Sunday, July 29, 2007

Kalifornia Here I Come

Once again the Patriot finds himself in California, except this tine his is staying in the bosom of California Wine Country, just north of Santa Barbara in San Luis Obispo. Soon after disembarking from a 10 hour plane trip, I went for a trail run through the hill country, followed by some excellent beef carpaccio (all due apologies to my vegetarian friends, but the Zinfandel cried out for raw meat), and a stroll down Main Street, followed, in turn, by a tasting at a local wine store that only sells California wines, all from the local area. Everything I tried was magnificent, but special praise is reserved for the 2005 Babcock Classic Rock Cuvee which almost made me weep it was so full of flavor. The wine is from 85% Estelle fruit. Highly recommended if you can find it. I bought a bottle, but the odds of it making its way back to Staten Island are decidedly slim.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Today's Quote and a Recommendation

"Take away America's Wal-Mart junk and cheap electronics and what you have left is a mindless primitive tribe and a gaggle of bullshit artists pretending to lead them."-- James "Mad Dog" Howard

That quote comes at the beginning of the best article/essay I have ever read on what is wrong with America in the 21st Century:

Here's a sample:

"Joe Bageant's little inner voice is like everyone else's. Whenever I shudder at the condition of the republic, whenever I feel its utter absence of community, it scolds me and tells me I am crazy: Nothing is wrong. This is merely the way things are. It has always been this way. You cannot change that. You expect too much. Look at your wife. She's not upset. She wonders why you cannot just go ahead and be happy. What you see around you is normalcy. Take care of your own family. Relax. Buy something. And I do too. Which is why I own nine guitars, though I can only play one at a time, and even then not very well. The voice made me do it. I was bored.
Bored plus anxious. Hell, I could lose my job. I could lose everything. And if I lost my job I would indeed lose everything. Social status, family, the accumulated net worth of a lifetime. Which, believe me, ain't much after two divorces and a run-in with cocaine.

Adding to the anxiety is the lack of evidence that the world needs you or me at all. In this totally commoditized life we are dispensable. Everything is standardized. It really doesn't matter who grows our food or makes our clothing. If we don't make it, it someone else will. If we don't buy it, someone else will. Some other faceless person will step forward to fill in our place. The same goes for the engineers who created this computer and the same goes for your own job. The machine rolls on. With us or without us. "

Of Donkeys and Asses

The Democratic leadership in Congress is sorely trying the patience of the activist wing of the party. While the Patriot gave up on the boot lickers about a week after the mid-terms (when Pelosi took impeachment off the table), the rest of the base has seemingly been content to be strung along by a series of empty resolutions and emptier promises. One of the few Democratic senators who bucks the trend of complacency is Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold. Feingold has been calling for the (figurative) heads of Bush and Cheney since mid-March 2006, when he proposed a resolution to censure the administration for their illegal wire-tapping program. Due to the fall elections and the Democrat’s unnatural fear of being seen as soft on terror he received no support from the rest of the and was actually attacked by others in the party for wasting the Senate’s time with such partisan blather. This past Sunday on Meet the Press Feingold showed that he is still in temporary possession of his backbone unlike the rest of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate. While talking to Tim Russert, Feingold proposed another course of action because Bush and Cheney “have committed impeachable offenses with regard to this terrorist surveillance program.” Unfortuately, Feingold is advocating something less than impeachment. Rather, he suggests that the House and Senate pass a series of resolutions “that make sure that the historical record shows the way they have weakened our country, weakened our country militarily…[and] weakened our country's fundamental document, the Constitution.”

