Thursday, May 08, 2014

How Unions Are Unfairly Scapegoated For Detroit's Woes

By MARC McDONALD

There are many reasons for the catastrophic decline of the once-mighty U.S. auto industry over the decades. But it's unfair and inaccurate to point the main finger of blame at unions, the usual scapegoat.

The world's two dominant auto-exporting nations are Germany and Japan. The auto industries in those two nations are heavily unionized. And what's more, unions in Germany and Japan are backed up by strong pro-labor laws that U.S. workers could only dream of.

Although the auto industries of Germany and Japan are heavily unionized, those two nations have absolutely crushed the U.S. auto industry in markets around the world in recent decades. And they've consistently beaten Detroit on its own turf, as well.

In fact, the only reason the U.S. even still has a domestic auto industry at all these days is that Japan Inc. deliberately pulled its punches with "voluntary export restraints" in the 1980s. The latter was a shrewd move by Tokyo to head off moves by the U.S. to raise trade barriers.

Many Conservatives and "free-market" advocates love to scapegoat unions as the cause for Detroit's decline. But as usual, the GOP's simplistic analysis has little to do with the real world.

The fact is, if unions are so bad, then why do the auto industries of Germany and Japan continue to go from strength to strength in conquering world markets? I've done quite a bit of world travel myself and I've seen a number of nations where American cars are a very rare sight on the roads these days. But I have yet to see a country where the roads aren't filled with Volkswagens, BMWs and Toyotas. (It's true that Japan has struggled in China---but that is for political reasons, not competitive reasons).

Although no "free market" U.S. economist would ever admit this, it's clear that unions have actually helped increase the competitiveness of the Japanese and German auto industries.

How? For a start, unions and strong pro-worker labor laws, have essentially forced the auto industries of Germany and Japan to take a very long-term view. By contrast, Detroit (in common with U.S. corporations in general) has always taken a very short-term view.

The likes of General Motors and Ford have simply focused on the next quarter's profits. Meanwhile, the likes of BMW and Toyota have traditionally planned decades ahead.

Unions in Germany offer labor protections that U.S. workers would have a difficult time grasping. The average German worker enjoys an astonishing 6 to 8 weeks of paid vacation. In fact, figures from 2012 show that Germans enjoy among the shortest work hours of any industrialized nation. On average, Germans work around 1,397 hours per year (versus the 1,790 hours that U.S. workers put in). Despite this, Germany vies with China for the title of the world's biggest exporting nation.

Even the supposedly "workaholic" Japanese put in fewer average hours yearly (1,745 hours) than U.S. workers do these days. The fact most Americans feel otherwise is due to stereotypes about the Japanese that are as outdated as the idea that "Made in Japan" is a sign of subpar quality. (In reality, Japanese manufacturers lead the world in the sophistication of their high-tech manufacturing, virtually all of which is done by union labor).

In addition to short working hours, all German auto workers enjoy the protections of two unions: the industry union (the powerful IG Metall), as well as a "works council" union. And unlike U.S. workers, German labor law requires that German workers get representation on companies' board of directors.

And if Germany's labor laws look pretty good for workers, it could be argued that Japanese workers get an even better deal in many ways. After all, in accordance with Japanese law, employees are the top priority for corporations, followed by customers and (in last place) shareholders.

Strong Japanese labor laws make it virtually impossible for large corporations to do mass layoffs. Although the U.S. mainstream media has been declaring the death of so-called "lifetime employment" in Japan, the fact is, the system remains largely intact.

The U.S. mainstream media (particularly the business press) has long criticized the "high wages" of U.S. auto workers as contributing to Detroit's woes.

But this ignores the fact that German and Japanese auto workers get even better pay than U.S. auto workers. However, this reality is often obscured by the U.S. mainstream media, which tends to report the wages of overseas auto workers using the misleading so-called "purchasing power parity" yardstick. According to the latter, Japanese auto workers' wages are often reported as being lower than U.S. auto workers wages, when in fact Japanese workers make among the highest wages in the world when measured by market rates.

Speaking of high wages, the Germans are hardly slouches in that regard, either. In 2011, Forbes magazine reported that the average auto worker in Germany made $67.14 per hour. By contrast, the average U.S. auto worker made $33.77 per hour. Despite this, excluding "transplant" assembly plants, Germany produces more automobiles than the U.S. (5.5 million in 2010, vs. 2.7 million in the U.S.)

How can this be? I believe a good case could be made that unions, as well as smart labor laws, have actually been a big plus for the auto industries of Japan and Germany. As previously mentioned, unions encourage the auto industries of those nations to take a very long-term view.

Take the Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle. Since its introduction in 1997, the Prius, a very high-tech advanced car, has been an enormous home run for Toyota. But it took a very long-range vision and many years of hard work before the first Prius rolled off the assembly line.

In the meantime, Detroit's auto executives scoffed at the idea of hybrids. At first, they claimed that the technology wasn't feasible. Then, they claimed that hybrid cars would never sell. They insisted that consumers were only interested in buying big, gas-guzzling SUVs.

