Time to Go Beyond Petitioning Pharaoh

[My good friend and comrade, Adam Gottlieb, asked me to be part of a unique celebration at the end of Passover this year. He called it, in a scriptural reference, “Love the Stranger.” The celebration, on April 13, 2015, was an artistic performance that reflected on slavery and its modern consequences, and he asked me to reflect on capitalism and slavery. I began by asking people to help me sing the lyrics of “Let My People Go,” a song that I identify with the rich bass voice of Paul Robeson. This was more or less what I said.]

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

In 1861, three slaves escaped from a work detail building defense batteries for the confederate army, and presented themselves at Fort Monroe in Virginia. When Confederate Major John Cary demanded their return, General Ben Butler refused, on the basis that since Virginia, after secession, was now a foreign territory, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, in September of 1861, referred to the slaves as “persons of color, commonly known as contrabands,” and directed that they be paid for their work for the Navy; three weeks later the Army followed suit. In August of 1861, the U.S. government passed the confiscation act, which forbade returning all contraband, including slaves, to the Confederacy. The numbers of escaped slaves increased as this policy became known, and the earliest recorded use of the song was as a rallying cry among the contrabands somewhere before July 1862. It appears to have been sung by Virginia slaves as early as 1853.
I want to take you back to a period a couple of thousand years before 1853, though, to the area from what became fort Monroe to the area that became St. Louis and Chicago and ask you to consider what that area looked like, what was the dominant form

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

of getting your means of survival? What were means of production and survival in those days? I want to challenge you to think of a time before private property, when for the most part people lived in small groups, relied little on cultivation, and “owned” everything in common. When survival was at the mercy of the seasons and nature, where cooperation was essential for survival, where in good years/seasons the means of survival was abundant, where in times of scarcity, survival hung on a slender thread. This is the vast majority of human “prehistory,” in the sense that we have no written records of this, what we commonly call history.
Fast forward to about 500 in what we call the “Common Era.” The largest group of people living together in North America (that we know about) lived in Southern Illinois, in a center we call Cahokia; about 20,000 to 30,000 people we think lived there. And in another 1,000 years, by the time the first European settlers came along the Mississippi in that area, no people lived there. What happened to them? There is no evidence of plague or disease wiping them out. There is no evidence of them having been conquered. What happened?
There are many forms of private property in history. Still, we’ve lived most of our history, tens of thousands of years, in a cooperative or communist form of social organization. Because in North America early communist society persisted so long, some of what happened in Europe, for example, never happened here. Private property began in North America somewhere between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago. Private property begins with the accumulation of means of survival and means of production in some form of agriculture (including the domestication of animals). Slavery is a system of the ownership of private property. It becomes the dominant form of the ownership of private property as agriculture is able to produce enough to (barely) feed the slaves and a surplus product for (the lavish benefit of) the slave owner and his family and household. If you have a choice between being a member of a society that gives you what you need without being owned by someone, under what circumstances would you become a slave? Coercion? What would make such a society attractive?

