Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

As a college professor with a focus on media and issues of social and environmental justice, it’s my responsibility, I believe, to be tuned into the news of the day.

I need to know that, as reported by Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times, “For roughly 30 hours over several days, defense lawyers for three former United States Naval Academy football players grilled a female midshipman about her sexual habits. In a public hearing, they asked the woman, who has accused the three athletes of raping her, whether she wore a bra, how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex and whether she had apologized to another midshipman with whom she had intercourse “for being a ho.”

I need to know that the Obama Administrations efforts to regulate and clean up the American coal industry “are certain to be denounced by House Republicans and the industry as part of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”

I have to follow the progress of the latest massive floods in Colorado, noting that they involve the release of unknown quantities of toxic chemicals into the region’s waterways; these floods happened in a populated area of Colorado that also happens to be the site of thousands of gas fracking wells.

Then there are those unprecedented wildfires in California, finally under control after having burned 400 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park, with “a solid 60 square miles burned so intensely that everything is dead.”

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13 Photo by Robert Martinez

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13
Photo by Robert Martinez

I have to pay attention when our nation threatens missile strikes on another Middle Eastern country, or there’s another crazy gunman on the rampage with assault weapons in a peaceful civilian setting, or a bunch of ideologically blinkered Republican politicians threaten to shut down the U.S. government and force us to default on our international debt obligations, putting the world financial system in jeopardy, simply in order to embarrass the country’s popular Democratic African-American President.

To do my job well, I have to know about these issues and episodes, and so I follow the media daily.  And yet day by day I grow more resentful of being dragged along on storylines that I find so—so—well, so boring.

They’re boring because they’re so repetitive.  Another fire, another flood, another mass shooting, another U.S. missile or drone strike, another government shutdown to be averted at the last minute.  Another woman raked over the coals when she tries to bring a rapist to justice.

And in the background, the real story, the Big News of our time, grinds on relentlessly, it too so endlessly repeated that we have all become blind, deaf and dumb to it.

I’m referring, of course, to the story of global climate change, with its attendant melting ice, rising seas, rising temperatures, erratic weather and, ultimately, mass extinction of life as we know it on Earth.

I understand why very few humans alive today want to grapple with that story.

If the news episodes I listed above are boring in their repetitiveness, the Big News of climate change is just too scary to take in.

No wonder so many people of all ages just don’t bother following the news, preferring instead to focus on televised sports or the latest mini-series or movies.

People seem to have a fatalistic approach to reality lately.

Obamacare will go through or it will be defunded, no matter what we think or do.  Fossil fuel plants will continue to burn, not only unregulated but subsidized at that; politicians will continue to act in criminal ways (shutting down the U.S. government is an act of treason in my book!), boys will continue to be boys and get slapped on the wrist when a woman dares to cry rape–no matter what we do.

The entire American populace seems to be locked in some kind of slumped-over apathy, just trying to keep up the mortgage payments, trying to stay healthy in an increasingly toxic environment, trying to raise decent kids despite the toxic media entertainment landscape in which the kids spend most of their time.

I’m slumped over with the rest, a lot of the time.

But there is something in me that resists this posture, too.  There is something in me that yearns for a different narrative.  Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

Not a return to the triumphalist patriarchal Manifest Destiny that led us inexorably to the disastrous brink on which we now perch.

Not the macho environmentalism that tries to beat the fossil fuel villains in the courts and the high seas.

Not the moralistic sermonizing of those who see the world in strictly black-and-white, Good-and-Evil binary oppositions.

I’m hungering for something deeper.  Something bigger.  A story that truly acknowledges where we are today as a species, and can help us to perceive the way forward out of the current slumped-over morass of bad news.

Briane Swimme

Briane Swimme

The closest I’ve been able to come to such a story so far is the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.  In their visionary description of the “Ecozoic Era” that we could create, acting in the best interests of the planet as a whole, I find the map and the compass I’ve been seeking to guide me to a livable future.

In the final chapter of their book The Universe Story, Berry and Swimme lay out a vision that, tragically, we have not heeded in the more than 20 years since the book appeared in 1992.

“In economics it is clear that our human economy is derivative from the Earth economy.  To glory in a rising Gross Domestic Product with an irreversibly declining Gross Earth Product is an economic absurdity.  So long as our patterns of consumption overwhelm the upper reaches of Earth’s sustainable productivity, we will only drive the Earth community further into ruin.  The only viable human economy is one that is integral with the Earth economy” (256).

