a soundtrack for 2016

My pal Becky Haltermon Robinson, punner extraordinaire and inventor of the Amazing Pump-o-matic Defrumpanator, posted her annual musical encapsulation over at her blog, Pump Up the Frump. Good stuff.

Now I'm inspired to offer a musical encapsulation of my own. I leave it to you to interpret the mix vis a vis the dreadful year that was 2016 in any way you like. Or you could just enjoy the music for its own sake.

Without further rambling, here's the list:

  1. Little Swing - AronChupa 
  2. Dancers - Faderhead 
  3. Dead Stars - Covenant 
  4. Sex Beat - Sex Beat 
  5. Shelter - Icon of Coil 
  6. Arena - VNV Nation 
  7. The Window of Appearances (from Akhnaten) - Philip Glass
  8. Lazarus - David Bowie 
  9. You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen
  10. Sound of Silence - Disturbed 
  11. B()NES - M△S▴C△RA 

Go ahead, have a listen over at YouTube.

And if you have a musical commentary on 2016 to share, please do so in the comments below. I'd love to hear it.


dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 3)

Continued from part 1 and part 2.

The symptoms of an ailing body politic, treated at the expense of the solving the fundamental processes of political organization: elections, the media, and education. How they inter-relate is straightforward:

  1. The educational system fails, on average, to impart necessary critical thinking skills.
  2. Without these critical thinking skills, we are poorly equipped to deal with the media’s propagation of massive amounts of information, misinformation, advertising, and propaganda.
  3. Without a clear understanding of reality that comes from processing the world around us, we can’t act effectively within (and/or against) a political system that is intentionally designed to work against us. We are also easily divided, distracted. and exhausted by the endless supply of crises that mask the core problem – control over the political apparatus.
  4. Whomsoever controls the political apparatus exerts control over education. Go back to 1.

Straightforward, of course, but also a vicious circle that makes it challenging to identify the most vital pressure point for a political revolution to hit. And if I talk about pressure points, it’s because a slow-burn political revolution risks getting snuffed out all to easily. What we need is a spark.


There’s no question that education reform is critical, since education is the foundation of any society. Education is also about more than schools. As Henry Giroux puts it at CounterPunch:

At issue here is the need for progressives to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and politics. But embracing the dictates of a making education meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative also means recognizing that cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media and Hollywood films are teaching machines and not simply sources of information and entertainment. Such sites should be spheres of struggle removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as propaganda and disimagination machines.

But the problem with reforming education, other than the sheer scale of the challenge given the patchwork of educational systems throughout the country, is that it is a generational effort. We can’t spontaneously re-educate an entire population, and it takes time to put the framework in place to educate the next generation in a way that will yield the political results that we want. Simply put, education is not a pressure point.

The Media

Reforming the media is also a formidable challenge considering that the majority of the media is owned by a few large corporations. Yet as polls have consistently shown over the years, most people don’t trust the media. According to Gallup’s 2016 survey, “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”

The poll, interestingly, points to Republicans (pushed by Trump’s campaign) as a driving force in this mistrust. It also shows that the sentiments spans age groups.

Tangling out the causes of why people don’t trust the media is an essay in-and-of-itself, but the gist is that the media has increasingly blurred the line between ideology and partisanship over the years at the expense of actual journalism. It’s one thing for the media to report from a particular ideological position, particularly when that position is clearly articulated. Jacobin Magazine, for instance, is a socialist magazine, just as Forbes is capitalist.  No one reading either of those publications would be confused by the filter through which the news is discussed. But not all news sources need to start from any ideological position except for the Gold Journalistic standard of reasonably impartial reporting. Nevertheless, whether specifically ideological or ostensibly impartial, both are comprised when the media crosses over into partisan combat that applies a double set of standards. Just as Fox News tends to be reluctant to criticize Republicans, the more liberal-leaning establishment media struggles with mustering criticism of Democrats. The Gallup poll points to how upset conservatives/Republicans are with the media for their heavy criticism of Trump and light criticism of Clinton. But the complaint doesn’t come solely from the Right; leftists have argued against the media’s treatment of Bernie Sanders and third-party candidates in favor of Clinton, just as they criticized the media for providing Trump with a yuuuge (and free) platform on which to campaign, before finally deciding to do something approximating truth-to-power journalism.

