less need for competition for it. Bonobos have lots of sexual contact with each other, in all combinations of genders.

There is more of it in captivity, but frequent sexual activity has been observed in the wild as well. Females are sexually receptive for long periods of time, much longer than female chimpanzees. When different bands meet there is initial tension, but no vicious fighting; instead, individuals have sex with each other.(1)

Sex seems to be a way to defuse tension in advance of potential conflict, particularly over food. But anything, not just food, that arouses the interest of more than one bonobo at a time tends to result in sexual contact. After a flurry of sex, the apes settle down to eat or investigate whatever has piqued their interest. Bonobos are not “sex-crazed apes” as the popular press would have it. For bonobos, sex is just a natural and common part of life.

Bonobo bands are hierarchical, but the hierarchies are dominated by females, who enforce their status non-aggressively by cultivating alliances. High rank provides food for the females and their families, males included. Males derive status from their mothers. There is no competition among males for sex, as it is plentifully available.

Bonobos, like chimps, show empathy, theory of mind, and targeted helping. Once, when the two-meter moat in front of the bonobo enclosure in the San Diego zoo had been drained for cleaning, several youngsters climbed down into it. When the keepers went to turn on the valve to refill the moat with water, an old male, Kakowet, came to their window screaming and frantically waving his arms.

He knew the routine, and knew that the children were in danger (bonobos cannot swim). The keepers went to see what was wrong and rescued the youngsters.(2) Clearly, Kakowet had envisioned what was about to happen and cared enough to try to stop it. Fortunately, he succeeded.

Apart from the obvious superiority of human intellect, including language and culture, humans differ from both chimps and bonobos in reproductive strategy. Only the dominant chimp males get to reproduce, and the male sometimes enforces his own lineage through infanticide. Among bonobos all males reproduce, but there is no way to tell who is the father of any given child. Infanticide is unknown, probably for that very reason. Children are enjoyed and cared for by the whole tribe.

Humans have quite a different strategy for reproduction. We bond in pairs, creating a nuclear family that ensures resources for children, and the father is very much involved in child care: humans have high male parental investment. Sexual exclusivity ensures that every man has the potential to reproduce and that he knows which children are his.

This arrangement allows males to cooperate in groups away from the females without fear of being cuckolded. There is some plausible speculation that this arrangement is fairly recent, arising only when humans adopted the technology of agriculture.(3) Quite possibly our pre-agriculture hunter-gatherer ancestors were more like bonobos, having multiple sexual partners.

Bonobos were recognized as a separate species less than 100 years ago and began to be fully documented less than 50 years ago. Before that time, many ethologists and anthropologists believed that humans were innately violent and aggressive. Morality, it was thought, was a veneer of cooperative sociality on an underlying bestial nature.

Now that we know about bonobos, the range of human behavioral potential seems to have expanded. We recognize that we too have the capacity to live in peace and to defuse conflict proactively with pleasure. In addition, male dominance seemed a natural part of things until the discovery of bonobos; now we see that dominance by females may be equally natural.

Two things stand out from this comparison of species. First, our difference from chimps and bonobos is a matter of degree, not kind. There are few, if any, uniquely human traits that chimps or bonobos do not have to a lesser degree. We are embedded in nature and are not a species unique and special.

The one trait that seems most unique is the cultural, not biological, innovation of nuclear family pair bonding. If we think of concern for others as a fundamental building block of morality (another is a sense of fairness in reciprocity), it is clear that even morality is not a unique feature of our species but an outgrowth of capabilities that have far older evolutionary roots.

So when we observe our fellow humans jockeying and posing to gain status, or consoling each other when they are in trouble, or forgiving each other after a dispute, or throwing a party, or sharing food to build bonds and defuse tension, or being suspicious of those who are different, or vilifying an enemy, or generously giving aid to the unfortunate, or hundreds of other hominin behaviors, we should realize that these are not uniquely human practices but are instead embedded in a great chain of life that stretches back many millions of years.

Second, humans have the capacity to amplify the characteristics found in our sibling species. Humans have greater brain size and intelligence, so we can do more effectively all the things our siblings can.

Our use of tools and technologies enables us to produce food in more variety and abundance. In fact, there is some plausible speculation that learning to cook was a turning point in our evolution, as cooked food provides more calories than raw, calories that could support the growth of larger brains.(4)

Our use of language enables us to communicate more effectively and to perpetuate what we learn through culture and art. Chimps and bonobos seem to be able to conceptualize that something not happening in the present will happen later, but humans have a greatly enhanced ability to visualize and anticipate the future.

Disputes among humans often take the form of wars and feuds, but we are capable of sophisticated negotiation and diplomacy as well. And we can avoid conflict through pro-active peacemaking and compassionate communication. We are better able to cooperate with others outside our own group than chimps or bonobos.

Says Frans de Waal, “[H]umans share intergroup behavior with both chimps and bonobos. When relations between human societies are bad, they are worse than between chimps, but when they are good, they are better than between bonobos.”(5)

We humans can be more aggressive but also more peaceful, more competitive but also more cooperative. We are more flexible and have more options than our fellow creatures. We have a great variety of possible behaviors, possible ways of being. And, through our ability to anticipate the future, we have a choice as to which of these we will actualize.

Being related genetically to both chimps, who settle sexual issues through conflict, and bonobos, who settle conflict issues through sex, we have the capacity for both. Being humans, with bigger brains, much richer culture and much wider repertoire of behavior, we get to choose our strategies.

(To be continued...)

