Friday, December 31, 2004


What a wild ride 2004's been for me. I started the year having no idea where I would be by now. After nerve-racking auditions, tense waiting periods, awful high school teaching, a major move to another state, and a nerve-racking change of life, I'm now a grad student: I've redefined myself as an actor and things are looking up. For me, anyway, if not the world.

This calls for some good jazz: why not ring in the new year with an endless stream of internet jazz radio from AccuJazz? It's good stuff and it's all free. Enjoy.



No, not this guy.

I'm talking about THIS guy.

We're jumping into early realism for the spring semester in my acting class, and I've been assigned several Chekhov plays to read over the break. I'm happy to report that it's great stuff in spite of Chekhov's reputation for depressing monotony. To be honest, there are moments of deep angst permeating his work, but there are also numerous moments of intense humor: as my buddy Lex has observed, Americans, when producing Chekhov's plays, tend to emphasize the darkness and miss the humor, thus his reputation for depressing theater--one of the most excruciating moments of my life was enduring a plodding production of The Three Sisters when I was an undergrad at UT; god it sucked! But what could be funnier than existentialism? Sometimes the plays of Chekhov sound more like a Smiths song.

From the opening scene of The Sea Gull:

MEDVIEDENKO. Why do you always wear mourning?

MASHA. I dress in black to match my life. I am unhappy.

Those first two lines set the tone for the entire play, which, of course, ends with the suicide of a young artist who is--get this--frustrated with the state of Russian art and unable to have the woman he loves. Sad, yes, but also really funny. It is this formula, laughter and tears provoked by the same events, that makes Chekhov so fantastic.

Actually, this misunderstanding of the nature of Chekhov's plays goes back to the very beginning. From Chekhov's bio:

In fact, it was not until the Moscow Art Theater production of The Seagull (1897) that Chekhov enjoyed his first overwhelming success. The same play had been performed two years earlier at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and had been so badly received that Chekhov had actually left the auditorium during the second act and vowed never to write for the theatre again. But in the hands of the Moscow Art Theatre, the play was transformed into a critical success, and Chekhov soon realized that the earlier production had failed because the actors had not understood their roles.

In 1899, Chekhov gave the Moscow Art Theatre a revised version of The Wood Demon, now titled Uncle Vanya (1899). Along with The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), this play would go on to become one of the masterpieces of the modern theatre. However, although the Moscow Art Theatre productions brought Chekhov great fame, he was never quite happy with the style that director Constantin Stanislavsky imposed on the plays. While Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies, Stanislavsky's productions tended to emphasize their tragic elements. Still, in spite of their stylistic disagreements, it was not an unhappy marriage, and these productions brought widespread acclaim to both Chekhov's work and the Moscow Art Theatre itself.

Even the great Stanislavsky, who created what we now know as realistic acting in order to do justice to these plays, missed the duality of Chekhov's work. I wonder if the world was simply not ready to laugh and cry at the same time; perhaps the plays of Chekhov are better suited to the absurd world we live in today.

Again from Chekhov's bio:

Chekhov considered his mature plays to be a kind of comic satire, pointing out the unhappy nature of existence in turn-of-the-century Russia. Perhaps Chekhov's style was described best by the poet himself when he wrote:

"All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!'"

Click here for the rest of the bio.

In addition to the tragi-comic elements, the thing that really gets me about Chekhov's plays is how his characters, filled with regrets for having never realized their potential, are caught up in cycles of behavior of which they do not seem aware or cannot seem to break--they make the same mistakes over and over, trapped by their own unwillingness see things differently. They hate their lives but absolutely refuse to do what it takes to change their circumstances for the better. In The Three Sisters, three sisters, stuck in a country backwater, long to return to the cultured and educated surroundings of Moscow but they never go. In The Cherry Orchard, a wealthy family facing forclosure could maintain their comfortable work-free lifestyle by converting their prized cherry orchard to vacation homes for renting out to Russia's new bourgeoisie, but refuse to do so, and end up in poverty. Uncle Vanya's characters face similar dilemmas. At this point in my life, after having seen friends and myself end up in circumstances not unlike those of Chekhov's characters, I can say without irony that these plays are truly like real life.

That's what makes Chekhov so great.


Guest Blogger Miles


I've found a job as a corporate video store clerk/whore at Hollywood Video, which has taken up a lot of my time, but it has it's perks. One of those perks is free rentals of any video in the store, an opportunity I've taken advantage of. One of my first rentals: "Outfoxed", an independent documentary about the media giant Rupert Murdoch and the tactics used in today's media. I encourage all of you to go to a non-corporate video store and rent it. If it's not at your local mom and pop video store, steal it from Hollywood. Or buy it here.


Public Expense & Private Profit

From the blog of Noam Chomsky:

For computers, the period from development to commercially viable sales was about 30 years (depending on how you count). For the internet, it was also about 30 years within the state system before it was handed over, by a process that remains obscure, to private corporations.

And it’s not a matter of public companies going private. IBM was a private corporation when it was making use of the government-funded MIT and Harvard computers, in government-funded labs (or fully government labs), to learn how to move from punched cards to electronic computers, and by the time it was going off on its own in the 60s, most of its production was for government agencies. Public support takes many different forms: funding, grants, government labs, procurement, etc. There are plenty of details in print. I reviewed some of Alan Greenspan’s fantasies on this in a chapter of “Rogue States,” dealing with the interesting history of transistors, technically “private” but in fact developed at public expense—the only illustration he gave of the “entrepreneurial initiative” and “consumer choice” that drives the economy; the others were textbook cases of R&D within the public sector.

Click here for the rest.

The bottom line here is that capitalism, as conventionally understood, doesn't work. Indeed, the private and public sectors have a symbiotic relationship, and it's probably safe to say that one cannot exist without the other. Chomsky, writing elsewhere, has even asserted that American capitalism would have collapsed after WWII if it weren't for a massive influx into the economy of government military spending--this isn't hard to swallow; we've spent trillions of dollars on defense over the years, and such spending and its effects on the economy cannot be ignored. But ignore is exactly what the proponents of the "free market" do, ramming down our throats platitudes about entrepreneurialsm and the way things work.