“We need an inter-species economy, an inter-species well-being, an inter-species education, an inter-species governance, an inter-species religious mode, inter-species ethical norms,” they say (257).

Berry and Swimme end their vast “journey of the universe” by describing the celebratory aspect of the universe, which perhaps only humans, at least of the beings on Earth, can fully appreciate.

The cosmic celebration--courtesy of the Hubble telescope

The cosmic celebration–courtesy of the Hubble telescope

“Everything about us seems to be absorbed into a vast celebratory experience,” they say.  “There is no being that does not participate in this experience and mirror it forth in some way unique to itself and yet in a bonded relationship with the more comprehensive unity of the universe itself.  Within this context of celebration we find ourselves, the human component of this celebratory community.  Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of self-conscious awareness” (264).

In other words, our role is to be the storytellers of past, present and future.  Of all the amazing beings on the planet, no one else can fill this particular niche.

It is our privilege and our curse as humans to KNOW so much about what we are doing at any given moment on the planet, and to ceaselessly narrate that knowledge.  Now in the 21st century, aided by the global neural network of the World Wide Web, we have never been more tuned into the on-going global story, but this knowledge often becomes oppressive, since so much of what we are asked to absorb is negative, bad news.

It’s time to rebel–to resist the battering of the bad news, to become producers rather than just passive consumers of knowledge.

We need to start telling new stories.  Empowering, positive stories that light the way towards the human beings we could become, the human civilization we could create, in concert and harmony with the rest of the Earth community.

What stories do you hold locked in your heart, tenderly sheltered from the glare and cacophony of contemporary pop culture?

I suggest you look to the home ground of your deep childhood for inspiration.  Remember the stories you told to yourself then, or that you heard the flowers and the insects singing.  Remember the way the motes of dust twirling in the sunlight spoke to you.

Remember what it felt like to have an unmediated, imaginative connection with the world around you.

Then speak the truths that come out of that primary knowledge.

Politicos beware: the citizen journalists are coming!

Mitt Romney really hit the jackpot this time, caught on video tape callously dismissing half the population of America as not worth his time because they don’t pay taxes.

As “The Caucus” blog in The New York Times pointed out today, in fact it’s only 18% of Americans who pay no federal or payroll taxes.  And of those, “more than half were elderly and more than a third were not elderly but had income under $20,000.”

What a way to make a winning pitch to potential donors in the 1%.  Let’s just throw all those poor old folks under a bus, shall we?  Are there no workhouses?

Ripostes like this have been coming in fast and heavy for the past 24 hours, since the incriminating video clip first appeared on the Mother Jones website, and thence made its way virally around the Web.

What I think has been insufficiently analyzed so far is the provenance of this video.

Today in my media studies class, we were talking about how the old media model, what the textbooks call “legacy media,” is crumbling, to be replaced by myriads of web-based information producers, often referred to as “citizen journalists.”

The guy who released that covert video of Mitt Romney talking up a GOP horse’s ass was a citizen journalist of a sort.

We still don’t know exactly who shot the film, but we do know that it was sent to Mother Jones by James Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

The point is, these are obviously very different channels of information flow than scripted “press conferences,” or even the kind of access granted to card-carrying members of the mainstream media.

The video has so captured the attention of America because it affords us a ringside seat in the inner echelons of political power.  Next thing you know, someone will be shooting video (or at least making a covert audio recording) of the proceedings of a closed-door Goldman Sachs board meeting.

Hey, Richard Nixon was the master of this kind of bugging.  Let us not forget Watergate, or the Oval Office recordings.

But now the tables are turned, and the technology genie is out of the brass lamp and running gleefully through the land.

No longer are wiretaps and tiny voice recorders the provenance of James Bond and the FBI.  Now anyone with a bit of tech smarts and some fortuitous access to the workings of power can record what goes on there, and send it out for the masses to interpret as they see fit.

Last week it was the crazy anti-Muslim film, cheaply and poorly produced but sent out like a message in a bottle on the high seas of the internet, which washed ashore in the Middle East and provided the spark for a new round of anti-American violence.

This week it’s a citizen journalist with a Flip cam in his pocket, pulling back the screen in the GOP Emerald (cash-green, that is) Palace to reveal the true face of the mean-spirited man who would be the Republican President.

As a teacher of media studies in the 21st century, I am excited by the possibilities that my students will enjoy of leaping past the old gatekeepers and getting their investigative work out to the public.

I’m also not quite sure how they are going to make a living doing it—that’s one small detail that remains to be worked out.

But one thing is sure: in this day and age, it is going to be a lot harder for a politician to maintain a public image that is at odds with who he really is when he’s at home.

