Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Question: What Does Sarah Palin Want? Answer: Money.

When Sarah Palin announced last week that she was not running for president, many wondered, what had she been trying to do during the last three years, when she seemed to be almost a candidate? Now we know: she was trying to make money.

That answer was suggested by Levi Johnston—the young man from Wasilla who got Bristol pregnant, and then wrote a memoir of his life with the Palins after the 2008 election. In the book, Johnston recalled the day in July 2009 when Palin resigned as governor—apparently to spend full-time running for president. That wasn’t the way young Levi saw it. He remembered her saying “I hate this job.… I could be making money instead.”

And that’s what she proceeded to do—all the while tweeting hints that she was about to enter the 2012 race. Ask an Alaskan: for example, Donald Craig Mitchell—he’s an attorney in Anchorage and a long-time Palin-watcher; he wrote about her money-making for the Los Angeles Times op-ed page on Sunday. Shortly before she quit the race, he reminds us, Palin signed a book deal reported to be worth $11 million. As soon as she quit, she “signed with the Washington Speakers Bureau, which quickly got her more than $100,000 for a ninety-minute speech.” Four months after that, she signed a seven-figure contract with Fox News to work as a commentator. And two months after that, she signed another seven-figure contract to star in her own reality TV show, the unforgettable Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Since quitting the governor’s job, Mitchell concludes, “Palin has spent most of her time promoting books, making paid television appearances and giving paid speeches”—in other words, making money.

She was doing one other thing during those years: hinting about running for president. Her will-she-or-won’t-she act provided steady work for a hundred pundits. It also helped sell books and win TV viewers and fill lecture halls with people who thought maybe they were seeing the next president of the United States.

Of course that was never a possibility. The week before the 2008 election, the New York Times poll found that 59 percent of voters said she was not qualified to be vice president. This time around, 72 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said she should not be a candidate. But that still left 28 percent who wanted her to run, and they are the people Palin kept on the hook for the last three years, while she sold them books and got them to watch her TV shows.

It’s hardly surprising that a Republican who believes in tax cuts for the rich would want to get rich herself. In fact it’s surprising that more Republican candidates don’t make the same move she did—use their candidacies as a way to bring in some real money. Of course, Mitt Romney already has $250 million, according to MSNBC—so he has the opposite problem: what can he do with all that money? Might as well run for president.

But Rick Perry started out more like Palin. He began his working life as a door-to-door salesman in West Texas, then made $1 million while holding elective office. He did it with what the Austin Statesman-American carefully calls “controversial land deals.”

But $1 million is not much compared to Palin’s book deal or her TV contract. Of course Perry tried going the book route, with his 2010 volume Fed Up! That’s where he calls Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” Somehow that didn’t move many potential readers to shell out $21.99 for the book—an Amazon.com seller is now listing new copies for $4.99. Palin’s Going Rogue, in contrast,entered the New York Times best-seller list at number one and stayed there for six weeks, eventually selling more than two million copies. (Meanwhile the book’s evil twin, Going Rouge, edited by The Nation’s Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, won enthusiastic praise from critics—including Naomi Klein, who wrote “accept no imitations!”)

Fox News made it clear that bona fide candidates could not be paid commentators on the network—they ended the contracts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum when each entered the race. So Palin had to decide, and no one should have been surprised that she went for the money.

Occupy LA Endorsed by City Council Members; Demonstrators Protest at Home of Bank CEO

In a move that dramatizes the political differences between Los Angeles and New York, several members of the LA City Council today declared their support for Occupy LA and introduced a resolution that will put the city officially on record as endorsing the demostrators camped at City Hall. City Council president Eric Garcetti, who is running for mayor, visited the encampment yesterday and said, “Stay as long as you need, we’re here to support you.”  And Council member Bill Rosendahl said Occupy LA demonstrators were "making democracy work."

Seven of fifteen Council members signed the resolution, which declares, among other things, that “today corporations hold undue power and influence in our country,” and notes that the LA County Federation of Labor has officially endorsed its “sisters and brothers” in Occupy LA.

