Standing strong against the Furies

AUDIO OF THIS PIECE READ BY JBH ON WAMC-NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO, DECEMBER 21, 2012

Just as people in places like the Maldives, Bangladesh and Japan shook their heads at the cluelessness of Americans who suddenly woke up to climate change when Sandy came to town, people living in hot spots of violence around the world now have every right to be shaking their heads at the collective American refusal to see and understand how, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, we are the cause of our own misery.

t1larg.pakistandronerally.giThe U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world.  We have by far the largest military.  We are also by far the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with some 300 million guns circulating among our population of about 300 million people.  Americans, we need to acknowledge that collectively, as a nation, we have been responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands of deaths of children worldwide through the weapons we sell abroad.

There is not a conflict in the world today that has not been fueled by American weaponry.

It is hypocritical to weep crocodile tears for the slaughter of innocent children in a kindergarten in Connecticut but to callously ignore the slaughter of innocent children by American drone fire in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need to start connecting the dots and realizing that the violence we mete out to the world will come back to haunt us a thousand-fold.

I’m not just talking about gun violence or missiles. I’m talking about the violence of inhuman labor practices and poverty, leading to rage that is sometimes turned inward, as in the spikes of farmer suicides due to heavy-handed Monsanto tactics in places like India and Asia, and sometimes outward, as in the terrorist strikes against targets inside the U.S. (9/11, anyone) or at our representatives abroad (did someone say Benghazi?).

I’m talking about the violence Western-style “development” has wreaked on the natural world, which is now boomeranging back to slam us against the wall of a destabilized climate.

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

If you create lethal weapons and spread them widely among the populace, you should not be surprised when they discharge and kill people.

If you overheat the climate and bulldoze all the trees, you should not be surprised at the deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and temperature swings that result.

Back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin taught us to understand that competition is good, that the strongest and fittest will survive, and that if the weak perish it’s all for the best.  It was a perfect rationale for the capitalist/imperialist narrative of the past 500 years, domination as evolution, at gunpoint and bulldozer blade.

Would Darwin look out at today’s dangerous world and proclaim serenely that the coming population drop of humans, due to violence of our own making, is simply part of the grand scheme of Evolution?

If the answer is “yes,” does this mean we should just sit back and watch it all unfold with detachment?

I don’t think so.  I believe it’s the great task of our generation to meet the violence of our time with unwavering, clear-eyed resistance.

To a large extent, the damage has already been done.  The guns are circulating out there in the world; the nuclear power plants are whirring; the oil and gas rigs are pumping; the myriad plants and creatures with whom we grew up in our era on the planet are disappearing.

Pandora’s box is wide open, and the Furies have been released in the world.

We may not be able to get them back, but we can continue to insist that they do not represent us.  We can continue to stand as beacons to another mode of living, based not on competition and aggressiveness, but on collaboration and respect.

As we move into the darkest week of the year, let us not give up hope that as the planet swings back towards the Sun on December 22, we can collectively climb up out of the abyss of violence and pain and unite around the finest human values of life, peace and love, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet as a whole.

Privilege, Difference and the Challenge of Creating a “Beloved Community”

The recent Presidential election showed in concrete terms that the demograhics of the United States are shifting quickly.  The old majority of people of European descent (“Caucasians”) is rapidly shrinking to minority status in numerical terms, although white folks retain a lock on the gears of power and privilege so far in this country.

How do white folks continue to maintain dominance?

The key is still education.

When my Eastern European Jewish forebears came to the US through Ellis Island back at the turn of the 20th century, the adults in the family spoke no English, but they were hardworking and ambitious for their children to assimilate and succeed.

One of my great-grandfathers fixed sewing machines on the Lower East Side; another great-grandmother sold fish wrapped in newspaper on the street to support her children.

Within a generation, the children of these immigrants were living the middle-class American dream, and their children did even better, becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.

My grandmother, a first-generation American whose mother tongue, before entering kindergarten, was Yiddish, got her B.A. and Masters in biology from Hunter College, and became a high school biology teacher.  Her son, my father, graduated from Oberlin and NYU and became a successful professional.  I followed the pattern and got my Ph.D.

This is what’s known in Americanese as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

What is too often unacknowledged is how the privilege accorded to whiteness in America has helped families like mine succeed.

