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Rebecca Solnit: The Future Needs Us

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Marching band in New Orleans

As 2013 closes, Rebecca Solnit looks to the future from New Orleans.

‘Tis the season of tradition and, as it turns out, TomDispatch has one seasonal tradition of its own.  For the last nine — count ‘em: nine! — years, Rebecca Solnit has stepped into the breach (“dear friends!”) and ended the TomDispatch year for us with her usual panache.  In 2006, she was dreaming of 2026; in 2008, she was looking back at the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in lawless New Orleans; in 2010, it was iceberg economies and hope in the shadows (and as I wrote in my introduction that year, with the Bush administration’s approach to war in mind, “As they privatized, I’ve privatized hope, farming it out to Rebecca Solnit, who from her first appearance at TomDispatch has filled the endowed Hope Chair brilliantly”); in 2011, it was the Occupy movement that preoccupied her; and this year, she returns to her most essential métier, the theme with which she changed my view of how the world works when she first arrived at TomDispatch back in May 2003 in the dismal months after the invasion of Iraq began and the antiwar movement collapsed in despair.

As for myself, on this disaster planet in 2013, let me admit to finding hope in a single young man, Edward Snowden, who in his act of disobedience, which was civil but for many here in the U.S. hard to swallow, he truly awoke a world to the dystopian possibilities lurking in the global security state that Washington has been building.  If TomDispatch were Time magazine, he would be my person of the year, a theme I’ll undoubtedly take up in 2014. Tom

The Arc of Justice and the Long Run
Hope, History, and Unpredictability
By Rebecca Solnit

North American cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they emerge as adults. Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.

Three years ago at this time, after a young Tunisian set himself on fire to protest injustice, the Arab Spring was on the cusp of erupting. An even younger man, a rapper who went by the name El Général, was on the verge of being arrested for “Rais Lebled” (a tweaked version of the phrase “head of state”), a song that would help launch the revolution in Tunisia.’

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Pratap Chatterjee: The Jason Bourne Strategy

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note from Tom: A death can feel like an archive closing forever on some aspect of your life.  Such is the case for me with the death of Andre Schiffrin.  If you’ll all excuse me, I want to note his passing briefly here:

Secret Agent

Does the CIA think it’s in a Hollywood movie?

This won’t mean much to most of you, but Andre, publisher of Pantheon Books and my boss for 15 years, the person who, in 1976, hired me when there was really no obvious reason to do so and, more than anyone else, let me become what I am today, died last weekend. It’s a moment of genuine sadness for me, an indication that an era — my own in many ways, though he was nine years older than me — has ended. The world of books is unimaginable (to me) without him. Without him, Studs Terkel might never have done his oral histories and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the “first graphic novel,” might never have been published. (He let me do Spiegelman’s masterpiece when, in embryonic form, it had been turned down by every major publishing house in New York.)

I first spent time with Andre in 1971 after I had published an essay, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” in the single most obscure journal on the planet, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. He nonetheless read it and invited me to lunch to urge me to turn it into a book, something I couldn’t faintly imagine doing at the time. I did, however, finally come to agree with him and wrote that book, which was published in 1995 as The End of Victory Culture.  In other words, with my project as with so much else in the world of books, he was a man almost 25 years ahead of his time.

Ariel Dorfman, a writer whose work I published early on in my tenure at Pantheon, wrote me this after Andre’s death: “His existence changed our lives, just by giving you free rein at Pantheon to believe in a young exiled writer.” He couldn’t have been more on the mark. 
Andre’s New York Times obituary offered the gist of his life and the sense that he was a great one. It missed, however, his risk-taking nature and his radical view of what might matter to our world.  It also provided a less than satisfactory account of how the right-wing owner of the conglomerate that housed Pantheon made use of a politically inauspicious time for a small left-wing publishing outfit to push him out of his job (after which we, his loyal editors and employees, quit in protest). Still, no complaints here. The world and the man that made me are both history. What more is there to say at the moment?]

Someone should launch a feature somewhere on American foreign and war policy under the rubric: How could anything possibly go wrong?  Here are just two recent examples.

The Obama administration intervenes militarily in Libya, plays a significant role in overthrowing the autocrat who runs the country as a police state, and helps unleash chaos in its wake. The streets of Libyan cities fill with militias as the new government’s control of the situation fades to next to nil. Which brings us to our present moment, when a panicky Washington decides that what’s needed is yet another, different kind of intervention. The plan seems to be to compete with various local and Islamic militias by creating a government militia as the core of a new “national army.” Its members are to be drawn from already existing militias and they’ll be trained somewhere outside of Libya. What an idea! Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

Or consider this: Washington begins to panic about heightening tensions between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  The problem, reports David Sanger of the New York Times, based on what Obama administration officials have told him, is that the conflict could escalate and so “derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it.”  Now, let’s get this straight: before things began to run off the rails in the East China Sea, the Obama administration was confidently planning to “manage” the rise of the next superpower on a planet already in such tumult that what being a new great power might even mean is open to question. And keep in mind that we’re talking about an administration that couldn’t manage the rollout of a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Both examples highlight the strange combination of hubris and panic that, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee points out today, seems to be the essence of so many of Washington’s plans and actions at the moment.  The urge to “manage” is invariably followed by shock at the unmanageability of this roiling globe of ours, followed by panic over plans gone desperately awry when things begin, utterly predictably, to happen unpredictably, followed of course by the next set of managerial plans.  Is there no learning curve in Washington? Tom

Hollywood Without the Happy Ending
How the CIA Bungled the War on Terror
By Pratap Chatterjee

Call it the Jason Bourne strategy.

Think of it as the CIA’s plunge into Hollywood — or into the absurd.  As recent revelations have made clear, that Agency’s moves couldn’t be have been more far-fetched or more real.  In its post-9/11 global shadow war, it has employed both private contractors and some of the world’s most notorious prisoners in ways that leave the latest episode of the Bourne films in the dust: hired gunmen trained to kill as well as former inmates who cashed in on the notoriety of having worn an orange jumpsuit in the world’s most infamous jail.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Boo!

