You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

January 06, 2011

The Last Optimist No Longer Optimistic

William Greider is one of the most optimistic progressive writers in the U.S., seeing silver linings when everyone else sees only clouds. So it takes a lot for him to say this:

Political events of the past two years have delivered a more profound and devastating message: American democracy has been conclusively conquered by American capitalism. Government has been disabled or captured by the formidable powers of private enterprise and concentrated wealth. Self-governing rights that representative democracy conferred on citizens are now usurped by the overbearing demands of corporate and financial interests. Collectively, the corporate sector has its arms around both political parties, the financing of political careers, the production of the policy agendas and propaganda of influential think tanks, and control of most major media.

What the capitalist system wants is more—more wealth, more freedom to do whatever it wishes. This has always been its instinct, unless government intervened to stop it. The objective now is to destroy any remaining forms of government interference, except of course for business subsidies and protections...When the choice comes down to society or capitalism, society regularly loses...

In these terms, the administration of Barack Obama has been a crushing disappointment for those of us who hoped he would be different...Once again, Republicans are mounting an assault on liberalism's crown jewel, Social Security, only this time they might succeed, because the Democratic president is collaborating with them...

Obama has set himself up to make many more "compromises" in the coming months; each time, he will doubtless use the left as a convenient foil. Disparaging "purist" liberals is his way of assuring so-called independents that he stood up to the allegedly far-out demands of his own electoral base. This is a ludicrous ploy...

The power shift did not start with Obama, but his tenure confirms and completes it...Society faces dreadful prospects and profound transformation. When both parties are aligned with corporate power, who will stand up for the people? Who will protect them from the insatiable appetites of capitalist enterprise and help them get through the hard passage ahead? One thing we know for sure from history: there is no natural limit to what capitalism will seek in terms of power and profit. If government does not stand up and apply the brakes, society is defenseless.

Read the rest. It's much like what I said a few days ago here.

Anyway, I guess it's time to rerun this again:

It was a creed written into the founding DNA of a politics designed by billionaires.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by red-faced, round-shouldered, self-hating Lockheed lobbyists who knew no matter who lost the election, they would win.

Yes we can.

It was sung by hedge fund CEOs, eating organic, cruelty-free sashimi on their Gulfstream G550 to Singapore, smiling as they realized their good-hearted Brattleboro librarian opponents had abso-fucking-lutely no idea what they're up against.

Yes we can.

We have been told we cannot do this, by a chorus of gentle graphic designers forwarding that video to all 78 of their Facebook friends. We've been told we cannot betray 20-year-old daughters of corporate lawyers, who want to vote in a way that finally lets them live in Scarsdale and feel good about themselves. We've been told we can't create a system in which someone who began as a decent human being must be utterly broken and perverted by his burning lust to climb to the top of the slipperiest pole on earth.

Yes we can.

Now the hopes of the Viacom executive who used to be in an indie band are the same as the gay investment banker who paints still-lifes as a hobby, the same as the dreams of the Brown Literature Professor who's secretly furious when her Salvadoran maid doesn't clean the bathroom properly. We will remember that there are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians; there are no Arabs; there is no West. There is only one holistic, vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of money. We will begin the next great chapter of human submission with three words that will ring across the universe:


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 6, 2011 10:55 PM

I used to think George Carlin exaggerated for humorous effect. But it's clear now that he was simply describing things accurately.

George Carlin - It's a big club and you ain't in it

You see, the owners of this country know the truth. It's called the American dream. Cause ya have to be asleep to believe it.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 7, 2011 02:52 AM

Hmmm, I missed the "comic effect" there. But at least he said what he had to say, directly.

Posted by: godoggo at January 7, 2011 03:15 AM


Posted by: godoggo at January 7, 2011 03:58 AM

Okay, it's really bad, but something's missing from progressive analyses: the era of cheap energy is over, climate change is here, water is scarce in many locales, and the crisis of sustainability has begun.
Money and politics cannot wave away ecologically mandated constraints and consequences. The economic pie is shrinking because we've reached the limits to growth, so the question is, "how to build a just world given this fact?"
While I'm not opposed per se to lamentations about Obama and government, there comes a time to realize what weak and clueless one-trick ponies the seemingly powerful masters of the universe and their elected lackeys are. That insight comes from an ecological/thermodynamic understanding of our situation.

