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Wednesday, 9 April 2008
A deplorable state of affairs
Topic: politics

"State of..." speeches are supposed to be taken as grand civic convocations, celebrations of unity and shared purpose, but they're really no more than elites talking to one another - just like most other aspects of very small "d" democracy. You know how it works: the president or governor or mayor appears before the citizenry secondhand - quite literally mediated through the camera and microphone. His or her principal, if not exclusive audience is the assembly of legislators, political appointees, business leaders, and other powerbrokers, joined by certain invited guests who serve as rhetorical props when the Head of State must soften the script with a touch of humanity. Everything's carefully scripted, and the speaker is showcased to convince Everyman and Everywoman that he or she is the center of attention. But that's illusory. There's no real communication, no give and take, no opportunity for the voice of the powerless to be heard.

You're probably already seeing Dubya in your mind's eye - and indeed, he and his handlers are true professionals in this context. But the principles of the "State of..." speech apply even to the best of leaders. Take Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy's "State of the City" 2008, delivered at the Hochstein auditorium this week. I think Bob Duffy is an honest man - Rochester has been lucky in this regard, having had decent, honorable mayors in Tom Ryan, Bill Johnson, and now Duffy - but this year's address did not engage the community as it might have, nor did it go to the heart of the problems facing the city.

The venue itself was a confession of failure. Hochstein is a great place for music and theater, but it's not suitable for a true democratic mass gathering. The mayor should be energizing the multitudes from a downtown bridge, like the fireworks on New Year's. Or he could speak at the War Memorial or Frontier Field. Why is it that sports events attract people by the thousands, while actual civic events draw mere hundreds (and small radio and TV audiences)? I remember being at a grand public event commemorating the Triumph of the Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua, in the early 1990s. The Sandinista leadership spoke from a platform directly to 100,000 or more highly charged-up citizens. Why do such things never happen here?

They don't happen here because of a democracy deficit. And because of a string of analytical fallacies and dead ends. Consider, for example, what Bob Duffy didn't say the other night. He spoke about urban problems - you know the litany - but he didn't identify the source. He didn't speak about structural racism, even though his State of the City came only a few days after the much-observed 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. But isn't racism the core issue in places like Rochester and Monroe County? We live under an apartheid regime of impressive persistence. All the more so because it's generally unacknowledged - by whites, that is. Our leaders deplore poverty and violence, but they do nothing to change the paradigm.

Similarly, leaders never, never, never blame the corporate classes for regional decline. The manufacturing sector may have largely abandoned us - tens of thousands of jobs gone down the drain as whole industries left for sunnier climes and more easily exploited labor - but our political leaders won't even mildly criticize, much less sanction the business leaders who made it all happen. No, it's a lot easier to dwell on "entrepreneurship" and "innovation" - witness the bullshit campaign now in full flower at RIT under new President Bill Destler, a man who seems almost genetically wired to deliver empty speeches - and trash the public schools and generations of young people for their shortcomings.

And then there's the war and military spending. The plain fact is that American cities, most assuredly including Rochester, are suffering precisely because we're spending ourselves silly and mortgaging our future to keep the imperial legions operating at levels that would have embarrassed Hadrian and Trajan. What's the figure, 737 foreign military bases? And three-quarters of a trillion dollars in current annual military spending (including the Pentagon, the Dept. of Energy's weapons programs, the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and other incidentals)? Meanwhile, we're strangling every community that doesn't hop onto the hypermilitarist gravy train.

Shouldn't all decent, honorable mayors point out this little contradiction?



Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:12 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 9 April 2008 22:23 EDT
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Friday, 4 April 2008
A poem to help commemorate National Poetry Month
Topic: poetry
Campbell’s Ledge

From across the Susquehanna
The striated ledge looks
Like a bundle of taut springs
Capable of lobbing a
Volley of boulders
Smack into the floodplain, crumpling
The rail depot
Like a broken toy.
I come the long way around
To be safe.
There’s the trailhead
At the base of the mountain,
Carpeted with sheet metal scraps
And, naturally, coal and cinders
Arranged like scat.
Then comes something of a gate:
A refrigerator frame
Pierced with red maples about my age.
And then comes the climb with a
Vengeance on clay stairs,
More handholds than footholds,
And gusts that could throw you down
As legend says these heights
Threw a man named Campbell,
The only man who knew
If he really made his escape.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 15:56 EDT
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Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Five years... and 95 to go?
Topic: antiwar
Five years and counting... you all know the meaning of the numbers. A million Iraqi dead; countless other Iraqis maimed or terrorized. This on top of a million or more Iraqis who died or whose lives were shattered by the 1990s Sanctions of the Liberals (one of whose backroom players now lusts for the White House). And of course, 4,000 American military deaths in Iraq, plus 15 times that number seriously wounded.

The order of the numbers reporting means a lot, too. Have you noticed that US media always update the casualty totals with the lowest figure first - that is, the 4,000 - or often give nothing in addition for context? That's just their way of doing what they and Hollywood (e.g. Deer Hunter) did throughout the Vietnam war: convince us that our victim is actually the aggressor, and the victims are us. The doctrinal system requires that we see ourselves as innocent targets of the evildoer. Even liberals, sometimes especially liberals, hold this self-image as dear as does a fascist monster like Dick Cheney.

(Here I have to emphasize, though, that I mourn every American death from this and past disasters. I do not blame American military personnel, at least not the lower ranks, for what's happened. Nor - equally important - do I excuse them entirely. In my own military service, I avoided directly participating in the mass murder of Vietnamese and others, but I didn't directly resist the war, either. This has left me with a strange mixture of satisfaction and shame. Oh, to have been a conscientious objector from Day One.)

All this brings us to the rhetorical blood-brother of the numbers game: the "mistake" fallacy.