Get this straight: there is no "free market," and any line of reasoning that depends on the existence of such a myth is flawed from the get-go.


Colossal international relief effort
gears up as toll passes 119,00

As my friend Jennifer points out in Real Art comments, the death toll just keeps rising. From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Pilots dropped food to Indonesian villagers stranded among bloating corpses Thursday, while police in a devastated provincial capital stripped looters of their clothing and forced them to sit on the street as a warning to others. The death toll topped 119,000, and officials warned that 5 million people lack clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine.

Click here for the rest.

And if you've been following the story, things are on the verge of getting worse: dirty water could very easily spawn massive epidemics of cholera and dysentery, and both diseases could be fatal. That's why it's ultra-important for the US to step up and hand out wads of cash, which we are, but...well, just read this:

Governments have so far donated some $500 million, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, adding that he was "satisfied" by the response, even though another U.N. earlier complained that the West had been "stingy" in the past.

Responding to persistent criticism that U.S. pledges have been slow to materialize and deliveries of aid not fast enough, Boucher ticked off a string of relief flights and declared: "Any implication we are not leading the way is wrong."

The truth is that the US is, indeed, being stingy. Just to put things into perspective, Atrios over at Eschaton has observed that the $35 million we've pledged pales when compared to the $2 billion sent down to Florida in the wake of last summer's intense hurricane season, and the US pledge looks downright absurd when compared to the $40 million being spent on Bush's inauguration. Stingy, plain and simple. Racist, too, when you consider that most of the region's inhabitants have dark skins.



Quake may have shortened
days by microseconds forever

From Reuters via the Houston Chronicle:

The deadly Asian earthquake may have permanently accelerated the Earth's rotation -- shortening days by a fraction of a second -- and caused the planet to wobble on its axis, U.S. scientists say.

Richard Gross, a geophysicist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, theorized that a shift of mass toward the Earth's center during the quake Sunday caused the planet to spin 3 microseconds, or one millionth of a second, faster and to tilt about an inch on its axis.

When one huge tectonic plate beneath the Indian Ocean was forced below the edge of another "it had the effect of making the Earth more compact and spinning faster," Gross said.

Click here for the rest.

Weird. I don't really have anything to add (the article goes on to point out that such a change is ultimately insignificant) other than that it must have been one hell of an earthquake. But I guess everybody already knew that.


Thursday, December 30, 2004


From AlterNet:

"Evangelical Christians used to be 40 percent of American Protestants; now they're over 60 percent," says Michael Hout, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Different birth rates account for 70 percent of that growth: Evangelicals have had an extra child per family for about 35 years. The other 30 percent comes from a process few sociologists of religion anticipated. Upwardly mobile Evangelicals used to mark their arrival in the local establishment by joining the Episcopalian or Presbyterian Church. No more. Now they stay evangelical and start a power brokers' prayer breakfast."

The shift extends to the top: Every U.S. president since 1976 has professed to be born again. White evangelicals, once split evenly along partisan lines, are now nearly two-to-one Republican. The Pew Forum's Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics found that, since 1992, the number of evangelical Protestants who consider themselves conservative has jumped 13 percent.

Even historically Democratic African American evangelicals are backing President Bush in larger numbers (18 percent, double the number who voted for him in 2000, says the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies).

Click here for the rest.



From Democracy Now:

MODERATOR: Why is it that in the United States the writers, the poets, novelists, playwrights do not speak out on socio-political issue as they arise, and why are the writers in the United States in this extraordinary time of crisis so silent?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, at the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, I do ask myself every day what happened to my country? I think there has been some incredible takeover that precedes the Bush administration the current really radical takeover of our government. These are really a bunch of radicals. This is not old-style republicanism, such as it was. I think there's been a kind of demoralization of the culture, a dumbing-down of the culture, and an extraordinary ascendancy of materialistic and anti-idealistic values. The conversation among writers that takes place in the last 20 years is for the most part just like the conversation of any other professional people on the make. They could just as well be advertising executives or businesspeople, or anything else. They talk about income and they talk about the comforts or lack of comforts of their personal lives, and -- but that's a kind of -- if I think back on my own life, the single most amazing phenomenon is the discrediting of idealism. And that was a gradual process. You can call it the triumph of consumerism. You can call it a lot of things, but I think now very few people in comparison -- that's not just a question of writers; it's a question of people. Very few people have the nerve to stand up for moral principles or have a sense of the right of criticism that's part of our national culture.

Click here to listen, watch, or read the rest.


Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Church and State of Mind

Rob Salkowitz over at
Emphasis Added gets drunk and still manages to eloquently explain what's on the line with the separation of church and state:

Political opposition to the theory of evolution has never been about science: it’s been about control of the definition of knowledge. In the evolution, the scientific method of observation and deduction runs square up against the mystical teachings of traditional religion. It’s a crossroads, where you either embrace the idea that truth about the material world can be discovered by human insight, or you cling to notions of the supernatural: that revealed religion is True despite any evidence to the contrary.

This is not to say that accepting that science describes the way the world works better than Bible stories means we must abandon all faith. It merely means recognizing that the faith that is necessary in our lives, that allows us to take joy in the daily miracles of nature and comforts us in the face of the inexplicable and tragic, can also be an extremely bad strategy for achieving practical results. History and personal experience show that analysis, cause-and-effect, reason and logic are consistently better predictors of outcomes than “faith-based” methods.

It’s unreasonable to expect that everyone will live their lives this way all the time, but it seems entirely appropriate to hold the benefits of dispassionate analysis as an ideal for governance. Just look around the world: is there a single regime anywhere that has benefited or would benefit from introducing greater religiosity and irrationalism into their government? In Iran, are we rooting for the ayatollahs or the educated urban liberals? In Russia, do we think peace and democracy would be well-served by the greater empowerment of the Orthodox ultraconservatives? Or in Israel? Or Ireland?

