Introduction Part V

Public policies regarding social issues almost always originate at the grassroots level, not the federal level. Yet with a national election coming up, those issues take center stage as usual, even though they’ll almost certainly not play a significant role in the subsequent term. Why might that be the case? I think that’s how the media keeps the masses engaged in the process, enamored with coverage of the political “horse race.” I also think that’s how candidates fire up their base and keep people from realizing that moneyed interests rule the roost. I don’t mean to say so-called wedge issues are unimportant (civil rights issues certainly do matter), but they do sometimes serve as distractions.

There will be talk of “illegal immigration” without any discussion of undoing “free trade” agreements that lead to the mass migration so many love to complain about (and let’s not pretend race doesn’t play a role). Here is a paper that you don’t need to read in its entirety to understand the relationship. Basically, when you flood another country with a relatively inexpensive subsidized good, you are going to put inhabitants of that country out of business. When people lose their livelihood, what do you suppose might happen? What would you do? I’m supposed to get upset because people aren’t observing some arbitrary border (a border that forms a nation that was built on the genocide of an indigenous population, the enslavement of another population and the outright theft of resources)? Give me a break. Furthermore, no viable, corporate-approved candidate is going to be taking a meaningful stance on the issues of imperialism, the excessively wasteful but profitable “War on Drugs”, domestic and global poverty, Medicare for all, climate change, etc. (where are the “budget hawks” on those issues?). Even if a candidate did, bear in mind that rhetoric is not policy.

Simply put, the notion that the two major national political parties in the US are greatly divided is a myth spawned by a trillion-dollar propaganda industry. An example of just how effective the propaganda is (and I’m including the mis-education of the formal education system), consider how the average US citizen vastly overestimates certain US expenditures and vastly underestimates others. Foreign aid constitutes about 1 percent of the federal budget, but surveys (click here) demonstrate that the various segments of the population – based on educational attainment – believe foreign aid accounts for anywhere between 15 and 45 (OMG, as the kids say) percent of the budget. From another article from World Public Opinion:

The fact that the number of Americans who favor lower defense spending rises so dramatically with more complete information about the size of the defense budget strongly suggests that most Americans do not have this information. Indeed, when I have conducted focus groups and described the make-up of the federal budget, they often express astonishment at the relative share devoted to defense.”

I don’t think I’d be out of line in suggesting that a majority of people who complain about federal government spending don’t have a clue how the federal government is spending. If you encounter someone who fits that description, show them this pie chart (who doesn’t like pie, right?). Both mainstream media outlets and schools are failing miserably to fulfill their duty.

But don’t you still think it’s important to support whichever candidate or party you believe is the least bad, I could be asked. I admit that I might be tempted to cast a vote for Obama if I lived in a so-called “battleground state,” especially given the recent influence of the Tea Party – a reincarnation of the John Birch Society of the 20th century – on the Republican Party. Even then, I wouldn’t waste any real energy on national politics. The aforementioned Noam Chomsky recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now that Obama is “at least somewhere in the real world.” He went on to describe the views expressed by the clown car of 2012 GOP candidates as being “off the international spectrum of sane behavior.” I don’t watch television, but I’ve listened to enough guests on BBC when I’ve been in Canada, as well as on Democracy Now, and read enough foreign newspaper articles to gather that’s a pretty fair assessment of how the international community views the likes of Santorum and Romney. At least the portion of the global population that isn’t so focused on survival that it can give a rip about a US election. But, again, rhetoric designed to suggest that voters have a clear choice is not policy. That point really can’t be overemphasized. Saying and doing are two different things. And corporations rule the day regardless of who occupies the White House. That would seem to be a legitimate reason for being angry. Yet I frequently encounter anger over trivial matters or stories that simply aren’t true. And I’m talking about stories that really ought to be transparent – no Snopes required.

Anyway, what’s the problem with lesser evilism? I think Andrew Levine hit the proverbial nail on the head:

“Lesser evilism is ultimately illogical because evil choices can and do affect future choices in ways that make the lesser evil down the road worse than the greater evil now is.”

