Snowden and the Politics of Doing Good

Go see Oliver Stone’s new movie “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous hero, if you need reminding about how important a single human being’s act of courageous resistance can be.

Granted, Edward Snowden had his finger on the pulse of information far beyond the ken of most of us ordinary folks. But we can all relate to the ethical questions he faced, which the movie details so well.

To whit: At what point is it more important to listen to your own internal moral compass, even when it means going against “public opinion,” company policy or—in Snowden’s case—the entire power elite of the U.S. military industrial complex?

We live in a time when this is a question will come up with increasing urgency for more and more of us. Our age is one of unprecedented access to information, as “Snowden” shows in horrifyingly graphic detail. And once we know something—say, how a pipeline leak can foul and destroy an entire river ecosystem, or how a radiation leak can play havoc with ocean systems for years, or how deforestation leads to mud slides, or how climate change is already changing coast lines and destroying planetary weather balance—once we know all this, and so much more, what do we do with our newfound knowledge?

what-i-forgot-cover-draft-new-smThis question became increasingly central for me as I worked on my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, over the past several years. It was waking up to climate change that sparked my journey of looking back at my half-century on the planet, trying to understand how I had allowed myself to forget the connection to the natural world that had been so central to me as a child.

What I discovered was that as a young adult, I made some choices that led me to go with the predominant flow of American culture. Like Snowden, I was seduced by the possibility of attaining the American dream—my version of it being the husband, children, home, career. I put myself in the traces and began to focus on pulling that cart, and I found it took everything I had.

Not until the dream disintegrated along with my marriage did I pick my head up and look around me, instinctively seeking solace in the natural world but finding that things had changed a great deal since I was a dreamy child following the chickadees through the hemlock forest, or lying full-length on a high maple branch to feel the wind swaying through the tree.

While I had been focused on raising my family, trying to hold my marriage together and striving for success in my career, things had been going very badly for the chickadees, the hemlocks and the maples. Government policies and corporate greed, unleashed by the shortsightedness of millions of compliant citizens like me, had led us to the brink of a global catastrophe of biblical proportions.

There we sit now, on that brink. Did you notice the news, buried beneath all the election cycle noise, that the climate has now passed 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, far beyond the 350 ppm that gave the scrappiest of the climate change warrior-organizations its name?

This means we are on track to melt, folks. The polar ice caps and the permafrost on land will thaw, releasing ancient methane; the oceans will warm, throwing off the food chains and the weather; insects and bacteria will do very well, but many if not most of the larger species will rather quickly go the way of the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.

Including, dare I say it, homo sapiens. Future historians, if there are any, should rename our species homo ignoramus—the stupid ones who knew how they could save themselves and the ecosystem that sustained them, but let it all go to hell.

We have come to a time, as the Deep Green Resistance eco-warriors recognized several years ago, when it will be necessary to think for ourselves and stand up for what we believe in, just like Ed Snowden did.


This is dangerous business, as Snowden knew. He is lucky to be living freely in Moscow rather than locked up as a traitor like fellow information resistance fighter Chelsea Manning. The fossil fuel lords and their military henchmen take mutiny very seriously, as the brave water protectors at Standing Rock know well.

But there comes a time when you have to listen to your gut, even if it goes against your upbringing and socialization. You have to do what you think is right.

Of course, in a black and white view of morality, what’s right for you may be totally wrong for me. How do we reconcile the disparate moral compasses of a jihadist suicide bomber or an American bomber pilot or a tar sands bulldozer operator or a pipeline resistance activist?

Each of us has to make up our own minds, fully cognizant of the implications of our actions, the bigger backdrops against which each of our little lives play out. That is why I continue to believe that there is no more important role these days than that of an awake, aware, independently minded educator.

We need teachers at every level of education who are dedicated to developing the capacity of young people to understand and analyze complex information, to weigh and debate different points of view, to use empathy as a pathway to decision-making, and to be open to shifting their views as their understanding increases.


Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both thoroughly indoctrinated by the military, but were still able to think for themselves and sacrifice their snug insider positions in service to the greater good. If they can do it, any of us can.

