Saturday, December 31, 2005

It's a Wonderful Lie

On Christmas Eve, NBC aired that timeless classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart. As I watched it for the gazillionth time, I was struck by the irony of the event – especially during the Ameriquest Mortgage commercials.

Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore get top billing, but the real star of the show is Liberalism. Liberal – and at one time American – values such as humility, self-sacrifice, heroism, kindness, cooperation and delay of gratification are at the core of this movie about a struggling building and loan company in post-war New York State. George Bailey, who operates the building and loan, believes the community should pool its resources in order to improve everyone’s standard of living. But his arch-nemesis, Mr. Potter, believes only in greed and wants to control the town’s resources to the detriment of everyone but himself.

Along the way, we see how Bailey’s kindness and vision avert widespread misfortune. His moral support prevents his childhood friend Violet from becoming a hooker; his good judgment prevents the local druggist from becoming a washed up drunk; and ultimately, we see how his imagination and compassion prevent the town from becoming mean, hedonistic and impersonal.

In the end – and this is the part that always brings a tear to my eye – we see how the qualities that Bailey takes for granted are actually cherished by his friends and neighbors. The years of hard work and sacrifice have paid off at last, and the reward is much, much grater than personal wealth and luxury. Bailey has almost single-handedly created a town that everyone would like to live in; a town free from pretentious moralism where friendships are genuine and the work is fulfilling.

By the movie’s end we are convinced that if every town and neighborhood in America had just one George Bailey we would be freer, safer and more prosperous than we can perhaps imagine. More importantly, we are led irresistibly to the notion that there is a George Bailey in each of us; that each of us can shed our petty recriminations and short-term desires and work together toward a shared goal.

The irony, of course, is that this cinematic vision of American Liberalism was broadcast on NBC, one of the coven of Mr. Potters currently in control of the airwaves. General Electric, the world’s largest company, owns Eighty percent of NBC. Vivendi, the behemoth privatized water conglomerate, owns the other 20 percent. It was former GE CEO Jack Welch who pressured newsroom analysts to call the election in favor of Bush in 2000. This move paid off well; the subsequent War on Terror has been a $2.8 billion-a-year cash cow for GE, which supplies aircraft engines and other military hardware to Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors.

GE uses its sprawling media web, which includes NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, Universal Pictures, over 60 book publishing firms and more to promote favorable coverage of the Bush administration and to discourage unfavorable coverage of same. Here is an example of NBC marionette Matt Lauer glad-handing right wing ideologue Ann Coulter on NBC’s Today Show. Now here’s an example of Lauer playing hardball with Michael Moore. See the difference? No wonder 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein orchestrated the Sept. 11th attacks.

The unfortunate reality is that Potter’s vision of America has prevailed. Shortsighted, prehensile fascists like Jack Welch outnumber the George Baileys of the world, and this fact is made more painful by the cruel joke of NBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Generally speaking, I am opposed to New Year’s resolutions, but here are two that I strongly recommend:

1. Resolve to turn off the fucking television.
2. Resolve to find the George Bailey within you and do something – anything – to promote the true American values of compassion and understanding exemplified by “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Tired of Being Lied To?

Yes. Yes I am. Part deux of Maureen Farrell's 3-part series is here, and she sets the record straight.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Yay! Christmastime is here!

I didn’t hear my first Christmas carol until the day after Thanksgiving. It was Dr. John’s version of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” It was followed by all the classics by Bing, Frank, Dino, Ray Charles, John Denver and of course those lovable Chipmunks. Needless to say, I was SHOPPING.

Yes, shopping. That is how we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior in America. We shop. And shop and shop and shop. And fight and shop and fight. And shop.

And fight.

Four days ago, on my way home from work, I saw a man beating his son (presumably it was his son) while attempting to hang a string of Christmas lights on the front awning of his house. The string of Christmas lights was hopelessly tangled as they always are this time of year, and the boy, who looked to be about seven or eight years old, had carelessly walked directly into the massive snarl. The dad instantly dropped the focus of his labors and grabbed the kid’s sweatshirt with his left hand and walloped him repeatedly with his right. Jesus would have been proud.

Or he IS proud. That’s what I meant to say. I keep forgetting that he’s not some guy who got killed by the Romans 2,000 years ago, but a living, infinite being with whom I can forge a meaningful bond.

Anyway, to honor this Son of God who Died for Our Sins, we must shop. And decorate our dwellings with garish symbols of pre-Christian paganism. And shop.

And fight.

I have not yet heard of any occurrences of the annual separation-of-church-and-state fracases that seem to accompany this glorious season, but no doubt they are right around the corner. Some hyper-Christian civil servant will erect a manger scene in a government center somewhere and the Secularists will raise their angry voices in protest. The ACLU will be called upon, once again, to set the situation to rights and the Christian symbols will be replaced by pagan ones. But as Molly Ivins once famously observed, erecting a Nativity scene is probably the only way to get three wise men in a government building.

From all this, you might be inclined to believe that Big Daddy Malcontent hates Christmas, but nothing can be further from the truth. As mentioned above, Christmastime has pagan origins. The ancient Germans would mark the shortest day of the year by gathering with family and friends to eat, drink and be merry in an effort to fortify themselves against the coming winter doldrums. And, if times were good, they would exchange a gift or two in honor of the friendships without which life would be dreary. Decades of conflict with the Romans hipped Caesar to the tradition, proving that good can come from bad. As the Roman Empire morphed into the Holy Roman Empire, these German traditions became the accepted method for celebrating the birth of Jesus.

So, whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa or some nebulous incarnation of the seasonal merriment, the central theme remains the same: Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men. Lack of it is at the heart of Big Daddy’s malcontentedness, so naturally he is Down with Christmas. Peace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Seems I'm Not the Only One

At least one other blogger knows the democratic process is a ruse. Check out Maureen Farrell's excellent post on Buzzflash. She displays several instances in which corporate hegemony played both sides of a conflict, just as I mentioned here.

NOTE: It says "Part 1 of a 3-part series." Check back for the continuation.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Big Daddy Does Not Believe in Bigfoot

Since thinking about conspiracies is neither illegal, nor immoral, nor fattening, I have often wondered why people have such a powerful taboo against examining who owns and runs this nation.” – Robert Anton Wilson

As you can probably tell from our last post, Big Daddy Malcontent has a conspiracy theory streak in him running deep and wide. This has probably alienated some of Big Daddy’s readers, since conspiracy theorists are typically viewed as paranoid stoners or rightwing survivalists. Rest assured, Big Daddy is neither; he simply believes that the corporate mindset is determined to systematically suck all that is good, honest and right out of everything it touches. Music, film, fashion, literature, journalism, art, politics, finance, industry, science and just about every other aspect of human endeavor bears the bite marks of the corporate vampire.

To put people’s minds at rest (or to agitate them further), Big Daddy has compiled this list of conspiratorial concepts in which he believes and doesn’t believe.

Big Daddy Malcontent believes…

that the main$tream media are controlled by a combination of covert government propaganda elements such as Operation Mockingbird1., and a narrow corporate agenda dictated by hawkish, self-absorbed social Darwinists like Jack Welch2., Rupert Murdoch3. and the Saudi Royal Family4.;

that America’s education system was set up by a military industrial complex bent on mass-producing ignorant, obedient soldier-laborers5.;

that the main purpose of television is to maintain a nation of frightened, paranoid consumers who relentlessly seek refuge in sports, junk food, unnecessary pharmaceutical products and unneeded material possessions6.;

that a significant portion of the car- and suicide-bombings in Iraq are actually being perpetrated by US and British elements bent on prolonging the conflict thereby maximizing profits for Halliburton and the Carlyle Group7., and that the dramatic increase in Afghanistan’s opium production in the post-9/11 era is directly benefiting said US and British elements8.;

that terrorist actions like the Lockerbie Bombing9. and the car-bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri10. were probably perpetrated by US and/or British intelligence agents, and that said agents have either created or infiltrated terror cells throughout the world which they use to eliminate threats and manipulate the public11.;

that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by elements within the Bush Administration led by Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, Asst. Sec of Def. Paul Wolfowitz; Marvin Bush12. (the president’s brother), and various other government and corporate entities for the purpose of decreasing domestic civil liberties and increasing covert and overt military actions in resource rich regions throughout the world13.;

that the Pentagon is controlled by corporate interests;

that the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and others were carried out by a coalition of CIA, FBI, KKK and Mafia elements;

and that the international drug trade is, by turns, tolerated, condoned and operated by the same elements;

