Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lee Lorch (1915 - 2014)

Lee Lorch was a mathematician and lifelong fighter for civil rights. He was hounded out of his home and his profession and eventually out of his country. For most of his active life fighting racism, his only organized ally was the Communist Party USA, though he did have a handful of friends and admirers.

He advised some of the first Black and female Ph.D. students in the U.S. before he lost the last of his jobs here.

We met him at several mathematical conferences we attended in the late '60s and '70s where he was organizing for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. He was living in Canada then, where he was treated well.

You can read his N.Y. Times obit HERE. The extent of the hatred and organized racism -- especially in the corporate and academic world -- it sketches in is absolutely appalling. A more detailed account would probably be too harrowing. The only really positive thing you can say is that he maintained his spirit and toughness, and he outlived most of his enemies to be honored in his later life.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

The IRS and tax cheats

Michael Kranish has an article in today's Boston Globe entitled:  "IRS is overwhelmed by identity theft fraud" (Globe, 2/16/13). He describes how the IRS seems unable to control the recent flood of cheating by means of filing phony returns and getting fraudulent refunds. One case involved a woman to cheated to the extent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in made-up returns using stolen IDs. She then had the audacity of advertising her success on her Facebook page. 

How can someone stupid enough to advertise on Facebook that she had cheated our country out of lots of money have gotten away with it for so long?

This question is answered by Mr. Kranish himself. In fact, the IRS knows what steps need to taken. Temporarily, no returns should be issued until April 15, when (nearly) everyone has filed. This would give the IRS the opportunity to detect multiple returns (the real one and the identity-theft one) and investigate before issuing a check. In the longer term, the IRS needs to have real-time linking of returns with employer, death roll,  and bank information to detect made-up returns based on identity theft. Finally, there has to be better training of IRS agents and more of them. It is well-known that every dollar appropriated to the IRS returns $7 to U.S. citizens; yet -- and this is the true outrage -- the IRS budget is getting cut each year. (See the IRS reports here, and here ).

The reason that the IRS can't afford to stop fraud is that one of our political parties is anti-government and anti-tax. Major forces guiding Republicans, including the Tea Party, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the "Club for Growth", seek to discredit our government in ways that include making the IRS -- collector of the Peoples' assets -- become ineffectual.

If you don't like tax cheats, don't vote for their enabler, the PTR -- the Party for The Rich, formerly the GOP. (Let's make this new and more descriptive name stick: use it in your letters to the editor and articles.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why I favored Seattle

In general we should root for our home team in sports. But what if our team is eliminated?

We have an elaborate algorithm to determine how we (my wife and I) root; it's unabashedly partisan and sometimes unfair; in general it's North over South (with obvious exceptions for the Northwest gun states),  Coastal over Central, and East over West.

Already, as you can tell from the above, we would be predisposed to favor Seattle (we also have relatives there). In the latest Superbowl, there was something even more compelling. Peyton Manning has been shilling for "Papa John" Schnatter, who famously promised to keep his employees at part-time status (less than 30 hrs/wk) so he wouldn't have to give them healthcare benefits. Here is the story from the horse's mouth so to speak: Forbes ("Capitalist Tool") Magazine:

Hmmm, with a final score of 43 - 8: It couldn't have happened to a nicer shill (unless it was Curt Schilling -- another right-wing jock like Denver Broncos exec John Elway). Not only that, but Papa John's and Applebees have seen a precipitous drop in their "approval ratings" as you can read in the Forbes article.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pete Seeger Part II

I come from an old left-wing family. My grandparents on my father's side were self-proclaimed "reds" though neither they nor my father nor his brother were actually members of "The Party": the CPUSA. My father especially was too loose a cannon to be allowed into what was, essentially, an organization that was subject to strong ideological discipline. CPUSA, though, was one of the few official organizations, in the first half of the 20th century, to take strong stands for racial equality and for the unity of workers through unions. The Party also favored "folk music" as the "music of the people." All of us -- our family and friends of the family --- had old 78 recordings of Paul Robeson, the Lincoln Brigade (the American contingent in the Spanish Civil War), and Woody Guthrie. (I still own a few, though I can't play them on my audio equipment any more.) At some time a new voice appeared: Pete Seeger.

