An Unqualified Cupping of Port of Mokha’s Al-Jabel

I like coffee. I probably average about two to three cups a day. I’m not a connoisseur: my tastes are wide-ranging–I’m not too picky. I prefer higher quality beans prepared expertly at high-end coffee houses, but I don’t mind drinking my wife and son’s more common beans from Peet’s or Peerless. The brewing systems are wide-ranging as well: pour over, French press, drip which I order at Temple Coffee Roasters I frequent; immersion drip, which I use at work; drip via Mr. Coffee and even (don’t hate me) Keurig I use at home usually with more pedestrian beans.

I do aspire to drink from only the best coffee beans though my domestic situation makes it hard to stick to top-shelf beans unless I buy my own, and I don’t want clutter up my freezer with an additional bag of grounds just for me. Also, I am too lazy to grind my coffee as I go so when I buy my gourmet coffee beans for my immersion drip system at work and have them grind the beans: convenience at the expense of degrading the quality of premium beans, I know, but making coffee via immersion is time-consuming enough. Add grinding and my entire break is consumed by the making of a single cup of joe.

So I think I have rammed home the fact that my taste is not impeccable. I might pick Folgers over the finest Esmeralda Geisha in a cupping, and maybe I wouldn’t mind if I did. I don’t buy the higher grade for the taste–though I always feel like I am drinking excellent coffee when I fork out the extra coin for it. I buy the stuff because it is Fair Trade, and yea, I feel like I’m not drinking shit that has been sitting around in some warehouse forever.

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Then I read Dave Eggers excellent The Monk of Mokha, about Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a twenty-four-year-old Yemeni-American hotel doorman and coffee lover who leaves San Francisco and travels to his ancestral homeland to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains. It is there he meets the beleaguered but determined coffee farmers. When civil war breaks out and engulfs the nation, Alkhanshali smuggles himself and some of Yemen’s beans with him. Like the other books by Eggers I have read, The Monk of Mokha is a page-turner featuring three main characters: Alkhanshali, some priceless coffee beans, and the coffee farmers of Yemen. A while later, Alkhanshali creates Port of Mokha, Inc.

 

But what about the coffee?

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I ordered the four-ounce bag of “Al-Jabal Single Farmer Lot 7” beans from the Port of Mokha website for $45. (FYI: Google translates Al-Jabal as “Sea of the Mountain.”) When the product arrived, it came in a fashionable lime-peel green box with a stylish foldout of the Port of Mokha story, mission, and plenty of pictures of the homeland with Alkhanshali in most of them. There is also preparation instructions (see below), and the beans in an elegant vacuum bag and a band with the terraced farm on it.

As mentioned above, at home I usually either brew my coffee via an automatic drip, or I use a Keurig. For this cupping; however, I am going to hand-brew this cup of “Al-Jabal” to control the water, dose, and brewing. Not all steps in this cupping use best practices of handmade pour over brewing, but it’s better than dumping the grounds in mein Herr. Kaffee!

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Usually, tap water is good enough for my goose-neck kettle, but this night I opted for bottled water. Optimally, one should use purified water. We never got around to installing a filter, so it’s straight City of Sac Tap.

 

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As stated above, the coffee comes with instructions for five popular brewing methods. I don’t have any of these methods, but Chemex is the closest to my plastic cone. Yeah, I know, I should be using a ceramic cone. (Hey, is that a hair on the instructions? Eww!) Per the two notes at the bottom of the instructions, I am grinding as I go for this cupping though this humble philistine usually asks for his expensive beans to be ground before he buys them. Too, he will commence with the pour over directly after the water comes to a boil. He’s not going to mess with a thermometer.

 

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Yeah, I know, it’s not a burr grinder. I didn’t buy it.

 

4

Perhaps a little too fine, but it will have to do.

 

5

Fold my #4…

 

6

rinse it…

 

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And pour the grounds. I didn’t catch any of the grounds dropping in the filter. I need a third arm, damn it!

