Saturday, March 31, 2007

In Awe Over the Absurd


What can be said of a massacre?

Dresden, 1944. 130,000 innocents dead. One of Europe's most beautiful cities gratuitously destroyed in an ugly act of revenge. How does one offer an account of such a thing that measures up to the awfulness of the event?

What can be said is that life is both deadly serious and utterly absurd. That we are ridiculous and tragic. Contemptible and noble.

Just read Slaughterhouse Five for the second time in as many months. Vonnegut captures the absurdity and tragedy of our existence here on Earth without once turning maudlin or resorting to cheap cynicism.

When this was published in 1969, the carpet bombing of Laos was well underway. Two-hundred-million tons of bombs were dropped by America on an area the size of Minnesota. Dow Chemical, once famous for Saran Wrap, had become known almost exclusively for its production of napalm. And Vonnegut writes this passage:

"What are you," Trout asked the boy scornfully. "Some kind of gutless wonder?"

This, too, was the title of a book by Trout,
The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.

It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout's leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And no one held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race."

The controlled rage that lurks beneath this is breathtaking. Perfect pitch. I am in awe.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Lesson in Living

Today I had lunch with a Real Change supporter who phoned the office to compare our use of over-sized 4x6 vendor IDs to the compulsory Jewish badge favored by the Nazis during the occupation of Europe.

His wasn't the only complaint, although it was the most extreme. The badge has since been downsized. We had pho. He paid.

Since I'd probably be annoyed if, after enjoying an innocent lunch, I found myself all over someones blog, identifying details are masked. He is an educated European who immigrated here a few decades ago to work in the sciences.

But here's a detail I can't resist sharing. His website has a much younger photo of himself, smiling broadly, leaning over two king crabs that sit in a standard bathtub.

"We had friends over for dinner," he said ruefully, "and there was too much crab. We decided to keep a few for the next day. Crabs are a salt water animal and we put them in fresh water. Of this I am not proud."

You have to love a man who, more than a decade later, still grows solemn over the unintended fate of a pair of crustaceans.

He was aware of Real Change for years before he found the time to stop and buy one. This, significantly, was after he found himself temporarily crippled and hospitalized for three months from a freak reaction to a routine vaccination.

He wasn't in a hurry anymore. He'd learned to live in the moment. To slow down. And so, he now loves Real Change. The relationships he has formed with our vendors have helped him to realize, in a small but very important way, a vision of community that is increasingly hard to find.

His neighborhood grocery store, he said, was bought by a QFC several years ago, and the staff that had come from his neighborhood and known everyone who shopped there was sacked. The new store offers only sterile, anonymous efficiency. Strictly transactional.

He used to talk to people at bus stops, but now they wear ear buds. He used to enjoy coffee shops, but since the advent of wi-fi, everyone sits alone, staring at their computers.

When panhandlers would ask him for a quarter, he said, he would give them five or ten dollars and try to strike up a conversation. "They never wanted to talk," he said. "They didn't trust me. And why should they? It was just a little money. There was no relationship."

Life has grown more impoverished. If community is the stuff of life, many of us are dying of starvation.

And so, he has taken to buying Real Change, and, after a time, getting to know the vendors. He offers advice. He has helped them to move things with his car. He set one up for a free session with his family dentist to fix a toothache. He'd like to do more. He'd like others to do more as well.

He thinks we should somehow facilitate that. I think he's right.

This is the sort of caring community that makes life worthwhile.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Empowerment at the Expense of Power

An old friend read my "fetishization of failure" post from last week and wrote to remind me that he knew I was being an idiot long before I figured it out for myself.

I guess I should have listened.

My heyday as a homeless empowerment organizer, in the lumpen-Alinskyist sense of the term anyway, was from 1987 to 1993. All of my organizing during those years was based on the proposition that homeless people needed to transcend their self-hatred and internalized oppression to build a militant movement led by themselves.

These radicalized homeless people, who posessed special knowledge and wisdom borne of their experience in the streets, would eventually so threaten the status quo that concessions would eagerly be made. This movement would at some point be coopted, but not before significant wins were made in terms of housing, jobs, benefits, etc.

This is the sort of thing that occurs when one reads too much social theory in college.

And so, I and my merry band of twenty-something cohorts worked to empower homeless people by organizing various direct action-style outbursts that were made larger than life by a willing media.

My favorite was when we set up a "living room" on Boston's Federal Building Plaza on what was statistically the coldest day of the year. I think it was February 22nd. We rolled out a carpet, couch, chairs, end tables, TV, and lamp, and did a Food Not Bombs feed while the wind whipped through the plaza to create a 20 below wind chill.

We sat around trying to look casual. People actually lined up for food. Several of us got minor frostbite. WGBH totally ate it up.

Looking back at this period, I have to ask, "What? Was I insane?"

The place where I first went deep into this was Homefront 88, a roving encampment of homeless people that began as a protest camp at the Statehouse and over time took on a life of its own. The camp went from the Statehouse to across the street on the Boston Common, and finally a few blocks down the road to City Hall. There, under the liberal Flynn administration, an uneasy truce held for nearly three months.

What began as an immersion journalism project became, for me, an education in the morays of street culture and charismatic leadership. I took on the role of informal advisor. Over time, the homeless advocates who had initially supported the encampment mostly drifted away. The camp lost sight of whatever political goals it originally had and became mostly about self-preservation.

And the longer Homefront persisted, the more violent and dangerous it became.

I remember one Sunday afternoon, hanging out with a handful of people on the City Hall steps. There was a guy drinking Mennen aftershave. He passed out and his head hit the bricks with a sickening thud.

His friends laughed. This was a rough crowd.

By the time the city bought the leadership out with the promise of an office space, phone, and access to a copier (which never materialized), I was happy that the homeless could claim victory and close the thing down. Someone, sooner or later, was going to get killed.

Afterwards, the core leadership came to stay at our apartment in Somerville.

After 4 days, when they showed no sign of leaving and one of them passed out in front of our downstairs landlord's doorway, we politely asked them to move on. They did, but they weren't real happy about it.

Somewhere during that process, I internalized an identification with homeless people against the oppressors, speaking for themselves, leading their own revolution. My high standards of knee-jerk radicalism took me to a place of uncritical identification.

And there I stayed, for about five years. I had a lot of ego bound up in my role as an organizer who built homeless leadership from the bottom up. I considered most middle-class people to be clueless and irrelevant to the struggle at hand. Despite all evidence that this was ultimately a ridiculous, unsustainable, and self-defeating strategy, I was one macho fucking organizer, and the fight felt holy and pure.

