Monday, December 31, 2007

Obligatory Backpost

This New Year's eve, I selfishly opted to take the girls to a fondue party rather than update my blog. This led to numerous discoveries. A.) dipping little squares of bread into a warm cheese sauce is surprisingly worth the trouble. B.) to a 4 year-old, eating carrots dipped in chocolate sauce seems like a very good idea, even after the chocolate has separated into something resembling brown sludge. C.) Left to their own devices, said 4 year-olds will happily plunge their grubby little hands directly into the aforementioned sludge, thereby obviating the need for cumbersome fondue forks and concomitant extraneous bits of fruit.

Moving right along, two of my favorite blogs have recently featured MGM cartoons from the same era as my Swing Social post a few days ago. Dr. Wes found a gorgeous treatment of Strauss' Blue Danube that involves copious numbers of charmingly naked wood nymphs. And Revel posted an utterly remarkable cartoon, also from 1939 and produced by Hugh Harman, which manages to combine Christmas sentimentality, disgust with the human race, and breathtaking beauty. Amazing.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Holy Fucking Fugazi

If there was one band in 1988 whose sound harmonized with the state of my soul, it was Fugazi. I spent months walking around that winter with my four pound "portable" cassette recorder in my pocket, listening to their epochal Thirteen Songs record as loud as it would go. People would turn and look at me as I rode the bus, speculating, I suppose, on the probable extent of my hearing loss. Their raw but smart post-punk sound took up where bands like Mission of Burma left off, and perfectly married radical politics and cultural alienation without, somehow, ever slipping into the didacticism that marred other "political" bands.

Happily, this era of Fugazi's live performances is well documented, and the two versions of "Waiting Room" here are both remarkable in their own ways. Above, we have a tight version and a clear recording before what appears to be a seated (as much as is possible during a Fugazi show) audience in Helsinki. Below, we have Fugazi doing the same song as Dionysian revelers, leading the crowd in what is clearly a rock-induced ecstatic experience.

I am a patient boy
I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait
My time is like water down a drain
Everybody's moving,
Everybody's moving,
Everybody's moving, moving, moving, moving
Please don't leave me to remain
In the waiting room
I don't want the news
I cannot use it
I don't want the news
I won't live by it
Sitting outside of town
Everybody's always down
Tell me why?
Because... they can't get up
Ahhh... Come on and get up
Come on and get up
But I don't sit idly by
I'm planning a big surprise
I'm gonna fight for what I want to be
I won't make the same mistakes
Because I know
Because I know how much time that wastes
And Function
Function is the key
To the the waiting room
I don't want the news
I cannot use it
I don't want the news
I won't live by it
Sitting outside of town
Everybody's always down
Tell me why?
Because... they can't get up
Ahhh... Come on and get up
Up for the waiting room
Sitting in the waiting room
Sitting in the waiting room
Sitting in the waiting room
Sitting in the waiting room
Tell me why?
Because... they can't get up

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Street Years: Part Three

The Davis Square Street Magazine house was a second story apartment in a house where the landlord, Larry, lived downstairs with his wife. She was nice enough, but Larry was a boozer. He soon decided, given the traffic through our apartment, that we must be dealing drugs. It was a tense relationship.

Every few months or so we'd get an issue together. Between Jon's manic-depression and perfectionism, our poverty, and my own chronic distraction, it's a wonder we published at all. Every once in a while though, a truck would come, and we'd get ink all over our fingers as we carried the precious bundles upstairs.

The times of no money continued. I remember standing near a Burger King in the Northeastern University student union. A volunteer was driving me around to drop papers at the distribution points. I was starving. Literally. I smelled the greasy food and longed for a dollar to buy french fries. I read Knut Hamsun's Hunger that year, and knew just how he must have felt.

I would later come to think of this as my boiled potatoes and shoplifted cheese period. Jon was the thief. I'd lost my nerve for that sort of thing by thirteen. He specialized in string cheese and cigarettes, reserving most of his actual money for 12-packs of Rolling Rock. At least we kept the rent paid.

I lived upstairs in a roughly finished attic room across the stairwell from our photographer David, who converted a closet into a darkroom. Jon was downstairs with two of my friends that I knew from college. Doug and Claudia were Central America activists and ran a teeny non-profit called the Student Central America Network. I was hired to run their phone bank.

This was, without question, the most pathetic fund raising operation in the history of half-assed non-profits. We'd cold call from the phonebook, and anyone unfortunate enough to pick up would be treated to an "update." This would begin with the latest atrocity of that blood-soaked time and end with an earnest plea to support student organizing to change U.S. foreign policy.

It's amazing that anyone ever gave us anything. A strong night would bring in around $100. Doug weaved and dodged every time I asked to get paid. The three of us would sometimes visit Al Sais, a friend of Doug's in Cambridge, who would cook a nice dinner and get us high. By this point, eating a real meal was a rare treat.

During one especially desperate week, where I had no money even for bus tokens, Al wrote each of us a check for $100. Mine bounced.

Al Sais would later be fired from his long time job as book keeper for the Central America Solidarity Association in Cambridge. It turned out that at least some of the much discussed string of "FBI break ins" that plagued Old Cambridge Baptist Church during the sanctuary movement were really just Al covering his tracks.

Doug eventually skipped out on his rent and we confiscated his guitar and amp in retaliation. Jon got good at surfer licks, and could slay me every time with his cover of Sargent Barry Sadler's Ballad of the Green Berets. The irony thing was very in.

By then, my focus was turning more and more toward homelessness. It was 1988, and Bennett and Harrison's The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America offered a framework for understanding the incredible growth in visible poverty that occurred over that decade. Homelessness in American cities had tripled or quadrupled, and a politicized grassroots movement had arisen along with a still nascent sheltering industry.

Boston's Kip Tiernan was running around quoting Walter Bruggeman, talking liberation theology, and asking qui bono? "Situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency," she would say. A bag lady doll went on the market and Kip went ballistic. I found this irresistible.

A few years before, a chapter of the Union of the Homeless was founded in Boston. While there were a few radicals running around acting like this was a real organization, it was clear that there wasn't much there. The happening place was First Church Cambridge, where Jim Stewart and Stuart Guernsey were leading the direct action revolution.

Jim was a cynical divinity school grad who dressed in black, wore James Joyce glasses, and read Adorno and Horkheimer. He was a CD junkie, and ran a small shelter in the church basement. Guernsey was a soft-spoken southern minister who'd somehow come north to run another small shelter in Dorchester. They acted as Northeast lieutenants for Mitch Snyder, and would regularly go on some sort of extreme fast in solidarity with their hero.

Around them were a mixture of politicized homeless people, church folk, and shelter line staff who were down for the revolution. I found myself in the First Church function room more and more often, drawn in by the drama and the people. At the conclusion of every meeting, Guernsey would offer a little benediction. After awhile, Jim took pity and gave me a job doing overnights.

