Andy Hallett R.I.P.

March 30, 2009 at 10:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Andy Hallett, who played Lorne (AKA the Host) on Angel died from heart failure March 29, 2009. He was only 33.

Hallett’s character Lorne appeared in over 70 episodes of Angel, and had returned in the IDW comic book Angel: After the Fall.  

——————–

Update – April 1

I wrote the above post on Monday after I read about Hallet’s death on Whedonesque. Short because I really didn’t have a lot of say at the time. Like most people, I was shocked at Hallet’s death and also the fact he was just 33. Far too young to die.

I don’t think I’ve seen Hallet in any show other than Angel. According to the Wikipedia entry,  Hallett became ill from a tooth infection after filming the last episode of the show, and never returned to acting. Instead, concentrating on his singing.

I have to admit that when the Host was introduced in the second season, I didn’t really care for the character. Too kitsch, too Vegas. But he grew on me. His killing of Lindsey in the final episode was really a sad moment. Not for Lindsey’s death (Lindsey knew he would die violently), for what Lorne realized he had done.

Too young, too young.

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Primal Scream in Toronto

March 30, 2009 at 2:49 am (Uncategorized)

Dilettantish dabblers or musical innovators? Primal Scream has attracted both comments and more throughout their long career. The first Scream records were jaggley pop, but 1991’s Screamadelica changed all that. The hippie ecstacy- rave scene co-incidedly perfectly with their new sound. So what did they do next? Record a searing Faces/Stones record, Give Out, but don’t Give Up  featuring their swaggering Stones ripoff Rocks.  Three years later, and a dance orientated Vanishing point appeared, followed by Adrian Sherwood’s Echo Dek, a dub remix of the record the next year. 2000’s XTRMNTR moved the band into electronica and industrial sounds, a trend which continued with Evil Heat. The band swung back to rock with Riot City Blues, and then a still rock, but clearly poppier Beautiful Future this year. And yet, it’s still Primal Scream throughout.

To say I was looking forward to last week’s show at the Phoenix is a bit of an understatement. Primal Scream occupy a significant corner of the CD racks at the homestead. so, I really couldn’t figure out why there was so little publicity in the media.

Kuromaopened the show with a 30 minute set. Kuroma are from Athens, Georgia, but unfortunately that means a lot less than it once did. For the first half of their set, each song seemed to devolve into a boogie-jam. And a fairly uninspiring one. Note to self: you don’t always need to see the support band. Then, a wonder occured. The songs became shorter, faster, and popier. Hang on, I thought, maybe I’ve been too hasty. And then another wonder, back to the boring guitar jams. Oh well.

The Scream took the stage at a little after 10:00 and immediately launched into Kill All Hippies from XTRMNTR (see set list below) For the next ninety minutes or so, the audience were treated to a mixture of songs from the new album and selection from the back catalogue with a generous helping of hits. What’s amazing about Primal Scream is their ability to  play songs from almost all of their phases, and yet still sound like a cohesive whole: From the guitiar rock to Jailbird to the dance music of Swastika Eyes, the package worked. I wasn’t overly fond of the material from the new album, but there was enough treats to make it worthwhile.

Front-man Bobby Gillespie is both the highpoint and the weakest link in the group. His vocal range is quite limited and, to be honest he’s not much of a singer, but he certainly has charisma. and plenty of rock star movies. and this show really felt like  a rock show: Strobe lights, a laser  show: ”Toronto, are you ready to get your fucking rocks off..’  all the cliches, and yet we didn’t care. We screamed for more. and they gave us more. Almost two hours when the house lights came up.

Set List:

Kill All Hippies
Can’t Go Back
Miss Lucifer
Suicide Sally And Johnny Guitar
Jailbird
Burning Wheel
Beautiful Future
Higher Than The Sun
Deep Hit Of Morning Sun
Exterminator
Suicide Bomb
City
Shoot Speed/Kill Light
Swastika Eyes
Country Girl
Movin’ On Up

Encore:

Damaged
Necro Hex Blues
Rocks
Accelerator

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Song of the Worms

March 29, 2009 at 7:18 pm (Uncategorized)

A poem by Canadian poet Margaret Atwood. I ran this years ago in Red & Black Notes. Recently, I was reminded of it.

 

We have been underground too long,

we have done our work,

we are many and one,

we remember when we were human

We have lived among roots and stones,

we have sung but no one has listened,

we come into the open air

at night only to love

which disgusts the soles of boots,

their leather strict religion.

We know what a boot looks like

when seen from underneath,

we know the philosophy of boots,

their metaphysic of kicks and ladders.

We are afraid of boots

but contemptuous of the foot that needs them.

Soon we will invade like weeds,

everywhere but slowly;

the captive plants will rebel

with us, fences will topple,

brick walls ripple and fall,

there will be no more boots.

Meanwhile we eat dirt

and sleep; we are waiting

under your feet.

When we say Attack

you will hear nothing

at first.

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The New Joads: Trying to Survive in the Spectacle-Commodity Society

March 25, 2009 at 11:06 pm (Uncategorized)

Report from a comrade from San Francisco

 

“…I’ll be around in the dark. I’ll be ever’where. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad…An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why I’ll be there.”

Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath

 

 

The world at once present and absent that the spectacle holds up to view is the world of the commodity dominating all living experience. The world of the commodity is thus shown for what it is, because its development is identical to people’s estrangement from each other and from everything they produce.

