Friday, March 31, 2006

Not Enough Stupid People

I’m currently re-reading Harry Braverman’s 1974 book Labor and Monopoly Capitol (New York: Monthly Review Press). Braverman made a number of astute observations about the changing relationship between owners and workers over the course of the Twentieth Century. What’s of particular interest to me, however, is that this book sowed the seeds of a notion later referred to by sociologists and industrial psychologists as ‘de-skilling.’

When eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrialists wanted to manufacture a product, they had to rely on skilled tradesmen to make it for them. The tradesman made all the decisions about how the product was produced, for he alone knew (a) the raw materials needed for a task, and where to get the best; (b) the amount of time needed to create a product; and (c) how to make a quality product.

In the above scenario, the boss really can’t tell the tradesman how to do his job, and thus loses control over the product. If the tradesman doesn’t like how the boss does business, the boss cannot stop the employee from finding another, more amenable superior. The employee, therefore, always had his expertise as a bargaining chip.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, employers, wanting to control the production process, began to assess their manufacturing as a whole, and then break it down into its constituent parts. So instead of one skilled tradesman with a vast knowledge of how your widget is put together, you hire a bunch of people who know one aspect of the process, but nothing else.

The tendency to divide labor into steps ultimately culminated in the assembly-line manufacturing that we’re familiar with today. But, as Braverman pointed out, something else came along during the latter decades of the 1800s that was even more important to the reorganization of labor than the assembly line.

Think about all the different jobs it takes to bring a widget to market: (1) designing the damn thing; (2) procuring materials; (3) organizing the work pool so that you have your best workers doing the harder tasks, (4) putting the product together; (5) distributing the product; and (6) marketing the product. In the 1880s, Fredrick Winslow Taylor developed a theory of management whereby all of the tasks of production were broken down into two categories. The first category, putting the product together, became the province of workers, who constituted the bulk of your employees. The other tasks, which required more abstract reasoning than dexterity, required fewer employees, who were answerable to the big bosses, and thus lumped together into a second category called management.

Because of technology and training, most aspects of assemblage became simpler, and thus required fewer skilled workers. By the 1930s, virtually all factory tasks were mechanized, routinized, and automated to the point where the education and intellectual acumen needed to manufacture a product wasn’t all that much.

Hence, the term ‘de-skilling.’

By the 1960s, office workers began to face de-skilling as well. Traditionally, office workers were, at the very least, high school graduates, and many had attended college. In the 1950s, a person working as a clerk was expected to possess some kind of intelligence.

But with the 1960s came an explosion of college-educated Americans, who by 1969 were looking at job markets that required only a fraction of their intellectual capacity and erudition. Even worse, they often earned less than their blue-collar counterparts.

By 1970, a crisis had developed. Workers had become more and more dissatisfied with their jobs, and this led to records in absenteeism, poor job performance evaluations, and employee turnover. As one (deliberately) anonymous job design consultant from Case Western Reserve University put it, “We may have created too many dumb jobs for the number of dumb people to fill them.”

Americans, nowadays, often talk about the “dumbing down” of their fellow citizens. I’m not sure that this is the case, or that this is restricted to the US alone. I think it is safe to say, however, that my countrypersons and I live in a society where there is a greater expectancy of compliance to authority, especially on the job, and an increased unwillingness to exercise personal judgment when the rules and the training manual don’t readily apply. (How often have you heard a clerk say, “Well, speak to the manager,” or customers/clients ask to speak to “someone in charge” of the department?) In effect, we’ve become more like children, dependant upon the parental figure to tell us what is right and what is wrong. Whatever way you look at it, there are people who have an interest in developing a more stupid citizenry.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

What the. . .

What the $%!@#%!: Below is an excerpt from my unpublished novel Running Around Naked in Maryland.

Why the $%!@#%!: To convey thoughts on the nature of discourse that I have raised on other blogs.

Set up: The protagonists, an unnamed private eye (narrator) and his ersatz partner Janet, go to the university to question Professor Tris and arrive at the tail end of his lecture on propaganda.

Who knows where they get the term ‘gumshoe’? I prefer soft soles, myself. Easier to walk in them, and in Manhattan you do your share of hoofing. Besides, they hardly make any noise on hard tile floors. That could come in handy for people in my business. Janet, on the other hand, escaped her apartment in sneakers. I endured every single squeak they made as we approached Tris’s classroom.

