Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Sexy Mondale

Stefan Heym

It started with a Facebook profile picture and an Obama t-shirt.

the highway scribe was in his usual, perpetual search for work and wondering if he should remove the photo with Shepard Fairey's artwork and replace it with one starring a suit and tie.

Ever has it been, the modest cutting of sails, the cautious coiffing of locks, the camouflaging of ideas from an unforgiving mainstream in which the scribe did not swim.

Then it hit. "Wait! This guy on the t-shirt is the President! highwayscribery supports the President!"

It took some getting used to, which a while ago might have said something about highwayscribery, but now says more about what has passed for presidential timbre lo these many years.

Much the same is happening to the young conservatives profiled by the "Washington Post" in "Right, and Left Out," except in reverse.

It's a heartwarming yarn of Ian Shapira's about young conservatives spurned by the majority of their own generation, their own country, even.

Savor if you will:

"Those 18 to 29, part of the 'millennial generation,' voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the presidential election, according to polling data. Some at this happy hour [in the D.C. bar where this profile went down] won't name their employers in social settings with contemporaries because they fear it will create awkwardness."

Oh you little lambs, the highway scribe feels your pain. Has felt it, in fact, since 1980 when that whole Reagan Revolution went down.

Flush with the fever of youth and altruism, the scribe was left feeling, at the time, like some cigar-chomping, Hawaiian bowling shirt-wearing union guy from the fat '50s.

The very programs that had paid for his schools and provided a warm and secure middling malaise were suddenly being referred to as "sacred cows," ready for slaughter to feed and fuel the go-go '80s.

the scribe's concern for the poor and working stiffs was openly jeered at by his conservative contemporaries. Born into the same comfort so long after it had been built they had forgotten somebody had to build it and pay for it.

"Wimp," "limp-wristed," "weak," "naive," and other characteristics typically associated with the greatest mistake America ever made, Jimmy Carter, were callously applied to the scribe's sways between old lady liberalism and anarcho-syndicalism.

Not that one should change their politics to fit the times. highwayscribery continued to march so that Reagan would get out of Central America, chronicled as a reporter the drastic decline of American labor, and worked for Democrats who lost to nitwits in landslides.

the scribe was a kind of sexy Mondale...and that ain't easy.

The "Post" article notes that the young conservatives "worry they might not have jobs in Washington for long," that the gravy associated with hitching their car to the train in power has dried up.

the scribe understands, but still needs a good pinch now and again to believe this is all happening.

It's political Bizzaro world where bankers are dead meat and people who think in terms of community truly are Sacred Cows; like the kind in India.

President Obama can't do much about the scribe's decrepitude, but Barack has elevated the value of his social and cultural endeavors, which are locked in at around 24 years old anyway.

Sexy Mondale anyone?

Years of railing against power, writerly independence, and a joy at working to obstruct rather than build have highwayscribery aching to jump off the Obama express and get on to more typical endeavors, but the ride just keeps getting better.

Attorney General Eric Holder just announced that the federal government will stop raiding medical marijuana outlets permitted under state laws like the one we have here in California.

See, that's how Bill Clinton started rubbing people the wrong way. He let the raids happen to show how tough he was, but nobody right about now is doubting how tough Obama is.

highwayscribery has always hated the raids happening right up the street from him, here in West Hollywood, for the ugly face of government they present to the locals.

It’s the only face anti-government Republican types can stomach: The Gestapo stomping, sunglass-wearing, mustachioed suburbanites occupying our urban centers, bullying citizens and screwing up the lives of people who need weed to ease their terrible pain...or who just need their weed.

As highwaysribery noted in "A Different Approach to Life" (2006), the raids were always an outlier in those blasted culture wars:

The whole thing smacks of an attack on one class of Americans by another over a difference in approach to life.

There is no sense, on the law enforcement-and-tradition side, that one person should live one way, and a second another way, and that what defines them as Americans is their ability to exist side-by-side on those varying terms.

There is only one good kind of American. And it’s their kind.

But now there’s another kind of good American.

The President said so.

