Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street Makes No Concrete Demands

Commentators on the right and the left have criticized the Occupy Wall Street Movement for not presenting concrete demands. My own Republican representative Leonard Lance made the point two days ago in a telephone "town meeting" in answer to my question. Yet John Nichols defends them for this and says they have it exactly right, in the current Nation magazine.

An even more thoroughgoing explanation for this position, however, comes from Thomas Frank's brilliant and disturbing book, The Wrecking Crew (Henry Holt, 2008), where he describes the right's deliberate campaign to dismantle and privatize government, with disastrous results all around, except for the "privateers" (my term).

Here are two illuminating quotes:

“The needs of business stand like a rock; all other else is convenience, opportunism, a bit of bushwah generated by some focus group session and forgotten the instant it is no longer convincing. Fundamentally amoral, capitalism is loyal to no people, no region, no heroes, really, once they have exhausted their usefulness—not even to the
nation whose flag the wingers pretend to worship.
“Hence the eternal frustration of the conservative rank and file with their leaders. Unless you are solely interested in the welfare of business, Washington
conservatives will all turn out to be ‘imposters’ to you, always ready to
compromise on family values or their adherence to the Founders’ ‘original
intent.’ Every ally is an ally of convenience for them, every ironclad
principle subject to revocation without notice, every noble ideal advanced merely to shore up popular support. Although there is no central command barking out the talking points, the movement nevertheless seems almost naturally to behave like an agitprop
bureau.” p. 100

“It is a basic principle of conservatism—an axiom, a cornerstone, an immutable law of human nature, world history and all the planets and stars—that turning over government operations to private businesses is the most efficient way to get things done. In reality, the conservatives’ outsourcing system has been a
ripoff of such massive proportions that it deserves a Grace Commission all its
own. In each of the Bush administrations’s great initiatives—anti-terrorism,
the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and the administration of Iraq—privatized
government has played a starring role and has proven itself a gold-plated
botch. Again and again, and despite a veritable river of dollars, it has failed
to deliver what it promised. The Department of Defense and Homeland
Security routinely accept contracts so ill-crafted they seem to have been designed more as a way to sluice billions in to the contractors’ pockets than as a device for getting something done. And, being private, the contractors are largely shielded from
oversight and accountability. Indeed, a favorite conservative tactic has been
to shut down offices that supervise the outsourced operations—in 2006, the
General Services Administration actually to contract out the job of supervising
contractors—allowing the market to perform its miracles without any scrutiny
from government at all.” pp. 138-39

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Day 21: The Occupy Wall Street Protests Gain a Foothold in the Public Imagination

On Friday, October 7, WBAI’s Jordan Journal with Howard Jordan, featured New School economics professor Rick Wolff on the Occupy Wall Street movement and protests. Wolff has become the unofficial guide to this historical phenomenon, and he’s the perfect person to do it, with his grasp of history, solid grounding in both mainstream and Marxist economic theory, his personal acquaintaince with many of the players on the economic scene today, including Ben Bernanke and many corporate bank officials, and his talent for explaining complex things simply and clearly. Yesterday he was quoting Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest was of little significance.

To the contrary, he said. Knowing Bernanke as he does, the Fed Chairman is truly worried, as are the Wall Street (criminal) bankers. They don’t know how this is going to end. They had dismissed the Tea Party movement, which attacks them, as no-nothings, though necessarily tolerated by the Republican establishment, since they have such an extensive following. But they weren’t expecting a challenge from the left to gain traction. After all, the mainstream media had managed to either ignore, dismiss or quarantine them in the form of the large anti-war demonstrations of the past decade—whose truth counted for little or nothing in the media marketplace.

But these young protesters are different. Even though relatively small in number, they’re persisting into their third week of a very prominent occupation. They’ve had run-ins with the police and come out on top, garnering world attention and much public sympathy. They understand the crimes of the banks all too well, much better than the Tea Partyers. And now the mainstream media are coming around, with detailed reports in the Times and warmly sympathetic opinion pieces by commentators like Paul Krugman (in Friday, Oct. 6's Times). Moreover, they’re expressing the feelings of millions of people—the new Silent Majority—who are furious at the banks for bringing down the economy, causing so much pain, and escaping any real punishment. Theirs is the fear of the guilty. Wolff pointed out that the politically less active are waiting to see if the movement will persist before signing on, and now with mainstream media attention and endorsement, it seems to be snowballing into an established challenge from the left—the hitherto moribund left, which the conventional wisdom had been accustomed to dealing with in obituary mode.