8:07 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: While she was in this country, Ann Jones received a remarkable amount of attention for her new Dispatch book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, including appearances on Democracy Now! and Huffington Post Live.  Excerpts from the book appeared at Alternet, Truthout, and this site -- and there’s much more to come, as I’ll note above future TD pieces.  In the meantime, a small reminder: please help support our new publishing imprint by picking up a copy of this first original offering from what we hope will be a powerful series over the years.  Believe me, selling this volume truly matters.  (It’s also a powerful, stunningly written account of the cost of war, up close and personal.)  If you are an Amazon customer, click here, and buy a copy, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you.  If not, make your local independent bookstore stock it!  Many thanks -- especially to those of you who contributed to this site in return for signed copies of They Were Soldiers.  Tom]

Scared to Death
My Safety ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Security
By Tom Engelhardt

From the time I was little, I went to the movies.  They were my escape, with one exception from which I invariably had to escape.  I couldn’t sit through any movie where something or someone threatened to jump out at me with the intent to harm.  In such situations, I was incapable of enjoying being scared and there seemed to be no remedy for it.  When Jaws came out in 1975, I decided that, at age 31, having avoided such movies for years, I was old enough to take it.  One tag line in ads for that film was: “Don’t go in the water.”  Of the millions who watched Jaws and outlasted the voracious great white shark until the lights came back on, I was that rarity: I didn’t. I really couldn’t go back in the ocean — not for several years.

I don’t want you to think for a second that this represents some kind of elevated moral position on violence or horror; it’s a visceral reaction. I actually wanted to see the baby monster in Alien burst out of that human stomach. I just knew I couldn’t take it. In all my years of viewing (and avoidance), only once did I find a solution to the problem.  In the early 1990s, a period when I wrote on children’s culture, Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park sparked a dinosaur fad.  I had been a dino-nerd of the 1950s and so promised Harper’s Magazine a piece on the craze and the then-being-remodeled dino-wing of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. (Don’t ask me why that essay never appeared. I took scads of notes, interviewed copious scientists at the museum, spent time alone with an Allosaurus skull, did just about everything a writer should do to produce such a piece — except write it. Call it my one memorable case of writer’s block.)

My problem was never scaring myself to death on the page. I read Crichton’s novel without a blink.  The question was how to see it when, in 1993, it arrived onscreen.  My solution was to let my kids go first, then take them back with me.  That way, my son could lean over and whisper, “Dad, in maybe 30 seconds the Velociraptor is going to leap out of the grass.”  My heart would already be pounding, my eyes half shut, but somehow, cued that way, I became a Crichton vet.

Of course, gazillions of movie viewers have seen similar films with the usual array of sharks, dinosaurs, anacondas, axe murderers, mutants, zombies, vampires, aliens, or serial killers, and done so with remarkable pleasure.  They didn’t bolt.  They didn’t imagine having heart attacks on the spot.  They didn’t find it unbearable.  In some way, they liked it, ensuring that such films remain pots of gold for Hollywood to this day.  Which means that they — you — are an alien race to me.

The Sharks, Aliens, and Snakes of Our World

This came to mind recently because I started wondering why, when we step out of those movie theaters, our American world doesn’t scare us more.  Why doesn’t it make more of us want to jump out of our skins?  These days, our screen lives seem an apocalyptic tinge to them, with all those zombie war movies and the like.  I’m curious, though: Does what should be deeply disturbing, even apocalyptically terrifying, in the present moment strike many of us as the equivalent of so many movie-made terrors — shivers and fears produced in a world so far beyond us that we can do nothing about them?

I’m not talking, of course, about the things that reach directly for your throat and, in their immediacy, scare the hell out of you — not the sharks who took millions of homes in the foreclosure crisis or the aliens who ate so many jobs in recent years or even the snakes who snatched food stamps from needy Americans.  It’s the overarching dystopian picture I’m wondering about.  The question is: Are most Americans still in that movie house just waiting for the lights to come back on?

I mean, we’re living in a country that my parents would barely recognize.  It has a frozen, riven, shutdown-driven Congress, professionally gerrymandered into incumbency, endlessly lobbied, and seemingly incapable of actually governing.  It has a leader whose presidency appears to be imploding before our eyes and whose single accomplishment (according to most pundits), like the website that goes with it, has been unraveling as we watch.  Its 1% elections, with their multi-billion dollar campaign seasons and staggering infusions of money from the upper reaches of wealth and corporate life, are less and less anybody’s definition of “democratic.”

And while Washington fiddles, inequality is on the rise, with so much money floating around in the 1% world that millions of dollars are left over to drive the prices of pieces of art into the stratosphere, even as poverty grows and the army of the poor multiplies.  And don’t forget that the national infrastructure — all those highways, bridges, sewer systems, and tunnels that were once the unspoken pride of the country — is visibly fraying.

Up-Armoring America

Meanwhile, to the tune of a trillion dollars or more a year, our national treasure has been squandered on the maintenance of a war state, the garrisoning of the planet, and the eternal upgrading of “homeland security.”  Think about it: so far in the twenty-first century, the U.S. is the only nation to invade a country not on its border. In fact, it invaded two such countries, launching failed wars in which, when all the costs are in, trillions of dollars will have gone down the drain and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, as well as thousands of Americans, will have died.  This country has also led the way in creating the rules of the road for global drone assassination campaigns (no small thing now that up to 87 countries are into drone technology); it has turned significant parts of the planet into free-fire zones and, whenever it seemed convenient, obliterated the idea that other countries have something called “national sovereignty”; it has built up its Special Operations forces, tens of thousands of highly trained troops that constitute a secret military within the U.S. military, which are now operational in more than 100 countries and sent into action whenever the White House desires, again with little regard for the sovereignty of other states; it has launched the first set of cyber wars in history (against Iran and its nuclear program), has specialized in kidnapping terror suspects off city streets and in rural backlands globally, and has a near-monopolistic grip on the world arms trade (a 78% market share according to the latest figures available); its military expenditures are greater than the next 13 nations combined; and it continues to build military bases across the planet in a historically unprecedented way.