Profit and the political interests of the corporate/wealthy classes go some way into explaining the partisanship posturing. So, what to do about it? Support independent journalism? Absolutely. Create new media that exemplifies the old-school values of journalism? Sure, but building a new source of journalism that can provide reasonable, impartial, and expansive reporting in a way that cuts through partisan bickering is a big medium-term undertaking. While it’s definitely a pressure point, in that whoever controls information shapes perception of reality, it’s not a fast-acting one.

The Elections

The proposals for reforming elections aren’t new; instant run-off, public campaign financing, and impartial districting that minimizes gerrymandering. They also aren’t especially complicated; in that they can be enacted through legislation and implemented fairly quickly. Unlike reforming the media and the educational system, which involve dealing with a number of intangible factors, electoral reform is eminently practical. It’s definitely a pressure-point, and one that can be hit on for the most immediate results.

The Pressure Point

If you’re tired of the same old politicians, and frustrated with a system that produces the same old politicians putting forth the same old failed policies, then breaking the duopolistic system is essential. Indeed, by giving voters greater influence over politicians – through votes and by mitigating the influence of lobbyist money – it should, in principle, yield policy results closer to what voters want. Whatever your cause – the environment, black lives, the war on drugs, guns, abortion right – progress boils down most immediately to the extent voters can influence elections instead of being manipulated by them. Given how widespread discontent with the political situation is, electoral reform can, with some marketing, be a cause embraced by people across the political spectrum.

But let’s be clear that electoral reform is only the first step, a movement that is part of a larger strategy and also concurrent with efforts at creating better media and a more effective educational system. It also isn’t a cure for bad politics; it is “merely” progress. Democracy is itself a problem, as Crimethinc argues, but not the only fundamental structural problem with our society. Bearing that in mind, activists would do well to unite and fight this single fight together, in numbers that make a difference, and use their success as the foundation for the next steps – progress on their specific causes.

The next question is: what are the chances of a political revolution?


dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 2)

Read part 1 here.

In searching for a fulcrum, there are 3 general areas in which I believe we need to focus our attention:

Elections. Setting aside the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics (see Crimethinc) as well as the nonsense of the Electoral College, the mathematical fact remains that the majority-wins method of counting votes is antithetical to the representative and popular functions elections are supposed to provide. The proof: in an election with more than two candidates, a candidate can win with a minority of votes. For a duopolistic system, this is ideal because it makes it structurally easy to politicize third parties out of the process. Throw in money, gerrymandering, corporate lobbying, prejudicial Voter ID laws, and biased electoral institutions (such as the Commission on Presidential Debates) and it’s clear that the electoral system isn’t about empowering people to choose their representatives on their own terms. It simply isn’t designed for it. Instead, the system – as it was when voting rights were confined to white male property owners – the US electoral system is a means of keeping the people on a leash, and the leash in the masters’ hands. The fix would be easy enough for those who want to reform US democracy: instant run-off voting, public campaign financing, and debates open to all candidates. Until people agitate for it, however, the system will remain a game of five card stud poker with voters only being dealt two cards to play.

If that’s too sunny for you, let’s return to the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics with a question: what political power does a citizen actually have? Answer: the vote. That’s it. Once elected, politicians can work the government apparatus to pass and enforce laws as well a direct agencies to function in a particular way. Citizen input is not required. Of course, lobbying is an activity that’s open to us…but who has time to forego a paying job to continually exert pressure on the government towards this or that policy goal? And protesting is an intensive activity that requires strategy and resolve, two qualities hard to get in a productivity-obsessed economy. Unless you’re a paid lobbyist, chances are that you’re too busy running your own life to be able to engage the political process via lobbying, let alone orchestrate direct actions. This isn’t a bug; it’s a specific feature of democracy, and politicians know how to exploit it.