 

7

The same goes for the blooming and brewing processes.

 

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The pour over process time took around two and a half to three minutes. I’m sure I got the volumes correct, but that seems like a small amount. Perhaps it is my giant mug.

 

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After doing the math, it comes to a little less than $6 a cup, which was less than I initially thought when the 4 oz bag costs $45.

 

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So, how does it taste? Hmm, in aroma it’s delicate but high-toned, richly sweet. I sense caramelized apple, honeysuckle, baker’s chocolate, tangerine zest, frankincense. In taste: a balanced structure with bright, juicy acidity; buoyant, syrupy mouthfeel. The deeply sweet, flavor-laden finish leads with notes of cacao nib and honeysuckle in the short and rich frankincense with hints of bittersweet citrus zest in the long. Ha ha ha. I hope I had you going for a while! Fifty years of food laced with hot peppers, horseradish, wasabi, hot Chinese oil, and all kinds of Mexican hot sauces have dulled my pallet. I really cannot describe the coffee I just sipped other than to say it’s tasty, acidy, full-bodied, but that could represent hundreds of coffees when prepared correctly or at least made as well as I could with the tools at hand–including less expensive beans.

 

Palate Development & Tasting
How many tastes and aromas do you identify with your favorite cup? I’ll be taking a class in August. I hope I learn how to distinguish these qualities. A tall order for this dullard!

I am drinking black coffee more and more these days. This is mainly because of how pour overs are presented at my favorite coffee house: in a Hario v60 Range Server and a cupping bowl–that holds less than six ounces of coffee–delivered on a tray. To add cream to my pour over would mean walking over to the station every few minutes to add my dairy. The first time I ordered a pour over, I nearly asked for a cream dispenser and then thought this might be a good time to learn how to enjoy coffee without cream–the way my two ex-barista sons drink it.

Also, while reading Eggers’ book, I decided I would take coffee drinking even more seriously and drink the stuff black each time I made or ordered a cup. As I write this, I am almost exclusively a black-coffee drinker, reserving the right to adulterate the brew when the swill is too bitter for me to take straight.

Recently, I started buying an extra bag of coffee in bean form and–when convenient–started grinding coffee as I needed it and using the pour over method. I have also bought a few new gadgets, and I am checking out some more. Recently, I signed up for a Palate Development & Tasting class at Temple Roasters. If things go as planned, I will be an insufferable snob to my friends and family alike!

 

 

Burritos Burgers and Booze

taqueria jalisco

My friend and fellow blogger Chip told me as we were driving out of Downtown Sacramento last Wednesday night that the taco stand we were passing served his favorite hamburger. I looked at the sign as we drove by, Taqueria Jalisco. His statement and the stand’s name were incongruent. Did he mean his favorite Torta? Nah, if he said the hamburger, he meant it. Anyway, there are plenty of ethnic restaurants that serve other types of food.

As it turns out, Taqueria Jalisco states it is a Mexican and American food restaurant. When I pulled up to the stand the following Saturday it as much right on the sign, I just couldn’t see it when we were going past it at forty miles an hour. The menu didn’t have very many American-style items, but it did feature five different hamburgers. None of them exotic: Burger, Cheese Burger, Bacon Cheese Burger, Double Cheese Burger, and Pastrami Cheese Burger.

taqueria jalisco burger

I ordered the Bacon Cheeseburger (I can’t handle the parsing!), along with fries, and a Diet Coke. Unless I missed it, their french fries are not on the menu. I did find Carne Asada Fries and wondered if they are as good as the Flaming Grill Cafe’s offering, but didn’t want to go there today.

