How to Stop Time

Credit Viktor Hachmang

IN the unlikely event that we could ever unite under the banner of a single saint, it might just be St. Expeditus. According to legend, when the Roman centurion decided to convert to Christianity, the Devil appeared in the form of a crow and circled above him crying “cras, cras” — Latin for “tomorrow, tomorrow.” Expeditus stomped on the bird and shouted victoriously, “Today!” For doing so, Expeditus achieved salvation, and is worshiped as the patron saint of procrastinators. Sometimes you see icons of him turned upside down like an hourglass in the hope that he’ll hurry up and help you get your work done so he can be set right-side up again. From job-seekers in Brazil to people who run e-commerce sites in New Orleans, Expeditus is adored not just for his expediency, but also for his power to settle financial affairs. There is even a novena to the saint on Facebook.

Expeditus was martyred in A.D. 303, but was resurrected around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as the tempo of the world accelerated with breathtaking speed. Sound familiar? Today, as the pace of our lives quickens and the demands placed on us multiply, procrastination is the archdemon many of us wrestle with daily. It would seem we need Expeditus more than ever.

Photo

Credit Viktor Hachmang

“Procrastination, quite frankly, is an epidemic,” declares Jeffery Combs, the author of “The Procrastination Cure,” just one in a vast industry of self-help books selling ways to crush the beast. The American Psychological Association estimates that 20 percent of American men and women are “chronic procrastinators.” Figures place the amount of money lost in the United States to procrastinating employees at trillions of dollars a year.

A recent infographic in The Economist revealed that in the 140 million hours humanity spent watching “Gangnam Style” on YouTube two billion times, we could have built at least four more (desperately needed) pyramids at Giza. Endless articles pose the question of why we procrastinate, what’s going wrong in the brain, how to overcome it, and the fascinating irrationality of it all.

But if procrastination is so clearly a society-wide, public condition, why is it always framed as an individual, personal deficiency? Why do we assume our own temperaments and habits are at fault — and feel bad about them — rather than question our culture’s canonization of productivity?

I was faced with these questions at an unlikely event this past July — an academic conference on procrastination at the University of Oxford. It brought together a bright and incongruous crowd: an economist, a poetry professor, a “biographer of clutter,” a queer theorist, a connoisseur of Iraqi coffee-shop culture. There was the doctoral student who spoke on the British painter Keith Vaughan, known to procrastinate through increasingly complicated experiments in auto-erotica. There was the children’s author who tied herself to her desk with her shoelaces.

The keynote speaker, Tracey Potts, brought a tin of sugar cookies she had baked in the shape of the notorious loiterer Walter Benjamin. The German philosopher famously procrastinated on his “Arcades Project,” a colossal meditation on the cityscape of Paris where the figure of the flâneur — the procrastinator par excellence — would wander. Benjamin himself fatally dallied in escaping the city ahead of the Nazis. He took his own life, leaving the manuscript forever unfinished, more evidence, it would seem, that no avoidable delay goes unpunished.

As we entered the ninth, grueling hour of the conference, a professor laid out a taxonomy of dithering so enormous that I couldn’t help but wonder: Whatever you’re doing, aren’t you by nature procrastinating from doing something else? Seen in this light, procrastination begins to look a lot like just plain existing. But then along come its foot soldiers — guilt, self-loathing, blame.

Dr. Potts explained how procrastination entered the field as pathological behavior in the mid-20th century. Drawing on the work of the British-born historian Christopher Lane, Dr. Potts directed our attention to a United States War Department bulletin issued in 1945 that chastised soldiers who were avoiding their military duties “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.” In 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association assembled the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the bible of mental health used to determine illness to this day — it copied the passage from the cranky military memo verbatim.

And so, procrastination became enshrined as a symptom of mental illness. By the mid-60s, passive-aggressive personality disorder had become a fairly common diagnosis and “procrastination” remained listed as a symptom in several subsequent editions. “Dawdling” was added to the list, after years of delay.

While passive-aggressive personality disorder has been erased from the official portion of the manual, the stigma of slothfulness remains. Many of us, it seems, are still trying to enforce a military-style precision on our intellectual, creative, civilian lives — and often failing. Even at the conference, participants proposed strategies for beating procrastination that were chillingly martial. The economist suggested that we all “take hostages” — place something valuable at stake as a way of negotiating with our own belligerent minds. The children’s author writes large checks out to political parties she loathes, and entrusts them to a relative to mail if she misses a deadline.

All of which leads me to wonder: Are we imposing standards on ourselves that make us mad?

Though Expeditus’s pesky crow may be ageless, procrastination as epidemic — and the constant guilt that goes with it — is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health.

In an 1853 short story Herman Melville gave us Bartleby, the obstinate scrivener and apex procrastinator, who confounds the requests of his boss with his hallowed mantra, “I would prefer not to.” A perfect employee on the surface — he never leaves the office and sleeps at his desk — Bartleby represents a total rebellion against the expectations placed on him by society. Politely refusing to accept money or to remove himself from his office even after he is fired, the copyist went on to have an unexpected afterlife — as hero for the Occupy movement in 2012. “Bartleby was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street,” Jonathan D. Greenberg noted in The Atlantic. Confronted with Bartleby’s serenity and his utter noncompliance with the status quo, his perplexed boss is left wondering whether he himself is the one who is mad.

A month before the procrastination conference, I set myself the task of reading “Oblomov,” the 19th-century Russian novel by Ivan Goncharov about the ultimate slouch, who, over the course of 500 pages, barely moves from his bed, and then only to shift to the sofa. At least that’s what I heard: I failed to make it through more than two pages at a sitting without putting the novel down and allowing myself to drift off. I would carry the heavy book everywhere with me — it was like an anchor into a deep, blissful sea of sleep.

Oblomov could conduct the few tasks he cared to from under his quilt — writing letters, accepting visitors — but what if he’d had an iPhone and a laptop? Being in bed is now no excuse for dawdling, and no escape from the guilt that accompanies it. The voice — societal or psychological — urging us away from sloth to the pure, virtuous heights of productivity has become a sort of birdlike shriek as more individuals work from home and set their own schedules, and as the devices we use for work become alluring sirens to our own distraction. We are now able to accomplish tasks at nearly every moment, even if we prefer not to.

Still, humans will never stop procrastinating, and it might do us good to remember that the guilt and shame of the do-it-tomorrow cycle are not necessarily inescapable. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness that it acquires its reality as an illness “only within a culture that recognizes it as such.” Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers? To start, we might replace Expeditus with a new saint.

At the conference, I was invited to speak about the Egyptian-born novelist Albert Cossery, a true icon of the right to remain lazy. In the mid-1940s, Cossery wrote a novel in French, “Laziness in the Fertile Valley,” about a family in the Nile Delta that sleeps all day. Their somnolence is a form of protest against a world forever ruled by tyrants winding the clock. Born in 1913 in Cairo, Cossery grew up in a place that still retained cultural memories of the introduction of Western notions of time, a once foreign concept. It had arrived along with British military forces in the late 19th century. To turn Egypt into a lucrative colony, it needed to run on a synchronized, efficient schedule. The British replaced the Islamic lunar calendar with the Gregorian, preached the values of punctuality, and spread the gospel that time equaled money.

Firm in his belief that time is not as natural or apolitical as we might think, Cossery, in his writings and in his life, strove to reject the very system in which procrastination could have any meaning at all. Until his death in 2008, the elegant novelist, living in Paris, maintained a strict schedule of idleness. He slept late, rising in the afternoons for a walk to the Café de Flore, and wrote fiction only when he felt like it. “So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it,” Cossery would say. He was the archetypal flâneur, in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, whose verses Cossery would steal for his own poetry when he was a teenager. Rather than charge through the day, storming the gates of tomorrow, his stylized repose was a perch from which to observe, reflect and question whether the world really needs all those things we feel we ought to get done — like a few more pyramids at Giza. And it was idleness that led Cossery to true creativity, dare I say it, in his masterfully unprolific work.

After my talk, someone came up to ask me what I thought was the ideal length of a nap. Saint Cossery was smiling. Already one small battle had been won.

Mass protests continue in Hong Kong

By Peter Symonds WSWS
1 October 2014

Thousands of protesters remained on the streets of central Hong Kong overnight in anticipation of far larger demonstrations today, China’s National Day—a holiday in both Hong Kong and mainland China. The protests have already drawn in tens of thousands during recent days to demand the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and open elections for his post in 2017.