I hope that means that the next generation of politicians is going to have to be—gasp!—sincere.

 

Internet Rage

Protests against the US this week, responding to the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer

That a boorish, crude, poorly made video could set a whole region on fire with righteous rage and cause the death of a highly respected American diplomat and his staff is a sign of the dangerous new world we live in.

I asked my media studies class yesterday to think about whether we are better off now than we were before the internet age, or whether the amount of time we all spend on the Web is dumbing us down by making us restless, superficial consumers of so much raw information and half-truths that we no longer have the time or inclination to sift through it all and figure out what really matters.

My students, digital natives all, were enthusiastic about the interactivity of the internet, the unparalleled opportunities it offers for entertainment and lightspeed communication.

But we all sobered down some when we contemplated the dark side of the internet promise, given form this week in the jump from You-Tube to Muslim Main Street.

We watched a few minutes of “Innocence of Muslims,” the purported “trailer” for a full-length movie that may very well not exist.  Actually we watched less than two minutes of the film, all that we needed to understand why it has angered religious Muslims.

The film makes a mockery of the Prophet Muhammed, and presents the religion he founded as bloody and uncouth.

I’d like to see how evangelical Christians would feel if a similar film was made about Jesus Christ and his religion.

The Egyptian government issued a statement today recognizing that American filmmakers have the right to freedom of speech, and therefore cannot be prosecuted for their insulting production.

But they can certainly be condemned.  Hate speech is not allowed in the U.S., and this film walks a fine line; it is certainly insulting and intolerant, if not outright hateful.

The film only made waves in the Middle East when someone translated it into Arabic, and then reposted it on You-Tube.

Maybe they thought Muslims would think it was funny.

No one is laughing, not at all.  And the rage comes out against America and all Americans, even though the majority of Americans would be just as turned off by this film as anyone in the Muslim world.

Even as I write that familiar phrase, “the Muslim world,” I know it’s false.  The internet has shrunk our globe so much that the old boundaries between cultures and nations no longer hold.

Out there on the internet, we’re all part of a vast interconnected universe of humanity, a distributed digital brain hosted by the global Cloud.

We have the capacity to send images and words around the world at lightening speed, but on the ground we’re still the same old people we have been for hundreds of years, weighed down by our enmities and prejudices, our pettiness and our greed.

The freedom of communication facilitated by the internet is marvelous, and few of us would want to see it censored.

But we need to understand the power of words and images to manipulate and twist our perceptions of the truth.

We need to learn how to become responsible producers and informed, discerning consumers of all the representations we send up to the Web.

That ugly film does not represent America, any more than the savage reprisal on the Libyan Embassy represents the Muslim community.

The internet should be used to connect us, not tear us apart. We need to be smarter than that.

Occupy Earth

In the week since the Occupy May Day General Strike, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of the event.

Friends who were in New York City that day say it was tremendously exciting, especially the permitted march from Union Square to Wall Street, which apparently stretched out strong over some 30 blocks.

As far as I could tell, mainstream media reported only the arrests that occurred, and that fairly grudgingly.  There has been little effort to explain or explore the anger and frustration that propelled hundreds of thousands worldwide out into the streets on May Day.

Maybe that’s because it’s an old story.  Yesterday’s news!  We know that students are unhappy about being $1 trillion in debt; we know that millions of homeowners are unhappy about being “underwater” with their mortgages, or losing their homes due to foreclosures.  We know that there aren’t enough jobs to lift our economy out of the doldrums.  It’s old news, people!  Tell us something we don’t know!

So the question becomes, is a protest effective if it is ignored by the mainstream media?

I would say yes: the fact that the MSM treated May Day as unimportant is more revealing of how out of touch the editors are than of whether or not the protest was real and meaningful.

On social media, May Day was well covered, especially at interactive, citizen journalism-type venues like Livestream and Twitter.

And if you go on the Occupy Wall Street site now, you’ll find that the organizers are already bounding on to the next action.

May Day was just one in a whole series of protests planned. It was an opening volley of what promises to be an intense, engaging spring.

But it opened up a question that is not likely to go away any time soon.

How important is it to actually show up, in the flesh, for a protest?

I was berated by one reader for choosing to stay in my classroom on May Day rather than joining the protests.

Other readers expressed their support for my decision to “occupy my classroom,” where my individual presence was perhaps more important than it would have been as an anonymous member of the crowd on Broadway.