It was, strangely, empowerment at the expense of power. And for a long time, the question of whether any power was actually getting built simply never came up.

This stopped working for me well before the time I hit my Jesus year, six months after I moved to Seattle in 1994. The age of 33, the urban legend goes, is a time when you either make a transition and move on, or you whither and die.

I moved on. Not everybody does.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Legitimation Crisis

The class that I teach on Streetpapers, Homelessness, and Poverty each spring at the University of Washington starts this Friday, and I've been working up the syllabus and building the wiki this week. This will be my fifth year doing this course. After flailing around for awhile, I've decided that the ways in which homelessness is understood serve mostly to deflect attention from what's really going on.

As I was working up the reading list, I remembered an article by Peter Marcuse that made a huge impression on me in the late 80s.

Massive homelessness within a wealthy nation such as the US, he argues, can be understood as clear evidence that our economic system is not meeting the needs of a great many people and needs to change. This could conceivably present a "legitimation crisis" for the whole capitalist system.

On the other hand, homelessness could be framed as a problem of individual dysfunction and the need for more social services to fix all those screwed up people.

This would be the, "It's the people who are broken, not the system" argument, which seems, over the past few decades, to have largely prevailed.

First published in Socialist Review in 1988, Peter Marcuse's influential Neutralizing Homelessness article shows up in a great number of lefty academic bibliographies, but proved remarkably hard to find today. The Seattle Public library does not carry this particular journal.

The article was excerpted that year, however, in Shelterforce and in Christanity and Crisis. While the library's subscription to Shelterforce did not start until 1990, they had the other one on microfiche.

Here's the first paragraph:

"Homelessness has three related causes: The profit structure of housing, the distribution of income, and government policy. Housing is supplied for profit, as a commodity. There is no profit in supplying housing for those now homeless. The cost of provision has increased, and alternate uses are more profitable. Changes in the economy have deprived many people of the income needed to pay for housing. The government only acts to provide housing for persons unable to pay the market price when the economy may need such people in the future, or when those people threaten the status quo. Neither situation prevails today."

You gotta love a good bracing Marxist analysis. No wonder the library didn't see fit to order the leading socialist journal in the fucking country!

Anyway, I walked down to the library, printed out the microfiche, scanned it into my laptop, and turned it into a PDF, which is here. I'm still working on getting the more detailed original article, and when I do I'll post that as well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Love, Money, and Meaning

This morning I was able to start my day by getting up in front of forty or so of our vendors to hear what they’re thinking and talk about where Real Change is going over the next few years. Careful readers of Real Change know by now that we’ve basically finished our 2007-2009 strategic plan, and that it’s available for download at

Listening to the vendors helped inform our new priorities. We asked what they want most and they said love, money, and meaning. So we built a plan around those ideas. We will deepen vendor/reader relationships and open up the whole organization for more vendor participation. We will take steps to increase vendor sales and success while we zero in on the kinds of journalism that people expect: relevant, professional, and keyed to the issues our readers care about. We will publish a paper that speaks to what our readers want that makes our vendors proud. We will focus on broadening opportunities for vendor involvement in organizing around root causes of homelessness and poverty.

So that’s what I said, and it was what the vendors wanted to hear. It’s a good feeling to have our organization’s priorities line up with what the vendors want and need. It begins with respect for the people whose lives are hard, and for whom little comes easily. When you start there, the rest follows.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Metaphorical Mugging

Dr. Wes submitted a typically brilliant column to Real Change today . No. That's not right. His columns are brilliant about 37% of the time. Another 42% of his columns are glibly witty in a half-assed sort of way, and the other 21% of his columns are complete shit, and would never see print if we weren't relying upon them to fill space.

But genius a little over a third of the time is better than most of us manage, so we keep him around. Besides, he's the guy who feeds the cat. And he writes for free.

Soon enough, his column will be up on Adventures in Bloggery or at Real Change, but in the meanwhile, here's the gist: Genshiro Kawamoto, the Hawaiian billionaire who's recently made headlines by letting homeless native Hawaiian families move into mansions for token rent or for free, is an irresistible metaphor.

Here's a guy who became insanely wealthy by ruthlessly dispossessing the poor of their land and driving up the cost of housing through rampant real estate speculation, who's now decided it's time to give a little something back.

It's sort of like if I beat you with a tire iron, stole everything you owned, and then sent you a get well card with a $50 Starbucks gift certificate. You might buy a muffin and a coffee with the gift card, since you wouldn't have any other money, but you might still be a little resentful about the mugging.

Or, say you're the federal government. And you've funded public housing at a level designed to eventually produce system-wide failure, viciously attacked all programs that offer assistance to the poor, and invented a hundred creative ways for your friends to make a buck off of poverty, from legitimating extortionate interest rates to desperate people to building a prison-industrial-complex that preys disproportionately upon people of color, and then you've claimed to be "ending homelessness" because you've tossed out some token funding that, in many cases, gets funneled to your base of right-wing Christian supporters who run faith-based social services agencies.

Just supposing.

In most instances, the person who gets to shake the hand that holds the money out doesn't really care what the other hand is up to, or even where else the hand with the money has been.

Metaphorically speaking, that is.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Who the hell you lookin' at?

"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here."

Pan's Labyrinth

I don't get out much to movies these days. Last summer, we took the girls to see some Pixar thing about talking cars. And then there was some completely forgettable movie about a bear. I've regressed to mostly G ratings and movies that don't hold a 3-year-old's attention, much less my own.

But yesterday, grandma and grandpa hung out with the girls so that Carolyn and I could experience a rare taste of freedom. Most of the what was playing looked pretty pointless. Just when I was on the verge of ditching the movie idea altogether, I saw Pan's Labyrinth, which was described as "surreal fantasy with a moral core."

Normally, sci-fi and fantasy wouldn't be a big draw for me, but the setting in 1944 Spain — with Republican hold-outs waging a desperate guerrilla campaign against the fascist Franco regime — won me over.

I was blown away.

Although this film won Academy Awards for cinematography, art direction, and make-up, the truly amazing thing was that by convincingly portraying humanity at its best and worst, someone made an art movie in 2006 that truly matters.

I was reminded of A Midnight Clear, a remarkable movie from 1992 that most people missed. Also set in 1944, this one in France, Midnight Clear deals with similar themes of innocence and vulnerability, and the perils of moral clarity in a world corrupted by power and expedience.

