Tag Archives: sherry wolf

Alienation 101

I never thought I’d feel this way, but thank god I went to college in the 1980s. Every day when I pick up the newspaper (and yes, I am one of those fossils who reads it in pulp form), it has some new story about how even the most enjoyable educational experiences have become yet more soul-sucking means to derive profit and manage time efficiently. College is becoming more and more homogenized, corporatized and, frankly, stupefying.

Last week I read about how due to budget considerations, even many private universities are placing video cameras in the classroom so that courses in everything from physics to philosophy can be broadcast online to hundreds, or even thousands, of students sitting in their dorm rooms wearing jammies.

I’m all for online classes for those who choose to continue their schooling while working or who live far from a campus. But forcing online classes on those scrimping and working to pay full fare while living on or near campus is a rip off for both faculty and students. Even the stats say so.

According to the Sloan Survey of Online Learning that appeared in the New York Times, “online education is exploding: 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier… . A large majority — about three million — were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses.” Not surprisingly, students who have to sit and stare at a screen on their own not only do worse, but they also let unwatched classes pile up till the last minute.

Today, we can add remote-control clickers to cyberschooling—a concept that is so vile and alienating that I broke into a rant about it with a total stranger on the subway. The student sitting next to me practically wept describing his own classroom clicker tale of woe. These little remote-control nods to scientific management are either sold to students ($40–$60 each) or loaned to them, and each one is set to a student’s unique frequency that records when he or she enters the classroom, like punching a time clock.

Some professors, including one tweedy tool who teaches at my own alma mater, Northwestern University, uses clickers to give yes/no pop quizzes one minute after class is scheduled to begin. How mind-numbing. Clickers can also track whether students are grasping a concept. I suppose having a student raise her hand and ask a question is now outmoded, after all, why engage in human interaction when technology can relieve us of those pesky group conversations.

One aspect of alienation that Marx described was the way tools that humans design come to take over our lives, and instead of easing our labors they enslave us and drain away joy and creativity. Marx wrote about it quite eloquently: “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.”

Marx, meet the classroom clicker.

I loved being a college student in the 1980s. It’s where my worldview evolved from loosey-goosey liberalism to socialism; where I interacted with people from all over. Some became famous, like my freshman roommate, the world-renowned composer, Augusta Read Thomas—she was Gusty when we shared a bunk bed; and Stephen Colbert, who was flamboyantly funny with his rainbow scarf and theatrical demeanor.

Most went on to quieter lives and I admire them intensely. Some write and edit socialist papers, books and magazines—Elizabeth, Alan, Lee, Lance and others who are super smart and insightful and they were really the ones who educated me about how to break out of my narrow existence and learn to grasp the world from other perspectives.

Day-to-day human interaction with professors, who, unlike today’s army of adjuncts, were financially compensated to allow them the opportunity to explain ancient Greek declensions and argue about Reconstruction, may not have fit neatly into some Fordist time management efficiency scheme, but they did enrich my life. No doubt, the Greek lessons played some role in my snagging a decent editorial job, and Black history led me to help mobilize my classmates against apartheid South Africa then and the death penalty now.

I’m not making an appeal to luddism. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of my Mac over my Smith Corona—even though I managed to score one with a nifty correction-ribbon. It’s that in any sane and healthy society, human interaction and conversation aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities. You can’t Tweet, text, click or Facebook a real democratic discussion and debate. Nothing will ever replace humans sitting around in real time having conversations, debating and learning from each other.

Perhaps that’s the point of all these scientific management principles applied to education—to eliminate the means for democracy.

My next talk will be on What’s Behind the Rise of the Right and What Can We Do to Stop it, NYC at the LGBT Center, Sat., Nov. 20, 7PM, click here for details.

An Empire Going Kaput

Every morning I stand on a crumbling subway platform, play spot the rat and watch as commuters tap away on their iPads. This always reminds me of the passage in Power Politics where Indian writer Arundhati Roy describes walking in Mumbai past candle-lit “road gangs of emaciated laborers digging a trench to lay fiber-optic cables… .”

Hers is a stirring image of the contradictions of a developing nation; mine is of an empire going kaput. How much longer can our 21st century country run on 19th century infrastructure?

When I asked about this recently an engineer colleague of mine, Josh Karpoff, directed me to the Web site of the American Society of Civil Engineers. It turns out that we are all about one glass of tap water away from toxic cooties. It appears that if our nation’s economic priorities don’t shift soon, relying on the current water system—or bridges and tunnels—will be akin to bungee jumping into a field of broken glass.