The summer of 1988 brought the CCNV's "Take off the Boards" demonstrations. Mitch Snyder had a genius for mobilizing coordinated direct-action events that kept homelessness in the papers and turned up the heat for action. Take off the Boards was a week of housing takeovers in cities throughout the east coast. There was a boarded up house in Boston's South End that Jim and Stuart chose as a target. A group of around 60 met up at Boston's City Hall for a brief rally, and marched toward our destination.
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it!"
This chant would be good for at least another 20 years. My favorite variation would come at the 1989 Housing Now! march more than a year later. My Boston affinity group came up with "Hey you's guys! How's about a house!"

Much better.

Only a few leaders actually knew where the house was. We came to a stop at a boarded-up Victorian, and a half dozen guys raced up the steps with crowbars to pry at the plywood. An advance contingent was to have taken care of this. They were there and inside, but hadn't managed to loosen the nails.

Within a minute there were about ten cop cars on the street and a couple of horses. These were Boston cops. They don't fuck around.

The plywood came off just as the police swarmed the house. The crowd lost it as cops started throwing bodies down the stairs. No one was prepared for a police riot, and things escalated within seconds to full-on pandemonium, which only made the police more aggressive. They pushed us back to the street, and then to the sidewalk on the other side.

I was stalking back and forth on the street and sidewalk, alternately screaming chants and yelling at cops. I saw one near by catch another's eye, point to me, and say, "him." They closed in.

For me, nothing brings on hyper-focus and a sense of calm like the prospect of getting my ass kicked. I locked eyes with the lead cop, raised my hands loosely over my shoulders, and slowly backed away.

Suddenly, they turned and ran. My scrawny hippy ass was saved by dumb luck and distraction.

The media had arrived, and several cameras were trained on a police horse as it trotted straight down a crowded sidewalk to bowl over a septuagenarian former nun. The cops seemed to know this was the end. The de-escalation was immediate. An ambulance arrived, and she was taken away for treatment of minor injuries. A few arrests were made, but most of us just huddled for awhile in small groups and walked away.

The story played the same way in nearly all of the media. Peaceful protest turns violent. The violence was blamed on the cops, and the TV stations found their footage of the horse running over the old lady irresistible.

This, I decided, was the revolution I was looking for. I'd found my people.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two
The Street Years: Part Three

Friday, December 28, 2007

Swing Social, 1940

I was sitting on the couch with my daughters watching Chilly Willy shorts on YouTube this week when I stumbled across Swing Social. My jaw dropped straight into my lap. The first time around, I felt a bit guilty to be enjoying it so much. This could never be produced today. Heads would roll. Careers would be ruined.

The second time around, I began seeing the remarkable details and the political sophistication of the jokes. Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, being purchased with an FHA loan. Baby FDR saying, "My friends, my friends, as I said before, I hate war." This was, remember, 1940.

The third time around, I'm thinking, this isn't white people making fun of Black culture, although there may be a bit of that in there as well. This is also Black culture appreciating itself. The Voodoo Drummer segment, the third of the four songs, with its dancing baby black bass back-up singers (tomma-tomma-tay-tay!), blows my tiny little mind every time I see it. The segue into the devil song seems to be about Christianity as an overlay over much older folk traditions. The artistry throughout is stunningly rich. The early 40s seem to be a high water mark in the world of animation.

So this week, I combine my cultural offering with a new poll. How should we regard Swing Social from our sophisticated vantage point of twenty-first century political correctness? Is this a racist piece of trash better left to decay in the vaults of MGM, a sensitive homage to the morays of early twentieth century Black America, or something in between, of enduring cultural value? As always, make your opinion known at top right. This time, you can choose more than one option.

This weeks poll, having missed the big day, drew even more scant attention than usual, proving that to be possible. Still, it is typically informative. The video is of enduring value, and may or may not simultaneously be racist AND sensitive to early 20th century Black culture.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ask Greg: Do the Homeless Shit in the Woods?

Dear Greg,

I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but I heard that the last homeless count found at least 1,600 people trying to survive outside of Seattle’s ridiculously stretched homeless shelter system. Where do these people shit? In the woods?

Grossed Out

Dear Grossed Out,

Seattle is a partner in the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, and has committed to no longer simply manage the problem but to put an end to it.

Since this effort began in 2005, the City has invested $28 million to create 559 new permanent housing units for homeless people. Working with partners like King County and United Way, we have collectively produced 1,000 new housing units for chronically homeless persons.

Just this year, Adrienne Quinn and I rewarded our friend Paul Lambrose for his political reliability with a noncompetitive $3.5 million in City funds for yet another Plymouth project. Who’s gonna complain? Right?

The City of Seattle spends approximately $40 million each year to support housing, programs and services for homeless people. While this is less than half of what we placed in the City budget for South Lake Union infrastructure this year to sweeten the deal for mega-billionaire Paul Allen, you’ve got to admit it sounds like a hell of a lot of dough.

Probably more than these people are worth.

While we are seriously behind in meeting Ten Year Plan Goals, and have made numerous policy decisions that benefit developers but substantially aggravate the housing affordability crisis, we prefer to not talk about that.

We’d rather talk about homeless people shitting in the woods. Ew. Gross.

Our Ten Year Plan calls us to collect reams and reams of data on all aspects of the problem. No longer do we rely on hearsay and conjecture. Due to the award winning investigative reporting of Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur and the tireless detective work of West Precinct’s Sgt. Paul Gracy, we have a clear picture of the problem.

We now know that homeless people are shitting in the woods in greater and greater numbers, spreading the risk of hepatitis, AIDS, avian flu, and the common cold. They often pitch their tents just a beer can’s toss from their disgusting piles of trash. These people are lazy, filthy, and diseased, and, as you said, just plain gross.

After several decades of “tolerance” and “compassion,” Seattle has finally arrived at the solution that these people cannot be allowed. Especially when there are other cities and states with lower real estate values whose greenbelts, bridges, and viaducts might be more amenable.

Fortunately, the number of homeless persons in Seattle appears to be diminishing. Thank you for your interest in homelessness issues and for writing to us on this important topic.

Greg Nickels,
Mayor of Seattle

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In Case You Stayed Home ...

OK. We all know that Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness ED Alison Eisinger is a smart, committed, workhorse. But who knew that she's an amazing soapbox speaker as well? Here's her speech from the Dec. 19 Real Change Organizing Project Rally. The City's encampment removals are "immoral, illegal, and stupid." Go Alison!

BTW, every time she says, "but there's a big fat but," my four-year old giggles away and says "a big fat butt!" Alison has cross-generational appeal.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Jesus, Jews, and The Little Drummer Boy

Continuing along with my seasonally appropriate Jesus obsession, just last night a friend who's been following events in Iowa expressed amazement at the god-soaked nature of this Presidential race, and said that antisemitism is very much alive and well and more ready to roar back to life in America than most realize.