I have been pondering this question in the past week.  As someone who is deeply involved with new media, I have to say that I believe that what happens in cyberspace is at least as important as what happens in physical space.

Maybe it’s even more important.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions of people participated in the May Day protests online, via Facebook, Twitter, Livestream and so many other interactive platforms.

The protests spread around the world, just like the May 5 “Connect the Dots” climate change awareness events.

Through the magic of cyberspace, we were all united in a common goal: expressing our outrage over the cynical manipulation and impoverishment of the 99% by the 1%, and demanding that the interests of the 99% be taken into account in matters of political and economic policy.

Although I have no doubt that face-to-face General Assemblies and marches are important, it is ridiculous to discount the impact of what goes around and comes around in cyberspace.

Are we approaching the weird tipping point when our cyber-selves will be more important than our physical selves?

As I keep reminding people, cyberspace is totally dependent on electricity for its existence.

So if we want to preserve cyberspace as a place of radical openness, communitarianism and oppositionality, it behooves us to pay attention to the real 99% in the current equation: the natural world that has been providing us with the means to create the current that runs the virtual world.

I might be tempted to buck my agoraphobia (fear of crowds) and make the leap from cyber-protest to physical protest if the goal were defending not just jobs or homes or social equality, but the underpinning of it all, the great mother herself, our beloved community, our Earth.

Webizens Unite!

The fuss over the SOPA/PIPA legislation last week is the marker of a generational shift in our understanding of the media: we’re at the transition point between 20th century media models, which rely on centralized, profit-driven control over production and consumption, and 21st century media models, which are all about open access and the free circulation of ideas.

While I’m generally a strong supporter of the open-access model, I do see some dangers to it.

For one thing, when we operate on a distributed intelligence model, information is so widely available that none of us really has to feel responsible about knowing anything.  We can just look it up, after all.

But when we rely so much on others to be the keepers of our collective intelligence, we become vulnerable on at least two crucial levels:

  • Vulnerable to being manipulated by the producers of that knowledge—think Fox News, for example, with its so-called “fair and balanced” reporting.  As long as we are aware that Fox News is reporting from a distinctly biased point of view, we can take their information under advisement, and balance it ourselves with other sources.  As long as there are other sources.  And as long as we have the education to be able to sift through it all and form our own informed opinions.
  • Vulnerable to loss of access—as in the one-day blackout on Wikipedia last week. It’s like kids who rely so completely on the calculator that they never learn their multiplication tables.  All well and good, until the day when they don’t have a machine available to make the calculations, and they’re left helpless.

Our society has become so totally tuned in to media that we would be lost without it.  And that kind of dependency is dangerous.

I think about the big push now to digitize libraries.  Of course, I love the idea of being able to carry 4,000 volumes around with me on one slim little e-reader.  It’s awesome!  But on the other hand, a little voice in the back of my head worries: what would happen if we lost ready access to electricity?  What would happen if there were shortages, so only the elites were able to power up their notebooks and Kindles?  Where would our libraries be then?

We’re already living in a society where social class, access to the Web and social influence form a tight, circular web.  Privileged kids today are growing up totally plugged in and able to make the best use of the amazing collective intelligence of the Web, while kids from poor backgrounds, worldwide, are growing up on the other side of the digital tracks, out there with the garbage and the weeds.

As the big media companies work ever more aggressively to stake their claim in the wild west of the Web, fencing off bigger and bigger areas of the digital commons, we need to become more vigilant about guarding our freedom of speech and our free access to the Web, and making sure that more and more of us really do have that access and the knowledge needed to make good use of it.

WordPress blogging platforms like the one I’m writing on are like little free information lanes alongside what are becoming ever more hulking, fenced and patrolled toll highways.  The fact that anyone can start up a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page for free and get their voice out to the public immediately, with no censors, is a 21st century version of a time-tested Constitutional right that we need to make sure we defend.

Corporations don’t like the free circulation of “media content” because it escapes their profit-driven model.  That’s what they were trying to accomplish with their anti-piracy legislation—a way to shut down any website that did not pay its toll.

Looking into the brave new future that awaits us, I see increasing conflict over these basic issues of access to and control over the media.  I also see that unless we are successful in making the shift to renewable energy sources, it is conceivable that basic access to electricity, which we in the West now take for granted, may become less easily obtained.

As a blogger who relies on platforms and hardware that I could not possibly produce myself, I feel my vulnerability keenly.  I need Apple and WordPress to get me going, and the electric company to power me up, or I’d be dead in the water.

If I ever woke up and found the power out and my web browser blank, well…I could always go back to zining! But I would miss the incredible distribution powers of the World Wide Web.