She reached the door two steps ahead of me, and peeked in the small, round window. “Is that him?” she whispered.

“It’s kinda hard for me to tell from here.”

“Sorry,” she said, making room for me to see too.

“Yup. That’s him.”

“He doesn’t look like a professor. A student, perhaps.”

True, Tris didn’t look like your average professor. He looked like a damned good one. Every prof I had put a certain percentage of the class to sleep. Those fighting to stay conscious slumped in their chair and glanced at the clock every five seconds. But he had them on the edge of their seats. Every minute or so you could hear heated discussions, sharp groans, or an occasional guffaw. “Hmm,” I thought. “Never had fun in class, never had sex with a professor. No wonder I never went to grad school.”

Janet couldn’t take her eyes off of him, even though the door kept both of us from understanding a word. The intensity of her gaze must have gotten his attention. He caught us peering through the glass, and motioned us inside. We took the two remaining seats, a couple of left-handed desks in the back row. “I hope you don’t mind,” I said. “I brought company.”

“Not at all,” said Washington. The class rubbernecked at us for two seconds, then faced forward again. “As I was saying, the best propaganda doesn’t seem like propaganda. It seems like common sense.”

“You mean to tell me,” said a yuppyish kid in his best mid-Atlantic accent, “that people in Russia, or Cuba can’t tell they’re being lied to?”

“Funny you should say that,” Tris replied. “I’ve met a lot of people from Russia, and I’ve been to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange. Talk to them, and they’ll tell you that they know the party line is B.S. But, who said the Russians or Fidel are the world’s best propagandists?”

He looked out over the classroom, letting the question sit there. I could swear he wanted them to put something together. But what?

“Actually,” Tris continued, “If somebody brainwashed you, you’d be the last person to know.”

“Omigod, he’s another conspiracy theorist,” muttered Janet. She meant to say it under her breath so that only I could hear, but it got everyone’s attention.

Tris didn’t look at her, though. Instead, he grinned. At the time, I didn’t know why. Going to the blackboard, he said, “Let’s play a game. Trivia.” The students leaned their whole bodies forward, anticipating a chance to impress the teacher. “The capital of Kentucky: is it correctly pronounced LouIE-ville, or LouIS-ville? Think about it.” He gave them a couple of seconds, while he made two columns on the board, one marked “E” the other marked “IS”

“All right. Show of hands. How many for LouIE-ville?” He counted thirty-one, and tallied them under the “E” column. “All right. Show of hands. How many for LouIS-ville?” He counted twelve for that response, and tallied it under the “IS” column. “Okay. There are fifty-one of you in class today, so that means eight of you didn’t vote. How come?”

Another student, a flaxen-haired kid in hip-hop attire said, “I think it can be pronounced either way.”

“All right. Show of hands. How many for either way?” He tallied six more under a new column, labeled “Both.” “Okay, two of you didn’t vote. How come?”

“I know this has got to be some sort of trick question,” said a perky blonde stuffed inside a pink turtleneck sweater. “And I’ve got a cousin in Illinois. He pronounces it LouA-ville.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna go with LouA-ville too,” said the remaining holdout.

Tris dutifully formed a new column marked “A,” before turning to Janet and me. “What about you two?”

“Well,” I thought, “nobody’s ever heard of a LouIS-ville Slugger. Put me down in the ‘E’ column.” A murmur of hushed cheers sprang up for the majority opinion.

“And you, ma’am?”

Janet’s long-drawn-out sigh, and rolling eyes elicited a few snickers. “Obviously, LouIS-ville and LouIE-ville are both correct, and LouA-ville simply a regional pronunciation.”

“Okay,” said Tris, tallying her under the “Both” category. He then stepped back and looked at the board, as though admiring his handiwork. For a full thirty seconds, nobody said a thing. If not for the fluorescent lights, we would have heard no sound at all.

“Um, professor?” said a lone, feminine voice that belonged to none other than the Gothette who flitted out of Professor Morrison’s office just one day earlier.

“Yes?” Tris replied.

“So, like, what’s the answer?”

Facing us he gave a slight pout and a light shrug. “The capital of Kentucky,” he said dryly, “is correctly pronounced ‘Frankfurt.’”

The class erupted in loud, angry protest. Over the din, you could occasionally hear comments like “Oh, that’s soooo not fair,” and “Why the hell would I have to know something like that?” and “Is this going to be on the test?”