Click here for the rest.

Indeed, science and religion are simply two different philosophies for understanding the universe. One philosophy is based on objective
processes, observation, hypothesis, and experimentation; the other is based on subjective interpretation of an old book. The former isn't perfect, but the latter creates obvious difficulties, as Tom Tomorrow deftly illustrated a couple of years ago. Sadly, the US increasingly seems to be headed in that direction.



From the Los Angeles Times via Newsday:

Shortly after Susan Sontag died Tuesday in New York, an obituary on the BBC's World Service described her as "the high priestess of the American avant-garde."

So she was, in part.

But to take that topic sentence and its implications as the sum of her 71 years is to discount the example of an inspiring -- and uniquely American -- life.

Much that will be written about her in the weeks ahead will focus on her aesthetic and political legacy and, as the British Broadcasting Corporation's description suggests, on her status as an icon of what some would describe as the international intellectual elite. It also is worth considering, however, that she willed and worked herself into all that she achieved.


Susan's similarly ruthless pursuit of what she believed was truest and best inevitably conveyed a kind of elitism. Yet no matter how rarified the company, it was open to anybody willing to do the work to join. Her own drive for self-improvement -- and the conviction that knowledge and critical thinking were the tools to accomplish it -- never ceased.

Click here for the rest.

In addition to her amazing and influential career, it is important to note that Sontag was one of the first on the left to stick her neck on the chopping block in order to say what needed to be said: "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" Alas, I was not so brave at the time, fearing the loss of my job and general political persecution. Voices such as hers gave me the courage to eventually speak out myself, both at work as a high school teacher and on this blog. Her death is truly a drag.


Monday, December 27, 2004

Fear of disease rises as death
toll from tidal wave nears 23,000

Just in case you hadn't noticed yet. From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Bodies washed up on tropical beaches and piled up in hospitals today, raising fears of disease across a 10-nation arc of destruction left by a monster earthquake and walls of water that killed more than 22,500 people. Thousands were missing and millions homeless.

Humanitarian agencies began what the United Nations said would become the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen.

The disaster could be the costliest in history as well, with "many billions of dollars" of damage, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation and no health services, he said.


For most people around the shores across the region, the only warning Sunday of the disaster came when shallow coastal waters disappeared, sucked away by the approaching tsunami, before returning as a massive wall of water. The waves wiped out villages, lifted cars and boats, yanked children from the arms of parents and swept away beachgoers, scuba divers and fishermen.

In a scene repeated across the region Monday, relatives wandered hallways lined with bodies, searching for loved ones at the hospital in Sri Lanka's southern town of Galle — one of the worst-affected areas of the hardest-hit nation. People lifted blankets and soaked clothes to look at faces in a stunned hush, broken only occasionally by wails of mourning.

Click here for the rest.

Horrible, just horrible. For all the bitching I do here at Real Art about politics and what not, it's very sobering to realize what insects we all are when subjected to Mother Nature's wrath. People will look for someone to blame, but as far as I can tell, nothing really could have been done. There is this storyline about early-warning systems not having been installed, but I can understand how governments in the region would not be in a big hurry on this given the rarity of tsunamis originating in the Indian Ocean--I mean, I heard earlier today that the last time something like this happened was over 170 years ago. No, this was just an example of how fragile our existence really is. I'm horrified, and don't really know what else to say.

If you believe in God, say a few prayers for the millions of people caught up in this. Every little bit helps, I'm sure.



Well, sort of. The Houston area, which is where I spent the Yule, was hit by snow on the 24th. Most of it melted when it hit the ground, but it was coming down pretty heavily at points. It was waaay cool, especially because I experience snow so rarely.
Here and here are a couple of stories about it. Be sure to check out the slideshows.

Snowman on a Galveston beach: this is messed up, man.


The Star Wars Holiday Special

This is not a joke. There really was a goofy, 70s style, live action, variety-narrative Star Wars Christmas show featuring the film's original cast that aired a quarter of a century ago. From I'm Just Sayin' courtesy of Eschaton:

I was "fortunate" enough to receive a bootleg DVD copy of this special as an early Christmas gift. The reason it's a bootleg and a "Holy Grail" of sorts is because Lucas has forbid this special to ever officially see the light of day again. After watching it, I can see why: I have never screamed "Make It Stop! Make It Stop! Make It Stop!" more in my life.

Click here for more explanation and a link to a collection of video highlights.

My old pal Shane, who sometimes comments here at Real Art, years ago gave me a blurry fourth or fifth generation VHS copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special, so I know it well. Actually, I saw the thing on television when it was originally broadcast when I was in the fifth grade. Despite it's ultra-badness, or perhaps because of it, I have a great deal of affection in my heart for this atrocity. You really ought to go watch the highlight reel, if only for a couple of laughs.


African-Americans Begin
Celebration Of Kwanzaa

From NY1:

The seven-day festival began in 1966 as a way to help African-Americans get in touch with their roots. Each of the seven days is guided by a different principle: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.

Click here for more.

It actually started yesterday, and with the cool principles Kwanzaa celebrates, it's pretty hard for me to not take such a festival seriously. So happy Kwanzaa from Real Art.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Becky and I are headed back to Houston tomorrow to spend Christmas with our families, so the Yule comes a few days early at Real Art this year, given that I'm not going to be blogging while I'm gone. I've put together something of a grab bag of links dealing more or less with what Christmas might mean to a progressive like me. But before getting to that, go have a chat with the ghost of Real Art Christmas past,
here and here; it'll be just like flipping through the family photo album! Also, if you haven't already, go check out my post on the Real Jesus, which explains why I like him so much even though I'm no longer a Christian.

Now, on to the Christmas links!

