Category Archives: Mentors

. . .people who have shaped a journalist’s life

Why Socialism? Albert Einstein offers his answer


One of Einstein’s most famous essays, but little known in the country where it was written, ‘”Why Socialism?” was written for the first issues of Monthly Review in May 1949, and remains perhaps the single best introduction to a political philosophy invoked as a bogeyman by the Tea Party set and ranters of the likes of Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and all the rest of the folks who are striving mightily to deconstruct the legacy of the New Deal.

So let’s hear from a real socialist for a change. H/T to Moussequetaire for reminding me of the essay, which most recently appeared here.

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that

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In memoriam, three American originals


Two deaths of note today, and one birthday.

A cartoonist with a point

First, Harvey Pekar, a unique and outspoken cartoonist who proved himself willing to speak truth to power. Invited on the Letterman Show as an occasional guest of the sort of eccentric the host could mock, Pekar had the great temerity to confront Letterman about the misdeeds of his corporate employer, network owner GE, in this memorable segment.

Leterman declared him banished from the show after a second visit, where Pekar refused to give up his point, knowing i could result in his exile from the only national forum he had:

Tuli Kupferberg, frontman for The Fugs

As featured here in April, The Fugs were one of the great underground groups of the 60′s, and had still been recording until Kupferberg was stricken with a stroke that cost him his voice. esnl first heard the band soon after their debut album came out in 1965, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction.

Here’s one of the greatest hits, still timely, “Kill for Peace”:

Finally, Happy Birthday, Bucky!

Today would’ve been R. Buckminster Fuller‘s 115th birthday. One of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Fuller was an inventor, an original thinker, a poet, and an inspiration. It was esnl‘s great honor to have known him, and to have worked with him on our first book, Fuller’s Earth.

Buckminster Fuller’s vision for the future


Of all the folks esnl has met, Bucky Fuller remains the most remarkable. A true polymath, he was a visionary architect, social and systems thinker, geometer, poet, humanist, and inspiration. Scion of a family of Boston Brahmins, a Harvard dropout—he blew his tuition wining and dining Broadways chorines—Richard Buckminster Fuller was one of the most original thinkers ever produced by this nation, and it was esnl’s privilege to know him.

This conversation was taped in 1974, six years before we met. A collaboration emerged, with three bright young people, in the form of a book, Fuller’s Earth, A Day with Bucky and the Kids, recently reprinted by the New Press.

This conversation highlights the ideas that inspired a generation. After the jump you’‘ll find a second video, with a discussion by Harvard architectural historian K. Michael Hays on the seminal role Fuller’s thinking has played in the field of architecture.

More videos after the jump.
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What if? We stopped working out & worked for?


Another ‘What if?’ story . .

During a recent transoceanic conversation with Moussequetaire, esnl’s passionate and acutely intelligent muse, we discovered a mutual bemusement with the “gym” industry.

Back when esnl was a young sprite, gyms were dark, malodorous places, brimming with testosterone and devoid of estrogen, equipped with boxing rings, speed and heavy bags, and peopled with pugs and cigar-smoking would-be wiseguys reading the daily Racing Form between whispered calls to their bookies.

By the time esnl moved to the West Coast a few years later, gyms still exuded the scent of testosterone-tinged sweat, though the boxing rings had largely vanished, replaced by barbells, dumbbells, low-tech lifting machines and musclebound guys who all seemed a bit on the shy side.

Arriving in Santa Monica another few years later, he met a local developer, a

18 May 2007, 1/60 sec, 600mm, f5.6

not-so-shy musclebound guy with a thick accent who would later become California’s governor, along with a local institution he’d made famous, Gold’s Gym in Venice, founded in 1965 by Joe Gold.

In 1977, the same year esnl arrived in Bay City, Arnold Schwarzenegger achieved movie stardom in the documentary Pumping Iron, filmed at the

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Noam Chomsky speaks at Brown on Israel


On 20 April. Speaking on the Israel/Palestine issue, he addresses the linkage of criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism, the parallels between Israel and white-ruled apartheid regime of South Africa, the “War on Terror’s” origins in the Reagan era, his support for divestment from investment for companies selling military supplies to Israel, the illegality of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, the failure of mainstream media to cover critical Israel- and Iran-related issues [including the legal status of Israel’s nuclear arsenal]. H/T to Dandelion Salad.