This theme of radically opposed good and evil has been coming up for me a lot lately. It seems that, mostly, the bad guys win, but that we existentially invent ourselves by making things a bit tougher for them. And this it seems, is what it's all about.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

On Being Cool

Today was a 4th birthday party for the girls. It was a grim reminder that one day, they will be teen-agers.

There's a high school at the end of our block that they will probably attend. If they are anything like I was, our house will be a convenient place to come smoke pot and experiment with sex while mom and dad are away at work.

Note to self: Be sure that by 2016, I'm working from home.

We drove by the high school on the way to daycare a few days ago. They seem to have an open campus, and you often see kids around the neighborhood over lunch and during breaks. It was around 10 a.m. Apparently, that's when they get their smoke break. There were around 40 of them, milling about at the end of the block, trying desperately to look cool.

I remember what this was like. Being cool was huge in 1976 as well, although back then it was mostly about stupid hair.

One of the kids I saw had melded the punk and gang banger looks, and as a result could barely walk. He had the pants down-his-ass-below-the-boxers thing going on, but also had his black peg-legged jeans cinched tight around his upper-thighs with a heavily studded punk rock belt. Gravity was not his friend.

It's really hard to look cool when you're taking mincing little steps so your pants don't fall down, but I had to give the kid credit for trying.

It's funny how being cool is really about insecurity, and caring way too much about what others think.

The best thing about being over 40 is leaving all that shit behind.

But now, the girls are only four, and cool is just the way they prefer their juice. I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

The Worst Quaker in the World

When my wife read Thurday's post, she said, "Oh great. Now when people Google 'worst Quaker in the world' I'm going to come up. She then went on to dispute whether George Fox was a "barefoot nutcase." She was fine with the nutcase part, but thought I might be confusing Fox with Saint Francis or some other unshod mystic.

A quick set of Google searches proved us both right. Fox was quickly confirmed as having walked for long distances barefoot. And, Carolyn comes in number six as the Worst Quaker in the World.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Again With the Cosmic Canticle

I've recently begun another reading of Ernesto Cardinale's Cosmic Canticle. There is a short list of books that I think one never really finishes. These, for me, include Ulysses, the Iliad, Herodotus, Moby Dick, the Bible, and this, the lifetime achievement of one of the more socially engaged thinkers of our time.

A Nicaraguan who studied with Thomas Merton at the Trappist Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky, Cardenal was ordained a priest in 1965. As an early advocate of liberation theology, he was declared an outlaw by the Somoza regime by 1977. After the triumph of the Sandinistas, he was appointed Nicaraguan minister of culture and held the post for nearly a decade. Cardenal has published more than 35 books of poetry in Spanish, most of which have been widely translated.

The Cosmic Canticle, which took thirty years to write, is in the epic tradition of the long poem, and is composed of 43 works that can either be read separately or as a whole. The Canticle is a poem of faith and wonder that attempts to express the miracle of life itself.

Quantum physics has brought us to a point where science increasingly resembles mysticism, and this is where Cardenal begins. “In the Beginning,” he writes, “The entire universe concentrated/in the space of the nucleus of an atom,/ and before that even less, much less than a proton,/ and even less still, an infinitely dense mathematical point,/ And that was Big Bang.”

And on it goes, for 481 pages. Over the course of the Canticle, Cardenal describes an incomprehensible universe struggling to know itself. Drawing broadly upon the natural sciences, Gaia theory, innumerable creation myths and cosmologies, and the history of theological thought from Thales to Chardin, Cardenal seeks the divine in the laws of attraction and explores the inevitability of entropy and mortality.

Interspersed throughout are stories of the heroes and martyrs of his own life. Along with the stories of great love are those of inhumanity and shame. The history of Nicaragua is contained within the history of the universe, and is presented as one more aspect of life seeking to overcome death.

As Erich Fromm wrote in his classic Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, necrophilia expands in the absence of biophilia. Our responsibility, says Cardenal, is to love.

The Canticle is a thinking person’s declaration of faith. “It is as though I have embraced the night/black and void/ and I am void of all/and want nothing/It is as though I had been penetrated by /the Nothing.” And later: “If he loves you more than you yourself/your you is superficial and he is your deep you.”

God, says Cardenal, is hidden in plain sight. This is the sort of book that reminds us, even in the darkest of times, that life surges irresistibly on, and love, that force of attraction that binds us together, is all around.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Confessions of a Quaker Camp Follower

Slowly, I'm finding that my life is populated by closet bloggers. There's the friend whose blog shall, at her urgent request, remain secret. I'm probably missing something. The magic wand thing didn't really phase me. I mean, we all do that.

It's actually a great metaphor for blogging itself. Or maybe it's a euphemism. I can't decide.

"Generally speaking, I blog at least once a day."

Another friend, Mary, just told me about her Beginners Mind blog. Her last entry inspired me to offer a few spiritual observations of my own.

I was raised Catholic, which means that I went to Catholic schools until they kicked me out and attended church when my mother made me. By the 4th grade, having declared myself an atheist, I scandalized the other kids at Saint Mary's School.

Despite this absence of enthusiasm, some of it stuck. As a grade schooler, I was steeped the social gospel of Vatican II. I remained struck by the Sermon on the Mount and was deeply affected by Jesus' radicalism.

In 1970 came Jesus Christ Superstar, which was blacklisted by the Catholic Daughters of America and, by extension, my mother. By listening to it over and over again in my friend's basement across the street, I committed the thing to memory — beginning to end — for the rest of my life. I was eleven.

My secondary religious influence was a half-assed mysticism that began with mail order lessons from the Rosecrucians at seventeen and culminated in my late-twenties with a mushroom inspired moment of universal insight.

I still regard this as my one authentic religious experience. The fact that I cheated doesn't matter to me in the least.

Buddhism, which is more of a practice than a religion, speaks to me as well. As they say, a watched mind never boils.

Finally, I married into the Quakers. I often accuse my wife of being the worst Quaker in the world, but that's not fair. She's probably about average.

George Fox, the barefoot nutcase, is the real deal, and the Letters of John Woolman are a remarkable document of the spiritually engaged life. The Quaker notion of "speaking to that of God in everyone" just works for me. It's something I try to live up to.

So I've been known to sit quietly through the occasional Quaker meeting, but I'm basically too shallow to be serious about it.

This makes me a Quaker camp follower, which is as close to organized religion as I care to come.

But I do have a theology.

