Monthly Archives: August, 2006

Mike Daisey, Performance Artist, Hits Providence

Mike Daisey, performance artist and author of 21 Dog Years, his riff on the wacky world of, is coming to Rhode Island. He’ll be performing at The RISD Auditorium on September 30th at 8 pm. Tickets are $18 and are available through the FirstWorksProv website.

Here’s a summary about Monopoly! and some reviews from cities where it’s played:

In this devastating monologue about monopoly and its discontents, Mike Daisey explores the warped genius of inventor Nikola Tesla and his war with Thomas Edison over electricity–alternating current versus direct current–a battle that etched itself into the streets of New York City itself. This thread loops and whorls around Microsoft’s historic antitrust lawsuit, the secret history of the board game Monopoly, and ultimately the story of Daisey’s hometown and its one remaining retailer: Wal-Mart. As subversive as it is hilarious, Monopoly! illuminates the issues we confront under corporate rule, and explores the choices and struggles individuals face living in a system that recognizes only profit and loss.

“Relentlessly interesting . . . a brilliantly spun narrative. His show is ultimately about the messy and often unjust process of making official history. He fights back the best way he knows how–by telling even better stories.”

“Daisey’s monologue is as complex as his show’s stage design–chair, table, glass of water–is simple. If Daisey’s title suggests a screed against the more bullying aspects of American capitalism, rest assured that his political points are scored with precisely aimed wit and with a marvelously understated irony.”

“A whirlingly comic and subversive exploration of Nikola Tesla, Wal-Mart and corporate rule.”

“True to his form as an absolute master storyteller, Daisey’s stories are perfectly woven together. He leaves each short segment at a high point–just as you’re expecting to hear what happens next in the exciting story–moving on to continue where he left off in a different story. Daisey is incredibly smart, not just in his wealth of knowledge, but in his comedic skills as well. In predictable setups, he makes completely unexpected jokes. His gestures and expressions are enough to make people laugh even without dialogue. He furrows his brow in frustration, and he sculpts the air in front of him with his hands as if it were clay, grasping with his hands in emphasis.”

“Of all the wonderful concerts, theater pieces, operas, and performance art I saw, the one that provided me with the most consistent, nonstop entertainment was “Monopoly!,” Mike Daisey’s brilliant monologue about rival standards of electrical current and the menace of corporate America.”

While in town, Mike also promises to “visit the grave of H.P. Lovecraft and hopefully not be transformed into an unspeakable horror.” Here’s a picture, Mike, to help you find it in the Swan Point Cemetery.

Grave of HP Lovecraft

Burnt Toast to Go with Your Joe (8/31/06)

Platter of burnt toast

• BURNT TOAST to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings for getting on her soapbox yesterday to tout the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which she—brace yourself, now—compared to Ivory Soap because the law is “99.9 percent pure or something.â€? However, as reported by AP writer Ben Feller, “her view that the law needs little change is notable because it differs so sharply from others with a stake, including many teachers, school administrators and lawmakers….More than 80 organizations have signed a statement urging fundamental changes…[a]nd the National Conference of State Legislatures has given the law a scathing rebuke.â€? more…

• BURNT TOAST to Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who was outed yesterday for having recently placed an anonymous hold on a bipartisan “bill that would require the government to publish online a database of federal spending.â€? The Senator is renowned for earmarking pet projects, including last year’s “proposed $223 million for a ‘bridge to nowhere’ connecting Alaska’s Gravina Island—population 50—to the mainland.â€? more…

• BURNT TOAST to unnamed U.S. military leaders in Baghdad who, as reported in today’s Washington Post, “have put out for bid a two-year, $20 million public relations contract that calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq.â€? That’s $20 million of the taxpayers’ money for, in essence, better spin. (I thought that was what Fox News was for.) more…

• BURNT TOAST to Congresswoman Katherine Harris of Florida for running a Senate campaign that more closely resembles the operation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Thanks to a host of incidents that have showcased her eccentric, mercurial, and entitled ways, she has about as much chance of gaining a Senate seat as does Billy the Marlin (the mascot for the Florida Marlins). But at least, as reported in USA Today, she is “blaming much of her troubles on the liberal media and party elite who oppose her.â€? more…

It’s a White Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

Some time ago I decided to do a makeover and change my race. Not that I am denying my ethnic heritage, Irish/English/French/Canadian/who the heck knows…I wasn’t there back then. I never have and never will experience color prejudice that affects my life. I have achieved AARP membership and have enjoyed white privilege since I was a gleam in my mother’s eye. I haven’t had a free ride to a place where I have a decent paying job and a good life. I worked hard. There were many obstacles. But racism wasn’t one of them.

