Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Books: ‘Dark Side’ to bawdy Bard

Capsule reviews of books that have recently crossed this columnist’s desk:
• “The Dark Side” is a book that president-elect Obama should read. The author, Jane Mayer, pens a scathing indictment of the Bush administration while urging the recovery of America’s soul.
Count one: “For the first time in its history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives…torture is abhorrent to American laws and values.”
Count two: “Rather than seeing the American legal system as the country’s greatest strength, it was regarded as a burden.”
Count three: It rarely discussed “the legal, moral, ethical and rightness” of its policies.
Count four: It “nonchalantly dismissed international law, suggesting that the president could abide by it or not.”
Count five: It outsourced torture and condoned CIA torture of prisoners using sense deprivation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, temperature extremes and stress positions.
Count six: It endorsed Abu Ghraib “with its American soldiers taunting naked, hooded prisoners.”
Count seven: Its “nightmarish secret underworld of America’s war on terror.”
Count eight: Guantánamo. Yet “another plunge into the dark side” with its further erosion of U.S. moral standing, its gulag of detainees, its Nazi-like “experiments.”
The Bush administration ignored the order of General Washington to his troops “to treat British soldiers with humanity and let them have no reason to complain of us copying the brutal manner of the British army…we should be very cautious of violating the rights to conscience in others.”
Mayer doesn’t say this expicitly but count nine could be an indictment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney as war criminals. Bush started two unnecessary wars and Cheney was the Vice President of Torture.

• “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” is an interpretive biography by Van Wyck Brooks first published in 1920 then updated. It is still worth reading because its portrait of a giant of American literature is devastating. That view: Twain as immature, infantile, childish, irresponsible, henpecked and with arrested development.
Money was always more important to Twain than a literary career. He yielded to the conventional for fear of losing popularity. And, worst of all, he allowed his books to be censored by his wife and himself.
Twain was afraid to publish his bitter “What is Man?” because it would destroy his image as a funny man and cause sales of his books to plummet. He suppressed the book for seven years despite a nagging conscience. Twain finally published it--anonymously.
Twain became a rich bourgeoise. As Brooks writes: “Success, prestige and wealth had become his gods.”
The great American satirist, the Voltaire, the Swift of the Gilded Age, Twain sold out.

• “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby denounces the know-nothingism of boobus Americanus. Her litany is extensive:
“Ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism…widespread American credulity regarding the supernatural (ghosts, angels, demons and miracles)…Nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism and evolution taught…a significant portion of Christians harbor a deep suspicion of any learning…the restless American tendency to found new churches with the manifestation of any new vision in the woods.”
American ignorance of simple political matters is enormous. “42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that ‘the first language of the United States is English.’ ” Or, “25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion.”
Jacoby approvingly quotes the title of the Arthur Schlesinger essay, “History and National Stupidity.” Excerpt: “the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidty of our culture and our ‘national stupidity’ of repeatedly fighting unwinnable wars,” in first Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• “Filthy Shakespeare” by Pauline Kiernan describes the sexual allusions and puns abounding in Shakespeare. She boldly prints the sexual gallery of words: dildos, boobs, balls, fucking, wanking, cock, prick, cunt, cunnilingus, fellatio and buggery.
No wonder Thomas Bowdler came out in 1818 with a 10-volume edition of Shakespeare in which those words and expressions were omitted that “cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
Many of the allusions escape modern readers but the Elizabethans knew what the Bard meant. For Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, life boiled down to tumescence and detumescence.
But Shakespeare was writing ever so much more than “dirty” plays and sonnets.
As Kiernan writes: “His towering greatness resides in his matchless understanding of the human condition, his profound insights into the…psychology, philosophy and politics and the greed, fear, jealousy, hatred, friendship, sex and love in all its many hues.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Speech Obama should give