In doing so, Detroit's CEOs were continuing in a long tradition of making the sort of catastrophic decisions that have doomed the U.S. auto industry over the decades.

Detroit's executives have been wrong on just about every major important trend in the global auto industry for decades. They were wrong when they initially rejected air bags, claiming they were impractical and would never sell. They were wrong in the 1960s when they refused to place much emphasis on building the sort of practical, fuel efficient cars that would explode in popularity worldwide during the 1973 oil crisis. (When that crisis hit, Germany and Japan were already well-placed to cash in, thanks to their prowess in building small, fuel-efficient cars).

It's important to note that these disastrous decisions were made by Detroit's CEOs, not by the unions. And what's even more outrageous is that Detroit's CEOs have pulled down pay packages that are vastly larger than German and Japanese auto CEOs.

The latter fact was memorably illustrated during trade talks between Japanese and U.S. automakers back in 1992. The Tokyo negotiators pointed out that U.S. auto executives made vastly larger pay packages than their Japanese counterparts. The U.S. negotiators angrily dismissed this point as a "red herring."

Perhaps it was, but the Japanese had a point that was apparently missed by the U.S. media. That is: why on earth are Detroit's CEOs paid so well in the first place when they've presided over the disastrous decline of the U.S. auto industry over the decades?

Readers with a long memory might recall that the 1992 talks included the infamous incident in which George H. W. Bush collapsed and vomited on the Japanese prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa. In a way, it was symbolic of the way U.S. workers have been treated since unions were crushed, starting with the Reagan administration.

Today, unions continue to get loads of blame, particularly by the Republicans, for all that is wrong with the U.S. economy.

This "blame the unions" approach dates back to the Reagan years, when "free market" Chicago school economists assured U.S. leaders that if they crushed organized labor and embraced dog-eat-dog capitalism, the U.S. economy would soar. In reality, the only thing that soared was the pay packages of short-sighted CEOs.

Three decades later, unions are vastly weaker. Unions now only represent around 7 percent of the private sector workforce (versus 35 percent back in the 1950s). And yet, America's manufacturing base is at an all-time low. Detroit is in ruins. It's impossible to imagine that the U.S. auto industry will ever again pose a challenge to the mighty auto industries of Germany and Japan.

Side note: much has been written about the successes of the non-unionized auto plants that have sprung up in southern states in recent decades. But the latter hardly represent any sort of real renaissance for the U.S. auto industry.

In fact, these auto plants are doing nothing more than final assembly (which is by far the least sophisticated part of the overall auto manufacturing process). The real heavy lifting, as far as technological know-how, continues to be done in Japan and Germany.

The existence of these assembly plants hardly demonstrates any real strength in U.S. auto industry competitiveness. Rather, they exist because the Germans and Japanese (and increasingly, the Koreans) are happy to farm out low-tech "grunt work" to low wage plants in the U.S. (as well as various other similar facilities in Third World nations across the globe).

Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that the U.S. itself is becoming a Third World nation. And indeed, it is hard to conclude otherwise.

The U.S. auto industry was once the awe and envy of the world. Thanks in large part to the auto industry, the U.S. became the greatest economic national success story in world history (at least, until the recent spectacular rise of China).

There are many reasons for the decline of the U.S. auto industry. Incompetent, short-sighted CEOs. Stupid trade policies. The Reagan administration's embrace of the service economy and the subsequent neglect of America's manufacturing base. A naive embrace by U.S. leaders of the pipe dream called "free trade." A disastrous neglect of America's infrastructure and public schools (even as our nation's bloated military budgets soared into the stratosphere).

But frankly, it's misguided, and wrong, to point the main finger of blame at unions. To be sure, unions aren't entirely blameless. But it's clear that there were many other factors in Detroit's decline. The continued existence of powerful unions and strong pro-worker labor laws in Germany and Japan only confirms this point.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cliven Bundy: The Real Welfare Leech

By MARC McDONALD

I don't know much about the cattle business. But I'd suspect that if one owns a cattle ranch, your biggest expense by far is buying food for your cattle.

Wingnut hero Cliven Bundy owns a prosperous cattle business. His cattle get to graze for free on publicly owned land. (That's right: all taxpayers, including you and me, are subsidizing Bundy's business). He refuses to pay the $1 million he owes the government for supplying his cattle with free food over the decades.

In short, Bundy is a government welfare leech. He can't be bothered to pay the same grazing fees that tens of thousands of other ranchers across the West pay every year.

And yet, incredibly, this right-wing asshole has the gall to criticize African-Americans for living off "government subsidies." That, in and of itself, is an outrageous lie. The vast majority of African-Americans in fact never collect any kind of government subsidies (although this is widely believed by the Rush Limbaugh crowd).

Speaking of which, Bundy's comments on African-Americans sent the previously supportive right-wing media scurrying away from Bundy on Thursday.

Which raises a question: why?

