Monday, August 24, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Directed by F. Gary Grey

A review of the film

This past weekend Judi and I saw the film Straight Outta Compton.  I had just finished an eight-hour shift at work, and seeing a film after work usually begins to put me to sleep.  This film is two and one-half hours long, but I stayed wide-awake and was even energized at the end.

What is so compelling about this film?  First we can look at the story.

The plot

Straight Outta Compton is the story of the rap group NWA (N-word With an Attitude).  We see how the members of this group, raised in Compton, California, saw how their was little chance of escaping the violence surrounding them where they lived.  Between the gangs and the police, just attempting to live one’s life was a constant struggle.

Dr. Dre had a talent for imagining the rhythms and teamed with Ice Cube who wrote the lyrics to their music.  Easy-E had been a drug dealer and supplied the early financing for the group.  Dr. Dre taught Easy-E how to use his voice on their songs and he became a leading vocalist.

Then, we see how a club owner, as well as record company executives found the music of NWA to be repulsive.  They all saw how this music was immensely popular with young people, but apparently were intimidated by the raw anger and rage expressed in the songs.  They were especially intimidated by the NWA song, F____ the Police.

Eventually the NWA became immensely popular and the group members are suddenly wealthy.  However, their wealth in compromised by various promoters who care more about money than the welfare of the performers.

Those who survive these obstacles, learn how to forge their own identities and gain vast quantities of wealth in the process.

James Baldwin

In order to gain a better perspective to this film, I looked at some of the speeches and writings of James Baldwin who was one of the most profound writers in the history of this country.  When we see how the members of NWA experienced brutality from police officers we might think about the following passage by James Baldwin.

“One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.  The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?”  When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.  Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die.  Others fled to other states and cities––that is, to other ghettos.  Some went on wine or whisky or the needle, and are still on it.  And others, like me fled into the church.”

Why do the police brutalize Black people?  Baldwin explains this in the following passages.

“A mob cannot afford to doubt: that the Jews killed Christ or that niggers want to rape their sisters or that anyone who fails to make it in the land of the free and the home of the brave deserves to be wretched.  But these ideas do not come from the mob.  They come from the state, which creates and manipulates the mob.  The idea of black persons as property, for example, does not come from the mob.  It is not a spontaneous idea.  It does not come from the people, who knew better, who thought nothing of intermarriage until they were penalized for it: this idea comes from the architects of the American States.  These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important––more real––than the possibilities of the human being.”

“The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were indeed animals and deserved to be treated like animals.  Therefore it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”

The year is 2015.  Seeing the film Straight Outta Compton shows how Baldwin’s words continue to ring true 52 years after they were written.

The difference between then and now

My first year of high school was in 1967.  This was the year of the rebellion in Newark as well as hundreds of other cities in this country.  The anger that had built up over the years from the near constant humiliation of the Black community crossed over to rage. 

In 1968 this rage was further fueled by the assassination of Martin Luther King.  King had been an advocate of non-violence and the government sent him to prison several times for his efforts in support of the civil rights movement. 

In 1968 King went to Memphis, Tennessee to support Black sanitation workers who were on strike.  Their principal slogan was “I Am a Man.”  King, who went to jail in non-violent disobedience was shot down in cold blood.  The Black community responded with rebellions throughout the country.  Clearly the anger had continued to turn into rage.

Back in those days it was difficult to make a living.  However, the 1970’s were the highpoint in the standard of living in this country.  This was the result of the fact that the unions and the civil rights movement forced employers and the government to give workers a larger share of the wealth in this country.

College tuition in those days was a tiny fraction of what it is today.  While the jobs of those days were difficult, they weren’t very hard to come by.  Working people had a chance to own a home, purchase a car, and send their children to college.  These weren’t the “good old days,” but it was easier to make a living.

Today every aspect of life is more expensive.  This is a reflection of the fact that real wages have gone down in the past forty years.  This deteriorating standard of living has hit the Black and Latino communities the hardest. 

Yes, the music of today is different from the music I grew up with.  The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Aretha Franklin have completely different musical styles from NWA.  My opinion is that the music of NWA is an expression of rage felt by young people in the Black community.  This expression of rage comes in part from the deteriorating living conditions people experience today.

In 1967 & 1968 many people were critical of the rebellions.  However, the feeling of anger and rage were only human responses to the conditions people experienced. 

The popularity of NWA also is an affirmation that the rage people feel is real and not imaginary.  NWA received considerable support when they refused to be intimidated and performed their song F___ the Police.

Today a change has taken place that is different from the past.  Today there is a political movement called Black Lives Matter.  This means that the rage people feel can be channeled into real and meaningful political action.

One dramatic moment in Straight Outta Compton was about the televised beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.  We saw how the members of NWA reacted to the “not guilty” verdict for the officers who beat Rodney King. 