His first group, the Almanac Singers (with Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie) was a bit before my time, but his most famous and extensively recorded group, the Weavers (with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman), was formed in 1943  when I was already alive -- at least technically.  They were a part of my music listening thereafter (and remained so long after they disbanded in 1952 when I was in elementary school). The Weavers and Pete were red-baited off the stage and the airways for most of two decades -- until folk music became popular again in the 60s. (You can read about this history HERE, for example, or in any of the recent obits -- for example, HERE.)

For many years Pete was also a fixture at events that weren't subject to red-baiting: "hootenannies" or singing parties. These events took place frequently in the 50s and 60s in New York where I grew up. Sometimes they were for a particular cause: to pay someone's legal expenses or rent, or to protest some particular outrage (of which, of course, there were many). They often were at seedy auditoriums downtown. My relatives took me to a bunch of these when I was pretty little. I still remember Pete saying, at one "hoot", that he appreciated the turnout, since everyone there was in danger of coming in contact with [mock terror]: "Communists..."  He would sing the songs we all knew and loved: "Which Side Are You On", "The Reuben James", oldies like "Joe Hill", and satires like the Wobbly versions of "Casey Jones." and "Long-haired Preachers"; "Talking Union" in a more didactic tone. We all sang  on the choruses -- even I did, in my little kid's off-key voice, since I had heard most of  the songs around the house, sung in my father's grown-up off-key voice. I was taken to hoots, more than a few times, by my father's cousins, who were  real card-carrying Commies (and possibly spies even). Pete's voice, and banjo (and occasional guitar and recorder) were distinctive, and he always -- always -- could get people to sing along with him. He'd teach the words, melody and even harmony, on the spot, and as he was singing. He had the timing down perfectly to anticipate the cues and musical reminders, and he always could get you worked up about the meaning and importance of what he was singing about.

Pete and his songs were as much a part of my life as anything I did in school. I knew very little about him at the time -- his personal and political history I picked up later. By the time I was hearing him he had already severed his official connections with CPUSA (I don't remember exactly what they were); of course, he never severed his ties to the ideals which had brought him (and my relatives) to the Party in the early and middle years of last century. Stalin and the Soviet Union which he created, when their true nature was revealed, were impossible to accommodate (except by my father's parents, but that's another story). Pete renounced the CPUSA, but remained, as he put it, a "small c communist".

Part III next time...

Friday, January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919 - 2014) Part I

Although I didn't know him personally, Pete Seeger meant a lot to me and to at least 3 generations of my family. He was the greatest left-wing folk-singer of his time. He was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize but never won it, though that thug Henry Kissinger took one.  Shame on the Nobel Committee.

You can find lots of videos and audios of him on YouTube, but here's one that my good friend Mike Engber brought to my attention. It's a feminist version of the Lady who Swallowed a Fly, and it shows Pete's technique and instinctive ability to find the good songs (lyrics by Meredith Tax).

Pete Seeger2 - 6-16-07 Photo by Anthony Pepitone.jpg 


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

More right-wing baloney, Part I: Benghazi

Darrell Issa, Republican Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is hot on the trail of the crime of the century. His investigators have determined that Obama's minions misled the American People about the nature of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi Libya (9/11/2012). For example, Obama's spinners used the phrase "terror attacks" instead of "attacks by terrorists" to make it seem that organizations like Al-Qaeda were not involved. I'm sure that this distinction carried great weight among the American People, accustomed as they are to the subtleties of beer commercials...