The good news is that the railways aren’t as bad as my rat-infested, rebar-exposed subway platform might indicate. They received a grade of C on the pen-protector gang’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Now granted, a C is pretty bad, but let’s just pretend it’s a grade that’s not in your major, like the Stars for Stupids or Rocks for Jocks classes I had to take when I was a  philosophy major.

But our drinking water system received a D-. I don’t care how little attention we liberal arts students paid in physics, getting a D- in anything means that the professor took pity on you and didn’t fail your sorry ass because you were about to graduate and at least you showed up for a couple of classes.

When it’s the grade on the system that delivers water, that is, the libation we need to survive since 96 percent of our bodies are made of the stuff, we’ve reached a critical juncture.

One look at the horror playing out in Haiti right now, where a cholera epidemic is spreading and threatens to take the lives of hundreds of thousands who have no access to safe and clean drinking water, illuminates the threat from this one aspect of infrastructural demise.

According to the Report Card, every year the U.S. water system faces an $11 billion shortfall in what’s needed to simply maintain it in decent working order. This amount doesn’t even include upgrading the water system to accommodate any population growth. In New York City, many of the giant water mains that run below streets were installed some time in the 1880s and are estimated to last about 120 years, which even my math-challenged brain has calculated to mean we’re drinking on borrowed time here in the empire’s center of commerce and finance.

The New York Times‘ terrifying 2009 series, “Toxic Waters,” exposed “More than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years.” In other words, we’re already well into the danger zone because our government will not spend on water systems in one year what it currently spends in less than one month on the war and occupation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the millionaire bean counters in Washington, D.C. (aka, Congressmen), are sitting down to slash away at Social Security. And New York City’s billionaire mayor just hired a media mogul—who apparently has never stepped foot inside a public school (no kidding!)—to be the new schools chancellor in the nation’s largest school system with more than a million students, 135,000 teachers and an annual budget of $23 billion.

The city is gearing up for total war with the teachers’ union so that educators can be pounded into an army of low-wage test-prepers for bored and alienated youth. (Frankly, I don’t know why they don’t just fire all the students for poor performance since they are the least cost-effective line item in the education budget.)

What this all comes down to is that nowhere on the agenda of the lunatics running this asylum are any of the priorities we need to survive, no less thrive, in a modern society. The nation’s infrastructure is in collapse, ditto the schools and if those highly paid austerity boosters of both political parties get their hands on our Social Security we’re all going to die in toothless poverty.

Once a significant enough number of us absorb these facts, the only sane response is to organize mass marches, protests, direct actions and strikes to grind the wheels of the system to a halt and reverse course.

The 50,000-plus British students who took to the streets the other day against draconian cuts, thousands of whom occupied the offices of the Republican-like Tories, have the right idea. Of course, it will take a sustained struggle and a set of alternative—in my opinion, socialist—politics to reorient our society.

Or we could take our chances and leave our future in the loving embrace of bean counters and media moguls, since that’s panning out so well.

My next talk will be on What’s Behind the Rise of the Right and What Can We Do to Stop it, NYC at the LGBT Center, Sat., Nov. 20, 7PM, click here for details.

Make Glenn Beck Cry

My speaking gigs this past weekend in North Carolina confirmed what I’d suspected—there are pockets of disgust with the Republicans’ takeover and the Democrats’ paralysis throughout this country.

Many people are like Cliff who works at Costco and broke with his conservatism a few years ago, and Shelby who grew up in a small town where the Wal-Mart distribution center provides the only jobs. They express a deep-seated desire to move beyond the elitist contempt of the Democrats to challenge the scorched-earth policies of the right.

Among the folks who turned out to participate in my Fighting the Right talk Friday evening were a half-dozen self-described radical feminists active in the Feminist Student United group at UNC-Chapel Hill. One of them made an interesting observation about the Tea Party. She said that while she detested everything the TPers stand for, she had to concede that their confidence in standing up to the status quo—despite their funhouse mirror perspective—is something our side is lacking.

She’s right. The left needs to exercise some chutzpah.

We must tap into the vast sentiment for challenging the priorities of both political parties, which exists among young workers and students as well as middle-aged folks who’ve been through the wringer and are terrified as they face the reality of caring for aging parents and couch-surfing children.

For a few snippets of insight into what’s possible right now, let’s look back to the 1990s’ mobilizations against Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America and Bill Clinton’s near-forgotten bombing raids on Iraq. Like now, the Republicans swept into Congress during the 1994 midterms and Newt became a household name with his pledges to cut taxes for the rich and attack workers’ benefits.

Socialist Worker‘s Alan Maass described his legacy 10 years later:

The mainstream media hung on every word from the Gingrichites and produced countless stories familiar to us today–about how the Republicans would be free to do whatever they wanted in Washington for years to come. [Sound familiar?!]