After all, the right-wing media and its wingnut followers pretty much all believe what Bundy said about African-Americans. Switch on a wingnut talk radio station on any week day and you'll hear similar views (although perhaps not as crudely or explicitly expressed). I myself have had countless discussions with right-wingers over the years and they all have expressed similar views to Bundy's.

Limbaugh, the de facto spokesman for the GOP has in fact been making racist and offensive remarks about African-Americans and other minorities for many years. So has Fox News.

And yet, Fox News, after strongly supporting Bundy earlier this month, meekly tiptoed from the whole story after Bundy's racist remarks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Progressive Music Classics. Killing Joke: "Empire Song"

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By MARC McDONALD

Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

The great post-punk band Killing Joke released their sixth single, "Empire Song," on March 20, 1982. It turned out to be an eerily prescient song when, less than two weeks later, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands.

Thatcher's Britain then sprung into action, gearing up for the subsequent Falklands War. "The Empire Strikes Back" was the cover story headline on the April 19, 1982 edition of Newsweek magazine.

The whole episode seemed to have been predicted by "Empire Song," particularly in the infamous chorus:

"Back to square one, another empire backfire"

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Russia's current actions in Crimea demonstrate that "The Great Game" of empires is as alive and well today as it was in the 19th century.

The only difference is that, back in the old days, the great powers were a bit more honest in admitting that they simply wanted to steal the resources of the countries they exploited.

These days, imperialism is often masked and obscured by a lot of lofty talk about ideals. (For example, the Bush/Cheney NeoCons often talked of noble goals of bringing "democracy" to Iraq, rather than just admitting that they wanted the fucking oil for their billionaire cronies).

Like Robber Baron capitalism, imperialism never really died. It simply went through a fallow period. I'd suspect that the current episode in Crimea is merely only the beginning of what will be a new round of resource grabbing by the Great Powers.

Killing Joke is one of those bands that proved to be highly influential over the years, but never really got the credit they deserved. For example, Nirvana blatantly ripped off Killing Joke's 1984 "Eighties" single on their 1992 song, "Come as You Are."

And vastly inferior "industrial" bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails have made a career out of stealing Killing Joke's basic template and watering it down for popular consumption. (The latter is the main reason why the whole "industrial" genre quickly became stale and cliched).

Unlike the tiresome bands that followed in their wake, Killing Joke always had an element of menace and danger in their work. What's more, they had a real message, tackling horrors like Monsanto, war, propaganda, corporatism, and other modern ills in their lyrics.

Killing Joke's approach hasn't been a formula for commercial success, but it has led to three decades of fantastic music of integrity and honesty.

Monday, March 03, 2014

"12 Years a Slave" Oscar Win: Get Ready For Inevitable Whining By the Rush/Drudge/Fox Crowd

By MARC McDONALD

12 Years a Slave is a great film that deserved its Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night. And already, I can just see the inevitable backlash from the racist Right-Wing Propaganda Noise Machine of Limbaugh/Drudge/Fox.
Here's their twisted little version of U.S. history:

The Civil War ended slavery in America.
And after the Civil War ended in 1865, no black person was mistreated in America ever again.
And all Americans lived happily ever after.
The end.

(Oh, and if any black people are still struggling with poverty and other hardships, well, it's all their own damn fault. Slavery happened a long time ago, and black people have had since 1865 to get their act together).

Oh, and all the following never happened:
  • The lynching era.
  • The torture/murder of Sam Hose.
  • The Jim Crow era.
  • The 1921 Tulsa race riot that destroyed the "Black Wall Street" (killing as many as 300 African-Americans).
  • The terrorism of the KKK.
  • The Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
  • The murder of Medgar Evers.
  • The murder of MLK.
  • The deadly police attack on MOVE.
  • The shooting of Amadou Diallo.
  • Ronald Reagan's 1980 "States' Rights" speech.
  • Willie Horton.
  • The murder of James Byrd, Jr.
  • George W. Bush praises officials at Bob Jones University.
  • The "birther" controversy.
  • President Obama is a "subhuman mongrel" remark by GOP hero, Ted Nugent.
  • The ongoing harsh incarceration of hundreds of thousands of young black men in U.S. prisons for small-time, non-violent, petty drug possession offenses ("crimes" that wouldn't even merit jail time in most of Europe and the rest of the First World).
Etc. Note: Limbaugh/Drudge/Fox News fans: I can hear your complaints already, "But we white males are the REAL persecuted victims in today's America!" Yeah, if Rush says it, it must be true. Get ready to hear a lot of right-wing bullsh*t about how "Liberal" Hollywood tries to make white people feel guilty about slavery and the historical mistreatment of African-Americans. Yes, the "Liberal" Hollywood that brought us, Birth of a Nation.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Progressive Music Classics. The Fatima Mansions: "Something Bad"

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By MARC McDONALD

Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

These days, I think pretty much everyone outside of the Rush/Drudge/Fox crowd now accepts that George W. Bush's eight years in the White House were a true disaster for the American nation, as well as for the world.

