Friday, October 19, 2007

Supporting Change through Working Assets

     For those who've ever tried 'voting with their wallet', you probably know how frustrating it can sometimes seem. There generally aren't that many options for where you can purchase your goods and services, and when there are, most of the choices aren't too much different. However, I recently became aware of a phone company which gives portions of its charges to progressive causes. The company is called Working Assets and claims to have given over $50 million to progressive organizations since 1985. Each year the customers of Working Assets vote on which organizations should receive support. There are many organizations which receive funding for this year, for example, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Union of Concerned Scientists, Code Pink, Human Rights Watch, Democracy Now, Doctors without Borders, Americans United for Separation of Church and States, and many more.

    Working Assets donates 1% of your bill (long-distance, cell phone, etc.) to these progressive organizations (the customers also vote on how the money will be divided up amongst the recipient organizations). But even better, Working Assets also has partnerships with a couple of organizations in which they give 10% of your wireless bill to the organization! These types of partnerships involve the organizations Amnesty International (Working Assets link), the Humane Society (WA link), Planned Parenthood (WA link), and Democracy for America (WA link). They may also have partnerships with other organizations in the future. This would be a good recommendation to any organizations that you're part of that you'd like to help contribute to with money that you're going to be spending anyway.

    Working Assets plans are also competitive. Their wireless plan is the same price as the Cingular (oops, now AT&T, because the cell phone market was also just so damn competitive...) plan I'm currently on. And in terms of coverage, they actually use Sprint's network, so you should expect the same reception that you would get with Spring. Also, Working Assets will buy out your current plan up to $175. And I believe that the current price for breaking a Cingular/AT&T contract is $175, so that's perfect. I plan on breaking my contract this week and switching to Amnesty's Working Assets plan. It'll make me feel good knowing that ~$75 of my money each year will automatically go to supporting Human Rights and will also help combat the telecommunications monolopolies. Plus I've heard you get free Ben & Jerry's ice cream for signing up!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Switch to Linux

     If you're not currently running Linux and you don't play a large number of commerical video games, why haven't you switched yet? It's free, fast, open source, secure, and there are plenty of sources of free help out there for it.

    The internet is of course going to be extremely important for the future of our society-don't leave your access to it in the hands of a corporation that provides an inferior product at a price.




Saturday, September 29, 2007

Evolution Meme Blog Tag

     Yesterday I got tagged by Vjack of Atheist Revolution. The idea behind this tag is that we are supposed to list five of our older posts which are reflective of the evolution of our blog, and then of course we are required to tag 5 other bloggers afterwards.

     Generally I don't get that interested in blog tags, but this one seems like it could be interesting. I started blogging in April of 2005, about half a year after I helped "reelect" George Bush to his second term. For those who read my blog now, it's pretty obvious that my ideas have changed substantially since that time. Unfortunately part of this change happened in that six months after the election so it's not possible to see the evolution in its entirety. But regardless, there were significant changes outside that time period as well.

The Problem with Conservatism-This was my first blog post and so I think it reflects on the motivation behind the creation of this blog. Inititally my idea of the blog would be that it would be primarily a blog opposed to religion and the "values" that social conservatives hold. This focus probably had a lot of to do with the fact that I lived in Texas at the time, and was continuously exposed to Christian messages and "arguments", whether it was while I was driving on the road, reading the official editorials of our campus newspaper, or just walking around campus. Nearly everyone I came in contact with wore the badge of social conservatism with extreme pride, and for me it represented nothing but cultural backwardness and a whole list of "-isms". In this post I specifically target 'social conservatism' and omit discussion of economic/political conservatism. This was to be something that I would change later on, but at this point the blog was primarily to attack social conservative arguments and its main pillar, Christianity. An interesting note is that in this post the only political advice I give the readers is to "vote Democrat", which seems very naive looking back on.

Is Socialism Superior to Capitalism?- In this post I pose the question as to whether socialism is superior to capitalism. This idea was rather blasphemous for me at the time. Throughout most of my life I had been very patriotic and so accepted, somewhat blindly, that because the U.S. had a capitalist system that it must be necessarily the best. But this was not because I viewed inequality and class domination as good, it's just simply that previously the whole notion of 'class' was foreign to me. In the good ol' jingoistic days of my thinking, my nationalist feelings lumped all Americans together in one big community. The thought that our leaders wanted something different than the people seemed absurd. I mean, hell, we were all Americans right? Our nation is a force for freedom and democracy worldwide, right? And if our leaders cared about such ideals, then how poorly could our internal system be constructed? However, this post marks a significant change in my thinking. I still cared about the collective welfare of ALL American people, but I was coming to the realization that capitalism was not about people working together to improve their lives. The idea that we weren't a single group with the same interests was critical to my initial socialist leanings, which were more nationalistic in origin perhaps then they were for the reason that socialism is more just, is able to sustain democracy, and may be the only system capable of protecting the planet's environment. The thoughts contained in this post and comments by me were fairly uneducated at this point. I was simply interested in the topic. The majority of my other posts maintained to be about religion.

The Media-A Tool of Propaganda- This post was written right after I had watched a documentary based on Noam Chomsky's book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In the documentary Chomsky puts forth his Propaganda Model, which explains right-wing, corporate bias in the media in terms of structural economic causes. This documentary and book marked a significant shift in the focus of this blog. This changed my thinking from believing that progressive change could come naturally fron discussion and the eradication of irrational religious belief. I was now more concerned with the impact that the media played, which pandered more to corporate and government interests than it did to religious interests. I started seeing this blog as more of a vehicle to circumvent the bias in the media, and began seeing capitalist control of media as more threatening to postive change than to what theists happened to believe. My blog would necessarily take a more political tone from here on out.

To the Christian Left-This blog post was directed towards progressive Christians. It was basically a call to work together towards changing society for the better and putting the rather unimportant (in terms of daily life) issues regarding whether or not there's an invisible, magical being in the sky off until a time when we've got nothing better to argue about. This post really marks a shift in focus because here I'm calling on progressive Christians to unite in opposition with leftist atheists to oppose the entirety of right-wing politics whereas just a couple months before I was calling on fiscal conservatives to unite with atheists against religious belief. This shift was mostly due to the experience I had at an anti-war rally in San Francisco a month before, which I wrote about. In this post I write
Yesterday I saw many people who could see through the bullshit that not only the adminstration puts out, but also the bullshit the media puts out. And many of these people were not atheists. And I identified with these people and felt like we were a group of thinking, concerned citizens even though I knew they probably believed in a magical sky daddy or two. See, what I've come to realize is that there are many aspects of having a realistic outlook of the world. Some of us see through the religious bullshit very easily, but then we are still fooled by the non-religious crap that we were indoctrinated with at the beginning of our lives. These things, I believe, include strong feelings of jingoism, a strong commitment to free market capitalism and the associated economic belief that both the rich and the poor "earn what they get", as well as the inability to see that the corporate-owned media is, without exaggeration, essentially propaganda. However, there are some people who see the latter stuff very early in life but still believe in the ridiculous religious stuff.

