Populist Rage and the Specter of Neo-Nazism in Greece, oder Mein Kampf mit der Politik

It is doubtful that anyone in America has heard about this, or frankly could give two shits if they had, but the European community has reacted with disgust at the recent results of the Greek parliamentary elections held on May 6, 2012 in which the Golden Dawn (a party advocating Neo-Nazism) received a startlingly high 7% of the vote.  Of course, the European community has reacted with disgust at these relatively high electoral numbers, with bloggers heaping shame on the Greek electorate for its perceived proto-fascist bent.  (Neni Panourgiapenned an article for Al Jazeera critical of the party’s frequent vigilante and racist ideology in which she identifies such a proto-fascist movement as a more general ‘European Problem’).

Ms. Panourgia’s article nicely documents the terrorist tactics employed by the Golden Dawn since the 1970’s, and identifies their racism and bigotry.  However, the article leaves unanswered its author’s most potent question, posed in the last third of her piece:

“Why would Greeks, who fought against totalitarianism in massive numbers and paid one of the heaviest tolls in Europe for their participation in the resistance against Nazi Germany, vote for this despicable, emetic, and deeply anti-political formation, even as a protest?”

This is a question that is not on its surface an easy one to answer, yet with some careful consideration, one can pose a partially satisfactory answer.  Being an amateur student of Western history, I for one am not surprised that the populist Golden Dawn party should see a surge in public support at a time when Greece and the rest of Europe are being driven ever closer to the brink of economic disaster.  The austerity programs which left millions of people unemployed and begging in the streets have been perceived as a massive failure by all but the financiers of the European monetary system (not to mention Germany and France, who were forced to shoulder heavy burdens in order to inject capital into the Greek economy and who saw their continued entanglement as an undesirable alternative to restrictive austerity whose principle effects would be felt only in Greece), and given the rise of serious talks of kicking Greece out of the Euro, one must expect a steep incline in populist anger to manifest itself in the polls.

A rise in public outrage is to be expected in times of economic decline—we’ve witnessed it in America in recent years with the Tea Party movement, and before that with the much more subdued xenophobia of Pat Buchanan’s failed presidential campaign.  Both of these domestic movements contained more than a hint of racial or other types of bias and short-sighted reactions, but even by the worst accounts they are not seriously comparable to Nazism.  However, given that it seems to be only natural for people to lash out at something—anything—in difficult times, one can’t help but wonder whether criticizing these movements on their face, as many in America have done with the Tea Party and Mr. Buchanan, and as Ms. Panourgia has more recently done with the Golden Dawn, is a constructive project.  Not surprisingly, such tongue-in-cheek criticisms—almost always made with a condescending tone from a privileged universalist position of multiculturalism, which always risks nothing but words—will be well received by the indoctrinated left, and conversely easily dismissed by those on the right who are consumed by populist rage.

Slajov Zizek, an intellectual hero of mine for some time, has written extensively on the subject of populist anger, dedicating an entire chapter to it in his 2008 book, In Defense of Lost Causes (IDLC).  Though he himself ultimately disagrees with the theoretical implications of populism for reasons too complicated to get into here, he nicely elucidates some of its more desirable practical qualities.  From a starting point, he describes populism as occupying a position that is:

“ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it!  It can’t go on!  It must stop!’—an impatient outburst, a conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.”  (IDLC, 282).

Zizek’s initial observation seems similar to the much rehashed critiques of populist movements levied by liberal-multiculturalists who esteem tolerance of otherness as the highest virtue; namely that such movements are the product of an infantile lashing out at the world, or an oversimplified view of a complex situation.  Anyone who has had any experience with the Tea Party or has studied the rise of Nazism after World War I can attest to the fact that these criticisms are undoubtedly well founded.  However, they fail to recognize the aborted revolutionary potential that is present within all populist movements from the rise of fascism in post-war Europe to the modern day reprisal of Nazism in Greece and elsewhere in the Eurozone.  The problem with populism, is that it correctly identifies an injustice (almost always capitalist excesses that have led to difficult economic times for the “average” citizen), but fails to recognize that the source of that injustice is systemic.  Rather than direct criticism at the system directly, populists movements almost always take for granted the fact that the system is inherently sound, moral, and good, preferring to single out a behind-the-scenes actor whose excessive qualities have poisoned the erstwhile harmonious structure.  Or, from Zizek:

“For a populist, the cause of the trouble is ultimately never the system as such, but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not capitalists as such, etc.); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such, but an element that does not play its part within the structure properly.  For a Marxist, on the contrary (as for a Freudian), the pathological (the deviant misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with the ‘pathological’ outbursts…. This is why fascism definitely is a populism; its figure of the Jew is the equivalential point of the series of (heterogeneous, inconsistent even) threats experienced by individuals: the Jew is simultaneously too intellectual, dirty, sexually voracious, hard-working, financially exploitative  . . .” (IDLC, P 279).

The problem with populism is not that it is inherently “proto-fascist,”—far from it.  In many ways, the populist rage that is so easily condemned by self-described rational thinkers as childish outbursts of temperamental dilettante political actors is in actuality only slightly misguided.  If we are to single out one problem with populist rage, it is not, as its critics would allege, that it is too radical in its ideology and openness to brash or even violent political action.  On the contrary, the problem with populism is that it is not radical enough in its thinking and execution—it does not pursue the logic of its own presuppositions to their rational end.

 For example, in post WWI Germany, instead of directing anger toward central bankers and speculators, the National Socialists fixated on the figure of the Jew, upon whom all of the properties of the evil capitalists were transposed.  This was rather convenient for those who were in power at the time, as they ultimately had used all of the dirty capitalist tricks to consolidate wealth for themselves.  It would have been patently against their own interests to direct populist anger against the very system that ensured their survival, and so the Jew—a figure that had historically been mistrusted in European history—made a convenient scapegoat.  Modern populism is strikingly similar, except that the specter of illegal immigration has been transplanted in the place of the figure of the Jew.

