29 February 2012

Rag Radio : The Occupy Movement and Activism in Austin

Occupy activists in the studios of KOOP-FM, Austin, February 24, 2012. From left, Richard Bowden, Joe Cooper, Mo McMorrow, Nate Cowan, Brian J. Overman, Lucian Villaseñor, and Rag Radio host Thorne Dreyer. Photo by Tracey Schulz / Rag Radio.

Rag Radio:
Representatives of the Occupy movement
discuss activist projects in Austin

By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / February 29, 2012

A group of Austin activists discussed the Occupy Austin movement with host Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio last Friday, February 24, 2012.
Listen to the show here.

Representatives of the Occupy Austin Movement on
Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012

They talked about Occupy Austin, and plans for Occupy Southby -- a series of events, including the Million Musicians March for Peace, a yearly Austin tradition -- scheduled to occur during the massive South by Southwest music, film, and interactive festival, March 9-March 18, 2012.

Representatives of Occupy UT discussed the movement on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, including plans for a Teach-In and other events scheduled for Thursday, March 1, on the UT campus. And the group also included representatives of the Legion Co-Op Coffeehouse, a soon-to-open worker-owned coffeehouse that grew out of the occupy movement in Austin.

The guests included Richard Bowden, an Austin fiddler extraordinaire, long-time peace activist, and primary organizer of the Million Musicians March for Peace, Austin's unique, musician-led, annual community peace event. Joining Bowden on the show was Austin-based singer-songwriter Mo McMorrow, who has also worked as a visual artist, actress, and stand-up comic. McMorrow and Bowden performed live during the show.

Others on the program included Joe Cooper, who has been involved in Occupy Austin since the first planning meeting in September 2011, and was present almost daily during the four months of the 24/7 occupation; and Lucian Villaseñor, a student in Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and an intern with the Workers Defense Project, who is a primary organizer of Occupy UT.

Also, Nate Cowan, an organizer of the worker-owned Legion Co-Op Coffeehouse, who has been a peace activist since high school, where he started Youth Activists of Austin to fight military recruiting in schools, and who has worked full-time with Occupy Austin; and Brian J. Overman, a writer and video producer, who is also an Occupy Austin activist and a developer of the cooperative coffeehouse which organizers envision as both a "sustainable economic model and a safe space for local activists."

This episode of Rag Radio was produced during the spring membership drive of KOOP 91-7-FM, Austin's cooperatively-run community radio station; fundraising pitches, underwriting announcements, and recorded music have not been edited out of the podcast.

Image from *eddie's photostream / Flickr.

Rag Radio, which has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history.

Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP and streamed live on the web. After broadcast, all episodes are posted as podcasts and can be downloaded at the Internet Archive.

Rag Radio is also rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA. Rag Radio is produced in the KOOP studios, in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

Coming up on Rag Radio:

March 2, 2012: Music writer Margaret Moser and screen actor Sonny Carl Davis on the movie, Roadie, the Austin Music Awards, and SXSW.
March 9, 2012: Singer-songwriter & author Bobby Bridger on the lasting impact of Native-American culture on American society.
March 16, 2012: Journalist and labor activist David Bacon on how U.S. policies fueled Mexico's great migration.

The Rag Blog

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Harry Targ : Social Movements and the Forces of Reaction

Image from KXL.com.

Progressive social movements and
the reactionary forces that oppose them

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / February 29, 2012
“Of course, Big Labor's coercion of employees into paying union dues to subsidize its political agenda isn't new, since this practice is as old as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). But with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney beating his chest about the Federation's political spending, the coercion of workers to fund the AFL-CIO's political operations became news.” -- National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc, September 9, 1997

“A source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's headquarters in Dallas said the grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood. The criteria's impact on Planned Parenthood and its status as the focus of government investigations were highlighted in a memo distributed to Komen affiliates in December.” -- Associated Press, February 7, 2012
"WHEREAS, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was founded in 1970 with the mission of increasing voter participation, delivering services to inner-city neighborhoods, community organizing, and carrying out issue campaigns; (followed by a list of financial and other transgressions)

THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that ALEC calls on all states to immediately end support for ACORN and groups linked to ACORN." -- From the website of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC)
Academics define social movements in different ways and believe they arise for a variety of reasons. They can come from groups that already exist, a growing availability of resources, the rise of crises of one sort or another, and/or from specific issues.

Such movements may take a long time to gestate and grow, or emerge in moments of spontaneity, sometimes rising from inspirational examples. Often they have their roots in the need to react to powerful and negative initiatives by opposing political or economic groups.

The forces of reaction may have as their project immediate efforts to destroy existing rights or prerogatives embedded in public policies. In addition they may see in the policies and groups they oppose the seeds of new ideas that could lead to fundamental social changes that must be challenged.

While reactionary forces may arise to oppose specific changes in policy, their most important legacy is the long-term efforts they employ to crush organizations of people that could see the need for fundamental social change. Therefore, as in the cases of labor, women’s rights, and people’s movements, reactionary forces are fundamentally committed to long-term organizing, rolling back the very forces that have provided some services to those not part of the ruling class.

We can see examples of the rise of social movements out of reactionary programs in the recent battles over “Right-to-Work for less” legislation in the state of Indiana and the spreading campaigns to bring similar legislation to states throughout the industrial heartland. Right-to-Work campaigns have followed on efforts to diminish worker power to destroy rights of public employees to organize and to make difficult worker organizing in any venue.

The data comparing the conditions of workers in Right-to-Work states with others clearly shows that the former experience lower wages, health benefits, ashop-floor safety, and their families fewer rights to health care and retirement security.

More generally, in a thorough recent report on the role of unions in American life, the authors of a Center for American Progress Action Fund study (David Madland and Nick Bunker) point out that virtually every positive social change in the United States has received strong support from organized labor. Historically, during periods of high union density (high percentages of workers in unions), all American workers have benefited in terms of wages, benefits, and workplace rights.

In addition, organized labor has been among the strongest institutional supporters of the Democratic Party, and on occasion, some trade unionists have supported progressive third party campaigns (from the Henry Wallace campaign for president in 1948 to Green Party campaigns by candidate Ralph Nader).

Further, the existence of a vibrant labor movement is vital for workers everywhere. Those who oppose organized labor, such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation quoted above, do so for reasons of short term gain. Right-to-Work laws may weaken unions, lead to declining wages, and create larger profits.

But more important, destroying the labor movement and the very idea that workers have rights and those rights have the potential of being realized in strong organizations of their making seems vital to economic and political elites who are always striving to create a society dominated even more by industrial and finance capital.

Trade unions, while driven by the defense of basic interests today, imply the possibility of creating a society that privileges worker rights and democracy. From the standpoint of big capital, this remains the ultimate danger that must be stamped out.

Just as trade unions embody the possibility of real democracy for workers, women’s rights to make choices about their own bodies constitute the same kind of immediate and long-term reality. The signature target of the reactionary right is Planned Parenthood of America. Planned Parenthood provides a broad array of reproductive health services for women, particularly poor women. Only a small percentage of their resources are allocated for abortions.

In addition the mission of Planned Parenthood is to create the conditions in which each individual can manage his/her own fertility, what they refer to as “reproductive self-determination.” To achieve this goal Planned Parenthood works to provide reproductive and comprehensive health care, including advocating public policies to achieve the mission.