Given the context of this film we this verdict from a different perspective.  This wasn’t just a gross miscarriage of justice.  This verdict demonstrated how the government in this country had no intention of doing anything about the routine brutality conducted by the police in the Black community.  In spite of the fact that the members of NWA had become millionaires, they felt the injustice of this decision personally.          

There are those who argue that nothing will change in this country.  I will end this review with another quotation from James Baldwin that summarizes my thinking on this issue.

“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”

The quotations of James Baldwin for this review were taken from his book The Price of the Ticket.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

The eighty-hour workweek at Amazon

Every year corporations in the United States spend hundreds of billions of dollars on advertising.  Understanding this fact, we might also consider that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat.  This atmosphere has intimidated the editors of the capitalist media from launching criticisms of large corporations.

This past Sunday (8-16-2015) the New York Times published an article that was an exception to this apparent rule.  In a front-page article titled, Amazon’s Bruising, Thrilling, Workplace by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, readers viewed some of the horror stories of what it means to work for Amazon.  We might keep in mind that Jeffrey Bezos, the C.E.O. of Amazon, also owns the Washington Post that is a competitor to the New York Times.

The facts of the article

·      Last month Amazon became the most valuable retailer in the country eclipsing Walmart with a market valuation of $250 billion.

·      The C.E.O. Jeffrey Bezos is the fifth most affluent person in the world.

·      The median employee tenure at Amazon is one year.

·      Amazon stated that only 15% of employees work at the company for more than five years. 

·      A woman who was an employee at Amazon suffered from breast cancer.  She was placed on a “performance improvement plan.”  These are code words for, “you’re in danger of being fired.”

·      Unlike other corporations Amazon currently has no women on its leadership team.

·      Molly Jay was a member of the Kindle team and needed to care for her father who suffered from cancer.  The company blocked her from transferring to a less pressure-filled job and a manager told her she was a problem.  She said that, “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.”

·      In an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse, workers toiled under 100-degree heat.  Electronic systems monitored the workers to ensure they were packing enough boxes every hour.  Ambulances waited outside to take workers away after they fell out.  Only after a local newspaper reported on this story did Amazon install air-conditioning at the warehouse.       

·      An Amazon worker thought that she was on vacation only to spend her days at Starbucks using the wireless connection to get work done.

·      Jason Merkoski, who was an Amazon engineer, had this to say about working at the company.  “It’s as if you’ve got the C.E.O. of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

·      Bo Olson a former book marketer said that, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

The myth and reality of Amazon

Why is Amazon pushing workers to these inhuman levels of productivity?  They argue that their focus is on a relentless striving to please customers.  Their jargon for this is called “customer obsession.”

Personally, I have never known one of the wealthiest people in the world.  I have associated with people who work for a living during my entire life.  These are the same kinds of people Amazon views as customers.  My experience is that working people have completely different priorities from those of Jeffrey Bezos.

We would like to have a lifetime right to both healthcare and education.  We would like to have an adequate amount of time to enjoy our lives.  Because of the advances in technology, the actual production costs of commodities have gone down.  Therefore, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that prices should also go down.

As one of the most affluent people in the world, Jeffrey Bezos is completely indifferent to these facts.  He can buy whatever he wants whenever he wants.  His family can have the very best health care and education that money can buy. 

I used to enjoy spending time in area bookstores.  Electronic readers have made many of those bookstores unprofitable and many have closed.  Although E-readers allow customers to look at a wide variety of books, they aren’t a substitute for the bookstores that have closed.  This is another fact that Amazon is indifferent to.

Why is this happening?

Before and after the Second World War there were continuous strike waves in this country.  These strike waves were the reasons why the standard of living was vastly improved.

However, as we have seen with Amazon, corporations are not in business to improve the standard of living of working people.  In order to satisfy their obsession to cut costs, corporation after corporation moved their factories to nations where wages might be two dollars per day. 

The labor movement needed to counter this exodus by organizing a labor party.  This party could have worked to stop the manufacturing exodus from this country.  This kind of party would have supported both immigrant workers as well as the rights of workers all over the world.  Instead, the labor movement went on a self-destructive campaign to “Buy American.”

How would a workers government utilize advances in technology?

This story begs a basic question that the Amazon Corporation and the New York Times refuse to consider.  Can advances in technology be utilized differently if a workers government had political power?

We can see the possibilities of a workers government by how it might handle the invention of the E-reader.  Clearly everyone doesn’t like these mini-computers and would rather read books made of paper.  However, I’m not the only person who prefers reading with an E-reader.

The increased usage of E-readers means that there is less of a need for printers, transportation workers, or cashiers in bookstores.  Since the number of workers required to produce this commodity has been reduced, a worker’s government could reduce the number of hours of a workweek with no cut in pay.