Thesis #37 in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle

 

 

On Wednesday, March 18, 2009 a comrade and I drove from San Francisco to investigate the tent city in Sacramento that we had been hearing so much about in the bourgeois media. It had been covered in most daily city papers in the U.S. like the New York and Los Angeles Times, on radio by NPR and elsewhere, and on TV everywhere from local new broadcasts to a special expose for Oprah Winfrey’s show. Television crews from Germany, Switzerland and the U.K. had covered it too and many video clips can be found on YouTube (a simple internet search of “Sacramento tent city” will result in countless articles, videos, audio interviews, and other news sources).

 The first thing that struck me as we drove down Sacramento’s “C” Street, a residential street paralleling railroad tracks in an area surrounded by ageing industry and rusting food processing plants [See PHOTO A: Blue Diamond Almonds], was the number of houses for sale and apartments for rent. It literally seemed like every other lot had a sign staked into the ground out front. Later at the tent city we discovered that among the people we talked with who had recently been housed, including several just foreclosed and evicted from homes they were buying, a majority had worked in the building trades. Many still go out on a regular basis to try to find these kinds of jobs, but there are simply none to be had. So those working class folks who had built the overabundance of housing in the U.S. were among the ones hardest hit by dispossession due to the crisis. We had already researched the demographics for the Sacramento area and knew that the official unemployment rate was 10.4%;1 in 2007 and 2008 there had been 33,500 foreclosures in the eight-county Sacramento metropolitan area.2 In a report in October, 2008 Sacramento was #10 in the U.S. for the number of foreclosures;3 the top three being nearby cities: #1 Merced, #2 Modesto and #3 Stockton, all of which are further south in California’s Central Valley.

photo-a-blue-diamond-plant

 

 The demographics for the U.S. showed that there are 6,600 new evictions every day; one occurs every 13 seconds.4 At the end of 2008, over 19,000,000 housing units stood vacant5 with the numbers still climbing. In 2007 it was estimated that in the course of a year over 3,500,000 people are homeless, 1,350,000 of them being children,6 which is obviously much greater today. So it becomes clear that there are easily more than five empty homes for every homeless individual or family.

 At noon we turned right from “C” onto 20th Street and were soon climbing up an incline over the railroad tracks and faced a fork in the road, right in front of a Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) transformer station. We were not sure which fork to take when we were overtaken by a brand new all-black SUV with darkly tinted windows. It was a bizarre sight and we simply just followed it; it was so conspicuous because this vehicle was clearly on the wrong side of the tracks.

 We were immediately driving on a narrow gravel road between the railroad tracks and the SMUD yard. As we came to a clearing, we saw the main cluster of the tents in the homeless camp. But almost as on cue in a Hollywood movie, a brand new all-black Lincoln-Continental sedan pulled up to the other side of the clearing on the gravel road from the opposite direction. [See PHOTO B: car pulling up]

photo-b-car-pulling-up

 

After we parked and as we were walking closer to the center of the camp, several identical all-black SUVs drove up from the same direction and parked near a large dumpster; near a cantilevered railroad bridge over the American River nearby, two California Highway Patrol motorcycle cops parked their bikes and looked over the scene from the top of the levee.

 At least ten well-dressed people exited all of these vehicles, including a woman in a black sleeveless formal dress, wearing high-heel shoes.

 

photo-c-dressy-visitors

 

[See PHOTO C: dressy visitors] It was surreal because they looked like they were dressed for a formal cocktail party or a wedding or a funeral, but were entering a camp whose tattered appearance could not have been further distant socially – as evidenced by the overflowing trash piles of emptied cheap beer cans, as well as people we later met who clearly seemed to show all the outward signs of being on methamphetamines. An older white man in a light gray tieless suit along with a younger African American man in a tan blazer led the entourage of men, all of whom wore black suits and ties, along with a couple of women who were similarly dressed.

 We quickly made our way to this group that was attracting the inhabitants eager attention. Soon, we realized why: Governator of California Arnold Swartznegger was greeting the locals along with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. This was also completely surreal; a Hollywood action movie-star touring the meager living quarters of economic refugees side-by-side with a local-boy-made-good, former NBA basketball star Johnson who is now mayor.

 En route an older, toothless woman came towards us after having shaken hands with these celebrity guests, but was grumbling about the mayor wanting to evict the camp and put people up in the nearby ARCO Arena (a venue for entertainment and where professional sports teams play). We reminded her of the disaster that befell refugees from Hurricane Katrina who got locked in the Superdome in New Orleans and she agreed with us and said she would never be forced to live where she did not choose.

 As we crept closer to the politicians it quickly became obvious that most of their party were bodyguards, so we approached tentatively and non-threateningly. And it was amazing because there was absolutely no media with them. Soon my comrade saw an opening and stood right next to Arnie and Johnson. [See PHOTO D: challenging the man (my comrade in the faded red cap)]

photo-d-challenging-the-man

 

He began by urging them to not displace people without offering something better and said they ought to install proper toilets, sanitation and water. He defended the inhabitants of the tent city and demanded that their needs get met. Like politicians the world over, Arnie and Johnson constantly reiterated meaningless statements like “We’re looking into it,” and “It’s being taken care of” without mentioning a single concrete thing being done. They name-dropped high-profile homeless activists in Sacramento and said they were “working closely with them.” Everything they said was complete bullshit, in their attempt to try to placate us and allow them get on their way to size up the camp. I can only speculate, but they seemed to be testing the waters to see what kind of reaction they would get to their plan to shut down the camp. This was mixed in with extremely poor camp dwellers racing over to shake Arnie’s hand for no other reason that they had seen his movies.