AIPAC’s Cal plan? Just the iceberg’s tip


The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s vow to take to over UC Berkeley’s student government the same way “AIPAC operates in our nation’s capitol” highlights the intrusion of the Israel lobby into every aspect of American political life.

Increasingly viewed as a pariah state by many nations for its repugnant treatment of the Palestinians and dependent on the largess of United States taxpayers and elected officials, Israel’s American activists have been conducting a ferocious propaganda campaign to influence student activists, starting in their high school years.

The campaigns are only comparable to those launched by Italy in the 1920’s and Germany in the 1930’s, efforts which specifically focused on ethnic Italians and Germans.

But the AIPAC campaign’s focus is much broader, and the video posted here 4 March which included the announcement by AIPAC national leadership development director Jonathan Kessler of the campaign to take over the student government at the University of California at Berkeley was a naked demonstration of self-confident power:

“We’re going to make certain that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. That is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”

As in Washington, so in Berkeley.

But the rest of the video is equally revealing, affording a rare glimpse of the most sophisticated and effective advocacy program on behalf of a foreign power that this blogger has ever seen in the course of more than four decades of reporting.

Of particular brilliance is AIPAC’s stunning effort to win over student body leaders at the nation’s universities and high schools, even enlisting them, as AIPAC reveals on its website, included significant numbers of African Americans.

One element of the propaganda campaign—for such it must be called—targets America’s high schools “to bring student leaders from across the country to Washington, D.C., for Israel advocacy and political activism training.

Note the particular phrase “for Israel advocacy.” In other words, to lobby on behalf of a foreign power which is specifically based on religious identity and ethnic ancestry, the antithesis of a genuine democracy. Zionist will say that

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Paul Farmer, Barbara Lee: Heroes


Paul Farmer is one of esnl’s heroes, a physician and medical anthropologist who writes and speaks eloquently about humanity’s vast global patterns of medical inequities, an admiration shared with ensl’s elder daughter [currently a member of the inaugural class of the University of California at Irvine’s School of Law].

With a pair of posts in the works on the politics of public health, a teaser on the subject seems in order.

Because WordPress won’t accept the embedding code offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only a link is available to the video of his November 15, 2007, talk on “Global Health Equity.” Well worth watching. esnl gives it four stars.

Instead, here’s an embed of Dr. Farmer and another esnl hero, Rep. Barbara Lee, this humble blog’s very own congressional representative, a point acknowledged with pride as she was the only member of Congress to oppose the BushInc resolution to launch our ongoing, deadly, and provactive imperial military adventures in the Islamic world. The occasion was Lee’s presentation of Farmer with the UC Berkeley School of Public Health 2009 International Hero award last March 18. In accepting, Farmer returned her accolade with one of his own: “People like Congresswoman Lee restore my faith in public service.”

The award, established in 1996 has “the objective to broaden people’s awareness and understanding of the public health field by recognizing individuals and organizations for their significant contributions and exceptional commitment to promoting and protecting the health of the human population.”

For more about the award, see here.

The disparagement of age


One of the saddest characteristics of modern American society is the pervasive disparagement of older folk, something I notice more now as I become one.

I was born in 1946 at the very start of the Baby Boom into a small Kansas farm town. My father had been born into five-generation household, the second generation to be born in Abilene. [My mother was born in even-smaller Nebraska community, on a farm a quarter-mile from the nearest road.]

I learned to show respect to older folk, though I was as guilty as any child of the occasional show of disrespect to elders who feared the young [and there are always those among us who fear or resent youth]. Even though I came up with the generation which adopted “Don’t trust anybody over thirty” as a quasi-motto, I could never endorse it—largely because I had found my salvation in older folks during an often-difficult childhood.

One of the reasons for this profound cultural disconnect between the young and the old is technology, both hardware and software. The young brain is vastly more plastic than the old brain, still forming connections among the myriad neurons inhabiting our skulls. And never before in the history of Homo sapiens has technology evolved so rapidly as in recent decades. Young brains adapt readily; older ones have a harder time of it. Continue reading

The war against the Daily Planet


The Berkeley Daily Planet, my last employer, is not a paper without its faults, though that’s true of every paper where I’ve ever worked. But one of the paper’s greatest strengths has been its willingness to provide a platform for the public to express a dizzying array of viewpoints, some frankly crazy, some devastatingly on point.

