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 white-haired body, is showing us the way.

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The Heart and Soul of Bernie Sanders

As a woman, I would have liked to be enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President of the United States. But when the Democratic primary comes to Massachusetts, I’ll be voting, enthusiastically, for Bernie Sanders.

It’s not that I think Hillary Clinton would make a bad president, or that she isn’t up to the job. It’s that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for the status quo—a strange thing to say about the first viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history.

Like many women around the world who gained political power through their husband’s or father’s political legacy, Hillary represents an established—and an establishment—vision. She has a bunch of policy ideas thrown up in alphabetical order on her website, so that it appears,  bizarrely, that “fighting Alzheimer’s disease” is her number one priority. But her short takes on the issues don’t add up to a clear, convincing vision of her own. She appears to be running mostly on the strength of being a voice of moderation in the howling wilderness of the Republican field.

I want to hold back the Republican beast as much as anyone, but I’m not willing to settle for Hillary when I could have Bernie instead.

What Bernie has that Hillary lacks is, quite simply, heart and soul.

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Like Barack Obama, he has the ability as an orator to connect with a crowd and get them on their feet and cheering. He does it by speaking clearly, without artifice or manipulation, about the injustices that have been woven into our social system here in America, which most Americans must navigate on a daily basis.

Bernie is not afraid to call out today’s robber barons and hold them accountable for a disparity in wealth not seen since the last gilded age, right before the Depression.

According to Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, American inequality in wealth is approaching record levels. As The Economist summarizes, “In the late 1920s the bottom 90% held just 16% of America’s wealth—considerably less than that held by the top 0.1%, which controlled a quarter of total wealth just before the crash of 1929. From the beginning of the Depression until well after the end of the second world war, the middle class’s share of total wealth rose steadily, thanks to collapsing wealth among richer households, broader equity ownership, middle-class income growth and rising rates of home-ownership. From the early 1980s, however, these trends have reversed. The top 0.1% (consisting of 160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.”

As we know, a handful of billionaires are spending a lot of money to maintain the status quo, by buying politicians to do it for them.

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Bernie won’t have any of that. Like Barack Obama, he is raising record campaign contributions in small amounts—in fact, as of December he had more contributions than Obama did at that stage of his 2008 campaign.

Hillary still has a little more money in her war chest (according to a recent report, she has raised just $4 million more than Sanders), but that could change as Bernie continues to gain traction and momentum.

The rumor that he might choose Senator Elizabeth Warren as his running mate generated a ripple of delight among those of us who want to see a woman in a top U.S. office. Although presidential tickets are usually picked by geography (a Southern presidential candidate choosing a West Coast VP, for example), it might be time to make an exception and let these two amazingly inspiring leaders out of the starting gate to show what they can do together.

Bernie Sanders’ issues page has an entirely different feel than Hillary’s. He’s not just running down a laundry list of issues that have been generated by polls and focus groups as the ones every candidate should respond to. No, Bernie Sanders has a thoughtful and passionate take on every one of the issues he lists on his website, from climate change to a living wage, from health care and social security to foreign policy and educational reform. He’s got the big picture AND he’s got the details.

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Most importantly, he really cares. He’s not running for President on some kind of ego trip. He’s running because he looked around and saw that he was the leader he’d been waiting for. No one else in the Democratic Party had the guts or the smarts to challenge the Clinton establishment and the status quo party backers. He looked and he leaped and he didn’t look back. He’s been giving it all he’s got, and he’s clearly got a tremendous amount to give.

I have always been a closet Green Party supporter, and I hate the fact that no one pays any attention to Jill Stein, who continues to run anyway, off in her own parallel universe. Bernie represents something new in American politics: a Green Democrat. He’s the homegrown hybrid we need to successfully navigate all the challenges facing Americans and the world in the 21st century.

Yes, I know the Republicans will do everything they can to stop him, during the campaign and if he were to gain the White House. I know they play dirty. But Bernie is tough, and he’s got something none of the other big players have: integrity.

Americans are hungry an honest politician who means it when he says he is on their side—and doesn’t just say it, but lives it. That’s why we elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, despite all the Republicans’ dirty tricks, and that’s why we’ll elect a Democrat again in 2016.

Much as I’d like to see a woman President, what matters to me more than external appearance of our next leader is what’s inside that exterior shell. I’ll take Bernie’s heart and soul over Hillary’s, any day.

