Monday, October 5, 2015

The Top Ten: Maverick Reader Favorites

Here are the most-read articles published on this site from 2008 to 2015, based on pageview statistics from Most of them were also published on other websites, including Global Research, TF, ZNet, Truthout, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. 

    The top two lead significantly, with staying power for several years. "Remembering MLK" is an unusual take on the Civil Rights leader's death and a woman from his "secret" life, while "Do Psychopaths..." is a wide-ranging "rant" originally developed for radio.
     Several posts on this site have focused on the relationship between Lockheed Martin, Vermont and its Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, but one went viral last year. Also in the top five is "Fear Factors," a chapter from a series on counter-terrorism and disinformation in the late 1970s, and "The Oil Spill," which speculates about the 2010 Gulf disaster.
      "Truth Decay" is another radio rant that was re-written and sparked debate on various websites. It's especially satisfying to see two chapters from "Prisoners of the Real" on the list. The final spot goes to an article on Bernie Sanders, focusing on his first term as mayor and adapted from my book on Vermont and Sanders' impact, The People's Republic.   

Deconstructing Archetypes (from Prisoners of the Real)
Prisoners of the Real (Cover/Content Page)

Burlington Mayor James Burke’s allies considered him honest and fearless, driven by civic pride and a sense of duty. His political enemies questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. He sometimes called them “corporate interests” or “foreign capitalists.” This series of essays about the Queen City's early progressive era is excerpted from The Vermont Way, a multi-platform history of Vermont. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pacifica Radio: What Went Wrong?

In late 2008, faced with layoffs, a crash crunch, lawsuits, and a long-term decline in listenership, the National Board of Pacifica Radio, the original listener-supported network, decided to seek a $1 million dollar loan, reportedly using station assets as collateral.

In response, Ricco Ross, chair of Los Angeles station KPFK-FM’s Local Board wrote to Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks and the National Board, calling for greater transparency and consultation in such decision making, and asking sister stations in Berkeley, New York, Houston, and Washington, DC to stand with KPFK against the action.

The letter concluded: "This appropriation of station assets without notice and consultation sets a precedent that endangers every station in Pacifica." A motion passed by the KPFK LSB called for the National Board “to require a repair and repayment plan as a condition for its approval of any collateralized loan agreement." Almost a third of the loan would go toward payment of a smaller loan obtained the previous summer.

Since August, the organization’s Executive Director and Human Resources Director had resigned, staff was reduced at most stations, and many national staff positions were cut. On the other hand, CFO Hicks returned to work in October after a three month leave of absence. A new ED job description was written, but the search had yet to begin. Meanwhile, discussion forums speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network. National Board Members and most managers remained silent.

At KPFA, the resignation of Business Manager Lois Withers was announced. According to an editorial posting on Pacificana, a KPFA-based online forum, “While Ms. Withers is known by many as capable and responsible in her position as Business Manager, the more recent memory of her tenure was marred by her role in escalating a simple volunteer matter into a disproportionate action of calling the Berkeley Police into the KPFA building and exacting violence on volunteer programmer, Nadra Foster. The original charges? Using the phones, and printing paper.”

A dispute also brewed over the KPFA Local Station Board’s decision to hold its November monthly meeting outside of the local signal area, along with postponement of the next meeting until January 2009. In New York, a lawsuit over the 2007 station board elections at WBAI had yet to be settled. Other lawsuits against stations and the network drove up legal costs. In Washington, DC, questions were being asked about the financial results of a 30th anniversary gala for WPFW.

Nevertheless, compared with recent news about station collapse and a phantom foundation set up to salvage what's left after bankruptcy and investigations, those were the good old days.

Such developments bring to mind my last in-person words to the PNB as Executive Director, delivered at a quarterly meeting in Los Angeles on July 27, 2007. I’d just come to an agreement with the Board on the terms of my departure; I’d offered to remain on the job until a thorough search could be done, and to help with a transition, but the Board passed on that option. Still, many of the problems and issues being discussed were addressed in that 12-minute report. It was, in abbreviated form, my basic assessment of Pacifica’s situation.

