Monthly Archives: November 2009

Money Jungle: Pew Sez “P.U.!” to Florida

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The latest in a lengthening line of reports raising serious questions about the long-term economic stability of the United States was issued recently, and the questions it raises has no clear or easy answers. But still, those questions must be asked.

“Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril” was put together by the Pew Center on the States, a division of the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the nation’s leading sources of foundation money. As such, it represents the cream of established thought, organized by people with significant access to the dominant centers of financial, cultural and political power, on all levels of government and industry. The center has offices on E Street in Washington, as well as on Market Street in Philadelphia, a city that in itself offers vast anecdotal data related to the current breakdown of civil society.

“Many economists are optimistic that America’s Great Recession may be turning the corner,” writes the center’s Managing Director, Susan Urahn. “States, however, are not celebrating.” Urahn led a team of 14 in preparing the report, which was then vetted by 15 colleagues before it was issued in mid-November. Its purpose is to elaborate on the well-known issues related to California by showing how that state is hardly alone on the fast track to financial emergency. This has been widely documented already—the formalized collapse began years ago—but our leaders have been reluctant, at best, to really speak directly to the problem, for fear of making it worse.

Working with data available though July 31, the Pew report evaluates states based on six criteria: 1) foreclosure rate; 2) change in unemployment rate; 3) change in revenue; 4) size of state budget gaps, relative to its General Revenue; 5) the letter grade assigned by its own Government Performance Project (GPP); and 6) “legal obstacles to balanced budgets”, namely whether the states require a supermajority to change budget policy. By their standard, California is in far worse shape than anyone there cares to admit, but it is hardly alone. Among the nine other states listed—including Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin—Florida is actually in better shape, despite being one of the first states affected by the crisis.

“The Great Recession has not just stalled Florida’s growth—it has reversed it,” says the report. “In 2005, Florida ranked second among the states in economic growth. In 2008, it ranked 48th.” This precipitous drop was spurred by Governor Crist’s decision to throw our cities into instant deficit with tax cuts to benefit his political base, cuts that came just before the bottom fell out of the construction and real estate markets. Florida was in recession long before it formally spread nationwide.

Like America in general, Florida’s business model required perpetual growth for sustainability. With so much to offer new residents, and a record of steady growth for decades on end, it’s not surprising that we would take our extreme good luck for granted. Much as California (which had major financial issues in the 1990s) continued to reinvest in failed policies long after they should have known better, and as the country doubled-down on disaster in every realm, our state proceeded as if there was no possibility of conditions ever changing, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

The past year was the first in living memory without the explosive growth we had become accustomed to. “Not too long ago,” according to the report, “Florida was adding as many as 445,000 residents a year; between April 2008 and April 2009, its population actually shrank by 58,000. … [T]here were at least 275,000 homes for sale or rent in Florida that nobody wanted, and the state has the second-highest foreclosure rate [2.72%] in the country.” Judging by the words and actions of our political “leaders”, the shock of the “revelation” has not worn off, and reality has still not set in. Heading into the genre-defining election cycle of 2010-2011, no one is even pretending to have any solutions, besides more painful cuts to essential services.

“States’ fiscal situations are widely expected to worsen even when the national economy starts to recover.” Bad news, given that the national economy is not going to recover at all. Such “optimism” is merely a smokescreen to draw more Americans into Wall Street’s “sucker’s rally”, a desperate attempt to prop up our failed system. Obama botched his only chance to get things in line, and now he, like most of the mayors and governors of this country, is powerless to do anything but watch the numbers and spin the brutal facts into more palatable truths. By stacking his economic team with people who bear direct responsibility for collapsing the economy, he has permanently undermined his own credibility as a reformer and change agent.

sdh666@hotmail.com; November 23, 2009

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Review: Edward Said DVDs

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Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said

Edward Said: The Last Interview

The death of Edward Said (1935-2003) probably cost the world its last, best chance for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Said, whose family emigrated from the region shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, was the world’s leading Palestinian intellectual, one who could articulate the inner fears and ambitions of the Arab world better than anyone has, before or since.