Posted by: danno45 at January 7, 2011 08:22 AM

danno45 asserts the crisis of sustainability has begun, and certainly the factors mentioned will combine with many other handicaps we face in any attempt to envision and bring about a New New Deal. Abandoning the Democratic Party, as Greider hints at - "Many progressive groups, including organized labor...will not be able to think clearly about the future of the country until they get greater distance from the Democratic Party" - would be a start, but not nearly enough. The shipping of manufacturing capacity overseas would, by itself, seem to be an irreversible cause of the impoverishment of the American masses, and a smooth transition to a high-energy-cost future seems impossible now. So it will be a bumpy transition. Maybe very bumpy.

danno45 writes there comes a time to realize what weak and clueless one-trick ponies the seemingly powerful masters of the universe and their elected lackeys are. Yes and no. Dealing rationally with the current and coming catastrophes, building a more just world - no, they can't do that. On the other hand, the MICFiC will continue to have the power to kill large fractions of the human race for the foreseeable future, however long that is.

Freud said, "Whenever I discover something, I find the poets have been there before me." The poet I'm thinking of now, who wrote a post-collapse novel in 1976, is Kurt Vonnegut. He himself gave it a D, but I wouldn't be that harsh myself. The following is from the Wikipedia summary of Slapstick:


The novel is in the form of an autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain. Dr. Swain tells us that he lives in the ruins of the Empire State Building with his pregnant granddaughter, Melody Oriole-2 von Peterswald, and her lover, Isadore Raspberry-19 Cohen. Dr. Swain is a hideous 7-foot-tall man whose ugliness, and that of his twin sister Eliza, caused his parents to cut them off from modern society. The siblings came to realize that, when in close physical contact, they form a vastly powerful and creative intelligence. Through reading and philosophizing together, Wilbur and Eliza combated the feelings of loneliness and isolation that would otherwise have ruined their childhood.

Throughout the book, Wilbur claims that his sister Eliza is the more intelligent of the two, but that no one realizes it because she can't write. Wilbur and Eliza are like two halves of a brain, with Wilbur the left brain -- logical, rational, able to communicate -- and Eliza the right brain: creative, emotional, but unable to communicate effectively.

The siblings created, among other things, a plan to end loneliness in America through vast extended families. Under the plan, all citizens would be provided with new middle names, made of the name of a random natural object paired with a random number between 1 and 20. Everyone with the same name would be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number would be siblings.

Their parents and the staff of the mansion believe the children are retarded, and the children play this up when in the company of others, so as to not interfere with what they view as a perfect childhood. But after hearing their mother wish that they were normal, the children reveal their intelligence to their parents.

Eliza is still deemed retarded because she can't read or write, and is sent to a mental institution. Wilbur however is sent to a prep school and eventually goes to Harvard University and earns a doctorate.

Armed with the plan created with Eliza and the slogan, "Lonesome No More!," Dr. Swain wins election to the Presidency, and devotes the waning energies of the Federal government to the implementation of the plan. In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair. However, even as life as we know it collapses, Swain's middle name policy continues to unite the survivors. The American population constantly risk their time and their lives to selflessly help their fellow cousins and siblings, ensuring that people may live their lives "lonesome no more."

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 7, 2011 10:29 AM

mistah charley, ph.d.:

Carlin echoes Jim Hightower: we are not capitalists because, if we were, we'd have capital.

Capitalism, like war, is the sport of kings.

Energy was never really cheap, btw. We just shifted the costs around. I get oil, you get asthma. I get oil, you get species die off. Subsidies create bullshit, not savings. Now, it will become more expensive to get at oil in the future -- peak oil is a lie, the real problem is not running out of oil but running out of easy-to-get oil -- but that doesn't mean that the serious costs of oil aren't buried by our society.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at January 7, 2011 11:04 AM

Third Party, Folks.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 7, 2011 12:05 PM

That Yes We Can quote was some deftly done writing; pity when I went to the original blog, it was defunct! To quote SJ Perelman: "Come back, Sharon Cobb, all is forgiven!"

Posted by: Mike of Angle at January 7, 2011 12:44 PM

Savage Rules.

