Brain Dropping # 34

Brain Dropping#34

        “The sweet sauce.”    Herbert Read, the great British  critic, poet, educator and anarchist wrote:  “Culture is the sweet sauce we pour over the stinking fish of society!”  That  ‘sauce’ is no more evident than in so-called philanthropic foundations.  If you are ever on the south east corner of Broadway and 65th Street in NYC just look across the street, a few feet  above eye level, and you will see, in three dimensional stainless steel letters, eighteen inches high:  “The David H. Koch Theater.”  For the past forty years it had been the New York State Theater, the venue for one of my favorite performing groups going back to my teens – The New York City Ballet, whose performances, under the aegis of George Balanchine, were electrifying.    It now bears the name of one of the most reactionary despoiler-plunderers of our financialized society at the expense of the poor and working families.
         I deeply regret that I could never walk through the door of that space despite my love for the dance.  Happily there are other venues for dance in the city not yet corrupted by big money.

     But I must disclose my inconsistency.   Three of my favorite ‘cultural’ places in ‘The Big Apple’ which are immune from the general tumult of that overcrowded city, which most people confuse with ‘excitement’, are the Cloisters, at the northern tip of Manhattan Island  The Frick Collection at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue and the Morgan Library  at Madison Avenue and 36th Street.  We have the Rockefellers to thank for the Cloisters,  Henry Clay Frick to thank for The Frick Collection and J.P. Morgan to thank for his magnificent library.

     At this point I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.  The amassed fortunes which created the foundations  which underwrite these temples of culture are drenched in the blood of workers and their families going back more than one hundred and fifty  years.  This history of carnage against the working class is not hidden – it is out there for every public school child to read about – for example Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.”    The Ludlow Colorado Massacre, April 14,1914. A Rockefeller owned coal mine.  Miners striking for better condition and wages were mowed down by machine gun fire.  Two dozen killed including women and children cowering in cloth tents.  The Homestead Strike, July 6,1892 near Pittsburgh.  Workers demanding better pay were invaded by Pinkerton mercenaries paid for and controlled by Andrew Carnegie’s hit-man  Henry Clay Frick while Carnegie conveniently sailed off to Scotland.  Many dead on both sides.  in 1902  J.P. Morgan refused to negotiate with the anthracite miners of Eastern Pennsylvania, striking for decent pay and an eight hour day, until Teddy Roosevelt sent in 10,000 federal troops and took over the mine.

     The same philanthropic flim-flam goes on today to cover the stench of  capitalist exploitation of not only American labor, whose wages are dropping, but the poorer low-wage countries of the ‘Third World’.  It’s not only the Koch brothers who seek legitimacy in slathering on the ‘sweet sauce’ of cultural patronage, but Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, many of the oppressive Arab states,  Bank of America, Citi Bank, Ford  and a whole passel of rapacious corporations funding foundations to launder their image.
     Why don’t we celebrate this apparent generosity?  By law these foundations, to keep their tax free status, are required to spend only 5% of their endowment in a year.  This expenditure includes paying  inflated salaries to their staff.  If these same corporations would pay a reasonable corporate tax and not hustle off-shore to the Cayman Islands, Ireland or Bermuda, perhaps cultural organizations would not have to go hat-in-hand begging to keep their doors open.  And maybe, just maybe the States and Federal government would have enough dough to fund another Federal Art Project so important in keeping artists alive and working during the Great Depression.