I am not in any way trying to co-opt anyone else’s real experience of prejudice. And the term, ‘reverse-discrimination’ is not only sloppy grammar, but sloppy thinking. Discrimination is discrimination, in fact a neutral term. Remedies for historic racial discrimination may or may not be fair or effective, and it’s perfectly legit to question any particular attempt to repair the racial breach. But it’s not honest or realistic to leave the advantages of white privilege out of the discussion. White privilege means arriving at the starting line without the weight of racism tied around your ankle. And if you’re Paris Hilton your chauffeur drives you to the finish line. (Okay, low-blow. Paris Hilton carries a secret anguish that we will all learn about when she writes her tell-all book.)

Well, anyway, when I stopped being white, I decided to claim my real ethnic identity, ‘Celt’. My grandfather was an Irish cop, but I identify with the pan-Celtic diaspora of Great Britain, France and Scandinavia, including the Vikings who built American Stonehenge. This is not only romantic, but carries zero political weight because no one knows what the heck I’m talking about. Also, I suffer no racial discrimination, because people look at my freckles and hear my Warwick accent and assume I’m Marshmallow Fluff.

But this brings me to the heart of this essay. It’s a white thing. It’s happened to you and you are never prepared. You are talking with someone and they look at you and feel safe letting fly some awful racial remark. Then you do the typical white thing. You say nothing and just hope they’ll shut up.

That’s what I did for many years, always feeling that it was not the right moment, I didn’t have the words. But then I realized that the moment would never arrive when it would be easy or safe to do the right thing. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are braver and better than I and have always done the right thing. But I felt as if an evil vampire was sucking my breath, and I was speechless. Finally, one day, I spoke up to my fellow white people when they got racist. They reacted as if I had made an embarrassing personal noise, but being gracious they would ignore it.

I didn’t get any warm fuzzies, just a little relief from the weight of complicity in something I wanted no part in.

After that time, it was easier to speak out. I listened to white people tell me that they didn’t mean what they just said, that I was in an emotional state and didn’t hear them right, or that I was wrong because they just knew that anywhere on the planet where the people are all white is an earthly paradise. Why don’t they all just move there, I wonder?

I don’t think about this stuff all the time, but today I was dealing with a sweet elderly man to whom I was providing a professional service. I was even wearing a uniform. He began to tell me about how safe the city was until President Kennedy started getting all those people to go down south and invite other people to move up north. I had a moment of hesitation, but then I remembered that I gave up being white last Lent. I told him that my family is all colors, and I’m not all that white. Now, he was somewhat deaf, and probably didn’t catch the finer points I was making, but it was okay. His head didn’t explode. We just went on to other subjects and no bad feelings. But I won’t bond with anyone over white bigotry, or allow anyone anymore to assume I agree because I am afraid to tell the truth.

Gentle reader, if you are a fan of Spike Lee you will notice I have ripped off some of his lines. A few years ago, I had a secret desire to walk around in one of those t-shirts that said, ‘It’s a Black Thing, you Wouldn’t Understand’. Just to mess with people’s heads. I think, gentle reader, that whatever box you check on the racial demographic forms, you do understand. It’s a universal human thing to want to belong. It’s a universal human dilemma, to be offered a chance to bond around something you know is wrong and unfair. To all you who have always spoken up against racism, I honor you. To all of you who, like me, took a long time to find the courage, I’ll leave you with these words from Spike Lee.

Do the right thing.

Let US Pray

Bush prays in New Orleans

Burnt Toast to Go with Your Joe (8/30/06)

Platter of much-deserved burnt toast

• BURNT TOAST to Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the State Department office that oversees foreign broadcasts such as the Voice of America. As reported in today’s New York Times, “State Department investigators have found that [Mr. Tomlinson]…used his office to run a ‘horse racing operation’ and that he improperly put a friend on the payroll.â€? In addition, he “repeatedly used government employees to perform personal errands and…billed the government for more days of work than the rules permit.â€? more…

• BURNT TOAST to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for their continuing bureaucratic ineptitude and insensitivity. As reported in today’s Washington Post, the agency has been haggling with local officials in New Orleans over who ought to pay for the removal of dead trees and the like. “Through hundreds of such disputes large and small, the most costly disaster in U.S. history is fast becoming its most contentious, with appeals and disputes worth nearly a billion dollars bogging down repairs of critical public systems and delaying the return of residents.â€? more…

