Torture By Any Other Name is Just Revenge

Torture has no justification. There is not, nor ever will be, a reason to torture someone. All the rationalizations are hogwash. Torture has one, singular motivator: revenge.

Revenge is a part of our mythos. Cultures throughout the ages have envisioned angry gods exacting revenge upon indolent citizens, or even each other. We follow in their footsteps. Theater and opera are rife with revenge. We love movies where the hero, or antihero, slams the bad guys. It’s not enough that the bad guy gets captured, he has to be made to suffer. On TV shows, in movies, or in simulation on video games, revenge torture is everywhere.

As part of our storytelling tradition, revenge is all well and good. But it’s quite another thing to practice barbarism in real life on real people. In the years following 9/11, we have asphyxiated ourselves with the desire for revenge, clouding reason, tainting judgement, choking our humanity.

Numerous reports, including the recent one put out by the Senate Intelligence Committee, have shown that torture does not lead to “actionable intelligence.” It often leads to gibberish. When you’re being hurt, you say what you think your torturers want to hear so that they’ll stop hurting you. Even the Vietcong realized that torture served no purpose and that it did more harm than good. Those who insist that one can gain useful information via torture have been watching too many episodes of “24.”

We dress up torture with urgency, the mythic “ticking time bomb” scenario. We cloak it in euphemisms (“enhanced interrogation techniques”). But it is simply revenge, a quality it shares, in my opinion, with the death penalty. There are ways to stop criminals without killing them. You throw them in jail forever. Similarly, there are ways to stop evil-doers from doing evil: acting upon good intelligence gathered in the traditional way (i.e., without torturing someone for it) to identify, capture, and prosecute them. The Bush Administration often touted that they kept America safe following 9/11. Maybe. Before 9/11, though, they were asleep at the wheel. They failed to act upon the intelligence available to them.

Investigating, following up on leads, none of that has the same visceral satisfaction as Jack Bauer slapping, slamming, or shooting confessions out of someone. Again, fine for fiction, not so much for real life. In the real world, our torturing people has real consequences.

And now it’s time to pay the piper. With the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning report, confirming all the worst fears of what the CIA did during the Bush Administration, the US has lost its moral standing for a generation. We cannot look other nations in the eye and say “don’t do that,” because we did it. We can call it whatever we want and we can justify it anyway we like, but we did it. It was base and it was cruel. And it yielded nothing, making it, for all its gross flaws, unnecessary. Dick Cheney claims torture led to the capture of Osama Bin-Laden. The Senate reports states otherwise.

Torture is evil. Yet it is the quick and easy refuge of the weak. Because our political class is rife with weakness these days, I fear that we will one day torture again.

Black Lives Matter

My husband and I went to dinner last night at one of our favorite restaurants in Berkeley. On the way, we saw a group of about 8 or more motorcycle cops gathered at a corner gas station just down the block from where we were going. As we waited for the light to change so that I could make a left turn, we wondered what was up. Clearly, all those cops weren’t just to going to get slushies. Then I saw the answer: one of the officers carried a large handful of plastic handcuffs. Ah, a protest was in the works nearby. Sure enough, looking the other way down University, we saw a gathering in the distance.

We arrived at the restaurant, packed with a respectable Saturday night crowd. We got a table quickly. As we settled in I took out my iPhone and started looking for tweets. #Berkeley gave me the answers and confirmed my suspicions. Folks marched for black lives. They gathered for Eric Garner. They chanted for Michael Brown. They hollered for Tamir Rice, and the many other black lives taken by police needlessly.

I’ve spent most of last week trying to write about the latest grand jury insult, the failure to bring charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing unarmed Eric Garner. Bons mots have not been forthcoming. There is nothing clever that can be written about this current crisis. I recognized Ferguson a national tragedy. That tragedy has now replicated itself many times over.

At dinner, I asked myself, how does this current crisis affect me personally? Besides the anger, pain, and hurt I feel, fear also comes into the equation. In 2014, even in the liberal Bay Area, I have to keep looking over my shoulder. I have to wonder if people will see me as me or as a Big Scary Black Man. Will someone call the cops on me while I walk through the mall? Will an officer stop me and rough me up for being somewhere s/he felt I did not belong?

