Women’s Intuition

When you examine the litany of geniuses who wrought havoc in the markets in their profligate quest for unmitigated deregulation, you’re hard-pressed to find the fairer sex among them.

On the 18thday of the Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park, I paused to photograph a curious scene. An older man with a tight gray beard was leading an unlikely group in an acoustic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” People of every age and background, from a family with young children to a construction worker, had gathered on the steps leading to the area of the park known as “The People’s Library” to join in song. The only giveaway that I hadn’t accidentally stumbled through a wrinkle in time and landed sometime in the 1960s was that nearly everyone was recording the moment with a camera phone.Midway through the song, our musical guide abruptly stopped the music to address the ragtag bunch before him. “Why are there no women in this song?” he pondered aloud, with his guitar dangling from its strap and his arms spread wide. “Because men are responsible for screwing it up.” Before continuing with the song he proclaimed, “Let’s hope there are more women in power so we can have more humane decisions.”This scene was only one of several captivating pockets of Zuccotti Park, and my attention was soon drawn elsewhere. Weeks later when reading a piece about celebrity influence in the Occupy movement, I noticed a picture similar to the one I had captured on the steps that day. As it turns out, the gentleman serenading the group was Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary fame. Two things immediately occurred to me. The first was that Yarrow questioning Bob Dylan was beyond rhetorical, as he probably could have asked him directly.  (Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but it was Peter Paul and Mary who first recorded it.)

The second thing that came to mind was that my friend and former editor-in-chief of the Press, Robbie Woliver, would be gravely disappointed in me for not recognizing Peter Yarrow and grasping the significance of the moment; a realization that was made clearer to me in researching the origins of the song. As it turns out, the first public performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind”—it would become one of the seminal anthems of the ’60s protest movement—was at Gerde’s Folk City in 1962. Robbie and his wife, Marilyn Lash, co-owned Folk City for several years in the 1980s.

Yarrow’s timely reappearance at Occupy Wall Street underscores the similarity between the anti-establishment, anti-corruption sentiment of the 1960s and today. Further, his comments regarding the negative male influence in world affairs are perfectly in context with the situation on Wall Street. When you examine the litany of geniuses who wrought havoc in the markets in their profligate quest for unmitigated deregulation, you’re hard-pressed to find the fairer sex among them. Sure, there are stand-outs such as Wendy Gramm, but even in her case it can be argued that her depravity pales next to that of her husband. As the saying goes: Behind every terrible woman is an asshole. (Or something to that effect.)

History is replete with examples of men behaving badly to the detriment of civilization. Citing women as the reason for some of our bigger peccadilloes—Helen of Troy causing the Trojan War, Eve getting us all kicked out of the Garden, yada yada—is a favorite device of the male historian. Leading up to and during the financial meltdown, omniscient wizards such as Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin eschewed the warnings of women like Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 1996 to 1999, and continued their blitzkrieg of destruction. These guys keep breeding more insufferable free market ideologues like Tim Geithner, who fought Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 2006 to 2011, who railed against the concept of “Too Big to Fail.” To the free market jerkoffs like Greenspan and Geithner, Born and Bair were considered “difficult.” That’s man-speak for “tough.” Creative wordplay like this is how we men diminish effective women; better to be a bastard than a bitch in the worlds of high finance and government.

The most notable among all of these “difficult bitches” today is the earnest and brilliant Elizabeth Warren, who is running for Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat in Massachusetts against fluke incumbent Scott Brown. The funny thing about that race is that for Warren, this seat is actually a consolation prize from President Barack Obama. After leading the fight to create and organize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren was the presumptive nominee to head the agency upon its formation. Shockingly, however, the POTUS buckled under pressure from Senate Republicans, who threatened to block a Warren appointment, and instead he installed the even more hardcore and controversial Richard Cordray to the position under a recess appointment.