Someone told me Taqueria Jalisco sells the only real tequila in town. I don’t drink and when I did, I only had one shot of tequila and that was enough! I don’t know what”real” tequila is–I’ve seen enough bottles of the stuff and have never seen a label that said “fake tequila,” “imitation tequila,” or “synthetic tequila.” I asked a drinker of the stuff, and he told me Taqueria Jalisco serves Tequila Tapatio, Casamigos Reposado, and Cazadores Reposado. My drinker continued, “Like champagne, true tequila is made only from fermented blue agave. Unlike champagne, tequila isn’t specific to any one region, as agave plants are fairly hardy.” He also sent me this nugget of Mexican trade law: “Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.” So, I got educated on something that I really don’t care about and I question whether anyone who reads this post cares, as well. Aside from tequila, the joint also serves Irish whiskey, various alcoholic drinks, Voss, that ridiculously over-priced Norweign spring water, and fountain drinks, like the Diet Coke I’m drinking. Okay, enough of the booze interlude. On with the review of the burger.

Taqueria Jalisco’s Bacon Cheeseburger consists of what I believe to be a 1/3 lb. beef patty, cheddar cheese, bacon, mayonnaise, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomato, pickles, on a “specialty bun.” If it sounds pedestrian, I would typically be with you, but wait until you taste it. The beef has a high-fat content (translation: it is juicy and flavorful).

Sure, there isn’t anything ground-breaking or experimental: no Gruyere cheese, no smoked paprika, no cilantro aioli, and the burger isn’t topped with a fried eye. And while I don’t think it matches Scott’s Burger Shack’s Fat Boy–another not-so-fancy burger that hit’s it out of the park–it is an excellent traditional burger. This burger is the kind of you would be served in a small backyard barbecue hosted by someone who really loves the traditional hamburger, loves it big, and doesn’t skimp on the ingredients (though I wonder why no onions). The bacon looked and tasted like the buyer bought it for himself–he didn’t skimp! It was thick, not fatty, and probably not cheap. The bun–specialty or not–was rugged enough to not dissolve by all the juices. There are fancier burgers available in Sacramento, but this was one of the best at least in the None Designer Catagory. (Yeah, I just made that up.)

Finally, a word about the fries. I didn’t ask the guy at the window, but the fries seemed to be battered. They had that crunchiness that is reminiscent of the way Cod, or Calamari is prepared at a good fish and chips place. I love these kinds of fries. There was no need for ketchup.

I will definitely return to Taqueria Jalisco–it is close enough to my house I can get my family in on this. The dilemma is, do I try the Mexican food that looks so good (street tacos!) or maybe I order the bacon cheeseburger again. Decisions, decisions!

Catching up with some of Nicholas Gurewitch’s work

I like political cartoons. My favorites come from artists like Dwayne Booth aka Mr. Fish, The Sacramento Bee’s award-winning Jack Ohman, and Gary Trudeau’s syndicated Doonsbury. I also enjoy the animated cartoons by Mark Fiore. Terrific stuff! I guess that makes me a political (cartoon) junkie, though I do read Scott Adams’ syndicated Dilbert on Sundays. I work in an IT cubical farm and understand Adams’ humor too well. I used to read his three-panel weekday strips, but I got annoyed how Adams too often wrote the funnier joke on the second panel leading the reader to be disappointed when the third panel fell flat. Does he do that on purpose?

A few years ago I was showing my son a Mr. Fish comic. He laughed. Then a few minutes later produced a printed copy of a strip titled “Skub” from something called The Perry Bible Fellowship (PBF for short).

PBF020-Skub

Besides being very funny and insightful, I noticed how simple and whimsical the art was–almost childlike, which accentuated the humor. I mistook the strip as political simply because my son handed it to me as a reply to a Mr. Fish piece and the message could easily be construed as political factions warring over a petty issue. More importantly, I had never heard of PBF, not seen any other strips from the artist, though it had been on the web since around 2005-2006. So I and this post are embarrassingly late to the party. Still, I’ll continue for anyone who is as tardy as I am.

My son handed me another sheet of paper with a comic strip on it before I had a chance to visit the PBF website. “Today’s My Birthday” was just as funny and was right up my alley–dark. I visited the website and was on the site for over an hour, forgetting to take my now thoroughly wrinkled work shirts out of the dryer.

