Sunday, October 23, 2011

Memorial & cultural tribute to Consuela Lee

She was known as "the musician's musician." This coming Saturday, October 29, musicians, friends, relatives and admirers will gather at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to pay tribute to Consuela Edmonia Lee. 

Pianist, historian, teacher and tireless advocate of African American culture and education, Ms. Lee died almost two years ago. Since then, a foundation created in her name has been working to document and carry on the work of this peerless jazz musician. The memorial will take the foundation's work to the next level--and bring together an amazing roster of musical talents, her peers, friends and students, who will perform in tribute to her.

I'll be there, and anyone in the New York area, whether you knew this brilliant woman or not, anyone who's looking to learn more about the history of jazz and African American education while at the same time being treated to what is sure to be a thrilling concert, should plan to be there too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Writers!

The latest nifty show of support for Occupy Wall Street and the burgeoning worldwide protest movement is a newly formed entity called, ta-da: Occupy Writers. You can see a list of authors who've signed on at the website. The list is long, and growing. It features writers I admire, including Tariq Ali, Dorothy Allison, Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, Marlon James, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ann Patchett, Martha Southgate, Monique Truong, Alice Walker. Almost more interesting are the names I wouldn't have associated with any, let alone any particularly progressive, politics, like Rick Moody, Peter Straub, Francine Prose, Caleb Crain. You get the idea--it's another unmistakable sign that something is stirring when such a range of writers rouses itself (okay, at least enough to sign on to a list on a website) to take a stand in solidarity with a protest against the corporate wrecking ball that's swinging at all of us.

The site features, in addition to the list of names, some actual writing about the occupation by some of these. I couldn't read any of it when I tried because, I believe, the site's getting overloaded, but I'll try again. Hope you will too. And for those of you who've got published books and want to add your name, send an email to with your name and the title of one of your books.

Here's the simple declaration you'll be signing onto:
We, the undersigned writers and all who will join us, support Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement around the world.
As well we all should.

Oh, and for those of you who indulge in this sort of thing, you can follow Occupy Writers on Twitter too.

Friday, October 14, 2011


There's a frustratingly short period—early August to late September, more or less—during which you can get juicy tasty fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes at the farmers' markets that are scattered around New York City. Some are organic; these eat up half your week's food budget. Even the non-organic ones are pretty expensive. All are grown on small farms in New York state, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. If you, like me, yearn all year for a real tomato, you haunt the farmers' markets during those six or eight weeks and fork over the cash to buy as many as you can afford, and then you eat them with everything, or alone, savoring the drip, slurping the seeds, until the tiny window has closed and you begin again your long slog through a year without tomatoes.

Because who the hell wants to eat those horrid red balls that pass themselves off as tomatoes in stores and restaurants? I refuse to buy them at the supermarket. At restaurants I always specify "no tomatoes" with whatever I'm ordering. Whoever I'm with usually asks, oh don't you like tomatoes? My answer is that actually I love tomatoes but what they're going to slice onto my sandwich or quarter into my salad is not a tomato and I cannot abide the look feel or taste of the imposter.

If any of this resonates with you—and one thing I learned from the book I just read is that many people throughout the land share my disgust with the pseudo-tomatoes that agribusiness foists on us—I commend to you Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. It's subtitled "How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit" and Estabrook does a fine job of laying out the how, along with the when and where.

The why? That's easy: profit. Estabrook doesn't directly call out the capitalist system as the real culprit behind the crimes of the Florida tomato industry. OK, fine, he just sticks to the facts. The facts, though, lead to no other possible conclusion. There can be no clearer case study of capitalism's destructive force than what he offers in this book.

It's not just about the de-tomato-ing of the tomato. In fact, that's the least of it. If it were just that the industry has transformed a glorious food into an insipid faux-food that would be bad but not as awful as what they've actually done. Which is poison great swaths of land in Florida. And water. And air. And people. Everyone who bites into one of these faux-tomatoes is ingesting great gulps of extraordinarily toxic chemicals.