Bush's two terms were so awful that it's easy to forget just how bad his father's term in office was, as well. So while the memories are still fresh of how GWB was an arrogant, incompetent little prick and a warmonger, it's important to remember that Bush senior wasn't a whole lot better. Clearly, the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

Bush senior's time in office back in the early 1990s was truly a miserable period. After eight agonizing years of Reagan, it was almost too much to bear.

It was a dark and sinister era in many ways. It was a time well summed up by the 1992 song, "Something Bad" by the Irish band, The Fatima Mansions.

Led by Cathal Coughlan, The Fatima Mansions were (ironically) named after a crumbling housing estate in Dublin. Coughlan was gifted with a wonderful voice. He had a knack for lyrics that could lure you in with their beauty---and then, when you least suspected it, come at you like a sudden switchblade with deeply disturbing imagery.

Clearly, The Fatima Mansions weren't intended to be easy listening. Nor did they aim for the charts. Instead, they meant to jolt you and, oftentimes, leave you with a queasy feeling. In this, they shared the same approach as other provocative bands like Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle.

While always intriguing, Coughlan's lyrics were rarely straightforward. But in "Something Bad," there was no doubt as to what the target of his venom was.

"One man felt ashamed running guns and cocaine,
For his short-term gain, so every one of us must pay.

In his New World Order, you can have some nerve gas with your air,
Thanks to the CIA pussy in the President's chair.

Something bad is giving birth,
In the sky its belly bursts."


"Something Bad" appeared on the excellent 1992 album, Valhalla Avenue (which sadly was never released in America). It's an album that alternates between songs with lovely melodies and harsh electronic noise (sometimes in the same song, to jarring effect). It's a wonderful antidote to the lame, safe-as-milk, cynically contrived music that clogs up the airwaves these days.

To me, "Something Bad" is a stark reminder that George W. is hardly the only Bush that has inflicted damage on America. The entire Bush family has been a disaster for the country over the years. God help us if another Bush ever succeeds in making it back to the White House.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

America's Hypocrisy in Condemning North Korea

By MARC McDONALD

Lately, the U.S. (and the U.N.) have been spending a lot of time attacking North Korea's human rights record. I'm no fan of North Korea. But something about all this just doesn't pass the smell test for me. After all, it seems like we've been down this road before---although America's persistent collective amnesia prevents us from grasping this truth.

In any case, in the aftermath of horrors like Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and Mahmudiyah, I'm not sure the U.S. has much moral authority left to lecture other nations about "human rights." (The fact that a lot of readers are likely scratching their heads and wondering what Mahmudiyah was all about is a good indicator of just how ill-informed Americans are when it comes to our own nation's crimes).

Say what you want about North Korea. But at least they're not going around the world invading other nations to steal their oil.

Yes, the ruling cabal of North Korea is brutalizing their own people. But the U.S. really needs to get its own house in order before we lecture other nations.

I want to make it clear: I don't support North Korea. But I'm always leery of these horror stories that we hear in the U.S. corporate media about what supposedly goes on in these tightly-closed nations on the other side of the world. I mean, who the f*ck in the U.S. really knows what's going on in North Korea these days?

To tell you the truth, I sometimes think I'd like to visit North Korea myself someday, just to check it out and see that nation for myself, first-hand. However, that's illegal for me, as a U.S. citizen, to do. Which raises a question: why? If America is really a "free" nation, then why does it set limits on where U.S. citizens can travel?

Travel to Cuba is also illegal for me to do. However, interesting enough, though, it was perfectly legal for me to visit South Africa during the dark days of apartheid.

Back in the 1980s, the U.S. government had zero regulations about U.S. citizens visiting (and U.S. corporations conducting commerce with) what was, at the time, one of the most evil regimes in history.

But oppressing black people is one thing. Tampering with the United Fruit Company's profits is quite another.

Maybe it's simply because I'm a contrarian bastard who has been lied to so many times that I simply no longer buy anything the U.S. government is peddling.

But something about America's outrage over North Korea's human rights record just doesn't pass the smell test, for me. And what's more, do we really think that America's corporate oligarchy really gives a sh*t about human rights in North Korea? (No, what they're really shedding tears over is potential lost soft drink sales).

I mean, have we already forgotten that a lot of the horror stories we were told about Saddam simply never happened?

How about Saddam Hussein's alleged shredder that we were assured was being used to horrifically kill his opponents? "See men shredded, then say you don't back war," went the headline in one U.K. newspaper. The trouble was, it turns out this notorious machine never even existed. However, it did serve a useful purpose in the corporate media's mandate to transform the Third World tinhorn dictator Saddam into the next Hitler.

Or how about the war-time propaganda/crock of sh*t that was the 1990 Nayirah testimony? The heart-rending stories of Saddam's troops taking babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving them to die all turned out to be fabricated. But such horrific tales did help whip up support among the U.S. public for war in Iraq.

Or how about the WMDs that all our American leadership insisted posed a threat to our nation? Anyone who disputed the WMD allegations was treated as a kook, or a traitor.