It starts with where you are able to live, because property taxes still determine the quality of the primary and secondary education you’ll receive.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were a lot of places in the U.S. where Jews weren’t welcome, including many selective colleges and universities.

But just like the Irish and the Italians, soon enough Jews became “white,” and that was all that mattered—they were welcome in all but the snootiest bastions of American WASP-dom, and their privileges were helped along by the exclusion of others.

The color of one’s skin still matters in this country.  We still live in largely segregated neighborhoods, and thus most of our children attend largely segregated schools.

And they’re not “separate but equal” schools either.  They are, as Jonathan Kozol so eloquently documented, deeply unequal schools, where children with darker skin tones—who are often the most in need of support–are given less, financially and  intellectually.

The fight over “race-blind” college admissions is so fraught because what tends to happen without any affirmative action policy for Americans of color is that the people with the best “grooming” win out, and the best-groomed high school seniors tend to be those from affluent families, living in affluent neighborhoods, going to affluent schools.

As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, “Those from the top fifth of households in income are at least seven times as likely to go to selective colleges as those in the bottom fifth. The achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is almost twice as wide as between whites and blacks,” and “blacks and Hispanics are also substantially underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.”

***

All this is on my mind today because of a recent stir at the college where I teach, which has made a strong effort over the past decade to recruit more students from under-represented groups.

We have more people of color on the campus today than we’ve ever had, which should be a cause for celebration.

But this semester has brought some simmering tensions to the surface, showing how difficult it can be to put a group of passionate young people together on a campus and expect them to “just get along.”

The flashpoint this semester was Diversity Day, a day started several years ago by a group of disgruntled students who felt that not enough time was spent during regular classes focusing on issues of social diversity.

Students, staff and faculty organized workshop classes on a range of topics related to the experience of marginalized groups in America, and theories and praxes of social justice.

The day was so successful that it was subsequently institutionalized, with regular classes cancelled and all students required to attend at least three workshops.

This year, an influential group of students decided they were going to “boycott” Diversity Day.  Many of them were the student leaders of workshops, which meant that they were actually sabotaging their own event.

They took this extreme measure because they were angry at what they perceived as a lack of strong response from the college administration to the provocation of a student who questioned not just the value of diversity day, but the value of diversity itself in American society.

This student distributed posters on campus asking students to “Take the Diversity Challenge” by answering the following question: “Name 5 benefits of Diversity (besides ethnic food and music).”

His challenge was taken as a white supremacist assault on students who wear the mantle of diversity with pride, and he did not do much to dispel that perception, according to students who said he also sent them a link to a You-Tube talk by Jared Taylor, the controversial founder of the New Century Foundation and editor of its American Renaissance magazine.

The anti-discrimination watchdog organization Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on Taylor, says that he “regularly publishes proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racists,” and also “hosts a conference every other year where racist intellectuals rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”

In the video link shared on our campus, Taylor argues that because there is often friction when you put different social groups into close proximity (and he’s especially attentive to different racial groups)—say, in neighborhoods or schools or college campuses—the better thing to do is to back away and re-segregate, thereby eliminating the sources of tension.

This attitude is wrong on so many levels that I find it hard to know where to start.

Besides the obvious truth that race is just an illusion, as far as a real biological marker of human difference, it’s also true that ghetto-izing certain individuals, for whatever reason, has never been a good social strategy in the past, and it won’t work now.

We don’t want a balkanized, fearful, hateful America any more than we want a bland, homogenized America.

We want a society where, as Audre Lorde put it, “difference [is] not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

In her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde continued: “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being” (Sister Outsider, 111-12).

***

Audre Lorde

At my college, we like to say that we teach “critical thinking skills,” by which we mean that we encourage students to question authority and think for themselves.

We shouldn’t be surprised or upset, then, when they do just that by questioning our own institutional authority.

The students who organized the Diversity Day boycott this year—many of them women of color–were angry that a student advocating white supremacy was allowed to remain in our campus community.

While the administration deliberated over whether this student presented any danger to the community, and whether his words had crossed the line into hate speech, they said, they felt unsafe and unheard.

So they staged a protest, quite in keeping with Audre Lorde’s injunction to “transform silence into language and action.”

“I have come to believe,” Lorde says, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  She urges her readers to ask themselves “What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? ….We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid” of speaking out.

But, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….

“It is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, 4144).

On our campus, Diversity Day originated as an attempt to break the silences between different social groups, including students, faculty and administration, in the cause of mutual understanding and communication.

But this year, it was the boycott that spoke loudest, and what it said, loud and clear, was that there are still so many silences to be broken.

Speaking as a faculty member who teaches classes in human rights and social justice, and who has organized many Diversity Day workshops over the years, the problem is that it’s often too little, too late.

By the time Diversity Day rolls around in November, tensions between social groups on campus have often already come to the fore, and the workshops provide opportunities to let off steam that can end up sparking further conflagrations that take place in the dorms or on social media sites, without the mediating influence of faculty and staff present to help channel discussions productively.

One day out of the school year is not enough to create the social bonds necessary to establish a cohesive, harmonious diverse student body.

We are going to have to try harder, to do better.

***

An opening has been created for us by the students this year. From my perspective as a faculty member, this is a prime teachable moment, an opportunity to advance our ideals of social justice and strengthen the ties of community on our campus.

Those with more privilege, on whatever grounds, must stand as firm allies with the less privileged.

Every class, every conversation, every interaction is an opportunity for respectful communication that encourages the breaking of the deep-seated silences that separate us.

The truth is that every college campus is a microcosm of the larger society from which our students are drawn.  In the small, sheltered community we create—a kind of Beloved Community, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s terms—we have an opportunity to envision and manifest new frameworks and understandings that our students will then carry with them out into the broader world.

In this struggle, as in all others, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time for thoughtful action is now.

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.

 

Responding to Racism or Sexism: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Again and Again

I shouldn’t be surprised that once again the ugly specter of racism and unacknowledged privilege is raising its head on my own little campus community.

It happens almost every year like clockwork, generally in the fall semester around this time, and usually involving freshmen who are still in the process of adjusting to the new, often more racially/ethnically/socially diverse culture in which they have suddenly landed.

Understandably, people of color who have had to put up with racism and white privilege all their lives get angry when it turns up, in all its crude arrogance, here in our campus home as well.

One angry response leads to another angry retort, onlookers begin to take sides, and before you know it the campus is in an uproar, with some calling for apologies, others calling for calm, and the majority just plain mad and not willing to take it anymore.

I want to talk about anger.

As a woman, albeit a white woman, I know something about how members of subordinate groups are not supposed to respond with anger to actions by members of dominant groups.  We are supposed to keep our cool, to turn the other cheek, seek the higher ground, not stoop to their level.

So we pretend we didn’t hear that cutting remark, muttered just loud enough to be audible.  We pretend we didn’t want to go to that party anyway—the one to which our invitation somehow got lost in the mail. Above all, we don’t respond directly to provocation, because that will just give them an excuse to keep going, and make the whole situation worse—not for them, but for us.

So the anger, unexpressed, gnaws at us, sitting in the pit of our stomachs as unmetabolized bitterness that threatens to choke us when, at unexpected moments, its bile rises into our throats.

Audre Lorde

As a woman, I have felt this bitter resentment.  And yet as a white woman, I have also felt the other side, the ignorant innocence of privilege.  Growing up in a racist society, I did, as Audre Lorde famously put it, accept racism “as an immutable given in the fabric of [our] society, like eveningtime or the common cold” (“The Uses of Anger,” Sister Outsider, 128).

I didn’t think to question why there were no African American families living in my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—other than, of course, the live-in maids who could be seen going in and out of the service entrance or trundling laundry down the service elevator. None of the doormen or elevator men were people of color either—most were Irish, like our superintendent, or perhaps German or Scandinavian.

I didn’t think to question why there were hardly any African Americans or Latinos in my public elementary school, or in the selective public high school I attended, Hunter College High School.  When I got to college, it was the same, and again, I was incurious, complacent.

When you grow up this way, in an insular environment of privilege, it is possible to be deluded into thinking that this is just the way the world is.  No one in my whole upbringing encouraged me to ask the kinds of questions that might have made me see the how the fabric of my existence was shot through with deep-seated, longstanding racism.  No one talked about it.  It just was, and since for me that privileged life was very comfortable, I had no incentive to rebel against it.

It was reading that eventually opened my eyes to how the other half (or, globally speaking, two-thirds) lives.