However, the people being poisoned the worst—and that's just one part of the unbelievably nightmarish extremes of mistreatment, oppression and exploitation to which they're subjected by the tomatoland owners—are the workers who toil in the fields in and around Immokalee. To his great credit, Estabrook devotes a large portion of his book to them. The conditions of their lives and work, the hardships they face and the courage they've shown in organizing and fighting back to demand their rights—he lays all this out in a compelling narrative that is must reading for any partisan of the working class struggle. In fact, he dedicates the book to "the men and women who pick the food we eat."
I've followed the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for some years now, as have most people who align themselves with the cause of labor. It's good, though, even if you already knew about this fight, to read some of the specific stories Estabrook lays out, and meet some of the specific workers whose tales he tells. It's good, too, to be reminded of just how extreme the situation of the Immokalee tomato workers is.

This extreme: If you have eaten a tomato bought at a U.S. grocery stores in the winter, you have been fed on the product of slave labor.

Read Tomatoland to get your red blood boiling and your red solidarity revved. Then head over here to see what you can do to stand with the workers.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I don't have a Twitter account ...

... but if I did this is what I'd tweet after having paid money to watch this awful reactionary mess last night:

OMG Tree of Life worst movie ever! Endless boring pretentious backward religio-mystico claptrap!

That's few enough characters, right?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hail the Occupy Wall Street Library!

Check it out: not only does Occupy Wall Street have a library, which is growing, organized and respected by the participants--now the Occupy Wall Street Library has its own blog. Follow OWSL here.

I made another brief visit to the site Saturday evening when a bunch of us headed down there after the first day of the Workers World Party national conference. The place was packed--it seemed to me the protesters' numbers had doubled since the last time I was there three days earlier.

And occupations are springing up in hundreds of other cities. This thing is not going away. How lovely that reading material is being provided for the brave young protesters.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Death of a billionaire

When you're worth $8.3 billion, it's only natural that you get endless gushing tributes in every capitalist media outlet when you die. There is no higher accomplishment in this society than amassing riches. Naturally, then, when a very rich person dies, he's lavished with over-the-top obits. Here's the thing, though. I find it a telling reflection of the dead rich guy's media savvy, and of the overwhelming, ubiquitous grip of bourgeois consciousness, that ordinary people are also getting sucked along into the lachrymosity. Bouquets of flowers laid in tribute at Apple stores all over the globe. Heartfelt tributes posted on media websites and blogs, mournful tweets flowing through cyberspace, and so on. And why? What did Steve Jobs contribute to society that so many people should be convinced that his death is a loss to all of us?

Maybe the extremely few who can afford his company's products feel that his keen marketing sense and his sharp taste in mechanical design improved their lives. Others—many others upon whose relationship to computer and communications technology the Mac and Apple products have had an impact, and that's most of us by now, regardless of which company's hardware and software we use—might likewise believe we owe him a debt of gratitude.

All such ideas are mistaken. All are expressions of that bourgeois consciousness from which it is so hard to break free.

Steve Jobs was no more a hero than was Henry Ford, another industrialist who became rich off the labor of others and is nevertheless to this day presented, to schoolchildren and aspiring entrepreneurs alike, as one of the Great Men of U.S. history. Ford was Great at exploiting workers. So was Jobs. That is axiomatic: you do not become a billionaire any other way. He made his profits off the stolen value created by the people who manufactured his products. Most of them, at this point, are unbelievably low-paid and super-exploited workers laboring in overseas factories for dozens of other companies that are subcontracted to create the various component parts that go into making an iPhone or a Mac, an iPod or iPad.

There's more to the story than this, though, more than Jobs' extraordinary facility for reaping profits off the labor of other people. Not only were his billions stolen money. His Great Ideas were, at worst, stolen (check out how he "invented" the mouse)—but even when not directly ripped off from the actual innovators, anything and everything he came up with was not the result of some private individual aha moment, but rather arose from collaboration with many other people. The New York Times obituary more or less comes out and says this when it points out that his skill wasn't technical or scientific or even mechanical or decorative; rather, he was good at recognizing other people's good ideas, and by recognizing is meant understanding what would make money and pushing others to do the work necessary to get the profits rolling. So okay, give him credit for what he deserves to be remembered for: Steve Jobs was a brilliant marketer, smartest of all at self-promotion as today's outpouring attests.

What he did not do was invent anything, or even come up with a new idea. Rather, he built upon others' inventions and facilitated others' ideas. Then others—tens of thousands of others—created the products to which those inventions and ideas led. And others, millions, bought the products, from the sales of which Jobs became a billionaire while the actual creators, the workers who made the products, got just enough to stay alive another day.

