America Enters A New Time

by Alexander Cockburn, August 18, 2010

I went to get my hair cut the other day in the town of Fortuna and waited ten minutes while the elderly barber finished buzz-cutting a young Mexican American. After the young man had exited under his thin skullcap of black stubble, Don the barber sighed and said, “That’s the third boy I’ve cut today who’s headed into the Marines. They all say the same thing. “There’s no work around here and I’ve got a family to support.” When I tell them to hold off, they say the same thing: “Too late. I’ve signed up.”

This is Humboldt county, northern California, where the marijuana boom is in its final paroxysms, with people flocking from around the world to get a piece of the action, just like they did in the Gold Rush. One of the many places selling bags of good soil to marijuana growers ($10 a bag, 8 bags to each marijuana plant, grown in a 100 foot x 30 foot plastic greenhouse, $25,000 or so) had a $300,000 day lately. So there’s more money here than most places across America, where the situation is truly desperate.

Corporate profits are up 41% since Obama’s election; yet half of American workers have suffered a job loss or a cut in hours or wages over the past 30 months. They’re saying around 28 million people either have no job or one that doesn’t yield them enough money to get through the week. On Friday, August 13, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted on its home page that “Employers initi­ated 1,851 mass layoff events in the second quarter of 2010 that resulted in the separation of 338,064 workers from their jobs for at least 31 days.”

Millions are plummeting into total destitution, having reached the end of their 99-weeks of unemployment benefits. Their only option then is the soup line at a church and getting on the waiting list for a homeless shelter. The nearest big city north of me is Portland, Oregon, adjacent to the Oregon City bunker of Counter­Punch co-editor Jeffrey St Clair. The downtown area in Portland is filled with homeless people, napping on steps, bedding down on cardboard in doorways. Jeffrey kayaks frequently down the Willamette and can see colonies of the destitute all along the river bank, from the shipyards to Willamette Falls, sleeping under thin plastic and gray skies.

California agriculture and much of the construction industry depends on undocumented workers coming across the border from Mexico — minimum cost $1000 — for an 8-day walk through the Arizona desert. Since building is in a terminal slump, many Mexicans would like to head back home till times improve, but nowadays it’s so tough to come back across that they daren’t risk it. Hence the paradox: trying to lock “illegals” out means locking them in. Frank Bardacke who lives in the farm town of Watsonville, a couple of hours south of San Francisco, recently described amid an important piece in our newsletter a bank robbery by one young, desperate immigrant.

“Several months ago,” Frank writes, “Jario took his father’s pickup truck, drove 20 miles to the upscale tourist playpen Carmel By the Sea, and walked into the local branch of the Bank of America. He waited in line to see a teller, and, when his turn came, he pretended to have a gun under his shirt and quietly demanded that the teller give him her cash. As she was passing out the money, he apologized for frightening her; meanwhile, she was hiding a GPS device among the bills.

“He left the bank, his crime apparently unnoticed, and returned to the truck for the drive home. On the way, he got confused and took a wrong turn through Monterey before he got back on the right road home. Twenty police cars from four different police jurisdictions fol­lowed the GPS signal and stopped him 45 minutes after he left the bank. He immediately confessed, explaining that he needed the money to help his dad pay the family mortgage. When his case came to trial, the DA pressed for two years in State Prison. The judge decided that six months in the county jail and five years probation would be enough.”

In Texas or anywhere in the South the fellow would probably have got 25 years. But in desperate times one can expect people to do desperate, stupid things, and this decent judge showed compassion and understanding. One can’t say the same for many Americans, starting with the Republicans in Congress who’ve been happily voting for a cut-off in benefits for the jobless, while simultaneously engaging in the politically insane enter­prise of repealing the 14th Amendment, no longer mak­ing it a constitutional provision that those “born or natu­ralized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Do the Republicans want to cede Texas and Florida permanently to the Democrats?

Conspicuous good works are always a feature of Depression, the rich zealous to purchase moral insur­ance. Some billionaires, led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have been pledging that they will earmark not less than 50% of their personal wealth for charity. But since whatever they give away is tax deductible, so revenues to Uncle Sam will drop.