Map of Fort Ancient

Map of Fort Ancient

I like to think (or fantasize) that in Cahokia, as the town grew larger and possibilities for accumulation grew, the people of Cahokia rejected the direction toward private property and dispersed. Probably they still had oral traditions of their past, even in some cases actual memories. We know that when Europeans did arrive in the Ohio and Illinois River valleys, they found evidence of the past in large effigy and burial mounds throughout the area we now call the Midwest and Southeast. As settling agriculturalists from Europe took and plowed the land, they probably destroyed most of the evidence of the existence of a diverse people we call “Mound Builders” now. However there are still extensive formations, such as the ones at Newark, at Fort Ancient, and at the Great Snake Mound, all in Ohio. And alongside these areas cultures developed that knew warfare, cultivated maize, and were in some transitional phase perhaps toward what we are describing as slavery.
But the Europeans, and particularly the English, brought to these areas a new form of private property, one that was just emerging. The development of trade was fundamental to this new form. Certainly some form of exchange has existed ever since private property existed. But trading societies were rare in antiquity. They were also subject to the dominance of slavery (e.g. Rome and Greece as prime examples) where warfare reduced conquered peoples to the status of slaves on agricultural plantations; or colonies required to purchase the goods produced in the trading society. In Europe that changed as first the dominant form of property ownership changed from people to land, that demanded that the person who worked the land have some stake in producing the product. And then, as the land produced increasing wealth, beyond what would be consumed in Europe; and as means for calculating the wealth changed; and as the means for exchanging the wealth improved with the extraction of precious metals from, and genocide of the peoples of, the Americas; so capitalism began to emerge.
Sometimes we tend to look around us and dismiss capitalism as super-consumption; empire; selling a product for more than you pay for it. Some of all of that is true, of course. But fundamentally, what capitalism does is it reduces everything to the level of a commodity, something made for sale, made for exchange rather than for the use of the maker.
In the case of slavery, where control of the human being is the form of private property that dominates, there is no exchange. The slave owner dispenses the product that the owner owns as he sees fit. There is no exchange between members of the slave owners’ family or between master and slave. Capitalism, however, grafted something new on the body of classical slavery. The French with sugar (Haiti for example) and the British with cotton (in the South of the U.S.) used the old form of slavery to build a world economic system of commodity production. This was capitalist slavery.
In the case of commodity production, the producer is ostensibly free to sell the only commodity he or she owns: the ability to work. Yes it is true that there are other commodities out in the world that the worker purchases. But once that commodity is purchased, it suffices as a substance of use for the buyer. It’s easiest to see this in terms of food, clothing, shelter for example. Capitalism is an economic system in which the worker is personally free; without work, he or she is also free to starve. Capitalists have no obligation to an unemployed worker as the Lord might have had toward the peasant on his land, or for that matter the classical slave owner. It is in this sense that we call capitalism, for the working class, wage-slavery. The worker has no place to turn except to the capitalist for obtaining the means of subsistence which the working class has produced. The capitalist then purchases the commodity that worker has to offer, but finds in that worker’s commodity something that no other commodity has: the ability to produce more means of subsistence than he or she needs to survive.
Slavery is a contract that says: you are mine, you owe me everything you produce. In return for producing for me, I the owner will keep you alive. I own whatever surplus product you make. Only force could compel this kind of contract.
Feudalism is a contract that says: the land is mine. I will let you have a parcel of land to work for yourself on a given number of days during the year. I will protect you from marauders. The rest of the time you must work for me on a different plot of land. I own everything you produce on that plot. Clearly the peasant has more incentive here: it is a system where it is clear what is mine and what is yours, without artifice. But as the peasant plots were reduced in size, the time allotted to cultivating them was decreased, and the forced servitude in the Lord’s armies increased, even this incentive vanished and force became primary.
In capitalism the contract says: I buy your commodity and set it to work in my means of production (factory, school, office, etc). Because I now own your commodity, I can work it as long as the contract says I can (to the limit of 24 hours per day – and that has been the case). Whatever you produce in that time is mine. With the wage that I pay you, you get to buy back from me and my class what you need to survive (food, clothing, shelter). But I get to accumulate the surplus product as mine, and to transform it into money. Not only that; I get to improve your productivity – that is your ability to produce more in the same amount of time for less cost. Thereby I get to make even more money.
A new quality has entered the realm of capitalism. Up until the last 30 years or so, the inevitable demise of capitalism, predicted 150 years ago because of increases of productivity, has been delayed. The main reason for this has been as the intensity of production (and productivity) exceeded the boundaries of each national market, capitalism had somewhere else to expand (meaning make war on, conquer, make part of an empire and export capital to in order to exploit). The intensity of exploitation was matched by extensivity. As capitalism has exported its commodity production from Boston to Bangladesh, from Iowa to India, from California to Chile, it has also streamlined production to eliminate or reduce its purchase of the commodity of the