It's a policy attuned to reality where marijuana and the American public is concerned... it is not out there and up where decisions don't have anything to do with facts on the ground.

And it is at least a partial granting of writer Stefan Heym's wish for "a kind society where the human mind and the human heart are the most important elements, not the elbow."

Cecilia Lost

Snowfall of harpsichord, longing of the loon. There, these voices the slight angel offered. Such were the born fruits of June.

Catchless were the albacore lifting, were the sand dabs shifting in the ocean, in the sea world of Cecilia.

Where gentle sharks with lemon pedigree upfluffed her foam, lurched her to desire, where she faltered, where her fear wet the fire. There down under, inside deep Cecilia.

Where grass-stained colts, white-minded in the syrup and kindling of recent wombs, are lark friends and bare no ill pills for lost Cecilia and her sainted spiders...

...the noble cryptics of some shivering river.

Oh, don't cry Cecilia. Don't ripple dark pools with the juice of your sadness. Don't let the passing of things hasten your own passing.

Kick and scream. Drape in amber madness every battle you wage. Drink more scotch. Taunt freely the ravages of age.

Lady of sheep. Sand merchant of sleep on the gasping moors and plain. What is your name, Cecilia? Tell us where you live, and what it means, or where your trail without footsteps leads.

(collage by Antonio Mendoza)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Lefties Like

Rep. Vito Marcantonio, "The Goodfather."

The old revolutionary yearning having passed with the Sandinistas, what The Left wants these days is an end to war and taxes on the very rich - the top one percent rich.

Simple as that.

You can talk new politics till the cows come home, but either you're taxing people at the top of the income pyramid or the unwashed down at the bottom.

What can be "new" is the direction in which spending that tax revenue leads a nation, but left/right battles typically come down to who pays.

The unwashed, who started this whole economic cycle somewhere in the middle, have paid for so long now they're closer to the bottom, and so, according to the "New York Times," President Obama plans to slash the deficit all these bailouts, stimuli, and relief efforts are creating by changing the existing calculus.

The articles observes that, "The reduction would come in large part through Iraq troop withdrawals and higher taxes on the wealthy."

Presto! Some $9 billion a month saved and tons of international goodwill earned by ending the bloodiest boondoggle on the national credit card.

Yes, credit card, because the Bush administration never levied a tithe to pay for its violent crusade. It merely passed the price onto those too young to vote or yet unborn.

Which was easy except the bill came due much sooner than expected.

And that may be because of certain "accounting gimmicks" instituted by the Bush crowd that the Obama gang has decided to scotch.

What were those gimmicks?

That's a good question.

The answer: Leaving the costs for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, along with Medicare reimbursements to physicians, out of the formula.

Jackie Calmes' "New York Times" article on this subject does not contain a single dissenting voice to balance the account because there are none.

Not even the Limbaugh/Coulter axis has the chestnuts to claim leaving your largest expenditures off the balance sheet is some article of faith to the conservative shock troops.

But without the gimmicks, their supply side, relieve-the-rich-of-taxes mantra will be harder than ever to peddle.

That's because it was pap, and cant, and crap, and now it's okay for writers to come out from the shadows and talk about taxing the rich as an option to giving them a perpetual free ride.

Michael Thomas of the "New York Observer," puts it in the context of making private capital pay something for the exploitation of public capital.

"What's public capital?"

Another good question and fair indicator of where we've traveled as a country on such questions.

As primer, highwayscribery recommends you read great turn of the (19th) century muckrackers such as John L. Mathews, whose "Mr. Ballinger and the National Grab Bag," describes how the all the waters in water-rich Oregon ended up lining the purses of a few self-interested operators.

It is no longer recognized that this country's natural resources were once considered a public trust, meaning they belonged to the people and the benefits they rendered should necessarily accrue to the people.

Just before leaving office, Bush leased a bunch of wild Utah land to oil and natural gas companies for exploration.

There was a great outcry, but the claims were largely environmental. Opponents expressed anger the leases would despoil the landscape near treasured national parks and taint virgin land.