He described the roots of antisemitism as Christ-killer mythology, a perception of riches gained at the expense of others, and deep anti-intellectualism. This stuff goes back to the thirteenth century, he said, and is never too far below the surface.

Tonight, his point was driven home as I watched the 1968 Little Drummer Boy stop animation TV special with my kids. This was produced by Rankin & Bass, the same team that brought us the feel good Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer a few years later, as well as Frosty the Snowman.

In Little Drummer Boy, a small-nosed and fair-skinned family get wiped out by desert marauders just after giving their little boy a drum as a present. He decides he hates all people, and goes off to live alone with the surviving family animals. He is captured by Ben-Haramed, who has a huge semitic hook nose and full Jewish lips underneath his sinister looking mustache.

Ben-Haramed works in the entertainment industry, talks incessantly about being rich and avoiding work, and is always fondling his gold coins. Long story short, drummer boy escapes, but his lamb friend is injured in the process. He hooks up with the magi, comes to baby Jesus, plays his drum, and his half-dead lamb is suddenly good as new. The moral of the story is that we should love all people.

Except, apparently, the Jews.

In all fairness, Rankin/Bass seemed to be equal opportunity bigots. Their 1970 Santa Claus is Coming to Town features a German villain who spews spit with his more guttural accents. I suppose none of this is any more racist than was Jar-jar Binks, but in the context of a Christmas special, it felt especially appalling.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way

This morning, I arrived at work to find this action shot from last week's rally and encampment at City Hall in my email. A little truth in advertising is probably required. This is a Photoshop job. I usually only wear my superhero outfit late at night, and in certain bars. Also, I rarely, if ever, attempt to defeat evil on my own. Evil is defeated best by well-organized groups where the potential for leadership exists for everyone. The other thing is that I've never actually assaulted the Deputy Mayor, and, as a general tactic, employ the Superhero Headlock only as a last resort and as a matter of self-defense. Rainbows, do, however, follow me wherever I go. Maybe it's because I sweat so much. Some things you just accept.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Smirk

Due to the wonders of video technology, we were able to capture the precise moment when Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis smirked at a homeless women who asked him to explain what the City is doing about the rising numbers of homeless dying on the streets. The moment came at the tail end of a media ambush during our rally and camp-out last week, and was basically his cue to get the hell out of Dodge. The video itself will hopefully be posted soon.

As his gortex-clad back receded into the distance, the woman who asked the question was in tears of rage and humiliation. "He doesn't even feel like he needs to answer the question," she said.

She has a point. The City's big on metrics, but how about this one: More people are dying on the streets now than ever before. Explain that?

If I hear one more opportunistic bureaucrat say we've decided to "end homelessness and stop managing it" as an excuse for leaving people out to freeze in the cold and harassing them in the meanwhile, I think I'm going to have to organize a piss-in on someone's front lawn.

The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness always had the potential of providing political cover to those who would like to cut back on homeless shelter and look compassionate at the same time, but it's still amazing to see the strategy so ruthlessly pursued.

Ceis, by the way, says more shelter is on the way. With three TV cameras on him, he responded "Yes," when the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness' Bill Kirlin-Hackett asked, "Given our lack of shelter space to house those being removed from camps, we'll need to see more shelter space provided, won't we?"

We should have this on tape as well. Do words have meaning? We'll see.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I Love Jesus Christ Superstar

I continue my week of Jesus obsession with this clip from the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. It's not my favorite song. That would of course be Simon Zealots. But in terms of 70's feel, cool rocked out guitar, and pure staging genius in what was a sometimes tedious and embarrassing film, it's about as good as it gets.

Superstar played a huge role in my life. As a 10 year old self-proclaimed atheist, Rice and Webber's 1970 Broadway musical resurrected something akin to religious feeling in my barren little heart. It didn't hurt that the record had been banned by the Catholic Daughters of America, and was thus forbidden fruit. I listened to it in my friends basement across the street. Later, I'd buy the cheat book and learn all the songs on my little plastic kiddie organ. By then, my mother had largely given up.

Every Lent, the kids at Saint Mary's School would be herded into the lunch room day after day to watch some horrible movie in several parts about the crucifixion. It was your basic passion play sort of thing, designed to help kids appreciate just how much Christ suffered for their sins. One year, Sister Donna, a young, hip nun who was therefore somewhat suspect, played Superstar for us instead. At 11, I considered this a major blow against the forces of repression. Sister Donna was right. My mother was wrong.

When the 1973 movie made it to TV, mom made her last Custerlike stand. My sister and were watching the movie in the living room with our dad. Mom came in, watched enough to be offended by the sexiness, and made some sort of feeble protest. We all laughed. She left the house and we kept watching.

I still have every bit of it memorized. When I was around 20, the little studio where I briefly took guitar lessons tried to stage a production, and I was to sing the Simon Zealots song. I'd been singing along with it since I was ten, and had it nailed. We never took the thing to stage, or moved much beyond the first few practices.

During the time I lived in Boston, the music scene would come together every year on Easter to do a knockout version of the musical in the basement of the Middle East Cafe in Central Square. I went whenever I could, and this remains one of my most memorable live music experiences. I saw a full stage production once and was utterly disappointed because they'd forgotten this was a ROCK opera. The Middle East show put the rock first and the opera last. It was sublime.

The Indigo Girls did a Superstar album in the late 90's, and it's the only thing I've heard that comes close. The vocals on the original album, with Ian Gillian of Deep Purple in the role of Jesus, are really impossible to beat, but on a few songs they manage, and on most, I actually prefer the rocked up arrangements. The Indigo's Superstar finale, with it's heavy funk flavor, is amazing. People will still be reinterpreting this thing 100 years from now. It's that kind of a record.

Friday, December 21, 2007

It's Rude to Gloat, But ...

While the Nickels administration has been fairly effective at describing homeless encampments as dangerous, disease breeding havens for the drug-using criminal class in the print media, and in the Seattle Times in particular, yesterday's coverage of the Real Change Organizing Project protest encampment and rally was, from a City perspective, way off script.

Radio play was remarkably sympathetic and in-depth. Liam Moriarty's excellent KPLU coverage came in addition to a shorter piece within their regular newshour, so that was a two-fer. Our Organizing Director Rachael Myers went head to head with City Human Services Director Patricia McInturff on KUOW's popular news talk show The Conversation. Both delivered their messages like the seasoned pros they are, but the call-ins that followed leaned very heavily Rachael's way. I did twenty minutes on KIRO710's popular Dave Ross show, and was able to deliver some of the deeper context that's been missing so far. The interview on this clip follows Ross' opening monologue on the perplexities of the "pay it forward" coffee craze. There was a nasty bit on Dory Monson's KIRO Talk Show, but that's predictable. Peter Steinbrueck took that one on. A braver man than I. When I checked, the podcast wasn't up yet.

