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An Interview with elin o'Hara slavick

Focusing Hiroshima

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Hiroshima was targeted in part for it’s “focusing effect.” The hills surrounding the city, according to a secret memo prepared by Leslie Grove, “would considerably increase the blast damage.” Maximizing the blast damage was the primary goal for the use of the atomic bomb. The intent was, again in the sterile words of General Grove, to create an explosion “sufficiently spectacular” to “obtain the greatest psychological effect” on the Japanese people and the rest of the world. In other words, the atomic bomb from the beginning was viewed as the ultimate instrument of terror.

The bomb was released from the bays of the Enola Gay at 8:15 in the morning Hiroshima time. Gravity did the rest. It took the 140-pound weapon packed with uranium-235 precisely 43 seconds to fall from 31,060 feet to 1,968, when it detonated, 800 feet off target because of a crosswind.

The weather was clear that morning. The citizens of the city were just arriving at work and children to their schools when the bomb exploded over the Shima Surgical Hospital with the force of 16 kilotons of TNT, obliterating nearly five square miles of the city. About 70 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed by the initial blast and the firestorm that followed it.

More than 80,000 people died, many of them simply vanishing instantly, leaving no trace of their existence on earth. Others died a more agonizing death, often without any treatment for their wounds, largely because more than 90 percent of Hiroshima’s doctors and nurses were killed in the blast. Another 70,000 survived their injuries, their bodies scarred with savage burns.

American military officials later griped about the inefficiency of the bomb’s radioactive component, complaining that only 1.7 percent of the radioactive material “fissoned.” But this was more than enough to another 2,000 deaths from leukemia and cancer caused by the radioactive after-effects of the bombing.

Indeed, the radiation from the blast can still be detected in household objects, leaves, human tissue. This is the focus of elin o’Hara slavick startling new work, After Hiroshima, an intimate photographic exploration of the consequences, radioactive and moral, of the Hiroshima bombing. Slavick’s photographs of objects that survived and were mutated by the blast have just been published in an exquisitely produced volume by Daylight Press. Slavick is a professor of Visual Art, Theory and Practice at the University of North Carolina. Her previous work includes Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography, with an introduction by Howard Zinn.

elinLyon

JSC: In your previous book, the chilling Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography, you vividly depict through maps the wounding of the earth from what the government rather benignly calls nuclear “testing.” In After Hiroshima, you narrow the focus of the lens, examining small objects, bottles, fragments, and leaves from the blast zone. Can you describe what it felt like to have such an intimate relationship with these objects from one of the great crimes of modern history?

eos: Intense. I was aware of the massive shift from the macro to the micro – from abstract cartographic drawings of places the U.S. has bombed in Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography mostly done from maps and from the aerial perspective to a searingly intimate experience with Hiroshima on the ground, over 60 years after the A-bomb, but still on the ground. To hold the fragile and hallowed A-bomb artifacts from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in my gloved hands was a very powerful experience. I felt lucky and guilty, privileged and sad, humbled and awed: glass bottles melted into dark knots; a delicate hair comb with one tooth missing; a metal canteen with two small rust holes; fragments of steel beams that were transformed into atomic masks and architectural enigmas through the cyanotype process – placing the objects on sun/UV sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun for 10 minutes, rinsing them in water, witnessing the white shadows appear in fields of varying indigo blue.

As an activist I often feel helpless and rendered dysfunctional in terms of changing things on a global scale (ending war and poverty, creating a sustainable and just world) – it’s just so overwhelming, which is how the bomb drawings ended up making me feel – depressed and powerless. I am able to accomplish so much more on the local level – mounting political and critical exhibitions in empty spaces, teaching conceptual and critical theories and practices, protesting the North Carolina right-wing legislature with thousands of others, electing decent officials and organizing/advising student groups – Students for a Democratic Society, Students for Economic Justice, Students Against the Death Penalty, etc. Working in Hiroshima brought up similar feelings in me – here I was at one of the bombsites in my previous book and it was not an image, not a map, not an impossibility, but a very real place filled with people. To stand at the hypocenter and rub a black crayon over Japanese paper placed on the sidewalk is to witness and record the horrific, and yes, criminal, event of the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but also a trace of the passing of time, the rebuilding of an entire city, the way society chooses to mark and memorialize events, making what disappeared, appear.