In the twenty-first century, the power to make war has gravitated ever more decisively into the White House, where the president has a private air force of drones, and two private armies of his own — those special operations types and CIA paramilitaries — to order into battle just about anywhere on the planet.  Meanwhile, the real power center in Washington has increasingly come to be located in the national security state (and the allied corporate “complexes” linked to it by that famed “revolving door” somewhere in the nation’s capital).  That state within a state has gone through boom times even as many Americans busted.  It has experienced a multi-billion-dollar construction bonanza, including the raising of elaborate new headquarters, scores of building complexes, massive storage facilities, and the like, while the private housing market went to hell.  With its share of that trillion-dollar national security budget, its many agencies and outfits have been bolstered even as the general economy descended into a seemingly permanent slump.

As everyone is now aware, the security state’s intelligence wing has embedded eyes and ears almost everywhere, online and off, here and around the world.  The NSA, the CIA, and other agencies are scooping up just about every imaginable form of human communication, no matter where or in what form it takes place.  In the process, American intelligence has “weaponized” the Internet and functionally banished the idea of privacy to some other planet.

Meanwhile, the “Defense” Department has grown ever larger as Washington morphed into a war capital for an unending planetary conflict originally labeled the Global War on Terror.  In these years, the “all-volunteer” military has been transformed into something like a foreign legion, another 1% separated from the rest of society. At the same time, the American way of war has been turned into a profit center for a range of warrior corporations and rent-a-gun outfits that enter combat zones with the military, building bases, delivering the mail, and providing food and guard services, among other things.

Domestically, the U.S. has grown more militarized as “security” concerns have been woven into every form of travel, terror fears and alerts have become part and parcel of daily life, and everything around us has up-armored.  Police forces across the land, heavily invested in highly militarized SWAT teams, have donned more military-style uniforms, and acquired armored cars, tanks, MRAPS, drones, helicopters, drone submarines, and other military-style weaponry (often surplus equipment donated by the Pentagon).  Even campus cops have up-armored.

In a parallel development, Americans have themselves become more heavily armed and in a more military style.  Among the 300,000,000 firearms of all sorts estimated to be floating around the U.S., there are now reportedly three to four million AR-15 military-style assault rifles.  And with all of this has gone a certain unhinged quality, both for those SWAT teams that seem to have a nasty habit of breaking into homes armed to the teeth and wounding or killing people accused of nonviolent crimes, and for ordinary citizens who have made random or mass killings regular news events.

On August 1, 1966, a former Marine sniper took to the 28th floor of a tower on the campus of the University of Texas with an M-1 carbine and an automatic shotgun, killing 17, while wounding 32.  It was an act that staggered the American imagination, shook the media, led to a commission being formed, and put those SWAT teams in our future.  But no one then could have guessed how, from Columbine high school (13 dead, 24 wounded) and Virginia Tech university (32 dead, 17 wounded) to Sandy Hook Elementary School (26 dead, 20 of them children), the unhinged of our heavily armed nation would make slaughters, as well as random killings even by children, all-too-common in schools, workplaces, movie theaters, supermarket parking lots, airports, houses of worship, navy yards, and so on.

And don’t even get me started on imprisonment, a category in which we qualify as the world’s leader with 2.2 million people behind bars, a 500% increase over the last three decades, or the rise of the punitive spirit in this country.  That would include the handcuffing of remarkably young children at their schools for minor infractions and a fierce government war on whistleblowers — those, that is, who want to tell us something about what’s going on inside the increasingly secret state that runs our American world and that, in 2011, considered 92 million of the documents it generated so potentially dangerous to outside eyes that it classified them.

A Nameless State (of Mind)

Still, don’t call this America a “police state,” not given what that came to mean in the previous century, nor a “totalitarian” state, given what that meant back then.  The truth is that we have no appropriate name, label, or descriptive term for ourselves.  Consider that a small sign of just how little we’ve come to grips with what we’re becoming.  But you don’t really need a name, do you, not if you’re living it?  However nameless it may be, tell me the truth: Doesn’t the direction we’re heading in leave you with the urge to jump out of your skin?

And by the way, what I’ve been describing so far isn’t the apocalyptic part of the story, just the everyday framework for American life in 2013.  For your basic apocalypse, you need to turn to a subject that, on the whole, doesn’t much interest Washington or the mainstream media.  I’m talking, of course, about climate change or what the nightly news loves to call “extreme weather,” a subject we generally prefer to put on the back burner while we’re hailing the “good news” that the U.S. may prove to be the Saudi Arabia of the twenty-first century — that is, hopped up on fossil fuels for the next 50 years; or that green energy really isn’t worth an Apollo-style program of investment and R&D; or that Arctic waters should be opened to drilling; or that it’s reasonable to bury on the inside pages of the paper with confusing headlines the latest figures on the record levels of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere and the way the use of coal, the dirtiest of the major fossil fuels, is actually expanding globally; or…  but you get the idea.  Rising sea levels (see ya, Florida; so long, Boston), spreading disease, intense droughts, wild floods, extreme storms, record fire seasons — I mean, you already know the tune.

You still wanna be scared?  Imagine that someone offered you a wager, and let’s be conservative here: continue on your present path and there will be a 10%-20% chance that this planet becomes virtually uninhabitable a century or two from now.  Not bad odds, right?  Still, I think just about anyone would admit that only a maniac would take such a bet, no matter the odds.  Actually, let me amend that: only a maniac or the people who run the planet’s major energy companies, and the governments (our own included) that help fund and advance their activities, and those governments like Russia and Saudi Arabia that are essentially giant energy companies.

Because, hey, realistically speaking, that’s the bet that all of us on planet Earth have taken on.

And just in case you were wondering whether you were still at the movies, you’re not, and the lights aren’t coming back on either.

Now, if that isn’t scary, what is?

Boo!

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt, Putting War Back in Children’s Culture

8:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Teenagers in Space 
Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Rambo, Red Dawn, and How a Tale of American Triumphalism Was Returned to the Child’s World (Part 2) 
By Tom Engelhardt

[The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.  Part 1, “The Secret History of G.I. Joe,” can be found by clicking here.]

1. “Hey, How Come They Got All the Fun?”

The End of Victory Culture cover

An excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s new book.

Now that Darth Vader’s breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it’s hard to remember how empty was the particular sector of space Star Wars blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and nonwhite.