     From here on atheism and attacks on religious would take a backseat to discussions based on historical events ignored in the media, contemporary media bias and criticism, and anti-capitalist discussion. However, this should not be taken that I think atheism-oriented blogging is unimportant. On the contrary, I think the elimination of blind religious devotion and its associated control on thought is of paramount importance to the creation of a citizenry capable of effective political action. My personal preferences in posting had just shifted away from this.

The Progressive Popular Front- This post and idea is very recent, but I think it also marks a significant shift in my outlook. Before August, my real-world political activism was extremely limited. I was seemingly content with reading books,learning some things, and then throwing a couple of them up on this blog. Political activism would have been fairly hard for me to do before this also, as my political beliefs were changing fairly rapidly that I didn't know if my thinking would stay stable enough to get involved with real-world activities. However, in the past few months my guilt at not participating more has come to weigh heavily on me. Additionally, my political views have changed only in details for about a year now, giving me the comfort of having a stable and somewhat "tested" outlook on the world. What good am I doing if I sit at home and read about socialist politics and history, U.S. opposition to democracy and human rights, and media issues while our world goes down the shitter? So I've decided to become more active in politics and try to change society for the better. While I am still a dedicated socialist, I am oriented my efforts around more short-term goals like universal healthcare, election reform, etc. Some people on the left will accuse me of being 'reformist'. That's fine, although maybe I should address this claim. In my opinion a socialist revolution is like jumping a creek. The act of jumping to the other side surely requires strategies outside of the official political avenues (general strikes, dual power structures, etc.) but reformism is the walking up to the edge of the creek before you jump. People cannot be instantly lifted to a higher political conciousness. I think (in the absence of major disasters) it has to be gradual. We must work to transform society little by little, with the newer society producing people capable of transforming it even more. But with this being said, I should make it clear that the extent of my 'reformism' is basically the support of Green politics. Anything less than that is not fighting for worthy change at all in my opinion.
     But back to topic, in this post on the Progressive Popular Front I propose an organization which I hope will be able to make progressive changes in America, perhaps bringing the United States to the level of the other advanced Western countries. I've set up a new blog here with this purpose in mind.

Okay, thanks for reading, now to tag 5 other people. I choose:
    1)breakerslion from Confusion of Ideas
    2)Mookie from Meme Processing
    3)Parge at the Environmental Atheist
    4)DT from Drunken Tune
    5)Beep Beep from Beep Beep It's Me

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Review: Mao's China and After

    China is the world's most populated country, has a very rapidly enlarging economy, and according to Department of Defense estimates (as opposed to official CCP figures which neglect nuclear weapons and also some funds used for military development) ranks second in the world in terms of military expenditures, while still only spending 1/5 of the leading United States (which of course doesn't need this excess money for education or healthcare). This power is also perceived by many around the world. I have a couple of friends who are taking Chinese language classes and I ask them why they are taking Chinese as opposed to some other language. Typically I get responses along the lines that they hope to be giving me orders in my work camp after the Chinese invasion. So clearly, both in terms of numbers and perception, China is a very powerful country on the world scene today. And for me, as someone who likes to pride myself on the idea that my political views are at least loosely correlated with social and political reality, my previous near total lack of knowledge on the country and history of China made me feel like I had a huge gap in my understanding of the world that needed to be filled.

     This gap has been substantially reduced after reading a book by Maurice Meisner titled Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic. The book goes through in great detail the transition from China being a completely unindustrialized country that was exploited by Western imperial powers to its current state as one of the most rapidly industrialized countries whose people are now simply exploited by international corporations in association with the ruling 'Communist' Party.
     The book starts with a description of the iconoclasm of many of the youth and intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century against the ruling 'Confucian' social order that had ruled Chinese society for centuries. Many people in this group in China looked toward the western parliamentary democracies as models that China should emulate and believed that this would transform China into a powerful country that could not be humiliated by imperial powers and would also bring China's socially backward populace into the 20th century. This movement took a turn on May 4, 1919 when thousands of students demonstrated in Beijing in response to the decision of the Western democracies to give German imperialist possessions in China to Japan as 'war booty'. Meisner explains how this event changed the political landscape in China:
The dramatically new political situation radically politicized a significant number of intellectuals. Many who had regarded themselves as liberal cosmopolitans emerged as militant nationalists, defending the country against the menace of foreign imperialism. Many who had rejected political participation because they attributed the plight of China to fundamental deficiencies in culture, for which political measures offered only superficial solutions, now began to favor immediate political action to save the nation from the external threat and to resolve the grave social and economic crises that threatened from within. The new spirit of political activism permeating the cities raised hopes that the masses could be organized for effective action and that the intellectuals could be effective in leading them. Concurrently, the intellectuals' views of the West underwent a dramatic transformation. The bitter nationalist resentments aroused by the fateful decision at Versailles, coupled with growing national political activism at home, led to a rapid erosion of the faith that the "advanced" Western nations would instruct China in the principles of democracy and science. The foreign teachers were now perceived as oppressors, and the old image of a Western world providing progressive models for the regeneration of China was replaced by a new image of a West made up of cynical and aggressive imperialist states. Having rejected traditional Chinese intellectual and political values, the intellectuals still looked to the West for guidance; but they now began to look more to Western socialist theories, which were themselves critical of the West as it was, in placed of conventional Western liberal ideologies, which sanctioned the existing capitalist-imperialist order.........To become a Marxist was one way for a Chinese intellectual to reject both the traditions of the Chinese past and Western domination of the Chinese present.

