Joel LaGrou isn’t on Facebook

Joel at HomeIn my late teen years, my girlfriend Edy and I were not allowed at each others homes. Make of that what you will. So, we spent most of our time hanging out alongside a jogging path and workout course that wound around one of the urban creeks of Rohnert Park.

Among those we met there were Linda and Joel LaGrou. Joel was 7 or 8 years old and Linda was his 30-something mother. Joel’s mom was a student at Sonoma State University and a single parent. She was studying towards a Psych-Tech certificate of some sort, allowing her to work at Sonoma Developmental Center (Sonoma State Hospital).

Joel was whip-smart. I taught him how to play chess (not that I’m much of a chess player, as I don’t use or believe in en passant). In only a few games he was challenging my skill level and soon forcing stalemate and then beating me.

There were some times we lost touch for a year or two, but Linda did become a Psych-Tech and Joel did well in High School and took up saxophone.

We then lost touch for a few years… phone numbers and addresses changed… and I later re-met JL… when he was panhandling in Old Courthouse Square of downtown Santa Rosa. At that point Joel was going by the name of Smiley. I saw and spoke with Smiley over a few months in the summer of 1998 before he, again, vanished.

I’ve looked for my old friend many times. I’ve watched for him every time I am downtown in Santa Rosa. Frank Moraes, my wife, and the aforementioned Edy Giem have all heard me speak fondly of Joel—with not unfounded concern.

My search continued online. I found no record of his death (only that of his mom, Linda)… even looking for familiar descriptions in John Doe listings.
And, of course, there were attempts on Facebook. I was hoping he finally got SSI and was somehow online.

Today, Joel/Smiley/My old friend, found me…in a Dollar Tree store. I spoke to the odd looking person first. The stranger had an unusual assortment of items and I suggested picking up their new pack of mini screwdrivers, which the shopper found of great interest.

At the checkout, he asked me that thing my wife has grown to dread, “isn’t your name Will?”

Me at Joel's place

He’s going by Joel again. He said the street name thing associates him with gangs, in the eyes of the police… and that police is something he has dealt with quite a bit, these past 15 years. Well, those were the intelligible things that were said. Lots of catch phrases and facial contortions I had known his mother to be plagued with… patterns I am familiar with through the multitude of mental patients I have met in my use of public transit. So, when Mr. LaGrou told me he has a place to stay and I am welcome to come over, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then again, when he led me to his home under a bridge, I was not surprised.

This story has a bi-line of the pending closure of the last of the mental hospitals in California. The facility here in Sonoma County, Sonoma State Hospital, is where Joel’s mother eventually worked and where he has stayed himself, from time to time. Now, those who are not judged dangerous enough to keep locked up (criminally insane) and who don’t qualify for group homes or independent living, may be driven to find their own bridge, gully, hovel, cardboard shanty…

I am not arguing that locking up men, who find themselves as lost in society as they are in their minds, is the answer or even an answer. I don’t think I can provide a weightful opinion in the matter. I just feel that such closures limits the levels and types of support and treatment that can be prescribed.

This writing and photos are included with verbal permission by subject himeself, Joel LaGrou. I love him, miss him and hope someday he is truly found.

Republicans Are a Cult More Than a Party

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait wonders if any positive information about Obamacare can get through the conservative media blackout, Someone Tell Ted Cruz the Obamacare War Is Over. He isn’t alone; a lot of people wonder how it can be that in conservativeworld, all the news is bad. But this is just more of liberal commentators thinking that the conservative movement is just like any other political movement. It is best to think of modern conservatism as cult.

Regardless of what kind of healthcare reform had been implemented, liberals would have been hopefully optimistic that it would work. Most liberals are not that keen on Obamacare, but even if they had gotten the single payer system that they wanted, they would have watched closely to see how it was doing. They would have been pretty sure that it was going to work well, but they would have been ultimately constrained by the facts on the ground.

Conservatives are quite different. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that conservative opinion leaders are quite different. They don’t think that conservative policies are the best; they know. So when it comes to Obamacare, they are sure it is going to be bad. They don’t need the random bit of positive data to confuse the issue. Anyway, what makes a policy the best is not what works the best as most people would define it. The attack on Obamacare is not even about the ridiculous notion that it will deprive people of “freedom” by making them change their healthcare. (It doesn’t do that, anyway, not that it matters.) They aren’t even against it because of their generalized hatred of poor people who the program helps. They are against the program because it raises taxes a small amount on the wealthy.

So Chait may think that lower individual premiums is a good thing. He may think that reduced long-term Medicare spending projections is great. He may think that tens of millions of people getting health insurance is wonderful. And I agree with him! We ought to be dancing in the street. But none of these things cut the taxes of the rich, who it turns out already have really good healthcare. So there really is no good news on the Obamacare front.