It didn’t turn out that way. Not a single bill from the Contract with America became law. The popularity of the Republicans steadily faded. And Newt Gingich, the leader of the “revolution,” became the most hated man in American politics.

I was one of tens of thousands of people across the country who participated in protests against Newt wherever he turned up. Hundreds of trade unionists came out to greet him in Georgia, thousands of students in New York City mobilized against his cuts, public hearings to slash benefits across the country turned into raucous debates packed with outraged residents. In spite of the collusion and often outright hostility of the Clinton administration, our side was able to stop the right.

The recent horror-filled years of war have allowed memories of Clinton’s disastrous pro-war policies to fade. But in February 1998, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attended a CNN televised Town Meeting of 6,000 at Ohio State University, the place erupted in protest. Albright had recently told anchorwoman Lesley Stahl that she thought the deadly sanctions that the Clinton administration had imposed on Iraq were “worth the price” of half a million dead Iraqi children, and in response OSU students took action.

I remember talking to one of the campus organizers, Jon Strange, about how a small group of students broadened their protest to involve many hundreds, if not more. Strange and his collaborators met ahead of time, prepared a list of facts and questions about U.S. foreign policy and arrived early to leaflet the event. It was a great idea to not just rely on a small handful of students, but to mass leaflet questions for students to ask. As it happened, Strange did get called on and he skewered Albright and the Secretary of Defense who was there when he asked:

Why bomb Iraq when other countries have committed similar violations? Turkey, for example, has bombed Kurdish citizens. Saudi Arabia has tortured political and religious dissidents. Why does the U.S. apply different standards of justice to these countries?

Albright was stunned and caught flat-footed. Whatever it was that she murmured in response I don’t recall, but I do remember as students unfurled an antiwar banner and began chanting, “1-2-3-4, We don’t want your racist war.” It became a touchstone of sorts that launched many more protests like it.

The students at UNC-Greensboro this past Saturday mentioned that Larry Summers, the head of Obama’s National Economic Council and an architect of and beneficiary of the economic collapse, will be speaking there soon. An even juicier target in some regards, Glenn Beck, will be coming to town to speak at a mass gathering in a few months. These events, and many like them across the country, can be turned into mobilizing efforts by the left where our side can unite our disparate forces and begin to push back.

The human ingredients for challenging a right-wing agenda exist right now. What’s missing is often the political vision and organizational wherewithal to do it.

I don’t pretend that every town or campus can do this now, but if folks in a few cities take the initiative—as some already are starting to do—we can reverse the demoralization that progressives feel. Building confidence is a necessary component to constructing a full-throated left-wing opposition to austerity, racism and the stultifying vision of Democrats in the face of a Republican onslaught.

In contrast to the Obama administration’s equivocation, we can adopt a posture of defiance to the right. A few words of advice to the Greensboro folks: make Glenn Beck cry.

Props to the Washington, D.C., branch of the International Socialist Organization for coming up with the “I make Glenn Beck cry” t-shirts sold at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally.

Barbarians Inside the Gates: What Now?

Step away from the ledge, put down the whiskey, though if you must call in sick today because psychologically speaking you are, then do what you need to do. But please, don’t uncritically absorb the dominant hype.

The barbarians have taken over the House, they’re inside the gates now, but what does it all mean?

One widely peddled narrative is that Obama’s administration overreached its mandate, thus alienating ordinary Americans and driving millions into the arms of the right.

Democratic Party insider, Paul Begala, condensed what I suspect will be his party’s line last night on CNN and in his column at the Huffington Post, “The message of this year’s election results is clear: President Obama and the Democrats need to move to the center.”

WHAT?! That can only make sense if you believe the following policies are left wing:

  • keeping open centers of torture like Guantánamo;
  • expanding wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • throwing trillions at banksters while providing almost no relief or jobs to ordinary people;
  • refusing to regulate the masters of the universe who crashed the economy (and instead actually promoting them to run your administration); and
  • empowering private insurance companies to jack up the costs of health care instead of delivering genuine single-payer health care to Americans, and on and on and on,

These have been the failed policies of the Obama administration—all rather conservative to right wing, according to almost anyone to the left of Sarah Palin.

Then there’s that other tripe echoed in today’s New York Times editorial, “Mr. Obama, and his party, have to do a far better job of explaining their vision and their policies.”

If there is one problem the administration does not have, it’s with communications. Workers, poor people, the youth, Blacks, LGBT people and all the other folks who are collectively known as Obama’s base aren’t misunderstanding him, we hear him all too clearly. We do not like what he and the Democrats have been saying and doing for the four years the Dems have controlled Congress and the last two when they’ve controlled it all.

