Immorality or Isolation

Just a quick revisit to the “Blame Game” post… one that other site, another online conversation got started regarding financial regulations, Occupation Wall Street, morality and accountability.

One of the more interesting comments I got to that post (and I’m not sure if he’d want to be attributed here or not, and I stress that my paraphrasing could be inaccurate so mea culpa up front) had to do with objecting to the idea that the 1% are behaving immorally.

He made the legitimate point that wealth isolates people and sometimes creates a sense privilege that they deserve their wealth. He made it clear he knew this was nonsense, i.e., that the accumulation of wealth may or may be a result from just desserts, but that wealthy were not inherently immoral, that many are quite engaged with, and worry about the state of the world.

I really want to give this point of view its due. There really is an oversimplification with the sloganeering: we are the 99% and that the 1% is to blame and are immoral.

Clearly there are good, moral rich people as there bad, immoral poor and middle class people. And of those in the 1-ish percent that seem to have benefited directly and greatly from the recent run up to this worldwide financial crisis, some of what seems like immorality really can be attributed to isolation or isolation / arrogance.

A good example would be those who made a massive fortune by making bets on the failure of various investments (i.e. those who bought derivatives that were betting on all those foreclosures happening. These truly clever people didn’t create the system but they recognized its inherent flaws and made the proverbial killing exploiting those flaws. It wasn’t about wishing those people any ill will. It was statistical analysis of bad investments that they thought were likely to default. I really don’t see these people as evil in any sense.

Also, QUITE a few people within the 99% have enabled some of the worst behavior of a portion of the 1%.

However, I still hold true to my belief however that those within the 1-ish percent that actively lobbied to create or maintain this very rotten system do have a moral culpability, and should be held accountable. They wanted the Glass-Steagall act junked; they wanted the rules changed to be able to see investments to one party while betting against those investments with a different party; they wanted special treatment by federal government; they wanted their investment firms re-classified as banks to receive TARP funds, etc. They then funneled this money into their personal fortunes and have done everything possible to pay lower and lower taxes on these accumulated fortunes.

These people I will continue to classify as immoral and selfish. None of these actions are criminal, though a few them had been illegal prior to the lobbying to have certain laws changed, but yes I see these things as unethical. (Now of course, people have a way of compartmentalizing their behavior so they can be highly ethical and moral in one aspect of their lives and the reverse in another… so even here, there can be complicated patterns of black, white and a multitude of grays.)

Unfortunately in our mass media age, if a message isn’t simple – in black and white with no shades of gray – the mainstream media will ignore that message and the consumers of such media will not watch / read beyond the headline.

So it’s become an unfortunate necessity that OWS is so simplistic in its messaging, though I don’t know if that was planned or just a result of the non-hierarchal aspect of the movement. But the topic has quite fortunately been raised.

But thoughtful people everywhere have a duty to deepen the conversation, now that it has been begun.


Absolutely, Play the Blame Game with the 1%

Below a long response (or call it a well-reasoned rant) I made in someone else’s blog. That person, who truly seems to be a thoughtful decent man as well as a successful businessman, was attempting to strike some kind of middle ground regarding Occupation Wall Street and the articulated goals of their consensus. I say “their consensus” because they operate along the line of a pure Athenian democracy, have only temporary facilitators instead of leaders, etc. So, for now, it’s clearly more of a social movement rather than a political movement like the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, and therefore, OWS has no hierarchy to present a truly articulated list of political goals.

Well, this business man wrote, to paraphrase, yes the system is broken and needs to be fixed and people have a right to be angry about that, but that it is not constructive to blame or specific people – in particular, doing such acts as marching in front of certain financial figures homes and condos as the OWS did about two weeks ago – and furthermore, people in the 99% had to accept responsibility for their own financial failures. He didn’t say this specifically but I think the implication was particularly if your home had been foreclosed, then it was your own fault.

While compared to so many who have denigrated and dismissed OWS, his civil tone and conciliatory admission of systemic fault was very welcome and should be applauded, I nonetheless immediately felt angry… I worked through that emotion and produced the following (slightly revised from the original for clarity):

“I disagree. It is absolutely essential to point the finger and actually create accountability and ramifications for their behavior that very, very nearly created a world-wide depression. The system is broken because of the greed, yes greed – no reason to play semantics, of those that benefited from the breaking of the system. Congress didn’t repeal the Glass-Steagall Act (legislation created after the Great Depression that had successfully regulated the banks for approximately 50 years), and other financial regulations for fun. It did so because wealthy contributors wanted them to do so. Then what had been illegal became legal and the floodgates were wide open for what has happened to our economy and much of the world’s.