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at January 7, 2011 03:14 PM

Hard to be upbeat on The Highway To Hell, to be all smiley When The Chickens Come Home To Roost, to be "optimistic" when YOU'VE fucked EVERYBODY YOU'VE run across and Karma rolls around. If ya don't like paybacks then LEARN TO CONTROL YOUR GOVERNMENT. Sadly, starting today IS starting way late.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 7, 2011 04:22 PM

A good start:

PETITON CONGRESS TO CLOSE GITMO. ('cause the prez ain't gonna)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 7, 2011 04:24 PM

I love Greider, and that "yes we can" piece about what neoliberalism has given us is great, and I'd say the situation sure does look dire, but optimists never really had much reason for their opinions in this world. It always has been a tough world in which to do the right thing, and people who think otherwise have either been pretty lucky and/or are trying not to think too much about the choices they make because it's depressing and seems pointless and will likely lead to nothing good for them and those they love. The choices everyone faces aren't really as different from the choices Daniel Manning faced as everyone would like to think, because we're all actors in this performance. And few people really want to play that part.

Posted by: N E at January 8, 2011 09:18 AM

who is Daniel Manning?

Posted by: Susan at January 8, 2011 07:54 PM

Probably N E meant to say Bradley Manning.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 8, 2011 09:26 PM

yes, mistah charley, you're right, and my bad for goofing on that fine name, but i guess at least I didn't say peyton or eli manning.

Posted by: N E at January 8, 2011 11:56 PM

The choices I face are vastly different than the choices that Bradley Manning faced. If I were to find myself in his position, then I would not hesitate to turn over the material indicating criminal actions.

And that comes from a 55 year history of speaking the truth, always. I have pissed a lot of folks off with my approach to life.

However, the real reason I will never end up in a position to hand over evidence of evil doing is the fact that I choose early on to only get involved in good and worthwhile things in life. And that is why I am a pediatric audiologist - I could not even cut it as a regular audiologist because I would inform some of our elders that they were full of shit and should stop whining.

I believe in honesty and information.

And I am not an actor in some performance.

Posted by: Susan at January 9, 2011 12:47 PM


"And that comes from a 55 year history of speaking the truth, always."

Well, that's commendable if it's true, but I will honestly say in an expression of ironic tribute to your approach to life that I don't really believe it. I don't mean to insult you, because I obviously don't know you and have no basis for an opinion, but I just can't believe it.

It's great that you have been able to only get involved in good and worthwhile things, and maybe becoming a pediatric audiologist showed the sort of foresight that is necessary to avoid any hard professional choices, but most people cannot avoid hard choices, either personally or professionally. What apparently has worked for you as an individual strategy CANNOT be broadly adopted in a society. Somebody has to "cut it" as an audiologist for whiny old people, just as somebody has to deal with liars and cheats and difficult, morally challenging situations in a million other ways.

Also, I certainly didn't mean that you are literally an actor in a performance; I was sort of thinking along the lines of that bard who said all the world's a stage. In that figurative way, we're all actor's playing parts, and I just meant that few people really want the part of the person being tortured in solitary confinement.

Finally, I congratulate you on pissing off lots of people. I admire firebrands.

Posted by: N E at January 9, 2011 02:07 PM

Off topic,but the following link is interesting and I figure people here would want to know about it. It's a link to Helena Cobban's blog, which in turn links to a paper by Henry Shue regarding how our military is changing its official targeting doctrine to allow hitting civilian infrastructure.


It won't surprise anyone here, but as Shue says, the advent of the smart bomb was supposed to decrease "collateral damage", but the military is instead thinking of them as a way to hit the civilian population indirectly, without all the initial messy loss of life that old fashioned carpet bombing would bring. (That comes later, from disease.) People familiar with a certain Barton Gellman piece in the June 23 1991 Washington Post (often cited) will be familiar with the reasoning.


Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 9, 2011 07:47 PM

Thanks Donald Johnson. That's important. The link to Cobban's article didn't work for me, but here it is for anyone else who couldn't get it to work:

To me, that development in our overt brutality certainly seems consistent with our devolution toward fascism, which itself reflects the reduced possibilities of keeping this whole neoliberal system running given its internal contradictions, which seem to me to be even bigger now than they were back when Grandpa Karl was diagnosing them because resource depletion and climate change have entered the picture in such a big way. Wow, that sure was a horrible sentence--I'm glad I didn't have to write that in German!

Posted by: N E at January 9, 2011 09:11 PM

Donald Johnson: Well that makes burning the wedding parties look not so accidental.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 9, 2011 09:33 PM

NE: I don't give a shit if you believe me or not.