Reactionary forces, from the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) to various national anti-abortion groups, and most recently Susan Komen for the Cure (ostensibly apolitical) have mobilized not only to shrink Planned Parenthood services to women but to eliminate the organization itself.

For some, abortion is anathema for theological reasons. But for most, Planned Parenthood represents institutionally the basic rights of women to control their own bodies and by implication the provision of accessible and comprehensive health care.

The rising of the poor, women and men, black and white, employed and unemployed, the young and old, constitutes another fundamental challenge to the economic and political power of reactionary forces in America.

Organizations such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), until it was destroyed by an orchestrated campaign of lies in 2010, received public funding to support programs for low and moderate income families. It promoted voter registration in communities, and advocated for health care reform, public housing, and living wage legislation.

From the vantage point of economic and political elites, power and privilege could be challenged in cities and towns across America if community organizations such as ACORN developed programs of action and service.

These three organizations together represent labor, women, and grassroots poor people’s campaigns. They are the embodiment of popular forces which seek to end exploitation, sexism, and racism. Implicitly they stand for the construction of a different kind of society in which these pathologies do not exist.

That is why all three -- organized labor, Planned Parenthood, and ACORN -- have been and continue to be under assault. And that is why progressive campaigns need to be organized around the fundamental connections between class, gender, and race and to defend labor, women’s, and community organizations.

[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 new book 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 February 2012

BOOKS / Robert Jensen : Belén Fernández Dresses Down Thomas Friedman

The emperor’s messenger has no clothes:
Belén Fernández dresses down Thomas Friedman

By Robert Jensen / Truthout / January 28, 2012

[The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, by Belén Fernández (Verso, 2011); 240 pp., $16.95. Published by Verso in its new series Counterblasts, dedicated to “challenging the apologists of Empire and Capital.”]

What’s scary about Thomas Friedman is not his journalism, with its under-inflated insights and twisted metaphors. Annoying as his second-rate thinking and third-rate writing may be, he’s not the first -- or the worst -- hack journalist.

What should unnerve us about Friedman is the acclaim he receives in political and professional circles. Friedman’s New York Times column appears twice a week on the most prestigious op/ed page in the United States; he has won three Pulitzer Prizes; his books are best-sellers; he’s a darling of the producers of television news shows; and he fills lecture halls for a speaking fee as high as $75,000.

Although his work is stunningly shallow and narcissistic, Friedman is celebrated as a big thinker.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was so excited after a 2005 “Hardball” interview with Friedman that he proclaimed: “You have a global brain, my friend. You’re amazing. You amaze me every time you write a book.”

How does a journalist with a track record of bad predictions and a penchant for superficial analysis -- a person paid to reflect about the world yet who seems to lack the capacity for critical self-reflection -- end up being treated as an oracle?

The answer is simple: Friedman tells the privileged, and those who aspire to privilege, what they want to hear in a way that makes them feel smart; his trumpeting of U.S. affluence and power is sprinkled with pithy-though-empty anecdotes, padded with glib turns of phrases.

He’s the perfect oracle for a management-focused, advertising-saturated, dumbed-down imperial culture that doesn’t want to come to terms with the systemic and structural reasons for its decline. In Friedman’s world, we’re always one clichéd big idea away from the grand plan that will allow us to continue to pretend to be the shining city upon the hill that we have always imagined we were/are/will be again.

As a reporter, columnist, author, or speaker, Friedman’s secret to success is in avoiding the journalistic ideals of “speaking truth to power” or “afflicting the comfortable.” Those ideals are too rarely met in mainstream journalism, but Friedman never goes very far beyond parroting the powerful and comforting the comfortable.

Friedman sees the world from the point of view of the privileged, adopting in his own words the view of “a tourist with an attitude” when reporting on the rest of the world.

Here’s the problem with that mindset: Around the world, American tourists routinely are experienced as boorish and smug. Around the world, people smile at American tourists and take their money, all the while despising their arrogance and ignorance. Tourists never quite catch on, wondering why the “natives” don’t appreciate them.

In her examination of Friedman’s work, Belén Fernández explains the danger in America’s affection for its number one Tourist Journalist. Her book, The Imperial Messenger, is as much about the cultural and political crises in the United States as it is about Friedman’s flaws. This larger focus transforms what could have been a sarcastic hit-piece that took easy shots at Friedman’s most mangled prose into a thoughtful meditation from a young journalist willing to state the obvious: the emperor’s messenger has no clothes.

After graduating from Columbia University with a political science degree in 2003, Fernández traveled throughout the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. Eventually her travel notes turned into journalism, as her accounts of people she met and interviewed became stories for web publications.

Frustrated by the gap between what she knew from her education and reporting, and Friedman’s version of international affairs, she wrote a few short critiques of the Times columnist in 2009. Then she undertook the systematic review of all his columns since 1995, selections from his writing as a reporter, and his books that led to The Imperial Messenger. In an email interview, she explained how that happened and why.

Robert Jensen: What sparks a relatively unknown journalist with no establishment credentials to research a book that argues one of the country’s most well-known journalists is, to put it bluntly, a fool and a fraud? That isn’t going to put you in the fast lane for a well-paying job in mainstream journalism.

Belén Fernández: Prior to 2009, my familiarity with the work of Thomas Friedman was basically limited to his notion that France should have been removed from the U.N. Security Council for refusing to support the Iraq war.

When I began reading him more extensively, I couldn’t believe that no one had debunked him in book form and took it upon myself to do so -- naively assuming that it would be an enjoyable and relatively simple task. This assumption proved unfounded, as I realized that a book of any real value had to consist of something more serious than 150 pages of making fun of Friedman’s blunders and general foolishness.

What kept me going throughout the months of reading and re-reading decades worth of Friedman’s drivel was anger -- at his warmongering jingoism, his blatant racism vis-à-vis large sectors of the world’s population, and the fact that someone unable to keep track of his own arguments and to refrain from continually contradicting himself had risen to a position of such prominence in the U.S. media.

What word or phrase would you use to describe Friedman’s analytical framework, his way of understanding the world?

Perhaps Friedman’s own decree: “Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things.”

Good journalists inevitably have to simplify the complex events they report about. You suggest Friedman’s work is reductionist. What’s the difference between the two?

It’s one thing to simplify events and phenomena so that audiences can more easily understand them; it’s quite another to brand Palestinians as “gripped by a collective madness” and to whitewash war crimes such as collective punishment.

Recall Friedman’s justification [on the Charlie Rose Show] in 2003 for the Iraq war: A “terrorism bubble” had emerged in “that part of the world” and had made itself known on 9/11. In order to burst the bubble, U.S. troops needed to go “house to house, from Basra to Baghdad,” wielding a “very big stick” and instructing Iraqis to “Suck. On. This.” No matter that Friedman himself acknowledged that there was absolutely no link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Or recall Friedman’s reductionist Tilt Theory of History, which applies to situations in which “you take a country, a culture, or a region that has been tilted in the wrong direction and tilt it in the right direction.” Again, “right” and “wrong” as conceived of by Friedman and the U.S. military are passed off as universal truths.

Then we of course have the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which posits that no two countries that host McDonald’s establishments have gone to war with each other since each acquired its McDonald’s. This delightful discovery regarding the harmonious effects of American fast food and U.S. corporate dominance is cast into doubt when, shortly after the theory’s birth, 19 McDonald’s-possessing NATO countries go to war with McDonald’s-possessing Yugoslavia.