Television coverage was just as good. Q13's coverage was sympathetic in the extreme, and caught a good bit of the amusing Tim Ceis ambush yesterday morning. Michelle Millman at KIROtv did us right, and KING5 did a strong piece as well. While Ken Schram's KOMO monologue on symbolic help to the homeless wasn't part of our coverage, you'll want to watch it anyway. In the print realm, the PI ran a balanced piece with a photo on page one that wasn't bad at all, even if they did completely follow the City's framing. They also won my love and respect by printing an amazingly on-target guest editorial by a former greenbelt camper. The Seattle Times resisted the temptations of pack journalism and blew us off altogether. Guess my corporate lapdog poll hit a nerve.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ceis and Desist

Last night, I overnighted with around forty other folks, about half of whom were homeless, at the City Hall encampment held by the Real Change Organizing project. Somewhere between 11 and 4 am I got some sleep. I don't know how people do it. Even with the benefit of a sleeping bag, air pad, and dome tent, my night in the cold and rain was physically miserable.

For the 1,600 or so people in Seattle whose needs are unmet by the shelter and housing options that are available this isn't a one night lark. It's their reality. The fact that people are dying on our streets is unsurprising.

At the rally against campsite clearances we held to kick off the camp, Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless Director Alison Eisinger asked a very good question. Why, when the city is doing so much to end homelessness, would the Mayor's office treat us, their allies in the homeless advocacy community, as the enemy? I think what she actually said was, "Why would they want to piss us off?"

She was of course talking about the Human Service Department's high-handed and duplitious response to being called on their secret policy of campsite clearances, and their ensuing scramble to manage the media attention, legal liability, and political pressure that followed.

My guess is that there's pressure coming from somewhere else. I have some guesses also as to where. The downtown condo boom is attracting a wave of affluence to the downtown, as more and more who can afford the pleasures of urban living opt to do so. In the few blocks around Pike Pace Market, 505 new condos will come on line within the next two years with an average value of $2 million each. Over the next three years, 5,000 or so new condos will open downtown. The premise is that those who opt for the urban lifestyle will not be made uncomfortable by some of the harsher realities that prevail.

This represents an enormous amount of investment, presumably by powerful people who have allies, all of whom know the value of a campaign contribution.

Which gives Mayor Nickels a two-year time-line, both to the next election and the move in date for the new Xanadu. This doesn't align very well with projected progress on "ending homelessness." So other tactics are necessary, and the commitment to these tactics is firm.

So some counter-pressure is called for.

A funny thing happened this morning. Last night, a well-decorated officer told one of our leaders that the Deputy Mayor would be by to talk with us at 9:00 AM. Mayor's staff called again after sunrise to confirm. We had a message of our own, formulated in the giddy morning hours shortly after the first Starbucks opened at 5:30 AM.

We alerted the media that Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis was coming to talk to us, and that we had an announcement for him.

I need to backtrack here to say I've only had two other interactions with Ceis. Once last summer, I interrupted an interview that Sharon Chan of the PI was doing to show her a finger puppet I'd been playing with. The time before was just after Nickels came into office. He'd requested a meeting after Real Change ran a critical piece on his boss. Amazingly, he told me that unless we allowed prior to publication opportunity to comment on articles, our access would be very limited.

We'd never had access, so I wasn't all that impressed by the threat.

So anyway, Tim arrived, and an awkward conversation ensued.

Ceis: So you guys have some petitions to deliver or something.

Us: No. That's at noon.

Ceis: But you said you had petitions. That's why I'm here.

Us: We said we would deliver petitions at noon. You called us. No one said anything about petitions.

Ceis: Well, I won't be there. Neither will the Mayor.

Us: Well, the petitions aren't ready yet, so we'll just give them to who ever's there.

Ceis: You can give them to the secretary.

Us: Fine.

Ceis: Is there anything else you wanted to say (by now, about three television cameras have homed in on our utterly mundane conversation).

Us: Yes. We're going to be back every three months, until the City has ended homelessness.

Ceis: You can go through Fleets and Facilities to apply for a City Hall Plaza public event permit.

Us: We'll be here, either way.

At this point, the cameras had tightened in. We backed out of the circle, leaving Ceis to be captured by a phalanx of TV reporters who wanted to know how the City was responding to advocates concerns.

We didn't plan an ambush. We really thought Ceis would have something to say. We figured he'd be expecting media and didn't want to disappoint. When the reporters were done, David Bloom and Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness respectfully continued the grilling. Then, as a homeless woman asked what they were going to do about people dying on the streets (those numbers keep going up) Ceis smirked and fled, and we offered our side of the story.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand," said Frederick Douglas. "Never has, and never will." We're building a demand-side response to the supply-side economy. Ceis is a guy who knows a little about hardball. Think of us as the opposing team.

— photo by Revel Smith

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jesus Brainteaser

In honor of Jesus' impending birthday, I've decided to offer yet another lame poll. Yes. Even more lame than the last, which despite a last minute rally conducted by the Sgt. Gracy fan club, declared comic book super-detective Dick Tracy a bigger Crimebuster than greenbelt enthusiast Sgt. Paul Gracy of Seattle's West Precinct.

So, Jesus. The problem with Jesus was that his dad was already God. This creates a bit of a problem for those who would just as soon leave polytheism to the pagans. Christianity, as you recall, is distinctly of the monotheistic persuasion. So, as the saying goes, hilarity ensues. There are various solutions.

Trinitarianism is far and away the most popular choice, and perhaps the most bizarre. This, says Wikipedia, "the doctrine that God is one being who exists, simultaneously and eternally, as a mutual indwelling of three persons (not to be confused by "person"[3]): the Father, the Son (incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth), and the Holy Spirit. Since the 4th century, in both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity, this doctrine has been stated as "three persons in one God," all three of whom, as distinct and co-eternal persons, are of one indivisible Divine essence, a simple being. The doctrine also teaches that the Son Himself has two distinct natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, united in a hypostatic union.

I totally love the hypostatic union part.

The simpler solution is Binitarianism, which says that God is absolutely one being, and yet there is twoness in God. That being the Father and the Son. I think of this as the Occam's razor solution, but oddly, this was always very much a minority position and now more so than ever.

Then we have the eminently sensible Unitarian position, which avoids the whole mess altogether by holding that Jesus was a great man, perhaps even supernatural, but not God. Unitarians, if they pray, do so to God, not Jesus, or some combination thereof.

On the other hand, God might be a turnip. So I thought I'd include that possibility as well.

So, in honor of the baby Jesus, what do you say? God is 3 in 1, 2 in 1, or just 1? Or a turnip? As always, vote at top right

Of last week's 852 visitors, a full 31 felt moved to weigh in on this thorny theologixal dilemma. By 2-1 margin, the turnip wins!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Nickels Full Court Press Continues

Well, Wednesday is the rally and overnight encampment at City Hall, and the Mayor's office is pushing their own media offensive to go along with it. We have the Raging Grannies opening the thing and the Seattle Labor Chorus closing. I've been to rallies where that would be half the crowd, but it doesn't feel like this is going to be like that. We had 25 people last night at Real Change's civil disobedience training.