I know some think “evil” is hyperbolic, but remember that the end result is the murder of innocent civilians (be it through sanctions like those that began in the 1990s that led to the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi children, drone attacks, or through resource wars), as well as the further destruction of the natural environment upon which every species on Earth depends. It’s been said that killing 1 person is murder and that killing 100,000 people is foreign policy. This isn’t a game, folks. We’re talking about life and death, and I for one don’t believe there is life after this one. Being far removed from and desensitized to state-sanctioned murder doesn’t make it any less of a reality. What I think, based on personal experience, can be most difficult for privileged people to accept is the unfortunate reality that we’re complicit in the suffering of others. Naturally, unless you have some clinical pathology, you want to believe you aren’t harming others. And it’s easy to believe that’s the case when so many day-to-day decisions only have an indirect impact on people you never see, or on the global ecosystem.

Let me make it clear that I don’t think Romney or Obama or the latter’s predecessors are evil. I also don’t think I’m akin to Charles Manson because I use a disproportionate percentage of the world’s resources in spite of my efforts to live more simply, nor do I suppose those of you reading this blog are evil. It’s the system. Empires do what empires do, and those of us who inhabit the US Empire – from the President on down – each play a role. I suggest we need to think more deeply about those roles.

What I’ve just written might be perceived as conspiratorial. I am not a conspiracy theorist. Grand conspiracies are far too convoluted to be taken seriously. I’ll quote Vietnam Veteran Stan Goff from his excellent piece titled, The Roles of Finance, Food, and Force in US Foreign Policy:

In saying this, I am obliged to clear up a common misunderstanding of what this means and what I mean to say. It is easy to jump from the very general outline I have presented of three aspects of US foreign policy – finance, food, and force – to the conclusion that I mean to say, or that these facts tend to support the idea that, there is a conscious group of the conspiring powerful who direct the world. On the contrary, I want to emphasize that this system has evolved through a series of contingencies, and that its stability is maintained precisely because it is what some systems theorists call self-organized. It’s most powerful actors are in many ways as constrained, or more constrained, by neo-neo-liberalism – or whatever you choose to call this particular period – than most of us are. President Obama is far less free, for example, to say the kinds of things I can say here as an unemployed grandfather.

I, on the other hand, do not have the legal power to send US troops to war, or to call them home.

We each play our parts, and while some conspiracies have always been part of the terrain of politics, they are generally reactive, and far less determinative of large-scale outcomes than, say, changes in the built environment, demographic shifts, or institutional inertia. Many of the most pivotal events in history emerge unexpectedly from long-standing trends that have gone unnoticed or ignored until they reach a breaking point – the 2008 housing bubble crash being a good recent example.”

We humans have invented these hierarchal, machine-like institutions that come to rule our lives, that essentially dehumanize their creators. Perfectly nice and frequently compassionate people will blithely accept as inevitable and unavoidable that billions – with a ‘b’ – of fellow humans will lack basic necessities for survival, that a person dies from hunger-related causes every few seconds, attributing those realities to a lack of personal responsibility or to a few bad apples charged with running “third world” nations (nevermind the acceptance that there is a “third world” – in which most humans live no less). As George Kennan, architect of the Marshall Plan, wrote in 1948:

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

Perhaps more of us should question how this acceptance occurs. Perhaps when we fail to see how what one might call “the problems of the world” are interrelated, we end up too focused on symptoms instead of working to expose and then combat the underlying causes. Perhaps we’re too afraid to discover that the way we “first worlders” have come to live is a primary cause. Yes, the land mass we call the US has some inherent advantages that many other nations do not have and that by itself accounts for some disparity. But the stealth of resources from other nations, the misuse and overuse of resources, and a failure to share resources greatly exacerbates the inequity.

As the late great Howard Zinn said, the world is topsy-turvy. Members of Food Not Bombs in Orlando were arrested for feeding homeless people in a park, but nobody involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster spent a single day in jail. Whistleblowers get punished, while the whistleblown receive bonuses. Or, as Zinn put it in an essay on civil obedience, an undue respect for “the law:”

I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down. Daniel Berrigan is in jail-A Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war-and J. Edgar Hoover is free, you see. David Dellinger, who has opposed war ever since he was this high and who has used all of his energy and passion against it, is in danger of going to jail. The men who are responsible for the My Lai massacre are not on trial; they are in Washington serving various functions, primary and subordinate, that have to do with the unleashing of massacres, which surprise them when they occur. At Kent State University four students were killed by the National Guard and students were indicted. In every city in this country, when demonstrations take place, the protesters, whether they have demonstrated or not, whatever they have done, are assaulted and clubbed by police, and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Now, I have been studying very closely what happens every day in the courts in Boston, Massachusetts. You would be astounded-maybe you wouldn’t, maybe you have been around, maybe you have lived, maybe you have thought, maybe you have been hit-at how the daily rounds of injustice make their way through this marvelous thing that we call due process. Well, that is my premise.