Getting Back on Track: Service Robots 2010

Transforming what we know as productivity: Service Robots 2010

ability to work. Automation, in the era of electronics, has fundamentally transformed what we know as productivity. So the workers of India are competing against fully automated factories elsewhere (and the workers in the U.S. cannot find jobs at all).
What do we call it then, when workers are totally ejected from the relationship between employer and employed, when wage-slavery is not even an option? What do we call it when a totally surplus population is no longer needed by the owning class? When public housing is torn down, schools are closed, mental health facilities destroyed, water is privatized, school districts get military grade weapons to patrol the corridors, and police departments are equipped with military armored vehicles?
We are faced with a situation similar to many other transformations in society – yet totally new. It is a transformation in which the old form of ownership is attempting to protect its control of private property. But the impulse to transform society is not to another form of private property but to abolish private property entirely, to return it to common ownership. And the impulse is two fold. First and foremost, the impulse is the survival of the species. Secondly, within that, the survival of those cast out by capitalism can only be reached by the transformation to a society that provides for all.
Capitalism globally is moving to find ways to protect private property, which lead to increased use of force and violence. More and more the state merges with corporations and nationalization takes place in the interest of the corporations. We’re talking about fascism.
The people are increasingly and globally finding it necessary to challenge a system which can only destroy them. And that is the challenge of our time, the meaning of “Go Down Moses” today.
We are living in a time of abundance AND slavery, when the choices open to us are narrowing by the minute. Here is the bleak landscape capitalism offers us .Either we exist in a vortex of ever more impoverishing wage-slavery, or we are reduced to actual chattel-slavery or death. .
BUT we have an opening we have NEVER had before. We can choose abundance for all. We really have no option but to develop the revolutionary networks that go beyond petitioning pharaoh to “let our people go.” That is the task that the League of Revolutionaries for a New America has set itself. Please talk to me if you want to know more about the LRNA.

Advertisements

Never Let A Good Crisis Go to Waste

From 1945 to 1953, “This Is Your FBI” ran as a weekly radio program.  The old-time radio website explains the show in this way: “These were fact-based dramas that told the story of FBI cases from the agent’s point of view. Producer/director Jerry Devine had previous thradio experience on the show Mr. District Attorney, which was a solid and responsible pro-law enforcement radio drama.”  So much “from the agent’s point of view”; so “solid and responsible pro-law-enforcement” that J. Edgar Hoover worked with the producer to make it more authentic.  At the end of each show, as I remember from listening to it as a child, an actor performing the role of Hoover would explain how the country was infiltrated by bad guys.  He would tell us that we children should keep our ears attuned and our eyes open for the evil and the peril of communism.  He instructed us not to try to intervene; he especially warned us about our parents and family, and that we should recognize that the importance of protecting the country was greater than any allegiance we owed to family and friends.  In short, we should turn in our commie parents.  (As an impressionable child, I was quite stricken by these instructions.  I don’t remember having any indication, or recognizing any indication, that my parents were engaged in subversive activity. Nevertheless, I cautiously warned my mother not to tell me if she WERE involved in communist activity, because if I knew I would be duty bound to . . .well you get the picture).

Again: don’t DO anything.  Report the matter so that the FBI can intervene.  Don’t tell the subversives that you are watching and what you are doing.th-2

It is with that sort of terror that I heard the statements coming from the mouths of New York policemen and politicians and echoed by other irresponsible folk around the country.  Politicians thrive on the maxim: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Cases in point: George Bush following 9/11/2001 on a world stage; the privatization of the New Orleans public schools after Katrina. And now the police union, George Pataki, Rudy Giulani and others in New York have blamed protesters for the assassination of 2 police officers. But they have gone further to enlist the aid of the general populace in identifying anyone who might write on a blog, or social media, anything that might be interpreted as threatening to the police.

