Thursday, December 22, 2011


It's the word of the year, we're told, so I've been preoccupied with its various meanings & connotations: 
       There's the obvious -- occupy movements -- with their sense of occupying public space and the positive (at least for me) consequence of occupying the public debate about what a fair and well-functioning society owes its members. (My vote, to quote some civil liberties lawyer whose name I've long forgotten, is justice and groceries.)
       Then there's the much-awaited, can-you-believe-it-took-so-long end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, though it wasn't usually called that.  We seemed to prefer calling it a war, and someday someone will explain to me why that's a more positive spin on that debacle.
       We're getting a spate of news stories -- someone just noticed -- about the difficulty faced by soldiers returning from that war in finding productive ways to occupy themselves, sniper and truck convoy driver not being high of the list of occupations needed in civil society.
       And our preoccupation with terrorism, which has led to the Orwellian concept of "pre-crime" -- sussing out intention to commit a crime sometime in the future by cobbling together bits of on-the-face-of-it legal behavior and then arresting the purported terrorist-in-the-making.  These days, he's apt to be a young, well-educated Muslim living in a suburb near you.  (See the recent conviction of Tarek Mehanna in Boston.) This occupation of our minds allows us to tolerate a very frightening national security system, whose secrecy and reach I tried to explore for my story in In These Times (which will be available online in a couple of weeks) and over-reaching laws with very broad definitions of what constitutes aid to the enemy. so that juries seldom decide against the government in cases of "domestic terrorism," regardless of the strength of the evidence.  (Remind anyone else of the anti-Communist witch hunts?  Reminds me of the aphorism that a long memory is the most radical act in America today.)
       Of course, occupy being the word of the year, it shows up in ads and jokes and my emails about my office hours.  My journalism class agreed that it was the occupy semester, since the encampments coincided almost perfectly with our classes.  (They didn't walk out.  Not sure if I'm pleased or dismayed.) 
So, inevitably, my holiday wishes for us all: OCCUPY THE NEW YEAR -- in style and peace!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

to whom do I owe this debt?

Strikes me that the one thing the U.S. has manufactured successfully this past year is a sense of crisis over the national debt, which has been around for decades because -- now here's novel thought -- that's how capitalism works.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy by the numbers

       As I looked at a photo of thousands of Egyptians filling Tahrir Square once again, I contrasted it with pix of Americans at Occupy encampments, then reminded myself how decentralized and large this country is.  Is ground zero for the movement Wall Street?  What about the equally large & persistent & perhaps better organized Occupy Boston?  Or Occupy Oakland, where a vet who was beaned & badly injured by the police  became a rallying cry?  Should the center be in Washington, where the officials who can actually change the protested policies gather? 
        Then I began to wonder if anyone has tried to count the number of Americans who have been involved in the occupy movement.  There are approximate tallies for people sleeping at various encampments -- a total somewhere in the high hundreds, I'd guess -- but others who have rallied, marched, taught, dropped by and dropped off supplies over the last two months must number well into the thousands.  Many thousands, probably. As many as rallied to overthrow governments in north Africa, even?  It would be an interesting & enlightening undertaking for some enterprising soul to gather the info from all the reports -- kind of like icasualties, which keeps track of deaths and injuries in Iraq & Afghanistan, using news and govt. reports.  It would take time and need to be maintained & updated, but time seems to be on the side of occupiers.   I suspect the numbers would be too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

something's happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

Breathes there a man with soul so dead who hasn't yet weighed in on the occupy movement and its why, whither and if?  So apologies to whomever I'm citing without credit bcs I can't remember, but this struck me as a true and smart observation on the significance of the occupations: They have made it so that selfishness and greed are no longer cool.  The bumper sticker proclaiming, "The person who dies with the most toys wins" got retired a while ago, but the philosophy has thrived and may explain why a lot of the 99% has put up with getting screwed over by the 1%.  So RIP to sophomoric Ayn Randism (in peace only bcs I like pacifism) and let's move on to the the next step, which is recognizing that we're going to have to do more than just redistribute the resources -- although that's not a bad place to start.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why we're now occupied with occupations

