Honoring the wisdom of Native Americans on Thanksgiving

Before I understood the real history behind the American tradition of Thanksgiving, I used to just innocently enjoy the chance to gather with family and friends to share a delicious meal.

I believed the story taught to me in grade school, about how the Pilgrims and their Native hosts sat down to a feast together, and lived happily ever after.

Such innocence, once lost, is impossible to recapture.

Now I know that the same Pilgrims who gave thanks for their delivery from starvation by the generous Native people of the region that would come to be known as New England would be the ones to turn on their benefactors and do their utmost to exterminate them.

My own ancestors were still fighting their own battles back in Europe at this time, but as an American, this is a shameful legacy that I need to confront and acknowledge.

As I wrote in my Thanksgiving post last year, the holiday of Thanksgiving should really be more of a day of atonement than a celebration of abundance, especially as we begin to realize that the abundance of food and natural resources that Americans have enjoyed over the past 500 years is not endless.

As we hit up against the limits to growth predicted years ago by Donella Meadows and others, we must recognize that the Native peoples who were so unceremoniously shoved aside during the Conquest of the Americas had so much more to offer Europeans than corn, squash, beans and turkey.

Indigenous worldviews, the world over, privilege balance over growth and accumulation, and this is the wisdom we need to pay attention to now.

Some argue that such a conservative position would not support the kind of technological innovation in which Europeans have excelled.

But I would ask whether our technological innovations have succeeded in making us happy as a culture, or as individuals within our culture?

Isn’t it true that the vast majority of our technological inventions have been used to foment and practice ever-more violent warfare?

Even our vaunted advances in medicine are primarily used, these days, to try to heal us from the sicknesses and imbalances our own technological inventions have afflicted upon us, by the poisoning of our food, air, water and earth with toxic chemicals and the byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

This image, from the PBS series “American Experience,” depicts members of the Wampanoag tribe meeting a white settler.

Before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and started their inexorable push west, the indigenous people living here were happy, healthy, strong and long-lived.  They enjoyed the abundant food stocks of the ocean, rivers and forests, and lived in harmony with the land.

Yes, there were territorial skirmishes, but there were also strong intertribal councils and confederations, in many cases led by matriarchs who valued peace and did not want to lose their sons and grandsons to needless warfare.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the Native peoples of this continent are still with us, despite all the brutality visited upon them by the European conquerors.

This Thanksgiving, I pray that all Americans begin to honor indigenous people as they deserve to be honored, by giving credence to the Native value of harmony with the Earth, and actually trying to live it.

Privilege, Difference and the Challenge of Creating a “Beloved Community”

The recent Presidential election showed in concrete terms that the demograhics of the United States are shifting quickly.  The old majority of people of European descent (“Caucasians”) is rapidly shrinking to minority status in numerical terms, although white folks retain a lock on the gears of power and privilege so far in this country.

How do white folks continue to maintain dominance?

The key is still education.

When my Eastern European Jewish forebears came to the US through Ellis Island back at the turn of the 20th century, the adults in the family spoke no English, but they were hardworking and ambitious for their children to assimilate and succeed.

One of my great-grandfathers fixed sewing machines on the Lower East Side; another great-grandmother sold fish wrapped in newspaper on the street to support her children.

Within a generation, the children of these immigrants were living the middle-class American dream, and their children did even better, becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.

My grandmother, a first-generation American whose mother tongue, before entering kindergarten, was Yiddish, got her B.A. and Masters in biology from Hunter College, and became a high school biology teacher.  Her son, my father, graduated from Oberlin and NYU and became a successful professional.  I followed the pattern and got my Ph.D.

This is what’s known in Americanese as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

What is too often unacknowledged is how the privilege accorded to whiteness in America has helped families like mine succeed.

It starts with where you are able to live, because property taxes still determine the quality of the primary and secondary education you’ll receive.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were a lot of places in the U.S. where Jews weren’t welcome, including many selective colleges and universities.