President Obama’s centrist cup runneth over. So, alas, he will not give this speech:
My fellow citizens. As you know, the Bush administration has left this nation with Augean Stables. I am not Hercules. I cannot divert rivers to cleanse the eight-year filth and stench. But I can offer suggestions to make this a better nation.
The first thing we must do is end our two disastrous, unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are costing the nation too much blood and money and sapping our morality.
They are quagmires, wars that will go down in history as Bush’s follies. They can achieve nothing but more disaster. Moreover, rebuilding in the two countries is costing billions.
We also must put an end to global hegemony. Our military budget is bloated, the Pentagon spending $1 trillion a year. I propose closing scores of unnecessary military bases.
The Israel-Palestine tragedy is not just intractable, it may be insolvable. It certainly will never be solved as long at the United States blindly backs Israel as it has for six decades. Nor will peace come if Israel occupies Palestinian land--and continues to steal ever more.
The overreaction of Israel to Hamas rocket fire gets a tsk-tsk from the world. So does Israel’s seizure of a ship carrying food and medicine to Gaza. Israeli checkpoints and separation wall add humiliation to injury.
Our Cuban policy is a dinosaur. We should return to Cuba the naval base at Guantanamo. America obtained it by coercion in 1903 after its unjust war with Spain. We should end our cruel boycott, open diplomatic relations and ease travel restrictions.
Latin American policy must be reversed. No wonder Latins hate America for its constant invasions and interventions, colonizations and coups. We should scrap all vestiges of the Monroe Doctrine.
In domestic matters, it is a disgrace that the United States, the richest and most prosperous nation on the globe, does not have universal national health. Civilized countries do. Britain approved it in 1945 and Canada in 1966.
The federal tax system should be drastically overhauled. Tax cuts for the wealthy should be rescinded. The once progressive tax code must be restored. Fifty years ago corporations paid 60 percent of all federal taxes. Today? 16 percent.
Something long needed in this country is compulsory national service. All citizens should serve at least one year in these kind of endeavors: the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America, YouthBuild, teaching abroad, the military or the establishment of a modern-day equivalent of the Roosevelt Civilian Conservation Corps.
That is why I support the bipartisan Serve America Act introduced by Senators Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.
I urge prompt passage in Congress of a bill allowing card-signing unionization. Republicans bleat about the sacred right to vote. The truth is that voting to unionize means pressure and harassment, intimidation, threats of job losses and threats of plant closings, and the firing of workers who dare campaign for a union.
Labor is not the enemy. Management is.
Another crying need is free college education for anyone who qualifies. An educated population makes a better population. College is far too important to work parttime, go to school half-time and fall into debt big-time.
I want every K-12 school in America to teach Darwinian evolution. That is solid science. All those antediluvian views such as so-called creationism, repackaged as intelligent design, have no place in our high school curricula.
Our nation must continue what the Founders demanded: a rigid separation of church and state. Faith is for church. It is not for government.
The civilized countries of Europe are banning advertising for all tobacco products. We should too. But America, including the retrograde Supreme Court, would rather kill people than give up the immense profits. Money is far more important than the 450,000 cancer-caused deaths annually in the United States.
We should legalize drugs. To do so would be an enormous tax source. We should also legalize prostitution in all states. That too would reap enormous tax income for the badly strapped states.
The nation faces so many other problems. One is the military’s policy of don’t ask-don’t tell. It should be abolished. To argue that the gays are a threat to national security or a danger to military discipline is to laugh. Sexual orientation is not the business of the military.
We should end the death penalty in all 50 states, legalize gay and lesbian marriages nationwide, raise the pitiful minimum wage, grant funding for federal elections to end legalized bribery and pass a congressional law rescinding a Supreme Court ruling that money is speech.
My fellow citizens, all these steps are necessary to make America the best and freest nation in the world.