Big Daddy Malcontent does not believe…

in bigfoot;

in UFOs (however, belief in UFOs may have been manipulated as a cover for super-secret weapons programs);

that a massive UN army is poised for attack at the Canadian border;

that the UN is evil (however, attempts to usurp the UN for the benefit of dark corporate interests may have rendered the UN evil);

that water fluoridation is a communist plot;

Big Daddy Malcontent believes that even these conspiracy theories reveal both a well-justified mistrust of America’s leadership, and evidence that the media’s campaign to frighten and confuse the citizenry has been largely successful. Big Daddy believes you should turn off the television. And get some exercise. And read more. If you’re not sure what to read, Big Daddy recommends you start here14. And here15. And here16. And here17., here18. and here19.. Big Daddy Malcontent believes organized religion (not religious belief, mind you) exists to subjugate and manipulate the populace20.. As Gore Vidal once put it, “A cult is a religion that lacks political clout.”
The existence of conspiracies can hardly be argued. What can be argued is the nature of the conspiracies, and who is carrying them out. But, as Robert Anton Wilson observed, “most ‘good citizens’ would rather die, even in prolonged torture, than to face the facts.” Construction and deletion is how psychologists describe this phenomenon. We form mental constructs – that America stands for freedom and justice, for example – and delete any data that seems to contradict the constructs. As the central deity in the Church of the Sub Genius, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs instructs21., “The major errors by which most people are deceived are (1) the belief that our rulers are dumb, and (2) the belief that they mean well. They are not dumb and they don’t mean well.”


Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Hegellian Dialectic In Action

Whenever someone utters the word, ‘philosopher,’ most people think of Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and so on. But I would argue that there is a philosopher that has had a much greater impact on modern history than any of these gents. His name is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Hegel was fascinated with the idea of conflict in thought, as in, self vs. other; authority vs. freedom; knowledge vs. faith, etc. He felt that the human mind was the only place where the different stages of these conflicts could exist simultaneously, forming a mélange that made up the individual’s worldview. This conflict between a thesis and an antithesis forms a synthesis that incorporates elements of both; Hegel called this phenomenon ‘dialectic,’ which comes from the Greek word dialektikē, which means ‘art of debate.’

When applied to world events, the Hegellian Dialectic can be used to intelligently observe conflicting ideologies and accurately predict or even influence the conflicts’ outcomes. The well-positioned string-pullerAristotle Onassis or the Carlyle Group, say – can even benefit by aiding both sides in the conflict.

A number of private organizations have been established for the purpose of doing just that. The Trilateral Commission, The Bilderberg Group, Skull and Bones, Council on Foreign Relations and other more obscure organizations exist to control the debate – to prevail no matter which choice is made by the masses. Whether the masses choose the liberal, anti-war candidate (Kerry) or the conservative hawk (Bush), the winner is an insider – a member of the club. If the winner fucks up, the way Bush has, the masses go running into the arms of the other guy – in this case, John Kerry, or, more accurately, his running mate, John Edwards.

It’s good cop-bad cop. Target or Wal-Mart. Coke or Pepsi. No matter which one is chosen, the power structure that produced the choice triumphs, and outsiders lose.

It is interesting to note, for example, that lumber baron Frederick Weyerhaeuser and early environmentalist Gifford Pinchot were both Skull and Bones members, as, of course, were 2004 presidential campaign rivals John Kerry and George W. Bush. Arch conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and “New Democrat” Bill Clinton each got early political boosts following visits to the Bilderberg Group. And Cecil Rhodes’ scholarship fund, established – according his will – for the purpose of “the extension of British rule throughout the world,” has aided such conservative stalwarts as CIA director R. James Woolsey and Supreme Court Justice David Souter and such noted liberals as Kris Kristofferson, Bill Bradley and Strobe Talbott.

But these organizations weren’t established out of some diabolical desire to rule the world; on the contrary, the impulse was altruistic. It’s just that from the relatively narrow perspective of the early bankers and industrialists, the masses – especially the non-white ones – needed guidance that only their superior intellects could provide. As Carroll Quigley observes in Tragedy and Hope, these “were gracious and cultured gentlemen of somewhat limited social experience who were much concerned with the freedom of expression of minorities and the rule of law for all, who constantly thought in terms of Anglo-American solidarity, of political partition and federation, and who were convinced that they could gracefully civilize the Boers of South Africa, the Irish, the Arabs, and the Hindus, and who are largely responsible for the partitions of Ireland, Palestine, and India, as well as the federations of South Africa, Central Africa, and the West Indies.” So, it seems today’s predicament is more a failure of good intentions than a design of bad ones. But that doesn’t make things any better for us. If anything, it makes things worse because it is so difficult to tell where the incompetence ends and the shameless profiteering begins. Exacerbating matters is the fact that the bankers and industrialists who started this scam are long gone, and in their place is a coterie of shallow thinkers who are in every way inferior to their predecessors.

The latest incarnation of the Hegellian Dialectic is the sudden effort by Democrats to capitalize from the Bush Administration’s blunders in Iraq. First, war profiteer Dianne Feinstein tells Wolf Blitzer she was duped into supporting the war. Next, former vice presidential candidate and Bilderberg guest John Edwards declares he “was wrong” to support the war in Iraq. What we the people are supposed to believe is that voting the Democrats back into office will constitute a real change in leadership, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Quigley famously opined, “The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies – one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left – is a foolish idea. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can throw the rascals out at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. The policies that are vital and necessary for America are no longer subjects of significant disagreement, but are disputable only in detail, procedure, priority, or method.”
So, while the voting half of the republic argues about pointless side issues like gun control and abortion, the corporate locomotive chugs along unhindered. The tragedy isn’t simply that the electoral process into which so many have invested their aspirations is a hoax; the tragedy is that things like the environment, education, healthcare and true human progress – if considered at all – are merely done so as products that generate profits for two wings of the same corporate power structure. I doubt if that was what Hegel had in mind.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Who is Ahmed Chalabi?

Ahmed Chalabi is a scoundrel of the first order. He is a central figure in the "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal" that former Colin Powell aide Larry Wilkerson says has hijacked American foreign policy.

So, what is he doing in Washington today?

Why, he's there to help is cabal-mates get their story straight amid a wave of scandal regarding falsified pre-war intelligence, of course. This guy's rap sheet is so long, it is a miracle of modern politicking that he is even still alive, let alone poised to assume the reins of the country he helped ruin.

With the help of Chalabi, Diebold and the administration's minions in the supposedly liberal media, America's reins of power have been siezed in a (mostly) bloodless coup d'etat.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Trickle-Up Theory (part 3)

The other monolithic figure of early modern banking was the House of Morgan. Led by the notorious J.P. Morgan (junior and senior), the Morgan bank stood atop the international financial world for over a century, controlling railroads, telegraph networks, mining concerns, shipping lines, lumber, oil and steel conglomerates and greatly influencing the politics of four continents. At its height, the House of Morgan simultaneously symbolized all that is good and bad about American capitalism. J.P. Morgan was an original patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave generously to the American Museum of Natural History and St. Luke’s Hospital, kept a seldom-occupied box at the Metropolitan Opera and helped launch the legendary Groton prep school. At the same time, his bank loaned money to fascist Italy, bankrolled Mussolini’s American P.R. campaign and financed wars on at least three continents.

Morgan, along with the other influential banks of the day, National City Bank, Kuhn Loeb and Co., and Brown Bros. Harriman, ushered in the era of globalism that now dominates international trade; and their “gentleman Banker’s Code” would be considered insider trading by today’s standards. Nevertheless, for good or ill, the House of Morgan was instrumental in America’s rise to its present position as the world’s lone superpower.

Like the Rothschilds before it, the House of Morgan has humble beginnings. Originally called the House of Peabody, the bank was founded by a rags-to-riches Baltimore dry-goods merchant named George Peabody. Peabody dropped out of school when his father died and went to work in his brother’s shop to support his widowed mother and six siblings. His flair for business gained him the capital to move to Baltimore and buy into a partnership with successful merchant Elisha Riggs, whom he met while fighting in the War of 1812. Together, Peabody and Riggs worked their way to the top of Baltimore’s merchant class.

In 1835, like most of the other former British colonies, Maryland was saddled with debt. They had taken out loans from London banks to finance railroads and canals, which they hoped would spur business and foster trade. When the new commerce failed to materialize, Maryland, like several other states, found herself in a financial pickle. Local hatred toward foreign bankers caused state legislatures to threaten to renege on the loans, and Peabody was selected to lead a commission to renegotiate the debt. Peabody successfully argued that only more loans would assure repayment of the old ones, and secured an additional $8 million for Maryland.