Love, I have concluded, is the thing that keeps life from being a piece of shit. It is those sparks of divinity that we carry, drawn toward each other by a kind of cosmic magnetism, that are the glue of the universe. We can choose to abet this process or not, and this is what gives our lives meaning.

I don't need anyone to tell me this. I just know it, like I know that water, ice, and steam are all the same thing. It's an observable phenomenon.

Love, love, love. Love is all you need.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Boston vs. Seattle

It's been thirteen years to the day since I moved here from Boston to start Real Change. I no longer feel as though the ocean is misplaced. It seems normal that cops drink mineral water instead of Dunkin Donuts coffee, and that everyone else drinks coffee like water. Seattle is my home. I am damp, but happy.

Still, being in San Francisco this week made me nostalgic for a real city. Here's my scorecard:

Boston is better.

1.) The Boston Globe is a world class newspaper.
2.) Driving is a blood sport, and way more fun.
3.) WGBH kicks KCTS's ass.
4.) People on the City Council openly hate each other.
5.) The T.
6.) Used bookstores are better and cheaper.
7.) Triple decker apartments and gas stoves.
8.) Jaywalking is not a crime.
9.) The people and politics are aggressive, but not passive.
10.)They have the Statehouse.

Seattle is better.

1.) Mt. Ranier, the Cascades, the Olympic Peninsula.
2.) Generally overcast skies (yes, I like that).
3.) Coffee, everywhere.
4.) Greenness.
5.) Temperate weather.
6.) Real Change.
7.) Water, everywhere.
8.) Capitol Hill Queers
9.) KEXP
10.)ummm. Did I mention Real Change?

OK. I guess outside of the geography, weather, coffee, Queers, KEXP, and Real Change, Boston actually is better. Most of the best stuff about Seattle, even since I've moved here, has been eclipsed by yuppie monoculture.

As the density increases and average incomes rise, everything that makes Seattle feel like a real city — danger, excitement, diversity — is being lost. Faux urban, in all of it's coopted and commodified glory, is mostly what's left.

We're a long way from Cinderella Liberty.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Terms of Endearment

Real Change is one of those places where you can always learn something new about yourself, if you're into that sort of thing.

Take Monday. I hadn't been in for 10 minutes when my phone rang. It was Rachael at the front desk. There were about a half dozen vendors hanging out getting their papers and a schizophrenic guy I'd seen around the office was outside shouting and banging on the window.

Rachael said things were under control, but that he kept popping in and out and she could use me as back up. I was editing the Street News Service newsfeed, and had promised that to Lisa in Scotland within the hour, so I grabbed my laptop and took a chair behind the door.

One of the great things about being ADHD is that you can read and write while a crazy guy bangs on the window behind you. It actually sort of helps.

I was summarizing an article on homeless hate crime legislation in Maryland when the door flew open and our friend made a beeline for the back.

"Dude!," I shouted, laying the laptop aside, "Where you goin'?"

The Dude thing confused him just enough long for me to catch up.

It's possible to move someone along without touching them by just sort of walking into their space with your arms out. It helps to be 6'2.

And that's pretty much where things were at when I said, "Hon, you need to go."

First he looked amazed. Then furious. "Hon! Hon! Shove it up your ass! I oughta take a gun and then we'll see about this place ..."

But by then he was on the other side of the door. I'd pushed it shut, and he was shouting through the glass. Rachael was already doing the 911 thing. Within two minutes we saw him with his hands on the hood of a police cruiser across the street.

You can be crazy as you want at Real Change and the worst thing that'll happen is you'll get shooed out the door. But start talking about a gun, and things get more serious.

We had him trespassed and declined to file charges.

After it was over, I had to ask, "Hon! Where the fuck did that come from?" Here was this skinny, bald, 40-something apoplectic crazy guy, and I'm calling him hon? What was that about?

This wasn't hard. I was responding as I would to my 3-year-olds. I actually think of them sometimes as being my little drunken schizophrenic dwarfs, unrolling the toilet paper and pulling it around the house. Smearing food coloring around on the kitchen floor. Decorating the walls with handfuls of peanut butter.

You don't get mad. You just deal. And you love them.

So here's this poor crazy bastard. Raging around for no reason that we could tell or that he could control. And without thinking about it, I slipped into daddy mode.

And the word dropped out of my mouth. And we both looked at it and wondered.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Hey, Look at Me!

Keeping a blog has to be one of the more narcissistic acts in the writer's repertoire. So it was really just a matter of time until I went there.

Now that I have, I find myself actually wanting people to read the thing. I know that my dwindling circle of friends has better things to do, so what I really need is access to a enormous pool of losers. Naturally I turned to the Internet.

On the advice of a fellow blogger who admits to spending time analyzing his visitors' IP addresses, I registered at "55 million blogs," the site promo reads, "some of them have to be good."

I like this, because it speaks to the slim odds of actually finding a blog worth reading. Say that, generously estimating, there are 50,000 blogs in the world that more than ten people want to read. That means that any blog one randomly stumbles into has a less than 1 in 1,000 chance of not sucking.

This seems about right.

I'd like to think that these comfortably low expectations make me a blog rock star waiting to happen. With a Technorati rating of 1,852,099, there's nowhere to go but up.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Will Survive

I suppose I should have waited for Easter to post this, but I'll take this being the season of Lent as a reasonable excuse to risk offending people. Personally, I don't find the idea of a Gloria Gaynor-loving drag queen Jesus getting creamed by a bus offensive in the least. My Christology is plenty big enough to accommodate that, although not everyone finds this video as screamingly funny as I do.

Oh well. No accounting for taste.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Apocalypse Tomorrow

Not to get all giddy on you or anything, but last week's No and No vote on the viaduct gave me hope that my kids might possibly get to grow up in a world that doesn't completely suck.

Thank you Seattle. I couldn't vote myself. My opinions stopped counting the day I moved to Shoreline for the schools. Maybe as a follow-up you guys can do something about your crappy education system and expensive housing so I can come back someday and start voting again.

Last Sunday's NYT offered a truly grim picture of the future if global warming trends continue. As usual, the South gets to take it in the teeth for the affluence of the North.

A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, which to non-scientists such as myself is virtually incomprehensible, predicts flooding, drought, famine, and disease, but mostly for other people.

By just 2030, death rates in the third world from diarrhea and malnutrition will dramatically climb, and hundreds of millions of Africans and tens of millions of Latin Americans will experience water shortages. By 2080, water shortages will affect billions of people.