But just like the Irish and the Italians, soon enough Jews became “white,” and that was all that mattered—they were welcome in all but the snootiest bastions of American WASP-dom, and their privileges were helped along by the exclusion of others.

The color of one’s skin still matters in this country.  We still live in largely segregated neighborhoods, and thus most of our children attend largely segregated schools.

And they’re not “separate but equal” schools either.  They are, as Jonathan Kozol so eloquently documented, deeply unequal schools, where children with darker skin tones—who are often the most in need of support–are given less, financially and  intellectually.

The fight over “race-blind” college admissions is so fraught because what tends to happen without any affirmative action policy for Americans of color is that the people with the best “grooming” win out, and the best-groomed high school seniors tend to be those from affluent families, living in affluent neighborhoods, going to affluent schools.

As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, “Those from the top fifth of households in income are at least seven times as likely to go to selective colleges as those in the bottom fifth. The achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is almost twice as wide as between whites and blacks,” and “blacks and Hispanics are also substantially underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.”

***

All this is on my mind today because of a recent stir at the college where I teach, which has made a strong effort over the past decade to recruit more students from under-represented groups.

We have more people of color on the campus today than we’ve ever had, which should be a cause for celebration.

But this semester has brought some simmering tensions to the surface, showing how difficult it can be to put a group of passionate young people together on a campus and expect them to “just get along.”

The flashpoint this semester was Diversity Day, a day started several years ago by a group of disgruntled students who felt that not enough time was spent during regular classes focusing on issues of social diversity.

Students, staff and faculty organized workshop classes on a range of topics related to the experience of marginalized groups in America, and theories and praxes of social justice.

The day was so successful that it was subsequently institutionalized, with regular classes cancelled and all students required to attend at least three workshops.

This year, an influential group of students decided they were going to “boycott” Diversity Day.  Many of them were the student leaders of workshops, which meant that they were actually sabotaging their own event.

They took this extreme measure because they were angry at what they perceived as a lack of strong response from the college administration to the provocation of a student who questioned not just the value of diversity day, but the value of diversity itself in American society.

This student distributed posters on campus asking students to “Take the Diversity Challenge” by answering the following question: “Name 5 benefits of Diversity (besides ethnic food and music).”

His challenge was taken as a white supremacist assault on students who wear the mantle of diversity with pride, and he did not do much to dispel that perception, according to students who said he also sent them a link to a You-Tube talk by Jared Taylor, the controversial founder of the New Century Foundation and editor of its American Renaissance magazine.

The anti-discrimination watchdog organization Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on Taylor, says that he “regularly publishes proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racists,” and also “hosts a conference every other year where racist intellectuals rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”

In the video link shared on our campus, Taylor argues that because there is often friction when you put different social groups into close proximity (and he’s especially attentive to different racial groups)—say, in neighborhoods or schools or college campuses—the better thing to do is to back away and re-segregate, thereby eliminating the sources of tension.

This attitude is wrong on so many levels that I find it hard to know where to start.

Besides the obvious truth that race is just an illusion, as far as a real biological marker of human difference, it’s also true that ghetto-izing certain individuals, for whatever reason, has never been a good social strategy in the past, and it won’t work now.

We don’t want a balkanized, fearful, hateful America any more than we want a bland, homogenized America.

We want a society where, as Audre Lorde put it, “difference [is] not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

In her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde continued: “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being” (Sister Outsider, 111-12).

***

Audre Lorde

At my college, we like to say that we teach “critical thinking skills,” by which we mean that we encourage students to question authority and think for themselves.

We shouldn’t be surprised or upset, then, when they do just that by questioning our own institutional authority.

The students who organized the Diversity Day boycott this year—many of them women of color–were angry that a student advocating white supremacy was allowed to remain in our campus community.

While the administration deliberated over whether this student presented any danger to the community, and whether his words had crossed the line into hate speech, they said, they felt unsafe and unheard.

So they staged a protest, quite in keeping with Audre Lorde’s injunction to “transform silence into language and action.”

