Another Day, Another Mass Killing: Confronting the Causes of Young Men’s Rage

As we wake up to yet another spasm of hideous violence in the world—this time more than 75 innocent Bastille Day revelers mowed down by a truck driven at high speed along a packed sidewalk—I can feel myself reeling off into that terrified little-girl mindset, a cellular memory of always being afraid in crowds, always being afraid of violence lurking around the corner, always seeking the safety of my own little room, my own little bed, hiding under the covers.

But I am well into midlife now, and I can’t hide under the covers anymore. I have to accept adult responsibility for the violent world we live in. If young men are angry enough to risk their own lives to kill gay Latinos in a nightclub—to kill Parisian youth at a rock concert—to kill police officers—to kill young men of color—to kill, kill, kill—what does that say about the society they grew up in? Whether they grew up in Tunisia or Florida, they are part of the same global society that I live in too, and the anger that leads to the killing is real and must be addressed. Adding more anti-terrorist squads, sending out more drones—these are tactics aimed at the symptoms, but do nothing for the causes of the violence.

Virtually nothing is ever said about causes of these young men’s anger and fear and how/why it prompts them to actions of violent hatred. And yes, I am putting racist police who kill innocent people in the same boat as the racist terrorists. Difference of ideology, difference of scale, but same result: innocent people dying.

I’m also being deliberate here in my use of pronouns. Every single mass shooting in the U.S. has been perpetrated by young men, and I have yet to hear of a woman cop being charged with an unjust killing, although there have been some young women coerced into becoming suicide bombers in other places in the world. For the most part the terrorists have other uses for the women—as sex slaves. The question that seems primary to me is a simple one: what is causing so many young men to become so violent?

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I believe that every baby comes into this world with the capacity to become a loving human being. We may have different propensities to kindness or cruelty, but these can be worked on in the nurturing process. Bloodthirstiness and criminal violence is not genetically programmed, at least not yet. But it seems to be overtaking more and more of our young men, worldwide. What’s up with that? Where is it coming from?

Social indoctrination. Boys are being trained to love violence and to see themselves in the role of the aggressor. This is happening everywhere a boy has access to a violent video game, and with guidance from adults in places like radical Islamic madrassahs and radical gun-rights enclaves in the US. It’s happening all over the Internet, wherever violent fanatics hang their hats. The result: a steady beat of mass killings by fanatical young men with guns, acting out of a perceived sense of righteousness.

Ready availability of weapons. Ours is a world awash with weapons. The countries that manufacture the weapons decry the violence at the same time as they gloat over the profits of selling the arms—to their own people and abroad. The violence won’t stop until we deal with this contradiction and restrict weapons to the hands of trained peacekeepers, turning the giant factories to manufacturing implements of peace instead of weapons of war.

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Poor education and lack of opportunities for young men. Young men need challenge. They need opportunities to shine and excel and receive the admiration of their peers. These days too many young men must make do with vicarious pleasures: rooting for sports teams, playing video games. In the end they have to pull away from the screen and confront the fact that their lives are going nowhere. They don’t have the education or skills to get satisfying work. They’d rather be unemployed than work in demeaning jobs. They take out their frustrations on their girlfriends or on each other…and end up in prison, or dead. A few break that general mold and go out in flames, taking a handful of innocent bystanders with them.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is so much good work to be done in the world. We need to improve education, offering retraining to young men who need it, and develop a new international public works program like Roosevelt’s post-Depression Civilian Conservation Corps, which put thousands of young men to productive, society-building work. It doesn’t have to be just manual labor, although the strong backs and firm muscles of young men would be welcome on myriads of civilian projects. We also need young men to write and sing and dance and entertain. We need young men to develop better video games that are about the human power to create, rather than our compulsion to destroy. We need loving young men to guide our boys.

Nothing I’m saying here is new, or rocket science. I’m just so frustrated at our current way of responding to violence with fear, dread and retaliation, instead of with resolve to get to the bottom of what is causing young men to act out in this deadly way, over and over and over. I’m frustrated with the political deadlocks in the U.S. that make it easier for a young man to buy an assault weapon than to get a driver’s license. I’m frustrated with the kneejerk responses to terrorism that blame entire communities for the rage of a few individuals.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said so many times, in so many ways: Violence will not be stopped by more violence. It can only be stopped by loving attention to the sources of the rage.

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Loving people, we can’t hide under the covers. We have to connect and communicate with each other across all the artificial barriers that divide us, and resolve to do everything we can to confront the problems we face as local communities and on a global level. This just can’t go on.

From Orlando to Dallas and beyond: dreaming of a homeland to be proud of

The weather here in Nova Scotia has been stormy, but that’s nothing compared with the storms sweeping across my homeland, the USA. I write the word “homeland” with an inner cringe…can I really call this violent place home? Home is supposed to be a place of refuge; a sanctuary. I feel that about my island home here in Canada, but when I contemplate going back across the border, I can’t avoid an instinctive sense of fear and foreboding.