Nobody questioned the executive branch's right to sell the peoples' land to profit-seekers, when that same executive branch was ideologically opposed to taxing profit-seekers so that the people might see a proper return.

If you follow.

As late as 1935, highwayscribery favorite Rep. Vito Marcantonio spoke in favor of a bill to eliminate public utility holding companies from operating and selling securities to profit from the exploitation of public property.

Here's what he said:

"If it be radicalism to believe that when God said, 'Let there be light,' that that light should be used for the benefit of a few exploiters; if it be radicalism to believe that our national resources should be used for the benefit of all of the American people and not for the purpose of enriching just a few; if it be radicalism to smash, to abolish, and to surgically eradicate these companies which have been throttling the life of America and siphoning out the lifeblood of American consumers, then, ladies and gentlemen of this House, I accept the charge. I plead guilty to the charge; I am a radical."

And so is highwayscribery.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Report, "A Man Without a Country" by Kurt Vonnegut

Had Kurt Vonnegut died in Nov. 2008 his literary goodbye,"A Man Without a Country"might have been brighter.

Maybe the sea change in American politics was already affecting Vonnegut when he passed on April 11, 2007, but this book, his last sigh, had been published in 2005.

That means it would have been written the year before, an annus horribilis, marked by the American peoples' unfortunate validation of George W. Bush's presidency.

So Vonnegut, an avowed socialist, was pretty soured on the United States. And that resulted in his swan song being a mixture of a trademark whimsy and heavy doses of dead seriousness.

For the book-loving, Vonnegut unpacked this chestnut:

Do you realize that all great literature -- "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Red Badge of Courage," "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," "The Bible," and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," -- are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)

Maybe it's a relief if you've lived well and are on the way out, but if a good stretch of road is still in front of you, not so much.

In "Man Without..." the famed writer riffed often on the oil problem, our national addiction, and the increasingly desperate decisions being made by the country's leaders to placate that addiction.

Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet -- and the only one in the whole Milky Way -- with a century of transportation whoopee.

But, as can be seen from this quote's opening beats, oil addiction is but a symptom. It's the human race that rots.

Why was Vonnegut a man without a country? Here's a decent stretch, long in inches, but short in bandwidth, wherein he lays out his case in the writerly way:

Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.
That's correct.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
That's correct.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
That's correct.
Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.
That's correct.
The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment's notice, the safer humanity is and the better of the world will be that our grandchildren inherit.
That's correct.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
That's correct.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.
That's correct.
That's free enterprise.
And that's correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn't be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
That's correct.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.
That's correct.
The free market will do that.
That's correct.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
That's correct.
I'm kidding.

Which reminds us of how good writers communicate deep concepts with simplicity and economy.

Vonnegut was dead-set against the war in Iraq. His chief grievance was the unprovoked nature of the military action and he drafted a historical parallel with the U.S. invasion of Mexico in the 19th Century.

More than a decade before his Gettysburg Address, back in 1848, when Lincoln was only a Congressman, he was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on Mexico, which had never attacked us. James Polk was the person Representative Lincoln had in mind when he said what he said. Abraham Lincoln said of Polk, his president, his armed forces' commander-in-chief:

Trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory - that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood - that serpent's eyes, that charms to destroy - he plunged into war.

Holy shit! And I thought I was a writer!

We told you there was whimsy melded into book's gloomy view.

One chapter revisits an old Vonnegut favorite about the simplicity of successful story structure, but then goes a step further wherein he demonstrates why "Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho," whose true virtue was that he told the truth in a world where the truth is in short supply.

A lifetime of literary creation and consumption led our subject to crown poet Carl Sandburg a personal favorite, and Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," as a "flawless example of American genius like, 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove."

He warns writers off using semi-colons, "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing." And then, after using one, remarks, "The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules."

"Man Without a Country" plugs Eugene Debs and plies the sad story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

This gentleman convinced his unbelieving fellow doctors that leaving the morgue after doing autopsies to perform surgery on live patients, without washing their hands first, was causing a lot of death.