The whole CD thing turns out to be a card we don't need to play right now. We've gone respectable, and the whole thing is permitted. Even the overnight encampment. Rally speakers include Council President Nick Licata, City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness Director Alison Eisinger, Real Change Organizing Project participant Revel Smith, Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness co-Chair David Bloom, and Real Change vendor Deb White.

So we turned last night's meeting into a peace keeper's training. We're ready if the folks that the Mayor's office sends out show up to machete our tents and steal our IDs.

Wednesday morning, the City has invited the media to a lower Queen Anne greenbelt on a city guided tour of "the health and safety hazards at these sites."

Since they've been "cleaning" them so regularly, I wouldn't think there'd be much of a problem. I look forward to seeing the photos.

Couldn't be much worse than the goose shit at Green Lake.

Oddly, Real Change didn't get the press release. We apparently aren't on the Human Services Department PR list. That's what they told us anyway.

The first protest I went to when I arrived in Seattle in the Spring of 1994 was about greenbelt clearances near the Kingdome. This isn't new stuff. These things would occur from time to time when neighborhood complaints started to mount. There would be a few of them a year, at most.

What's changed is that now the Mayor's office mobilizes the media and the neighborhoods. It's their proactive approach. Meanwhile, they continue to hold the line against new shelter options, and to tell lies about there being room for more people.

One of the things that happens in the media is that issues turn into cartoons. It's the besieged neighborhoods — over-run by Asian heroin cartels living in concrete bunkers, discarded syringes, and a rising tide of human waste — against the clueless bleeding hearts who are fighting for the right to shit in the woods.

For the record, people shouldn't have to sleep in the woods in the winter unless they have the appropriate REI gear. And shelters shouldn't be an overcrowded poor excuse for a mental health system for the poor. And poor people should be able to afford housing AND food. And the minimum wage should be a livable wage. And there should be universal health care in America. And anyone who wants to get into drug treatment should be able to without jumping through twenty hoops designed to weed out all but the most determined.

And the Mayor shouldn't be able to say he's ending homelessness when he's only hiding the evidence.

But that's not the world we live in, is it? So, maybe we'll see you Wednesday. Click here for info.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Return of the Irrational

I'm not quite the classics geek I was before my girls were born. The project of teaching myself Attic greek, for example, died a peaceful death right around the time they started walking. My classics reading group, however, has persevered for eight years. While we rarely talk about classics anymore, some of us will still read the book and exchange some perfunctory geek-chat between the gulps of wine as an entré to discussion of something else.

We're rereading Jane Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. a stately volume first published in 1903 by an unconventional woman scholar who didn't accept that the classics field was for men only. Harrison, through brilliant analysis of vase paintings and other art, penetrating study of the textual evidence, and a bunch of philological acrobatics that I pretty much skim through, establishes that much of what we think of as classical Greek religion — Zeus and shit — was an overlay on a far older and darker set of rituals that had to do with making bad things go away.

Classical Athens, that paragon of bright skies, wine dark seas, and cool reason, seethed with rituals to keep away ghosts, placate evil spirits, bring fertility, and all that stuff that people do in one way or another pretty much everywhere. A certain amount of this, it seems, is hardwired, and every time we deny it for too long, it comes surging back in distorted form. This has been called the return of the irrational.

The evidence, she says, strongly suggests that human sacrifice was still alive and well in the fifth century. This is the Athens of Pericles, Socrates and Euripides, thought by some to be the high point of civilization. Human sacrifice.

But here's the interesting part. They weren't just any humans. Once a year, they would take two of their most despised — people fed by the state, or maybe drunks or criminals — dress them up in ceremonial garb, and parade them around while everyone beat them with special branches. Then they'd burn them and have the wind scatter their ashes over the sea, after which everyone felt much better.

This wasn't a sacrifice of propitiation. It wasn't even about keeping evil away. It was about purgation. They were scapegoats. Through ritual humiliation, beating, and sacrifice, what was undesirable in the community was symbolically driven out.

And that got me to thinking about just how civilized we are, really. Take the death penalty, for example, which study after study says has no preventative effect. The revival of the death penalty has come with that of fundamentalist religion. It doesn't accomplish much, but it makes some people feel real good.

Maybe there's also something of the irrational in the burgeoning prison industry, where 1 in 42 Americans lives under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Maybe this is a sort of a magic amulet for the rest of us. We don't feel especially safe, but we make our sacrifices, and the evil goes away, sort of. But it always comes back to bite us in the ass.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Friends' Blogs Appreciation Day

Life's been more than a little squeezed lately and and it's been hard to keep up the daily posts, much less reading the blogs of friends. I feel like a bad letter writer. Writing about other blogs seems like a good way to atone on both counts.

I begin, of course, with Dr Wes Browning. His brilliant blog is the only one I've ever come close to reading regularly. Like me, he considers it an offense against the OCD gods to miss a day, and backposts to cover occasional lapses. He's working on a memoir of his hellish genius childhood, and these memories from second grade are touching, wonderful, and very Wes. Wes is also a YouTube connoisseur with far more time on his hands than I. For example, Fanny Brice in 1938, singing Quainty, Dainty Me. Favorite line: "My dancing, it is classical, not vulgar and jackassical."

My friend Mary hardly ever writes, but when she does it's always worth reading. Her recent account of being overwhelmed by feelings of love in an encounter with Tibetan high lama Dungse Rigdzin Dorje Rinpoche uncomfortably reminded me of the time I went to Burien for a hug from Amma. The only thing I felt was ridiculous, but at least I got an SPJ award for humor writing out of the deal.

Phil Dawdy, who stepped in as editor at Real Change last summer when our own Adam Hyla was all googley-eyed at home over his new baby, has a niche blog about mental illness and prescription drugs. He recently posted about the defacto status of homeless shelters as the antithesis of mental health treatment centers, and how the system is buckling under the strain.
For example, in Seattle we have a fairly decent network of homeless shelters. In recent weeks as the weather has turned colder, they've been turning away dozens of people each night. One shelter tells me that they've recently had families showing up looking for a place for the night (generally, families get absorbed by the system well before things reach the emergency shelter stage). It's pretty harsh out there. Two nights ago, a man in his 50s or 60s froze to death in a park a stone's throw from the Seattle Art Museum's schmancy sculpture garden and a block or so from the pricey condos of flashy Belltown.

S.P. Miskowski's Hick With A Master's Degree is my other spiritual home in the blogosphere. Narcissist that I am, I love her because she's like me, but with more education. She recently wrote a defense of hicks who blog that was quite nice, but her Whitey Christmas of last November was truly inspired.