The rich don’t get to be rich by being the nicest guys in the shark tank. As Carl Ginsburg recently remarked in a fine piece on CounterPunch recently, “In its fledgling years, profits on Bill Gates’ software were reportedly 70% annually. Another way to gauge Gates’s billions is by catching a glimpse of the multitudes of students priced out of the computer market — thanks in part to that Great Giver’s expensive software — lined up daily at community college libraries for some free access to computers, each machine an expression of Gates’ crea­tive commitment to profit in the +40% range — a gift Gates gave himself that keeps on giving. As Gates told Fortune: ‘The diversity of American giving is part of its beauty.’”

We can probably expect more laid-off workers going postal, as David Rosen discussed on CounterPunch.org last week. On August 3, at 7am, Omar Thornton showed up for a disciplinary hearing at the Hartford Distributors, a Budweiser distribution warehouse in Manchester, Con­necticut. Thornton had been caught on video pinching some beer. They asked him whether he wanted to be fired, or just quit. Thornton pulled out a handgun and killed seven fellow employees before shooting himself dead. Before he loosed off his last shot into his head, Thornton, a black man, called a friend on his cellphone and said he’d taken care of some racists who’d been giving him a hard time. Unemployment means fear and fear nourishes racism, all the more because we have a black president. Racism is drifting across America like mustard gas in the trenches in World War One.

And, final token of hard times, we have Bonnie and Clyde on the run. In their latest guise the duo consists of John McCluskey and his cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Welch, who’s no Faye Dunaway. She threw some wire cutters over the fence of her man’s Arizona prison. Cops suspect them of killing a couple of retirees, then stealing their truck and heading north up to the Canadian line through Glacier National Park. That’s the last sanctuary in America of Ursus horribilis, the American grizzly. Behind them the cops, ahead the bears. It could be the first movie of a new time.

Marriage’s Fiercest Defenders

Last week I wrote about the Prop 8 decision handed down by a federal judge in San Francisco and evoked the irony of gays striving to save the sinking ship of mar­riage. Here’s a letter from Marc Salomon, who says he’s a 21-year gay anarchist in a committed relationship, married only when it was illegal, and who’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.”

* * *

Alex,

It should not go unnoticed how same sex marriage got to this point, and what impact the experience has had on the gay rights movement.

As you might know, only 15% of LGBT are in a rela­tionship circumstance where they would marry. Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5% of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.

In the early 1990s, conservative homosexuals began to sue for the right to marry. They won in the Hawaii Supreme Court in the mid 1990s and that instigated the backlash with the Defense of Marriage Act as the center­piece. At that time, Clinton, a straight white male philan­derer, glibly promised to end the ban on gay sin the military.

That worked out well.

In '04, Gavin Newsom, another straight white male philanderer, ordered the county clerk to issue marriage licenses irrespective of gender. That led to the California Supreme Court granting LGBT suspect status and allowing same sex marriage.

Reactionaries easily qualified an amendment to the California constitution, which barely passed in 2008.

And then it took the straight, white male establish­ment figures like Boies and Olsen to win this case.

Shit just happens. Who would have thought that the chain of events outlined above — wealthy fags sue to be married, backlash against queers swells, straight white guys define our agenda, marriage ends up with decisions that grant LGBT exemptions from discrimination in California and in Walkers' court in a case launched by straight white guys?

The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.

Yet still queers are getting fired, not getting jobs and losing housing because there is a flashing green light signaling that we can be treated like second class citi­zens.

Up or down?

Meet the Amarnath Shivalingam

Our latest newsletter is choc a bloc with terrific pieces. Peter Lee reports on the ghastly ongoing strug­gles in Kashmir, and the enormous tensions caused by the Hindu shrine of the Amarnath Shivalingam. This is a large ice spike displaying the lingam shape, formed by water dripping on the floor of the immense Amarnath cave in the remote high mountains of Kashmir. In 2006, disaster struck. Climatic conditions caused a failure of the Shivalingam and it did not form at all. A crude and clearly-handcrafted snowman pinch-hitting for the Shiv­alingam outraged the Hindu faithful. Lee’s story lays out the macabre saga and the overall political tragedy.

Meet the women trying to reform America’s insane sex offender laws. JoAnn Wypijewski talks to them, describes their struggle.

“Food security” … “sustainable agriculture” … “slow food” … “food sovereignty.” R.G. Davis separates the real from the phony in the world of organic food.

(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.)

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