It is a story of truth spurned and suicide and one of the reasons, along with Vonnegut's presence at the firebombing of Dresden, he lost hope in the human race.

Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too. I am a veteran of the Second World War and I have to say this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine.

My last words? "Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse."

Perhaps it was the responsibility of Vonnegut's editor to loyally assist in the assaying of a downer document. We expect these things from older people. Their pessimism completes the arc of our devolutionary intellectual development.

But we also expect wisdom from a life lived well and fully. So highwayscribery is going to step in and close this report with something that appeared at the beginning of the book and, for that reason, may have been lost to those who closed "A Man Without a Country,' in gloom.

It is advice with which highwayscribery agrees, often propounds to novice writers, and finds worthy of such a fine man and artist:

If you want to hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created to something.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Vedette Does La Danza" in San Diego

Here are some photos from a performance of "Vedette Does La Danza" in San Diego last month.

Here a few poems from "Vedette" for textual contrast:

Old Ladies in Love Forever

it was gray
gray in the port of Cadiz.

of salted dogs and
shadows sliding silkily
through gray water.

and Saint Mary there
with her swallows
that sleep and sing
on the gray bridge
yawning across

who has been in love
and gray for
centuries with
the sea.

the sea/
and her downy
arms mad for
she of the pearl gray
and gulls
and black sandy

Tomatito’s Last Words

“Pine, thistle, loon
A minnow a slippery spoon
Saltwater lollipops
Freezing for the sun,
Melt under gun
Thunder moon.”

Prison Verse for Clara Montes

In the misery and iron concrete of jail,
the most passionate of flowers are grown.
From them all meanness and pain must sail.
They are watered in dreams clinging and known.

Blind all your singers, rape the sweet girl.
What is fair takes time, but will come.
Folded between hope and heart is the pearl,
of new children and the paths they will run.

Friday, February 13, 2009

In this Winning of Our Discontent

Why is the winter of our winning becoming the winter of our discontent?

The media narrative has President Obama denied bipartisan support and schooled in the harsh realities of Washington politics, failing his core constituencies and settling for a plan that is not "stimulative" enough (which "spellcheck" agrees is not a word).

"New York Times" columnist Paul Krugman says "Mr. Obama's victory feels more than a bit like defeat."

Except that it's a victory.

Joan Walsh at "Salon" says Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) "humiliated" the President by accepting and then rejecting his offer to head the Department of Commerce.

Except that he'll go back to being one of a minority in the Senate and the President will still be the President with large majorities in both houses.

"The compromise stimulus is probably better than nothing," she writes. "With its expansion of food stamps and unemployment benefits, its tax rebates for low-income workers, aid to states and cities and billions for infrastructure projects."

Sounds good right?

"BUT," Walsh continues, "it won't be as effective as a bigger spending bill would have been, and let's hope Obama doesn't come to regret how much he gave Republicans to get so little."

and later:

"He better have learned that Washington bipartisanship is dead."

It has been dead and not fixing it on the first go-round is hardly a failure. Lacking a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Obama got the support of three senators who do not occupy red meat conservative seats. And they delivered him a stimulus package.

Glenn Greenwald, also of "Salon," accuses liberal groups of precipitating this non-debacle by, "subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician."

That leading politician, of course, being the guy we all broke our asses and wallets to get elected: Barack Obama, the man who renovated the Democratic Party and won states south and west long-treasured by rank-and-filers.

"During the 2008 election," he noted, "Obama co-opted huge portions of the Left and its infrastructure so that their allegiance became devoted to him and not to any ideas."

That's because his Ideas where their/our ideas.

Krugman is a brilliant, Nobel Prize laureate in economics, Walsh a darling and charming soldier of progressive forces, and Greenwald a hard-boiled walking left-litmus test who keeps his eye on the issue rather than the personality.

But they are not helping things.

Each, as a loyal member of the anointed commentariat, is allowing the mass media's narrative focus on stimulus to block out their own sun and bum the rest of us out.

Day in day out, the Obama administration is doing what progressives, liberals, leftists, or whatever flag you fly under, had prayed for, but feared never would happen.