PBF032-Todays_My_Birthday

The PBF comic strip is the brainchild of Nicholas Gurewitch, an illustrator based in Rochester New York. He attended Syracuse University, where he studied film and where his comic strip was first published in The Daily Orange. The comic gets its title from the name of a church in Perry, Maine. (Source: Wikipedia)

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The three comics reproduced in the post and many other comedic gems can be found in The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack seen above featuring my foot and hand. This is a follow-up to The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories, though there is some overlap, I have been told. I only have the Almanack collection.

Gurewitch’s style varies. Sometimes he mimics famous artists like Nancy Munger, Quentin Blake, Shel Silverstein, and Robert Crumb. Some of the art looks like it comes from early comic books, in other strips Gurewitch seems to be copying other artists’ styles that I can’t identify, but have seen before. One of the first ones I viewed from the PBF website is his hilarious parody of the late Bil Keane’s Family Circus.

PBF187-Way_Too_Much

While I was being introduced to Gurewitch’s genius via Almanack and the PBF website, he had already crowdfunded and published his latest book. Notes on a Case of Melancholia, Or: A Little Death, is a brilliant homage to Edward Gorey’s style though instead of sketching his images, Gurewitch painted each plate black then etched the images into life–a subtractive process illustrated in the twelve-minute documentary Notes on a Case Nicholas Gurewitch. The documentary shows how much work went into this project. By watching the video, the reader can begin the appreciate Gurewich’s creative process. Some of the plates in Notes on a Case of Melancholia took up to a million strokes to fully flesh out the image. Also, many plates and early drafts never made it into the final product. Notes on a Case of Melancholia is a dark and touching thirty-seven-page story of Death and his son. The story has no text, but each page speaks volumes on the beauty and humanity of Gurewitch’s art.

Notes

Well, I guess I’ve caught up with Gurewitch, and no, I’m not turning BurgerScoot.net into a review of books. Just consider this post the flipside of my piece on the books by Arundhati Roy.

 

Faster reading than CliffNotes!

In high school, I fell in love with CliffNotes, not because it helped me read the classics. Ha! Right! I read the CliffNotes on our assigned readings and skipped the books. Needless to say, I did not do well in my English classes. Here’s another solution.

Wrong Hands illustrator John Atkinson blends cartoons, literature, and humor in his new book, Abridged Classics.

via Abridged Classics: Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read (But Probably Didn’t) — Discover

“Okay, everybody be quiet! I’m going to change channels”

The news from Mother Jones doesn’t surprise me. All “smart” devices have the ability for others–including the government–to accidentally or purposefully eavesdrop on your conversations. I’m especially creeped out by Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers.

In case you needed another reminder that Amazon’s Echo, an internet-connected recording device designed to listen and respond to verbal commands, can pose security and privacy risks for you and your loved ones, here you go. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now…you’re being hacked.” A family in Portland, Oregon contacted the company recently to ask it…

via An Amazon Echo Recorded a Family’s Private Conversation and Sent it to Some Random Person — Mother Jones

Some Notes on Arundhati Roy Books I Have Recently Read

royI had heard of Arundhati Roy and her novel The God of Small Things when it was published back in 1997. I had long forgotten why the book interested me. I was a newly-minted Christian at the time, so maybe the provocative title with “God” in it made me want to check it out. I probably jotted the title down for future reading on the bookmark I was using at that time. That was my pre-Goodreads.com method of keeping a list of books I wanted to read. That approach wasn’t advantageous. (Somewhere out in the world, there are a dozen or so deteriorating New Yorker and QPB Book Club bookmarks with book titles scribbled on them.) It took the recent publicity of her 2017 book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness–glowing reviews and fascinating interviews–to remind me of the author’s previous award-winning novel and my interest in it. In between these two critically-acclaimed works of fiction are twenty years and eighteen non-fiction publications and activism.