These questions, thrust upon me by others, I must now carry into the 21st century, over 100 years after DuBois declared that race would be the prime issue of the 20th century. I weep knowing that a generation of black folks born in 2000 and beyond will still have to grapple with this shit, at least for the first half of their lives. How has it come to pass that the ugliness of race hatred continues to fester so relentlessly, even as our society has grown more diverse during the first 50 years of my life?

Before our salads arrived, the streets outside filled with protesters. They marched down University, heading west. I ran out to take pictures. Hands up. Don’t shoot. I can’t breath. Black lives matter. A few police followed on motorbikes and in cars and vans.

Berkeley Protest 12-6-14

Tail end of group of protesters, Berkeley, December 2014

Another conclusion I came to last week, one that many have stated, is that cameras don’t matter. Michael Brown’s death occurred without cameras present. The grand jury in St. Louis declared that witnesses to the shooting contradicted each other. A fuzzy picture exists of what actually happened. (For the record, I do not believe the statements made by former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson.) In the Eric Garner case, though, everyone figured that there would at least be an indictment against Officer Pantaleo. But no, there wasn’t, nor against any of the other officers involved in Mr. Garner’s takedown. And in this case, a video caught everything.

It might seem shocking that a video recording didn’t enlighten a jury, until we remember our history. The Rodney King beating of 24 years ago was also video taped. And we know how that story went. Though even in that case, there were indictments. Four officers had to stand trial. They were acquitted, but they had to stand trial. So I guess one could say that we’ve gone backwards. In extraordinary cases like Rodney King, and even Oscar Grant many years later, we could expect an indictment. Not anymore.

Society has allowed its irrational fear of black men to create some very dangerous public policy. This policy now states that a police officer is always right, no matter what s/he does. Conversely, a black man is always wrong and is in some way responsible for what happens to him. Due process be damned. Michael Brown allegedly did not obey orders and became unruly, so he was shot to death even though he was unarmed. Eric Garner reacted when four officers started pawing over him, so he was taken down. Some commenters have callously added that he died because he was overweight and had asthma, leaving the police blameless. 12 year old Tamir Rice did not drop his toy gun fast enough — as if two seconds were plenty of time — so he was shot to death.

It doesn’t matter. Outsized fear of blacks in our society means that if a black person does not obey instantly and immediately, they face punishment, up to and including summary execution. That is horrid and barbaric public policy. That people actually defend this line of reasoning is deeply, deeply troubling. We cannot live in a safe and just society when we rob segments of that society of its humanity. Slavery should have taught us that, but we continue to find new ways of making similar mistakes over and over.

A second group of protesters walked by on University. Following the tweets, I see they went to San Pablo, then turned north because the police blocked them from going any further west. No doubt the police wanted to prevent them from reaching the I-80 and blocking the freeway. Then I saw tweets reporting that the protesters were headed back east, on Delaware, just a couple of blocks north of the restaurant.

Soon after these tweets appeared, a phalanx of cops showed up. They roared onto the street  in a Humvee. A Humvee? Folks in the restaurant were appalled. Many lips decried the militarization of the police. The Humvee belonged to the Hayward Police Department, a city a good 20 mins south of Berkeley. UCPD officers from the nearby Berkeley campus also joined the ranks. They lined the street, preventing access up Acton, towards Delaware. Several helicopters flew overhead, shining their lights on us. It was a crazy scene. As I tweeted about all this, someone tweeted back, “You’d think they were going after Godzilla.” Indeed.

Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. What a ridiculous thing to have to say. Black lives matter. Like it’s not a forgone conclusion, that black lives matter. But it isn’t. Even now, in the 21st century, it isn’t. Even 100 years after DuBois and 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr, it isn’t. Even in liberal bastions of the country like Berkeley, it isn’t. It isn’t because we continue to substitute fears, preconceptions, prejudices, and secret desires for real flesh and blood black men. African Americans have always been looked upon through the preconceptions of others, rarely as human beings with our own dignity, our own strengths and weaknesses. I can still hear my mother cry, “We must have the right to be human beings!”

Until that day comes, we will have to remind the world that black lives do matter. And we’ll have to do better about penalizing those who do not recognize and respect this simple statement, even if they be police officers.

