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

From The New York Times, May 29, 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did someone say CLIMATE CHANGE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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