When I started reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I immediately fell for Aftab, a Shia Muslim hermaphrodite born in Old Delhi, India. As she reaches adulthood, she has gender reassignment surgery and becomes Anjum, a glamorous, affectionate woman. Anjum moves into a house called Khabgah (or “House of Dreams”) with the group hermaphrodites and transgenders. Anjum later leaves Khabgah and moves into a nearby cemetery where she transforms it into a guest house, called Jannat (or “Paradise”), and creates Jannat Funeral Services. Jannat Guest House becomes home to other marginalized and persecuted characters like herself. This, I believe, is where Roy gets the title to the book. The significance of the cemetery is that in India graveyards are usually for Muslims. Hindus cremate their dead, and so these sites become ghettos of sorts since Muslims are the minority and have been pushed to the bottom of the economic and social chain.

But this is only the beginning of this beautiful and brutal braided narrative covering many decades of often bloody struggles and strife. The story moves back and forth in time and geography: Delhi to Kashmir, from the 1990s to current time dealing with the hypocrisy of the caste system to the Kashmiri separatist movement that called for the Muslim-majority Kashmir to break from Hindu-majority India.

roy ministryThe West often thinks of India as the land of yoga, meditation, and Gandhi. However, Roy said in a recent interview with Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, “There has not been a single day since August 15, 1947, when India was declared independent that the Indian Army has not been deployed within its own borders, against its own people…It’s just a nation that is nailed together by military might.” As an American who never studied the history of India, Richard Attenborough’s version of Mahatma Gandhi’s life is the most background knowledge I have on the subject, so the stuff in this book had some shockers. (By the way, if you have fifteen minutes, check out Roy setting the record straight on Gandhi here. It was news to me!)

Roy dedicated the book to “The Unconsoled,” and that would apply to the characters in this book if they were alive. They don’t fit neatly into the complex grid that is India. An India “that is divided into this tiny little fretwork of caste and ethnicity and language and each is pitted against the other,” as the author told Scahill. A humous example of this is contained in a joke that militants passed around on their mobile phones:

I saw a man on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Muslim or a non-Muslim?”
He said, “A Muslim.”
I said, “Shia or Sunni?”
He said, “Sunni.”
I said, “Me too! Deobandi or Barelvi?”
He said, “Barelvi.”
I said “Me too! Tanzeehi or Tafkeeri?”
He said, “Tanzeehi.”
I said “Me too! Tanzeehi Azmati or Tanzeehi Farhati?”
He said, “Tanzeehi Farhati.”
I said “Me too! Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Uloom Ajmer or Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat?”
He said, “Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat.”
I said, “Die, kafir!” and I pushed him over.

Forgive this blogger’s indulgence. The joke was too funny to not reproduce here. It is also the only time while reading the book that I laughed out loud. So, the passage misrepresents the work as a whole, but the punchline fits with much of the novel’s text. Still, there are beautiful love stories here amongst the massacres, lynchings, and tortures. The fact that Roy can effectively reveal love and tenderness in this kind of landscape is her genius.

When interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! Roy said, “Fiction in reality as well as in my imagination is my real home, but this time it is home with the roof blown off.” Indeed, at times The Ministry of Utmost Happiness seems like it is rubble where home used to be. I, for one, am grateful for the storm. I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a tough read, but worth every challenging page.

If I had treated Ministry of Utmost Happiness as some kind of dark speculative history and didn’t follow up by reading the sobering nonfiction Capitalism: A Ghost Story I might have just moved on an been a happy idiot, but I didn’t. Capitalism: A Ghost Story is, at least to this rookie of Indian politics, a The Ministry of Utmost Happiness without tenderness or beauty. Capitalism: A Ghost Story is in part about how non-taxpaying foundations like Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation with almost unlimited resources turn their economic wealth into political, social, and cultural capital.

roy capitalismCapitalism: A Ghost Story is about neoliberalism, racism, the privatization of public works, and pollution run amuck, and the wreckage unfettered capitalism leaves in its path. There are Kashmiri separatists, anti-government Maoists rebels in the jungles fighting against the government that wants to strip the forest for mining operations and massive privately-owned dam projects threatening to wipe out hundreds of poor communities. Scary shit, indeed!