 I approached Swartznegger myself during another lull by saying “You’re from Hollywood, so you must be aware of John Ford’s movie Grapes of Wrath, you know the Depression story of homeless refugees in California. The government funded the building of camps with running water, toilets and showers, kitchen facilities, and sanitation and the place was run democratically by the people living there. They were even able to organize dances for themselves. That kind of thing is what you should be building in places like this.” He reached out, shook my hand, and asked me my name. I shook it, but he said nothing else so I went on and told him that he must “put a moratorium on evictions in California and allow homeless and evicted people to reoccupy vacant housing.” He made another of his “we’re looking into it” statements and nothing more.

 If I had read Grapes of Wrath more recently than high school, I would have remembered that the “Weedpatch Camp” in the novel was based on the actual Resettlement Administration camp at Arvin in California’s Central Valley that furnished running water, electricity, firewood, and medical care for the residents who were mostly “Okie” Dust Bowl refugees. Contrasted with these camps up and down California during the Great Depression, others less fortunate were forced to live in the unhealthy squalor of ditchbank settlements which were not much different than the tent cities all over California – and the U.S. – today.

 My comrade then engaged Johnson again, who promptly asked him what group he was from. Thinking quickly, he said the “Unemployed League” (in the 1930s, the group around A.J. Muste), then Johnson handed him his business card and said to contact him again. As they walked away, a woman in one of the camps ran over and said to Arnie “I saw all your movies! I saw all your movies!” and reached him and shook his hand. As he turned to leave, she repeated one of his movie clichés “I’ll be back.” He turned back to her and repeated another of his banal movie lines, in his thick Austrian accent, “Hasta la vista, baby!” Looking around at all the poverty, filth and desperation, I was sick at heart hearing this. The best this politician scum could do was recite lines from his “B” movies. Hearing patronizing crap like that hardens my resolve to try to be part of taking the class war on the offensive.

 We walked to the area near the one of the four tall electricity transmission towers near the levee and scanned the camp from a higher position. We watched the politicians and their entourage drive off after their cameo and other camp residents came to us and asked what the politicians had said. A woman came up as well and said she asked Arnie for money and he had gone into his pocket and gave her $23, which we all found paltry for such a successful movie star. About a half dozen of us were talking and a couple left us to set up a tent nearby and another middle-aged guy began explaining the camp’s logistics for us. He pointed to one of the pit toilets, with plastic tarps on three sides which was built up against the chain link fence separating SMUD property, where almost all of them were camped, from that owned by Blue Diamond Almonds, which has several food processing plants overlooking the camp from across the railroad tracks.

 One can approximate the time of residency by the condition of the tents and other impromptu dwellings. Newer ones are stand-alones, mostly nylon tents, while the older ones are supplemented by blue plastic tarps and use 2 x 4s and other scavenged materials to bolster the materials used to cover the living space. There are several hundred tents and shelters and our observations confirmed that there are at least 300 people in the tent city. We did not get enough of a sense of the exact ethnic composition, but it did seem to be fairly equally divided among African Americans, Latinos and whites – and we met one Asian guy.

 We walked along the levee and reached another narrow strip of land down the bank across from the river and came to another opening with half a dozen newer tents on land we were told is owned by Union Pacific. There we found one of the most bizarre tent sites in the entire camp. It could be described as suburban-style tent dwelling. It had a mailbox in front, along with an arch topped by three tiki lamps. It had a new section of fencing next to a swinging gate in from of a compound of four full-size family-style camping tents. The plot of land was paved with gravel and the perimeter was surrounded on three sides with barbed wire which was only about two feet high. [See PHOTO E: exiles from suburbia]

photo-e-exiles-from-suburbia

 

 Soon we walked back to the central cluster of the tent city to find the car of some young anarchist comrades from Modesto who announced their arrival by cell phone. We had met them last autumn when they were our guides to investigating foreclosures and squatting in their hard hit city. So we gave these three new people a tour. In the exact center of the tent city, where the politicians had been an hour before, we immediately encountered some young people in a tent and tarp compound who were not only willing to talk with us, but were eager to make clear that they were not in the tent city by choice. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the people commonly maligned in the bourgeois media as “chronically homeless” who choose to live outside, often to imbibe their substance of choice undisturbed. This category also included the mentally ill who either could find no resources to cope with their problems, or simply chose not to even try. The young people we talked with fit the demographic of the newly homeless: almost all of them had worked in the building trades until just recently. The guy who was the most receptive to our suggestions for solidarity and mutual aid to the tent city even detailed the problems of trying to “organize” the camp. He was articulate and said until the crisis he was working in construction and going to college. And he repeatedly made clear that he wanted to stop living there and get back in housing as soon as possible. My comrade from San Francisco had a proposal: we would bring building supplies that we could scrounge and get donated and with the building skills of the inhabitants of the encampment, we would help build a permanent latrine to improve sanitation. The main guy we had been talking with thought it a great idea and gave us his cell phone number for when we come back to do it.