Al Salzman


Brain Dropping #33

Brain Dropping #33

      Do you want to know why you feel a twinge of fear, walking down a street especially at night, and a group of black men come walking toward you? (C’mon, yes you do!)  And why the idea that, since Obama’s election, we are living in a post racial America. is pure bullshit?  And why (although I’m not a fan of Obama’s) that the political stalemate against him in Washington is  thinly veiled,racist outrage against an uppity nigger in the Oval Office? And why the Roberts Supreme Court has eviscerated the 1965 Voter Rights Act by striking down Section 5 which monitors 7 states in the deep south to prevent voter suppression ?  And why, in our schools nationwide, segregation by color and class has made a comeback?  And why in New York City, for a decade, the unconstitutional ‘Stop and Frisk’  aimed primarily at Blacks and Hispanics was tolerated?  And why, although the NYC crime rate has  dropped 30%, 394,539 arrests were made in the last year, the large majority men of color, tens of thousands more than in 1995?  And why a so-called liberal Mayor, Bill deBlasio feels comfortable re-hiring William Bratton, the architect of ‘Stop and Frisk’ and ‘Broken Window’ policing, as Police Commissioner ?  (‘Broken Window’ policing means harassing, arresting or ticketing anyone guilty of the most minor misdemeanors, like just hanging out with friends, particularly young people.)  And why there is a growing suppression of the black vote in the South, by ‘gerrymandering’ and phony documentation requirements?   And why, by extension, there is little public outcry about the criminal use of drones in killing people of color in the Middle East?

     The answer can be found in an extraordinary book by Douglas Blackmon – “Slavery By Another Name –  The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.”   Blackmon is white.  He is the Atlanta Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal and was raised in the Mississippi Delta.  I would argue that Blackmon’s timeline should come up to the present where the shackles of poverty and joblessness still grip most black Americans, and where most white Americans still carry a toxic vestige of racial bigotry fostered by the sanitized and biased history taught to our children.  The book  also documents the exploitation of leased prison labor by the coal, cotton and steel industries.(U.S. Steel)  Most of these convicts were falsely arrested by county sheriffs for the express purpose of selling them into bondage to a farmer or factory owner. It is a compelling argument for the payment of reparations to the black community, perhaps in the form of college scholarships or housing subsidies. It seems clear that the so-called “American Dream” was, in good part, built on the centuries long nightmare of African-Americans.

Brain Dropping #32

Brain Dropping #32

         Lies and the lying liars who tell them.  I stole that opening line from Al Franken’s book exposing Fox News and Bill O’Liely (as Franken called him), among many others.  My optimistic friends confuse my well-founded concerns about the decay of our society with an incapacitating pessimism, to the exclusion of a sense of joy at the more positive things in life.  They could not be more wrong.  As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite effect – the more I know about those forces at work which ultimately have an impact on my daily life, whether lies from Bush, Obama and their cohorts, or the machinations of the Koch brothers, or the criminality of Wall Street in manipulating interest rates, the more intense is my appreciation of the good and beautiful things, things in my life.

      Living your life by turning away from the harsh truths of the human condition, ignorance being bliss in the old saw, the more disengaged you become, and live a life of ‘mauvais fois’ – bad faith- as the Existentialists termed it.  The other day I saw an article on the internet about the number of babies in Vietnam being born with deformities as a consequence of Agent Orange, forty years after the end of the Vietnam War – it is in the hundreds of thousands.  In a conversation with a friend I referred to the article.  “Why bring that up,” he said. “It’s too nice a day.”  I flashed on that old joke ridiculing absurd optimism:  A young boy is thrown into a cell filled with shit whereupon he gleefully starts digging and flinging it around, laughing joyously.  “where’s the pony!” He shouts. “Where’s the pony!”

     In a current episode of “Moyers and Company,”  Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity and the author of “935 Lies The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral integrity” casts his critical eye on the prominent liars among us and the bloody consequences of their lies.  The evidence strongly indicates that when information is distorted or cloaked in secrecy, we no longer have a democracy.  My own take on it is that the suppression of the truth leads quickly and directly to fascism.  Are we there yet? I’ll reserve judgment .   