The protest in Hong Kong [Credit: FlickrUser Pasu Au Yeng]

The immediate trigger for the protests was last month’s announcement by China’s National People’s Congress that the 2017 election, while under a new system of universal suffrage, would be restricted to candidates vetted by a nomination committee stacked with pro-Beijing appointees. The decision was widely regarded as a breach of the promise of a fully-elected chief executive by 2017, made when China took over the former British colony in 1997. Currently the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member committee dominated by Beijing loyalists.

Opposition legislators from the broad grouping known as the pan-Democrats criticised the plan and threatened to veto it in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Occupy Central, an organisation founded last year by a collection of academics, church leaders and professions, announced a civil disobedience campaign that was due to start today to force Beijing to withdraw its decision. These parties and groups represent layers of the Hong Kong elites who, while concerned that Beijing’s control will undermine their interests, are even more fearful of a mass movement of the working class that could destabilise bourgeois rule.

The cautious approach of the pan-Democrats and Occupy Central, holding out for a compromise with Beijing, was pre-empted when the Hong Kong Federation of Students and other student organisations called for a boycott of classes and protests last week. Clashes between students and police outside the government headquarters on Friday provoked larger demonstrations over the weekend. The Hong Kong administration attempted to break up the protests using riot police, but failed.

A tense standoff continues after riot police were withdrawn from the protest sites on Monday. Chief Executive Leung has refused to resign, declaring that Beijing will not back down from its election plan and urging Occupy Central leaders to call off the protests. He pointed out that the “Occupy Central founders had said repeatedly that if the movement is getting out of control, they would call for it to stop.”

Occupy Central, however, only stepped into the protests late Saturday. Its leaders, along with various pan-Democrats, are clearly seeking to bring the rather heterogeneous movement under its control, but their influence, particularly over younger layers of protesters, is far from certain. The diffuse and confused political character of the protests is reflected in their limited demands, along with their vague slogans of “democracy” and chants of “love Hong Kong” and “we want a real vote.”

At this stage, the involvement of the working class appears to be limited. A call by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which is aligned with the pan-Democrats, for a general strike yesterday went largely unheeded. Some teachers and social workers stopped work, according to the South China Morning Post. On Monday, about 200 workers from a Coca-Cola distributer walked out.

Protest outside government headquarters

Nevertheless, the opposition is being fuelled by broader democratic and social concerns that reflect the deepening social divide in Hong Kong. The New York Times yesterday noted that polls over the past year indicated that “the most disaffected and potentially volatile sector of Hong Kong society is not the students, the middle-aged veterans or even the elderly activists who have sustained the democracy movement for decades. Instead, the most strident calls for greater democracy—and often for greater economic populism, as well—have come from people in the 20s and early 30s who have struggled to find well-paying jobs as the local manufacturing sector has withered away, and as banks and other service industries have hired mainland Chinese instead of local college graduates.”

Hong Kong analyst Michael DeGolyer told the New York Times that these layers paid more attention to student leaders than Occupy Central or the pan-Democrats. “There’s a large number of people who are disaffected and alienated who are not students, who are not affiliated with any political party and who are angry,” he said.

Beijing is deeply concerned that the protests in Hong Kong could spiral out of control and spark unrest in the Chinese mainland amid a deepening economic slowdown and rising social tensions. Beijing has heavily censored news in the Chinese media and on the Internet about the protests and could resort to force to suppress the opposition in Hong Kong.

To date, Chinese authorities have adopted a cautious attitude, leaving the public handling of the situation to the Hong Kong administration and hoping that the protests will fizzle out. An editorial in yesterday’s state-run Global Times dismissed the demonstrations as “merely noise” and predicted that “tide will turn against the oppositionists” once Hong Kong people see that “the Central government will not change its mind.”

A more strident tone was sounded by the official People’s Daily on Monday. It denounced pro-democracy leaders who sought support from “anti-China forces” in Britain and the US, raising the spectre of a US-engineered colour revolution in Hong Kong. However, the protest movement bears none of the hallmarks of the putsch engineered and financed by the US and Germany in February to oust elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The carefully-staged, anti-Yanukovych protests in Kiev, which were dominated by extreme right-wing and fascist organisations, had no democratic content whatsoever.

At present, the response of the US and Britain to the events in Hong Kong is decidedly low key by comparison to mind-numbing deluge of anti-Russian propaganda that accompanied the Kiev coup. In comments on Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declared that the US was “closely watching the situation in Hong Kong” and appealed to local authorities to “exercise restraint.” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to express his “dismay and alarm” over the situation.

While the Ukrainian coup was aimed at integrating Ukraine into the European Union and imposing drastic austerity measures, the US appears to be more concerned at present with preserving the status quo in Hong Kong. Assuming the bogus mantle of defending democracy in Hong Kong, Earnest said: “We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.”

That is not to say that the US and Britain will not be using their close ties with elements in the Hong Kong political and corporate elite to try to exploit the protests for their own advantage. As part of its “pivot to Asia”, the Obama administration has mounted a concerted diplomatic offensive throughout the region to undermine China’s influence.

The danger that the major powers could manipulate the pro-democracy demonstrations arises from the present confusion and lack of political perspective. While the protesters are hostile to the police-state methods of the Chinese regime, they must also oppose any intervention by imperialism. The US and its allies are certainly no defenders of democratic rights—either at home, or in their brazen interventions and wars around the globe. A genuine struggle for democratic rights is completely bound up with the development of an independent movement of the working class in Hong Kong, China.

How the U.S. Concocted a Terror Threat to Justify Syria Strikes



…and the Corporate Media Went Along

According to writer Murtaza Hussain, anonymous officials say there was not any plan in the works to attack the United States.
 

As the U.S. expands military operations in Syria, we look at the Khorasan group, the shadowy militant organization the Obama administration has invoked to help justify the strikes. One month ago, no one had heard of Khorasan, but now U.S. officials say it poses an imminent threat to the United States. As the strikes on Syria began, U.S. officials said Khorasan was “nearing the execution phase” of an attack on the United States or Europe, most likely an attempt to blow up a commercial plane in flight. We are joined by Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept, whose new article with Glenn Greenwald is “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria.”

Below is an interview with Hussain, followed by a transcript:

http://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2014/9/29/how_the_us_concocted_a_terror

AMY GOODMAN: The United States is continuing to expand its military operations in Iraq and Syria. Late last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deployed a division headquarters unit to Iraq for the first time since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. The 200 soldiers from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division headquarters will joins 1,200 U.S. troops already inside Iraq. Overnight, U.S.-led warplanes hit grain silos and other targets in northern and eastern Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attacks killed a number of civilians working at the silos.

While the United States has been bombing areas in Syria controlled by the Islamic State, it has also struck targets connected to a separate militant group that U.S. officials are calling the Khorasan group. If you never heard of the group before this month, you’re not alone. The Associated Press first reported on this new entity on September 13th. In the article, unnamed U.S. officials warned of a shadowy, terrorist group that posed a more imminent threat than the Islamic State. The AP described the group as, quote, “a cadre of veteran al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front.” It went on to say the group poses a, quote, “direct and imminent threat to the United States, working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation.” Soon, major TV networks began echoing these claims about the Khorasan group.

FOX NEWS REPORTER: They say that they were facing a, quote, ‘imminent threat’ from the Khorasan group here in the United States.

JEFF GLOR: We are learning about a new and growing terror threat coming out of Syria. It’s an al-Qaeda cell you probably never heard of. Nearly everything about them is classified.

BARBARA STARR: The reason they struck Khorasan right now is they had intelligence that the group of al-Qaeda veterans was in the stages of planning an attack against the U.S. homeland.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Khorasan group, we’re going to go to Toronto, Canada, where we’ll be joined by Murtaza Hussain, a reporter with The Intercept. He wrote a piece with Glenn Greenwald called “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria.” We’ll go to Murtaza Hussain after this break.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept who, together with Glenn Greenwald, wrote the piece “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria.”

