HPV Vaccine Boondoggle
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
There’s a growing controversy about the newest crusade from the medical establishment and the giant Merck pharmaceutical company: the demand that U.S. state governments pass laws requiring that all sixth-grade girls get a three-shot vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV) on the ground that this will reduce their risk of later getting cervical cancer, The establishment media have framed this issue the usual way they do new-drug stories, claiming flatly that HPV “causes” cervical cancer even though only 70 percent of women with cervical cancer have the virus and no virus has ever been definitively linked to any sort of cancer. They proclaim the vaccine to be “life-saving” and demand that it be forced on pre-teen girls, and claim that the opponents are idiots living in the past and unwilling to embrace this new wonder of pharmaceutical technology.
And the opponents — at least the ones that get the publicity — are playing their assigned roles in this sick script. The HPV vaccine is being debated in the same way as stem-cell research: the stupid arguments against it are crowding out the sensible ones. The stupid arguments are coming largely from the Christian Right and center around the idea that, since HPV is sexually transmitted, vaccinating against it would essentially be encouraging young girls to have sex. They claim that people can avoid contracting HPV simply by not having sex until marriage to an uninfected partner, and monogamy thereafter, and argue that since HPV isn’t casually transmissible it’s not a disease that should be attacked by mandatory vaccination the way smallpox and polio were.
The sensible arguments against mandatory HPV vaccination are, first, that it’s using a cannon to shoot a flea. According to American Cancer Society estimates, just 3,670 American women with HPV die from cervical cancer each year. The only link between HPV and cervical cancer is a simple 70 percent correlation between the virus and the disease — not the 100 percent correlation that Koch’s postulates, the classic rules for identifying a microorganism as the cause of a disease, require. Since 50 percent of all sexually active Americans, of either gender, contract HPV at some point in their lives, that’s a lot of people who will never get the disease getting an expensive, risky vaccine for a virus that most people who encounter it won’t suffer from in any way — especially if the vaccine requirement is extended to boys as well, as some advocates have called for, though HPV has never even been claimed to cause a disease in men.
The vaccine is both expensive and potentially toxic. It won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the basis of a clinical trial in 20,000 women — a larger sample size than most of the anti-HIV medications but still a small fraction of the up to 100 million women for whom the vaccine is being promoted. It must be taken in three doses, each of which costs $120 — which has led some to suspect that Merck is promoting the mandatory vaccine requirement as a form of corporate welfare in which the profits from Gardasil, as they call the HPV vaccine, will bail them out of the potential billions of dollars in legal liability from the over 28,000 people who died or became seriously ill from Merck’s last (now withdrawn) blockbuster drug, Vioxx.
Those suspicions grew when Texas, of all states, became the first U.S. state to mandate HPV vaccination for young girls. Instead of coming from the Texas legislature, the mandate was imposed by an executive order by governor Rick Perry, who was George W. Bush’s hand-picked successor and has usually faithfully done the bidding of the radical Right. Not this time. Defending the mandate against criticism from the Christian Right, Perry said, “While I understand the concerns expressed by some, I stand firmly on the side of protecting life. The HPV vaccine does not promote sex, it promotes women’s health.”
Then information came out that showed Perry might have had a less high-minded and more mercenary motive for imposing the vaccine requirement. Perry’s former chief of staff had been hired by Merck as a lobbyist, and Merck’s political action committee had given $6,000 to Perry’s campaign. What’s more, the supposedly “independent” lobbying group Women in Government, composed of female state legislators banding together to push for HPV vaccine mandates in their respective states, also turned out to have received major donations from Merck. The controversy over that hurt the company’s image enough that Merck spokespeople announced that they would stop funding future campaigns for HPV vaccine mandates — but the suspicion remains that Merck not only wants to see the mandates imposed, but wants to see them imposed quickly while they still have a monopoly on the product, before GlaxoSmithKline and other big drug companies have their own HPV vaccines on the market.
There are also civil-liberties arguments against vaccine mandates. Though the mandate proposals include an “opt-out” clause that any parent objecting to having their child vaccinated can pull out of the program, Barbara Loe Fisher, spokesperson for the National Vaccine Information Center — a group which provides information on the health risks of vaccines and urges parents to consider the option of not having their children vaccinated — argues that the medical establishment systematically harasses parents who choose the no-vaccine option for their kids.
“Your name goes on a state list,” Fisher told The Nation (in an article whose author was clearly biased in favor of mandatory HPV vaccination). “You get harassing phone calls from the CDC [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control] for your views on vaccines. Some families get thrown off health insurance plans, thrown out of their pediatricians’ offices, thrown out of public schools — or parents are put in a room and grilled by officials about the depth of their religious convictions on this.”
Much of this pressure is justified on the ground that in order to work the way they’re supposed to, vaccine programs must reach a critical mass of their target population; if they don’t, the theory goes, the disease being vaccinated against will have a large enough population in which to incubate and grow into a major health threat. Some health professionals derisively refer to kids whose parents haven’t had them vaccinated as “free riders,” meaning that they’re getting the benefit of vaccination without having to run the health risks involved. But these arguments don’t make sense for a vaccine against a virus like HPV which isn’t casually transmitted and causes a disease, if at all, only far later in life than childhood.
Over and over again, we’ve seen the pharmaceutical industry use the same marketing strategy for disease after disease. First, you either take a real disease and magnify its significance or, as in the case of so-called “attention deficit hyperactive disorder,” you simply invent one by redefining normal human behavior as “sick.” Then you fund massive “awareness” campaigns to persuade people to test for your disease, following which you sell them the drugs you just happen to have available to “treat” it. In the case of HPV vaccination, Merck has taken a rare but still terrifying disease — cervical cancer — identified it as viral on the basis of shaky scientific evidence and is now marketing a vaccine to make a quick buck out of perfectly healthy children, scared parents and intimidated or bought politicians.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
NICK KARRAS and SAYAKA ADACHI:
Promoting Sexual Happiness, Well-Being and Fulfillment
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Professional sexologists Nick Karras and Sayaka Adachi have their headquarters in an unassuming institutional-green duplex bungalow at 412 Pennsylvania Avenue in Hillcrest. They operate the LLS (Love, Life, Sex) Center at that address and live next door in the other unit of the same building. They only recently opened up, but they’ve already started a wide range of workshops divided into “For Men,” “For Women” and “For Everybody” — with “For Couples” and “For Parents” to be added later — aimed not only at broadening people’s sexual experiences but at increasing the level of fulfillment from them.
Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Karras worked as a commercial photographer in San Diego for 27 years and, as a hobby, also shot black-and-white erotica. When he produced a book of photographs of women’s genitalia and called it Petals, it got a surprising degree of attention and inspired him to return to college for a doctorate in human sexuality. There he met Adachi and started what’s become both a personal and a professional partnership with her.
Adachi, born and raised in Japan, worked as a school psychologist with children with both physical and mental disabilities. Her clients ranged in age from three to 21, but were all in wheelchairs and were nonverbal. “They needed sensory input to feel happy,” she recalled. She liked the job, but changes in her work situation led her to reconsider her career path. “My passion has always been sexuality,” she said. “Sexuality has gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past, and as a school psychologist I wasn’t really able to put the sex up front.” So she too decided to pursue a doctorate in human sexuality.