It is for these reasons that the holier-than-though, let’s-all-just-talk-about-this, criticisms of the multiculturalist left are ultimately misguided.  Leaving behind the obvious fact that it is impossible to use reason to diffuse rage (be it justifiable or otherwise), the liberal multiculturalists completely overlook the positive aspects of populist political movements—namely, that they are essentially 85% correct in that they identify a serious problem, only they fail to look for solutions in the proper way.  One can’t help but wonder whether there is not some kernel of truth within modern populism that can be harnessed and put toward some more positive revolutionary purpose.  These movements at their most profound can be used as engines to affect positive change, or they can devolve into self-destructive forces of horrific proportions–begetting childish violence for its own sake. 

At a time when popular anger is on the rise, it would behoove those on the left to take notice of the revolutionary potential at its center, especially at such a key time in history.  Perhaps the biggest difference between our current situation and that which gave birth to National Socialism in the 1930′s is one of scale: in post WWI Germany, the state of economic inflation and the general destitution of the populace had gotten so bad that people had taken to burning their paper money for heat rather than spending it.  The situation in Greece has not yet become so dire, though it is fast approaching a tipping point.

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The Popular Capitalist View, No. 16: Where Once Was Capitalism by Carl Peter Klapper

Time was when your family could make something or buy the somethings your neighbors made, hang a sign on the front of your house and enough neighbors and visitors would walk by and step into your mom-and-pop store that you could make a decent living being a “merchant”. You and the other merchants in your town and nearby towns, the ones you could walk to if you didn’t have a horse, would provide enough of a market for can openers or canned goods, that some folks in the area would see an opportunity for a new canned food or can opener. These folks and others could all pitch in their spare cash as a company to buy the metal presses and what not (capital) and pay to employ some of their number or others to use the machinery to make the product which the mom-and-pops would then buy and stock on their shelves. As the mom-and-pop stores sold their product, they would order more to re-stock their shelves and, once this process hit a groove, the company would be paying dividends to the people who pitched in money to buy the company stock. These stockholders would be happy to get a little extra money later which they might otherwise had wasted sooner and, more importantly, to have played a role in starting an enterprise which benefited their communities with productive employment, better products and not a little local pride. Years later, they would be electing the Localsville Canned Beans Queen and holding parades down Main Street celebrating the success story of their local genius.

Time was before planning for the automobile. With the automobile-based development, or sprawl, came the demise of the mom-and-pop stores upon which the entire structure of capitalism was based. Hardly anybody walks from their house to the store anymore and, if you tried to sell anything from your house today, you would be cited for a zoning violation. Your neighbors deserted the local stores when the national stores started opening up branches “convenient” to the highway. Some of the national chains moved into the vacated storefronts, got the town to knock down some other houses with storefronts, and to seize the backyards by eminent domain so they could put up a parking lot to “serve” Main Street. The local manufacturing companies got fewer orders, none from the national retail chains, of course. As those companies failed, the remaining local stores started stocking fewer local items, until you couldn’t tell the difference between the mom-and-pops and the chains. The only real difference was the mom-and-pops were less convenient to the automobile driver. The mom-and-pops become denigrated even as they try to conform to sprawl. People actually talk about a new chain store opening up as if that was something to be proud of. At that point, capitalism is dead in their town. To be certain, there are, here and there, some vestiges of capitalism left, though they may strike us as unremarkable. It was always misleading to characterize capitalism as a road to unfathomable riches. People confuse it with debt and global mercantilism, with the creditor sultans oppressing their people, which is very much in evidence.

The Localsville Canned Beans company was bought up by investors from out-of-town using borrowed money — it was purchased in a leveraged buyout by General Foods — and General Foods now grows and cans the Localsville Canned Beans in South America. The plant is closed and the people in Localsville, those who are left, now work and shop in the Walmart down Highway 666. They had to cancel the parade this year. They didn’t choose a Localsville Canned Beans Queen, either.

Copyright © 2011 by C. P. Klapper

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Alfa Art Gallery’s New Brunswick Salon ~ Call for Artists

New Brunswick Art Salon, Fall 2011 – Call for Artists

About the Exhibition

In the 18th and 19th century, Art Salons were the greatest annual or biannual art events in the Western world, celebrating the farthest advances in academia and the arts. The Alfa Art Gallery, in order to bridge talented and highly esteemed artists with the New Brunswick public, holds its own Art Salon exhibition biannually in the spring and fall.

Call for Entries

The Alfa Art Gallery would like to invite artists to submit work for the New Brunswick Art Salon, Fall ’11. There are two artist categories: newly emerging artists and professional artists. All submissions must be in by September 25. Artists will be notified if their work is accepted by September 30. The exhibition opening will be held on Friday, October 21.

Theme

For this exhibition, artists must submit works celebrating diversity or unity in a community.

Submission Requirements

All applicants must be associated with New Brunswick as a resident or as an artist who exhibits in New Jersey. Students and faculty members of Rutgers University and neighboring schools may enter. You must at least be pursuing an undergraduate career to participate. Degree does not need to be related to art.  There is no limit to the number of works entered.

To enter for consideration, please email the following to info@alfaart.org:

  • Images with title/dimensions
  • Resume/CV
  • Statement about your work
Or contact:
Jewel Lim, Event coordinator,

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Drop Everything and Read This: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud ~ Raj Venkata

There are people out there who know more about the Marvel and DC Universes than I ever will. People who can name every single Lantern Corps and at least three prominent members of each. People who know that Booster Gold has done more for the multiverse than Batman ever will, and can tell you in excruciating detail why and how.

I can hold my own, of course: I can name all five Robins and give respectable arguments for my favorites. If you name a Marvel hero I could probably name which side of the Registration Act issue he or she fell on. Maybe the most convincing proof I can offer that I’m a True Believer is the fact that I actually envy the people who know more than me.

One might wonder why anyone would envy such a dubious accomplishment. The answer is simple: because Marvel and DC are comic books and comic books are Marvel and DC. No matter what my relationship is with the medium, no matter how long it’s been a part of my life, no matter how much I can tell you about indie authors like Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi, there is a certain and very odd kind of street cred carried by the people who know the chemical difference between adamantium and vibranium.