Through its op-eds and letters to the editors, all from readers, the Planet offers a unique forum in a very unique community.

Which is why a gang of Zionist thugs—and thugs they are—have terrorized its advertisers through a sophisticated campaign of direct mailings and in-business meetings, all laced with lies and intimidation.

The campaign, coupled with the current economic collapse, have hamstrung the paper, leading directly to the layoff of two of its three reporters [of whom I was one].

As my last major investigative project for the paper, I looked into the attackers and discovered a troubling phenomenon, the Zionist anti-Semite. Continue reading

The lieutenant


I’m a socialist, a word once much more commonly spoken in this culture. I’m not doctrinaire, in that I believe politics arises from circumstance. But humans evolved as group critters, who cared for one another, despite the frequent conflict with other human groups, and that seems to me the best way for us to go.

There’s one subculture in the U.S. that’s actually socialist, at least to the degree permissible today. It’s also one of the most militantly ardently opposed to socialist politics.

I refer, of course, to the police.

What other occupation offers such solid salaries, unique job protections, good health benefits, and an ever-accruing pension that follows you intact and growing from job to job, agency to agency, and state to state.

They’re the folks given guns to enforce the laws passed by legislators and passed by referendum mandates, laws often driven by darker motives than their words reveal. Consider drug laws. America once allowed its citizens to imbibe of opiates and cannabis extracts through over-the-counter purchases. And the Coca in Coca-Cola really was coke, cocaine extract prepared from coca leaves. Pope Leo X even endorsed the delightful stimulative properties of Vin Mariani, a wine with a hefty dollop of cocaine added.

San Francisco, my neighbors across the Bay, passed the nation’s first drug prohibition, targeting the opium smoked by Chinese immigrants [then dubbed “The Yellow Peril”]. Laws against injectable opiates, marijuana, and cocaine followed similar waves of racist hysteria against the “depraved crimes” of blacks and browns and the “heinous influence” exerted by the “lesser races” on guileless white youth.

Drug crimes fill our prisons, to little avail. We legalize the most destructive drugs, while penalizing others that many folks would otherwise prefer. And drugs keep cops employed and have led to the unprecedented political clout of California’s prison guard union.

I mention all this to show that I’m not unalloyed supporter of everything that police do. That said, they are also necessary, since we also have our share of psychopaths, the sort of folks given to saying things like “If god didn’t want ‘em sheared, he wouldn’t have made ‘em sheep.” Continue reading

An unlikely mentor


I’ve learned from mentors throughout my life, including Tom Wilson at the Las Vegas Review Journal. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my first and most significant journalism mentor was James H. Craft, my botany professor at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado.

My best friend and I decided to take his introductory class because he was by far the most intriguing-looking character on campus, a short fifty-something fellow who wore tweed jackets, baggy pants and gold-rimmed glasses. He smoked Pall Malls, a king-sized unfiltered cigarette, which he puffed through a long holder that always jutted up at a jaunty angle. He had a short beard and equally short salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes seemed to twinkle, and he always seemed to wear a subtle, ironic smile, as though he were privy to some arch secret you just had to learn.

He had managed to irritate some of his professorial colleagues with his open acknowledgment that he was teaching at Adams State “because I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small one in a big pond,” but I found the idea appealing.

His elementary class was entertaining and informative, so I decided to take advanced botany with the eye to a minor in the field.

There were about 15 of us in the class, which he began by recommending a second text in addition to the one he required, “because it’s always better to have more than one source of information.” He told us to read the first chapter of the required text by te following class session–we met three times a week–and he spent the rest of the class talking extemporaneously about the fascinating ways folks had found to use algae.

During the second session, he asked if we’d read the chapter, and after all of us had raised a hand in acknowledgment, he asked if we had any questions. Since none of us us did, he launched into a talk about Occam’s Razor, the dictum that when seeking explanations, simplest is usually the place to start. He used his wristwatch, a Hamilton, as an example, spinning out an entertaining range of scenarios, with the most complex being that it was inhabited by a race of miniature beings.  That raised questions about how they ate, what they did with their wastes, what happened when they died, and more. The simplest solution he posed, we agreed, was the most logical: a motor powered by a stem-wound spring. At the end of the hour, we were told to read the next chapter.