Finally, Up Your Staircase is by another friend whose descent from the middle-class was hastened by having MS in a nation with a shit health care system that has no problem with the concept of disposable people. The thing about the work I do is that there are always plenty of people to love. Dozens of them. She calls her blog raw. I think it's brilliant.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Things I Done Wrong

The first time I heard of Danny Barnes was around ten years ago, when Bill Frisell was working his way into his country/bluegrass period. Bill was taking music lessons from him. "Shit," I thought, "who the fuck gives music lessons to Bill Frisell?" I checked him out. Delusions of Banjeur, the Bad Livers' debut album, remains one of my favorite records of all time. While the Things I Done Wrong video up top shows off more of his banjo chops, Shit Creek from that album has more to do with why I love him. That one's at bottom, performed by his new Seattle band, Danny Barnes and Thee Old Codgers. His bassist Keith Lowe has been around forever working with Wayne Horwitz. Check out Jon Parry's violin moves toward the end.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Peter the Uncommonly Good

I went to Peter Steinbrueck's City Hall going away party tonight. After ten years on the Council, he's called it quits. His announcement last summer prompted one of the most memorable passages I've ever read in The Stranger, this from Councilmember Licata:
When I was living in the commune, one day we all decided we were going to go and eat some meat. We had gotten tired of eating nothing but vegetables. So of course, this being a commune, we had to go out to where the cows were and watch the cows get slaughtered. So we set out one day in the morning through the fields—the mist was rising from the ground—and we came up to a field where about eight cows were standing around eating grass. And the guy who was going to slaughter the cows got out his shotgun, and he put the shotgun to one of the cows’ heads. And the cow just looked up at him, kind of curiously. And then suddenly, BAM!—he just blew its head off. And the other cows looked up, and they all looked really freaked out. And then, after about a minute, they all took a few steps backward, and then they all went on eating. That’s about what it was like.
The going away bash was a sort of a cross between a very good office party and an Irish wake, but without the booze. The majority of the room was thinking the same thing: who the fuck is going to stand up to the Mayor now? Venus Velazquez was the shoo-in heir apparent, but that didn't quite work out. So, Herrell? Not bloody likely.

The pain of the Council losing it's fire and growing fat and happy on the comforts that only the money that runs this town can provide is only slightly mitigated by the fact that nearly everyone I know assumes that Peter will be back soon to take on Nickles. The second best bit I've ever read in The Stranger, incidentally, was Dan Savage's description of the Mayor looking "like Ariel Sharon dipped in goose fat and shaved coconut."

Peter and I first got to know each other well across a negotiating table half-dozen years ago, when Real Change's Initiative 71 campaign both qualified for the ballot and had some decent polling that showed it could pass. The initiative would have created another 600 shelter beds and increased human services spending. Our effort was a last minute affair, and our fundraising capacity was very limited. Right around the time we qualified, the economy tanked and the City was grappling with dire general fund projections. If it went to ballot, we could count on the dailies aligning against us and not being able to afford an effective counter-campaign. We settled for a more limited win. Tom Byers played the hard-ass from the City. Peter was the Council pragmatist working on a five vote compromise. Together we achieved what was probably the best concession possible. In the end, support was unanimous.

Since then, he's been the stand-up guy for the City's low-income people, and I credit him with the Council's shift over the last decade toward putting people first. Many of us worry that this is might become a thing of the past.

Money and politics is the issue. There weren't a lot of solid progressive candidates willing to jump into this year's race. Apparently, it now takes about a quarter-of-a-million dollars to run a competitive council race.

Tom Rasmussen ran unopposed and raised over $201,000. What the fuck is that? I guess everyone likes a sure bet. Joe Szwaja showed us that it only takes $94K to run a purely symbolic race. Burgess raised over $300K to beat Dave Della. I'm sure he could have done this for less. Herrell, Steinbrueck's successor, raised $263K.

Can one still win a seat on the Council without selling out to corporate Seattle? In another few years, we'll see.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Biggest Crimebuster? Sgt. Gracy or Dick Tracy?

OK. Let's try this again. Seattle Community Policing Team head Sgt. Paul Gracy says homeless campsite clearances have been suspended for now, but that he personally is tromping around in the greenbelts with camera and notebook in hand to document cases of littering and other possibly illegal behavior. Which leads us to this week's revised poll. Who's the biggest crimebuster around? The generally genial Sgt. Paul Gracy, or comic book supercop Dick Tracy? You decide. Vote at top right of this blog.

Detective Dick Tracy, by nearly a 5-1 margin, was declared a bigger Crimebuster that greenbelt enthusiast Sgt. Paul Gracy. Congratulations to the Dick!

Less To Do: Jeff Lebowski or Gil Kerlikowske?

Half-assed Blogospheric Journalism Alert: I threw this up last night while I was drunk, and have confused Police Chief Gil Kerikowske with West Precinct Community Policing Commander Paul Gracy. Unfortunately, I can't think of any amusing Paul Gracy rhymes that would justify an alternate poll. Since these polls are completely unscientific and largely meaningless, I'm not going to sweat it. But here's my promise: if any of you think of anything, I will pull the Kerlikowske/Lebowski sham poll and replace it immediately with your inspired idea.

UPDATE: The Kerlikowske/Lebowski poll closed after just 14 hours with a 13-0 decision that Kerlikowske has less to do than the stoner dude. But this poll was based on false information, and we offer this new poll instead: who's the biggest crimebuster? Seattle's Sgt. Paul Gracy, or comic book supercop Dick Tracy.

This week's Real Change has another Adam Hyla encampment follow-up story, where Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske contradicts Human Services head Pat McInturff by saying that homeless campsite clearances have been suspended. He then offers the tantalizing detail that he, Chief Kerlikowske, is out tromping around the greenbelts personally in order to photograph and document conditions. OK. This is bizarre. Were he not spotted by the media recently doing just this, I wouldn't believe it. Can't he just order an underling to plant some evidence? Why is this a job for the Chief?

This brings us to this week's poll. Who seems to have less to do? Iconic stoner Jeff "the dude" Lebowski, or Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske? As always, make your opinion known at top right.

For those who crave closure, the results of last week's poll are in. 45 of 1,035 visitors cast their ballots to deliver a landslide verdict: It's 38-7, the Seattle Times most resembles a corporate lapdog, as opposed to a fat ugly hog.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another Day in Belltown

This morning I arrived to work at a bit before 8 to find a vendor waiting on the sidewalk and someone huddled under a ratty light blue blanket sleeping in our doorway. A puddle of urine spread from the right side of our storefront across the sidewalk.

The vendor pointed. "Guy peed on the building. That's fucked up."

I looked at the sleeping bundle. "He's reduced to sleeping in doorways in November. It's hard for me to get real worked up over some pee. Maybe I'm just used to it."

"Yeah," said the vendor. "But it's still fucked up."

We both stood looking at the blanket. It wasn't moving. Well-worn work boots were nestled between the sleeping man and the doorway. I thought about what it must be like. Needing to pee in the cold dark. All your stuff is there. Do you pack up everything and head to an alley, or do you just pee a few feet away and go back to sleep?