Around this same time, Friedman’s reductionist assessment that “America truly is the ultimate benign hegemon” is contradicted by such things as his simultaneous entreaties for “sustained,” “unreasonable,” and “less than surgical bombing” of Serbia.

His economic reductions meanwhile rarely withstand the test of reality. Friedman exulted over the Irish economic model in 2005, threatening Germany and France that they had better follow the “leprechaun way” -- by, inter alia, making it easier to fire workers -- in order to avert economic decadence. The leprechaun way merits no further mention following the collapse of the Irish economy.

Friedman seems to defy easy political categorization. He doesn’t fit into the categories of liberal or conservative typically used in mainstream politics in the United States. What word or phrase would you use to sum up Friedman’s politics?

Schizophrenic? For example, he advertised the Iraq war as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched” while simultaneously defining himself as “a liberal on every issue other than this war” and the war as part of a “neocon strategy.” During an encounter with Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit in 2003, Friedman described the alleged war for democracy in Iraq as not a war that the American masses demanded but rather a war of an elite.

Friedman’s consistent championing of policies benefiting the corporate elite -- most recently in his campaign to slash corporate taxes and entitlements in the aftermath of the financial recession -- would locate him on the right of the ideological spectrum, though he intermittently endeavors to disguise himself as a “Social Safety Netter” or a “radical centrist.”

According to Friedman, the current key to establishing a “party of the radical center” is a bizarre entity called Americans Elect, which will field a third presidential ticket in 2012 elected via “internet convention” and which Friedman acknowledges is funded with “some serious hedge-fund money” courtesy of investor Peter Ackerman. Centrism indeed.

At a presentation at a university in Istanbul in 2010, Friedman classified himself politically as neither a Democrat nor a Republican but rather a disciple of billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s theory that “everything I got in life was because I was born in this country, America, at this time, with these opportunities and these institutions.” Friedman reiterated his duty to pass on a similar situation to his children.

As I say in my book, foreign audiences and non-billionaires might be forgiven for a lack of complete sympathy.

You decided to focus on three subjects in the book: “America,” “the Arab/Muslim world,” and the United States’ “special relationship” with Israel. Why did you pick those?

No book on Friedman would have been complete without a section on his grating patriotic obsession with the United States and his view of the country as a global role model and civilizing force. Given that the Arab/Muslim world is so often on the receiving end of the U.S. military’s civilizing endeavors, I decided it was also crucial to devote a section to Friedman’s unabashed Orientalism and his dehumanizing and patronizing contempt for Arabs and Muslims, which he naturally attempts to disguise as concern for their freedom.

The “special relationship” with Israel is more a reference to Friedman’s own function as an apologist for crimes committed by the Jewish state. He purports to be a serious critic of Israel, but his criticism is largely restricted to the issue of settlements, which he criticizes because he views them as jeopardizing the perpetuation of ethnocracy and Israel’s ability to continue denying Palestinians equal rights in a single multi-ethnic democracy.

Right-wing Zionists are increasingly condemning Friedman as anti-Israeli and a pro-Palestinian militant, which raises a question -- with enemies like Friedman, who needs friends?

Your own political views are clearly at odds with Friedman’s. How would you answer critics who might suggest your book is just a polemic about those issues, not about Friedman?

One of the most fundamental problems I have with Friedman is that he uses his elevated position to belittle human suffering and to encourage the slaughter of civilians, as he did during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-09), when he invoked Israel’s “logical” mass targeting of civilians in Lebanon in 2006 as an optimistic precedent.

I don’t think it’s possible to reduce this to a clash between political views. As I point out in the book, it is not up to Friedman to decide that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting collective punishment and targeting of civilians in wartime is illogical.

Given his influential position in foreign policy circles, I don’t classify his promotion of the notion that some human beings are inherently inferior and more expendable than others, and that corporate profit supersedes human life in importance, as merely politically misguided. I classify it as criminal, and I consider him to be personally responsible and not just a product of the system in which he flourishes.

After this rather unorthodox start to your publishing career, what comes next?

For the moment my plan is to travel to Peru and Bolivia and see what happens, and hopefully to not encounter anyone who has ever heard of Thomas Friedman.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in media law, ethics, and politics -- and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His books include All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. This article was first published at Truthout. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Bob Feldman : Disenfranchising Black Voters in Texas, 1890-1920

Poll Tax Receipt, January 30, 1908; digital image from the University of North Texas Libraries.

The hidden history of Texas
Part IX: 1890-1920/3 -- Disenfranchising black voters in Texas
By Bob Feldman / The Rag Blog / February 28, 2012

[This is the third section of Part 9 of Bob Feldman's Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

Between 1900 and 1910, in an effort to make it more difficult for dissatisfied African-American and poor white small farmers in Texas to express their discontent and their desire for radical democratic political and economic change, politicians intensified their efforts to more permanently disenfranchise African-American voters in the state and to create a poll tax in Texas.

As Alwyn Barr’s Black Texans recalled:
White efforts to disenfranchise Negroes also stimulated the decline in the number of black voters by 1906. Negroes formed majorities in 14 counties along the coast, in the Brazos River Valley, and in Northeast Texas . They constituted 40 to 50 percent of the population in 13 other East Texas counties. Black majorities on the local level often elected Negroes to positions such as alderman, county commissioner, justice of the peace, county treasurer, tax assessor, and constable...

The white primary... spread rapidly across East Texas in the late 1890s and early 1900s…The state Democratic executive committee in 1904 suggested white primaries to all county committees which generally accepted the idea... The legislature in 1902 passed a constitutional amendment allowing a poll tax for voting. Populists, Mexican-Americans, labor unions, and some Anglo papers opposed it... The amendment passed by 2 to 1 margin, with the support of most whites...
According to Merline Pitre’s In Struggle Against Jim Crow, “the Terrell Election Bills... in 1902, 1903, and 1905, respectively... provided for a poll tax requirement for voting, a first and second primary, and a voter declaration of party membership...”

And “the Terrell Election Bill of 1905, designed to disenfranchise blacks, laid the foundation for the white Democratic primary by giving the party’s executive committee the right to determine eligibility for party membership and by making it a misdemeanor to pay poll taxes for blacks.”

According to Black Texans, “the decline in Negro voter participation from about 100,000 in the 1890’s to approximately 5,000 in 1906 suggests the effectiveness of the white primary, the poll tax, and the `lily white’ thrust in the Republic party" -- in which “division between black leaders and white control of federal patronage” had, by 1906, also “opened the way to increasing white dominance of the Republican party” in Texas, as “`lily whites’ returned to the fold” of the Texas GOP.

According to the book, “the poll tax, the Democratic white primary, and white Republican leaders combined to keep most black Texans outside the political arena and to allow little voice to those who entered it from 1904 to 1944.”

In 1900, 63 percent of employed African-Americans in Texas still “continued to labor at various forms of agriculture” and “landowners formed 31 percent of the Negro farmers, with 69 percent sharecroppers and tenants -- compared to 50 percent among white farmers,” according to Black Texans.

The same book also recalled that, in 1900, 28 percent of all employed African-Americans in Texas worked as “servants, laundresses, nurses and mid-wives, restaurant and saloon keepers, hair dressers, and barbers,” and that “by 1900 no major city” in Texas yet “claimed more than six Negro doctors,” although there were then still 23 African-American-owned weekly newspapers in Texas at that time.