No need for spectacular defections or heroics. All that’s needed is a steady ongoing commitment to sifting through the barrage of information coming at us all the time, and pointing our internal compass at DO NO HARM or even better DO GOOD.

If you want to call me a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder, so be it. I can live with that.


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?


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.


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.



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.

Ebola & Islamic Extremism: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

airport Ebola screening

Airport Ebola screening

Although American officials are making lots of reassuring noises about screening passengers coming from West Africa for signs of the dreaded Ebola virus, the truth is that the only way to totally safeguard against the spread of the disease is to close our borders entirely. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Talk about an unexpected side effect of globalization. Goods and services spread around the globe at the stroke of a keyboard or the roar of a jet engine, but the same mechanisms we celebrate as having pumped up the global economy also, potentially, have a darker side.

What was it Marx said about the bourgeoisie digging its own grave?

I keep hearing the undertone, in the media reporting on Ebola, of the “blame-the-victim” complaint, “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they living in such poverty? Why don’t they have doctors, nurses, hospitals? Look how their squalor is putting us all at risk?!”

There is truth to this. The poor folks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierre Leone, former colonies of the U.S., France and Great Britain, respectively, have not managed to modernize their societies. This is due to a number of factors, including corrupt leadership (strongmen often propped up by the Western powers), violent civil wars (armed by Western weapons manufacturers and distributors), and banana republic-style economies where Western corporations rule by extraction, extortion and exploitation, without giving anything back in taxes, infrastructure or education for the local people.

This is where the West has made its big mistake. How could we in the so-called developed world be so naïve as to think that we could ignore the poverty and suffering of other parts of the globe without that poverty and suffering coming back to haunt us?

Liberian child soldier

Liberian child soldier

If we had invested in schools, medical facilities and housing in Liberia, instead of sending endless supplies of assault rifles and ammunition, we would not be worrying about Ebola now.

Likewise, if we had invested in education and economic development in the Middle East, instead of relying corrupt warlords to keep the population in line, we would not be dealing with a seemingly endless morphing insurgency of Taliban-Al Quaeda-Islamic State terrorists.

It really is true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In a globalized society, pretending that vast disparities of wealth don’t matter is just plain stupid. Imagining that a vicious virus can be contained by airport thermometer checks is as ridiculous as imagining that an international terrorist network can be stopped by a few fly-by bombings.

The world’s leaders need to take a lesson from Malala Yousefzai, the 17-year-old girl who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her steadfast insistence, even after nearly having her head blown off by the Taliban, that girls should be educated.

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Study after study has shown that when a society educates and empowers women, it becomes more economically successful and more politically stable.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

This week, in my African Women Writing Resistance class, I’ve been reading and discussing the autobiography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman head of state in modern Africa.

Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has been in the news a lot lately, begging for help in containing the spread of Ebola and warning grimly of the consequences of international inaction.

She came to office vowing to take her country back from the warlords and reintegrate child soldiers, to educate girls and boys and build a sustainable economy. She’s made great strides, but the stark pictures of the pathetic state of the nation’s health care infrastructure make it clear how far Liberia, like other poor African nations, still has to go.

The bottom line is this: if we want safety, we have to build towards it, step by step, from the ground up. We can’t ignore poverty and then get mad when impoverished sick people dare to infect us, or when desperate people turn to radical Islam as a way out of their misery.

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

There is no excuse, in our globalized world, for the dramatic disparities of wealth and poverty that exist today. Those of us lucky enough to live comfortably in the U.S. or Europe should be using our privilege to advocate for those less fortunate.

Not just out of altruism. Out of self-preservation, too.

If we had been helping Liberia and other West African nations build good social infrastructure, instead of extracting profits from diamonds, rubber and gun sales, we would not be worrying about the spread of Ebola today.

If we had been educating children in Syria, Yemen and Iraq instead of supporting corrupt dictators and ignoring the plight of ordinary people, we would not be facing the spread of Islamic extremism today.

How many innocent humans will have to die before we begin to understand that simple adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Warriors for the Planet

Another summer, another war. I wonder how many summers there have been in the last 5,000 years when human beings were not occupied with killing each other?