Like Sam Cooke, I never claimed to be an A student. So missing a trivia question didn’t bother me. But these were Ivy Leaguers, the cream of the cream. Most of them graduated first or second in their high school classes. The rest had blue blood parents who, before purchasing their admittance with large donations and legacies, preached for years to their youngsters the facts of their natural superiority. They couldn’t stand to be wrong. Janet was one of them. I could see the angry fire in her brown eyes as she said, “Dammit! I knew that!”

“Of course you did,” said Tris, looking directly at her. The class immediately quieted. “If I asked you straight up, ‘Yo, what’s the capital of Kentucky?’ you would have said ‘Frankfurt,’ and the city of Louisville would have never entered your mind. But this is what good propaganda can do, you see. Now, I’m the authority here, because I’m the professor. This, and just about any other classroom, is designed to reinforce that authority artificially--“

”Foucault?” interjected the pink-sweatered blonde. Hell if I knew what that meant, but Janet nodded as though she understood.

“Right,” said Tris, smiling proudly, like a father whose infant daughter has just learned a new word. “And because I’m the authority, I get to shape the question so that it limits the possible answers. Nine times out of ten, we’re talking binary responses: ‘yes or no,’ ‘liberal or conservative,’ ‘tweedledee or tweedledum,’ ‘LouIE-ville or LouIS-ville.’ Because I deliberately focused the choices away from the truth, even those of you who suspected me of asking a trick question--which, of course, I did--still couldn’t give an alternative that wasn’t based on how I narrowly defined the possibilities. For that matter, I could have asked, ‘In response to the World Trade Center crashes, do you support bombing three quarters of the Middle East? Or do you hate America?”

With that, he silently took a seat on a solid metal table nest to the lectern, which he apparently never used, except as an armrest. Saying nothing, he simply let the point sink in not only to the class, but to me. Glancing sideways at Janet, I could see he’d made an impression on her too. He then looked at the clock, and announced, “Wanna know something? We’re five minutes over. Go away.”

A quiet laughter followed as the class rose to its feet. About half of them went out. The rest huddled around Tris, asking him questions ranging from homework assignments to clarification of lecture points. He answered each one in ten seconds or less, but thoroughly enough to satisfy them.

“Foucault?” I thought out loud. “What does that mean?”

Janet clucked her tongue. “You’ve never heard of Michel Foucault?”

“No. Who is she?”

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Ambassador of Ill Will

Sirhan Siran was denied parole in his latest hearing, last Tuesday (March 14). The official version says that Sirhan went to the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and fired shots. Football star Roosevelt Grier and writer George Plimpton, (or somebody else -- there’s now a bit of confusion on who did what) responded after a couple of rounds came out of Sirhan’s gun by tackling the young shooter onto a nearby table. Sirhan continued shooting, his bullets going into the walls, ceiling and other victims.

The coroner who performed the autopsy, Dr. Thomas Noguchi could not reconcile Sirhan’s position with the path of the bullets in Kennedy’s skull, and the powder burns on the back of the Senator’s scalp. Those shots had to come from someone standing behind him at point blank range.

From the available evidence, it would seem that the man who fired the fatal shot was Eugene Thane Caesar, a security (?) guard who had numerous Mafia ties. A young Kennedy volunteer identified him as the man who fled with a woman wearing polka dot dress saying “We got him!”

Further investigation revealed more detailed evidence that Sirhan had been subjected to narcohypnosis. Dr. Bernard Diamond, a forensic psychologist for the prosecution, testified that Sirhan had actually hypnotized himself when he killed Kennedy. He agreed with other shrinks that Sirhan also wrote a number of “Kill Kennedy” entries in a notebook during a trance state that he himself had induced. Dr. Herbert Spiegel, by many accounts the leading authority on hypnosis, and a consultant on the case, sharply disagreed. Spiegel felt that if Sirhan were in a trance state when he fired a gun, he would have been programmed by someone else. Dr. Eduard Simson-Kallas, the staff psychiatrist at San Quentin Prison, who had extensively examined Sirhan, until ordered by the Warden to stop, concurred with Spiegel’s opinion.

Simson-Kallas and Spiegel repeatedly referred to Sirhan’s notebooks. Among other things, they found that he had once been in the employ of Desi Arnaz, the 1950s TV star who allegedly had numerous ties to right-wing Cuban extremists and the Mafia. Arnaz’s name crops up from time-to-time in Sirhan’s writing as does another familiar one: Albert DiSalvo, better known as “The Boston Strangler.”