Every place in government, in ways big and small, whether it's admitting the Earth is getting warmer, cancelling energy industry fire sales offshore and on treasured Western lands, undoing a conservative Supreme Court's ruling by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Law, forestalling foreclosures, or appointing a pro-union Latina to the Labor Department, we see change we dared not dream of in the darkest days of the Bush era.

But romps in the House of Representatives are tainted by the fact Obama "failed to garner a single vote," from the GOP, when the failure, of course, is their own.

Victories in the Senate are deemed "razor-thin" when 61-37 is something of a trouncing. Or should the scribe remind you of how votes went, say, three years ago under guys with names like Delay, Frist, and Bush?

It's razor-thin because the Republican filibuster is an unchallenged daily blessing to a struggling minority, when it should be subject to national derision.

The way the Senate operates now, all you have to do is inform the leadership of your plan to filibuster and the altered, more difficult, voting math kicks-in.

highwayscribery's suggestion is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) drop the courtesy and force Republicans to sustain their filibuster for real.

Reid should obligate them to wear catheters so they can pee while reading from newspapers, and do midnight relays to fresh senators making a spectacle of themselves while delaying the nation's business.

(Just a thought).

If the Republicans' desire is that they should glue themselves to one another while walking over a cliff, than liberals should be glad of it.

They are not insulting Obama or the Democrats. Rather they are flipping a middle-finger at the American people, who are suffering and currently of a unified mind regarding the man and party they want running things.

Those senators and representatives of the GOP, in herding together like hunted buffaloes (which they are), will have a hard time separating themselves out should the public render a negative verdict on their obstinate groupthink, which is very likely.

Paul Krugman is much smarter than the highway scribe, who agrees with him and would like to see more money spent on good things for a beleaguered people.

But there are doubts and they are legitimate.

The package is enormous and backed by the questionable force of an already overheated U.S. Mint. As most Americans are now painfully aware, spending with one hand while borrowing with the other usually triggers a law of diminishing returns.

There needs to be a balance and to the extent the opposition party used a scalpel to trim things and orient some of the package toward their own constituents, the system is working the way it was designed to.

The stimulus bill represents the largest nonmilitary expenditure since the Great Depression and deals a telling blow to Republican dreams of burying forever the New Deal and the idea of government activism.

No wonder they are of one mind. What's perplexing, and the reason for this post, is that our joy doesn't match their despair.

The president compromised and got nothing for it.

But he remembers -- where Walsh, Krugman, and Greenwald don't -- that the idea is to look beyond the other party to the people they represent...and govern for the entire country.

We just got through with a guy who governed for one half of the populace simply because he had the votes.

His gang's gone. Obama would like a more enduring coalition like the one that lasted for some 40 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt assembled it.

You win big by being big, not petty.

This stimulus debate, which has consumed our media's narrow bandwith of attention, at the expense of many other issues, is naught but an opening night performance.

As the day-in-day-out business of legislating the country's future unfolds, a filibuster will not serve at every turn nor will its giddy impact on a dwindling Republican base resonate quite so strongly as in the first round.

Because the reality will set in on both sides of this national debate.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Obama-nation Day 16

Our Change New World continues apace with the Obama administration moving promptly and correctly on a number of fronts.

The President announced limits on executive pay for companies receiving taxpayer-subsidized bailouts of their self-induced declines.

Such an act under the Bush administration would have been unthinkable.

"This is America," the President said. "We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset -- and rightfully so -- are executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers."

highwayscribery, for the record, gets upset at the outsized bonuses and golden parachutes earned by executives even when companies thrive. It is looting what belongs to all the workers and contributes to the dismaying drift of national wealth upward to the richest one percent..

Elsewhere, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar silenced certain environmental critics by dashing the Bush administration's fourth quarter effort at leasing some 77 parcels of land to oil and natural gas companies in Utah.

The "Washington Post" reports that, "Salazar's decision, which reverses the Bush administration's move to allow drilling on about 130,000 acres near pristine areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument -- is one of a series of steps that the new administration and congressional Democrats are planning to reshape federal regulation of drilling, mining, lumbering and other resource-tapping activities both on U.S. soil and offshore."