North America, Northern Europe, and Australia will be among the last to be affected by the worst aspects of climate change. This is probably why the U.S. is not interested in building a huge military base atop the Guarani Aquifer, as many Latin America watchers believe to be the case.

Being thirsty sucks. Being white, affluent, and armed to the fucking teeth rules! USA! USA! USA!

Um, sorry. Where was I?

The good news is that if carbon emissions are significantly reduced within the next generation, the worst of this can be avoided. Mass transit and improved transportation grids are looking better and better.

So, like, if not now, when?

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Fetishization of Failure

Earlier this week I mentioned going to San Francisco for an organizers' meeting. In 20 years of anti-poverty work, I've acquired some heretical opinions. This week didn't do much to alter them.

Once, long, long ago, I was 27. I believed change would come once the underclass stopped blaming themselves for their failures and started looking to each other for their power. Nothing seemed more worthwhile than helping to make that happen. I was down for building the revolution.

I spent a number of years propping up various leaders and organizing against the grain.

There was the wheelchair-bound Marxist who lived in a tiny room about three blocks from Boston's Federal Building. He'd send his personal assistant out for vodka first thing in the morning, and by noon or so he'd be headed toward incoherency. I saw leadership potential there but tried to always catch him while it was still morning, when he was only grouchy and paranoid.

Then there was Jack, the genius IQ former bank robber who taught himself to read Goethe in German while he was in prison. He was also a pretty decent jail house lawyer. I hired him to run the Homeless Civil Rights Project that I organized, and after he shot his ex co-director in the head and wound up in a spectacular car crash as he attempted to dump the body, he defended himself pro se at his own murder trial. He lost.

There was also Tim, an Axis II Clusterfuck B personality disorder leader-from-hell if ever there was. He threatened once to smash a computer monitor over my head. Eventually, he broke into our organization's office,stole the computer, and sold it for drug money. He was the project's Director. I hired him too.

Over the years, my fondness for handing power over to charismatic leaders who had done little to prove they could handle it dramatically waned. I grew jaded with organizing projects that were "homeless-led."

By 33, I was done with all that.

I decided that building for power for broad classes of people was more meaningful than "empowering" individual leaders who seldom measured up to the call. I decided that homelessness was something shitty that happens to people, and not an identity, and that while homeless identity politics might be an understandable response to institutional infantilization, it is a poor basis for building a movement.

I stopped hiring people as leaders because they were homeless. I stopped creating positions of power for others to abuse.

I began working through my own relationship to power, and grew to understand that it is not some sort of hot potato that has to be handed off before one gets burned.

Power can be used for both good and evil. And with power comes responsibility. I began working through the thorny issues that this involves, and I'm still working on it.

Poor people deserve respect, but they deserve competence too, especially in their organizers. And they need all the allies they can find. And they need us to stop idealizing poverty.

Whenever I see a foundation who thinks we should have 51% of our board be homeless people because that's the population we serve, I think, "You first."

In some circles, that makes me politically incorrect. Maybe I am. But at least I've thought it through.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


OK. I love Radiohead. It's almost midnight. I've been working all day. My eyes are stinging from staring at a computer screen. And I don't want to cheat twice in one week by putting up a Classics Corner retread. So there.

I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll
This time, I feel my luck could change
Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love
It's gonna be a glorious day

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
I'm your superhero
We are standing on the edge

The Head of State has called for me by name
But I don't have time for him
It's gonna be a glorious day
I feel my luck could change

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
I'm your superhero
We are standing on the edge

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This Kool-Aide Kind of Sucks

Yesterday, I was in San Francisco meeting with a bunch of veteran west coast homeless empowerment organizers who hope to challenge the weirdly myopic, DC-driven, chicken-shit, whoredom that passes for national-level policy discussion on homelessness. We call ourselves WRAP, and are carefully nurturing our delusions of grandeur.

The 800-pound gorilla that drives legislation and policy these days is the National Alliance to End Homelessness. They've been selling folks on the idea that homelessness can be ended in 10 years.

Homelessness, they say, is a much smaller problem than housing or poverty, and with the right mix of accountability, services, housing, and bureaucratic tinkering to realign with other systems, we can basically shut the shelters down. All without addressing inequality.

An end to homelessness without all that messy class conflict. How convenient for all of us.

All my friends seem to have arrived at a shared terminology for this theory. We call it, "drinking the Kool-Aide." As in, "You have to pretend to at least like Kool-Aide in this town to even be relevant."

I was talking to a policy geek friend a few weeks ago about her deep, unabiding hatred of all things NAEH, and I said, "You know, I'll bet the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has been very, very good to them."

Their tax filings tell a surprising story. Up until 2003, when the NAEH budget reached a high of $1.7 million, they were a decent-sized DC policy org whose size hovered at around a million and a half.

But in 2004, when their relationship to the Bush Administration's Homelessness Czar Phil Mangano started to resemble conjoined twinship, something interesting happened. Their budget suddenly zoomed skyward to $6.9 million.

This should be an important lesson to all of us.

Things get a lot easier when your tongue is wedged up the ass of power. But, to push the metaphor, the harder you suck, the more it stinks.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In Defense of Baldness

We have seen the moment of our greatness flicker. We have heard the eternal coatman snicker. Our head (grown slightly bald) has grown older and fatter.

It is a disturbing matter.

We try not to dwell upon the the fleshly expanse at the center of our head. So long as we need two mirrors to see it, we enjoy the illusion of youth. Our friends know better than to bring it up. Photographic evidence is immediately destroyed.

We fear the day that our thinning crown meets our high forehead and turns us into one of those pathetic old men who comb their three remaining hairs over the shiney area above their eyebrows.

Yet, this can also be seen as one more instance in which advanced age allows one to better appreciate the richness of classical literature.

In our youth, for example, we were always puzzled by 2 Kings 2:23-25, which, as most of you will no doubt remember, is a pleasant little story about the Prophet Elisha.

The elder Elisha was on his way from Jericho to Bethel when a number of small boys came out of the city and jeered “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”

Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, and two she bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of them.

We used to think this evidence of a cruel, vindictive, and arbitrary God. Now, in our great maturity, we see that the little shits had it coming.

Socrates, with his bald head and pot belly, has rescued our self respect. He was ugly as a satyr, but through pure force of personality and intellect managed to be the Patrick Stewart of the ancient world. Alcibiades, the heart throb of Athens, the biggest playboy of the 5th Century BC, wanted to jump his bones so bad he could barely stand it.