The Strangler murders terrified Boston for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the killer (whom recent DNA testing indicates was not DiSalvo) chose heterogeneous victims, an oddity for a serial crime. Despite the mayhem and bodies he supposedly left behind, DiSalvo was never convicted of murder. In fact, he wasn’t convicted of anything at all. F. Lee Bailey, the famous defense attorney, stepped in and made a deal with Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Brooke that left the killer with a clean record in exchange for an indeterminate stay in a mental hospital. That might as well have been a life sentence, for somebody murdered DiSalvo at the hospital the following year.

Bailey, who has stepped into many other cases where the high-profiled accused had reputed ties to US intelligence and the far right – e.g. Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson – has long been rumored to operate in the clandestine affairs of the elite. Considering Sirhan’s reference to DiSalvo, might there be a connection between the two? Was Sirhan now saying that he knew DiSalvo from somewhere? After all, Sirhan had a four month gap where he could not be accounted for? Could he have been saying that he had been treated like DiSalvo in some way? We’ll probably never know.

Sirhan and DiSalvo did have something in common other than notoriety. Bailey recruited none other than Dr. William Bryan to “deprogram” DiSalvo. The same Dr. Bryan claimed to have programmed Sirhan personally. His affiliation with the CIA’s MK-ULTRA narcohypnosis program is not a matter of speculation. Rather, it is a matter of record.

The whole thing might have been dropped once and for all had it not been for a mistake by Rev. Owen, a minister who initially claimed to have come by the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the assassination to sell Sirhan a pony. In 1975, he sued a television station, KCOP in Los Angeles, for defamation after the management cancelled his religious show. The reason for the cancellation came from a number of sources, among them writer Jonn Christian, who discussed the minister’s possible involvement in the RFK assassination with the program director. KCOP hired Vincent Bugliosi as its defense attorney. Bugliosi, who had earlier become famous as the lead prosecutor in the Helter Skelter murder case, decided to put on an affirmative defense.

There are four ways to defend a defamation suit. If the plaintiff is a public figure, as Owen was, then you can force him or her to prove malice, or in other words, prove that the defendant made a statement that they knew to be untrue, or otherwise held a reckless disregard for the truth. You can also try to prove that a statement did not damage the offended party. The third way is to prove that the offended party could not be identified by the statement. The fourth method is the affirmative defense, whereby the attorney has to prove that the allegation is true. By opting for the affirmative defense, Bugliosi had to prove that Owen conspired in a plot against RFK.

The most critical witness for the defense was a cowboy named Bill Powers, who had known Owen for a long time, and did business with him occasionally. He saw Sirhan in the back seat of Owen’s car on one of the rare instances when the Reverend didn’t drive his pick-up truck. Seated next to him was a former boxer, Johnny Gray.

Gray tried to refute the story, claiming instead that the person sitting next to him that day was his son, Jackie. All in all, it would difficult to imagine that Powers could mistake Sirhan for the younger Gray. Sirhan was an adult then, Jackie only thirteen years old. Sirhan is clearly Caucasian, Gray Jr. clearly African American.

Bugliosi called Gray Jr. to the stand despite objections from the plaintiff. Judge Crickard ruled, however, that he was a competent and material witness. The son then testified that he had known Sirhan, and that his father made numerous references to him. He also admitted that Sirhan was often in a trance.

Jr’s response turned on a light bulb in Bugliosi’s mind. He had already pored over the literature supplied to him by Spiegel on narcohypnosis. He also recalled that the Rev. had called only one character witness, a member of his flock named Gail Adkins. The lawyer knew that Adkins was the sister of Arthur Bremmer, the man accused of shooting former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Bremmer also appeared to have been another victim of narcohypnosis. It then clicked. He figured that Owen’s farm must have been the site of Sirhan’s programming. He then did something that attorneys are instructed never to do. He asked Gray a question before he himself knew the answer.

“Did you ever hear them [Owen and Gray Sr.] say that sometimes Sirhan would do things and not know that he did them?”


Since this was a bench trial, Judge Crickard ended it then and there finding for the plaintiff for an amount so small that it wouldn’t even cover Rev. Owen’s legal expenses. He made the ruling after surmising that a criminal case was now being tried in his civil court.