But the problem is even deeper than that, as Mike Lofgren explains in his essay Anatomy of the Deep State:

…there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself.

If the presidential and congressional power that is shaped by popular elections, however loosely, is only the surface of the vast apparatus of power that is unaccountable and bureaucratic, then it what sense is voting a meaningful expression of popular power over the government? Answer: it’s not all that meaningful.

The Media. Corrupt and purposefully dysfunctional elections are bad enough, but a corrupt and corrosive media that misinforms citizens is worse. Noam Chomsky famously described the workings of the US media as propaganda in his essential Manufacture of Consent, but the recent election cycle offers many other examples. For instance,the condescending, nearly non-existent coverage of third-party candidates. Even NPR, notable for its sanity in the carnival of contemporary journalism, routinely fails to cover perspectives outside of the Democrat/Republican duopoly. Like most of the mainstream media, it perpetuates a set of government- and corporate-friendly assumptions irrespective of partisan politics.

The media’s propagandist role, along with discussions around the value and consequences of the Fairness Doctrine and its rescinding, is only part of the problem, as is the fact that our distance from newsworthy events makes it difficult to serve as our own fact-checkers. The consolidation of media into a handful of a few powerful corporate conglomerates is another as it comes with a consolidation of editorial direction. News stories selected and edited to fit a political agenda are subject to an even baser criterion: profitability, which affects not only advertising but the way news is produced to give audiences what they want rather than what they need. The news is a commodity, in other words, and not a public service. With the commodification of news has come an explosion of opinion, commentators whose job is to fill the airtime of a 24-hour news cycle with “analysis” that is rarely expert but nevertheless reliably forceful and tailor-made to fluff the audience.

But wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more: the Internet. Yes, it’s a marvel of communications that makes the Tower of Babel look like a high school science fair project. Yet it also amplifies the very worse cognitive biases we are prone to simply as a matter of psychology. If you don’t agree with reality, it’s easy to find a website that will adjust it to your liking.

Of course, there are some excellent sources of information and expert analyses out there. There are, however, countless more sources of bad opinions and distorted, if not outright fabricated, facts. The challenge is to sort out the signal from the noise. Combined with the forces of consolidated media ownership and commoditization with the sheer volume of “information” (or hyperdata, which is a non-informative simulation of information) and we see the crux of the crisis: an inability to agree on what constitutes reality, let alone agree on how best to resolve problems. (And I acknowledge the philosophical problem of arguing for an “objective reality,” but leaving aside the metaphysics let’s consider reality as our shared, verifiable experience of the world.)

Education. Education is a complex topic, of course, and a generational challenge. The struggle between public and private is a crucial battleground, but the question is timeless. What is the purpose of education, and what results do we expect from it? Partly, education has the role of indoctrination, which is only bad when it’s the wrong ideas being indoctrinated. (There’s a whole debate in that, naturally.) Education is also about, or should be, about teaching critical thinking skills and scientific literacy – in a word, Reason. Sometimes, it isn’t a particular perspective that is important but how one reaches that perspective and the extent we have the humility to change our perspective when presented with new evidence. Given the structural problems underlying the patchwork of educational systems, from funding to teacher training and retention, it’s not surprising that outcomes are wildly uneven even before we consider how politicized education is. It seems pretentious to suggest that “the people” are uneducated, and it’s clearly a risky proposition because it depends entirely on what we rate as “educated.” There’s also the risk of overestimating the effects of education, since many societies have been ruined by educated but morally or emotionally deficient political classes.