A financial crisis was likely and imminent, I said, but much could be done. Specific proposals to reform and revitalize Pacifica – many under discussion for years – were presented again. In short, the diagnosis was public and a plan was on the table. But some in governance and management weren’t persuaded, enough at least to make timely action next to impossible. Here’s what I said:

Report to the PNB, July 27, 2007

When I applied for this job, some of the Board members said that they were impressed with the fact that I’d studied the organization and its problems pretty seriously, and, in a sense, I got here by examining Pacifica as a journalist might and reflecting back to the Board what I’d found. Since then, however, there has been at times less interest in what I’ve learned by actually doing the job, and, at times, also limited enthusiasm for some of my proposals to address the problems that I’ve identified. But so it goes.

For the record, however, I’ve made several proposals and would like to reiterate them. I’ve suggested management reorganization, including more accountability of local management to national priorities and standards. There has been some controversy about that. I’ve advocated more aggressive and coordinated national programming, including a new national program and local programs carried by all sister stations, and national editorial priorities that are reflected in programming across the network. I’ve suggested that, like any other news organization, this one should have editorial priorities which change as circumstances change. Right now, I believe that those editorial priorities ought to be: ending the war on terror, health care for all, a restoration of democracy, and building ecological security. That is not to say that other issues and sub-issues are not also important. But these represent issues of great national concern, and which would – if reflected in national programming -- distinguish Pacifica as an independent radio network.

I have also argued for a serious investment, more serious than we have been able to provide so far, to technological re-tooling, including Internet channels with interactive content, more investment in new equipment, and increased distribution that empowers more listeners. I’ve suggested – and we are making some progress on this – more coordinated marketing and promotion with a serious and consolidated development and outreach budget, and training for affiliate stations. And finally, increased leadership within the independent media community, and work with other organizations on free speech campaigns.

But how has it gone? Slowly. Management organization has run up against concerns about local autonomy and, I think, a suspicion about the possibility that there could be another national power grab. Collaborative programming – we’ve made some improvements there, but there remains a sentiment that each station should control its own airwaves and that substantive changes should never be made without a long, thorough and, some would say, seemingly interminable process of consultation with many stakeholders.

Technological investment has been delayed by a tendency to create budgets from the bottom up, an approach that leaves overall issues that concern the national organization for last, and makes reductions in spending on network-wide needs the easiest solution when money is tight, as it is now. And coordinated marketing, which has been discussed with the term “branding,” has also proven difficult in an organization where no one really speaks for the organization without fear of being blindsided from within. There is not much consensus about image, except perhaps to be a passionate cheerleader for every good cause that comes along. I’m not denigrating those things, but a laundry list of causes is not a very effective way to market a radio network.

Meanwhile, Pacifica is grappling with several crucial issues: Adapting to fundamental changes in audio distribution, declining listenership and the erosion of Pacifica’s traditional revenue source, and, after five years with a new experimental structure, the need to make some serious adjustments. The current digital distribution project is an attempt to address one of these issues, and election-related bylaws changes acknowledge and address another. But declining audience and listener loyalty can only be fully addressed by looking hard at programming, and this is linked to unresolved questions about Pacifica’s mission and organizational structure.

Our CFO predicts that Pacifica is facing contraction and a cash crunch in the near future. But even if that doesn’t happen, and can be avoided in the next few months, the underlying problems remain and will resurface.

Earlier, I’ve mentioned that a re-evaluation of Pacifica’s mission is in order. This mission dates from Lew Hill’s 1946 prospectus for KPFA, arguably still the most crucial document in the organization’s history. One the key parts said that Pacifica would “engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds, and colors; gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflicts between any and all such groups; and promote the study of political and economic problems, and the causes of religious, philosophical, and racial antagonisms.”

You know these words. This remains a fundamental philosophical statement for Pacifica. The idea behind these words is that peace can emerge from dialogue – that is, diverse groups openly communicating with one another. Not objective indisputable truth – none of us have that – an open exchange of ideas that helps us to know each other as human beings, dialogue that demonstrates the possibility that we can have peace in practice.

But today, too often, we have instead argument, an often angry struggle over ideology, airtime, and assigning blame that keeps Pacifica from creating constructive connections between people. On top of that we sometimes even have censorship; self-censorship actually, groupthink, avoidance of tough but necessary disagreement. So, I repeat: Pacifica’s mission needs serious study and reflection, a real long-overdue dialogue about the fundamental intentions of this organization – in this time.