 All along, we had noticed some older people whose encampments were right on the periphery of the tent city, right adjacent to the gravel road along the railroad tracks, as well as along the base of the levee of the American River. The people living there seemed almost too eager to talk and later, when we reviewed the videos and new reports, we saw that some of them were repeatedly interviewed and there was a common theme they put forward of middle class lives ruined and their current victimhood. I could vaguely discern a distance between these people and others not so willing to splay themselves so readily before the cameras and microphones. Just as we were about to leave the young people we had just been talking with about the latrine proposal, we noticed a big new SUV creeping along the gravel road at the top of the levee with a photographer walking down the banks to take photos of tents and shelters. We asked who they were. They said they thought they were some French reporters.

 We took our Modesto comrades to the opposite side of the camp where the suburban tent compound was and on the way back, walking along the levee, we encountered what turned out to be the French reporters. My San Francisco comrade, who speaks fluent French, found out they were from the weekly tabloid Paris-Match. He proceeded to berate them in French for being vultures and spectacularizing the suffering of the tent city denizens. They talked for awhile and they were just one small part of the media feeding frenzy that the squatters’ camp attracted.

 As we were returning to our car, we canvassed others at their camps about the latrine-building proposal and got near universal support. And as we were leaving, we saw another non-descript news crew moving from tent to tent with a large microphone, trying to interview people. A few people had told us of their frustration with the constant stream of reporters; early one the morning a photographer had taken a picture of a man coming out of his tent, only to be punched for the intrusion. We agreed that he probably deserved it.

 As we approached the main gravel road along the railroad tracks where our car was parked, up ahead we saw a van distributing pre-cooked food in plastic to-go boxes out the back. I think someone said they were a church group. Nearing the van, we saw an African American woman we had briefly talked with earlier. She appeared to be new because earlier she had not only asked if we were living there, but asked us general questions about the tent city. I think she referred to having only recently been laid off and then evicted and she was still wearing make-up and did not have the constantly dirty look of longtime residents. She still seemed to cling to the hope that she could get out of there and make her life better again. The image of her sweet and kind smile in that place of such despair and squalor saddens me just thinking about it again.

 But as we were finally leaving, she called out “Don’t forget about us.”

 I never will.

 We all need to become Tom Joads; some comrades and I will go back with materials and concrete proposals to express our solidarity with our working class sisters and brothers living there – and hopefully to find other ways to fight back and help people of our class move into the vacant dwellings that they themselves had built. So that we might one day live in a society that truly operates according to the principle (from Marx’s forecast in 1875 in Critique of the Gotha Program):

 “From each according to her/his ability, to each according to his/her need”

 

References

1 The Sacramento Bee, March 18, 2009

2 Ibid.

3 http://realestate.yahoo.com/Foreclosures

4 Center for Responsible Leaning, “Foreclosures,” retrieved from: http://www.responsiblelending.org/

5 http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&refer=home&sid=aKufqJK9j1cY

6 National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “2007 Annual Report,” retrieved from: http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/2007_Annual_Report2.pdf

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Music Notes – March 2009

March 22, 2009 at 10:53 pm (Uncategorized)

 This month’s observation and recommendations

1.Primal Scream at the Phoenix, Toronto, March 24.

I think this is the only Canadian date on this mini-tour. Very much looking forward to this show. Expect a follow-up post on Wednesday.

2. Lost Tunes  

I’ve been looking for the Slits cover of Man Next Door (a Rough trade single which appeared on the compilation Wanna Buy a Bridge?) for a while. I even emailed the band. No luck. Then I happened upon this site. It bills itself as the site for lost and obscure music. Not too cheap, but a fair selection. Didn’t have that Slits song though.

3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz.

Ooh, the new album by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. To my ears, it’s not quite as immediate as the previous records (I liked the EPs better – wonder why that it). But it’s worth picking up/downloading (however you do these things).

4. Jason & the Scorchers – Ferver/Lost & Found

Well, these take me back a few years. In the early 1980s, I volunteered at CFMU-FM McMaster university’s student radio station. I remember when Ferver came into the station, and being stunned by their cover of Dylan’s Absolutely Sweet Marie. It made the Flamin’ Groovies version sound positively anemic. Like the Long Ryders, Jason and the Scorchers were probably ten years too early. The alt-country thang gathered steam at the end of the decade, but by then others had taken their place. It’s worth hunting out the rarities CD Wildfires and Misfires. PLAY LOUD.

5. Yo La Tengo – Sugarcube 

Hilarious video. The band are sent to rock school to learn how to make a hit.  I saw Yo La Tengo open for Teenage Fanclub in Toronto years ago. Very cool. 

6. Franklin Mint Blog  

 Blog specializing in, ahem, bootleg recordings. Last week was Beck week! That reminds me, I have to download that copy of Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg. The blog reproduces a letter from one artist’s lawyer asking the site to cease and desist from making bootlegs available, but as the comeback points out: no money is changing hands. Usually the only people  who want bootlegs (and even the crappy quality ones) are the fans. Who could object to that?

