Phew, that last entry was pretty serious! How about a little lightening of the mood with a nice Dinosaur Comic?

I just finished reading A People’s History of the United States after about three false starts over the past year. It’s quite an amazing read, but I kept putting it down and then picking it back up again months later as it’s rather, well, depressing to read about the vastly under-reported exploitation that’s gone on in American history.  Of course there’s the obvious genocide of the American Indians that is completely absent from the history taught in schools, and the horrors of slavery, but this book also details the oppression of the poor and working classes under the rich elite and how our Constitution is set up to perpetuate this imbalance.  Even as a self-proclaimed bleeding-heart liberal, it was really astonishing to read the extent to which the government in this country has gone to help the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer.

It is not simply the vast imbalance of wealth that is disturbing, it is the uses to which that wealth is put.  Money may be the root of all evil, but in and of itself, it is merely a tool. (1) Gaining money simply for having money is pointless. As appealing as it would be to roll around in a vat of money á la Scrooge McDuck, there is nothing gained in doing so. I am not the sort of person who believes that having a lot of money is in and of itself a sin, nor am I a Communist who believes that all wealth should be equitably distributed (2), but I do believe that those who control the wealth of the country – that is, the government – has a responsibility to use it for the greater good.

Which is distinctly not how money is or has ever been used. And this, I believe, is why we need a revolution. (3) Governments have kept themselves in power without having to kow-tow to the needs of the Average Joe by waging wars, designed to stir up nationalistic fervor and temporarily boost the economy, without having to make any concessions or drastic change to the laws that favor business at the expense of the worker. In the absence of actual war, the government has been known to dwell on the very threat of war (4) to keep the citizenry in the sort of heightened state of panic necessary to build a vast arsenal of unnecessary weapons at the expense of spending money on social reform.  Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged this when he stated:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

Zinn goes on to elaborate on this statement:

A radical reduction in the military budget would require a renunciation of war, a withdrawal of military bases from around the world, an acceptance, finally, of the principle enunciated in the UN Charter that the world should renounce “the scourge of war.” It would speak to the fundamental human desire (overwhelmed too often by barrages of superpatriotic slogans) to live at peace with others.

The public appeal for such a dramatic policy change would be based on a simple but powerful moral argument: that given the nature of modern warfare, the victims would be mostly civilians.  To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children.  And if the children of other countries are to be granted an equal right to life with our own children, then we must use our extraordinary human ingenuity to find nonmilitary solutions to world problems.

Put like this it’s hard to argue for increased military spending, but this of course not the message that the government puts out.  We allow ourselves to believe, as we hear, that bombs only hit military targets unless by accident. American deaths are tragedies, foreign deaths are statistics. The status quo continues unabated. And yet, as a people, we are sensitive to the issues of poverty – especially in children – in other countries. How many times have your heart strings been tugged by ads for Unicef or other organizations offering to sponsor third world children for pennies a day (5)? People are generally willing to help those in meaner conditions than themselves, unless by doing so they have to give up fundamentally sacred to do so.

Which is why the government as it stands will never, no matter who is President, abolish – or even drastically cut back on – military spending in favor of health care or education reform.  War brings business – and not just in arms sales; just look at Halliburton in Iraq.  Controlling Iraq means controlling its resources, and at this point in time, there is no resource more precious to the American government than oil. Without a serious revolution, the United States government will never invest in its children what it invests in a nuclear arsenal.

If you need me, I’ll be out back singing Kumbaya.(6)

NOTES:

1) As the great philosopher DiFranco says: “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

2) For all members of the CIA reading this: Hello. I am not a Communist. No need to pick up the phone. It’s all ok.

3) I have no opinion as to whether or not the revolution will be televised, but I’m sure it will be live-blogged.

4) See for example: The Cold War. The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. The War on Christmas.

5) I can’t even think of those ads without wanting to cry – the flies! Oh the flies! As a kid, I wanted to adopt ALL of the African children and send them my lunch money. I am both a bleeding-heart liberal and a sucker for advertising.

6) No, not really. I hate that song.

Being three years out of college, I’m at that point where all of my friends are getting married. Too bad I’m also at the point where my first marriage has ended, but whatevs. In any case, I’ve been immersed in wedding talk – invitations, dress fittings, vows… A lot of the chatter around me has been about how to have an alternative ceremony that doesn’t bend to the patriarchal traditions of such things as “giving the bride away.” I have friends who had a commitment ceremony instead of a legal wedding, I also have friends who had a Quaker ceremony (which was one of the most beautiful events I’ve had the honor of witnessing), and still another couple of friends had a song by the White Stripes (“We Are Gonna Be Friends”) as their processional.

So far, none of my friends have done this. Though I wouldn’t put it past any of them.

Yes, this week’s Cat and Girl is just like grocery shopping with me. Click on the comic for a larger easier-to-read image.

Class Issues in Prison Break.

November 26, 2007

NOTE: I am watching the first season of Prison Break on Netflix. Please consider any comments carefully to AVOID SPOILERS.

The television drama Prison Break is set up on the premise of a successful engineer (Michael Scofield) who commits a crime to end up in prison and assist his death-row inmate brother (Lincoln Burrows) (1) escape. I was hesitant to watch this show as my thoughts tend to run along the lines of “So, then what’s going to happen when they actually escape? Is that going to be the end of the show? And if they don’t escape? What’s the point of that?” But then again, I am a big fan of Lost, which also can not go on forever, so I stepped up to the plate and swallowed my disbelief. (2)

One issue that comes up over and over again in the first season is the disbelief of the secondary characters that someone like Michael would end up in prison in the first place. What would trigger an engineer with a clean record to commit a violent crime? (3) In the world where crimes are not committed to aid in getting one’s brother out of jail and one does not get blueprints of state penitentiaries tattooed all over one’s torso to aid in this scheme, engineers with clean criminal records and no history of mental illness are not at all likely to commit violent crime, and what’s more is that if they do, they are not likely to serve hard time in prison.