When I happened upon Lorde’s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and read about how she too had gone to Hunter College High School, the only Black girl in a sea of white, and how hard that was for her in so many ways, I began to see my experience there through her outsider’s eyes.  I began to question the way I had lived in a vacuum of privileged blindness for so long.

Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” is one I go back to again and again.  The sentence that continues to resonate powerfully with me is this:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (132).

Listening to Audre Lorde with an open heart, I understood why she was angry at the racist structures into which she was born and bred.  I knew I was not responsible for creating those structures, into which I too had been born and bred, but I did have the power to question them, and to ally myself with those who were working to change them.

When it comes to racism and other forms of identity-based oppression, it really is true that ‘you’re either with us or against us.”  There’s no way to hide behind a façade of neutrality.  To say nothing when someone drops a racial slur or pinches a woman’s behind is to become an accomplice to that act.  In these situations, silence is itself a form of tacit consent.

Audre wrote about that too, in an essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

I often reread these lines when I am feeling fearful of speaking out on an issue I care about:

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (42-44).

As an ally with some measure of privilege, one of the best things I can do to advance the goal of a just society is to speak up when I see racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination taking place.  And not just speaking to my friends, but speaking up in public, inviting and sometimes even provoking a sustained conversation, with the aim of promoting greater awareness and understanding.

The flashpoint for the current unrest on my campus was a white male student challenging the validity of the school holding a campus-wide teach-in known as “Diversity Day,” in which students, staff and faculty organize workshops around issues related to the politics of identity.  Originally, Diversity Day was entirely a student-organized event, held on an extracurricular basis to compensate for a perceived lack of attention to non-white-western-male culture and experience in the curriculum.  The founding students lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, to have their effort institutionalized by having classes cancelled, with all students required to attend at least two workshops during the day.

Whenever a revolutionary gesture becomes institutionalized, it loses some of its spark, and maybe this is an event that needs to continue to evolve.

But only someone who was ignorant of the extent to which discrimination and structural identity-based limitations continue to affect women and people of color in this country could argue in good faith that it was not worthwhile to spend some time discussing these issues one day out of the school year.

Of course, many students will take classes in sociology, anthropology, gender studies or ethnic studies and go a lot deeper. But those are often the students who already have an inkling that all is not well for subordinate groups.

It is the most privileged who are often the least aware of how systems of privilege operate, and therefore the least likely to elect to take classes in these topics.  These are the students who are most likely to benefit from being required to attend two eye-opening workshops on Diversity Day.

At many of these workshops, people of privilege will be asked to confront W.E.B. Dubois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, one of the finest anti-racist, anti-sexist writers and educators I know, says that in the 21st century, “the new White People’s Burden is to understand that we are the problem, to come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding.  Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have” (Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, 92).

The next step, he says, is to “commit to dismantling white supremacy as an ideology and a lived reality”—not because it’s hurting other people, but because, as Lorde recognized, “none of us is free while some of us are still shackled.”

Or, as Alice Walker put it, “We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”

Hats Off to the Central Park Rape Victim

The gutsy 73-year-old woman who was raped by a drifter in Central Park last week has been on my mind since I first heard about her.

The assailant has been caught, and it turns out he has a history of raping and murdering elderly women, going back to the 1980s.

The mystery is why a man like that was let out of jail.  We keep kids in prison for minor drug infractions, but we let a psycho rapist and murderer out on parole and allow him to drift across state lines without supervision?

Like so many other homeless people, he ended up drifting around in Central Park, and according to the victim, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, he had it in for her because a couple of weeks earlier she photographed him masturbating in a lonely section of the park.

The Ramble, Central Park

She was a birder who wandered the park with her binoculars and camera around her neck, in the wooded section known as “the Ramble,” which I remember well from my own youthful ramblings.  I would never set foot in the park alone without my big dog beside me, though.  I knew better than that.  And if I ever saw anyone looking suspicious, I made a beeline for the nearest police officer.  Growing up in Manhattan, you knew you always had to be on guard.

The birdwatcher probably took his picture to identify him to the police, because she did report his obscene public activity to a park ranger.  Unfortunately, her warning was ignored.

Now, after she was pushed down in the bushes and raped in broad daylight, the police aren’t ignoring her anymore.  Thanks to her alert vigilance, she was able to pick her assailant out of a police line-up just a day or so after the crime occurred.