From jobs and union card-check, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, to refusing to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA, they haven’t delivered the goods. And what’s worse, at every turn they spurn their base and embrace neoliberal policies and welcome corporate fat cats to the table to write health care legislation and, soon, to help gut what’s left of our social welfare programs.

I’ll tell you why many of my neighbors here in Brooklyn sat out this election, as did many progressives across the country.We live in one of the poorest and most expensive cities and it’s about to get much worse. Writing in Counterpunch, Joseph Grosso detailed just how degraded the living standards of average New Yorkers have become,

For all its vast Wall Street wealth, low crime, and civic boosters, a study printed last year in City Journal by Eamon Moynihan, director of the Cost of Living Project, showed that when adjusting census data for cost of living, New York is quite possibly the poorest big city in America (Detroit being the other serious contender; using the same data New York State shares the bottom with Mississippi). For instance, according to data from C2ER (a company that produces cost of living estimates) someone earning about $51,000 in Chicago and $63,000 in DC enjoys the same standard of living as a New Yorker making $100,000. While this is mainly due to the astronomical cost of housing, utility costs are also lower in the other two cities, 29% in Chicago, 39% in DC. Groceries are 28% lower in both other cities.

No, this criminal poverty amidst so much wealth will not be reversed by the likes of the Dems who are either incapable or uninterested in lifting a finger for working and poor people. We are going to have to fight this one independently—in the streets, in our workplaces and in our communities, as Socialist Worker lays out in today’s editorial.

As the successful anti-eviction protests in Boston and Chicago and the large New York City rallies to counter Islamophobia have shown, our side can make advances when we act independently of the Dems, a party of endless compromise and equivocation.

Today’s airwaves will be filled with calls for even more compromise because progressive ideals supposedly lost last night. Nonsense. Progressive policies weren’t even on the ballot. Our side hasn’t lost because we haven’t yet begun to wage a genuine fight. Politics is a contact sport, get in the game.

P.S. (added Tues., Nov. 4) I think it’s noteworthy that the nation’s leading liberal economist, Paul Krugman—yup, the only man alive who can explain credit default swaps in less than a minute—and I share a common take on one aspect of the post-election hoo-ha. here’s his blog post from yesterday: “Blame the whiny center”

So, we’re already getting the expected punditry: Obama needs to end his leftist policies, which consist of … well, there weren’t any, but he should stop them anyway.

What actually happened, of course, was that Obama failed to do enough to boost the economy, plus totally failing to tap into populist outrage at Wall Street. And now we’re in the trap I worried about from the beginning: by failing to do enough when he had political capital, he lost that capital, and now we’re stuck.

But he did have help in getting it wrong: at every stage there was a faction of Democrats standing in the way of strong action, demanding that Obama do less, avoid spending money, and so on. In so doing, they shot themselves in the face: half of the Blue Dogs lost their seats.

And what are those who are left demanding? Why, that Obama move to the center.

I will be speaking on Friday, Nov. 5, at UNC-Chapel Hill, at 7PM on The Right Turn in US politics: How it happened & what we can do about it

Working for Mad Men

My first job at an “ad shop”—the advertising world’s jaunty expression for houses of hooey hucksterism (sorry, couldn’t resist)—was at Wells Rich Greene in the late 1980s. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the creative folks there whose mantra was always, “This isn’t brain surgery.”

The big cheese in those days was Mary Wells, perhaps the model for TV Mad Men‘s Peggy Olsen, the sharp, budding feminist copywriter who makes it out of the secretarial pool and manages to be taken seriously in an era when women are just defining “the problem that has no name,” i.e., sexism.

Mary Wells’ genius, reputedly, is summed up in her early coup of doubling sales for Alka-Seltzer with the slogan “plop plop, fizz fizz, oh, what a relief it is” which forever sealed into our brains that a single effervescent pill simply won’t do. By 1969, Wells was the highest-paid advertising executive and the first woman CEO of any company listed on the NY Stock Exchange.

I was a 24-year-old proofreader who managed to get the job by sending myself on an interview when the posting came across my desk where I worked for six dreadful weeks at an employment agency. I used to tear my hair out about the racism of a job trying to secure employment for office personnel. Many of the client companies, whose hiring staff knew it was illegal to ask the race of the prospective employee, instead would inquire of the men and women I was sending out for interviews, “Could s/he be your cousin?”

Decades before we learned that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama actually are distant cousins (1o times removed), I tweaked the truth a bit no matter the race of the applicant and always answered, “Sure.” Suffice it to say, the only commission I ever received for getting someone a job was for my own placement at Wells Rich Greene.

In those pre-digital days, when a team of artists worked in an unventilated room sticking images onto story boards with toxic glue, every aspect of agency life was highly stratified. I earned exactly $25,000 a year, every year, to correct the grammar and spelling of men and women who made at least 10 times my salary. My supervisor drove to the office every morning in a $100,000 Bentley.