A span of 60 plus years intervenes between then and now. A lot of reading, gathering knowledge and experience, and documents showing that the list of “subversive” organizations and individuals investigated by the FBI and held on Richard Nixon’s list stretch the length of a football field.  Now my stomach churns and old memories revive and this time I am on the side that I expect would be reported, not for threatening anyone, but for simply being supportive of and associated with those justly protesting the police, who act as a special body of armed (mostly) men standing above society.  For writing this blog post. Yes.

Events are moving quickly, and every effort is being made to line up as many people as possible to support an assault on protest, crush dissent rapidly.  From the emergency managers supplanting democracy in Michigan (a surprising number of people have been

Benton Harbor, Michigan activist Rev. Edward Pinkney

Benton Harbor, Michigan activist Rev. Edward Pinkney

won to the side of hoping these managers will solve the problems of the cities ruined by capitalism), to the arrest, conviction and sentencing of Reverend Edward Pinkney for up to 10 years in prison for attempting to defend Benton Harbor from corporate takeover to the escalating numbers of police killings around the country, the Dred Scott decision seems to have been updated: poor people in America have no rights that capitalism is bound to respect; and to execute its will, capitalism is preparing a full blown fascist assault on our rights.

The point though is that capitalism has no choice if it wants to save its control of private property. Democracy, limited as it may be, is the treasured disguise of capitalism. Once the emperor has no clothes, force is it’s only option, the option of weakness.  It has seized the tactical offensive, because strategically it is on the defensive.  How else can it control the 80% of the American population that is flirting with poverty, or the 15% of the American population that is already in poverty? That is what unites the American people. Centuries of ideological schisms, underpinned by material differences, are melting into air — if we can seize on our common economic interests, our battle for survival. If we can turn our defensive posture into a fight forward, toward the new cooperative world that is possible.  A new cooperative world is necessary, and the future is up to us.

Lewis Lapham and the Fate of the Book

Posted by Lewis Lapham at 6:08pm, April 22, 2012.

[Tom Engelhardt writes, an an introduction to Lewis Lapham’s article. . .] A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century.  I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book.  Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day.  Still, back then, for my novel’s characters — mostly authors and book editors like me — I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.”  It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”– for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it — still in prototype form — it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object… a flickering jewel of light and color.”  And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.”  A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much.  The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing . . . (click here for the rest of this article).

Scott Turow On Why Amazon Is Bad For Books

[The article below gives solid reasons for fearing Amazon’s monopolistic position.  Here is another aspect of the fear, akin to the fear of Walmart and its treatment of workers. ]

Why We Should Fear Amazon

Author Scott Turow on why the online mega-retailer is bad for books.
March 14, 2012  |

Late last week, the Justice Department warned Apple and five of the nation’s largest publishers that it was planning to sue them for price fixing. At issue is the agency model, a method of wholesaling e-books in which the publisher sets the retail price and the retailer takes a 30 percent cut. Most print and many e-books are sold under the traditional wholesale model, in which publishers sell books at a discounted price, and the retailer can resell them for whatever price it likes.

The unnamed player in this drama is Amazon, which had been selling e-books at a loss until two years ago, when the iPad came along and publishers used the emergence of the new device to pressure the online megaretailer into adopting the agency model, too. If Amazon wanted to sell e-books from the Big Six (as the six largest book publishers are called), it could no longer sell those titles for $9.99.

Publishers actually make less money with the agency model, so why have they insisted on it? The change was designed to limit the growing dominance of Amazon over American book retailing. On Monday, Scott Turow — the bestselling author of “Presumed Innocent” and other legal thrillers, and the president of the Authors Guild — posted a letter to members on the Guild’s web site. In it, he pronounced the Justice Department’s actions bad news for authors, “grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture,” and (contrary to first impression) ominous for book consumers. I called him up to find out more.

What are some of the Guild’s problems with Amazon?

First of all, so that I don’t get dismissed as an ingrate, I should say that Amazon has been a boon for bestselling authors. Authors get paid on the basis of the cover price for a hardcover book. By discounting, which is something that chain stores started and Amazon continued, they have lowered the barriers to book buying in ways that have been personally extremely beneficial to me.