When Adachi first met Karras, she was immediately attracted to him but originally thought he was Gay. Then she saw the Petals book and, realizing a Gay man would be highly unlikely to put that amount of time and trouble into taking pictures of women’s sex organs, she went after him and their unlikely but highly powerful relationship was born.
An indication of their varied interests and the range of programs they offer clients can be found in the workshop topics listed on their Web site, www.lovelifesex.com. Among the male-only workshops are “The Art of Attracting Others,” “First-Date Etiquette” and “Become a Sex God!” The women-only workshops include “Unleash Your Inner Sex Goddess,” “How to Attract the Man of Your Dreams” and “Blow Him Away,” a workshop on specific sexual techniques.
The workshops “For Everyone” are headed by two dealing with sadomasochistic practices, “BDSM 101” and “Shibari (Rope Tying) 101,” and also include sessions on cross-dressing, swinging (swapping partners), open relationships, erotic photography, “I Am Curious” (which gives men and women the chance to ask each other anonymous questions about sex) and appreciating the visual look of both male and female sex organs. Karras and Adachi also do private counseling and “sex coaching” sessions.
“The approach of the LLS Center is frankly at the edge,” Karras and Adachi state on the home page of their Web site. “In fact, that’s the very nature of a fulfilling sex life. It’s what both attracts us and scares us. The learning environment at the LLS Center is a safe place to explore your deeper, and often most guarded, sexual needs.” For more information, visit www.lovelifesex.com
Zenger’s: Before we get into what you do here at the Center, can you talk briefly about the Petals book? What was the concept behind that, and why?
Nick Karras: I think all human beings struggle with their sexual identity, and that’s part of our life journey. I use photography as a way to explore that. That’s why, as a hobby, I did erotic photography. I loved to document sexuality that way. I did a series of bodyscape pictures, and I noticed that that a person’s sexuality could empower them or drain them. I started seeing that correlation when I would take pictures: people who were in tune with their sexuality and enjoyed it were happier. They seemed to be more full of life. They seemed to have things coming their way. So it was a way for me to learn to do that with myself.
Women, I noticed, especially had a lot of issues around that. The Petals book started because a lover of mine at the time didn’t like her vulva, [the visible part of the] vagina, and it held her back. I saw it as this beautiful thing, and that was why, through photography, I wanted her to see that and use it to empower herself, not feel ashamed by it. That’s what got the Petals series going. I figured out a way to photograph it so that she saw it as beautiful. She showed it to her friend, and that woman belonged to a women’s group where a lot of women had issues because they’d been molested or raped, or just thought it was ugly.
I could see that using photography in reconnecting a woman with her source of power was a very powerful thing, and that’s what inspired me to go back to school and to learn more than that. I saw that when a person is in touch with their sexuality and empowered by it, it’s just a wonderful way to live life. Also, after 27 years as a commercial photographer, it was time to do something I was more passionate about. I felt that this was my purpose.
Sayaka Adachi: You have kind of gotten sucked into this field. A lot of women started sending you pictures and asking you, “Am I normal?” You were in a counselor’s position without a counseling degree, so you started to feel, “I need to educate myself more.”
Karras: I don’t think I would have thought 10 years ago that this would be my passion, what I’m doing. I don’t think any of us really know what’s in store for us. But it’s been wonderful. I’ve met so many wonderful people, and the best part is something so simple as to show somebody the beauty in a part of them is so easy. It’s sort of an easy gift to give someone.
Zenger’s: When did you start working with clients and when did you open this Center?
Adachi: We opened the Center in —
Karras: — December, huh?
Adachi: Yeah. We didn’t really start until January.
Zenger’s: Could you talk about some of the topics you have in the workshops and why you picked the particular ones you did?
Adachi: The erotic photography workshop was an easy one, because that’s Nick’s specialty. He’s gotten a lot of requests and done workshops around the country and in Canada, and it’s been a success. For the other ones, what we did was talk to fellow sexologists and people who work in the sexuality field. We asked what were the most common requests from the clients: what were the things they most wanted to learn. And from there, we picked a few.
Karras: Just talking to the people.
Adachi: Then I saw something that I’m passionate about. Because of his Petals — and now we are doing a male version of it — we are kind of genitals specialists, so to speak. So we do two workshops, one on “The Vagina” and the other on “Penises,” which is not something anyone else is doing.
Karras: It would probably help if you’d explain to him the concept of how sexologists are basically permission-givers, in a sense.
Adachi: Oh, yes. Sexologists are definitely different from sex therapists. Often people confuse the two. People understand that “therapists” are people who treat problems and disorders, which means they first have to diagnose things.
Sexologists don’t really diagnose anything. We go by what we call a PLISSIT model. The P stands for Permission-giving. LI stands for Limited Information, SS for Specific Suggestion, and IT for Intensive Therapy. As sexologists, usually our purpose is to do PLISS. Most sexologists refer the IT part out. But most clients, 99 percent of the clients that we help, it’s just PLISS. So that’s what we do, and if you can think about the workshops as basic PLI, we can color how we look at them that way.
Karras: We basically just give permission as far as your sexuality, and we help you find the information that’s out there.
Zenger’s: I notice you have the listing split between workshops for men, workshops for women, workshops for couples, and workshops for everyone, and the first two topics on the workshops for everyone revolve around at least light S/M. Why is that?
Adachi: We may have to change that ordering because we’ve noticed that some people, when they click on the “Workshops for Everyone” and the first two are those two, if that’s not something that they’re interested in, or if that’s something that they really have aversion to, they don’t even pass through that. But we included them because that’s a healthy expression of lovemaking or erotic expression. Right now S/M is considered mentally ill under DSM-IV [the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the “bible” that defines what is and isn’t a mental illness]. We don’t believe it.
I guess when we went to school, part of our education was to get to know something about every kink. A representative of each of these kink communities would come to the school and talk to us about what they do, how they do it and why they do it. And That opened my mind up big-time. I guess what I really liked about S/M really is the communication that takes place between the top and the bottom before the play. That’s something that’s often lacking in regular vanilla sex, and the lack of that communication can create troubles later on. Even if you don’t play in a BDSM role, learning those communications skills is very important. Maybe that’s why I have BDSM on top.
A lot of people think BDSM is all about just control and dominance, and the sub just goes into the sub mode and has no power. That’s so untrue. It’s such a loving relationship, as far as I can see, in these people. So maybe that’s why the S/M topics are on top of our list.
Zenger’s: So what you’re saying is that the kinds of communications skills you have to have to do S/M, because of the dangers of not doing it, are things that even people who aren’t into S/M could find helpful?
Karras: And they can carry that into all their aspects of sexuality.
Adachi: Especially in fantasy play. I think a lot of people are really afraid of getting into fantasy play because they don’t know how to negotiate and communicate exactly what the boundaries are. By learning the basics of BDSM communication, you can use that in every aspect, and your repertoire just grows so big in a very safe, sane and consensual way.