In the bomb drawings, many of which are labor intensive, all done by hand, I employed a “modernist” approach – painting and drawing – to seduce the viewer in order for her to consider and reconsider what the U.S. has done on such a massive scale. Rarely is such anti-war sentiment and political criticism embedded in colorful and relatively abstract work. While many of the bombings employed the most advanced technology and weapons and the war machine moves faster than a speeding bullet, it felt crucial to work slowly, to provide a complex visual space for the viewer to linger in. My work in Hiroshima employed processes that are significant to the specificity of Hiroshima’s history: cyanotypes of A-bombed artifacts that conjure the white and black shadows left by incinerated people, plants and things; rubbings of A-bombed surfaces to symbolically absorb and actually trace some of the trauma – the rubbings are then used as paper negatives in the darkroom to make contact prints that resemble x-rays; and autoradiography – exposing x-rays to the lingering radiation in A-bombed objects and then contact printing the x-ray. It was through discovering exposed x-ray film in a vault after the A-bomb that the Japanese realized that it was indeed an atomic bomb.

And it was through a photographic experiment by Henri Becquerel in 1896– placing uranium salts on photographic plates and not exposing them to anything else – that it was proven that uranium emits invisible radiation.

I also felt deeply honored that the Peace Museum allowed me such generous access to the artifacts and assisted me greatly by taking time to bring me artifacts and help me expose the cyanotypes. They also allowed me to place A-bombed artifacts on x-ray film for 10 days in a completely dark room. It is hard for me to imagine the same professional and kind treatment of a Japanese artist in Washington DC trying to make work about the Enola Gay (the plane that dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima). I was also honored to be working with the same artifacts and in the same space as two of my favorite photographers, Hiromi Tsuchida and Ishiuchi Miyako.

Mask72 Mask, cyanotype, elin o’Hara slavick.

JSC: How did the opportunity to make these images come about?

eos: My husband, David Richardson, is an epidemiologist focusing on the effects of exposure to radiation on workers in nuclear weapon facilities and nuclear power plants all over the world. Most of the standards set regarding “acceptable exposure rates” are based on the deeply flawed A-bomb data that was based on the healthiest of cohorts – the survivors. It does not take into account the 140,000 people who died by the end of 1945 as a result of radiation from the A-bomb. Following in Dr. Alice Stewart’s footsteps, he was trying to go to Hiroshima for quite a while to do research at RERF (Radiation Effects Research Foundation, originally the ABCC, Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a compound built in 1947 by the U.S. government to study – not treat – the victims of the A-bomb). Finally, he was invited and we went as a family – with our 2 young children – for 3 months in the summer of 2008. It was David’s idea for me to try to make autoradiographs. Once in Hiroshima, rereading Carol Mavor’s essay in my Bomb After Bomb book that focuses on Hiroshima, I realized I had to use cyanotypes. And I had planned to do the rubbings/contact photographs. The kids attended the International YMCA every day while I worked on the project that has just culminated in the book After Hiroshima with an extraordinary essay by James Elkins (Daylight Books, 2013 – link please).

I must stress that there was no way I could have made much of this work without the cooperation and empathy of the people at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, especially the Director of the Peace Culture Foundation there, Steve Leeper.

BridgeWhole72Bridge, Hiroshima, elin o’Hara slavick. 

JSC: One of the techniques you used to create the images was autoradiography, where the radiation in the objects is captured on x-ray film and then reproduced. Can you talk a little bit about that technique, which exposes a strange link been the craft of photography and the nuclear project, and the images it yielded?

eos: Interestingly, photography and flight, photography and the military, photography and popular culture, for better and worse, are closely tied together. Alberto Santos-Dumont is whom much of the world considers to be the inventor of flight. On October 19, 1901, Santos-Dumont circled the spire of the Eiffel Tower in his innovative flying machine, making him the toast of Paris. With the onset of air combat, Santos-Dumont became depressed and killed himself in despair. His last words were, “I never thought that my invention would cause bloodshed between brothers. What have I done?”

As I said earlier, Henri Becquerel discovered the radioactivity in uranium through a photographic experiment. We all know that photography has been used – by the police, government, journalists and citizens – to document prisoners, people about to be executed, victims, political opposition, scientific and military tests and for surveillance, evidence and testimony.

