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Jun 2012 20

by Steven Whitney

It may seem odd that a 2½ minute video documenting an experiment with capuchin monkeys serves as the starting point of what is essentially a political blog. But often when things like human behavior and voting patterns don’t make sense, it’s useful to go back to the basics, to look beneath the surface to examine the mechanisms that create both predictable results and their often irrational anomalies.

The truth is, politics may be just as much about sociology – the way different groups
behave and interact – as it is about ideology and demographics. Today, we evaluate candidates, their actions, and their parties mostly within the context of a 24/7 news-cycle that inevitably creates a tabloid sensibility. And sometimes it’s necessary to pull back to a wider view to gain better perspective.

Eminent primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has devoted much of his life to the study of morality in animals. The recognized standard that de Waal employs to measure animal behavior is the Two Pillars of Basic Morality – one representing Reciprocity (sharing and fairness); the other signifying Empathy (compassion and concern for others).

In the video, two Capuchin monkeys in adjoining Plexiglas cages are given the same task – to take a small rock and hand it through an opening to their handler – after which they receive a reward. But the reward is on two levels – a slice of cucumber, an adequate tidbit, and a grape, a much better and more nourishing treat. When both monkeys receive the cucumber, all is good. But when one is given a grape and the other gets only a cucumber, the second rebels – stomping his hand and hurling the cucumber back at the handler. He’d rather have no reward than an inequitable one.

Other basic tests show that when one monkey is given a large number of nuts or grapes and another gets none, the rewards are shared instead of hoarded by one. These results (and others showing shared work) have been replicated hundreds of times in tests given throughout the world with a variety of animals – elephants, dogs, dolphins, and many more – providing evidence that an innate (or genetic) fairness and willingness to cooperate is widespread in the animal kingdom. On an evolutionary level, this ingrained attribute of fairness – of sharing both rewards and workloads – is how species and communities thrive. Indeed, Jane Goodall – the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees – views primates as nothing less than our moral ancestors.

Because humans are evolved from chimps, capuchins, and other primates, our DNA is 98.5% identical to theirs. And like them, our sense of morality and fairness is genetically embedded – we possess it from birth and then reinforce the concept of sharing at home, in daycare centers, and in early school grades. Ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you they believe in fairness and teach it to their children. Indeed, fairness in all things is a universal human ideal.

So how do Republicans, in actions instead of words, stack up against monkeys on the most basic moral standards?

At a time when America faces its biggest and most threatening economic crisis in 80 years – one that could negatively affect our country for decades – Republicans are thwarting all efforts by the President and Democrats to jump-start any sort of middle-class recovery. It’s not just a Do-Nothing congress, it’s the Stop-Anything-That-Might-Help-Democrats-Even-If-It-Helps-Our-Country platform that pollutes every word and deed of the GOP. When they’re not obstructing positive action through a record number of filibusters, they’re filing lawsuits against any reform (like Obamacare) initiated by the Democrats. They refuse to confirm a huge number of judges (who would ease the mind-numbing backlog in our courts) and high-level cabinet nominees, like Elizabeth Warren and the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, to block any needed regulation or oversight. They cut taxes on the rich and want to plunk the full financial burden on the poor and what just a few years ago was the middle-class. They are not willing to make even the smallest token sacrifice for their country – not even one added penny in taxes for any billionaire. And if anyone questions their agenda or motives, they scream “Class Warfare!” or “Socialism!” – two Big Lies that are growing very thin.

For the last 30 years – no matter what they have said – Republicans have consistently acted to cut education, welfare, and seem hell-bent on reducing Disaster Relief and “reforming” (i.e. getting rid of) Social Security. They want to reduce the number of police, fireman, and teachers, thus risking our health and safety while at the same time limiting our children’s opportunity. They attack and try to defund any social program (like Planned Parenthood) that actually helps people. They have calculatedly and deliberately hijacked any attempt to properly fund government just to prove that it doesn’t work so they can choke it to death and hand all responsibility over to the corporations that they clearly favor over real-life people

Does this sound like a party that seeks and works in harmony toward the healthy growth and common welfare of the community-at-large? Or does it come off as a dysfunctional, dissonant, and destructive faction that places its party and money before its country and people?