And I always take what I hear from the exiles of such regimes with a grain of salt. Much of what the Iraqi exiles assured us about what was going on in Iraq was either exaggerated or fabricated.

I'd be the first to admit that North Korea is probably in reality a very bad place. But frankly, what goes on there is none of America's f*cking business. We really need to start paying reparations to the millions of families in Iraq and Vietnam that were the victims of our aggression before we continue to point the finger of blame at other nations and lecture them on "human rights."

And if it's human rights abuses and authoritarianism that really bothers you, then please take a look around your house. Odds are, a majority of your household possessions were made in China (which, despite a lot of wishful thinking by the U.S. corporate media, is still very much a Communist nation, with abysmal human rights that are probably on a par with North Korea).

Incidentally, while Americans are constantly making a fuss over North Korea's human rights, why aren't we similarly all worked up over a hell-hole like Saudi Arabia? The latter is ruled by a horrific leadership that brutalizes women, tortures and murders its opponents, and funds Islamic terror groups around the world.

And yet, little is ever mentioned about any of this in the U.S. corporate media. The Saudis are our friends and allies, we're told. More importantly, they hold a lot of U.S. assets and are valuable partners to corporate America and the U.S. military industrial complex. Indeed, the likes of George W. Bush had warm ties to the Saudi ruling class and even invited its members out to friendly barbecues at his Texas ranch.

It's hard for me to put my finger on specifically what bothers me about the U.S. corporate media's continuing outrage over North Korea. But something just doesn't pass the smell test for me. Once again, the corporate media is working overtime to build up an insignificant Third World tinhorn dictator into the next Adolf Hitler. To what end remains unclear.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Would President Gore Have Done After 9/11?

By MARC McDONALD

I've often wondered: if Al Gore had been allowed to assume the presidency that he won in the 2000 election, how would he have responded after the 9/11 attacks? Actually, I think it's pretty likely 9/11 would never have happened in the first place under President Gore.

Gore was (and is) a reader and a scholar, you see. One of those dreaded "Liberal book learners." Unlike Bush, Gore didn't make decisions "based on his gut." Gore read about and studied the issues. He listened to experts. Oh, the horror!

And on Aug. 6, 2001, when the CIA hand-delivered a Presidential Daily Brief to President Gore, he would have actually read the goddamn thing (particularly after glancing at the alarming headline, "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S.")

Unlike Bush, Gore wasn't fond of endless 5-week vacations on the taxpayer's dime. So it is entirely possible that Gore wouldn't have been on vacation at the time. I'm think it's also highly likely that if Gore had been on vacation, he'd have cut it short to deal with the PDB.

What's important, though, is that President Gore would have take action. For example, it's a virtual certainty that he would have called a meeting of his top security people. (Maybe such a high-level security meeting would have brought attention to issues like the FBI's July 2001 reporting about suspicious Middle Eastern men who were learning to fly passenger airliners at U.S. aviation schools).

I'd also suspect that President Gore would have ordered possible terror targets like airports to step up security a notch.

Sadly, none of this actually happened. Of course, that's because in the previous year, a blatantly pro-GOP Supreme Court in 2000 awarded Bush a presidency in an election that Gore won by over half a million votes.

And so when Aug. 6, 2001 rolled around, Bush was handed the fateful Bin Laden PDB and took no action, as he continued to enjoy his 5 week vacation.

And so 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. And later, hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered in the trillion-dollar fiasco called the Iraq War.

Of course, Bush and his supporters have long maintained that, "No one could have predicted the Sept. 11 attacks."

That, of course, is utter bullsh*t.

As David Plotz explained in a piece on Slate, there were in fact, "tons of warnings of exactly this kind of attack."

"The (2003) congressional report on the 9/11 intelligence failures lists a dozen pre-9/11 indications that terrorists were plotting a suicide hijacking. For example, in 1994 Algerians hijacked an Air France airliner with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower. (They were tricked by French officials into landing in Marseilles to refuel, where they were overpowered.) In 1995, police in the Philippines uncovered an al-Qaida plot to fly a plane into CIA headquarters. (One of the plotters: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.) A year later, al-Qaida had the idea of flying a plane from outside the United States and crashing it into the White House. Two years later, al-Qaida planned to fly a plane from outside the United States and crash it into the World Trade Center. And so on."

I suppose it could be debated endlessly as to whether a President Gore could have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks. I personally believe it is likely. But in reality, we will never know.

We do, however, know that President Gore almost certainly wouldn't have marched the U.S. into invading the wrong country after 9/11. This is where Gore's "book learning" would have come in handy for the nation. I think it's likely that Gore wouldn't have been under the misconception, shared by the Bush crowd, that Saddam somehow was connected to 9/11. (In fact, he likely would have known that, in fact, Saddam and Bin Laden were bitter enemies).

I suppose, in fairness, it's possible that even this can't be known for certainty.

But there is one thing that is absolutely certain. President Gore would have taken firm decisive action to protect America (and the world) from a threat that is actually vastly larger than Al-Qaeda.