The single autoradiograph in the book After Hiroshima was made by placing a chunk of an A-bombed tree trunk on x-ray film for 10 days in light-tight conditions. It is not a very scientific experiment. The exposure registered on the x-ray film could be background radiation, but why were none of the other sheets of film exposed similarily? I call that image Lingering Radiation because in my opinion, no image would exist without the lingering radiation in that wood. Radiation is invisible. I want to make the invisible visible. Just as the increased lung cancer and childhood thyroid cancer rates rose after Three Mile Island, leukemia after Chernobyl and most likely many cancers after Fukushima, no one saw much, really. Statistics and numbers, even though they represent human beings and disease, tend to be abstract, misread, under-reported and not believed. I would like to think that photography and the photographers who practice it, work against the status quo of nuclear energy and atomic bombs, and some certainly have – Carol Gallagher’s American Ground Zero for example – but photography, like the written word, functions on so many levels – some critical and ideological and others banal and relatively objective – school photos, snapshots, pornography, advertising, propaganda. Art (photography) is always hand in hand (in line with or against) with whatever social, cultural, political events are happening at the time of production and with the passing of time, Art (photography) is seen through whatever socio-political lens of the present situation.

It does seems absolutely perverse to talk about the white and black shadows left by the instant incineration of people and plants and things as “photograms” (photographs made by placing things directly on the photo paper and exposing it to light like my cyanotypes and rubbings), but that is what they are. Unlike the objects placed on photo paper that are usually returned to the shelf or box, the incinerated people and plants and things are gone forever. That is what invisible radiation does – it poisons and disappears people. Photography preserves and archives, witnesses and testifies. It can make visible things we otherwise may not see.

ArchitecturalFragments72Architectural fragments, cyanotype. elin o’Hara slavick. 

JSC: I was particularly struck by the cyanotypes. They seem to have an effect similar to Japanese calligraphy and woodblock prints from the early 19th century. Superficially, these appear to be simple, discreet images. But the more you look at them the more they reveal themselves, many of them almost seem to move.  They are also quite beautiful. I almost felt ashamed at being drawn to them as aesthetic objects. I’m reminded of Norman Mailer’s description of how beautiful a bomb looks from the air at the moment it explodes, like a rose blooming.

eos: This is the contradiction and ethical dilemma at the core of my project, but as Andre Breton said almost century ago, “Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all.” There is power in beauty. It is a deliberate device used by artists in many different ways to invite the viewer in, especially when the content is disturbing, controversial and violent. I too was struck by how “Japanese” some of the cyanotypes looked – eucalyptus bark like a Japanese character – and all of them an intense and varying indigo (cyan) blue – the type found in much of the clothing worn in 1945. And as I’ve said, they are unavoidably direct descendants of those terrible shadows of disappearance.

I was often asked about the use of beauty in the bomb drawings and the Hiroshima images are even more beautiful. I do not have a clear or simple response. It is very complicated, sensitive and problematic. But I know that my intentions are good and I think the weight of my commitment to a world without war can be felt somehow – perhaps through the combination of texts and image and in the context of my work as a whole, but also through the power of the images, of the objects and what they signify. Adorno said poetry could never be written after the holocaust but poetry continues to be written. I think we need every tool in the box to fight for what we believe in and what we are against and this includes beautiful art.

Harold Edgerton documented the atomic tests in the American Southwest and made mystifyingly stunning photographs that look like Odilon Redon drawings or illuminated marbles or magnified fish eyes, a phenomenon of light and power. Once you know what it is and how much damage it ultimately caused, it is hard to think of it as beautiful but on a purely aesthetic level, it is astonishingly beautiful. However, I am of the belief that there is nothing that is purely aesthetic. Everything carries content, even aesthetics.

Howard Zinn writes about being a bomber pilot and how the pilot does not see the hell he has unleashed below. It is a 5-mile high view of a very distanced and foreign place. Not until one is on the ground does one see the destruction. In the case of Hiroshima, there was almost total annihilation that one can see in the aerial military photographs after the bombing. However, total destruction still does not show you the melting skin and the multitudes made blind, the rivers running red with blood and no medicine to treat the victims so they rub ground bone ash into their open wounds. There must be something utterly and fundamentally seductive about war and the military or there would not be so many willing soldiers and workers on the war machine’s assembly line.

I felt (and still feel) a lot of shame and guilt over Hiroshima as an American. My taxes still go towards the military that rains down poisons and bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and we are all responsible for that, at least in part. While I was not born until 1965, 20 years after Little Boy instantly destroyed 70,000 lives and the city of Hiroshima, I still feel the need to “right history,” to apologize, make the peace, however small the gesture seems.

HairComb72Hair comb, cyanotype. elin O’Hara slavick. 