According to the astrologers, Mars is in Scorpio now—pretty potent times, when the god of war meets the sign known for intensity around death and sexuality. That might have “explained” the tragedy in Orlando. But the steady beat of innocent Black folks being gunned down by law enforcement officers for misdemeanors—or no crime at all—cannot be explained by anything except a racist society full of trigger-happy cops.

And this latest episode in Dallas defies any explanation. I am not satisfied with the official story, that a single sniper was able to kill five cops and injure several more people before being cornered in a parking garage. I have not seen any convincing evidence proving that the young man they killed in the garage with a “robot bomb” was in fact the sniper they were looking for. Eventually I assume they will show the forensic evidence linking the bullets found in the bodies to Micah Johnson’s gun, but even that kind of evidence could be trumped up.

I fear that this young veteran, handily dead, could be taking the fall for a sinister conspiracy aimed at further destabilizing the country and giving the police permission to “get tougher.” Which seems to mean, use more of their military surplus equipment against their own homeland citizens.

I read an article by an ex-cop who said 15% of cops are good people who would never commit a racist act; 15% are racists just waiting for an opportunity to strike; and 70% are just ordinary folks, susceptible to the prevailing culture in their community and police force.

Those percentages are probably about right when applied to the U.S. population at large, too. Clearly what needs to be worked on is the prevailing culture—the structural racism, the structural elitism, the deck stacked against the poor, no matter the color of their skin, and the way it’s becoming almost impossible to climb out of poverty if you’ve been born into it.

This bigger picture is what can be so hard to get from the media, which converts everything into sound-bites, “status updates,” or even, lord help us, tweets. Everything moves so fast, we are kept busy just trying to stay abreast of what’s going on, with little time or energy for contemplation.

Meanwhile, out there beyond the personal and political, the planet herself is getting ever more out of balance. The floods, the wildfires, the toxic algae blooms, fungi killing off amphibians and bats, the sudden death of entire populations of birds, reindeer and seals…it’s all part of the bigger picture of a planet gone deeply awry.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the violence and political mayhem we are seeing in the world is connected to the inner turmoil in human beings. We are the consciousness of the planet. We alone among all species are able to understand history and predict the future. We know the consequences of our actions and we live and die according to moral codes.

All of us who are sick at heart in these days of horrendous violence at home must understand that what we are seeing in the U.S. is just a pale echo of the massive violence Americans have inflicted on people in other countries (from Vietnam to Iraq, from El Salvador to Afghanistan and on and on), as well as—on an even bigger scale—on other living beings on the planet, from iconic creatures like elephants and lions on down to coral, fish and butterflies, not to mention all the beautiful members of the plant kingdom.

Since we have allowed the arming of our civilian population with military-style weapons, our country is turning into the same kind of war zone  experienced by people in other countries, and animals everywhere.

And more of us are becoming infected with that conflictive kind of consciousness, dominated by fear and its twin, aggression. The inner landscape mirrors the outer landscape, with devastating consequences for those caught in the crossfire.

Neither fear nor aggression will get us where we need to go, as individuals, as a society, or on the global scale. Nor does moral exhortation seem to have much effect. The only real solution has to be the deep, structural one: redirecting our resources away from weapons and war, towards education, well-being and an economy that gives every human being the opportunity to live a peaceful, satisfying life.

You may say this is utopian. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” There are many economists who understand that we have a choice whether or not to base our global livelihoods on the death-and-aggression-focused military-industrial complex, or on “right livelihood,” the kind of activities and industries that make people happy, well and fulfilled, and at the same time protect and care for our planet and the myriad other creatures who live here too.

While honoring all those—and there are so many—who have fallen prey to our violent culture, we must keep in mind the bigger picture, and the magnitude of what is at stake. The violence perpetrated against Black people at home is the same violence being perpetrated against so many others, in all the places in the world where we sell and deploy our vaunted American military weapons and expertise.

Let’s dare to imagine a future in which Americans are famous and respected not for the size of our military budget, but for our leadership in stabilizing our planet and making it a safe, prosperous home for everyone. We can do it. And we must.

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Brexit, Trump & Sanders Insist: We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. But Who Are We?

When faced with the madness of the world, I often get the impulse to just retreat into my own private little corner and raise the drawbridge—let the world go to hell, just leave me in peace! But of course, no sooner does such a thought manifest than I realize how ridiculous it is: there are no “private little corners” anymore on this crowded planet, we are all as interconnected as a hive of bees, and just as vulnerable to plagues, whether mental or physical.

I’m sure you’re aware that bees have been having all kinds of problems lately, caused by humans overworking them or meddling with their environment through chemicals. In one common scenario, chemically addled bees simply lose their way out in the field, unable to navigate their way back to the hive. Out there alone, even surrounded by flowers, they die.

Today’s very close vote by Britons to leave the European Union seems to me just such an addled choice, driven by xenophobia and the injured feeling of having given up too much for too little in the way of rewards. Sound familiar, Americans?