While in London, Peabody fell in love with the business and lifestyles of the city’s merchant bankers, and he decided to move there and form his own bank. In 1837, with a loan from Riggs, he did just that, setting up Peabody, Riggs and Co. at the prestigious address of 31 Moorgate in London. Now he was shoulder-to-shoulder with such banking luminaries as the Baring Brothers, who had financed the Louisiana Purchase, and the aforementioned Rothschilds.

But it was an uphill battle for Peabody in this new enterprise. State after state reneged on interest payments, and five American governors formed a debtor’s cartel leveraging for debt repudiations. Peabody’s partner, Riggs, wanted out of the arrangement, and Peabody was forced to go it alone. Moreover, entry into the celebrated society of British bankers – already difficult for an American – became impossible under the cloud of defaulted American loans.

But Peabody’s neighbor, the Barings Bank, was also stuck with defaulted bond issues, and together the two houses concocted a scheme to get the states back on good footing. The plot involved such shameless acts as paying newspapers to run editorials in favor of debt repayment, establishing a political slush fund to be used for electing (mostly Whig) pro-debt repayment legislators and even convincing clergymen to preach on the moral sanctity of contracts. They even bribed the orator and statesman Daniel Webster to make speeches on the topic.

The ploy worked. With a couple of exceptions, the depreciated state bonds that Peabody had bought up resumed interest payments, and Peabody reaped a fortune. Later, with revolution in Europe, a gold rush in California and a war with Mexico, American securities became the safe bet and the House of Peabody’s standing among the London merchant bankers was cemented.

Though known for his philanthropy later in his life, Peabody was friendless miser. “I have never forgotten and never can forget the great privations of my early years,” he once told an acquaintance. This scar upon his memory greatly affected his attitude toward money, and some have observed that the philanthropy for which he is remembered today was little more than an attempt to repair his reputation as a tightfisted loner.

Junius Morgan, who had become Peabody’s partner in 1854, later recounted an episode that perfectly illustrates Peabody’s stinginess. Upon arriving to work one morning, Morgan found Peabody at his desk looking pale and feverish. “Mr. Peabody, with that cold you ought not to stick here,” Morgan suggested. Peabody reluctantly agreed and proceeded home. Twenty minutes later, while on his way to the Royal Exchange, Morgan came upon Peabody standing in the driving rain. “I thought you were going home,” exclaimed Morgan. “Well I am, Morgan,” Peabody replied. “But there’s only been a two-penny bus come along as yet and I am waiting for a penny one.”

Peabody’s Parsimony extended to other matters, as well. In 1854, when Junius Spencer Morgan became Peabody’s only partner, part of the agreement was that in ten years’ time, Peabody would leave the reins – and the firm’s name – to Morgan. After nearly 30 years of work, the House of Peabody had become one of the pillars of international finance; continuing the name would help assure continued success. But in 1864, even as he was donating thousands to charities all over the world, he refused Morgan use of the Peabody name.

“It was, at that time, the bitterest disappointment of [his] life that Peabody refused to allow the old firm name to be continued,” Morgan’s grandson recalled. Morgan reluctantly changed the name to J.S. Morgan and Company.

Despite Peabody’s stinginess in personal matters, he was generous in his endowments to a wide variety of charities. He formed a trust fund to build housing for London’s poor. Called Peabody Estates, they had gas lamps and running water, unlike the fetid hovels that had hitherto served as the city’s poorhouses. The trust fund continues today, financing subsidized housing in London. He endowed a natural history museum at Yale, an archeology and ethnology museum at Harvard and an educational fund for emancipated southern blacks. Each of these gifts bore the Peabody name, which is why he is remembered even today for his philanthropy.

“Unlike later Morgan benefactions, often anonymous and discreet,” notes The House of Morgan author, Ron Chernow, “Peabody wanted his name plastered on every library, fund, or museum he endowed.” Unfortunately for Morgan, this did not extend to his banking house. “Perhaps in his new sanctity,” Chernow adds, “he wanted to erase his name from the financial map and enshrine it in the world of good works.”

When Peabody died in 1869, the British government prepared a grave for him at Westminster Abbey in an effort to recognize his generous endowment to London’s poor. But Peabody’s wish was to be buried in his birthplace, Danvers, Massachusetts. So, Queen Victoria arranged for his body to be transported stateside upon The Monarch, England’s newest and most formidable warship.

In 1946, Thomas Lamont, chairman of J.P. Morgan and Co., asked Lord Bicester, senior partner of Morgan Grenfell, the London branch of the bank, for a copy of Queen Victoria’s letter thanking Peabody for aiding London’s poor. Bicester replied in part:
“I have always understood that Mr. Peabody, though known as a great philanthropist, was one of the meanest men that ever walked…I believe he left several illegitimate children unprovided for.”

Check back later for more on J.P. Morgan and Co.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Protests? What Protests?

I was living in San Francisco during the first Gulf War. One Saturday there was an immense protest march starting in the Mission district and ending downtown where a long list of speakers and performers had gathered to lash out at Bush the Elder. Most estimates put the crowd at around 500,000—nearly the population of the city itself—and indeed at the crest of every hill one could see marchers 20 or 30 abreast snaking endlessly through the streets. Aging hippies, skate punks, nuns, soldiers, teachers, bikers, dykes-on-bikes, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and just about every other human category was well represented.
Afterwards, my roommates and I raced home to see if we could catch a glimpse of ourselves or any of our friends on the evening news. To our naive surprise, the local news spent about 15 minutes of its broadcast—an eternity in the TV news biz—interviewing the dozen or so pro-war demonstrators who had gathered near the Alameda naval base. At the very end of the broadcast, the slick Beautiful Person who was reading the TelePrompTer that evening said, “Several thousand demonstrators marched to protest the war. Now this.”
“Well, those news guys know which side their bread is buttered on,” quipped my older and more jaded roommate.
I am therefore not surprised that the main$tream media utterly ignored Thursday’s anti-war demonstrations across the country. A little nudge from the Fourth Estate is all it would take to send George W. Douche and his coven of cronies toppling, but General Electric, Disney, Viacom and the other oligarchs won’t allow it.
The main$tream media aren’t driven simply by greed and laziness as Al Franken contends; they are driven by blatant pro-corporate, pro-administration, pro-war ideology. The only reason anything ‘liberal’ ever makes it into primetime is the M$M’s desperate attempt to maintain the illusion of objectivity, and the dumber we get, the easier their job becomes.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The "Mistake"

"Control the press and you control the minds of men."
-Cecil Rhodes

In the English language, many words experience a shift in meaning over countless years of usage. 'Awful,' for instance, used to have the same definition as today’s 'awesome.' In fact, the no. 2 definition for 'awful' in the American Heritage dictionary states, “Commanding, inspiring, or filled with awe.” It’s easy to see why. When one sees the Sistine Chapel or the Grand Canyon for the first time, one is usually filled with awe. No one knows for sure how 'awful' shifted from meaning ‘inspiring’ to today’s meaning of ‘terrible.’ It was probably the same process by which ‘bad’ actually means ‘good’ in some circles.

Sometimes the rapidity with which words shift definitions has disturbingly Orwellian consequences. One such example is the rapidly changing definition of the word 'mistake.' Just a few short years ago, a mistake was an unintended action that usually produced an unpleasant result – like when you mistake salt for sugar in a recipe or when a foul ball smashes the neighbor’s window.

Today, however, 'mistake' has come to define any instance in which a famous or powerful person was caught red-handed doing something illegal or morally reprehensible. When Dwight Gooden got caught with cocaine in his system all those times, those were just ‘mistakes.’ On a recent installment of 60 Minutes, correspondent Ed Bradley asked New York Yankees infielder Derek Jeter whether he had difficulty reconciling teammate Jason Giambi’s steroid use with Jeter’s well publicized anti-drug stance, Jeter responded by saying, “well, yeah, but you understand that people make mistakes…”

Listen up, people. THESE ARE NOT MISTAKES. Jason Giambi did not slip and accidentally inject himself with steroids; he fucking cheated. He intentionally violated the rules, and he did so repeatedly until he got caught.