Karras: We both definitely feel that sexuality is a really important part, if not the most important part, of the human experience. Just as each soul has a unique purpose here, we express ourselves through our sexuality just as uniquely. Part of this journey is finding who we are as sexual beings, and being O.K. with that. It takes a lot of communication, a lot of trust, and a lot of exploring. That’s what we try to encourage here.
Adachi: Yes, and it is so hard to break the shell, because the culture really constantly tells people that sexuality is bad, sexuality is dirty, sexuality is dangerous. Yet this is something so special that we keep it for somebody we love. This whole dilemma is still very alive and well in so many people. I see people who are stuck in the Madonna/whore syndrome, and then they can’t really integrate the two. That’s common. There are a lot of women that have the good girl/bad girl kind of thing, and that’s hard for them to break. But just by giving them permission, it really helps them out. Usually our sessions are really short. Our clients come in and go out like that.
Zenger’s: I’ve generally thought that a lot of our sexual repression comes from our religious tradition, the very heavy anti-sex message of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Sayaka, you grew up in another culture with a very different religious history. Do those repressive messages still filter down in Japanese culture the way they do here?
Adachi: Japanese culture is definitely suppressive towards sexuality. At the same time, the sex industry is the number two industry in Japan, number one being automobiles. So sex is a huge dichotomy in Japan. Nudity is pretty much O.K., especially same-sex nudity, because from our childhoods everyone takes baths together.
The laws are much more lenient in terms of consensual sex in Japan, but not so lenient as far as adult entertainment is concerned. So when I was growing up, porn was illegal if they showed any pubic hair. Not that they could just shave it off; they couldn’t show genitals at all, really.
It’s interesting because I grew up in a very sex-positive family. My family owned a lot of porn. My mother, because she had me so young and didn’t want me to have the same thing going on, really gave me a good sex educatrion. In fact, she did so to all my classmates in junior high.
So when I was in seventh grade, my classmates came to my house. My mother popped in porn videos. We all watched illegal porn, and she showed us how to use condoms and talked about the power of no and the power of yes, and told us that this can be a wonderful thing, but you just do it when you want to, and when you are ready to do it, you use condoms. That was the message I got. If that was here in the United States, my mother would be in jail.
So I was thankful that I grew up there. But now that I am here, I am thankful I am here because I couldn’t really have this job in Japan.
Zenger’s: We’ve talked about religion. What would you say are the other things that hold people back from a full expression of their sexuality?
Adachi: Fear of disease, fear of morals, fear of being labeled.
Karras: I would say moving sexual energy between two people expressing themselves sexually is the most complicated thing that we do. Most of us don’t have the tools or the teachings to do it from a place of power. Once we acquire that, it’s beautiful and it’s easier. But unless we’re willing to work through that and make our mistakes, we’re never going to learn from it. I just think it’s the fear of the unknown, and of getting hurt.
Adachi: Yes, the fear of getting hurt. I think that’s it, too.
Karras: It is complicated, and it takes a person with a lot of self-esteem and personal power.
Adachi: And good communications skills.
Karras: It’s a difficult dance, but one well worth learning.
Zenger’s: As sexologists, do you believe sexual orientation is inborn, is conditioned very early on, is subject to environmental pressures as an adult, is something that we can consciously choose, or some mix of all of the above?
Adachi: We really won’t know the cause of sexual orientation in terms of being Bi or Gay as long as we don’t know the cause of heterosexuality. That’s what we learned in school. I don’t think people consciously or subconsciously choose to be Gay. As of nowadays, it’s much more accepted, especially in a cosmopolitan area like here. It is harder in many ways, so why would you choose that kind of a lifestyle? Especially — this is not sexual orientation per se, but Trans people, why would they choose that? I can’t imagine choosing that. What do you think?
Karras: I think it’s irrelevant. It’s like trying to analyze why someone likes Mexican food or Asian food. It doesn’t matter. However we want to express ourselves is an individual thing. I’m amazed that we’re even questioning it and trying to analyze something.
Adachi: So we don’t.
Karras: I think that comes with the soul. I think we come here with our sexual orientation, if I had to say anything.
Adachi: I think people fall in love because they’re like souls. And whether that be in the male form or the female form, why would that matter?
Karras: To me, if there were such a thing as “normal,” Bisexuality would be normal. And yet both camps struggle with that one, I think because it takes the argument out of the picture.
Adachi: Well, sometimes to accept the middle you need to fight the polar opposites first, and maybe people can meet in the middle after that. Maybe that has been happening.
Zenger’s: Part of the problem is that we’ve put sexuality into this kind of walled compartment. We’ve made it totally different from all the other parts of our lives. We don’t make moral judgments about people as to, to use your metaphor, whether they like Mexican or Chinese food, or both. I was wondering how much of this comes from the indoctrination of religion, this whole idea that sexuality is inherently evil and its only legitimate purpose is within a heterosexual marriage and only to produce offspring; and how much of this comes from other sources, the fact that we’ve put this wall around sexuality and treat it so differently from any other human experience?
Adachi: When people want to control other people, the easiest thing to do is to take away their sex. I think that’s why sex is taboo, because if everyone were sexually powerful and expressed their sexual being honestly and from a very loving, powerful place, they couldn’t be controlled anymore. I think our government is afraid of that, and religion is too.
Karras: People are afraid of that. We need structure. Human beings need structure. We’re scared of the unknown.
Adachi: I was just reading this book called The Power of Now [by Eckhart Tolle], and he talked about sexuality being taken away because sexuality seemed so raw, and so “animalistic.” Although I have to argue with that, because we are the only animal that has sex other than for reproduction, other than for reproductive purposes: humans and bonobo monkeys. Other species just mate during the mating season or when they’re hot. So actually expressing sexuality for other than reproductive purposes is as human as you can get.
But anyway, people used to think that was so “animalistic.” And because we are “superior,” quote-unquote, and we have our mind, our brain at work, we didn’t want to make it a natural part of our lives. We didn’t want to be like animals. We wanted to claim the superior thing, this control, this thing that we can actually control our body with our mind, this type of thing. We can do anything our mind chooses to do, and I think that just went too far.
Karras: I think the whole thing about sexuality is we should be free to express ourselves any way we want. Everybody should leave everybody else alone, not try to defend ourselves or try to fight with someone. It seems like it’s never going to end.
Adachi: It’s too bad that Jesus’s teaching became this judgmental Christianity movement, instead of what he was really trying to say: love your enemies. They don’t love their enemies in the Christian movement! But I’m not a theologian, so I can’t really discuss religion very much.
Karras: The few [religious] clients that we’ve had, we’ve worked within that. I think the first thing that we do is [ask] what is your belief, what do you need to hold on to, and now give us something to work with here. How can we fit sexuality into your belief system? And sometimes it’s very complicated.
Adachi: Yeah. Sometimes it’s really simple. But I wish religious people would drop the judgments and stop judging what’s right and what’s wrong, and how to fix unbroken things.
Karras: Sometimes, it seems like when you have the perfect sexual union, you get so high, you’re relating to your personal god. And religious people don’t want you relating to another god.