I don’t know enough about Brexit supporters to be able to analyze their motives—I am sure we will be treated to an earful of punditry on that subject in the days to come. What I do know is that this vote symbolizes—or even actualizes—a dangerous political current that we are facing here in the U.S. as well.

Is it pure coincidence that Donald Trump was in Scotland on the eve of this historic vote for just exactly the kind of political extremism he represents? Am I out of my mind to see shades of conspiracy in this series of events: UK votes to leave the EU… stock markets crash…softening up the US electorate with the fear and crisis Republicans have manipulated so well in the past…allowing the engineering of a Republican presidential win, with Trump or someone else at the helm, maybe Paul Ryan?

Oh, give me my moat and drawbridge should that ever come to pass! And yet I know there would be no moat wide enough to protect me or any of us good-hearted people from the danger such a scenario would represent.

The only way around this is straight through, with full engagement. I am heartened to see the mainstream media beginning to regularly fact-check the inimical Mr. Drumpf and trumpeting the fact of his constant shameless lying. But the general public, particularly of the Republican variety, doesn’t read The New York Times. How can we communicate to them the catastrophe they’d be inviting by allowing the Republican Party to have its way with America? How do you communicate with people who won’t listen to reason?

The latest episode of U.S. Congressional charades—I mean, politics—in which the distinguished Democrats of the U.S. House of Representatives sat defiantly on the floor of the Chamber, phone video feeds flying high, signaled not only these courageous Representatives’ desperation to be heard on the gun control issue, but also the tactics that succeed in our weird, through-the-looking-glass times.

Go ahead, Paul Ryan, you can try to shut down the official cameras that, through C-SPAN, would have informed Americans about this bizarre act of democracy happening in the heart of the U.S. empire. Social media is the new Paul Revere, riding at lightspeed to alert the populace, and it is much harder to shut down.

Of course, both sides are working social media. We on the side of sanity—that is, peace, justice, prosperity for all—must work it harder and smarter. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment we’re in now. We can’t have a Brexit scenario happening here with the U.S. presidential elections. No. Way.

Here are some questions I wish I didn’t have to ask:

  • Why are we allowing the Republicans to get away with stealing our democracy by not appointing a Supreme Court judge? Would they ever allow Democrats to get away with that, should the situation be reversed, with a Republican president making the appointments? We are we standing by passively and allowing this to play out as they want it to?
  • Why do the Republicans want the general populace of the US to be armed with the most deadly weapons a single human being can carry? When the Second Amendment was enacted, it was because at that time, ordinary citizens would often have to be called upon as spontaneous militia. Is that part of the diabolical Republican playbook now too? Think about that for a moment, you don’t have to use too much imagination to see where that scenario goes….
  • Fear and hate thrive on crisis. Could it be that what the xenophobic, bigoted haters fear most of all is a peaceful, just, prosperous world, where everyone is doing just fine?

They’ll tell you such a new world is impossible, but I know that’s not true.

We humans are blessed with extraordinary intelligence. If we chose to use it for the good of the hive, and each member of the hive, we would thrive and create a global civilization that would rival our greatest utopian dreams.

We are capable of it, and we’ve already envisioned it. We just need collective and individual determination to turn back the tides of hatred, fear, violence and isolation. We need clarity and dedication to work together, locally and globally, to manifest the better world our hearts know is possible.

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Bernie Sanders allowed us to see, in a visceral, lines-around-the-block, stadiums-overflowing kind of way, that there are a lot of us good-hearted people here in America, just waiting for a leader to call us together.

We’ve got to stop waiting.

In our networked, hyperlinked times, we don’t need a single charismatic leader anymore, and that’s what the shining example of Bernie shows us: that each of us can and must pick up where he leaves off, and do what we can—just as he always, his whole life, has done what he could—to remake this world according to a positive vision of social and environmental justice for all.

We can, we must…and we will.

Bernie Sanders’ Unconventional Leadership: What the Democratic Party Needs Now

From The New York Times, May 29, 2016:

“Early optimism that this would be an easy race is evaporating…. While [Hillary Clinton] enjoys many demographic advantages heading into the fall, key Democrats say they are growing worried that her campaign has not determined how to combat her unpredictable, often wily Republican rival, to whom criticism seldom sticks and rules of decorum seem not to apply.

“Mrs. Clinton is pressing ahead with a conventional campaign, echoing the 2012 themes used against the Republican nominee that year, Mitt Romney. But Mr. Trump is running a jarringly different crusade: accusing her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of rape; proposing that the country conduct brutal methods of torture; and suggesting that South Korea and Japan be permitted to develop nuclear arms. Prominent Democrats say a more provocative approach is needed.”

A provocative approach…like that of Bernie Sanders, perhaps?

Sanders is as “jarringly different” as Clinton is boringly conventional. But the Times is too locked into business as usual to recognize visionary leadership and revolutionary change, even when it’s staring them in the face.