“I have come to believe,” Lorde says, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  She urges her readers to ask themselves “What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? ….We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid” of speaking out.

But, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….

“It is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, 41-44).

On our campus, Diversity Day originated as an attempt to break the silences between different social groups, including students, faculty and administration, in the cause of mutual understanding and communication.

But this year, it was the boycott that spoke loudest, and what it said, loud and clear, was that there are still so many silences to be broken.

Speaking as a faculty member who teaches classes in human rights and social justice, and who has organized many Diversity Day workshops over the years, the problem is that it’s often too little, too late.

By the time Diversity Day rolls around in November, tensions between social groups on campus have often already come to the fore, and the workshops provide opportunities to let off steam that can end up sparking further conflagrations that take place in the dorms or on social media sites, without the mediating influence of faculty and staff present to help channel discussions productively.

One day out of the school year is not enough to create the social bonds necessary to establish a cohesive, harmonious diverse student body.

We are going to have to try harder, to do better.

***

An opening has been created for us by the students this year. From my perspective as a faculty member, this is a prime teachable moment, an opportunity to advance our ideals of social justice and strengthen the ties of community on our campus.

Those with more privilege, on whatever grounds, must stand as firm allies with the less privileged.

Every class, every conversation, every interaction is an opportunity for respectful communication that encourages the breaking of the deep-seated silences that separate us.

The truth is that every college campus is a microcosm of the larger society from which our students are drawn.  In the small, sheltered community we create—a kind of Beloved Community, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s terms—we have an opportunity to envision and manifest new frameworks and understandings that our students will then carry with them out into the broader world.

In this struggle, as in all others, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time for thoughtful action is now.

Fossil Fuels R Us–but we can change, and so can they!

I am in one of those periods where I feel quite inadequate to comment on the events that dash across the world and national stages with madcap intensity.

What was it Shakespeare said? Life’s but a shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing….

And yet for those of us who are caught up in the moment, our hour upon the stage, what happens does matter, it does signify something—even if we can’t always tell what that something is.

The General and his lover

What does it mean that a much-decorated general, Director of the CIA, abruptly resigns after being investigated for adultery by the FBI?

Is this scandal really just about a simple affair with a younger woman, or do the General’s neocon tendencies, which had him presiding over the escalation of the disastrous war in Afghanistan and advocating open hostility with Iran, have anything to do with the alacrity with which President Obama accepted his resignation?

We’ll find out when the blockbuster film comes out, a couple of years from now!

Meanwhile, the drumbeats of war are booming in Israel/Palestine, right on cue after the American elections ground to their quadrennial conclusion.

Once again photos of bloody children pop up on our computer and TV screens.  Once again passionate voices on both sides of this eternal conflict are raised.  This is a pageant that has taken place so many times it has become predictable and stale, like the Christmas pageants that will soon take their places on local church stages throughout Christendom.

Scenes from Gaza, November 2012

Why can’t those people just get along? Americans wonder before flipping the channel.  Few of us are aware of the extent to which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to be fueled and armed by the taxpayers of the United States.

This is our conflict; we are responsible.  But as long as we dispassionately wait for someone else to stop it, it will continue to grind on.

The same is true with so many issues, from climate change to income disparity.  It’s time to stop waiting for someone else to step in and solve the problems, make the changes for us.  We have to do it ourselves.

There are a few encouraging signs that this is beginning to happen.

The 350.0rg “Do the Math” tour with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and many, many friends is making its historic way across the country, urging Americans to consider ways they can pressure the institutions with which they’re involved to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Scene from the Do the Math tour in New York City, 11/12

McKibben was talking about this last summer when I went to listen to him up at the top of Mount Greylock here in western Massachusetts, courtesy of Orion Magazine.  He invoked the successful divestiture movement of the international anti-apartheid struggle, which put enough pressure on the racist South African government that it eventually had to back down from its untenable position and begin working with the Black South Africans.