That is: the oncoming major threat to humanity called Global Warming.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Music For Those Who Hate the Grammys. Progressive Music Classics: "Joe Hill" by Paul Robeson

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By MARC McDONALD

Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

I didn't watch the Grammy Awards this year. In fact, I never watch the Grammys (which is nothing more than a wank-fest of the corrupt U.S. corporate recording industry to celebrate another year of the utter mediocrity that clogs up today's pop charts). Anyone who thinks the Grammys celebrate the best of U.S. popular music probably also thinks the "Best Picture" Oscar actually has something to do with the best cinema of the year.

I suppose there might be some worthwhile music at the Grammys. But as the great Morrissey once sang, "It says nothing to me about my life."

Once upon a time, popular music actually had something to say. Listen to the best songs of the 1960s for example, and you can quickly get a sense of the issues of the day, from the Vietnam War to the youth rebellions that shook the Western world.

But these days, the songs are all about sex, bling-bling, and mindless consumption. And even the "best" music these days seems clinically crafted for one purpose: to shift as many units as possible.

It's all the more outrageous when you consider that one important function of the arts has been to hold a mirror up to society. Any outsider who listened to today's U.S. pop music would conclude that most Americans drive Bentleys, drink lots of Grey Goose, and spend their days having sex with supermodels.

If today's pop music really reflected U.S. society, it would reveal a broken, deteriorating nation that is facing a major crisis. Poverty is rising. The gap between rich and poor is at obscene levels. More and more kids are going hungry. The once Great American Middle Class is becoming extinct. And yet our corrupt government does nothing but act as a concierge service for the Rich & Powerful.

Do today's hitmakers like Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke have anything to say about all this? No---in fact today's popular music has nothing much to say about anything, bar the odd left-field hit from Chumbawamba.

One artist who always did keep it real was the great Paul Robeson (1898-1976). One of the most important progressive artists of all time, Robeson was often persecuted by the Powers That Be for his beliefs. But he never apologized and never backed down.

In the video above, Robeson pays homage to another great progressive hero, Joe Hill, who was executed in 1915.

Today, it's easy for some to mock Robeson's leftist beliefs as "naive." But what I've always found really naive is how so many in our society now embrace a unregulated, unfettered "free market" as the answer to everything.

Somehow, in our society, it's always the lefties who are regarded as naive. But those who embrace hard-core dog-eat-dog capitalism are somehow regarded as "sensible" and "realistic."

But those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Back in the 1930s, unfettered capitalism led to the Great Depression. I believe that today's unfettered capitalism will likely lead to nothing less than the end of America as we know it.

The fact is, the middle class is dying in America. And without a healthy, vibrant middle class around to buy the products that the system produces, U.S. capitalism won't survive for much longer.

Where are the Joe Hills of today? And for that matter who is our generation's equivalent of Paul Robeson? You certainly won't ever find such a singer, watching the banalities of the corporate wank-fest called the Grammy Awards.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Progressive Music Classics. "Punk Prayer" by Pussy Riot

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By MARC McDONALD

Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

I have to laugh when I hear bands like Green Day described as "punk." Green Day is about as "punk" as a cup of Starbucks coffee. Green Day wouldn't know real "punk" if it walked up to them and grabbed them by the balls. (Not that corporate cowards like Green Day have any balls in the first place).

In any case, Russia's Pussy Riot has more balls than the entire U.S. corporate recording industry.

Real punk has always been about challenging the system. The Sex Pistols (at least in their first incarnation) challenged the British monarchy and paid the price. It brought the full weight of British officialdom and right-wing tabloid outrage down on their heads. Johnny Rotten was even knifed in the streets by royalty-supporting goons.

Here in the States, the Dead Kennedys also faced challenges that brought about the disintegration of the band. The artwork for their 1985 album, Frankenchrist had leader singer Jello Biafra facing obscenity charges.

However, even these challenges to the system fade into insignificance when compared to the provocations of what may well be the bravest band in the world today, Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot, of course, ran into major problems in 2012 when they brazenly challenged Vladimir Putin, as well as the all-powerful Russian Orthodox Church. Three of the all-female band members wound up facing harsh prison sentences as a result.

It's hard to imagine a band with more integrity than Pussy Riot. And I believe that, for all the attention their 2012 arrests prompted, the Pussy Riot's full message has been watered and obscured by the Western corporate media coverage.

Pussy Riot, you see, aren't just foes of the likes of Putin and Russian Orthodox Church. They're also outspoken opponents of global corporatism and capitalism. This radical left-wing aspect of the band has often been downplayed in Western media coverage.

It's clear that Pussy Riot has higher motives than to simply sell records and make money. As the band explained in a Radio Free Europe interview.

"...the only performances we'll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets."

Another aspect of Pussy Riot that has been often overlooked is the fact that, for all the controversy that has surrounded the band, Pussy Riot makes great, powerful music.

"Punk Prayer" featured in the video above is a classic blast of punk outrage. Like all the best punk music, "Punk Prayer" is gloriously amateurish and seething with righteous anger.