• BURNT TOAST to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who traveled to Alaska’s North Slope and, after taking a helicopter tour of the area, declared that it was okay for his department to “sell oil leases to nearly 500,000 acres north and east of Lake Teshekpuk, an area environmentalists maintain should be protected because of its value to caribou and as molting grounds for tens of thousands of geese.â€? more…

• BURNT TOAST (gobs) to the confused citizens of Utah who seem to equate dissent with treason. (Polygamy is apparently okay, though.) As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, which recently conducted a public opinion poll on the issue, “forty-five percent of poll respondents said war protesters such as [Cindy] Sheehan and [Salt Lake City mayor Rocky] Anderson aid U.S. enemies. Just 27 percent embrace the alternative view.â€? more…

The REAL Moral & Intellectual Confusion

The Real Moral and Intellectual Confusion

“In this long war…any kind of moral and intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong can severely weaken the ability of free societies to persevere.â€? ~~Donald Rumsfeld, 08.29.06

The Secretary of Offense is partially correct. Moral and intellectual confusion—or, more precisely, deficits—can severely weaken a free society.

Rather than discouraging dialogue and dissent or questioning the patriotism of those who dare call for peace and demand accountability, Mr. Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration would do well to dispense with the self-righteous posturing and open their eyes and ears to the world.

Dick Cheney Honors Veterans–Or So He Says

Cheney speaks to VFW, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

‘Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.’
~~Edmund Burke

On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the keynote address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Convention in Reno, Nevada. Expectably, Mr. Cheney–who is not a veteran, as he ‘had other priorities in the 60’s than military service’–was on message, offering the usual boilerplate jingoism that veterans groups and service personnel have heard from him time and time again. Interestingly, though, peppered amid the political chaff were occasional kernels of wheat, including the following remarks:

By respecting and caring for our veterans, we show our values as a nation. More than that, we honor solemn commitments that have been made to those who wore the uniform. A veteran who deals with the federal government should be treated as one who has paid into the system the hard way — and should never be made to feel that someone is doing him or her a favor. [full text]

I could not agree with Mr. Cheney more in this regard. But his words ring decidedly hollow, given recent news about severe cutbacks to essential programs such as the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, as reported earlier this month in USA Today:

Center for war-related brain injuries faces budget cut

Congress appears ready to slash funding for the research and treatment of brain injuries caused by bomb blasts, an injury that military scientists describe as a signature wound of the Iraq war.

House and Senate versions of the 2007 Defense appropriation bill contain $7 million for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center–half of what the center received last fiscal year.

Proponents of increased funding say they are shocked to see cuts in the treatment of bomb blast injuries in the midst of a war.

‘I find it basically unpardonable that Congress is not going to provide funds to take care of our soldiers and sailors who put their lives on the line for their country’, says Martin Foil, a member of the center’s board of directors. ‘It blows my imagination.’ [full text]

Mr. Foil is not alone in his dismay and outrage. In a subsequent op-ed piece, the conservative Washington Times termed the decision ‘brain-dead appropriations.’ And Jim Mueller, commander-in-chief of the VFW, responded by lambasting lawmakers for being so ‘out of touch with war’:

‘It is absolutely inexcusable that lawmakers would slash funding during a time of war for a research center that is earning its keep by addressing the exact types of injuries our troops are suffering,’ exclaimed Mueller, who will introduce a resolution at the upcoming 107th VFW National Convention to urge the government to increase its services to veterans with traumatic brain injuries.

‘More than 12,000 servicemen and women have been exposed to horrendous explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan that have caused more than half of our casualties. Better tactics, body armor and battlefield medicine are saving more lives, but there’s no safety net that’s practical or employable that can prevent fragile human bodies from suffering traumatic and oftentimes lifelong injuries,’ he said….

‘For our nation’s lawmakers to deny advance research that our military has earned with their blood, and for those same lawmakers to espouse patriotism and ‘Support the Troops’ rhetoric from the podium this election year, is shameful, hypocritical, and ignorant’, he said. ‘This research center is an investment in the future potential of traumatically disabled soldiers. It is not an expense.’ [full text]

Is this how you ‘honor solemn commitments…to those who wore the uniform,’ Mr. Cheney? For shame!