Because you get paid the same amount regardless of how much the retailer charges for the book, and the discounting encourages more people to buy the book?

Exactly. These are not personal complaints. There are lots of things about Amazon for which they deserve credit. They’re innovative. There are lots of very, very happy Amazon customers. I’m not here to dispute that Amazon has been personally good for me or to say that they haven’t been, so far, good to their customers.

So what’s the problem?

The concern is that they are getting so large and they compete so ruthlessly that there’s a lot of fear for what the world with Amazon in charge is going to look like.

The Guild’s beefs with Amazon became pronounced over the issue of the resale of new titles some years ago. This was something that Amazon pioneered. They would sell you a [just-released] book on Day One, buy it back from you on Day Two, and then resell it to another customer on Day Three. This was legal, but certainly not what anybody ever intended.

Traditionally, in hardcover, that’s been basically a split of the proceeds between the author and publisher. (An aside: That’s something we’re fighting with publishers about in the digital world.) So Amazon decides to go into competition with the publishers by reselling the book they just bought. The publisher gets paid nothing, and neither does the author. It’s a pure profit for Amazon.

Now, the reason you don’t see used bookstores within new bookstores is that the used books compete with the new books and the publishers supplying the new books would object. Either you’re doing business with me or you’re competing with me. I’m not going to sell you books so you can take some percentage of sales.

The problem of course was the Amazon had gotten so big that publishers were afraid to resist that. It’s not the mere fact that they’re competing [with their own suppliers]. I can certainly understand that it’s good for consumers to be able to buy a book two days later at a lower price. It’s the fact that the publishers were afraid to dismiss Amazon.

Which is what they would do with a regular retailer who was doing the same thing but had viable competitors?

Right, and of course, Amazon was undercutting authors in the process. We tried to persuade them to just window this [delay making used copies of brand-new books available for a period of time, the way the release of the DVD of a movie is delayed until after it has played in theaters]. That didn’t work. It was a muscle-flexing exhibition by Amazon, saying, “We’ve got so much market power, you guys can’t do what you’ve traditionally done and take your goods elsewhere. We represent at least 30 percent of the book market.”

I don’t like losing sales, but the real problem is at the margins. Midlist authors have been struggling to survive for decades now. If you start eating into the publishers’ returns, then at the bottom of the food chain, those books are just not going to get published. We have seen that happen.

Are there other examples of Amazon using its predominance?

They now control the print-on-demand market. That’s when you buy a book and only then does a service print a copy — literally on demand. [This is a method used by academic and small presses, as well as by authors with otherwise out-of-print books.] Amazon bought a POD service called BookSurge. Then they informed their customers — university presses and some other publishers who the Guild had organized to do POD for Authors Guild members — that they would not list their books on Amazon’s site unless they paid BookSurge more for their services.

I don’t know how they defend themselves on this one. That’s another very ominous sign to the book industry and authors.

What about their history with e-books?

They deserve a lot of credit for the Kindle, for yoking e-ink with this nationwide wireless network. It’s a great innovation. And they said to the publishers, “It’s really important to us in introducing this platform that e-books appear at the same time as the hardcover edition.” Publishers said, “Oh, we’ve seen your tricks before, Amazon! Why would we ever do that?”

So Amazon says, “We’ll pay you the same amount we pay you on a hardcover.” So publishers think that sounds fine, how can they complain about that? They agree and are then stunned when Amazon announces that they’re going to sell every e-book at a loss, for $9.99. That’s an average loss of $4 to $5 a book.

Why would Amazon do that?

I suppose they could argue they were doing it to sell devices and that may well have been one of their intentions. It had the additional benefit of making it much harder for any of their competitors to enter the market.

For example: A lot of people have the habit of going into a physical store, looking at books and then turning around and buying the e-book wirelessly from Amazon. Had it not been the case that you had to sell an e-book at a $5 loss, bookstores would have been able to say, “Sure, bring your device with you and we’ll sell you the e-book right here.”