     The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded two years later, and then over the course of a long civil war it finally won against the Nationalists in 1949 when the state of the PRC was formed. The CCP led by Mao Zedong, during the revolutionary years of the civil war, was a remarkably grassroots and popular organization that appealed to large numbers of the Chinese population, both in terms of their hopes of social betterment, but also in response to the understanding that the CCP would finally free China from the control of foreign imperial powers. This progressivism and connection with the masses was to deteriorate once the former revolutionaries found themselves as leaders of a state, as expected when you create a new ruling class with privileges not enjoyed by others.
     The book then discusses the early years of the PRC, and its attempt to reconcile the fact that, at least according to orthodox Marxist theory, it was building a socialist country in economic and cultural conditions that were not suited for doing so. There are many parallels to the Soviet experience of course, but the Maoist experience is also in many ways very much different than the situation encountered by the leaders in the Soviet Union. Industrialization was to proceed rapidly, in order to build up the economic 'preconditions' for a socialist society. But this rapid industrialization and the need for increased production was hard to reconcile with the socialist aims of worker control and popular democracy. The need for centralized control over production to achieve maximum economic growth was in direct opposition to the socialist aim of direct control and the withering away of the state and the power and influence of the bureaucracy exploded in the years following the birth of the PRC. This fundamental dilemma, between building the political and social aspects of a socialist society (i.e., a democracy of producers) and that of building the economic aspects of a socialist society (a modern industrial base), was to rear its head many times in the first two decades of the PRC, manifesting itself in events like the The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
     After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, new leaders took over that promised more intellectual freedom and democratic reforms. These leaders, most notably Deng Xiaoping, were to soon to lead China on the road back to capitalism. They also soon went back on their promise of democratic reforms, as could be seen by their persecution of China's Democracy Movement. This persecution is most widely known from the incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which the Chinese government massacred thousands of students and workers who were fighting for democratic reform of the government. In the wake of protests, the government declared martial law in Beijing. The first troops that were sent to Beijing fraternized with the students and workers, and so were withdrawn. The city was then surrounded by 200,000 veteran troops loyal to the government and on June 3rd they entered the city and began their attack, with the army's tanks, machine guns, and AK-47s firing indiscriminately into the waves of protesters who were courageously fighting back with bricks, sticks, and Molotov cocktails. At the end of the second day, thousands of people had been killed and over 40,000 would be arrested in the subsequent two months for their political activism. Below is a good Youtube video showing scenes from the attack:

     Today we have a China which is still very controlling of their population. Political dissent is suppressed, and the workers are forbidden from forming their own labor unions in response to the exploitation that they suffer from at the hands of companies who go for cheap labor with no threat of labor unionization. I think the power that China has and the influence that America could have on it requires us to be knowledgeable about the situation there and its historical causes. For this reason I very much recommend this book.

Other reviews:
Of the thousands of books that have been written about contemporary China, only a few will stand the test of time. This is one of them. --Foreign Affairs

Splendidly relates the human drama of the Chinese people and their leaders, with empathetic understanding and constructive criticism
--Zhiyuan Cui, professor of Political Science, MIT

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Progressive Popular Front - I think we're going to do this

     Thanks for all the feedback everyone. There was actually quite a bit of support for this idea, many of you having emailed me directly. There was enough so that I feel like it would be worthwhile to give this idea a shot, so I plan on taking it to the next phase. So what would the next phase be? This is up for debate of course, but a general outline I was thinking about goes as follows:

1). Obviously one of the first things we need to do is really clarify what this project would be about, both in deciding how the idea would be presented to the public and also hammer down the details for ourselves in how the organization would be structured, function, etc. Some of this may be able to be made up as we go, but it would be nice to get some basics down. Additionally, the list of progressive issues that we want the Popular Front to represent has to be decided upon. We clearly cannot ask anyone to 'sign on' to the PPF if we don't have the issues beforehand. To help in both of these purposes, I have set up another blog at Progressive Popular Front. In terms of organizational structure, perhaps that can be done some over email and then a little bit as well on the blog itself. For the issues, I plan on having a post on each potential issue where we can openly discuss the position. We can also invite people who are active in these respective fields (other activists) to come and give us their opinion.

2). Once we've completed the previous tasks, the next stage will be to officially launch the project. This requires a few things:
  • A better website: we will need to get off Blogger and onto a new url and hosting with more capabilities. We may be able to get hosting for free, as there are some small businesses which give free hosting to progressive organizations, but this usually requires that we be a ....

  • registered non-profit (501(c) in the US tax code). This should not be hard to get I believe.

  • Volunteer drive, website design, and shirt, bumper sticker, etc. designs. This is where we prepare to really launch the PPF

  • Now that all the groundwork is done, we begin, hopefully in enough time so that we may influence the 2010 or 2012 elections. All types of activism will start here, and we will also try to raise money so that we may purchase more visibility for the organization and message.

The timescale for the above outline is obviously highly dependent on how well we are able to get a lot of grassroots support and participation.

     Except for comments to these past two posts, let's take all discussion on the PPF over to the new blog. If you'd like to get involved in this endeavor please let me know, either by posting here, at the new blog, or emailing me at

    Also, if there are any strong criticisms of this idea in general or some of its specifics, please bring it to my attention. The more minds working on this the better.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

An idea for the progressive movement - the Popular Front

     One of the biggest problems I think we have as progressives is that it's tough for us to really organize ourselves into committed, long-lasting movements. The primary reasons for this in my opinion is as follows:

  1). We have no support from the media, so our organizations and small victories we may score go unreported in the news. Everything we do in this sense has to be grassroots. The media also defines what 'mainstream' views are, and these views are generally quite conservative.

  2). Our organizations have trouble fighting for change because there's a strong impulse to let our values be coopted by attempts to elect the 'lesser of two evils'. Even though I think progressive views are strongly rooted in the minds of many Americans, these people, come election time, are usually torn between those who vote their conscience and those who think that doing so is handing the election to the Republicans, who they may view as only slightly worse than the Democrats that they will be voting for. I think this issue is actually one of the biggest problems facing the movement.

     So last night I was thinking about this, and I thought of one solution. The progressive movement, instead of focusing its efforts on rallying support for the Green Party or for Dennis Kucinich, should focus its efforts on convincing people to vote their conscience and to agree on a limited number of progressive goals that any candidate must meet to get their vote. A benefit of doing this is that one's efforts from one election cycle don't go wasted for the next election. So rather than simply rallying for Kucinich, who may not run again next election, the activist energy that you put in today could be then applied to a different progressive candidate in the future. Also, by having people commit to issues and not politicians or parties, the movement can also avoid being stuck to a party which may go conservative. So if the Green Party all of a sudden changed its platform, it would automatically lose the support of those who had agreed on the issues that they felt were necessary to qualify for a vote.

     Now, for the movement to gather momentum, people will want to see it grow and see that it's making progress. This is why this effort would need a name. My first thought for this name would be the 'Progressive Popular Front'. And basically how it would work is that we'd need to establish some basic progressive goals that the PPF supported. Some suggestions would be universal healthcare (the real, non-for-profit kind), some sort of election reform (IRV or something along those lines), legalizing same sex marriage, legalization of abortion, end the war on drugs, clean energy (with some details to be provided on its nature), fair taxes, diplomacy over war (again in actuality, not politicians paying homage to diplomacy while preparing for war), etc. The exact list needs to be progressive enough to be worthwhile but also not too radical so that we can have a substantial following. We would then attempt to convince people that they should only vote for candidates who can meet these criteria and ask them to sign on to being part of the 'Progressive Popular Front'.

