"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

1969 = 2009


Of all man’s fantasies, the afterlife looms largest. Our pursuit for some sense of terrestrial understanding of the fate that does or does not await us beyond this earth ends only when we are sent off it to find out firsthand. We are so transfixed by the eternity yawning before us that we never consider the one we emerged from. The longer we spend looking down the road in the direction we came from and asking ourselves what’s back there beyond the horizon that we can’t see, the more our minds begin to wrap around the idea that the ether on both sides of us is one entity, surrounding us like space does the stars. And with that understanding comes only more questions. We watch dead actors chatter away in black and white movies, and nod along to tales of dinosaurs and Romans and Nazis and all the other forces this world has played host to at times when we were nowhere to be found. Even then, we had been nowhere for an uncomfortably long time, such a long time that the word ‘time’ becomes inadequate.

The 30-and-younger among us don’t know where we were in 1969. We definitely weren’t here. But we’ve seen, heard and read so much about it that we could be forgiven for sometimes feeling like we were. It is and has long been the most familiar year in today’s pop culture consciousness. Its mention instantly summons the same visions in everyone. Tie-dyed hippies clashing with police truncheons. Mammoth hoses spraying African-Americans against the creaking walls of dilapidated buildings. Plump army helicopters cruising over smoldering rainforests. To hear the books tell it, 1969 was the year the American dream and the American nightmare blended into a race war fantasy in Charles Manson’s head, a murky Vietnamese swamp a continent wide. History distils the past to its extremes, and the images at the other end of the spectrum are only slightly less universal, a fact that owes itself to our unquenchable fascination with tragedy. Earth, momentarily obscured behind an astronaut’s helmet as he glides in slow motion across the Moon’s surface. The sounds of some of the most revered figures in music, blowing over the heads of 400,000 people in a field in upstate New York. The implanting of the first artificial human heart.

Those are just the most symbolic of the events that rang out the Sixties, but by no means its only significant ones. A botched police raid on New York City’s most notorious gay bar turned Manhattan into a week-long riot scene, and the Stonewall Inn into the emblem of the gay rights movement. A snitch named William O’Neal drugged 21-year-old Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panthers, then considered the American government’s biggest domestic threat, before Chicago police officers entered his home and put two bullets in his head. A former civil engineer named Yasser Arafat became commander-in-chief of the then-fledgling Palestine Liberation Organization, going on to become the world-recognized face of the resistance. A Haitian immigrant introduced a virus then known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency to the US, according to AIDS researchers comparing Caribbean mutations with more primitive African strains. Every year has its own claim to fame, and without any one of them, this world would be almost unrecognizable, a cosmic alteration a million Marty McFlys couldn’t achieve. But only certain years are truly pivotal ones, years that redefine the attitude and course of a nation. 1969 was such a year. 2009 is going to be another.

History and economy share many parallels: man-made constructs that we can record and speculate over, but ultimately can predict no more accurately than we can our lives. Our surest tool is a keen eye for the patterns that precede those years when one or both pots boil over: a period of relative calm in the ocean, punctuated by occasional ripples that seem to dissipate almost as swiftly as they form. And in calm waters, the world kicks its feet up. The frailty of peace and the dogmatic vigilance it demands is forgotten. The t’s start showing up uncrossed and the i’s begin popping up undotted, and finally, when the bill has grown so lengthy that we can’t see where it begins anymore, we wake up one morning and the entire tangled mess has collapsed on our heads. It’s only as we sit in the shambles and rifle through the detritus for answers that we notice the devil peeking out at us through the details. Belts tighten as losses mount, and the blare of sirens overlap into a united wail that sends us into the streets, streets that are all some of us have by then. And when the people slam the fences of that big building on the hill and tear through its layers and burst into the hidden room at the center to find that there’s nothing in there, just a bare concrete cellar with a mop in the corner and a folding chair in the other, that’s when rich heads start to roll - heads of states and heads of corporations, instead of just heads of households. When things get dire, humans instinctively ramp up the push towards zero, because at zero there’s nowhere to go but up. Destroy and rebuild. Things never change quite as much or for quite as long as we’d hoped, and they probably never will. Man moves in small steps; the giant leaps are far and few between. The devil is in the details, but so are the angels.