Murtaza, welcome to Democracy Now! Murtaza is joining us from Toronto. Can you talk about what you’ve learned about the so-called Khorasan group?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, the Khorasan group is a group which first came up in the media around September 13th, roughly a week or so before the U.S. bombing campaign of Syria began. Heretofore, no one had heard of this group. It was not known in intelligence circles or among people who follow Syria. And suddenly we saw in the media that this was being described as the major terrorist threat emanating from that country and a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, unlike ISIS. So, this ended up being one of the main justifications for the war on Syria or the military airstrikes which are conducted on Syria, and it became the major media narrative justifying that action.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about, well, for example, where the Khorasan group got its name.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, the Khorasan group, the name itself does not denote any group within Syria that anyone has familiarity with or has heard of before. It’s a name that was developed within the U.S. government to describe a certain set of groups—individuals within the group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is one of the opposition factions fighting the Syrian government. Jabhat al-Nusra is also believed to be a franchise of al-Qaeda within Syria, but unlike al-Qaeda proper, it’s focused exclusively on fighting the government of Bashar Assad. So, in order to justify these strikes against this group, the U.S. had to create a new name to designate these few individuals within that group that they’re looking to target, so they developed this name, the Khorasan group, which identified several fighters who, they say, planned to wage attacks against the United States, as opposed to the government of Bashar Assad, and they conducted the strikes under that justification.

Now, within Syria, people view this group as being indistinguishable from the regular group of Jabhat al-Nusra, and it’s being viewed as an attack on that group, which is why yesterday you saw a statement from that group’s leader vowing revenge for the deaths of his commanders.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to CNN’s Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr talking about the Khorasan group.

BARBARA STARR: What we are hearing from a senior U.S. official is the reason they struck Khorasan right now is they had intelligence that the group of al-Qaeda veterans was in the stages of planning an attack against the U.S. homeland and/or an attack against a target in Europe. And the information indicated that Khorasan was well on its way, perhaps in the final stages, of planning that attack.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Barbara Starr of CNN. Your response?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, in the days leading up to the attack, several anonymous sources suggested that an attack was imminent. They suggested that there were a threat against airliners using toothpaste bombs or flammable clothing. And they said that, like Barbara Starr mentioned, they were in the final stages of planning this attack. After the strikes were carried out, several U.S. officials started walking back that estimation quite far and saying that the definition of “imminent” is unclear, and when we’re saying is a strike about to happen, we’re not sure what that means exactly. So, in retrospect, this definition of a strike being imminent and this characterization of a threat coming from this group, which is very definable and very clear, became very unclear after the strikes, and they suggested through The New York Times the strikes were merely aspirational and there was no actual plot today existing against the United States. So, the actual justification for the strikes was completely negated after the strikes ended, which was something quite troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean, negated right after the strikes began, right after the justification worked.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Right. So, after the strikes happened and there were statements saying that people were killed and the group had been scattered, James Comey and many others within the U.S. establishment started saying that, “Well, you know, we said the strikes were imminent from this group, but what does ‘imminent’ really mean? Could be six months, could be a year.’” And other anonymous officials started saying there was not any threat at all, there was not any plan in the works to attack the United States. And then, further it came to light that the Khorasan group itself, which we had been hearing about in the media was a new enemy and was a definable threat against the United States, did not really exist per se; it was simply a group of people whom the U.S. designated within a Syrian opposition faction as being ready to be struck. So, the entire narrative that had been developed, and within the media developed, was completely put to a lie after the strikes. And it was interesting that Ken Dilanian reported the story first in the Associated Press, saying that this was a new threat and a new group, and he was one of the first people to break the story afterwards saying that U.S. officials are now adding more “nuance,” is the word he used, to their previous warnings about the group. So, it was kind of a really egregious case of media spin, whereby the media had taken up this narrative of a threat from a new terrorist, and then, after the strikes had been conducted which justified this group, they immediately took the opposite tack, saying that in fact there was no threat that was imminent and the group itself did not exist per se. So, it was really quite a failure of the media, which we’ve seen several times in the past, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Ken Dilanian of AP. Now, Intercept just put out another story, “The CIA’s Mop-Up Man: L.A. Times Reporter Cleared Stories with Agency Before Publication.” Ken Silverstein writes, “A prominent national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times routinely submitted drafts and detailed summaries of his stories to CIA press handlers prior to publication, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.” He goes on to say, “Email exchanges between CIA public affairs officers and Ken Dilanian, now an Associated Press intelligence reporter who previously covered the CIA for the Times, show that Dilanian enjoyed a closely collaborative relationship with the agency, explicitly promising positive news coverage and sometimes sending the press office entire story drafts for review prior to publication. In at least one instance, the CIA’s reaction appears to have led to significant changes in the story that was eventually published in the [Los Angeles] Times. Your response to that piece?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Right. So, essentially, the administration will seek out reporters who are pliant and willing to work with them to leak stories like this. So, in the sense of those CIA stories, this reporter had his stories vetted. He promised favorable coverage in exchange for access. And again here, the Khorasan group stories first came out with this reporter. And, you know, the media’s role is to ask questions and to vet these claims quite thoroughly, but instead the claims were put out through reporters who were known to give favorable coverage and who were known to, you know, take the administration’s line in exchange for access. And it seems like this happened again, in the sense that here was a reporter who put out the story, they did not vet who the Khorasan group is, what the veracity of these claims are, but they put it out in the media, and it became a media story on its own. So I think that you’re seeing the same narrative replay as happened as we detailed in the previous story, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another piece that you wrote, Murtaza, “Why the Islamic State is Not Really Islamic,” which refers to a letter that has been signed by many Muslims. Can you explain who has written this letter and who it was sent to?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, there was an open letter published to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from over 120 of the most prominent religious scholars among Muslim scholars in the world. And there was the mufti of Egypt, Bosnia, Nigeria and many other countries around the world, including the United States. And they published an open letter condemning point by point the practices of the so-called Islamic State. And it was purely from a theological standpoint, and they had given a very rigorous critique of the group and found it, by their standards, to be un-Islamic. Now, this goes back to the question of what is or is not Islamic. Islam is not a monolith; it’s subject to interpretations of the people who take part in it. And, you know, this group found them to be decidedly un-Islamic. I think most Muslims around the world would find them to be un-Islamic, despite their pretensions to the contrary.

So, the point I was making in the article is that when you identify them as being Islamic and you say that they are the definition of Islam, you’re playing to their narrative. That’s the legitimacy they want and which today they don’t have, and they’re rejected broadly by Muslims around the world. So it’s important to say that while, you know, they may partake in Islamic dialogue and they may use the symbols of Islam, we cannot let any one group of extremists anywhere define a faith or a civilization which is, you know, identified with by over a billion people around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll link to your pieces at democracynow.org. I want to thank you for being with us. We’ve been talking to Murtaza Hussain, who is a reporter with The Intercept. His latest two pieces, “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria” and “Why the Islamic State is Not Really Islamic.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.

http://www.alternet.org/world/how-us-concocted-terror-threat-justify-syria-strikes-and-corporate-media-went-along?akid=12308.265072.nH2MIk&rd=1&src=newsletter1021271&t=19&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

At least 34 injured as police and protesters clash in Hong Kong

By Ivan Watson, Elizabeth Joseph, Anjali Tsui and Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 2:55 PM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
Hong Kong is being gripped by pro-democracy protests as student-led groups take to the streets. The protesters are responding to China's decision to allow only Beijing-vetted candidates to stand in the city's elections for chief executive. Above, tear gas is fired at protesters on Sunday, September 28, 2014. Click through for more scenes from the protests:
Hong Kong is being gripped by pro-democracy protests as student-led groups take to the streets. The protesters are responding to China’s decision to allow only Beijing-vetted candidates to stand in the city’s elections for chief executive. Above, tear gas is fired at protesters on Sunday, September 28, 2014. Click through for more scenes from the protests:
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Hong Kong leader says police have acted with restraint
  • Protesters asked to withdraw because of safety concerns, organizers say
  • Student organizers call for the resignations of four politicians
  • Government official says 34 people were injured and hospitalized

Hong Kong (CNN) — After a day of tense protests in Hong Kong in which at least 34 people were injured, organizers called on tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in the Chinese territory to head home late Sunday.

But as Sunday became early Monday, it appeared many of the protesters were set to continue to jam streets of the business district.

The sometimes violent demonstrations follow a week of student-led boycotts and protests against what many see as the encroachment of China’s political will on Hong Kong’s governance. They were responding to China’s decision to allow only Beijing-vetted candidates to stand in the city’s elections for chief executive, Hong Kong’s top civil position.

One student group, fearing police might use rubber bullets, asked late Sunday for demonstrators to leave. But while the mood at the primary protest had calmed, there was no large exodus.

Not all protest leaders were calling for people to leave. Pro-democracy activist and lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, known by many as “Long Hair,” cheered on those who were staying.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

Hong Kong youth demanding democracy

Hong Kong democracy protest

Hong Kong students rally for democracy

“Our demands have not changed. This is a peaceful civil disobedience protest,” he called out over a loudspeaker as midnight approached.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong and a leader of Occupy Central, was one of the organizers who called for demonstrators to disperse.