Pretty tame stuff, but more than anyone else on the left side of the isle is suggesting. I guess if there are historians sifting through the Congressional Record 100 years from now they’d duly note that Congress at least put up some sort of a fight before it was completely neutered as a body by unrestrained executive power. One would think at the very least the Democratic leadership would want to go on record as opposing warrantless surveillance of American citizens. One would think. Yet the response from Pelosi and Reid has been muted, to say the least. Reid said he wouldn’t support the resolution because the Senate “has better things to do”. I’d love to know what Senate business is so important that it trumps saving the Republic. More changes to the bankruptcy law? Creating debtors prisons, perhaps? Digby, posting in the War Room on Salon notes that, “In case anyone's wondering, the latest poll on the question of impeachment had 46 percent in favor of impeaching President Bush and 54 percent in favor of impeaching Vice President Cheney.” Why is Reid so resistant to passing a resolution when it appears that almost ½ the country would send Bush and Cheney to jail if they had half a chance? The easy answer is that he is in the pocket of his corporate masters just like the rest of them.
In related political news, Cindy Sheehan has reappeared on the scene, throwing down the gauntlet squarely at the feet of Nancy Pelosi and challenging Pelosi to either begin impeachment proceedings or run the risk of losing her seat to, well, Sheehan. The mass media predictably ridiculed Sheehan’s plans but the bloggers as usual had the correct take on things. This past Sunday, in an article titled "Impeachment Question Divides Democrats," the Politico's Dan Gerstein analyzed the Sheehan/Pelosi clash, calling it indicative of an "existential conflict within the Democratic Party.” He continues: "Many progressive activists are incredulous at the inability of the congressional leadership to end the war, move big pieces of their agenda and (not least of all) defenestrate The Decider. Their frustration is starting to boil over." If you ask me it ain’t boiling over fast enough. It’s time to turn up the heat.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Class Warfare

I’ve been enjoying the hell out of Joe Bageant’s book Deer Hunting With Jesus (Dispatches from America’s Class War) , which purports to explain why the Democrats have lost the redneck vote in the south and why said rednecks continue to vote Republican despite the fact that doing so is clearly not in their economic interests. In that respect the book is a little like What’s The Matter With Kansas, although that book takes a more academic approach to analyzing the issue. Bageant returned at age 59 to the small Virgina town where he grew up, Winchester, and his book is a collection of his observations on how badly the working-class is being exploited by the petty Republican bourgeois that runs that town and others like it all across the South. He also comments on the strategy of the Republican Party operatives who have made a science of infiltrating and manipulating local governments and spreading propaganda and rumor about the so called liberal elite. I’m not sure why I never encountered Bageant before; his writing is akin to Hunter Thompson’s best political analysis and he has apparently been at this for years. Here’s a sample from an essay posted on his web site (link is on my links list) which takes the media to task in a way the Patriot greatly admires:

“We have all assembled our identities from the prepackaged and highly processed consumer media spectacle that now constitutes the American experience, mixed and matched personality ensembles from synthetic experiences and products, all of it purchased at the same globally franchised company store, all of it within the context of our own particular tribe of consumer cultism and commodity fetishes. It's vapid, it's absurd. But it's all we've had to work with from the birth, consumer culture derivatives of consumer culture derivatives. It's a long way back to the Greek classics or even de Toqueville from the Da Vinci Code and Oprah. And an even longer way back to pre air conditioned life and black and white TV, if you know what I mean. Our estrangement from such things as an entire afternoon of quiet reflection or even the most common discomforts or simpler amusements has not been chronological. Thanks to technology, it has been quantum and exponential, developing in all directions simultaneously. Bondage though it is, nobody wants out. Not really. It's like sex. It feels good as along as you don't do too much thinking about it. In fact, few of us can conceive of an "outside." And the miniscule number of people who can imagine there being something beyond "society of the spectacle" find it a fearsome thing. They worry about possibly living without HBO while half the world wipes their asses with their fingers.”

Great writing! Americans have become so complacent and lazy that they are easily manipulated by shiny trinkets. Consumer cultism is pervasive and the urge to consume is overpowering. How else to explain the proliferation of Hummers on the highways during the middle of a war in the middle east ? How else to explain that people believe that they are supporting the troops by placing a yellow magnet on the back of their SUV, a magnet which was probably made in China in a factory that used to be in America? How else to explain why Americans have rolled over and let their country be jacked by crypto fascists with nary a whimper. We don’t care, as long as we have enough stuff to keep us endlessly distracted.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Free Land For Free People

A criminal court judge struck a victory for civil rights yesterday when he ruled that the NYPD improperly viewed images on a suspect’s cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. Photographs and videos stored on the cell phone camera of a man charged with groping a woman on a subway were excluded by Judge Anthony Ferrara in a written decision issued yesterday. I haven’t read the decision, but I find it interesting that it was released several days after a plan to flood downtown Manhattan with massive numbers of surveillance cameras was revealed to the public.

