Enough already!

I know it’s not just me.  So many people I’ve talked to this week are feeling it.

It’s a kind of low-grade malaise, nothing you can put your finger on, just a weary, burned out sense of ENOUGH ALREADY.

Enough bad news.  Enough of the stock market endlessly gyrating downward.  Enough unmanned drones picking off clerics in desert hideouts.  Enough executions.  Enough police brutality.  Enough racism.  Enough bullying in the schools, and in the Congress.  Enough global warming.  Just ENOUGH ALREADY!!

But you know what?  There is no magic wand that can make these problems go away. We’re sleep-walking in some kind of collective cultural trance, living through a waking nightmare in excruciating slow motion.  What we need to do is WAKE UP and stop our goose-stepping death march.

That’s what the people sitting out in Liberty Plaza Park, Wall Street, are trying to do.  They’re trying to break the trance by doing something radically unexpected.

In our country, we sign online petitions and donate funds by cell phone, but we don’t sit out in the rain and use our collective voices as natural amplifiers. We don’t publicly put our bodies on the line.

Or maybe we do.  I am too young to remember the Civil Rights protests or the Stonewall riots.  I’m way too young to remember the workers’ strikes of the 1930s.  But these acts of resistance live on in our American collective unconscious, and it’s time to tap into them now.

The antidote to the vague sense of despair and depression that so many of us seem to be feeling these days is, quite simply, ACTION!  If we let this creeping malaise get to us, it’s all over.  We might as well just admit defeat.

And that, my friends, is unthinkable!  So let’s rouse ourselves, let’s prick ourselves in the flanks, let’s get out there and fight the good fight!  It’s the least we can do for the country and the planet that needs us–terribly.

American-style debt bondage–how much longer can we go on this way?

A propos of this question of what the Occupy Wall Street protest is all about, I would like to raise the issue of debt bondage.

Usually when someone says “debt bondage,” we flash to images of Indian rice farmers or child brick carriers or trafficked women from Southeast Asia.

There is horrendous debt slavery in South and Southeast Asia, and the conditions under which men, women and children labor there are far worse than anything we face here in the U.S.

But at the same time, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to call the average American middle-class lifestyle a form of debt bondage.

This graphic does a good job at giving us the picture:

In case you can’t read the fine print, the end of the “game” shows that Americans will pay about $600,000 in interest alone during their lifetimes.  [Source: Visual Economics.]

Working to pay off debt has become so commonplace that we scarcely even notice it anymore.  But it’s a relatively new phenomenon.  And all that interest, plus all those fees, are among the prime ways that the Wall Street bankers have gotten so phenomenally rich in the past 50 years or so.

What can be done about this?  For starters, a quality education should not so expensive that a middle-class student has to go into debt to attain it.

And we have to think much more deeply as a society about the job question.  We should not make it so easy for corporations to outsource jobs to cheaper labor markets.  Just as we are beginning to think about localizing agriculture and energy, we need to think about localizing jobs.

That’s the way human beings have made their livings for the past millennia, after all.  Only in the last 30 years or so has the world become so small (thanks to cheap fossil fuels) that it was conceivable to export manufacturing and other basic services to the other side of the globe.

Is outsourcing really more cost-effective, when you add in the costs of social welfare for all these displaced workers?  And the costs of millions of foreclosed homes?  And the costs of warehousing millions of poorly educated young people in jail? Not to mention the costs of global climate change?

Well, it depends on who is footing the bill, doesn’t it.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are speaking for all American taxpayers in declaring that we should not have to pay for the greedy, short-sighted mistakes of the global corporate elite.

If they had to pay the true costs of the agendas they’ve pursued since World War II, well–it would be quite a different world we were living in, friends.  Maybe we would still be able to make a living that didn’t involve constantly adding more links to the chains of our debt bondage.

Unthinkable, you say?

Think again!

Don’t Pepper-Spray Our Dreams

New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has totally missed the mark in her coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Where I see a vibrant grassroots movement unfolding organically, she sees a disorganized group, marred by a “lack of cohesion” and an “intellectual vaccuum.”

Where I see a clever use of street theater to get across messages that might be too threatening to convey in a more direct, hard-driving tone, she sees an “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.”

Where she sees the cause of the protesters as “impossible to decipher” because of the “diffuse and leaderless” nature of this movement, I see the cause as rather starkly clear, if expressed in a multitude of colorful ways by the individual protesters.