America’s Psyche Is Bushed

America's strained psyche

The above editorial cartoon by M.e. Cohen is presumably intended to parody comments made by President Bush in his press conference last week. When asked whether he was frustrated about the escalating conflict in Iraq—which many view as a civil war—Mr. Bush offered the following response, which pretty much speaks for itself:

Frustrated? Sometimes I’m frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I’m happy. This is — but war is not a time of joy. These aren’t joyous times. These are challenging times, and they’re difficult times, and they’re straining the psyche of our country. I understand that. You know, nobody likes to see innocent people die. [full text]

In Pursuit of the Beast

As the War on Terror nears its fifth anniversary, the casualties mount—none greater perhaps than truth, justice, and decency. Stunned and deeply hurt by a vicious attack on September 11, 2001, America has responded to such with all the grace and good sense of the wounded Ahab in Moby Dick. Helmed by foolhardy and arrogant men, this nation pursues vengeance on the white whale of terrorism with single-minded fervor, seemingly unconcerned about the damage done to innocent others or to its own soul. Undeterred by the costs and unwilling to admit failure or even error, the Pequod that America has become presses tragically on. The whale must be vanquished. The terrorists must be eliminated.

Never mind that, in this pursuit that is less righteous cause than unseemly compulsion, the hunter draws closer to the quarry—not so much in location as in demeanor and character. Disregard for human life and well-being is met with a like disregard. Wrong is met with wrong, violation with violation. However the actions and motivations of one side or the other may differ—and differ they do—it nonetheless appears evident that America is increasingly becoming that which it fears and opposes. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.�

Consider the case of Murat Kurnaz, a young man seized from a bus in Pakistan in October of 2001 while traveling with an Islamic missionary group and subsequently detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He was among the first there, joined by hundreds of other “enemy combatants� that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld categorized in 2002 as “the worst of the worst� and being “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.� Despite such brash claims, the evidence now suggests that a large number of those detained at Guantánamo—often for years without charges or trials—have been little more than victims of circumstance, bad intelligence, unfounded allegations, and stubborn politics. Consider the case of Murat Kurnaz, as reported here by the Washington Post in March of 2005:

Panel Ignored Evidence on Detainee

A military tribunal determined last fall that Murat Kurnaz, a German national seized in Pakistan in 2001, was a member of al Qaeda and an enemy combatant whom the government could detain indefinitely at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The three military officers on the panel, whose identities are kept secret, said in papers filed in federal court that they reached their conclusion based largely on classified evidence that was too sensitive to release to the public.

In fact, that evidence, recently declassified and obtained by The Washington Post, shows that U.S. military intelligence and German law enforcement authorities had largely concluded there was no information that linked Kurnaz to al Qaeda, any other terrorist organization or terrorist activities.

In recently declassified portions of a January ruling, a federal judge criticized the military panel for ignoring the exculpatory information that dominates Kurnaz’s file and for relying instead on a brief, unsupported memo filed shortly before Kurnaz’s hearing by an unidentified government official.

Kurnaz has been detained at Guantánamo Bay since at least January 2002.

“The U.S. government has known for almost two years that he’s innocent of these charges,â€? said Baher Azmy, Kurnaz’s attorney. “That begs a lot of questions about what the purpose of Guantánamo really is. He can’t be useful to them. He has no intelligence for them. Why in the world is he still there?â€? [full text]

Why, indeed? And why did it take another 17 months or so, until just this past week, before Mr. Kurnaz was finally released, after years of undeserved detainment and treatment? Here again, the Washington Post reports:

Turk Was Abused at Guantanamo, Lawyers Say

Lawyers for Murat Kurnaz, a German native released Thursday after spending more than four years locked up at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, said he was mistreated to the end by U.S. military personnel, who kept him shackled and blindfolded until his flight home landed.

Bernhard Docke, an attorney representing Kurnaz, a 24-year-old Turkish citizen who was born and raised in Germany, said his client was kept in a “cage� and under bright neon lights 24 hours a day during his captivity at Guantánamo. “The Americans are incorrigible, they have not learned a thing,� Docke said at a news conference in Bremen, Kurnaz’s home town. “He was returned home in chains, humiliated and dishonored to the very end.�

Defense Department officials said they agreed to free Kurnaz on the condition that Germany treat him humanely and that it ensure he would no longer pose a security threat. The U.S. government still considers Kurnaz an enemy combatant. [full text]

Many dozens of others like Kurnaz, arbitrarily imprisoned and subjected to cruel and inhuman interrogation and treatment (as documented by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), are at long last gaining their release from the hellish confines of Guantánamo. In short, mistakes were made, and they are seemingly being rectified. (For more details, see William Fisher’s article, “Gitmo Releases Suggest Numerous Mistakes.�) But such progress, however welcome, cannot undo the many wrongs. “Justice delayed is justice denied,� the 19th century British statesman William Gladstone once opined.

Victim of a brutal and unjust attack that wounds painfully still, America has lashed out with brutal and unjust acts of its own. Legal or not, such behavior is immoral. It does not become this nation. The moral high ground does not belong to those who are simply less wicked. To lay claim deservedly to such territory demands one eschew wickedness entirely. Tragically, America has failed in this regard and, in so doing, much like Ahab, has lost not just its way but its soul.