But the problem can be stated that while people may not necessarily be uneducated, they might be mis-educated, a phenomena that is obscured by the relentless focus on metrics and other so-called innovations resulting from applying the industrial revolution to the classroom model. In short, the problem is a lack of critical thinking capable of mitigating our cognitive biases along with a lack of humility in terms of our knowledge and capacity for reason. The problem isn’t confined to opinions based on faulty reasoning and bad facts, but extends to the cultural attitude that we must preserve our sense of rightness - our prestige and our power - over reality.

There’s more to be said, of course, about any of these three elements; these are just a sketch. The next question is: what does it all mean when put together?

To be continued…


dear Americans: your country is doomed (part 1)

The election cycle draws closer to its fireworks finale and, as Admiral Ackbar might say, “It’s a trap.” On one pole of the duopoly we have Trump, whose rise was made entirely possible by the confluence of the media, celebrity culture, the GOP’s moral bankruptcy, and the Democratic Party’s Machiavallian political maneuverings. There is nothing surprising about Trump himself. The surprise is that, after lavishing so much attention on him, the media has suddenly decided to do some actual dredging during the traditional electoral month of surprises. Of course, this suggests how blind, stupid, or both the media was in claiming shock that Trump was the Republican nominee. A few early primary wins, along with dramatic escapes from normally fatal controversies, should have been a cue that this wouldn’t be a “normal” election. But fuck all that. The commentary on Trump ranges either from banal expressions of outrage or shock, shock that the GOP’s sociopathy has been flying its freak flag so blatantly. Of course we have to denounce the criminal, the immoral, the injustice. But when the whole effort itself becomes a smug exercise tantamount to munching on popcorn while the city burns, Trump commentary and coverage deserves this scene from Happy Madison:

While Trump’s denunciators congratulate themselves for their moral acumen, there’s Hillary Clinton and the DNC. The eMails released by Wikileaks confirm – albeit to a great yawn by Big Media – that neither care about progressive issues, and both are institutionally sociopathic. The primaries were heavily biased against Sanders, who ironically turned out to be a paper tiger. Wall Street, the Oil Industry, and the accumulation of wealth for the few at everyone else’s expense – it’s all there too. And so is Clinton’s utter failure to pay more than lip service to the Left, if even that, and articulate a positive vision.Democrats represent the very problem of which the GOP is only the most cartoonish expression.

None of that, however, quite compares to the unprecedented challenges we face on a human scale; anthropogenic climate change, the nuclear arms race, global economic instability, environmental collapse…the list goes on until utter despair settles in. Taken individually, each challenge demands a movement, a collective and strategic action. But how many movements can we support as individuals? Activism for a single cause can require tremendous effort and engagement, which is why signing petitions and donating money is such an accessible alternative to joining the front lines.

Thinking of this, I wonder if there isn’t a single fulcrum that we can push against, or at least a smaller set of pressure points we can needle to affect systemic change. How can we act – and I admit I’m not asking an original question – if we see all the problems listed above as symptoms of the same fundamental disease? Is it possible to focus our efforts on a root cause and, in the process, make it easier to achieve progress on multiple fronts?

To be continued…


idle thoughts about art's political role against corporate power

Let’s consider two disturbing observations.

First, according to Global Justice Now, the ten largest corporations in the World are wealthier than most countries combined. From Common Dreams:

"Today, of the 100 wealthiest economic entities in the world, 69 are now corporations and only 31 countries," wrote Global Justice Now campaigns and policy officer Aisha Dodwell. "This is up from 63 to 37 a year ago. At this rate, within a generation we will be living in a world entirely dominated by giant corporations."

Indeed, multinational behemoths Shell, Apple, and Walmart each rake in more revenue than the world's 180 "poorest" countries—a list that includes Ireland, Greece, Israel, South Africa, Vietnam, and Colombia—combined.

And the top ten largest companies have a whopping combined value of $2.9 trillion, which is larger than China's economy.

See the spreadsheet for yourself here.