What conservatives write in the National Review and the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal are not what the conservative elite actually think. Those articles are for the conservatives in the pews. They are the official conservative line for dissemination to the little conservatives who are by and large not well served by the movement they support. There is a pathway for this misinformation: Wall Street Journal opinion page to Rush Limbaugh to the dittoheads. As awful as those dittoheads are, they aren’t going to be so easily led if Rush was telling them, “We need to let the poor die so the rich can be free to not pay a penny more in taxes.” And part of the problem is that we liberals don’t call out the conservative movement for what it is. We need to stop pretending they actually function as a normal political movement. It is all about the people believing the Truth brought to them by the elites. It is all faith-based down low, but at the top, the elites have very sensible reasons for their beliefs.

Obama’s Milquetoast Presidency

Caspar MilquetoastDigby asked a good question, Who Are the Austerians Anyway? She never really answers the question, but does point out one very prominent austerian: President Obama. She takes us back to February 2009—Just one month after taking office—Obama was already talking about cutting entitlement programs. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who reads this site. Obama is now and has always been a New Democrat and that means on economic issues, he is conservative.

In 2008 the economy was exploding. People were very upset. The crisis was the result of decades of uninterrupted conservative economic policy. The people wanted a change! So who did they vote into office? A moderate who was committed to lead like Bill Clinton—the prototypical New Democrat who enacted much of the legislation that directly caused the financial crisis. He allowed Glass–Steagall to be repealed and re-nominated Alan Greenspan, the man most responsible for the housing bubble that caused the crisis. I don’t think the people voting for “hope and change” were hoping for a change back to the president before Bush. But that’s all they got.

Right now, Japan has Shinzo Abe as prime minister. He appears to be a loose cannon. There is much about him that I don’t like. But because he doesn’t care about how things are normally done, he is doing for the Japanese economy what others were too conventional to do. Of course, that conventional thinking was not textbook economics. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was conventional in the sense that everyone all over the world was doing it, even though it was doing no good and causing great harm. If half the leaders of the world decided to kill themselves by jumping off a cliff, apparently the other half would do the same thing. Abe is one of those rare leaders who doesn’t go along and as a result, Japan is finally getting some good fiscal and monetary policy.

Digby is correct that Obama didn’t pivot to the budget deficit (in the middle of the worst economic downturn in generations) because the Republicans won big in 2010. He didn’t pivot at all. He was always the defender of the power elite, so the deficit was always primary in his mind. Liberals are so inclined to cut Obama slack and act as if the only reason he ever does anything bad is because he is forced to. But that’s just not true. Obama is simply not that much of a liberal when it comes to economic issues. He certainly does want to do things to help the economy, but he also wants to cut spending. And his “threading the needle” approach to policy is often particularly bad. For example, he wants to cut entitlements in exchange for raising taxes. That’s doubly bad for the economy.

What we needed in 2008 is the same thing that we will need in 2016: an actual economic liberal in the White House. But because we will have had 8 years of a Caspar Milquetoast presidency, we may end up with some conservative whackjob. The positive aspect of that is that he won’t be much more conservative on economic issues than Obama.

Neoliberalism’s Attack on Democracy

Robert W. McChesneyA vibrant political culture needs community groups, libraries, public schools, neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provde ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market uber alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.

In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future.

—Robert W. McChesney
Introduction to Profit Over People

The Very Giving Shel Silverstein

Shel SilversteinOn this day in 1683, the great Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau was born. He was also a music theorist. This did not get in the way of the art of his work. But it did allow him to push the bounds of the music of the time. A good example of this is the second Trio des Parques in Hippolyte et Aricie:

The great writer William Faulkner was born in 1897. He was an amazing and complex writer. And he really deserved to win this day. But here’s the thing: I don’t enjoy his fiction. I admire it. I wish that I had a small fraction of his talent. But his vision of the world is so unrelentingly negative. I don’t think he was a very happy person. Regardless, it is easy to get lost in his books, and we are all the better for his work.

Other birthdays: film director Robert Bresson (1901); the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906); alleged spy Ethel Rosenberg (1915); Christopher Reeve (1952); Married couple Michael Douglas (69) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (44) share a birthday; Mark Hamill (62); and Will Smith (45).

The day, however, belongs to the poet and humorist Shel Silverstein who was born on this day in 1930. He is generally considered a children’s writer, but he didn’t see himself that way and neither do I. To me, he is a guy who wrote stuff for people like me. Silverstein was extremely clever with an unconstrained but very positive id. But his work was also broad. He wrote the hyperactive silliness of Where the Sidewalk Ends and the sweetly profound The Giving Tree and social satire in songs like “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” and “A Boy Named Sue.” Here is the short film The Giving Tree read by Silverstein:

Happy birthday Shel Silverstein!