     So now what we would have is a movement which was issue-oriented, and uncompromising with its votes. Also, it would be easy to keep the movement cohesive because we've put all these issues under the umbrella of the Popular Front. So rather than saying "hey, do you support x,y,and z, and will only vote for someone who also supports this?" you can simply say "hey, are you part of the Progressive Popular Front?", and if not, convince them to join.

     Now to show that the movement is making progress, because it won't be reported on in the media, we can have tshirts, a website giving statistics, Popular Front icons for blogs, and bumper stickers saying "I support the Progressive Popular Front". Each person who puts this on their car will show to others that they are not alone (I think alientation is one of the reasons why people let their political desires be coopted). As the movement grows, more and more people will have this displayed and this will help prevent people from voting for the "lesser of two evils".

     The Popular Front website will give analysis each election cycle to help the members determine which candidates support the views they signed off on. Perhaps we can have some sort of internal election so that the Popular Front can officially endorse a candidate.

     Now these ideas are very rough, but I wanted to get your opinion on it. If you like it, we could start and get the ball rolling. It'll of course start out small, but if the idea is good it should grow in size.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Poll: Are Americans happy prisoners or progressives without strategies?

     Recently I've tossed around the idea of writing a book. It's more of a long-term goal as I don't yet feel qualified to write publishable material with all the necessary references characteristic of a scholarly endeavor, but it's something I would like to work towards and eventually do in the next 6 years. I have a general topic in mind, but I haven't decided yet on approach or focus. However, I'm having an initial difficulty that I'd like your opinion on. It has to do with what the progressive movement in America needs most at this time. Are Americans, in your opinion, more progressive than the government that pretends to represent them? Is it simply the tyranny of the two-party system and the absence of effective methods at controlling government actions which enable our government to ignore the well-being and wishes of its people much more than its European counterparts are able to do? This position can be argued from looking at polls which show that Americans consistently disagree with the position of the government on certain topics, notably the health care system and most recently the invasion of Iraq. Or is this position perhaps too optimistic? Are the American people actually happy prisoners of the system, not having any influence but also not desiring anything radically different? Does the overwhelming domination of corporate media, the consumer society, and atrocious educations in history actually produce a people which do not understand the nature of the institutions and policies that they support? This position I think can be supported as well, although I'm more interested in hearing your opinions than trying to convince you of mine. I'm trying to decide whether the content of a book should be more directed towards the "how" or the "why" (or perhaps equal amounts of both?). I would appreciate your participation in the poll and in any comments you might make in explaining your choice.

Are Americans happy prisoners or progressives without strategies?
Happy prisoners
Progressives without strategies
Both, but more of the former
Both, but more of the latter free polls

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Daniel Singer Prize: $5000

     Hello, I hope this post finds everyone well. Posting has certainly been light this past month, but I have some good excuses (does anyone ever not?). 1). I've been really picking up speed in the research area. I do research in condensed matter physics and since I just started in February I have a lot of reading to do and techniques to learn which takes up a great deal of my time. 2). This past month I got a road bike. It's the first *real* bike that I've ever owned and it's very fun to ride and I've gotten some great workouts from it already. It makes going around the city very easy and I'm also using it as an aerobic replacement for running, which is supposed to be bad for your knees. If you've never ridden one you should really try it out, it's great. 3). My fiancee and I are learning French together. We've only done a couple of lessons but it's something fun that we can do together. Once we know it it'll be like having our own secret language (that 300 million people also speak). We're also going to be in France for a week this summer and it's much more enjoyable to me if I speak a little of the native language. I feel less like a foreign invader and more like I belong there I suppose.

    I haven't had much time to do any "fun reading" in the past month, although a couple of days ago I started the book Prelude to Revolution by Daniel Singer, a socialist writer who has authored a couple of books and written articles for The Nation (as its Europe correspondent) and The Economist. The book deals with the events of May 1968 in France, in which a revolutionary situation occurred which brought out 2/3 of the French workforce in a general strike. It is looked on by some as a sign of hope that even in first-world countries where economic conditions are such that people are not starving that it does not mean that large numbers of people cannot become interested in changing society in order to become more democratic, fair, sustainable, and enjoyable. But at the same time I think that movements like this may actually have a greater chance in first-world countries where productivity, if used for the common good and not for a small group of social parasites whose only contribution to society is being rich, could actually drastically reduce the work week without a decrease in the quality of life. I think the realization of this, and then its strong contrast with what society currently looks like, could very well be a strong motivator towards the adoption of 'radical' ideas.

     Anyway, in doing some background research before starting this book I stumped upon a website by the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation. Daniel Singer passed away in 2000 unfortunately but in his memory they have an essay contest every year in which the winner receives $5000 and is invited to give a public lecture based on the essay. The question for the essay is "What major breakthrough in socialist theory is necessary in order to move the practical struggle forward?". I thought this was something that some of you may be interested in. It would take a little more effort than a normal blog post, but at the same time there would be a chance at $5k as well as the satisfaction of writing an essay which could influence the outlook of many people. I may write something in a couple of months if I can find the time. If you're not interested in writing something, you might want to check out the essays of the previous winners. I just read the most recent winner's essay, and thought it was very well done.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book Review: American Fascists

     In the atheist community nowadays we hear a lot of chatter about the threat of theocracy rearing its head in America. While I agree that religious believers who shun reason and prefer to live a life of magical superstition, continuously feel persecuted even while on the offensive, and believe that all social problems can be solved if we "get right with God" are a huge threat to our so-called democracy, I think that there is essentially zero probability that a theocracy will rule the US in the near future. The reason for this belief is that I'm assuming that for a political system to be truly a theocracy, the rulers of the economic and political life belong to religious institutions or are at least strongly controlled by those who are. But I can't see this happening in America. The movement that the Christian Right represents is not anti-capitalist, and this is what they would have to be in order to displace the current rulers of our society. Furthermore, because religion is basically a tool to prevent those from thinking and from taking independent action, it necessarily creates a movement of followers, not leaders. This places all decision making at the top, and the leaders of any organization (whether they be religious, hierarchical worker unions, or even "revolutionary" parties) have been shown to be very susceptible to being assimilated into the thinking and behavior of the ruling class. While other movements can have some hope in the initiative of the rank-and-file members, religious movements have little chance of this happening due to their extreme hierarchical structure, the silencing of dissent, and the deification of their leaders.