The sins of the fossil fuel companies are much bigger than those of the Boers: we’re not just talking about bigoted social policies in one country here, we’re talking about a mindset, policy brief and massive engineering effort that is inexorably endangering the entirety of human civilization on this planet, and indeed the well-being of all current life forms, perhaps excepting algae, bacteria and cockroaches.

And yet, it’s impossible to externalize the blame here, because the fossil fuel companies have only been trying to give us what we want: cheap and plentiful oil and gas.

It’s not their fault that we love their products so much we’re willing to do anything—including fight endless wars—to get it.

It’s incumbent on us to look inward and interrogate our own desires and dependencies in order to move forward.

Pressuring the fossil fuel companies to change is a good thing, as long as we’re willing to change with them.

Shifting to renewable energy is going to take a commitment from every player on the world stage today, from government leaders to manufacturers to the financial sector to ordinary consumers like you and me.

Let’s not allow the gloom of Shakespeare’s tragedies to engulf us and sap us of energy.  This play isn’t over yet and it doesn’t have to come to a bloody end.

Enough playing the handwringing Hamlet role!  Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work to solve our problems and write ourselves a better script.

Election 2012: Avoiding the Same Old, Same Old In the Redistribution of Power

Bravo to Maureen Dowd, who nailed the delusion of the Republican party with her typical biting humor.  “Mitt Romney is the president of white male America,” she said. Just not of the rest of us.

And—surprise!—we are a hell of a lot more numerous and, in an honest-to-God democracy, more powerful than they are.

White male America did turn out to elect Mitt their hero of the privileged status quo.  Imagine their surprise to discover that a status quo they thought undefeatable was already gone!

Karl Rove

It was interesting to see the little white men behind the curtain coming out after their Mitt-marionette went down in flames—men like Karl Rove, who flat-out refused to believe, on national TV (Fox News, of course) that his horse had actually lost the race.

It’s true that there wasn’t anything inherently “less Presidential” about Mitt than about that other wealthy political scion, George W. Bush—unless perhaps it was Romney’s conservative, highly patriarchal Mormonism, evidenced in the remarkable spread of his lily-white grandchildren—even if, as far as we know, he and his five sons only have one wife each.

Romney family

Both Bush Jr. and Romney expected the Republicans wizards to deliver them the White House with minimal effort on their part; and in return they would deliver the Supreme Court and the dismantling of regulatory inconveniences for Big Business, while keeping the women in the parlor and the help in the kitchen.

As Dowd pointed out, “the more they tried to force chastity belts on women, and the more they made Hispanics, blacks and gays feel like the help, the more these groups burned to prove that, knitted together, they could give the dead-enders of white male domination the boot.”

And so we did, so resoundingly that even the most obtuse of Republican strategists must have gotten the point.

Women, Latinos, Blacks and queer folk in this country make up a majority, and if you goad us with sticks and prods, you will see us turn out at the polls in record numbers to kick you out and get our own people to represent us in the halls of power.

The election of 2012 marks the dawn of a new age in America, when the so-called “minorities,” buoyed by a wave of powerful women voters of every ethnic, religious and even political stripe, showed the Man who’s boss.

No, Obama may not be the perfect hero to lead this charge, but as a mixed race American and a thoughtful man who obviously loves and respects his wife and daughters, he will do for now.

Obama family on Election night 2012

After all, as Dowd concludes: “If 2008 was about exalting the One, 2012 was about the disenchanted Democratic base deciding: “We are the Ones we’ve been waiting for.”

The newly empowered voting block of women, gays and ethnic “minorities” (a quaint term that will soon bite the dustbin of history) must take a good hard look at the hierarchical structure upon which the white male patriarchy was founded, and which it upheld so religiously for so long.

Our Founding Fathers were as guilty of this as their old masters back in Europe.  And indeed those who have studied colonialist and post-colonialist politics tell us that the biggest obstacle for newly emerging political bodies, whether they be newly independent nations or, as in 21st century America, newly emerging political landscapes, is that as humans we tend to replicate what we know, rather than take the risk of imagining and executing something truly new.