It’s telling that the spandex-clad cliches of the old guard still define the medium of the graphic novel to the extent they do. Mention the term ‘comic books’ and what comes to peoples’ minds are tights-wearing superheroes, campy dialogue and the casual use of that questionable term, ‘multiverse’. Assumptions like these are certainly less true than ever these days; more and more, titles that were avant-garde obscurities twenty years ago are being recognized as works of popular literature now, perhaps even as classics.

Still, it’s hard to see what made these works so avant-garde in the first place. Read Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and its sequels (together composing an autobiographical epic history of a fictional row of tenement buildings in Depression era New York) and it’s hard to tell what made this story so revolutionary. For all its brilliance, it doesn’t drift that far away from the conventions of traditional artwork or storytelling.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems a little closer to revolutionary, but even two decades has been enough to dull its edge substantially. Movies like “The Dark Knight” have made it easy for us to believe that a superhero story can be real art. Twenty years ago, this wasn’t a fact to be taken for granted.

We can, of course, ask ourselves the mostly-rhetorical question of what exactly made these books so unconventional and world-shaking back in their own day. But we know, don’t we? What made them so remarkable was their suggestion that a comic book can tell a story for grown ups. That the medium might produce storytellers who could, a hundred years from now, be mentioned in the same breath as Woolf and Ibsen and Dickens and Dumas.

But I digress. All of this is just a really roundabout way of segueing into my main point:

Scott McCloud is a motherfracking genius who can destroy you with his mind. Bow before him, for you live only because he continues to permit it.

***

I’ve had a relationship with comic books as long as I can remember. I’ve read plenty of prose adaptations of theRamayana and the Mahabharata- the great Indian epics- but as odd as it is to admit, most of what I know about the oldest stories of my culture (and the world) originally comes from the Amar Chitra Katha line of comic books: a series that retells Indian myths, folk tales, scriptural stories and historical anecdotes. Then, after coming to the States, I was constantly reading the Big Two as well as a wide variety of indie titles. But I always read them as a distraction- as a break from the all-important work of stuffing my brain with prose fiction. As much as I would defend to the death, even in my early teens, such masterpieces as Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Neil Gaiman’sSandman series, I always thought of comic books as a sort of poor man’s cinema, a way of combining narrative storytelling with visual art and doing so without a multimillion dollar budget.

Scott McCloud completely changed my mind.

Understanding Comics, somewhat self-referentially, is itself a comic book- an incredible literary feat in its own right. Imagine taking the most complicated paper you wrote as an undergrad on literary theory or any other appropriately abstract subject, then expanding it to a couple hundred pages. Now try taking half of the text you wrote, and drawing it. The man wrote a book-length essay about literary theory in comic book form. And he made it fun to read. That’s all I need to know to be convinced I don’t want to run into him in a dark alley. The being that can communicate a complex literary theory using pictures is not one whom I want to look upon lightly, lest his pandimensional Lovecraftian visage drive me mad.

McCloud divides the book into history, technique and theory. While the sections on history and technique are a fascinating read (not to mention mandatory for anyone with aspirations in the medium) it’s the ideas that really make this book shine. If Understanding Comics is standard material in nearly every college class about sequential graphic narrative, it’s because of McCloud’s dazzling exposition of the fundamental building blocks of comic books. These are the sort of ideas, like Copernicus’ heliocentric solar system or Whitman’s use of unrhymed verse, that are brilliant mainly because they seem obvious when you look back. I don’t want to give too much away, especially since you can’t do the ideas justice without the art, but here is a broad sweep of two of the most important ideas in the book:

1) One of McCloud’s most interesting arguments is that there’s no sharp division between words and pictures, since it’s impossible to pinpoint when pictures turn into symbols and iconography, and where symbols in turn become written language. The book illustrates the point with an impressive diagram containing sample illustrations from great comic books of the past century, with one end of the continuum containing the relatively realistic illustrations of Jack Kirby or Bob Kane, and the other end containing… well, words, but also the more representational and non-realistic artwork of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts or Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

2) Another argument McCloud makes is that comic books have about as much in common with the prose novel as they do with film and television, since audience participation is an essential part of the experience. Unlike film, where the events of the story are conveyed to the viewer almost entirely through external stimuli (since the viewer is given a window into the story as it unfolds on the movie screen) and the prose novel, where the portrayal of the events happen in the reader’s mind and depend entirely on his or her imagination, the graphic novel gives us a type of work that falls between the two. With comic books, the reader sees the events happen a panel at a time, but it’s entirely up to him to connect the dots and form a cohesive image of the fictional world being presented. McCloud refers to the process of filling the gap between panels as ‘closure’, and provides a list of different kinds of panel transitions, such as the moment-to-moment transition (where two adjacent panels are connected by a progression in time) or the aspect-to-aspect transition (where panels show the reader different parts of the same scene). More than any of the other chapters, this one convinced me that comic books are a unique medium with a more than incidental place in the culture.

Understanding Comics is almost twenty years old and quite a classic in its own right by now. Scott McCloud’s ideas have made me drastically re-evaluate the way I perceive comic books as a narrative form. I have a deeper respect now, both for the so-called commercial schlock of Lee, Kirby, Siegel, Shuster and the like- who had more of true art in their work than conventional wisdom gives them credit for- as well as the creators who dared to explore the limits and boundaries of an ostracized medium back when so few would, people like Will Eisner, Osamu Tezuka and Alan Moore. Understanding Comics has taken me from thinking of comics as a niche medium to leaving me with the suspicion that they may well be for the 21st century what the prose novel was for the 19th.

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Shenanigans in the Doctor’s Office ~ Brian Connolly

uzz Lightyear. Balloons. And babies.

What do the three of these things have in common? They all start with the letter “B”. Also, they were all present with me in my doctor’s waiting room.

It would be best if I explained.

Right?

I think so.

You see, a few weeks ago I had a regular physical scheduled—well, I don’t know how ‘regular’ it was; I hadn’t had one of these in years. And if I knew that a conniving little assistant, a person determined to drag my pale body into the office, was on the other end of the phone, I never would have answered the bloody thing. But, queserasera. The fates conspire as they may.