I've been thinking a lot about how an impulse or dissatisfaction becomes a political movement, as the economic fairness encampments around the country might -- and when it doesn't -- as with the antiwar cause, which attracted hundreds of thousands before the invasion of Iraq and the agreement of the majority of Americans since 2007, but never really took off.  A major reason it didn't was that a tiny portion of Americans have anything to do with the people who have been fighting those wars -- the slogan could have been, "1% at war versus the 99% who get to ignore it" --  but the occupy everywheres don't represent 99% of Americans either.  At most, the 74% who are neither very poor, nor very rich.  Still, it's smart marketing to assume common cause among that three-quarters, despite the diversity of economic and political perspectives within, and I believe the protests are a genuine cri de coeur from younger people who are discovering that they've been screwed over by the system they're eager to be a part of.  What I've come to realize -- it's so obvious and it makes me sad -- is that Americans may take to the barricades over a principle, but they stay there in large numbers only when it's their own interest at stake.

texting for a certain age

YFHOO -- ya-fuckin-hoo
NMP -- not my problem
nsoh -- no sense of humor
cd -- charm deprived
Wapita -- What a pain in the ass!
Wiwt -- Whose idea was this?
Wwit -- What was I thinking?

Monday, October 10, 2011

*or Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, etc.
(of course I have to have footnotes)

We're beginning to get discussion, however superficial, about what constitutes a political movement.  History profs weighing in that movements need identifiable spokespeople, old lefties noting ruefully that we've been here before, a pal laughing that the general assemblies (GA on the website -- I keep thinking they're talking about Georgia) sound like the crafts coop she used to be a part of --  on steroids.  Me, I quote Oscar Wilde that the trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.

But for all that (and the (non)organizers do seem to be getting degrees in meetings and the signs aren't yet witty enough, or the rhythm section jazzy enough), I keep hoping that maybe they're on to something new -- where they don't have to give the press a star protester to fuck and then fuck over (anyone recall Camp Casey and Cindy Sheehan?), or give the politicians something to co-opt and water down to meaninglessness (examples too numerous to mention), or have to court money people to keep going (it's a real worry that some organization, such as MoveOn, will move in and tame the protest into a rally for the Dems), or end up replicating the liberation movements of my generation (for better and worse).  Seems to me the title of "movement" gets bestowed mostly in retrospect because real grassroots movements are  inchoate and evolving while they're happening and because we can't know what will change history until history is changed. So maybe the thing to embrace right now is a willingness to be surprised.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 years on

It's been a dismal ten years in American public life.  Paul Auster on the BBC

Friday, September 2, 2011

a question

The host of a blather show on NPR suggests that maybe “we all,” by which I think he means all U.S. Americans, are “suffering from a stress disorder.”  But if an entire society has a disorder, doesn’t it become the norm?  And if the norm is dysfunctional, then isn’t it time to consider changing the norm?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

dark, darker, darkest horses

I'm already weary of the prez election race with its flavor of the week (Palin might, Romney lies, Bachman OMG! Perry OMG2) and we're months out.  So I've decided to sit this one out until the Triple Crown -- or maybe even the Belmont -- when I'll know which campaigner to bother getting hysterical about.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

together again?

The new bipartisanship: equal disdain for everyone

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

suicide ain't painless

So the prez will now send condolence letters to families of service members who commit suicide in combat zones, tho not elsewhere or later, which is where and when many deployment-related suicides happen.  Good.  Now, let's see, what else could he do to improve the situation? Like maybe end the misbegotten wars and remove that cause of moral injury?

okay, let's belabor a point

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What's in the Daily News? I'll tell you what's in the Daily News

(with apologies to Frank Loesser) -- what's in the daily news is story after story about the ineptitude of Iraqi or Afghan police & soldiers with veiled/not-too-veiled pleas for U.S. forces to stick around and hold their hand.  You know, we really really want to bring our troops home and end these wars, but they just won't let us.  What ya gonna do?  (I don't think we've gotten a story yet about a guy in the government there who bought his wife a small ruby with what otherwise would have been his reconstruction dues, but when we do, remember that you read it here first.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

MILITARY RAPE (another of my upbeat stories)

MILITARY RAPE: Rampant, Ignored
by Nan Levinson

When Panayiota Bertzikis tried to tell her commanding officers that she had been raped by a shipmate in May 2006 four months into her tour at the Burlington, Vt. Coast Guard Station, they discouraged her from talking to an Equal Opportunity officer, barred her from seeing a civilian therapist, ignored a written confession from her attacker, and browbeat her into silence.  No wonder she thought she was the only one this had happened to.