     Having said that, the Christian Right does pose a threat, but it's in the form of bringing about fascism, rather than theocracy. Christians will not establish a new order, but will simply lend support to the existing order and help dismantle social programs and liberties that have taken us a long time to achieve. This has been religion's role for centuries, whether its supporting the rule of kings, dictators, or capitalists.

    But to the book. American Fascists is a book by Chris Hedges which holds as one of its claims on the cover that it will argue the similarities between the Christian Right and young fascist movements that developed in Italy and in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. If this is what you're interested in (as I was), do not read this book. Hedges barely even mentions Italian fascism and National Socialism in his book, a far cry from the detailed analysis and comparison I was looking forward to. I even read a book by Daniel Guerin called Fascism and Big Business before reading American Fascists in hope of learning more about the young fascist movements in Europe so that I could better evaluate Hedges' arguments. Guerin's book, written in the eventful 1930s, is a very detailed look at the buildup of fascist movements, what institutions supported them, and how they were able to appeal to the masses. Reading Hedges' book you wouldn't be convinced that he is even aware of all the characteristics of the Italian and German fascists as he routinely misses opportunities to make comparisons that would have been of great interest to the reader and would have made his case more solid.

     The book is written in that very personal style, as if he's simply writing in his diary as he travels the country and attends various christian political events and sermons. Some people may like this style of writing because it resembles a novel, but for an analysis I think it's completely inappropriate. It tends to focus on individual figures and their actions rather than analyze the entire movement from a distance. Here, I just flipped open the book to a random page, and here's what I read:

The opening session is held on the third floor, a large room with a round stage surrounded on three sides with rows of folding chairs. The hall is dimly lit. There are a few thousand people. Large television screens are suspended from the ceilings, and the platform in front of us has a podium and a grand piano.....

....see what I mean?

     So in conclusion, I didn't enjoy this book very much. To me it seemed like a more or less unstructured rant against those who are "hijacking" the otherwise good Christian religion. However this book may reach out to moderate and left-wing Christians (Hedges actually went to Harvard Divinity School) and so I'm glad it's out there. But if you want to learn about fascism and how movements develop then you should look somewhere else.

† The picture at the top is one that I took about two months ago in San Francisco after coming back from the march against the Iraq war. Their website is about what you would expect from a group called "Nation Takers".

     On an unrelated note, I recently decided to make an anarchist shirt on CafePress. What do I hope to come from it? Well, anarchism is basically the political equivalent of atheism in America, and as many atheists seek to convince believers that atheists don't worship the devil, I feel somewhat compelled to try to convince those around me that anarchism does not mean "chaos", but that, as the symbol represents, "anarchy is order". I have also included some text on the back of the shirt which says
Anarchism, simply put, is the radical notion that freedom and democracy are not merely words, but that they represent actual social conditions that we should strive to implement

While it's not the best definition in terms of rigor, I think it at least gets across the idea that 1). Anarchism is a legitimate political philosophy, and is not simply a way for teenagers to get back at their parents for making them take out the trash and 2). That anarchism is associated with democracy, not with disorder. One of the primary goals of anarchism is the creation of an actual, direct democracy, and I hope to introduce that idea into the heads of those who see me wear this shirt. Pictures of the design are below, and if you'd like to see the design on other items, go check out my site.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Capitalism is War

     I think everyone, regardless of their political and religious orientation, hopes for a future in which all of humanity lives in harmony with each other. We hope for a world free from war and the human suffering it entails. But these goals can never be met as long as mankind lives beneath the shadow of capitalism.

     What's so bad about capitalism you ask? And how the hell is it comparable to war? To begin with, let's look at the conventional wars, those fought with formal militaries. What starts them? Perhaps every one was started due to a conflict over resources. They, for the most part, were not fought over religion, as an apolitical atheist may hope you to believe. Religion is often used to placate the masses or to aid in convincing them to participate in the slaughter of their fellow human beings, but the initial motivation is always material in nature. Kings and emperors, the predecessors of todays' ruling capitalist class, started wars with the intent of increasing their material wealth. They have always had others shed their own blood for their material comfort, and if they could not convince their people to fight by calls to religion, patriotism, and the defense of "freedom","democracy", "order", and "civilization" then they resort to drafts and other forced service in their interests.

     Now perhaps this doesn't seem all that bad to some people. After all, eventually a nation will emerge the final victor, having either obliterated its adversaries or having reduced them to a powerless extension of themselves. And then war, outside of minor scuffles and "interventions", will be over. However, this is not the case in my opinion, because I think the mere existence of capitalism necessarily puts humanity in a constant state of war.

    What is war? War is a conflict of interests, in which (typically) one party wins and one party loses. The losing party's quality of life is diminished, and to the victor goes the spoils. But what is capitalism but the glorification of conflicting interests? Capitalism, not by systematic imperfections, but by design is a system that puts people's interests opposed to each other. Worker versus owner, buyer versus seller. These interests are necessarily in opposition. There can be no peace and we cannot work toward common goals if our goals are not the same, if one of us being better off necessarily means that the other is worse off. These conflicts of interests and their outcomes are just as serious as those from more conventional wars. Those who starve, suffer from inadequate health care, curable diseases, and the like do so whether they are the losers on the battlefield or if they are the losers in the marketplace, whether suffering is delivered to them at the point of a gun or handed down to them from the "invisible hand of the market". Even in the "first-world" countries where hard-won labor reforms exist they are constantly under attack by those who lose profit by their very existence. The daily demand for more work from the workers at less pay by the employers and more pay for less work by the workers puts every individual in the society in constant conflict with others.

     I don't believe that anyone is inherently "bad" (if only because no objective definition for the word exists), but I do believe that people act in their own interests, whether they be of a material nature or not. This is a fact that cannot be avoided. So it is crucial that our political and economic structures tie people's interests together rather than set them opposed to each other. No one can reasonably expect any system to be free from conflict, but if you ever hope to minimize it, you shouldn't be using a system that is actually built on it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Long Time No Post

     Hi everyone, sorry the posting has been very light lately. I recently joined a research group and have been very busy getting myself settled in and trying to get something productive done. It's theoretical physics, although at the moment I spend a lot of time looking at computer code and debugging it before submitting jobs to the supercomputers we have access to. Although I haven't been posting, I have had a little time to read and watch a few interesting things that I'd like to share with you in case you're interested.

    I recently finished a book called America Beyond Capitalism by Gar Alperovitz. There's 4 clips of the author talking at a bookstore on this website so you can get an idea of what he talks about in the book. In addition to some interesting facts and statistics, probably the biggest idea that I took away from it was the importance of local democratic structures and participation as a means of exerting democratic influence on a more larger scale. As Alperovitz says in his book:

The heart of the larger foundational argument-and this is a critical emphasis-might be put thus: Is it possible to have Democracy with a Big D in the system as a whole if you do not have real democracy with a small d at the level where people live, work, and raise families in their local communities?