Posted by: Susan at January 9, 2011 10:08 PM

"Well that makes burning the wedding parties look not so accidental."

Yeah. Several years ago I remember reading an article in the NYT about air strikes on Fallujah and there was this sense conveyed (to me anyway) that on the one hand the military was using smaller more accurate bombs to decrease collateral damage and on the other hand any collateral damage that did occur was perceived as a form of "pressure"--kind of a nice side effect. These articles by Cobban and Shue and that old article by Barton Gellman show a kind of doublethink that our military seems to use--decrease the obvious forms of "collateral damage", but keep targeting civilians in such a way you can deny you intended to do it, even to yourself.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 10, 2011 10:57 AM


I don't give a shit if you give a shit either, but I do like your mettle.

Posted by: N E at January 10, 2011 11:53 AM

Even more indifference could be shown by not posting at all.

Posted by: Freddy el Desfibradddor at January 10, 2011 12:03 PM

Donald Johnson

Nobody needs to practice much at denying things to himself--that comes pretty naturally. Helping others deny things to themselves takes a little more work, but that doesn't seem all that hard either.

The whole lesson of Vietnam for the military--which uniformly believed that war was lost only at home--was to develop all these information warfare/propaganda capabilities and turn Fort Bragg and other places into the biggest PR machine in the world so that the public would always support the military in conflict. That's still going strong, with a big assist from 9/11, and boy has it ever succeeded. It'll probably take some unparalleled catastrophe and suffering to make people learn what other people learned about a hundred years ago when all this flag waving and listening to patriotic bands led everyone to march in step to this drumbeat into a world war. Central Asia seems to be where the trouble will be this time around.

By the way, on a quasi-related note, if people aren't seeing lots of parallels to the 90s nowadays I think they aren't paying close enough attention.

Posted by: N E at January 10, 2011 12:04 PM

As far as believing assertions people make about themselves, I'm reminded of what President Reagan said about nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union: "Trust, but verify."

Posted by: Freddy el Desfibradddor at January 10, 2011 12:06 PM

By the way, all my opinions are guaranteed to be correct, or double your money back.

Some restrictions may apply.

Posted by: Freddy el Desfibradddor at January 10, 2011 12:09 PM

HAPPY BIRTHDAY GITMO. Thank You for 9 YEARS of love, joy, and understanding.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 10, 2011 01:19 PM

Sorry NE, I don't believe you.

If you "cannot avoid hard choices," you are not choosing in that particular instance. I think you are merely apologizing for those people who do not have the courage, when forced with a "hard choice," to walk away from the choice itself. Of course most people wouldn't do that, but I know many who do, and despite what you say, the world would be a better place if more people were like Susan (and me).

Posted by: Solar Hero at January 11, 2011 12:16 PM

Well, I like to think I make the morally correct choices in every instance, regardless of difficulty; but I also realize that I don't perceive things 100% accurately; and have my own distorted mental maps; and the effects of my choices are not under my control. So that makes it quite difficult--impossible, probably--to figure out the right thing to do. I try not to physically hurt people, and emotionally as well, but I'm under no illusions about my complicity in this ongoing car-crash. I try to reduce the speed of my car, and aim for glancing blows--as we all do?

If you need to feel that you're "not a part of the problem" to continue to stay positive, God bless; if you feel that life is just a series of Hobson's Choices that you do your damnedest to try to negotiate, I can't argue with that, either. While it's very tempting to sit in judgment, it always feels like a distraction from the real work in front of me, which is my own life. Nobody gets out of here clean; it is not the nature of this place for us to stay clean--and so maybe THAT's what we're here to learn, not sit in judgment on each other. I don't know, I've never seen the rulebook.

Of course all these points can be smashed to bits using various argumentative recastings; and this kind of uncertainly won't be welcomed in the comments section of a blog devoted to (intelligent, often amusing) whingeing about politics. But there it is, and has been, and shall be, and each of us has to figure out what to do for ourselves.

(You think this comment is annoying--I was going to type out a Zen parable!)