To be honest, doctors creep me out. (I know, not the most original of predilections—amiright? It’s like saying that astronauts and fireman instill me with a sense of boyish wonder.) Something about them, though, unsettles me. Like a greasy salesman, trying to slip through the cracks of life. Part of me believes that they only took up the profession to evade the jinx of ill health, because who ever heard of a doctor getting sick? It’s the perfect charm to ward off bodily bad fortune.

But the Powers That Be want me to go to see my doctor? Fine, I guess I’ll go then.

On a rather overcast afternoon, I slipped into my Malibu and sped over to my physician’s. On the way I tried to keep myself occupied. This was accomplished by nibbling on an apple. (I didn’t smoke, as I wanted to appear presentable to those who would be examining me. Nothing says that less than by smelling like Chicago after the Great Fire).

Two blocks away from the building, I stopped at a light. As a cat plays with a mouse, so too did the light play with me—it batted my expectations this way and that—green, yellow, red, green, no turn on left, fuck!

Eventually I made the turn. During the final leg of my journey Stairway to Heaven played on the radio. This doesn’t bode well, I thought. I parked my car and approached the door. While doing this, I mentally parsed out my meager possessions, due to—or so I thought—my soon-to-be corpse-like state. Who am I going to leave with all my shitty writings?

On my way to the door I spotted a cat. It was most likely a stray. “Hello, cat,” I hailed. He—or she—looked at me with dead eyes, in an attempt to intimidate me. “Hey, fuck you cat!”

I entered. The stale artificial air hit me. Something else too struck me as odd. But I could not quite place what it was.

Sauntering up to the main desk, I made myself known to the receptionist. She was nice. I think I made her laugh about something or another. After confirming my appointment, I turned around and took stock of my surroundings. And that’s when it dawned on me: this was a pediatrician’s office!

The colorful assortment of effin’ cartoon characters on the walls confirmed this.

I walked back up to the same receptionist. This time I did my best to speak in a deep, adult, voice, while at the same time making emphasis to my old man blazer getup. I asked her “why in God’s name was I in a medical facility for children?” I felt like I was in that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when Jason Segal gets his penis examined while on a toy fire truck.

Responding calmly, she told me that due to the current economic climate, the pediatrician in question and his brother—he ran the adult facility—combined resources. Oh, great. Lollipops for everyone! And I mean that in the most literal way—there were lollipops on hand.

So I sat on a tiny red chair and waited to be called.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take all that long.

I sat my ass down on the noisy meatpacking paper and did some more waiting. The door in my room was open a smidge and I noticed a patient exiting. He was in a suit. Suddenly it didn’t feel so weird being here.

It took about five minutes, but in walked my doctor. I soon noticed that she wasn’t one of the brothers—the primary clue being that she was a she. Large offices like this have many practicing MDs on staff, so I really wasn’t too taken aback. My mind definitely does wander, but it’s not like I thought she killed the fraternal duo and took over their practice.

Though, what a story that’d be—doctors are suppose to be comfortable around blood, right?

Anyway, we went through the laundry list of questions. She expressed concern at my low weight, but continued rattling off the standard enquiries. Then she asked, “Do you work out?”

Primarily due to boredom and that I like to get a rise out of people, I facetiously replied, “You tell me.”

“So…no.”

I smiled and said, “Actually, I have some fifteen pound free weights in my room.” I paused for a moment. “I call ‘em fifteen-pounders.”

She may have grinned at that; I can’t remember. But she wrote something down all the same. My guess is that she scribbled, “Lifts ‘weights’—maybe?”

Finally, wrapping up our little session she ordered some blood work done. As if remembering a long forgotten fact, she shuffled through my history. “What college do you go to again?”

“Rutgers.”

“I’ll add some STD tests then.”

I always am very proud of my university’s legacy. At least she didn’t ask me about the football team.

I left, happy I was still alive. For the time being, my skeletal shell of a body remains ticking.

When I returned to my car, I noticed the half-eaten apple from earlier. I picked it up and examined the variety of teeth marks on its surface—they were like acne, but on food. Does that mean it was blemished, unfit to be eaten, or more human-like and fit for praise? At the time I didn’t care. Riding high on my bill of good health, I threw it out the window, where it surprisingly landed in a trashcan.

Afterwards, I lit a cigarette.

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In the Margins of Life ~ Brian Connolly

Turning to a colleague, I asked, “What’s this ‘Doctober-fest’ that everyone’s been talking about?”

He smirked, taking note of my ignorance.

“What?” I inquired. Suddenly, I was interested. Before I only spoke in order to break the silence of workplace monotony. But now we had the beginnings of a conversation brewing. Cooking with fire, if you will.

“Two things.”

“Yes? I’m all ears sweetheart.” The “bro-mantic” undertones were almost palpable.

“One—it’s ‘Doctober,’ not ‘Doctober-fest,’ or whatever the fuck you called it.”

“Oh…I wonder what I was thinking of?”

“Oktoberfest, you jackass.”

I paused,; my mind was momentarily lost in thought. “I can see where I confused the two. I had some wine last night. Imported stock. So, that train of thought makes sense.”

Shaking his head, bemused at my eccentric musings, my peer continued: “And secondly, he’s a baseball player. For the Phillies.”

That did it. Conversation over. Well, it was good while it lasted. Sports are by no means my area of expertise. And we both knew this.

Knowledge like that lies in the margins of my brain. And that got me thinking. What else is there in life’s little corners?

Historically, the outskirts of such things like manuscripts have been very fruitful entities. Take, for instance, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Within, tucked away in the margins (see what I did there?), is the first surviving poem written in English. Quite the discovery, I’d say.

It’s certainly more interesting than what I write in the margins of my notebook. During one boring lecture, I jotted down this treasure in the sidelines of a piece of paper: “You sir, are just one dick, in a great big bag of dicks.”

Moving away from that oh-so interesting snippet of dialogue, I frequently find physical objects, those not of an artistic persuasion, to follow instep with this thought process. Take fast food and the obligatory order of French Fries that go along with it. Extra fries will always get lodged in the recesses of the bag. They will. It’s just a fact.