The rest of this article is all about what Hillary should do to up her game—ignoring the fact that between them, Sanders and Trump have already changed the rules of game beyond anything the mainstream Democrats could have imagined.

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This is shaping up to be as bizarre a presidential race as the Gore/Bush contest in 2000, with its hanging chads and sleazy strong-arm banana republic tactics. The intervening years have only made it more apparent how important US politics is to the fate of the entire world.

But what has changed since 2000 is the strengthening of grassroots political awareness and engagement by virtue of the World Wide Web. We are not as easily manipulated anymore by the party lines as touted by their mainstream media outlets (for example, the New York Times for the Democrats, Fox News for the Republicans).

The obverse of the surveillance state that the established authorities have been building up is the people’s surveillance of the state. What began with the horrifying release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos has continued not just with big sting operations like Wikileaks, but also with an army of ordinary citizens wielding smartphones.

From police brutality to sexual assault to chemical leaks and abuse of animals, it is getting more and more difficult for people in power to get away with crimes. Victims have become survivors, and survivors have become testifiers and avengers, crusaders who lead the charge for truth and justice.

Trump and Sanders recognize the power of the sleeping giant of the American public, amplified through social media. HRC and the NYT still don’t seem to get it.

Donald Trump and his followers are off in their own reality-TV parallel universe, using the same media-driven tools and tactics to accomplish their bigoted, dangerous, hateful agenda. In their own echo-chambers, they loom large enough to take themselves seriously, and those of us on the side of the real American dream of “liberty and justice for all” must not underestimate the potential might of the Trump mob.

However, there are more of us than there are of them. The slumbering, lumbering American public just needs to get aroused, and it will defeat the thin ranks of bigots and the fascists among us.

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I ask you: where do you see the most political excitement among the opponents of Donald Trump?

Not among the grim defensive ranks of the Hillary-ites.

Only in the youthful, idealistic, enthusiastic crowds pouring into stadiums across the country to cheer on Bernie Sanders.

The New York Times is right about this much. To win this race, the Democratic Party must abandon convention and embrace the brave new world we find ourselves in now. The Clinton dynasty, like the Bushes and the singular Mr. Trump, are 20th century leftovers.

If the Democratic Party is to survive the turbulent 21st century, it must support forward-looking politicians with new ideas. It must support Bernie Sanders. And so must we.

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From Selfies to Withies with Eli Pariser: Who’s In the Frame?

UnknownTis the season of Commencement speeches, and I read one this week with particular attention, because it was by an illustrious alum from Bard College at Simon’s Rock—Eli Pariser, the founder of Moveon.org and Upworthy, two awesome organizations dedicated to using social media technology to shift culture for the better.

There’s a lot to love in Eli’s speech. He tells the graduates that having a sense of self-worth is the foundation of empathy, which is the social glue that holds communities together. He enjoins the young people before him to remember that they matter, citing studies showing “the powerful effect that believing we matter has on the way we behave, especially toward those who are different from us.”

He continues: “When we’re affirmed in who we are, when we believe that we matter, we relax. We’re more open to new ideas, other ways of seeing things. We’re more accepting of each other. We feel safe. Our subconscious bias goes down. Our empathy goes up. Instead of seeing stereotypes, we can see and accept people as individual human beings.”

This leads him to the important question of how we should value ourselves, or what in ourselves we should value. After all, a bigot might look in the mirror and value hir hatred, right?

Eli is clear on this question: “Here’s what I believe: You matter because you contain within you a great capacity to do good. To act with love.”

He concludes his speech by asking the students in front of him to take out their cameras and instead of taking selfies, take “withies”:

“I want you to capture yourself in the context of everyone around, everyone who has travelled this journey with you. Instead of a selfie, let’s call it a “withie.” With your friends. With your classmates. With your professors. With your family. With as many people as you can fit into the frame. The whole context….As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this. You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too.”

Totally awesome message! There’s just one thing missing here, and that is an acknowledgment that there is much more in the frame of our “withies” than people.

2016 is a year when we desperately need to bring the great green and blue pulse of planetary life into our frames, and remember that our love and empathy must be extended to all living beings, from the plants that produce the oxygen we breathe to the plankton, coral and mangroves that support the ocean food chains, to the bacteria that give us rich earth and the insects that pollinate our crops.

Interestingly, Eli mentions non-human life just once in his speech, a reference to penguins that apparently occurred to him only because the penguin is the mascot of the institution he was addressing. He uses the communitarian nature of penguins to illustrate his idea of “withies”:

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“As any student of “March of the Penguins” knows, penguins are awesome. They can swim faster than a human can run. They can drink ocean water and sneeze out the salt. And when it gets really, really Antarctic cold, they huddle close to one another. They put the kids on the inside. They rotate turns on the outside, absorbing the chill. They come together. And that’s how they make it through the winter.”