But now, even NYC Police Chief Ray Kelly says he won’t bother the protesters as long as they don’t block traffic and stay within police barricades during their marches. He knows he risks another black eye if he tries to harrass them. I suspect Mayor Bloomberg is feeling some Schadenfreude towards his “friends in the (criminal) banking industry that a “rag-tag” group of young (desperate, jobless, victimized) protesters is giving voice to truths that not even the New York Times permitted itself to utter, and that this is resonating across the country and throughout the world. The People are becoming more aware of what really happened, and they’re supporting those who affirm these truths by sleeping on cardboard in the open, under plastic tarps in a public (private) park—the only one in the city, incidentally, where it’s permitted to stay overnight. No responsible spokesperson, from the President on down, can afford to dismiss them any more. They’ve established a beachhead in the public imagination.

Meanwhile, the reactionary media, Fox “noise” (—Keith Olberman’s pun) commentators Bill O’Reilley and Ann Coulter are angrily twisting around with their worn-out clichés in a pathetic attempt to discredit the protesters. For example, O’Reilley called Prof. Frances Fox Piven, who spoke to the OWS encampment this week, a “Communist sympathizer, who was outed by Glenn Beck.” Can anyone take this seriously? What Communists are left to sympathize with, the Albanians? And Beck! He lost his job at Fox after his ratings plummetted 15% in about a week, after he got the Tahrir Square protests exactly wrong, calling them a rabble. Of course, now he’s pimping for Netanyahu. (Remember this is a Mormon, who, like us Jews, are an economically highly successful group who dote on their history of persecution as validating a conveniently permanent victimhood). Coulter has ominously warned her listeners that these dangerous occupiers are similar to those who started the French and Russian Revolutions—those horrendous turns of History that threw out an old order she so dearly loves.

So the relatively simple act of sleeping in the re-dubbed Liberty Square is apparently enough to deflate the Murdoch Empire! Listen to the children! The Emperor has been naked for years, and the 80-year-old Murdoch is no pin-up.

I feel incredibly honored that my photograph of artist Dinorah Delfin from last April, holding Adbusters’ corporate US flag against a background of the scuttled ships along the Arthur Kill waterway in Staten Island, was used as their page-poster in the September-October issue (reprinted in the following issue as well) to exhort us to Occupy Wall Street.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bill Moyers Speaks at 92nd Street "Y"

Bill Moyers spoke May 19 at the 92nd Street "Y." Amy Goodman interviewed him. He was wonderful, but very pessimistic about the prospects for our country if we don't somehow reverse the Citizens United decision—by a Constitutional amendment. He said if we don't get rid of it, we'll simply have a country devoted to the prosperity of the super-rich, which is what we mostly have now. He also recommended that PBS pick up Amy Goodman's program, Democracy Now. General applause. Otherwise, he reminisced about the Johnson administration, and how it left it over the Vietnam War; how much admiration he had for John Gardner, whom LBJ made secretary of HEW (he also founded Common Cause)—Gardner was a Republican, back in the time when there were principled Republicans. And he spoke of his own son, whom he and his wife rescued from serious drug addiction, and who recovered to become a major force in the drug recovery movement, and author of the book Broken (his name is William Moyers), which Moyers recommended above his own book, a compendium of his interviews. I bought it, and when he signed it he told me that the administrator there had told him I was coming and had even shown him some of my work! He said he liked the photo of the Dalai Lama. Of course, I was touched. I managed to take some photos of him, one of which I will add to my collection of "Apostles of Justice." His interview book covers some of the same territory—focusing on the interviews of course, rather than the photographs. I told him about it and show him some samples, and he very kindly signed my copy of his book "Kindred Spirit."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Discovery in the Strand's Dollar Stacks

