Keeping Mandela’s Dream Alive–Not Just for South Africa, but for the Planet!

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years as a terrorist.

And then he was released and became one of the greatest freedom fighters the world has ever known.

For me, the lesson is clear.

We cannot rely on others for a moral compass.

I am thinking of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Tim DeChristopher and Lord knows how many others who have been exiled or imprisoned for “treason” in the United States.

I believe they will be exonerated in the long run, just as Mandela was, and shown to be on the side of justice.

Nelson Mandela as a young man

Nelson Mandela as a young man

We shake our heads incredulously when we hear that Nelson Mandela was in jail and at hard labor for 27 years.

Twenty-seven years!  He was imprisoned just a few months before I was born, and released a few months before I married.

He came out to have a whole new life, like a butterfly breaking out of an unwanted cocoon.

The news media seems to be playing up the aspect of Nelson Mandela’s story that deals with forgiveness.

He forgave his captors.  He was not vindictive.  He believed in reconciliation.

Yes.

But I do not forgive them.  And the part of Mandela’s story I would like to focus on is his incredible perseverance in achieving his lifework of overcoming the evil of apartheid in South Africa.

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It takes great self-awareness and rock-solid confidence to maintain one’s moral compass in the face of a whole state and social apparatus set up to prove one wrong.

For example, climate activists today, like the Greenpeace 30–locked up in Russia for daring to challenge Russian drilling rights in the Arctic–need to be incredibly resolute in their insistence that we must do what we can to stop the runaway warming of the planet.

Today we have many ways of expressing our solidarity—ways that were not available to sympathizers of Mandela back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.  We need to use these communication channels to send a solid wave of support back to those who dare to challenge today’s rulers—the fossil fuel industry, the National Security Agency, and the like.

Mandela fought the good fight and he won.  Today, our fight is not for justice in one country, but for the very survival of the human race—and so many other species—on this planet.

We owe it to the memory of Nelson Mandela to stand firm and refuse to be bullied or intimidated.  We who are fighting for a sustainable planetary future are on the side of justice and will be vindicated as such, just like Mandela, if we are not all washed away first.

Nelson Mandela was great because he never gave up.  He remained true to his own moral compass and he lived his ideals.

We must do the same today, and then some, to keep Mandela’s flame alive and burning brightly for a new day on this sad beleaguered planet of ours.

It’s time to Occupy Congress!

What is happening in Washington, DC these days could lead not to anarchy but to monarchy, says political philosophy professor Michael Lynch in a New York Times op-ed piece today.

“Should shutdowns, debt-ceiling fights and the radical political legislative gridlock they represent really become a fixture of American political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that someone should  “step in” to make the decisions,” Lynch says. “The chorus calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the Congress — will only increase. If you are on the left, and Obama is still in power, you may even tell yourself that is a good thing. But it is a bad precedent, the type of precedent that causes democracies to erode.”

To me it seems clear that the someone who should be stepping in here is WE THE PEOPLE!!!

Judging by the Republicans’ abysmal and rapidly sliding approval rates, the obstructionists in Congress no longer represent the will of the people.  It’s up to us to show them the door and get on with all the much more important issues that face us.

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Where is Occupy when you need it?  Why haven’t any progressive groups been calling for a march on Washington to demonstrate on behalf of what we believe and what we want to see our elected representatives doing for us?

It seems like social media has frozen us in the sidelines as spectators rather than actors in this political tragi-farce that is unfolding day by depressing day.

Expressing one’s outrage to one’s circle of Facebook friends is like looking at one’s own reflection in a hall of mirrors.

Let’s get out of the funhouse and go march on the State House!

And not a tame weekend march, either.  Let’s march on a weekday, calling a general strike of work and school and civil business as usual until the Congress gets its act together and unclamps its stranglehold on Federal business as usual.

If there was ever a time when the President needed us to turn out and support him it is now.  Not just in donations, not just in approving tweets, but in the flesh.