It’s summed up in the movement’s use of the concept of 99% to identify themselves. Last week there were protesters who wore placards saying “I am Troy Davis.”  This week, almost all Americans could don similar placards proclaiming: “I am one of the 99%”–that is, the majority of citizens who are receiving almost nothing in the way of benefits from the vast wealth generated by Wall Street.

Even the disdainful Ginia Bellafante noted the growing economic inequality of America in her article on the protest:

Last week, she said, “The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.”

Well look again, Ms. Bellafante and you Wall Street billionaires. The revolution is at your doorstep.  It may be young, motley and impulsive, but have’t revolutions always been started by the young, idealistic and passionate of any society?

They may not be arguing from any one intellectual vantage point, but they don’t need to be quoting Marx or Dewey or John Maynard Keynes to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem in our society: that the rich own our political system, and they are more interested in personal gain than in a healthy society where young people who work hard will know that they can look forward to a secure future.

We’ve seen the same kinds of protests from young people living under dictatorships in the Middle East; and in London; and now in New York and other American cities.  They all want the same thing: a social system that prioritizes the well-being of ordinary people over the need of the wealthy elite to accumulate ever more billions in personal property.

Is this too much to ask?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not “communism,” either. It’s what used to be called the American Dream, a dream that has faded for too many of us as cost of living has soared, wages have stagnated, housing values have fallen, and jobs have disappeared.

In today’s harsh world, idealist visions are often met with pepper spray.

That’s no way to treat the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

Mayor Bloomberg, you should be ashamed.

Occupy Wall Street: Time to Tell Bloomberg to Call Off the Goon Squad

Finally, the alternative media is coming alive!  Alternet is leaping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon, and urging its readers to do the same.

Arun Gupta issues “a clarion call to join the protests,” and a longer story by Sarah Jaffe shows how the heavy-handed police techniques and lack of attention from the press have not dampened the protesters’ determination, and if anything have drawn more people to the cause.

Truthout.org doesn’t have the protest on the front page, but they did reproduce a very disturbing video from msnbc, with anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, certainly no radical, standing up for the protesters in the strongest terms.

It’s the people wearing the badges that are the troublemakers, O’Donnell says, accusing the police of “unprovoked police brutality.”  The provocation, he observes, was having a video camera running.

There is NOTHING illegal in recording a peaceful protest.

Americans, we have to stand up for our freedom of speech.

It’s time to tell Mayor Bloomberg, a Wall Street type if there ever was one, that this is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE.

If you want to send the Mayor a letter, this is how.  And protesters, maybe it’s time to send a contingent over to the new Tammany Hall.

Occupy Wall Street, Day 10: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world

One of Wangari Maathai’s most powerful political actions was when she and a group of women occupied Uhuru (Freedom) Park in downtown Nairobi, to protest government plans to turn the tree-lined public park into a giant private office complex.

At first it was just twenty women with hand-painted signs, sitting down together in the center of the park in protest.  But as word spread, the protest grew, until soon hundreds of people, men and women, were sitting down in the park with Wangari, demanding the right to hold on to one of the last remaining green spaces in their city.

And you know what?  They won!

I’m thinking of that story tonight as I watch the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Plaza Park, NYC.  Protesters have been sitting down there for the past ten days, and despite nasty police pressure and arrests, they are not moving–and the crowd is growing.

Their demands are simple: they want the Masters of the Universe who run Wall Street, and through Wall Street, the world, to pay attention to the ordinary folks at the bottom of the heap.

There are all kinds of people down in Liberty Park–students, housewives, journalists, activists, the unemployed.  What they have in common is a deep and abiding belief that the corporate capitalist system symbolized by Wall Street is not serving Americans well–other than the narrow top layer of financiers and their creatures, the politicians and corporate business types.

I am disappointed to see that my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, has treated the protest like a minor disturbance, not worthy of front-page attention.  Of course, the Times can’t risk angering its corporate advertisers and sponsors…so they have to tread carefully.

But it’s surprising to see that even more progressive publications like The Nation, the Huffington Post and Moveon.org are also largely ignoring the significance of this protest.

Maybe it’s because there’s no one famous in charge–although some celebs have started dropping by and addressing the crowd now, including Michael Moore, Cornel West and Susan Sarandon.