Knowing as much as I do about sexual assault and its psychological effects (I teach a course in Gender & Violence) I have to say I am very impressed with the cool demeanor of this victim.

No hysterics or undue shame—this woman is speaking out, and in the process setting a model for other women to follow.

Rape statistics in the US are pretty ugly.

  • Every two minutes, someone in the US is being sexually assaulted.  Each year there are nearly 208,000 sexual assault in the US
  • 54% of rapes are never reported, and 97% of rapists will never spend a night in jail
  • 80% of victims are under 30, 44% under 18
  • 38% of rapists are a friend of acquaintance of the victim

So the most recent Central Park rape was unusual on every score: the victim was an elder, the rapist was unknown to her, and most important, she marched right out of the shrubbery where she’d been raped and reported it to the police.

In your more typical rape case, a young woman may not want to report the crime because a) it’s embarrassing; b) she would have to undergo invasive evidence-gathering; c) she might be afraid that the rapist, if not arrested, would retaliate against her; d) it’s common knowledge that rape trials are long and intense, and rarely result in conviction.

All this is true.  But it’s also true that if more than half of rape victims do not report the crime or press charges, then that allows the assailants to proceed with cocky impunity.

I don’t think that was part of the picture with David Albert Mitchell, the Central Park birder’s assailant.

He was just a dangerously unbalanced, violent man who has obviously been failed by the criminal justice system.  He should never have been granted parole.

But many rapists circulate in our society much more suavely, preying on young women and girls without necessarily even realizing that what they’re doing is wrong.

In a culture where violent pornographic videos are easily available on the internet, and violence against women is a common ingredient in music videos and Hollywood films as well, it is not hard to see how a young man could get the impression that violating a woman is just another way to prove one’s manhood.

More of us older women have to stand up and say no to this violence.

For quite some time, my heroine in this work has been Eve Ensler, whose V-Day organization has been incredibly successful in channeling women’s creativity and righteous passions into educational anti-violence work.

I don’t yet have a name or a face to put on the 73-year-old Central Park rape victim, but I want her to know she’s my heroine too.

All we’ve seen of the victim so far

Why are we punishing America’s schoolchildren and their teachers?

Jonathan Kozol in action

Every stakeholder in the current Chicago teachers’ strike who has not visited an inner city Chicago public school should take the time to read Jonathan Kozol’s powerful book Savage Inequalities, which chronicles the author’s explorations of conditions in schools in poor and rich neighborhoods in a series of American cities.

“One would not have thought that children in America would ever have to choose between a teacher or a playground or sufficient toilet paper,” wrote Kozol back in 1991.  “Like grain in a time of famine, the immense resources which the nation does in fact possess go not to the child in the greatest need but to the child of the highest bidder—the child of parents who, more frequently than not, have also enjoyed the same abundance when they were schoolchildren.

“’A caste society,’ wrote U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel 25 years ago, ‘violates the style of American democracy….The nation in effect does not have a truly public school system in a large part of its communities; it has permitted what is in effect a private school system to develop under public auspices….Equality of educational opportunity throughout the nation continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality.’  This statement is as true today as it was at the time when it was written.”

And it remains true twenty years later.

The bedrock issue here is one of inequality, which is measured along multigenerational racial and class lines.  As long as we continue to link public school funding to local property taxes we are going to be perpetuating an entrenched system of race and class segregation, from which there is little chance for escape.

Kozol observed that kids in suburban schools, no matter what state, already have what the CPS teachers are begging for in the urban schools, and then some.

Is it right that kids from wealthy neighborhoods go to college while kids from poor neighborhoods go to jail?

Kids in poor districts need more help from the state, not less, than kids in wealthy districts.

Chicago is not the only place in America where our schools are failing our neediest children, it is just the only place in America right now where the teachers have been pushed so far that they are taking to the streets in protest.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is being presented in the media as a case of selfish, whining teachers walking out on their students because they are greedy for more money, or afraid of being held to high standards.

But when you listen to the teachers, parents and students who have managed to penetrate the media gatekeepers and make their voices heard, what you hear is not greed or shortsightedness, but deep concern for the health of the school system and the welfare of the children.