Even if it could be shown that Jobs did actually do something—design a particularly elegant piece of circuitry, say—the fact would remain that he did not do it himself. Some of capitalism's greatest lies are promulgated regarding science and technology, where we are told that the Great Man and the Lighbulb Over the Head are responsible for every advance. It just ain't so. Here's a succinct rejoinder from Clifford D. Conner, author of A People's History of Science:
We all know the history of science that we learned from grade school textbooks: How Galileo used his telescope to show that the earth was not the center of the universe; how Newton divined gravity from the falling apple; how Einstein unlocked the mysteries of time and space with a simple equation. This history is made up of long periods of ignorance and confusion, punctuated once an age by a brilliant thinker who puts it all together. These few tower over the ordinary mass of people, and in the traditional account, it is to them that we owe science in its entirety.

This belief is wrong. A People's History of Science shows how ordinary people participate in creating science and have done so throughout history. It documents how the development of science has affected ordinary people, and how ordinary people perceived that development. It would be wrong to claim that the formulation of quantum theory or the structure of DNA can be credited directly to artisans or peasants, but if modern science is likened to a skyscraper, then those twentieth-century triumphs are the sophisticated filigrees at its pinnacle that are supported by the massive foundation created by the rest of us.
I started reading Conner's book a couple years ago but never finished it. All this to-do about the death of a billionaire makes me want to go back and finish reading it. I know just which bookshelf it's on.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

All day, all week--occupy Wall Street!

Well, that didn't prove to be much of a hiatus. I'm back. I'll be back with book talk soon, as soon as I finish one of the books I'm currently reading, an important exposé of one wing of agribusiness. I couldn't wait till then, however, so I'm reviving Read Red after its brief subsidence to say: Hurray for Occupy Wall Street!

And for the many many other occupations that are springing up around the country.

I haven't gotten to spend much time at the occupation—I'll head there again today after work for the aftermath of the big labor solidarity march—but I've heard and read and seen enough to know that it is a Very Good Thing. Don't let anyone, fake left or unabashed right or phony neutral, tell you otherwise. Yes, the people taking part in this occupation have a range of political ideas, from liberal-reformist to libertarian to anarchist to socialist revolutionary.  So yes, there's no one unified program. Yes, some of them are inconsistent or confused. Yes, their various tactics run the gamut from inspired to not so much. None of this matters. What matters is that a group of young people are in motion in a protest that, whatever its contradictions, focuses on the symbol of the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. Wall Street. And calls for a reversal of the robbery of the planet's wealth and resources.

It will be good to watch the occupation grow more multinational, although if you've been told it's overwhelmingly white you've been lied to as there are many people of color taking part; their numbers are growing and will continue to grow. It will be good to see its class character turn more proletarian, although if you've been told it's a bunch of privileged middle-class kids you've been lied to as there are many working-class students and unemployed people taking part; their numbers are growing and will continue to grow. It will be good to see the protesters continue claiming their right to take to the streets no matter how violently the NYPD attacks and brutalizes them, as it has several times now, with nearly a thousand arrests on record. It will also be good to watch support expand, as the cops' vicious maneuvers are exposed over and over despite the bourgeois media's best efforts to cover them up, a lá

The Times has been relentless in its campaign to ridicule, demean and belittle the Wall Street protesters. One of my favorite, most bizarre and laughably specious digs, made not only by the Times but by many other bourgeois sources, goes something like this. 'These protesters claim to be against Wall Street companies, against the system that manufactures goods for profit. And yet look at them using these very goods, look at them with their laptops and their smartphones, look at them utilizing the very high-tech goods made by the very companies they target as the enemy. Ha ha aren't these kids silly hypocrites.' Really, New York Times? Really, that's your case? That someone who doesn't like the capitalist mode of production ought not to own or use anything thus manufactured? Which is everything, every item of clothing, every toothbrush, sock, scissors, pen, every low-tech thing along with every high-tech gadget—every thing is a capitalist commodity, so I guess we're all supposed to go wander the streets naked and starving rather than handle any commodity produced by this vile system. You've got it backward, silly bourgeois stooges. We will, as someone you'll be hearing about a lot once said, use your very tools to dig your system's grave.

All of which we'll be talking about a lot this weekend at the Workers World Party national conference. Where I hope to see many participants from the Occupy Wall Street movement.