Let’s Occupy Congress and stay there until the job is done.  Who’s in?

Seeking solidarity in the environmental justice movement

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

It’s hard to wrap my mind around 129 degrees Farenheit, a temperature so hot that meteorologists have had to add a new color to the heat spectrum to represent it.

The pictures coming out of Australia this week have been nightmarish.

You’ve probably seen them too: the charred sheep, the family taking desperate shelter under a dock while ash and sparks fly around them, the huge red sandstorm wall looming over the ocean.

This is the push-back of Mother Earth.

There is only so far you can push her, and 2012 seems to have been the threshold beyond which there can be no further illusion of business as usual continuing.

 

Family in Tasmania seek shelter from wildfires

Family in Tasmania seek shelter from wildfires

Even some of the most hard-nose politicians are getting it now: I was heartened to hear Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York speak of the urgent need to plan for climate change disasters in his State of the State speech this week.

But he is still on the fence as far as fracking New York goes, which shows he has yet to fully put two and two together.

Two and two cannot equal two, Mr. Cuomo.

In other words, you can’t continue to expand the fossil fuel industry and not expect the blowback of climate change to worsen.

A lot of people are getting this now.

Not the ones who have their heads so deeply buried in the technology sands that all they can think about is the excitement of the next app, MOOC or tablet.

Not the ones who are riding the current stock market wave to scary new heights, buoyed by who knows what fictitious understanding of the relationships between real people and real goods—referred to in finance-speak as “market shares” and “bundled securities.”

Not the 1%, still sitting comfortably above it all, looking down on the disturbances below like vultures surveying the activities of scurrying mice.

But down here at ground level, people are starting to look at each other and know, even without speaking, not only that things are wrong, but that we cannot rely on others to make it right.

Wildfires are killing thousands of sheep in Australia

Wildfires are killing thousands of sheep in Australia

That can be the only explanation for the sudden groundswell of support for the Idle No More movement, which, just like Occupy, tapped into the resistance of ordinary people to the bulldozers of global capitalism, now coming to a forest or a farm field near you.

The lure of short-term gains has led many a politician, businessman, landowner or Native tribe down the daisy path of signing off on legislation and leases giving Big Fossil Fuel the right to do whatever the hell they want.

But we’re wising up now.

Toxic wastes from Texaco-Chevron are poisoning people and animals alike in Ecuador

Toxic wastes from Texaco-Chevron are poisoning people and animals alike in Ecuador

We look at the way Chevron left Ecuador when it was done extracting all the oil it could, and we listen to the story of how relentlessly their lawyers fought against giving even the least amount of their vast profits towards reparations for the toxic environment they created, and we know we could be next.

Now they’re coming right here in the Northeast—in the watersheds of New York and Pennsylvania, buying up those fallow farm fields and bringing in their huge fracking drills.

They’re down in Texas, building the first leg of the proposed transAmerican oil pipeline that will bring the dirty sludge of tar sands oil down to the Gulf of Mexico refineries, crossing over aquifers and farmland, by cities and pristine national parks.

And they’re up in Alberta with their giant bulldozers and dump trucks, razing the fragile boreal forest to get at the oozing tar underneath.

But in all these places, people are stirring.  People are rising in protest.  People are seeing that the short-term gains from these destructive fossil-fuel driven industries are going to quickly burn up, driving the stock market temporarily higher only to set up an even bigger crash in the future; keeping our homes warm and light today, only to set up bigger and worse climate-related disasters down the road.

Tree-sitters in Texas

Tree-sitters in Texas

A few brave souls have been sitting in the trees in Texas to block the pipeline, a resistance strategy pioneered in the 1990s when Julia Butterfly Hill sat in Luna, a giant California redwood, for more than a year to keep the loggers from cutting her and her neighbors down.