First, some excerpts on the recent corporate news media firestorm about the supposed left-wing movement to stamp out my favorite holiday. Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum wonders what the deal is, especially considering the fact that there is no movement to do away with Christmas at all. Courtesy of


A few days ago Bill O'Reilly was yammering on about how he was sticking up for Christmas but nobody else was. Why doesn't Peter Jennings stick for Christmas, he asked, why doesn't Dan Rather stick up for Christmas....and....and....well, that's about it. I didn't have any idea what he was talking about, so I shrugged my shoulders and went about my business.

But now a week has passed, and I think I get it. It's all about "Merry Christmas," isn't it? I've now read at least a dozen assorted articles and op-eds about the horror — the horror! — of "Happy Holidays" being used as a seasonal greeting instead of "Merry Christmas."


I guess I'm used to the bizarre persecution complex of the American Christian right. No, what I want to know is this: how do they spread these memes so damn fast? I mean, liberals are just barely starting to get a smidgen of attention for the proposition that Social Security isn't really in serious trouble — a meme that has the advantage of actually being true — while the "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" meme has exploded onto front pages around the country (and the world!) in a matter of days.

here for the rest.

I should have known that stinky butthole O'Reilly was behind this. Amazing isn't it? The conservatives are in control of everything now but they still feel the need to manufacture crises in order to perpetuate their politically advantagous "victim" identity-narrative. What's more amazing is that this entire fiction is based on the fact that a few Americans are now saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." Hell, I'm not even a Christian, and I love saying "merry Christmas." This is really an annoying bunch of crap, as this next article from Salon, again courtesy of Eschaton, illustrates:

The Grinch who saved Christmas

For most people, Christmas may be a time of peace and joy, but for Bill O'Reilly it's another chance to wage an us-vs.-them cultural war. O'Reilly and Fox News, along with a cadre of hard-charging right-wing talkers, have declared war on the anti-Christmas crowd, that dangerous mix of radical secularists and school board do-gooders determined to "bring about their own Godless version of this nation," as Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote in a column
published Monday on the conservative Web site

The thorny issue of striking the proper balance between America's predominant Christian population and the country's historic separation of church and state returns every holiday season like unwanted fruitcake. But as ABC News recently noted, "This year, people in red, or Republican America -- particularly Christian conservatives -- are in an unprecedented uproar."

Fresh off Republican wins in November, O'Reilly and company have ratcheted up the rhetoric. Mixing a kernel of truth with a grab bag of unconfirmed anecdotes, as well as some outright falsehoods, and then repeating the dire warnings, they've helped manufacture the impression that a tidal wave of anti-Christian activity, fueled by Democrats, is threatening to drive Christmas underground in America.

"All over the country, Christmas is taking flak," O'Reilly recently announced, as he complained about "the anti-Christmas jihad" that's gripping the nation. "If they could, secularists would cancel Christmas as a holiday. That's how much they fear the exposition of the philosophy of Jesus." During his syndicated radio show O'Reilly intoned darkly, "The small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest -- and has to be dealt with."

here for the rest (and be ready to sit through a brief ad--Salon's just trying to pay the bills I guess).

Both creepy and loony at the same time, that's what I love about Bill O'Reilly's weird world. Of course, if O'Reilly was a real Christian American, he wouldn't be celebrating Christmas at all, as this brief essay from the History Channel (again thanks to Eschaton) shows:

An Outlaw Christmas

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.

After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas.

here for the rest.

Needless to say, I'm kidding about how real Christians shouldn't celebrate Christmas: that's about as silly as suggesting that Christmas is under attack because a few people are saying "happy holidays." The great irony about all this is that Christmas, or rather what it represents, is indeed under attack, but you won't hear guys like O'Reilly or Falwell talking about it. Why? Christmas is under attack by something those guys love, consumerism and free market fundamentalism. From

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Even to this day, most people find it difficult or impossible to reconcile these beliefs. I don’t know of any parent who would deliberately teach their children that sharing and being kind to others was bad, and that being greedy and selfish was good. Despite over one hundred years of indoctrination, most of us still believe the self-centered, the greedy and the proud can never be trusted and should be avoided. It is inconceivable that these characteristics can form the basis of true friendship, let alone love.

Yet, despite our continued misgivings, we continue to hold the market as our central institution because the idea of self-sacrifice—the gift of Christmas—has been stolen. As a result, we are now tied to the market for our material needs, even our very existence, forcing many of us to live a double life. In private and family life, we try to live by the ideals of love and altruism, but in our external dealings, we are forced to live by the law of the market which is self-interest.

Living a double life makes it hard to bring up children in any consistent way. The children hear their parents teach one set of rules, but see them and the heroes of society behaving in exactly the opposite way. And when the heroes of society are the greedy, the vain and the proud; the job of the parents becomes almost impossible.

Living a double life is hard, if not impossible, because as humans we need to live by a consistent set of beliefs. Eventually we gravitate to one set of beliefs, and because our most basic need for survival is linked to the market, we start to adopt the rules of the market as our own, sometimes imperceptibly. This is why selfishness is now the distinguishing characteristic of Western society. This is the reason our society is becoming a society of the lonely, the divorced and the depressed.

here for the rest.

In other words, capitalism makes the baby Jesus cry. This is a contradiction running smack dab down the middle of conservative Christianity, which explains why people like O'Reilly seem to be going a bit crazy at the moment: Christmas means peace and goodwill, but capitalism means war and ripping people off. You can't have it both ways, and in trying to do so, conservative Christians are forced into increasingly bizarre positions, for instance, fabricating this whole Christmas-under-attack by "happy holidays" story.

And that's right, capitalism means war. Without getting into a major treatise, suffice it to say that virtually every military action in the history of the US, including the Revolution, was about economic interest. Today, by and large, most American military interventions are very much about keeping the world safe for business. Iraq, with its massive oil deposits, is an obvious example. Others, such as Afghanistan, are not so obvious: nonetheless, even when the business angle is not so clear, there is always a major economic factor overshadowing all American wars--smiting the Afghans was very much about illustrating to the world that people better do what we say, and generally this is understood to be in terms of business and trade; the whole natural gas pipeline deal that the US was unable to negotiate with the Taliban is now a moot point because we own Afghanistan. And let's not forget the entire Cold War, which was very much about capitalism and business.