The Dust Journals – Part XI

Saturday, March 5, 2157

The voices returned, violently. So violent came their onslaught that I blacked out and am just coming to. Whatever it was Walter wanted to show me, it hasn’t happen yet. I’m back in the bed again with bloodstained bandages on my head. It’s too hard to write, physically and mentally, too damn hard.


Tuesday, March 8, 2157

The bandages on my head no longer show any red. I can write a bit now. I can think again, without my thoughts turning into bullets from an Uzi. The voices have ceased, sans medication.

During the worst of my blackout, I apparently kept screaming WHERE ARE MY FUCKING PILLS! Walter hadn’t hidden them. They simply vanished on their own accord, probably on the beach where he found me, dying.

That I would blame any of this on Walter just shows how messed up I was. He’s so wonderful. I don’t deserve to know someone this patient or kind. He’s the sort of person you just figure no longer exists in this world. I’m no saint, he tells me, but I beg to differ. He’s saved me twice, so far, and counting.

I need to write about what happened, about my showdown with the voices, but I’m still processing it. And I’m still too weak. I need more rest.

Our Band Will Never Sound the Same Again

Our band will never sound the same again. – Duke Ellington, after the passing of Johnny Hodges

Not a minute of this Thanksgiving will go by without my thoughts turning time and again on my brother Robert. This will be the first Thanksgiving since his passing. To be sure, we did not gather last year, either. By that point, he had had his operation, the removal of his tongue, and could not eat. Plus he was deep into his chemo and radiation treatments, which weakened him. We hoped he would get better. We hoped.

Robert played the bass in our family band. Louis played guitar. Tania sang. I played tabla. We jammed like this nearly every Thanksgiving. This tradition goes back over two decades. Now our bass player is gone.

Lester Young played with the Count Basie Orchestra at Newport in 1957, his first time playing with them since the early 1940s. Afterwards he said, “I always bust my nuts when I play with them.” I always think of that quote after playing with Louis and Robert. Both masters of their respective axes, they knew all the jazz standards, and more, and never tired of playing. The tabla player had to keep up. It was an honor to do so.

Robert always enjoyed the odd-rhythms I introduced. He loved 5s and 7s, but also get a kick out of 11, 13, even 17. The last time I played for Robert, over the phone about a month before the end, the first thing he said was, “I can hear the 7s.” He lavished me with praise for my skills, but he always had a deft sense of rhythm. He’s the OG master of tal.

I had a feeling this Thanksgiving would be challenging, and it is. My ears still hear the words he spoke at our last Thanksgiving together, in 2012, just as he left for the night: “This was the best ever.” Yeah, it was. I almost didn’t write this piece, but I had to say something. Before launching into new holiday traditions, I had to acknowledge the weight of what came before. Though we’re all doing our own thing this year, I have no doubt that the surviving Mighty Russell Players will play again one day.

Though, of course, our band will never sound the same again.

For you, Robert, I’ll play a little something tomorrow. I’ll make it an odd-rhythm. Because.

And Now We Know

During the Trayvon Martin tragedy, one question lingered in the back of the head: what if his killer, George Zimmerman, had been a police officer? Now we know.

There have been exceptions to the narrative, where an officer had to go to trial over a killing committed under shady circumstances. There was Johannes Mehserle, the killer of Oscar Grant. He did get indicted, did stand trial, and did get convicted. Though his conviction, and sentence, did not even qualify as a slap on the wrist. It was more like a wagging finger intoning a gentle “now, now.” But Mehserle’s killing of Oscar Grant had too many witnesses with cellphones for there not to have been an indictment. We all saw what happened on that BART platform that New Year’s Day.

There was the Rodney King four, a small subset of the group that savagely brutalized Rodney King. They had to stand trial, though of course all were found not guilty. But here again, there was the lone video, which showed the world what happened. To have not indicted someone would have looked quite ridiculous.

Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown away from cellphone cameras or other recording devices. He had only a small audience of witnesses, all of whose accounts the prosecutor and grand jury discounted. Had Wilson been wearing a camera, things may have happened differently. Had George Zimmerman been filmed, things may have happened differently. Sans video, we now know what happens.

Prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch feigned concern while delivering the no indictment decision. However, his astounding, 20-minute word salad, mushed together with the biggest wad of bafflegab imaginable, lacked compassion, lacked justice. His calls for peace and respect for the rule of law and for protesters to voice their concerns openly seemed contradictory and patronizing.

Protesters would rather not be protesting. They’d rather that this whole affair had never happened. We’d all rather that Michael Brown were home with his parents. But he’s not. He’s dead. And his killer will not have to answer for his actions because he’s a police officer and because no cameras caught what happened. It’s as simple as that. No word salad, no detailed description of cherry-picked facts can alter this sad realty, or bring justice to an unjust situation.


Stoney Burke: Master of the Free Speech Zone

Minstrels of various stripes have graced college campuses for decades. At 1980s UCLA, all we got were preachers. Some were local, some visited from afar. But they all had the same message: you are evil and are going to hell. One of my favorites was Brother Jed. He came with an entourage that included his wife, Sister Cindy, and an older woman we assumed to be Cindy’s mother. No one could throw the brimstone harder than Brother Jed. He danced, he leapt about, he gyrated his arms and hands like a magician. Pure entertainment.

And then he came.

I actually first saw him in Berkeley, wearing baggy, striped pants, his hair dyed some odd color, and carrying a weather-wore tan suitcase full of props. I couldn’t stay to check him out at the time. I was following a friend to one of his classes. But then a month later, this same man appeared at UCLA on Bruin Walk, same clothes, same hair, same suitcase full of props. He was definitely not a preacher.

“Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan! Scum-sucking fascist Republican! Scum-sucking fascist Republican!” he sang to the tune of “Frère Jacques.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but this lanky, double-jointed clown, who yelled profanities at the powerful and blew a police whistle against the complacent was the legendary Stoney Burke. A fixture at Berkeley for many years, he brought his adventures in free speech to UCLA, and our world would never be the same again.

Stoney says in his memoir, Weapon: Mouth – Adventures in the Free Speech Zone that he drew his inspiration from, among others, a street performer called the Swami. At that time, the Swami lived in semiretirement and hung on the Venice Beach boardwalk; I had seen him a couple of times. But really, Stoney is unique. Others have performed topical political comedy, long before Jon Stewart. Others have spoken out against the powerful on soap boxes. Others have trumpeted the sanctity of free speech. Stoney has, over his long career, combined all of these elements while literally putting his body in the line of fire. He recounts many scuffles with police.

Us malcontents, those of us who dared to raise our voices against evil and injustice, had found a kindred spirit. Hanging on Bruin Walk, a favorite pastime, became a lot more interesting. Early in Stoney’s residency at UCLA, Brother Jed returned for his annual visit. Bring the popcorn, we said, this is gonna be good! Stoney mimicked all of Jed’s acrobatics. He countered Jed’s conservatism with liberation theology. He reminded the good preacher about Jesus’ dedication to the poor. In the end Jed looked foolish, but he wore his defeat with grace. They knew one another, having crossed verbal swords on other college campuses in the past.

Stoney recalls some of his religious encounters in his memoir, including one at San Francisco State, where he went to school. He jousted with a fellow named Cliff about all manner of religious dogma. Stoney states that he knew he won when one of Cliff’s supporters threw lemonade in his face. The next day, a letter in the school newspaper called him a blasphemer. That same day, a group of Black Muslims took the free speech spot at SF State to call for Salmon Rushdie’s death for writing The Satanic Verses.

“Excuse me? I could have sworn that just last week, death threats were not included in this Free Speech game we play?”

Joust with words, never with violence. That game was reserved for the police.

I can’t recall a time when police gave him trouble at UCLA for one of his shows (they busted him at one of our anti-apartheid protests, but that’s another story), but it’s amazing how many times he did get into trouble during his travels, simply for practicing free speech. In his book, he tells a story of how on one campus a group of fans and supports literally shielded him from security officers so that they could not arrest him. He wasn’t always so lucky. One such arrest provided him the title, as well as a chapter, for his memoir. The arresting officer literally cited his mouth as a weapon. Doesn’t that sum up our society’s uneasy relationship with rights?