The organization also needs a serious look at democracy as it is being practiced here. I hear it said that Pacifica is a “bold experiment,” a representative democracy of listeners. But to me it looks very much like a confederation, a very tentative association of communities –the stations – that view themselves as relatively sovereign, and operate under a common constitution – the bylaws – but with a weak central authority – the national office. My experience is that this structure makes it difficult to reach decisions, and to ensure that, even when decisions are made, that they’re actually carried out. It’s difficult to make even the simplest bylaw amendment, for example to increase efficiency, save money, or improve continuity.

The national organization is, by design, dependent on the stations, which view themselves as semi-independent. Without local cooperation and agreement, the central organization can’t provide essential services, and as a result, the funding of priorities like research, national infrastructure, development, and marketing is consistently neglected. In some quarters there is open hostility to the national organization, as if it’s some kind of parasite feeding off the stations. Therefore, it’s not very surprising that some managers and staff sometimes refuse to implement decisions made by the national board or national office.

In short, what I am saying, and what I have been saying for a year and a half, is that Pacifica’s confederal structure doesn’t work. For democracy to function compromise is essential. A minority that loses will only play along if it feels that the winning side is playing fair. This becomes difficult when groups adopt a stance of moral absolutism, or form factions. And we see both here. When factional disagreement becomes public and intense, the organization suffers from disunity, charges and counter-charges about the conduct of the elections, fraudulent or unethical conduct, and repeated attacks on so-called enemies. This is beginning to seriously undermine the legitimacy of the organization’s democratic process.

So, I ask you once again, as I asked when I traveled across the country: Are we running a media organization, or are we trying to build an alternative government? I hope it’s the former. ...

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment of the situation, but I think it would be irresponsible if, after two years, I didn’t share with this community what I’ve learned and some of the reasons why I am leaving. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a new Executive Director can make this organization work just as it is. I hope so, and I’ve greatly appreciated the opportunity to help. Pacifica remains, despite everything I’ve said, a unique and important institution, and I sincerely hope it will continue to make a significant contribution to lasting understanding between nations and people in the years ahead.

FURTHER PACIFICA READING: Check out Quiet Meltdown for more on the crisis; Planet Pacifica is the inside story of my early months as CEO, combined with episodes from Pacifica’s history. AUDIO: Report to the PNB, Greg Guma, July 27, 2007.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

An intellectual odyssey – from Pythagoras to planetary consciousness -- and a new vision of freedom and cooperation. 

Prisoners of the Real makes the connection between solar and lunar knowledge, illuminating the cost of society’s preoccupation with certainty and order. Exploring insights from linguistics, psychology, physics, literature, philosophy and management science, it opens the door to a new vision of freedom and cooperation – Dionysian leadership.

"Dionysian leaders use artistic methods to invent structures of reality. Although they acknowledge that scientific and artistic processes have equal worth, they de-emphasize logical reasoning and deduction and focus on metaphorical thinking. Their interest is not definition but discovery.”

Section One: The Rational Trap
The Creative Also Destroys * Deconstructing Leadership * Anatomy of Insecurity * Managers and Their Tools * The Corporate Way of Life * The Dictatorship of Time * Rules for Rationals * The Age of Adaptability * Living with Rational Management

Section Two: Philosophy of the Real 

Section Three: New World Disorders

Section Four: Restructuring Reality – The Dionysian Way

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Trump Effect: Excuses for Bad Behavior

Falling for Successful Psychopaths

(tap for video) 

Why are millions fascinated, often even seduced, by people whose behavior actually points to pathology? Perhaps we are wired to be attracted by narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths, people so focused on their own central role in whatever takes place that the rest of us are sucked into their reality.

Think about entering a portal and emerging into the head of Donald Trump. What could that level of self-absorption be like? Begin by imagining a complete lack of empathy, one of the tell-tale signs of the psychopath.

Is Trump a psychopath? Well, he does score well on a 20 item checklist. And are there more around us than we think? Not just serial killers and the violent type, but successful, powerful psychopaths who will do anything to win and affect our lives in profound ways?

The checklist, a way to help identify potential psychopaths among us, was developed by Bob Hare, a prison psychologist who conducted remarkable experiments and eventually codified his findings. Jon Ronson provides an excellent history and analysis in his book, The Psychopath Test.