Since a major client was Benson and Hedges, cigarette smoking was practically enforced and the stressed-out production heads sucked in at least two packs a day inside a skyscraper where the windows were designed not to open.

The office was located across from the chic Plaza Hotel and the stately image of 9 West 57th Street can be seen in every movie and TV show where the camera spans the skyline over Central Park. Because the place was across from the Russian Tea Room, down the block from Carnegie Hall and diagonally across from Tiffany’s, buying food in that area was insanely expensive. Yet only the bigwigs had free gourmet lunches of lamb and beef bourguignon served to them off sterling silver carts by white-gloved immigrants who rolled these sumptuous meals past secretaries, receptionists and me, the proofreader.

I answered their contempt by wearing my “By Any Means Necessary —Malcolm X” t-shirt to company get-togethers where the muckety-mucks steered clear of the efficient word nerd with an attitude. The years passed, I moved on to other ad shops and other jobs, but salary ceiling and caste system aside, I always looked back fondly on these strange places where quirky, smart people threw their energies into such silliness in order to pay the rent.

I’m back in the biz, though the bourbon cart of the Mad Men sixties, replaced by coke lines in the eighties, seems have given way to ergonomically correct standing desks and herbal tea stations. I’ll be looking out for the smart-alecky twentysomething wearing a scowl and an “I Make Glenn Beck Cry” t-shirt. She’s the one I’ll be joining for lunches of pb and j.

If you’re voting in NY State Tuesday, Nov. 2., make your vote count for something—Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate for governor, Teamster, genuine left alternative to the Democrats.

I’ll be speaking this Friday, Nov. 5, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on Fighting the Right.

If Democrats Won’t Fight, Who Will?

The myth promulgated by sections of the left and right is that there was once a time when the Democrats fought for workers, the poor and Black people. That FDR, JFK and LBJ—evidently, true liberal Democrats are scions of elites incapable of packing enough punch with just two names—stood up for the little people against the titans and all of U.S. society is better for it.

Every last one of us was raised on this myth, myself included. But then I met socialists and was introduced to books about theory and history that blew this phantasm away.

Since readers tend to prefer pithy blog posts to lengthy tomes, I’ll pick apart just one aspect of this tempting tale in the hopes of not depressing the hell out of you, but of promoting a more historically accurate potential for our post–Nov. 2 dilemma.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s platform in 1932 called for balancing the budget and cutting federal spending by 25 percent, which meant “the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise.” Hmm, that sounds familiar.

Many non-socialist historians, such as David Brody, contend that FDR’s National Recovery Act (NRA) had nothing to do with making a clean break from Republican Herbert Hoover’s pro-business policies. Far from it. FDR sought greater collaboration between business and government through the NRA, but the law of unintended consequences intervened.

By inserting a rather innocuous sounding Section 7 (a) into one of his pieces of legislation—FDR inadvertently opened the way for union organizing. However, and this is a big one, he and the Dems acted at every turn, often violently, to stop workers from actually mobilizing themselves into unions. Here’s how one historian, cited in Sharon Smith’s magnificent Subterranean Fire, summed it up:

In both the South and New England, the United Textile Workers’ strike taught mill workers to distrust the Democratic Party, whose representatives had fought the strike. The Massachusetts Committee for a Labor Partydeclared in March 1936, “The New Deal was supposed to give us the right to organize. Yet when the textile workers went on strike in 1934for recognition of their union and to stop speed-up, Democratic governors in 12 states called out the militia to drive the workers back to work and break the strike. In fact, 14 workers were killed by militia called out by Democratic governors.

Employers’ and Democrats’ open hostility to workers’ organizing efforts led many to refer to the NRA, a key plank of the New Deal, as the “National Run Around.” Because FDR appeased the Southern segregationist wing of his party, the NRA actually legalized racial discrimination throughout industry leading many Blacks to refer to it as the “Negro Removal Act,” “Negroes Ruined Again,” or “Negroes Robbed Again.”

In fact, the entire Depression Decade is littered with examples of treacherous behavior by FDR, who lived up to his self-pronouncement as “the best friend the profit system ever had.” It was the militant and often illegal actions of American workers, with organized socialists, communists and anarchists in the lead, that transformed U.S. society and delivered massive gains like Social Security, better wages, interracial unions, etc.

FDR’s pro-labor and anti-corporate legacy actually dates to his 1936 campaign pronouncements when Corporate America was bolting from the Democrats as a result of the mammoth general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco led by red workers. It was FDR’s inability to contain labor unrest that compelled him to take a more pro-labor stance, declaring of business, “I welcome their hatred,” when they had already deserted him and FDR desperately needed labor’s vote.