Morality – the essence and practice of cooperation, empathy, fairness, and reciprocity – was long thought to be a solely human attribute. And since it contains a democratic as well as an ethical aspect, it is one of the cornerstones on which America was founded. But these days, even the most basic moral standards are sadly more evident in animals than in the Republican Party and its minions. To the frightening extent that if Mitt Romney and the GOP slate sweep the November elections, the rest of us will be better off living on the planet of the apes.

Related Posts:
Occupy Reality
Giving. . . And Taking Back
A Tale Of Two Grovers
A Last Pitch For Truth
America: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
Gotcha!

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Jun 2012 18

by Steven Whitney

On the June 8th edition of Real Time, Bill Maher took the Occupy movement to task. His was more of a pep talk than a scolding, but his message resounds clearly: If Occupy doesn’t start making a difference, and soon, it will become just another left-wing full-of-hope-fad that failed. And we Baby Boomers know all about revolutions and/or protests gone awry.

Ours was the love and peace generation –– Woodstock Nation, populated by flower children, hippies, and even Yippies (an outrageously theatrical political movement) –– who believed that to end the war in Vietnam “all you need is love.” We marched, occupied parks –– the term “flower children” originated in a Berkeley park that Governor Ronald Reagan wanted razed –– disrupted political conventions, got arrested (more than 13,000 in the D.C. May Day Protests of 1971 alone), performed street (guerilla) theatre, slid daisies down the barrels of rifles, sang, chanted, burned incense and candles, wore ankh necklaces, and visualized the end of war. Men burned draft cards and women burned bras. Protesters and students at Kent State and elsewhere were shot and killed. We raised awareness, got everyone’s attention –– “the whole world is watching” –– and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Well, we got better hair, better concerts, healthier (organic) food, and wider sexual freedom –– all good things. But the war ended only when the last American helicopter was chased out of Saigon by NVA troops –– no peace, no honor, just defeat. . . and more than 58,000 young American men and women KIA. The system stayed in place and Nixon started the slow erosion of confidence in our government.

It was the era that began the culture war that split America apart and still rages today. . . and it was the revolution that ultimately failed. It didn’t end any wars and it didn’t change America for the better. Indeed, we made it worse –– because we remained defiantly outside the mainstream, a nation that would have elected Robert Kennedy President in 1968 wound up with Nixon and Watergate, Ford, Reagan and Iran/Contra, the two Bushes (George the Elder and George the Stupid) and their Iraq fiascos, and a nation filled with crass capitalists who bought the system and kept it rigged. Down with Che and up with Gordon Gecko.

Obviously, raising consciousness or awareness wasn’t enough. Neither was singing, marching, dressing up in costumes, or any of the other creative means we utilized to spread the word. We had the right message, but –– to our everlasting shame –– we didn’t deliver it properly.

Many blamed drugs for short-circuiting our feel-good revolution. But even without drugs, the ‘60s revolution was doomed because we didn’t focus on reality, on how things work in the real world. All the peaceful protest in the world did not end the Vietnam debacle because Nixon and a Republican congress, backed by corporate war-profiteers, were in power. If we had not opted out, if we had concentrated on supporting Democrats –– from President on down –– in 1968, the war would have ended, Watergate would not have happened, and Republicans would not have had a nearly unbroken 28 years in power. Instead, our demonstrations and the resulting police riots at Chicago’s Democratic Convention that year scared the shit out of ordinary Americans –– the swing voters each party needs to win –– and they literally ran the other way.

Now we have a President who actually wants to end our extreme economic inequity. But we have a Republican party that blocks every effort in that direction.