That doesn't have mean an end to energy exploration. It just means the eight-year fire sale Bush threw for his industrial cronies is over and we'll start doing these things, er, um intelligently again.

It was part of a move the Bush crowd made to govern after they were out of government, which has failed remarkably. When you leave, you leave, and whatever you made "law" can be unmade...eventually.

The president, either before or after he capped the pay of greedy executives, then signed a measure appropriating $32.8 billion for the State Children's Health Insurance Program. It's a move that will extend coverage to 4 million kids the former president didn't think the country could afford.

"I refuse to accept that millions of our children fail to reach their full potential because we fail to meet their basic needs," said Obama. "In a decent society, there are certain obligations that are not subject to trade-offs or negotiations, and health care for our children is going to be one of those obligations.."

To which we have nothing to add.

Meantime, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was reversing eight years of government denial on global warming in an interview with the "Capitol Weekly."

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he soberly informed. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. And I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going either."

Maybe that's some kind of Republican wet dream since their presence and influence in the state is nil. If California dries up, there's going to be a big migration back into all those empty red states.

But that would make them Blue.

And speaking of heat, the "Los Angeles Times" reports how the President is now turning it up on Republicans.

The piece by Peter Nicholas observed that Obama went a long way toward appealing to the GOP and upsetting his own party in crafting a stimulus plan, "that relied heavily on tax cuts rooted in Republican economic doctrine."

For Democrats such capitulation has always been what "bipartisan" truly means, and it seems Republicans have grown so used to it, they forgot to pat the president on the back.

In fact, as Michael Hiltzik, also of the "Los Angeles Times," noted, the GOP has engaged in a deceptive and hypocritical campaign to discredit the stimulus plan by isolating specific measures and distorting their reach and purpose to the American people.

Having extended a hand in cooperation, Obama was met with the familiar fist of GOP obstinacy. And he didn't like it.

The Writer President, in an Op-ed penned for the "Washington Post," had this to say:

"In the past few days, I've heard criticisms of this plan that frankly echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis in the first place -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems, that we can address this enormous crisis with half steps and piecemeal measures and tinkering around the edges, that we can ignore fundamental challenges, like the high cost of healthcare, and still expect our economy and our country to thrive. I reject these theories and, by the way, so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."

Now we're getting somewhere!

But there is more to go.

Yesterday, in Los Angeles, the Drug Enforcement Agency applied its usual Gestapo tactics in shutting down some medical marijuana dispensaries.

California, for those of you who don't know, approved by way of ballot initiative the establishment of such outlets 13 years ago.

We hope that, as Attorney General Eric Holder's influence permeates the Department of Justice, this choice made by California voters is respected and the harassment stopped.

California is entitled to some deference while the federal government deserves a more humane face.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Labor's Days

Rep. Vito Marcantonio of the American Labor Party during a dockworker strike in New York.

While political life unfolds in media both mass and minor, real life unfolds in the workplace.

Unfortunately for all of humanity there are two teams in the shop, labor and management.

Yes, they work toward the same goals, but management have keys to both the bathroom and cashbox.

For eight years or more -- sorry Clintonites -- the government has been on the side of management, investment, and capital, all different position-players on the same team.

But these are Labor's days and you can see it in the fact President Obama's favorability has already dropped 19 points to 63 percent, which confirms critics who said the promise of a new politics came from a liberal senator.

And it is hard to argue that after 30 years of conservative reign, a new politics isn't exactly what "liberal" signifies. Remember, everything that is old is new again.

Yes we'd all like Republicans and Democrats, lions and lambs, to one day join hands and sing Peter, Paul and Mary songs, but in the meantime, those of us who labor without the benefit of a loaned limousine could use a little help.

Obama to the rescue.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem," he said while signing three executive orders relating to federal workers last week. "To me, it's part of the solution. You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

And right you are sir. Just look at our country. We have a weak labor movement and we have a disappearing middle class.