     All the above can be best summed up by that old Athenian codger and rabble rouser socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Al Salzman


Brain Dropping #31

    This country is going “down-the-tubes!”  As my mentor George Carlin asked: “Which tubes? Where are these tubes and why is there more than one?”  This was part of George’s funny routine on figures of speech.  But it is no joke – we, the United States of America, the supposedly richest, most god-blessed, most exceptional society the world has ever known is “going down the tubes.”  If you’re not deeply in denial the evidence will bite you on the ass.  The increasing misery of  the ninety percent of our population – the long term unemployment – the declining wages for those who do have a job – the attacks on our pensions – the 1.2 trillion dollars in student debt – the tens of millions of mortgaged home owners still under water  –  the increasing number of bankruptcies because of medical bills – the outsourcing of hundreds of  thousands of jobs to low paying third world countries –  our outstanding debts in the trillions to China and other countries –  the corruption and decline of our military prowess so evident in the Afghanistan and Iraq fiascos- the growing acceptance of criminality with impunity of our banks and financial system – the almost total incompetence of the Congress and the President – the seemingly unstoppable power of the obscenely wealthy oligarchs – a Supreme Court ruled by sectarian fanatics breaking down constitutional law and…… (take a breath)   a broken public educational system in the throes of re-segregation, whose reformers in their idiotic attempts to improve the academic performance of poor, disadvantaged students, force well-meaning teachers to lie about test results to keep their jobs. 
    So yes – “down the tubes” we go, and from my point of view the palliatives voiced by well-meaning reformers will not slow our decent. To underscore this admittedly “gloom and doom” scenario, American corporations,like the proverbial rats leaving the sinking ship, are fleeing to countries with lower tax rates in a process called “financial inversion,” depriving our coffers of hundreds of billions in corporate taxes.  American world financial hegemony, fostered by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both creatures of American capital interests created after WWII in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, is being threatened by an alternative world development fund independent of U.S. influence and more agreeable to the needs of the developing world.  Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the so-called BRICS countries will underwrite this new fund.  If successful, the new fund will seriously limit  the extortionate policies of American capitalism and further impoverish our formerly affluent society which historically has been subsidized by the misery of the developing world.  I think George would smile sardonically and nod his head in agreement:  “Yes indeed! “Down the tubes.”  
For an important contributing factor for our ‘tube slide’ click here:
Al Salzman

Brain Dropping # 30

Brain Dropping #30

      A sense of place.  Wendell Berry, the poet and environmental activist, was asked what should a person do to counter the despoiliation of the environment.  Berry said: “Find a spot,and begin the thousand year process of knowing it.”  He was talking about rootedness – the commitment to place and community which has all but disappeared in our restless, mobile culture.  Watching travelers on the interstate in their RVs, towing the family car behind, motoring to some vacation spot at six miles per gallon, I wonder if they have looked in their own backyard for a place of repose. 
The computer has expanded our individual universe beyond our sensory ability to grasp or comprehend it.  The macro-electronic pulsation is in tension with the micro aspects of our daily lives..  Virtual reality has become our reality.  I’ve become more aware of this tension since I retired from teaching art in the public schools and had too much time to kill.  There’s nothing more seductive than surfing the internet when time weighs heavily on your hands.  Just sitting and doing nothing and watching clouds scudding by overhead is a difficult option when you know that Bill Maher or Amy Goodman is at your finger tips.

    Yesterday, after spending a couple of hours weeding the garden, I plunked down in a lawn chair under an apple tree to rest my back.  Two or three Phoebes, who have nested on beams in my garage, were hunting insects.  Being too lazy to move despite the occasional attack of a deer fly,  I watched these remarkable flyers with the twitchy tails, in an acrobatic predatory campaign against black flies, mosquitoes and even cabbage white butterflies.  Using the stakes of the anti-deer electric fence circling my garden as observation posts, the Phoebes would swoop down in an elegant parabola and,at its nadir,capture the bug and carry it off to an apple tree limb above my head.  Step 0ne of the “thousand year process.”