Last week some 7 million webizens barraged Congress with protests of the proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation, and we won the battle!  We have to maintain our stations though.  As with the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s going to be a long siege.

Is Anybody Listening?

Just curious: why is it that today’s NY Times front page features social protest in Egypt, Yemen and Hamas, but nothing about California?

Way below the digital “fold,” in small print, there’s a piece with the bland headline “From Crowd Control to Mocking Images,” but it’s more about pepper spray itself than about the serious issues raised by the UC Davis incident.

The opinion pages are similarly focused on Egypt and Israel–nothing on the Occupy movement.

Somehow it reminds me of the classic situation where a kid is trying to get her parents’ attention, and Dad is buried behind his newspaper, Mom is talking away on the phone, and NOBODY IS LISTENING!

What does that kid have to do to get the adults’ attention?

Something outrageous. And even then, the focus will most likely be more on returning things to the status quo as fast as possible, rather than on talking through the issues deeply and seriously considering change.

That seems to be the posture of the UC system officials, who are in the current hot seat of the Occupy movement.  They want this whole mess to just go away, so that students will return to their classrooms and dorm rooms and keep paying their ever-higher tuition to earn degrees for jobs that don’t exist.

Things turned violent in the Middle East when people had enough of leaders who refused to listen.  There, soldiers and tanks were called in against civilians.  Here, we have armed riot police called in against students who were doing nothing more challenging than sitting cross-legged in a quad.

 Imagine what could happen here if protesters stopped being so polite and nonviolent and began demanding attention in a no-nonsense way.

How far would our leaders–from university chancellors to mayors to governors and the politicians in Washington DC–go in choosing to repress and stifle dissent rather than listening and engaging in thoughtful dialogue about the best way forward for all?

A couple of decades ago, when people took to the streets to protest working conditions and lack of freedom in Latin America, the U.S. demonized “the Communists” and sent military aid to the dictators to maintain order in the banana republics.  The civil wars there claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

It is impossible to blame “the Communists” this time, and the unrest is not far away in some other country, it’s right here in our own heartland.

It’s our own sons and daughters who are feeling the crack of the police baton, the burn of the chemical sprays.

What are we going to do about it?

First of all, we’d better start listening.

Resisting the Energy Vultures

Today’s New York Times Sunday Review piece by White House correspondent Mark Landler, “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy,” gives disturbing insight into the mindset not only of the men and women who preside over national foreign policies, but also into the media lapdogs who cover them.

Landler reports that China and the U.S., along with practically every other country in possession of a serviceable Navy fleet, are entering into “a new type of maritime conflict — one that is playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Landler’s sources, explains blandly that “This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades.”

Clinton has got the right metaphor there.  What Landler describes all too flippantly as “a watery Great Game” could well indeed “consume large bodies of water around the world.”

What neither Clinton nor anyone else interviewed for Landler’s article bring up is the cardinal question:  When the game is over, what will be left of the living beings that used to populate those waters in unimaginably vast numbers?

Landler describes the navies and drill ships of countries from China and the U.S. to Turkey and Israel jockeying for control of huge troves of oil and natural gas deposits that have been discovered beneath the sea.

Of especial interest to these circling energy vultures are the deposits beneath the Arctic ice.  Landler reports that “melting ice has opened up the fabled Northwest Passage,” making resource extraction in the Arctic more viable than before.

This offhand and veiled reference to climate change provides a window into the sociopathic mindsets of the men who rule the Energy Kingdoms.  The cowboys of global fossil fuel extraction are essentially warlords, relying on the national armies of their nominal countries of origin to clear the way of opposition to their reckless drilling.

From their warped point of view, global warming can be seen as a bonus.

If the Arctic ice melts, so much the better–it’ll make it easier to get those billions of barrels of oil out of the sea and into the global market.

No matter that deep sea drilling has been proven to be highly risky and lethal to the environment.  Hello, does anyone remember BP in the Gulf of Mexico?

Imagine a spill like that going on in frigid northern waters.

Imagine billions of barrels worth of oil or gas gushing into the Arctic Ocean, to be picked up by the currents and spread all over the world.

Imagine the destruction of marine wildlife, and indeed the entire marine food chain, that this would entail.

NY Times reporter Landler doesn’t waste time contemplating such grim scenarios.  The focus of his article is “gunboat diplomacy,” a glamorous new competition among national navies to dominate the oceans, seen strictly in utilitarian terms.  His only mention of fish, or indeed any maritime creature, is a brief aside that icebreakers are being sent into the Arctic circle by countries like China and Korea, “to explore weather patterns and fish migration.”