Thus we found, in state after state, the ideals of Communism crushed beneath the iron boots of dictators who used the banner of Communism to re-enact the oppressive structures of the past.

The challenge for all politically engaged Americans as we move on from Election 2012 is to keep the momentum going, rather than subsiding back into the same old, same old of structural American power hierarchies.

President Obama introduces Sonia Sotomayor

President Obama, over the past four years, was not able to resist the immense gravitational pull of the Beltway, although he did have a few shining moments of independence, like his successful appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

The truth is, it’s not only unrealistic to expect him to be our knight in shining armor, it’s antithetical to the spirit of true liberty and democracy.

The 21st century is about the redistribution of power in all its forms, including wealth, politics and energy.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and we have to create change ourselves—in our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our stores, and in local politics.

We have to change our relation to the natural world, which has long held the sad position of totally disrespected base in the patriarchal white hierarchy.

No one is going to do this for us—not Obama, and not even Jill Stein.  We have to do it ourselves, and the time to start is now.

The Audacity of Hope, c. 2012

For those of us who supported President Obama, the last 24 hours or so have been positively giddy.

There were the nail-biting first few hours of the election results…followed by the glad tidings of more and more of the big electoral states turning a glorious blue…capped by the wonderful thrill of seeing the President stride out onto the stage in Chicago to give the most rousing acceptance speech most of us have ever heard.

What a big heart this man has, to include in his acceptance speech itself the invitation to his opponents to meet him in the aisle and try to seek common ground!

In the very first words of his speech, before he even thanked his running mate, he reached out to Mitt Romney, offering to work with him to move the country forward onto a better, firmer footing:

I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign. 

We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight.

In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.

And then, towards the end of the speech, he said so memorably:

America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

This audacity of optimism is why we elected Barack Obama back in 2008, and why we continue to love him.

Whatever his personal or political failings, Barack Obama stands for the best hope of the USA: the raw immigrant passion and drive that founded this country and still makes it great.

He also represents, in his very skin, the polyglot future of the USA, the inexorable movement away from the European aristocracy of our founders to the broad multicultural diversity of our descendants.

Mitt Romney’s concession speech 2012

The Republicans are still stuck back in the good old days of the good old guys’ party.  As one commentator aptly noted, Republican political rallies look suspiciously like Ku Klux Klan rallies of the early 20th century.

For those who might rather not recall, let us remember that the Klan not only hated and lynched African Americans; they also hated and lynched Jews.  And they didn’t liked the Irish or the Italians much either!

Let’s not even talk about gay folk.  And women?  For the Klan and many contemporary conservatives, they belong in the kitchen or in the bed.

This is not the country we want to be as we move into the 21st century.

Although I thought the Obama campaign’s slogan “Forward, not back” was a little hokey when I heard it trotted out at various rallies, it does have the ring of truth to it.

We do not want to go back to the intolerance and violent hatred of our past.

We need to move forward, and we will need all hands on deck to confront the deeply unstable, uncertain future that awaits us in the age of climate change.

I want to see Barack Obama rise to the challenges of our time with all the power of his big heart.

I want to see him not just think about jobs, but think about green jobs, about jobs that will move our country forward into a longterm, sustainable future.

Enough kow-towing to Big Oil, Big Agriculture and Big Chemical.  It’s time to force these industries to bend to the winds of change, to adapt to the new paradigm of sustainability sweeping our country and our planet.

I applaud Bill McKibben for waiting until the election was over to come out swinging—and I applaud his continuing efforts to get the climate change issue into the center of political discourse.

Those who are still suffering from the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, along with their insurers, should be his best allies.

We need to face the truth that all the matters of social justice that concern us will be moot if we don’t face the pressing need to get our planetary civilization onto a sustainable footing.

We need to convince our President of this, post-haste.

But let’s take a moment to breathe a big sigh of relief that it is Barack Obama we’re dealing with, and not Mitt Romney!

This election proves that Big Money is not infallible.

Democracy still matters; individual votes still matter; as a country, we are not as corrupt as many of us feared.