Tough call.

"You know," I said, "Belltown's like everywhere else. They're gearing up to hire private security to drive people like this guy away."

"Yeah. I'm coming to the overnight encampment on Wednesday," said the vendor. "The last issue had three great articles on this stuff. That was great. I hope the police don't mess with us."

"It's not really in the City's interest," I said, "But you never know. We're ready if they do."

The vendor smiled. "I remember going to Colman School with SHARE, cutting the lock to the gate with bolt cutters. The cops were there in force. Holding their big clubs. They gave us a half hour to clear out before arresting everyone."

This was during the period when the City was pushing pack hard on SHARE's tent city in Seattle. If I remember correctly, it was after the El Centro encampment, where the City threatened to fine the community organization for each day they allowed SHARE's camp on their property. El Centro director Roberto Maestes stood on principle and let the camp stay.

"That was before Trinity United Methodist pushed back hard," I remembered. When SHARE's tent city went to the church in Ballard, Reverend Rich Lang reframed the issue as a matter of church and state, and stood up to the City's new strategy of intimidating host organizations.

Afterwards the Tent City migrated to Saint Mark's in Capitol hill. The faith community rallied around the campers' right to survival, the press turned on the City's hard-ball tactics, and SHARE won the right to a peripatetic Seattle encampment largely free of City harassment.

The vendor smiled at the memory. "Scott was always trying to get us arrested," he said. "We stood up to those fuckers."

The faith community stood up for homeless people too, and it made all the difference. My vendor friend beamed at the memory.

"I need to get some work done." I turned to the doorway, unlocking the top bolt and then the bottom.

"Hey," I said. "I'm just going to step over you." The blanket stirred slightly. I lifted my feet high to cross the threshold, and gently closed the door.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

Hate crimes against homeless people is now a crime in Seattle, thanks to the excellent work of Seattle's Office for Civil Rights. I've always had mixed emotions regarding this particular tactic. Being homeless, unlike being gay, black, or a Muslim, is more of an economic status than an identity. But maybe I'm just wishing the world were other than it is.

Given, however, the Bumfights inspired mayhem that has become frighteningly commonplace, where, most typically, teen-aged boys go looking for easy targets to kill and torture, an additional penalty for that sort of violence doesn't seem like a bad thing. It is a stretch, however, to think that this legislation in and of itself will prevent a single act of harassment.

Crimes against homeless and other vulnerable people has more to do with an overall environment of dehumanization that lends itself to hate. Recent treatment of homeless campers in the local media is a case in point.

There was, however, an interesting wrinkle in the legislation that was unanimously adopted by city government this week. According to the brief article that ran in the PI, "The law also makes it illegal to damage the belongings of a homeless person."

This would include, I assume, throwing said belongings away, which has been the City's unrepentant practice during the recent wave of homeless encampment sweeps. Maybe, despite Human Services head Patricia McInturff's opinion that storage of belongings is "impossible," the City will have to find a way, or else.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Survival Is a Right: Rally and Protest Camp

Between 1,600 and 2,000 people in Seattle have nowhere to sleep tonight and shelters are full. Those who find refuge in tents in parks and greenbelts have been systematically and brutally removed from those campsites. Their personal possessions and their survival gear have been confiscated or destroyed.

Join the Real Change Organizing Project next Wednesday, December 19th for a rally and overnight tent city at City Hall.

Rally: 5:00 to 6:00 PM at City Hall (600-4th Ave. @ James Street)

Overnight Tent City: 6:00 pm Wednesday to noon Thursday--meet at Real Change @3:30 for preparation.

We call upon the city to cease campsite clearances and provide long-term shelter. Join us for the rally, join us for the overnight, download the flyer and circulate it broadly. All people deserve the right to survive. We can't let the city forget it.

If you're able to camp overnight contact Natalie / 206-441-3247. For more information contact Rachael / 206-441-3247 ext 201.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Typical Seattle Homeless Encampment Scene

The image at right, if you've been reading local press accounts of Seattle homeless encampments, is the sort of scene that takes place hundreds of times a day in the wild frontier of criminality and filth that exists in our greenbelts.

First, Nicole Brodeur plays the dead baby card in her sensationalist "reporting" of last month. Then Craig Thompson, whose recent fantasy genre op-ed in the Seattle PI connected homeless encampments to organized crime and the Asian heroin trade, took the smearing of homeless people to heights that none of us could have foreseen.
"A violent, well-organized, Asian heroin gang took over the forest on the west side of Beacon Hill. They beat up most homeless people they found, especially women, and set up shop. Their command and control center was a camouflaged bunker made of concrete blocks, a wooden frame and a door that could have stopped a round from a service revolver. It was a hobbit hole for junkies, with a killer view of the mouth of the Duwamish."
Ergo, we must eradicate homeless campsites in the enlightened best interest of those with nowhere else to go.

Reinforced concrete bunkers? Weapons? Heroin cartels and meth manufacturers in the greenbelts? Was a shred of evidence presented that these issues have anything what-so-ever to do with the current controversy. No. This is sensationalism at its worst, and is an unconscionable libel on those whose only documented crime is to attempt survival in a city that has gone to war against its most vulnerable.

Thompson's vaguely racist scare journalism — with its visions of Asian gangs running the greenbelt heroin trade — brings to mind another war of several decades ago. In this war, we destroyed villages to save them. In shorthand, this tactic was referred to as "draining the sea." If we attack the places where they live, all those frightening homeless people will have no choice but to go somewhere else.

At least in Vietnam we offered Strategic Hamlet concentration camps as an alternative. Today in Seattle, with shelters well over capacity, we're offering nothing.

If this is what "ending homelessness" has come to in this city, I want no part of it.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

In Praise of Uncertainty

I'm not so much of an egotist as to think anyone actually gives a crap as to my notion of "God," but since this is my blog, here it is: "I dunno."

This position has evolved substantially over the years. As a precocious Catholic school fourth grader who was unable to reconcile the ideas that Pandora's box was a "myth" and the story of Adam and Eve was "the infallible word of God," a spirited atheism seemed the best way to go. All of the best stuff about Catholicism — all that revolutionary Sermon on the Mount talk — sank in deep, but I didn't see any evidence around me that this was the part people much cared about.

Over the years, I found myself looking for alternative systems that offered structure and answers. Embarrassingly enough, I cycled through Rosecrucianism, Scientology, and Nichiren Daishonin buddhism in relatively short order before realizing that systematizing the ineffable was the height of human arrogance.

And so, I find myself drawn to those who lack answers. Who intuit that compassion is the glue that keeps things together and are capable of something I think of as awe, but also get that — outside perhaps of a spiritually gifted few — we simply lack the equipment to know what the fuck is really going on. I think of religious thought as a rich symbolic language that points us beyond the limits of direct experience. Some people are able to translate this into something called faith. Not me. I've tried. My brain gets in the way every time.