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin's '60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]

(1) de Waal, Our Inner Ape, pp. 139-141.
(2) de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 71.
(3) Ryan and Jetha, Sex At Dawn, pp. 1-15.
(4) Wrangham, Catching Fire, pp. 14, 112-114.
(5) de Waal, Our Inner Ape, p. 141.

de Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.
de Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
de Waal, Frans, and Lanting, Frans. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.
Ryan, Christopher, and Jetha, Cacilda. Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. New York: Harper, 2010.
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

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Jordan Flaherty : Post-Katrina New Orleans is a Divided City

In the new New Orleans, privatized, voucher-financed housing, left, has replaced traditional public housing like the deserted Lafitte housing projects on the right. Photo by Gerald Herbert / AP.

A divided city:
Seven years after Katrina
in rebuilding New Orleans, the key question is not only how much change is needed, but more crucially, who should dictate that change.
By Jordan Flaherty / The Rag Blog / August 28, 2012

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a national laboratory for government reforms. But the process through which those experiments have been carried out rarely has been transparent or democratic. The results have been divisive, pitting new residents against those who grew up here, rich against poor, and white against Black.

Education, housing, criminal justice, health care, urban planning, even our media; systemic changes have touched every aspect of life in New Orleans, often creating a template now used in other cities. A few examples:
  • In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the entire staff of the city’s public school system was fired -- more than 7,500 employees lost their jobs, despite the protection of union membership and a contract. Thousands of young teachers, many affiliated with programs like Teach For America, filled the empty slots. As charters took over from traditional public schools, the city became what then-superintendent Paul Vallas called the first 100% free market public school system in the U.S.

  • Every public housing development has either been partially or entirely torn down. The housing authority now administers more than 17,000 vouchers -- nearly double the pre-Katrina amount -- a massive privatization of a formerly public system. During this period, rents have risen dramatically across the city.

  • The U.S. Department of Justice has spent three years in negotiations with city government over reform of the police department. The historic consent decree that came out of these negotiations mandates vast changes in nearly every aspect of the NOPD and some aspects could serve as a model for departments across the U.S. But organizations that deal with police violence, as well as the city’s independent police monitor, have filed legal challenges to the agreement, stating that they were left out of the negotiations and that as a result, the final document lacks community oversight.

  • As the city loses its daily paper, an influx of funding -- including $750,000 just from George Soros’ foundation -- has arrived for news websites and other online media projects. In a city that is still majority African-American, the staff of these new media ventures is almost entirely white, and often politically conservative. These funders -- many of whom consider themselves progressive -- rarely notice the city’s Black media, which is continuing a tradition rooted in centuries of local resistance to the dominant narrative. These were the publications that covered police violence and institutional racism when the daily paper was not interested.
There is wide agreement that most of our government services have long, deep, systemic problems. But in rebuilding New Orleans, the key question is not only how much change is needed, but more crucially, who should dictate that change.

New Orleans has become a destination for a new class of residents drawn by the allure of being able to conduct these experiments. For a while, they self-identified as YURPs (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals). Now they are frequently known as “social entrepreneurs,” and they have wealthy and powerful allies.

Warren Buffet has invested in the redevelopment of public housing. Oprah Winfrey and the Walton family have donated to the charter schools. Attorney General Holder came to town to announce police department reforms. President Obama has visited several times, despite the fact that this state is not remotely in play for Democrats.

Many residents -- especially in the Black community -- have felt disenfranchised in the new New Orleans. They see the influx of college graduates who have come to start nonprofits and run our schools and redesign our neighborhoods as disaster profiteers, not saviors. “Tuskegee was an experiment. We have reason to be suspicious of experiments,” says civil rights lawyer Tracie Washington, evoking a history of racist experimentation performed on Black bodies without their consent.

You can hear it every day on WBOK, the city’s only Black-owned talk radio station, and read about it in the Louisiana Weekly, Data News, and New Orleans Tribune, the city’s Black newspapers. This new rebuilding class is seen as working in alliance with white elites to disenfranchise a shrinking Black majority. Callers and guests on WBOK point to the rapid change in political representation: Among the political offices that have shifted to white after a generation in Black hands are the mayor, police chief, district attorney, and majorities on the school board and city council.

The population is smaller and whiter and wealthier than it was seven years ago. Even neighborhoods that did not flood have smaller populations, as single college graduates replace families.

In a recent cover story in the Tribune, journalist Lovell Beaulieu compares the new rebuilding class to the genocide of Native Americans. “520 years after the Indians discovered Columbus, a similar story is unfolding,” writes Beaulieu. “New arrivals from around the United States and the world are landing here to get a piece of the action that is lucrative post-Katrina New Orleans... Black people are merely pawns in a game with little clout and few voices. Their primary role is to be the ones who get pushed out, disregarded and forgotten.”

People hear the term “blank slate,” a term often used to describe post-Katrina New Orleans -- as a way of erasing the city’s long history of Black-led resistance to white supremacy. As New Orleans poet and educator Kalamu Ya Salaam has said , “it wasn’t a blank slate, it was a cemetery.” Where some new arrivals see opportunity, many residents see grave robbers. In response, those who find anything to praise in the old ways are often accused of being stuck in the past or embracing corruption.

Hurricane Isaac has demonstrated that New Orleans is still at risk from storms -- although the flood protection system around the city seems to be more reliable than it was before the levees failed and 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater.

But have the systemic problems that were displayed to the world seven years ago been fixed by the radical changes the city has seen? Is reform possible without the consent of those most affected by those changes?

These are polarizing questions in the new New Orleans, and it may be years before we have an answer.

[Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org. A version of this article appeared at MoveOn.org. Find more articles by Jordan Flaherty on The Rag Blog

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