While New York Mayor Bloomberg has been describing the demonstrations there as a problem, the LA city council is appealing to voters by endorsing the protesters’ critique of big banks and big money. And while the NYPD has arrested Wall Street marchers by the hundreds, and maced and pepper sprayed many, the LAPD has been complimented by Occupy LA for acting fairly and appropriately.

The full LA city council won’t vote on the resolution of support until next Tuesday, but one reporter at today’s council meeting, Simone Wilson of the L.A. Weekly, wrote that, “judging by their dramatic, heart-wrenched personal responses to occupiers during the meeting’s public comment period, no black-sheep councilmember is going to make the dick move of voting ‘No’ on such a popular cause.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in LA, more than a hundred demonstrators marched on the Bel Air home of bank CEO Steven Mnuchin of Pasadena-based OneWest, protesting evictions and foreclosures. The LAPD arrived, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, and pushed protesters away from the gate of the $26 million estate and into the street, but didn’t arrest anyone.

And yesterday 40 activists disrupted a conference of bankers at a Newport Beach yacht club.  Members of ReFund California got past security guards at the elite Balboa Bay Club, chanting "Make banks pay!"  The L.A. Times ran a photo of the protest on page one of their Business section.

The Reconstruction of Iraq: Peter Van Buren on What Went Wrong With 'That Hearts and Minds Thing'

They called it “rebuilding Iraq,” and Peter van Buren knows a lot about what went wrong—he’s a career State Department foreign service officer who spent a year there on a Provincial Reconstruction Team. He has written about it in a terrific new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I spoke with him recently on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles.

It says here you speak Japanese, Mandarin and some Korean—why did the State Department send you to Iraq?

Along with the WMDs, there was another misunderstanding: we also expected to find a lot of Chinese-speaking people there. Actually what happened is the State Department had to ramp up its part of “the surge” and we ran out of Arabists pretty quickly. So they took people who were willing to volunteer. My daughter was going off to college and I needed the extra money from the hardship pay. What sent me to Iraq was the nexus of terrorism and tuition.

The reconstruction of Iraq was by far the biggest nation-building effort in history, much bigger than the post-WWII Marshall Plan in cost, size, and complexity. Your part in it involved leading something called a “Provincial Reconstruction Team”—and the key here is that you were based outside Baghdad's Green Zone, at a place called "Forward Operating Base Hammer.”

FOB Hammer was literally carved out of the desert in 2007. The idea was that simply killing folks was not going to accomplish what we wanted to do. In a war like Iraq, the battle for hearts and minds could only be won by reaching out to the Iraqi people. So people like me were sent out to the boondocks to take care of that hearts and minds thing.

Your Provincial Reconstruction Team rode around in giant armored vehicles called M-RAPs—you say you “made quite an impression” when you rolled through an Iraqi town.

One of the problems of the reconstruction was that we were trying to do it while the de-construction was still going on. Iraq was still a dangerous place in 2007. When we went out to win hearts and minds, we had to travel in these military super-trucks—covered with armor plating, with machine guns on top. We wore body armor and helmets. We were like aliens in spaceships descending on the Iraqis. At best, we scared the heck out of people. When we roared through towns, our trucks tore down electric lines and phone lines that had been strung across the road.

Conservatives have said for decades that “it doesn't work to throw money and problems." How much money was in the budget for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams?

That statement only applies here at home, not overseas. The reconstruction of Iraq cost Americans $63 billion. There was money everywhere in Iraq. Iraq had no bank wire transfers, no credit cards. Instead we had boxes and shopping bags filled with $100 bills. At one point I had a safe in my office with $100,000 in cash. I felt like a drug dealer. When we paid for a $2.5 million chicken processing plant, we paid for it in cash.

What’s this about a chicken processing plant?

The idea was conceived entirely in our own minds. Iraqis had been raising and selling chickens for about 4,990 years before we showed up, and it worked for them: farmers brought live chickens to the market, people brought live chickens home, slaughtered them and cooked them.