Now is the time for all of us to embrace the President’s big heart and let it reach out even further to encompass our entire beautiful planet and all of her creatures.

This is the task we humans were born to undertake: to become the thoughtful, compassionate stewards of our planet, and the collaborative leaders of our own multifarious tribes.

It is so good to see more and more women stepping up to the plate now.  We are sorely needed, but we can’t do it alone.

Men and women of all heritages must work together as never before to reestablish the equilibrium needed to move our civilization forward sustainably into the 21st century.

These are not just words.  This is our urgent reality.

Barack Obama has answered the call.

Will you?

Lessons of the Wreck of the Bounty

Although it is a small tragedy compared with the multifarious disasters occurring in the New York region in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I can’t get the wreck of the tall ship Bounty out of my mind.

As someone who has written about 18th century pirates quite a bit over the past decade, I have an abiding fascination with sailing ships of that era.

HMS Bounty at Lunenburg, NS, August 2012

Last summer, when I heard the Bounty was docked for a few days at the Maritime Museum wharf in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, I made sure I was at the head of the line at the gangplank.

The crew welcomed us aboard, and we had the vessel nearly to ourselves to explore at leisure.

The Bounty, a 1962 replica of the original 18th century British ship, was obviously built with great attention to authenticity of detail.  The timbers above and below looked rough-hewn and weathered, the sails dingy and hardworking, the masthead newly painted and resolute.

She was a solid piece of work, and her captain, Robin Walbridge, had steered her well for 17 years.

 

But last week something went badly awry in his thinking.

Lunenburg photos by Eric Hernandez

He decided to take the Bounty out to sea knowing full well that Hurricane Sandy was making directly for his route from New London, CT to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Bounty masthead on a clear day

It seems that Captain Walbridge decided to try to “skirt” the storm, heading far out to sea in an effort to miss the brunt of it.

Sandy proved far to big to avoid, and by the night of Sunday, Oct. 28, the Bounty was facing 10 to 30-foot seas about 90 miles off the coast of North Carolina.  A first distress call put out to the Coast Guard at about sundown that evening was rescinded, as the crew must have been frantically working the pumps and still hoping to save the ship.

Not until 4 a.m. did the crew receive the order to abandon ship, and by then the deck was awash.

Fourteen of the fifteen crew members made it into the life rafts and were rescued by the Coast Guard  within a few hours.  A fifteenth crew member, Claudene Christian, was found floating nearby, and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Claudene Christian

Captain Walbridge’s body has not been recovered as of this writing.  The last one to abandon ship, he may simply have not made it out in time.

Captain Robin Walbridge

Here is a tragedy that could easily have been avoided if the captain had been more respectful of the forces of nature.  Apparently he thought the ship would be safer out at sea than docked during the hurricane; but in trying to save the ship he endangered the crew, and two lives were lost, one of them his own.

The story reminds me of the tale of Moby Dick, where the recklessness of the captain resulted, ultimately, in his being dragged to his death by the great white whale.

There is a lesson here for all of us.

We cannot underestimate the forces of nature.  We cannot “skirt” the climate change disaster that is staring us in the face.  We cannot outrun the storm, and we cannot hide from her.

As people in the wealthy enclaves of New Jersey and Long Island are finding out now, we are all equal before the awesome might of the natural world.

True, the plight of New Yorkers in dark, cold public housing is far more serious than that of coastal Long Islanders who have had to seek shelter with inland friends and family.

Class still matters.

But on the Bounty, the captain’s quarters were swamped just like those of the sailors.

So it will be with us all, if we fail to heed Sandy’s warning.

The Bounty sinking on Oct 29; Coast Guard photo

This is not a movie, and it’s not child’s play.  It’s real, and we’d better be paying attention, because next time it could be my turn, or yours.

We need to be taking measures now to make sure that the next time the winds start to blow, we will be prepared.

First things first: we need to go to the polls to defeat Mitt Romney and his fossil fuel masters on Tuesday.