Those of us who engage in any sort of critical thinking risk running afoul of authorities, or at least getting their attention. I’m fairly certain that my shortwave radio listening, resulting in many letters sent overseas, attracted undue attention from authorities. I remember seeing this odd dude on a bike watching me from a distance while I watered the front lawn at my parents’ house. This was in South Central LA, and the dude was white so he sort of stuck out. Similarly, Stoney never escaped the notice of The Man wherever he went.

During one of his UCLA shows, Chancellor Young walked by with some of his functionaries. We interrupted Stoney with an off-stage whisper, telling him “hey, that’s our Chancellor!” Stoney grinned widely and got busy. As he needled UCLA’s longest serving chancellor about divestment from South Africa and other topical issues, Dr. Young looked at him with a small grin and pointing finger and said, “Oh, I’ve heard all about you,” as he kept on walking. How Stoney got on the chancellor’s radar was a mystery to us, but it really shouldn’t have been. As I said, those who challenge the status quo, even especially with comedy, will catch the attention of upper echelons, from university chancellors to high school principals.

Stoney appeared as the principle subject in a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Kåge Jonsson called “An American in America.” He went back to his hometown of Romeo, Michigan, to visit his old high school, crew in tow. They got permission to film Stoney talking with current students. Everything was going OK, until the talk got a little too real for the administration to handle. Then, the principal called the whole thing off and Stoney and the film crew had to leave. The principal, unlike Chancellor Young, had not heard all about him.

Weapon does not included blow-by-blow details of Stoney’s life, his upbringing, and so on. That’s not his style. His writing mimics his shows. The words are quick on their feet. Indeed, the whole book is a succession of vignettes, told in sharp, humorous prose, interspersed with newspaper clippings of notorious exploits and flyers of past gigs. The background info he does impart gives a clue on how Stoney became Stoney. For example, I didn’t know that he trained as a mime, and began his career in silence. But the training explains how he learned to use his body like a dancer to tell stories.

He presented his most poignant story early in the book, paying homage to his parents. He lived in an orphanage for two years, he writes, before being adopted by his then-foster parents.

“Betty Burke’s home cooking and Jim Burke’s hearty laugh would be like music to my ears once I walked in the door, back from another venture into the great unknown beyond the A&W Root Beer stand at the edge of town.”

The young Master Burke had vague knowledge of the volunteer work his parents did through their church on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But one cold spring morning, the reality of race relations in the US slapped the 10 year old Stoney across the face, harder than any angry hand or any icy Michigan lake-effect wind. I won’t tell more than this. You must buy the book and read this extraordinary tale for yourself. I will say, though, that the silent dignity and courage displayed by Stoney’s parents, and by folks like them, is the stuff of American History, the People’s History as the late Howard Zinn called it. It is the reason why positive change happens in our land of the free.

And this tale, told early in the book, explains Stoney’s devotion to free speech. He learned the lesson early: Simple acts threaten power. And what could be simpler than standing in a public space talking critically and thoughtfully about issues of the day – and being hella funny while doing it. He has taken his adventures to colleges across the country, to Europe, and to presidential nomination conventions for both parties. (Guess which party had him arrested from their convention? It’s not the one you think.) And he has survived to tell the tale. Thank goodness he took the time to write about it.

I’ve known Stoney for close to 30 years. I’m proud to say that my college roommates and I once served as a station on his Free Speech underground railroad. He crashed at our place for a week – my birthday week actually – around the time I was coming out of the closet. My coming out meant nothing to our friendship, needless to say. He lived in the Bay Area in the early 80s and thus witnessed the plague called AIDS from close quarters. So he had earned his stripes as an honorary queer in any case.

Stoney actually figures importantly in a story of my own. A group of us formed the nucleus of folks who pushed for the University of California system to divest itself from businesses with ties to Apartheid South Africa. In 1986, we held a sit-in at the UCLA career center and were arrested. The police got pissed that “we,” and not their billy clubs, caused a riot on campus, the first since the Vietnam War days. So to teach us a lesson, they sent us to LA County Jail, rather than released us from campus police headquarters. What fun that was. The sheriffs in county jail delighted in frightening us. I remember one dude slowly putting on gloves, placing the fear of a strip-search in our heads.