RFK openly wondered whether or not the CIA killed his brother. It would be for another to ask that very same question.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

The X Files, 1920s Style

British astronomer Percival Lowell, pretty much the Carl Sagan of the Nineteenth Century, believed that Mars sustained intelligent life. Although he had no proof, most people went along with him, figuring that the eventual meeting between Terrans and Martians was only a matter of time.

Because Lowell thought extraterrestrial life was no laughing matter, neither did a lot of other people at the turn of the Twentieth Century. So, not surprisingly, official United States investigation of UFOs and extraterrestrial life began some decades before Roswell.

Astronomers realized that sometime during August 1923, the orbits of Earth and Mars would get as close as they possibly could, an event that wouldn’t be repeated for another eighty years. If they were to communicate with the red planet, they felt that then would be their best shot. As time grew near, scientists from all over the world began gearing up to record what they felt would be the historical event of the Twentieth Century. They weren’t the only curious people, though. Just about everyone waited in anticipation. It was headline news in every major paper. The op-ed section of virtually all American dailies featured running commentary about what first contact would mean to human civilization.

The peak of Earth/Mars proximity would occur on Saturday, August 23, 1923. After much lobbying before a sceptical panel of top US Navy and US Army brass, Amherst College astronomy professor Dr. David Todd finally convinced the armed forces to order a day of radio silence so that he could make official contact with the Martians. Assisting Todd were the Army Signal Corp, and Francis Jenkins, inventor of the “radio camera.” An important precursor to modern day television, this device translated radio signals into images and captured them on film. Tests with the machine showed that it worked perfectly, and at the time, everyone stipulated its accuracy, reliability and relevance.

When the moment came, Todd sent out a wave of signals, aimed directly at the red planet. After an interval of about five minutes a number of different radio signals came back. They were busy decoding when a voice, apparently from Mars, came over the transmission. From its pitch, they assumed it was both male and human, but none of them could recognize the language. Jenkins managed to shoot about thirty feet of film as the radio signals started. He then developed it as the US Army and the US Navy looked on. The final print: myriad human faces in profile.

It would seem that the project hit its mark. The radio signals came from Mars. Since the signals received were different from those issued, it could not have been a reflection of the US Army’s own radio equipment. Also, the armed forces insisted that they had kept their word, and maintained radio silence.

Yup, by all accounts, the project seemed to have been the roaring success of the roaring ‘20s. But that’s not the story that most people would get right away. A reporter from The New York Times was on hand, and he covered the event fully. You can find all the details of the above story from the same place I got them: in that paper’s August 27 issue, printed some four days later. Why didn’t The Times print the findings on the 24th? The public had received a lot of hype about the event. Undoubtedly they were waiting with baited breath to find out what happened. Why wait four days to report something of this importance?

The Times did, however publish a related story on the 24th. They knew that Marconi had seen a copy of the radio signal, and was excited because the signals seemed to come from Mars. Yet he could see no mathematical intelligence in them. Marconi didn’t know, however, that Jenkins had recorded them on his radio camera, and that the signals seemed to be an analog feed of a thirty-foot long image. As such, it wouldn’t necessarily be constrained to a simple algorithm.

What’s most striking in this particular series of events is that the US government seemed to be quite open to sharing information with the public vis-a-vis research on intelligent extraterrestrial life unless it were disquietingly clear that it was a probability, not merely a possibility. The Army confiscated all notes and recordings of the experiment. In later years, Army people confirmed the New York Times story. More important, they considered the results to be valid. The strategy of secrecy and deception in dealing with extraterrestrial life seems to have been established at this point.

So what would be the true reason for a cover-up of Roswell? More provocative question: was Roswell really a cover-up?

As difficult as this is for ufologists to admit, everything they know came either directly or indirectly from a faction of the US Government. After all, where would they be without the likes of J. Allen Hynek (NASA), Gordon Cooper (USAF), Jesse Marcel (USA), John Lear (defense contractor, Learjet heir), Dale Hartig (DIS), Project Disclosure (representing personnel from numerous branches of the US Armed Forces and intelligence services) or Philip Corso (NSC)?

Answer: completely in the dark, grasping at air. At the same time, other factions within the same military/intelligence nexus endeavored to cover up any knowledge it might have on the subject.

In other words, one part of officialdom tells us “They’re here.” Another part tells us “You’re nuts if you believe that.”

Would you buy a used car from either side?


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