In Plato’s Symposium, the beautiful, brilliant, desirable Alcibiades details his labors to seduce the old man. He corners him at the gymnasium, gets him drunk over dinner and crawls under a toga with him afterwards; he openly professes his love: the poor man tries everything.

But Socrates was too good for him. His brilliant, unattainable, bald head shown forth as a beacon of virtue in the night. Bald was beautiful baby.

As if further evidence of the virtues of baldness were necessary, we also have the testimony of Herodotus, who lived about a generation after the Great Socrates. The far-ranging historian tells of the Argippaei, a people of the north, who lived in the foothills of the Urals in what is now once again known as Russia.

These mysterious people lived under trees and evidently thrived upon cherries, which were strained through cloth and then concentrated into cakes.

Herodotus, who leaves the only extant record of this amazing race, says the Argippaei needed no weapons, for they were “accounted sacred” and no one would attack them. They were in fact sought by neighbors for their wisdom in settling disputes.

These tree-sitting, cherry-eating, dispute-resolving holy people were said to be snub nosed and to have large beards. They were also completely bald, from birth, men and women alike.

Kojak was never this cool. One can almost see the Argippaei, sucking on their cherry cakes, saying, “Who loves ya baby?”

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.”

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”

Apologies to T.S. Eliot, upon whose poetry we leech.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Are We Ending Homelessness Yet?

Here’s a question. How can the federal government claim to be ending homelessness while every year it cuts funding to housing and other programs that serve the poor?

Quick answer: A.) because the numbers are complicated enough to easily lie about, and B.) people who should know better let them get away with it.

Last month, the President sent his FY08 budget to Congress, and it includes what amounts to an 8% reduction in HUD funding from what are likely to be FY07 levels.

What does this mean? I think Barney Frank said it best in his statement: "It is now clear the President is choosing to cut assistance to those in need and resources to our cities and communities in order to finance the tax cuts and the war in Iraq."

It also means that, if this request stands, public housing operating funds will be around 15% short of what is actually needed. It means that CDBG funds for a range of poor people’s programs will be cut by 20%. It means that housing funds for elderly and disabled people will be cut. It means that funding for Section 8 housing vouchers will be cut and there will be a rule change to make them harder to count.

But, on the bright side, there’s another $117 million in Homeless Assistance Grants. Are we ending homelessness yet?


A brilliant exegesis of the most overused word in my vocabulary and the most versatile word in the English language.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Ugly Bag of Mostly Water Re-evaluates

Not so long ago, I discovered that I'm ADHD. My wife hates it when I say that. She says I should say I have ADHD; that it's not what I am. I'm not so sure. I think maybe it is.

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and what it means is that I get lots of parking tickets because remembering that two hours have elapsed and that it's again time to plug the meter is a feat that's pretty much beyond my abilities.

As is: reliably adhering to social convention, remembering names, following complex oral trains of thought, adequately masking my boredom with most people, places, and things, basic self-care, and remembering what I was doing just now.

I'm too easily bored by details to really get it on a technical level, but basically, my brain craves lots of external stimulation to get it firing just the way I like. It's a dopamine issue.

It means I'm a better writer when I'm listening to Iggy and the Stooges, and that I'm really good in a crisis. Adrenaline is my friend.

All of which conspires to make me a bit of an asshole. But I can be a charming, creative, confident, and capable asshole, and this has, for the most part, gotten me by.

Most of this, actually, is recent news to me, which has been interesting.

I've always been drawn to those plot lines where suddenly the protagonist discovers that everything he knows is wrong, and the truth that has always stared him in the face is now too overwhelming to miss. Oedipus suddenly realizing he's been boning his mom. Ajax coming to his senses amidst the stench of cattle gore. Agave recognizing that she holds her son's head in her hands. That sort of thing.

I think we see these ideas again and again in ancient literature because most of us walk around without knowing all that much about ourselves, and when we get a sudden glimmer of insight, finally seeing what should have been obvious all along, the news can be devastating.

This is something to which we can all relate.

As often happens with those who make this discovery later in life, my whole history has become opened to reinterpretation. The failures in school despite being obviously bright, the early attraction to high stimulation (drugs) and my clear preference for pot and pinball over high school. The impulsivity that used to get me into so much trouble. The sense of, as I would often put it, "being a round peg guy in a square hole world."

So it's a bit of a kick in the pants to realize that being ADHD is at once the reason for my failures and the secret to my success.

When I was building homeless people's organizations in Boston in the late 80s and early 90s, a good friend once said I was "the Evil Knievel of organizing." He didn't know how apt that actually was.

Now, having obtained this insight, a diagnosis, and a lifetime prescription to the amphetamines that paradoxically offer focus to my beleaguered brain, I no longer need to place myself in adrenaline producing situations to feel like I'm "on." My little pink pill helps me feel that way pretty much all the time.

Which is nice.

It is humbling, however, to reevaluate one's life achievements, or lack thereof, in light of this information. My organizer/entrepreneur/journalist/priest career path was basically the product of biology.

We are, in the memorable words of the microbrains, "ugly bags of mostly water," a collection of chemical reactions and electrical currents that somehow determine who we are and what we do with our lives.

I know that's terribly reductive, and I know it's neither that simple nor bleak. Maybe, on some level, it's like retelling myth. The bones are always there. It's what you do with them that matters.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Tacoma Protests are Tone Deaf and Dumb

Peace activists went to Tacoma this week to blockade the shipment of Stryker Brigade vehicles and other materials to soldiers in Iraq. According to organizers, the cops acted like a bunch of thugs, at least until the television cameras showed up.

This sort of thing is always disturbing. Cops beating up protesters is nothing new, but with the increased militarization of domestic policing, the contest has become considerably less sporting. Heavily armed cops in Darth Vader gear can't be a good thing for anybody.

That said, when I watch this footage of the Tacoma protest, I feel a little ill, and embarrassed for the left.

Troops and materials are being sent off to what is surely hell on earth. You don't have to agree with the war to understand that this is serious, solemn business.

While the press release I was sent asserts that "OUR ACTIONS ARE NOT AGAINST THE TROOPS," I don't believe most people will see it that way. Blockading materials headed for soldiers in the field is an act that offers little symbolic nuance.

At best, it seems ill-conceived and dumb. At worst, it comes off as traitorous.

Much of the left, though we've had plenty of opportunities to learn, still seems to be completely tone deaf. If we can't see ourselves as others do, then we have chosen to live in the dark. This is no way to build a movement.