7. Nick Cave / Mojo March 2009

Mr. Cave gets the cover treatment, and a massive feature inside. A comprehensive interview, and a series of little side bar features and lists. When I look through my record collection (OK, OK, music collection), Nick Cave fills one section. Incredibly, and unlike many artists, Cave has continued to produce great music. Most of the bands I listen to are good for a couple of albums, then it’s the junk heap. Cave has been producing compelling, essential music for almost three decades.

8. Glastonbury

The rockumentary is a difficult thing to get right. If it’s studio production, the joy of the musci often gets lost in the broader context. If it’s a fan, the danger is it will just too uncritical. Julian Temple has got it right several times. Despite directing the Sex Pistols movie, The Great Rock n Roll Swindle (worth watching only a curiosity), Temple made an excellent feature about the band, The Filth and the Fury.Two years ago, Temple made an amazing feature about Joe Strummer, The Future is Unwritten. I’ve seen a lot of films and videos about the Clash, but Temple’s film contained an amazing amount of footage, I’ve never seen. It got me wondering, what else is out there in the vaults. Glastonbury was Temple’s 2006 account of the festival.  Some great shots over several years of the festival (although, it’s some times annoying that your favourites are never shown all the way through a song).

9. Toronto’s Song

Toronto Mayor David Miller has launched a contest to write an official song for Toronto. Uh huh. Well, New York has had dozens of songs written about it. London Calling. Chicago. Even Istanbul. Why not Toronto? Well,  don’t get me wrong. I love Toronto. I’ve lived here off and on since 1987, but an official song? I dunno. And of course, one person already claims he wrote just such a song. It’s called Toronto People City. The writer, Gary Grey, claims city council already adopted it. Unfortunately no one seems to remember). Only in Toronto you say…

10.  The Au Pairs – Stepping out of Line – The Anthology

Now that Gang of Four has gotten their critical due, isn’t it about time to re-evaluate the Au Pairs. A Birmingham based post-punk band combining a lot of the energy with  musical sophistication. The debut album contained great songs about the Dirty protests in Northern Ireland, the politics of sexuality, and spousal abuse (a cover of Bowie’s Repetition). The second album was as different as say, Closer from Unknown Pleasures. The anthology also includes some live tracks and the early punky singles. Terrific.

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Newspeak: Orwell and the Politics of Language

March 22, 2009 at 8:18 pm (Uncategorized)

George Orwell is best known for two novels: Animal Farm, a cautionary fable about the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a vision of a totalitarian world order based on extrapolation of the trends Orwell saw in his time.

Animal Farmis a political satire containing some classic lines (All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others). However, given the distance of the Russian Revolution, the immediacy of the satire has faded. 1984 became a cold war classic, although Orwell’s target was broader than the Soviet Union (it didn’t help that Orwell supplied lists of those he considered Communists to British military intelligence). While the book once  seemed an accurate predictor of the world to come, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World seems like a better bet.  As  a result of the continued popularity of these novels, Orwell’s other gifts have sometimes been overshadowed. In my opinion, Orwell’s greatest contributions were as a journalist and social observer.

For my money, Orwell’s greatest book is Homage to Catalonia, an account  of his time in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell describes the camaraderie, the tedium, the horror and the politics of the conflict. He describes both the war, and the revolutionary struggles in it; how the Communists undermined the struggle, how he nearly came to be executed by them, and how he nearly lost his life to a fascist bullet. It’s a tremendous accomplishment in social reporting (Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedomborrows heavily from Orwell’s account).  What makes Orwell’s work so readable and moving is his journalistic eye for detail and his use of language. Similarly keen social observations appear in Down and Out in London and Paris and The Road to Wigan Pier.

In  line with his journalistic concerns, Orwell also wrote about the use and abuse of language. In 1946, Orwell published an essay called Politics and the English Language. In it, Orwell sought to flay certain tendencies in the English language toward unclear or messy writing.  Orwell reproduced samples of dreadful, unclear writing by, among others,  Harold Laski, to demonstrate just how people fail to communicate. Among his concerns were dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. 

Unfortunately, a casual glance through business or academic writing shows that people have not taken Orwell’s advice. Business writing is filled with buzz words and phrases (paradigm shift! service you better! actualize your dreams!); while the language of the academy leans toward, excuse me, the wilfully obscure.

At the beginning of the essay, Orwell, suggested six rules for good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

 I agree with all of these, but especially the last one. Yet, if too lax an understanding of language was a danger, Orwell keenly understood the other side.

Orwell’s 1984 introduced many familiar terms into the English language: Big Brother,  doublethink, hate week, thought crime, and of course Newspeak. Ironically, Newspeak is often used to describe a word where the meaning of a word is divorced from its actual meaning (f0r example, the Republicans use of socialism as a a swear word for Obama’s economic plans; language means what we want it to mean); however, Newspeak in Orwell’s novel had a far different use. Newspeak was introduced by the party, not to change meaning, but to restrict it.  The language was simplified to the point that no  interpretation could be formulated except for the one the party wanted.  Indeed, since language is so much a part of how we think, it was thought that by controlling language, thought too would be controlled.

The initial steps would be to reduce and eradicate words that made no sense. It was pointed out, that there is little need for cold if we insist on retaining hot. Cold would be replaced by a new antonym, unhot. A series of  prefixes and suffixes could easily simplify language.  Verbs and nouns would be combined. (Knife as a noun and a verb would replace cut). All verbs would be regular (as would past participles), and so on.  I brought up this idea in an English grammar class, and people mystified by English grammar were initially receptive to the principles. Orwell borrowed heavily from Esperanto in devising his language, and there is a certain intellectual appeal to it. 