Big deal, you say? While it’s true that Giambi’s steroid use, or the drunken, drug-addled, sex-crazed misbehavior – often referred to as ‘mistakes’ – of countless rock stars and Hollywood luminaries, have little impact on society, this generous definition of the word 'mistake' has bled into the world of politics and journalism. The phrase, ‘intelligence failure,’ for example, is nothing but a euphemism for 'lie.' The only failure was in the administration’s inability to conceal the lies from the public – a trick at which they are usually quite skilled.

The same can be said for the main$tream media’s pre-war cheerleading. The leading lights of journalistic integrity, the New York Times and the Washington Post – badly burned by the failure to locate WMDs and the poor prosecution of the Iraq War – have issued a spate of ridiculous “oopses.”

But, unlike Giambi’s steroid use or, say, Robert Downey’s struggles with heroin, these ‘mistakes’ have immense, far-reaching consequences. As Z Magazine’s Mike Whitney points out, “Along with the New York Times, the Washington Post is perhaps the most widely syndicated news in the country. Their stories not only inform the national debate (on any given topic), but also establish the rationale for military action. The apocryphal stories that appeared on the front page of the Post were the basis for an illegal invasion and countless deaths.”

The fact that both the Times and the Post have issued mea culpas in recent months is evidence of their desperation to maintain their lucrative position as corporate shills. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” they seem to say, as Toto pulls the curtain aside. The other guilty parties – NBC, CNN, L.A. Times, et al – haven’t even bothered to issue apologies.

And the lying – or mistaking – continues.

In the hours following Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s Oct. 28 press conference, MSNBC’s coverage was blatantly skewed to the Right with commentary from such impartial judges as Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson, not to mention input from pundits and ‘analysts’ who appeared without the disclosure that they were from such notorious right wing institutions as the Cato Institute and the Washington Times.

But some of the biggest lies – or mistakes – come in the form of the lying-by-omission strategy so often employed by the so-called liberal media. After all, the real story here isn’t simply the outing of a covert operative; the real story is the fountain of lies that spewed out of the administration – and the press – in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lies such as these: that Sept. 11 mastermind, Mohammed Atta met with one of Saddam’s henchmen in Prague; that an intercepted shipment of aluminum tubes was intended for the manufacture of weapons grade plutonium; that Saddam was attempting to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger. The bovine press has obediently omitted from its reporting that all of these lies have been thoroughly debunked. Moreover, there has been no mention in the M$M of the fact that National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was the one who created the crudely forged documents purporting to show Saddam’s intent to procure the Niger Yellowcake that is at the center of this controversy.
Make no mistake – the press that you count on to provide balanced coverage of the events that impact millions of lives is lying to you. The only mistake they made was that you found out they were lying.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Three Outta Five Ain't Bad

Drunk on hubris, three out of the last five Republican administrations have been rocked by scandal, irrefutably demonstrating the ‘moral values’ party’s utter contempt for the electorate.
Watergate, Iran-Contra and now Plamegate have managed to bubble to the surface despite the main$tream media’s steadfast resolve to focus instead on lotto winners, celebrity breakups and natural disasters. Even after the churning cesspools become too putrid to ignore, said corporate press does its best to convince the suspicious-but-gullible masses that these are isolated incidents and not symptoms of a never-ending determination to usurp the democratic process.
Of course, the Democrats are not free from blame; indeed, Bill Clinton helped to insure that four consecutive decades have seen legal action against the White House, contributing to the increasing public perception that Republicans and Democrats are merely two branches of the same morally bankrupt, corporate run political structure. But whereas Republican scandals blossom until they are too huge even for the “Fourth Estate” to ignore, Democratic scandals are brought to light by the endless ferreting of the so-called liberal media. How much sooner might Shrub’s administration have crumbled had the press given the same attention to Jeff Gannon, the Downing Street Memo and the President’s notorious intake that they gave to Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinski?
In any case, whether you’re an idealist or a cynic, a liberal, a conservative or a moderate, a Northeastern Elitist or a Bible thumping redneck, you find yourself – yet again – trying to make heads or tails of a complicated presidential scandal. Could this be why half of us never vote?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Couldn't have said it better myself

Check out this article by Cenk Uygur.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Some Things Never Change

Charles Bukowski is a writer who is known mainly for his short stories and novels about hookers, gambling, heavy drinking and weird, abusive relationships. Later in his writing career, he also took up poetry. Here is one of my favorites.
In addition to his fiction and poetry, Charles Bukowski is the author of one of the best political essays ever written. It was originally published in a volume entitled, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. That volume has since been split in two and published under the titles The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Tales of Ordinary Madness, both published by City Lights. The essay below appears in the former. I hope City Lights won’t be too pissed that I reprinted it here. Pardon the lack of capital letters; that’s the way he wrote it.
"Dear Mr. Bukowski: Why don't you ever write about politics or world affairs?"
"Dear M.K.: What for? Like, what's new? --- everybody knows the bacon is burning."

our raving takes place quite quietly while we are staring down at the hairs of a rug --- wondering what the shit went wrong when they blew up the trolley full of jellybeans with the poster of Popeye the Sailor stuck on the side.
that's all that matters: the good dream gone, and when that's gone it's all gone. the rest is horseshit games for the Generals and money-makers, speaking of which --- I see where another U.S. bomber full of H-bombs fell out of the sky again --- THIS time into the sea while SUPPOSEDLY protecting my life. the State Dept. says the H-bombs were "unarmed," whatever that means. then we continue to read where one of the H-bombs (lost) had split open and was spreading radioactive shit everywhere while supposedly protecting me WHILE I hadn't even asked for protection. the difference between a Democracy and a Dictatorship is that in a Dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting.
getting back to the H-bomb dropout --- a little while back the same thing happened off the coast of SPAIN. (we are everywhere, protecting me.) again the bombs get lost --- careless little toys. it took them 3 months --- if I remember properly --- to find and lift that last bomb out of there. It may have been 3 weeks but to the people in that coast town it must have seemed 3 years. that last bomb --- the god damned thing had gotten itself wedged on the edge of a sandhill far down in the sea. and everytime they tried to hook the thing, so tenderly, it would shake loose and roll a little further down the hill. meanwhile, all the poor people in that coast town were tossing in their beds at night wondering if they'd be blown to hell, courtesy of the Stars and Stripes. of course, the U.S. State Dept. issued a statement saying the H-bomb had no detonation fuse, but meanwhile the rich had left for other parts and the American sailors and townspeople looked very nervous. (after all, it the things couldn't blow up what were they flying them around for? might as well carry 2-ton salamis. fuse means "spark" or "trigger," and "spark" can come from anywhere, and "trigger" means "jolt" or any similar action that will set off the firing mechanism. NOW the terminology is "unarmed," which sounds safer but is the same thing.) anyhow, they hooked at the bomb but as the saying goes, the thing seemed to have a mind of its own. then a few undersea storms came about and our lovely little bomb rolled further and further down its hill.
the sea is very deep, much deeper than our leadership.
finally, special equipment was designed just to haul bomb-ass and the thing was pulled from the sea. Palomares. yes, that's where it happened: Palomares. and you know what they did next? the American Navy had a BAND CONCERT in the town park in celebration of finding the bomb - if the thing wasn't dangerous they were really cutting loose. yes, and the sailors played the music and everyone came together in one big sexual and spiritual release. whatever happened to the bomb they pulled out of the sea, I don't know, nobody (except the few) knows, and the band played on while 1,000 tons of radio- active Spanish topsoil was shipped to Aiken, S.C. in sealed containers. I'll be the rent is cheap in Aiken, S.C.
so now our bombs are swimming and sinking, chilled and "un-armed" about Iceland.
so what do you do when you've got the people's minds on something not so good? easy, you get their minds on something else. they can only think about one thing at a time. like, all right, headline of Jan. 23, 1968: B-52 CRASHES OFF GREENLAND WITH H-BOMBS; DANES IRKED. Danes irked? oh, mother!
anyhow, suddenly, Jan. 24, headline: NORTH KOREANS SEIZE U.S. NAVY SHIP.
oh boy, patriotism is back! why, those dirty bastards! I thought THAT war was over! ah ha, I see --- the REDS! Korean puppets!
it says under the A.P. wirephoto, something like this --- the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo --- formerly an army cargo ship, now converted into one of the Navy's secret spy ships equipped with electric monitoring gear and oceanographic equipment was forced into Wonsan Harbor off the coast of North Korea. those dirty Red bastards, always fucking around!
but I DID notice that the lost H-bomb story got shoved into a small space: "Radiation Detected at B-52 Crash Site; Split Bomb hinted."
we are told that the president was awakened between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. and told of the capture of the Pueblo. I presume he went back to sleep.
the U.S. says the Pueblo was in international waters; the Koreans say the ship was in territorial waters. one country is lying, one is not. then one wonders, what good is a spy ship in international waters? it's like wearing a raincoat on a sunny day. the closer you can get on in, the better your instruments pick up.
headline: Jan. 26, 1968: U.S. CALLS UP 14,700 AIR RESERVISTS. the lost H-bombs off Iceland have completely disappeared from print as if it had never happened.
Sen. John C. Stennis (D.-Miss.) said Mr. Johnson's decision (the call-up of Air Reserves) was "necessary and justified" and added, "I hope he will not hesitate to mobilize ground reserve components as well."
Senate minority leader, Richard B. Russell (D.-Ga.): "In the last analysis, this country must get the return of that ship and the men that were seized. After all, great wars have started from much less serious incidents than this."
House Speaker John W. McCormack (D.-Mass.): "The American people have to wake up to the realization that communism is still bent on world domination. there is too much apathy about it."
I think that if Adolph Hitler were around now he would pretty much enjoy the present scene. what's there to say about politics and world affairs? the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban crisis, spy planes, spy ships, Vietnam, Korea, lost H-bombs, riots in American cities, starvation in India, purge in Red China? are there good guys and bad guys? some that always lie, some that never lie? are there good governments and bad governments? no, there are only bad governments and worse governments. will there be a flash of light and heat that rips us apart one night while we are screwing or crapping or reading the comic strips or pasting blue-chip stamps into a book? instant death is nothing new, nor is mass instant death new. But we've improved the product; we've had these centuries of knowledge and culture and discovery to work with; the libraries are fat and crawling and overcrowded with books; great paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars; medical science is transplanting the human heart; you can't tell a madman from a sane one upon the streets, and suddenly we find our lives, again, in the hands of the idiots. the bombs may never drop; the bombs might drop. eeney, meeney, miney, mo-
now if you'll forgive me, dear readers, I'll get back to the whores and the horses and the booze, while there's time. if these contain death, then, to me, it seems far less offensive to be responsible for your own death than the other kind which is brought to you fringed with phrases of Freedom and Democracy and Humanity and/or any of all that Bullshit.
first post, 12:30. first drink, now. and the whores will always be around. Clara, Penny, Alice, Jo- eeny, meeney, miney, mo-