In this goal of having a true democracy Alperovitz looks at other conditions that are necessary if a government is truly going to be democratically controlled. A lot of this obviously has to do with how wealth is distributed. He looks at a variety of institutional changes, some of which are very radical and some of which are not, and often cites some current trends as to how things are leaning in this direction. Some of the things he proposes are good ideas but have no chance of actually coming into being in the near future. However, he says that he realizes that things are likely to get worse before they get better, and cites a number of issues such as health care, social security, the environment, and a population which sees themselves working harder and harder despite huge technological gains that could drastically minimize work as factors that could radicalize the mainstream of America. Watch the video if you're interested in more.

     A good documentary I recently saw is Militainment, Inc. which is a film about the military and war as entertainment. There are a lot of very good clips of the mainstream media in there that are worth watching. It's available on Youtube, and I've included the first of the 12 portions below for convenience.


    Also, a few days ago I ordered a book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by divinity school graduate Chris Hedges. I usually don't read books by christians, but this guy's politics impressed me in his interview with Democracy Now! so I decided to give it a shot. Apparently in the book he compares the Christian Right in America with young fascist movements in Italy and Germany at the beginning of the century. If you have time check out the interview, he makes a couple good observations. It blows my mind though to see someone who apparently have such a clear depiction of how the world works yet still describe himself as a Christian. Maybe he does it because it will make him more effective in communicating his ideas to a wider audience, or maybe he just can't completely let go of superstition I don't know. But it looks like a good book.

     I'm currently reading Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky. I'm about 1/3 of the way through and have found it fairly engaging. A number of the events he cites I actually know a fair amount about, but there are some things that I hadn't heard before and even with the things that I've had, it's nice to hear his opinion and analysis of it.

    Hope everything is going well for you all. I don't know if I'll be getting any less busy in the next month or so, but I'll try to post every so often and check in with your blogs.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Majority of CNN panel concludes that atheists need to "shut up"

     Some of you may have heard of the recent uproar about the Paula Zahn CNN segment about discrimination against atheists. If not, the videos are below along with some comments.


    What I thought was interesting about this segment was the choice of atheists interviewed. You may have noticed that all the atheists chosen for interview were overweight and rather unattractive in general whereas the Christian man who was interviewed was fairly handsome. This is a popular media technique to influence opinion. If those who are undecided on the issue see it they will often identify the "bad" idea with the "bad" looking person. Fox News employs this tactic on Hannity and Colmes. Hannity is a fairly decent looking guy whereas Colmes looks like the child of a zombie and an old turtle. People naturally want to associate themselves with the better looking person, and this can have a huge affect on the subconscious.

Here's the second part of the video:


    The first thing I'd like to comment on here is the initial backdrop of "Why do atheists inspire such hatred?". I thought the initial question of the segment was "are atheists discriminated?" not "what do they do to deserve it?". The language used clearly suggests that not only are atheists hated, but that there are reasons that justify such hatred.

    Then to get to the comments. It's incredibly disappointing to see a black woman criticize a discriminated minority and say that they simply need to "shut up" only 40 years after the Civil Rights movement. Now the blonde really reminds me of a character played on Saturday Night Live, although I can't decide exactly who. Her claim of America being a "christian nation" has been refuted so many times it's beginning to cause my ears pain to hear it. America's "founding fathers" were overwhelmingly deist, certainly a far cry from being Christian. Maybe the blond woman should let the black woman (I refuse to honor them with their names) know that America (by the same twisted logic) is also a "white nation". And then finally the blond woman's comment that Europe is "fast falling" and is becoming "Islamic" is certainly ridiculous. Europe is becoming more secular, that's for sure, but not "Islamic". And the countries that are more secular, e.g. the Nordic countries, are also the countries with the highest standard of living for their citizens. They also have more responsive government and hence much higher voter turnout, all signs that their democracies are "fast falling" in comparison to ours.

    In summary, what a ridiculous panel. Our great mainstream media can get a panel of people in a room to discuss atheism (none of which are atheists by the way) and agree that we need to shut up. Damn, Christians sure are persecuted in this country.

Finally, here's a nice remix that someone made.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bernie Sanders on Corporate Control of the Media

     Democracy Now! has a good video of Bernie Sanders speaking at the National Conference for Media Reform. Sanders highlights the centrality of the media issue saying

If you are concerned, as been said, about healthcare, if you are concerned about foreign policy and Iraq, if you are concerned about the economy, if you are concerned about global warming, you are kidding yourselves if you are not concerned about corporate control over the media, because every one of these issues is directly controlled and directly relevant to the media

Video here.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Socialism Defined

     Mookie of Meme Processing has a interesting post on socialism that some of you might be interested in. He talks about a number of issues, including the negative connotations of the word and of its true definition, common misconceptions and arguments made against socialism, whether violence is necessary to achieve fundamental change, discusses the apparent paradox of a free market which supposedly protects individual liberty and responsibility while at the same time is not controlled by people but by an "invisible hand" which is independent of human control and thereby relieves people from responsibility for anything that the market affects, among other topics. If you're interested, regardless of your views, feel free to join the discussion.

    Also, I'd like to thank whoever ordered those 4 atheism books after clicking on one of my Amazon links. They give me 4% of the purchase towards Amazon gift certificates. I still haven't gotten to the $10 minimum redemption amount goal, but I'm getting close =)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pirates and Emperors

    Short cartoon from TayTV based on Chomsky's book Pirates and Emperors, Old and New.


Friday, January 12, 2007

What is the media reporting on now?

     Most days I check out the mainstream media and see what they're reporting on, just for shits and giggles. Today I wanted to see how the media was responding to Bush's call for an escalation in Iraq (20,000 more troops for the slaughter), the fact that polls show that 71% of Americans are opposed to Bush's plan, and also Bush's aggressive statements towards Iran and Syria. I remember back in high school we were told that we needed a President to make decisions because the process of democracy is often too slow to react quickly if the need arises. I don't remember the part where the the President gets to do whatever the fuck he wants, especially if public opinion is directly opposed to it. Withdrawal from Iraq? No, silly citizens, we're sending in more troops. Going to recall me? Too bad, you can't. Impeach me? Too bad, you don't control the Congress or House, and in half of the states you can't recall them. In fact, most of you didn't even have a choice to elect a peace candidate in November to begin with! As always, direct action is the only way to control our lives and our world. I may talk about this later, especially if a war with Iran starts to look imminent.