JSC: The title of your book is After Hiroshima. But the sense I got from viewing the extraordinary images is that there really is no “after” Hiroshima. That Hiroshima is always with us and will always be with us, exploding over and over again. Where you surprised when you viewed your own images by the radioactive traces of the bombing?

eos: Actually, yes, I was surprised by my own work as I made it appear. As the first cyanotype appeared in the bathtub rinse of water – the Eucalyptus Bark seen above – I cried. I could not believe the image I had made was of bark from an A-bombed tree near Hiroshima Castle (rebuilt after the bombing) and that the image was appearing in the dormitory where many military personnel, scientists and doctors once lived during their research at RERF. It felt subversive and covert, transformative and powerful.

And yes again to your observation that there is no real “after” Hiroshima, in the sense that it is over (as modernism is folded into post-modernism) just as there is no way to be in the time before Hiroshima. We are all living in a nuclear world. It will always be after Hiroshima. I write about the idea of after in the book, “After Hiroshima is made after the poetry that should never have been written after the holocaust; after everything that has been said and done in response to Hiroshima; not in imitation of; not in a post-modern sense of appropriation or beyond; in honor of Hiroshima and the people who disappeared and survived; against forgetting; as evidence, traces of the aftermath. There is no way to be in the before time before Hiroshima. ”

JSC: We hear a lot about American exceptionalism these days, usually from cheerleaders for the empire. Surely, one of the most malign applications of this concept is as a defense for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, we hear from US war strategists and nuclear apologists that these two horrific acts were necessary to bring the war to an early end and save both American and Japanese lives. Your thoughts?

eos: I was once almost unable to continue giving a lecture on my bomb drawings at the North Carolina Museum of Art because a man in the audience kept claiming, very loudly, that if “we hadn’t dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, millions more Americans would have been killed.” (He was eventually escorted out by security.) Even “experts” who once said that have recanted that claim. The Japanese were about to surrender. The U.S. government/military industrial complex wanted to drop the bombs to test them, to see what would happen, to use the product of so many expenditures and research and labor hours. The Japanese people were like lab mice to the American people making the decision. The fact that the U.S. interned American citizens of Japanese descent during the war is a strong indication that the U.S. did not see the Japanese people as fully human. (The question has been asked before, why did the U.S. not use the bomb against Hitler?)

I do not think any bombing leads to more peace. Any and all bombings lead to widows, orphans, a poisoned land, a vengeful population and more war. War leads to more war, every time, continuously. The exceptionalism of the U.S. is frightening – the only country to have used nuclear weapons against another nation (including depleted uranium weapons in Iraq), one of the world’s superpowers with one of the worst healthcare systems, a country where sexism, racism, homophobia and religious righteousness and bigotry are alive and well, where the Supreme court overturns the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional – something is very wrong with this picture. The twin towers in NYC were not destroyed because “they hate us because we are free.” They were destroyed for decades of a brutal and failed foreign policy, for the immeasurable destruction of so many countries and peoples in the name of democracy (really, it’s capitalism). I hate to say this and I’ve said it before, but I truly think that many Americans believe that an American life is worth more than any other nationally identified life. And many of these people call themselves Christian and refuse to realize that Jesus was a socialist. (I am on a rant here……we can cut this if you want.)

JSC: The nuclear weapons industry and the nuclear power industry have always been symbiotically linked. The Japanese have suffered more grievously than any other people from the nuclear beast.   I’ve always been mystified by the how enthusiastically the Japanese government and industry embraced nuclear power. Even in the wake of Fukushima, the government seems reluctant to shutter its nuclear plants. I’ve tended to think that there was a Freudian explanation: that we are subconsciously drawn to the things that we are most frightened by. We now have a major documentary film, titled Pandora, which is getting a lot of hype for promoting nuclear power as the last hedge against global warming.  Is there any kind of role for what Edward Teller used to call “atoms for peace?”

eos: I think it is important to make a distinction between  the government and the people (both here and there). Since Fukushima, there has been an enormous gain in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. Needless to say, the government is in denial and has acted despicably in response to Fukushima. When I was last there in 2011, after Fukushima, no one had air conditioners running even though it was stifling hot, in order to save energy. (Businesses would turn them on when I walked through the door.) Nuclear weapons could not be made without the nuclear power industry. I do not know the history of Japan’s decision to build nuclear power plants, but I would not be surprised if the U.S. played a role in it. “Atoms for peace”? No. The risk is too great and eternal. Solar power is a better hedge against global warming and does not come with the gigantic risk and threat of a nuclear accident.

JSC: The Japanese government appears to be becoming more bellicose by the week. There seems to be a nostalgia for the militaristic posture of the old Empire. Did you sense any of this while you were in Japan? Is this a longing that is shared by Japanese citizens?

eos: I do not speak any Japanese so I could not read the mood or political leanings of “the people”. All of the Japanese people I spoke with, in English, were adamantly anti-nuclear, anti-war, pro-peace, pro-diplomacy, and most of them were working very hard within and outside of institutions to bring about positive change.