As a society that embraces capitalism, we are a society that embraces war. So I think I'll finish up this Christmas edition of Real Art by posting the lyrics to one of my favorite Christmas songs:

Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

(Happy christmas, kyoko.
Happy christmas, julian.)

So this is christmas and what have you done?
Another year over, a new one just begun.

And so this is christmas, i hope you have fun,
The near and the dear one, the old and the young.

A very merry christmas and a happy new year,
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear.

And so this is christmas for weak and for strong,
(war is over if you want it,)
For the rich and the poor ones, the road is so long.
(war is over now.)

And so happy christmas for black and for whites,
(war is over if you want it,)
For the yellow and red ones, let's stop all the fight.
(war is over now.)

A very merry christmas and a happy new year,
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear.

And so this is christmas and what have we done?
(war is over if you want it,)
Another year over, a new one just begun.
(war is over now.)

And so this is christmas, we hope you have fun,
(war is over if you want it,)
The near and the dear one, the old and the young.
(war is over now.)

A very merry christmas and a happy new year,
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear.

War is over
If you want it,
War is over now.

Happy christmas!

Here's a link to an mp3 download of
a cool cover of the song by a band called the Cranes.

And that just about does it. Merry Christmas from Real Art!

Santa sits on the toilet as joyous elves look on



From the New York Times courtesy of the Houston Chronicle:

FBI documents suggest knowledge of abuses

FBI agents witnessed abuses of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq that included detainees being beaten, choked and having lit cigarettes placed in their ears, according to newly released government documents.

The documents, released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union in connection with a lawsuit accusing the government of being complicitous in torture, also include accounts by FBI agents who said they saw detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being chained in uncomfortable positions for up to 24 hours and left to urinate and defecate on themselves.


Beyond providing new details about the nature and extent of abuses, the newly disclosed documents are the latest to show that such activities were known to a wide circle of government officials.

Click here for the rest.

Okay, so US forces have tortured prisoners in both Iraq and Guantanamo; that much we already know. It's the fact that "such activities were known to a wide circle of government officials" that concerns me. Until now it seems like the Pentagon was getting away with its "isolated incident" and "bad individual soldiers" narratives, but these new documents strongly suggest that such is not the case.

Of course, one just has to ask which government officials were in the know. In typical fashion, the "liberal" New York Times is quiet on this point, utterly in keeping with its ongoing love affair with the Bush administration. However, thanks to Eschaton, I've gotten to read the ACLU press release, which is not nearly as coy as the Times article would suggest:

FBI E-Mail Refers to Presidential Order
Authorizing Inhumane Interrogation Techniques

The two-page e-mail that references an Executive Order states that the President directly authorized interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, the use of military dogs, and "sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc." The ACLU is urging the White House to confirm or deny the existence of such an order and immediately to release the order if it exists. The FBI e-mail, which was sent in May 2004 from "On Scene Commander--Baghdad" to a handful of senior FBI officials, notes that the FBI has prohibited its agents from employing the techniques that the President is said to have authorized.

Click here for more.

Yep, that's right: the President. This is no surprise, given that his good buddy, incoming Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, has authored some briefs attempting to find legal justification for the torturing of prisoners, but this email memo is the closest thing to hard evidence that has surfaced that could connect Bush directly to the torturers. That's big, big, big news.

What I want know is why the "liberal" New York Times deliberately omitted this info. Anybody who still believes the myth of the so called liberal media, raise your hand so I can throw a pie at your face. Buncha clowns.


Minimum wage won't cover most rent, utilities

A new study confirms what I already knew. From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Most Americans who rely on just a full-time job earning the federal minimum wage cannot afford the rent and utilities on a one- or two-bedroom apartment, an advocacy group on low-income housing reported today.

For a two-bedroom rental alone, the typical worker must earn at least $15.37 an hour -- nearly three times the federal minimum wage, the National Low Income Housing Coalition said in its annual "Out of Reach" report.

That figure assumes that a family spends no more than 30 percent of its gross income on rent and utilities -- anything more is generally considered unaffordable by the government.

Yet many poor Americans are paying more than they can afford because wage increases haven't kept up with increases in rent and utilities, said Danilo Pelletiere, the coalition's research director.

Click here for the rest.

American workers are currently the most productive in the world, and that productivity has been on an upswing for some years now. However, all the new profits that come from this increased productivity have gone into the pockets of already wealthy business owners--this is part of an overall, deliberate, thirty-year long shift of wealth from ordinary Americans to rich Americans. Never mind the overwhelming sense of economic injustice here: if the US business sector continues to deny workers their due, the consumption that keeps the engines of the US economy continually humming will end, taking the economy with it. Business is committing suicide for short term profits, and everyone will eventually be screwed for it.


Monday, December 20, 2004

Selling Social Security (Down the River)

An Eric Alterman essay on how the corporate news media are rigging the debate over Social Security privatization in the Republicans' favor, from
the Center for American Progress:

In its coverage of what is sure to be the Bush administration's signature program for 2005, the media has largely been content to rely on the interested commentary of government spokespeople and its partisans in conservative think tanks. On a "NewsNight with Aaron Brown," report recently misleadingly entitled "Social Security is in Trouble," CNN's Bruce Morton quoted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham together with pro-privatization activists from the Concord Coalition and the Cato Institute. Notably, no anti-privatization voices were aired during his report. Graham was also trotted out as the voice of privatization (or "reform" in the language of its supporters and a compliant press) by CNN anchor, Lou Dobbs, during which he claimed—unchallenged— "Social Security is going bankrupt, it's coming apart at the seams…We're short of money to pay the benefits. If we do nothing, the cost will be trillions, if we do something progressive, the cost can be managed. But to do nothing is a death blow to Social Security."