    Anyway, I just downloaded this great extension for Firefox which lets me save screenshots of the web pages I go to. I made some comments on the news websites I visited. As you'll see, the US media is utter bullshit. Al Jazeera, however, was quite impressive. You may want to click on the photo to make it larger and easier to read. Am I the only one who thinks that ongoing, escalating, and upcoming war is something that should be the focus of reporting in a civilized society?



CNN (morning)

CNN (hour later)

Fox "News"

Al Jazeera (my new mainstream news source)


    I usually don't promote movies on this blog, especially if they aren't documentaries. But Idiocracy is one that I think many of you would enjoy. Besides, if 20th Century Fox won't promote it, maybe I should pick up the slack. Let me borrow a fantastic review from John Patterson of the Guardian
It looks as though Mike Judge, the satiric mastermind behind Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space, just got punked again. By his own studio. For the third time.

Seven years ago, 20th Century Fox dumped Judge's anti-corporate cri de coeur Office Space, but it became a bona fide smash on DVD, one of the studio's biggest sellers that year. Last year Fox unceremoniously cancelled Judge's animated hit King of the Hill, perhaps the most socially precise comedy on American television, before giving it a last-minute reprieve.

Now it's the turn of Judge's second feature, the splenetic, pitch-black satire Idiocracy, which wrapped nearly two years ago. Fox didn't screen it for critics, ran no print ads or trailers, and dumped it on 130 screens nationwide. Apparently the lesson of Office Space's success went entirely unlearned.

Knowing Judge's sterling track record as an American satirist, I had to find out what went wrong. Usually a film eliciting such utter contempt from its own backers is a disaster. Far less often, it's a masterpiece.

The plot: in the future, the educated and intelligent will be massively out-bred by moronic A-type prison-fodder and Nascar idiots, to the point that all knowledge of engineering, agriculture, medicine and literature will be lost to misty memory. Luke Wilson plays ordinary Joe Bowers, chosen to be frozen by the military in 2005, who accidentally wakes up in 2505 to find a broken-down, thuggish America where language has become a patois of football chants, hip-hop slang and grunts denoting rage, pleasure and priapic longing, where citizens are obese, violent, ever-horny and narcotised by consumerism, TV and fast food. Everything's branded, and people have names such as BMW, Mountain Dew and Frito. TV features the Violence Channel (its signature show: "Ow, My Balls!") and the Masturbation Channel ("Keepin' America 'batin' for 300 years!"). The President's a Smackdown champ and porno superstar, and there's a mulleted wrestler on the billion-dollar bill. And everyone in the future thinks that Joe Bowers, suddenly the smartest man on earth, "talks like a fag".

There is venomous anti-corporate satire throughout the movie, remarkable mainly because Judge names real corporations. I was astounded - and invigorated - by the sheer vitriol Judge directs at these companies, who surely now regret permitting the use of their licensed trademarks. Like fast-food giant Carl's Jr, which in 2006 sells 6,000-calorie burgers the size of dictionaries under the slogan, "Don't Bother Me, I'm Eating". In Idiocracy, this has devolved into "Fuck You! I'm Eating!" And every commercial transaction has been sexualised: at Starbucks you can get coffee plus a handjob (or a "full body" latte).

Idiocracy isn't a masterpiece - Fox seems to have stiffed Judge on money at every stage - but it's endlessly funny, and my friends and I will be repeating certain lines for months (especially while eating), a sure sign of a cult hit. And word got out fast: I saw it last Saturday in a half-empty house. Two days later, same place, same show - packed-out. There's an audience for this movie, but its natural demographic barely knows it's out there.

Behind the movie's satire lie long-term social changes like the stupidisation of the American electorate over 30 years through deliberate underfunding of public education, the corporate takeover of every area of public and private life, and the tendency of the media - particularly Fox News - to substitute anti-intellectual rage and partisan division for reasoned public debate.

Some will argue that Fox has also given us some of the best television of the last 15 years - true - and that if quality sells as well as garbage, then the bottom line is served either way.

So why was Idiocracy dumped? Perhaps because it taps a growing anti-corporate mood in the nation; perhaps because it expertly satirises the jingoistic self-absorption that now passes for public culture. Or perhaps because more people are sick of the modern America that Fox energetically helped to build than the Fox corporation itself is ready to admit.

    While I don't believe a trailer was ever made for it, here's something that someone put up on YouTube. If you watch it, let me know what you think.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

To Political and Social Consciousness

     We all grow up with the same idea that freedom, democracy, and justice are things that should be valued. Whether this is due to upbringing or due to some intrinsic desire of mankind is something I haven't particularly thought about, but just about everyone strives for these things in their politics. What type of politics comes out, however, is anyone's guess. Differences in perspective, due to an infinite number of factors ranging from religiosity to historical background, are the cause of such a vast difference in the believed paths to these commonly agreed goals.

    My personal story is one in which my politics changed drastically while at the same time I remained faithful to the previously mentioned ideals. I went from a very patriotic two-time Bush voter to a libertarian communist in less than a period of two years. Below I will try to outline my path, as best I can, to (what I hope) is a more socially and politically conscious position.

    As I described in a previous post, I used to be extremely patriotic. I bought into the lie that our country and our government, which I believed was strongly democratic, stood and fought for democracy, freedom, and human rights. I felt that we were a beacon of hope in a dark world and that we were doing the best we could to spread those fundamental ideals throughout the world. Having believed this,it made sense that I would support our military and hope for "us" to have an ever increasing amount of control over other nations and their people. For if we failed, then perhaps freedom would be extinguished from the human experience altogether. Sometimes we may act imperialistic (I didn't realize how prevalent this behavior was at the time), but it seemed justified to me because we had to make sure that our country got the natural resources and strategic leverage to sucessful fight for freedom and democracy. The reason I supported Bush twice was because he was "good for the military". I also believed that the American people were a unified body with more or less the same interests in how our country was run and what should happen in the world. At least this was how history is usually taught in the US. As Howard Zinn puts in his amazing book A People's History of the United States:
The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media

I bought into this. I didn't realize that capitalism, by the way it forces the interests of the buyer and seller, of owner and worker, to be in direct opposition to each other (and this basic relationship propagates to affect other relationships throughout the society) makes it impossible for there to be a "national interest". And if the citizens of a nation don't have common interests, whose interests do they favor?

    So due to these beliefs, I always supported the US military and its wars. I very much enjoyed watching bombing by US warplanes on the news because we were attacking the "enemies of freedom". I also supported very high tax rates, because that would go into improving our great country. I even somehow managed to think that if I were ever rich one day that I would donate a large sum of my money to the US government, as I thought that it would go to good use (I can't really defend myself here, but let me throw out the fact that I was in high school).