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fisher Price or DHS: You be the judge

Airport security can be fun. Take a look.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Miller's Self-Infatuation Ruins a Perfectly Good Conspiracy

It seems to me that everyone is missing the point on this Judith Miller Plame identity leak thingy. Well, almost everyone.
It is extremely rare for me to find common ground with right wing whack jobs like John Hinderaker, but I think he’s onto something here. It’s funny that the common ground betwixt lefties like myself and righties like Hinderaker is always on the outskirts of ConspiracyTheoryville.
Hinderaker’s take – and this is something that I’ve been saying for a while – is that the real issue with Miller stems from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s previous investigation of her in which she was accused of leaking news of an impending FBI raid on a Muslim charity suspected of funneling money to terrorists.
The silence of the supposedly liberal Main$tream media on this very, very important point seems to me like proof of the theory’s veracity.
For those of you not up to speed on this aspect of the Miller saga, here’s the upshot: In December of 2001, Miller received a tip that that the FBI was about to raid the offices of an Islamic charity organization called the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The FBI believed HLF was knowingly channeling donations to Hamas and possibly other terrorists. On December 3, one day before the scheduled raid, Miller called HLF offices to ask them how they felt about the government’s decision to freeze their assets. According to Fitzgerald, she also warned them about the impending raid, which gave them time to destroy crucial evidence.
Miller’s cover story prior to her release from prison was that she was waiting for Scooter Libby to waive the confidentiality agreement he had with her, something he had already done way back in July. We know that Miller’s lawyer, Bob Bennett, spent ten days prior to her release negotiating with Fitzgerald. What were they negotiating if Libby had already given his waiver? Could it be that Bennett was trying to convince Fitzgerald to restrict the grand jury questioning to the Plame investigation only?
Fitzgerald met recently with Judge Thomas Hogan, probably to request an extension of the grand jury, whose term expires on October 28. Maybe Fitzgerald is trying to buy a little extra time in order to find a connection between the two investigations. Surely such a connection exists.
Let’s take a look at Miller's post-9/11 reporting, shall we? First, she protects a Muslim charity/terrorist front organization just three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, she sounds the war bugle with a series of articles riddled with qualifiers like “if verified” and “some officials believe,” while sidling up to power starved frauds like Ahmed Chalabi and obscure defectors like Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri (not to mention a host of anonymous ‘sources’). Next, she shamelessly promotes her new book on the anthrax threat with a series of ‘news’ articles, including the envelope of white powder she herself received (which turned out to be harmless). Later, after the war she wanted so badly finally comes, she gets herself ‘embedded’ with an army unit that quickly gains notoriety as the “Miller Unit,” as it gallivants all over Iraq in a futile search for the very WMDs that Hans Blix, et al already said didn’t exist. Shortly after returning from this rogue operation, she takes her revenge on Joe Wilson by helping to leak his wife’s covert identity. (Incidentally, Miller's shady reporting goes way back.)
Somesink smells fishy in Denmark! If, like me, you have little difficulty believing in things like Operation Mockingbird, then this Judith Miller Plame identity leak thingy becomes easier to understand. The only reason we even know about it is that, like Narcissus, Miller became infatuated with her own image. I can’t wait until she drowns in the reflecting pool.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Trickle-Up Theory (part 2)

“Who are those guys?”
Butch Cassidy

Okay, so modern banking is a scam designed to fatten the rich at the expense of the poor. But how did it get that way?
Since its inception, banking has been crooked. The first banks appeared in ancient Egypt, Babylonia and Greece, where wealthy farmers and tradesmen deposited gold and silver in local temples for safekeeping. Pagan priests would loan the gold to needy families at rapacious interest rates and then split the proceeds with the depositors. Families that could not repay their loans were jailed, executed or sold into slavery. The church – which was also the government – grew exponentially rich, along with the depositors.
Banking grew in complexity during the Roman Empire, when the fortunes of war were deposited in private banking institutions, which were allowed to do what they pleased with the wealth as long as they helped finance further conquests. Private banks in Rome also helped finance the construction of roads, aqueducts, monuments and temples; laborers and soldiers were paid in salt, a valuable commodity at the time. (It is from this practice that we get the word “salary.”) If ever a private banker in ancient Rome got into hot water with his customers, all he had to do was finance a monument to the Caesar of the moment and the uprising would be quelled.
The middle ages saw the next great leap forward in banking with the advent monastic orders of knighted crusaders, most notably, the Knights Templar, who used stolen riches to expand their ranks and curry favor with the Papacy. Like the other monastic orders at the time of the crusades, the Knights Templar, or Knights of the Temple of Solomon, began in earnest, taking vows of celibacy and poverty. Their name was derived from the portion of Jerusalem they occupied after the Muslims had been driven out in the early 12th century. Legend had it that the mosque al-Aqsa in Jerusalem had been built on the site of the original Temple of Solomon. Since this was the quarter they inhabited during their occupation of Jerusalem, they began calling themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. Over the centuries, this name was shortened to the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, then later, Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar took their orders directly from the Pope and obeyed no other laws. This appealed to many noblemen despite the vows of celibacy and poverty, not to mention the harsh and dangerous existence led by the Knights Templar. Noblemen from all over Europe campaigned for admittance to the Knights Templar, offering their vast riches and land holdings as dowries. As a result, the Knights Templar grew in wealth and power, acquiring stately manors and immeasurable riches. They also gained a reputation as unparalleled stalwarts when it came to guarding their wealth.
At this point in history, wealthy noblemen had no method for protecting their riches from bandits and thieves other than to guard it themselves, which hindered other activities. Since the Knights Templar were already guarding their own vast riches, it would take no extra effort for them to guard other people’s riches, too. Before long, it became common practice for noblemen throughout Europe and the Middle East to give their riches to the Knights Templar for safekeeping. Soon, even governments adopted the practice: England even turned over a portion of the crown jewels to the Templars’ able watch.
The Templars quickly added other financial services to their repertoire, including debt and tax collection, loans and even cargo and passenger shipping. They issued notes to depositors who then traded the notes rather than transferring the actual gold and jewels. Thus was born the advent of paper money.
After nearly 200 years, the Knights Templar had grown richer and more powerful than most of the countries in Europe. More importantly, they had grown more powerful than the Vatican, a development that did not sit well with then Pope Clement V, who ordered the arrests of all the Knights Templar and the redistribution of their wealth, most of which went to Templar rivals, the Knights Hospitaller, who, rather than banking, had established what might be called the first hotel chain.