Roy spends much of the ink here on the evils of foundations. It is fascinating in a very dark way how foundations have a history of “defusing and deradicalizing” movements like, for instance, the Black civil rights movement here in the 1960s and the “successful transformation of Black Power into Black Capitalism.” Roy writes:

“The Rockefeller Foundation, in keeping with J. D. Rockefeller’s ideals, had worked closely with Martin Luther King Sr. (father of Martin Luther King Jr.). But his influence waned with the rise of the more militant organizations—the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations moved in. In 1970 they donated $15 million to “moderate” Black organizations, giving people, grants, fellowships, scholarships, job-training programs for dropouts, and seed money for Black-owned businesses. Repression, infighting, and the honey trap of funding led to the gradual atrophying of the radical Black organizations. Martin Luther King Jr. made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism, and the Vietnam War. As a result, after he was assassinated even his memory became toxic, a threat to public order.”

Foundations “remodeled his legacy to fit a market-friendly format.” The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, with a grant of $2 million, was set up by the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mobil, and Monsanto, among others. The center maintains the King Library and Archives of the Civil Rights Movement. We rarely hear about the radical, socialist King. All we easily remember (unless you look for his late speeches or read Tavis Smiley or Cornel West) is the “I Have a Dream” speech, the non-violent protests, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C. Stuff that corporate and middle American can easily ingest.

Capitalism: A Ghost Story is a sharp rebuke of neoliberalism and multinational capitalism. Her in-depth writing reminds me of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hedges. I can’t always wrap my head around what she is saying. That’s alright though–I would prefer to be challenged than jaded.

The last book I read was Roy on mass government surveillance. Things That Can and Cannot Be Said is a collaboration with American actor John Cusack and is, for the most part, nothing new. Roy and Cusack fly to Moscow with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The interview turned out to focus on Ellsberg as much as on Snowden. Most of the book is interview transcripts, the first part of it between Roy and Cusack alone and the second half the co-authors with the famous whistleblowers.

roy thingsSnowden seemed to add little new information to the conversation. Roy questioned Snowden over the controversial Wired Magazine September 2014 cover. Snowden gave a flippant answer. Presumably, because he has fielded that question too many times already. To me, this was a missed opportunity. Snowden–like Ellsberg–entered the armed forces and later the government because he wanted to serve. Like Ellsberg (and for that matter Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, et al.) he was not a radical. I might be reading in between the lines here, but I felt Roy was disappointed in the Wired cover pic. She has been quoted as saying, “Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use to first shrink wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” My guess is she felt that Snowden was falling back on a banal patriotic trope and she wanted a clear answer from him and what she got was frustration.

I gleaned more from the Ellsberg comments. I hadn’t visited the Pentagon Papers scandal since college, so some of what he had to say refreshed my memory. One of the more chilling comments came from Ellsberg. I have heard others comment on this, most notably Chris Hedges, though Ellsberg broke it down to how it would all happen:

“We don’t have a police state, not yet…One more 911 and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of potentials. Middle-easterners, Muslims will be put into detention camps or deported. After 911 we had thousands of people arrested without charges, but I am talking about the future…I’m talking of hundreds of thousands in camps or deported. I think the surveillance is relevant to that. They will know who to put away. The data is already collected.”

Ultimately, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said was a rehash for me. All the stuff I have read about since the initial story from The Guardian broke and then the interviews and articles that have come in its tsunami-size wake.

What to read next by Arundhati Roy–Walking With the Comrades where Roy traveled into the forests of Central India where Maoist guerillas confront some of the world’s biggest mining corporations. Or maybe The Doctor and the Saint where Roy attempts to replace Gandhi with Ambedkar as India’s preeminent modern figure. Wait! Minutes before posting this I bought An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire–a book that has been described as “a call to arms against the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire.”