Al Salzman


Brain Droppings Explained (#28)

Brain Dropping #28

What’s all this business of Brain Droppings?  Some dear friends have mentioned to me that I’m too preoccupied with gloomy events, and that I should lighten up.  But the Brain Dropping series of commentaries is not merely an attempt to engage a tiny number of  friends in chit chat. it is an attempt to bear witness to the events of the day, to stir up the collective digital nervous system, to make use of the electronic spinal chord, to spread the news in a way that the corporate media will not.  It is also my way of crystalizing my thinking about contentious issues.  This is not child’s play.  What’s happening all around us – from the proto-fascist surveillance state to the looming ecological crisis will only metastasize  without the intervention of well-informed insurgents.  Tucked safely away, here in the serene woods of Franklin County, Vermont, I feel that the least I can do is to make myself aware of goings on  ‘out there,’ rather than being led by the nose by the fraudulent media.  I’m inspired to do this, in my small way, by many exemplars of the truth:
Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Andrew Bacevich, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and many others. Compared to their sacrifices, it’s not much, but it is the very least I can do.   And to those happy-go-lucky friends who view all this as an intrusion – there’s always the delete button – no offense taken!

Al Salzman

BD # 27

Brain Dropping #27

“Life ain’t no railway line / ain’t gonna get ya to bliss on time / the rails ain’t straight an’ they don’t shine / happiness ain’t just down the line.”

That was my attempt, years ago, to write a blues.  Western Civilization’s idea of happiness has to do with a very straight, linear concept of cause and effect;  be good – don’t question authority  – pay attention at school – don’t rock the boat – work hard – and somewhere near the horizon you’ll achieve success and happiness.  Freud discussed the “deferment of gratification” as a sign of the mature adult as opposed to the pewling demanding infant who wants “it” now!  The “Eastern” idea of life as a meandering stream, the notion that chance is the driving engine of life, can free us from unreasonably high expectations.   Emotionally we pay a high price for those dashed expectations – those life plans that go awry.  I think the disaffection for those puritan precepts is the reason for the popularity of Zen and the Buddhist concept of “be here now”, made so popular by Richard Alpert aka Baba Ram Das.  It is not a coincidence that the cultural doctrine of the deferment of pleasure and happiness, fits so neatly into the capitalist ethic in dealing with low wage workers. Like the lovable shoeshine boy Horatio Alger, if you play by the rules laid down by the plutocrats, great rewards await you.  Think of the duplicity of this myth in regard to the pensioners of Detroit who are being asked to sacrifice a percentage of their pensions.     As that great comedic philosopher, George Carlin has emphatically stated:  “What the owners of this society want above all is obedient workers who believe in the American Dream and are not capable of critical thinking.”   He goes on to say: “Remember, to believe in the American Dream you have to be asleep.”

But if happiness “ain’t just down the line” – where is it?   Well, each of us will have to explore that question.  My favorite answer is that happiness is not a steady state but rather a series of pulsating moments, of short duration, which we fail to notice in the course of a day.  I got that from the great Shakespearean actor Ian Mckellen whose father was a true English eccentric.  He believed that happiness was like sneezing in that it happens sporadically and without warning.  Say you are having dinner with friends and a warm feeling of camaraderie comes over you; You barely take note of it before plunging back into your noodle soup.  That, right there, was a happy moment.  Or, sitting quietly in a comfortable zero gravity lawn chair on a cool Summer evening with your life partner next to you, and a Rosy-breasted Grossbeak alights on your feeder, not five feet from you, and  you experience a feeling of tranqulity and rightness  – there! – right there is happiness.
What Ian Mckellen’s  eccentric father would do was to underscore the evanescent moment by shouting, at the top of his lungs, no matter where, on a busy street or a crowded restaurant – “This is it!!!!”

BD # 25

Brain Dropping #25

Why have people been even a little taken aback by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which allows owners of a family held corporation because of religious beliefs, to deny contraceptive payments under the Affordable Care Act, to employees.  Or that the same Supreme Court allowed sectarian prayers at town board meetings in up-state New York.  These are just two examples of this court’s agenda to modify out of existence what has been one of the  rock-solid foundations of the Constitution – the separation of church and state. I guess the folks who were surprised  were not aware that six of our Supreme Court justices are devout Roman Catholics.  Yes, six of the highest arbiters in the land as to what is right and good and constitutional, believe in an invisible man in the sky who is “omnipotent, all knowing, all powerful but can’t handle money” – and believe that the Pope, ex cathedra, is infallible.  But why should I go on when there’s someone much more eloquent on the subject than I could ever be. 

Click here:

Al Salzman