Correction: not “human beings,” “men.”

Let’s be frank: even though there may be women in the armed forces of many countries now, war still remains a masculine activity and preoccupation. The women who serve as soldiers must adhere to the masculine warrior code and become honorary “bros,” for whom the worst insult is still be called a “girl” or a “pussy.”

AnneBaring_A_lgI have been reading Anne Baring’s magisterial book The Dream of the Cosmos, in which she gives a detailed account of the shift, around the time of Gilgamesh, from the ancient, goddess- and nature-worshipping “lunar cultures” to the contemporary era of solar, monotheistic, warrior-worshipping cultures.

In her elaboration of this shift, I read the tragedy of our time, enacted over and over again all over the planet, and not just by humans against humans, but also by humans against the other living beings with whom we share our world. I quote at length from Baring’s remarkable book:

Gilgamesh-187x300“The archetype of the solar hero as warrior still exerts immense unconscious influence on the modern male psyche, in the battlefield of politics as well as that of corporate business and even the world of science and academia: the primary aim of the male is to achieve, to win and, if necessary, to defeat other males. The ideal of the warrior has become an unconscious part of every man’s identity from the time he is a small child.

“With the mythic theme of the cosmic battle between good and evil and the indoctrination of the warrior went the focus on war and territorial conquest. War has been endemic throughout the 4000 years of the solar era. The glorification of war and conquest and the exaltation of the warrior is a major theme of the solar era—still with us today in George W. Bush’s words in 2005: ‘We will accept no outcome except victory.’ This call to victory echoes down the centuries, ensuring that hecatombs of young warriors were sacrificed to the god of war, countless millions led into captivity and slavery, countless women raped and widows left destitute. It has sanctioned an ethos that strives for victory at no matter what cost in human lives and even today glorifies war and admires the warrior leader. This archaic model of tribal dominance and conquest has inflicted untold suffering on humanity and now threatens our very survival as a species.


“The cosmic battle between light and darkness was increasingly projected into the world and a fascination with territorial conquest gripped the imagination and led to the creation of vast empires. It is as if the heroic human ego, identified with the solar hero, had to seek out new territories to conquer, had to embody the myth in a literal sense and as it did so, channel the primitive territorial drives of the psyche into a Dionysian orgy of unbridled conquest, slaughter and destruction. We hear very little about the suffering generated by these conquests: the weeping widows, the mothers who lost sons, the orphaned children and the crops and patterns of sowing and harvesting devastated and disrupted by the foraging armies passing over them, the exquisite works of art pillaged and looted….The long chronicle of conquest and human sacrifice, of exultation in power and the subjugation of enemies might truly be named the dark shadow of the solar age” (118;124).

Like Baring, I see our time as a critical era in the long history of homo sapiens on the planet. There is still hope that enough of us will be able to detach ourselves from the pressures and busyness of our lives—will become conscious of what is happening to the planet and human civilization writ large—will understand that there are other ways to relate to each other and to the Earth, ways that will seem increasingly possible and obvious once we focus on them and begin to put our energies into manifesting our visions of a creative, collaborative, respectful mode of being.

Baring ends her disturbing chapter on the ascendancy of the solar warrior culture with a hopeful quote from The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas, from which she springs into her own positive vision of the potential of our time.

“’We stand at the threshold of a revelation of the nature of reality that could shatter our most established beliefs about ourselves and the world. The very constriction we are experiencing is part of the dynamic of our imminent release. For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being. The driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life; to differentiate itself from but then rediscover and reunite with the feminine, with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul. And that reunion can now occur on a new and profoundly different level from that of the primordial unconscious unity, for the long evolution of human consciousness has prepared it to be capable at last of embracing the ground and matrix of its own being freely and consciously.’

“As this deep soul-impulse gathers momentum, the ‘marriage’ of the re-emerging lunar consciousness with the dominant solar one is beginning to change our perception of reality. This gives us hope for the future. If we can recover the values intrinsic to the ancient participatory way of knowing without losing the priceless evolutionary attainment of a strong and focused ego, together with all the discoveries we have made and the skills we have developed, we could heal both the fissure in our soul and our raped and vandalized planet” (130-131).