But this would not be the end. The political meaning would be restricted too, so that some words would lose their meaning then disappeared. As the concept of political freedom disappeared, the word free in a political sense would be meaningless too (Free would be retained, but only in the sense that a dog is free of lice).  

 The appendix to 1984 Principles of Newspeak gives the following example for the famous affirmation from the Declaration of Independence:  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government…

Principles of Newspeak suggests that this passage would be impossible under Newspeak, since it contains so many foreign ideas – perhaps the passage could be replaced by a single word – crimethink.

Language is one of the most creative aspects of our species. Everyday, we utter sentences which have never been uttered. Language is not simply grammar. The dangers with any language is to abandon all rules (variant spelling anyone?) or to try to restrict it so tightly that all of the joy is lost.

Better than a much longer post is to read what Orwell wrote. The Penguin essays of George Orwell is available at most new bookstores, and probably most of the used ones as well. For those who prefer, the on-line version, the Orwell Project contains most everything he’s written. Well worth investigating.

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Staring into Black Water

March 17, 2009 at 2:03 pm (Uncategorized)

Every day, I read a newspaper report from a government spokesperson predicting the end of the current crisis, but in the same paper, I find evidence to the contrary. This article was written by a comrade in Internationalist Perspective and is well worth reprinting.

Predicting the short- term economic future is like staring into pitch-black water and trying to see how deep it is. It’s very, very deep, that much seems certain. But nobody knows how much fictitious capital is out there, and how much of it must disappear before the rest of the economy is sufficiently unburdened to catch its breath. By now, the crisis has already devoured more than 15 trillion dollars in the USA alone and trillions elsewhere and the end is nowhere in sight. Like an avalanche, crushing everything on its path and growing ever bigger in its rush downward, the debt-deflation becomes more devastating with time, as its effects – falling prices, plummeting assets, constipated credit markets, spreading bankruptcies and growing unemployment– reinforce each other.

One option for the ruling class is to do more or less nothing. Let the avalanche rush on until it has hit the bottom. After all, a crisis is a moment of correction and if the correction is not allowed to proceed, the underlying problem will not go away. But the crisis is not a surgical instrument that eliminates the sick parts and leaves the healthy untouched. The shrinking market, falling profit-rate and tight credit are dragging everybody down. No capitalists are saying,” don’t help us, we’re willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good of capitalism.” And no state can feel confident that it has enough control over its population to allow such a ferocious process to unfurl without risking major social convulsions. So this option is out. The laissez faire-approach to the crisis, even in a moderated form, will not happen. The capitalist class will desperately try to contain it. The question is: does it have the means to do so?

The limited reach of monetary tools is already painfully clear. Even a zero interest rate is not low enough to get credit flowing again if there is no confidence in tomorrow. Even if Ben Bernanke would throw money at people from a helicopter, as he once joked that he would do at a time like this, most people would still spend as little of it as possible, given their insecurity and the likelihood that they will pay less if they postpone buying. For the same reason, tax cuts, which can at best only compensate for a small fraction of the losses, will not restore confidence and not significantly alter economic behavior. That leaves direct government spending on public works, social programs, subsidies to industry, etc. It would have to be really massive to make a dent. Obama says he’s ready to lead the way. “We can’t worry about the deficit. We’ve got to make sure that the economic stimulus-plan is large enough to get the economy moving again”, he stated at a recent press conference. The fact that next year’s budget deficit is thought to reach one trillion dollars made some people gasp, but this figure is quite puny compared to the devalorization, and thus destruction of purchasing power, in process. My educated guess is that it will be much larger. It will have to be to slow, not to mention stop, the deflationary avalanche. It will be politically imperative, for capitalism to keep its grip on society.

The circumstances create some room for a massive reflation led by the US. The deflationary environment eliminates the danger that it will immediately lead to rising prices. The deflationary wave has other beneficial side effects for the strongest capitals. The fact that it affects the weakest competitors first and hardest lowers the import bill for the most developed countries (and will probably further stimulate globalization, with peripheral countries engaging in competitive devaluation to stem their market losses). Production costs (wages, energy, etc) are falling dramatically, despite Opec’s cutbacks. Stronger capitals fatten themselves on the corpses of the weaker ones, and seize the opportunities to grab their market-shares. These are counter-acting trends that could help reflation to take hold. Only the US could launch it, given its control over the world’s currency. It can launch it because it can bet that the Asians and European and Arabs and of course the Americans too will not stop buying the treasury notes that back its spending, regardless of how wild it becomes, because their vital need for the American market and their fear to see the value of their vast dollar reserves plunge, leaves them no choice. Furthermore, the tendency of capital, in this climate of insecurity, to seek refuge in a “safe haven,” to stay away from production, and to park in treasury-bonds at yields of near zero, removes, for the near future, any danger of capital flight from the US which would have to be stemmed by raising interest rates.