Chalmers Johnson Speaks in San Diego
Warns of “Nemesis” Facing U.S. as Its Empire Collapses
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“History tells us that one of the most unstable political combinations is a country, like the United States today, that tries to be both a domestic democracy and a foreign imperialist,” said retired UCSD professor Chalmers Johnson to an audience of about 200 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest March 18. He was there to promote his new book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, which he described as the third in a series of books on U.S. foreign policy and the dangers posed by America’s imperialist ambitions.
“I did not set out to write a trilogy on the increasingly dangerous threats to our democracy,” Johnson acknowledged, “but as I uncovered the legacy of our imperialist pressures on many other countries, one book led to the others.” The first book in the series, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, actually came out in 2000 and was inspired by his academic specialty: the politics and economics of east Asia. “My research on China, Japan and the two Koreas persuaded me that our policies there had serious future consequences.”
Johnson got the title Blowback from a CIA term that, he explained, “does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in other countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for the many illegal operations that have been carried out around the globe that were kept totally secret from the American public. These operations include the clandestine overthrow of governments we do not like … training other countries’ militaries in the techniques of state terrorism; rigging elections in foreign countries; interfering with the economic viability of countries that seem to threaten the interests of American companies; and the torture and assassination of selected foreigners.”
Blowback got good reviews but didn’t become a best seller until after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., when a lot of Americans were asking, “Why do they hate us?” President Bush said the terrorists hated us because they hate our freedoms; Johnson couldn’t have disagreed more. According to him, the 9/11 attacks were retaliation for a long series of American assaults on the Muslim world, from our overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 to our open support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza and the stationing of U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 2003.
“The fact that these actions are secret means that when the retaliation comes, as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001, the American public is unable to put the events in context,” Johnson said. “So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the alleged perpetrators, thereby culminating later on in another cycle of blowback.”
Johnson’s next project was to research the network of U.S. military bases around the world. According to U.S. Defense Department statistics, this nation maintains 737 permanent bases throughout the globe, though Johnson is sure there are even more than that and some of them are totally secret. “Regardless of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we now station over half a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors and others on military bases located in more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us in,” Johnson explained.
In 2004, Johnson published the second book in his trilogy on U.S. imperialism, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the U.S. Republic. Its most controversial argument was that this global network of U.S. military bases has enabled the U.S. to extend imperialist dominance throughout the world without having to colonize other countries and rule them directly the way the Romans, British, Dutch, French and Germans did in their imperial eras. In his speech, Johnson ironically compared the current U.S. empire to the Soviet Union’s system of satellites in Eastern Europe from 1946 to 1991, in which the Soviet Union controlled countries that were nominally “independent” by stationing its troops either in them or on their borders, establishing pro-Soviet puppet governments and integrating them into the Soviet economic system.
“This is the sort of empire the U.S. has created and is now trying to maintain, by way of its military forces and its bases, and threats such as those issued daily against Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, the Palestinians and other regimes we don’t approve of,” Johnson said. “To do this, the President has assumed powers specifically denied him by our Constitution, and the Congress has abdicated its responsibilities to the balance of power in the face of these executive threats. Despite the Democratic sweep in the 2006 elections, it remains to be seen whether these tendencies can be reversed or controlled.”
Johnson’s number one point in Nemesis — named after the Greek goddess who punished human arrogance — is that a country can be either a republic or an empire, but not both. His historical precedents are ancient Rome, which 2,000 years ago gave up its republic and became a military dictatorship to preserve its vast overseas empire; and Britain after World War II, which more or less voluntarily gave up its empire and thereby preserved its democracy. Though he acknowledged that “the British did not do a particularly good job of liquidating their empire,” and in at least two places in the 1950’s — Kenya and Egypt — they tried to maintain overseas colonies and satellites through military force, he said that “the overall thrust of postwar British history” was a rejection of empire in favor of preserving democracy at home.
“The people of the British Isles, after the defeat of Nazism, realized that in order to keep India, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of their empire, it would require that they resort — as they had done so often in the past — to administrative massacres,” Johnson explained. “In order to do that, Britain itself would have had to become a tyranny. They therefore chose democracy over imperialism, gave up their empire and remain a democracy today.”
Unfortunately, Johnson is not optimistic that any political force in the modern U.S. could short-circuit this country’s path to imperialist tyranny and restore republican rule. “The American political system failed to prevent this combination [of a domestic republic and a foreign empire] from developing, and I believe that by now it is probably incapable of correcting it,” he said. “The evidence strongly suggests that the legislative and judicial branches of our government have become so servile in the presence of the imperial presidency, they have already lost the ability to respond in a principled and independent manner.”
Nor does Johnson think that a popular revolution — bloodless or otherwise — is likely. “A grass-roots movement to abolish the CIA, rein in the pull of the military-industrial complex, and establish public financing of elections is at least theoretically conceivable,” he said. “That’s what, in a sense, we are doing here today. We’re trying to mobilize independent citizens to what they’re about to lose. And remember, once the Roman republic lost it, it didn’t return for more than 1,000 years. It doesn’t come back. But given the conglomerate control of our mass media, and the difficulties in mobilizing our large and diverse population, it seems unlikely.”
Queer Democrats Endorse Universal Health Care
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club unanimously endorsed California OneCare, the latest version of state senator Sheila Kuehl’s health reform plan, at its March 22 meeting after hearing an impassioned presentation in support of the plan from Scripps nurse Hugh Moore. Representing Health Care for All, an organization formed both to lobby for the plan in the legislature and to put it on the ballot as an initiative, Moore showed a DVD promoting the plan and then spoke on the main point made by its backers; that as long as most health insurance in California is provided by profit-making companies with an incentive to pay for as little care as possible, it won’t be possible either to insure the estimated six million Californians who aren’t covered now or improve the health care available to those who are.
“We don’t have universal health care in California now because of one person: Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Moore said, noting that the state legislature passed Kuehl’s bill last year and the governor vetoed it. Now before the legislature as SB 840, Kuehl’s is a classic single-payer health care system in which private health insurance would cease to exist. Instead, the money now paid to the private insurance system and the money government now spends on the health care system through Medicare and Medi-Cal would all go into a fund from which doctors, hospitals and other health care providers would be paid. The bill provides that employers will kick in 8 percent of their total payroll for coverage and employees will pay 3 percent of their salaries.
By contrast, he said the plan Schwarzenegger has proposed would only charge employers of 50 or more people 4 percent of their total payroll for a plan that, because it retains the private health insurance industry and its huge profit margins, is likely to be more expensive. Moore called the Schwarzenegger plan “a giant HMO … expensive and not sustainable,” and said that Scripps, which employs him as a nurse, pays 12 percent of their payroll to an insurance company which in turn pays Scripps to provide care to their own employees.
Moore’s bitterest scorn was reserved for the insurance companies, who according to the film he showed pay about 70 percent of the premiums they collect for client care and keep 30 percent as so-called “administrative costs.” Administrative costs include the salaries of their own staff members — including the reviewers who go over doctors’ bills and requests for care and decide what care they’ll pay for and what they won’t — plus the expensive ad campaigns and the all-important profits for their shareholders.