At the same time, we have a huge and growing movement called Occupy that also wants to end our financial double standard. But Occupy is doggedly apolitical –– it doesn’t want to get involved. Occupy decries political parties and refuses to endorse candidates while encouraging its loosely-knit membership not to participate in the existing political system. It doesn’t want to change the system, it wants to replace it entirely. . . all the while remaining on the outside looking in.

It’s an understandable position – the Hippies and Yippies actually held much the same view. But it’s unrealistic and totally counter-productive to Occupy’s own goals. As we Boomers tragically discovered, it’s like sitting on the curb and watching Republicans march the American parade off the cliff.

It’s vital that Occupy not repeat our failures, and perhaps the best way is to learn from our mistakes. Like the unsuccessful Yippies, Occupy intentionally has no party affiliation, hierarchy or leadership. That’s certainly democratic, but who makes decisions and who speaks for you? Democracies need leaders –– hell, every revolution, every system of government needs leaders. Otherwise who inspires? Who mobilizes the millions of willing volunteers at your disposal?

Most importantly, you can get involved from both the outside and the inside – one doesn’t preclude the other. Just figure out the most effective strategies to get what you want. What’s at the top of your wish list? What are your top five positions? You must make it crystal clear for both yourselves and others what policies and positions you stand for. How do you propose changing a system that’s fixed from the top down? And how do you communicate that to swing voters?

Occupy should be the important political movement that America needs, but right now its policy of non-engagement is sadly evident. Just look at Wisconsin: Scott Walker –– a politician for and backed by the 1% if ever there was one –– won by a larger percentage of voters last week than he did before Occupy was born. What’s wrong with that equation?

What’s glaringly wrong is that Occupy wants to change things, but apparently doesn’t want to dirty its hands by participating in the albeit imperfect process currently in place, one that can nevertheless affect change. The $11 million that the Koch brothers donated to Walker might have been counteracted by the occupiers in the state had they mobilized fully, but instead Occupy by and large stood by and allowed money from the 1% decide the election. And Wisconsin is only a preview of coming attractions if Occupy remains on the political sidelines.

There is much moral clarity in the ideals Occupy cherishes. But only cowards shy away from their moral responsibility. More than two centuries ago, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It’s still true today. . . and the deliberate non-engagement of Occupy in party politics, is a de facto example of doing nothing.

So roll up your sleeves, Occupy – mobilize and swarm the neighborhoods of all 50 states. You need to make people understand the real issues at stake –– and that voting for what you view as the lesser of two evils is still better than not voting at all (and worse, aiding and abetting the GOP by default). You have to convince everyone in the 99% not only to vote but to vote in their own interests. If you want a better and fairer America, the first and most pragmatic step is to keep Obama in office and get rid of Congressional Republicans who are blocking his progressive agenda. You must figure out how to threaten Republican power bases in a meaningful way or nothing will change for the better.

The lasting effect of Occupy will not be how many “likes” their various pages receive on Facebook, or how many re-tweets their accounts get on Twitter, or how many livestream views their citizen broadcasters rack up, or how many people occupy a park, a square, or even the Washington Mall. Occupy can only be judged on how it changes the face of a country in the midst of the greatest political crisis in its history. In the end, Occupy’s worth will be valued by how much it gets involved and directly affects what could be the most important election of our lives this November.

Up to now Occupy has been sitting on the sidelines preaching to the choir. But now it’s time to exit your tents, stop banging drums in circles, and get your political act together. Run from the dugout onto the playing field and exert your grass-roots power to pressure the only system we have into working for all of us.

The Boomers who largely failed are rooting for you to succeed. We want you to restore a true democracy. But if you don’t get involved –– and Republicans win by default –– then you can kiss your aspirations goodbye. Possibly forever.

There’s a lot of heat on Occupy right now. . . and there should be. You’ve got to prove to skeptics that you’ve got the goods to help build a better and fairer America.

It’s time to deliver.