We wanted none of that. We built a large chicken processing plant that was going to package and sell frozen chicken parts. It costs us $2.5 million. But the Iraqis don’t have refrigerators, in part because they don’t have reliable electricity. So the chicken processing plant just sat there. There’s an army video promoting the chicken processing plant as a great success story [watch it HERE], but it’s pathetic. The video shows eight or ten Iraqis plucking sadly at a few dead chickens, while the audio talks about hiring 400 people.

Why didn’t somebody at the State Department think this through? Why didn’t Hillary Clinton review this proposal?

Hillary is not returning my calls any more, so I can’t speak for her directly. We fought an eight-year war but everything we did, we did for ourselves, not for the Iraqis. Everyone worked for one year and was under a lot of pressure to produce results. Things were never going well. Washington wanted short-term positive press with photos that could be put up on the embassy website. Big problems like water networks and sewage networks and electrical networks didn’t fit into that framework.

You still work for the State Department—are you in trouble for writing this book?

I haven’t checked in yet today, so I’m not sure I’m still employed there. When you throw pies in the face of clowns, they sometimes get angry. The State Department has accused me of leaking classified information because a blog post of mine linked to a Wikileaks document. They’ve made all sorts of goofy allegations against me. There’s no doubt in my mind they’d like to get rid of me, and they may succeed. But I had a chance to write down what I saw in Iraq, and now readers have a chance to read about it. It doesn’t really matter if they fire me.

Irvine Muslim Students Convicted of Shouting at Israeli Ambassador

In a trial that never should have taken place, ten Muslim students at UC Irvine were convicted Friday of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador on campus last spring.

The twelve-person jury deliberated for two days before agreeing with the prosecutor that coordinated shouts of protest against Israeli policy had violated a law against disrupting public meetings. The students and their supporters argued that they had exercised their freedom of speech, that Ambassador Michael Oren’s talk had been delayed only briefly and that the students were prosecuted because they were Muslims.

The judge sentenced the students to fifty-six hours of community service and up to three years of probation. The students were found guilty of two misdemeanors, including one conspiracy charge for planning their protest.

Oren appeared on campus (where I teach history) in February 2010. As Oren began his speech, a student stood up and shouted “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” Police removed him from the room, and then another rose and shouted at Oren, “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!” He was removed, and nine more followed. A total of eleven were arrested. (One pled guilty to reduced charges, so only ten went to trial.) The longest interruption, defense attorneys told the jury, lasted only eight seconds, and the total amount of time taken up by the eleven statements—combined—was roughly one minute.

Video of the event shows supporters of the ambassador in the audience also shouting, further delaying the proceedings, but they were not removed, arrested or put on trial. The ambassador went on to deliver his speech after a delay of about twenty minutes.

The convictions made headlines around the world—Google News lists 465 news articles. It wasn’t just the Islamic and left-wing press that objected to the trial. The Los Angeles Times in an editorial called it “a case that never should have been filed.” Even the Orange County Register, a Republican newspaper, said the verdict “chills speech,” and called the case an example of “selective prosecution” that had been “used arbitrarily.”

A group of 100 faculty members, including five deans, had asked Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to drop the charges, arguing that the students had already been punished by the university—which also banned the Muslim Student Union for one quarter last year—and that further punishment was wrong. The group Jewish Voice for Peace also condemned the prosecution, delivering a petition with 5,000 signatures to the DA at the start of the trial.

The students are likely to appeal, keeping the case in the news for another year or two.

When Cops Lie: A Report From Los Angeles

Cops lie. Under oath, on the witness stand. “I saw him reach for a gun.” “I found the drugs in his pocket.” But what happens when juries refuse to believe their testimony? Do cops ever get in trouble for fabricating evidence or lying under oath? Do they ever get charged with perjury?

The Los Angeles Times in a page-one story today named three LA sheriff’s deputies who jurors in a case in Compton, California, said had told “one lie after another” under oath. They said authorities should investigate the three.

The case involved a 19-year-old man arrested at a party at a house in South Los Angeles. Deputies testified at a preliminary hearing that when they arrived at the party, they saw the man run and then toss a loaded revolver on the roof of a garage. They said they ordered him to stop, and that he walked back to them and they then arrested him.