“March of the Penguins” came out in 2005, bringing us up close and personal for the first time to the dramatic lives of Antarctic penguins, nesting and raising their young in the harshest environment on Earth. A decade later, a film like that would never be made without acknowledging that penguins are among the many iconic species now being threatened with extinction by the manmade global heating that is causing their ice shelf home to melt into the sea.

The fact that someone as smart and savvy as Eli Pariser could write a Commencement speech in 2016 making no mention of the environmental crisis at all is deeply sobering to me.

It reminds me of the humans in the 2008 movie WALL-E, who have computer screens perpetually fixed right in front of their faces. We have become so entranced by our own reflections in our screens that even our “withies” are all about us.

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Let’s go back to the conclusion of Eli’s speech for a moment. He says:

“As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this.You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too. If you do that, then truly there’s nothing to be afraid of. Class of 2016, you’re going to do just fine.”

Yes, I totally agree, with this essential caveat: the Class of 2016, and all of us who are in the service of love on this planet, must become aware of the gravest challenge of our “wild and weird future”—climate change and environmental destruction—and begin to direct our energies towards creating a livable future, not just for us but for life as we know it on this planet.

That means coming out from behind our screens and reconnecting with the elemental life on this planet—earth and water, fire and air. We need to feel the wind on our faces, to smell the fresh scent of damp earth, to remember what it’s like to swim in a clean river and sit around a fire on a starry night, telling stories.

Penguins are not just mascots. They are living beings with every right to continue their march into the future. Let’s put them, and the polar bears, elephants, whales and all other life on Earth, into our “withies” too.

My Mother, An Earth Mother: A Mother’s Day Tribute

I was blessed to have been born to an Earth Mother, a woman who loves nothing more than to get her hands in the earth. In honor of her, and in the spirit of Mother’s Day, I share a passage from the childhood section of my forthcoming memoir, about learning how to love the Earth through watching my mother in action.

“That first summer [in our new house], my mother began tending and shaping the land around the house, following her own instincts of landscaping and working almost entirely with hand tools. In front of the house, she raked out a big pile of topsoil and planted a small lawn. Beyond the lawn was an expansive swamp dogwood thicket, laced with black raspberries and bordered by a young maple forest on one side, and a few barely visible pine trees on the other, which had been planted as fingerlings by the previous owner of the property. Armed only with loppers, my mom began cutting down the thicket, a project that my brother and I joined in on when we were old enough to handle our own tools.

“Once the thicket was gone, and grass had been seeded in its place, it became apparent that the house had been sited next to a huge limestone ledge, part of which was visible as outcroppings. My mother set to work with her shovel, hand rake and trowel, determined to create a rock garden out of that long, sloping rock ledge. That project provided a focus for many long summers to come, summers which she spent with me and my brother in the country while my father went back to the city to work during the weeks.

“I can see her standing, sweaty and red-faced at the end of a hot morning’s work, with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying the ledge with a squinted sculptor’s eye. She would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel gradually revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, a small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.

“With the help of her parents, my Grandma Mildred and Grandpa Vic, my mom also dug out a vegetable garden, in which she planted her morning coffee grounds and eggshells. The garden yielded crunchy sugar snap peas, big shiny zucchinis, and a tangle of tomato plants loaded down with plum, cherry and huge oxheart tomatoes. She also helped me create my own garden, a shady woodland garden under my climbing tree, Cricket, which I planted with columbine, ferns, may-apple and wild geranium, all carefully transplanted from the dappled woods around our property.

“In time, every contour of the ten acres or so around the houses had felt the gentle touch of my mother’s hands and yielded to the influence of her spades and trowels. Every young maple or oak grew there because she had judiciously allowed it to advance past sapling-hood. What had once been a rocky, harum-scarum cow pasture became, over the course of many years, an orderly oasis of verdant green lawns, perennial flower beds and raised vegetable gardens, with the long ridge of the rock garden sloping down through the middle of it all to the elegantly landscaped pool. This transformation formed one of the most intimate and persistent narratives of my childhood.”

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Dangerous Times: Looking for Hope in the Ashes of the Tar Sands and the Train Wreck of the Trump/Clinton Candidacies

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It’s hard not to think about divine justice when looking at the photos of Fort McMurray, the Alberta tar sands’ boomtown, going up in flames. And not just any flames—gigantic, towering, white hot flames, the kind you’d expect from exploding oil depots and gas tanks. The entire city of 80,000 people is being evacuated, as firefighters have largely given up on being able to save it from destruction.

What happens next will be something to watch. Will the Canadian government continue with business as usual at the oil sands, rebuilding Fort McMurray and carrying on its dirty trade? Or will it seize this moment to set off on a new path towards a livable future?

Buried in the Globe and Mail article about the evacuation is some telling information about the cause of the wildfires: “Much of Alberta has been under extreme or very high wildfire warnings over the past month. After 2015 was marked by the worst drought in a half-century, the province experienced a mild winter that left little snow. A heat wave across the province this week, as well as strong winds, turned the vast forests around Fort McMurray into an inferno.”