These executive orders, of course, will not bring back the middle class. But they will undo some rather atrocious Bush era errors, which the Obama crowd is going to waste half a term addressing.

One requires that federal contractors offer jobs to the people they've been paying all along when a contract changes. Republicans don't like this because they think a company that just got a fat contract from Uncle Sam needs "flexibility."

Obama thinks employees involved need their jobs more and doesn't want to cart money over in wheelbarrows to a government contractor that dumps its workers in turn.

Another order overturned a Bush era requirement that federal contractors inform workers that not all their dues can be used by unions for political purposes, which basically placed intricate bookkeeping burdens on labor syndicates that ought to otherwise be serving their members.

Another Bush order used your tax money to reimburse companies who tried to sway their workers from joining unions.

That can be very expensive. Companies fork over lots of money to "consultants" who have combed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for ways of blocking workers' government-given right to organize unions.

Now, if they want to intimidate their workers, you won't have to pay what it costs them to do so.

As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted in this "Los Angeles Times" Op-ed, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put a willing worker's chance of forming a union at one in five.

That's not so good.

"Most of the time," noted Reich, "employees who want to form a union are threatened and intimidated by their employers. And all too often, if they don't heed the warnings, they're fired, even though that's illegal."

As Labor Secretary under Clinton, Reich learned that penalizing scofflaws is fruitless because the fines are so small that, "Too many employers consider them a cost of doing business."

That's why unions backed the Democrats and now expect them to pass the Employee Free Choice Act for Obama to sign.

That measure would allow unionization after 50 percent of a workforce signed union cards. It would also increase the fines employers would have to pay for screwing around with the right to organize.

Opponents assert the measure robs workers of the secret ballot process, but that's not necessarily true.

The unions would prefer an open process because it would strengthen their hand by permitting a certain degree of peer pressure, which is how they function.

But the measure configured by the House and Senate does not have to be exactly what the unions want. It could be card check and still be anonymous while doing away with the baroque process that has grown up around NLRA with its expensive campaigns, open ended challenges, and (again) puny penalties charged employers for obstruction.

That's what unions really want, a new scheme that isn't stacked against them.

As anyone who follows this stuff knows, even winning an election under current labor law does not obligate an employer to sit down and talk contract.

Opponents of the "card check" law point to news last week that union membership actually grew in 2008, by 428,000 members, which must naturally mean that labor law drafted in the 1930s and 1950s need not be updated.

Sure, it's good news and suggests many more might now be in unions if furnished with a balanced approach to workplace justice. But it is certainly not enough and tainted by the fact most were government employees who rarely face challenges to organizing efforts.

The facts are these: In 1983, 20 percent of the workforce was organized and today that is down to 12.1 percent. More telling, just 7.6 percent of workers in the private sector are union members.

"Los Angeles Times" writer Steven Greenhouse attributes that precipitous fall to a corresponding "drop in manufacturing jobs as a result of plant closings and pressures from imports."

Leaving aside the fact such impacts might have been softened by government policy in the first place, Greenhouse's conclusion excludes the reality of employer resistance to unionization as the workforce shifted to other sectors.

Which is why Obama chose Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) to revive the moribund Department of Labor from the deadening influence of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (Ky.) wife, Elaine Chao, the last secretary.

And it also why these Republicans:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn) - (202) 224-4944
Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) - (202) 224-3154
Sen. Johnny Isakson (Georgia) (202) 224-3634
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) (202) 224-6665
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) (202) 224-5251
Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) (202) 224-4774
Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) (202) 224--5754
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) (202) 224-2235

are holding up Solis' confirmation.

They found her to be "noncommittal" at a Jan. 9 Senate Committee on Labor, Health, Education and Pensions confirmation hearing.

Specifically, GOPers didn't think she answered their questions about the "card check" law and so they provided her with written questions to which she could respond.

Here's what Solis said:

"Not all workers, of course, want or feel they need a union. But where a majority of the workers in a given workplace have decided they want a union, it is a matter of basic fairness that they should be allowed to have one. That's why I support the Employee Free Choice Act."