All you have to do is read the Soledad letters of George Jackson, who was sentenced to one year to life, of which he spent ten years, for a seventy-dollar robbery of a filling station. And then there is the U.S. Senator who is alleged to keep 185,000 dollars a year, or something like that, on the oil depletion allowance. One is theft; the other is legislation. something is wrong, something is terribly wrong when we ship 10,000 bombs full of nerve gas across the country, and drop them in somebody else’s swimming pool so as not to trouble our own. So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.”

In the final installment of my introduction, I’ll get into labels and the phenomenon known as neoliberalism that has dominated the US for decades.

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Introduction Part IV

What are my “politics?” The World English Dictionary says politics is the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power.” I like that, and it speaks to what I think this blog will be largely about. For now, though, I’ll do my best to explain the rather complicated evolution of my ‘party politics’.

I was not comfortable with certain opinions expressed by the “Christian Conservative” viewpoint that I was exposed to growing up, but I also didn’t spend much time thinking about those opinions. Not until I was in my early 20s did I even begin to identify with a particular political party, and back then I was barely aware that more than two political parties existed. After studying the platforms of both major parties, I became a registered Democrat and remained as such into my late 20s. I rather quickly went from apolitical to a politics junkie, closely following polls and news coverage. My focus was on the national scene. The more politically-minded I became the more frustrated I got with my party of choice. The pro-war “blue dogs” and those who argued they had to avoid “looking weak when it came to national defense” were pissing me off. I wanted the closing of tax loopholes, and a return to a more progressive income tax system (maybe even like the one under Eisenhower in the 1950s when the middle class was growing). I expected a stronger defense of social welfare and a denunciation of corporate welfare, including so-called “free trade” policies that suppress wages and exploit the impoverished. I also longed for a more passionate defense of abortion rights, equal pay for women, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and a stronger opposition to religious zealots in general. I discovered that others felt just as frustrated.

Though initially inspired by the rhetoric of a charismatic Barack Obama, whose neighborhood, incidentally, I lived in when I taught in Chicago, I began reading articles posted to the Dissident Voice website and the comments section that followed each piece. And I sought out books by the likes of Chomsky that detailed US acts of imperialism, including the support financially and militarily of a long list of ruthless dictators. The term “plutocracy” – government for the wealthy by the wealthy – entered my vocabulary. I started to see that Democrats were more complicit than spineless, that both major political parties were beholden to largely the same interests. For instance, according to the website Open Secrets, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup were three of the top seven “contributors” to both McCain and Obama in 2008. They sure like to hedge their bets, don’t they? Does anyone think those contributions don’t come with strings attached, or doubt that whoever occupies the White House is going to be tied to those strings? To say nothing of the revolving door between corporations and holders of public office, including key members of the White House staff. Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Agri-business – and transnational corporations more generally – are the ones running the show. A military industrial complex, a prison industrial complex, for-profit health insurance companies and other incredibly corrupt institutions have enormous influence on public policy.

I don’t think the basic premise of what I wrote above should come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. Here are 5 articles that aided in my awakening:

  1. The Sorrows of Race and Gender in the 2008 Election
  2. Candidate Taboos 
  3. Incarceration Nation: The Rise of a Prison-Industrial Complex
  4. 9/11 & Bush are Distractions from a People’s Revolt from Below
  5. Arrogance, Ignorance and Cowardice

Similar to #2, but written long after I gave up on the Democratic Party, is a piece titled, Thank You Arlen Specter.

Now, when I saw tears fall from the eyes of Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, as Obama made his victory speech on the night of the ’08 election, I got a bit choked up myself. But that had less to do with the man I hadn’t voted for (my protest vote went to Cynthia McKinney, who defeated Ralph Nader in my coin flip) and more to do with my admiration for John Lewis. Make no mistake, I appreciated the historic moment, so much so that I celebrated by getting engaged that night. But I was determined to vote for those who reflected my values rather than support the lesser evil, and believing then that one must identify with some party, I became a registered Green.