The truth is that this is a REAL grassroots protest movement.  There is no charismatic leader calling the shots and getting the glory. There is no fancy media kit or PR person fielding questions.

There’s just “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” seeking by their persistent accusatory presence to change the world.  As Margaret Mead said, we shouldn’t doubt their ability to do just that.

More than that–we should get out there and join them!

Wangari Maathai’s Canopy of Hope: remembering a warrior woman for the planet and role model for us all

Kenyan Wangari Maathai, who died last night of ovarian cancer, was a woman who took everything she learned and used it for the benefit of her local community and the planetary community as a whole.

As a girl, she used to sit by a certain fig tree that grew near her family village.  Beside the fig tree a clear, sparkling stream flowed, planted with arrowroots and hopping with small frogs.  Her mother told her that this was a “tree of God,” which wasn’t to be harvested for firewood.

Later, Wangari realized that “there was a connection between the fig tree’s root system and the underground water reservoirs.  The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table.  The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and fushed out as a spring.  Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams.  The reverence the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me.  The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides.  In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity” (Unbowed, 46).

Wangari came of age as the traditional wisdom of the village people was giving way before the onslaught of Western epistemologies.  A girl who excelled in her schooling, she educated by Catholic nuns, and was fortunate enough to be chosen for the so-called Kennedy airlift of 1960, under which the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation provided scholarships for promising young African students to study in America—the same program that brought Barack Obama’s father to the U.S. to study.

Wangari ended up at Mount St. Scholastica, a Benedictine women’s college in Kansas, where she majored in science, and she went on to earn a Master’s in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. She continued her studies in Germany, and in 1971 earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University College of Nairobi—the first women in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree.

Like so many other highly educated women who join the workforce, Wangari experienced plenty of gender discrimination as she tried to advance her career. Frustrated with her lack of advancement within the university, she joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, which was a group of educated women who sought to improve the living conditions of all Kenyan women.

“We could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in,” she said.  “This was not a remote problem for us.  The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived.  We owed it to them to do all we could” (124).

For Wangari, the problems were clear:

“The connection between the symptoms of environmental degradation and their causes—deforestation, devegetation, unsustainable agriculture and soil loss—were self-evident.  Something had to be done.  We could not just deal with the manifestations of the problems.  We had to get to the root causes of those problems.

“Now, it is one thing to understand the issues.  It is quite another to do something about them.  But I have always been interested in finding solutions.  This is, I believe, the result of my education as well as my time in America: to think of what can be done rather than worrying about what cannot.  I didn’t sit down and ask myself, ‘Now let me see, what shall I do?’ It just came to me: Why not plant trees?’ The trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods.  They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goals.  The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food.  They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.

“That is how the Green Belt Movement began” (125).

 The Green Belt Movement mobilized thousands of ordinary women in Kenya to start tree nurseries, and to plant trees near their homes.  It also became a forest conservation movement, with Wangari leading women in protecting Kenya’s remaining forests against the loggers hired by giant transnational conglomerates.  She made plenty of enemies in the government when her agenda threw a wrench in their greedy plans, and she was often afraid for her life.  She was thrown in jail many times, and frequently confronted violence at the hands of police and goon squads.

 Through it all, she remained, as the title of her memoir suggests, UNBOWED. She would not be browbeaten into submission to authority.  She knew that her cause was not only righteous but right for Kenyans and for the planet she loved, and this gave her the courage to stand firm against intimidation.

Wangari’s activism cost her her marriage: her husband, a Kenyan Member of Parliament, divorced her after she earned her Ph.D. and became more financially successful.  She could have chosen the easy way and lived a very privileged, comfortable existence in Nairobi, if she had been willing to bow her head and put her husband’s needs and career before her own.  Instead, she went through a humiliating public divorce trial:

“It became clear that I was being turned into a sacrificial lamb.  Anybody who had a grudge against modern, educated and independent women was being given an opportunity to spit on me.  I decided to hold my head up high, put my shoulders back, and suffer with dignity: I would give every woman and girl reasons to be proud and never regret being educated, successful and talented.  ‘What I have,’ I told myself, ‘is something to celebrate and not to ridicule or dishonor’” (146).