The defendant pleaded innocent and at his trial shouted, “Fingerprint the gun!” The gun was never fingerprinted.

Defense attorneys found that another guest at the party had videotaped the events, and that the video did not show the defendant running or throwing anything on the roof. The video showed him standing still when the deputies arrived and arrested him. The jury concluded the deputies had lied under oath. And the LA Times posted the video on its website.

Are the three deputies who backed up each others’ testimony going to be prosecuted for perjury? Award-winning investigative reporter Jack Leonard of the Times reported that the sheriff’s captain told him that “the deputies made errors that will be addressed with additional training,” but that “their actions were not criminal.” In the meantime, one of the three has been promoted to detective.

The defendant, meanwhile, spent more than a month in jail awaiting trial, at which he was found not guilty.

Credit goes to Jack Leonard for writing the story, and to the LA Times editors for putting it on page one—this is exactly why we need local newspapers.

Should Israel Arm Kurdish Terrorists?

First came the news that advisers to Israel’s foreign minister had recommended that Israel provide arms for the Kurdish terrorist group PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been fighting an armed struggle against Turkey for an autonomous Kurdistan. The idea was for Israel to punish Turkey for expelling the Israeli ambassador, after Israel refused to apologize for its raid on the Gaza flotilla, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed. That news was first revealed a week ago in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and then in the widely read Haaretz (but never published in the New York Times.)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “did not deny or confirm the plan,” according to Haaretz. His office said that Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman was considering only a “theoretical option in case of an escalation” and that “a decision will be made only and if necessary.” Netanyahu added that his goal was to improve relations with Turkey.

Now the head of the PKK has announced the group would not accept Israeli arms until Israel apologizes for helping the Turkish government capture the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999.

Of course if Israel did arm the PKK, it could be designated a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” by the US State Department. State Sponsors of Terrorism, which include Syria, Iran, and Cuba, are subject to sanctions by the United States, including a ban on arms-related exports and sales, and prohibition of economic assistance by the United States. That would certainly constitute a change in US-Israeli relations.

The same Israeli advisors who recommended arming the PKK suggested a second way to punish Turkey for expelling the Israeli ambassador: “offer assistance to the Armenians and file UN reports against Turkey for violating the human rights of Turkey’s minorities.” The issue here is that, to date, Israel has refused to recognize the Armenian genocide—in deference to the Turkish government, once its closest ally in the Muslim world. That refusal has been especially galling since Hitler himself considered the Turks’ genocide of the Armenians to provide a model of sorts for the Third Reich’s campaign against the Jews. In 1939, a month before Germany invaded Poland, Hitler famously said “Who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

In conclusion, I offer two modest suggestions: (1) Israel would be wise not to arm the PKK; (2) truth and justice would be served by Israel finally recognizing the Turks’ genocide of the Armenians.

The End of the Jerry Lewis Telethon—It's About Time

This Labor Day, for the first time in forty-five years, there won’t be a Jerry Lewis telethon on TV. It will be a great day for people with disabilities.

The problem with the Jerry Lewis telethon was not that he tried to help people with muscular dystrophy. The problem was the way Jerry Lewis did it. Yes the telethon raised a lot of money. But it also perpetuated destructive stereotypes. Jerry’s message was simple: “crippled children deserve pity.” His critics offered an alternative: “people with disabilities deserve respect.”

Every year it was the same. Jerry did his telethon shtick, parading little kids in wheelchairs across the Las Vegas stage, making maudlin appeals for cash, alternatively mugging and weeping, and generally claiming to be a friend to the doomed.

The pitch was always for “Jerry’s kids.” But two-thirds of the clients of the Muscular Dystrophy Association were adults, and they didn’t like being referred to as “Jerry’s kids.” That’s what Laura Hershey said in 1997—she was one of the activists who organized annual protests outside the telethon. She died in 2010.

All that money was supposed to find what Jerry called “a cure.” Every year he said “We’re closer than ever to a cure.” But every doctor and nurse will tell you the same thing: there is no cure. In the program for the 2011 annual meeting of the Muscular Dystrophy Coordinating Committee, the word “cure” does not appear.