The massive discontent that year even led to a unanimous vote at the 1936 UAW convention to support a national farmer-labor party and reject Roosevelt and the Dems. It was a time when a real left break from the Democrats was possible and the creation of a genuinely independent labor party was in the offing.

Sections of the left, centrally the Communist Party—which to this day supports the Democrats—engineered the biannual trudge to the polls to vote for a party that consistently disappoints the hopes of working and poor people under the banner of lesser-evilism.

If in fact the Republicans do retake at least one house of Congress next Tuesday we will be treated to all manner of eulogies about how the greatest hope for change is over. I don’t deny the horrendous political circumstances ahead, but my point here is that the Dems never were our saviors.

As times toughen, we need to shed the myths of the past and get on with the real task of building a fighting alternative to attacks and phantasms.

If you want to learn more about these ideas, check out one of these Marxism Day Schools in your area.

If the YMCA Can, Why Not Obama?

I’ve been a gym rat my whole life because it’s the only legal outlet for rage and tension that doesn’t lead to either busting a TV screen or a hangover.

YMCAs are relatively cheap and ubiquitous and I’ve sort of come to marvel at their rabbit warren-like layouts. From Brooklyn to Melbourne, Australia, each one is uniquely ridiculous in design, with floor plans laid out by Rube Goldberg wannabes.

Among the Y’s many advantages is its extension of family benefits to LGBT people. Keep in mind that YMCA stands for the Young Men’s Christian Association and dates back to Britain in 1844, when some enterprising Victorian named George Williams established its three principles of “a healthy spirit, mind, and body,” thus the upside-down triangle as its symbol.

I find it fascinating that such an institution with 45 million members worldwide extends the same respect—and family discounts—to its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members as to everyone else.

Think about this for a moment. A lesbian like myself has absolutely zero official documentation or legal relationship to my partner, who is of another race, or to her daughter, who is of another partner. Yet when I was arranging my own membership this summer, the clerk readily handed me the forms to fill out that guarantee a family discount if I wanted it, saying, “We accept every family.” Not a bad policy.

In fact it’s one that is increasingly extended by many institutions. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan gave us a family membership. Yes, I know they’re a bunch of artsy-fartsy types, but still the place is a megabucks institution and it isn’t required by law or anything. About 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies extend domestic partnership benefits to their employees, and Corporate America will never be known as a bastion of enlightenment.

The fact is that as a result of decades of struggle and millions emerging from their closets, American society has changed drastically, yet our government’s laws still deny basic decency and equality to its LGBT citizens.

So when I watched the video of President Obama adding his voice to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign to prevent teen suicides, I was of two minds about his clip. On the one hand, it’s a milestone that the president of the United States would make such an unequivocal statement that is being widely circulated. On the other, he leads the world’s most powerful empire for crissakes, he’s not some dog catcher without influence!

I’ll set aside Obama’s past inanities about equal marriage rights, he now says he’s for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—great. I’m even willing to concede that the man has had a few tasks on his plate of dire consequences.

But Obama sits in his redesigned earth-toned Oval Office every morning getting news briefings that clearly include the horrific rise in LGBT suicides. No doubt, he is aware of that dollop of human poop on the Arkansas school board, Clint McCance, who wrote on his Facebook wall:

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.

Obama has every news anchor and editor’s cell phone number on his speed dial. He can stand before Congress—which has been held by the Democrats for four years now!—and read off the list of names of LGBT people whose lives have been destroyed by reactionary and unequal policies and treatment. (My pal, Kyle Brown, an AIDS worker in NYC, has compiled a useful list of just those in October if the president would like a cheat sheet.)

Obama is arguably the most powerful man on the planet and yet on this issue, like so many others, he acts as if he were a hapless observer of catastrophes and not the architect of at least some of them.

In other words, I appreciate the gesture, but can the Obama administration stop hemming and hawing and codify LGBT rights into law already?! If President Eisenhower in 1953 could destroy the lives of gay and lesbian federal employees with the stroke of a pen, can’t President Obama in 2010 take a pen and add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

I know what some people will say. Wait, if he does that the Republicans will give him hell, they’ll call him a closet queen, a crazed Muslim-Kenyan-anti-colonialist- flaming-fag. Well, guess what? Who cares, they’re saying that and so much loopier stuff already.

Frankly, if the president wants to rev up his base and reinspire millions who devoted hundreds of hours to his election in 2008, the best damn thing he could do is come out fighting like someone who actually gives a shit about civil rights and stop acting like he’s a tourist meandering through the ruins.

Ending global warming and fixing the economy are complex issues. This one is blessedly simple. LGBT people are either equal or we are not. The administration must pick a policy and stick with it.