Bookstores are pretty hard-pressed by book discounting as it is, and the idea of selling ebooks at a loss made it impossible for them to enter the marketplace in competition with Amazon.

What about the proprietary format of Kindle? Didn’t that also make it hard for competing e-readers to enter the market?

You couldn’t read all those books you bought from Amazon on a competitor’s device — you can now, if you have an iPad, but you couldn’t then.

The nook is widely regarded as the better e-reader device, but if you’ve accumulated a library of Kindle titles, you can’t take them with you if you decide to switch. [Technically, you can, but most users would find this quite challenging.]

Barnes and Noble developed the nook because they really had no choice but to compete with Amazon. They were struggling at that point, and I personally don’t think they’d have been able to survive while losing $5 on every book. There simply were not a lot of people jumping into that market to compete, not with the prospect of losing $5 on every book sale. From the outside, it looks like the pricing was not just a loss leader on the devices, but a way to discourage competition.

How did Amazon’s e-book pricing affect authors?

One way that 25 percent of net became the standard royalty for e-books was because publishers said, “We all know they can’t go on selling e-books at a loss forever and sooner or later this pricing structure has got to change.” They told authors they couldn’t agree to a different royalty because everyone knew that Amazon wouldn’t be paying them $14 to $15 per title indefinitely.

You’re implying that Amazon planned eventually to use the consumer’s habituation to $9.99 books to force publishers to charge Amazon lower wholesale prices for books. They’ve tried to do that recently with some small presses, removing their titles from Amazon unless the presses agree to sell their books at rock-bottom wholesale prices. And publishers would have no choice but to agree because every other competitor would also have been driven out of the market by Amazon’s predatory pricing?

Certainly, that’s what publishers assumed.

The other thing Amazon could have done once they had the market to themselves — and this is virtually inevitable — is that they would have raised prices to consumers.

That’s part of the less-known history behind anti-trust laws. Once a large company has spent its capital to fund predatory pricing and drive its competitors out of business, there’s no reason to keep selling for cheap. The low prices don’t last.

Right. Look, if what they’re into is maximizing profits, then if they were to have a monopoly there’d be no rationale not to use the monopoly power to increase prices to consumers. Now, if I were on the other side, working for Amazon, I’d say “Show me where I’ve done that.”

Presumably, they haven’t done it yet because they haven’t achieved the monopoly yet. Historically, that’s what monopolies always do.

Correct. That is historically what monopolies do. There is plenty of precedent for that. It’s only rational to fear what they’re going to do with this accumulation of power.

Again, the concern from the author’s perspective is that e-books are putting a tremendous downward pressure on the price of books in general. That’s putting tremendous pressure on publishers to survive. And I think a world in which online book selling is driving bookstores out of existence is a pity.

How did Amazon respond to the entrance of Apple and the agency pricing system?

Apple offered to sell books on the iPad using the agency model — which is what they use for iTunes — and the publishers one by one agreed to that. Then they told Amazon they were going to follow this new model, and that they were going to produce the e-books themselves rather than Amazon doing so.

When the first publisher, John Sargent [of Macmillan], told them that, Amazon responded by removing the buy buttons not just from all of Macmillan Publishing’s e-books — about which you can say, yeah, there’s a legitimate dispute — but from their print books, too. Paper, physical books! It was another demonstration of their ability to abuse their market power.

They used their market power over an item where pricing was not in dispute to punish a publisher for taking what Amazon regards as an unfavorable position in a different market.

Why should where their books are bought make a difference to authors?

New authors traditionally are nurtured by bookstore personnel, especially in independent bookstores. These people literally hand sell books to their customers, by saying, “I’ve read this. I think you’re going to love it.” Not to mention the fact that a bookstore is a small cultural center in a community. That’s definitely a loss.