Howard Zinn writes a concise summary of the American prison system in A People’s History of the United States (4):

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people.

Not only did Michael Scofield not fit the class profile of someone who committed a violent crime, but he certainly did not fit the profile of someone who ended up in prison for said crime. He certainly had a “clever lawyer” in Veronica Donovan, he could afford whatever fines were placed on him, and certainly, a judge would be predisposed by his previous clean record to offer him lighter sentencing than that which is advised. He wasn’t only the type of person who wouldn’t normally end up in prison, but as Michel Foucault (5) argues, he isn’t the type of person for whom prisons are designed in the first place. As he puts it, prisons are built by the bourgeoisie to separate the lower class “other” in incrementally more isolating mechanisms depending on the severity of the infraction: mere displacement from society for minor offenses, solitary confinement for more serious crimes, and the ultimate punishment – destruction of the individual for those offenses that are totally egregious.

So called “White collar” criminals don’t end up in prison merely because their crimes are non-violent, but because the prison system was designed to keep the rich, white elements on the outside and the poor, non-white elements on the inside. Scofield, as a rich white man, had no business being in prison and in a non-television drama, his place in society would have probably kept him from serving any time for a failed bank robbery in which no one was injured. He would have faced probation and some serious fines, but those elaborate tattoos would likely have been for naught.

NOTES

1) It is explained somewhere mid-season that the two characters who are biologically full-brothers have different last names because their father left while Michael was still in utero and in light of this, their mother chose to give him her maiden name, thus conveniently setting up a scenario in which the criminal justice system would neglect to realize that these two inmates were of relation.

2) Actually, I started watching it because my boyfriend got it on Netflix. But that’s not really as impressive sounding.

3) He robbed a bank and discharged a gun. No one was hurt, but the firing of the weapon classified the crime as “violent” on which basis the judge – an older African-American woman, just to continue the world of statistically unlikely occupations – made the ruling that she felt “incumbent that [he] see the inside of a prison cell,” which is a pretty awesome sentence. Not often do you find “incumbent” cropping up in an sentence.

4) My current bed-time reading. See what college does to you? Beware kids, you too will be reading serious social criticism for fun.

5) Yes, I’ve read Foucault. In my spare time. In French. This is what college does to you! I’m telling you, it’s dangerous!

Dinosaurs for Social Change.

November 26, 2007

Browsing the archives of Dinosaur Comics, I found this and nearly laughed my pants off because I myself have this same train of thought on a near daily basis. Enjoy!

Black Friday.

November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving is this week, which means that we are also rapidly coming up on Black Friday. I don’t know which I hate more, the meaningless holiday based on genocide and lying to children about how g-ddamn friendly the Pilgrims and the Indians were to each other(I actually have more beef with Thanksgiving than with Columbus Day on this front because no little kids are acting out plays in which Columbus and some Indians with feathers on their heads sit down and enjoy a turkey), or the day after – the biggest holiday in retail.

Black Friday may not be the biggest day in the shopping year in terms of sales, but it is the day with the greatest amount of foot traffic. And it’s certainly the day that retail stores put the most attention to. Opening as early as 4 in the morning, advertising one-day-only sales, or in some cases, sales that end by noon. This year, Wal-Mart (the US’s greatest retailer of gifts) has gone so far as to suppress any advance information regarding their sales. Not only are the sales themselves all about the hype, but to go so far as to say that your sales are so awesome that you can’t possibly allow competitors to gain advance knowledge of them creates meta-hype. This is really pretty great PR for Wal-Mart.

Which is what the whole thing is about anyway, it’s all PR. It’s all hype. Sure, you might save $20 on a DVD player. You feel like you’re getting such a good deal, like you’re beating the system and hey! You’re being rewarded for it. So, what do you do? You buy a sweater.

This is how sales work, people. It’s all pyschological. It’s all for effect! Yes, you may save an amount of money. That is, if you go into a store looking for one specific item that you know in advance will be on sale and walk out with that item and that item alone. Yes, then you have saved money. But, having worked in retail, and having watched the American consumer in its natural habitat, I can tell you that this is not usually how it works. Usually, you browse. You find the thing that you were looking for. Let’s use the example of a book, since I worked in a bookstore. What’dya know? Who Moved My Cheese? is on the 3 for 2 table! So, you figure, if you buy Tuesdays With Morrie then you can get The DaVinci Code “free!” WHAT A DEAL!

Do you see the fallacy here? If you went in to buy Who Moved My Cheese? and walked out of the store paying for two books instead of one, it doesn’t matter how many books you got for “free” on top of that – you just spent more money. You did not save a dime. Now, if you really needed all three of these tomes, then yes, you have found yourself a sweet deal. But how many of us really actually need another shirt from the “Buy one get one half off” rack? If you go into a store to buy one item and go out paying for more than one item, you have been suckered by the magic of retail. It’s a powerful, powerful force. Until I really realized how it worked – from the business end of things, going through meetings that detailed selling strategies such as the placement of sales stickers to draw maximum attention – I was suckered by it many a time myself, I’ll admit.

This is why you won’t find me lining up in front of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. I want my gifts to be about what inspires me about my loved ones. I don’t want my Christmas shopping to be all about trying to save $5 on a toaster. I’m also really, really broke. I’m also buying handmade this year because I’m a hippie like that and prefer to support the counter-culture rather than the mainstream soul-sucking retail giants. Five AM, day after Thanksgiving, I will be blissfully asleep.