“Please go home, don’t sacrifice your lives,” he said to the protesters. Dialogue is impossible at this point, he told them.

At least 34 people were injured and hospitalized, the Hong Kong Information Services Department said Sunday. A spokesman gave no details on the extent of the injuries. The department earlier said six police officers were injured, but it was unclear if they were included in the 34 figure.

Several of the young people occupying the business district told CNN they were going to stay overnight.

The student-led protests, which were joined Sunday by the like-minded Occupy Central movement, have sought to occupy government property and shut down the business district.

Arrests, batons, tear gas

In an early morning video statement addressed to all Hong Kong residents, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung called for people to leave. He said police have exercised the greatest possible restraint in dealing with the protesters.

Riot police have occasionally wielded batons against protesters. They have also used pepper spray, and tear gas has been deployed against more than one group of protesters around the Central Government Offices. There were more reports of tear gas early Monday.

Protesters wore goggles or masks and raincoats, and many held umbrellas to protect against the possible use of pepper spray.

Early Monday, dozens of protesters moved barricades to block a main thoroughfare.

Demonstrators also have occupied the upscale Pacific Place shopping mall, located near the main protest site, organizers said Sunday evening. They said the number of protesters continues to grow.

The number of police officers at the protests also grew.

There is an “optimal amount of police officers dispersed” around the scene, a Hong Kong police spokesperson told CNN.

Police said they have arrested 78 people, ranging in age from 16 to 58, including some leaders.

Yvonne Leung, the spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which organized the protest, said high school student protest leader Joshua Wong was released Sunday.

Meet the 17-year-old preparing for Hong Kong’s battle for democracy

The group later tweeted that Alex Chow and Lester Shum, who were arrested Saturday, also had been released.

In a statement Sunday evening, Yvonne Leung said the protesters called for C.Y. Leung and three other politicians working on political reform to resign. If the demand, and three others, go unmet, the students vowed to step up their protests and will boycott school.

The previous week had seen days of action, as university and high school students came out in droves to rally against what they believe is the Chinese central government’s reneging on key promises for Hong Kong’s political future.

Government response

C.Y. Leung said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government is “resolute in opposing the unlawful occupation” of the government buildings.

“The police are determined to handle the situation appropriately in accordance with the law,” he said.

C.Y. Leung, who was addressing the protesters for the first time, urged Hong Kong’s residents to express their dissatisfaction with the political process in a safe and lawful manner.

He said that a round of consultations on electoral reform will take place “shortly” but went on to appeal to pro-democracy activists to engage in rational discussions through lawful means “so as to allow the more than 5 million eligible voters in Hong Kong to elect the chief executive in 2017 for the first time in Hong Kong’s history by one person, one vote.” He reaffirmed that the government in Hong Kong will uphold Beijing’s decision.

The Chinese central government said that it is “confident” that the Hong Kong government can handle the movement lawfully, according to a report in Chinese state media. The Chinese government opposes all illegal activities that “could undermine rule of law and jeopardize ‘social tranquility,'” the report says.

Student protesters joined

The movement developed into a much larger, more inclusive display of defiance as the Occupy Central movement joined the students’ rally early Sunday.

The pro-democracy advocacy group, which is not affiliated with the broader anti-capitalist Occupy movement, has been vowing to lead a campaign of civil disobedience in the face of China’s decision to control what candidates can run for Hong Kong’s top office.

“Occupy Central has formally begun,” said a statement by the group. “The two nights of occupation of Civic Square in Admiralty have completely embodied the awakening of Hong Kong people’s desire to decide their own lives.

“The courage of the students and members of the public in their spontaneous decision to stay has touched many Hong Kong people. Yet, the government has remained unmoved. As the wheel of time has reached this point, we have decided to arise and act.”

Hong Kong protests: What you need to know

Government: Fears are unfounded’

C.Y. Leung, the city’s chief executive, told CNN that fears that the nominating process for the 2017 election were too restrictive were “unfounded.”

“We have not even started to discuss the detailed but crucial aspects of the nominating process for potential chief executive candidates,” he wrote in an exclusive commentary.

“This will be the subject of a public consultation to be launched soon and which will eventually lead to the enabling legislation on changes to the electoral method for the 2017 election.”

Hong Kong chief executive: Raw emotion ‘will get us nowhere’

Core group of protesters isolated

The three entrances to Civic Square, which houses a core group of protesters, were blocked off by steel barricades and guarded by around 100 police officers.

A protest leader, over a public address system, told the crowd that since the police claim the gathering is an unlawful assembly, supplies including water and audio equipment won’t be allowed into the sealed-off protest area. Supplies, the voice on the microphone said, were also confiscated by the police.

Demonstrators claimed that undercover officers had joined the main protest group, and others said they had seen police preparing water cannon.

Many in the city, which under British rule enjoyed considerable political freedom, fear a rollback of the city’s political autonomy, agreed between Britain and China under the Basic Law. The Basic Law, which serves as a de facto constitution, was written in the lead-up to the 1997 handover of sovereignty.

CNN’s Esther Pang, Vivian Kam and Euan McKirdy contributed to this report.

http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/28/world/asia/china-hong-kong-students/

Secrets of the crematory

“Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table”

You won’t be there to realize what’s happening, or what the mortician is saying. Here’s what you will be missing

Secrets of the crematory: “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table”
Caitlin Doughty (Credit: YouTube/OrderoftheGoodDeath)

The day started innocently enough. “Caitlin!” Mike hollered from the preparation room, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table.”

Actually, I remember him saying, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big Mexican on the table.” But that cannot be right. Mike was always politically correct in his terminology. (He once referred to the victims of Oakland’s gang violence as “young urban men of color.”) I have trouble believing “this big Mexican” is not just a trick of my memory. Regardless, the man we transferred from the stretcher to the prep table was neither big nor Mexican. He was massive and El Salvadorian, an insurance salesman who weighed well over 450 pounds. Should you ever wish to understand the phrase “dead weight” in all its gravitational glory, attempt to lift the corpse of a morbidly obese man off of a perilous, wobbly stretcher.

Juan Santos died from an overdose of cocaine. His body went undiscovered for two days in his apartment in the East Bay. He was autopsied by the medical examiner and his chest sewn back up leaving a dramatic Y-shaped stitch stretching from his clavicle to his stomach. “Did you catch this guy’s bag of viscera in the back of the reefer?” Mike asked.

“Viscera? All his organs and stuff ?”

“Yeah, the medical examiner takes the organs out and piles them in those red hazmat bags. Comes in to the funeral home with the body.”

“Just, like, tucked up next to ’em or something?” I asked.

Mike grinned. “No, Chris carries them slung over his shoulder like Santa Claus.”

“Really?”

“No, man, no. What the hell—that’s gross,” Mike said.

Ah, Mike in a jovial mood. I tried to play along with his yuletide-themed organ humor. “So that’s where the legend of ‘Chris’ Kringle comes from? Is it the good or bad kids that get internal organs for Christmas?”

“I guess it depends on how morbid a kid you are.”

“Does it all get put back in the body?”

“Eventually. When Bruce comes in this afternoon to embalm him. There’s a service tomorrow, so he’ll soak them in embalming sludge and stick them back in,” he explained.

After hoisting Juan onto the table with a theatrical heave, Mike brought out a tape measure. “The family bought a casket, too. I’m going to measure him. I hope he fits because I really don’t want to call this family back and tell them they need the oversized casket. Maybe I’ll make you do it,” Mike said, smiling at the thought.



The World Health Organization (along with any of the forty-five extreme-weight-loss television programs) tells us that the United States has more overweight adults than any other country in the world. It’s no surprise that the market for oversized caskets is booming.

The website for Goliath Casket, Inc. features this charming origin story:

Back in the 70’s and 80’s oversize caskets were hard to get and poorly made. In 1985, Keith’s father, Forrest Davis (Pee Wee), quit his job as a welder in a casket factory and said, “Boys, I’m gonna go home and build oversize caskets that you would be proud to put your mother in.” . . . The company started in an old converted hog barn on their farm, by offering just two sizes and one color.

We could have used Pee Wee’s ingenuity, because there was no way Juan was going to fit into a regular-sized casket. The man, bless his departed soul, was almost as wide as he was tall. “Go ahead, cross his arms, like he’s in the casket,” Mike instructed.

I stretched myself across Juan’s body to access both appendages. “No, cross them harder, harder, harder,” Mike insisted, extending the tape measure across his shoulders. By now I was fully spread out over the body. “Keep going, keep—there we are! Boom. He will totally fit.”