Caught in the Election Crossfire

Since posting the piece to my blog yesterday about not voting, I’ve been called a “cynic,” a “traitor” and stuck in a “castle,” etc. I guess when someone’s about to pull the lever for a politician she thinks sucks slightly less than the next guy, it’s better to blame some red for the miserable debacle of our elections.

It’s OK, really. After more than 25 years of being a socialist I’ve been spat on, sucker-punched and called every filthy epithet in the book. I had come to accept it as an occupational hazard of sorts, but lately socialism is having a definite revival and many more folks are curious, not hostile about these ideas.

Nonetheless, I loathe being called a cynic and this charge rankles like none other. It is invariably slung at socialists around Election Day, when the political debate in this country reaches its nadir. All politics is condensed in this period into what happens during the 5 minutes or less that it takes to vote. Yet politics is so much richer and complex than that one simple act of pulling a lever or punching a ballot.

I consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours a year activists spend organizing protests, rallies, speak outs, fundraisers, meetings, speeches and the like to be the most crucial political acts a person can undertake. It is the stuff from which genuine change is made.

Usually activists meet and organize in small numbers for years with little or nothing immediate to show for their efforts at resistance until the accumulated baby steps, ideological cracks and other shifts in society at large seem to give way and more noticeable and substantive change seems to suddenly and spontaneously erupt.

Look at the efforts of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). It began about 15 years ago with the idea that prisoners themselves and their family members, alongside activists, could mobilize to shift public consciousness in this country by exposing the racism and class inequities at play and the innocence of so many of the death penalty’s victims. Over the years, they’ve played a modest but very important role in reducing both the number of death sentences and support for this horrid Medieval practice.

Gallup now reports the lowest support for the death penalty in the U.S. since it began tracking it 30 years ago and today 30 percent of Americans oppose it in all cases, in contrast to 16 percent when the CEDP began its work. Dozens of exonerated death row prisoners hail the CEDP as a tool in having freed them from hell.

The Boston anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure group City Life/Vida Urbana and the newly formed Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC) have won real gains in both of those cities through education, organizing and taking direct action. Just last week, Cook County Sheriff and mayoral candidate Tom Dart halted all evictions based on foreclosures from GMAC, JPMorgan and Bank of America just days after the CAEC protested at his office.

There are dozens of other examples I could offer of grass-roots activists taking on the system today and making small, but real gains. And then there are moments when the gains are enormous, as when an international solidarity movement combined its efforts with the Black workers of South Africa to bring down apartheid. Or the sit-downs, marches and endless petitions that combined to achieve civil rights in this country. Only later did politicians and the courts codify what was won on the streets.

Naturally, these gains are not enough. It’s why I’m not simply a movement activist, but a socialist in movements. So long as we live under a system of profit, racism, wars, poverty, bigotry  and oppression of every conceivable sort will persist.

Whether someone votes next Tuesday or not is not the decisive question in my opinion. I don’t vote for the Dems because history has taught me that this is not where real power lies and real change is made.

The American socialist, Eugene V. Debs, had a good line about this sort of thing. He said, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it, than vote for something I don’t want and get it.” I find Debs’ logic irrefutable.

Take a plunge into activism and join me and others this evening at NY’s LGBT Center at 6:30PM to organize the next US boat to break the siege of Gaza (The Audacity of Hope).

I’ll be speaking Friday, Nov. 5 at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, on Fighting the Right. Details to come.

Why I’m Not Voting

If you are one of the six people currently not on Facebook, then perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the latest online  campaign, “Commit to Vote.” A red, white and blue button with a ribbon—can progressives please jettison the empire’s color scheme?—carries that slogan with the iconic Obama “O” image that once indicated change in some distant future. Now we all know that over the “O” horizon there are hordes of desperate people seeking jobs alongside a toxic swamp in the Gulf.

The online campaign includes a message asking the receiver to commit to vote for the Democrats in the midterm elections. I respect the sentiment behind this appeal, but I am not going to vote for the Democrats on November 2, 2010.

Like tens of millions of progressives in this country, I am horrified and anxiety-ridden about the rise of the right and the unbelievable rebound of the Republicans, a political party so discredited two years ago that major news outlets across the board wrote them off for decades to come. So please, don’t send me notes detailing the racism, homophobia and solipsistic idiocy of this Flat Earth Society of knuckle draggers. I get it.

The reason I won’t vote for the Dems is because I do not believe for one second that the rise of the right here has anything do with some stealth genius strategy of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Co. They are the same nincompoops as before and they have no policy or program for millions of ordinary people to rally around, with one exception. They simply need to point to the miserable outcome of two years of the Democrats’ lying, cravenly pro-corporate, anti-people policies that have betrayed every section of their base, except for the handful of Wall Streeters who received little fanfare for shoveling cash their way in 2008.