JSC: I find much contemporary art tedious, self-conscious, imitative, apolitical and poorly crafted. Yet, you seem to pushing against the current. Your images are aggressively political and exquisitely made. Is there space for a political artist in a culture that seems to value only art as commodity?

eos: I also find much contemporary art tedious and poorly crafted, not to mention superficial, empty of meaning and purpose. Much of it plays the game of the capitalist art market. I have never been interested in art for art’s sake or art made primarily made for the market. That said, there are amazing and political contemporary artists who are quite successful – Alfredo Jaar, Hans Haacke, Doris Salcedo, Ischiuchi Miyako, Sue Coe, Thomas Hirschhorn, Mark Dion, Andrea Bowers, Jane Marsching, Brendon Ballengee, to name a few. Yes there is space for us, and there always has been. The Dadaists raged against the machine. Hieronymus Bosch was in a world of his own. Unfortunately art is treated and understood as a commodity much of the time, but there are many artists who do not consider the art market or their art as a commodity while they make it. I am 47 years old and have shown my work all over the world, mostly in non-profit, alternative spaces and a couple museums. I just landed my first solo show at a commercial gallery – Cohen Gallery, September 19 – November 2 in Los Angeles, CA – and I feel as if I can check off one of my life’s goals, that I have reached “success,” in the traditional sense. And maybe I have, but the show I had in the A-bombed bank in Hiroshima last year was one of the most intense and satisfying experiences I have ever had. Giving Noam Chomsky a personal tour of my show at the Global Education Center on UNC’s campus made me feel like I could die happy. Introducing Howard Zinn at Cooper Union for Emergency, an Italian organization providing medical care to victims of war, made me so proud and full of hope. If our culture only values art as a commodity, then we have to work and fight to change that by making work that transcends the art market, functions outside of it and acknowledges its position.

During the criminal bank bailouts I spontaneously organized a Bailout Biennial in an old tobacco warehouse in Durham, NC. There were 5o artists from across the country in the show and I had no funding. Over a thousand people came to the opening and it received rave reviews. Local curators from prestigious institutions told me that they wish they could mount exhibitions like that but their hands are tied due to far in advance scheduling and board of directors, etc.

The Match Game

Few things are more humiliating than begging for money. Personally, I’d rather be forced to re-read Finnegan’s Wake or, worse, Thomas Friedman’s latest column. But it’s an ordeal we must endure once a year because the subscription sales from our magazine simply can’t subsidize the thousands of articles we publish every year for free on the CounterPunch website. I checked the numbers this week and since we’ve been online we’ve published more than 45,000 articles and never once charged you for reading them. The CounterPunch website is a commons and we are striving to keep it that way.

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On Tour

I’ll be speaking at UC-Davis campus on Saturday, November 16 at 5 pm in the Social Sciences 1100 Lecture Hall.

And Daisy Cockburn, CounterPunch board chair Joe Paff and I will be speaking about Alexander Cockburn’s new book, A Colossal Wreck, at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco on Sunday, November 17 at 5 pm.

New Issue of CounterPunch Magazine!

The new issue of CounterPunch magazine, with the possible exception of my own desperate stab at a column, is a great read, from beginning to end. Peter Lee’s cover story on the NSA and Its Enablers is ground-breaking and disturbing; the irrepressible (and unrepentant Commie) Andre Vltchek contributes a vivid dispatch from the  vol20no10-tw.inddstreets of Cairo; Ron Jacobs, currently holed up in the mtns of Penn., conducts a probing interview with BillAyers;Lee Ballinger compares and contrasts James Brown and Jay Z; the wonderfully astute eye of Kim Nicolini surveys the films of the great director Andrea Arnold; Kristin Kolb continues her meditation on the politics of body parts, this time crossing her c’s, u’s and t’s (see 12th Night), JoAnn Wypijewski (clearly the intellectual in the house) reappraises the Occupy Movement; Mike Whitney charts how the bankers routed the regulators; Chris Floyd takes a heart-breaking trip into the Deep South to lay his mother’s ashes to rest; and yrs truly writes on the plight of hunger strikers in Guantanamo. The new cover of art, by Nick Roney, the Odilon Redon of Humboldt County, may be his most ingenious yet–we call it The Dark Side of the PRISM. Plus, there are some really funny letters to the editor…All this for $35 a year? They say that’s a bargain, the best you ever had…(Cue Pete Townshend power chord.)

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net