Here’s the basic list, a collection of tendencies and an analytical tool to spot those who might be functioning psychopaths. The last two items relate specifically to criminals, but you don't have to be caught to have "criminal versatility." Keep in mind that having mild tendencies doesn’t make you a psychopath. But a high score – more than 30 on Hare’s 40 point scale – should be a warning sign. Personally, I give Trump high marks:

1.Glibness, superficial charm
2.Grandiose sense of self-worth
3.Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom
4.Pathological lying
5.Conning, manipulative
6.Lack of remorse or guilt
7.Shallow affect
8.Callous, lack of empathy
9.Parasitic lifestyle
10.Poor behavioral control
11.Promiscuous sexual behavior
12.Early behavior problems
13.Lack of realistic long-term goals
16.Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17.Many short-term marital relationships
18.Juvenile delinquency
19.Revocation of conditional release
20.Criminal versatility

In his book, Ronson follows the trail of research about psychopaths, gets to know a few, and sees how they have affected society. For example, he tracks down Toto Constant, former leader of Haitian death squads backed by the CIA, who was given asylum in the US but restricted to Queens. Although the guy was basically in hiding, he still thought he was beloved in Haiti (#2), took no responsibility for his crimes (#16), and badly imitated strong emotions. Since psychopaths don’t experience emotions the same as other people (#7), they often compensate through imitation. But not all are excellent actors. Constant even thought he would someday be called back to “help” Haiti again (#13).

Psychopaths could be the reason the world seems so screwed up. If so, humanity’s tragic flaw may be that a few bad apples – people whose amygdalas don’t fire the right signals to their central nervous systems – really can spoil the whole barrel. Prime examples include the corporate psychopaths who trashed capitalism a few years back. To dig into that group check out Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Bob Hare and Paul Babiak. Examining these financial terrorists, you might well conclude that the conspiracy theory about shape-shifting lizards who secretly rule the world isn’t so far off. After all, psychopaths are often social shape-shifters.

So, the question is: Do psychopaths run the country and maybe the world? Among recent presidents Nixon, Bush 2 and Clinton could qualify. The masters of the universe at places like Goldman Sachs are solid choices. And it only takes a few to destabilize a financial system, poison a community or destroy a business. Yet some studies suggest that, percentage-wise, there are more potential psychopaths among CEOs, directors and supervisors than in the general population, or even in prisons.

Who hasn’t known a business type who was borderline, a mercurial tyrant subject to fits of rage and impulsive acts? Or followed a public figure who was charming but also irresponsible, manipulative and self-aggrandizing? The tell-tale signs of the psychopath are often ignored or excused.

In his book, Ronson recalls a meeting with businessman Al Dunlop, a ruthless executive famous for his apparent joy in firing people. Together they go through Hare's psychopath checklist and Dunlop simply redefines many of the traits as aspects of leadership. Impulsiveness becomes quick analysis. Grandiose sense of self-worth? Absolutely, you have to believe in yourself, says Dunlop. Manipulative? Hey, that’s just leadership. Inability to feel deep emotions? Emotions are mostly nonsense, he says. And not feeling remorse frees you up to do great things.

Donald Trump would likely have a similar response if confronted with his own psychopathic tendencies. And
 they don’t seem to disqualify him from becoming president. 
Warren Harding, the Ohio senator who became president in 1920, carried on a 15-year affair both before and during his presidency. The "other woman," Nan Britton, gave birth to a son. This was shortly after the end of World War I. People were disillusioned with Woodrow Wilson, and Democrats deserted the party to give Harding the biggest landslide in US history, 60 percent of the vote. 
That year Eugene Debs, who was in federal prison at the time, got his best turnout. Less than three years later, in the middle of a “goodwill” tour,” Harding dropped dead suddenly in San Francisco. He was replaced in August 1923 by Calvin Coolidge, a native Vermonter and Massachusetts governor who had been picked for vice-president in the original smoke-filled room.
Harding provided his own epitaph in advance. “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here,” he once admitted. That self-awareness suggests, despite his shortcomings, that at least he wasn’t a psychopath.

The point: if Harding could become president, why not Trump? Just think of the "sensational" controversies and pathological behavior we would get to witness. Bad behavior, after all, is pure catnip for millions of "infotainment" consumers. Can we ever really get enough?
Originally written and broadcast in May 2011

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Debs and Sanders: Revolutionary Campaigners

To understand Bernie, consider Eugene Debs

“To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.-- Bernie Sanders, 1990

Listen: Bernie reads Debs (from Sanders documentary)
Read more: 14 Things Sanders has said about socialism

Bernie Sanders has a plaque honoring Eugene Debs on the wall of his Senate office in Washington. It is an abiding admiration, stretching back decades. Before becoming Burlington mayor in 1981 -- but after four "third party" races for statewide office in the 1970s -- he produced and narrated a 28-minute documentary, Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926.