My heart aches for the suffering of the innocent civilians trapped in the crossfire in Gaza this summer, and for the grieving families of the passenger plane heinously shot down by warriors who were either poorly trained or just plain evil.

I am heartsick when I think about the holocaust that is overtaking living beings on every quadrant of our planet as humans continue to ravage the forests and seas, to melt the poles with our greenhouse gases, and to poison the aquifers and soil with our chemicals.

The last Polar Bear

This is where the solar cultures, with their “great” warrior kings, have led us. And yet, as Baring says, they have also presided over the most amazing advances in science and technology that humans have ever known in our long history on the planet.

We don’t need or want to go back to the simple innocence of ancient lunar societies. We don’t have to bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age.

What we need is to go forward, wisely and joyously, into a new phase of consciousness, in which the masculine warrior spirit is used for protection and stewardship rather than destruction, and the Earth is honored as the Mother of all that she is.

Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. It is already happening.

Battle Hymn from the Archaic Future: Mary Daly leads the way

Mary Daly

Mary Daly

Next week we are reading the fierce, lusty, self-proclaimed Pirate Crone Mary Daly in my Women Write the World class. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever dared to share Daly with students, partly because it took me a long time to get myself up on to her energetic wavelength. She talks about how important it is that “radical feminists” like her “magnetize” other women, in order to grow a movement for change—but unfortunately, until recently I felt so repelled by her Wild Woman energy that I could not bring myself to actually read her.

Then, at the end of last summer, something changed in me. I think it had to do with finishing my memoir and allowing myself to feel the rage (Daly would call it Righteous Rage) that I had suppressed over the past 20 years as my life rolled along with what have come to seem like entirely normal frustrations and disappointments: the mommy tracking at work, the lack of respect at home, the endlessly deferred pleasures that could have been mine if I had been properly compensated for my hard and excellent work as a scholar and teacher.

No one besides Daly, in my experience, had had the courage to call out our culture itself as a perpetrator in the on-going inequality and undermining of women like me. And she could do so using the Master’s Tools—no less than three doctorates (in religion, theology and philosophy) and decades of experience as a Boston College professor and scholar working in the heart of what she called the phallocracy. She chose to stay on at Boston College despite the administration’s repeated attempts to oust her, because she felt that her message was especially needed there. The problems she saw throughout her 33-year tenure there have only gotten worse as we’ve advanced into the 21st century.

Unknown-1It’s fascinating to read through Daly’s oeuvre and see how, over the years, she transformed the master’s tools of language and rhetoric to make them uniquely her own. She even created her own dictionary, the Wickedary, in which she retooled old words to make them serve her radical feminist purpose.

And what would that radical feminist purpose be? While Daly says that each of us will find our own path, what “radical feminists” have in common is that we serve as conduits for the creative energy of the universe, the life force she calls “biophilia.” Biophilia is the opposite of necrophilia, which preys violently on the planet and its denizens, sucking out and destroying life on Earth.

Daly’s cardinal crime is to Name (capitalization hers) patriarchal culture as the perpetrators of the ongoing violence against women, animals and other life forms on the planet, and to single out Wild Women (again, capitalization hers) as heroic resisters.

This stance has gotten her into a lot of trouble. Men don’t like to be called out on their patriarchal privilege, and excluded by virtue of their biological and cultural baggage from the ranks of heroic resisters that Daly is trying to conjure. I am curious to see how the young men in my class respond to Daly.

When I read her closely, it seems to me that although she does elevate Woman as a category, she is actually reinventing that word too. Not all women would deserve to be included in her radical feminist confederacy of Wild Women. And it’s possible that some men—feminist men—would be welcomed, although Daly herself remained a firm lesbian separatist to the end of her life (in one of her last books, Quintessence, she imagined herself traveling to a utopian “Lost and Found Continent” in the year 2048, which was fiercely and proudly all-female).