While I might not be able to spot one of the world’s most famous folk singers even when he’s performing one of his biggest hits in front of a crowd at a demonstration (it’s even worse when put that way, isn’t it?) I do have a keen sense of irony and a dark sense of humor. It’s why I can appreciate that while my gender has driven the world’s economy in the ground, they did so in pursuit of an ideology set forth by a woman. Somewhere in hell, Ayn Rand is doubled over with laughter watching obsequious and dim-witted men like Alan Greenspan trip over themselves in an attempt to become the Howard Roark of finance or John Galt incarnate. Ayn Rand is the Helen of Troy of the economy, the Eve of financial catastrophe, the…

(Did ya see what I did there?)

#OWS: America’s Id

Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.

The police barricaded the corner of William and Pine streets in lower Manhattan, preventing the tributary of protestors who had broken off from the main throng from doubling back toward Wall Street. Cordoned off, several chose to sit in the street and accept incarceration in the name of civil disobedience.

It’s 9 a.m. on Nov. 17, the International Day of Action for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The arrests are just beginning.

I’m aware of the time because, for a moment, everything is eerily silent but for the sound of the bell from Our Lady of Victory Church tolling above us. The din of the helicopters overhead and the shouts of “Shame!” as protestors are dragged into the nearby NYPD van fade away while the bell rings for what seems like an eternity.

As the last chime echoes in the street, the cacophony returns as though someone is controlling the volume button to the soundtrack of dissent. Gradually, my eyes return to the scene unfolding in front of the church door, which bears a quote from Cardinal Spellman. It reads: “This Holy Shrine is dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in Thanksgiving for Victory won by our valiant dead, our soldier’s blood, our Country’s tears, shed to defend men’s rights and win back men’s hearts to God.”

How strange that a church, born during World War II and forged in blood, should serve as the backdrop for the nation’s symbolic struggle against the excesses of the neighborhood it calls home. America’s new Civil War is spilling onto the streets of cities throughout the country; and here, in this moment, it is raging beneath a monument to our spiritual and temperate selves.

Over the past few years, I have made no secret of my contempt for Wall Street and the insidious corporate interests that run this nation. Admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement has gushed from my fingertips and poured onto the page, as I am perpetually amazed at the breadth and fervor of the burgeoning revolution. Being here, seeing it evolve and take shape so quickly, so dramatically, has influenced every corner of my mind. Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.

The question of morality is central to America’s struggle. We perceive ourselves as a good and righteous nation, purveyors of liberty. At times this has been the case. Often, however, our actions belie this view of ourselves, particularly during imperialistic periods of expansion. To wit, we spent the better part of the 19th century expanding our empire to its natural boundaries, squashing and annihilating the indigenous people of the continent every step of the way. Then we deified the likes of Andrew Jackson by imprinting his likeness on our currency, thus bestowing him with the greatest honor of a capitalist society. These are not the actions of a moral nation, but victories such as these in the name of Manifest Destiny have always served to rationalize our pursuit of omnipotence.

The first half of the 20th century held more promise. The country as we know it today was nearly assembled and America was finally recognized as a dominant player on the world stage. Our financial and military ascension gave weight to the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary, which established complete hegemony in our hemisphere. Yet despite Teddy Roosevelt’s bellicose nature and hawkish views, his and most subsequent administrations tended toward isolationism. Between the great wars, which were seen as moral imperatives, there was work to be done at home. And during this time, America hammered out a legal, industrial and economic infrastructure that fully recognized our potential as a nation.

Internally, this approach also allowed us to focus on social issues such as equal pay and civil rights in the latter half of the century. Unfortunately, while the nation toiled away at crafting a system that recognized the rights of all of its citizens, we began behaving badly in the rest of the world. At precisely the halfway mark of the 20th century we became embroiled in the fighting in Korea. This conflict and the conjuring of bogeymen in far-off lands presaged an era of unprecedented immorality when we would conduct costly battles against phantom enemies. More precisely, it marked the beginning of the Military Industrial Complex.

In his book A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn describes the dawn of this era as “an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for a permanent war economy.” Two million Koreans and 36,000 Americans perished in the formation of our newfound ideology, which continued into Vietnam and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. America has exported fear and death in the name of democracy but in the actual pursuit of oil and natural resources.

But our politicians did not go it alone. No one person owns these deeds. Over the past few decades the interests of Christian Fundamentalists, Wall Street tycoons, the ruling class and individuals of enormous wealth have gradually coalesced in the quest for a new world order. They are the 1%. They are the reason I’m standing almost nose-to-nose with a cop in riot gear, his club drawn and his eyes fixed on me as I chronicle the events by the church.