The divorce trial ended, incredibly enough, with Wangari being sentenced to six months in prison for “contempt of court”; she was hauled off to prison without even having the time to say goodbye to her children. It was clearly an attempt to put this uppity woman in her place, but it did not work: Wangari would not be intimidated, and emerged from prison determined to put her talents to work for her people, come what might for herself personally.

Her Green Belt Movement became a model for sustainable, grassroots-driven development throughout Africa and beyond, which worked not only for environmental sustainability, but also for women’s rights, human rights and participatory democracy.  Wangari consistently provided an upright model of honest, steadfast leadership, leading by example in speaking truth to power and and refusing to be cowed.

“What I have learned over the years,” she said, “is that we must be patient, persistent and committed.  When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, “I don’t want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.” I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before.  So they must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future.  I remind them that like a seedling, with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky” (289).

Wangari Maathai herself grew that “canopy of hope” for all of us.  May the seedlings she planted be nourished with care by those of us who aspire to walk in her footsteps, for all those who deserve a better world in the future here on our precious planetary home.

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com.

Truly a great leader, I can’t believe she is gone.  So fast!  I can’t help but think that had she been living in the West, the cancer would have been caught earlier and she would still be with us.  A great loss for the world.  More later.

Songs of Freedom in New York

I can hardly bear to watch this video, but I feel compelled to share it.  You need to know what is being done in your name.

The right to peaceful protest?  The right to dissent?  Right.

Meanwhile, up in another part of New York, I was at a conference this weekend celebrating “40 Years of Feminist Activism and Scholarship” at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.  Here all was decorous and polite–no protesters, no cops, no tight handcuffs or people being pulled down the sidewalk by their feet.

Instead we discussed “issues of translocation” in the Latino diaspora, and how there is a need for social theorists to serve as translators, transcultural workers, and border-crossers of all kinds.  Unfortunately, this information was presented in a kind of high-level theoretical drone that sucked the lifeblood out of the topic. When the presenter began to read us the annotated table of contents of her new anthology, I had to get up and leave.

Fortunately, the panel I had organized, on “Living and Working in the Borderlands,” was up next, and it kicked us in to a whole different register.  Margaret Randall read poetry that wrenched us into the heart of the dangerous, shifting borders between past and present, safety and terror, life and death.

“They say you are not at home/until you have lived in a house/through all four seasons./What they don’t say is/you are never at home/when a part of that home/has been taken.” —As If the Empty Chair: Poems for the Disappeared, p. 20

Ruth Irupe Sanabria followed, reading her powerful poems about growing up in the long, sick shadow of the terror that marred her childhood in Argentina during the Dirty War.  Reading a poem about how the violence visited on her parents, political prisoners during the war, was reenacted in her own childhood, Ruth choked up, and I could not help but think of the first-trimester fetus curled in her womb, choking as well in this legacy of pain.

Finally the youngest of us spoke, my current B.A. student Michelle Gonzalez, who described her struggles to come to turns with all the jagged fault lines that mark her own identity.  Her honest self-exploration led us into a thoughtful, engaged discussion with the audience on how one’s location in the borderlands, whether chosen or imposed, can be both a spur and a hindrance to creative freedom.

There is a temptation to see a continuum in this, a continuum of creative protest going from the poet who writes in the blood of her own passion to the passionate young protester who is not afraid to put her body on the line and submit to the manhandling of the police.

One thing for sure is that the kind of jargon-laden social theory expressed in the keynote speech seems more and more clearly to be completely beside the point.  What is the good of talking about people’s struggles for freedom, self-determination and dignity in words they would not understand, on a platform to which they will never have access?

There is a reason that song lyrics continue to resonate with the young.  We may not all read poetry, but most of us do listen to music.  Simple, direct, powerful words are the ones that will stay with us, and perhaps even move us to action.

What songs do you hum to give yourself the courage to go on?  What songs might break through the spell of the men in blue and remind them who they are supposed to be working for?

I’ll end with the voice of a martyr for political freedom, Victor Jara, savagely murdered by the Chilean goon squad while still valiantly trying to sing his songs of peace:

It’s up to us now to keep his song alive.

Peace Day Travesties

Last night my son reminded me that it was Peace Day yesterday, and my heart sank even lower.  How could it be that on the day dedicated to world peace, the U.S. allowed an improperly tried man to be put to death by lethal injection?

Perhaps even worse, how could it be that our President chose this day to appear before the United Nations opposing the Palestinian government’s efforts to negotiate a two-state resolution with Israel?