I therefor think of myself as a lower-case agnostic who is slightly envious of those more spiritually grounded than I. In that spirit, here's a blog I admire from a local woman that I've come to know slightly from a Quaker meeting I attend maybe once or twice a year. Here's another from a seriously Buddhist friend who is one of the wisest people I know. I just wish she'd write more. If all religion looked a bit more like this, we'd have a different sort of world.

Friday, December 7, 2007

My Old Drunk Friend

I was listening to Freakwater recently and freshly struck by Catherine Irwin's songwriting genius and how this remarkable band out of Kentucky has brought the country and bluegrass tradition into the 21st century. I love this band. Sadly, much of their YouTube ouvré doesn't do them justice, but this one's nice.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Seattle Times: Fat Ugly Hog, or Corporate Lapdog?

There are some who say that these weekly polls are a big waste of time, but consider the big picture. In the past five weeks we have established karmic insignificance of fruit flies, the relative holiness of the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama, that Dorothy Day is twice as sexy as Simone Weil, and that the Ogre Spider has more amazing eyes than Winona Ryder. We have also learned that, in a bar fight, Don Rickles would kick the pudgy ass of Greg Nickles, and, by the slimmest of margins to date, we see that Seattle Human Services head Patricia McInturff has the Mayor’s back, but isn’t necessarily on crack.

This week, what animal does the Seattle Times most closely represent in their recent op-ed on the homeless campsite issue, a fat ugly hog, or a corporate lapdog? As always, the poll is at top right of this blog.

The results are in. Out of 1,035 visitors last week, 45 weighed in on this earth shattering and definitive poll. By the most decisive margin yet, it's corporate lapdog, 38-7. Thanks for helping to clarify.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Season of Holiday Hate

Given the confluence of a recent grossly uninformed Seattle Times "Squatters, Be Gone" editorial, Nicole Brodeur’s recent revelations that the homeless are to be hated and feared, and yet another alarmist op-ed regarding the extremely sudden scourge of armed homeless drug addicts, C.R. Douglas’ very Seattle Crosscut piece asking whether it might be time to crack down, and the tasteless yuck fest at the expense of those who don’t have shit that appeared issue before last in the Seattle Weekly, I’m beginning to wonder whether the holiday season has been rededicated to hating the homeless? Hey Seattle, let’s start a new tradition!

When Real Change moved the Mayor’s official-but-lets-preserve-deniability policy of homeless sweeps to front and center by surfacing hard proof through our FOIA requests, we knew that we ran the risk of creating a backlash. The Mayor’s office, along with the top parks and human service honchos on city payroll, has responded with a lying disinformation campaign that is based in the denial of plain facts and the tight control of information.

Meanwhile, the smear campaign is on. In a city where the shelters turn people away every night, those who survive outside are being depicted as subhuman, diseased criminals. Alongside this, the phony compassion rhetoric wilts to slime like two month-old lettuce.

Pushback begets pushback. Week after next, homeless people are going to see who their friends are. Details on Monday.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Squandering of America

Last Sunday, I had the privilege of interviewing Robert Kuttner, whose new book, The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity is the perfect companion piece to Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism. While these two American Prospect superstars have some minor chicken and egg differences over what’s behind our current period of growing inequality and declining democracy, their perspectives have far more in common than not. Both agree that the window of opportunity after which things become infinitely harder to change is closing fast.

Kuttner was in town for his Sunday Town Hall reading, and we talked for about half an hour in the swank lobby of the Alexis Hotel as curious people came by to take free Sunday papers from our coffee table. It was an exciting interview. I hope to see the thing in print over the next few weeks. I know that Angela Davis is in line ahead of me.

His analysis is basically that opportunity and a certain amount of equality are foundational American values that would be much better served by some moderate form of a managed economy than by the current environment of radical free market ideology. Like Reich, he identifies a period — for him it's 1948 to 1973 — during which a balance of power between business, government, and mass-based organizations led by labor gave us 3.8% average annual growth and steadily declining levels of inequality. The common good was well served by this system.

Recession and the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s offered a leg up to business and financial interests that were chafing at regulatory restriction and looking to reduce the power of organized labor. Things began to shift significantly under Carter, and with Reagan, the new rules became our explicit national policy. Taxes and regulatory controls were out. Homelessness and cuts in social spending were in. Inequality has steadily increased since 1973, and we now have the widest income disparity this country has seen since the twenties.

Due to the enormous influence of wealth in politics (Kuttner describes how democratic participation is very much alive and well among the elites) both political parties have largely turned their back on the concerns of ordinary Americans. The days when the Democratic Party had the back of the middle class are long gone. It gets in the way of fundraising. Ordinary Americans, therefore, have also turned their backs on politics. Expectations that government might actually improve our lives are so low that most people hardly bother. This, he says, is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

One ray of hope is that the six Democratic candidates that defeated Republican incumbents in 2006 all ran as economic populists. Kuttner describes how he’s advised John Edwards that his use of poverty as a campaign issue should be broadened to include the concerns of the increasingly economically vulnerable bottom 75-80% of the population. Edwards has ignored this advice to his peril. Obama, on the other hand, seems to get it. Bill Clinton’s economic populism seemed to evaporate right around the time Maya Angelou finished reading her inaugural poem. Hopefully, things will be different this time.

Kuttner describes our current situation as a bit of a race. Conditions in the financial sector are very reminiscent of the twenties, when there was little accountability, transparency, or regulation, and the current subprime mortgage crisis has the potential to escalate into broader financial collapse. Kuttner’s analysis of the financial sector is what makes this book “a slog,” as one reviewer put it, but the writing is as lucid as it is detailed, and he succeeds brilliantly in conveying just how dangerously out of hand things have become

The difference between now and the 1929 crash is that the Federal Reserve now plays a bailout role that mitigates the potential damage. Kuttner and Reich both argue that this creates a situation of “moral hazard.” Financial speculators — driven to take big risks by an environment that demands unrealistic rates of appreciation as a matter of course — know that the Fed will keep the whole floating crap game going. Kuttner argues that this creates a downward spiral of greater risk, and that government must come to understand its obligation to regulate the financial sector, as opposed to just bailing it out when the whole economy threatens to tank.

His solution? Mass-based organizing, typified by the sort of work ACORN and the IAF have led in many regions of the country. Only a reinvigorated grass-roots politics that reclaims democracy and addresses the economic interests of the squeezed middle class, the working poor, and those left out of the economy altogether, is capable of holding government accountable to the people and overcoming the raw power of money. In his view, campaign finance reform is where we end up, not where we begin, because under the current conditions, getting big money out of politics just isn’t possible.

The bad news is that time is running out. The severe economic shock of a real economic crash could clear the way for the sort of demagoguery that might lead to harsh political repression of pro-democracy organizing. And there are multiple scenarios under which this sort of financial collapse might occur. This next election, it seems, is for most, if not all, of the marbles.