    So how did this view change? It's hard to be exact, as changes in politics or religion tend to be very gradual and in some respects the individual experiencing them may not have a good sense of what is happening. To see that our government represents only a small minority of the country whose interests are opposed to the majority's and that the US government, rather than supporting and nurturing freedom and democracy at home and abroad, actually suppresses it you need to be exposed to new ideas and history that isn't usually taught and never discussed in the mainstream media. The first step then was my disillusionment with the media.

     I used to live in the south, and there the standard news station is Fox News, so that's what I usually watched. They subscribed to the same jingoistic ideas that I did, and besides, they had nice graphics and special effects. It was actually my atheism that ended breaking me free from Fox News. I was in the kitchen washing dishes while I listened to Fox News one day. They had some people come on and they started discussing whether an atheist could be President. So I went into the living room to watch. Everyone on the show, the guests, the anchors (I think it might have been Hannity) all unanimously agreed that an atheist could not be President. Atheists simply just did not have the moral fiber to do so. If they didn't have the common sense to accept Jesus, how could they lead the country? I had never been so pissed off by watching the news before, and since I no longer had any respect whatsoever for the people over at Fox News, I stopped watching it altogther. I then started watching CNN and MSNBC and also the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I think the Daily Show may have influenced me in that I began to become increasingly critical of the Bush administration (his religiosity and opposition to stem cell research also affected this).

     But for perhaps 6 months after this it's hard to discern how my thinking evolved. Some idea can be had by looking at my posts on my blog. Looking at a post from April 2005 (the first month of my blog) I made my opposition to social conservatism well known, but didn't appear particularly opposed to economic conservatism. I know at some point in early 2005 I read a book called Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. After reading that book, I classified myself as a liberal and felt, at least for a period of a few months, very supportive of the Democratic party. Perhaps it was this identification of myself with the minority party that allowed me to easily criticize the way that the GOP was running the country. In July I made a post to my blog titled Is Socialism Superior to Capitalism?. By the way I answered the many responses that I got it seems clear that I had answered this question for myself at least a few weeks earlier and had educated myself to some extent about socialism. Then in August I made a post about Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media called The Media-A Tool of Propaganda?. The realization that the mainstream media is essentially right-wing propaganda was the turning point which shifted my sources of learning and understanding of the world from the TV to more scholarly resources like books and documentaries. And then basically due to how intersting these topics are I began to consume new information at a very fast rate, always having (and still have) 2 or 3 books waiting in line to be read after finishing the current one. It's interesting to look through my posts indexed by month and watch my political transformation happen as I learn more about both current and historical events and get exposed to new points of view.

     As I said it's hard to really detail the thought process that I went through, but I hope this gives some idea. A good deal of credit also goes to many of you in the blogging community, whom I've had a great many educational conversations with and who've opened me up to new ideas. I look forward to more dicussions with you in our shared goal of understanding more about the world around us and affecting it for the better.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy New Year

    Happy New Year everyone! I'm finally back from my holiday break. Both my parents and my fiancee's parents live in Texas, so that's where I was for the entire break. It was nice to see them and have some time off. But I'm very glad to be back. It's only been about two years since I lived there myself, but it's amazing how already things that previously I didn't even take notice of really bothered me while I was there and made me really appreciate living here in the Bay Area (around San Francisco). Of the smaller things was the lack of recycling facilities. Where I live I'm used to getting roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of my weekly trash volume getting picked up on the curb and is taken to be recycled. It seemed so strange to fill up trash cans with wine bottles and cans and just throw them away with the rest of the trash. It made me feel very wasteful and actually bothered me a lot more to not recycle than I would have ever imagined it to. But I think the biggest thing was the complete dominance of large retail and restaurant chains. Driving through Houston on the highway you almost wonder if you're going in circles. Best Buy, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Chili's, Olive Garden, Office Max, Bed Bath and Beyond, etc. just repeat over and over again. I must have (honestly!) seen a dozen Best Buys as I drove through one part of Houston. Coming from an area which has very few corporate chains and the only big box stores we have are on the outskirts of the city, I thought this was very depressing. And while it may just be because I live in a fairly urban area in which it doesn't pay to advertise in this way, I was also irritated by the fact that you could see advertising and billboards in every direction that you looked. Everything was an advertisement. Nothing was sacred. And people seemed completely complacent, even happy, about this situation and spent their days rushing about in their SUVs to the next occurrence of the corporate consumer troughs already mentioned. I know this is a generalization and not everyone and every place there can be described like this, but I felt isolated and surrounded in a completely corporate controlled area by politically and socially unconscious people who were fully content with living a "McLife".

    One of the exceptions was when I visited Austin. Austin, at least parts of it downtown, were very nice and reminded me very much of where I live now. I had some very good local Mexican food and one restaurant had the best margaritas that I had ever had at a restaurant. I was also lucky enough to meet up and talk with Mookie of Meme Processing. He showed me a little about the area around where he lives and then we had a beer and talked for a couple hours. It was certainly a pleasant experience and I thank him and his girlfriend (let's call her 'Tookie') for their hospitality and for taking the time out of their schedules to show me around.

    While I was visiting my fiancee's parents (who are divorced) I had a fun 3-hour long political discussion with her brother, her father, and his new girlfriend. All three of them are very conservative and read and listen to O'Reilly on Fox News. So you can imagine how lively the discussion was with someone who doesn't shy away from the word "communist" and who counters "Islam is a religion of death" with "yes, all religions are". I should really give thanks to the generous amounts of alcohol we all had for our discussion to be so candid. While I was certainly outnumbered it takes no time to refute GOP talking points and, as I expected, they hadn't even heard of the historical events which I cited to support my positions. At one point her father tried to argue that history isn't relevant, but at least her brother had the sense to disagree with him on that.

    Over the break I've been reading Homage to Cataloniaby George Orwell. It's an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War (and defeated social revolution). Orwell actually fought in this war against fascism and almost died from being shot in the neck and his experiences are said to have greatly shaped his outlook on the world before he wrote his famous book 1984. I'm not quite done with the book yet, but I think it's probably going to be one of my all-time favorites once I finish it. It's very interesting and I am very impressed with Orwell's understanding of the nature of capitalism, mass media, and the church that he displays in his writing. If you like the Spanish Civil War I think you'll really like this book. And if you don't know much about it, this would be a good introduction to it if you want to get a feel for what happened.

    I'm planning on having my next major post describe, as best I can, how I changed from being a jingoistic Bush voter (twice!) to a libertarian communist. I tried to write this post back in August but had to stop because I started getting ashamed and depressed writing it. So I'll try to approach it in a different way and see how that goes.

    It's nice to be back blogging again. I hope you all had (or are having) a great break.