And these estranged pieces of potato will, without a doubt, taste better than the rest of the order. It’s one of life’s little boons.

What other great surprises remain hidden in the margins? (Fuck, I’m going to need a synonym for ‘margin’ before this article is done. What shall it be…? Brim, verge, side, etc?)

The shoreline of social interactions, too, is a veritable cornucopia—pretentious much?—of interesting occurrences. Take for instance, a rainy day in New Brunswick. Huddled in the library, reading whatever wrinkled paperback you can get your hands on to pass the time, you strike up a conversation with some random person who turns out to be really cool.

Isn’t that the best?

You’ll never talk to them again. You weren’t planning on conversing with anyone that afternoon. Hell, you don’t really even know who they are. Yet it happened. And it was fantastic.

What I’m trying to say is simple, folks. Just stop and fuckin’ smell the roses from time to time. Take a look around. No one’s stopping ya.

_______________________________

[1] New Brunswick, much like Seattle, New York City, and Edinburgh, is one of those cities that get infinitely better with rain.

Photo courtesy of insideview.ie

(http://www.insideview.ie/irisheyes/2004/08/the_art_of_dood.html)

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A Corporation is not A Person, A Home is not An Investment – Carl Peter Klapper

The Popular Capitalist View

There is a lot of confusion in our business world about what is or is not personal which seems, to this observer, designed to misplace our sympathies.  A deliberate legal fiction that a corporation be treated like a person, so that it gain some benefit thereby, has been accepted as fact. Glib sales talk, intended to make a high price for a house more palatable, is taken as the gospel truth.  But beyond the initial trickery is the molding of our minds and hearts to endorse, in the same breath, compassion for the dear, old corporation in dire straits who may be left out in the proverbial cold without a few, small billions of dollars and callous disregard for real people who will be left out in the real cold because their home is in a house for which some investments have soured.

To be sure, the patent absurdity of both situations becomes briefly apparent to even the talking heads on television.  But then the corporation and the home dweller are colored in the tones of hero and villain, respectively, so that the public compassion, which believes everything it sees and hears on television, can continue to be misplaced.  The corporation is an industrial giant with millions of employees who will lose their jobs and, it is assumed, all chance for future income if it fails.  Or the corporation is a financial conglomerate which will lose the pensions of millions of widows and orphans if their investments sour, of course through no fault of their own.  These true-blue American multinational conglomerates are neighbors in need of our help.  At the other end of the melodramatic chasm lies the evil homeowner who has greedily bought a million dollar home, which we assume is more spacious and luxurious than a two bedroom condo.  This sinister foreigner, whose family illegally entered the country in 1848, does not have the income to support his extravagant lifestyle.  Certainly, he has misrepresented his finances and fabricated documents to support his perjury because the loan officer would not have otherwise extended a mortgage to someone so manifestly unqualified.  So our beloved television news, minions to the financial-political complex, breathe a sigh of relief as trillions of tax dollars are given to personified companies while dehumanized people are victimized by those same companies.

These things ought not to be.  More hopefully, we can make sure that they no longer happen by striking at their hearts with the stake of truth.  Both falsehoods should be stricken down, but I have already addressed the second in a previous article somewhat by advocating Adjustable Equity Mortgages so that the purchase of a house to serve as a home does not become a tool of speculation.  For the rest we will focus on the first fiction.

A corporation is a government, not a person.  Consider the operation of a corporation compared to that of a government on one hand and a person on the other.  A corporation has laws, which they call “bylaws”.  A government has laws, but a person does not.  A corporation is owned by stockholders who vote on various matters and sometimes for leaders, such as board members.  A government is owned by its citizens who vote on various matters and sometimes for leaders, such as members of a legislative council.  Persons are just themselves and if they have to take a vote to decide matters we admit them to a psychiatric hospital.  A corporation has paid servants, who are called “employees” who do the business of the corporation.  A government has civil servants who do the business of government.  A person may hire a domestic, if they are wealthy enough, but the domestic is doing the other stuff that gets in the way of the person doing their business.  A corporation can continue well beyond the life of any one officer, stockholder or employee.  A government can continue well beyond the life of any one officer, citizen or civil servant.  A person continues just as far as their life, no more, no less.  It should be fairly clear from the foregoing that a corporation is indeed a government and not a person.

Since a corporation is a government, it is necessarily in conflict with other governments, both other corporations as well as the governments of the people.  As Adam Smith pointed out in “The Wealth of Nations”, companies should be in conflict with each other:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

— Adam Smith, “The Wealth of Nations”, Book I, Chapter X

However, as a corporation grows in size it engages in such conversations regularly within itself.  And as it grows in scope beyond that of a public government, it is able to implement those conspiracies with impunity.  It must be pointed out that the nature of contrivances is a bit broader than Smith described.  The goal, after all, is profits and the price of the product sold is only half of the equation.  The other half is the price of the resources used to manufacture that product.  It is that other half that has been used by large corporations whose scope extends beyond the jurisdiction of public governments to eliminate competing companies with more limited scope.  For example, cheap labor in another state or another country can be used to drive out local competition with prices that would leave no profit for any company using only local labor.  Because the multi-state company is not under the jurisdiction of a single state, it is able to play one state off of another in offering employment and income to its people and thus become a government more powerful than the governments elected by the people.  As such, they pose a threat to the people and their liberty and power much greater than that posed by their state government.  The popular capitalist, in seeking power to the people first and then, as necessary, to smaller, local governments more under their control, opposes these multi-state corporations as a usurpation of power.

Many have pointed out a similar problem with multinational corporations and have railed against them for decades.  However, their attempts to curb those greater powers have been in vain.  It seems clear to me that their failure is in attempting to control multinational governments with national governments.  Similarly, attempts to control multi-state governments with state governments will come to naught.  The best tactic is not to control them, but to exclude them.  Rather than placing regulations on all companies doing business in the state or require certain benefits or impose additional taxes to ensure that the multi-state corporations are “good citizens” — and thus fall into the personification trap – we should only allow corporations which are registered in the state to operate within the state.  If the products of an out-of-state corporation are so superior or so inexpensive to produce, they will remain so as imports, but they will not be assured of a lack of competition in the state.  And with respect to retailers, whom we used  to call “merchants”, we have no use for out-of-state corporations.  Many a capitalist entrepreneur has started as a merchant who saw an opportunity in a new idea or product.  That is the type of capitalist we would like every citizen to become or ally themselves with as a capitalist investing in their new venture.  Not from the national big-box, but from the local corner store comes the popular capitalists.