But before sending us off to the Fun House, the UCPD officers did grant us our mandatory one phone call. I called home, of course. Mom asked, “Well, are you in or are you out?” “I’m in,” I said. She figured as much. My mom and dad lived the Civil Rights Movement before there was a moment by virtue of being young, black, and intelligent freethinkers. It pleased them to no end that all of their offspring followed in their footsteps.

During our brief phone call, I lost my composure only once. Mom told me that Stoney had called to ask about me, to see if I was OK. That threw me for a loop. His kindness touched me deeply as I faced a night of unknown. It made that hellish night more bearable, knowing I had folks thinking of me, and proud of what I had done.

Some of the stories Stoney tells in Weapon I knew, some I didn’t. But all of it is fascinating and funny. Stoney truly is unique, almost an institution, having adventured in Free Speech for 40 years now. He represents a history of this country that one does not typically get to read about. Do yourself a favor, and read his story. It will make you laugh, and think.

Weapon: Mouth – Adventures in the Free Speech Zone (Regent Press, 2014) can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent booksellers.

How to Lose a Democracy

When Scotland held their independence referendum vote, they achieved a voter turnout rate of an astounding 84.5%. I said then that the US would never achieve so high a level of participation in an election, least of all in a midterm election. I was right. The national turnout was about 36%. Pitiful.

A democracy cannot survive as a democracy with such a pathetic level of participation. 36% is a red alert. It is like your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is 280, and if you don’t do something, you’re gonna die. But no one seems to really care. We still eat fatty foods. Elections continue as they always have.

If we truly believed in democracy, the very bedrock of our culture, then we should take steps to improve participation in it. Election Day should be moved to a weekend or made a national holiday. I’m old enough to remember when my dad got half the day off on Election Day to vote. That disappeared a long time ago. Voting by mail should be practiced universally, nationwide, and so should same day registration. Maybe Election Day should become Election Week, a generous portion of days so that everyone can have time to participate, then the last day of that week would be the National Election Holiday. You should be able to vote anywhere, in libraries and coffee shops, in malls and schools, at home. There should be so many different ways to vote, that you’d have to go out of your way not to vote.

Important ancillary changes should occur, too, such as serious campaign finance reform. This midterm topped off as the most expensive in history, despite the pitiful turn out. One could say a lot of money went towards persuading few voters. Or one could say that a lot of money went towards dissuading people from participating.

But our body politic won’t implement even the most timid election reforms to boost participation or improve the process. Instead, we’ve clogged our arteries with voter ID laws, meant to suppress participation, not reduce nonexistent voter fraud; with unlimited money, thanks to Citizens United; and with milquetoast candidates that fail to inspire.

The Republican takeover of statehouses in the 2010 midterms allowed them to rework the voting process in their image, to the detriment of democracy. They gerrymandered congressional and other political boundaries in their favor, artificially locking in Republican majorities for years to come. Then they passed voter ID laws, a new kind of poll tax for the 21st century.

You remember the poll tax, right? The Jim Crow South used them as a means to keep poor African Americans away from elections. If you can’t pay, you can’t vote. They became illegal during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, but now voter ID laws have brought them back, in a kinder, gentler, sneakier way. While the ID cards themselves may cost little or nothing, the process of getting them can be costly. In many cases one needs a birth certificate to get one, and they do not come cheaply. In some cases, one has to travel great distances to get a birth certificate, adding to the expense. Concerns about voter fraud supposedly give this new poll tax a patina of respectability, but really it does not. Study after study has proven that voter fraud is a non-issue.

In the face of this clear and present danger to democracy, promulgated by an increasingly more conservative Republican Party, one would think that the Democrats would rise to the occasion and challenge these and other disgraces. But here is where we encounter the milquetoast candidates. The funny thing is that Republicans effectively mask their true intentions by sounding like populists during campaigns – JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! – then once elected, they proceed to pass voter ID laws, women’s healthcare restrictions, and, in Congress, do everything in their power to put a stranglehold on everything President Obama proposes. In other words, everything, but JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! Democrats, however, do the opposite. Instead of sounding like populists, many try to sound like Republicans, tacking to the right, in hopes that the issues they (supposedly) care about will go unnoticed. And then they don’t get elected.

Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes best demonstrated why the Democrats faired so poorly in the 2014-midterm elections. When asked during an interview if she voted for President Obama, she gave a non-answer, and looked foolish doing so. Some defended her stance, citing the privacy of one’s vote and all. I call bullpucky. Like far too many Democrats who felt threated from the right, she ran, not walked, away from the president during her campaign. Her pitiful attempts at distancing herself from the president, while at the same time embracing policies of his that she likes, made her look like a phony. And people generally aren’t motivated to vote for phonies. She lost handily to now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The continued lack of a spine doom the Democrats to second fiddle status. Rather than trumpet victories – Obamacare, decreased unemployment, a stabilized economy – they shy away from these issues and hope no one notices, while at the same time beg people to vote for them. But when you run scared, you’re not really running for anything at all.

The Republicans continue to use fear and voter suppression to win elections. Ten years ago, antigay marriage laws helped motivate their base to the polls. This time they championed the trumped up horrors of Ebola, ISIS, and Obama. Fear motivates because it installs insecurity and it makes you look tough, at least superficially. One does not need to present solutions to these problems, just blind outrage. For their part, the Democrats who ran to the right failed counteract the lies Republicans told to stoke fear, allowing the fears to fester and ultimately win. They instead ran as Republican-lite, which almost never works.

We have way too many serious issues facing us today for the likes of the election system we have in place. We need candidates who not only sound alarm bells but also bring forth intelligent, practical solutions to problems, solutions that benefit everyone, not just those with money and power. So the milquetoast Democratic candidates have to go. Hard limits on campaigning have to be established, and adhered to. And the voting process itself has to become a lot easier so that we get an 80% or 90% participation rate.

A major correction is needed, or the body politic will die, and take us along for the ride.

Please Go Vote

US midterm elections are tomorrow (Tuesday, November 4). Midterms, so say the Pundits, lack the sex appeal of presidential elections, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Look at what happened in 2010. In a wave of indignation, Republicans took over the House of Representatives and a great many of the state houses across the country. The state legislature takeovers were particularly opportune. Occurring as it did right after the 2010 census, the newly Republican-controlled state houses redrew legislative district boundaries to their liking, fixing things so that Republicans could potentially control the lower house of the Congress for many years to come.

The other thing they did, of course, was to pass a bunch of voter ID laws aimed at curbing voter fraud. But we don’t have a voter fraud problem. Instances of voter fraud generally make up way less than 1% of votes cast in a given state — the article I cite above claims “31 credible incidents out of one BILLION ballots cast” (emphasis mine). Only one possible conclusion explains the true purpose of these laws: To a Republican, voter fraud is when anyone but a Republican casts a ballot.

Don’t stay home. Don’t sit this one out. If you are registered to vote, then go vote. This experiment we call American democracy will only work when everyone does her or his part and votes. Don’t believe the nonsense about votes not counting or it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Don’t let others speak for you. Speak your own voice with your vote.

Please go vote.

The Dust Journal – Part X

[Editor’s note: For earlier installments of this series, click here.]

Friday, March 4, 2157

What an extraordinary few days it has been.

His name is Walter. He alone takes care of the desalination station. Techs come out twice a year, he says, to service various systems that he cannot take care of by himself. Otherwise the whole place is automated. He stays here fulltime, alone.

I find myself reflecting on how lonely he must be, contrasting his situation with my own. All the years I lived in the arroyo, until recently, I had people around me. They came and they went, but there were always people about, in their homes during the heat of the day and in the streets in night’s relative coolness. And there was my roommate, until he departed. But even when I had a roommate in that enormous house, I was still alone.

Even with the people on the street, I was alone. Even during the times when we all took a communal meal together – which happened more and more rarely as the years went on – I was alone. I was surrounded by folks, and yet forever alone.

When real loneliness came, after everyone went away, for a time it did not feel much different. I only began to feel true loneliness after I started the trek to this place, to get water to take back home.

What a pipe dream. How the hell was I to lug it back? I fixated on Mad Max so much, in the days before I began the journey, I probably figured that I would find a vehicle somewhere on my travels and be able to drive it back to the arroyo, carrying gallons upon gallons of water with me. Pure fantasy. The one thing I have not seen in all my travels was a vehicle of any sort.

Walter says he has a little electric car that he uses from time to time, to get away. But they don’t like it when I’m away too much, he said.