I’ll probably just take a break from Roy for a while. She is an excellent writer and a great thinker, but like Chomsky, Hedges, and Klein, a little too sobering to take in large doses. Still, I just may get around to reading The God of Small Things sooner than later. I wonder what other titles are on all those lost bookmarks.

roy maoists
Roy with the Maoist guerillas.

Marx Turns 200 Today

Today is the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, and while much of his work is over my head, some of his basic ideas are spot on like how all profit is “surplus-value” (obtained by paying workers less than the value of what they produce). Marx called capitalism inefficient, wasteful, and immoral. Today this seems like an understatement. Read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate for starters. Marx wrote of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist system before there were crippling recessions and depressions, booms and busts. Marx also predicted monopolies. Most of these predictions and assertions were writing in his masterpiece, the three-volume tome Capital: Critique of Political Economy (also known by its German name Das Kapital). While I can say I have read the passionate yet anachronistic Communist Manifesto (co-written by his friend and often financial supporter Friedrich Engels), I cannot say I have read much of Capital Volume 1 and I have never seen the other two volumes.

I had a proper introduction to Marx in high school thanks to Mr. Thorn–an exceptional economics teacher–who had his class read Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. Heilbroner’s Marx seemed to me like the hero of the common laborer, but I was young and a remedial student and was aware of this deficiency. I was easy prey to the smarter kids who thought Marx was terrible. (It was the Cold War and I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood and attended a high school of the like.) Mr. Thorn was a free-thinking kind of teacher and was open to ideas by Marx and Thorstein Veblen–another thinker in Heilbroner’s book that fascinated me. I loved the class so much that upon receiving a “C” in the course I enrolled in the class again, earning the same grade despite covering the same material. (I told you I was dull!) Without a doubt, Marx was the most challenging chapter in a very challenging book for me, but Marx cared about working person. No matter how mediocre of a student I was, I understood Marx cared for the little guy, and I liked that.

In college, my exposure to Marx was relegated to a guest speaker on one day in my Economics 1A class. My professor lectured almost exclusively on how reduced governments, free trade, deregulation, and fiscal responsibility in government was the ideal. I got re-acquainted with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and was introduced to Friedrich Hayek and other Austrian School economists, as well as Milton Friedman, and other University of Chicago economists. Just like in my high school economics class, I was horrible, garnishing a “C” and compelling me once and for all to stay away from the subject but focus on the social ramifications of economic projects. I have always been compassionate. Where I got that from I don’t know. Maybe my parents, but also there were my Sunday school teachings of Jesus. (I would later articulate Jesus feeding and healing the poor into being pro-welfare, pro-National Health Insurance, and pro-Guaranteed Minimum Income.) When I was a kid, I liked Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor idea. (I would later articulate this into aggressive wealth redistribution aka Progressive Taxation.)

Anyway, I put up with the libertarian-leaning class study. In a lame attempt to be “fair” the professor had a student who was a member of a socialist party come in an explain socialism to the class. It sounded good to me, but after the socialist finished his talk a classmate who had been quiet the whole semester started asking questions. Soon he was ripping into the speaker rhetorically asking something like “How do you expect architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. will agree to be paid the same as janitors, waitresses, groundskeepers, dishwashers, etc.” The socialist stammered and the guy in class just kept coming at him. I even remember the professor smiling impishly on the sidelines not about to help the young socialist out even if he could defend the speaker if only in theory. When the capitalist apologist was done, he became the Big Man in Econ 1A. I knew there were smarter socialists on the planet who could debate this student, and for every smarter socialist, there would be a more intelligent capitalist, and so on, but I didn’t know the answers. I would like to think the winner in the Debate Royale would be a socialist. In a timeless universe perhaps Marx would be the last man standing.