Second, corporate power has replaced popular, “democratic” power in the United States. It’s worth reading Chris Hedges’ piece at Truthdig in full, but here’s a key nugget:
Our political elites, Republican and Democrat, were shaped, funded and largely selected by corporate power in what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a coup d’état in slow motion. Nothing will change until corporate power itself is dismantled.
The corporate elites failed to grasp that a functioning liberal class is the mechanism that permits a capitalist democracy to adjust itself to stave off unrest and revolt. They decided, not unlike other doomed elites of history, to eradicate the liberal establishment after they had eradicated the radical movements that created the political pressure for advancements such as the eight-hour workday and Social Security.
This was planned:
Lewis Powell, then the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971 wrote a memo called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup. Powell would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corporations, as Powell urged, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, backing candidates, creating the Business Roundtable, funding The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations must marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests. Powell attacked Ralph Nader and called for a concerted campaign to discredit him. Lobbyists eager to dole out huge sums of cash flooded Washington and state capitals. It soon became difficult and often impossible, whether in the press, the political arena or academia, to challenge the dogma of neoliberalism.
40 years after Powell wrote that memo and enmeshed himself in an effort to transform the country through increased corporate power, we find an intersection between neoconservatism and neoliberals.

The war corporatism the Knife Party warned us about so memorably in What Barry Says  - specifically the “visible yet sinister group” called the Project for a New American Century is only one chilling manifestation of the dangers presented by the substitution of corporate power for popular governance.

The political implications should be clear enough to anyone paying attention. My question is: what role can art play in resisting this corporate power grab, if not through direct action than at least through inspiration?

Our popular art forms often portray dystopian futures where the rule of law is supplanted by the rule of commerce. The cyberpunk genre, for example, is fundamentally rooted in extrapolating near-futures dominated by megacorporations whose powers transcend governments. Sci-fi shows like Continuum and the upcoming Affleck/Damon-produced Incorporated directly posit futures dominated by corporations.

Novels, of course, have long been a source of cautionary tales. Books like 1984 and Brave New World, for example, insightfully amplified real societal trends in terms of totalitarianism and social control to depict worse-case scenarios with applications to actual politics. There are countless more examples, of course.

Yet for all the vivid dramatizations about social ills, it doesn't seem enough. We seem distinctly unable to generate enough popular momentum to reverse deep, structural changes in our society. We can achieve some important victories, like marriage equality, but when it comes to challenging the forces controlling the fundamentals – health, shelter, food, economic security – we are stymied by the neoliberal/neoconservative programs that have taken root in our society’s most essential legal, political and economic operations. But at least the heroes on TV can win, right?

One of the most significant functions of art is to present us with fictional scenarios that allow us to safely explore the issues and consequences of real-life challenges. While we can debate the extent to which art that is fictional is as effective as art that can also be journalistic, like photography, it seems that art is experiencing a crisis of relevance. Not personal relevance, as it can’t be denied how artistic expressions is beneficial on a personal level, but political relevance. Whether a mirror of our anxieties or a prophet warning us of doom, art in all its forms seems more like a Cassandra. We respond emotionally to the ideas we are presented with, then move on to the next item of consumption with the delusion that art and reality have no necessary relation to each other.

Perhaps that’s where the problem lies: art struggles to be revolutionary because it is commoditized. Like everything else, art has been subsumed by the capitalist economic machine and, in the Internet age, drowned in hyperdata that dis-informs us. It’s so much easier to dismiss the ideas underlying fiction as fiction themselves; consume, dispose, repeat.

There’s historical precedence. Without being “productive” in the sense that being a labourer is productive, artists have always been dependent on society’s support or, more typically, on patrons for the necessary subsistence that enables them to devote themselves to producing art. Today, the patron is more often than not the marketplace in which case artists make money when their supply is matched to the demand – and the demand is for safe and pretty ornaments.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. It largely depends on our own individual conception of, and relationship to, art. So while the “system” requires criticism, we should also give some thought to how we interact with art.