He has taken very good care of me, making sure I felt OK and that I got my strength back. Only after he felt that I was doing alright did he ask any questions, where I came from, how I came to visit the desal station. I told him my sob story. He knew the area I came from. It surprised him that it went D classified. It’s very pretty there, he said. I guess there aren’t many places left where you can find trees. The flats here near the bay have some large shrubs, but no trees.

Walter has been the most gracious host, like he was born to it, like he did it all the time. We always have plenty to eat and of course water is not an issue. It didn’t even taste bad. I didn’t call it toilet water around him. I didn’t know if that would have offended him. And he’s been very kind to me.

I haven’t asked many questions of him. Though very friendly, I felt something reserved about him. I did not want to pry. Though yesterday I did ask if those hippies down south ever came by. He nearly spat when he said no. He said, I’ll have nothing to do with those baby killers. They’ll get no water from me.

Then I asked about being alone. I didn’t mean to. As I said, I did not want to pry. But he was as calm and collected by my question as he had been the whole time we’ve been together.

I don’t have to work here, he said. I am alone by my own choosing.

Yesterday and part of today he showed me around the desalination plant. What a complex. It hums constantly, like a living, breathing entity. He gave me the grandest of tours. Many of the doors we traversed said, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, but clearly he didn’t give a fuck.

In fact, after we went through about the third or fourth such entrance, he turned and gave me the most mischievous smile imaginable. I think it tickled him to break rules. Like I said, sometimes he goes on road trips, even though he shouldn’t leave the plant for too long. Three days, he said, that’s the longest I usual go for. Just three days.

Most of the rest of the time we sit and listen to music. He has an enormous library of music, mostly digital. But he also has old vinyl. My great-granddad had lots of old vinyl. He left some to me, but I wasn’t able to take it with me as I moved from one place to another.

The collection includes ancient classical music, old jazz from two centuries ago, and bogo music, the sound of rebellion for my generation. Every generation has a soundtrack for its angst. For mine, it was bogo from the 2110s.

I’ll never forget the time when something had put me in a funk and I put on some bogo full volume. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time. It was like pumping caffeine into my veins. I started bogo dancing and in the process trashed my bedroom good. Pictures smashed, holes kicked in the wall, my desk knocked over. I thrashed the place, everything except the player. I needed it to keep feeding me, fueling the rage I expressed without words or even grunts, just with my fists and feet. I got grounded for a long time after that, but it felt good to destroy that room.

I told Walter about this youthful melodrama, and he smiled. Later on, during one of our tours of the plant, we reached the main control room. He turned to me, that same mischievous smile painted on his face, and he said, Don’t get any ideas in the control room.

No sir, I said, no bogo in the control room. I think I may have been blushing.

I told him about my books, and how I missed them. He nodded, understood. He loved books, too. He had a modest collection compared to the one back at my house, but it was still nice to be around them, to touch them and breath in their essence. Nothing revives me faster than the scent of an old book. That and bogo.

It’s been an extraordinary past few days.

Just now, after dinner, he said that he wanted to show me something tomorrow. He said that it would put everything into perspective. He said nothing further, but now I obsess over it. What could he have meant? I thought we had gone through every forbidden room in the place. What more did he have to show me?


Another hiatus for the gar spot was not in the plans. But the fates dictated otherwise.

A week and a half ago, a medical emergency rushed me to hospital and kept me there for about 5 days. I then had a subsequent trip to the emergency room, where they kept me overnight. Nasty infections, in the blood and skin, triggered both trips.

The good news is that I have full health coverage and it actually works. The better news is that my sister is in town to help out. And the best news is that I really did marry that right man – not that I doubted that for a second – who has gone beyond above and beyond to take care of me at home, and during the crisis, to make sure that the doctors and nurses attended to me properly. No matter how good the the health care, one always needs a good advocate to make sure that things happen properly. My love fulfilled that role in spades. (Danke, mein Liebchen!) Though I will say the care I have received so far has been very good.

I was working on the next installment of “The Dust Journals” when this mess hit. But life happens. It will be there when I’m well enough to sit at the computer for an extended period. Meanwhile, I continue to rest and recoup.

the gar spot will return in the fullness of time. Watch this space. And thanks for reading.