What Moore finds particularly galling is that the insurers call the 70 percent of their income they have to pay out again for patient care “medical losses.” ”The sickest thing I can imagine is a doctor who says, ‘I can’t treat you unless you pay me first,’” Moore said. “In the current system, the insurance companies just do that for them, and they think they’re right to do that because they’re making profit.” According to Moore, health care simply shouldn’t be a for-profit business because when you need it you have to buy it. You can decide to do without a luxury item or to eat cheaper food, but when you have a health problem — when you break your arm or you get cancer or you contract a rare infection — you need the care right away and you don’t have the ability to shop around.
Moore also said that the current U.S. health care system is as harmful to people in the medical profession as it is to those they care for. “A lot of doctors in the U.S. are leaving the profession because at the end of every day they have to do four hours of paperwork just to get paid,” he said. “The system is so broken it can’t be fixed.” He compared the struggle for single-payer health care to the Social Security system, which was enacted in California on a one-state basis before it was passed nationwide.
He’s also well aware of what he and his colleagues at California OneCare are up against. “Health insurance is a $100 million business, and it’s not going to go quietly,” he said. “You saw a few doctors speaking out for health care for all in the video, but that’s not the position for most doctors. The San Diego County Medical Association calls OneCare Now ‘the black hole of health care’ even though nothing about it will change how they get paid. If OneCare becomes law, Scripps will bill the state of California instead of billing Aetna. Also, the OneCare system will have the ability to negotiate lower rates for services, including prescription drugs. The only thing that will change is insurance companies will go away.”
The questions and comments from club members basically fell into two groups: people asking Moore to clarify how the plan would work, and people pointing out pitfalls in the political strategy behind it and warning how the health insurance companies and their allies in the business community are likely to campaign against it. Freelance journalist Ernie Barrera, whose brother Richard ran against Republican incumbent Ron Roberts for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors last year but got only 27 percent of the vote after basing his campaign largely on the board’s failure to expand access to health care for San Diego County’s working poor, said he fully supported the plan ideologically but added that the Right has so poisoned the majority of Americans against anything that would raise their taxes or increase government’s role in a major sector of the economy that passing such a plan is an uphill battle.
“’Taxes’ has been a dirty word ever since Nixon and Reagan,” Barrera said. “The mood of the video is profit is awful. The guy who’s making a good living working 100 hours a week running a small business is going to say, ‘I’m working my ass off and these people who don’t work at all will benefit.’ We have to recognize that we won’t get everything at once. The carping from the Left that President Clinton’s health plan wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pure enough, opened the door for the Right. The basic message is not being sold because Democrats don’t know how to fight within an American psyche that doesn’t want to see themselves as ‘losers’ and defines people who get help from the government as ‘losers.’ It’s not about the issues; it’s about the message.”
“That’s why each of you has to tell your friends about this,” replied Moore, who had previously acknowledged that OneCare is relying on a grass-roots marketing strategy to overcome the millions of dollars the insurance industry, medical associations and most business organizations will spend to campaign against any such plan. “For years, the Republicans have managed the issue better. We have to say what the message is and we have got to stop being afraid of being beaten by a crazy message. Let’s stop pretending to be middle-of-the-road and go out and say what we believe.”
One club member noted that Right-wing talk-radio hosts are already bashing the Schwarzenegger plan because it would cover so-called “illegal aliens,” and predicted OneCare would be attacked on the same grounds. Moore replied that under federal law, undocumented immigrants — like everyone else — have an absolute right to be cared for in emergency room (though the film he showed featured at least one woman who had been turned away at an ER), and that the health care system has to care for everybody regardless of their citizenship or resident status because bacteria and viruses don’t respect national borders or immigration laws.
“Right now there’s a TB epidemic in San Diego County and it’s from illegal aliens,” Moore said. “We hear all this talk about illegal aliens crowding people out of the emergency rooms. They’re not; the people taking up all the space in the ER’s are our own citizens who don’t have health insurance.” Moore said that undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be official members of the OneCare plan — the state ID cards needed to access the system would be issued to U.S. citizens and legal residents only — but they’d still be entitled to emergency care, while OneCare would eliminate the need for citizens and legal immigrants to use ER’s for basic care because they’d have access to the entire health care system.
According to Moore, the current California workers’ compensation system would be folded into the OneCare plan — which, one club member suggested, might be a wedge to pick off support from some business owners who are being crushed by workers’ comp premiums and might save a great deal of money if that system were replaced by single-payer. Moore also said that organizations like Kaiser, which is essentially an insurance company and a health-care provider in one, would be covered under OneCare just like any other provider — and would save money because they wouldn’t need to buy the expensive advertisements they take out now to build up their business.
After unanimously endorsing the California OneCare plan, the club also took up a less far-reaching health resolution sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which listed a series of principles they want to see in any health reform but shied away from endorsing a specific plan. After a club member pointed out that they had already taken a more far-reaching position on health care, the club unanimously endorsed the SEIU resolution as well without further debate.
Over 1,000 San Diegans Demand End to War
Boisterous Counter-Demonstrators Try to Crash March
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Over 1,000 San Diegans took to the streets in downtown San Diego on Saturday, March 17 to demand an immediate end to the war in Iraq. The protesters assembled at Fourth and Broadway from 1 to 2 p.m. and then marched to Pantoja Park on Market Street, where an hour-long rally took place. But at least five pro-war counter-demonstrators, almost all young men, crashed both the march and rally.
The counter-demonstrators included a tall man with a Marine buzz-cut and a Kelly green T-shirt who carried a sign reading “If You Ain’t Fightin’, Don’t Bother Squawkin’.” Another was dressed in a burnoose and wore a false beard intended to make him resemble Osama bin Laden — though it looked more like part of a Santa Claus costume than anything else, especially since the wearer was short, stocky and closer in physical type to Santa Claus than the tall, lanky terrorist leader. His sign read, “Osama for Obama in ’08.”
The tall man with the Marine haircut claimed to have served in Iraq and boasted that he had killed Iraqis. Before the march stepped off, he was approached by several peace protesters, most notably Fernando Suárez del Solár, who became active in the antiwar movement after his son Jesús was killed in the first month of the Iraq war when he stepped on a U.S.-made cluster bomb. Suárez carried a large, elaborate sign decorated with photos of his late son, and the mere fact that he was the parent of someone killed in the war seemed to make the counter-protester calm down in his presence.
Suárez also spoke at the post-march rally. Though his English has improved greatly since he started attending anti-war events almost four years ago, he chose to speak in Spanish with his friend, UCSD professor and anti-war activist Jorge Mariscal, interpreting for him. Suárez has been known for making impassioned speeches dedicated to the memory of his son, but he seemed angrier this time out than he has in many of his previous appearances.
“Here we are after four years of illegal acts against Iraqis and Americans, 3,200 American families destroyed and 300,000 Iraqis dead,” Suárez said. “More than 70 percent of Americans no longer support the war. We have to get this criminal [President Bush] out of the White House, but that alone won’t guarantee peace. We have to get the lying military recruiters out of the schools, and we are not going to accept provocations from people who support this policy.”