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Jun 2012 15

by Nicole Powers

“The problem is, from what I understand of Occupy, that because it’s so democratic, so many people have a say in what should go, that your messaging is just getting too beat to shit. The messaging has to be produced basically by one person or a very small group of people, no more than three or four, otherwise it just gets watered down.”
– George Parker on Occupy and marketing by committee

George Parker is a man who loves profanity almost as much as he hates the corporate fucktards and douchenozzles that stifle creativity in the advertising industry (Parker’s preferred pronominal profanities, not my own). In his popular “piss and vinegar” blog AdScam and his three books –Madscam, The Ubiquitous Persuaders, and his latest, Confessions of a Mad Man – the renowned British-born adman rails against the Big Dumb Agencies (BDAs) and the shareholder-serving corporations that consolidated, own, and suck the life out of them.

Self-described as “the last surviving Mad Man,” Parker landed at Cunard’s Pier 96 in New York to pursue his Madison Avenue dreams in an era when the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic was still by steamship. Having spent five debaucherous days of “non-stop drinking and shagging” aboard the Queen Mary, he arrived armed with a degree from the Manchester School of Art, a postgraduate scholarship from London’s Royal College of Art, a masters in bullshit from the University of Life, and a few hundred bucks. In the ensuing five decades, he rose through the ranks and has worked on countless major accounts both as a freelancer and in-house for some of the most prestigious agencies in the world including Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, Chiat Day, and J. Walter Thompson.

As the recipient of Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award, and with a career that spans five decades and multiple continents, Parker has more perspective than most when it comes to what’s wrong in today’s ad world. He’s repelled by the kind of suits that use jargon like “resonate” instead of “appeal” and who “interface” instead of “meet.” But, according to Parker, their crimes against humanity only begin with their choice of vocabulary. He hates the way they treat the American public like it has a collective IQ somewhere south of Jessica Simpson’s and their clients with the kind of contempt that should be reserved for the likes of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

Talking of which, Parker also takes issue with the kind of one percenters who think it’s OK to treat themselves to Russian MiG 15 fighters (Larry Ellison of Oracle) and Boeing 767s (Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin) at their shareholders’ expense. To say Parker is moderately left wing is an understatement, since he never does anything – including Boddingtons – by halves. As such, he’s a rare beast in the advertising world, one that has lived life to the full yet has sense of decency, and a conscience.

Having been kind enough to call SuicideGirls “one of the best examples of a community based social networking site” in his excellent 2006 state-of-the-industry bible The Ubiquitous Persuaders (a book that serves as an update to Vance Packard’s 1957 classic The Hidden Persuaders), we were long overdue for a quality conversation with Parker. With the freshly minted Confessions of a Mad Man – a literary (and often times literal) romp through the industry as experienced by Parker – serving as an excuse, we called him up for a chat over drinks. In the interests of verisimilitude, ours was a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (cause we’re lightweights) and Parker’s was “a case of Pinot Noir” (because he’s not). During the course of our lengthy chinwag we discussed the decay of the American Dream, the not uncoincidental rise of political advertising, and how Occupy might best market itself and its efforts to stop the rot.

Read our exclusive interview with George Parker on SuicideGirls.com.

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Jun 2012 06

by Steven Whitney


[Above: The Hall of Mirrors within the Palace of Versailles / Storming the Bastille]

Last week, a friend asked: if you could communicate one thing before you died, what would it be? So, hedging my bets, this is that column. Since I’m not a fan of polemics, consider this merely as the first item, as it were, on my bucket list of social truths.

They aren’t going to give it back.

Memorize that one clear, simple sentence and you’ll be miles ahead of the game.

They aren’t going to give it back.

But who are they…and what aren’t they giving back?