Instead of questioning the truth of Graham's statements, which are wholly unsupported by either CBO or Social Security's own data, Republican political contributor, Dobbs simply walked Graham right into his next talking point, saying "Let's talk about the idea of private accounts…" If Dobbs had done his homework, he would know that in fact the nation is not short on "money to pay the benefits." Those journalists who have done their homework on this issue are not so easily taken in. It's not as if the administration's misinformation campaign is not easy to debunk. In a news analysis,
The Los Angeles Times's Joel Havermann did so with a simple rational examination of the facts. Blogger Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly also points out that projections in 1994 held that Social Security would go bankrupt in 2029, while current projections say that the point at which full benefits can no longer be paid will come 38 years from now, in 2042. There is no evidence that the program will go bankrupt, as Graham and others insist, but only that benefits will be cut so retirees receive 73 percent of full benefits after 2042.

Even so, the march of misinformation continues unimpeded.

here for the rest.


Debunking 'Centrism'

From the Nation:

Looking out over Washington, DC, from his plush office, Al From is once again foaming at the mouth. The CEO of the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council and his wealthy cronies are in their regular postelection attack mode. Despite wins by economic populists in red states like Colorado and Montana this year, the DLC is claiming like a broken record that progressive policies are hurting the Democratic Party.

From's group is funded by huge contributions from multinationals like Philip Morris, Texaco, Enron and Merck, which have all, at one point or another, slathered the DLC with cash. Those resources have been used to push a nakedly corporate agenda under the guise of "centrism" while allowing the DLC to parrot GOP criticism of populist Democrats as far-left extremists. Worse, the mainstream media follow suit, characterizing progressive positions on everything from trade to healthcare to taxes as ultra-liberal. As the AP recently claimed, "party liberals argue that the party must energize its base by moving to the left" while "the DLC and other centrist groups argue that the party must court moderates and find a way to compete in the Midwest and South."

Is this really true? Is a corporate agenda really "centrism"? Or is it only "centrist" among Washington's media elite, influence peddlers and out-of-touch political class?

Click here for the rest.

I hit on this topic about a month ago, myself. I think a bit of what I wrote then can bear some repeating now:

You say that the Democrats have no place to go but the center, but you forget what's been happening for the last couple of decades: the Democrats have already moved toward the center, and beyond, on more than one occasion, and it has gained them very little. You also forget that "the center" ain't at all what it used to be. Today's "liberals" are yesterday's moderates; today's "conservatives" are yesterday's right-wing extremists. The Conservative Movement has done a very good job of legitimizing political points of view that were almost unthinkable a very short time ago. In doing this, and in gaining political success, the right wing has handily dragged the entire political spectrum towards itself, and Democratic power brokers have been more than happy to help. Call it what you want, "the center" is quite conservative these days.

I just don't follow the logic that says that in order to beat the conservatives, we must support conservatism--I mean, if we support conservatism, then we've already lost.

'Nuff said.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Capitalism, an innovative and viable system?

From Noam Chomsky's blog:

Has great science, art, music, etc., been produced by people working for money? Is that what was driving Einstein when he was working on relativity theory in the Swiss patent office, or later at the Institute for Advanced Study? Or artists struggling for years on crusts of bread in garrets? Or artisans throughout history, and today, trying to create objects of beauty and perfection? Or parents devoting time and energy to raise their children properly (creating “human capital,” in the terminology of economists, a major factor in economic growth)? Or in fact just about anything worthwhile or constructive? The unargued claims...are apparently being put forth by people who do have not had even the slightest experience, direct or indirect, with creative work, now and in the past—and by “creative” I do not mean only the peaks of human creativity, but the lives of most decent people who are not utterly pathological.

Click here for the rest.

A couple of years ago when I was teaching high school I had a student whose father is, of all things, a good old-fashioned socialist, which is quite weird given the rather conservative nature of Baytown. Anyway, discussing her father's politics on one particular occasion gave rise to an interesting, though very short lived, debate. We were talking about the relationship between labor and capital, exploitation, wealth, that sort of thing, when she offhandedly suggested that everybody wanted to make as much money as they could, and that's why people work. I came back with an assertion of my belief that, even though people need money to live, most people work in order to provide meaning to their lives. She was utterly unable to accept this proposition, suggested that I was foolish for believing such a thing, and then, when the bell rang, left for her next class.

The exchange made me realize just how profoundly we have all been socialized to believe that our primary function is to make money. This belief is so ingrained that it seems crazy to suggest otherwise. Certainly, a number of Americans are driven relentlessly by a desire to acquire ever more wealth, and will stop at nothing to get what they want, and probably an equal number of people would sit around watching television and playing video games for decades of their lives if someone else was paying the bills, but it seems like a no-brainer to me that most people want more than money and/or goof-off time. In other words, people want to live interesting, meaningful lives, contributing to society, helping out their families, friends, and communities. Ultimately, work provides the ability to do just that. Life devoted solely to self is void and pointless, and I believe that most people understand that fact instinctively if not intellectually.

Of course, capitalist philosophy, along with its twisted sister, consumerist philosophy, confuses the hell out of people, making them think that happiness and meaning can be found in making money and spending it on crap at the mall. Thus, we have a nation full of unhappy people, playing with their Play Stations, watching DVDs, feeling like there should be more, but not really being able to conceptualize what it is they're missing out on. I've gone on and on here at Real Art for two years now about how corporate capitalism exploits the helpless, destroys the environment, and rips off most ordinary Americans like you and me, but I've not written nearly enough about what may be even worse: capitalism screws with people's heads in a major way, twisting their priorities, tearing them apart, and destroying any sense of community that human beings have enjoyed for tens of thousands of years.

I really ought to explore this idea further.


Privatized Social Security: We're buying into failure

From the New York Times via the Houston Chronicle, Princeton economist Paul Krugman explains the largely undiscussed downside to Social Security privatization:

In particular, the public hasn't been let in on two open secrets:

• Privatization dissipates a large fraction of workers' contributions on fees to investment companies.

• It leaves many retirees in poverty.