The more than 1% deserve all of the social and moral approbation that they’re getting. And much more.

(Obviously, it’s not just the financial system that is broken – the Supreme Court’s equating of money and speech for the past 100 years, has logically created a democracy where the person with more money has more speech, and thus is “heard” more easily. Almost all politicians follow the money – nearly all Republicans overtly, and most Democrats in a combination of the overt and subvert – and are therefore in obeisance to the will of a moneyed elite. So, Republicans universally opposed re-regulating the Street, while Democrats put forward regulations that for the most part are more fig leaf than substantive.)

If there are neither financial ramifications (since the tax payers have done and will continue to do the bailing out, and in general, the financial decision makers have NOT lost their jobs or fortunes) nor any legal repercussions (since the laws were changed), a similar financial meltdown is going to happen all over again.

That is one of the great services that the OWS people are doing. Their righteous indignation – as amorphous and without nuance that it sometimes is – is creating an environment politically where it might actually lead to the politicians literally hearing those without money for a change, and actually re-instituting sane regulations on the banking and investment industries.

As for the responsibility of the 99%, certainly some home buyers were foolish in buying something well over their income level, but there was also quite of lot of deceptive practices in the real estate and mortgage industries, and/or understandable ignorance too. Plus, there are those who have gone “underwater” through no fault of their own even though they have been making payments. Or, those who were keeping up on their payments then lost their jobs (thus their homes) because of the domino effect from the worldwide financial meltdown.

In other words, real people suffered and lost everything they owned or everything they had for their retirement in totally unrelated industries because of those bankers and investment companies who profited from the inflated real estate and other investment markets, i.e. from all of the derivatives and credit default swaps and other convoluted, complicated financials instruments that finally collapsed upon themselves, precipitating a financial black hole that then led to bankruptcies and lay-offs and local, state and national government (Iceland!) defaults around the globe.

So, why shouldn’t someone who is losing their house, is being laid off through fault of their own, has lost their retirement savings, and all other losers in this glorified Ponzi scheme NOT blame the ones who both profited from this financial system, AND then were made whole by tax payer money when their financial house of cards collapsed? Yes, even Goldman Sachs could have gone under without a government bailout. So, why shouldn’t the losers say, “I didn’t cause this mess, so why not bail me too?” Or even: “Okay I messed up and made some stupid financial decisions but they did too, so why not me?”

Capitalism obviously runs on greed, but if there isn’t enough people in power to counter that greed with strong restrictions (including a sane tax policy) on that greed, in the long term capitalism will fail all but the very, very few and America will slowly corrode as a world power. It seems to me that Argentina which was of rough equivalence economically to the US at the turn of the 20th Century is a good example of what happens to a country when wealth is hyper concentrated.

You can say that greed is part of human nature, but another defining characteristic of what it means to be human, is cooperation. So, if the roughly 1% don’t acknowledge their culpability and accountability (and they certainly have not) and do things to make amends for the vast damage they have done to so many people not just in this country but the entire world, then somebody else has to create equilibrium. For that reason alone, I see the people of OWS as being great patriots.”

Of course, Fred disagreed with me. I followed up with this (and some more):

“So bringing this back to OWS and the Blame Game and personal responsibility. Blame IS a dangerous game. Throughout history, individuals and groups (usually some minority) have been blamed unfairly and incorrectly, and thus great evil has been perpetuated. BUT in the instance of the most recent worldwide financial meltdown, Wall Street is not a scapegoat but directly responsible. They can’t be prosecuted because they successfully lobbied to have the laws changed; they haven’t lost any power, influence, position or cash (except for Lehman Bros) because the TARP program was no strings attached. So there’s only one thing left, and that is, for a lot of people to say, no Lloyd Blankfein, you are not “doing God’s work”. You and the rest of the arrogant people in the financial industry are part of the problem. Social embarrassment is all that’s left to force these people to cooperate. Actual people, not a faceless “system” have to be held accountable.”

More disagreements. Dan’s comment: “And if you’re relying on “social embarrassment” to make people do the right thing, I have to ask, “Have you met these people?” As long as they’re making pantloads of money, they’re embarrassed all the way to the bank.” (I would say that I’m not relying on it but rather there just isn’t anything better. I am hoping, however, that the politicians get scared.) And Fred’s: “And maybe I am less quick to demonize those Wall Street titans because I actually know several of them and I know that they are mostly not indifferent and not immoral. Often arrogant, yes. But I don’t think that’s a hanging offense.”