Amazon has done the complete opposite.  They have responded to reduced production costs by increasing the workweek to eighty hours.  This is in a company where only 15% of the workers last for more than five years.

What are the lessons of this story?

Amazon is not the only company that is making life increasingly difficult for workers.  This story points to the direction all corporations are going in.  Capitalism is a political economic system that needs to collapse.  Sooner or later there is no force on this earth that can prevent this collapse.

This story points to just one more reason why we need a workers government.  Sooner or later masses of workers from all over the world will draw this same conclusion.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Letter The Inquirer Refused to Publish

For several years I’ve been writing letters to the Philadelphia Inquirer.  I don’t have any illusions that these letters will make any profound changes in the world.  Writing these letters has given me the opportunity of expressing my views, and puts the seeming insanity of the Inquirer editors in context. 

Over the years the editors at the Inquirer have become a bit more conservative and it is more difficult today to get a letter published.  My estimate is that about one out of every 20 letters that I write to the paper will be published.

Force-feeding prisoners

The last letter the Inquirer declined to publish responded to a July 30 article reprinted from the Lost Angeles Times by Batsheva Sobelman.  The article reported on a new law adopted by the Israeli Knesset that allows prison authorities to force-feed inmates who are on a hunger strike.  Clearly, there are many horror stories in the world, but this one caught my eye.

Thinking about the force-feeding of hunger strikers made me think of the 2004 film about the life of Alice Paul who dedicated her life to advancing the cause of woman’s rights.  Hilary Swank had the starring role in this film titled Iron Jawed Angels.

In the year 1917, Alice Paul led a demonstration in front of the White House.  This demonstration ridiculed President Woodrow Wilson’s statement that the United States was a part of the First World War to make the world, “safe for democracy.”  Alice Paul and the other suffragettes made note of the fact that in 1917 women in this country did not have the right to vote.  So, they argued that President Wilson’s statement of making the world safe for democracy was absurd.

The police responded to this demonstration by arresting all of the participants.  Those who were arrested faced horrendous conditions in prison.  Alice Paul led a hunger strike against these conditions.  The authorities responded by inserting a feeding tube into Alice Paul’s throat, and force-feeding her with raw eggs three times per day. 

The film Iron Jawed Angels contained a scene portraying Alice Paul being force-fed.  I never forgot that scene.

The public eventually learned of this force-feeding, and the resulting outrage led to the release of Alice Paul and her supporters.  By 1920 the United States government passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote.

The latest Israeli atrocities in a world in the midst of an economic crisis

The year is 2015.  This is 98 years after the force-feeding of Alice Paul.  Yet the Israeli government has had an open debate about whether or not to force-feed Palestinian prisoners who are on a hunger strike.  Indeed that government actually passed a law that told the world how they think it is appropriate to force-feed Palestinian prisoners.

As it turns out, also during the month of July, Israeli civilians burned a home in the village of Duma south of Nablus in the West Bank.  18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh died as a result of this arson attack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement critical of the murder of Dawabsheh.  However, just last summer Netanyahu ordered the Israel military to bomb the Palestinian occupied Gaza Strip.  During those bombing raids over 2,000 people lost their lives.  This included over 500 children and much of the Gaza Strip was destroyed.

Tax-payers in this country should be aware of the fact that the U.S. government has responded to these horrendous Israeli actions by continuing to subsidize Israel to the tune of billions of dollars every year.  The question is, Why?

The Middle-East is the region of the world where most of the oil on this planet is located.  No corporation in this country will have even one dime’s worth of profit without a continuous flow of oil.  Israel has become the most loyal of the U.S. allies in this region.  These facts might have something to do with the reasons why the government of this country continues to use enormous resources to subsidize Israel.

The economies of Greece and Puerto Rico are showing the world that we are in the midst of a profound international economic crisis.  When the full force of the storm of this economic crisis is felt by all working people, the masses will demand a change. 

One of the necessary changes will mean that all working people need to be treated with the dignity we deserve.  When I say all working people, I’m talking about Palestinians, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, women, men, as well as Native Americans.  As Malcolm X once said, “Either we will all be free, or no one will be free.”  

Force-feeding ordered by the United States government

The day after I wrote this post, I discovered another story that is pertinent to this column.  Force-feeding prisoners is a violation of international law.  However, this has not stopped the United States government from force-feeding its prisoners at its infamous base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Apparently the United States has other things in common with Israel.  The government in this country stole the land from the original inhabitants.  Many of those original inhabitants now live in Mexico and today the government of this country considers many Mexicans who live here to be illegal immigrants. 

The government has also built a wall to separate the descendants of those original inhabitants from their homeland in the southwest.  This government has also been deporting hundreds or thousands of “illegal immigrants” every day.  Most of those immigrants come from Mexico.

My opinion is that ultimately working people have no reason for borders.  We are all a part of one human family.  This is the same in Palestine as well as the United States.