The early modern period saw the emergence of Jewish banking establishments. Since Christian doctrine forbade the collection of interest, and since most other professions were off limits to Jews, banking and money trading became primarily Jewish occupations.
In medieval times, just about every kingdom, duchy or realm had its own coinage, usually bearing a likeness of the duke or prince in power. A nobleman traveling from one kingdom to the next – often a distance of less than a hundred miles – would be compelled to have with him the coin of the realm. After all, the duke or prince in one province would be most offended indeed to see the face of his neighboring rival stamped on a coin. So, some method had to be devised that would ensure that travelers had the proper coinage in their purses. Local Jews, familiar with the various regional coins and their values, would often trade one coin for another for a small fee. Over the years, these small fees would add up, and the clever and thrifty moneychanger might, on occasion, find himself with a small fortune.
Oftentimes, these small fortunes were used to buy passage from Europe to Jerusalem, where the Arabs looked upon Jews with less disfavor than their European counterparts. Other times, however, moneychangers would stay put, using their wealth to curry favor with the local monarch. Frequently, this entailed financing a war or building an addition to the castle. The moneychanger would provide the necessary funds in exchange for later repayment plus interest, or, as in most cases, increased freedom. In the aptly named Dark Ages, the average Jew’s activities were severely restricted. A small loan to the local duke might earn letters of transit, which, despite the Jew’s low social standing, would be required to be honored by any local subject who wished to keep his head.
This is precisely the method Mayer Amschel Rothschild used to deliver his family from the Jewish slums of Frankfurt, Germany to the pinnacle of the now famous Rothschild banking house. In 1743, the year Rothschild was born, Jews were not even allowed surnames unless one was given to them by a local official. In the place of surnames, many Jews took the name of the house in which they were born. As this was before the advent of numbered address systems, most houses had a sign or plaque differentiating their house from the ones around it. Rothschild means Red Shield in German. Mayer Rothschild, therefore, means simply Mayer from the house with the Red Shield.
Mayer Rothschild was a trinket shop owner and moneychanger who collected rare and discontinued coins as a hobby. The local landgrave, Elector William I, shared Rothschild’s interest in rare coins and invited the young moneychanger to his castle to compare collections. Rothschild handled himself skillfully, offering several rare coins as a gift to the wealthy landgrave. Soon, Rothschild was named Elector’s financial agent.
Elector William I had made a fortune renting out his famed Hessian fighting men to kingdoms all over Europe. When his cousin, a Danish prince, requested a large loan for a war he was losing, Elector William I found himself in a quandary. He knew the loan would never be repaid in full, since the cousin would cite family ties as justification for reneging on the loan. He knew also that denying the request would do irreparable harm not only to familial relations, but also to the fragile political balance of the time. The clever Rothschild came to his rescue, devising a plan that would both preserve the delicate political situation and insure repayment of the loan. Rothschild concocted a scheme whereby the Danish prince would get the money without knowing who it came from. He would therefore be bound by honor to repay the loan.
This was Rothschild’s breakthrough. Not only did the stunt earn him permanent letters of transit for him and his family, it also laid the groundwork for a continent-wide messenger service that would surpass those of all the kingdoms of Europe. This service was used widely for many decades to come, since it was faster and more confidential than any other such service then in existence. What’s more, the confidentiality did not extend to the Rothschilds themselves; by reading the messages being sent via their service, the Rothschilds were finely attuned to the political and financial activities of all of Europe. This arrangement led eventually to the Rothschilds’ virtual takeover of the British stock market and, therefore, their ascension to European aristocracy.
Mayer Rothschild’s five sons went on to form the largest banking conglomerate in the world, with branches in London, Paris, Vienna, Naples and Frankfurt. Their immense wealth and influence deeply affected the political landscape for many decades. The Rothschild’s achievements include the building of the Suez Canal, the Cape Town to Cairo railway, the formations of Rhodesia and Israel, and the rise of the De Beers diamond concern, to name just a few. The Rothschild’s influence had diminished significantly by the 20th century. The rise of Hitler forced them out of Germany and Austria; the annexation of Naples by Italy brought a halt to the Naples branch of the bank; and the emergence of national banks in England and France greatly reduced their influence in those countries. But the Rothschilds’ effect on the contemporary political topography can still be deeply felt. The current Rothschild generation is active in philanthropy, the arts and politics. Their impact cannot be overstated.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Temporary Insanity

Once again, the employment god has cast a critical eye in my direction. Without dwelling on the details, let’s just say that my most recent situation came to an acrimonious end. It wasn’t my fault — really. I didn’t mean to tell the boss his way of doing things was moronic; it just slipped out. In any event, my meager wages from that job left me little time with which to contemplate my next move. I had to act fast or I’d be spending the winter under a viaduct.
One of my previous swims in the treacherous waters of pre-employment dealt me an entanglement with a dangerous sea creature known as a temporary agency. The temporary agency is a creature with long, powerful tentacles with which it draws its prey into a deep, dark world of cubicles and 15-minute breaks and fast food lunches and unwanted friendships. The temp agency feeds primarily on desperation and aspiration, but will settle for a steady diet of petty recriminations. Its victims struggle eternally in a web of cute, inspirational banners and office birthday parties.
A favorite method of capture for the temp agency is to attach a tentacle to the victim and then just sort of forget about it. The would-be victim goes about its business unaware that it has a tentacle attached. In rare cases, the victim grows big and strong and the tentacle is unable to reel it in. The temp agency doesn’t care; it has many tentacles. But, more commonly, the victim goes about its business until some trouble arises and a struggle ensues. The struggle is an instantaneous signal to the temp agency, which quickly attaches more tentacles to both combatants. The scorned employer is suddenly in the market for fresh meat. The temp agency’s tentacles tighten. The unappreciated employee self-righteously but desperately seeks another source of income. The tentacles tighten.
Such was the case for me when I found myself — again — in the boiling and infested sea of hunger and overdue bills. The tentacle rescued me. It scooped me up and placed me gently on the warm beach of secure employment. It placed a refreshing drink in my hand, and, just as my lips were about to meet the straw, the tentacle jerked me violently into a deep miasma of pointless, demeaning servitude.