And not surprisingly, given the increasing level of institutionalized and legalized white supremacy and racism that developed in Texas between 1890 and 1920, “the vast majority of Negroes in Texas found it impossible to overcome a combination of economic and racial problems which kept them at the level of sharecropping and unskilled labor as the 20th century began.”

"Black people who had been at least voters and laborers in the post-Reconstruction period found themselves virtual outsiders in Texas society of the early 20th century,” according to Black Texans.

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Lamar W. Hankins : ALEC and the Right Wing Agenda

Graphic from alecwatch.org.

The ALEC agenda:

How the right-wing molds
legislators to shill for corporations

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / February 28, 2012
"[Any law proposed by businessmen] ought always to be listened to with great precaution... It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it." -- Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations
In 1973, a group of state legislators from around the country met with some right-wing ideologues to form the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote policies favorable to limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty, as they understood these concepts.

These are the same concepts that underlie the neoconservative and libertarian agenda that has become well known recently in Wisconsin and Ohio, and which permeate the actions of legislators throughout the U.S., including in the Congress.

One of the key founders of ALEC was Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation, promoter of direct mail fundraising for right-wing causes, and the first right-winger to cultivate and recruit evangelical activists to support social conservative causes.

With Jerry Falwell, Weyrich founded the Moral Majority, a name he invented. Weyrich was one of the key right-wing leaders who worked to develop conservatism into the powerful force it is today after the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the disappointment with Richard Nixon's too-moderate presidency.

But Weyrich, who died in 2008, would not support Goldwater or Nixon were they alive today. They were too moderate for Weyrich's tastes.

In the late 1980's, ALEC saw an opportunity to move beyond policy and education by producing model legislation to promote its right-wing, pro-corporate agenda. ALEC organized itself into a number of task forces to write and promote legislation in many areas of public life. It describes itself this way:
For more than 35 years, ALEC has been the ideal means of creating and delivering public policy ideas aimed at protecting and expanding our free society. Thanks to ALEC’s membership, the duly elected leaders of their state legislatures, Jeffersonian principles advise and inform legislative action across the country.

Literally hundreds of dedicated ALEC members have worked together to create, develop, introduce and guide to enactment many of the cutting-edge, conservative policies that have now become the law in the states. The strategic knowledge and training ALEC members have received over the years has been integral to these victories.
This description is not an exaggeration. ALEC task forces have broad mandates in the areas of Civil Justice; Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development; Communications and Technology; Education; Energy, Environment, and Agriculture; Health and Human Services; International Relations; Public Safety and Elections; and Tax and Fiscal Policy.

ALEC is funded largely by corporations and corporate leaders, so it should come as no surprise that its model legislation benefits corporate interests to the exclusion of the public interest. As Progress Texas, a membership organization focused on holding elected officials responsible to the people, explains:
ALEC is made of more than 300 corporate and 2,000 legislative members who work behind closed doors to approve "model" legislation designed to increase corporate profits at public expense. These corporate-approved bills are then introduced in states like Texas, where lobbyists of many of those same corporations also write checks donating to the political campaigns of lawmakers who advance their agenda in the Texas Legislature. The typical cycle is as follows:
  1. Corporate lobbyists and conservative legislators approve 'model' legislation
  2. Corporations donate money to receptive legislators to help them win their elections
  3. Legislators file and pass the bills drafted by their corporate counterparts in ALEC
  4. Repeat
More than 80% of the corporate representatives on ALEC's board are lobbyists for corporations, such as Altria/Phillip Morris USA, Bayer, Corrections Corporation of America, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Humana, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Industries, Reynolds, State Farm, United Healthcare, and Wal-Mart. Around 200 pieces of legislation initiated by ALEC are passed into law each year in legislatures around the country.

ALEC chart from Daily Kos.

At least one house of the Texas Legislature in 2011 approved ALEC-model bills that were vetted and endorsed by a small number of corporations, including the photo ID bill, the women’s sonogram bill, and the sanctuary cities bill (which would have denied state funds to local governments that prohibit peace officers and employees of special districts from inquiring into the status of a person arrested or detained for the investigation of crime).

Progress Texas reports that ALEC's
legislative leadership is comprised almost entirely of Republicans and also corporations, and ALEC receives 98% of its funding from corporations, foundations, and sources other than legislative (membership) dues. ALEC corporations and their corporate representatives will give money to state legislators, in one of three ways: directly to candidates, to statewide ballot campaigns, and/or directly to Republican committees. In the past 20 years, ALEC corporations or their employees have donated $228.3 million to campaigns, $202.1 million to candidates, and an additional $85.8 million to Republican Party committees, totaling $516.2 million.
To find out which legislators and corporations are involved with influencing and funding legislators in your state, go to the ALEC Exposed website. ALEC Exposed is a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit investigative reporting group that focuses on "exposing corporate spin and government propaganda."

At the ALEC Exposed website, you can learn how ALEC plans to undermine public school systems throughout the U.S. by turning them over to corporations, to limit your legal right to seek damages for injuries caused by corporations, to turn government-run prisons into private prisons, to limit access to the ballot box by ordinary citizens, to dismiss the effects of second-hand smoke on non-smokers and block anti-tobacco laws, to limit the ability of states to raise or collect taxes, to limit the ability of public-sector workers to organize together to improve worker benefits, to create new give-aways to big business, to give tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, to undermine environmental protections, to limit the ability of local governments to manage land use, to further distort the harshness of the criminal justice system by incarcerating more people for longer sentences, and a host of other legislation that will fatten corporate coffers and diminish the lives of ordinary citizens.

Although ALEC has built itself into a powerful tool of right-wing and corporate interests for nearly 40 years, its influence can be combated if people are aware of its largely hidden activities. ALEC Exposed helps ordinary citizens become aware of ALEC activities and provides the knowledge needed to combat its influence on our lives.

[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.]

Also see: The Rag Blog

[+/-]

27 February 2012

Ted McLaughlin : Dems are Better for the Stock Market

Chart from Bloomberg Businessweek.

Against conventional wisdom:
Stock market does
better under Democrats

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / February 27, 2012

The Republicans claim to be the party that best benefits Big Business and Wall Street. And Wall Street (along with the corporate moguls of Big Business) seems to have bought into that idea -- so much so that they are donating millions of dollars to super PACs supporting Republican candidates.

In January, the Republican super PACs revealed they had received about $47 million -- much of it from the finance and investment industry (Wall Street). From these numbers, it is quite obvious that Wall Street believes it would be best served by returning a Republican to the White House.