I think Daly, who died at the age of 81 in 2010, would have been pleased to see the militant environmental group Deep Green Resistance proclaiming itself a “radical feminist” organization. DGR was founded by two men and a woman (Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay and Lierre Keith) and in their guiding principles, right up there with respect for all life, is respect for women.


Here is DGR’s fifth guiding principle, in full:

  • Deep Green Resistance is a radical feminist organization. Men as a class are waging a war against women. Rape, battering, incest, prostitution, pornography, poverty, and gynocide are both the main weapons in this war and the conditions that create the sex-class women. Gender is not natural, not a choice, and not a feeling: it is the structure of women’s oppression. Attempts to create more “choices” within the sex-caste system only serve to reinforce the brutal realities of male power. As radicals, we intend to dismantle gender and the entire system of patriarchy which it embodies. The freedom of women as a class cannot be separated from the resistance to the dominant culture as a whole.

And here are principles one through four:

  • The soil, the air, the water, the climate, and the food we eat are created by complex communities of living creatures. The needs of those living communities are primary; individual and social morality must emerge from a humble relationship with the web of life.
  • Civilization, especially industrial civilization, is fundamentally destructive to life on earth. Our task is to create a life-centered resistance movement that will dismantle industrial civilization by any means necessary. Organized political resistance is the only hope for our planet.
  • Deep Green Resistance works to end abuse at the personal, organizational, and cultural levels. We also strive to eradicate domination and subordination from our private lives and sexual practices. Deep Green Resistance aligns itself with feminists and others who seek to eradicate all social domination and to promote solidarity between oppressed peoples.
  • When civilization ends, the living world will rejoice. We must be biophilic people in order to survive. Those of us who have forgotten how must learn again to live with the land and air and water and creatures around us in communities built on respect and thanksgiving. We welcome this future.

I can just hear the spirit of Mary Daly rejoicing at these fierce words from what she would call the “Archaic Future.”

She herself called for “even more than the ‘subversion’ of the present order and more than ‘dissolution’ of the whole existing social compact.” Truly changing the world, she said, “requires the Courage to participate Positively in bringing forth…many New Forms (political, social, philosophical, aesthetic) by multitudes of creators who do not necessarily know each other consciously” (Quintessence, 103).

It is this subterranean radical network of grassroots co-creators that I hope to tap into with blog posts like these.  Are you there?  Shall we create that joyous Archaic Future together?

21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.


Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.


NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic


Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea






Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears


Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating


Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges


Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities



Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”


Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people



Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice


Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals



Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive


Resistant to corruption


JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?


Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure


Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen


Negative Qualities that may hold us back




Empathy—taking things too personally


Staying under the radar



Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning


What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission



Social upbringing


Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)


Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem


Ronan Farrow’s Beacon of Hope

“One of the most difficult things to do is to infuse in young people a sense of empathy and a larger world…to give them a perspective that is more macro and less narcissistic,” Jon Stewart said in his recent interview with Ronan Farrow.

Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow

Farrow, when asked how he came by his desire to make a positive difference in the world, replied that it was growing up in a “mini-United Nations” sort of family (many of his 13 siblings were adopted from all over the world, some with serious physical or mental disabilities) that gave him the desire to become an agent for positive change on a worldwide scale.

Mia did something right to have set such a force in motion!

Ronan Farrow was a prodigy, going to college at my home institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, at the tender age of 11.  Although I never had him in class, I remember seeing him on campus, his bright blond hair always a stand-out, his small frame bent beneath a heavy backpack of books.

He went on to Yale Law School at 18, after serving a two-year stint as a youth ambassador at the United Nations; then became a Rhodes Scholar, worked at the State Department, and is now about to launch his own cable news show.

At 26, he’s done more than most of us will ever do.

I am quite impressed by the agenda he’s set for his show.  It will be news aimed at a youth audience, specifically designed to spark the empathy Stewart referred to, and not only that but to give his audience concrete options for taking action on the issues and situations presented.

Every show will have a “call to action,” Farrow said, and “a menu of things to do”; ways “to move the needle” on important issues.