As a professor at Columbia University, a prolific author, critic and a constant presence in the op-ed pages of papers on three continents, he was the point-man for a vast (and increasingly incomprehensible) Palestinian diaspora and a reliable voice of non-violence during the two catastrophic intifadas. The first began in 1987, and culminated with the ill-fated Oslo Accords; Yasser Arafat and his loyalists marginalized Said and Said, in turn, boycotted the 1993 signing ceremony at the White House. Two years later, Israel PM Yitzhak Rabin was dead, assassinated as part of his nation’s steady rightward drift, and any hope of a negotiated settlement was lost for a generation.

The corruption and fecklessness of the Arafat regime had been exposed not only to the world, but more importantly to the Palestinians themselves. By 2000, Arafat had lost almost all credibility among his own people and western elites who’d been pushing the “Peace Process” for years—most notably former President Bill Clinton, who finally gave up after Arafat rejected the best offer his people would ever get from the Israelis. He left nothing in terms of a plan for how the Palestinians would move on after his death, in hopes perhaps of making himself indispensable. That September 28, Ariel Sharon made his infamous visit to the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque complex; the second intifada started the next day, and has never really ended.

It is a tragic quirk of history that Said preceded Arafat to the grave by a year, thereby denying their people the caliber of leadership they deserved. Arafat’s chosen heir, Mahmoud Abbas, was a failure from day one. Most of the Palestinians’ power, politically and in terms of civil administration, has since coalesced around Hamas and Hezbollah, violent radicals whose mere presence as de facto authority encourages radical elements in Israeli society, typified by current PM Benjamin Netanyahu. This is precisely the kind of nightmare scenario that Edward Said warned the world against.

An awesome new DVD collection serves to foster a new appreciation of not only Said’s own career, but also of the extremely complicated social and political dynamics in and around his homeland that obsessed him for all his days. The contents of the double-DVD set were created independently of each other, then wedded for commercial reasons by Icarus Films, based in Armonk, NY. Both films move along at the same measured pace, their tone perhaps dictated by their subject, Said, whose death preceded much of the work involved in bringing them to fruition.

“Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said” is not really about Said, so much as it’s about the filmmaker’s quest to situate the spirit that animated Said within the context of a continually unfolding Arab/Israel dynamic. His subject, unfortunately, is rendered almost as an afterthought; many of the Palestinians he speaks with have never even heard of him, which should maybe not be so surprising, given his relationship with Arafat. It speaks to the situation those people are in, that they could be so estranged from one of its leading public advocates and its most famous intellectuals. Among non-Arabs, only Arafat is better-known, and one presumes that is no coincidence. Arafat ruled over his people for 40 years despite compiling a blood-soaked record of dismal failure distinguished only by the occasional media spectacle—spectacles usually manufactured at the Palestinian’s expense, like his persistent collaborations with terrorists.

Director Sato Makoto spends time on both sides of the notorious “border wall” separating the Israeli and Palestinian communities, and finds two proud cultures that are both held in the vise-grip of fear and tension after all these years of conflict. His dealing with Said is simply to uneven to declare the film an unqualified success, but Makoto—who himself died, aged just  49 years, in September 2007, following Said to the other side by four years, to the month—has ably documented the sense of hopelessness that has prevailed within the Palestinian diaspora. Said would be pleased!

The perceived threat of Palestinian terror is the dominant factor in Israel’s political system; every time the moderates gain some traction, a new bombing forces the extremists back into control. Meanwhile, two entire generations of Palestinian society have withered on the vine. Infrastructure has collapsed, and Palestinian moderates exist in a total power vacuum. The rise of Hamas as the leading force in Palestinian politics effectively ensures that it will be many years before citizens of Gaza and the West Bank are able to enjoy anything remotely resembling peace, freedom or autonomy. And the more disenfranchised Arab youth feel, the more likely they are to embrace jihad, especially with the neutered, feckless Fatah as the only viable moderate outpost. In short, an extremely dangerous form of “catch-22” is the Holy Land’s status quo.

Whereas Said, the person, exists almost on the periphery of the action captured in the first film, “Edward Said: The Last Interview” is all Said, all the time. Recorded nine months before his death, Said sat down with friend Charles Glass to summarize a life and a body of work that would soon be finished; the session was recorded by Mike Dibb, and arranged by The Nation’s London correspondent, DD Guttenplan (recently the author of a fine biography of pioneering journalist IF Stone, a man with whom Said would surely have gotten along famously). Glass makes an apt interviewer, having worked the Middle East beat for decades on behalf of Newsweek, the Observer and ABC News, where he served as Chief Middle East Correspondent after covering the pivotal Arab-Israeli war of 1973, alongside the late Peter Jennings.