After the next session began and we had acknowledged reading the chapter and had no questions, Dr. Craft made an announcement. “As a scientist, I have formed a hypothesis. Twice I’ve asked if you had read the assigned chapters, and both times you acknowledged that you had. I also asked if you had any questions, and you had none. My resulting hypothesis is that you have thoroughly mastered the material you have read. Now to test my hypothesis, I’m going to call each of you into my office as ask three questions. If my hypothesis is correct, you’ll all get As.”

One by one, we filled into the office, and since my last name begins with letter that comes early in the alphabet, I was second into his office. He posed three questions, and I answered each. He smiled. “Very good, Mister Brenneman. Now call in Miss C—-.”

When the grades were posted sometime before at the start of the next class, I had the only A. There was one C, a D, and the rest were Fs.

At the start of the next class, hands shot up at question time, and another shock ensued.

The first question? “Why are most plants  green?”

The answer was an illuminating ten-minute discourse on optical physics, and why the true color of grass wasn’t really green–that was the color the plant reflected, while it’s real color was red, the hotter end of the solar spectrum which was used to capture the energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars.

By the time he’d finished, Dr. Craft had left the questioner with a befuddlked expression on his face. The good doctor smiled, nodded. “Let me offer another hypothesis. The question you really meant to ask was ‘What is the name of the pigment that makes most plants appear green?'” My classmate nodded eagerly, evoking another professorial smile. “In that case, the answer is chlorophyll.”

A light went on in my brain.

In every class for the rest of the semester, he answered every question the same way with unrelenting precision. Only later would I realize that Dr. Craft had just taught me the reporter’s most critical skill, the art of asking questions.

Of newsrooms and toe gum


I’ve joined the legion of downsized journalists. The Berkeley Daily Planet laid me off Monday, leaving me with time to work on this blog, a gift from a dear friend, inspiration, and future contributor.

American journalism is dead.

I wrote my first newspaper story in 1964, in the closing days of the era when the ink-stained wretch was king [and a few queens as well] and newsrooms were peopled with folks with sharp elbows, sharper tongues and a camaraderie that doesn’t thrive in today’s newsrooms, where many a reporter nurtures dark hopes that her neighbor, not her, will be the next victim of the accountant’s ax.

When I started in the business, anyone with a decent set of clips could walk into any medium-sized burg in the country and count on landing a job within days, at most weeks.

This is my first post, one of what will be an occasional series about te changes I’ve seen in newsrooms over the past forty-plus years. And I promise I’ll throw in some toe gum along the way.

Toe gum? Read on. . .

My first job at a daily paper was at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where I covered civil rights, radical politics, the war on poverty, conventions and night cops–the last one being the traditional assignment of rookie reporters.

I had a great city editor, Tom Wilson, who taught me the basic skills of the craft, the foremost being “Ya gotta put some toe gum in your stories.”

Toe gum?

Yep. Toe gum.

“Brenneman,” he said after I’d turned in my first few stories, “y0u’ve got what it takes to be a good reporter. You know how to ask questions, and you can write a good sentence. But the problem is that you don’t put any toe gum in your stories.”

My eyebrows shot up. I knew a reporter was supposed to write a lead that, in 25 words or so, included the who, what, when, where and how, with the why coming in the second graf at the latest. But toe gum?

Tom smiled.

“You gotta think about who you’re writing for,” he drawled. “Now you work the swing shift, and that means your stories go out in the edition that hits the casinos and hotels when the midnight shift is getting off. Folks who want to buy a paper, take it home and give it a read.

“Now imagine you’re writing for a cabbie. He’s been haulin’ around a bunch of drunken tourists all evening long. He’s been yelled at, maybe cleaned some puke out of the back seat, and his ass is numb from sittin’ on dead springs for eight hours straight.

“Now when he gets home and opens the door, he’s gonna head straight for his easy chair. He’s gonna slip off his shoes and socks, then rub his feet and rub out all that gum that’s built up between his toes. Then he’s gonna lean back and open up his paper.

“He doesn’t want to read an academic dissertation. He wants to read something that tells him about his world in a way that means something to him. He’s who you’re writing for. So put some damn toe gum in your stories, Brenneman!”

After that, whenever the academic in me threatened to come out, Tom would throw the story back at me with the simple instruction, “Needs toe gum.”

I’ll be forever grateful.