Landler’s article, which is billed as “news analysis,” reveals the extent to which the chillingly disturbing values of the Energy Kings have permeated not only the governments who are supposed to be regulating their industry and safeguarding the natural world, but also the media “watchdogs,” who are obviously sitting cozily in the laps of Big Oil.

Questions of environmental sustainability and health are simply outside the picture for these folks.  It’s not relevant to them whether or not the polar bears survive.  They don’t care about the coral reefs, or the plankton.  They don’t care about whales.  Their only concern is the bottom line.

What is the most effective opposition to such monomania?

Trying to think of persuasive strategies gives me a touch of hysteria.  We could appeal to their love of seafood!  Wouldn’t they miss their caviar and oysters?

They will figure out how to grow these in tanks.

We could appeal to them as property owners: what’s going to happen to their beachfront homes, not to mention their office towers in coastal cities around the world, when the waters begin to rise?

They will have armies of lawyers figuring out ways to make the taxpayers bear the burden of their lost properties.

We could appeal to their brand image.  Does Exxon-Mobil really want to go down in history as the biggest perpetrator of maritime omnicide in world history?

They will throw this back at us, and rightly so: they were just doing their job of giving the consumer what she wants, a steady supply of affordable energy.

It’s true that we all share the blame for this tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. It’s also true that we have the power to stop it.

How? We need to demand that the rights of the denizens of the natural world be respected.  A new Declaration of the Rights of Nature has been written–it needs to be circulated, popularized and upheld.

We need to insist that our politicians report to the people, the taxpayers, not to the corporations. Yes, people want energy; we want cars, we want electricity.  But we want to direct our tax dollars into R&D of renewable sources of energy–solar, geothermal, wind–not into dangerous oil and gas extraction or nuclear fission, and not into dirty coal mining either.

We need to call the mainstream media on its dereliction of duty when it presents one-sided reports like Landler’s industry white paper today.

Extracting those billions of barrels of oil buried below the earth’s surface miles beneath the sea would not just be a death sentence for marine life.  It would drive the nails on the human coffin as well, along with all the other species on this planet who will not be able to adapt to the erratic climate extremes of floods, droughts and storms that will inevitably ramp up once the planet heats beyond the point of no return.

Under these circumstances, if the governments won’t listen, radical action may prove a necessity.  The French Resistance to the Nazis were considered criminals in their own time and place, but look like heroes to us today, with the power of hindsight.

We are in the midst of a new, much larger Holocaust now, one that threatens not just one group of people, but all of us, and our natural world as well.

Each of us has a choice to make.  You can go along with the crowd, watching impassively as the train leaves the station for the gas chambers, or you can dare to raise your voice in opposition, and maybe even to throw a wrench in the gears of power.

Each of us is going to die sooner or later.  Wouldn’t you rather die knowing you had done your utmost to make a difference, to safeguard the world for your children and all life on this planet?

Sweet stirrings of a new world: fringe politics overturning the barricades

The venerable social critic Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker contrasts the Tea Party with the Occupy movement in this week’s magazine, and finds the Occupy movement lacking in precisely what has made the Tea Party so strong: a willingness to get involved in (and take money from) the established American political parties.

“Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both protest movements, not interest groups,” Hertzberg says, “and while both are wary, or claim to be, of established political figures and organizations, each welcomes their praise, if not their direction. Both have already earned places in the long, raucous history of American populism. But only one, so far, has earned a place in the history of American government.”

Are we supposed to be proud that the Tea Party has “earned” an infamous place as the launching pad for the new cadre of rightwing Republican zealots who have spent their time in Congress obstinately shooting down and stampeding every effort by President Obama and the Democrats to steer this nation towards a more compassionate and forward-looking political stance?

In its few years of existence, the Tea Party has happily wormed its way into the main arteries of American political power.  Hertzberg offers an apt metaphor of this tea as a new wonder drug, “injected into the scarred veins” of the GOP, which has quickly become addicted to this mainlined source of entranced, stupified frenzy.

“Now the Democrats are hoping the drug might be available as a generic,” Hertzberg continues, eying the Occupy movement as a way to enliven its own moribund political base.

I firmly hope that the Occupy movement does not allow itself to be used in this way by the political establishment, and I think it’s a reasonable, if remarkable, hope.

Remarkable because for so long Americans have been asleep, indifferent or unaware of what Hertzberg calls “the astounding growth of what can fairly be called plutocracy.”