Decades of conservative marketing have convinced Americans that government programs always create bloated bureaucracies, while the private sector is always lean and efficient. But when it comes to retirement security, the opposite is true. More than 99 percent of Social Security's revenues go toward benefits, and less than 1 percent for overhead. In Chile's system, management fees are around 20 times as high. And that's a typical number for privatized systems.

These fees cut sharply into the returns individuals can expect on their accounts. In Britain, which has had a privatized system since the days of Margaret Thatcher, alarm over the large fees charged by some investment companies eventually led government regulators to impose a "charge cap." Even so, fees continue to take a large bite out of British retirement savings.
A reasonable prediction for the real rate of return on personal accounts in the United States is 4 percent or less. If we introduce a system with British-level management fees, net returns to workers will be reduced by more than a quarter. Add in deep cuts in guaranteed benefits and a big increase in risk, and we're looking at a "reform" that hurts everyone except the investment industry.

Click here for the rest.

And don't let the whole "there is no alternative" meme fool you: when Social Security "goes bankrupt" in twenty or thirty years, it will still be able to pay out 80% of benefits. That is, if the federal government doesn't keep spending like drunken sailors, Social Security is easily repaired. This is a manufactured crisis, fabricated for the sole purpose of delivering billions of dollars into the hands of the Republicans' wealthy supporters. It won't improve things at all; in fact, the reverse is true. Privatization will make things far worse.


Friday, December 17, 2004


First, an essay on how the left might rise again:

The Specter Of The Working Class

That Frank doesn't draw out these implications isn't surprising, given his liberal viewpoint. Mostly what he has to say in this regard is to knock the Democrats for abandoning their traditional working class base in favor of yuppies and exurbanites. While this isn't wrong, it doesn't go very deep. If class anger is the key to electoral politics, then surely class is also key to understanding the Democrats. Since the New Deal they've been the capitalist party of reform, except that with the onset of globalization in the last few decades the room for reform within capitalism has narrowed almost to nothing.

That's the real reason the Democrats have abandoned their base - not out of some misguided election strategy but because they've had to abandon their reformism. It was either that or abandon capitalism, which is as unthinkable to Democrats as to Republicans. Hence the growing convergence of the two parties, to the point where they become almost indistinguishable. Clinton ran a Republican administration in all but rhetoric and Kerry ran a Republican ('Bush-lite') campaign in all but name. It's a pipedream to hope this trend will change. Class matters - even more than winning elections.

But beyond the Democrats there is a wide spectrum of progressive politics all the way to the radical left. Why have these elements been unable to tap into class anger?

Click here for more.

Next, an essay providing some insight into the irrational Jewish support of Palestinian oppression:

The Wrath of the Jews

I'm in the living room of a family friend. The subject changes from yoga to Israel-Palestine, and I tell her that I think Americans need to change their foreign policy towards Israel. She says, "in what way, so that the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea?" It takes four minutes of back and forth for the conversation to degenerate. She finally says, "Look, what I have to say isn't pretty, but I'm not afraid. I'm going to say it anyways. The Palestinians are nothing but vermin. They make trouble in every country they live in. Even the other Arab countries don't want them." I take a deep breath. Then I realize, I've heard that sentence, only with "Jews" instead of "Palestinians." "Jews are vermin. They make trouble in every country they live in." I've heard that before. And it's breaking my heart that it's coming out of her mouth.


Americans are listening to the story that they are being sold, one that serves the interests of a militant US foreign policy towards Israel. And that story isn't my story, and it isn't my family's story, or my family's friend's story. In my story, there is no moral to the story of the annihilation of six million Jews and the millions of Roma, Poles, homosexuals, disabled, and others who perished. Our story isn't one with the happy endings of Hollywood Holocaust blockbusters, where we all end up in Israel. The history of the Holocaust in my family isn't over yet. As a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, I am still living that history. Even though the Holocaust or my family's experience of anti-Semitism was hardly mentioned, I grew up in a house with the ghosts of my murdered family, with parents and grandparents who lived in absolute fear.

Click here for the rest.


Thursday, December 16, 2004


Even though I've devoted a great deal of column space here to speaking out against religion's intrusion into the public sphere, I very firmly support people's freedom to worship or not worship as they see fit. Occasionally, I join with my strange bedfellows on the religious right in their outrage against bizarre anti-religious policy.

Case in point, this story from the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Schools' rules on religious candy canes assailed

A religious liberties law firm accused Plano school officials today of violating students' constitutional rights by forbidding them to hand out candy canes and pencils with religious messages on them.

Attorneys with the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute said they planned to file a federal lawsuit claiming the district has an unconstitutional censorship policy that victimizes students.


Last week, Plano school officials sent a letter home requesting that parents not send their children to school with anything green or red this holiday season, Sasser said. All cups, plates, napkins and icing must be white or the children violate the district's policy, he said.

Click here for the rest.

Okay, this is kooky.

Keeping religion out of the schools means prohibiting teachers and administrators from proselytizing, from leading students in prayers and whatnot. It does not mean preventing students from doing such things themselves (indeed, savvy fundamentalist public school administrators have employed this angle in order to get around the first amendment's "establishment clause" by referring to graduation ceremony and pre-game prayers as "student initiated," even when they are not). Students clearly have the right to be or not to be religious.

The first amendment both keeps government out of the religion business and guarantees the individual's right to express his or her spiritual self. It's not that hard to understand. Sadly, school officials in numerous instances since the famed Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s which abolished the widely spread practice of school sponsored prayer have hypercompensated by making all religious manifestations forbidden. It sounds like that's what's going on in Plano. I guess they're simply afraid of legal entanglements: however, that doesn't excuse such rank violation of guaranteed freedoms; they've certainly got legal problems now.

The sad thing is that the administrators responsible for such bone-headed policy are probably pretty religious themselves--Plano is not unlike the neigborhood in northeast Houston where I grew up, Kingwood, which is wealthy, conservative, and generally pretty Christian. I imagine that, even though they don't approve of it, these guys don't understand the prohibition of school prayer to begin with. Actually, it's probably because they don't approve of it that they don't get it. To them, it's just another attack at religion, instead of a protection of religion. Compelled by law to implement a rule that they don't understand, they screw the whole thing up. In the long run, crap like this simply gives the separation of church and state a bad name.