After I graduated I put away Marx and socialism and settled down as a family man, discontinued my subscriptions to leftist magazines, and voted an uninspiring Straight Democratic Ticket in most elections. Twenty years later, in 2007, I would get back into following politics after falling in love with the eloquent words of Barack Obama. At the same time, though, I started reading the alternative press, like I did back in college. People were calling the U.S. Senator from Illinois a socialist and I was intrigued to know if he really was one.

 


Shortly after Obama took office, I started wondering how this guy could be a socialist when he was hiring the same people Clinton used to betray American workers with their free trade agreements, screwing the poor by reforming welfare and passing the Crime Bill, and opening the door for catastrophe by dismantling Glass-Stegall. I was flipping through an issue of The Nation Magazine one day and saw an ad for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sported the faces of Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and the Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders–three people I had a lot of respect for. West was one of Obama’s biggest supporters. (He would later call Obama a “counterfeit.”) I knew of the erudite Chomsky back in college. The Senator from Vermont I just had heard about. Sanders had recently done a filibuster on the Senate floor corporate greed and the decline of the middle class that lasted over eight hours. I had read extracts from it in The Nation and was inspired: I hadn’t read Marx in years but thought this hero of the working class and poor was the closest thing to it. When I became a member of the DSA, it was the first time I called myself a socialist. By the time I read the full transcript of Sanders filibuster in his book The Speech I was a big fan, but I also knew–long before he ran for president in April of 2015–that he was a lite version of a socialist. Bernie was–is–more like a pre-neoliberal Democrat. Noam Chomsky has referred to him as a “New Dealer” and others have likened him to LBJ. I knew he was the best bet by far for president in that election, but neoliberalism has both parties and the mainstream media in a death grip. Bernie didn’t stand a chance. At least in 2016.
Shortly after the Mid-term elections of 2010, I began attending meetings and reading groups at my local chapter of the DSA here in Sacramento, but while my fellow members were warm and welcoming all my years of reclusiveness had taken its toll. Additionally, I was often by far the oldest person in the room. Most of the attendees were college students–my kids’ ages. I stuck out. I continued to attend meetings off and on, then quit for a while, then started up again, then I just decided to watch from the sidelines. I remain a member. I pay my dues, contribute whenever there are fund drives, but otherwise, I’m more of an armchair socialist.

I have read the Max Beer biography The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, portions of Eric Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, as well as revisiting the chapter on Marx in Heilbroner’s book.  I admire Marx mainly in some of the ways he has inspired thinkers that I better understand and follow. For one there is the filmmaker Raoul Peck, director of the new film The Young Karl Marx. The movie is good if not stunning like his previous film I’m Not Your Negro. The interview below of Peck by Amy Goodman is interesting because they show how the National Rifle Association uses fear of Marx(!) to combat the rise of anti-gun protests after the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland Florida.

Another interesting note about Wayne LaPierre’s C-PAC speech is that it is highly speculative that “on college campuses ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is one of the most frequently assigned texts” and it is dubious, at best, that “Karl Marx is the most assigned economists” [sic]. The complaints from Marxist professors like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright, and my favorite, Richard D. Wolff, is that heterodox economics is not being taught in many colleges in the U.S. enough. The trend for some time now has been towards Neoclassicalism, a school of thought that has no room for Marx, or Keynes or any of the others outside the orthodoxy. I like Wolff (and Harvey and my youngest son who is a Marxist) because he is so accessible. He hosts the excellent podcast Economic Update, he is a frequent guest on The Thom Hartmann Program and here he is on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Finally, I accidentally found the video below when looking up Wolff on YouTube. Wolff is the narrator for this Join the Socialist Party USA video. I am not endorsing the party, but maybe I should. I’m still a Democrat for some inexplicable reason. (More about me and my attachment to the Party of FDR and LBJ (and not the Clintons and Obama) in an upcoming post.)

Anyway, I agree (at least on an intellectual level) with the message in the video. I’d like to think Marx would, too, if he were around today.

marx beer
An Indian for each century, Uncle Karl! (Image courtesy DSA Sacramento.)