What people with the disability need is help with their symptoms and with mobility. Their quality of life can be improved, their symptoms can be reduced. They also need “accessible public transportation and housing, employment opportunities and other civil rights that a democratic society should ensure for all its citizens.” That’s what Mike Ervin says—he calls himself “a renegade Jerry’s Kid” who was an official telethon poster child in the 1960s.

Some highlights of the telethon (thanks in part to Michael Sragow):

1973: Jerry holds up a child with muscular dystrophy and announces, “God goofed, and it’s up to us to correct His mistakes.”

1977: Jerry is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts, especially the telethon, by Representative Les Aspin (D-WI).

1983: President Reagan gets in on the act. Photos show him posing with Jerry and the official muscular dystrophy poster child. The kid is in a wheelchair. He is only 6 years old, but they dressed him in a three-piece suit and a bow tie for the occasion.

1986: Jerry responds to critics. When a female writer for the Montreal Gazette described his performance as “hyperactive, dated slapstick,” Jerry tells the press, “When they get a period, it’s really difficult for them to function as normal human beings.”

For me, the worst moment of the telethon came in 1972 when John and Yoko appeared. They played some good music—“Imagine,” and a reggae version of “Give Peace a Chance.” But they were there for a political reason: President Nixon had been trying to deport them for almost a year, and they were desperate to say in the USA. So to prove they were deserving of residency, they stopped hanging out with Jerry Rubin and instead embraced Jerry Lewis. That’s why Lennon told the telethon audience “Jerry is one of our favorite comedians.”

Now it’s over: no more “Jerry’s kids.” It’s about time.

Some resources:
“The Kids are Alright”
“From Poster Child to Protester”
“Bloggers Protesting Pity”
Laura Hershey’s website
“Muscular Distrophy: Treatment and Drugs”\

The Trouble With Tomatoes: Slave Labor (and That Cardboard Taste)

The tomato is in trouble. The tomatoes in Big Macs and Taco Bell tacos and in supermarkets, especially in the winter, all come from the same place: South Florida. “Tomatoland,” Barry Estabrook calls it—that’s the title of his new book. Those tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery”—that’s what the chief assistant US attorney there says. And there’s one other problem: those tomatoes taste like cardboard.

Tomato plants don’t like it in Southern Florida. “From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective,” Estabrook says, “you would have to be an idiot” to try to grow tomatoes commercially there. The soil, Mark Bittman writes, is like “a lousy beach,” sandy and poor in nutrients. The humid climate provides breeding ground for voracious insect pests.

It takes a lot to grow a tomato in the sand of South Florida: tons of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Florida, Estabrook reports, uses about eight times as many chemicals per acre on tomatoes as California.

Pesticides and herbicides are bad for the environment, and also for the tomato workers. But they aren’t the workers’ biggest problem. “If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months,” Estabrook writes, “you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave.” The chief assistant US Attorney in Fort Myers, Douglas Molloy, says that’s not just a metaphor, “that is a fact.” He has “six to twelve slavery cases” in the tomato industry at any given time. In recent years, more than a thousand slaves have been freed there. Undoubtedly, there are many more who haven’t.

The pay is miserable. When two growers offered to pay workers a penny a pound more, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange told them they couldn’t do it; if they did, they would be fined $100,000. The workers live in squalid trailers with faulty plumbing. Child labor and other abuses are rampant.

Yet from October to June, virtually all the field-grown tomatoes in supermarkets come from Florida. One billion pounds of tomatoes. They are picked when they are green; the only reason they are red in the stores is that they’ve been gassed with ethylene, which changes their color.

And there’s that other problem with tomatoes grown in Southern Florida: they have no flavor. They are bred to be indestructible. Estabrook saw tomatoes falling off a truck going 60 mph; when he stopped to examine the tomatoes that hit the road, he says, they “looked smooth and unblemished. Not one was smashed.”

But the tomato workers have a wonderful grassroots group or organizers and activists fighting the growers: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) (“Immokalee” rhymes with “broccoli”) and their Campaign for Fair Food. The campaign has had some huge victories. Four years of protests against Taco Bell culminated in 2005 with the company agreeing to meet all the demands of the campaign, starting with better pay: the percentage of the retail price that now goes to the workers has nearly doubled. Also, an enforceable Code of Conduct has been established, and the CIW is part of the investigative body that monitors worker complaints.