But this conventional wisdom that says the stock market is best served by having a Republican in the White House is simply not true. And it's not just a little bit untrue, it's a whole lot untrue. Bloomberg News took a look at how the stock market has performed under both Republican and Democratic presidents. What they found was that the stock market performed much better under Democratic presidents. They looked at the last 50 years, since the presidency of John Kennedy -- and this is what they found:
  • The sum of $1,000 "invested in a hypothetical fund that tracks the Standard & Poor's 500 index only when Democrats are in the White House would have been worth $10,920" just a few days ago. That's a gain of about 992% in 23 years.
  • That same $1,000 "invested in a fund that followed the S&P 500 under Republican presidents... would have grown to $2,087 on the day George W. Bush left office." That's a gain of about 109% in 28 years.
  • Even adding in the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower doesn't bring the Republicans near the gain experienced under Democrats. That would increase the return under Republicans to $4,796. That's a gain of about 380% in 36 years -- far less than half of the gain under Democrats in only 23 years
  • The annualized return for the 23 years under Democratic presidents is about 11%.
  • If that $1,000 were invested in a fund following the Dow Jones Industrial Average (instead of the S&P 500), the return under Democratic presidents would be $7,550. That's a gain of about 655% over the 23 years.
  • If that $1,000 were invested in a fund following the Dow Jones Industrial Average under Republican presidents, the return would be $2,716. That's a gain of about 172% over the 28 years.
This blows conventional thinking out of the water. We have always been told that the Democrats were better for the poor and working classes, while the Republicans were better for the investor class. But these figures show that Democratic administrations are better for everyone -- including the rich.

So why do the Wall Street bankers favor the Republicans? Because they aren't as bright as many think they are. They are only thinking about tax policy -- not in what is better for them in the long run. They think the lower taxes for the rich touted by Republicans would result in them having more money than under Democratic presidents with the current tax rate. But is that true?

Let's examine the figures using the current 35% top tax rate for Democratic administrations and a 28% tax rate (proposed by Romney) for Republican administrations, and see which would be best:
  • The S&P 500 figure under Democrats had a gain of $9,920. Taxed at a maximum rate of 35%, this would leave the investor with $6448 after taxes.
  • The S&P 500 figure under Republicans had a gain of $1,087. Taxed at the smaller rate of 28% this would leave the investor with $783 after taxes.
  • The DJIA figure under Democrats had a gain of $6,550. Taxed at a rate of 35% this would leave the investor with $4,257.50 after taxes.
  • The DJIA figure under Republicans had a gain of $1,716. Taxed at the smaller rate of 28% this would leave the investor with $1,235.52 after taxes.
As is easily apparent, Wall Street investors would be much better off with a Democrat in the White House -- even if they had to pay a higher tax rate. They would still have more money in their bank accounts. And this would be true even if the Democrats eliminated the 15% capital gains tax rate (the rate that current stock gains would be taxed at).

The fact is that all classes in our society would be better off financially with Democrats in the White House -- whether poor, rich, or somewhere in between. That leads me to wonder -- why would anyone vote Republican?

[Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger. Read more articles by Ted McLaughlin on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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23 February 2012

BOOKS / Roger Baker : Richard Heinberg's 'The End of Growth'

Another 'inconvenient truth':
Richard Heinberg's The End of Growth

"The central assertion of this book is both simple and startling: economic growth as we have known it is over and done with." -- Richard Heinberg, introduction to The End of Growth
By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / February 23, 2012

[The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, by Richard Heinberg (New Society publishers, 2011); Paperback, 336 pp., $17.95.]

The End of Growth comes as a useful successor and updated sequel to Heinberg's 2004 book, The Party's Over, an important book that led the way by comprehensively describing the economic impact of peaking oil and how that peak would necessarily constrain growth, and then going on to explain how closely peak oil is related to other global resource limits.

Other Heinberg books along the same lines include Powerdown, and Peak Everything.

The new book is clearly written and deserves a much wider audience than it is likely to get, because the news is not that which most people want to hear. Public policy leaders need to read the book because it documents the transition to a stagnating global economy without any easy policy remedy.

Bad news is a hard sell. We can see this by what happened to Al Gore. His warnings about climate change in An Inconvenient Truth were greeted in the U.S. with inaction and denial. This suggests that widespread acceptance of the current situation is also likely to have to wait. Things may have to deteriorate enough that the public consciousness finally reaches a tipping point, leading to a demand for radical action in response to a widely perceived crisis.

There is a huge amount of good reporting and analysis currently available to collect and put together in this sort of book which reviews the global situation from the standpoint of a rapidly growing literature on global resource limits. We can now see a lot more details and tradeoffs and plausible outcomes than we could when The Party's Over was written.

There are many acknowledgements at the front of the book; this book was carefully written and reviewed for accuracy by a number of experts in the rapidly growing peak oil community, and the book is documented with hundreds of references. Not all of Heinberg's recommendations, in particular the Personal Rapid Transit proposal, seem plausible, but most of the advice offered seems sound. Political will is the primary barrier to smart transition.

The book is not shy about describing the daunting problems of a global transition to using less energy, but it clearly tries to be as hopeful as the facts permit. The last chapter, "Life After Growth," recommends a number of appropriate responses and community level solutions.

With less energy to squander, we are necessarily going to be driving less, but we can still do a lot more social networking, as well as developing new local, practical, and pragmatic solutions to our problems. Even though a future without growth seems bleak, the book points out the benefits of understanding the situation and responding appropriately so that we can make the best of a crisis that appears to to be introducing the most challenging period in all of human history.

The economic theory that maximizing the gross domestic product, or GDP, is a meaningful index of social progress, is thoroughly debunked. This old economic expansionist credo was that the more the economy expands its reach, and the more material goods the system produces, the happier we will all be as a result.

According to this way of thinking, wars and planned obsolescence are socially productive. It is probably no accident that those who benefit most from this outlook are those who own the means of production. By contrast, a focus on leisure time and better social relationships, which may equally be sources of happiness, don't show up in the economic data, and thus don't count as progress.

Most of the economic transition recommendations appropriate to a non-growth economy seem like good advice. The last chapter, "Life After Growth," recommends a number of appropriate responses and community level solutions. With less cheap energy to squander on discretionary driving, we are probably going to have to do a lot more social networking and developing local, practical, and lawyer-free pragmatic solutions to our problems. For example Heinberg describes "Common Security Clubs," and the importance of replacing the current consumerist sources of happiness with other neglected social sources.

Heinberg's talents extend considerably beyond writing teaching and lecturing. Heinberg began as a teacher and writer who arrived at an ideal time to help popularize progressive environmental thinking about the implications of global resource limits and tie it all together.

He has been a key force in helping to organize the Post Carbon Institute into a think tank with a large pool of respected associate fellows. Post Carbon Institute has now become a highly regarded source of peak oil preparedness information. Writing books is one way to spread the word, lecturing is another, and sponsoring multi-media videos centered on energy issues is another.

Post Carbon also sponsors the Energy Bulletin, with an excellent editor, Bart Anderson, who provides a daily digest of news centered on energy, and also offers useful coverage of topics like the Occupy Movement. [The coming of the Internet has created a new golden age for editors and analysts; it is like a new meritocracy benefiting those who are skilled at the collecting, editing, and attractive repackaging of content to facilitate easy public access.]

This book is not for everyone. Traditional liberals who believe in the application of Keynesian economic stimulus policy as the best route to economic recovery will be disappointed by this book. So will many sincere environmentalists and socialists. They tend to promise an end to hard times by reform involving a change in better leaders within the current inherently expansionist economic structure of capitalism, or else a resumption of past growth via socialist reorganization.

Has the time arrived for the Peak Oil
message to be widely accepted?

Just as polls show even less public support for belief in global warming than a decade ago, those who warn of peaking oil, water, or food are inclined to generate natural disbelief. We live in an expansionist society with a culture deeply in denial of natural limits. We tend to deny limits that cannot somehow be circumvented by continuing scientific progress, or by the help of market-driven substitutes for scarce resources.