Why it took so long for the sleeping giant of American popular opinion to wake up is a question for historians of the turn of the 21st century to ponder.

Why is it that Americans have been voting against their own class interests so long?  Why is the persistent myth of American equality, liberty and justice for all so teflon-coated?

We all want to believe that our country represents the moral high ground in the world, and that our leaders in government are as invested in upholding our idealism as we are.

Our public education system, which is responsible for the education of a great portion of the 99%, aids and abets this self-delusion by giving students the most doctrinaire and uncritical version of American history and civics, and teaching docility and proficiency at standardized testing above all.

Our media doesn’t help much; with the exception of a few poorly funded but stalwart independent outlets, the vast social landscape of contemporary media is focused at best on distraction, and very often on outright deception.

Under the pressures of this kind of social conditioning, it’s remarkable that the young idealists in the Occupy movement have had such success in galvanizing the country to wake up, shake ourselves, and stare around us with new eyes.

Hertzberg obviously intends his column as a signpost for the Occupy movement, pointing towards Washington D.C. as a more important battleground than Wall Street.  “Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics,” he concludes; “the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.”

Here is a glaring example of the kind of civics mis-education that has made our country so hard to reform over the years.

Who says our political system is limited to two parties?  Or at least, to the two parties we have now?

The Republicans and the Democrats have shown themselves to be chronically unable to lead this country out of the morass of special interests and ruthless corporate-driven capitalism that has bulldozed right over our cherished ideals of equality, not to mention the sacred ecological web that forms the real foundation of all our wealth and prosperity.

The Occupy movements are showing their intelligence in shying away from engagement with the established political system.  If anything, their political allies are more likely to be found in those perennial political organizations that have always camped out on the fringes of our electoral parks: the Green Parties or the Rainbow Coalitions.

Remember Ralph Nader, for example?  Remember how Big Media colluded with the established parties in denying so-called “outside” candidates a seat at the table at the televised Presidential debates?

This year the Ralph Naders of the political world have suddenly swelled their ranks dramatically, but without the figurehead of a single leader at the head of the crowd.  As Nader knows only too well, one man at the head of a true opposition movement is open to all the slings and arrows that the establishment can muster.  Even Gore and Kerry have felt the force of the muddy vomit pitched their way out of the far-right Republican swampland.

Far better for the Occupy movements to stay plural and collective, strong in the anonymity of the multitudes.  Those of us who are serious about doing more than simply rearranging the deck chairs on the great hulking Titanic of American politics realize that “America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system” is exactly what has to go.

OK, Hendrik, it may be the only one we HAVE HAD, but now the veil has been torn down, the people are awake, and we realize that another world is possible.  As Arundhati Roy famously put it, “on a clear day, I can hear her breathing.”

That clear day has dawned.

Psst–did someone say…CLIMATE CHANGE???

A Year Full of Weather Disasters and an Economic Toll to Match – NYTimes.com.

Here is yet another example of the way the mainstream press reports on climate change without actually using that oh-so-loaded term.

“Normally, three or four weather disasters a year in the United States will cause at least $1 billion in damages each. This year, there were nine such disasters… These nine billion-dollar disasters tie the record set in 2008, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

The article goes on to say that the NOAA “is taking several steps to try to make the nation more “weather ready,” including making more precise forecasts, improving the ability to alert local authorities about risks and developing specialized mobile-ready emergency response teams.”

But not a word about what really needs to be done to slow down this destructive trend, saving lives and livelihoods, not to mention the environment itself–REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS!!!!

I wonder how the Times is going to cover the big climate change action coming up on Sept 24?  Check out Moving Planet for more info and to get involved.

Information warriors, we need you!

I mean, who wants to look at pictures of skinned baby seals?

Doing Battle with the Blob

I had a moment of eerie and upsetting disjunction this morning while listening to the CBC (that is, Canadian Broadcasting Co) radio news.

The announcer says that humanitarian aid organizations believe that 29,000 children under the age of 5 have died in past 90 days as a result of the famine now afflicting southern Somalia.  He goes on to say that nearly half a million young children are expected to die during this latest Somalian disaster.  Then, his voice shifting to an almost chirpy tone, he says, “Sports is next, after this break.”  And an ad for furniture begins blaring, and I change the channel.

The most upsetting thing about this is that I might not even have noticed it had I not stayed up past my bedtime last night reading Thomas de Zengotita’s fascinating new book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It.  De Zengotita (yes, that is his real name, apparently), argues that because of the way we are all supersaturated by the media now, we are forced to adapt by mentally “surfing” what we take in, on a generally unconscious level.