Again, my concern is for the sake of literary diversity. If the rewards to authors go down, simple economics says there will be fewer authors. It’s not that people won’t burn with the passion to write. The number of people wanting to be novelists is probably not going to decline — but certainly the number of people who are going to be able to make a living as authors is going to dramatically decrease.

When that decreases, the diversity of the literary culture decreases. The store of new ideas and the richness of the discussion all decreases.

Further reading

Scott Turow’s letter to the Authors Guild membership

The Wall Street Journal on the Justice Department’s threat to sue Apple and five book publishers for price fixing

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

The Apostate: A New Yorker Exposé Of The Church Of Scientology


The Apostate
Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.
by Lawrence Wright February 14, 2011

On August 19, 2009, Tommy Davis, the chief spokesperson for the Church of Scientology International, received a letter from the film director and screenwriter Paul Haggis. “For ten months now I have been writing to ask you to make a public statement denouncing the actions of the Church of Scientology of San Diego,” Haggis wrote. Before the 2008 elections, a staff member at Scientology’s San Diego church had signed its name to an online petition supporting Proposition 8, which asserted that the State of California should sanction marriage only “between a man and a woman.” The proposition passed. As Haggis saw it, the San Diego church’s “public sponsorship of Proposition 8, which succeeded in taking away the civil rights of gay and lesbian citizens of California—rights that were granted them by the Supreme Court of our state—is a stain on the integrity of our organization and a stain on us personally. Our public association with that hate-filled legislation shames us.” Haggis wrote, “Silence is consent, Tommy. I refuse to consent.” He concluded, “I hereby resign my membership in the Church of Scientology.”
Haggis was prominent in both Scientology and Hollywood, two communities that often converge. Although he is less famous than certain other Scientologists, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, he had been in the organization for nearly thirty-five years. Haggis wrote the screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby,”. . . Click here to read more[

[The New Yorker article is huge;  if you want a “Cliff’s Notes” version, try this “What You Need to Know” article. — LR]

Borders Closes 5 Chicago Stores

[As someone whose livelihood was put in jeopardy by the “bookstore wars,” the battle between the big box bookstores that hit Chicago in the early 80’s, I have reason to cast a jaundiced eye at the bankruptcy of Borders.  Those of us who speculated about the challenge of the superstores at that time had a greater respect for Borders than for Barnes & Noble.  There was a reason for that.  Borders started as an independent.  They were renowned for their wide selection of books.  We also hated their methods as they began to expand: sort of a franchise operation, all claiming to be independent of each other, so that Borders the original could claim a distributor’s discount to their franchised stores.  When Barnes & Noble decided to go into the superstore business (it is amusing that their official history claims they invented the superstore), they did so with such a capital investment, such a rush, that Borders was left far behind despite their head start.
In Chicago, they claimed control of the market first with their flagship store on Michigan Avenue.  While Barnes & Noble pursued a suburban strategy, they surrendered Chicago dominance to their competitor.  For a time Barnes & Noble sought space on Michigan Avenue, in Streeterville, in the plagued development of Block 37, ultimately to settle for a college store in conjunction with DePaul on State Street.  They pursued a college store strategy securing the locations at Loyola, Northwestern and University of Chicago before the downtown DePaul store.  And as the two behemoths slugged it out, they both foundered, like heavyweights too topheavy to make it through 15 rounds, exhausted in the battle.  In August, 2010 Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale and languished for lack of a buyer.  Various rumors surfaced that the two chains would merge, that Barnes & Noble would go into chapter 11 along with Borders, rumors that are still out there.  A bankruptcy index last week speculated that, despite strong holiday sales the look for Barnes & Noble is not great.  Others speculate that the closing of 30% of Borders stores will aid Amazon and Barnes & Noble.    Looking at the statistics, while Borders has over 600 stores (before the closings), Barnes & Noble has more than 1300 (if you include both the college and retail divisions).  Should Chapter 11 hit Barnes & Noble, the shock wave of closings would be extraordinary.
There will be 6,000 unemployed Borders workers on the streets as their stores close. That is something none of us should gloat over, regardless of our personal experience with the chain bookstores.  Something similar could happen with Barnes & Noble.   It’s true that in the past 10 years the chains have become worse than ever.  Walking into a Barnes & Noble is like walking into a tomb for books, despite the  number of book cases.  Amazon, the “Kindle” and on-line bookselling has something to do with it: the underlying story is the electronicization, the digitization of the industry which makes a bricks and mortar strategy incomprehensible on the scale of the superstores. The other question that anyone ought to consider:  after years of an economic battle which decimated the independent book industry, the loss of 30% of the chain stores will leave a “bricks and mortar” void that takes a strategic view to overcome.  — Lew Rosenbaum]
From WGNTV.com:
Borders Group Inc filed for bankruptcy protection and said it would close about one-third of its bookstores, including about half of its Chicago area stores. 

