Friday, January 05, 2007

Everything I was trying to talk about 3 posts back with "A Little Respect," made unforgettable in a poem by Lee Ballinger. DA

Shakespeare's In the House

In the fall of 2003, at a public forum at the Teacher's Union building in downtown Los Angeles, Luis Rodriguez said:

In school
They want you to study Shakespeare
I'm here to tell you
That you can be Shakespeare


Mill rat, hard hat
I used to pour steel down by the river
Working double shifts, having family rifts
Burnt skin
Meant the rent would be paid

I was standing in a ring of fire
When my fifteen minutes of fame came to call

I wrote a book on sports
But not enough to end up in the courts
I had to work it
When I wasn't working
Every time I got a day off
I was on a plane
Like James Brown's "Night Train"
Atlanta, Birmingham, Philly and DCLA, Kansas City, Chicago, Houston too
What's an Ohio boy to do?

Do interviews
Be on the news
Get up early for TV shows
Stay up late for guest DJ flows

That didn't mean I got respect

Howard Cosell called the anchorman
With that voice like a squashing inner tube
"Was the young man eloquent?"
"Yes he was!" Howard was told
But Wide World of Sports lost the tape
Or so they said
Then the writer from Sports Illustrated got his education up
Sneering "No steelworker does my show!"

I wrote two guest pieces
For the New York Times
All the news that's fit to print
Now included me

Yes, the welcome mat was out
But at an angle
The editor there said
Right to my face
"I had no idea a steelworker could write so well"

He asked me where I went to college
Where did I get my knowledge?
He tried to cast me as the accidental tourist
But I didn't fit that role
So I wasn't gonna fake it
When I said I didn't finish high school
That I had no cherished "my school"
He thought I was lying
He suddenly stopped trying
To connect with me

Back in the mill
It was another story

A tap on the shoulder
"Someone's here to see you"
Over from the furnace
Down from the crane
Working the rails
Now in from the rain
They came up to my platform
"You're the guy I saw on TV
I thought you might understand"
They put a poem or a tape or a drawing
In my burned, calloused hand

Come out, come out wherever you are
We were made for life's journey
We were born to go far

My friend Cristina
Was filled with music inside
Four kids, two jobs
She never got to take it for a ride

So it fell a generation
And landed with a thud
Her son Hector
Was the living, breathing incarnation
Of Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode

Hector could play a guitar like ringing a bell
Had perfect time
A knack for rhyme
His songs could beautify hell
But….His pants were so low
His bald head so mean
He got a gang jacket
At the age of fourteen
Kept doing time
Nowhere to be seen

So Hector's gift was tested
From below and above
Bands fell apart, he put 'em back together
To play the songs he loved

One night in the IE
He had a party for his new CD
I danced with Cristina
So I could hold her
While I told her:"When Hector's band starts to play
I love to watch you sway
In front of your creation"

Come out, come out wherever you are
We were made for life's journey
We were born to go far

I was in an airport
Waiting out delay
The lady sitting next to me
Looked so familiar
But I just couldn't place her

There she was
On the front page of the paper on my lap
An Enron executive who'd lost it all

"I feel like a victim"
The article said
"A victim of economic terrorism!"
That's what I read

Lost her pension
Not to mention
"I almost lost my mind"

I tapped her on the shoulder
The words they just rushed out

"I always thought that everyone on an upper floor
Was just a whore"

Her head snapped back
Her anger flashed
She turned my other cheek and slapped it with her voice"Just a whore?"
Then a sigh, volume down"Just a whore?"
"Not any more. Not any more."

She turned away
But I couldn't miss what she'd been doing
With sketch pad and colored pencils
Deep, dark, and dripping
Bent low but spirit strong

Come out, come out wherever you are
We were made for life's journey
We were born to go far


So many of us
Just accept our place
We listen to the voices which anoint just a few
As worthy of a critic's taste

Who are these gatekeepers
Who claim we got nothing to say?
Grant givers
High livers
Insisting they're superior even though…
They couldn't rhyme Pete Rock
With sheet rock

Why do we seek their approval?
Instead we should seek their removal
Cuz our dreams can't come true
Tucked away in unread pages
Or nestled in the notes
Of silent, stillborn rages

Come out, come out wherever you are
We were made for life's journey
We were born to go far


In school
They want you to study Shakespeare
I'm here to tell you
That you can be Shakespeare


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Those Bills Don't Just Go Away
(Reason #14)

I just finished a great little book called The Mullendore Murder Mystery, a book that's been sitting on my shelves for three decades but gone unread. I bought it when I was probably 11 or 12 because it was about the murder of a prominent rancher outside of my hometown, a story I'd first heard about the year it happened, when I was 7 years old on one of those Christmas Eve family drives to look at the lights. I believe we drove by the Mullendores in-town residence, and what my parents talked about from the daily paper stories must have fired my imagination.