The teachers are asking for smaller class sizes (would you want your child in a kindergarten class of 45?); improvements in the crumbling physical plants of their schools, including libraries and playgrounds; and support staff for troubled students, including nurses and social workers.  They don’t want their evaluations tied so tightly to how their students perform on standardized tests, and they want to be given seniority preference if they are laid off because of a school closing.

I don’t hear anything unreasonable in these demands.

Has anyone on the editorial boards of the newspapers who have condemned the Chicago teachers’ strike, which include the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post, ever set foot in a Chicago public school?

I know for a fact that Mayor Emmanuel’s children attend private school, as did the Obama girls when they lived in Chicago.

President Obama and business leaders like to exhort American children to study hard and close the achievement gap between our country and others like China and India.

They need to put their money where their mouth is, and give our dedicated teachers the support they need to do the job right.

Canadian High

Driving north up the Atlantic coast, the sunscreened crowds fade away as you pass through Bangor, ME, entering the no man’s land of narrow highway heading towards the Canadian border at Calais/St. Stephen.  There’s nothing to stop for, other than some grand, flat vistas of endless balsam fir forests, and once you’re over the border into New Brunswick the landscape is even emptier, rolling plateaus heading out unhindered to the deep, restless tides of the Bay of Fundy.

Whizzing on over the land bridge to Nova Scotia, the din of American politics, entertainment and consumerism gradually fades away, and now, having been almost a week here under the hypnotic spell of the rhythmic tides, rolling waves and balsam-scented breezes, my mind feels cleansed and curiously blank, reluctant to be drawn in again to any particular focus.

This morning dawned foggy, and now the sun is burning through, setting sparkles glittering on the gray, barely visible sea.  The twisted firs stand sentinel on the edge of the cliff, and a small group of sea ducks bob peacefully around the rocks, diving now and then to grab a tasty morsel.

Such has been the scene for millennia, minus the alien intrusion of this house and my people here on these shores.

I felt sad and disturbed to read in the Halifax Chronicle Herald that the natives of this region, mostly Mi’kmaq, are struggling to provide decent housing for their people.  It doesn’t seem right that the placid, prosperous Euro-Canadians, who have benefited so mightily from the ownership of this land, are not at minimum giving back to the native peoples in the form of decent housing.

Of course it’s the same in the U.S., where the only way the tribes are able to become self-sufficient is by setting up casinos to collect tariffs from the colonizers.

Somehow I expect more of the Canadians, but they too are only human. They are clear-cutting their forests, strip-mining for coal, oil and minerals, and they’ve already decimated the marine life in their waters through over-fishing.

The saving grace of Canada so far has been its low human population density, as compared to so many other parts of the world. With its vast land mass, Canada only has an average of about 3 people per square kilometer—higher here on the Atlantic coast, and lower in most of the interior.

Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to imagine a scenario here where the humans and non-humans live in harmony, as the Mi’kmaq ancestors did just a few generations back.

We must face the fact that it’s human over-population that is driving our current environmental crises, worldwide.

If we don’t scale back population growth ourselves, the planet will do it for us, self-correcting the imbalance with a few violent shakes: climate disruptions, epidemics, famine.

Here in Nova Scotia I am able to get a taste of what it feels like to live in a more balanced, uncluttered environment.

It feels like the way things should be.

Penn State Sexual Assault Verdict: Victory of the Homophobes?

Jerry Sandusky

You have to wonder how much of the hoop-la over the Penn State sanctions can be attributed to simple homophobia.

Is it because the NCAA was totally grossed out at the thought of a football coach making out with a boy in the showers that they were moved to actually impose a sanction with some teeth?

After all, how many cases have we had nationwide of football and other athletic teams being involved with sexual assault of young women?  Can you think of any such cases where the top dogs actually took the victims’ side?

Penn State is different because it was a coach preying on underage boys. But how different is that, really, from team athletes preying on young women?

Certainly in both cases we have had many scenarios where administrators chose to turn a blind eye rather than discipline the offenders.

Generally speaking, sexual assault of young women is just boys being boys or men being men.

But sexual assault of boys by men is unmanly, and therefore deserving of major fines and sanctions.

What does it mean that the slide show published by The Huffington Post focuses especially on the horrified reactions of young women to the news that Penn State will be fined and have to forego its wins for more than the past decade?