Friday, February 06, 2009

3 books denounce capitalism

Mini-reviews of books that have crossed the desk of this columnist in recent months:
• “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein says it all in the subtitle: “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.”
One example of disaster capitalism: Iraq. Destroy the country then rebuild it by paying the Bechtels, Blackwaters and Halliburtons huge sums.
Klein ridicules the notion that America had an “immaculate conception” and never “sinned.”
She shows the ugly truth of American history: unprovoked wars, wars to save capitalists and the ever-lasting stain of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
And under Bush? Use of electric shock and torture, rendition for torture abroad and years of imprisonment without charges.
Klein illustrates how the dominant ideology in America for four decades has been a Milton Friedman free market economy, repeatedly fueled by frightful shocks and violence to implement reactionary politics.
“The Bush team, Friedmanite to the core,” exploited the 9/11 aftershock by successfully promoting its backward vision “in which everything from war fighting to disaster response was a for-profit venture,” she writes.
Klein says the enemy is “ruthless capitalism.” She’s right. Her bleak thesis leaves the reader full of despair. The evils of depressing capitalism: greed, deregulation, privatization, union-busting and riches for the few, economic scrambling for most people.
Yes, this a fervent cry for socialism. But, sadly, the U.S. Left is so minuscule. There hasn’t been a strong Left in America since Gene Debs 90 years ago.
In the unlikely event that the Left ever rises again in America, Naomi Klein should be canonized as an anti-capitalist saint.
• “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins. Economic hit men are consultants to developing nations. They “cheat nations of trillions of dollars by fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder.”
Perkins should know. He was one of them.
On the Reign of Genocide in Indonesia under Suharto, Perkins writes: “We were promoting U.S. foreign policy and corporate interests. We were driven by greed rather than any desire to make life better for the vast majority of Indonesians.”
Above all, the economic hitmen were saving Indonesia “from the clutches of communism.” So what if one million people were killed over 30 years? It was realpolitick, aided and abetted by the CIA.
On Ecuador: the people “had suffered a long line of dictators and right-wing oligarches manipulated by U.S. political and commercial interests.”
But so what? America is a corporatocracy with profits über alles. The people be damned.
Perkins tells of “chickens coming home to roost” in 9 /11, retaliation for the CIA overthrow of Iran’s socialist Mossadegh in 1954.
• “The Soul of Capitalism” by William Greider portrays dehumanizing capitalism, a capitalism without soul, without a human face and without regard for the social contract.
In contrast, Greider writes: “Socialists in western Europe, while they did not succeed in replacing capitalism with state ownership, created a much gentler version of capitalism than America.”
Humaneness? In America, 20,000 workers are fired each year for union-organizing. Labor law? “It confines workers rather than liberates them.” Social responsibility? Retrograde economic guru Friedman proclaimed that “irresponsibility is what makes capitalism succeed.”
Capitalism meets the demands of the market but never yields to the demands of humanity.
• “What Orwell Didn’t Know,” a collection of 20 essays about Orwell edited by András Szåntó.
The 1946 Orwell essay, “Politics and the English Language,” is a classic. Political language, Orwell wrote, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to mere wind.”
The Bush administration was masterful at inventing euphemisms. It disguised torture abroad as extraordinary rendition, a bill drafted by polluters was cloaked as a clear skies initiative, tax cuts for the wealthy were masked as tax relief, a tax on estate inheritance carried the propaganda title of death tax, a spurious argument to oppose evolution was dubbed intelligent design, a medically necessary late-term abortion was skillfully labeled partial birth, and the hunger struggle by 36 million of the nation’s poor was described as food insecurity.
The pièce de résistance of euphemism, however, was created by the Reagan administration: death squads in Nicaragua were called freedom fighters.
One essayist, Drew Westen, called the Bush years the most Orwellian of American democracy. Noting the constant repetition of the mantra war on terror after 9/11, Westen writes: “The Bush administration carefully crafted this phrase to maximize its fear appeal and to equate legitimate efforts to combat radical Islamic terrorism with the Iraq war.”
Language goes to war too.

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