All this makes it seem likely that the US will embark on a reflation policy that will push its deficits far beyond currents projections. The best possible outcome of this would be that a modest level of growth would be restored, while the growth of dollars in circulation, compared to the anemic growth of value in the real economy, would lead to a further decline of the dollar and inflationary pressure in the US and the countries that followed the US on the reflationary path: stagflation. This is by no means certain. It may be that the loss of purchasing power as a result of the deflation of real estate and others assets is just too great to be compensated for, and that the deflationary wave, after slowing for a while, will accelerate again. Keeping alive weak companies will only postpone their demise and in the meantime lower the profit-rate of their stronger competitors. And the capacity of Asian and other foreign capital to absorb US debt depends on their profits in the American market and dwindles with it.

So the great stimulus plans may all be in vain, but there is no other option. Capitalism will make this move like a chess player getting his king out of a checkmate position, without worrying about the next moves. But the next moves will be troublesome. The crisis of confidence will move from confidence in the banks to confidence in the state. The latter could bail out the banks but there will be no higher instance that can come to the rescue when there is no safe haven left for value.

Sander

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Number 100

March 16, 2009 at 9:21 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve written for a lot of publications in my life. A short list of the political ones includes Socialist Action (Canada), Socialist Challenge, 1917, Militant (UK), Labor Militant, Z, Internationalist Perspective, Red & Black Notes, the Discussion Bulletin, Kick it Over, New Socialist, Collective Action Notes, Industrial Worker, News & Letters, Unsettled (Toronto IWW newsletter), and probably a few others I’m forgetting.

On this blog, I’ve managed one hundred posts in ten months. Now, not all of those posts are original or full posts (many are just links), but the tally is approximately ten posts a month. Two posts a week. Not counting September, where almost nothing was posted as my time was taken up with moving, unpacking, and the start of a new school year . Unsurprisingly, my interest  in blogging is is in indirect proportion to how busy my life is. (this week is March break, so get ready…)

Not exactly apropos, but as the brilliant Isaac Deutscher once noted, the three problems that have dogged humanity throughout its existence are hunger, sex and death. I hope, with Deutscher, that socialism will solve the first two, and allow us to have a better look at the third (a bit science fiction I know, but I did like Star Trek,  for all its brave new world shortcomings). In other words, when we solve our material problems, we begin to think about higher order functions like creating art, music , philosophy, or maintaining a blog. (Of course, the starving artist ethos cuts against that view, but I digress).

Judging by the number of blogs out there, life is pretty good. In an earlier post on blogging, I wrote that WordPress alone hosted five million blogs – according to the header on WordPress today, it’s about 212,000 (which means either wordpress has lost a lot of business and the blog thing is dying, or I made a mistake – oops). But there’s a lot of blogs out there.

Those 100 posts have received a little less than 2,000 hits. Oddly enough the most popular one was the aforementioned post on blogging (so perhaps there’s something insular about the whole process). The most active is something I wrote called The Cramps: an Appreciation, which is steadily getting hits. I am puzzled about the popularity of some and not others because often something I’m proud of receives next to nothing, whereas others get plenty. It’s a mystery.

Notes from Underground is listed on three other blogs

From Despair to Where

Class Against Class

Never Got Used to It

Still, most of the hits I get come from the fine people at Alpha Inventions. ; a real time ticker-tape of blogs. If you have a blog (or even if you don’t) have a look. Lots of things to see; much of it is not to my taste, and much of it is.

It’s the third day of March Break…

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Coraline

March 16, 2009 at 1:33 pm (Uncategorized)

Based on the good reviews it received, I decided to venture into the theatre to see Watchmen. However, a change of plan meant that we saw Coraline instead.

My daughter and I read Coraline when it was published. What’s not to love? It’s a great story for any child whoever felt neglected and sought change. Throw into the mix a resourceful and courageous child, quest, a feline accomplice, and a truly horrible villain and you have a  something wonderful:  A children’s story by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean.

Realizing the story as a movie is a little trickier. The better the book, the more difficult the adaptation. Like the prospect of Watchmen, I was a little apprehensive about how it would turn out (I was disappointed by Mirror Mask, and although I haven’t seen it, the reviews for Stardust were luke warm.)  

No fear. It’s a joy.

Director Henry Selik has recreated the look of his earlier films (Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), but also captured the feel of Gaiman’s story.

Coraline Jones moves into a big old house with her parents, who are slaves to a gardening catalogue (although neither one seems enamoured with the natural world).  Coraline explores her new world, meeting a black cat and the boy who looks after him, Wybie.  The boy, who is a new creation for the film, is the grandson of the owner of the house, who mysteriously, doesn’t usually rent to people who have children.

So, Coraline’s days before the beginning of school are filled with the people who populate the old house: Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, former actresses who live in the basement, and Mr. B, the Russian acrobat training  mice for his circus. Then one day, she discovers a door in a wall. But a door which, when opened,  is bricked up. That night, Coraline is led back to the door by a mouse with button eyes, and discovers a new world behind the door.  A world that is shiny and bright, and filled with wondrous treasures. In it, Corlaine finds her other parents, who are attentive and interesting, albeit with buttons for eyes. Nevertheless, it is the perfect world. But as Coraline returns over and over again, she discovers little hints that her new world is not the paradise it initially seems to be.

The other mother tells Coraline she can stay forever, but that like every creature in this brave new world, Coraline must have buttons sewn onto her eyes. At this point, Coraline rebels and discovers her other mother’s true nature. And then the horror surfaces. Coraline engages in a terrifying game of hide and seek to find the others the other mother has trapped in this nightmare world. 