I always used to delight in declaring to my students when I was teaching high school in fundamentalist Baytown that, even though I am not religious myself, prayer and religious debate were completely welcome in my classroom as long as it was during down time. Sometimes, stunned fundamentalist kids would be like "that's cool, but won't you get in trouble?" which always opened up the opportunity for me to give a mini-lecture on the first amendment. It was a win-win situation for me as a progressive educator: religious kids felt like they were getting away with something, which made them overlook the potentially controversial fact that I was telling them why it was so important that school sponsored prayer remain forbidden.

Anyway, this Plano thing is just ridiculous. Students have a right to distribute religious messages at school as long as it is non-disruptive. Apparently, the courts agree. Again from the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Judge allows 'religious viewpoint' gifts in school

A federal judge ordered today that Plano public schools allow students to distribute "religious viewpoint gifts" to classmates at holiday parties scheduled for Friday.

The order by U.S. District Judge Paul Brown in Sherman came a day after four families filed a federal lawsuit accusing the district north of Dallas of banning Christmas and religious expression from their children's classrooms.

Click here for the rest.

Anybody surprised that I would take such a position forgets a simple fact: the same right that allows religious people to be religious also allows me to be not religious. Like I said, it's not that hard to understand.


Wednesday, December 15, 2004


A couple of essays about the late reporter who in 1996 broke the story about the 1980s connection between the CIA and crack cocaine dealers, which retroactively rendered the entire "war on drugs" problematic, at best.

First, from ZNet, the lowdown on Webb's biggest story:

R.I.P. Gary Webb -- Unembedded Reporter

Webb's explosive San Jose Mercury News series documented that funders of the Contras included drug traffickers who played a role in the crack epidemic that hit Los Angeles and other cities. Webb's series focused heavily on Oscar Danilo Blandon, a cocaine importer and federal informant, who once testified in federal court that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution." Blandon further testified that Colonel Enrique Bermudez, a CIA asset who led the Contra army against Nicaragua's leftwing Sandinista government, knew the funds were from drug running. (Bermudez was a colonel during the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.)

Webb reported that U.S. law enforcement agents complained that the CIA had squelched drug probes of Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses in the name of "national security." Blandon's drugs flowed into L.A. and elsewhere thanks to the legendary "Freeway" Ricky Donnell Ross, a supplier of crack to the Crips and Bloods gangs.

While Webb's series could be faulted for some overstatement in presenting its powerful new evidence (a controversial graphic on the Mercury News website superimposed a person smoking crack over the CIA seal), the fresh documentation mightily moved forward the CIA-Contra-cocaine story that national media had been trying to bury for years. Any exaggeration in the Mercury News presentation was dwarfed by a mendacious, triple-barreled attack on Webb that came from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

Click here for the rest.

Next, from CounterPunch courtesy of J. Orlin Grabbe, an essay on what the perseverance of somebody like Webb means to the progressive community at large:

"I Knew It Was the Truth and
That's What Kept Me Going"

"You get one chance in a lifetime to do the right thing," he said. "If you don't do it, you surrender, and then they win."

The passion for truth and justice is not a sprint. It's a long-distance run that requires a different kind of training, a different degree of commitment. Our eye must be on a goal that we know we will never reach in our lifetimes. Faith is the name of believing in the transcendent, often despite all evidence to the contrary.

But what are the options?

Webb knew what he was up against. He said of the CIA, "Richard, these are the worst people on earth that you're dealing with - they lie, plant stories, discredit and worse for a living and have the resources and the experience.

But somebody's got to do it [tell the truth]. Otherwise they win.

The choice is to do the work - or surrender."

Click here for the rest.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Google scanning in huge stacks of books

From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Stacks of hard-to-find books are being scanned into Google's widely used Internet search engine in its attempt to establish a massive online reading room for five major libraries.

Material from the New York public library as well as libraries at four universities - Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Oxford - will be indexed on Mountain View, Calif.-based Google under the ambitious initiative announced late Monday.

The Michigan and Stanford libraries are the only two so far to agree to submit all their material to Google's scanners.

The New York library is allowing Google to include a small portion of its books no longer covered by copyright while Harvard is confining its participation to 40,000 volumes so it can gauge how well the process works. Oxford wants Google to scan all its books originally published before 1901.

Click here for the rest.

You gotta admit, this is pretty damned cool. I don't know what effect it will have on my blogging, but it'll be pretty nice to be able to access more than just Shakespeare and the Bible. It's kind of a shame that this won't be happening more quickly; this could be pretty helpful to my graduate studies. Ah, well. For the time being, it's still the libarary for me.


New York Art Shuttered
After Bush Monkey Portrait

From Reuters via Yahoo, courtesy of J. Orlin Grabbe:

A portrait of President Bush using monkeys to form his image led to the closure of a New York art exhibition over the weekend and anguished protests on Monday over freedom of expression.

"Bush Monkeys," a small acrylic on canvas by Chris Savido, created the stir at the Chelsea Market public space, leading the market's managers to close down the 60-piece show that was scheduled to stay up for the next month.

The show featured art from the upcoming issue of Animal Magazine, a quarterly publication featuring emerging artists.

"We had tons of people, like more than 2,000 people show up for the opening on Thursday night," said show organizer Bucky Turco. "Then this manager saw the piece and the guy just kind of flipped out. 'The show is over. Get this work down or I'm gonna arrest you,' he said. It's been kind of wild."

Click here for the rest.

This is weird, especially in New York. I mean, I remember this kind of crap happening for about a year or so after 9/11, but after all the mud-slinging from the election, it's pretty weird. I wonder if the rednecks are feeling brave with their boy back for four more years. When coupled with the suppression of Naked Boys Singing (see post below), I wonder if I should start to get worried.