These are old hands, walking a well-worn, familiar beat; two lifetimes’ worth of experience and friendship, culminating in this final epic encounter. Longtime fans will be disheartened to see Said frail, tired, weakened in body and spirit by a disease he fought ferociously. He admits that illness has siphoned much of his copious mental energy from the driving issue of his life, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.

By this point, Said could see the sunset not far ahead, and it must have been a bitter experience for him to make his peace with death as that fundamental sense of dislocation that defined him remained hopelessly elusive. But anyone familiar with his output in those last couple of years has been tangibly reminded of Dylan Thomas’ famous commandment: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And so he did rage, until the very end. These DVDs, especially the second, remind us how potent this man’s vision really was, and how unfortunate we all are that it was not realized while there was still time.

sdh666@hotmail.com; November 16, 2009

SDH Holiday Wishlist 2009

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My feelings about the holiday season are ambiguous. The joy of meeting up with friends and family, some of whom one hasn’t maybe seen in a while, is immeasurable, as is the certainty of good food and great activity all around. Presents are great–the giving and receiving of gifts is a custom that we in the United States have raised to unseen levels of mastery. But one thing I do not like is the emphasis on materialism. America has wasted kaboodles of cash on consumer goods that were typically not worth what was paid for them, and our ability to procure such goods is too often the measure of success or failure come these winter m0nths.

Personally, I always feel extremely self-conscious at Christmas time because there’s never enough money to make the season quite as festive as I’d like it to be.  Christmas is an annual reminder of exactly what the real-world price of doing business the right way is, and it provides a useful occasion to think about logistics and generally reaffirm one’s interest in the work.

But, like I said, gifts are great. This “holiday wishlist” is not really meant as a prompt for anyone to get me anything. Let’s face it–I deserve nothing. By not making my points understood more clearly to a wider swath of the populace, I failed to rally Floridians to react proactively to these challenges in time, we were unable to prevent the large-scale breakdowns in our globalized economy, tears in the social fabric, and a precipitous decline in the nation’s overall strategic situation. All of this was predicted years in advance, the stakes reiterated countless times in countless forums, yet still it happened. Millions of lives have been destroyed in this country in this year; all the shattered families could fill one of the larger states.

A lot of good family men who never did anything but what they were asked to do by their country are heading into the final holiday season of their lives. What Santa has for them is a bullet, an overdose of pills, or a crudely rigged noose in the houses they can’t afford anymore. When one thinks of this, it’s hard to get too jolly, even at the jolliest points. But the American people are still in the early stages of a multi-generational conflict that will likely define the rest of all of our lives. President Obama has show that even the smartest and most well-intentioned of us must go to the mat against forces beyond our control, so let’s make the most of the holidays and be always ready.

With that, the wishlist:

Anthony Braxton–The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (Mosaic Records #242)

Richard Twardzik Trio–Complete Recordings (Lonehill Jazz)

“Jushin Liger TV Special”–8 DVD set

“Don’t Count On It”: an Interview with Magic 8-Ball

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From our earliest days, humans have sought means of prognostication, in hopes of getting an inside line on events of the future and, by extension, a greater mastery of the world around us. From psychics and soothsayers to oracles, witch doctors and sophisticated computer programs, mankind’s quest for the edge on fate has never ceased, with mixed results all around. In recent years, there have been two true constants: “Money Jungle” and the Magic 8-Ball. Combining the two, in one space, is guaranteed to be a major event—and now, at last, it has happened!

With so many serious (and not-so-serious) issues facing the country right now, the people have been hard-pressed for good answers and reliable information. Independent media has ably filled the void, despite extreme pressure from its corporatized competition to toe the establishment line, regardless of the typically disastrous consequences of doing so. Quite often, it seems like major decisions are being made almost at random; as such, the Magic 8-Ball has never been more relevant. It was invented in 1946, and millions have been sold by the Mattel Company, a testament to the great faith with which it is held by Americans.

This reporter sat down with the official Magic 8-Ball recently for the first installment of what is probably the most extensive and hard-hitting interview it has ever been subjected to. It was presented with some of the most serious questions of our time, as well as some questions about sports and pop culture to lighten the mood. In accordance with ground rules set in advance, all questions were phrased in such a way that Magic 8-Ball answered with variations on “yes” and “no”.