That last statement was directed at a tall young man wearing a white shirt with rainbow lettering, who was filming Suárez as he spoke. As soon as Suárez pointed him out from the speakers’ platform, at least two people in the audience tried to block the counter-protester’s camera by holding up their signs in front of the lens.
Suárez, who blames deceptive military recruiters for his late son’s decision to enlist in the first place — he said Jesús wanted to become a police officer or narcotics agent to help stop drug use in the Latino community, and the recruiter who signed him up falsely told him military service would help — continued, “The schools are there to teach people, not to recruit them. Go to the schools and block them so military recruiters cannot go in. Our students deserve a free education. It’s criminal that thousands of dollars are spent to recruit students and not to educate them.”
Mariscal, who like Suárez is involved in anti-recruitment activism as a member of Project YANO (Youth and Non-Military Options) and regularly leaflets outside campuses to alert students that there are other ways of financing a college education than joining the military, linked the war and the immigration issue in his own remarks. “We have non-citizens serving in our armed services,” he said. “We have people from Mexico and Central America coming here to feed their families. They have no choice. The crisis in immigration is linked to the imperialist foreign policy we’ve had in the last six years. Until we stop bleeding other countries dry, we will continue to have economic refugees.”
The rally began with an impromptu speech by active-duty Navy servicemember John Burks, who acknowledged the potential danger of punishment for speaking out publicly against the war but was determined to do so anyway. “I believe in the freedoms we have in this country, and I believe it’s wrong for one person to decide to send an entire nation to war and lead to the deaths of 3,000 people,” Burks said. “I’m willing to lay down my life for those freedoms, and I find it hard to serve under a person who led us to this slaughter. How can a government with so many problems at home say this war is right?”
“Is it righteous to do the bidding of corporations, to be the world’s bully just because we can, and allow our servicemen and servicewomen and Iraqis to die each day the war continues?” said UNITE HERE union organizer Chris Bricker. “Is it righteousness or self-righteousness? The balance of justice has been laid to its side. We need to stop this pre-emptive bullying that labels the world as our empire.” Bricker said a delegation from his anti-war labor group had attempted to meet with Congressmember Susan Davis and urge her to vote against any more funding for the war, “and she said she still had not made up her mind,” Bricker recalled. “When will the Democrats stop playing politics and lead?”
Maricela Guzmán of Iraq Veterans Against the War recalled that she was already in the service, stationed overseas, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. “I saw the plane hit the second tower on TV, and I wanted to go to Afghanistan and get the people who’d done this to us,” she recalled. “But I was in intelligence, and I saw that as soon as we went into Afghanistan we were preparing to go into Iraq.”
Like some of the other speakers, Guzmán linked the current scandals around the Walter Reed Medical Center and the lousy medical treatment veterans are getting from the government to her overall opposition to the war. “I’ve spent four hours in a VA hospital waiting for someone to look at my back,” she said. “I’ve been assaulted in the service. A lot of soldiers are committing suicide when they come back. A lot of others are physically alive but dead inside. When people ask why you’re against the war, say you support our troops by wanting to make sure they’re taken care of.”
Though the rally lasted only an hour — considerably shorter than previous years’ events sponsored by the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice — people who’d marched steadily drifted away until only about 100 people were left at the end. The event was held to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the U.S. attack on Iraq and as part of an international mobilization against the war. Because the date was also St. Patrick’s Day, many people on both sides of the issue were wearing green.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Lyric Opera’s Iolanthe Does Justice to G&S Gem
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Photos, top to bottom: Christopher Jonstone and Priya Palekar as Strephon and Phyllis; Dan Hall as Lord Tolloller, Priya Palekar as Phyllis, and Robert Taylor as Lord Montararat; Martha Jane Weaver as Queen of the Fairies in Lyric Opera San Diego’s production of Iolanthe. Photos copyright © 2007 by Ken Jacques Photography; all rights reserved.
Long before Lyric Opera San Diego could even dream of its current program or its splendid new home in the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, it was known as the San Diego Gilbert and Sullivan Company — and while it’s since branched out to encompass everything from classic American musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I to full-scale operas like Rossini’s La Cenerentola, in every season they do at least one production that returns them to their roots. This year, their Gilbert and Sullivan entry is one of the team’s more obscure works; Iolanthe: Or, The Peer and the Peri, the team’s seventh collaboration, which premiered at London’s Savoy Theatre on November 25, 1882, four years after the blockbuster success of H.M.S. Pinafore had made their reputation.
While it’s not as boisterously funny as the three G&S blockbusters — Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado — Iolanthe is witty, charming and all too current in its satire of the foibles and frailties of politicians. In his essay on Sullivan in the 1939 Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, Eric Hodgins proclaimed it the best of all the G&S operettas: “From the opening woodwind notes of the overture to the rollicking dance tune that concludes the last act, this opera never falters in the beauty and drama of its music or the perfection with which the words and action are carried forth by Sullivan’s skill.” Lyric Opera San Diego honors this rarely heard work with a production that, despite some flaws — notably the annoying insertion of modern-day political and cultural references into Gilbert’s libretto and a typically hammy, overacted performance by the company’s artistic director, J. Sherwood Montgomery — does justice to the piece.
Iolanthe’s plot is loosely based on an ancient legend (set seriously by Tchaikovsky in his last opera, Iolanta) about a fairy princess who married a mortal man and was exiled, condemned to live without either her husband or her fairy peers. In Gilbert’s take, Iolanthe (Laura Bueno) has spent the 25 years of her exile living in a bog with some frogs so she can keep an eye on her son Strephon (Christopher Jonstone), who’s a fairy from the waist up and a human from the waist down — a Gilbertian gag given some arch but blessedly underplayed sexual overtones by the cast and directors David Brannen and Leon Natker. Strephon, who’s 24, has fallen in love with 19-year-old Phyllis (Priya Palekar), whose guardian, the Lord Chancellor of Chancery Court (Montgomery), head of the House of Lords, has the hots for her himself — as do most of the rest of Britain’s unattached male nobility.
Plot complications ensue when, after the Queen of the Fairies (Martha Jane Weaver) releases Iolanthe from her banishment, Phyllis sees Iolanthe and Strephon together and naturally assumes he’s dumping her for another girlfriend. Since fairies (except their Queen, for reasons Gilbert doesn’t explain) are not only immortal but look 17 forever, she doesn’t believe this other woman can possibly be Strephon’s mother. On the rebound, Phyllis accepts the proposals of two of the lords but can’t decide which, and the Lord Chancellor sees his chance in the confusion to grant himself permission to marry Phyllis and seize her out from under the other three men in her life, but it all ends happily with Phyllis and Strephon together, the Lord Chancellor paired with Iolanthe — it turns out he is the mortal husband from whom she was forcibly separated — all the other fairies paired off with mortal men, the ban on fairy-mortal intermarriages lifted permanently and all the dramatis personae lifted off to fairyland.
