Wednesday, May 31, 2006

If you are reading this right now, you’re probably on the T, and that means that the fare restructuring plan for 2007 the MBTA recently rolled out probably concerns you somehow, maybe in a casual kind of way, but maybe, if you’re barely getting by as it is, more vitally. With a little more than a week to go in the purely palliative public education and hearing process, it’s fast approaching the time to speak up or forever hold your peace.

I’ve decided, somewhat grudgingly, I’ll admit, that I can live with these fare increases (with a little help from my bike), but I will still be in Copley Square June 6th at 4 PM at a rally sponsored by TJustice.info to demonstrate against the increases before heading to the MBTA hearing at 4:30 at the Boston Public Library, the last such hearing in Boston before the new fares are finalized. Why? Because while the standardization of fares across the system is a good move—and it’s about time—the increased fares address only the current budget shortfall, and do absolutely nothing to fix what’s wrong with the T in the long run. This is at best a quick fix, and the MBTA admits as much. Unless the legislature goes back to the drawing board on the manner in which the T is funded, you can count on more major fare increases in the very foreseeable future.

It’s important to remember that there are four parties that must be involved in the decision-making process here: the public, first and foremost, the legislature, the MBTA management, and the unions. Presently, the public feels alienated, the legislature has washed its hands of the matter of mass transit, and MBTA management is pleading helplessness against an immovable legislature and bullying unions. The unions, for their part, remain silent on the fare hikes, pointing mutely at the management, who says it has been left no choice by the legislature but to raise fares. Sound dysfunctional enough for you? It’ll only get worse if the public doesn’t stand up and say, “enough, already!”

The answer is not merely “more money,” although, as Jeremy Marin, co-chair of the T Rider Oversight Committee (ROC) recently wrote in these pages, “our transit system is in fiscal gridlock.” There is also a culture at the T that’s costing us all big time and must be reformed. But first, the MBTA and the legislature, and groups that dropped the ball on this all need to know that you know that the current manner in which the T is managed, maintained, and funded is not working for those it exists to serve, and that biennial fare hikes are an ineffectual and thus unacceptable way to fix what’s wrong with the T. The legislature needs to go back to work on this. Let them know you know it by signing the petition at tjustice.info and showing up at Copley Square at 4 on the 6th.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Recently I visited Concord in search of Henry David Thoreau. The little house he built for twenty-eight dollars, twelve-and-a-half cents no longer stands. Still, you’ll know the spot, and not merely by the stone markers. More likely by the many soul-seekers, devoted to living deliberately too, perched around the invisible shack like so many spiritual vultures in search of a carcass. Looking hungry, their sharpened pencils poised above their journals, ready to impale any morsel of Thoreauian truth left rotting in the ruins of his old stone hearth. While Thoreau might not have minded his elevation from hermit to saint, he would certainly have rejected the softening of his jagged edges by fuzzy-headed modern-day sentimentalists.

Yes, there is something undeniably appealing to Thoreau’s mantra: “simplify, simplify, simplify.” Looks good on the T-shirts on sale in the gift shop at Walden Pond. But even our ideas of simplicity have gone utterly rococo. Nowadays you hire someone to simplify your life for you. Perky “professional organizers” echo the sage’s “less is more” philosophy, urging us to “say goodbye to things that don't fit, are out of style or are unflattering.” How thoroughly Thoreauian! Today’s Professionally-trained simplifiers suggest consolidating your credit cards as well, “and in the future use only one or two.” “Don’t buy dry-clean-only clothes,” “screen your calls,” and “watch TV on your own terms.” Henry would have been proud.

Truth is, as Thoreau well knew, it’s hard work living outside of society, and not only materially. Especially in today’s wired world. We may like the idea of Walden on the surface, but Thoreau took self-reliance seriously, to an extreme most of us would find suspicious if not outright scary. Not to worry. Nowadays the same manly men who bloviate about self-reliance from behind the wheel of their monster SUVs are reduced to bed-wetting by three-dollar-a-gallon gas prices. Not only do we not grow our own food, we don’t even know how to light a fire to cook it. We can’t drink hot coffee without detailed warnings and an instruction manual. Is it any wonder we choose empty promises of protection from unseen enemies over the risks of real personal freedom? We’re a nation of obligate parasites. Independent we are decidedly not.