The First Nations are on the march in Canada in a movement that is spreading like wildfire across the world, protesting the poisoning of the environment by the fat cats in boardrooms who arrogantly believe that they exist on another plane, a modern-day Mount Olympus that is impervious to the environmental destabilization they are wreaking on the world.

Students are rolling out an urgent campaign to get their college and university trustees to divest their portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, these efforts can be beamed across the globe instantly, refracted and amplified through the networks of hundreds of millions of kindred spirits worldwide.

The dissenting power of the many that Hannah Arendt wrote of back in the late 20th century has never been more powerful, in part because resistance can now take place virtually.

We don’t have to go out and brave the guns and tear-gas, although probably in the end it will have to come to that.

We can build our networks at home, working quietly but steadily until they are so big that to arrest us all would be, as Marx predicted, to undermine the capitalist structure itself—throw all the workers in jail, and who’s going to do the work?

Idle No More protesters on Highway 401 in London, Ont., in December.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Idle No More protesters on Highway 401 in London, Ont., in December.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Right now all of these protest movements are disparate, each working on their own perceived goals.  What I hope to see in the coming year is more solidarity, more recognition that we’re all really fighting the same grand battle to keep our planet from being so devastated that it can no longer support life as we know it.

Life will continue on Earth, there is no doubt of that.  But whether humans, elephants, songbirds and frogs will be able to persist on a super-heated planet is quite uncertain.

It is imperative that we build an unstoppable grassroots movement to prevail on our elected representatives to represent the people rather than the corporations, and do what’s right.

How many catastrophic hurricanes, out-of-control wildfires, drought-stricken fields, bleached out corals will it take before we make use of our power as denizens of the world and say NO MORE?

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The Cabal Behind the Curtain

It’s hard to understand the kind of person who would be taken in by Mitt Romney’s absolutely unsubstantiated claims that he’ll be able to magically produce 23 million new jobs in the next four years, and raise take-home pay while he’s at it.

Do people really think Mitt is a magician?

Watching him struggle to appear mild-mannered and fangless during the debates—an effort that translated into a zombie-like smirk—I began to understand him as the puppet he is, a marionette whose strings are pulled by the cabal behind the curtain: the Koch brothers and their ilk, along with Big Fossil Fuel, Big Pharma, Big Chemical, Big Ag, Big Free Trade, Big Finance, you name it.

Now, it’s true that that gang has their tentacles in Obama too.  You can see the strain the President is under, trying to please his popular base while also keeping his pockets open for the big under-the-table donations that keep his campaign afloat.

Guys like the Kochs hedge their bets.  Whichever of the two parties wins, they’ll carry on just fine.

But if it’s Romney/Ryan, their agenda will take a great leap forward.

We’ll automate and outsource jobs like crazy, to satisfy Wall Street—the hell with Main Street.

We’ll drill and frack and mine and bulldoze our way to oblivion, and call it Kingdom Come.

We’ll appoint more social conservatives to the Supreme Court, and put women back where they belong: barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

We’ll drastically increase our military spending, at the expense of social welfare programs.  Those who dare to ask for help with affording health care, education, or retirement, not to mention simply being able to eat regularly and keep a roof overhead, will be asked coldly: Can’t you borrow from your parents?  Or, are there no workhouses?

Not only that, but the first thing we’ll do in office—day one!—is pick a fight with the Chinese over currency manipulation.

Yes, Obama is the better of the two choices, for all the reasons he has laid out himself during the Presidential debates.

We must re-elect him, and continue to work to strengthen the progressive movement over the next four years, so we don’t backslide in 2016.

But part of this work must be to stand up for true democracy in our supposedly democratic nation.

Stein and Honkala arrested outside Hofstra U on Oct 16

The detention of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala last week was reprehensible, and I am glad to see they are filing suit—at least that way more people will know what happened to them when they tried to enter Hofstra University to participate in the presidential debate there.