Those in a position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, Lucas successfully challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the wreckage of Vietnam.

To start with, he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Beginning with “Episode IV” of a projected nonology, he offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks — an era of civil war, an evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.

Mobilizing a new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning fire to its rightful owners). Luke — and the audience — can now set off on an anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put “us” in high-tech tiger cages; and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.

In this way, Star Wars denied the enemy a role “they” had monopolized for a decade — that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come they got all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s bog them down and be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”

Like Green Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas’s white teenage rebels would glide effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.

Left to the enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the “life force” of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the Vietnamese would rally to “our” side as the Force and be applied to a crucial technical problem; for having the Force “with you” meant learning to merge with your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy’s destruction. Looked at today, the last part of Star Wars concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after, not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized, one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in the Emperor’s Death Star.

Here, Lucas even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52 crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity only when the enemy’s technology stripped him of his machinery — and, alone, he fluttered to earth and captivity.

At the same time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara’s “electronic battlefield” to the first “smart bombs,” Vietnam proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52 or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.

In James Bond films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however, technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering — whether as laser sword or X-wing fighter — not status but potential spiritualization. This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying “imperial storm troopers,” encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).

The World as a Star Wars Theme Park

Not only would George Lucas put “war” back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Fox reached an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.

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Tom Engelhardt, War Games

7:02 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Secret History of G.I. Joe
Barbie, Joe, Darth Vader, and Making War in Children’s Culture (Part 1)
By Tom Engelhardt

[The following excerpt, from Tom Engelhardt’s book, The End of Victory Culture, is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.]

1. The First Coming of G.I. Joe

The End of Victory Culture cover

An excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s new book.

It was 1964, and in Vietnam thousands of American “advisers” were already offering up their know-how from helicopter seats or gun sights. The United States was just a year short of sending its first large contingent of ground troops there, adolescents who would enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled territory as “Indian country.” Meanwhile, in that inaugural year of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a new generation of children began to experience the American war story via the most popular toy warrior ever created.

His name, G.I. — for “Government Issue” — Joe was redolent of America’s last victorious war and utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the “Joes” have names. “He” came in four types, one for each service, including the Marines. Yet every Joe was, in essence, the same. Since he was a toy of the Great Society with its dreams of inclusion, it only took a year for his manufacturer, Hasbro, to produce a “Negro Joe,” and two more to add a she-Joe (a nurse, naturally). Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no enemy, because it had not yet occurred to adults (or toy makers) not to trust the child to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.

In TV ads of the time, Joe was depicted as the most traditional of war toys. Little boys in World War II-style helmets were shown entering battle with a G.I. Joe tank, or fiercely displaying their Joe equipment while a chorus of deep, male voices sang (to the tune of “The Halls of Montezuma”), “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, Fighting man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air.” He was “authentic” with his “ten-inch bazooka that really works,” his “beachhead flame thrower,” and his “authentically detailed replica” of a U.S. Army Jeep with its own “tripod mounted recoilless rifle” and four “rocket projectiles.”

He could take any beach or landing site in style, dressed in “the real thing,” ranging from an “Ike” jacket with red scarf to a “beachhead assault fatigue shirt,” pants, and field pack. He could chow down with his own mess kit, or bed down in his own “bivouac-pup tent set.” And he was a toy giant, too, nearly a foot tall. From the telltale pink scar on his cheek to the testosterone rush of fierce-faced ad boys shouting, “G.I. Joe, take the hill!” he seemed the picture of a manly fighting toy.

Yet Joe, like much else in his era, was hardly what he seemed. Launched the year Lyndon Johnson ran for president as a peace candidate against Barry Goldwater while his administration was secretly planning the large-scale bombing of North Vietnam, Joe, too, was involved in a cover-up. For if Joe was a behemoth of a toy soldier, he was also, though the word was unmentionable, a doll. War play Joe-style was, in fact, largely patterned on and due to a “girl” — Mattel’s Barbie.

The Secret History of Joe

Barbie had arrived on the toy scene in 1958 with a hard expression on her face and her nippleless breasts outthrust, a reminder that she, too, had a secret past. She was a breakthrough, the first “teenage” doll with a “teenage” figure. However, her creator, Ruth Handler, had modeled her not on a teenager but on a German tabloid comic strip “playgirl” named Lili, who, in doll form, was sold not to children but to men “in tobacconists and bars… as an adult male’s pet.” As Joe was later to hit the beaches, so Barbie took the fashion salons, malt shops, boudoirs, and bedrooms, fully accessorized, and with the same undercurrent of exaggeration. (The bigger the breasts, after all, the better to hang that Barbie Wedding Gown on.)

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Laura Gottesdiener, The Backyard Shock Doctrine

7:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A Dream Foreclosed

Laura Gottesdiener’s new book

African Americans had every reason to celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008. History was made. Then reality set in. Economically speaking, the Obama era has been a five-year nightmare for Black America.

The unemployment rate for blacks now stands at 13.7%, almost twice the rate for all eligible workers. Under other circumstances, 13.7% unemployment would be a national crisis; it would dominate the headlines and the nightly news and the editorial pages; 13.7% unemployment would have any politician in office fearing for his or her career. In Washington, there would be blue-ribbon commissions, congressional hearings, and expert panels. But because we’re talking about 13.7% of eligible black workers, there is no outrage. Except for the anger and pain felt within the black community, that jobless rate is a silent scandal.

The wealth of African Americans is in similarly dire straits. Many black families saw their personal wealth, significant amounts of it invested in their homes, evaporate in the economic collapse of 2007-2009, triggered by a housing meltdown in which African Americans were disproportionately targeted for shoddy subprime mortgage loans. As of 2010, the median net wealth of black families was $4,900; of white families, $97,000. A third of black households had zero or negative wealth. Gains made across generations were wiped out like that.