It would be remiss though not to mention the 3-D.  It’s pretty cool. The danger with 3-D  in a film, is that it’s overused (and judging by the trailers I saw before the movie, there’s an awful lot upcoming). In Coraline,the effect is underplayed. The visual story is told with the depth that 3-D allows, but it’s not heavy handed or forced. And yes, there are more than a few ooh and aaahhh moments, especially in the wonders the other mother creates for Coraline.

It’s a faithful adaptatoin, which drags only a little in the middle. The doubts I had about the film are,  no doubt, influenced by my reading of the book. Alternately light and dark; funny and scary; Coraline  is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

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Science and Class

March 14, 2009 at 6:44 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s probably true to say that if  TV networks were not allowed to have programs dealing with the legal (including law enforcement) or medical professions, there would be very little to watch. I’ve never been a big fan of medical dramas. I’m sorry, but there’s just something about Hugh Laurie with an American accent  that throws me – I keep expecting him to burst out : Wacko Blackadder!; however,  I’m a sucker for the procedural police dramas).

The traditional police drama has featured the lone detective doggedly tracking leads, witnesses, and evidence, avoiding red herrings and ignoring the naysayers in the police department, until finally, the real culprit is brought to light. However, in recent years, the detective has taken a back seat to the forensic investigator.

In 2000, the first of the CSI franchise debuted, followed by Miami and New York versions a few years later. Bones, which introduced the forensic anthropologist  appeared in 2005. Even in shows which still focus on the detective, forensic evidence is front and centre. After all, as Gil Grissom, the former lead Las Vegas CSI used to say: people lie, evidence doesn’t.

I was reminded of those words, as I watched yet another person convicted of murder in Ontario, step forward to question the findings of disgraced forensic pathologist Charles Smith. Charles Randal Smith worked at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for 24 years. For much of that time, he was employed in the hospital’s children’s forensic pathology unit. During his time at Sick Kids, it is estimated he performed over 1,000 autopsies. A 1999 segment on the CBC television program  The 5th Estate described Smith as one of three or four Canadians with this rare expertise in his field.

As an expert, Smith was often called upon to testify in criminal cases. In fact, his opinion was highly regarded, and in many cases contributed to convictions. However, Smith’s expert opinions turned out to be not so expert. A review of his cases in work, found 20 of Smith’s cases with questionable conclusions; 13 of the 20 resulted in criminal convictions. 

Some highlights then:

Brenda Waudby was convicted of the murder of her two-year old daughter. A crucial piece of evidence, a public hair found on the girl, went missing. The police found the evidence in Smith’s office five years later. Waudby’s conviction was overturned, and eventually, her babysitter was convicted of the crime. 

Louise Reynolds was charged with the second-degree murder of her seven-year old daughter in 1997. Smith wrote a ten page autopsy report arguing that Reynold had stabbed the girl eighty times with a pair of scissors. Other crown witnesses and experts disagreed with Smith, suggested a dog present in the house at the time was the most likely cause of the girl’s death.  (I’m no expert, but I wonder really how similar are bite marks and knife wounds) The crown abruptly dropped the case in 2001. Reynolds spend 22 months in detention. She is now suing Smith.

Tammy Marquardt was convicted of smothering her 2 year old son after he was found tangled in his bedsheets in 1993. Smith pronounced murder. Six other experts have disagreed pointing to the likelihood of an epileptic seizure for her son’s death. Marquardt was released to a halfway house two days ago, but has not been officially cleared.

And so it goes. Smith was reprimanded in Ontario, moved to Saskatchewan, where he worked briefly for the Saskatoon City hospital. He was fired for not revealing the stains he had left in Ontario. Smith won a subsequent court case over the dismissal, but was not reinstated. 

According to the CBC:   

As a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Smith says he has been fuelled by his life’s purpose — finding out the truth for parents who have lost babies.

By all accounts, Smith was a zealous advocate for the prosecution. Several defence attorneys complained that Smith acted more like a prosecutor than an expert witness.  To this day, Smith maintains his findings were never intentional. To this, Justice Stephen Gouge replied: I simply cannot accept such a sweeping attempt to escape moral responsibility.”

It’s true that rumours had earlier surfaced about Smith’s expert qualifications, but he had been protected. However, there is also a larger point about the absolute faith in the application of pure science, and also in the class of the accused. The people Smith accused were working class. They had no significant funds to pay for their own expert witnesses. but their convictions are also a part of a larger systematic bias within the legal system. 

Do working class people commit crimes? Of course. But the point is that the same benefit of the doubt is not usually given to them, as it is to other groups in society. We are taught to be suspicious about the lower classes, and to trust authority figures: the doctor, the police officer, the teacher without question   (see the famous Milgram experiment in Berkeley in 1963 ). There are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of cases of people from working or lower class origins being convicted of crimes based on dubious evidence or so-called expert opinions from the police or their learned friends. (Yes, it’s fiction, but did anyone read or see Atonement?)

As an antidote to this view, there’s an excellent book published by the late Stephen Jay Gould called The Mismeasure of Man.  The book deals with 19th century pseudo-science and how it was used to justify all sorts of ludicrous conclusions 

I can still enjoy, the fantasy of pure objective science in the procedural drama, but outside of the idiot box, it can be a dangerous reality.

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