Tag Archives: politics

The Bit I Liked Most

As Ada took me back through the Lord of the Rings.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Such times as these. Transition times, when new things are trying to not be crushed by old. Times like those that Paine said try men’s souls. Times when you can finally understand how people can see the round ups coming, and choose to stand. Drought times of soul and spirit.

Remarkable to Look Back

And sad. President Clinton was a impressively smart man, and in this interview he shows it off in spades, able to call to mind statistics and rationales for policies without any aid. He’s a statesman, in the most classic sense of the word. And Amy Goodman is a journalist, in the best sense of that word.

But I think what is most remarkable looking back on his words 13 years later, is that everything he talked about is worse, under both the Republicans and the Democrats. That the gains he crowed were illusory, the economy he pinned so many hopes on had been a pyramid balanced on its tip that could last only so long. The reforms to come he spoke of weren’t just abandoned by the opposition, but by his own party, after he had deferred them himself, always “waiting on reports.” Everything, every single point he made, however elegantly made by this most skilled of politicians and speakers, every course of action he talked about, has all ended in total failure. From ending racial profiling (which Hillary was working on in New York) to New York’s shameful Stop and Frisk, unemployment is of course ridiculously high, schools failing, racism worse, healthcare costs higher than ever, Mexico is a basket case, the private prison system has reinstated slavery largely based on race. Cuba is still under embargo. Since them we’ve gotten black sites, Gitmo, endless wars. We’ve gone from secretive banking corruption to openly refusing to enforce the law against the masters of our economy, who commit fraud routinely, while violently suppressing the growing dissent on the streets. The failure of this system is so total that only insanity can still profess faith in it.

And not only is Leonard Peltier still in jail, this Democratic president has matched his unprecedented secrecy and persecution of whistleblowers with absolutely no pardons.

Amy Goodman is still doing good work, though.

Don’t Vote

My great grandmother had to fight for her right to vote. She marched down the streets of Boise, Idaho with a giant beautiful banner she sewed herself on a treadle sewing machine. It read, in large and gorgeous lettering, “We demand an amendment to the US constitution enfranchising women.” From the first moment I saw it I was aware that it was in so many ways larger than me. I still have it, and hope to pass it on to my daughter to pass on to her daughter.

Incredibly old, and skin hanging from her bones, my great grandmother was still a terrifyingly full woman. She taught me what it was to vote. The first time I voted was 1992, and doing so made me feel like I was at last a full person, part of a full world. And when I decided that I would not vote anymore, it was to her that I uttered my prayer of sad apology: not merely for not voting, but for being part of the system that had reduced voting to meaning so little. I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.

It was learning that lead me to voting, and learning that lead me away from it. It was gerrymandering, legalized corruption, the impossibility of campaign finance reform. It was dry words like ROI on lobbying, which have turned the world wet with non-metaphorical blood. It was suicidal nonideas that reduced human civilization to a consuming blob left to go necrotic on its denuded tiny blue dot.

But then, it was more. It was watching how people built an internet while the institutions weren’t looking. It was the kindness of strangers that took me in. It was buying dinner for an old Vietnam vet on the streets of California. It was watching my daddy chewed up by the system. It was the radiation of the Columbia river and the old songs and stories of Utah Phillips. It was children who filled potholes in Zambian streets and needed pens, which I gave them with as much heart as you can give a pen to someone. It was the fall of the iron curtain, it was poet presidents, revolutions young and old, and the slow and terrible petrification of the American spirit. It was a world that runs red with blood and spirit, a body politic raped and beaten by a ruling class as arbitrary and accidental as the rest of it.

People who think that by calling for a strike against the vote I’m advocating inaction are not paying attention. Yes, I am saying please don’t throw your vote away in our corrupt ballot boxes. Instead vote everyday, not just one day in November. Vote with the stuff of your life. Vote like your life, and your opinions matter — because they do.

Vote with every dollar, in every relationship. Vote in how you work and how you speak. Vote in how you treat others and what you will accept from them. Vote your dignity and the dignity of others. Live in the opposite of fear. Bring your morals to work. Whistleblow, organize, strike, disrupt your corporation until it respects human rights. Even if just the knowledge workers in my social circle walked off the job, they could grind the machine to a halt — they could be heard. They would, in fact, resound not only through the body politic but through history as well.

But we don’t know anymore that we have this strength. We are told both that we must perform our kabuki democracy, and that our vote doesn’t really matter. We are told that this voting is our only civic duty, and the only power we have, and quietly reduced to a system where that vote can’t realistically do much.

When you vote, you complain, and then go to work to do the work of others, often against the interests and values of you, your family, the family of humankind. And you can complain about that, too. We have to get along, we have to pay down the student loans, we have to make the mortgage payment, we have to delay facing the truth about the frail and failing world we’ve built as long as we possibly can.

No. The magic of aggregate human attention is so strong that we can fix this world, we can exceed these troubles — but only together, not looking to leadership structures that have failed us again and again.