Though the fairy parts of the plot date more than the political satire — at least that was the clear verdict of Lyric Opera’s opening-night audience March 23 — Iolanthe was written while Britain was in the midst of a public controversy over whether fairies existed, and laughably inept fake photographs of them were accepted by many (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) as evidence that they did. The piece’s satirical element revolves mostly around the powerlessness of the House of Lords — which, during the Napoleonic wars (changed by Lyric Opera’s rewrite squad to the current war in Iraq) “did nothing in particular, and did it very well” — and the turmoil caused when Strephon, who via fairy magic is not only elected to Parliament but serves with both major parties and gets every bill he introduces passed, insists that admission to the House of Lords be by competitive examination. “Now that the peers are to be recruited entirely from persons of intelligence, I don’t see what use we are down here,” says Lord Tolloller (Dan Hall) as he and the other Lords agree to relocate permanently to fairyland with their new fairy brides.
Ironically, Lyric Opera San Diego is producing Iolanthe just as the British Parliament is in the middle of a heavy-duty debate over the future of the real House of Lords, with proposals ranging from eliminating the hereditary peerage — meaning you’d be appointed to the Lords for life but your children wouldn’t have the automatic right to succeed you — to electing it by popular vote, which might reverse its centuries-long slide into political irrelevance and turn it into a British version of the U.S. Senate. Iolanthe also supplies an intriguing footnote to the history of the U.S. Supreme Court; the late chief justice William Rehnquist saw it and was inspired by the Lord Chancellor’s costume to have huge gold chevrons sewn on the sleeves of his black judicial robe. The author of a New Yorker profile on Rehnquist suggested that he should have chosen to wear something else when he presided over the impeachment trial of former President Clinton, given the similarities between Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and the Lord Chancellor’s attempt to use his authority to force himself on a 19-year-old girl who doesn’t love him.
Actually, the Pam Stompoly-Erickson costume Montgomery wears in Lyric Opera’s production goes much further than Rehnquist’s did; he’s covered from neck to toe in gold stripes, which makes him look like an inmate of a gilded prison. Indeed, her designs throughout maintain the piece’s joyous humor — especially those of the chorus of fairies, who in the opening scene look like a Gay high-school student ran riot with his ideas for costuming the cheerleaders. The Lords come equipped with long capes which Brannen and Natker have the members of their chorus fling around themselves like Mexican folklórico dancers. The direction overall is sprightly and well paced, making the fairies properly winsome and the Lords properly pompous; the marvelous scene between Phyllis and her suitors, Lords Tolloller and Mountararat (Robert Taylor), in which Gilbert’s writing becomes almost Wildean in its lusciously “milked” absurdity and parody of social-class conventions, especially stands out for its direction and proves these performers can act as well as sing.
Vocally, by far the most impressive cast member is Priya Palekar as Phyllis. The role is the toughest in the score, especially in the scene in which she confronts Stephron and Iolanthe together and reacts to her apparent betrayal with flights of coloratura obviously meant as a parody of the mad scene in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. (Iolanthe is full of musical parodies: the overture evokes Mozart, the Act I finale is Rossinian and the music by which the Queen of the Fairies summons Iolanthe from her exile is clearly patterned on Wotan’s call to the earth goddess Erda in Wagner’s Ring.) Palekar has first-rate coloratura chops and easily meets Sullivan’s other vocal challenges; what’s more, she’s a good enough actress to turn a stick-figure ingénue heroine into a tough-minded woman determined to get what — and whom — she wants. Jonstone’s voice isn’t as strong; he’s got all the notes of his role but needs to work on projection. Still, he’s tall, dark, handsome and everything a fairy might want in a man. Montgomery handles the big patter songs in his usual mincing way, which is amusing and makes the point, but there are enough records of truly great G&S patter baritones (especially the late Martyn Green) to show that these numbers can be sung with more vocal beauty and cleaner diction and be even funnier that way.
Conductor Kelly Kuo also deserves raves. He doesn’t try to make Iolanthe into another Pinafore; instead, he savors the score’s unusual, almost Mozartean delicacy and the contrapuntal effects between the two choruses which Sullivan wrote into his score. The sets by Grosch Scenic Studio are up to Lyric Opera’s usual standards; the fairy glen in which Act I takes place looks like something from The Wizard of Oz and the London street for Act II places the action in front of a convincing backdrop showing the Houses of Parliament and the Thames river. Overall, despite those annoying anachronisms — the Fairy Queen’s love object gets changed from “Captain Shaw” to Johnny Depp and she even dances with a cutout of Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean costume — Lyric Opera’s Iolanthe is a first-rate production of a quite good, unfairly neglected work in the G&S canon. The production is dedicated to Lyric Opera’s former president, the late William Shearer, who died in March after over 20 years’ involvement with the company, and it’s a worthy memorial.
Iolanthe runs through Sunday, April 1 at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Single tickets for Iolanthe are $30, $35, $40, $45, and $50, with reductions for groups (please call for group sales). Children aged 5 to 17 are half price. Tickets are now on sale at the box office at (619) 239-8836 or www.birchnorthparktheatre.net
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Michael Parenti Speaks on “The Culture Struggle”
Professor Exposes the Breadth of the Owning Class’s Control
By MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Michael Parenti, Berkeley-based historian and political scientist, came to San Diego in early March for several speaking engagements including one at the Malcolm X Library March 7 to promote his current book, The Culture Struggle. Despite its title, Parenti explained at the start of his talk, the book isn’t about the so-called “culture wars” — the duels between Right and Left over issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, government funding of art and the like. Rather, Parenti said, “It’s about how to think about culture, especially with regard to gender, class and race.”
Parenti made it clear early on that he was coming from a classically Marxist perspective that sees the conflict between the handful of people in society who own its means of production and the vast majority that support them by their labor as the central issue in any class-divided society. In his lecture and in his book, he used the word “culture” in the Marxist sense, not merely to mean a society’s art or entertainment but the entire complex of beliefs an owning class wants the working class to have about society and their role in it, and the institutions that train people from an early age to think about things the way their rulers want them to think.
“Most establishment literature about culture treats it as neutral,” Parenti said, “but culture is really a highly charged political thing. Cultures are manipulated and anything but neutral. Most of what we call ‘culture’ is formed by the dominant class. A slave society develops a culture that supports it. The ante-bellum South was a slave culture that created a lot of ‘research’ to ‘prove’ that African-Americans were inferior.”
While culture is not an abstraction divorced from the economic realities of the society that produces it, “it seems that way because we pick up so much of our culture subliminally,” Parenti added. In fact, he argued that culture wouldn’t be as effective a means of indoctrination if it weren’t picked up subliminally. “It’s mediated through a social structure, a network of relationships from peers, families, social groups and, increasingly, corporations, schools, media and the military,” he said. “These institutions are regarded as ‘neutral,’ but they’re endowed with specific agendas.”
Parenti conceded that enculturation — the process by which people are conditioned through culture to accept the economic and social order they’re born into as the best of all possible worlds — isn’t perfect. If it were, he noted ruefully in his book, he’d have never been able to write it and no one reading it would have been able to understand it. But he stressed the importance of culture in a class society as the owning class’s and the ruling class’s (which he defined as “the politically active part of the owning class”) primary tool for getting the vast majority of the working class to accept their subservient position as the natural order of things.