McDonald’s signed an even better agreement in 2007, and Burger King followed in 2008. So did Sodexo, which runs dining halls at hundreds of schools and colleges. All have promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses, and to a pay a price for their tomatoes that supports a living wage.

This year the campaign is taking on the supermarkets. Whole Foods is the only one thus far to join. Trader Joe’s has refused, and the Campaign for Fair Food has made them the target of nationwide demonstrations this summer. The Trader Joe’s Truth Tour just finished up in California, and is now heading east. Next come protests at Trader Joe’s in Washington, DC; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and New York City. Those demonstrations start Tuesday, August 2.

Also targeted: Stop & Shop, Giant, and Kroger, which next to Walmart is the biggest food retailer in the country (and owns Ralph’s in California). The campaign has model letters to send or deliver to these stores.

The Campaign’s Fair Code of Conduct includes informational sessions for workers. Estabrook reports at his website that he went to one recently in Immokalee, along with fifty migrant laborers: “I learned that I had a right to earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and could take regular breaks in a shady area provided by the farm, including a lunch break.… For some of my work, I would get an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes I picked—which amounted to a 50 percent raise. I was informed that sexual harassment would not be tolerated. And finally I received a card with the number of a 24-hour confidential help line.” None of this happened before the Coalition’s recent victories.

As for the Florida tomato, it’s possible that modern science will someday come up with a new breed that not only can be transported long distances but actually tastes good. In the meantime, it’s tomato time at local farmers’ markets everywhere, and also in the backyards of those wise enough to have planted their own tomatoes a few months ago.

Gary Shteyngart Interview—The Future, With Fox Prime Ultra and the Bipartisan Party: A Super Sad True Love Story

Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was named a best book on more than forty end-of-the-year lists. It’s out now in paperback. Jon Wiener spoke with him on KPFK 90.7FM in Los Angeles on July 6.

Q: Your novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in “the near future,” when everybody wears a pendant around their neck called an “apparat.” What does the apparat do?

A: It’s a wonderful invention that ranks everybody. When I enter a bar in downtown Manhattan, my entire history is broadcast to everybody, and immediately everyone knows I’m the eighteenth ugliest man in the room but I have the fourth-best credit rating.

What are politics like in your version of “the near future”?

Everything’s great! There’s only one party, the Bipartisan Party, it’s a rabidly right-wing party. The world is divided into two classes: the High Net Worth Individuals—the “H.N.W.I.”, a very small part of the population, and, everybody else, also known as “L.N.W.I.”

Tell us about the media in your version of future.

We have the New York Lifestyle Times, a collection of advertisements. The last two channels are Fox Liberty Prime, which is like our Fox News, and Fox Liberty Ultra, which beyond anything we’ve yet experienced. But mostly what people do is stream about themselves. Everyone has a corporate sponsor, and everyone tries to make funny newscasts about themselves while slipping in the names of their corporate sponsors.

In this world you have placed our hero, Lenny Abramov.

Lenny is not a High Net Worth Individual, but he does have a job—he works for a company that thinks they’ve developed a cure for death. It costs 20 billion Yuan—the dollar is worthless, so most people use the Yuan. The company calls it “indefinite life extension—exclusive immortality assistance for High Net Worth Individuals.”

Lenny’s “hopelessly cute” girlfriend Eunice doesn’t read books. Where did you get this idea?

Like Lenny, I’m the owner of a wall of books in my apartment. A young man in his early 20s came up to repair my cable, and he said “Oh man, why you got all those books here?” Then he looked at my television: “… and you only got a 25 inch TV!” It was very emasculating. I realized that I come from the last generation when books were loved and cherished.

The Wall Street Journal described Super Sad True Love Story as “a funny book about the financial crisis.” Is that the way you would describe it?