Magic 8-Ball (not to be confused with the apocryphal rapper of the same name) offered up incomplete or ambiguous answers here and there, forcing follow-ups; it was particularly evasive regarding the fate of TV pitchman Vince Offer, who’s been out of the public eye since getting arrested for fighting with a prostitute in late 2008.Generally, though, it was clear, direct and forthcoming in ways few public figures would be, even in the hyper-confessional culture of our times. Magic 8-Ball tends to reflect conventional wisdom on many topics, but its answers were downright shocking in regard to others.

SDH: Let’s begin with a test question, to establish the basic veracity of your views: Am I the finest free-agent acquisition in American media today?

Magic 8-Ball: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Good—let’s proceed. Will President Obama accede to Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation of sending 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Will Osama bin Laden ever be killed or captured?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Was the Ft. Hood shooter acting alone?

M8B: Signs point to yes.

SDH: Has al-Qaeda infiltrated any aspect of the US military?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Was the collapse of the American economy in any way the result of someone’s deliberate action? That is, was the collapse a desired result?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Have we already passed through the worst of the recession?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Is now the right time to get into real estate?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Again: Has al-Qaeda infiltrated any aspect of the US military?

M8B: Signs point to yes.

SDH: Did Lee Harvey Oswald kill JFK by himself?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Was he assisted, in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, by any member of the US government or the Mafia?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Was 9/11 an inside job?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Will Communism in Cuba die with the Castro brothers?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Will marijuana ever be decriminalized on a national level in the US?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Will the US government ever formally declare an end to the War on Terror?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Can the H1N1 virus be contained?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Will universal health care pass this year?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Will any other members of the Bush family ever be elected President?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Will Sarah Palin ever be elected President?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Will Charlie Crist be elected to the Senate in 2010?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Will the new Duval County Courthouse be finished and open for business within five years of today?

M8B: My sources say no.

SDH: Will marijuana ever be decriminalized on a national level in the US?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: And now, sports. Will the Jaguars stay in Jacksonville?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Will Tim Tebow become an NFL superstar?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Will Tebow play for the Jacksonville Jaguars?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Again: Will the Jaguars stay in Jacksonville?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Really, is anyone better than Kanyon?

M8B: Reply hazy, try again.

SDH: Again: Is anyone better than Kanyon?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Will William Regal ever win a world title?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Will Brock Lesnar be beaten in 2010?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: And will Regal win that world title?

M8B: My sources say no.

SDH: Is Michael Jackson really dead?

M8B: Signs point to yes.

SDH: Was Michael Jackson murdered?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Will the guy from the Shamwow and Slap Chop commercials do any further work?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Is Lady Gaga a hermaphrodite?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Is it possible that she’s crazy enough to willfully spread the rumor that she’s a hermaphrodite just for the publicity?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Again: Will Vince Offer work again?

M8B: Ask again later.

SDH: Will Amy Winehouse ever record an album as good as her last one?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Will Winehouse die of old age?

M8B: Signs point to yes.

SDH: Are the “Twilight” stars involved?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Will Kanye West and Taylor Swift ever work together?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Will Vince Offer work again?

M8B: Reply hazy, try again.

SDH: Is there a God?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Is the AntiChrist alive and somewhere on the Earth right now?

M8B: Yes.

SDH: Is it Obama?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Are you sure?

M8B: Don’t count on it.

SDH: Is there a contradiction between your answer to the first question and the second?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: So I ask again, is Obama the antichrist?

M8B: Very doubtful.

SDH: Did the Republican Party pay you to say “yes” the first time?

M8B: Signs point to yes.

SDH: Wrapping up: Do you know the way to San Jose?

M8B: Signs point to yes.

SDH: Last time: Will Vince Offer work again?

M8B: It is decidedly so.

SDH: Is the “Magic 8 Ball” concept a bunch of bullshit?

M8B: Very doubtful.

sdh666@hotmail.com; November 13, 2009

 

 

Money Jungle: A Decade of Dissent

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Our nominal new masters, the Chinese, have a saying: “The nail that sticks out must be hammered back into place.” Typically, such phrasings have multiple meanings, and that one is about more than carpentry. It’s really a reference to the brutal suppression of dissent that occurred during a Cultural Revolution that led to the deaths of millions, and from which that nation has still not completely recovered.