“Oh, c’mon, he will not!” I said.

“We’ll make him fit. The family is already paying more than they can afford for this service. I’m not going to tack on the extra $300 for an oversized casket if I can help it. Just telling them their son needs an oversized casket is hard enough.”

Later that day, as the Cremulator whirred through the backlog of bones, Bruce arrived to embalm Juan. After seeing him laid out, Bruce, always one for tact, yelled into the crematory: “Caitlin! Caitlin, this is a lot of Mexican. It’s gonna stink. Bigger people always stink.”

“Why does everyone keep calling him Mexican?” I yelled back over the rumble of the cremation machines.

Bruce was wrong about Juan’s country of origin, and surely he was also wrong about fat people stinking. Yet emanating from the preparation room was the most ferocious smell my nostrils e’er had smell’d. You would think such an odor would have repelled me, but for some reason it aroused a desire in me to find the pot of gold at the end of the olfactory rainbow.

I had seen Bruce embalm bodies, but I was in no way intellectually or emotionally prepared to see 450 pounds laid out before me. Autopsied bodies require the embalmer to cut open the stiches from the Y-shaped incision and, as Mike had said, to chemically treat the deceased’s internal organs from Santa Chris’s red hazmat bag. Bruce had just begun that portion of the preparation when I walked in.

To describe the scene as a “swampy mire” simply would not do it justice. It was more guts and blood and organs and fat I could ever have imagined a single human body containing. Bruce, who was pulling the organs out of the bag, launched into a narrative immediately: “I told you it would stink, Caitlin. Bigger people just decompose faster. That’s science, girl. It’s the fat; the bacteria love the fat. By the time they get here after going in for an autopsy, phew.”

To Bruce’s credit, this turned out to be true. His “bigger people always stink” comment wasn’t based on prejudice, it was a fact.

“All that stuff is bubblating in that body. I call it bubblating. At least this guy didn’t die in the tub. Tubs are the worst. The worst. You go to take a body out of the tub and the skin just pulls right off. The tissue gas bubbles up, all oily, and the smell.” Bruce whistled for dramatic effect. “Psychologically, you’ll be smelling that for the rest of the day, rest of your life sometimes.”

He kept on talking. “Look at this guy. Cocaine overdose? More likely he had a heart attack. Look at this,” Bruce said as he reached into Juan’s chest cavity, picked up his heart, and presented it to me. “Look at his heart! All this fat around it. You know he was sittin’ there with his friends at the bar eating a hamburger and doin’ his lines of coke. All this stuff”—he pulled his gloved hands apart to reveal the yellowed deposits—“this is why you can’t be fat!”

I must have looked insulted at this accusation, because he quickly added, “Naw, I don’t mean you specifically can’t be fat, girl, you got a good figure. But I know you must have fat friends. Tell your fat friends.”

I had no reply.

For Bruce, the former instructor, this demonstration was not done for shock value, but for the benefit of my education. Obese people smell particularly bad after an autopsy due to their faster rate of decomposition. Fact. Not that we would ever share this fact with a decedent’s family. You couldn’t have paid me any sum of money to explain to Juan’s mother the truth about why her son smelled the way he did. These facts were only for the ears of the deathmongers, the initiated behind the scenes.

Much of our negative reaction to a decomposing corpse like Juan’s is raw instinct. We’ve evolved to be disgusted by things that would hurt us to eat, rotting meat being one of the top contenders in that category. Some animals, like vultures, can safely consume rotting flesh because of their highly corrosive stomach acid. But humans would prefer to avoid spoiled food altogether rather than having to fight off the ill effects after the meat has entered our bodies. Recall the Wari’, consuming their decomposing brethren and being forced to leave the ritual, have a bit of a vomit, and return to eat again.

“Bruce, seriously Bruce,” I said. “This might be the worst thing I have ever smelled.”

For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun. That, my friends, is what human decomposition smells like.

Bruce was apologetic. “Yeah, I’d tell you not to smell it, but that would be like tellin’ a little kid, ‘Son, don’t you dare push the big red button!’”

Except for the rare decedent like Juan Santos who slips past the system, decomposition and decay have all but disappeared from our way of death. The modern corpse has two options: burial with preservative embalming, which grinds decomposition to a halt into perpetuity (or at least until the body starts to harden and shrivel like a mummy); and cremation, which turns the body into ash and dust. Either way, you will never see a human being decaying.

Because we’ve never encountered a decomposing body, we can only assume they are out to get us. It is no wonder there is a cultural fascination with zombies. They are public enemy number one, taboo extraordinaire, the most gruesome thing there is—a reanimated decomposing corpse.

There is a misconception that “burial” involves placing a body directly into the earth, leaving us vulnerable should the zombie apocalypse come about. Like in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, a decayed hand shoots up through the dirt and the body hops easily out of its grave. Burial in that fashion used to be the case, but in the developed world the paradigm no longer fits. Instead, a body is chemically embalmed, then laid in a sealed casket, which is then placed in a heavy concrete or metal vault beneath the earth, surrounding the body in several layers of artificial embrace, separating it from the world above. The headstone is placed on top of the whole affair, like the cherry on a death-denial sundae.

Vaults and caskets are not the law; they are the policy of individual cemeteries. Vaults prevent the settling of the dirt around the body, thus making landscaping more uniform and cost effective. As an added bonus, vaults can be customized and sold at a markup. Faux marble? Bronze? Take your pick, family.

Rather than let author and environmentalist Edward Abbey be buried in a traditional cemetery, his friends stole his body, wrapped it in a sleeping bag, and hauled it in the back of his pickup truck to the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Arizona. They drove down a long dirt road and dug a hole when they reached the end of it, marking Abbey’s name on a nearby stone and pouring whiskey onto the grave. Fitting tribute for Abbey, who spent his career warning humanity of the harm in separating ourselves from nature. “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves,” he once said.

Left to their own devices, human bodies rot, decompose, come apart, and sink gloriously back into the earth from whence they came. Using embalming and heavy protective caskets to stop this process is a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable, and demonstrates our clear terror of decomposition. The death industry markets caskets and embalming under the rubric of helping bodies look “natural,” but our current death customs are as natural as training majestic creatures like bears and elephants to dance in cute little outfits, or erecting replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Venetian canals in the middle of the harsh American desert.

Western culture didn’t always have this aversion to decomposition. In fact, our relationship to rot used to be altogether intimate. In the early days of Christianity, when the religion was still a small Jewish sect fighting for its survival, those who worshipped the new messiah faced harsh persecution, sometimes dying for their faith. These martyrs came to grisly ends. You had your beheadings, your stonings, your flayings, your crucifixions, your hangings, your boilings in oil, your eatings by lion, and so forth. As a reward, the martyrs went straight to heaven. No purgatory, no Judgment Day: just a direct shot into the kingdom of God.

For medieval Christians, these martyrs-cum-saints were celebrities. When the emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal in 324 CE, the bodies of martyred saints became major attractions. Having the dead body of a famous martyr in your church—or even just a heart, bone, or vial of blood—brought hordes of worshippers. It was believed that the souls of the saints lurked around their corpses, dispensing miracles and general holiness to those who came to pay tribute.

Diseases were cured! Droughts were ended! Enemies were defeated! But why stop at just paying a visit to a dead saint when you could be buried in the same church? It stood to reason that being buried for all eternity ad sanctos (literally “at the saints”) would ingratiate you to the saint in the afterlife, ensuring protection for your immortal soul.

As the Christian faith grew, more and more members of the congregation insisted on being buried in and around the church to reap the benefits of saint proximity. This burial practice spread throughout the empire, from Rome to Byzantium and to what is now present-day England and France. Entire towns grew up around these corpse churches.

Demand rose and the churches supplied it—for a fee, of course. The wealthiest church patrons wanted the best spots, nearest the saints. If there was a nook in the church big enough for a corpse, you were sure to find a body in it. There were, without hyperbole, dead bodies everywhere. The preferred locations were the half circle around the apse and the vestibule at the entrance. Beyond those key positions, it was a free-for-all: corpses were placed under the slabs on the floor, in the roof, under the eaves, even piled into the walls themselves. Going to church meant the corpses in the walls outnumbered the living parishioners.

Without refrigeration, in the heat of the summer months, the noxious smell of human decomposition in these churches must have been unimaginable. Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini complained that “there are so many tombs in the church, and they are so often opened that this abominable smell is too often unmistakable. However much they fumigate the sacred edifices with incense, myrrh, and other aromatic odors, it is obviously very injurious to those present.”