For a better understanding of Sanders' philosophy and style, it helps to know a bit about the political figure he admired as a young radical in Vermont, during and after the Vietnam War.

A century ago, American politics was dominated by men who could command a public stage, telling jokes and stories with ease, making arguments and issuing indictments in long speeches. Of course, most of them relied on prepared remarks, but Eugene Debs seemed to speak from the heart. No tricks or effects, just electrifying straight talk.

Much like Bernie Sanders, Debs could inspire a crowd. He could be angry and funny, sarcastic and sentimental, sometimes poetic or even prophetic. But his target was always the same - big capitalists and their bankers, judges, politicians, editors, and even conservative unions leaders. He called on workers to join a moral struggle against "wage slavery." Industrialists were making a mockery of democracy, he charged, using their control of production to pervert the will of the majority.

For more than 30 years Debs was the most visible (and often controversial) spokesmen for a socialist vision in America. Critics said he was a menace, an apostle of anarchy and chaos. Eventually, he went to prison for his anti-war beliefs. In the end, the movement to free the presidential candidate who was simultaneously "democracy's prisoner" launched the American Civil Liberties Union and changed the terms of free speech during wartime.

In 1894, Debs first took center stage in the growing struggle between industrial capitalists and their workers. It was during one of the most dramatic and disruptive labor protests in American history -- the American Railway Union strike against the Pullman Palace Sleeping Car Company.

By 1901 he had moved from preaching about a cooperative commonwealth to openly promoting socialism as leader of the new Socialist Party of America. By then a "professional revolutionary," he ran for president every four years. The party had 150,000 members by 1912, and had elected hundreds of people as mayors, councilors, commissioners and state representatives. 

As the centerpiece of the ongoing Socialist campaign, Debs often toured the country in a Red Special railcar filled with posters, reporters and party dignitaries. At the height of the tours he gave hundreds of speeches a month, consistently mesmerizing his audiences. 

In 1912, Debs kicked off his fourth presidential campaign to a sold-out crowd in Madison Square Garden and received a half-hour standing ovation. It was the same everywhere he went.  He painted vivid word pictures of worker slaughter in mines and mills and the impending battle between "the multi-millionaire and the pauper." He touched an emotional core for anyone concerned about the new concentrations of wealth, even if they were skeptical about his socialism.

Part of the appeal was his claim to be part of the working class. Debs was largely self-educated and began working on the railroads at fourteen. From there he became a union leader. But his message also had appeal for middle class men and women (even though the latter couldn't yet vote). 

Critics saw socialism as an alien ideology, imported by immigrants. But Debs challenged that notion. He was a midwesterner, fighting capitalism in the spirit of Tom Paine and Walt Whitman. To back it up, he lived a conventional middle class life with his Kate in Terre Haute, Indiana, a small industrial city.

In the turning point presidential race of 1912, Debs argued that both Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, and Theodore Roosevelt, running on his reform "Bull Moose" party platform, missed the main point -- that workers and owners were natural enemies with irreconcilable interests. Both were trying to ease the symptoms of injustice, but ignoring their cause.

That year Debs got almost a million votes, doubling his 1908 tally. It looked like the Socialist Party and Debs were here to stay. But then came World War I, and in its wake Debs ended up in federal prison in 1919 for speaking out against war. A year after that, as a movement built for his release, he ran for president again. Before the end of 1921, he was released by President Warren Harding.

Although Debs didn't get as far as Bernie Sanders in persuading Americans to join a political revolution and consider socialist solutions, he began the dialogue. Debs also provoked a national debate about the meaning of the First Amendment. In a post-war age of oppressive conformity, he sparked the birth of the modern civil liberties movement and convinced many people that society should better protect those who dissent, especially when they refuse to support the majority in the heat of war. 

It's easy to see why Bernie Sanders, already the longest serving Independent in US congressional history and leading US voice for democratic socialism today, still admires him. But he has some distance to go to match Debs' enduring impact and legacy.

(On this track, Bernie reads from a Debs speech in his 1970s documentary on the socialist leader.)