Did someone say CLIMATE CHANGE?

Erratic weather is the new normal, to which we are going to have to adapt the best we can. It’s not just the pesky environmentalists who are sounding the warnings these days; even staid, business-as-usual mainstream media outlets like The New York Times now regularly note the relentless advance of climate change.

For example, it was a historic moment for The Times last week when this headline appeared on the front page: ”Resettling the First American ‘Climate Refugees.’”

It turns out that those first American climate refugees are also First Americans—native peoples, who are on the frontlines of the battle to save the planet throughout North America and beyond.

I have been heartened to see the newly vitalized union of environmentalists and indigenous peoples, coming together to protest the fossil-fuel nightmare and envision a renewable energy economy that works for all, including the millions of non-human species who seldom have a voice at the tables that decide their future.

In Canada, the Leap Manifesto has been gaining steam. Co-authored by Naomi Klein and other environmentalists and First Nations activists, it calls on Canadians to lead the way (or leap their way) into a sustainable future. Co-author Crystal Lameman, an Alberta First Nations leader, insists that “The time for a just transition beyond fossil fuels is now: Alberta holds incredible untapped potential for renewables, the best in Canada. The transition in Germany, where they have created 400,000 clean-energy jobs, is waiting to be emulated here.”

Lameman, Klein and other climate justice advocates know that scare tactics alone won’t build a movement for change. Apocalyptic photos of wildfires, droughts, floods and storms are as likely to produce despair and resignation as they are to galvanize action.

As activists like Frances Moore Lappe and Sarah Van Gelder have been telling us, the public must be informed about the dangers of the fossil fuel juggernaut while simultaneously being presented with viable alternatives. So it’s not just that the Alberta tar sands operation should be shut down, it’s also that the shift to solar and wind power in Alberta will generate hundreds of thousands of new, clean, good-paying jobs.

In the U.S., it’s not just that we must oppose new pipelines, fracking wells and oil trains, it’s that we must build an entirely new infrastructure of solar fields, wind farms and high-speed public transit. We must re-localize agriculture and re-learn how to farm in ways that enhance the biological richness of the soil, rather than depleting and exhausting it.

Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; clear-cutting forests; deep-sea trawling; hydro-fracking; disposable plastic bags, bottles and caps—all these must fall into the dustbin of sad 20th century history.

It’s truly humbling—and horrifying—to realize how quickly the human industrial revolution has brought our ancient planet to the brink of another global re-set, a “sixth great extinction” and a re-entry into an open-ended period of unstable climate.

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Our beautiful old planet will survive, and life will persist. But humans? Will we be able to make the leap into a global civilization that values life and works to protect and steward our Earth? Or will we too be swept into that dustbin, a failed experiment of monstrous proportions?

It is quite a responsibility to be part of the transitional generation. The choices and decisions of those of us alive today will have an impact far beyond our own brief lives. Even short-term political decisions matter, since the speed with which the climate is spinning out of control makes every day of action—or inaction—count.

We know that Hilary Clinton is in bed with the fossil fuel industry and their financiers. She is the candidate of the status quo and the leader of the heads-in-the-sand folks who refuse to look at the inconvenient truth that if we maintain the status quo, we’ll all be engulfed by the wildfires, floods or famines of climate change before long.

Bernie Sanders, pied piper of the young, acknowledges that climate change must be dealt with, and he’s laid out a plan to “make sure our planet is habitable and safe for our kids and grandkids.” As President, he will have the power to convene the brightest minds on the planet to engineer a transition to a renewable-energy economy.

The popularity of Trump is truly frightening, as his followers are clearly the least informed about what our future holds in store. As a country, we must take responsibility for those folks too. As an educator, I feel especially responsible—it should be impossible for a young person to graduate high school, much less college, without the ability to discern truth from lie, to recognize the difference between strength of character and empty sloganeering.

We are living through dangerous times. We will need the wisdom of every old story even as we must boldly and thoughtfully work together to write a new story we can live into, our visions of a just and sustainable future like rope bridges we must build in front of us as we advance across the chasm of time.

Voting for Sanders: Because a Little Birdie Said So!

What an amazing moment, when a little bird landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium in Portland OR and looked him right in the eye!

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She was probably just giving him grief for making so much noise in the arena where she had been peacefully sitting on her nest. But like everyone else, I can’t help but make a symbolic leap, seeing in the bright eye of the bird a bit of cheerful encouragement, a “right on!” from the natural world that was immediately echoed by the throngs in the stadium who cheered Sanders for pausing in his speech to acknowledge his smallest supporter.

The good news this week is that Sanders’ campaign steadily gained momentum, chalking up big wins in Utah, Idaho, Washington and Alaska.

That was pretty much the only good news this week. Between an incredibly gloomy new climate change report, the terrorist bombings in Belgium, and the dispiriting chest-beating of the two Republican front-runners over the relative merits—physical merits, that is—of their wives, it was a pretty depressing week.