If you weren’t rich or influential enough to score a spot inside the church, you would go into one of many graves in the church’s courtyard, some pits thirty feet deep, containing up to 1,500 corpses. This practice reflected a seismic shift from the pre-medieval Roman and Jewish belief that dead bodies were impure, and best kept on the far outskirts of town. The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the center of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

Historian Philippe Ariès, author of a brilliant, sweeping study of a millennium of Western death entitled “L’Homme devant la mort,” declared that “henceforth and for a long time to come, the dead completely ceased to inspire fear.” Ariès may have been exaggerating, but even if the Europeans of the Middle Ages were afraid of death, they got over it, because the sublime benefits of being near the saints outweighed the drawbacks of living with unseemly sights and smells.

Medieval death was my first true (academic) love. I was captivated by the dancing skeletons, the maggot tomb décor, the charnel houses, the putrefying bodies in the church walls. The brazen acceptance of human decomposition in the late Middle Ages was so different from what I grew up with. The only two funerals I had been to as a child were Papa Aquino’s, with his heavily embalmed and made-up face sneering up from his casket, and the memorial service for a mother of a childhood friend. Her body was absent from the service altogether, and instead of speaking directly of her death, the pastor running the memorial spoke only in euphemisms: “Her soul was a tent, and the cruel winds of life came through the palm trees and blew our sister’s tent down!”

Decomposition was rare even behind the scenes at Westwind. At ye olde warehouse of modern secular death, the majority of our clients died in contained medical environments like nursing homes or hospitals before being swiftly whisked away to our cold-storage fridge, which, while not freezing, maintained a steady temperature below 40 degrees. Even if the bodies had to hang out there for a few days while the proper state permits were filed, most corpses were cremated long before they ever made it to the smellier phases of decomposition. One morning I came in, opened the freezer door, pushed aside the plastic strips, and was blasted by the unmistakable, unforgettable smell of human decomposition.

“Chris, dear God man, why? Who is it that smells like that?” I asked.

“His name is Royce, I think. Picked him up yesterday. It’s not good in there, Cat,” Chris answered, shaking his head with a seriousness I appreciated. This vile, corrosive smell was indeed no laughing matter.

So it is you, Royce, source of the horrible, infernal stench emanating from the fridge. I worked my little fingers to the quick to file his death certificate with the city so I could then cremate him as quickly as possible. When I opened his cremation container, I found a man who could best be described as “boggy.” Royce was vivid green, like the color of a 1950s Cadillac. He was a “floater,” the unfortunate funeral-industry term for bodies found dead in the water— in Royce’s case, the San Francisco Bay. I sent him to the flames, satisfied that my day of decay had come to an end.

But the smell did not go away. Royce was gone—and yet—the smell persisted. This matter required investigation. Investigation of the worst possible kind. Sifting through the cardboard boxes of bodies sniffing away until . . . You!— Ellen! The woman from the Medical Examiner’s Office. ’Tis, in fact, you who stinks more putridly than the worst smelling thing ever to smell. You, with your skin flaking away. What happened to you? You were fifty-six and your death certficate says you worked in “fashion sales.”

Unlike Royce, who had floated in the SF Bay for several days, I never found out what had happened to Ellen. When at last I was able to send the poor woman to the pyre, I sat down and read a chapter of Octave Mirbeau’s “The Torture Garden,” a book I first encountered during my decadent French literature phase. Not three lines into the chapter a character was described as “a lusty dilettante who reveled in the stench of decomposition.” My first reaction was, “Lovely, just like me!” But really? No. Not just like me, not like anyone who worked at Westwind. It may have been an academic interest, but that didn’t mean I took some perverse, maniacal delight in decomposition. I didn’t walk into the fridge every day, inhale deeply, and cackle with delight, dancing around naked in the cold miasma, transgressing with obscene pleasure. Instead, I wrinkled my nose, shuddered, and washed my hands for the twelfth time that day. Decomposition was just another reality of death, a necessary visual (and aromatic) reminder that our bodies are fallible, mere blips on the radar of the vast universe.

That reminder of our fallibility is beneficial, and there is much to be gained by bringing back responsible exposure to decomposition. Historically, Buddhist monks hoping to detach themselves from lust and curb their desire for permanence would meditate on the form of a rotting corpse. Known as the nine cemetery contemplations, the meditation would focus the different stages of decomposition: “(1) distension (choso); (2) rupture (kaiso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (noranso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by animals and birds (lanso); (7) dismemberment (sanso); (8) bones (kosso); and (9) parched to dust (shoso).”

The meditation could be internal, but often the monks employed images of the stages of decay or took trips to the charnel grounds to meditate over a real decomposing corpse. There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies.

If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.

This denial takes many forms. Our obsession with youth, the creams and chemicals and detoxifying diets pushed by those who would sell the idea that the natural aging of our bodies is grotesque. Spending over $100 billion a year on anti-aging products as 3.1 million children under five starve to death. The denial manifests in our technology and buildings, which create the illusion that we have less in common with road kill than with the sleek lines of a MacBook.

The way to break the cycle and avoid embalming, the casket, the heavy vault, is something called green, or natural, burial. It is only available in certain cemeteries, but its popularity is growing as society continues to demand it. Natural burial is what transpired with Edward Abbey’s remains, minus the whole stealing-the-corpse and hightailing -itinto- the-desert thing. The body goes straight into the ground, in a simple biodegradable shroud, with a rock to mark the location. It zips merrily through decomposition, shooting its atoms back into the universe to create new life.

Not only is natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, “Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!”

By this stage of my time at Westwind, I had already decided on a green burial for my own body. I understood that I had been given my atoms, the ones that made up my heart and toenails and kidneys and brain, on a kind of universal loan program. The time would come when I would have to give the atoms back, and I didn’t want to attempt to hold on to them through the chemical preservation of my future corpse. There was one such natural burial cemetery in Marin, right across the bridge from Westwind. There, I could sit among the cemetery’s rolling hills, looking down over the mounded graves and contemplate my date with decay. The monks found liberation through their discomfort, and in a way I was doing the same. Staring directly into the heart of my fear, something I could never do as a child, and ever so gradually, starting to break clear of it.

Excerpted from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2014 by Caitlin Doughty. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and writer living in Los Angeles.  She is the founder of The Order of the Good Death and the host of the “Ask a Mortician” webseries. W. W. Norton will publish Caitlin’s memoir, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory,” on September 15. Follow on Twitter at @TheGoodDeath

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/27/secrets_of_the_crematory_%E2%80%9Chey_come_in_here_and_help_me_get_this_big_guy_on_the_table%E2%80%9D/

“The Roosevelts”: Ken Burns’ economics lesson for America

The new PBS documentary examines how New Nationalism and the New Deal saved the country from capitalism’s excesses

, Next New Deal

"The Roosevelts": Ken Burns' economics lesson for America
Scene still from “The Roosevelts”(Credit: PBS)
This originally appeared on Next New Deal.

Next New Deal Ken Burns’s superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

The film also has much to say about the transformative nature of government: the idea, which all three Roosevelts shared, that it was the responsibility of government to serve as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans – not just the privileged few at the top. It was this belief that formed the basis of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and this belief that helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by the United Nations just three years after its 1945 founding.

What is often overlooked in this story is the role that all three of these remarkable leaders played in helping to preserve the American free enterprise system, of trying to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, not only out of a desire to protect the American people from exploitative labor practices or fraudulent financial dealings, but also out of a desire to protect our very way of life during an era when liberal capitalist democracy was under siege in much of the rest of the world. As the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once remarked, the twentieth century in many respects can be viewed as a struggle of ideologies, a time in which the anti-democratic forces of fascism and totalitarian communism were on the march, so that by January 1942 at the height of the Second World War, there were only a handful of democracies left on the planet.



In the rhetorically charged atmosphere of the mid 1930s, FDR’s critics alleged that the reforms he instigated under the New Deal were designed to take the country down the path to socialism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and granting labor the right to organize were all inspired by the desire to provide the average American with a basic degree of economic security within the capitalist system. So too were the many financial reforms that brought us the likes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same argument could be made about Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to take on such conglomerates as the Beef Trust or the Northern Securities Rail Company was driven by the desire not to destroy big business but to limit monopoly and restore the cut and thrust of the free market. In short, both men were motivated by the idea that the federal government had a responsibility to make capitalism work for the average American.