The stakes these days are way too high to simply perform political theatrics as a self-indulgent assertion of moral superiority. It's ineffective, it's alienating, and it plays into the hands of the sociopaths who want this war the most.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

"Aw Crap! More White People!?!"

The immigration debate reconsidered.

Stupid Policy and Chicken Politicians

The State Legislature may soon enshrine one of the dumbest, pandering, demagogic, irresponsible initiatives ever (I-747, which limited property tax increases to no more than 1% annually), simply because they are afraid to talk to people as though we were smart.

I don't think that most of us are predisposed to hate all taxes. People hate taxes when they don't see a benefit, and when those taxes are perceived as unfair or overly burdensome. Otherwise, we're pretty much OK with doing our fair share. We live in a society. Roads, schools, hospitals, fire stations, and police all cost money. We get that. Things work best when the burden of making things work gets spread around fairly.

The Washington State Budget and Policy Center has a new report, Balancing Adequacy and Equity in Washington State’s Property Tax, that says good tax policy has two criteria. It shares the burden equitably, and it raises sufficient revenue to adequately meet the agreed upon needs.

It's so simple it's brilliant.

Sadly, Washington State tax policy does nothing of the sort. The poorest pay around 6% of their income in property tax, while the top 20% pays about half that. There are no fail safes to ensure the tax burden doesn't become overly burdensome for anyone. The heavy reliance upon sales taxes and business taxes means that lower income people and small businesses also carry a disproportionate share of the tax burden, giving Washington State the distinction of enjoying the most regressive tax system in the nation.

We're number one. Or 50. Depending on how you look at it.

Meanwhile, with property taxes capped at 1% due to Tim Eyman's enormously destructive 2001 initiative, income for critical services such as education and hospitals lag well behind the rate of inflation, which in those industries runs around 6%. And so, things fall apart.

People are right to be angry that the services they depend on don't work the way they should. And people are right to be angry when they pay more than their share of taxes, and risk losing their homes when taxes go up faster than their ability to pay.

These problems have solutions, but it's not a 1% cap. That's just terrible policy. Politicians in Olympia could enshrine the cap created by I-747 into law this session. If they really don't have any better ideas, they need to try harder. If they're just too afraid of the people to try honesty, well, that's another problem altogether.

Contact your legislators and ask them to oppose bills to codify Initiative 747. We deserve better than this. Contact your legislators by calling the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 or visit to take action online.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On Strippers, Plasma, and Steinbeck

Being the OCD sort of guy I am, I often check the Real Change website at the end of the month to see what draws the most hits. Month after month and year after year, the three most popular articles are nearly always the same. They have enduring appeal, and say something, I think, about who we are as a people.

Virtual Girl is always number one. Without fail. This is an interview with science fiction writer Amy Thompson that we did in September 2000. In February, Virtual Girl drew 2,491 visitors. Virtual Girl also happens to be a PC-based desktop stripper application that has many popular spin-offs.

My favorite description was this, for Active Dancers: "They say hi in the morning, remind you of your appointments and dance and strip for you whenever you want them to. The desktop version is free and unlimited. Active Dancer free strippers basically live on the toolbar and when you activate them you can enjoy each strip dancer whenever you want while using your computer normally. Active Dancer includes dozens of different girls all stripping and caressing themselves on your PC desktop."

Wow. A stripper who lives in my toolbar.

The second most popular Real Change destination is equally pathetic. This would be Bleeding for Dollars, a story published in May 2001 about selling plasma to survive. Every few weeks or so I get an email, usually from Texas, from some poor bastard looking for the nearest plasma center. The search terms that bring people to this article are all variations of "sell blood plasma." This lagged well behind Virtual Girl last month at 824 visits.

Thus far, our website seems a popular destination for people who, in one way or another, have hit bottom. But number three offers a thin ray of hope.

Steinbeck's Call To Action is about faith and anger, and the definition and redefinition of family as people struggle to cope with forces larger than themselves. I'm not sure when this was written, but the author puts the number of homeless people in Seattle at 2,500, so I'm guessing 1996 or so. That number now is more like 8,000.

It's a beautiful essay, and at a respectable 453 visits last month, more than one lit prof has seen fit to send students its way.

I sometimes wonder what this says about us, and whether other websites with deep content have similar experiences. If website hit patterns wind up being a sort of an I-Ching of the human condition. If you put any collection of 1,000 random articles up, would you get roughly 65% of visitors looking for sex, 21% for quick money, and 14% for a reason to go on living?

Let's hope not.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Be Reasonable. Demand the Impossible.

We at Real Change have become born again surface transit advocates, and will publish this endorsement of the Transit + Streets solution to the viaduct problem in Wednesday's paper.

Say Yes to No and No
The Tunnel and the Elevated are solutions of a bygone era


Real Change Editors

On March 13, Seattle voters will be presented with two unattractive alternatives to address the unsafe Alaskan Way Viaduct. These options, a tunnel or a viaduct rebuild, are products of an oxygen-deprived political environment that is in denial over the future. Seattle voters should demand an alternative to dueling dead-end visions and vote no to both choices. We deserve an option that both meets the immediate need and lays the groundwork for a more sustainable future. This involves enhanced mass transit and smarter surface alternatives.

The tunnel, for all practical purposes, is already dead. People across the state are asking where Seattle gets off thinking we are wealthy enough to build a custom-made waterfront highway. This option lacks political and popular support and everyone knows it.

The viaduct rebuild is a default solution that lacks imagination and vision, and misses the remarkable opportunity that exists to re-imagine Seattle as the city we must become.

Seattle does not need a new mega-project. Instead, we should work smarter with what we have, begin work on the 520 Bridge replacement, and clear the way to closing the dangerous Alaska Way Viaduct.

The Transit + Streets solution, supported by the People’s Waterfront Coalition, envisions a dynamic water’s edge, with parks, beaches, recreation paths, event spaces, and an urban street integrated into a functional shore ecology. Their plan has gained support from people like Ron Sims and Peter Steinbrueck, and deserves serious consideration.

If we continue to act as though our car-dependent present is the only imaginable future, progress toward an environmentally sustainable future will come too little too late. Adopting a Transit + Streets solution begins the process of meeting the 2012 Kyoto Protocol goal of cutting emissions back to 1990 levels, the equivalent of getting 130,000 cars off the road.

We are amazed that tunnel proponents and viaduct rebuild advocates who all claim to be looking out for future generations don't see the writing on the wall. Our days of auto-dependence are numbered.