Love, Fear and “9-11”

This was first posted on Sept. 11, 2011 but WordPress’ servers must be on east coast time….

I have been trying to avoid these 9-11 remembrances, mainly because I think so much damage has been wrought upon American society and politics from the misuse of the fear that 9-11 engendered in the American public (not to mention the literal destruction from 10 years of two wars) that the current situation just depresses me too much. I feel rather helpless and a stranger in my own country as this Conservative tide drowns out reason and fact-based thinking, while simultaneously the rich get richer, economic criminality on Wall Street goes unpunished and swaths of our basic civil liberties have probably disappeared forever.

But I’ve been overwhelmed finally by one Facebook post after another of “where was I when” accounts, in addition to the unavoidable content on TV and the radio that I can’t avoid my own memories of a date that changed my own life very directly and personally.

September 10, 2001 into the 11th, I had been with Jenny till 4 AM in the emergency room, so I was deliriously tired 2 hours later when her brother Brian called to tell her to turn on the TV.

I eventually trudged out to the living room to join her. On the screen, I saw smoke coming from one Tower and just a haze behind it. I couldn’t conceive that one of the Towers had already fallen even though I heard the newscaster say those words. They simply didn’t make sense so I ignored those words. I couldn’t comprehend the fact yet. Yes, I recognized that this was a serious fire, but I had confidence that the N.Y.F.D. would take care of it. So, I said to Jenny, “It’s a fire. They’ll put it out. Come back to bed.”

But she didn’t join me: her brother’s call had more thoroughly woken her.

When I got up again about an hour or so later, yes all things had changed….

I loved Jenny before 9-11. Deeply, deeply, deeply. I still love Jenny five years after being divorced from her. (To clarify, this is NOT to say I still pine to be married to her again… we’ve both moved on in those matters.) But I am fairly certain, if it had not been for 9-11, I would have delayed that life changing decision to propose marriage. Would that delay have become permanent or not – I have no idea. Would that delay, if temporary, actually have improved the chances that our marriage would have lasted longer? Again, I have no way to know for certain.

I am only certain it would have been different if those jets hadn’t toppled the Twin Towers.

You see, I had been planning on buying her a ring – just a ring, as a surprise gift from a Native American Gallery in Vancouver simply because she had been so taken by them from an image in a magazine. The gallery person asked me if it was to be an engagement ring. Actually seemed to assume it would be.

That question took me by surprise – complete surprise – but instead of saying no, I let myself be torn by the idea. I said, “yes, go ahead, email me some pictures of engagements sets” and then proceeded to torment myself, yes or no, yes or no?

While I have NEVER been so compatible with someone who I was romantically tied to (about a 75% exact commonality of personality and interests and of the remaining 25%, most of that difference was made of things we were both willing to explore and learn from), there were nonetheless serious passion problems on her part for me. Thus, I remained resolutely unsure whether I would actually purchase an engagement set.

Then the Towers fell.

My entire young adulthood had been in New York. Enormous changes and consequential experiences happened and I consider it my other hometown.

One of the first things I did when I arrived to go to NYU was take a freshman tour that went to the Observation Deck. Over the years, I was in the subway shopping concourse repeatedly; I preferred going to the Trade Center to get half price theatre tickets rather than go to Times Square. The Towers were my map – quite literally as when I became directionally discombobulated, I looked for the Towers to know where south was and where the Empire State building was to know north. And just a month prior to 9-11, Jenny and I took a vacation to the City, staying in the Hilton right across the street from the WTC. And on and on, i.e. the World Trade Center and environs were very much a part of my New York City life.

And then when all that horrific pain and destruction occurred on 9-11 and mortality spread like a fine powder of ash over the country and blotting out a block of my own history, I believed with all my heart, the only thing that mattered in this world was love. That was the only thing that made all of the pain bearable. So, with new resolve, I ignored my justified fears and doubts that Jenny and I were missing an important ingredient that makes a marriage work.

Two years later I was in such a state of depression about that missing-ness, I had to change the situation or I felt we would grow to hate each other, and she agreed. However, in no way does the fact that we chose to split amicably and cooperatively make it any less painful. It was exceedingly agonizing, and unstuck me for about another 2 years after our split. After all, we may still be friends who talk regularly and see each other occasionally, but I lost my best friend whom I did everything with.