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Politics As Usual – Alex Giannattasio

As Of Yet Untitled

Corruption in New Jersey politics is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a part of everyday political life in New Jersey, the lard that keeps the densely packed population from grating against each other. The topic has even been touched upon in the Johnsonville Press in months past. Even so, never in my time in New Jersey have I seen the hailstorm that is Jersey politics reign down so openly and violently as it has in July, 2009. Rallies, races and arrests are converging on our tiny state, making for a near perfect political storm. The weather, at least, seems to be in agreement; is it coincidence that we’ve had two tornados in two weeks this month in the Jers, or are there dark forces at work here…

I was driving home to Johnsonville last night, lightning flashing all around me. I was enjoying a particularly relevant NPR piece on the recent arrests of five New Jersey politicians among 39 other community and religious leaders throughout New Jersey and New York. These included the Mayors of three major New Jersey metropolises: Secaucus, Hoboken, and Jersey City. The commentator, with a slightly smug tone, was discussing the implications of these arrests for upcoming gubernatorial race between incumbent Jon Corzine and Republican Chris Christie of the State Attorney General’s office. He did not fail to note that nearly all of the politicians arrested are in fact, Democratic Party members, and speculated that this would have a negative effect on Corzine’s campaign.

“Thanks, tell me something I don’t know, you smug bastard”, I said to my radio, as I am prone to do.To date, Chris Christie still leads in the polls, demonstrating New Jersey’s skepticism with Jon Corzine, and their willingness to support a new candidate, even (gasp!) a republican! But what I find really interesting is not so much that New Jersey is fed up with Corzine (he’s so easy to hate) but that his strategy for reclaiming office has seemed so impotent. He came out in the primary days with the decision not to involve himself in Republican infighting that would inevitably occur in the grab for the nomination. This gave Christie the chance to get his face and name out there as an alternative to the norm (that is, to corruption) uncontested and unchallenged by the Dems. And now, Corzine finds himself in the awkward position of trying to reinstate himself at the top of the polls with a late start.

Perhaps the most surprising piece of the puzzle is that Corzine’s trump card, President Barack Obama’s visit to PNC Arts Center to rally for Corzine, has had little effect on the voting population. In fact, the forty minute unorganized rally in the sweltering heat seemed more to concern health care reform than Corzine’s reelection. It’s as if the Corzine people just figured that bringing Barack to Jersey would spell an automatic win, reenergizing the grassroots and solidifying the association between Corzine and Obama. Forget the fact that Corzine was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton for President; for all we should care, these two are longtime buddies.

Of course, that is not the case; but what fascinates me is that this sort of standard political hypocrisy failed to have the desired effect on this occasion. Perhaps it’s the fact that Corzine is one of the most disingenuous public speakers I’ve ever had the distaste to listen to. Perhaps it’s that Celebrity in Chief’s slipping popularity just doesn’t have the same pull it did six months ago. Perhaps it’s the fact that Obama chose to talk more forcefully about Healthcare reform than about Corzine’s positive characteristics (are there any?). Or perhaps it is simply that this new corruption scandal has drowned out any excitement over seeing the President step onto Jersey soil. One question I have: in light of this new scandal, shouldn’t Obama keep Jersey at arm’s length? Truly, he can hardly afford further attachment to the state. One thing is for sure, demonstrated by his very visit to an old rival: Democrats are loath to give up New Jersey, an old stronghold of the Democratic Party.

About halfway home to New Brunswick, it started to rain enormous drops on my windshield, just a few massive splashes here and there. The sky was bright with sun AND lightning, and other drivers were beginning to nervously slow down. At that moment, my radio switched over to the obnoxious cascade of static and beeps that is the Emergency Broadcast Station. Steven Hawking’s computer interrupted the beeping to inform me that I was driving directly into a tornado area and that for my safety I should proceed to the nearest basement. My third story attic-apartment would have to do.

As the AM kicked back on, I was drawn sharply away from my weather-worries at the mention of a landmark I’ve known well for the past several years: Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. Among those arrested in the NJ-FBI sting were some Rabbis who had been using the black market sale of organs to facilitate their money laundering ring. Apparently, some of these transplants had been taking place in New Brunswick! To date, we do not know anymore about how this was allowed, and so speculation as to who if anyone was involved will have to wait. But, for me at least, it came as a shock to find out that this massive piece of national news was unfolding, in part, just blocks from my residence. What effect, if any, this will have on the upcoming Mayoral race in New Brunswick in 2010 remains to be seen. But we can rest assured that the FBI will push the probe as far as it will reach.

Rounding a turn in the road, my mind was violently forced back to the weather. Before me, about 50 yards down the road, I faced a massive wall of water. It was as if the cloud had very specific boundaries; I could have stood one foot in the rain one foot out…had it not been for the hail the size of grapes pounding along with the rain. I smashed into the wall at 60 miles per hour and immediately began to skid. Pumping my breaks and slowing to 15, I corrected the slip and turned on my hazards. On the other side of the wall, seeing more than 10 feet in front of me was impossible, causing most cars to pull over to the side of the road, next to bikers hiding under bridges. Not being most drivers, I continued, though in serious fear that I would soon hit some nervous driver in front of me, or perhaps that a well placed tree would take me out from above. The carnage was brutal and frightening….and short-lived. Minutes later, I was on the other side of the storm, speeding onwards towards my goal at a revived 70 mph. Having weathered the storm, I was rewarded with a clean and empty road, all for the taking.