These are concepts that most Americans who grew up after WWII will find naturally hard to believe. One of the hardest ideas to abandon is that the steady scientific and technical benefits of the last century -- and the easier and longer life that seemed to be the result -- cannot be extended indefinitely, even with the help of sufficiently good social management of some kind.

The proof of this prevailing cultural outlook is the regular improvement in living standards seen by most Americans throughout their lifetimes. From the depths of the great depression, say about 1932 until about 2007, a period of 75 years, it seemed that in the USA, for those willing to work, a formula for permanent prosperity had been discovered.

There were already academic warnings that there were natural limits to growth such as the Club of Rome book The Limits To Growth. The energy crisis of the 1970's, with a lot of agreement in the popular and scientific press, supported King Hubbert's prediction of a global oil peak.

The nation was rather prepared to sacrifice under the Carter administration. From that time of missed opportunity for a transition until now, we have had a prevailing resource limit denial culture. The current election year strategy revolves around campaign promises that propose that there are neglected polices that, if only implemented, would lead to jobs and economic recovery. No politician is willing to risk defeat by failing to promise a recovery and a brighter future. The public seems to understand that we are in a crisis, but not much about its causes.

The facts argue that we are in now deep into the crisis that James Kunstler outlined in his book, The Long Emergency. In such times we really need leaders who help us break through our denial, who can lead us to make the difficult sacrifices appropriate for times of war, as soon as possible before our ability to respond is paralyzed by a shrinking capacity to respond.

Widespread blindness toward resource limits like auto-addictive suburbia, plus ignoring unsustainable trends, have led us toward what Heinberg terms "a perfect storm of converging crises," a situation so encompassing that it demands a fresh and radical solution.

With peaking oil now widely accepted as fact by many experts, it appears the tide may be turning. The global production of cheap conventional oil, the stuff we used to help win WWII, is known to have already peaked in 2005, according to widely accepted IEA data. Given this fact, the evidence is compelling that only the addition of costlier and harder to access oil, plus equally costly alternative fuels like ethanol, have filled the gap and prevented a global decline in global fuel production since that time.

About the best we can now expect is to keep global fuel production from all sources level at about 90 million barrels per day, despite an ever-rising global population that depends on this fuel for survival.

In reality, a widespread public consciousness of implications of the end of cheap oil will probably have to be come about in large part as the result of the frustration caused by higher gas prices. This is likely to happen as soon as this summer. Higher gasoline prices can be seen and understood by everyone. Unfortunately, the way things play out, the economic relationships are not always easy to see, because high fuel prices depress the economy enough to lower oil demand. This temporarily lowers the oil price until the economy recovers enough to tighten up the market again.

Where things stand now

It has been about six months since The End of Growth was written. How are its main conclusions holding up? Rather well it, appears.

On January 26, 2012, Nature magazine, a top scientific journal, ran an article, "Oil's Tipping Point Has Passed," which documented the arrival of an alarming new phase of oil price economics extending from about 2005 (when the global production of cheap conventional oil peaked) to 2011. During this latest period, global oil production has no longer been responding as previously to rising oil prices with an increase in output. This has profound economic implications which limit growth, as the article describes here:
What does this mean for the global economy, which is so closely tied to physical resources? Of the 11 recessions in the United States since the Second World War, 10, including the most recent, were preceded by a spike in oil prices. It seems clear that it wasn’t just the "credit crunch" that triggered the 2008 recession, but the rarely-talked-about "oil-price crunch" as well. High energy prices erode family budgets and act as a head wind against economic recovery.
The last year has been one of global social rebellion, and this may not be a coincidence. When the price of the oil that powers the world economy rises by a factor of five in only about a decade, it reduces profit throughout the global economy. That causes the system to become meaner and more exploitative of labor to compensate and restore profit. World leaders at their yearly meeting at Davos recently expressed their belief that the prevailing system of global finance capital may be in serious trouble.

The Occupy Movement hasn't yet questioned the concept of economic growth. However it has challenged the concept of corporate-led consumerism with its trend to concentrated wealth, and to favor a tiny elite, while failing to distribute the benefits widely enough to prevent widespread discontent.

The Saudis alone produce enough of the total world oil production, about 10 million barrels a day, that their oil production is vital to hold the global price down, even to its currently elevated level of $120 per barrel for Brent crude oil, now the global price benchmark standard.

As part of a sobering new economic reality, the Saudis have lost much incentive to expand their oil production to hold down its price. On the contrary, the Saudis are effectively raising the oil price by actually cutting oil production in a tight market. The Saudis now maintain that $100 a barrel is a fair price for their oil, which they now argue that they need to conserve for the benefit of their own future.

Peak Oil Consulting economist Chris Skrebowski has recently suggested that the global economy is now caught up in a sort of economic feedback oscillation tied to oil prices. Whenever the economy recovers a bit, especially in the U.S. where fuel costs are relatively unshielded by taxes, and after a delay, it causes a rise in the price of oil until its rising price kills the recovery.

Higher oil prices subtract from and depress consumer spending in other areas. Another factor is that whenever reserve production capacity that still exists is added in response to a rising oil price, this added capacity tends to deplete faster than the big old fields, meaning that such newly added spare capacity is increasingly ineffective at holding oil prices down.

The thinking about peak oil used to be focused more on geology than economics. Recently it has become more clearly understood that there is no natural limit to global petroleum production. There is a natural economic limit that says that you must always produce substantially more fuel than you have invested in its production; a factor commonly referred to as "energy return on energy investment."

In the petroleum industry this ratio of recovery to investment has been getting worse for decades; the remaining oil production sweet spots have become very hard to find, and they are often in politically unstable areas. Skrebowski suggests that the global oil production limit is really economic in character. What is worse, the numbers provide good indications that drilling will soon become unprofitable due to this declining return on investment.

The fact that Brent oil is currently selling for $120 a barrel is partly psychological, due to fear and speculation surrounding political turmoil in the Mideast. Although a lack of political stability can drive the oil price up, it does not follow that a return to stability could lower the price and improve the overall situation very much.

China and India are increasingly able to outbid the industrialized world, with its higher embedded labor costs, for the globally limited amount of economically recoverable oil. This means that, in the new global economy, only a weakening of global oil demand due to its rising oil price can restrain increasing demand.

Oil has become like the new gold -- a new limiting factor tied to the physical world that is uniquely capable of disciplining the world of finance capital by setting an ultimate limit to its economic growth.

[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.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : Bill Kirchen is a 'Titan of the Telecaster'

Bill Kirchen performs at the KOOP Surfin' 17-A-Go-Go benefit at Antone's in Austin, Feb. 4, 2012. Photo courtesy Ted and Linda Branson / KOOP / The Rag Blog.

Rag Radio:

Commander Cody's Bill Kirchen
is a 'Titan of the Telecaster'

By Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / February 23, 2012
Bill Kirchen is "a devastating culmination of the elegant and the funky..." -- Nick Lowe
Grammy nominated guitarist, singer, and songwriter Bill Kirchen was named a “Titan of the Telecaster” by Guitar Player Magazine and The Washington Post's Mike Joyce said, "The folks who make Fender Telecasters ought to stop what they're doing and cut Bill Kirchen a fat check."

Bill Kirchen was the guitarist with the legendary Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from 1967 to the mid 1970s. The band "mixed country music, rockabilly, and blues, on a foundation of boogie-woogie piano," and Kirchen's signature licks drove the group's classic single, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” into the Top Ten.