You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media that Stein and Honkala were taken by police to a secret detention facility and handcuffed tightly to metal chairs for eight hours, without being allowed to consult their lawyers or staff.

Thank goodness for Amy Goodman, who broke this story and has refused to let it die, broadcasting “alternative debates” on Democracy Now that give the other three candidates on the November ballot a chance to have their views heard on national television.

Goodman is a model for the kind of alert, engaged and impassioned citizenry we desperately need in the coming decade, when the economic and environmental challenges we face are going to be increasingly dire.

We don’t need more goon cops in riot gear to maintain order, we need more ordinary people taking the time and energy and yes, the risk, to stand up for our rights to a safe, sustainable future.

After we re-elect Obama, those of us who understand what is at stake need to get to work with redoubled energy on building a broad coalition of people who care about our future and are willing to lead the way in making the necessary changes to ensure that human civilization survives on this planet.

This is a struggle that concerns all of us: we need to work across ethnicities, across gender, and across nationalities to engage the young and the old, the faith-based groups, centrists and leftists, the elites and the working class.

We can’t let a few shortsighted, greedy, impossibly foolish billionaires hijack our future.  It’s ours to save—or to lose.

Malala Yousafzai Stands Up for Us All

There are a couple of old saws that I was taught as a young journalist, which I continue to pass on to my media studies students now.

One is: if it bleeds, it leads.

And another: one powerful human interest story is worth a million statistics.

We saw both of these principles in action with this week’s news of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistan girl who New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “one of the world’s most persuasive advocates for girls’ education.”

Everyone probably knows by now of how the Taliban viciously shot Malala in the neck as punishment for her outspoken insistence that girls should be allowed—and indeed, encouraged—to go to school, just like boys.

She is now the face of millions of girls worldwide who are denied the chance to get an education and empower themselves and their communities.

This week the Times also reports that in Africa, unprecedented wealth is being generated by the efforts of a rising tide of entrepreneurs—many of them women.

UN Women, formerly known as UNIFEM, has argued for years that by educating a girl, you help her whole family, including the children she will one day bear.

After all, as the Chinese say, “Women hold up half the sky.”

I am glad to see that Pakistanis have come together to reject the extremist politics of the gunmen who shot Malala.

We should all light a candle for her today as she is flown to the West for more treatment, and pray that this brave girl survives the attack and returns to the fray to serve as a defiant model for all girls, whose instinctive human desire for education will not be extinguished so easily.

In the Christian tradition, Eve takes the blame for the fall from Paradise, and here in the U.S., too, we can see many examples of strong women being sharply checked: for instance, in the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords or the mocking of Hillary Clinton for wearing pants suits and acting tough.

The story of Malala Yousafzai is one particularly emblematic story among many that could be told, of women and girls who dare to stand up to patriarchal power, and learn quickly that such defiance has its price.

Lately we’ve been seeing a steady drumbeat of reports—most of them disapproving—of how women are becoming more successful in school and in careers, threatening traditional male dominance in the public sphere.

Maybe it’s time for a reminder that feminism was never about dominance—it was and is about equality.

What’s so threatening about that?

I’m sorry, but real men don’t shoot 14-year-old girls under any circumstances.

To me a real man is the one who encourages his children, regardless of their gender, to stay in school and work hard to be prepared to step out into a future that is sure to be challenging.

A real man applauds his wife’s successes, and stands by her side when things are rough.

Real women do the same.

The truth is that gender is just another one of those culturally conditioned differences, like eye shape or skin tone, that fade to irrelevance before the profound reality of our human similarities.

Having unlocked the secrets of the genome, we now know that human beings are genetically 99% the same as field mice.

Isn’t that enough to convince us that men and women are only different in the most superficial ways?

Sure, women can bear children; men are more muscular.  But our brains are close to identical, and our hearts are the same.

Our spirits, freed of our physical bodies, know no differences.

It’s time to soar above the petty in-fighting of gender, and work together for the good of all.