After visiting Walden, I sat down with “Civil Disobedience,” eager for insights into what could be shaping up as a new era of protest, not because people are any more enlightened, but because our government on all levels is ever less so. The essay holds few clues as to how to organize an army of more than one, but Thoreau’s faith in his army of one is unshakable. “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right,” he preaches, “changes things and relations.” For tenacious, uncompromising, and not very likeable Henry David Thoreau protest was a way of life: the hard way. He’s proof that really “speaking truth to power” isn’t pretty. Despite what today’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too pros may say, it’s always out of style and unflattering.

Monday, May 15, 2006

As the controversy over domestic spying heats up, the mantra from pundits on the right, from Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the president’s pick to head the CIA, from National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and from Mr. Bush himself is: domestic spying is “within the law.” This, from a president who believes he has the constitutional authority to bypass laws made by Congress by appending “signing statements” that effectively exempt him from following the law he has just signed. Mr. Bush has found a handy way to make breaking the law “perfectly legal.”

Illegally diverting public funds to secret prisons with no oversight? Legal, according to the president. Torture banned by international law? He reserves the right. In 2004 Congress passed a bill requiring the Justice Department to inform lawmakers about all domestic wiretaps. Mr. Bush signed the bill into law, but attached a signing statement that gave the Justice Department ultimate discretion to disobey it. “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery” is kid’s stuff. This administration’s ideas of “perfectly legal” would have Orwell himself scratching his head and saying “WTF?”

Having spent some years in Eastern Europe in the shadow of Sovietism, I’m not sure how reassuring the administration’s “legality defense” actually is. I’m a little suspicious when the same people who want to spy on you make the laws that allow them to do so while claiming, without disingenuousness, that it’s all “perfectly legal.” Examples of “perfectly legal” behavior on the part of governments past and present: slavery, ghettos, gulags. Legal? Sure. Just? Well, it depends on your race, religion, or party, I guess.

The assumed coincidence of legality and justice in America has been taken for granted for so long, we’ve become utterly complacent about it. But, in history, the marriage of justice and power has been rare, and short-lived. Is America exceptional? Are we exempt from state tyranny? Some people seem to think so. But excessive government secrecy and consolidation of power in fewer and fewer hands—a single party, the executive branch—are not particularly good signs for democracy, when you think about it. The good news: when you don’t think about it, it’s not such a big deal! Carry on!

That seems to be the American way these days, anyway. Since this story broke, perhaps the most unsurprising reaction, aside from the administration’s legality defense (I mean, what would you expect from a bunch of lawyers?) is the big yawn domestic spying has elicited among the poll-taking public. According to numerous polls, half don’t care if Mr. Bush spies on them. Golly, I wonder which half? And how will they feel about Hillary doing it? Every modern state has its party faithful, of course, willing to toss aside freedoms they think they don’t need themselves, or support laws they think won’t apply to them. But history teaches caution in this. “Of all injustice,” as one 17th century English journalist put it, “that is the greatest which goes under the name of law.”

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Kaavya Viswanathan saga ended last week with a whimper. There was mounting evidence of more plagiarized passages (Opal Mehta Blah Blah Blah turned out to be not a novel so much as an anthology, with contributions, according to some sources, from not only Megan McCafferty, but Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, even Salman Rushdie). The product tainted beyond salvageability, Little, Brown finally dropped the book and the would-be wunderkind, blacklisting the literary Milli-Vanilli, and forcing massive layoffs at Brand Kaavya. And after all the sweat and toil they’d put into typing their jazzy paint-by-numbers Bildungsroman, too. Well, humph.

How Kaavya, Inc., Got Dropped is a tale of bland ambition for our times. Because, truly, their tragedy is the tragedy of our age. To paraphrase “Success in Business” guru, William Feather: so many have ambition, so few ability. But, here’s the thing: it’s really only a tragedy if you don’t recognize which side you’re on. After all, ability can be bought. If you’re ambitious, you find a way to pay for it. Get a second job if you have to. Kaavya, Inc., had half a million bucks to spend and a staff of thousands. Why’d they settle for used, when they had more than enough to buy it new?