Eleanor Roosevelt concurred with these ideas, and in spite of her reputation as a left-leaning reformer, spent much of her considerable energy in the post-1945 world arguing in favor of the World War II monetary and trade reforms that helped launch the globalization of the world’s economy. In her May 21, 1945 “My Day” column, for example, ER spoke out in favor of the 1944 Bretton Woods accords which established the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank. Here, she argued in favor of the stabilization of currencies, because in the past there had been much speculative trading in this area, which resulted in “economic warfare” that in time brings us to “shooting warfare.” And she had this to say about the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Some foolish people will ask: Why do we have to concern ourselves with the development and reconstruction of the ruined countries? The answer is simple. We are the greatest producing country in the world. We need markets not only at home, but abroad, and we cannot have them unless people can start up their industries and national economy again and buy from us. If Europe or Asia falls apart because of starvation or lack of work for their people, chaos will result and World War III will be in the making. In that event, we know that we will have to be a part of it.

Hence, ER insisted that we needed “both the bank and the fund for our own security, as well as for that of the rest of the world.” She then urged her readers to write to their Senators and Congressmen in support of the treaty, for as she so eloquently put it:

Whether you are a farmer or a merchant, whether your business is big or little, you are personally affected by it. Even if you don’t sell directly to a foreign country, you are indirectly affected – for the prosperity of the[foreign] country means your prosperity, and we cannot prosper without trade with our neighbors in the world of tomorrow.

As is so often the case, when we look back we see that the challenges of the past are not that different from the challenges we face today. Once again we face a world where the free-market system is in desperate need of reform; a world where income inequality has reached levels not seen since the gilded age; a world where the specter of long-term unemployment and limited opportunity has dimmed the hopes of an entire generation; a world where poverty and a lack of opportunity have given rise to anti-democratic extremists that threaten the very lives and well-being of millions. Yet sadly, and unlike the heady days of the first six decades of the twentieth century, our leaders in Washington seem incapable or unwilling to shape a response to these many challenges befitting the legacy of such great political figures as Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A great deal of this can be attributed to the irresponsible behavior of many members of Congress, particularly among the members of the extreme right, whose obstructionist policies and rigid anti-government ideology have played a significant part in rendering the 113th Congress one of the least effective and least respected in American history.

But we should also never forget – as Ken Burns and his outstanding script writer Geoffrey Ward have reminded us through this outstanding film – that we too must share part of the blame. For as much as we may admire the leadership of the Roosevelts, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of the American people. Leadership, after all, is a dynamic process that requires the cooperation of the both public figures and the public, and if we are living in an age that seems incapable of producing transformative government, we need to recognize that in a democracy it is the people who bear the final responsibility for their fate.

Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put it best when he urged the American people to recognize that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

 

 http://www.salon.com/2014/09/27/the_roosevelts_ken_burns_economics_lesson_for_america_partner/?source=newsletter

Obama’s Bourgeois Presidency

When Words Fail
by Andrew Levine
http://thecollegepolitico.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Fall-Out-Obama.jpg

In the Age of Obama, inequality is on the rise and austerity politics rages on.

Obama could do more to improve the lot of those made worse off by these developments.  But he really can’t be blamed for them – much.

Enriching the “one percent” at everyone else’s expense is what late (overripe, irrational) capitalism does.  The main job of the state in capitalist societies — and therefore of those who lead states — is to make capitalism flourish.

Within the confines of “normal” politics in the early twenty-first century, it was therefore inevitable that Obama would preside over a regime in which inequality would become worse, and in which austerity would be the order of the day.

Increasing inequality is a worldwide phenomenon – afflicting all developed capitalist countries.  The labor movement and the welfare state are under attack everywhere; and everywhere people are worse off as a result.

Palliative measures are still possible within the confines of the present system, and they can sometimes do a lot to make peoples’ lives better.  But, until the basic economic structure is transformed, the underlying causes of the problems affecting us will remain – and so will the problems themselves.

To dig up the hackneyed slogan of James Carville, the Clinton family functionary: “it’s the economy, stupid.”  More precisely, it’s the entire regime contemporary capitalism sustains.

Therefore the only solution, as progressives used to say (but now seldom dare even to think), is revolution.

Or, since the solution need not  – and probably can no longer – resemble the revolutions of old, we might better say that the solution is “regime change.”  Too bad that neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have taken over and debased that otherwise useful expression.

This side of regime change, there is nothing to do but make the best of an increasingly bad situation.  Obama has done precious little of that, perhaps because he has internalized the values of the beneficiaries of the status quo.  But no one could have done a whole lot better; the constraints are too formidable.

In the United States, with mid-term elections just two months away and a presidential election coming in another two years, liberals and others who are tempted to cast their lot with “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” should bear this in mind.

We can certainly do worse than, say, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders; just imagine Hillary Clinton back in the White House or some whacked-out Republican.

But no matter who is next elected President, the most those who care about equality and the wellbeing of the vast majority can hope for are a few woefully inadequate changes at the margins.

In becoming President, Obama stepped into a current that he could have done more to resist.   But he could not have turned the current back.   Only the great sleeping giant that “we, the people” have become can do that.

This is not to say, however, that our Commander-in-Chief gets a pass.  There are far too many other things for which he deserves all the blame we can muster.

Acquiescing to the demands of unreconstructed Cold Warriors who want the United States and Europe to court catastrophe by encircling and humiliating Russia, is a prime example.

So too is letting clueless imperialists take charge of American meddling in the Middle East.  His “humanitarian” interveners may seem kinder and gentler than Bush’s and Cheney’s neoconservatives, but they are just as dangerous.   They have already done incalculable harm, and are presently about to do much more.

Obama also deserves blame for not moving forward more aggressively to halt global warming, and for not putting world energy policy on a less insane footing.  Lately, even some billionaires have come around to the view that there is money to be made in “green” energy.   They are way ahead of Obama; all he can do is muster a few weasel words.

Not only has he done almost nothing to limit carbon emissions; his “all of the above” support for the nuclear power industry has put the world at ever-greater risk of potential catastrophes.

Obama deserves blame too for a host of other noxiously wrong-headed policies – for trashing privacy rights and due process, for example.

High on the list too is his grudging, but nevertheless steadfast, support for the great American tradition of enabling Israel to do whatever it wants to ethnically cleanse Gaza and the Occupied Territories of Palestinians, descendants of peoples who have lived from time immemorial on lands diehard Zionists covet.

In capitalist societies, nearly everything governments do has economic consequences.  But the constraints Obama, or any American President, has to contend with in these areas, and others like them, are primarily political.

The Obama way is to take the path of least resistance.  When the constraints are mainly economic, he cannot be blamed too much for this – there is not much else he could do.  But when they are mainly political, he has more freedom of action, at least in principle.  Then the more reprehensible what he actually does becomes.

A leader with more vision and backbone than Obama – one genuinely moved by “the audacity of hope” — could surely have done better.   Even after Obama, that prospect is not foreclosed.

But neither are the prospects encouraging.

Fans of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders should realize that the views that they advance that make them look good, compared to Obama, pertain to issues about which Presidents can do very little.  In areas where a President actually could do a lot of good, Warren and Sanders seem no better than the rest.

We no longer have a good way to account for, or even describe, the difference between those things for which Obama should not be severely blamed because no one, not even someone better at governance and more “progressive” than he, could have done much better, and those that a more able leader, operating within the confines of normal politics, could have much improved.

This was not always the case, but the words – and the thinking behind them — have fallen into disuse.

In the not too distant past, it would have been natural, for people on the left, to call Obama – along with other practitioners of what I have been calling normal politics – bourgeois politicians; and to call the politics they practice bourgeois politics.

This terminology nowadays seems irremediably quaint.

This is unfortunate, but it is also understandable; it is even justifiable.

For one thing, these words harken back to a time when it could be said, with some plausibility, that there really was a full-fledged bourgeoisie, and that it functioned as a ruling class.

To the extent this was ever the case, that time is long gone.

The word “bourgeois” has a complicated history.  At first, it designated town and city-dwellers, particularly those involved in commerce.  In early modern Europe, the bourgeoisie was a “middle class” – with aristocrats above them in wealth and influence, and with peasants, shopkeepers, tradesmen and others below.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, in socialist circles especially, the term came to denote owners of capital, “capitalists.”  The Marxist tradition adopted this usage.

Even in the Marxist view, however, bourgeois politics was more of an ideal type than an empirical reality.

Part of the problem was that aristocratic power proved more resilient in the face of capitalist development than most Marxists and other socialists expected.  It was not until well into the twentieth century that the old aristocracy’s hold over society definitively expired – thanks mainly to the declining economic importance of land ownership and the devastating effects of two World Wars.