Kirchen, who is now based in Austin and tours internationally, headlined a rousing benefit for community radio station KOOP at Antone's nightclub in Austin on Saturday, February 4, 2012, playing to a packed and enthusiastic crowd. Bill Kirchen was also Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Friday, February 17. He discussed his historic and colorful career and sang four songs, backing himself on the acoustic guitar. Listen to it all here:

Commander Cody Guitarist Bill Kirchen
on Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer, Friday, Feb 17, 2012

Bill Kirchen's career has spanned more than 40 years during which time he has worked with an all-star cast, including Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris, Doug Sahm, and Elvis Costello. His work has fused rock 'n' roll and country music, drawing on blues and bluegrass, Western swing from Texas, and California honky-tonk.

He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Commander Cody was formed in 1967, spent time on the West Coast, lived in Washington, D.C. for 20 years, and now lives and performs in, and tours out of Austin.

Kirchen started playing the banjo "during the great folk scare of the Sixties," but soon turned to the acoustic guitar, "fingerpicking to Mississippi John Hurt." "I wanted to play acoustic blues," he told the Rag Radio audience, "but got seduced by the electric guitar." He obtained his first Telecaster in an impulsive trade with a co-worker when he was working as a motorcycle messenger -- and he played that same guitar for 40 years, "until I wore it down to the nub."

He liked the Telecaster "because it's real simple. It's a slab on a stick, with two pickups, two knobs, one switch. It couldn't be simpler." But it was one of the original electric guitar styles and was used by several of Kirchen's favorite players at the time. "I wrote a love song to the Telecaster when I was here in Austin a couple of years ago," he said. "It was called 'The Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods.'"

Kirchen went to high school in Ann Arbor with Bob Seger and Iggy Pop. He didn't know Seger but says that "Jim Osterberg became Iggy Pop right before my very eyes." When Iggy was playing with a blues band called the Prime Movers, he was known for singing the blues song, "I'm a Man" ("That's spelled M-A-N"). But suddenly Pop instead started singing, "I'm a Tricycle" ("That's spelled T-R-I..."). That's when, according to Kirchen, "We knew something was afoot."

"John Sinclair got me my first gig with my first band," Kirchen said. Sinclair, a "mover and shaker" in the Detroit and Ann Arbor music scenes, was the leader of the White Panther Party and manager of the revolutionary rockers, the MC5.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was founded in 1967 in Ann Arbor and the band, which was a pioneer in the country rock genre, went on to become one of the iconic bands of the era.

In the beginning, “it was an art school kind of a wacky, admittedly stoned, local Ann Arbor thing. Initially it had a floating cast,” he said. They assigned George Frayne the role of “Commander Cody,” a name that was inspired by a 1950’s film serial. “He had a lot of charisma,” Kirchner says. “He was a big lantern-jawed, barrel-chested, Nick Fury-type of guy. And he played great boogie-woogie piano.”

(George Frayne later became an art professor and a widely-exhibited painter, and another original member of Commander Cody, John Tichy, earned a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering and became a respected scholar.)

Kirchen says that Commander Cody “turned on a whole generation of people to country music, to hard core blood and guts country music and Western swing that they did not have access to.” They were joined in the country rock/Western swing genre by bands like the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Austin's Asleep at the Wheel, with whom they frequently worked.

Bill Kirchen says he was attracted to country music because "it had adult themes and, to me, a deeper emotional content. But don’t get me wrong," he adds. "I’m a big fan of mindless, slack-jawed, ham-fisted rock and roll. It’s a beautiful thing. Seriously, I love it."

Kirchen is often referred to as a “rockabilly” guitarist. “We certainly did play a bunch of rockabilly,” he says “and I certainly was informed by that, and I know a few rockabilly licks... But I always thought that [term] was a little bit limiting... Especially when rockabilly became in America a kind of... dress-up gig.”

But he definitely is the “self-crowned, self-annointed 'King of Dieselbilly.'" "I can play anything I want," he told us, "because I invented the genre.”

When he was touring as noted British musician Nick Lowe’s guitar player, “he’d have me do one song a night, and I’d do 'Tombstone Every Mile,' a truck-driving song. And he’d introduce me with this fantastic, aristocratic British accent: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, now Bill Kirchen, the King of Dieselbilly.' And it just stuck with me. I am the King of Dieselbilly.”

Lowe, incidentally, has called Bill Kirchen "a devastating culmination of the elegant and the funky, a really sensational musician with enormous depth."

Kirchen played at least twice a year at Austin’s vintage Armadillo World Headquarters with Commander Cody. Calling the Armadillo one of the great music venues, Kirchen said, "That was a cool scene, man. If you couldn't have fun at the Armadillo, go home!"

They played the Armadillo with Greezy Wheels and Maria Muldaur, and Waylon Jennings opened for them "right before he blew up and became huge." They recorded a live album at the Armadillo, and were featured at the famed club’s legendary final show, the “Last Dance at the Dillo.”

Kirchen loves living and working in Austin. “It’s a very open environment. In many ways, not just music. It’s a very creative town. It’s a little oasis in the middle of Texas.” And it is packed with musicians: “You kick a can and three musicians, three guitar players, will rush out from under the can, clutching their Grammies and their Stratocasters.”

Living in Austin gives Kirchen a unique opportunity to work with musicians he respects. “I got to go and sit in a bunch with the great Alvin Crow who I knew back from his Pleasant Valley days, back when I played here with Cody.”

And “the Flatlanders live here: Jimmie Dale [Gilmore] and Butch [Hancock]... I used to get to play with them out in California. That’s a fantastic group of original Texans, what a bunch of characters.”

And he just did a gig with blues pianist Marcia Ball -- "who is a treasure" -- at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

He has been touring regularly -- and all over the place. “We played Palestine, which was so cool... and we played up in Lapland, north of the Arctic circle. As you can imagine, less happens in Lapland than in Palestine.”

Kirchen’s latest CD, Word To The Wise on Proper American, features duets with many of the artists he's worked with over the years, including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Maria Muldaur, and Dan Hicks.

Bill Kirchen closed the Rag Radio show with a song he wrote when he was living in nearby Buda, Texas, before moving to Austin. “I wrote this song when I was walking my dog,” he said. “And you know how dogs are, they’re just happy to be alive. So I wrote a 'good to be alive,' song, encouraged by his enthusiasm.”

In the song, Kirchen affirms that,
I’m gonna live each day like there’s no tomorrow
Crank up the love, turn down the sorrow
Get my ducks in a row... one more day...

But if living truly is a terminal disease
All I’m askin’ for is a brief reprise
And I can rattle and roll... one more day...
[Thorne Dreyer, a pioneering Sixties underground journalist, edits The Rag Blog, hosts Rag Radio, and is a director of the New Journalism Project. He can be contacted at editor@theragblog.com. Read more articles by and about Thorne Dreyer on The Rag Blog.]

Bill Kirchen in the studios of KOOP in Austin, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. Photo by Carlos Lowry / The Rag Blog.

Rag Radio, which has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history.

Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP and streamed live on the web. After broadcast, all episodes are posted as podcasts and can be downloaded at the Internet Archive.