Evil Vampire Rises From Grave

Hey kids, here’s a fun test you can do at home. Go to a mirror and look at your skin. If it’s brown, you might be descended from slaves. If it’s white, you might be descended from indentured servants. Now take a look at your wallet. Is it bulging with cash? If not, you might be descended from people who worked for starvation wages. Next, take a look at your main source of income. Is it the interest on your estate? Is it a paycheck? If so, you might be a worker.

You have just taken an ‘empathy-building’ exercise, like the kind Human Resources likes to do when they get us all together to build up our morale about our wretched jobs. The point is to de-pornify and de-exoticize the topic of trafficking for prostitution. Maybe build a little empathy for those whose circumstances of birth were so desperate that they borrowed every cent their extended family could raise to pay a criminal to get them to America. Desperation like in North Korea, where people are starving.

Last week there was another Providence Journal article about a bust on a massage parlor that was not run by certified massage therapists. It was one of a string of disconnected back- page news stories about forced prostitution. The first one appeared in 1998, when the police raided a little establishment in a strip mall in Pawtucket, called ‘Club Osaka’. One police officer said the conditions were‘like slavery’. Illegal immigrant women from Korea were living and working as prostitutes in a storefront next to popular chain restaurant. I took this personally, because I patronized that restaurant. It gave me the creeps. I don’t feel any compulsion to purify Rhode Island, but slavery is something else again. This is no ‘victimless crime’. To this day, there has been no follow-up story of whether these women agreed or were forced into prostitution. In any case, when you’re illegal and in debt to your boss, quitting is not an option.

This is actually the classic picture of the indentured servant. You work to pay off the cost of your passage. In the early days of our country, indentured servants as well as slaves supplied the cheap labor that dug the foundations. We missed a golden opportunity to establish a new model for society in the American Revolution. There was too much to lose and too many politicos to be appeased. The profit you could make when you didn’t have to pay the people who work for you was too seductive. George Washington would have had to live in a trailer, Thomas Jefferson would have had to eat Spam. They were slow to free their slaves, even after the Newport Black Regiment helped win the war that changed us from a colony to a nation.

This little history lesson, my fellow Americans, is just intended as a reminder. Those of us who are not Narragansett are descended from people who arrived here from elsewhere in the world. Our ancestors were immigrants, refugees, illegals, trafficked persons or slaves and that is the truth. So when we get all pious about immigration we better remember where we came from.

When you read your newspaper you will see a couple of disconnected stories about the poor exploited women in the brothels, and some lurid tv dramas, and it will all seem very foreign and kind of sexy but gross and nothing to do with you. You have rights. But remember, my fellow Americans in Rhode Island, you live on the coast. Our fellow Americans in New Orleans are not only out of their homes, but out of their jobs. And some enterprising bidnessmen have found a way to avoid paying the going rate for a good day’s work by luring workers from more poor and desperate parts of the world, and stiffing them on their wages. Whole neighborhoods are still devastated, but the luxury hotels were up and running in a jiffy. The trafficking of people from poor countries to rich ones exists on a spectrum of legality, and most of the work is ordinary drudge labor. It’s not that there is work that Americans won’t do, but that there are wages Americans can’t live on.

The issue of sex slavery is not separate from the issue of exploitation of workers. Forced prostitution is a special horror, and women understand. But we can’t stop this human rights disaster by getting moralistic or sensationalistic. And women can’t stop it alone. For readers of the male persuasion I have provided this view from the perspective of the global/historical labor market, so you can see how it affects you. In the end, it’s all about money.

The U.S. is full of illegal immigrants and trafficked persons and always has been. But when you see the same story over and over, ‘korean massage parlor brothel bust’, this is not coincidence. This type of organized crime is happening all over the country, not just the East Coast.. The mayor and city council of Providence are working on a law to make our city a lousy place for pimps to do business. But if the law is not written carefully, it will just drive prostitution further underground and make life even more hellish for the women and children who do not have power in this world.

It is also important to keep in mind that there are many legal citizens who are working under the table at drudge labor for starvation wages. It is economic inequality that keeps the vampire of slavery alive. We won’t kill it with one stake through the heart, we will need many years of good laws, wise policy and labor solidarity across borders. If we think we have shut down the illegal immigrant brothels, and we haven’t dealt with the conditions that drive people to risk their lives for a chance at a job, then the vampire will rise again.

Next installment- Evil Vampire II- Child Labor


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