I have noticed from my years of working with young people on social and environmental justice issues that they get very impatient and turned-off by discussions of problems that don’t also include solutions, preferably along with ways that they can get involved in moving the solutions forward.

It must be his twenty-something instinct that is prompting Ronan Farrow to put his talents and connections to work in creating just the kind of show his own generation is longing for.

It will have the celebrity pizzazz that his handsome face and famous name brings; the erudition and seriousness of purpose that his education and professional experience has provided; and with any luck, it will be a real beacon of active hope for millions of potential young change agents.

Go Ronan!  It is great to see a young person who is so clearly in the flow of living his purpose.

Writing of Disaster, Writing of Hope

As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school.  I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure.  He reads on assignment, and that’s it.

So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?

So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.

In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another.  Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.

And it’s not just in literature that this is true.  In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.

Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias.  These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).

As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”

Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience.  I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.

I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.

I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.

But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.

Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?

Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher

In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.

In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL.  Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.

Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind.  Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love.  Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).

However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.

On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.

I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.

Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.

I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.

Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.

Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better.  Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.


Let’s Face It, Charity is Not Enough

When I was a kid, I didn’t read “the funny pages” of the newspaper; in fact, the only newspaper that came into my parents’ home did not stoop to such trivia.  We read, exclusively, The New York Times.

I remember the first time—it must have been around sixth grade—that I happened upon “The Neediest Cases” articles in The Times.

The stories hit me like a ton of bricks.

Comfortably ensconced in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment, I had no idea—no idea—that just a few blocks away, on the other side of the 96th Street divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and dirt-poor Spanish Harlem, ordinary people just like me and my family were living in abject poverty.

With a kind of morbid fascination, I read about the kids whose parents were locked away in prison; the kids whose parents were drug users; the kids whose parents were homeless, sleeping in the dark, rat-infested recesses of the infamous New York City train tunnels.

Unknown-2Every article ended with the same words: Give to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

This went on year after year.  Every year there were more “neediest cases,” each one more dire and depressing than the last.

Eventually I began to actively avoid reading those pages in December.  The contrast between the clean, glowing, opulent New York I knew and the dark, dank margins of poverty I was reading about was just too much for me to take.

And it was clear to me, at least on a subliminal level, that giving to the Neediest Cases Fund did not accomplish much—not if every year the need continued, unabated and even growing worse.


This week I opened my Ipad while still in bed and found myself drawn, despite myself, into a Neediest Cases article on 21st century media steroids—complete with an elegant magazine presentation and fabulous photographs of the squalor of homelessness.

It was the story of a 12-year-old girl named Dasani (after the bottled water), the oldest child of two methadone-dependent former addicts.  Unemployed and homeless, the parents live in a single room in a mouse-infested city shelter with their seven children, from Dasani on down to an infant.

As with the 19th century New York tenement photographs of Jacob Riis, the pictures themselves tell a powerful story.  Dasani is still full of optimistic determination to succeed at school; she hasn’t yet been beaten down, like her sad-faced mother.

I can just imagine Park Avenue New Yorkers—at least The New York Times readers among them—reaching in droves for their checkbooks to send some relief to Dasani and her family.

It happens every time there is a story about a disaster or a particularly shocking needy case.  Wealthy people open up their wallets and give what they can.

But the need goes on, and on.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

What will happen to Dasani’s little sister, the one who is legally blind?  What will become of her rambunctious little brothers?  What will prevent them from following the same path that ensnared their parents, drug addiction born of desperation?  What will keep them out of prison and make them into the productive citizens our society claims to admire?


When I was a girl, I naively believed that the “neediest cases” were an aberration.  I thought that most people lived the way I did, in comfortable security.

In fact, it’s the other way around in our America.  More and more Americans are falling into poverty day by day.  Our minimum wage cannot sustain a family, not even with both parents working.  We don’t have decent health care or child care for lower income working people.  Food pantries are scarcely able to keep up with the need, as food prices continue to rise.

There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City alone, according to The Times.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,168,354 homeless students, a figure that many believe to be an underestimate.

It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful nation on Earth is willing to allow more than a million of its children to go homeless year after year.