I must admit that I find the “centrist” position – when used in reference to the US’s two dominant political parties  – to be rather naive. Consider this graph from the Political Compass website. The sorts of questions asked in political ideology surveys upon which that graph is based are flawed in the sense that they don’t allow for much, if any, nuance. And those that only ask a handful of questions, or ask you to identify with just a handful of statements, are virtually worthless. Even Political Compass’s “test,” in spite of being relatively thorough, doesn’t allow for refinement. Open-ended questionnaires and discussions are more useful, but they make it more difficult to compare and contrast for the purposes of drawing conclusions about a person’s stance (heaven forbid we not know precisely how to label an individual). With that said, I think the graph I referenced above does a decent enough job of expressing where various 2012 US Presidential candidates – some of whom, of course, have dropped out of the running – are in relation to one another. There simply isn’t much breathing room, making a “centrist” position more than just confusing. If you look at the 2008 graph, you find greater dispersement, though not as much as some might expect (it’s still right wing vs. far right wing). But, remember, that was based largely on campaign rhetoric and Obama’s brief Senatorial career. The last three plus years of actual governance have closed the gap. And what’s the previous Democratic POTUS up to these days? You can read about how he’s still party to screwing people left and right.

Chris Hedges, who writes a weekly column for the Truthdig website, has written very eloquently on the corporate takeover of the US. Listen to Chris speaking to Veterans for Peace. At around the 34-minute mark, Hedges draws a distinction between “revolution” and “rebellion” that is worth thinking about. Revolution, he says, is about “establishing a new power structure.” Rebellion is about “perpetual revolt and the permanent alienation from power.” He goes on to say, “it is only in a state of rebellion that we can hold fast to moral imperatives that prevent a descent into tyranny.” Two books of his that I highly, highly recommend are Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. You can also find him discussing those books and other topics on YouTube.

To wrap up this post, I thought I’d share a quote from Major General Smedley Darlington Butler of the U.S. Marine Corp., who was the most decorated soldier at the time of his death. I think this quote demonstrates that plutocracy isn’t a new phenomenon, even if the corporatocracy of today has taken it to new heights:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents” (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/253269).

In part five, I’ll be writing about what does separate Democrats and Republicans, and why it doesn’t amount to much.

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Introduction Part III

I won’t spend much time on my career as a classroom teacher, but this introductory series of posts is all about setting the stage, and my experiences with formal education played a role behind the stage. After spending a year teaching in South Chicago, a year and a half teaching in an Oregon juvenile detention center (where, ironically, I had more freedom as a teacher than I had anywhere else) and about three years substitute teaching in about twenty different Oregon schools, I was fed up with the education system. Dull mandatory curricula intended to “meet standards,” overcrowded classrooms, and the doing away with opportunities for creative outlets so as to spend even more time preparing kids for standardized exams was more than I cared to bear.

Deborah Meier and others have written thorough critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act, which I’d suggest any parent of a young child may want to consider reading (you can click on the cartoon to read a short critique of NCLB). And it’s worth listening to the broad critique offered earlier this year by the renowned Noam Chomsky of MIT. Perhaps the most pointed attack of the US education system that I’ve come across was made by John Taylor Gatto, as stated in a review of one of his books. The reviewer, Ron Miller, wrote the following:

“And here is the crux of Gatto’s critique: in the past 125 years, social engineers have sought to keep American life under tight central control. Compulsory schooling is a deliberate effort to establish intellectual, economic, and political conformity so that society can be managed efficiently by a technocratic elite. ‘School, claims Gatto, is an artifice that makes…a pyramidal social order seem inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution’ (p. 13). Along with the media – especially television, which Gatto criticizes harshly in another essay – schooling removes young people from any genuine experience of community, any genuine engagement with the world or immersion in lasting relationships. It robs them of solitude and privacy. Yet these experiences are what enable us to develop self-knowledge and to grow up ‘fully human,’ argues Gatto.”

Miller goes on to quote Gatto:

“If, for instance, an A average is accounted the central purpose of adolescent life – the requirements for which take most of the time and attention of the aspirant – and the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or defeat in this abstract pursuit, then a social machine has been constructed which, by attaching purpose and meaning to essentially meaningless and fantastic behavior, will certainly dehumanize students…(p. 62).”

 

I came to the realization that doing away with disparities between schools was not anywhere close to being sufficient. A complete overhaul of the education system was called for. There are what are known as democratic (small ‘d’) schools, where students largely determine the path their studies take and every member of the school has a say in how the school is run, but such schools are few and far between. So, I have suspended my teaching career indefinitely.