That eminently useful phrase has bounced around my mind for years, but never more so than in recent weeks, leading up to the 10th anniversary of the “Money Jungle” column. Few mental exercises can be as tiresome as trying to assess one’s own legacy, but that process has been surprisingly fun. For one thing, the legacy is not mine alone: this most influential alt-weekly column in America could not have flourished without the tens of thousands of tips, leads and off-hand suggestions from readers that have so often helped my cross-hairs find their target. Thanks, y’all.

In this business, compartmentalization works to the writer’s advantage. That is, one must be able to isolate personal interests from those of the publication and/or the audience being served, even as such interests often run parallel to each other. For years, I’ve willingly (more or less) sublimated personal goals for the sake of continuing to work a territory whose media institutions persistently view me, at best, as a joke and, at worst, as a direct threat to their own interests. That’s OK; you can’t run around openly exposing the business, telling everyone how fundamentally corrupt the media is, and then expect to be embraced with open arms. I take some pride in knowing that my boss, Ms. Schindler, is probably the best pure reporter this city has ever had, so my presence on her masthead reflects positively on my own abilities, however muted.

But then again, the personal interest does get served. This is more than just a job, and the sense of purpose more than mitigates the copious bullshit I must endure to get things done. My family goes back in this area at least six generations. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to counter the standard perception of Jacksonville as a third-rate town with no serious culture and no potential for improvement. In fact, if one gleans nothing else from the work I’ve done, it should be that our city boasts some of the finest talents anywhere in the world, spanning all artistic disciplines—even writers!

I will admit, though, that it’s not fun when columns are rejected, then replaced by syndicated hacks. Watching my franchise spot over handed to a jabbering, semi-literate jabroni from Portland, especially with “Money Jungle” cut back to every-other-week, is a recurring insult. (At least back then I alternated with the great Marvin Edwards, from whom I learned a lot about the depths of local political depravity.) It’s frustrating, having to go backwards when one should be miles ahead by now.

It was easy to take such treatment personally, but recent events provided glorious context. My network of sources includes over 100 working reporters all over the country, and hundreds more are separated by that single degree. What we’ve seen in the past few years has been the most aggressive purging of print media since the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Publications have used budget cuts as an excuse to wage ideological war on those elements of the newsroom unwilling to toe the editorial line—a line drawn increasingly often by advertisers. Some of these colleagues seek me out for guidance, because they know I’ve stood down a media blackball since about 2002.

After years of having to constantly make excuses for the failings of my city and my paper, people who used to laugh at me are crying instead. The people being fired, downsized and marginalized are, in fact, some of the leading voices of dissent in print media, led by Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice, who was fired due to “budget cuts”, but also for refusing to stop talking about how the Obama administration has continued its predecessor’s most controversial policies—an inconvenient truth for the liberal elite.

Of course, that’s not what happened to the “Money Jungle”. Despite predicting the collapse of the global economy, the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the almost-exact body count of the Iraq War and countless localized debacles like child-snatchings and the Ft. Hood massacre, someone decided that I’m the weak link, and the readers—as usual—kept their mouths shut and their pens still, thereby retroactively justifying the move. Surprising, but sadly typical: the people are pathologically incapable of defending their own interests. Instead of being the hub of a revitalized southeast, Northeast Florida is the seedy core of a thoroughly rotten region, with far worse yet to come. God willing, I’ll still be here to warn you, well in advance.

 sdh666@hotmail.com; November 10, 2009

Matt Allison: “Strategies For Making Time Stand Still”

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[Received this press release from Matt Allison. He and wife Katie are former bookers of the art space once located in the space above TSI, and he is showing at “Jaxunderbelly”, a cozy new space opened behind Anomaly by former Flux Gallery proprietor Shea Slemmer.]
 
Strategies For Making Time Stand Still
A new drawing installation by Matt Allison
Jaxunderbelly – Opening Nov. 6th, 6-9 pm – 1st Fridays in 5 points.
 
Strategies For Making Time Stand Still is a personal collection of drawings and photography that explore the act of image making and its relationship to time, memory and the subjects captured within the frame. Jaxunderbelly [1021 Park Street] is a quiet, fiercely independent space between spaces. Make your way through Anomaly, head towards the back of the shop.