I had gone to the Strand in search of a book on esoteric symbols to use in a photo shoot with an artist colleague of mine. I knew what I wanted and was prepared to search it out, but the dollar stacks outside always call me, and the slight drizzle was wetting the books on the end, so with a slightly pumped up sense of alarm, I permitted myself a quick scan.
Almost immediately I found an unexpected treasure, lying on top of the stacks, probably rejected by another browser: photographer Jacques Lowe's document of the Shah of Iran's giant self-glorifying celebration at Persepolis in 1971, Celebration in Persepolis. I knew about this book, but I don’t remember seeing it. If I had seen I probably wouldn’t have bought it—certainly not for its original price of $20—since I viewed it as the histrionic gesture of a has-been. But the passage of time had placed it in a wholly new light.
I had met Lowe around 1995 when he came to New Orleans to do the "definitive" portrait book on jazz. Knowing nothing about the subject, he had consulted with Winton Marsalis, who had given him all his favorites. A pianist friend of mine directed him to me for the New Orleans scene, and I helped set up two shoots with local players, and got myself included in one of them, so I'm in the book.
I was fascinated with Lowe. He had been JFK's official photographer and had published the definitive book on him after his death. He knew and disliked Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of my idols, and told me why. He had been the official photographer for Britain’s financial district, the City of London. With a solid reputation as a court photographer, the Shah called on him and two other photographers to cover his immense party, celebrating 2500 years of Persian history. I remember when it unfolded. Though we were still in the depths of the Vietnam War, it assembled "more heads of state than had ever been gathered under one royal tent," presumably more dignitaries than came to DeGaulle's memorial the previous year. Of course it celebrates Iran, the country's ethnic diversity, longevity and significance in history, which the Shah, in reality a US puppet, who modernized the country but violently suppressed dissent with his infamous SAVAK secret police, presented himself as the culmination of. And the world's political notables had no compunction about adding to this dictator's glory—and being entertained in grand style. It's an incredible document of its time: Tito of Yugoslavia was there; Agnew (!) was there; the crown heads of Europe (Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Greece, even Juan Carlos before he ascended the Spanish throne at the death of Franco in 1974) were there; Imelda Marcos (the shoe addict) came, so did that tyrant Suharto of Indonesia; the USSR sent Podgorny; France sent Chalban Delmas. It was an amazing piece of self-glorification. He dressed his military in a wide range of historical costumes, so we can imagine what the Greeks confronted when Xerxes invaded, or what the Seljuks or Ottomans saw when they tried to annex Persia. And he made a grand gesture of serving "informal" meals to his guests—a regular guy after all, the Shah (who could pilot his own Boeing 707 out of Iran at the ignominious end of his reign).
Lowe had told me about his experience there, particularly one embarrassing moment when he was photographing the dignitaries' advance as he was backing up, and he stepped into a bucket of caviar. He kept right on backing up, and presumably no one noticed the somewhat odd taste of some of the caviar.
Lowe died in May of 2001 (he still has a website, presumably run by his daughter), and tragically, his trove of negatives was destroyed when the World Trade Towers collapsed.

But this book, which I bought for $1, is our contemporary version of Erich Solomon's invaluable chronicles of diplomatic life on the eve of the Second World War. This plucky Jewish photographer managed to insinuate himself everywhere diplomats gathered in their tuxedos and metals. His most famous photograph shows Aristde Briand, the French diplomat, smiling and pointing to him, saying "Le voilà, le roi des indiscrets!" I have the book, called Portrait of an Age. Solomon was killed by the Nazis.
Solomon's book chronicles the ineffectual negotiations of an elite that would soon be swept away by the tsunami of war. Lowe's portrays an equally smug set of notables before a series of crises replaced them and the various repressive orders they represented, sometimes by more repressive orders, sometimes by chaos, sometimes by democracy (as in the case of the Philippines).
Now, with the exciting events in Egypt and Tunisia, we seem to be on the eve of another cleansing shift in history (and my daughter tells me she's divesting herself of all her books, to replace them with Kindle downloads!), when hopefully the dictators, tyrants, and oppressors of the Middle East—all Mubarak boosters—will soon be a thing of the past.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ice Storm Results

For all the inconvenience of not being able to get around, the ice storm here in northern New Jersey left some beauty behind. Of course, my daughter Molly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tells me everything up there has been covered with ice for weeks. So I put on my boots, grabbed my photo equipment, including tripod and closeup lens, and set out, intending to reach the woods about 0.15 miles from my house.
I got as far as my back yard—there was already so much beauty. And here it is.