Here in my corner of western Massachusetts, this week has seen an uptick in action on two major local environmental issues: General Electric threatening to make toxic PCB dumps right alongside the Housatonic River, adjacent to bucolic little towns like Great Barrington and Lenox; and Kinder Morgan threatening to cut down a huge swath of pristine state forest to put in a 36-inch gas pipeline that won’t have any benefit at all for Massachusetts.

This is just the kind of corporate impunity that Bernie Sanders has been inveighing against his whole life, and never more than now, during his incredible Presidential campaign.

No, it is not OK for corporations to use public lands to build more fossil-fuel infrastructure. No, it is not OK for corporations to “clean up” the mess they left in the river by dumping it into mounds near villages. It wasn’t right when GE dumped PCBS in a huge hill next to an elementary school in Pittsfield MA back in the 1970s, and it still isn’t right today.

Yes, I understand that when we ship toxic waste out of state we are shipping it into someone else’s backyard. But at least it is a licensed toxic waste disposal area, built and maintained for hazardous waste. Not a few acres hastily purchased by GE, right between the town and the river, to haphazardly store dredged PCB-laden sediments.

Meanwhile, as we fight over tree-cutting and river clean-up, this week’s climate change report warned that the polar ice is melting much faster than predicted, with the result that sea rise and coastal flooding is going to happen much faster than anyone expected–within decades. That means some of the younger folk among us may be around to witness the flooding of the major coastal cities of the world, and the climate refugee crisis that will result.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that we are all dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic, while the iceberg looms ever closer. Will we snap out of our pleasant trance and pay attention to what really matters, before it’s too late?

This year’s contest for U.S. President matters as never before. The Republicans are all “full steam ahead” and damn the consequences. Clinton is not much better. Bernie Sanders is the only one who knows—because a little birdie told him so—that our current course will lead us to unmitigated disaster. He’s the only one who consistently acknowledges the importance of dealing head-on and immediately with climate change; and stands up without fear or kowtowing to the corporate giants who have been driving the ship up until now.

It’s no surprise that young people have been gravitating to Sanders. Young people can gauge authenticity a mile away. Sanders has it; Clinton does not. Trump has it, but he is authentically disgusting. The rest of the Republican candidates are obnoxious, dangerous phonies.

Today’s young voters will be the ones who have to deal with the consequences of the decisions our politicians make today. They should and they must turn out in force to guide this year’s crucial Presidential elections, as Matt Taibbi argues eloquently in a recent Rolling Stone Magazine article.

Truly, we stand at a crossroads. Me, I’m following that little bird.

 

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: Cultivating Creative Community

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Virginia Woolf famously said that women writers need a room of their own. True enough, but that’s not all we need. We also need a community to nourish and support us and cheer us on through the challenges of the creative life.

So many people seem to think that the playing field has been leveled for women; that the feminist movement can just pack it up now and go home.

It’s not true, not yet.

For most women, a writing study of one’s own is not an achievable reality. We’re lucky if we can set up a desk of our own in a corner of our own…and get to it at least once a week.

Let’s face it, most women who become mothers must juggle the demands of pregnancy, child-rearing and home-making with the pressure to contribute to the family income—and for writers, that often means having a “day job” that necessitates doing the writing on the side of everything else.

At the other end of our lives, we’re the ones taking care of our own parents, too. There’s just never enough time to fit everything in, and often our writing slips down to the bottom of the endless to-do list.

cfed82894ce77d5eb912cd5c3fe77346My mentor Gloria Anzaldua urged her working-class sisters to “Forget the room of one’s own—write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or on the welfare line, on the job or during meals….When you wash the floor or the clothes, listen to the chanting in your body,” she says. Write “when you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write” (“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”).

Before she died–too young–of diabetes complications, Gloria published several influential anthologies of women’s writing and worked hard to build a community that bridged all kinds of identities and differences.

She was a great inspiration for me, and when I founded the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in 2011, I felt like I was carrying on her work, in my own corner of the world.

The sixth season of the Festival presents nine full days of readings, workshops, talks, discussions and performances featuring talented women writers from the Berkshire region and beyond.

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For me, this is not about art for art’s sake. It’s about activating women to recognize that we all have important stories to share, which we can cultivate by developing the confidence to speak our truths, and the community that will encourage us to write, write and keep on writing.

11010606_934650809911488_2830181057542873053_nAt last year’s Festival, Dani Shapiro shared what she considered to be the essential ingredient of a successful writing career like her own, and it was surprisingly simple. You have to put your butt in the chair and write, she said. Just do it.

Having this discipline is much easier when you begin to trust that there are people out there in the world who care what you have to say; who will listen and applaud and come back for more.

That’s why it’s important, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, to turn out at community-building events like the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Come to show your support of the writers on the stage; come to be inspired; come to share in the camaraderie of lunching and brunching with a roomful of writers and the people who love them.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers happens but once a year, in March. That’s Women’s History Month, and also the month, in New England, when the sap starts to rise. Come take a taste of our creativity and feel your own creative vision rise in response.