They are the idle rich and the rich who create nothing, not even jobs. They are the so-called “masters of the universe” who gamble other people’s money and win no matter how the bet turns out. They are the rich who live in five or six McMansions each (and perhaps a yacht or two) and who aren’t “concerned about the very poor” because they have “a safety net.” They are the rich who rally against education because they don’t want a level playing field or an electorate who can actually think for themselves and understand the clear issues they too often succeed in obfuscating. They are the rich who are not their brother’s keeper so will not support the “general welfare” of their fellow citizens. They are the rich who don’t support universal healthcare because the sick don’t make them any money, especially if they cannot afford expensive drugs that might keep them alive – worse yet, the sick are too ill to work for them at minimum wage. They are the rich, self-described “patriots” who steadfastly refuse to pay even one extra penny to keep the country afloat. They are the rich who want to shut down government in favor a free-market economy, which to them means a market free of all regulation and oversight. They are the rich who prey on the rest of us, the rich who are not “of the people” or “for the people,” but are instead barnacles on the hull of humanity, sucking it dry of all common morality – the parasites who make no positive contributions to society as a whole.

They are not the good rich, of which there are many, but the bad rich, the ugly face of the rich…and they aren’t going to give back their money, their power, their influence, or their privilege to anyone, much less the little people of the 99%. They will let the principles of democracy rot and wither so they can keep the deck stacked in their favor.

They are not going to give any of it away. Well, at least not to you…or our country. As long as it’s tax-deductible, they might give it to non-profit conservative think tanks or right wing SuperPACs that reinforce the criminally inaccurate notion that the bad rich need to keep all their money and car elevators for the greater good of society.

So we have to take it back ourselves. If America as we know it is to survive – if our people are to live free of economic shackles – we must find a way to recover from them everything that is undeserved, stolen, and inequitable.

That means instituting larger top marginal income and estate tax rates, the very instruments that Republicans call “a holocaust for the rich” and which they warn is the first step in “class warfare,” two phrases born of alarmist horseshit.

The last time these rates were as low as they are now, the government essentially went broke…ushering in the Great Depression. To get the country rolling again, and give its people a New Deal, FDR raised the top rate to as much as 79%. During the 1950s, Eisenhower was able to maintain what became known as the American Century only by raising the top rate to 91%. Nixon, the absolute pragmatist, kept a top rate of 70% and Reagan’s was 50%. And during all those years, the rich suffered not at all, not even a trickle of a holocaust. Class warfare wasn’t even a topic of discussion because, through both the Civil Rights Movement and the idea of a Great Society, America was striving to become “one nation, for all.”

Back then, the rich were composed of people who created good products, jobs, and services that grew in value. And yes, the rich were still different from us, but not that different. Most had houses and cars and took vacations that were a little better than ours, yet they shared with us many of the same values of fairness, of the need for good education and healthcare, and the desire to live in a country that held real opportunity for all. And since it was considered in bad taste to flaunt wealth, the showy, ostentatious McMansions were the exception rather than the rule. There was a more equitable balance between the classes and, so, more cooperation.

Today, that balance is pitiably out of whack.

When the then higher rate of income tax at the time is figured in, CEOs netted just 35% more than the average worker during the 1950s and ’60s. In 2012, CEO salaries were between 380 and 475 times what the average worker makes…and with much lower income, estate, and capital gains taxes. These outrageous gains were bought and paid for by the 1% through the congressional votes of the Republican Party, driving a stake through the heart of the middle class.

Now tell me again: who exactly is engaging in class warfare?

And, by the way, if the 1% wants class warfare, the 99% should oblige them. After all, the numbers are on our side – 99 to 1, to state the obvious.

We already have way too many Marie Antoinettes; what we don’t have is our own Reign of Terror. And since they view higher taxes (Obama’s proposed top rate of 39.6% compared to 91% in the 50s) as a holocaust and the essence of class warfare (as they define it), let’s give it to them…and more. By voting to cut their pay, and impose higher taxes (say, up to Nixon’s 70%), more wealth will accrue to the nation and more equity to society.

This summer and fall millions of Americans must storm the Bastille of right-wing ideology, exposing its shallow self-interest, empty promises, bait-and-switch economic policies, and complete lack of real patriotism.

And then, in November, the guillotine of the ballot box should drop on the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the 1%. But that’s up to you…and only if you remember: they aren’t going to give it back.

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