I started writing this book in 2006 before the financial crisis. In my original draft, horrible things happen: Lehman Brothers fails, GM and Chrysler fail. Two years into writing this, all these things were actually happening. So I had to make things worse and worse. That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days—there doesn’t seem to be a present left to write about. Everything is the future. That makes writing a novel difficult —it’s much easier to write a blog about something.

The Village Voice called Super Sad True Love Story “the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written.”

I was a person like Lenny, fairly analogue, and to research this book I hired an assistant who got me an iPhone, and got me on Facebook and Twitter. I went from somebody who didn’t want to have anything to do with this new technology to somebody who became wildly addicted to it. Then, after finishing this book, I began developing strategies for not being online all the time.

Do you have any advice for people with the same problem?

I am very lucky that, where I live in upstate New York, the main provider for the iPhone is ATT, which doesn’t really know how to connect signals to telephones. When I go to the country, just two hours north of Manhattan, there’s no reception. So my advice is to find an ATT iPhone and then go out into the countryside.

You say it’s important to stay away from your iPhone —and yet there is a Gary Shteyngart iPhone app.

Yes, but I’ve never used it and I don’t know how it works.

Carmageddon in LA: Closing the 405 Freeway This Weekend

In Los Angeles they’re calling it “Carmageddon”: closing ten miles of the San Diego Freeway, the fabled “405,” from West LA to the San Fernando Valley, for fifty-five hours over the weekend to tear down a bridge as part of a freeway widening project.

Half a million cars usually take that route over the weekend, and it won’t be easy to find alternate routes, since the freeway crosses the Santa Monica mountains in one of only four passes, and the other three are two-lane streets.

The construction project will add one carpool lane northbound—at a cost of $1 billion. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, "It'll help reduce congestion on one of the busiest freeway corridors in the region." But freeway experts and many commuters know that adding a lane never works. As soon as people find out it’s there, more cars head for the freeway, and it ends up just as congested as before. This is an indisputable scientific fact.

In my experience of thirty years of commuting on the 405 between West LA and Irvine, fifty-five miles each way, only one thing has significantly reduced traffic: the closing of the aerospace industry following its peak in 1987. That meant fewer people going to work at the McDonnell Douglas and other plants in Torrance, Huntington Beach, and El Segundo. The one thing that reduces rush hour traffic is unemployment. Firing tens of thousands of aerospace workers cut my commute time by five minutes. It wasn’t really worth it.

And of course LA could use $1 billion for the public schools, which sent layoff notices recently to 3,000 teachers, cutting $400 million from the budget.

People who live in the Valley and work on the weekend in West LA or Santa Monica—say, nurses at UCLA hospital—will have real problems this weekend. The legendary Santa Monica Farmer’s Markets on Saturday and Sunday will still be going—the See Canyon Fruit Ranch people from San Luis Obispo, for example, told me today that on Saturday they would be taking the Coast Hiway instead of the freeway to Santa Monica to bring their legendary Blenheim apricots to the market.

LAX will be operating, of course, but when I asked an Armenian airport cab driver for Beverly Hills Taxi what his strategy would be, he said, “Stay home.” He lives in Glendale, twenty miles away.

Staying home is what officials are telling everybody to do. “A good day for gardening and barbecuing” is the line. And with the American women in the World Cup finals Sunday morning at 11 LA time, TV sports will be better than usual. (The hapless Dodgers will be out of town, in Arizona, but on TV both Saturday and Sunday nights, for those who haven’t given up after owner Frank McCourt filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago.)

The other way to spend the weekend is watching the freeway bridge demolition on TV. Once the 405 is closed Friday night, eighty-five trucks will dump a fifteen-foot-deep bed of sand on the freeway underneath the bridge “to keep the lanes from being damaged by falling debris.” Then the bridge will be cut down the middle, longitudinally, and the pieces will be knocked down. "Falling concrete pieces should be no larger than basketballs," they say.  Then the sand and the bridge pieces will be carted away, and the freeway will reopen Monday morning at 5 am.

Does anyone think this might not work?

Right now folks in LA are chuckling over the YouTube video of Hitler ranting about how hard it will be for him to get to LAX on Saturday to pick up his cousin.


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