 

All that solid melts in air: Labor Day reflections on Marx, Darwin and the need for new paradigms

As always around Labor Day, I am getting ready to talk with young people about some old, dead people: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all of whom loom large in the curriculum of the General Education seminar required of sophomores at my college.

Rereading Darwin and Marx, who we’ll be discussing this week, it’s not hard at all to find ways to make these old thinkers, whose ideas are more than 100 years old now, relevant for our times.

Darwin

Darwin believed that life is a constant battle for limited resources, with the “struggle for existence” being entirely material, rather than spiritual.  When a dominant species overruns a weaker species, it is always for the best:

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”

He believed that humans are the highest, most important species, and that within the species men are higher than women, and white-skinned, “civilized” people are better than dark-skinned “savages.”  And implicit in his theory of natural selection is the ideology of Manifest Destiny: that strong, rich people got that way because they were “better” than poor, weak people.

It’s the logic that paved the way for the ruthless capitalist paradigm that presided over the industrial revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries, along with the relentless search for new markets and new sources of raw materials: colonialism, imperialism, globalization.

Marx

Writing back in the mid-19th century, Marx was incredibly prescient.  His description, in “The Communist Manifesto,” of the process of colonial globalization could have been written last week:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

This actually doesn’t sound like much of a critique—Marx describes the positive side of capitalist globalization first.  But then he shows, with remarkable foresight, how the capitalists are unable to control the economic system they have created:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells….It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

We have just lived through one of these episodic crises that Marx is talking about here—the bursting of the housing bubble, and the broad financial crisis that was generated by an over-reliance on debt.

The “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” is a nice way of saying “war”; and indeed, our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept the military-industrial complex humming, along with companies like Halliburton that snapped up all the rebuilding contracts.

Marx believed that the capitalist system would fail because it is structurally unable to support the needs of the masses.  It is built on inequality—on the Darwinian framework of the “struggle for existence” where might makes right, the strong survive and the weak perish, and the spoils of industry are concentrated tightly in the hands of a small dominant class, the bourgeoisie.

The modern laborer… instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

Marx thought it inevitable that the middle class would sink into the proletariat as wealth became more and more concentrated in the hands of the few capitalists controlling government and industry.  And the proletariat, having nothing left to lose, would eventually rise up and seize power, overthrowing the capitalist system and instituting a new economic system, more truly “by the people, for the people.”

However, Marx was still a prisoner of his time as regards his understanding of humans’ relation to our natural environment.  He was not able to foresee that industrial growth, whether under the leadership of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, would bump up against the carrying capacity of the planet, providing a natural (in Darwin’s terms) limit to growth.

Darwin would look out at what’s happening to our planet today, in the age of climate change, and see it quite dispassionately, as part of the process of natural selection. People in low-lying areas will have to migrate or die. We will figure out ways to adapt to our new climate reality, or we will be swept away.  The strong will survive, the weak will perish.

Marx, on the other hand, would be ranting about how the bourgeoisie have, in his own words, “dug their own graves,” and taken everyone along with them.  He would be calling for the international proletariat to rise up and fight for a better social system, in which labor is rewarded with well-being and the profits circulate among the many, rather than being concentrated in the hands of the few at the top.

We know with the power of hindsight that no Communist system has ever actually been successful at making people happy.

This is because the old hierarchical structures that have pervaded human civilizations for thousands of years still tend to creep back, no matter what name we give our socio-economic structure.

The challenge of our time is to envision a social structure that is horizontal, circular and interdependent, rather than vertical, linear and unidirectional.

A social structure in a harmonious give and take with the natural world, rather than one that only takes and takes to feed the maw of human industry.

Darwin may be right that the strong will survive and the weak will perish, but our concept of strength needs to change to meet our new reality.

Strength is not about domination and the ability to force others to bend, it is about cooperation and the ability to bring people and the natural world into productive harmony.