The perfect storm of New Jersey politics is forming now. As the economy continues to falter, the bacon fat that has always greased the gears of power in the most densely populated state in the country will start to burn up. I expect to see much more political reorganization in the near future. The question is, after the storm is over, who will step up to grab the reigns? Certainly not those with connections to the old, defamed guard…Young blossoming politicians should be at the ready; weather the storm, and you may well meet an open road in front of you. It will be entertaining to watch the changing of the guard in NJ over the next few years

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Fatherly Governance – Carl Peter Klapper

The Popular Capitalist View

“Like as a father pities his children”, says the Psalmist, “so the Lord has mercy on those that fear him.” In this scripture and other sacred texts from a variety of faiths, we have a favorable image of fatherly governance as represented in a fatherly image of God. Yet with that image comes a distortion of its fatherliness. The omnipotence of God offers the potential of escape from every calamity Man can contrive and thus the prospect of remaining forever immature. An earthly and far less powerful father cannot offer this same assurance of relief from distress or even relief from any distress past his limited lifetime, so he must instead guide his children towards independence and maturity. Of course, there are still dangers not of his children’s doing that a father will shield them from, and nurturing care that a father will provide so that his children can grow up to be healthy and strong as well as mature. But the earthly father’s role is primarily leading his children to greater responsibility.

What then are we to make of definitions of fatherly governance, of paternalism, such as that provided by Answers.com: “A policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities.” Clearly, the father model in this definition is rooted in the immature image of the deity as I described; even the Psalmist’s caveat of “fearing”, or respecting, the Lord is ignored. In a government, this translates into the promotion of immaturity and the enabling of destructive behaviors by its citizens. By contrast, a truly paternal government would give more rights and responsibilities to citizens in accordance to their mature handling of lesser rights and responsibilities. It is only after your son or daughter show that they can weed and prune and can carefully handle lesser power tools that you let them mow the lawn with a power lawnmower.

Popular capitalism takes this earthly father role as its inspiration for its own version of paternalistic government.The needs and dangers that might afflict a peaceful, innocent and responsible citizen would be warded off by a protective, popular capitalist government. However, the failure of business ventures, which any mature business owner would recognize as their own responsibility, would be allowed to proceed by a paternalistic popular capitalist government in its role as disciplinarian. “Spare the rod, spoil the child”, as it is written in Proverbs. Our current government has certainly spared the rod and kept big business from the discipline of the market so that now our economy is spoiled rotten. A popular capitalist administration would, on the contrary, have led us to maturity in business, with greater freedom in that arena for the successful and less freedom for the failures. By these incentives, popular capitalism encourages actions which increase freedom. As Independence Day follows Father’s Day, greater liberty follows the true paternal governance of popular capitalism.

All this is, I hope, fairly straightforward. However, there seems to be much confusion in the application of these concepts of fatherly governance—protection and discipline—to medical care. In any community, health is a public concern, no less than protection from crime and fire. Since time immemorial, from medicine men and women to the modern emergency rooms at even the most crassly mercenary for-profit hospitals, care has been provided to those who are unable to pay. The private practitioner, in the days before health insurance corrupted the profession, would help heal many patients who couldn’t pay or who paid in produce, livestock or services.Doctors have been, in all but name, civil servants, like the police and firefighters. Yet, the health care debate is peppered with comments about financial incentives to stay well and how this will supposedly reduce the cost of health care. What rubbish! Staying healthy and out of the hospital is incentive enough for most people to live healthy. Almost all of the rest have addictions which no financial incentive could hope to sway them from.Further, this ignores the sweep of infectious diseases and the aftermath of disasters from which a healthy lifestyle provides little protection.

Let us be frank. Health care has no business being a business. Health care is an almost exclusively local emergency and preventative service. To require that it meet business objectives is both absurd and cruel. Yet that is precisely what health insurance has done. Health insurance has subjected doctor’s decisions to review by accountants, overturning sound medical decisions to increase profits for the insurance companies. Worse, the health insurance companies support huge staffs and hordes of high-paid executives housed in large office complexes. The money for this has to come from somewhere and it is not a mystery where: premiums, minus what the insurer pays the doctors and hospitals. All the co-pays, deductibles and other dodges add to the insurance company profits. The amount they stiff the doctors and hospitals by rejecting claims and demanding the so-called “customary and usual” prices force the doctors and hospitals to increase their rates across the board. Every facet of the health insurance involvement in medicine has produced and will continue to produce massive increases in health care costs until we come to our senses and abolish health insurance.

But how can we assure health care for all without health insurance “coverage”? Fatherly governance demands that we protect the people in their health, as it demands that we protect them from crime and fire. So our model for true health care reform is staring us in the face. Medical departments should be created in each municipality to provide round-the-clock medical services, just as police and fire departments provide round-the-clock protection from crime and fire. Indeed, the medical departments would be following the example of their firefighting brethren in another respect; the model of providing firefighting through fire insurance was also a dismal failure. When your neighbor’s house is on fire, it is your problem, too, especially if the neighbor is not covered by insurance.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the costs of these medical departments can be further reduced, after cutting out the insurance middle-man, by training new medical staff locally through the public schools and by establishing local teaching hospitals and medical schools. Tort reform, exempting municipalities from being sued for accidents occurring within their borders and for any inadequacy of a civil servant would help reduce costs still further. For this point, I would invoke the general rule that regulation produces better, more consistent performance at lower costs than litigation. Finally, eliminating the need for employers to provide health insurance will reduce labor costs drastically and generally, as well as specifically in the labor costs of medical department staff. On the other hand, the need for a job, as opposed to starting your own business, becomes less, so that the excuse of saving jobs becomes less acceptable in the propping up of business failures.

Even with the reduced costs, there will be some costs to maintaining minimal standards of care. Since these standards presumably come from the state and federal governments, it is their responsibility to pay for it. This allows the municipalities, themselves, to grow and to prosper without the burden of unfunded mandates.

In summary, popular capitalism protects and prepares the people for successful lives that contribute to the success of their community. In this way, it adopts the fatherly role and becomes representative of a true paternalism.