I have to agree with Frank Rich of the New York Times when he concludes his Op-Ed piece,

But the Obama White House is hardly innocent. Its failure to hold the [economic] bust’s malefactors accountable has helped turn what should have been a clear-cut choice on Nov. 2 into a blurry contest between the party of big corporations and the party of business as usual.

Liberals and the broad left will not be able to stanch the stunning rightward shift in  politics by voting for the very political party that helped create the conditions for the rise of the right, the Democrats. In control of Congress for four years and the White House as well for the last two, the Democrats not only have not delivered the goods, once again they have earned  the moniker given them by former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips: they are “the world’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.”

But I am not a cynic nor do I promote passivity in the face of an onslaught of crappy policies and electoral options. More than ever in my lifetime it is urgent that we build an activist left independent of the Democrats.

Look at the mass strikes and protests in France involving millions of workers and youth who are defying policies that will gut their welfare state. They are showing an alternative route to social and economic change that is more likely to have a profound impact on their future than anything that happens at the ballot box.

For those who believe the French upheaval is something that can never happen here, please consider some historical facts. Slavery ended through civil war, not the vote. Civil rights were won through mass protest, not the vote. Women’s right to abortion is inconceivable without the dynamism of the women’s movement. Social Security, the weekend, workplace safety standards and on and on are the legacy of masses of working-class people acting in defiance of their bosses and politicians.

Forests have been felled detailing the colossal failures of the Dems these past two years, and Tariq Ali’s latest quickie read, The Obama Syndrome, is a great place to start your self-education. By far the best analysis of why and how the Democrats operate as they do, which debunks the myths of the FDR and JFK administrations, can be found in the pages of Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History.  I encourage the discouraged to read them both.

Whether you decide to vote or not on November 2, this is no time for inaction. Our future is at stake and we can’t afford to leave it in the hands of a party that’s shown its fealty to the system of profit over human need. The time to organize and protest is now.

P.S. The current post was 30 minutes old when I started receiving notes about how we just need to elect better Dems. I’ll be blunt, as usual. You cannot end prostitution by bringing virgins into brothels.

I’ll be speaking Friday, Nov. 5 at University of North Carolina-Greensboro, on Fighting the Right. Details to come.

Earth to Filthy Rich: Shut Up

Who exactly is the intended audience for the New York Times’ special Wealth Section? If you think that Tiger 21 is the name of the latest Mac Operating System, it’s safe to assume that it isn’t you.

Tiger 21’s 140 men and women (“almost 10 percent” are gals, the Times dutifully reports) whose combined wealth is $10 billion are apparently having a tough time finding discreet places to chat about how to invest and distribute their billions. In an act of sheer desperation, I suppose, they’ve turned to the newspaper of record to recount their woes about tax shelters, inheritance conundrums and the like.

This newly emerging oppressed minority of “high-net-worth individuals” has thankfully discovered that 4-star hotels have board rooms where they can meet and share investment tidbits without “feeling attacked.”

That is, of course, if they cannot find space in their luxury private jets outfitted with multiple bedrooms, lounges, dining rooms and movie theaters. The market is soaring in these models valued at $40 million to, well, the sky’s the limit really ($320 million, plus $100 for cabin conversion, naturally, is the highest price noted). These were the “hottest items at the National Business Aviation Association annual convention in Atlanta,” I’m told.

Excuse me. Earth to filthy rich (and the editors who think that this is news): there’s a fucking depression on and if you must shoot the shit about the self-absorbtion of the mind-blowingly wealthy, do it in tony joints made for useless parasites. That’s what they’re for!

In my experience, nobody looking for a job, desperately trying to hold onto a job or scrambling around actually doing a job wants to read about the trials and tribulations of the people who never look at pricetags because such triflings are for the little people.

The only folks who want to read about this crap, aside from the itsy-bitsy segment of the population who are filthy rich, are the vacuous strivers who are delusional enough to think that they too will one day own more stuff than any human being could or should ever use or need.

Given the fact that no national newspaper in the country has a regular Labor Section, for example, which would apply to roughly 70 percent of the U.S. population, can editors just stop it with these high-brow versions of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?

In ordinary times it’s just annoying. These days it’s crass.

If you’re in the NYC area, come out to protest the Fox News bigots and their hate speech tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 23 at 11 am Central Park South at 59th and 8th Ave. marching to their headquarters at 47th St. and 6th Ave.

My next speaking gig will be Saturday, Oct. 23, in Pittsburgh at 1PM in the Frick Fine Arts Building, Room 202, on Can the Working Class Unite, part of a three-part Socialism in Our Time conference.