By then, however, the bourgeoisie had largely disappeared as well.

Being bourgeois, in the fullest sense of the term, involved more than just occupying a defined niche in a capitalist economic structure.  There was a cultural component to it too.

Bourgeois culture developed in opposition both to the aristocracy above and the popular masses below, but there was nothing intermediate about it.  The bourgeoisie was the bearer of a new from of civilization.

Even so, it was seldom the case anywhere that a bourgeoisie, so conceived, genuinely ruled.  At most, there were periods in the history of post-Revolutionary France, and in a few other Western European countries, where this was very nearly the case.

Nevertheless, the broad contours of the civilization the bourgeoisie created are still with us.   The social class that gave rise to it is gone, but the civilization it produced survived its demise.   Indeed, bourgeois society – in many of its several aspects — has actually flourished in the decades since the last remnants of the classical bourgeoisie went missing.

In North America, there never was a real aristocracy (except perhaps in the pre-Civil War South), much less an aristocratic ruling class, and neither was there a genuine peasantry.  Much the same was true in Australia and New Zealand.

Therefore, in these places, a full-fledged bourgeoisie never emerged either – despite the nearly universal prevalence of capitalist economic relations.

The United States has had capitalists galore since even before its inception, and they have run the country to their advantage from the beginning.  But culturally they never quite comprised a genuine bourgeoisie; they never made the grade.

It is hardly the least of their shortcomings, but, compared to the genuine article, they never had enough couth.  This is even truer of the fraction of the one percent who nowadays own almost all there is to own; and truer still of the politicians who serve them.

Nevertheless, an attenuated approximation of bourgeois civilization became established in the United States and throughout Britain’s White Dominions – and, in due course, nearly everywhere else.

And now that American-style consumerism has become globally hegemonic, the process of worldwide embourgeoisement is nearly complete.

Thus, even in the absence of a real bourgeoisie, it still makes sense to speak of “bourgeois society” and “bourgeois culture” – and “bourgeois politics.”

Credit for keeping the notion alive must go to those who subscribed to the view of world history that Marxists and others took more or less as given.

For them, the French Revolution, though carried forward mainly by the popular classes, resulted in the demise (for a while) of the power of the old aristocracy and its assumption by a rising bourgeoisie.

In their view, in the next (all but inevitable) revolution, the working class, conceived as a proletariat – “in society but not of it,” and with “nothing to lose but its chains” – would do to society’s new masters what they had done to the aristocrats of old.

This idea provided yet another reason to keep on talking about bourgeois politics, even in the absence of a genuinely bourgeois ruling class.

But as it became increasingly clear that the proletariat of Marxist theory had long ago gone missing, this rationale eventually lost its appeal.

Nevertheless, as long as Marxist politics survived in one or another form, “bourgeois politics” remained in the political lexicon.  This was especially true in Maoist quarters, where the word “bourgeois” came to be used, with scant concern for its stricter meanings, as a general term of disapprobation.

Well into the twentieth century, this usage was common in the West as well, including the United States.  Remember Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” written in 1937.   It indicts racial segregation in the nation’s capital.  Washington, Lead Belly famously sang, is a “bourgeois town.”   He got that right; more right than he probably realized.   He hit all the bases.

Politically disparaging words are like that – often, they have strict meanings that can expand into new domains without much regard for what they meant historically.

Then, as circumstances change, they sometimes retract back into more historically correct usages.

“Fascist” is an example.  It is like “bourgeois” in some respects, and different in others.  The similarities and differences are instructive.

Strictly speaking, “fascism” refers to a political tendency that emerged in Europe, and areas influenced by developments in Europe, during the inter-war years of the twentieth century.  Fascism arose in response to conditions peculiar to that historical period.

By the end of World War II, the fascist moments of the twenties, thirties, and forties had suffered an historic defeat.  The remnants that survived – in southern Europe and, more ambiguously, in Latin America — were pale shadows of what once had been.

However, in countries where fascism had been defeated, and in the countries that fought against fascism in the Second World War, the word lived on – mainly as an epithet, an insult.

Typically, public officials and the police bore the brunt.  Officials who were more than usually authoritarian, and police who were more than usually brutal called it upon themselves; often, they deserved the abuse.

But however reprehensible they were – and however much their behavior resembled behaviors characteristic of bona fide fascists — they were not themselves fascist in any significant respect.  The usage had become so expansive that the term’s original meaning was effectively lost.

However, fascist or, better, neo-fascist groups never entirely died out – neither in regions where genuine fascism once flourished nor in liberal democracies, where fascist movements had never thrived.

And so, they have remained at the ready to spring back to life.  The surge in anti-immigrant feeling in many European countries has had this effect.  So has the rise of Islamophobia.

Even more saliently, Western machinations in Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics and in regions close to the former Soviet Union have made the idea descriptively useful again.

These developments make the less careful uses that were once so common more than usually misleading.  Now that the term again has more legitimate referents, these uses, not surprisingly, have fallen off.

Careless uses of “bourgeois” have subsided too, though for different reasons.

“Fascist,” in something like its original meaning is back, because fascists are back.   The bourgeoisie is gone, and will not return.

But this is not why the word has passed out of general currency.

That happened because political traditions, Marxist and otherwise, that found the term useful have themselves passed into desuetude.

But the term is useful still.  In the Age of Obama, it is more useful than ever – because it calls attention to what normal politics does its best to obscure: the class character of the politics of our time.

When “bourgeois” was still in wide use, there was a class antagonist with which it contrasted.  For Marxists, that was the proletariat.

However, even before Marxism fully took shape, it was plain that the proletariat as such no longer existed.   What was left in its stead, the working class, was, however, a real world approximation.  Its existence was indisputable and, for decades, its power was on the rise.

In most capitalist countries, working class parties formed and sometimes even ruled.

Nevertheless, with the arguable exception of the Socialist Party in the years preceding World War I, the United States never had a working class party of any significance.

For many reasons – some structural, some not — the American labor movement backed Democrats instead.   They are still at it, despite a decades long legacy of betrayals.

Even in these coming elections, organized labor continues to offer the Democratic Party money and foot soldiers, demanding little or nothing in return.  When it is over, workers will find that, as usual, they will have gotten back even less.

In recent decades, it has even become rare for a Democrat to utter the words “working class.”  “Middle class” is the accepted euphemism.

How fitting that a bourgeois party would deny the very existence of the bourgeoisie’s historical antagonist!  And how ironic inasmuch as the bourgeoisie was once, genuinely, a middle class!

In having a party system that effectively excluded direct working class representation, the United States truly was, for many decades, “exceptional.”  It no longer is.  In other developed countries, political parties with historical ties to the socialist movements of the past and to the labor movements of their respective countries survive.  But, under the skin, they are all Democrats now.

Or what comes to the same thing, they are all bourgeois – in just the way that the Obama presidency is; not literally, but in effect.

Words fail; the language is inadequate.  But there is no concise way to say it better; and therefore no better way to grasp the nature of the constraints politicians today confront.  There is certainly no more illuminating way to mark the difference between those things Obama does for which he deserves a lot of blame, and those for which he deserves not so much.

Inevitably, Obama’s has been a bourgeois presidency.  As such, it could have been worse and it could have been better.   Indeed, it could have been much better, at least in principle, in areas that don’t directly impinge upon the functioning of the economic system as a whole.

But it could not have been fundamentally better, and neither can the presidencies of Obama’s successors, until the class character of American – and world – politics is radically transformed.

This is not a task that even the best (least bad) Democratic Party politicians currently vying for office are equipped to perform.   Like their counterparts in other countries, they cannot do much good – especially not with respect to inequality and austerity — because what needs to be done exceeds the practical and theoretical limitations of normal politics in our time.

They could do better in foreign and military affairs, and in countless other ways where the constraints are mainly political.  Perhaps they could even do more to keep impending ecological catastrophes at bay.

How much better off we then would be!  But one has to wonder whether even this is too much to expect from bourgeois politicians in bourgeois societies, superintending capitalist economies in which ever fewer numbers of people own ever more of all that there is.

Perhaps all we can reasonably expect, in these circumstances, is to be led by Obama-like dunces, pursuing Obama-like policies that edge us closer to disaster.

The only solution… well, we’ve known about that forever.  But how do we get from here to there?  That, not who wins this or that paltry electoral contest, is the basic question of our time.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/09/26/obamas-bourgeois-presidency/