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Rutgers Graduation 2009: You Get What You Pay For – Alex Giannattasio

As Of Yet Untitled

Last week marks the graduation of the 11,430 members of the Rutgers class of 2009. Convocation was not one cohesive event; at Rutgers, each of the many sub-schools has traditionally held its own commencement ceremony, and this year was no different. Rutgers actually hosted 27 convocation ceremonies over the course of the week by my count.[1] Being a member of Rutgers College, I was joined by 2500+ fellow liberal arts students on the lawn of Voorhees Mall last Thursday. I’ve attended the State University of New Jersey for four years now, years spent as Student Number 010004747. I must say, if I had any pretentions of being treated as an individual by the administration before the ceremony, I had none by the time I arrived. I went out like I came in: just a number among thousands.

Originally, 2009 was intended to be the last time that Rutgers-New Brunswick would accommodate separate ceremonies. Starting in 2010, every graduating member of RU-NB was to be herded together into the what would be then, newly completed football stadium for a massive one-time commencement ceremony. Rutgers, determined to exhibit the product of its $100million+ stadium expansion plan, would honor its graduates in the same manner it entertains them: with spectacle. But if you were hoping for your name to be read out loud, or your hand to be shaken, or your parents to be able to pick you out from the 10,000+ strong crowd (that is, if you were hoping to graduate with dignity) you would have been \ fresh out of luck. In the last months of the past semester, the Daily Tragum’s opinion pages were peppered with articles about the commencement consolidation, not a single one in favor of the goal. This was one issue where the Targum was wholly successful in presenting students’ sentiments of anger and frustration. After significant student protest, climaxing in the presentation of a petition to President McCormick, the University agreed to grant the class of 2010 the honor of traditional, individualized ceremonies by school. I applaud the University for heeding the voices of its students. But after experiencing the traditional graduation myself, I have to question whether the hullabaloo was really all that necessary. Let me show you what I mean, by recounting some of my experience.

The day began for me, as for many, with a private parent-arranged photo session in a friend’s backyard. We stood around smiling in our black robes, exchanging nervous complements, as the sun (with the temperature) rose. By the time we set off for the ceremony, it was pushing 75 degrees. Who ordered those stuffy black robes anyway?

When we arrived at Olde Queens campus for our pre-ceremony instructions, we were shepherded into rows and organized alphabetically. I was astounded by the efficiency with which the administration handled the task: each student was given an index card with his or her name on it, along with a place number. That day, I was #815. Remarkably, we were organized in a timely fashion, and began the procession at 1:45 sharp. It took us a good 45 minutes just to get all the students seated, the whole time in a sweltering heat. A covered stage faced us, flanked by two jumbo screens for the purpose of making our sweaty faces visible to the audience.

Dean Carl Kirschner, perhaps the least funny man at Rutgers, acted as Master of Ceremonies (the President was nowhere to be seen). But unfortunately for all of us, he decided to adopt the role of a standup comedian. From where I was sitting, he drew only tired groans from the audience; one of the more obnoxious jokes he tried regarded the recent swine flu crisis. Fearing the potential of a Rutgers graduation ceremony to spark a new ground zero for the widely expected epidemic, the traditional hand shake from the dean was to be discarded, and so Dean Kirschner thought it would be appropriate to present a few options for avoiding the contagion. He pulled out a series of gloves, and proceeded to sport them for the audience: latex, rubber, a Mickey Mouse hand, and finally, a red foam sports finger. That joke in particular was received with a sweeping sigh and a collective eye roll from the students.

The convocation speaker, Mary Baglivo, class of ’79, sought to encourage Rutgers students by recounting her time at Rutgers. Her main thesis was this: “Rutgers is Grit, Guts, and Genius.” Let’s disregard the fact that such a trite and simplistic marketing metaphor makes very little sense to begin with. And forget about the fact that Baglivo boldly assumed that every Rutgers student in front of her had voted for President You-Know-Who (I certainly didn’t)– I have another problem. The program listed Baglivo as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, an international advertising company. What it failed to mention was that Baglivo also happens to be a Dean at Rutgers, as well as a member of the Board of Governors. I thought key note convocation speakers were supposed to be off the University payroll. I suppose at least they managed to save a few bucks by using her…

Two student leaders also were given the chance to speak to the audience: Melody Wilding and Dymir Arthur. In the student section, impressed oohs and ahhs for Melody’s 4.0 GPA were quickly replaced by mocking sniggers at the announcement of her majors: American Studies and Psychology. At Rutgers, the students at least know which majors constitute real work, and which constitute mostly movie watching. Both of Melody’s majors are of the latter kind. I thought Dymir, for his part, did an excellent Barack Obama impression; but for my part, I’d rather not have heard about how we should all be jumping on the change-train now that we’re graduated. This is Rutgers, not Notre Dame. Politics should be kept out of it.

After these lackluster speakers had retired the mic, it was time to start filing up to the stage to receive our “certificates of participation” (Rutgers doesn’t distribute diplomas at commencement, a fact that leaves many students wondering why they would want to attend at all). This process took a full two hours, in the by now 80+ degree heat. More than one student actually fainted waiting for their turn to get in line (luckily, there were medics on hand). Dean Kirschner’s request that the students stay seated after having their name called did nothing to stop the majority of students from simply walking out immediately afer, and by the time I had gotten down from the stage, wide swaths of empty chairs glared out at me from the student section. Having my name read out loud by some dean, who learned it for the first time just seconds before butchering it into her microphone didn’t appease me. Fears about swine flu prevented my hand from being shaken; that honor was reserved for the student speakers and excellence award winners. And you can be sure that the only time my family saw my face during the ceremony was on the jumbo-tron.

And so I’m left wondering: if I had taken part in a consolidated commencement ceremony, would anything have been different? Would the speakers have been any better? Would the heat have been any worse? Would the lack of “individual recognition” and a handshake have made for a less dignified exit to college? Would I have been any less insignificant in the eyes of the University? I doubt it. Inevitably, what matters at such a ceremony are two things: family and friends. The presence or absence of these will make or break your commencement, not the format it is delivered in. But still, time will tell if the class of 2011 decides to take the consolidation lying down…

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time here at Rutgers, it is this: you always get what you pay for. That goes for your education too. Congratulations to all of you members of the Rutgers class of 2009.

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