Look through media coverage of the Iraq war's fifth anniversary and you'll see the word "mistake" everywhere. Sometimes "blunder" or "error" will be the mot injuste. In any case, the meaning is consistent: we're supposed to believe the war was simply the outcome of a bad business plan, or the like. Practicality is king in this society - and so when Americans, elite or rank-and-file, call something a mistake, they may believe they're deploying their most devastating charge. Yet Americans never describe, say, a home invasion-murder as a mistake. We fall all over ourselves in such cases to find words commensurate with the facts: heinous, deplorable, disgusting, outrageous, etc. And always, always such things are described as what they clearly are in legal terms: crimes.

Remember the infamous "doughnut hole" people talked about when the Medicare prescription drug plan first came up? Basically, the plan only covers the lowest and highest costs, with beneficiaries bled dry to pay for the bulk of costs that fall in the middle. Something analogous to this goes on in the world of rhetoric: terms like crime, aggression, ethnic cleansing, and sometimes genocide, are attached to what "retail" purveyors of violence do (al Qaeda or small rogue states), or to what defeated maniacal regimes (like Nazi Germany) have done. But terms like mistake, error, and blunder are reserved for the doughnut hole: actions like those of our own country and close allies over a half century, that is, strategies as cowardly and bloodthirsty as those of any past national power, and outcomes as quantitatively horrific as what our most despicable enemies have ever produced.

And so, as I've said again and again: we've got to call the War Against Iraq by the right name. It's a crime, crime, crime. This truth won't change with the passage of time, not even if the occupation of Iraq turns out to be John McCain's new Hundred Years' War. (Let's pause to acknowledge McCain, whose mad-bomber role in the 1960s Rolling Thunder air war in Southeast Asia should temper our view of his admittedly horrendous experience as a POW.) And no crime should be characterized merely as "the biggest foreign policy mistake since Vietnam" - a galling understatement now regularly uttered by liberals like Diane Rehm, probably imagining they've delivered a verbal coup de grace.

As I and many others have pointed out before, the Iraq war, like all "preventive" wars or wars of aggression, is (in Justice Robert Jackson's words) an example of "the supreme international crime." I almost said Jackson's "immortal words," but I'm not betting that the US media, along with other propaganda and "information" systems, won't succeed in erasing from historical memory the lessons of the Nuremberg tribunals. They've done their damndest to do this for a lot more years than five. But thankfully, they're not quite able to strut on the deck of American moral consciousness - which sleeps but still is alive - and declare "mission accomplished."

Peace folks can stay focused on the only proper objectives (a short list): immediate withdrawal of all US and allied forces, based on binding agreements to insure Iraqis control their political institutions and economy for their own national benefit; introduction of a neutral multinational force acceptable to the Iraqi people and their contiguous neighboring states to secure peace and human rights; and prompt payment of reparations by the US to the Iraqi people for decades, not just five years, of US war crimes.

But let's start with something more rhetorically uncomplicated: Get the fuck out now!

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:44 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 9 April 2008 22:17 EDT
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Sunday, 23 March 2008

Here's a poem from my reading the other night. (Thanks again to Frank Judge, Ed Downey and the Free Speech Zone poetry series at The Mez.)

Bridge out

-Jack Bradigan Spula

Upland, a piddling rain gathered
All night, then sought the open routes
Downward, and where nothing could be found,
It made a new way.
And so both a hillside, the work of an age,
And a country road, the project of a mere
Lifetime or two back to back,
Ended up together sunk in gravel.

And ended quiet, too, while the world
Took the long way around, and keeps
Taking it
In its good time.
So you stand there,
The long gone promises and threats
Of fast water on your mind.
You stand
Your ground: what's yours only
Till the next big one.

But wouldn't you know it -
A vehicle appears
Out of nowhere,
Running smack into your thoughts.
A family on an unplanned detour
Has wound up behind the warning sign
On the remaining firm ground.
Wasting no time, four doors open,
And a man and woman
And three noisy kids step out.

The kids soon have seized
A footpath upstream
Behind an old beaver lodge
Whose broken ribs make it clear,
Even through the primordial mud,
This is not the home
It was taken for.

You're tempted to see in these people
An uninterest in natural history.
Maybe their pace
Over the loose earth is too much like
Desire as you now understand it,
Just harder to watch
As the energy bleeds.

But what can you do?
The kids skip a few stones
On the small surface left, after they've
Kicked some round, useless stones aside.
The man and woman, crossing their arms,
Planting their feet, act
As if they've got nothing to add.
And then a general moment
Of stillness, and then everybody
Piles back into the car,
The kids looking unhappy
With each other.
Then the tires turn
And pebbles and wetness
Are spun off
With force, and the miles
Begin singing
Little ones to sleep.

Surely these parents are glad
To have their eyes on the road again,
And off the map. Any road
At all might be the short way back.
You are resolved to remember
That any drive
Is a long one
Without singing.
How long must you
Stand like a statue
In this weather?

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 12:51 EDT
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Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Poetry reading Thurs. March 20
Topic: poetry

Though I've got many thoughts rumbling through my brain about the fifth anniversary of the US war against Iraq, and also about comparative trivia like l'affaire Spitzer, I've been concentrating lately on getting my poems together for a reading this Thursday (3/20), 8 pm, at The Mez (a.k.a. House of Hamez, and formerly Daily Perks), 389 Gregory St., corner of Cayuga - in the same building as the Genesee Coop Federal Credit Union, another destination for you. The reading is part of the Free Speech Zone series and is supported by Rochester Poets, organized by Frank Judge.

As you can see below, some of my poems are posted on this blog. Check them out, and send feedback. (Sorry for the unintended double-spacing: it's some accident of computer code, I think. Please advise!)


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:26 EDT
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