Consider these statistics the vital signs of Black America in the Obama era. As Laura Gottesdiener writes in her debut at TomDispatch, there may be no more vivid illustration of their collective economic distress in these years than the foreclosure crisis pocking the inner cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, among other places. Gottesdiener’s new book, A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, is a people’s history of the financial crisis that jolted this country and has never ended.  It has been hailed by Naomi Klein as “riveting” and Noam Chomsky as a “most valuable study… with historical depth and analytical insight.” Andy Kroll

The Great Eviction
The Landscape of Wall Street’s Creative Destruction
By Laura Gottesdiener

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William deBuys, Goodbye to All That (Water)

6:58 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Colorado River

“How long will the water hold out?”

Martha and the Vandellas would have loved it.  Metaphorically speaking, the New York Times practically swooned over it.  (“An unforgiving heat wave held much of the West in a sweltering embrace over the weekend, tying or breaking temperature records in several cities, grounding flights, sparking forest fires, and contributing to deaths.”) It was a “deadly” heat wave, a “record” one that, in headlines everywhere, left the West and later the rest of the country “sweltering,” and that was, again in multiple headlines, “scary.”  The fire season that accompanied the “blasting,” “blazing” heat had its own set of “record” headlines — and all of this was increasingly seen, in another set of headlines, as the “new normal” in the West. Given that 2012 had already set a heat record for the continental U.S., that the 10 hottest years on record in this country have all occurred since 1997, and that the East had its own sweltering version of heat that wouldn’t leave town, this should have been beyond arresting.

In response, the nightly primetime news came up with its own convenient set of new terms to describe all this: “extreme” or “severe” heat.  Like “extreme” or “severe” weather, these captured the eyeball-gluing sensationalism of our weather moment without having to mention climate change or global warming.  Weather, after all, shouldn’t be “politicized.”  But if you’re out in the middle of the parching West like TomDispatch regular William deBuys, who recently headed down the Colorado River, certain grim realities about the planet we’re planning to hand over to our children and grandchildren can’t help but come to mind — along with a feeling, increasingly shared by those in the sweltering cities, that our particular way of life is in the long run unsustainable. Tom

Never Again Enough
Field Notes from a Drying West
By William deBuys

Several miles from Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon, Arizona, April 2013 — Down here, at the bottom of the continent’s most spectacular canyon, the Colorado River growls past our sandy beach in a wet monotone. Our group of 24 is one week into a 225-mile, 18-day voyage on inflatable rafts from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. We settle in for the night. Above us, the canyon walls part like a pair of maloccluded jaws, and moonlight streams between them, bright enough to read by.

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Todd Miller, Surveillance Surge on the Border

9:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

National Guard at the Border

The US border with Mexico is becoming increasingly militarized.

I mean, come on.  You knew it had to happen, didn’t you?  In a 2010 Department of Homeland Security report, wrested from the bowels of the secrecy/surveillance state (thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation), the Customs and Border Protection agency suggests arming their small fleet of surveillance drones.  The purpose: to “immobilize TOIs,” or targets of interest, along the U.S.-Mexican border.  Those arms would, of course, be “non-lethal” in nature.  It’s all so civilized.  Kinda like the Star Trek folks putting their phasers on “stun,” not kill.  And count on it, sooner or later it will happen.  And then, of course, the lethal weapons will follow.  Otherwise, how in the world could we track and eliminate terrorists in “the homeland” efficiently?

All of this comes under the heading of self-fulfilling prophecy.  You create and take to your battle zones a wonder weapon that, according to the promotional materials, will make the targeting of human beings so surgically precise it might even end the war on terror as we know it.  (Forget the fact that, in the field, drones turn out, according to the latest military study of Afghanistan, to be far less precise than manned aircraft if you’re measuring by how many civilians are knocked off, how much “collateral damage” is done.)  Anyway, you use that weapon ever more profligately on distant battlefields in distant wars.  You come to rely on it, even if it doesn’t exactly work as advertised.  And then, like the soldiers you sent into the same war zones (who didn’t exactly work as advertised either), the weaponry begins to come home.

Drones?  You can rant about them, write about them, organize against them, try to stop them from flying over your hometown. And still, like the implacable Terminators of film fame, they will arrive in “the homeland.” Will? Have. As FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee recently, the Bureau is already using them.  In a coda meant to relieve us all of drone anxiety, however, he pointed out that it’s employing them “in a very, very minimal way and very seldom… we have very few.” And, oh yes, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are testing drones for similar use. Also undoubtedly very minimally and very few, so don’t fret (for now).  As for police departments wielding armed drones, count on that, too, sooner or later.

In the meantime, those Border Patrol types, according to the New York Times, have been oh-so-happy to lend their military-grade Predator B drones to, among others, the North Dakota Army National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Forest Service.  In 2012, they loaned their robotic planes out 250 times.

And these days, drones are the least of it.  Lots of stuff is “coming home.”  As Todd Miller, who covers the U.S. borderlands for TomDispatch, makes clear, sometimes you just have to change the label on the package to suddenly find reality staring you in the face.  Call it “immigration reform” and it looks like you’re dealing with enormous numbers of human beings in this country illegally.  Think of it as “surveillance reform” and you’ll see that, as Miller points out, we’re using our borderlands and those undocumented migrants as an excuse to build, experiment with, and test out a new kind of surveillance state, drones included.  And count on it, too: one of these days, maybe tomorrow, some version of that surveillance state will make it to your hometown, no matter how far you are from any border. Tom

Creating a Military-Industrial-Immigration Complex 
How to Turn the U.S.-Mexican Border into a War Zone 
By Todd Miller

The first thing I did at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix this March was climb the brown “explosion-resistant” tower, 30 feet high and 10 feet wide, directly in the center of the spacious room that holds this annual trade show. From a platform where, assumedly, a border guard would stand, you could take in the constellation of small booths offering the surveillance industry’s finest products, including a staggering multitude of ways to monitor, chase, capture, or even kill people, thanks to modernistic arrays of cameras and sensors, up-armored jeeps, the latest in guns, and even surveillance balloons.

Although at the time, headlines in the Southwest emphasized potential cuts to future border-security budgets thanks to Congress’s “sequester,” the vast Phoenix Convention Center hall — where the defense and security industries strut their stuff for law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — told quite a different story.  Clearly, the expanding global industry of border security wasn’t about to go anywhere.  It was as if the milling crowds of business people, government officials, and Border Patrol agents sensed that they were about to be truly in the money thanks to “immigration reform,” no matter what version of it did or didn’t pass Congress. And it looks like they were absolutely right.