But thanks to victims-turned-activists, such as Bertzikis, who are pulling military sexual trauma out from the shadows, it’s becoming harder for the U.S. military to ignore the problem.  In February, Bertzikis, along with 14 other women and two men, filed a lawsuit (Cioca et al v Rumsfeld and Gates), charging Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, with mishandling their sexual assault cases.  New plaintiffs are being added.

MST is an epidemic -- nearly a quarter of women serving in combat areas say they have been sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers – but everyone agrees that reliable statistics don’t exist.  The Pentagon, which recorded 3,158 incidents of sexual assault in 2010 (a slight decrease from 2009), estimates that only about 14 percent of all incidents are reported. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

can we say, "dent in national debt"?

According to the calculations of my union, the UAW -- admittedly, not an impartial source -- if the 400 richest U.S. taxpayers paid the same tax rate on their investment income, which is where most of their money comes from, as they're supposed to pay on their earned income, that would generate $18 billion in revenue.  Needless-to-say, they don't: the top tax rate on income is 35%, but the top rate on capital gains is 15%.  The UAW notes that 15% is what a working couple earning $50,000 pays.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ding dong, the wicked witch has been brought to justice?

     Yes, I understand about how the corruption of language goes hand-in-hand with the corruption of thought, but can we please stop saying that bin Laden was "brought to justice."  He was killed.  The planet's better off without him, to my way of thinking, and in an eye-for-an-eye, he-hit-me-first equation, he got what he deserved and probably expected.  But when those SEALs stormed the compound and opened fire, I doubt that bringing anyone to justice was high up on their list of goals  (Not that I can think of any way that justice could have been served, given the real politik of the situation. A trial would have been a mockery of justice too.)
     Puts me in mind of the scene in westerns, where the last two guys standing face off in a shoot out and spend a good five minutes discussing who did what to whom before offing one another, and I'm thinking, why are you waiting for him to reach for his gun first?  Shoot him already!  The SEALs coming in with guns ablaze is more like a Rambo flick (Why do I have the feeling I'm not the only one who sees this in cinematic terms?).  The New York Times quotes a former SEAL as saying, "There's only two ways to go in these operations -- zero or hero."  Okay, makes sense, but it's a long yellow brick road from justice.
      Or, as a friend points out, when someone dies, instead of saying someone came to Jesus, we can now say, he was brought to justice.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

King's Pool, Okavango Delta, Botswana

      A knock.  Then another, more insistent.  Good morning! we yell from under mosquito netting, across the room out of a movie set, and through the carved-wood door to make it go away.  (Is there any luxury greater than luxury where it’s least expected?)  We dress quickly in layers – T-shirt, sweater, jacket -- all to be peeled off in a few hours when the sun begins to bake away the cold desert night, grab the flashlight and hurry over raised planks to sleepy coffee and our morning safari.     
      But already this is wrong: a landscape with people in it, though all landscapes have people, if they’re to be described.  A conundrum of travel writ large in this vast preserve in northern Botswana, the world’s largest inland delta, we’re told and tell repeatedly, as if we know what that means beyond the flat expanse of dirt and waterways we can see from our land rover.  It’s the animals’ livingroom, and we’re here on sufferance.
      And yet they pose, as if for the easel, in chiaroscuros of wildebeest and zebra, with a stubby warthog snuffling in the foreground.  (Warthogs are born with calloused front knees so they can kneel more easily to graze: another factoid to learn in this crash course on a world where I know nothing.)  Impala leap insouciantly across the track, as a giraffe in the distance stretches its improbable neck to nibble the topmost, tender-most leaves of a rain tree.  We’re on the lookout for lion and leopard, but the other animals will scatter at their scent before our eyes can catch up.  Elephants too disturb the peace, pull up whole trees with their trunks, leave landscapes of destruction.  No one messes with an elephant, except maybe a crocodile. 
      Morning smells baked and new (evening is a mix of wild basil, elephant dung and bug repellant) and in the moment before the sun pops like a champagne cork over the horizon, the light shimmers so golden I long to touch it.
     This is the closest I’ll ever come to the beginning of time.

Monday, March 28, 2011

more on SGLI v Pru

Lucey v Prudential made it to the next round as the court took a step in the right direction and recognized it as a valid class action.  In the logic of business, Prudential probably believes it makes more sense to to fight than to admit to rapacity, but in all other universes, they're on ground about as solid as that of Japan's nuclear plants.  I assume the Lucey et al lawyers are hoping for negotiations and maybe they're already underway.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Talk about burying the lead!