Some days are just unBEARable.
As I dressed myself for my first day of training, I noticed that my gut was even more difficult to tuck into my “good” pants than it had been at my previous job. Either I had been drinking more beer — and that can hardly be possible — or my metabolism is slowing with age and all that beer is growing more difficult to burn off. The previous night’s session was no consolation: I had to drink at least five beers just to find the courage to accept this dead-end position.
I arrived at my assignment at 8:30, but Kathleen Watson’s digital clock radio read 8:39. Kathleen Watson was the head of the company’s human resources department, which meant that she was the overseer of all the wage slaves. She didn’t look afraid to use the whip.
“May I help you?” she asked icily.
I quickly and timidly stated my business.
“Oh. Finally,” she said. Her short hair was red on the outside and black on the inside. Her tight dress revealed what was probably once a great body, but now it looked as though it had seen many miles of rough road, as they say. Her creased face and baritone voice betrayed years of smoking. I tried to imagine what brand of cigarettes she smoked. After a moment’s consideration, I concluded that she must smoke More’s — those long, dark brown, cigar-like coffin nails. She wore bright red rouge on her cheeks and crimson lip-gloss. Suddenly I pitied her.
“I’m sorry. Am I late?” I asked apologetically.
“You were supposed to be here at eight.”
“Oh. I was told 8:30,” I explained.
“Well, it’s eight thirty-nine,” she said sharply. Then she spirited away. I wasn’t sure if I should leave or stay. Had I missed the opportunity, such as it was? Suddenly, she returned with two pieces of paper.
“Sign here and here,” she commanded. I obeyed. “You can wait over there,” she said, gesturing crudely at a couple of chairs. I sat down and picked up a Newsweek that was resting on the end table. I flipped serendipitously to a story — a story, mind you, not an advertisement — about a $1.2 million special edition Mercedes Benz that will soon be available — sort of. The one pictured next to the article looked like something Johnny Quest would drive. It had a silverish aura around it. Mercedes, according to the article, plans to manufacture only 25 of the cars. It has a V-12 engine, gull wing doors, some kind of ceramic polymer body and an unfathomable top speed. In order to change a flat tire, the article said, owners must wait for a specially trained German mechanic to fly in from Mercedes headquarters in Bonn. Mercedes has already received 200 orders for the machine, which gets eight miles to the gallon.
Someone called my name. I looked up to find that a fat, blonde woman was, by all outward indications, extremely happy to see me.
“Hi!” she exclaimed. For a moment, I thought she recognized me from somewhere. I tried briefly to place her face in my resinated memory, but I quickly realized that I have met at least a million women just like her. Her manner of speaking turned everything into a one-word question.
“Firstthingwe’regonnado?” she began. “IstakeyerpitcherforyerIDbadge?”
“Okay,” I replied hesitantly.
“Okay!” she cheered. She shuffled hastily away, cradling a clipboard like a child on her ample hip. I inferred that I was supposed to follow her.
In a small room down a dark hall, someone had erected an enormous camera and tripod assembly. She nudged me into a chair and shoved my head against the wall. She then jerked my head to the side so that it lined up with a piece of tape on the wall.
“Okay!” she cheered again. She leapt behind the enormous howitzer of a camera and aimed a menacing flashbulb right at my face. A blast of pure white blinded me for several seconds.
“Okay! One more!” she exclaimed. The second shot, I figured, was meant to insure total blindness.
As I sightlessly groped my way, she led me through a maze of cubicles until, at last, we reached one occupied by another obese woman. This woman, who I could barely see, was going to be training me for the next few days. She, too, spoke in one-word questions.
“Himyname’sjenniferhowyadoin’?” she chirped. As my eyes recovered, I noticed a poster hanging on the wall of her cubicle. It was a photograph of a yawning grizzly bear. Along the bottom, in cheerful lettering, the caption read: “Some days are just unBEARable!”
“I’ll drink to that,” I thought.
After a while, with Jennifer yammering endlessly and me nodding in endless agreement, I became aware of several other posters decorating her cubicle. They had obviously been manufactured for fourth grade classrooms. One showed Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty and the gang painting a big sign that read, “Everything goes better when we work together!” Another one had a photo of a gorilla that appeared to be smiling — wildlife is popular among cubicle dwellers — the caption read: “Smile! It’s the first thing people like about you!” Yet another poster showed a bald eagle in two views superimposed on one another. Its caption read: “Let your dreams take flight!”
Obviously, exclamation points are the only punctuation employed by inspirational poster manufacturers.
The company to which I had been assigned on this go-around ran some sort of money order scam. It involved risky, short-term investments and probably resided somewhere right on the edge of legality. The place was loaded with surveillance cameras and signs that read “Access Restricted.” Everyone — even temps — had to wear an identification badge and security card. The card and the badge were attached to a retractable spool that could be clipped to a strap or belt.
On the second morning of my assignment, I was accosted near the front door by a security-conscious prick. (They’re everywhere these days.)
“Have you got your badge?” he demanded in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Now at this particular point in the day, a beige cubicle festooned with childish regalia was just about the last place on Earth I wanted to be. I should have said, “Nope. I’m an interloper. Kick me out.” But, instead, as you already know, I said, simply, “Yep,” as I obediently extended my ID badge. The frustrated Gestapo asshole reluctantly let me pass.
The training for my pathetic assignment consisted of two phases. The first was to learn how to load and operate the electronic money order dispensers used by the company in its scam. Since the rest of the operation relied on economic mumbo-jumbo and loopholes, mastery of the dispensers — the only tangible ingredient in this recipe for deceit — was required by everyone. The dispensers came in four models, from old and crappy to new and crappy. I had to learn the rudiments of their operation so that, when convenience store workers called me with questions about their machine, I would be able to walk them through the solution, step by step.
The second phase of training entailed learning how to read a variety of computer screens between which I would eventually be flipping. The screens provided the viewer with essential information about the money order machine in question. The convenience store worker would call to report — often in broken English — a malfunction of some sort with his or her money order machine, and the operator — me — would use the information on the screens to identify the problem, work on a solution and record the events of the call.
Due to lack of interest, I was the only person who showed up for training. This, said Jennifer, meant that training would go “way faster.” As we concluded each step of what I considered a mind-numbingly slow process, Jennifer would squeal with delight: “My! Ican’tbelievehowfastwe’regoing!”
Midway through the pea soup fog of my first morning, the first obese woman returned with my access card and identification badge. The badge was still warm from having been run through an electric laminating machine. The picture on my badge betrayed the feeling of dread that had been — and was still — coursing through every fiber of my being. No mention was made of the second picture. No doubt it has found its way into my Permanent Record.
Break time. At last. The only positive aspect of this particular work environment is the religious devotion its inhabitants have toward breaks. This is undoubtedly the result of countless migraines, acts of vandalism, unearned sicknesses and other forms of productivity-reducing defiance from the wage slaves. I walked to the lunchroom as quickly as I could without attracting attention. I poured myself a large cup of bad office coffee in a futile effort to fortify myself against the insanity that surrounded me. Coffee was the only mind-altering chemical permissible in this land of NFL memorabilia and United Way fundraisers, so I partook heavily. I sat down and completed a crossword that someone else had tried to fill in using a yellow felt-tip. The lead story in that day’s paper told of a local doctor who had punched a woman in the face. The woman, according to the story, had cut in front of the doctor in traffic. Naturally, the public’s sympathy was with the woman; naturally, mine was with the doctor.
Upon my return from break, I detected a commotion of some sort wending its way slowly through the cubicles. If it continued on its present course, the commotion would eventually arrive at my desk. I would be forced to interact. It wouldn’t be so bad if they would just let you work in silent hatred, but there is always some “Rah! Rah! Sisboombah!” bullshit taking place that is obviously designed to convert the nonbelievers. It’s like a Christian summer camp five days a week.
As the commotion in question made its way relentlessly toward me, it became clear to my non-believing eyes that it consisted of four grown men dressed as old ladies.
“What the fuck is that?” I demanded. In panic, I pursed my lips. Did I say that or just think it?
“Oh. It’stheMoneyGrams,” explained Jennifer gleefully. MoneyGram, she said, was one of the product services offered by the company. The company, she said, invented a character called a “MoneyGram,” which was really just a money-dispensing old lady, to promote this product service. Every month, in an effort to raise money for United Way, some of the employees would take part in a goofy stunt of some sort. On this particular occasion, some of the employees offered to pay an unspecified amount of money to United Way if these clowns would dress up as “MoneyGrams.” The poor slobs had to choose between paying the unspecified sum or dressing up as old ladies, in which case the challenger would be compelled to make the payment. I was doubly horrified. For starters, I had no desire to stand there and take part in this foolishness, and, secondly, I feared that the longer I worked there, the greater the chances that I would be forced to participate. But, by that time of course, I will have been thoroughly converted. It was all I could do to keep from running away.
After four days of this nonsense, I concluded that sleeping under a viaduct wasn’t that bad after all. When I went to the temp office to turn in my time sheets, I told my supervisor that I could no longer tolerate this position and that I wanted another assignment. She looked at me with that look that people give you when you tell them that you hate something that they love — blueberry pie or For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance.
It was unfathomable to her that, in this economy, someone would choose not to leap at the chance to become part of the Great American Workforce. To her, I was one of “them;” I was one of the people who “chose” to eat out of dumpsters and guzzle cheap wine. Nothing I could say would illuminate the vast regions of voluntary ignorance that occupied her soul.All I could do is take a deep breath and wonder silently if I had enough money for a beer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Trickle-Up Theory (part 1)