It’s hard to ascertain how the people of the Sixties would have responded to the crises of today: a global economic collapse whose bottom our most experienced financial minds cannot see; a messy war in Iraq that began unnecessarily, but whose outcome will sway the tide of global stability for as long as we live; an infinitely messier war in Israel thousands of years old whose outcome still seems as far away as it always did; and a rapidly mounting environmental catastrophe in the making that could dwarf all of our other problems combined. Entertaining romantic visions of the Chicano, African-American, feminist and gay protesters who flung themselves into the paths of riot police time after time throughout the Decade of Protest in their pursuit to secure the rights the Constitution was supposed to have guaranteed them, it becomes tempting to surmise that they might well have exerted much more of an outcry in the face of the recent injustices that contributed to today’s laundry list of woes than their modern-day counterparts have thus far. However, such comparisons are as irrelevant to 2009 as activism itself. The bedfellows of big business and government have, through their ever-burgeoning exchange of money and privilege, instituted a monopoly over every aspect of modern American life which makes the concept of being held accountable to the average citizen seem quaint, almost laughable. While it can still be somewhat effective as one of a series of measures, old-fashioned activism in and of itself is considered a symbolic effort more than one with any promise of real returns. In the Sixties, people were just beginning to explore its power. Forty years later, we know its limitations. However, President Obama’s twin victories in the 2008 Democratic primary and the general election would have been fantasy without the mobilization of today’s youth. It remains to be seen if Obama will be the catalyst for the dissolution of the merger of Wall Street and Washington, but if anything, the young people of today’s integral role in Obama’s stunning coup is proof plenty that, if anything, they are shrewdly learning to fight fire with fire.

Man has a curious tendency to assign importance to multiples of ten, particularly with respect to the calendar, as if events somehow play out in tidy ten-year compartments with their own personalities that change as soon as the fourth digit in a year turns from 9 to 0. And of course, they often do, partially because sometimes fate just works like that, but also because we work like that; we sniff out patterns, we snoop for similarities, and we sift for themes, because it helps us make sense out of the chaos. Time is our creation, like history, the economy, and money, and our own lives. They are all privy to myriad variables: the shifty progress of planning, the winds of chance, the pitfalls of our ineptitude. Bankers looted America for every sliver of the gold that gave the dollars our grandfathers spent their worth, then printed reams of empty paper whose only value was negative, each dollar a debt, and declared it worth every bit as much. And when they figured out that even the cash was unnecessary, that merely typing numbers on the right computer screen could now achieve the same effect, that’s when they realized they could create even more numbers for themselves by making it easier for other people to enjoy some of that action too, even if they couldn’t necessarily pay the loans back. And most Americans were only too happy to play along, until those pesky numbers that went from meaning nothing to meaning something ended up meaning way too much. Today they affect the cash in our pockets, the food on our plates, the place we hang our hats. And in the wake of globalization, the whole planet suffers with us. Sitting in the ruins of a manmade natural disaster, our only salvation is to trace the mistakes that brought us here, and internalize the lessons once and for all. After 2009, the modern world will never be the same. If it somehow continues to be, it will be our failure.

California Part 2: What's The Problem.

IT SEEMED LIKE THE NO-BRAINER OF ALL NO-BRAINERS. The kind of question most sane people would laugh a little under their breath before answering. Should gays be allowed to marry? Hmm. Well, I’ve heard tell of this mythical document called the Declaration of Independence, which legend has it is rather important round these parts. And I found this one line in it which goes “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” which I think wraps that issue up. Any other dumb questions?

Well, the only thing that made most sane people feel dumber – or angrier – than Proposition 8’s passing a couple of months ago was the California Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to uphold it. The issue has officially moved from the ‘no-brainer’ pile to the ‘head-scratcher’ pile, where it struggles for space within a vast landfill of similar head-scratchers collectively known as the California Constitution, a document best described by the fact that after over 500 amendments and revisions, many of which completely contradict both state and federal law, it is now several times longer than America’s. The world grabs a bag of popcorn and watches, perplexed, as the home of Baywatch, Hollywood, the fourth largest economy in the world and home of much of its most sought-after real estate continues to get broker by the nanosecond. And at the helm of it all sits Arnold Schwarzenegger: the Terminator, Mr. Universe, the Austrian Oak, begging elementary schoolkids to take an extra week off so that he won’t have to let child rapists out of jails. The world turns the TV off, shocked, disgusted, disillusioned, and shouts Why? Why, California? Well, after a little digging I think I have some leads.