And as strange as this will sound, the end of my marriage is always accompanied by the thought in my head that Lonnie Anderson was right. Most people, I assume, when they think of Lonnie, they remember her ample endowments, her blonde hair and perhaps her comic gifts. But when I think of her, I think of her wisdom and how she shocked me to my idealistic core as a little boy. I was watching her on an interview show… maybe the Mike Douglas Show… and when asked about her break-up with Burt Reynolds, she said that one of the most painful lessons she ever learned was that love does not conquer all. Two people can love each other and it just doesn’t matter. I couldn’t conceive that could be so. It just didn’t make sense to me. (Postscript – I’m being told authoritatively that my memory is playing tricks on me, that I had to have seen this interview when I was older and that I’m conflating two memories… certainly possible, but no matter, the concept still holds true…)

When examples would pop up over the years (splits that occurred where there was no betrayal or cruelty), I suspected that perhaps their love was not deep enough or truly real.

Until it happened to us.

There is no magical umbrella from the reign of ash.

And yet love’s still the best thing we’ve got.

But back specifically to this 10 year anniversary of 9-11. As that event overwhelmed me with intense emotion that was very temporal that faded with the terrors of the everyday, so too that traumatic event ever so briefly created a false unity that quickly coarsened from shoulder to shoulder to eye for any eye, whether it be guilty or innocent.

The Towers fell and while a Pandora’s box opened to release misery and evil, trapped beneath that debris has to be hope… that we will love each other, even though we are all different, both within the nation, and beyond it. It won’t always work, but it’s the best thing we’ve got.

Tangentially related to some of my points, here is a very leftist, (ironically very) left brained analysis about right brain behavior by George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics… at the least it, it intrigued my left brain:


Patti Smith – Just Kids

On a day that I just had a common, but very uncomfortable medical procedure, yet one that diagnoses that disease which probably killed my uncle, my beloved grandmother and definitely struck (but did not decimate) my mother and grandfather, I am reading “Just Kids” by Patti Smith.

I’m starting again from the beginning, because so much life had intervened with my initial attempt at reading it, I knew I had to start fresh to find the flow of the narrative. My first impression then, that it is a book of poetry in the guise of prose, still holds.

And just as I’m aware when I listen to Patti’s music, I recognize that there is a self-consciousness, an awkwardness of an over-imagined phrase next to an original, achingly crystalline phrase in this book. (Though fortunately, the powerful lines far outweigh the none ones.)

But I’ve always ignored the self-consciousness in her songs, or more perhaps, forgave what potentially could put me back into my critical mind instead of experiential one BECAUSE of her envelopment into the totality of the song. An envelopment that enveloped me.

She tranced for me. She excessed for me. She fought god for me. (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”) She was strong – strong in voice and strong in not being afraid to make a mess of a song, but still so full of her sex to me (“See a young girl humping on a parking meter… oh she look so good, oh she look so fine… G-L-O-R-I-A”). These songs went to my heart and loins, together always together. In the 5 times, I’ve seen her perform (4 with the band, and once solo with only her poetry as accompaniment), that prophetic vinyl message (yes, first on vinyl, only latter delivered in bits and bites of digital code) was vastly reinforced.

In “Just Kids”, there is definitely a gauze of nostalgia, but much more it is a meditation on death and re-birth, both a celebration and an elegy of life in New York City and vice versa. And a life in art, and vice versa.

After all, the titular co-character kid is Robert Mapplethorpe – he who created exquisite images of often not overtly exquisite content and who then died young of AIDS. And Patti would lose her husband, her brother and one of her bandmates. All died young too.

I’m reading this book right now again because of Mz. Amuse – who bought this book for me as a Valentine’s gift. She said, “You’re recovering tonight – don’t run around. Drink liquids, rest. Read a book. Read the Patti Smith book.” She should know the right idea of recovery. She had breast cancer recently, at a younger than expected age.

Overtly, that explosion of wayward cells are all gone now, but the shadow remains. Statistics doing their statistically obfuscating thing go into overdrive in such circumstances where death is the prize. (Yes, I was the researcher – try to figure out the best course of action where numbers lie and tell the truth simultaneously. In the end, it was her choice anyway.)

Obviously, I’ve stopped reading to write this post. I needed the break to express. Too much loss and recognition. My losses, my recognitions of places the same or similar… but all different too, of course.

I’m sure my father’s death last month is only focusing my long standing profound sense of my mortality. I am only in, not of, the Zeitgeist as of this moment.

I don’t have the perspective, the distance from myself, to say whether or not Patti Smith is a great artist for the ages – I only know she speaks to me. She speaks to me.