“The moreness of everything ascends inevitably to a threshold in psychic life. A change of state takes place…[as] the mind is forced to certain adaptations, if it is to cohere at all.  So, for example, when you hear statistics about AIDS in Africa for the 349th time, or see your 927th picture of a weeping fireman or an oil-drenched seabird, you can’t help but become fundamentally indifferent–unless it happens to be “your issue,” of course, one you “identify with,” a social responsibility option you have chosen.  Otherwise, you glide on, you have to, because you are exposed to things like this all the time.  All the time. Over breakfast.  In the waiting room.  Driving to work.  At the checkout counter.  All the time” (24).

De Zengotita says that as a result, we are cocooned inside what he calls a “Blob,” or others might call a bubble, which “mediates” between us and the outside world.

“Once in a while, in the public realm, some eruption of fate or evil–9/11, obviously, but also, say, a school shooting, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the hostage beheadings, something like that–will feel as if it…might pierce the membrane and…at least interrupt the Blob’s progress through the universe.

“But no.  Watch as the media antibodies swarm to the scene of those nascent interruptions.  These are the junctures that require the most coverage–and the latent meaning, the ironic dialectic implicit in that word emerges.  What must be covered is any event or person or deed that might challenge the Blob with something like a limit, something the Blob cannot absorb, something that could, in resistance or escape, become the one thing the omni-tolerant Blob cannot allow, something outside it, something unmediated–something real.

“But not to worry.  The Blob may have to devote some extra time and energy to these challenges, but in the end it prevails.  And how is the moment of its victory marked?  By your indifference….That’s when the original being of the real thing has been fully mediated.  It becomes representational, and that means optional.  You can turn it off, or on.  It’s up to you again (27).

I have of course noticed this indifference in myself and others–this ability to ignore anything disturbing that we learn of through the media.  I knew it was related to being overly saturated with bad news, to the point where our ability to empathize becomes numbed and disabled.

But I hadn’t really considered the extent to which this mediation process is alienating and impairing our fundamental ability to connect to the real.  We are so used to seeing emotion and action happening onscreen that even when it is happening to us directly, de Zengotita says, we “perform” as if we are acting in our own personal movie. And it becomes harder and harder for us to “turn off” this performative state.

De Zengotita gives several caveats about how the mediated public he’s talking about are the wealthy First World types like you and me, the ones who spend half their waking hours online, and are more at home with a keyboard than any other tool.  We do not represent the majority of humans yet, by any means, though our ranks grow every day.

Because we are so globally connected via the media, we know about the thousands of Haitians still living without permanent shelter 19 months after the big hurricane hit, and now going into yet another hurricane season.  We know about the famine in Somalia, and the polar bears swimming to death as the Arctic ice melts.

That’s part of the eeriness of this–we know about them, but they don’t know about us.  We have an almost godlike power to look down on the globe, Google-Earth-style, and watch what is going on everywhere.

And then we have the power to click another link and move on.

Hence the huge challenge for activist movements today to arouse  the masses to action–especially, it seems, young people.  We saw what happened in the so-called “Arab Spring” when the youth there texted their way to revolution.  But here in the US, our kids seem to be too busy enjoying life, playing video games and going to the mall, to worry about difficult issues like climate change or economic meltdown.

De Zengotita observes how activist organizations spend millions of dollars to create “hard-hitting films” that will break through the Blob/bubble and galvanize people to political action.  “Kids today have been subjected to thousands and thousands of high-impact images of misery and injustice in every corner of the globe before their are old enough to drive,” he says.  “The producers of these images compete with each other to arouse as much horror and pity and outrage as possible, hoping that this encounter with a person dying of AIDS or that documentary about sweatshop labor or these photographs of recently skinned baby seals will mobilize commitment.

“But what the cumulative experience has actually mobilized, in the majority, is that characteristic ironic distance that aging activists mistook for apathy.  But it wasn’t apathy as much as it was psychological numbness, a general defense against representational intrusions of all kinds–especially painful ones.  I mean, who wants to look at pictures of skinned baby seals?” (135).

True that.  And perhaps we mediated folk are doing the only healthy thing we can do faced with such a barrage of psychically inflicted pain–tuning out.  But there seems to me to be something profoundly immoral about all of us sitting pretty in front of our screens here in the heart of Empire, knowing about and ignoring the suffering that our lifestyles have done so much to cause.

So the question becomes: how to do battle with that Blob?

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