Rag Radio is also rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA. Rag Radio is produced in the KOOP studios, in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

Coming up on Rag Radio:

Feb. 24, 2012: Activism in Austin: Representatives of Occupy Austin, Million Musicians March for Peace & a new Austin workers' cooperative.
March 2, 2012: Music writer Margaret Moser and screen actor Sonny Carl Davis on the movie, Roadie, the Austin Music Awards, and SXSW.
March 9, 2012: Singer-songwriter & author Bobby Bridger on the lasting impact of Native-American culture on American society.

[Our show with journalist & labor activist David Bacon, originally scheduled for Feb. 4, 2012, has been rescheduled for March 16, 2012.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

SPORT / Mariann G. Wizard : Enter the Dragon, Jeremy Lin

Jeremy fan at the Knicks game against the Toronto Raptors, Feb. 14, 2012. Photo by Mike Cassese / Reuters.

Enter the Dragon:
NBA lucks out in New Year
with Knicks' Jeremy Lin-sanity

By Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog / February 23, 2012

When professional basketball first started in the 1920s, as with other professional sports organizations, there were separate leagues for black and white teams. The U.S. then was a black-and-white country, with a black-and-white population, newspapers, and viewpoints characterizing public life. The advent of black-and-white television in the early 1950s merely reinforced a message of separation.

When professional basketball consolidated in the National Basketball Association (NBA), however, it didn't take long for the sport to become largely dominated by black players. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, many teams fielded all-black fives, even if a white guy or two sat on the bench or played a few minutes in trash time, and to some extent this limited the league's popularity. This year's All-Star starters are all black, and apparently there are some white so-called sports fans who can't get past that. Their loss.

In an era when few successful white college players seemed interested in turning pro (medicine or law being even more profitable?), the league turned to the international arena for player diversity. There have been hundreds of international players from over 60 countries in the NBA and its predecessors since Italian Hank Biasatti, the first, in 1946, but they were rare until the late 1990s.

Since the early 2000s, the league has taken on a strong international flavor. Generally acknowledged as the greatest foreign-born star was Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets’ center who was a dominating force in the league from 1984-2002. Hakeem was the first foreign-born MVP, was a 12-time all-star and the leader of two NBA championship teams, and is now included in most short lists of the best players in the history of the game.

Other stars like Dirk Nowitzki of Germany (the first European-born MVP), Steve Nash (Canada), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), and Tony Parker (France) have helped make the game a more complete rainbow.

Not only European players like Hedo Turkoglu (Turkey), Zrydunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania, formerly Soviet Union), and Vlade Divac (SFR Yugoslavia, now Serbia), but other African stars like Dikembe Mutombo (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Michael Olowokandi (Nigeria), and Luol Deng (originally from Sudan, now South Sudan; now a British citizen) taught sports announcers to pronounce anything without stumbling over it, and annually added to their home countries' cred on national teams.

Several have become naturalized U.S. citizens. Quite a few teams can put five players on the floor, none of whom were born in the United States.

Add to this mix an up-and-coming generation of multi-ethnic stars -- Delonte West and Blake Griffin are but two -- and the NBA and its fan base may arguably be claimed to be the least racist or nationalistic in pro sports. Only soccer is played by more diverse peoples in more different places, but soccer fans tend to be somewhat more "emphatic" in their local or national loyalties. When conflicts in some NBA players' home countries have burst out, players have to a man been advocates for peace, or at least have kept silent.

The Knicks' Jeremy Lin, playing against the Sacramento Kings at Madison Square Garden, Feb. 15, 2012. Photo by Chris Trotman / Getty Images.

Of course the NBA's official efforts towards diversity are motivated by the bottom line. More fans in more places equals more jerseys and T-shirts sold, sold-out games in international venues (with international expansion a strong motivator) and in under-.500 team arenas, and more profits overall. Expanding global markets and an increasingly diverse U.S. population demand player diversity.

Since the old black-and-white days in the U.S., the growth of the Hispanic population has been a game-changer in hundreds of ways. In NBA cities like San Antonio, Miami, LA, Dallas, Phoenix, and others with large Hispanic populations, regular promotions now cater to Spanish-speaking fans. In 2010 a 15-night league-sponsored "Noche Latina" promotion sought to raise Hispanic attendance figures.

A fair number of Spaniards, nine Puerto Ricans, and three Mexicans have made it to the NBA, along with a handful of other Hispanics, but the U.S. Hispanic population overall has been slow to warm to the sport. Now there are signs of change, as exciting homegrown players like brothers Robin and Brook Lopez, and international stars like brothers Paul and Marc Gasol, and Rudy Fernandez (all three from Spain) and J.J. Barea (Puerto Rico) show that brown men can jump.

Among the NBA's efforts at international outreach, the mixed success of Chinese players has been fascinating. Only five Chinese players have been in the league since Wang Zhizhi in 2001. Yao Ming, who came to the NBA in 2002 and retired in 2011 after persistent knee injuries, was the most ballyhooed player in the history of the game before he ever arrived.

The exceptionally tall Han Chinese, son of two Olympians, made a valiant effort to become an effective defender and to master the slippery English language, and although in many ways he never fulfilled expectations on the court, he became an effective spokesman and, in China, a household icon.

In every fan vote for All-Star players while Yao was active, his totals exceeded those of all other players combined. But enthusiasm for Yao in mainland China may not have translated into enthusiasm for the NBA and basketball as a whole, at least not yet.

Five Asian-Americans had also played in the league with no discernible national or international impact. But the arrival of undrafted Harvard economics grad Jeremy Lin on the scene in late January, as an off-the-bench and then starting point guard for the New York Knicks, has raised a new banner of Chinese basketball frenzy.

Born in LA to immigrant Taiwanese parents, Lin is as all-American as his new Knicks teammate J.R. Smith, as Magic or Bird, as Rasheed Wallace or Kevin McHale. Lin grew up playing ball in addition to all the stereotypical brainy things Asian-American kids are supposed to do. Today his brilliant court leadership, reminiscent of a younger Steve Nash, has unleashed a wave of "Lin-sanity" from coast to coast and in China and Taiwan.

For NBA owners and executives, the "Lin effect" is an unlooked-for blessing in a season that started out ugly, with a long-running labor dispute between millionaire players and billionaire owners, and that will only manage an abbreviated 62-game season by scheduling unprecedented back-to-back-to-back games and eliminating the practice of every team playing at least once on every other team's court.

Many fans barely hoped for something worth watching before the All-Star break, before Lin's hard-charging, smart, winning play set cynical old New York on fire. A stagnant dispute between Madison Square Garden, Inc. and Time-Warner Cable Television was quickly resolved, allowing Knicks home games again to be televised in the state, when irate fans deluged both companies with demands to, "Settle!" Meanwhile, in "Chinatowns" all over the country and abroad, Asian-Americans gather to watch big-screen teevees in homes, schools, auditoriums, etc., cheering a new star.

If there is still an American melting pot, it is in the school yards and gyms of the nations, where a racist or belittling remark can be effectively countered by sinking a three from beyond the arc, weaving between four bigger players to the net, or passing across court for the easy basket. In the 1980s, kids of every color, all over the world, wanted to "be like Mike." Today they're free to want to be like D-Wade, like Dirk, like Hakeem "the Dream," like Luis Scola, and at last, like Jeremy.

[Mariann G. Wizard, a Sixties radical activist and contributor to The Rag, Austin's underground newspaper from the 60s and 70s, is a poet, a professional science writer specializing in natural health therapies, and a contributing editor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles and poetry by Mariann G. Wizard at The Rag Blog.]

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