Check out our schedule of events, and mark your calendar. See you at the Festival!

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The Power of Black and White Thinking or Why I Love Bernie Sanders

Teenagers, it is said, see everything in black and white. Something is wonderful or it’s awful. I hate you or I love you. Part of coming to maturity, common wisdom has it, is learning to see in shades of gray, the glass half-full as well as half-empty.

If that is so, I am amused to note in my middle-aged self a return to black-and-white tendencies. Could it be that part of the socialization that enables us to see in gray is also a schooling in the fine art of compromise and settling for “good-enough”? If so, it seems that I am less and less willing to settle. My standards are high, for myself and others, and I don’t want to aim lower.

What does that mean? Well, take Love, for instance, since Valentine’s Day is nigh. I have learned, over years of trial and error, that the most important relationship we have is with ourselves. No, that doesn’t mean I’m an egotistical navel-gazer. It means that in order for me to give love to others—whether people or causes—I must love myself first. I must believe that what I have to give is important, and worth sharing.

And I really have to love myself completely, warts and all. That’s where the absolute thinking comes in. If I were thinking about myself in shades of gray, I’d be picking apart what I like about myself from what I dislike about myself. I’d be doing a daily self-critical dance, castigating myself when I don’t live up to my own expectations.

Here’s what I’ve learned in middle age: doing that dance is a huge drain of time and psychic energy. It’s so much better to say, definitely (and maybe a little defiantly): I know I’m not perfect but I do the best I can and I love myself for trying. I love myself, faults and all, because I know that it’s through failure, hurt and disappointment that I learn to be stronger, better, and more lovable.

How Can We Love Ourselves?

In so many ways it seems that we live in a disposable society. It’s not just diapers and plastic cups we’re throwing away; it’s people and places too. It’s life itself we trash without even noticing. Thinking in black and white, I’d say that’s just not acceptable.

The litany of suffering caused by modern industrial human civilization is long and grievous. You know what I’m talking about, I don’t even have to get into the ugly specifics of species extinctions, animal torture, human-on-human brutality, environmental devastation, disease and anthropogenic famine.

This is the thing: can I know this about human society, my society, and still find it in myself to love us? To love us enough to want to spend my life working to make us better?

I suppose this is why the Christ story has had such a hold on human civilization for so long. Christ died for our sins; he loved us enough to sacrifice himself willingly to remind us to try to live up to a higher expectation of ourselves.

But I am not talking about sacrifice, violence, pain and death, the language of Christianity. I’m talking about love for oneself and everything in the world around us—the language of animism and Buddhism, seeing the world as Gaia, an intricate living organism to be cherished, cultivated and loved deeply and absolutely.

We humans are Gaia’s children. We sprang from her and have been one of her most fabulously successful creations. It is a marker of our success that we are now severely over-populated, to the point where we must either discover new, more harmonious ways to sustain our society, or face species collapse.

I want to believe that we can love ourselves enough to recognize our tremendous potential as a species, and work hard to move ourselves to the next level of awareness.

This is not the time to do the self-castigating dance of “I love me, I love me not.” We need to acknowledge our failures and weaknesses but use them to enhance our awareness of what is good and positive in us. Knowing what we don’t like or want enables us to understand more powerfully what we like and want. That’s the power of black and white thinking.

How Much Do We Love? Revolution vs. Reform

There’s a reason most revolutions in human history have been carried out by young people who have not yet settled into the complacency or despair of “shades of gray” thinking.

Although modern education, in America at least, does its best to indoctrinate children to be compliant and docile, still there are always young people who insist on thinking for themselves and pushing the adults around them to wake up and do what must be done to make the world better. We saw that in the Occupy movement, we’re seeing in now in the Black Lives Matter protests, and, in a very destructive way, we see it in the young jihadists and school shooters who take up arms in violent protest of the way things are.

There’s a reason Bernie Sanders is building such runaway support among young people, and among the young-at-heart older folks too. He’s appealing to our idealism—our stubborn belief that we don’t have to compromise, that we can reach towards creating the world that should be, rather than settling for the fallen and corrupted world that is.

When Hillary Clinton says “I know how to compromise and get things done,” that’s shades-of-gray, middle-aged thinking. Barack Obama went into the White House repeating that refrain, and tried repeatedly in his early years as President to reach out to Republicans for compromise. He has been resoundingly rejected—the Republicans, school-boys that they are, insist on seeing the world in black and white, their way or the highway.

Maybe it’s time for the Democrats to do the same. Maybe it’s time for us to love and believe in ourselves enough to allow our own brand of black-and-white thinking free rein. Bernie Sanders, with his uncompromising social justice platform, his refusal to play the usual political PAC money game, his defiant, teenage idealism packaged in an unlikely middle-aged body, is showing us the way.

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