I've read where Pussy Riot claims first-generation U.K. punk bands like the Cockney Rejects and Sham 69 as influences. But to me, their sound has echoes of the late, great British anarchist band, Crass (whose latter-period music often contrasted passages of pretty, melodic vocals with harsh guitar feedback).

For all the controversy surrounding the band, Pussy Riot's actual music has generated relatively little comment in the U.S. And the few comments that have been made are often hilariously misinformed and ignorant. Take (please) Kiss' Gene Simmons idiotic 2012 remarks about Pussy Riot:

"They're very pretty girls. It is not a good band, but they have the right to do whatever they want to do,"

Yeah, right: whatever, Grandpa.

Maybe I'm in the minority in my opinion, but I always thought Kiss's music was a snooze-fest. To me, Kiss was a bore even during the band's peak, decades ago, when they ripped off their musical template from the likes of (the vastly superior) Slade.

Simmons has a lot of gall in criticizing Pussy Riot. This, after all, is a money-obsessed, right-wing asshole, whose only "accomplishment" over the decades has been to boast about how many sex partners he has had.

The brave women of Pussy Riot have way more balls and integrity than corporate whores like Simmons will ever have.

Maybe they'll never get played on the radio. But give me Pussy Riot's righteous anger, integrity, and bravery any day over geriatric, commercial sell-outs like Kiss.

And speaking of cowardice, we Americans shouldn't get too smug about Pussy Riot's oppression by Putin's Russia. Too often, our line of thinking goes, "Thank goodness we live in the U.S.A. where we have freedom of speech, unlike Putin's Russia."

But let's not kid ourselves. If there were any U.S. bands around that were actually brave and subversive enough to challenge the U.S. Corporate System/Military Industrial Complex, they'd no doubt face a crackdown here, as well.

Just ask Paul Robeson.

Just ask The Weavers.

Hell, while you're at it, ask the Dixie Chicks (who faced death threats for merely making a mildly critical remark about George W. Bush).

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Remembering When Reagan Embraced Apartheid South Africa

By MARC McDONALD

After many years of struggle, the evil system of apartheid in South Africa came to an end in the early 1990s, thanks to the brave efforts of Nelson Mandela.

But apartheid's end arrived with absolutely no thanks to Ronald Reagan, a man who embraced the racist apartheid regime.

In 1986, during the growing struggle against apartheid, Reagan used the words "immoral" and "utterly repugnant."

Unfortunately, Reagan wasn't talking about apartheid. Instead, he was using those words to describe his views on the Anti-Apartheid Act, a proposed law that called for imposing sanctions against South Africa.

Reagan's position was too extreme, even for his fellow Republicans. Reagan's veto against the Anti-Apartheid Act was overridden by the GOP-controlled Senate in October 1986.

The Gipper's position really shouldn't have been surprising. After all, throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration maintained close ties to the South African government. Reagan even demonized foes of apartheid, such as the African National Congress, as "dangerous and pro-communist."

It's no wonder that 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu called Reagan's policy, "immoral, evil and totally un-Christian" during a visit to the United States.

If Reagan's stance on apartheid seems surprising, it shouldn't be. After all (like many Republicans today) Reagan was a master of using subtle racist messaging techniques to rally support on the campaign trail. Recall how in 1980, Reagan gave his first major campaign speech, babbling on about "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi (where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964).

Reagan's subtle racist techniques, of course, continue today. We continue to see it in the ongoing GOP attacks on President Obama. As The New York Times put it last year: "There has been a racist undertone to many of the Republican attacks leveled against President Obama."

So Rest in Peace, Nelson Mandela. You were a true giant and a fighter for a noble cause: the end of the evil apartheid system. It's sad that your brave fight against apartheid in the 1980s didn't draw support from the likes of Reagan.

Update: Already, the wingnuts are trying to smear and tarnish the great man's legacy (a trend I expect we'll see quite a bit more of in the coming weeks).

One article at right-wing sewer hole PJ Media is titled, "Communist Icon Nelson Mandela Dead at 95." The piece calls the African National Congress's armed struggle against apartheid as "terror attacks."

You've gotta love these wingnuts and their twisted "logic." Where was their outrage against "terror attacks" when their hero, George W. Bush, ordered the bombing of Baghdad and other cities during his invasion of Iraq? Those bombings slaughtered thousands of Iraqi civilians. And for what? So that corporate America could get its filthy hands on Iraq's oil?

Say what you want about the ANC's attacks---but at least the cause (the struggle to end apartheid) was worthwhile.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Black Friday Protests at Walmart: What You Can Do To Help

By MARC McDONALD

Are you fed up with the ongoing immoral, unethical behavior from Dick Cheney's favorite corporation, Walmart?

As one of our favorite progressive sites, ColorOfChange.org, points out:

"Walmart reported a profit of $15.7 billion last year, yet Walmart workers must rely on food stamps, Medicaid and other anti-poverty programs to put food on the table and keep the lights on."