Humanity is amazing. It is the elemental magic of the world. You are the ground that can shake and rise under the fragile political structures of the Earth. You are the wrath of angry gods, you are the true storm a small and accidental system of power fears. As long as you keep believing you have to vote, and all your power is tied only to that vote, our leaders get to balance a pyramid on its tip and call it democracy.

Lay down the lie of the American ballot box, with its legal rigging, lobbying, revolving doors, gerrymandering, and even at moments outright fraud. You will have to ask yourself what is next? What do you believe, and how do you live out those beliefs? It is a scary and beautiful thing to live your beliefs.

We are on a fundamental level responsible for each other. We have incredible power, in fact we have all the power not reserved to killer robots. But it’s very hard and very painful. Coordinating, acting, having to be together with humanity after so many years of running away from it.

Today we distract ourselves from feeling hopeless and powerless. There are a million numbing balms for thousands of tiny cuts. We numb ourselves with TV, Youtube, Reddit, alcohol, games, even love. We ceaselessly and selfishly chase after a personal happiness only available to those who outgrow the hunt for it. We go to work for corporations and governments that violate our ethics, we go into debt, and come to see ourselves as bound, indentured to things we didn’t choose. But this is an illusion, and a fragile one at that. It ends the day we decide that our power is with us, in us, that it can’t fit inside a quarterly review, or an assigned essay, or even a ballot box. It ends when we realize that our minds and bodies, and most of all our little allotment of precious time are holy, holy, holy.

Let your body be your ballot.

On Mona Eltahawy, Protest, and Breaking the Law

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” – Henry David Thoreau

Oh, my friends saying that Mona Eltahawy doesn’t understand the First Amendment and American protest, you’re right. But, thus far, neither do you. The issue is that Eltahawy was committing criminal mischief during her speech act, with the presumption this negates what she did as non-violent protest and speech act. But crime has always been part of protest in America, since before it was these United States. And of course Eltahawy didn’t violate anyone else’s free speech. The reason she will be charged with vandalism and not violating the First Amendment is that only the State can violate the First Amendment.

An act can be non-violent protest and speech while committing a crime, and civil disobedience requires that you commit a crime — that’s what makes it disobedient. When people sat in at counters, blocked bridges, sat in the front of the bus, defied Jim Crow, burned draft cards, blocked mines and factories owned by other people, got escaped slaves to Canada, threw tea in the harbor, sat down on a cop car in Berkeley, DDOSed Polish gov websites, and put up tents in defiance of the courts, they were breaking the law. They set out to break the law. Their bodies were their critique of society, sometimes of the law, sometimes of the prevailing morals. When Mona Eltahawy sprayed that poster she was offering her body as a critique of racism, though the video suggests she didn’t understand she was doing that. When you chain yourself to tree, block an abortion clinic, or refuse to leave the Oakland street after a dispersal order, you expect to confront the legal system. That’s part of the deal — a rich American tradition of getting your ass arrested and punished for standing up for what you believe. Equal application of the law means Eltahawy had to get arrested, but there is no reason she shouldn’t call for everyone to spend a night in jail for defacing a racist poster. Speech even protects those who say you shouldn’t pay taxes, that women should be raped, and that you should go ahead and play Blackjack in Utah if you want to.

That Eltahawy believed her protest meant she shouldn’t be arrested is a misunderstanding of vandalism, not free speech. To get arrested protesting racism, it’s a powerful protest. That she played it up — also the point of going so far as to get arrested. If you are going to go to that length for what you believe in, it’s pretty ridiculous to do it as quietly and shyly as possible.

Even American cops are in on the game. During various Occupy actions this year and last, there were many times police would announce moving into the arrest phase of clearing or breaking up an action, and let the protestors choosing to be arrested prepare themselves, chat with friends, pass along phone numbers and personal items, and then get respectfully arrested as a declared act of civil disobedience. It’s a normal part of American civil life.

Without law breaking, law doesn’t progress. Law needs to be broken to adapt to changing times. The best things in the American legal system are the things that change and grow, and they do this by being pushed hard. Does this mean we should restrict free speech? I’d say no, but obviously there’s a conversation to be had here, and Eltahawy points out with her body, as do the Muslim protestors around the world with their bodies, that we who believe in free speech need to explain it better. The other side of Eltahawy’s action, that we should go to jail to oppose racism — I might very well be ok with that. I don’t think if we’re caught we shouldn’t get arrested, tried, and convicted of crimes. I think the law should continue to allow shitty ass losers to put up racist pieces of shit, like they did in New York, and on bus ads in San Francisco. And I think they should all be defaced in minutes. Those who do the defacing should make careful choices between getting arrested and not getting caught. But I’m proud of the San Franciscans that quietly fucked over the same ads on Muni buses and didn’t get caught, and I’ll be proud of Eltahawy when she sees getting arrested and not only a valid part of her protest, but the most valid part. “This is what happens in America when you non-violently protest,” said Eltahawy — and that’s an awesome part of protest.