Over the coming decades, as the price of oil increases and the almost unimaginable costs of global warming become more apparent, ways of living that assume cheap and plentiful energy will inevitably change.

Oil is a non-renewable resource, and most of the world's oil fields have already peaked, meaning that what's left can only be extracted at greater expense for declining output. US fields in the lower 48 peaked in 1970. Alaska peaked in 1988. Canada and Mexico have also peaked.

The world’s remaining oil is a contested resource. Iraq's oil reserves are the largest in the world, and remain mostly untapped. Naming and confronting our addiction to oil will help ease global tensions and start us down the path toward environmental sustainability.

A rebuilt viaduct will, in thirty years, be a costly monument to a time that has passed. The time to think differently about the future is now.

Closing the viaduct, even for a rebuild, will mean finding new ways of moving people and goods for 3-4 years. This, in itself, is proof that another way is possible.

Other major cities that have reduced their highway capacity or removed waterfront highways have had encouraging results. Given good planning and effective alternatives, traffic decentralizes and people adjust. The gridlock forecasted by highway planners never materializes. People, given a chance, will surprise you.

The Transit + Streets solution, supported by the People’s Waterfront Coalition has not received anything nearing sufficient consideration. The city study of this option had more to do with setting up a straw man than seriously investigating other alternatives.

The future begins now with the investment in mass transit that Seattle needs and deserves. King County Metro has developed a list of 49 transit-related actions that in and of themselves could take 35,000 cars off the viaduct. These, along with other innovations such as adding a designated arterial through the city for freight, widening key streets and improving grid connections can offer a solution that builds toward a sustainable future.

We deserve better than a “choice” between the lesser of two evils. A No and No vote on March 13 opens the way to a future that says yes to ending political gridlock, yes to the environment, and yes to economically sustainable transportation choices.

More Information

The People’s Waterfront Coalition, at, offers detailed information on this issue and a plan for action.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Timeless Reflections

My social life isn't what it used to be. The high point of today was a 4-year-old's birthday party that included an art project, balloon tossing, a game of hot-potato, one tough fucking pinata, pizza, and chocolate cupcakes with green frosting. Needless to say, it was a pretty good party. I've learned to stay amused under even the most challenging circumstances.

After kids, one's life enters the hyper-distracted zone, and your social circle narrows to those who share your fate. Adult conversation mostly occurs in the context of Children's Museum and Zoo dates. Pieces of meaningful ideas get wedged in between demands for cheese, potty breaks, and juice.

Today, amid the lumbering blue balloons and the loud little people who love them, three of us considered our world of diminished expectations and no time.

There was the woman who was staying home, trying to care for a family on an academic husband's income. There was me, house poor and spending as much as my mortgage again on daycare so that my wife and I could earn more than we ever thought we would and still have no money at all. And then, there was my other friend, back in school pursuing a second career, heroically trying to study while raising four kids.

If there's anyone out there having an easy time raising their family, they don't run in my circles.

We quickly agreed that the baby-boomers seemed to be doing just fine, and had pretty much ruined it for everyone. My more conspiratorially-minded friend said that leisure among the working class was at an all-time high during the civil rights movement, and the "powers that be" decided to ratchet things up on us all so that no one would have any time to organize.

I like this theory. I picture a bunch of fat bald guys sitting around an enormous mahogany table, drinking port and waving their cigars around for emphasis, opposing subsidized daycare, livable wages, job security, and anything else that would make life more reasonable for working people. And then I realize there's just enough truth in this to piss me off.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Radical Cluelessness

For the past few days I've been obsessing over writing a brief history of Real Change, the newspaper I started here in Seattle in 1994 and have clung to like a barnacle ever since. One of the great things about starting an organization is that it becomes a great adventure in on-the-job training that never really ends. One looks back, over the vast expanse of a dozen years or so and says, "shit, I really didn't have the first clue did I?"

The thing is, having a clue as to what one is doing is really a moving target. You get good at a few things, stuff evolves and becomes more complicated, you need to know new stuff, and before you know it, you are back to the essential cluelessness that is the human condition.

After 15 years of publishing street newspapers, I've literally written the book on the subject. This year, I've launched a technical assistance program to help other papers in the US and Canada develop. I even teach a class on Street Newspapers, Poverty and Homelessness every year at the University of Washington. Does this mean I know what I'm talking about? Not really. If what I know could fill a dixie cup, what I don't know is something on the order of Lake Washington.

Lots of people haven't figured this out yet, and it's sort of sad to watch them. Pretending to know everything, or even most things, takes way more energy than it's worth and really gets you nowhere. I say, embrace your cluelessness as you would an old friend. What you don't know won't hurt you.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

E.L. Doctorow on "Moral Vacancy"

Doctorow declares 4DH the Sociopath-in-Chief.

An Essay on Our President

I fault this president (George W. Bush) for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our twenty-one year olds who wanted to be what they could be.

On the eve of D-day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the WMDs he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man. He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

But you study him; you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion, which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the thousand dead young men and women who wanted be what they could be.

They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance of aborted life...They come to his desk as a political liability which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of their coffins from Iraq.

How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets nothing. He does not regret that his reason for going to war was, as he knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his bungled plan for the war's aftermath has made of his mission-accomplished a disaster. He does not regret that rather than controlling terrorism his war in Iraq has licensed it.

So he never mourns for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought this war of his choice. He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He did not understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options, but when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because you have to.

This president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to cheer the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This president and his supporters would seem to have a mind for only one thing --- to take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for the sake of themselves and their friends. A war will do that as well as anything. You become a wartime leader. The country gets behind you. Dissent becomes inappropriate. And so he does not drop to his knees, he is not contrite, he does not sit in the church with the grieving parents and wives and children....

He is the President who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the dead; he does not feel for the thirty five million of us who live in poverty; he does not feel for the forty percent who cannot afford health insurance; he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills --- it is amazing for how many people in this country this President does not feel.

But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest one percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the safety regulations for coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a- half benefits for overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them into the professional class.

And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to our democracy is choking the life out of it.

But there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember the millions of people here and around the world who marched against the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneously aroused oversoul of alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it happen? After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen coming. There are little wars all over the world most of the time.

But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of people that America was ceding its role as the last best hope of mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest democratic republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who could imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than pre-emptive war. The president we get is the country we get. With each president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into and get us into is his characteristic trouble.

Finally the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail: How can we sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the stupid and ineffective war making, the constitutionally insensitive lawgiving, and the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.