According to Chicago Breaking Business, “five of eight stores in Chicago will close, including the one at North Avenue and Halsted Street, as well as those in Lincoln Park, Uptown, Lincoln Village and Beverly. The Hyde Park store is in the process of closing and will shut its doors on March 7. This means the only Borders superstore left in the city will be in the Loop.

Borders stores in Evanston, Mount Prospect, Deerfield, Bolingbrook, St. Charles, Crystal Lake, McHenry, DeKalb and Matteson are also slated for closure. Outside of Illinois, locations in Merrillville, Ind., and Fox Point, Wis., will be closing.”

All 200 closings will be superstores, and about 6,000 jobs will be affected, the company said. It has the option of closing up to 275 in all, according to court documents. It said the stores it wants to close lose a combined $2 million a week. The closings will start by Saturday. The company said it will honor gift cards.

From WBBM news:  The following Borders Bookstores will be closing:

• 2817 N. Clark St., Chicago
• 755 W. North Ave., Chicago
• 4718 N. Broadway, Chicago
• 2210 W. 95th St., Chicago
• 6103 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
• 1700 Maple Ave., Evanston
• 7100 W. Forest Preserve Dr., Norridge
• 909 N. Elmhurst Rd., Mount Prospect
• 4824 W. 211th St., Matteson
• 49 S. Waukegan Rd. , Deerfield
• 3539 E. Main St., St. Charles
• 161 N. Webber Rd., Bolingbroook
• 221 Richmond Rd., McHenry
• 600 Northwest Highway, Crystal Lake
• 2704 Southlake Mall, Merrillville, Ind.

Meet Egypt’s New Leaders — Esam Al-Amin in Counterpunch

From Stalemate to Checkmate

Meet Egypt’s Future Leaders

By ESAM AL-AMIN published Feb. 9, 2011 in Counterpunch

O Youth, today is your day so shout
No more slumber or deep sleep
This is your time and your place
Bestow on us your talents and efforts
We want Egypt’s youth to hold fast
As they resist the aggressor and outsider

Egyptian Poet Ibrahim Nagi (1898-1953)

On June 6, 2010, soft-spoken businessman Khaled Said, 28, had his dinner before retreating to his room and embarking on his daily routine of surfing the Internet, blogging, and chatting with his friends on different social websites. Several days earlier, he had posted a seven-minute online video of Alexandria police officers dividing up confiscated drugs among themselves.

When his Internet service suddenly was disrupted that evening, he left his middle class apartment in the coastal city of Alexandria and headed to his neighborhood Internet café. As he resumed blogging, two plain-clothes secret police officers demanded that he be searched. When he inquired as to why or on whose authority, they scoffed at him while blurting out: emergency law. He refused to be touched and demanded to see a uniformed officer or be taken to a police station.

According to eyewitnesses, within minutes they dragged him to a nearby vacant building and began to severely beat up his tiny body, eventually smashing his head on a marble tabletop. His body was subsequently dumped in the street to be retrieved later by an ambulance that declared him dead. According to his mother, Leila Marzouq, his body was totally bruised, teeth broken, and skull fractured.  Click here to read the entire article.