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Introduction Part II

Needing a change of scenery, I ended up moving to Oregon for grad school. It was there that I read in a multicultural education class (you know, the sort of class that I guess has been outlawed in the state of Arizona) Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. For a lengthier list of white privilege’s daily effects and other useful handouts, click here. It wasn’t difficult to recognize the obvious link between racism and underprivileged status. What McIntosh helped me recognize was that being white (to say nothing of being male, able-bodied, heterosexual, and so on) gave me undue advantages, that there were so many things I can and do take for granted in a white supremacist, patriarchal, heterosexist society. This includes the benefit of not having to deal with the psychological and physiological impact racism can have on people. You can read a bit about that here. Imagine standing at the starting line for a 200-yard dash. Now, think of racism as people of color being forced to start 100 yards behind the starting line. And think of white privilege as allowing the white folks to start 100 yards in front of the starting line. If you’re a gamer, which I am not, you might appreciate this analogy.

If you’re still unsure if you buy into this whole overprivilege thing, I urge you to read the works of Tim Wise. I’d start with White Like Me and then read Speaking Treason Fluently. You can also listen to one of his talks via YouTube or his website. He does such an excellent job of detailing examples of white privilege, and addressing the arguments put forth by white privilege deniers. Here are 3 examples: #1, #2 and #3.

For two more short pieces on white privilege, I recommend Shining the Light on White by Sharon Martinas, and a recent article by Joyce Clark Hicks. Though I don’t envision devoting many future posts to white (over)privilege, per se, it helped lay a path toward my reclamation of humanity, or resistance to dehumanization. If an overprivileged person fails to recognize his or her overprivilege, believing merit alone rules the day, that person may not fully accept the importance of thinking globally and acting locally. Future posts will certainly be devoted to discussing why that maxim is so important.

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Introduction Part I

In essence, this is a blog about reclaiming humanity. It’s about readings and observations, past and present. It’s about how I’m living and how I hope to live. It’s about permaculture and sustainability. It’s about what it means to think globally and act locally. It’s about my effort to live more simply as a form of rebellion. And it allows me to vent when I feel the need.

But how did I come to find important what I find important? I wish to start this blog with a 6-part introduction about my 34-year journey up to this point. Throughout you will find links – a lot of links – and following those links will most certainly make it easier to grasp where I’m coming from. It’s a lot of material. Material that helped shape who I am. Note that some links will be to Wikipedia pages only because Wiki can be a good starting point, and not because I think Wikipedia is the be all end all source. I try not to write too much about that which you can read for yourself, so as to keep these introductory posts from being even longer than they already are. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

Perhaps it seems strange or possibly kind of sad, but there isn’t that much to say about the first two decades of my life. I was obsessed with sports, an only child, apolitical, sheltered from the harsh realities many face, and a member of an especially odd denomination of Christianity, which I’ve long since abandoned. What else? Well, I was born a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male who would be raised ‘middle class’ in a Midwestern suburb of the wealthiest, most imperialistic nation on Earth. Might that be an important recognition? I tend to think so. After all, would my life have not been appreciably different if even just one of those traits had been altered somehow?

My private school education – with assistance from corporate/mainstream media – indoctrinated me with the standard myths of American exceptionalism, failed to teach evolutionary biology and never encouraged me to read anything too controversial. But I wouldn’t say I was any less prepared for so-called higher education than your average public school attendee. I’ve been about as overprivileged as one can be.

“Underprivileged” is a fairly common term. It stands to reason, therefore, that there are those who are “overprivileged.” Still, it is an unfamiliar term for many and was for me until I was well into my 20s. First, I had to be made aware of underprivilege.

Like many others I’m sure, I can recall getting incensed when exposed as a youngster to footage of civil rights abuses, such as those iconic images of white law enforcers turning their vicious dogs and fire hoses against black folks. That same sense of anger returned when researching death penalty statistics for a speech and debate class in college. Let’s just say it’s very apparent that the (in)justice system is – like so many other institutions – fraught with racism. It was that assignment that prompted me to research other social issues, which brought an end to my days of being an apolitical person.

Not sure what I wanted to do upon graduating from college, I settled on immediately returning to school to become a teacher. My post-graduate program allowed me to make sure teaching was really what I wanted to do by having me visit several area schools, starting with a suburban school not far from my childhood home. As soon as I stepped foot on the campus of a City of St. Louis middle school, I was seeing first-hand what Jonathan Kozol called “the restoration of apartheid schooling in America.” From a lack of a sufficient number of textbooks, no more than a couple of computers and dilapidated facilities, I was witnessing staggering disparities between urban and suburban schools.

In Part II of my introduction, I’ll tell you about how I became formally acquainted with the concept of white privilege, a form of overprivilege.

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