Now that sounds pretty specific so what's the hold up? Maybe the Republicans knew what her answer would be ahead of time and knew they wouldn't like it.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Book Report: Moby Dick

"Moby-Dick"is such a tough climb that you can miss a lot of the scenery on the way up.

Like Mount Everest, with "Moby Dick" there's no denying the presence of greatness, but wrapping yourself around it is another question.

It is a symptom of how low the reading public has fallen in highwayscribery's estimation that the famed novel's solid reputation comes as something of a surprise.

Are people still reading this book?

Herman Melville's prose is dense and rich and hard work to absorb. That said, it would not be going out on a limb, given the classic's status, to say the effort is worth the while.

Hung from the author's whale tale are many meditations on the human (and animal!) condition and his prolific output and textured life inform them beautifully.

"Moby Dick" has so much to give, but one must wonder whether Melville could even find a publisher in today's environment.

Last year, this scribe entered his latest effort, "The Sidewalk Smokers Club," into the "Writer's Digest" book contest. That particular competition and publication seem rooted in the academic wing of today's American literary universe, their contents and judgments fueled by so many masters and mistresses of fine arts.

In any case, the book "scored" well without passing to the next round. The judge had problems with the "loss of momentum" that took place when the highway scribe's alter ego, Stephen Siciliano, intermittently and briefly, digressed from his yarn and extrapolated certain going's-on in the story to the larger universe surrounding.

That judge never read "Moby Dick."

In the epic, Melville's actual "story" might be told using one-fifth the pages he actually presses from his fevered mind: The narrator gets on a whaling boat for cash and adventure, but is unwittingly enlisted in Captain Ahab's mad quest to end the life of Moby Dick and avenge the white beast's severing of his leg.

Along the way, however, the reader is treated to voluminous information about the cetaceous species, "Cetaceous," being an expression the scribe did not know until attacking this tome.

Right whale, humpback whale, gray whale, and sperm whale - the particular star of "Moby Dick" -- all get their due. And not a perspective rendered from some distant boat deck mind you, but from the inside out, from mouth to blow-hole, to the tippy-tippy "fluke" (more cetaceous vocabulary).

And this is good, for books should inform us of things we thought we knew more about, especially in the case of the whale, which is Melville's point, as it is the largest living animal and a subject of remarkable strength, grace, and symbolism.

But such discourse, however edifying, does serve to break-up the narrative -- a lot.

And those who haven't worked much on a 19th Century commercial sailing vessel will find the preponderance of nautical terms daunting.

Spar, gunwhale, leeward, and aft, chocks, mizzen Donner and Blitzen, it's all rather hard to keep track of so that the uninitiated is tempted to "read through" the detailed renderings of seafaring equipment in an effort to get on with the story.

And that's a lot of skimming.

If our democracy grants everybody an opinion and permits an unknown writer to pass judgment upon a national treasure, highwayscribery would venture that "Moby Dick" is better in many of its parts than it is as a whole and integrated artistic work.

There...we said it.

Melville is muscular and poetic, scientific and rigorous, cultured and biblical in his writerly search for life's truths through the prism of an ocean adventure.

In highwayscribery's favorite passage, the monomaniacal Ahab talks with the severed head of a whale his crew hunted a day earlier:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which though ungarnished with beard, yet here and there look hoary with mosses, speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundation. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou has been where bell or diver never went; has slept by many a sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sunk beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them..."

It is one of several stunning meditations on the sea's mysteries. Also a reminder of how much knowledge both above and below the sea's surface is beyond man's reach, and of the ever-present perils that dearth of information poses.

Melville's Pequod, boat and motley crew alike, are a dark vision, something out of Burning Man, a world-beat symphony 100 years before Bob Marley that accrues flavors as it traverses the earth's diverse quadrants, dark and desperate, aboriginal and Quaker, murderous and hungry and vulnerable, too.

Like many of the big books, Moby requires not so much a second reading as a scholarly commitment to its multi-layered method and madness, a love affair, a small piece of your life, for in crafting it, Melville clearly gave a piece of his own.