Monday, August 29, 2011


We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and I’m dreading it. The last few years, I haven’t marked the event. I was sick of it all. I just wanted to forget the date, forget the tragedy, forget about what it did to this country and to the world.

But it’s the tenth anniversary, so I guess there’s no avoiding it.

What did 9/11 bring us? Let me count its gifts:

A decade of wars. Wars we’re still fighting. The sacrifice of thousands of soldiers, I’m not sure for what. The deaths of countless civilians in those wars. Maybe we could have counted them, but we didn’t. Collateral damage. Stuff happens, right?

A society that’s become increasingly militarized, a nearly unquestioning worship of things military and not so much real martial virtues as the virtue of power, of might, of overwhelming force—how much pain you can inflict. Kick ass, baby!

A government that has shredded our Constitution, legitimized torture as an instrument of national policy, deemed indefinite detentions with no due process a necessary weapon in a “War on Terror” that has no end.

An economy where we can’t afford our basic social safety net. Where universal programs that we all paid into are routinely derided as “entitlements.” The social compact that led us to pay our share seemingly no longer valid. Where economic gurus and corporate think tanks have elevated Randian sociopathic selfishness to national policy. The devaluing of all things “public,” of shared resources, of the Commons.

Where we can continue to spend billions on our military but can’t afford to repair essential infrastructure, to encourage domestic manufacturing, to put our people back to work. Unless of course they’d like to join the military. Convenient, that.

Where it’s perfectly okay to force the wages of labor down to levels where parts of the US have become Third World manufacturing centers for First World countries like Germany, where we’ll be competing with China on the global market by 2015—thanks to the cutting of wages and benefits and social programs.

Where we can’t afford a national industrial policy but can continue to rely on an economy built on a financial house of cards, on esoteric stock market betting schemes, on insurance, on real estate, on speculation.

Where it’s also perfectly okay for corporations to be people and buy our politicians, where income inequality is greater than it was than in the Great Depression and in fact more closely resembles Banana Republic levels than many actual Latin American countries at this point. Where the top 1% controls more than 42% of the wealth.

Where the response to the financial crisis and staggering long-term unemployment rates has been to bail out the responsible parties and insist on austerity for everyone else.

We won’t raise taxes on billionaires, or on corporations that ship jobs overseas, but we will cut off unemployment benefits because they “make people not want to get a job.”

Where “we can’t afford it” becomes the excuse to sell off public land and public resources and public institutions and put them in the hands of private entities with no accountability to the public.

(it was almost comical to read of threats to cut disaster aid and hurricane tracking as a monstrous hurricane bore down on the East Coast. You know, “sacrifices must be made”)

Where we’re asked to accept the opening up of every last pristine place, risk countless environmental catastrophes like the Gulf spill and the unleashing of one last carbon bomb in the form of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Where somehow building mass transit to deal with a future where gas isn’t cheap and developing a green economy that could employee millions is “socialistic” but subsidizing dirty oil companies is the free market in action.

Where we desperately need health care reform and instead get an insurance and pharmaceutical industry bailout, and the few reforms in it are fought against tooth and nail, because, again, “we can’t afford it.”

Where people voted for a President who promised them hope and change, and delivers the same old shit.

I look at the fruits of 9/11 and I see fear, selfishness and mindless aggression, except maybe it’s not “mindless.” All of this stuff has been happening over the last thirty years (at least—we can argue about the starting point); the economic policies that have driven it put into play piece by piece, justified by a propaganda machine that has subsumed the great majority of our mass media, gutting our journalistic institutions while encouraging the rise of religious zealotry, ignorance and hate.

But 9/11? That was the final push. The “Shock Doctrine” in action. Everything needed to dismantle the remains of a republic and build in its place a national security state, a plutocracy designed to funnel the wealth of a nation into the hands of a few.

Osama must have died a proud man.

I used to be good at seeing the future. I looked at where we were heading as a society, thirty years ago, and mostly didn’t like what I saw. Unfortunately, I can’t say that much has surprised me.

Now we seem to have reached an endgame of sorts, and I can’t see what’s ahead. Or I don't want to.

We're at that point where it could go either way.

How do we step back from the precipice? Is it even possible?

Where do we go from here?


Some disclaimers:

I am not reflexively anti-war. I have some sympathy for the liberal interventionist argument, and when a person as knowledgable as Juan Cole makes a case for NATO support of the Libyan rebels, I'm willing to listen.

Iraq? There was and is no justification for it.