All around me in that tower were poster-sized fiery photos demonstrating ways it could help thwart massive attacks and fireball-style explosions. A border like the one just over 100 miles away between the United States and Mexico, it seemed to say, was not so much a place that divided people in situations of unprecedented global inequality, but a site of constant war-like danger.

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Rebecca Solnit, How to Act Like a Billionaire

6:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, now charged with violating the Espionage Act, has opened a Pandora’s box of American global surveillance for the rest of us to be stunned by.  Every day a new revelation, a new set of secrets or information, seems to pour out from somewhere — without Hope, that last denizen of Pandora’s famous container, yet in sight.  No matter what any of us already knew (or guessed at or imagined), this rolling, roiling set of revelations, not likely to end soon, should expand our vision of the world we live in, especially the shadow world of those who covertly watch us.

Recent examples would include the Associated Press’s reminder that the Prism program Snowden, Glenn Greenwald of the British Guardian, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post brought to global attention is actually “a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort” in which the NSA “snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet’s backbone. That program, which has been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis.”  (British intelligence — yet another revelation of the last week — acts similarly and shares with the NSA what it finds off such fiber optic cables, including “recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook, and the history of any internet user’s access to websites.”)

You would have to add as well NSA expert and author James Bamford’s recent exploration of how General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, brought war to the Internet, developing and launching the first cyberwar in history against Iran’s nuclear program.  The man known as “Alexander the Geek” has also, Bamford tells us, encouraged and gotten lavish funding for the creation of an ever more elaborate universe of cyberwarriors, including private contractors. (In the meantime, President Obama has secretly ordered his top intelligence officials and cyberwarriors to draw up a list of possible future cyber-targets.)

Last week at the New York Times, James Risen and Nick Wingfield slid through the new revolving door that’s taking top Silicon Valley pros into the well-paying shadows of American surveillance in a Vulcan mind meld between the corporate giants of the Internet and U.S. intelligence.  Meanwhile, FBI Director Robert Mueller, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, let us in on a future horror that turns out to be yesterday’s nightmare: FBI drones are already in the air domestically, possibly over your hometown surveilling… well, maybe you. Mueller, however, couldn’t have been more reassuring on the subject.  The Bureau, he told the senators, uses drones “in a very, very minimal way and very seldom… we have very few.” And p.s., the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are both testing drones for similar use. But undoubtedly very minimally and very few, so don’t fret.

And last but hardly least, thanks again to the Guardian, we know that warrants issued by a secret FISA court provide the NSA with a loophole into domestic surveillance large enough to drive an up-armored Humvee through. “Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which allow the NSA to make use of information ‘inadvertently’ collected from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant.” And what can’t qualify as “inadvertent,” after all?  As Timothy Lee of the Washington Post points out, “These documents look more like legislation than search warrants. They define legal concepts, describe legal standards to be applied, and specify procedures for NSA officials to follow… But rather than being drafted, debated and enacted by Congress, the documents were drafted by Obama administration lawyers and reviewed by the FISC.”

In other words, we are in a new world and as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the just-published memoir, The Faraway Nearby, writes, it’s one in which big government’s most oppressive powers, increasingly on display, are meshing wonderfully with big business’s most oppressive intrusions on our lives.  We await the Edward Snowden of Google. Tom

Welcome to the (Don’t Be) Evil Empire
Google Eats the World
By Rebecca Solnit

Finally, journalists have started criticizing in earnest the leviathans of Silicon Valley, notably Google, now the world’s third-largest company in market value. The new round of discussion began even before the revelations that the tech giants were routinely sharing our data with the National Security Agency, or maybe merging with it. Simultaneously another set of journalists, apparently unaware that the weather has changed, is still sneering at San Francisco, my hometown, for not lying down and loving Silicon Valley’s looming presence.

The criticism of Silicon Valley is long overdue and some of the critiques are both thoughtful and scathing. The New Yorker, for example, has explored how start-ups are undermining the purpose of education at Stanford University, addressed the Valley’s messianic delusions and political meddling, and considered Apple’s massive tax avoidance.

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece that startled me, especially when I checked the byline. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the fugitive in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, focused on The New Digital Age, a book by top Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen that to him exemplifies the melding of the technology corporation and the state.  It is, he claimed, a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of our leading “witch doctors who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the twenty-first century.”  He added, “This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley.”

What do the U.S. government and Silicon Valley already have in common? Above all, they want to remain opaque while making the rest of us entirely transparent through the capture of our data. What is arising is simply a new form of government, involving vast entities with the reach and power of government and little accountability to anyone.

Google, the company with the motto “Don’t be evil,” is rapidly becoming an empire. Not an empire of territory, as was Rome or the Soviet Union, but an empire controlling our access to data and our data itself. Antitrust lawsuits proliferating around the company demonstrate its quest for monopoly control over information in the information age. Its search engine has become indispensable for most of us, and as Google critic and media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his 2012 book The Googlization of Everything, “[W]e now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.” And that’s just the search engine.

About three-quarters of a billion people use Gmail, which conveniently gives Google access to the content of their communications (scanned in such a way that they can target ads at you). Google tried and failed to claim proprietary control of digital versions of every book ever published; librarians and publishers fought back on that one. As the New York Times reported last fall, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, summed the situation up this way: “Google continues to profit from its use of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors’ rights, and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S. authors continues.”

The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog wrote to the attorney general on June 12th urging him “to block Google’s just announced $1 billion acquisition of Waze, developers of a mobile mapping application, on antitrust grounds… Google already dominates the online mapping business with Google Maps. The Internet giant was able to muscle its way to dominance by unfairly favoring its own service ahead of such competitors as Mapquest in its online search results. Now with the proposed Waze acquisition, the Internet giant would remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space. Moreover it will allow Google access to even more data about online activity in a way that will increase its dominant position on the Internet.”

The company seems to be cornering the online mapping business, seems in fact to be cornering so many things that eventually they may have us cornered.