I couldn't really read that book when I first bought it because it is largely a story of debt spiralling out of control, while E.C. Mullendore, the doomed protagonist dips into murkier and murkier (and ultimately deadly) territory trying to pull his ass out of the fires that rage when spending exceeds profits. Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitney actually manages to balance the number crunching necessary to see where ethical fudging blurs into outright theft and fraud time and time again with a human story about as manic and scary as anything in Goodfellas. In the process, Kwitney (later the author of the indispensable profile of U.S. relations with Africa, Endless Enemies, and the scary story that connects the Southeast Asian Golden Triangle to Iran Contra, Crimes of the Patriots) also lays the groundwork for a crucial perspective on the last half century of the relationship between business and politics. For instance, one of the key players in The Mullendore Murder Mystery, Houston powerbroker Morris Jaffe would later be an important force behind Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns and the S&L scandals.

But the thing is, in terms of my recent Marx blogging, the Mullendore story is a thought provoking portrait of what happens when an American romantic, or a whole clan of American romantics, fails to reckon with his contradictions and the material world around him. It's the story of one runaway train in a culture made up of runaway trains. This is precisely the lack of perspective Marx sought to remedy.

From Monsters, Marx and Music--

“Active social forces work exactly like natural forces: blindly, forcibly, destructively, so long as we do not understand and reckon with them. But once we understand them, once we grasp their action, their direction, their effects, it depends only upon ourselves to subject them more and more to our own will, and by means of them, to reach our own ends.”

--Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”

In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials’ the heroes divine the truth and navigate their way to reckoning with the help of a compass, a knife and a spyglass. The navigational tools Marx offers are a few terms and relatively simple matters of logic. At the heart of these ideas lies a matter of reckoning, the difference in beliefs and realities in the present tense and, in the future, a reckoning with the price we are bound to pay.

An awareness of Marx’s math built the labor movement in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, using worker unity to drive up the market cost for a better quality of life. The math that’s been forgotten in the past 60 years—since the Cold War effectively declared it un-American to think about these matters--has paralleled the fall of the labor movement, and the loss of job security and workplace benefits.

Marx started developing his ideas just as the rise of a new capitalist class began to break away from their former monarchies, the most familiar examples being the American and French Revolutions. Thinking people began to wonder about the discrepancy between the dreams of these revolutions and their realities. In America, a landowning class had certainly been elevated to a ruling class, but only by maintaining chattel slavery over African Americans. In France, the democratic revolution threw off a monarchy to be replaced by a reign of terror and, then, the autocratic dictatorship of Napolean Bonaparte.

Like his contemporaries who lay the groundwork for the electrical revolution, psychology and genetics, by the age of 25, Karl Marx began to understand that the path ahead lies in understanding our relation to the world around us. Marx, who recognized the role the Industrial Revolution and the capitalist system played in these revolutionary impulses, decided the only way to grasp these changes and steer them in a humane direction was to study the workings of the economy and unlock just how and why one class of people profits from these changes while the situation for others seems to worsen.

Within four years, he wrote Wage, Labor & Capital, a series of talks that would serve as a rough draft for Capital, the book he would spend the rest of his life writing—the first volume coming out when he was 49, the remaining two volumes consuming much of the last decade and a half of his life. These efforts seek to describe the essential math at the foundation of the social order, and they show both the fundamental injustice in that math as well as the cost of that injustice on individual freedom and happiness. What’s more, this math seeks to forecast the future, and what it predicts looks like the world around us—a path marked by profound technological progress and increasing wealth, yes, but one which benefits only a few while the relative quality of life worsens for the majority.

When I first read Marx, I was shocked by how well he explained the trajectory of world politics in my lifetime, starting with the economics of my hometown. I never understood why, in the early 1980s, the CEO of Phillips 66 could renovate his private jet, while my father and most of the other parents I knew, who had given decades to his company, were wringing their hands over the layoffs of thousands of their co-workers. Even more so today, it’s hard to see why Delphi in Detroit, for instance, gets away with selling out its own workers and destroying its old home market.

Most people come up with two answers, both based in the corruption of the CEO—short term thinking and greed. What Marx's math shows is the system demands that kind of thinking. not just in the CEO but system wide. Marx argues capitalism ultimately eats itself and any hope for long term human progress demands that we deal with the blind logic of the system.

Today, it’s actually easier to see why Marx’s logic rings true than it has been at any given point over the past 150 years or so since he first began to lay it down. That’s because Marx's predictions deal with the impact of economic revolutions that have taken place in a blip of time, less than 1% of human history.

While most people who quibble with Marx get hung up on the particulars of individual trees of that history, he is showing the cost of a slash and burn system to the forest as a whole. In 1848, when he wrote Wage, Labor & Capital, for instance, ultimately failed revolutions erupted all over Europe, and at various times since, such as the 1917 revolution that produced the largest country in the world, the ultimately doomed Soviet Union, or the Great Depression of the ‘30s or even the mass cultural revolution of the 1960s, it seemed the time for Marx’s predicted revolution was at hand.

But what he predicted was a revolution that followed the flowering of globalized capital, a process that has only kicked into high gear with the globalization policies of the past 20 years or so, which are creating the greatest threat to U.S. dominance in the autocratic yet capitalist state of China. To understand Marx, we need to keep that big picture in mind, and what may be the best way to see what one has to do with the other is to take a look at the broad strokes of Wage, Labor & Capital in light of that big picture....