Of course, it is highly likely that the Obama folks, like all politicians, engaged in some of the spinning with which they are charged. The folks who promised to close Gitmo and swore they'd never touch Social Security don't have a very strong track record on strict adherence to facts and principles. Nevertheless, in spite of Fox News's breathless claims about a crime far exceeding (even) Watergate, there is absolutely no claim, much less evidence, that any sort of illegality or even major misrepresentation took place; this piece from the NY Daily News (not a bastion of liberalism) gives some idea of the silliness of Fox/conservative hyperbole and why it's nonsense. Let's not forget that Watergate, Iran-Contra the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia violated all sorts of laws. The folks who gave us the Clinton impeachment would love to pull off another courageous act of patriotism, saving us from being mislead by a usurping black man.

Darrell Issa himself has probably committed more criminal acts than even he dares claim were committed by the Obama administration: You can read a an extensively documented account of the legal history this petty-thug-turned-congressman here, and in the fine New Yorker profile of Issa here.

I'm not an Obama worshiper,  or even a committed Democrat, but the Republicans remain beneath contempt both in comparison and from an absolute standpoint.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The FBI and terrorism

Things are seldom as they "seem". One of my least favorite Senators from one of my least favorite states, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is currently on the FBI's case as it were, because the agency failed to follow up tips about the Tsarnaev brothers -- and about Tamerlan (the older) brother's trip to Russia last year.

The Web-based news and opinion source Talking Points Memo (TPM) has an interview with a "former FBI executive", who claims that the FBI did all it could, legally, given the level of the information provided by Russian intelligence and the negative results of its preliminary investigation.

That may very well be true, but there is more to it than that. First of all, while I'm sure that Lindsey Graham has patriotic interests at heart, he is also a relentless foe of the Obama administration and all of its agency appointments. For example, he was a leading opponent of Att. Gen. Holder's botched "Fast and Furious" gun-running would-be sting, as well as a point-man on the Republican brouhaha over the Benghazi attack; he has also been a dependable critic of Obamacare, etc. However, he is in somewhat of a bind, since he obviously wants to discredit the Obama part of the FBI without discrediting the FBI itself, which has always been a Republican sacred cow. So, the latest from Graham is that, yes the FBI did all it could within the laws regulating its activities: but that just shows that the laws reining in the Bureau probably need to be changed. He said: “It’s people like this [the Tsarnaev brothers] that you don’t want to let out of your sight, and this was a mistake. I don’t know if our laws were inefficient or if the FBI failed, but we’re at war with radical Islamists and we need to up our game.” In other words, unleash the FBI (from pantywaist liberal restrictions). And, just to reinforce that he's the same old Lindsey Graham, he added: “I think anyone who is on the terrorist watch list shouldn’t lose their Second Amendment right." Yes, there are just some things that are more important than protecting Americans from terrorism, and owning an AK47-type assault weapon with a large capacity clip is surely one of them Graham and his South Carolina constituency.

Of course, it's not just Lindsey Graham: the U.S. oil industry has had a long history with countries in the Caucasus region of Asia. From the Stalinist era until the breakup of the former Soviet Union, America used this historicall anti-Soviet region in an attempt to block the USSR's access to Caspian Sea oil. Although we did nothing to help millions of Chechens who were brutally dispersed by the Soviets, we were -- at least secretly -- happy to see their terrorist acts against Moscow. In the case of the Afghanis we were more open, sending arms and money to the groups that later became AlQaeda, and the Taliban, and leaders that included Osama bin Laden. More recently, however, Chechen (and other) terrorists have threatened Caspian Sea pipelines developed by Russian and American oil companies; thus, some of our sympathies have changed.

So the attitude of the FBI and of the political leadership is surely ambivalent. Relations between the U.S. and Russia are not particularly good at this point, so a "tip" about terrorists from ex-KGB honcho Putin is taken with a liberal grain of salt; yet, practically, we can't allow Chechen hatred of Russia and its perceived "western allies" to spread Chechen terrorism to the U.S. or even more importantly, to endanger Caspian Sea pipelines partially bankrolled by U.S. oil interests.

There are a lot of political currents roiling under the surface of the "War on Terror" and the use of the CIA and the FBI as its instruments.