In Europe, there’s an antitrust lawsuit over Google’s Android phone apps.  In many ways, you can map Google’s rise by the litter of antitrust lawsuits it crushed en route. By the way, Google bought Motorola. You know it owns YouTube, right? That makes Google possessor of the second and third most visited Websites on earth. (Facebook is first, and two more of the top six are also in Silicon Valley.)

Imagine that it’s 1913 and the post office, the phone company, the public library, printing houses, the U.S. Geological Survey mapping operations, movie houses, and all atlases are largely controlled by a secretive corporation unaccountable to the public. Jump a century and see that in the online world that’s more or less where we are. A New York venture capitalist wrote that Google is trying to take over “the entire fucking Internet” and asked the question of the day: “Who will stop Google?”

The Tipping Point

We ask that question all the time in San Francisco, because here Google isn’t just on our computers, it’s on our streets. I wrote earlier this year about “the Google bus the armadas of private Wi-Fi-equipped luxury buses that run through our streets and use our public bus stops, often blocking city buses and public transit passengers while they load or unload the employees taking the long ride down the peninsula to their corporation of choice. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Genentech run some of the bigger fleets, and those mostly unmarked white buses have become a symbol of the transformation of the city.

Carl Nolte, the old native son who writes a column for the (dying) San Francisco Chronicle, said this month of the future inhabitants of 22,000 high-priced apartments under construction, “These new apartment dwellers will all be new San Franciscans, with different values. In a couple of years we’ll think of the progressive politicians, circa 2012, as quaint antiques, like the old waterfront Commies your grandfather used to worry about. This is already a high-tech city, an expensive city, a city where middle-class families can’t afford to live. It is a city where the African American population has dropped precipitously, where the Latino Mission District is gentrifying more every day. You think it’s expensive here now? Just you wait. These are the good old days, but it won’t last. We are at a tipping point.”

Mr. Nolte, you can tell, doesn’t particularly like this. A guy named Ilan Greenberg at the New Republic popped up to tell us that we must like it — or face his ridicule. He writes, “Ironically, the anti-gentrifiers themselves undermine San Francisco’s liberal ethos. Opposed to newcomers? Wary of people whose values you don’t understand? Critical of young people for not living up to an older generation’s ideals? It all sounds very reactionary and close-minded.” The problem is that we understand Silicon Valley’s values all too well, and a lot of us don’t like them.

Adding newcomers might not be so bad if it didn’t mean subtracting a lot of those of us who are already here. By us I mean everyone who doesn’t work for a gigantic technology corporation or one of the smaller companies hoping to become a global monolith. Greenberg (who is, incidentally, writing for a publication quietly bought up by a Facebook billionaire) sneers at us for defending middle-class people, but “middle class” is just a word for those of us who get paid decently for our work. People at various income levels in a diversity of fields here in San Francisco are being replaced by those who work in one field and get paid extremely well.  Small, alternative, and nonprofit institutions are also struggling and going down. It’s like watching a meadow being plowed under for, say, Monsanto genetically modified soybeans.

Speaking of meadows, one of Silicon Valley’s billionaires, Napster founder and Spotify billionaire Sean Parker, just threw himself a $10 million wedding on environmentally sensitive land in Big Sur. In the course of building a massive fantasy set for the event, “including grading, change in use from campground to private event, construction of multiple structures including a gateway and arch, an artificial pond, a stone bridge, multiple event platforms with elevated floors, rock walls, artificially created ruins of cottages and castle walls,” he reportedly did significant environmental damage and violated regulations.

Apparently paying $2.5 million in fines after the fact didn’t bother him. Napster and Spotify are, incidentally, online technologies that have reduced musicians’ profits from their recordings to almost nothing. There are tremendously wealthy musicians, of course, but a lot of them are at best, yes, middle class. Thanks to Parker, maybe a little less so.

Teachers, civil servants, bus drivers, librarians, firefighters — consider them representatives of the middle class under siege, as well as the people who keep a city viable and diverse. Friends of mine — a painter, a poet, a filmmaker, a photographer, all of whom have contributed to San Francisco’s culture — have been evicted so that more affluent people may replace them. There’s a widespread tendency to think that defending culture means defending privileged white people, but that assumes that people of color and poor people aren’t artists. Here, they are.

Everyone here understands that if a musician — hip-hop or symphony — can’t afford a home, neither can a janitor and her family. And competition for those apartments is fierce, so fierce that these days no one I know can find a rental on the open market. I couldn’t when I moved in 2011; neither could a physician friend earlier this year. The tech kids come in and offer a year in cash up front or raise the asking price or both, and the housing supply continues to wither, while rents skyrocket. So while Greenberg might like you to think that we’re selfishly not offering a seat at the table, it’s more like old people and working families and people whose careers were shaped by idealism are objecting to being thrown under the, well, bus.

Like Gandhi, Only With Guns

Enough minions of Silicon Valley’s mighty corporations could arrive to create a monoculture.  In some parts of town, it already is the dominant culture. A guy who made a fortune in the dot-com boom and moved to the Mission District (the partly Latino, formerly blue-collar eye of the housing hurricane) got locals’ attention recently with a blog post titled “Douchebags Like You are Ruining San Francisco.” In it, he described the churlish and sometimes predatory behavior of the very young and very wealthy toward the elderly, the poor, and the nonwhite.

He wrote, “You’re on MUNI [the city bus system] and watch a 20-something guy reluctantly give up his seat to an elderly woman and then say loudly to his friends, ‘I don’t know why old people ride MUNI. If I were old I’d just take Uber.’” Yeah, I had to look it up, too: Uber.com, a limousine taxi service you access via a smartphone app. A friend of mine overheard a young techie in line to buy coffee say to someone on his phone that he was working on an app that would be “like Food Not Bombs, to distribute food, only for profit.” Saying you’re going to be like a group dedicated to free food, only for profit, is about as deranged as saying you’re going to be like Gandhi, only with guns.

“An influx of techies will mean more patrons for the arts,” trilled an article at the Silicon Valley news site Pando, but as of yet those notable patrons have not made an appearance. As a local alternative weekly reported, “The tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable: According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011′s 50 most generous U.S. donors worked in tech, despite the fact that 13 of Forbes 50 Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech.” Medici in their machinations, they are not Medici-style patrons. There is no noticeable trickle-down in the Bay Area, no significant benevolence toward the needy or good causes or culture from the new tech fortunes.