WE DON’T VOTE. Apparently, all the political Facebook petitions and Obama fan groups in the world aren’t enough to get California’s young, diverse youth to stop Twittering long enough to head to the state elections and offset the old, white men who continue to constitute the lion’s share of votes.
RICH PEOPLE ARE CRAZY. Worse, these aging Caucasian chestnuts tend to either be faux-radical Guevara nuts (privet Berkeley!) or ultra-conservative Dubya fans (howdy Orange County!), which guarantees a ridiculous outcome on most every proposition. And these are the same people who create most of the propositions in the first place.
SACRAMENTO IS POINTLESS. When a completely retarded and arguably illegal proposition does pass (see Proposition 8), the state legislature has no power to override it, and it never expires. Oh, and in California, any budget changes require a two-thirds majority vote to pass, and so do tax changes. So basically, Democrats and Republicans hate on each other’s budget and tax proposals to the point that nothing gets passed and we end up in the clusterfuck of a situation we’re in now.
Ah well. Where's my surfboard. The ocean's still free, right?

Monday, May 18, 2009


MAN. ONE THING THE TITANIC COULD HAVE USED MORE OF WAS BUCKETS. I mean, 86 buckets or 144 buckets or however many buckets they already had on board for the janitors probably wouldn't have been enough to turn that whole 'sinking to a watery grave' thing around. But just imagine if they had, like, 20,000 buckets! A whole floor of nothing but buckets, and everyone could have just grabbed one each and pailed ass until the ship just, I dunno, stopped sinking? And yeah, OK, that huge hole in the hull would still have been there, but with 20,000 buckets they could have shoveled out so much water that there would be no water left in the ocean and everyone could have just walked home along the sea floor from the middle of the Atlantic. Dude, nothing's impossible. And I don't think you understand how many buckets 20,000 buckets is. That's a lot of buckets.

Today, California is having what poiticians call a 'special election'. You may know these kinds of elections better as the ones where you're not voting for people but propositions: you know, those laws that sound like apartment numbers and aren't really laws yet? Normally they're about interesting issues such as whether gay people have the right to walk their dogs or not, but sometimes they're about really boring stuff, like how many paper clips the Oakland School District should not receive this year, or how many extra buckets we can add on to the state budget. When the propositions get boring, we're in big trouble, because it means the government is doing whatever it can to spend less, and if there's one thing Ahnuld hates to do, it's spend less. Well, the propositions on deck today are so boring I could hardly be bothered to read them properly. The most I could gather is that we're now down to stealing money from the under-five and mentally retarded (link). Ahnuld has said that even if all these propositions pass today, Gullyfornia will still be $15.4 billion in the hole. If they don't (and nobody expects them to), we're in the dogpit for about $21.3 billion.

Now, what does Gullyfornia going belly up actually mean? Is it like if I couldn't pay my rent and my son-of-Satan building management company sends those tall Terminator-looking cops with the buzzcuts and the wraparound sunglasses over to throw me and my aging furniture into the street? Or is it the usual situation where college professors with thick-rimmed glasses and funny names get all worked up on the news (and when are they not doing that) but that's about it? Well, I don't know yet. But I have recently become privy to some information that is helping connect the dots for me.

- Apparently California has the worst bond rating of all the 52 states. I'm still not 100% sure what a bond is, but it definitely sounds important, and our bonds are worth less than, like, North Dakota right now. That can't be good.
- Mayor Villaillarairaigogogogosa has suggested privatising Los Angeles' parking meters, a.k.a. he's begging a big company to buy them off the government. And last I heard, parking tickets take care of at least half of L.A.'s budget. So that can't be good either.
- San Quentin is for sale. The land, not the prison. Apparently rich people like oceanside views, so I think the idea is to demolish the building, stuff as many child murderers as possible into all those extra beds we have at all our other prisons, let a few of the child maimers and child assaulters go, and sell the land to developers so Oakland Unified can get those paper clips after all. Hopefully child maimers don't like oceanside views too, or the Watsons may have some unexpected houseguests when they finally move into their brand new San Quentin beachhouse in 2012. Hopefully they'll have a bucket handy.