Since when are Americans the type that believe law dictates what’s right? We are a people born and raised dictating to law, even when we have to put our bodies, freedom, and safety on the line to do so. We are people who put our bodies on the line to tell people they have to stop being shitty. I like that about us, and my friends do too, even if they’re not seeing it in Eltahawy’s case. That she didn’t say the right thing doesn’t mean she didn’t do the right thing, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Update: Eltahawy responded on Twitter to this piece, saying: “Quinn I’m proud I was arrested. I very much see what I did as non-violent civil disobedience. I’ve said that on all media I do.”

Review: “The Island of Lost Islands” by Tim Maly

Tim Maly’s recent book on the afterlives of utopias is in turns interesting, deep, frustrating, indulgent, and in the finest tradition of Borges, nonexistent.

Maly adopts a wistful tone of analysis, and Borges is again a pretty obvious influence on that language. And while Maly’s insights are pretty amazing, I felt like he cherry picked his examples a bit. Let’s be honest– some of the examples that inform us of the nature of dead utopias have sunk to the bottom of the sea, a fact he glosses over. At points I was left saying “Come on Tim, you can do better than that! Dive a little!” while people wondered who I was talking to.

But I don’t want to tear this book down, I want you to imagine yourself reading it. Flaws aside, he recreates a mental landscape of lost dreams that bewilders and excites in turns. The narrative winds its way up mountains and plunges down cliffs in a manner that really does evoke actual nausea, but in a good way. These afterlives deserve the physical act of grief, and Maly lives up to that. (For this reason I recommend no more than 15 pages at a time, and not too close to mealtimes. Also, The Island of Lost Islands doesn’t mix well with Flagyl or other photosensitive antibiotics, which I found out the hard way. Oops.)

That it reaches so high is one of the things that frustrates me about Island, because you’re left always wanting it to reach a little higher. Yes, there’s echos of Collapse, but more as if you were to imagine it as a LARPing manual than a pop-geo-anthropology text.

Close your eyes and read Tim Maly’s Island, let it flow through you, change you, and possibly cleanse you digestively. It will let you see utopia in a new, beautiful, and heartrending way. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy it. Not a word is true.

1000 ledes n + 21: Nothing New Under the Sun

The present is always providing a stream of historical metaphors for the future. For instance, in the Exxon controlled algae fuel future, government heavies break down the doors of poor people at the company’s behest. People that can’t license Exxon’s patented algae, but provide their neighbors and villages with illicit energy, run the risk of violent arrest, property destruction, and having everything they own covered in bleach in the course of IP enforcement.

From the deep archives

Going through the old Ambiguous, I found this note from 2003:

Did you know this week is National Drinking Water Week? Wow. We have a national drinking water week. Which is different than Bechtel’s clients, who generally have a week’s worth of national drinking water.

1000 Ledes n + 8: Citizen of Two Countries

In the contest of human despair, 15 year old “Amjad” of Beach Camp in the Gaza strip could certainly hold his own. Most of his family is lost in violent conflict, or ill and barely able to care for themselves. He is scared everyday that he will die. He has little prospects of education, and even if he did, there little chance he could get a job afterwards.

But one thing can make him forget all of it, can give him a purpose and a focus that transcends the world of terror and squalor he have lived all his life in: the need to score his next hit of heroin.

What makes a high order primate click a submit button

TransparencyCorps, with which I am currently obsessed, isn’t interesting because it’s crowdsourcing. There’s been plenty of that, even from the Sunlight Foundation (Creators of TransparencyCorps.org). Among their past hits were Where are they now? which tracked the staffer/rep to lobbyist revolving door, and EarMarkWatch which employed Sunlight’s thousands of screaming fans to watch earmarks. TransparencyCorps is interesting because it’s about doing the task rather than the specific goal of the task. When you log in you are presented with various projects which you can apply your boundless, or at least NP friendly, intelligence to, that we might make a better government and better world.

Also they give you points, and if you have the most points you get listed on a leaderboard. This concept of the identity resting with being part of a community that does the action (in this case the Corps) rather than the goal of the action (Get those earmarks watched!) seems powerfully important to me. In the online world it has most in common with the stated inspiration for the Corps, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. But psych studies would suggest an important difference: the turk is ruined by money. Social psychology studies have consistently shown that tasks people will enthusiastically do because they enjoy them lose their charm as soon as the people doing the tasks get paid for them. Being paid once can actually take away the pleasure forever.

What is this magic currency that is a disappearing polymorph in the presence of money? And why does TransparencyCorp have it in spades? Partly I think it’s the chance to beat the bastards in politics, to catch them at their game. Since their game is about corruption and money, it makes sense that introducing money dilutes the fierce sense of freedom that arises out of finding a web form that finally lets you stick it to The Man. In this case the disappearing polymorph is outrage.

But there’s more. When you hit done, another page comes up, subtly asking for another. Everything hints at stories. Who are these people? What are their lives like? In the case of earmarks, what do they want the money for, and how much is it? Given that there isn’t really a goal beyond ‘be part of the corps’ you’re free to wander mentally around what it all means. As Clay Johnson of Sunlight said, one of the reason people keep pressing the button is that “Everyone wants to be the person that finds the next bridge to nowhere.”

I predict stickiness, and a community that will grow up if Sunlight lets it, because there’s about four ways in which this set up is designed to make little primate brains go whir.