Rhino Resurrected

I saw the premiere of “Rhino Resurrected” on Saturday Aug.20… as the movie’s producers don’t have a distribution deal, I can only urge you, if you see another screening listed, to GO if you’re a music geek especially, and secondarily if you’re interested in LA cultural history.

The story of a record store and it’s off shoot record label (before Warner Brothers ate it) would seem to be a super obscure subject but think a real life version of “High Fidelity” and obnoxious record store employee Jack Black. The two hours fly by and it’s mostly like being in the company of a funny, smart, sometimes annoying bunch of music fanatics.

From a purely filmmaking standpoint, the movie is well-edited with very few dead spots. It is a mix of archival footage (stills, band performances, a few interviews) with more extensive present day interviews. The organizing device was the “resurrection” of Rhino with a temporary pop-up store last year. Overall this device works well structurally, but there a few too many shots of getting the temporary store ready for the public which slows down the movie. In general all tech. elements are solid. But this is a movie where content is everything, not how good or not good the cinematography is. And the content, as I said, was surprisingly interesting and often amusing.

As I’m originally an East Coaster, my first exposure to Rhino was through its superlative compilations of garage rock and soul.

But backing up, I was, and am, a huge Patti Smith fan. Indirectly because of her I discovered 1960’s garage rock. (It should be noted that because of my brothers’ record collections, I was already a fan of Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Airplane, Hendrix, Cream and all of the other well known 60’s greats etc.) Patti’s long time collaborator and guitarist, Lenny Kaye, had selected and produced the ground breaking Nuggets compilation of forgotten garage rock and psychedelic rock hits, semi-hits and rarities back in 1972 and then re-issued in 1976 on Sire. I would discover it in 1980 or so. Wanting to go deeper, and using those songs on Kaye’s compilation as the jumping off point, I was led, more often than not, to Rhino Records.

Rhino’s compilations would usually have the best sound quality, the best selection for the money and the most interesting liner notes. My visceral history of rock music was profoundly, though not in any sense exclusively, influenced by the tastes and quirks behind Rhino. My favorite Christmas CD to this day is Cool Yule with an incredible bunch of up tempo soul, r&b, rockabilly and rock X-mas originals or vastly altered traditional songs (e.g. a bouncy, danceable, truly joyous “Silent Night”).

So, when I came out to LA in 2000, I was a little surprised to realize that there were two brick and mortar Rhino Records stores: one in the Westwood section near UCLA and another on the LA county border in the college town of Claremont. The former, original store, had already lost the ethos that is so wonderfully chronicled in the documentary but I can still say I bought a few CD’s there.

I actually bought far more in the Claremont store because my first LA girlfriend (and more than that, eventually) lived in that town. I didn’t know then that the original owner Richard Foos had sold that store a long time ago – a fact I learned only at the Q&A after the documentary. Nonetheless that Claremont store still carried some of that vibe of community and quirkiness.

(Another tangential fact about me – over my life, the majority of my disposable income has gone into books and record/cd’s with movies a close third after that. Fancy cars, clothes, etc. have never held much appeal to me for while in a sense I could easily be accused of being a collector, it is only of things that produce an experience that truly matter to me; I am decidedly NOT a materialist.)

But what the documentary really captures that is so universal is the experience of going into your neighborhood record store, pawing through the record jackets… that sense of tactility of holding a record album in one’s hand… seeing the art work… reading the liner notes…chatting a little or maybe even a lot with the record store clerk… it was place where geeks could feel cool and sometimes even a community could exist.

The original Rhino Records seems to have been a particular special, maddening, annoying, enlightening. entertaining version of the above. But having been to many a record store first in my home town and then in the East and West Villages in NYC, I still recognized my own variants. I’m sure music geeks in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, etc. etc. will too.

So, there was sadness and poignancy of something lost (both an era and a community). After all, we now more than likely sit at our computers listening to sound samples on Amazon, etc. or i-tunes and either download the music immediately or have a CD delivered to our door. In Los Angeles, there remains only one last Nessie – Amoeba Records… a hybrid of the old neighborhood indie record store and the Tower Records / Virgin Records corporate type store. You can still get recommendations there from fairly knowledgeable clerks and discover tons of obscure music. Not quite an intimate experience but still one I have to limit or otherwise I spend far too much money there. But once again, it’s the last of its kind. Fortunately, we still have live music so community is in no danger of completely disappearing.

Furthermore, all of the participants in the Rhino comedy drama have survived and found someway to keep doing something of value, so it’s not a depressing documentary but a poignant celebration.