There are those who decry Occupy Wall Street as unpatriotic, misguided, or worse. These are understandable reactions to an uncomfortable reality.  The reality is that OWS is more than a movement to restore sanity to the financial markets and equality to our economy. OWS is a cry for help from America’s id. It is the realization that we have strayed not only from the optimistic perception of ourselves but also from what we strive to be as a country.

Ultimately this is a test of our commitment to the First Amendment. But it isn’t simply about free speech or the right to peaceably assemble. This is about the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” As a free, democratic society this is the penultimate failsafe, the last opportunity before total revolutionary collapse.

So as the Occupiers continue to refine their message, our political leaders would be wise to listen carefully. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is a very real battle; perhaps the first battle since World War II worthy of the inscription at Our Lady of Victory.

#OWS WK4: Kaptur and Gramm and Schumer, Oh My.

Tying the tubes of banks that have been, ahem, fornicating with the global economy and impregnating speculative bubbles only to watch them burst, will only hasten the inevitable seismic crash that looms around the corner. Breaking up the banks will happen one way or another…either by the law of the land or the law of nature.

The only phrase in connection with Occupy Wall Street repeated more often than “We are the 99%” is “What do they want?” The former is, of course, the rallying cry inviting citizens to join the movement against plutocracy in America—a show of strength against corporate greed and government corruption. The latter is the response to the growing number of dissenters in the “American Autumn”—criticism for their lacking a coherent list of specific demands. Personally, the only thing I find lacking is the imagination embodied by this mindless question.

The communal process of exploration and debate taking place in Zuccotti Park is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There are plenty of cogent, specific demands to be heard, but only by those who are willing to listen. A good deal of patience and a pinch of intellect are helpful because this isn’t a bumper-sticker movement and the occupiers don’t suffer fools (Geraldo) gladly.

There is no substitute for visiting the park and absorbing democracy, grassroots style. This past weekend my wife and I brought our two children with us to witness history unfolding in Manhattan, as it will someday grace the pages of a textbook, or a tablet, during their college years. With that said, allow me to indulge the frothing masses with a chunk of raw meat by examining one of the cornerstone issues behind OWS: Glass-Steagall.

Breaking the Bank: A Brief History of Glass-Steagall

In short, this was the name of the Act that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in investment-banking activities, among other things. It was established in 1933 to tame the harmful speculative behavior of an industry run amok in the early part of the 20th century; behavior largely credited for the market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. Fast forward to the waning days of the Clinton administration when the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the meat of Glass-Steagall and cleared the way for the greatest, most rapid consolidation of banking interests and wealth in recorded history.

Reinstating Glass-Steagall is, of course, easier said than done. Technically, the mechanics of doing it are fairly simple from a structural perspective, though it would cause massive upheaval in the banking world for several years to come. What is almost beyond comprehension are the circumstances that allow banks to continue gambling promiscuously in the world markets, which is a direct result of complementary deregulatory measures, globalization and an extraordinarily loose monetary policy.

These three factors have allowed banks to engage in worldwide investment schemes using cheap, borrowed money in a manner that is both irresponsible and opaque. In other words, be careful what you wish for. Tying the tubes of banks that have been, ahem, fornicating with the global economy and impregnating speculative bubbles only to watch them burst, will only hasten the inevitable seismic crash that looms around the corner. Breaking up the banks will happen one way or another…either by the law of the land or the law of nature.

Protestors from Zuccotti Park to San Francisco are keenly aware of this reality. They have an extremely sophisticated view of the world that goes beyond what we have seen in other movements both here and abroad. It’s their appreciation for complexity and nuance that makes it impossible to translate demands into bite-sized morsels for the media to gobble up and regurgitate into the mouths of shrieking birds in the nest that many television viewers have become.

To make matters worse, our elected federal representatives have no idea how to respond appropriately to a leaderless, populist movement. Apart from some platitudinous, mealy-mouthed responses from ranking Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or truculent, dismissive statements from the likes of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the upper echelon of American politics is collectively clicking its heels and hoping to wake up on the farm after the storm.