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Check out Bernie’s Jan. 9, 2016 discussion of his “electability” here.

Watch out for the flying dark money

I never heard of “dark money” until this election. Maybe the term existed before, but suddenly it’s become commonplace, like “fracking” and “carbon footprint”—just ordinary 21st century parlance.

Dark money must be something like dark energy and dark matter, which together account for 95% of the universe, but about which we know nothing.

Physicists theorize that dark energy and dark matter affect the known universe—that is, us—profoundly, but we don’t know exactly how.

With dark money, even though we don’t know where it comes from, the effect of this huge force on our political universe is easier to gauge. Just look at the U.S. Congress, now dominated by Republicans who have gleefully accepted vast sums of dark money.

How vast? We’re talking big money. Here is what the New York Times had to say in a somber editorial on the topic:

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky

“The $11.4 million spent anonymously for Mr. McConnell…didn’t even make him the biggest beneficiary of secret donations, a phenomenon that grew substantially in this election cycle. In the 2010 midterms, when this practice was just getting started, $161 million was spent by groups that did not disclose donations. In this cycle it was up to at least $216 million, and 69 percent of it was spent on behalf of Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“In Colorado, at least $18 million in dark money was spent on behalf of Cory Gardner, the Republican newly elected to the Senate; $4 million was spent on behalf of Senator Mark Udall, the Democratic incumbent. In North Carolina, $13.7 million in secret donations was spent for Thom Tillis, the new Republican senator; $2.6 million went to Senator Kay Hagan, who was ousted.”

What a mockery this makes of our so-called democracy! Our electoral politics is all about manipulation and spin, attack ads and redistricting, fueling armies of canvassers on the ground. It really is war, and wars have always been won by those with the best weapons, the smartest strategy and the most boots on the ground. That’s what money can buy. The worthiness of the candidate herself is really quite beside the point. She just needs to follow the playbook, stay on message and get out of the way of her handlers.

What kind of despicable political system do we live in? No wonder President Obama is looking so terribly grim lately. He came to office vowing to remain uncontaminated by Beltway corruption, to represent the interests of ordinary people and to repair the terrible damage the Republicans wrought the last time they held power. He knows, as we do, that though he still has his finger in the Republican dyke, the pressure will be tremendous and he may not be able to hold them back for long.

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington, November 7, 2014.  REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington, November 7, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

What’s on their agenda? Undoing the health care law that has done so much to protect and subsidize health care for low and middle-income Americans. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline and opening up more public lands, including oceans, to fracking, drilling and mining. Keeping the minimum wage as low as they possibly can, closing family planning clinics and continuing a hardline, harsh approach to immigration.

I am not spinning or exaggerating here. This is what we’re going to get in the next two years, and it’s going to take every ounce of strength and determination Barack Obama has to stand firm and pursue the mandate for which he was elected.

I don’t recognize this America. Just as Bill McKibben says we’re now living on Eaarth, the extra “a” signifying the brave new world of climate change that is radically changing our environment, we are also now living in Aamerica—the extra A standing perhaps for addled, alarming, asinine.

There’s not a damned thing ordinary small fry like me can do about it as the political Titans throw their dark money at each other over our heads, except maybe to duck and hope we can avoid being spattered by their sh*t.

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

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years as a terrorist.

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

For me, the lesson is clear.

We cannot rely on others for a moral compass.

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

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

Nelson Mandela as a young man

Nelson Mandela as a young man

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to Occupy Congress!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking solidarity in the environmental justice movement

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

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

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

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

This is the push-back of Mother Earth.

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

 

Family in Tasmania seek shelter from wildfires

Family in Tasmania seek shelter from wildfires

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

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

Two and two cannot equal two, Mr. Cuomo.

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

A lot of people are getting this now.

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

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

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

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

Wildfires are killing thousands of sheep in Australia

Wildfires are killing thousands of sheep in Australia

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

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

But we’re wising up now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tree-sitters in Texas

Tree-sitters in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cabal Behind the Curtain

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

Do people really think Mitt is a magician?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stein and Honkala arrested outside Hofstra U on Oct 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malala Yousafzai Stands Up for Us All

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

One is: if it bleeds, it leads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s so threatening about that?

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

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

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

Real women do the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Darwin

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

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

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

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

Marx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Elk

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

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

 

Swept Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There must be another way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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