“Culture is linked to class power,” Parenti said. “Class is a neglected concept, and when the term ‘class power’ is dismissed as itself ideological, it’s easier to dispose of other inconvenient concepts like ‘class struggle’ and ‘class war.’ A lot of academic research on class exists, but it deals with it simply as a matter of income level. Social scientists and media pundits have perfected the art of looking at class without looking at capitalism. There isn’t any analysis of the most important class, the owning class.”
Parenti cited the heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, as the richest and most influential family in the worldwide capitalist owning class. “They invented and developed nothing,” he said. “They’ve made their money by working people to death. Of the 50 richest people in America, five are Waltons. Their total fortune is $78 to $91 billion. Not only that, but not much is said about their class power, about how this enormous wealth is translated into political power. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and TV won’t talk about class the way I am now. They never talk about social power. They give attention to every class except the owning class, and to every power except corporate power.”
One commonplace Left idea Parenti particularly scorns is the one about how oppression based on race, gender, sexual identity or any other factor can somehow replace class in explaining how an hierarchical society functions. In his speech, he particularly ridiculed the “identity politics” that ruled much of the American Left in the 1970’s and 1980’s, by which people picked up ideological brownie points based on how many oppressed groups they were members of — which led to the joke at the time that the perfect identity-politics Leftist was a blind Native American Lesbian (female, person of color, disabled, Queer). Parenti’s position on identity politics is classically Marxist: racism, sexism and other similar prejudices are important, but mainly as ways the owning class keeps the working class internally divided so groups within the working class fight each other instead of coming together to challenge the owning class.
Another point Parenti made was that culture is increasingly becoming a commodity in its own right, something to be bought and sold in the marketplace rather than created by individuals outside the market economy. “In America and much of the world we’re seeing the death of popular culture and the rise of mass culture,” he explained. “America’s working-class culture couldn’t survive the twin blows of the 1950’s: television and McCarthyism. You still have folk culture in the world, but the very term ‘folk culture’ is an admission that we buy most of our culture today. We don’t sing anymore; we buy CD’s and pay $40 apiece for tickets to sit with 20,000 other people and hear someone else sing. We have high-school kids forming rock bands, but they’re not doing that to create their own culture; they’re looking for a big break in the culture industry. Most culture has become commodified.”
More recent developments in the culture industry both bear out Parenti’s analysis and call for some modification. On one level, the Internet has spawned a revival of amateur culture through sites like MySpace and YouTube — both of which began as entrepreneurial enterprises and were later sold to mega-corporations. Enough ordinary people are creating content for these sites without getting permission from the corporate gatekeepers of the culture industry that the Los Angeles Times, the hometown paper of a significant portion of the American culture industry, keeps running articles about how dangerous this is for the bottom lines of the giant corporations that control our commercial culture and raising the possibility that soon it may no longer be profitable for a media company to spend millions on a new movie or band because much of the young audience is more interested in the do-it-yourself culture they and their peers create.
At the same time, Thomas Frank and other Left-leaning culture critics have noted that the speed and efficiency with which giant corporations co-opt grass-roots culture is increasing. Rap/hip-hop music is a clear-cut recent example of how, within a decade, an alternative “street” form of cultural expression was turned into a corporate product — and for the most part the rappers themselves (unlike the rock ’n’ rollers of a previous generation, who felt a need to pretend that they were still edgy, countercultural, grass-roots artists even while recording for major companies and doing corporate-sponsored tours) have joyously gone along with the process and celebrated the values of capitalism and conspicuous consumption in their songs, videos and personal appearances. Various articles have described an entire new industry devoted to hiring people to trawl the emerging grass-roots culture of young people looking for new popular expressions that can be commodified.
What’s more, though sites like MySpace and YouTube may provide an outlet for grass-roots DIY media content, the very names of the enterprises reveal that they are not generating a “working-class culture” in the sense Parenti meant when he used the term. Rather, the young people who post to those sites are seeking exposure and recognition strictly as individuals, in an era in which the corporate owning class is deliberately seeking to wipe out any vestige of class solidarity. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher summed up this attitude when she famously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals” — and it’s clear that one of the most important cultural strategies of today’s owning class is to make sure that people see themselves exclusively as individuals, responsible for their own material success or failure.
In The Culture Struggle, Parenti expresses this primarily in a withering chapter on the so-called “New Age” movement, which arose out of the progressive counterculture of the 1960’s but moved defiantly away from any attempt to build class solidarity and challenge the existing political, social or economic order and instead adopted an attitude Parenti calls “hyper-individualism.” As he explains in his book, “Instead of looking critically at the society around us and involving ourselves in activities that might help put the world — and ourselves — on a better road, hyper-individualism invites us to plunge into self-absorption, to find a universe of empowerment entirely within ourselves. It is solipsism writ large.”
As Parenti is well aware, the New Age movement may have carried the cult of individualism to extreme levels, but as a cultural strategy capitalism, especially American capitalism, has always relied on it to persuade people that their economic success or failure is entirely their own responsibility. “Under capitalism, individuated self-reliance is glorified — often by corporate interests that themselves depend on the government for multi-billion dollar subsidies and supports,” he writes. “The myth of rugged individualism features people who pursue their personal gratification free from the needs of others, almost apart from any larger social context. The movies and television dramas produced by the corporate media regularly portray fearless protagonists who single-handedly vanquish evil forces and set things aright, usually with generous applications of violence: individualized culture heroes for an individualized culture.”
Another development Parenti scorns is so-called “cultural relativism,” the belief that individuals raised in one culture can’t judge the rules, laws and mores of a society whose culture is different. While he said that multiculturalism — which he defined as “respect for other cultures” — is positive, he argued that it can be carried to extremes and used to defend highly offensive practices that maintain societies even more stratified and class-bound than our own.
“You can’t say that one culture is never better than another,” Parenti explained. “In Saudi Arabia, they used that argument to defend the stoning of women for adultery. The idea of Black inferiority was a central part of American Southern culture during both slavery and segregation. In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism and worshiping the military were essential parts of the culture. Most evils can be justified by cultural relativism. We must challenge the repressive features of all cultures, including our own.”
Parenti cited the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948 and signed by over 150 countries, as a set of cultural values he considers absolute. Among these are “life, liberty and security of person,” regardless of race, gender, religion, national or social origin, political beliefs or other status; freedom of speech and assembly, affordable education and equal pay for equal work; freedom from fear or want, slavery or servitude, torture or degrading treatment; a standard of living adequate for the well-being of one’s family and a right to food, clothing, housing, medical care, social services and security. He pointed out that the United States signed on to the parts of the Universal Declaration that guaranteed political and religious rights similar to those in our own constitution but not the guarantees of economic rights, on the ground that they would require an undue level of government interference in the private economy.
“Most of the countries [that signed the Universal Declaration] honor it more in the breach than the observance, but they recognize it as important,” Parenti said. “Regardless of the culture, a starving child is a starving child, a raped woman is a raped woman, and an enslaved worker is an enslaved worker. There are these human experiences that transcend culture.”