While one has (in theory) the constitutional right to be secure in one’s person and things from warrantless search or seizure, the Courts have ruled that there is no expectation of privacy when one is traversing public streets. Anything you do on those streets can be videotaped and used against you in any subsequent criminal prosecution. Of course if you are looking for that camera footage to exculpate a client or bolster an alibi, good luck. The NYPD usually refuses to release that information without a subpoena, and even then evidence has a mysterious way of disappearing inside the monolithic One Police Plaza.

In a somewhat related matter, I was watching a documentary the other night called Commune. With the slogan “Free Land for Free People,” the founders of the Black Bear Commune in Northern California cajoled money from rock stars and movie idols (James Coburn was a big contributor) and bought a rural, abandoned gold mine in Siskiyou County where they set about creating a utopian community.

Of course the group soon discovered that although they all agreed that American society, mired in materialism and consumerism was toxic, each person had a totally different idea of what utopia might look like. Despite some very rocky years Black Bear flourished and is still in existence.

I was watching this movie against the background of a lot of recent thinking about how it is possible to raise a child with values in a society that has completely abandoned the very principles upon which it was founded. The paranoia that has crept across this country since 911 is something that I never thought I would see. Fascist governments everywhere quickly learn the lesson that people who are afraid become docile and are easily manipulated. The government has become quite adept at keeping the citizenry in a constant low grade state of fear. When the people are afraid they are a lot more likely to accept surveillance cameras, not to mention the disappearance of their civil liberties.

So to have a child to whom the post 911 mindset seems normal is an odd thing. My first thought is to find my own Black Bear Commune and wait until the shit storm blows over before he internalizes all of the negativity. But the government is distrustful of communes because there are no televisions there. No easy answers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Up Up and Away

You amateur aviators out there might be entertained with this story from CNN. Apparently a gentleman named Kent Couch spent last Saturday afternoon flying his lawn chair around the state of Oregon. Couch was trying to emulate the flying skills of Larry Walters -- who in 1982 rose three miles above Los Angeles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons. Couch took a 9 hour 163 mile flight last Saturday, taking off from his back yard and landing in a farmer’s field 193 miles away. He brought a few snacks and a parachute in case he had to bail out. Apparently his previous flight ended in an unanticipated skydive when he shot too many balloons with his BB gun in an effort to control his altitude. Who say’s Americans are no longer capable of great things?

Apparently in this little stunt has been turned into a full-fledged sport called "Cluster Ballooning". The idea is not, ahem, rocket science. What you do is attach a bunch of big-ass helium balloons to a harness, release some ballast when you want to go up and pop the balloons when you want to come down. The method seems hardly scientific enough to ensure gentle rises or soft landings. Nevertheless, cluster balloon, ah, aficionados, have their own website which asks the (one would imagine) infrequently asked question, "Have you ever dreamed of being carried into the sky by a giant bouquet of colorful toy balloons?" Those of you who have in fact asked such a question may find the answer there.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Here We Go Again

In yet another example of the impotency of Congress and the arrogance of the chief executive, George Bush has decided that the White House will not comply with Congressional subpoenas directing two top former aides to appear for testimony before Congress. These aids were to give testimony about circumstances surrounding the firing of nine Federal prosecutors last year.

Bush has consistently invoked the doctrine of executive privilege to circumvent Congress and he has faced few if any repercussions. The best the Democrats could come up with was a moderately worded letter that was sent to Bush’s counsel Fred Fielding complaining that the President was acting in bad faith. Fielding rejected the letter in his own statement expressed concern that the Democrats were overstepping Congressional authority (!). Pat Leahy continued the cascade of Democratic mediocrity with his own weakly worded statement: “I hope the White House stops this stonewalling.” You hope the White House stops this stonewalling? Why on earth would they do that? They know that there is no day of reckoning in their future. They know that Congress is basically incapable of acting on anything other than its donor’s interests.