Black Elk

What we need now is a renaissance of indigenous tribal social systems, based on reverence for the natural world, and respect for one another.

Those people Darwin dismissed as “savages” may turn out to be the only ones who are able to survive in our new planetary epoch, as “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

 

Swept Away

There are times when I wish I had the skills to be a political cartoonist, and this is one of those times.

I am imagining a huge hurricane bearing down on the huddles of Republicans and Democrats, each hunched in conspiratorial circles around their own little campfires, plotting away about TV ads and televised speeches, while the lightening sears the electrical grid, huge ships get washed up on the streets of coastal cities, and homes are blasted and flattened. Those crazy strategists don’t even look up until the pouring rain puts out their fire, and by then the storm is on them and it’s too late to run and there’s nowhere to hide.

Reading the latest political blog from The New York Times “Caucus” column makes me feel sick.

Here comes a storm that may cost lives and billions in property damage, and all the brightest minds in Washington DC can think about is how best to play it politically?

If that is the way all threats to our wellbeing are treated by our politicians, it is no wonder that we’re in such trouble today.

I expect better from the Democrats, but as so many of my readers have insisted vociferously lately, maybe I need to take off my rose-colored glasses and see my party for what it is.

Just another political party whose main goal and raison d’etre is simply Power.  Politicians who try to play by more humanitarian rules don’t seem to get too far in Washington.  Once they get into the clutches of the political strategists, their lives and minds are not their own.

There must be another way.

I can take off my rose-colored glasses as regards what we have now, the players currently on the ground.  But I refuse to let go of my hope that the system can be better.

True, the Marxist experiment has not worked, and nothing has come along to offer another vision of a more ideal socio-political-economic system.

But there are some interesting ideas brewing on the margins now.  The Living Economies movement, the Green Party agenda, the whole ethos of sustainability as opposed to limitless growth.

Maybe the real end to that cartoon strip I’m imagining is what happens the day after the storm.

The Republicans and Democrats are standing on soapboxes making speeches about how much they care about the damage, but no one is listening to them. People are going about the business of clean-up with determination and good cheer, and it’s quite clear that they have no use at all for the out-of-touch pols.

Yes, those elected officials do control the purse strings of “disaster relief.”   But that’s our money they’re parsing out!  Our tax dollars, far too much of which goes to blowing things up in the military, rather than in constructing a solid, sustainable economy.

The question I am mulling over this morning is, what will it take to achieve fundamental political changes in our country?   Can we do it by reform, or is it going to take all out revolution?

Or will Mother Earth do it for us, sweeping it all away to make way for a new epoch?

Taking the Leap into a Better World

Lately I’ve been feeling like I am straddling two banks that are rapidly moving away from each other, leaving me performing ever more of a balancing act in the middle of a rushing stream.

One foot is still hanging on to the familiar dry land on which I was born and bred: the safe, predictable world of a privileged existence within the capitalist empire, where every problem has a technological solution, all needs are met, and there is nothing really to worry about, beyond what to have for dinner, or where to go on the next vacation.

This is the world in which I am a true-blue Democrat, I pay my taxes without question, and I work hard in expectation of an eventual pleasant retirement.

But I also have a foot in quite another realm, one that is still quite foreign to most of my peers.

In this other, parallel universe, security and predictability are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, as the weather turns ever more erratic, leading to food shortages and a survivalist mentality.  Clashes between unarmed protesters and heavily armed police are common, with the protests mainly concerning lack of basic food and supplies.

No one knows where this is all heading, but it does not appear to be anywhere positive. The elites have hidden themselves away in their own privately funded strongholds, and other than the military folks it does not seem that anyone is really in charge.

Most people I know are clinging to the first bank, even though it’s beginning to seem ever more unstable, as if beset by internal tremors that are slowly but surely breaking it up. They are positioned like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking resolutely backward, away from the chaos of the future.