And then on Wednesday, it will be time to start making plans to pressure President Obama to do the right thing when it comes to climate change.

Some say he’ll be a lame duck in his second term, but I think he’ll have more leeway to be his own man.  We have to prevail on his intelligence and good sense to use the power of the executive office to stand up to Big Oil on behalf of ordinary folks the world over, who trust their leaders to make the right decisions to keep them out of harm’s way.

And if he can’t or won’t do the right thing, well…there may have to be yet another “mutiny on the Bounty….”

Thank you, Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy did the planet a favor by hitting hard right at some of our most elite enclaves.

This time it’s not the poor residents of the Ninth Ward facing the horror of flooding, it’s the wealthy owners of some of the most valuable coastal property in the country.

When I heard Mayor Bloomberg of New York, one of the richest men on the planet, finally come and out say the words “climate change” with urgency, I had to smile despite the seriousness of the context, because it meant that at last the rich and powerful are getting the message that the status quo cannot go on—at least, not if we expect to survive as a civilization into the 22nd century.

The truth is that Americans in the ruling class—the business owners, the politicians, the finance and computer wizards, the media producers, the educators, even the artists–have been living in a luxurious gated community our whole lives.

We have been watching the travails of those outside, including the accelerating extinction of other species and the poisoning of the environment, from what has seemed like a safe, secure vantage point, behind several layers of bullet-proof glass.

Americans have watched impassively as people in other parts of the world have been forced to deal with terrible storms, flooding, and droughts with increasing regularity over the past decade.

As long as the electricity stays on and the supermarkets and gas stations are full and open for business, we just don’t pay much attention to what’s going on with the weather.  As long as our homes are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, what’s the problem?

People like James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and Elizabeth Kolbert have been knocking futilely on the windows for years, trying to get the ruling class to wake up and pay attention to the looming threat of climate change before it’s too late.

They’ve made little progress up to now.

But Hurricane Sandy is a game changer.  Blowing into town the week before the Presidential elections, she put climate change on to the front page of the New York Times at last.  She forced her way into the bland discourse of Presidential politics.

She tossed her windy head and in just a few hours paralyzed the “greatest city on Earth,” creating $50 billion of damage that will take weeks if not months to clean up.

All of a sudden, city planners are talking seriously about flood gates, and some are saying it might be foolish to rebuild in the same way, right down along the coast.

I don’t hear many in our ruling class yet saying what needs to be said, which is that our entire lifestyle has been built up in an unsustainable way, and must be changed if we are to leave a livable legacy to our children and grandchildren.

We must wean ourselves from the addiction to fossil fuels.  We must shift from highways and cars to mass transit.  We must immediately start reducing emissions in every way possible, with special attention to the agriculture sector, which has to be completely redesigned with sustainability and health—our own, and that of the animals and plants we cultivate—in mind.

We must build a much more resilient, collaborative culture.  Competition and aggression may have been the watchwords of the capitalist and imperialist 19th and 20th century, but following their star has landed us in our current grave circumstances. We can’t go any further down that path.

For thousands of years prior to the Christian era, human beings lived tribally and cooperatively in harmony with the land.  Our population has now grown so large that we are reduced to fighting each other for increasingly scarce resources.

Going forward, if we are to survive, we must transcend the pettiness of national boundaries and ethnic differences, recognize our common goals as humans, and start to work together to provide strategically for the good of all.

This may seem like an impossibly idealistic goal, but if there is one thing that I believe can unite human beings, it is the awareness now dawning about how interconnected we are through our dependence on the life support of our planet.

It is sad that the Earth has had to sink to such an unbalanced, depleted state before we began to pay attention.  I would not wish a Hurricane Sandy on anyone.  But it seems that we need wake-up calls of her magnitude to get us up and out of the stupor of denial and inaction.

As I step over the threshold into my sixth decade today, I can feel a new resoluteness building in me; a new determination to use my time in a more focused way.

I vow to give the best of myself to the struggle for a sustainable future, and to encourage others to join me in this effort.  There is nothing more important any of us can be doing now.

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