I am not anti-military. I believe the highest honor we can pay our soldiers is to not waste their lives in unnecessary imperialist adventures.

I think government could be far more efficient—I believe in the principle that any large organization inevitably develops institutional goals that can interfere with its original mandate. But in principle, in a republic, government is accountable to the people who established it and who elected its officers. Corporations have no such mandate, and the idea that everything has to be subordinate to short-term corporate profits, and that this will somehow result in the greatest good for the greatest number, is ludicrous. There's no such thing as the "Free Market," and capitalism needs to be balanced by social justice and some notion of the common good. You know, "Promote the general welfare" — it says so in the Preamble to the Constitution!

Some links:

If you are not familiar with Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine," read this — essential for understanding the times we live in.

The US, where Europe comes to slum...

American income inequality: here, here and here...

On the Keystone XL pipeline—here, here and here.

Disaster aid tied to spending cuts.

Senator Kyle on unemployment.

Finally, for some optimism...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gear Review! CHINA SURVIVAL GUIDE by Larry & Qin Herzberg

Given my obsession with travel gear, and the fact that I'm, well, a writer, it makes a certain amount of sense to expand my Gear Review to travel guides. A good one will make your trip immeasurably easier; a bad one is worse than useless—it's like asking directions of some weird old dude who insists your destination is just down the road apiece, right over that way, when he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about, and you end up miles from where you want to be.

I was recently asked if I'd take a look at CHINA SURVIVAL GUIDE, by Larry and Qin Herzberg. The first thing you need to know about this book is that it is not a guidebook per se. It won't tell you what sights to see and what hotels to stay in and how much you should expect to pay for them. Instead it's a compact tutorial on China travel basics—important stuff like etiquette, standing in lines, what to expect in hotels, shopping tips, taxis do's and don'ts. And, oh yeah, spitting.

I actually learned a few things I didn't know. The chapter on hospitals I found particularly illuminating. And I very much appreciated the authors' good humor (comparing crossing a Chinese street to a game of Frogger, with the pedestrian as the frog), optimism and overall good-heartedness and spirit of adventure. I think the most useful information this book provides is a sort of basic mindset best suited to enjoying and appreciating your China experience.

That said, I think there is room for a few improvements.

The authors warn that given the incredibly rapid pace of change in China, it's hard to keep information up to date, and that holds true here. Even though this edition is advertised as fully revised, some of the information seems outdated (for example, in my experience you can find ATMs where you can use access your non-China funds just about everywhere, including provincial Guizhou). Some of the anecdotes included to illustrate the authors' points are from over 20 years ago, and while I found those stories interesting, amusing and a way of illustrating just how much things have changed in China in a very short amount of time, I'm not sure that they are the best way of talking about situations that travelers today are likely to experience.

As an example, in the chapter "Mass Protests and General Mayhem," Larry details some of his experiences leading a student tour that coincided with the Tiananmen Uprising. I found this very interesting, but I wondered where the discussion was on the sorts of demonstrations and "mass incidents" one might witness today. There was none, and in a country where there are frequent public protests over things like, polluting chemical factories, illegal land seizures, and general citizen anger with corruption and an unresponsive government, I'm not sure that recounting a Tiananmen experience is the best choice in discussing the types of protests that a foreign tourist could conceivably encounter. The reality is, most foreign tourists won't encounter any, but I think if you are going to raise the possibility at all, then you should be prepared to discuss current Chinese realities.

And this was a place where I felt the book was both very good—the realistic depiction of the sometimes chaotic public environment versus the incredible warmth one experiences on a personal level—and curiously lacking. Two sentences in particular stood out to me:
One benefit of an authoritarian state like China is that this is a government that knows how to maintain the rule of law and public order. There is simply no other practical way to run a country of 1.3 billion people, even if in Western eyes that means greatly curtailing individual civil liberties and human rights.
There are so many problems with this assertion that I can hardly begin to unpack it here, but I'll start with the idea that China has a consistent rule of law at all. It simply does not. China has a "Rule of Laws" that is unevenly enforced, frequently contradictory and twisted to fit the needs of the powerful, and that, at the end of the day, is subservient to the CCP.

Here's the thing: I don't think that a "China Survival Guide" really needs to delve into these controversies. But don't make that kind of statement if you're not willing to devote way more time to backing it up.

Instead, where's the chapter on train travel? Enquiring travelers want to know!

(image from last week's Dalian protest)

(FTC DISCLAIMER: the publisher provided me with a free copy of this book in the hope that I might review it)