How Banks Prey on the Poor

When I was about eight years old, I opened my first bank account. It was a passbook savings account, and I’ll never forget the smiles on the bank managers’ faces as they patiently helped me fill in all the necessary paperwork. At the time, I assumed the smiles were inspired by the cute novelty of a little boy opening his first account, but upon reflection, I realize they were smiling at me the way Dracula smiles at his next victim.
“Come hither,” they beckoned helpfully. “I think you’ve got something on your neck.”
That experience 30 years ago was my last pleasant banking transaction. Since then, my banking career has been a nightmare of hidden fees, overdraft charges, denied loan applications and collection agents. Banks refer to their victims as customers, but a customer is someone whose repeat business one is trying to earn. Banks act as if they are doing you a favor by allowing you to open an account.
I have a friend who refuses to open a bank account. He keeps his money in a cookie jar on the top shelf of his cupboard. When he gets the desire to buy something like a new computer or a stereo, he simply saves his cash in the cookie jar until there’s enough to make the purchase in question. He pays his rent in cash; he buys money orders for his utility bills and all other expenses for which cash is inappropriate.
I used to make fun of him for his lowbrow approach to finance. Many times I derisively told him of the old Lithuanians I saw while waiting in line at my bank in Chicago who would come in every Saturday to count their money. The bank tellers wore expressions of frustrated resignation as the distrustful oldsters would demand to see their money and count it. I laughed cruelly at the way the old guys never realized that it was the same $5 thousand being counted over and over.
But who’s laughing now? As I write this, my checking account is overdrawn by $149.00. Every day it’s in the red, they add another $5.00. Are they doing this to earn my repeat business?
Those old Lithuanians are right to distrust banks. And so is my friend. Here’s why:
There are several methods banks use to extract as much money from their customers as possible. I should say from their poor customers, because the true purpose of almost every bank is to serve the rich at the expense of the poor. According to the New York Times, banks received over $30 billion in overdraft fees in 2001. Rather than offering overdraft protection to the working poor at a reasonable interest rate of, say, 10 to 20 percent, depending on the customer’s credit worthiness and length of employment, banks instead agree to cover bounced checks and debit card transactions and charge a fee of $20.00 to $35.00 for each overdraft. That means the $2.00 cup of coffee you purchase using your debit card two days before payday could end up costing you $37.00 or more. In effect, the bank is offering you a loan at an interest rate of around 190 percent. If you tack on the $5.00 or more per day many banks charge overdrawn accounts, the percentage rate climbs to over one thousand percent. That had better be one damn good cup of coffee.
But that’s not all. Most banks use many shady tricks to maximize the possibility of your being overdrawn. Here’s one little trick banks use to exploit their working class clientele:
Let’s say you have written several checks this week. The first check was for $650 for your rent or mortgage payment. The second check was for $45 for your phone bill. The next two checks were for around $20 apiece for gas and electric service. Then another one for around $40 or $50 for groceries. Then, throughout the week, you wrote three or four more checks for between $5 and $10 apiece for lunch. On top of that, you stopped for coffee a couple times on your way to work and wrote checks for around $2 each time. Throw in a pack of smokes or a six-pack of beer here and there and by payday, you’ve overdrawn your account by $15 or $20. Well, rather than debiting all the small checks first and then charging the $35 overdraft fee for the $650 rent payment, they debit the largest checks first so that they can charge the $35 overdraft fee several times over on all the little checks. Don’t believe me? Check your bank statement at the end of the month.
What’s more, most banks increase the overdraft charge if you’ve had more than a certain number of overdrafts in a given period of time. If you’re like me, the first pay period of the month can be difficult because rent and most utility bills are due by the 5th of the month. The obvious solution is to apply for overdraft protection. Overdraft protection provides the customer with a line of credit that kicks in automatically when expenditures exceed the amount of money in the customer’s account. The loan is paid back usually at an interest rate similar to that of most credit cards.
Unfortunately, the bank customers who need this service the worst – ones who find themselves in the red about once per month – are the ones least likely to be approved for such protection because they are considered bad credit risks. Paradoxically, one of the things the bank looks at in considering customers for overdraft protection is how many overdrafts the customer has had within the last 18 months or so. When my application for overdraft protection was denied for this very reason, I decided to create my own overdraft protection. My current financial tormenter, U.S. Bank, offers a service called a “goal savings account.” This service automatically transfers a certain amount of money – in my case, $25 – from my checking account into my savings account once per month. Since they would not approve me for overdraft protection, I asked them if they would set up my accounts such that if I overdrew my checking account, the needed sum would be transferred automatically from my “goal savings account.” They gladly agreed. What they failed to mention, however, is that each time such a transfer occurs, my account is charged $5. So, if I have $2 in my checking account and I write a check for $5, it will cost me $5 to transfer $3 from my “goal savings account” to my checking account. Their failure to notify me of the $5 charge resulted in both my accounts being overdrawn.
In effect, U.S. Bank – like all banks I’ve encountered – is like a shark, no wait, a vulture, pouncing on the animal in distress and regurgitating the digested flesh into the waiting mouths of the rich who sit uselessly squawking in the nest. Or something like that.
When you take all this into consideration, the word “customer” takes on tragicomic dimensions. What if a tailor treated his customers the way banks treat theirs? If he knew you were poor, he would sew the buttons onto your shirts in a way that guaranteed they would pop off the second or third washing and then charge you to replace them and increase the replacement charge by 10 percent every fifth button. He would simultaneously do exquisite work for his rich customers while giving them deep discounts and free alterations and repairs. Plus, he would be rude and dismissive every time you entered his shop. Come to think of it, this is precisely what tailors do, only they’re not tailors any more, they’re The Gap.
To add insult to injury, the advertising campaigns for most banks are patently dishonest. TCF Bank in Minnesota claims in their ads to offer “totally free checking,” while First Bank in Kansas tells its customers to “relax…you deserve consideration.” This advertising approach gives prospective customers the false impression that if, like roughly 3 million Americans, they are living paycheck to paycheck and find themselves in financial difficulty from time to time, they can count on the bank to help them out. This is a reasonable assumption. Why else, after all, would someone choose to keep his or her money in a bank?
There are three reasons that I can think of. First, banks are insured. If the bank is robbed or destroyed in a fire or tornado or some such calamity, the customers’ money remains safe and sound, whereas if my friend’s cookie jar is stolen or destroyed, he’s shit outta luck. Second, customers can earn interest on their deposit, albeit a tiny percentage. The third and most compelling reason someone might want to keep his or her money in a bank is Purchasing Power. If, like many Americans, you find yourself a little light towards the end of the pay period, you can simply “relax” because “you deserve consideration.” This relaxation, though, comes at a very high price. And the poorer you are, the higher the price.
Another scheme employed by many banks is a system of bizarre and constantly changing rules regarding when deposits and account transfers are posted. If, for instance, you make the deposit in person at a teller, it posts at one time, but if you make the deposit at an ATM, it posts at a different time. Many banks offer a 24-hour telephone line that customers can call to check their account balance, but this, too, is a ruse. On more than one occasion, I have called the number and made a purchase based on the balance information provided only to incur an overdraft charge because some previous purchase or debit was not yet reflected in the amount stated.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines customer simply as “one who buys goods or services,” but the American banking system has its own definition: “One who pays a lot for services, but receives only punishment.”

There is a tiny ray of hope, however, for the working poor who prefer not to keep their money in a cookie jar. It’s called the Credit Union.
Credit Unions are non-profit (if there is such a thing) banking institutions that, for the most part, act in the best interests of their customers. The idea behind credit unions is that, as with all unions, individuals obtain more power and autonomy when they work together.
The first credit unions were closely associated with labor unions. Teachers or plumbers or carpenters or journalists would pool their financial resources to provide low interest loans to the union’s neediest members, thereby providing assistance to working families who had been forsaken by traditional banks. The problem was that in order for credit unions to retain their non-profit, tax-exempt status, membership was required to be restricted to particular groups, such as trade unions or farmers or very small geographical areas such as townships or counties.
The Credit Union Membership Act of 1998 changed all that. This act allowed credit unions to significantly expand their eligibility without endangering their non-profit, tax exempt status. As a result, credit union membership has grown from about 64 million members in 1992 to almost 83 million members in 2002. And according to the Christian Science Monitor, Credit union-issued loans increased from a 16.1 percent share of the national market in 1992 to 17.1 percent in 2002.
Of course, traditional banks are pissed off about this development. And why shouldn’t they be? The $30 billion-per-year overdraft cash cow upon which they’ve been feeding is walking out the door.
“Once, members of a credit union knew each other and pooled their resources to provide credit for their co-workers and neighbors,” laments the American Banking Association web site. Today, the diatribe continues, credit unions can serve entire states. “Despite this departure from their original mission, these credit unions continue to be afforded special treatment, including exemption from federal taxation and from the regulatory responsibilities that apply to commercial banks.”
Well, boo hoo. Congress has acted on behalf of its constituents, for a change. Whatever will those poor, mistreated banks do now? I guess they’ll just have to take their $30 billion bat and ball and go home. When will these insouciant greed heads ever learn? Had they treated their working class customers with respect when they had the chance, they wouldn’t be witnessing this exodus into credit unions today.
But this doesn’t mean things are all peaches and cream for working class Americans. Credit unions still require a credit application to qualify for loans and overdraft protection, and with many such customers emerging bruised and battered from commercial banking’s rapaciousness, credit histories unfairly reflect poor ratings.
to be coninued