We spend billions on nuclear weapons annually, which Lord knows we do not need and cannot use.  This taxpayer money could provide a stellar education for all American children—not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy school district.

Dasani and her siblings have as much right to the American dream as any other American child.

Donating to the charities that hand out teddy bears at Christmastime is just not enough.

The great activist Eve Ensler wrote in her latest memoir that she “despises charity.”

Why?  Because it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s a sop to the consciences of those who give, without addressing the root causes of the need in a way that might actually alleviate it in the longterm.

Structural changes are needed at every level of our society.  For starters, let’s do away with the policy that ties school district funding to property tax revenues.

American public schools should provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of where they live.

Next, don’t just warehouse poor families like Dasani’s in miserable rundown housing.  Give them jobs, give them respect, give them an incentive to work their way out of poverty.

At the very least, they could be organized to clean up their city-run housing, plant gardens and provide services to each other as a way to supplement their welfare checks.

Nothing breeds hopelessness faster than powerlessness, and charity perpetuates the illusion of powerlessness in its recipients.

Dasani’s resilience and determination, as brought to light in the outstanding reporting of Andrea Elliot and her photographer Ruth Fremson, needs no charity.  All Dasani needs is a fair chance.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Solstice dreams–an endangered resource!

So we’ve turned the corner on Thanksgiving, and now we’re going full-throttle into “the holiday season.”

Christmas-lights-on-Fiedler-HouseHere in the Northeast, that means the dwindling hours of daylight are aggressively bolstered with burgeoning strings of Christmas lights, endless shopping trips to the mall and so many holiday parties that they all begin to blur into one long month of compulsive merrymaking, carefully manufactured to cancel out the intrinsic darkness of the shortest days of the year.

I suggest that we consider actually focusing on that quiet solstice darkness, instead of working so hard to hold it at bay with our artificial lights and nonstop motion.

It worries me to see the way kids today, including my own two sons, have a hard time relaxing enough to simply space out and enjoy the quiet of a long winter evening.

They hardly even notice the festive lights that are twinkling all around us, much less the cold, distant glitter of the stars, because their eyes are so consistently trained on the soul-less white light of their smart phone screens.


My younger son, age 15, never leaves home without his i-phone gripped in his hand.  When we drive together I have to prompt him to look up and take in the lovely sunset, or the crescent moon hanging low on the horizon.

If I weren’t there to nag him about looking up and taking a break from his phone, it’s possible to imagine that he might literally be glued to it all day, playing shoot-em-up games or sports games, watching mainstream TV shows and movies, or texting with his friends.

When he does take a break, he often bounces around restlessly, not sure how to amuse himself.

Just sitting and staring into space—allowing oneself the luxury of quiet unfocused space-out time—doesn’t even occur to him, so accustomed is he to constantly consuming the pre-packaged ideas of others.

Fuego del HogarI know for myself that my most creative ideas come when my brain is most relaxed and open…when I am walking in the woods, or staring aimlessly into a fire, or curled up in bed with my purring cat on my chest.

If I didn’t allow myself those unfocused moments—if I was incessantly plugged into the collective internet brain that was constantly feeding me pre-packaged stimulation—I might never have an original thought.

How sad would that be!  And multiplied out across millions of others like me, how impoverishing for humanity!  Do we really want to turn into a kind of collective species like ants, bees or termites, where the creativity of the individual is completely irrelevant?

This solstice season, I suggest you detach yourself from the busy-ness and the artificial lights for a bit, take your loved ones by the hand and see if you can all slow down for a good long while.  A whole weekend would be good, or at least a long winter’s night.

IMG_3811Find a fire to stare at.  Bundle up well and find a dark hillside from which to watch the constellations wheeling overhead.  Banish those smart phones and tablets, at least for a night, and try making some music together.  Try telling some stories, or reading a good book out loud.

Everything great that human beings have achieved has come out of the freedom of our creative dreams.  We can’t afford to let that precious dreamtime be taken away from us by our own addiction to the constant stimulation of virtual reality.

Give your overworked, over-stimulated computer brain a break this solstice and enjoy the season of darkness.  Go to bed early!  Dream!

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