Do you think this doesn't affect you personally? Think again. As ColorOfChange.org notes:

"Taxpayers subsidize this worker exploitation to the tune of $900,000-$1,750,000 per store, and there are over 4,700 Walmart and Sam's Club stores in the U.S."

During the eight horrific years of the Bush/Cheney's corporatist regime, no action was taken against Walmart. Today, however, it's a different story.

From As ColorOfChange.org:

"Fed-up workers have walked off the job at Walmart stores in Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, Miami and Southern California. And Walmart is facing federal prosecution for its pattern of illegal firings and threats to workers across at least 13 states."

Would you like to help, or participate in the upcoming Black Friday Walmart protests? Go here.

Be sure to also check out the essential progressive Web site, ColorOfChange.org.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

JFK Assassination, 50 Years Later: Taking a Look at the Mysterious Life of George de Mohrenschildt

By TIM FLEMING

(Note: this is a guest post by Tim Fleming about the late George de Mohrenschildt. A mysterious and fascinating figure for JFK assassination researchers, de Mohrenschildt became friends with Lee Harvey Oswald in 1962. Be sure to check out Tim's blog, Left of the Looking Glass).

If you want to unravel the mysteries of the JFK case, all you have to do is follow one George de Mohrenschildt, CIA covert asset, oil geologist, Russian royalty and international man of mystery. It can be said, with only the slightest bit of exaggeration, that de Mohrenschildt knew everyone involved in The Big Hit.

De Mohrenschildt was well acquainted with the Bush family. De Mohrenschildt's nephew, Eddie Hooker, had been George H.W. Bush's prep school roommate at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. De Mohrenschildt and Hooker went into the oil business in West Texas at the same time that Bush was working there as a Dresser Industries employee. Speaking of Dresser Industries, it was closely aligned with a fashion/sportswear business in Dallas called Nardi’s. De Mohrenschildt’s wife Jeanne worked at Nardi’s in the 1950s alongside Abraham Zapruder. Yes, that Zapruder: the man who made the most infamous home movie of all time. While Jeanne designed the clothing, Abe cut the patterns. Think about that for a moment. The man who filmed the murder of JFK worked closely with the wife of the accused assassin’s best friend. My head hurts.

The De Mohrenschildt family was steeped in an intelligence background. George's older brother Dmitri worked, on many occasions, with Allen Dulles of the OSS/CIA. George himself started doing covert work for the CIA in the 1950s. When he moved to Dallas in 1952 he joined the Dallas Petroleum Club and the Council on Foreign Relations; both organizations’ membership lists read like a who’s who of Kennedy assassination suspects.

One of De Mohrenschildt’s most dangerous CIA assignments (one that he certainly would have refused had he known the consequences) was "shepherding" or "setting up" Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas in 1962-63. De Mohrenschildt was chosen for the job because of his fluency in the Russian language and his knowledge of Russian culture. Oswald, having lived in Russia on a low-level, false-defector mission for the CIA, was naturally drawn to De Mohrenschildt’s acumen in all things Russian.

The Warren Commission called De Mohrenschildt to testify, but it was hardly a rough interrogation. De Mohrenschildt was asked about his remarkable suntan and then dismissed. Warren Commission member Allen Dulles, who certainly knew De Mohrenschildt, cleverly steered the questioning away from the most dangerous areas.

That would have been the end of it, except that a couple of FBI memos addressing George H.W. Bush's involvement in the aftermath of the assassination surfaced. The memos refer to "George Bush" of the CIA having reported on anti-Castro community activity post-assassination and having named a suspect to be questioned. But Bush has always denied being a CIA employee in 1963. Oops ... Bush got caught practicing spycraft (plausible deniability for being in Dallas the day Kennedy was murdered and snooping on a group of suspects). Naturally serious investigators raised the suspiciousness of the Bush-De Mohrenschildt-Oswald connection.

According to author Russ Baker, "...in the spring of 1963, immediately after his final communication with Oswald, De Mohrenschildt had traveled to New York and Washington for meetings with CIA and military intelligence officials. He even had met with a top aide to Vice President Johnson. And the (Warren) commission certainly did not learn that one meeting in New York included Thomas Devine, then Poppy Bush’s business colleague in Zapata offshore, who was doing double duty for the CIA."

It is noteworthy that De Mohrenschildt was acquainted with most, if not all, the major suspects in the JFK assassination. He befriended Dallas oil barons, he worked as a covert asset for the CIA, he set up Lee Harvey Oswald, and he even knew Lyndon Johnson.

In Watergate, Deep Throat advised Woodward to follow the money. In the JFK murder case, one need only follow George De Mohrenschildt to track the outline of the plot.

Closing Comment by Marc McDonald:

On March 29, 1977, de Mohrenschildt was contacted by an investigator with the House Select Committee on Assassinations, asking for an interview. That same day, de Mohrenschildt was found dead from a gunshot wound. De Mohrenschildt's death has been called a suicide, but its timing does seem mysterious.