I don’t know why I am unable to join them in their denialist party.  It sure looks like a good time.

But having become aware of the crisis through which we’re living, I can’t just turn a switch and pretend I don’t know what’s going on. The second bank is like a mirage that is slowly coming into focus, no matter how much I try to turn away and not look.

I’ve spent long enough studying narratives of social upheaval and moments of violent crisis to know one when I see it coming.

A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review provided an unusual window into the curious calm before the storm of all-out societal dissolution—in this case, the unfolding Syrian civil war.

The author, Janine di Giovanni, begins with a series of questions: “What does it feel like when a war begins? When does life as you know it implode? How do you know when it is time to pack up your home and your family and leave your country? Or if you decide not to, why?”

When does life as you know it implode?

When is it time to pack up and leave?

Where can we go to find safety?

Eastern European immigrants entering New York

These are questions that my ancestors asked, back in the 19th century Europe of ever-narrowing restrictions and ever-more-violent pogroms.  I am here because they had the courage and the foresight to get away to safety before it was too late.

But now the safely cushioned existence that so many of us have enjoyed here in the U.S. and other privileged enclaves on the planet is threatened by a crisis of our own making.

We didn’t realize that everything about our lifestyle, politics and ideology would contribute to the downfall not just of American empire, but of human civilization itself.

We didn’t realize what a deadly game we were playing.

But we can no longer plead ignorance.

Unlike our predecessors, we 21st century folk are going to have a very hard time finding any place to go that is safe, where we can ride out the climate shocks unscathed.

We can’t run, we can’t hide from the environmental shocks that are only just beginning to hit. 

We have to stay and see this through.

What that will mean I am not sure.  In part it depends on how many of us wake up now and begin to take some proactive steps towards reorganizing our society, before we’re reduced to reactive crisis control.

Our political system is locked in a kind of stasis from which there does not seem to be any forward movement possible—just endless round and round and round.

We must move forward—grow, evolve, adapt—if we are to survive.

Today I caught a glimmer of something new that may be the early stages of the kind of change we need to successfully weather the coming storms.

The International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS) is an emergent (or is it insurgent?) movement to create a decentralized, highly participatory catalyst for urgent social change.

It’s not clear yet whether it will be a flash in the pan or an idea whose time has come.

So far it has just over 2,000 members worldwide.

Including me.

Maybe it’s time to stop straddling both banks.  Time to take the leap and jump fully into new territory, both feet on the ground.

May Day: Here, There and Everywhere

A reader asks why I did not stay home from work and join the May Day protests today, and I feel like this question deserves a serious response.

Partly, I have always had a phobia about crowds, and never willingly put myself into a crowd situation.  I don’t even like to go to an agricultural fair, or a peaceful parade.  In my Manhattan youth, crowds and violence often went together, or at least crowds and the fear of violence.  I am a wimp.

Partly, I felt like I could do more good in my classroom today than anonymously out on the streets.  It is the last full week of classes at my institution; students are finishing up projects that need response and guidance.  If I didn’t show up to work today, it would throw a monkey wrench in the plans I made for a graceful and productive ending to our semester together.

Partly, I don’t have any beef against my own employer, so not showing up for work today would affect the wrong target, while making no difference at all to the intended target, the 1%.

I guess the biggest reason I felt like my presence was expendable to today’s protest is because no one would notice if I was or was not out there on the street, but I would definitely be missed from my classroom.

However, in at least one of my two classes today, I did spend some time talking about May Day and the reasons for the protest.

I was surprised to learn that very few of my students had any clue as to what May Day signified to the labor movement, or why the protests today were taking place.

I don’t know why I assumed that my students would be more politically aware than I was at their age.

Turns out, few of them even realized there were going to be significant protests today, much less what they were all about.  Some also had their doubts as to whether the Occupy approach was likely to be effective.