Posted by: Mike of Angle at January 11, 2011 12:44 PM

Solar Hero

Yeah, I'm sure the world would be a better place if more people were like Susan and you. I like people who care about honesty and courage even when I don't always agree that they have an exclusive franchise on it. I do and will apologize for those arguably dishonest and cowardly folks who I believe are just looking at their choices differently but in good faith. To illustrate why I think choices are harder than you do, I think Grandpa Karl tried to do a hell of a lot for the world and was courageous and honest, and in that respect he was admirable beyond his brilliance even if his utopia didn't ever materialize, but it can't be ignored that some of his kids died in preventable ways that he could have avoided by being a bond salesman or lawyer or doctor or some such thing. Alas, being a parent, I don't see stark moral clarity in facing such life choices, but hey, maybe I am just an apologist for the cowardice. On the other hand, I definitely admire people who I think make hard choices based on something beyond their own self interest. So I do like courage, and I like rabblerousing too.

Posted by: N E at January 11, 2011 12:58 PM

Top 5 Zen Parables - Number 5


During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they would win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying with the men, the general took out a coin and said, "I shall now toss this coin. If it is heads, we shall win. If tails, we shall lose. Destiny will now reveal itself."

He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, "No one can change destiny."

"Quite right," the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 11, 2011 02:15 PM

Top 5 Zen Parables - Number 2*

Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around the bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

"Come on girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in her arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don’t go near females," he told Tanzan, "Especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

*Parables 3 and 4 omitted for brevity.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 11, 2011 02:21 PM

Top 5 Zen Parables - Number 1

Wild Strawberries

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled; the tiger ran after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.

The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.

How sweet it tasted!

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 11, 2011 02:26 PM

Top 5 Zen Parables - Bonus Round

The Kingdom

Jesus said: If those who lead you say unto you: Behold, the Kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will be before you.

If they say unto you: It is in the sea, then the fish will be before you.

But the Kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you.

When you know yourselves, then shall you be known, and you shall know that you are the sons of the living Father.

But if ye do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 11, 2011 02:32 PM

I was actually hoping that that conversation would continue something like this: Susan would say, "I don't give a shit if you give a shit if I give a shit," and NE would say, "I don't care if you give a shit if I give a shit if you give a shit," and Susan would say, "I don't care if you give a shit if I give a shit if you give a shit if I give a shit," and then NE would say, "I don't - Aw, who am I fooling, let's drop the facade. I give a shit. I've always given a shit. I'm nuts about you, babe," and Susan would say, "Oh, NE," and NE would say, "Pardon?" and Susan would say, "Hmmm, let me take a look at those ears," and then the screen would shrink down to a tiny heart and fade to black.

Posted by: godoggo at January 11, 2011 07:30 PM

Note to self: always use "preview."

Posted by: godoggo at January 11, 2011 07:36 PM

I'm not sure which parable I like best, but I think I'm going to vote for godoggo's, which got me cracking up at "babe" and finally made me snort appropriately like a pig in a bucket of slop.

But those mistah charley parables, only one of which i remember seeing(tiger and mice and strawberry), are so sublime that they robbed me of my highly prized ability to snort. Which is really saying something.

Posted by: N E at January 11, 2011 09:31 PM

173 astronauts in training at GITMO right NOW, waiting to go---somewhere, anywhere.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 12, 2011 03:45 PM

Oh yeah. What we need are more "Nation"-reading ankle-biters. Sheeesh. . .

What we in fact need are anti-capitalist versions are Lee Harvey Loughner (or whatever his name is). With targets such as Bernanke, Jamie Dimon, Larry Summers and Lloyd Blankfein.

Posted by: Jesus Capote at January 12, 2011 04:10 PM

JESUS, Jesus, assassinations are NOT the answer. Too many CHILDERN end up in the crossfire.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 12, 2011 05:34 PM

I am overwhelmed: Starting with the initial posting by Jonathan about William Greider not being so optimistic anymore (which does connect to his posting on January 02, 2011 about the 20th Century now being in Reruns, about capitalism) - to the creed ...designed by billionaires, "Yes We Can” (the original of which is no longer available) (which makes me wonder where it may have come from) - to all these comments, starting with George Carlin’s “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it,” to all those Zen Parables. I am truly overwhelmed.

Our lives depend on strength, skill, ingenuity – the generosity of others and luck. Money enters into the picture later. We know we can’t eat money. We think we know the difference between right and wrong. But if we can handle the "Madding Crowd” seems to be the big question... depending on how madding "they" ("we") get?

Posted by: Grandpa Ken at January 12, 2011 05:34 PM