Like I said, a lot went into the making of Kaavya, Inc. Kaavya herself is the product of the sort of high-powered marketing effort described in the slap-dash, tag-team novel to which her name was attached like Michael Jordan’s to a Nike shoe. She’s been a marketing phenomenon since her parents paid IvyWise tens of thousands of dollars to package her as Harvard material in the first place. And why stop there? Yes, it’s cynical, and sordid—a little like pimping out your kid to softcore pornographers—but it’s the status-obsessed haute bourgeois version of the same white-trash overgroping that produced Jonbenet Ramsey and Jessica and Ashley Simpson.

And why should publishing really be any different than fast food or soda pop? Or Hollywood, for that matter? Little more than an upper-middlebrow version of “American Idol,” where you garner extra points for expert impersonation? The rivalry between Little, Brown and Random House is just a literary version of the Cola Wars, after all.

Kaavya has been compared to James Frey, but it’s an unfair comparison: Frey had an overactive imagination, Viswanathan doesn’t have one at all. Good thing ambition doesn’t require it. I guarantee you this: we have not heard the last of her. She is destined to become the Omorosa of Harvard Yard. Whether or not she makes the cut of “The Apprentice 6,” I urge her not to abandon ambition out of mere lack of ability. It’s only a minor detail. But, Kaavya, a word of advice: ditch the arty-farty novelista pose, switch your major to Poli Sci, and grab yourself an MBA on your way out. Stick with bland ambition, and someday you could win the ultimate “American Idol”: you could be president.

Monday, May 01, 2006

With T fares set to go up again, and not by a small increment, I’m more committed than ever to cycling as a viable alternative to cars and mass transit. Not only is it a greener way to get around, it’s a great cardio workout, and it’s cheaper and faster than the T. What more could you want? Since I started biking to work in the Back Bay from Dorchester, I’ve cut my morning commute time in half.

Sure, there are problems with cycling in Boston. The streets are not bicycle-friendly, for the most part, and neither are those using them. And not only are motorists a danger to cyclists. Cyclists are a danger to each other. But part of the reason for this is the lack of dedicated bike lanes. Organizations like Livable Streets (www.livablestreets.info) are struggling to raise awareness of Boston’s enormous potential as a greener, more livable city, but it is an up-hill battle, for sure.

I’ve noticed a lot of things about Boston I didn’t before now that I’m cycling in the city every day. Something I’ve noticed anew, since my commute takes me through the South End, is the city’s rubbish problem. It isn’t just the South End, of course, but it’s there that it seems most visible. Riding through these beautifully gentrified neighborhoods the night before or the day of rubbish collection is like a trip to Fresh Kills Landfill: rubbish spilling out of torn plastic bags piled high and strewn all over the sidewalk.

This is not a new problem, by any means, which is why the lack of a real, viable solution is so discouraging. Residents point to the ragpickers who make their way through the streets before the city’s rubbish and recycling trucks do, tearing open trash bags in search of recyclables, and leaving a mess behind that brings animals to forage after them. But blaming the ragpickers ignores the simple fact that if residents were really recycling, the ragpickers would have nothing to pick out of their garbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

But the city’s “rubbish rules” do nothing to discourage it. While the rubbish code states that “There must be sufficient metal or durable plastic barrels for storing of refuse generated in building,” it contradicts this dictate on the very next line: “Disposable 2-ply [or heavier] plastic bags may be used instead of trash barrels for curbside trash collection.” In short: you MUST use trash barrels, but you don’t have to. And a stroll through the South End on rubbish days will attest to the fact that no one does.

A couple years ago I took the utterly futile step of writing Commissioner Casazza, pointing out the absurdity of the city’s rubbish code, and got a rapid reply from an underling that read: “Please contact Code Enforcement. They will send an inspector out and possibly fine the responsible parties.” The problem was, of course, precisely that no one was in violation of any code. Talk about rubbish.