The Republicans may have stripped the people of the protections afforded by the Constitution and they will be remembered for it. The Democrats will be judged more harshly by history because they had opportunities galore to take action to stop this runaway administration and they did nothing. The Iraq war, the “Patriot” Act, domestic surveillance, indefinite detention without legal recourse, the suspension of habeas corpus, the evisceration off environmental standards, the nomination and confirmation of Alito and Roberts, all presented our so-called opposition party with opportunities to engage the administration. And…nothing.

Assuming the American experiment survives the next 50 years, I wonder what our Chinese speaking grandchildren will make of the fact that at the turn of the 21st century our government was taken over by fascists and oligarchs and we did nothing to stop it.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Diving on the Iberia

The Patriot spent this past week-end engaging in his favorite non-blogging activity; wreck diving. Yesterday morning I boarded the Jeannie II out of Sheepshead Bay for a 1.5 hour trip to the wreck of the Iberia which lies some 3 miles off the southern shore of Long Island. The Iberia was sunk in 1888 after a part of its stern was sheared off after a collision with the Cunard liner Umbria in heavy fog. She was carrying 28,000 crates of dates from the Middle East when she was sent to the bottom and the crates holding those dates are common artifacts still occasionally brought to the surface by intrepid divers. If you get a nice one, it makes a great souvenir with the name of the long gone shipping company Arnold & Cheney. Coincidentally the old address of Arnold & Cheney is 159 Water Street, right across the street from where I currently work. Unfortunately conditions were such that I was unable to do much searching for artifacts on this trip.

The Iberia is a popular dive site because of its inshore location and relatively easy depth. (About 65 feet) Visibility, however, tends to be poor, as it was yesterday, and can drop to zero if you or another diver are careless and stir up the silty bottom. We were careless and stirred up the silty bottom. Visibility was, at best, six feet. A light was essential, although for the most part completely useless. Also no matter what you were taught in your first scuba class, clearing your mask with 52 degree water is an invitation to a complete ice cream headache brain freeze freak-out. That shit is COLD.

Before embarking on the dive I was somewhat concerned about something called “task overloading.” This occurs when a diver has too much new or unfamiliar equipment to occupy their attention which leads to a loss of focus and lead the diver to make mistakes. For example, yesterday I was diving with a pony bottle for the first time (a redundant air system involving a second tank and regulator) and it was my first dive of the year in cold water in my 7mm wetsuit. My dive light was also new as was the way I had it rigged to my buoyancy compensator. This doesn’t seem too complicated on the surface but believe me it is a lot to concentrate on at once when you are actually in the water and depending on your gear for survival. Task overloading is not such a concern in the warm water of the tropics where the sun still streams brightly into the depths and you can see 100’ in every direction. However, the murky cold waters of the North Atlantic are much less forgiving; mistakes can easily be made and those mistakes can be fatal rather quickly.

Conditions for yesterday’s dive were less than ideal. The water was cold, the wreck is festooned with old fishhooks and fishing line that can easily snag a fin or tank, the visibility was atrocious and the wreck was encrusted with very sharp coral. It was also fairly dark; every time a cloud passed over the sun on the surface, it became impossible to see more than three feet without a light. I was diving with two other divers I met on my Key Largo trip; both are relatively experienced and have no real issues with their buoyancy or equipment. Unfortunately, none of us brought a wreck reel so we had to navigate along the wreck without any reference to the location of the anchor line besides our compasses which are not dependable on a metal wreck. (A wreck reel holds a spool of nylon line that you tie to the anchor line of the dive boat where it connects to the wreck. You then unspool the line as you explore the wreck, and reel it in to find your way back to the anchor line.) The absence of a reel meant that we were all a bit nervous about venturing too far from the anchor line, even though we did it anyway.

In general yesterday’s dives were a great learning experience and I am hoping to do quite a bit more wreck diving this summer. Next time I’ll bring a reel and seriously consider purchasing a dry suit to ward off the onset of hypothermia. Believe me this sport is more fun than it sounds.