But there is hope for us yet–from someplace you might not expect.

A Buckeye Bulls Eye

Ohio’s 9th Congressional District cradles the southernmost tier of Lake Erie and has been steadfastly represented by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) for the three decades. Despite the presence of rollicking Toledo in the westernmost part of her district, things have been pretty quiet in the ninth. Until now.

Ohio’s much ballyhooed loss of two Congressional seats due to redistricting has resulted in a mash up of Kaptur’s 9th district and the neighboring 10th represented by fellow Democratic Congressman, Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich, who has long-represented the most progressive wing of the Democratic caucus, ran back-to-back failed campaigns for the presidential nomination, but he gained more notoriety when he famously called for the impeachment of co-Presidents George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for manufacturing evidence that pushed us into war with Iraq at a cost of nearly $2 trillion, thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of  civilians. Somehow, this effort lacked the same traction and enthusiasm as the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton for, well, you know.

The combination of the 9th and 10th districts has given new life to Kucinich, who might otherwise have been homeless after Ohio’s redistricting plan, as he is planning to primary Kaptur for the seat. Not to be outdone, the GOP has recruited newcomer Samuel Wurzelbacher to run on the Republican ticket. This development would be of little moment, however, if Wurzelbacher wasn’t none other than “Joe The Plumber,” who made headlines during the McCain-Obama race. Although it was later revealed that he was neither “Joe” nor a licensed plumber, Wurzelbacher became an oft-abused example of the disenfranchised workingman in America. Not content to be a footnote in American political history, Wurzelbacher now seeks to extend his 15 minutes of fame by attempting to join the ranks of hundreds of other talentless slobs who also have no business running the country.

This entire hubbub overshadows one of the most interesting things to come out of this part of Ohio. Earlier this year Kaptur revived a failed effort during the previous Congress to reinstate regulations repealed under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. Kaptur’s bill, H.R. 1489, is appropriately titled “Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2011,” and it has the support of 45 sponsors, one of whom is Dennis Kucinich.

The men behind the original bill in question—Gramm, Leach and Bliley—are an interesting lot; notable because not one of them remains in government today though their impact is felt every day. Phil Gramm, one of the most loathsome scoundrels ever to hold office, is the reprobate who brought us the Enron Loophole, disastrous tax cuts that destabilized the first part of the Reagan era, and this horrendous bill that bears his name. His darling wife, Wendy, was at the helm of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission when her husband was shepherding through the bill that would castrate the agency and lead to the collapse of Enron and the birth of energy speculation. She went on to head the conservative think-tank, Mercatus Center, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Thomas J. Bliley, former representative from Virginia, was himself a serial deregulator. Before handing America this pile of legislative crap, he authored the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which paved the way for massive consolidation in the media industry and gave us Orwellian juggernauts like News Corp. that control the airwaves today.  Jim Leach, also no longer in office, is more of a curiosity. Brilliant, progressive and, at times, defiant, Leach of Iowa often stood in opposition to the increasingly conservative members of his party and was eventually ousted by a Democrat write-in candidate. Although Leach was a noted fiscal conservative, his true expertise was in foreign affairs. By attaching his name to one of the most destructive economic bills ever written, an otherwise brilliant career has been sullied in a way only Bill Buckner could understand.

Going Forward

So, Marcy Kaptur “gets it.” The protestors on Wall Street also “get it.” And believe it or not, many of us in the media also “get it.” If the banking system is going to collapse under its own weight and hubris because of the sheer volume of horrible investments still filtering through the economy with zero oversight, what’s the next logical play?

Apart from the obvious, which is to enact H.R. 1489, I think it’s time to grant subpoena authority to the protestors on Wall Street so they can hold those responsible for the economic crisis accountable at a people’s tribunal. Since our judicial system has failed to do that, perhaps it should be left to the people in Zuccotti Park. And just to bring things full circle to New York politics, the first star witness to be called should be Sen. Charles Schumer, poster boy for Wall Street and the senior Democratic elected representative of our state.

Time’s up, Chuck. Your silence on the Occupy Wall Street movement is deafening and incriminating.