Well, I pressed them, if occupying public spaces is not an effective means of protest, what would be more effective?  Joining a political campaign?  Writing a letter to the editor?

No one had an answer to that, but I could see the wheels turning.

And that’s why I am glad I decided to stay at work today.  At least with this one small group of students, I was able to foreground these historic May Day protests in their minds, and ask some questions that no one else probably would have asked them today.

Maybe as a result they will be paying attention to the news in a different way, and thinking more concretely about how the issues blazoned across all those posters and banners are relevant to their own particular lives.

Whether working on the small canvas, in the classroom, or the big canvas, out in the street, we are working together to build up the necessary momentum to blast our way to a better world.

 

Which Side Are You On?

So here we sit on the eve of May Day 2012, and there is an eerie calm-before-the-storm kind of feeling.

The mainstream media is still doing its best to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on.

The only May-Day related event reported in the NY Times today was that a lawsuit was filed in federal court to keep police from using “pen” barricades to hold demonstrators against their will.

Apparently news of the remarkable energy, creativity and defiant spirit showed by the Occupy movement in the countdown to May Day is not fit to print, ie, not important to the intended audience of The Times.

But if you move over to Twitter and search #Occupy, #OccupyWallSt, or #MayDay, you get a whole different picture of what’s going on.

Instead of the nose-in-the-air ho-hum of the fat-cat NY Times, suddenly you’re plunged into a hum of activity, down on the ground with a million twittering mice running around energetically, purposefully and thoughtfully.

There is @OccupyColleges calling for a student strike to protest the debt-bondage of student loans.

#OWS is trumpeting the latest total of 135 U.S. cities where general strikes have been organized for tomorrow.

The Nation, Democracy Now, and Truthout are publishing advance stories preparing for what’s coming.

The media landscape itself bears evidence of the huge and widening gap between the 1%-dominated old guard, napping on its laurels, and the feisty up-and-at-‘em new media webizens, who are vigilant and unafraid to welcome in something new and different.

For make no mistake, the General Strike planned for tomorrow is something new.

International Workers Day has not been celebrated in the U.S. for a long time.  In fact, during most of my lifetime it was demonized as a Communist holiday, which you’d be unpatriotic–unAmerican!–to take seriously.

We’ve come a long way in a very short time.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, being a worker, rather than a boss, is no longer a sign of personal shortcomings, as in: what’s wrong with you, that you’re still only earning minimum wage, bub?  You dumb or something?

Likewise, the Occupy Foreclosures movement has taught us that it’s not that we were stupid to apply for that tempting mortgage, it’s that the banks were predatory and sleazy to talk us into it.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, the onus has shifted to the 1% to prove that what they’re doing is responsible and for the good of all, rather than motivated by naked greed and self-interest.

The rapacious vulture Capitalism that has dominated the U.S., and hence the world, since the end of World War II has been exposed, and there is no going back.

It may be true that many of the strikers are motivated by self-interest rather than pure altruism.  They want jobs, along with affordable housing, education and health care.

But it’s also true that the Capitalist masters of the universe have lost control of the ship and can no longer pull levers to make jobs and other social benefits magically appear.

Unless, that is, the ultra-rich 1% can be persuaded to part with a fair portion of their loot.

History shows that when the gap between the haves and have-nots widens too far, something snaps and the mob takes over to reset the balance.  Think the American, French and Haitian Revolutions.  Think the Communist takeovers of Russia and China.

When it happens, it isn’t pretty.  Haven’t those in power learned their lesson?  Don’t they realize that they can only push the 99% so far before all the police barricades in the world won’t be able to hold us back?

I don’t think we’ve hit that snapping point yet.  But May Day 2012 is going to be something to watch, and something to participate in, too, if the spirit moves you.

Me, I’ll be teaching my classes this May Day, but with a tip of my hat to what’s going on down at the barricades in New York and all across the country.

And you?  Where will you be on this historic International Worker’s Day?

“Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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