Instead, we get San Francisco newcomer, Facebook CEO, and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg pursuing his own interest with ruthless disregard for life on Earth. This year, Zuckerberg formed a politically active nonprofit, FWD.us, that sought to influence the immigration debate to make it easier for Silicon Valley corporations to import tech workers. There has been no ideology involved, only expediency, in how FWD.us pursued its ends. It decided to put its massive financial clout to work giving politicians whatever they wanted in hopes that this would lead to an advantageous quid pro quo arrangement. Toward that end, the group began running ads in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline (that will bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast) to support a Republican senator and other ads in favor of drilling in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to support an Alaskan Democrat.

The takeaway message seemed to be that nothing is off limits in pursuing self-interest, and that the actual meaning and consequences of these climate-impacting projects was not of concern at least to that 29-year-old who’s also the 25th richest person in the United States. (To give credit where it’s due: Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk, Paypal cofounder and electric car mogul, quit FWD.us.) Zuckerberg and his Valley associates were pushing things they didn’t care about and demonstrating that they didn’t care about much except what makes their corporations run and their profits rise. Here, where the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and many are environmentally minded, this didn’t go over well. Protests ensued at Facebook headquarters and on Facebook itself.

Rising hostility to the tech surge in San Francisco is met with fury and bewilderment by many Silicon Valley employees. They tend to sound like Bush-era strategists dumbfounded that the Iraqis didn’t welcome their invasion with flowers.

Here’s something else you should know about Silicon Valley: according to Mother Jones, 89% of the founding teams of these companies are all male; 82% are all white (the other 18% Asian/Pacific Islander); and women there make 49 cents to the male dollar. Silicon Valley female powerhouses like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, black swans in a lake full of white swans. As Catherine Bracy, on whose research Mother Jones based its charts, put it, “The current research I’ve seen shows that wealth creation from the tech industry is extremely unequally distributed, and current venture capital is going overwhelmingly to a small, homogeneous elite.” That’s what’s encroaching on San Francisco.

That Pando article chastises us this way: “San Francisco can become a world capital.  First it needs to get over itself.” But maybe we don’t want to be a world capital or more like New York and Tokyo. The logic of more-is-better seems unassailable to San Francisco’s detractors, but inside their more is a lot of less: less diversity, less affordability, less culture, less continuity, less community, less equitable distribution of wealth. What’s called wealth in these calculations is for the few; for the many, it’s impoverishment.

The Armada of the .0001% 

If Google represents the global menace of Silicon Valley, and Zuckerberg represents its amorality, then Oracle CEO Larry Ellison might best represent its crassness. The fifth richest man in the world, he spent hundreds of millions of dollars to win the America’s Cup yacht race a few years back. The winner gets to choose the next venue for the race and the type of boat to be used. So for this summer’s races, Ellison chose San Francisco Bay and a giant catamaran that appears to be exceptionally unstable. Last month, an Olympic-medal-winning sailor drowned when a boat he was training on capsized in San Francisco Bay, pinning him under its sail.

Part of Ellison’s strategy for winning again evidently involves making the boats so expensive that almost no one can compete. A race that once had seven to 15 competitors now has four, and one may drop out. Business Insider headlined a piece, “Larry Ellison Has Completely Screwed Up The America’s Cup.” It went on to say, “Each team, with the exception of New Zealand’s, is backed by an individual billionaire, and each has spent between $65 million and $100 million so far.” In typical Silicon Valley-fashion, Ellison also figured out how to stick San Francisco for a significant part of the tab and in the process even caused the eviction of a few dozen small businesses, though in the end the city did not give him a valuable stretch of waterfront he wanted.

Here’s what San Francisco is now: a front row seat on the most powerful corporations on Earth and the people who run them. So we know what you may not yet: they are not your friends and their vision is not your vision, but your data is their data, and your communications are in their hands, and they seem to be rising to become an arm of or a part-owner of the government or a law unto themselves, and no one has yet figured out what we can do about it.

Rebecca Solnit is just winding up several months as a research fellow at Stanford Libraries and Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. Her work there will lead to a book about California history, but her new book, out this month, is The Faraway Nearby.

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

Barbara Ehrenreich: American Poverty, 50 Years Later

6:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

We call it “the nation’s capital,” but that’s increasingly a misnomer. Consider Congress, where as last year ended 250 members, or 47% of our representatives, were millionaires, and the estimated median net worth of a senator was $2.56 million. Or consider the city of movers, shakers, and lobbyists they live in. In Washington D.C., “the top fifth of earners in the District make an average of 29 times the income of the bottom fifth.” In average annual household salary that translates as $259,000 versus $9,100. For the capital’s top 5%, that number is $473,000, “far above the $292,000 averaged by their counterparts in other large cities.”

Washington as the people’s capital? More reasonably, it’s the capital of American wealth in a country in which the super-rich, after taking some lumps in the Great Recession, are again outpacing everyone else. As TomDispatch regular Barbara Ehrenreich points out, half a century ago Michael Harrington pointed a finger at the world of American poverty, calling it “the other America” — and that label stuck. Today, in a country where Hispanic and African American wealth was nearly wiped out by the bursting of the housing bubble, the elderly have increasingly seen their savings evaporate, and the poor are ever less “other” and ever more us, a new Harrington might consider labeling the world of the wildly rich, that 1% and their eternal bonuses, as “the real other America.”

It’s all too fitting that the leading Republican presidential candidate is a quarter-billionaire. He may be running as a Washington outsider, but unlike most Americans, he’ll be right at home in the new Washington.

Ehrenreich’s post today is the beginning of something new. With it, she launches the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (developed with colleagues from the Institute for Policy Studies and the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism). Beginning this spring, it will pay laid-off or underemployed journalists to produce original work on what she calls the “greased chute” of poverty. Stay tuned, you’ll hear more about it at this website or you can check out it out early at EconomicHardship.org. Her latest piece is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and will appear in -

Rediscovering Poverty
How We Cured “The Culture of Poverty,” Not Poverty Itself

By Barbara Ehrenreich Read the rest of this entry →