     It took nearly 17 months and a 7-page letter for the Dept. of Homeland Security to determine that I really am a journalist and am entitled to a fee waver on my FOIA requests.  (Actually, the Coast Guard, who seems to be pinch hitting for DHS, issued the decision.)  The determination came halfway down the third page of the letter, embedded in stultifying prose.  Most of the rest of it was quoting long passages of my appeal letter back to me.  Not that DHS ever sent me anything of use, but all FOIA roads seem to lead there (requests to other agencies were forwarded or documents were vetted) so I thought I'd better establish my bona fides.   Then, in the same day's mail, I received official notification that my appeal to the Marines would be taken in the order in which it was received.  (I'd like a dozen bagels and a danish?)  And, by the way, they had no idea when that would be. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

shoutout for a century of women (only a century?)

Marion McDonald (whom I don't know) replied to all us recipients of Margaret Randall's annual Women's Day greeting by noting that today, March 8, 2011, is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. 

She writes: "The day was agreed to at the first-ever international women's conference in Copenhagen in 1910 at a meeting in which Clara Zetkin, among others, provided leadership.  The first commemoration was the following March, on March 19, 1911--just days before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25, 2011, in which over 140 women died from smoke inhalation, fire, or falling to their deaths as they tried to escape the horror. The bosses had locked the doors of the factory, knowing that the women were organizing to improve their conditions. The shirtwaist workers' deaths galvanized support for women workers in New York City and the world."

So a happy day, women the world 'round.  Not sure how one celebrates, but I do wonder: Does having a women's day imply that every other day of the year is a men's day?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

FOIA redux

So I requested info from the Marines through FOIA -- this was last October -- and a couple of months later, got a CD of personnel files about 2 ex-Marines with anything that might be mildly interesting blacked out.  I've been told by a high-ranking officer that you're never an ex-Marine and I don't think I should have unfettered access to someone else's personnel file, but the accompanying letter went on to explain that I was being denied any information about a 2007 separation hearing for Adam Kokesh, one of the veterans I'm writing about, because even to acknowledge that such records exist would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of that member's personal privacy."  Also, he wasn't important enough to be "of sufficient public interest to outweigh" his privacy interest.

Okay.  How about that Adam waived his privacy rights at the hearing precisely so it could be covered by the press?  Or that my cursory Lexis Nexis search came up with at least 100 stories about the hearing and events leading up to it?  Or that the hearing had to do with downgrading his discharge status because he was participating in antiwar activities, purportedly while wearing his uniform, after he had completed the active-duty portion of his contract and was on the inactive roster?  Or that the national commander of the WFW (with 2.4 million members) made a public statement in support of Adam’s First Amendment rights?

All together now: Can we say, "embarrassing"?

So, just within the 60-day window to appeal that decision, I did.  Adam, adamant that he wanted this info made public, wrote a letter of consent to release the documents to me; his lawyer suggested a list of specific records I should request; and in my neat little bundle, I included a page of 20-odd headlines about the case.  The Marines (who come under the Navy Dept. in the bureaucracy) are supposed to reply within 20 days, though all they have to do by then is say they're on the case.  After that, who knows?  But I too am adamant that, not only the information, but the process of obtaining it, should be made public, so I'll keep posting.

Friday, February 4, 2011

U.S. military as hotbed of radical education?

"The Tillman Story," a documentary about the cover-up of the friendly-fire killing of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004 notes in passing that he read Noam Chomsky, as have dozens of the soldiers and veterans I've interviewed over the past 5 years.  Noam Chomsky -- hardly an easy read, but nonetheless passed around the barracks and discussed -- may well be more formative in the army than on college campuses these days.  I can only begin to imagine what difference that could make for the future of our country.  (I write this as the Egyptian army (who, in contrast to our professional military, are mostly conscripts drawn from a cross-section of the country's classes & political allegiances) has so far refrained from repressing the popular anti-government uprising.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"the 22-year-old loner"

In America, assassins and mass murderers come in 2 flavors: weirder than shit or that nice boy next door (but, of course, never with political motives or ideological connections we would do well to examine, though there's evidence every day that it's possible to be crazy and influenced by politics).