Obama’s speech was laden with bitter irony for those who could hear between the lines.  How could he laud the people of other Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Libya and Yemen for taking matters in their own hands and violently overthrowing oppressive rulers, while at the same time telling the Palestinians that they should wait, be patient and let others decide their fate?

What difference is there, really, between an oppressive dictator like Qaddafi and an oppressive state dictatorship like the one Israel exercises over Palestine?  In both cases it’s a matter of people’s basic human rights being violated.  In neither case do the people have the “democracy” that Obama praised in his speech yesterday.  Why is it OK for the Libyans to rise up and throw out the oppressors, but not for the Palestinians?

Of course, we know the answer.  Because American Jews have too much invested in the success of the state of Israel, and are too afraid of the Palestinians to see them as anything other than potential terrorists.  Because American Jews wield considerable power in the U.S. government, and their support can make or break a political candidate here at home.

Under these circumstances, I am not proud to be an American of Jewish descent (I can’t call myself a Jew because I have never practiced the religion and am largely unfamiliar with it).

I’m not happy to be a white American either, given the clear racialization of the American criminal justice system, with people of color receiving much harsher treatment, from the police on the streets to the courts and the prisons, than people of European descent.

What do I do with my guilt over the way “my people” are treating others?  I can “pass” as a non-Jew and distance myself from that community, but I can’t exactly “pass” as a person of color.

What I have to do, and what all of us who deplore the oppression that was blazoned across the headlines on World Peace Day should do, is to ally myself firmly with those who stand for freedom.  In many cases, sad to say, this would mean opposing the policies of the U.S. government and many of its cronies, like the state of Israel.

Dissent from majority opinion has a long and proud history in our country and we should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe, even if we appear to be opposing the powers that be.

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States declined to step in and save the life of Troy Davis even though it was plain to hundreds of thousands of onlookers that he did not deserve execution.  Yesterday President Obama went on record as opposing the efforts of President Abbas of Palestine to finally take his rightful place among the league of nations at the U.N.

Justices and President, I respectfully disagree with you.  A lot of us disagree with you, a lot of the time.  You need to start listening to us ordinary folks again, and give us a government we can be proud of.

Otherwise, you might just wake up one morning and find the Arab Spring has come to America–with you, or at least the oppressive establishment you represent–as the targets this time.



Justice for Troy Davis?

9/21/11, 8:59 p.m. He’s not dead yet.

There are thousands of people trying to save his life, this Black man in a Georgia penitentiary, who has already served more than 20 years in prison.  Troy Davis is a symbol of something much greater, a magnet for a deep rage, a deep and inchoate sorrow–the rage and despair of all those who rail against injustice.  He is neither the first, nor will he be the last to be snared in the U.S. “justice” system and ground to a pulp.

Clearly, his trial was a travesty of justice.  Whether or not he killed a man in 1989 (a white man who happened to be an off-duty cop), certainly he has served his time, and just from looking at him you can see that he would not be the same man who walked through those prison doors 20 years ago.

Isn’t the purpose of the criminal justice system rehabilitation?

Or is it revenge, the vengeful inflicting of an eye for an eye?

I would like to believe that if we go to the expense and trouble of housing, feeding and caring for a prisoner for 20 years, we’ve done it to accomplish more than simply warehousing him for his execution date.  What is the point of that?

As Bob Roberts showed so movingly in his memoir My Soul Said to Me, just about every convict has it in him (or her) to be rehabilitated.  All it takes is someone who is focused on seeing the good, rather than insisting on the irredeemable.

The Bard Prison Initiative, for example, is predicated on the assumption that every man behind bars is capable of learning, and will benefit from education.  So many of the young men and women behind bars never had the benefit of a decent education–which might have put them on quite a different path.

The Bard Prison Initiative, like Bob Roberts’ Project Return program for released ex-cons, demonstrates that justice does not have to wear an executioner’s hood.

Sure, those who do wrong should be punished.  But not forever.  Very few criminals deserve capital punishment–and sadly, those who most deserve it often manage to escape (for instance, the masterminds of genocide in places like Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia….).

What good does it do anyone to put Troy Davis, or many others like him, to death?  What good does it do to hold Leonard Peltier or Mumia Albu-Jamal in prison for decades?  Doesn’t the criminal justice system want to do good?

Doesn’t it?

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