Is the silent subtext that if women think this is over-the-top reaction to Sandusky’s sodomy, then it really is?

The truth is that American sports culture celebrates the cult of the male at the same time as it is rife with homophobia.

Clearly, Jerry Sandusky crossed the line and committed an unforgiveable crime against boys who trusted him.

Clearly no coach should be allowed to abuse his position of authority with either boys or girls.

But why is it that when girls are abused at the hands of sports teams, they face a tremendously difficult, uphill battle to get their claims recognized as legitimate in court, while when boys are victims, it’s really a crisis?

At its most basic, sexual assault is about the domination of the weak by the strong.  It really doesn’t matter so much what gender the underdog is.  I am as disgusted by the sexual assault of boys as I am by the sexual assault of girls.

I just wish I could say the same for our nation’s sports leadership.

It’s past time to clean up our act.

America, land of the brain-damaged and debt-enslaved

Is it any surprise that we Americans treat animals and the natural world so badly, given the way we treat even our own cherished children?

This week there were two grim news stories illustrating the callousness of American society towards its young adults.

The first was a disturbing column by Nicholas Kristof revealing to the public what research scientists have known for a while: the skyrocketing rates of PTSD and suicide among young veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are due not to mental instability, but to the physical effects of repeated exposure to shock waves caused by bomb detonations.

The military is in the process of performing autopsies on veterans who committed suicide, and so far an alarming number of them have shown evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a degenerative disease of the brain best known for affecting boxers and football players who endure repeated concussions.

“In people with C.T.E.,” writes Kristof, “an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.”

In other words, even young soldiers who return home physically intact may in fact be suffering from the hidden effects of shock wave concussions, which will destroy their lives over time; apparently the disease “typically develops in midlife, decades after exposure. If we are seeing C.T.E. now in war veterans, we may see much more in the coming years,” says Kristof.

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Number two, we learned yesterday that the combined student debt in the United States reached $1 trillion. 

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators participating in a street-theater production wear signs around their neck representing their student debt during a protest against the rising national student debt in Union Square, in New York, April 25, 2012. The protest eventually marched to Wall Street; two people were arrested during the protest. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

I can’t even wrap my mind around a number that big, but one thing I can understand is that this is an egregious example of how we as a society are condemning our best and brightest young people to spending the best years of their lives in debt bondage to the banks.

For the wealthy, college and graduate school continue to serve as playgrounds for the young, a place to have fun, learn a few things and pair up before joining the family business.

For the rest of us, college is an essential step along the road to personal and professional success.  It’s not optional, and the price tag just keeps rising, while the ability of parents to pay for their children’s higher education keeps falling.

And so we find kids still in their teens signing loans for tens of thousands of dollars.  It is not uncommon for these kids to find themselves, just a few years later, with a B.A. and $200,000 worth of debt.

If you have ever tried to pay the interest on that much debt on a typical entry-level salary, you know that it’s nearly impossible.  Certainly it’s daunting to try to achieve the American dream—the car, the house, the spouse and two kids—with that kind of stranglehold of debt around your neck.

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So this is the way we treat our precious children in America.

In a new twist on “friendly fire,” we send them to war without even realizing the longterm effects that our fancy new bombs will have on them.

And we blithely tell them that a) a college education is the only way to get ahead; and b) if you want one, you have to get in line at the loan office and spend the first 20 years of your working life paying off that interest.

There is something deeply, hauntingly wrong with this picture.

And you know what the worst thing is?  There is no widespread outrage about it!

If you are a young person, a parent, or any person with a conscience, you should be working furiously to end war and to end debt bondage for students.

How?

Well, start by standing up and saying NO MORE!!!!

Nuclear famine: the future that must never happen

“I am convinced that nuclear weapons must be abolished. Their use in a military conflict is unthinkable; using them to achieve political objectives is immoral.”

Who said this?  Not your average peacenik hippie.  Not even a pie-in-the-sky anti-war activist.

No, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who called for the total abolishment of nuclear weapons, in a recently released report by the renowned International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and its US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

A-bomb on Nagasaki

The report is grimly entitled “Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk—Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition.” Its lead author, Dr. Ira Helfand, draws upon new modeling evidence showing that  “even the relatively small nuclear arsenals of countries such as India and Pakistan could cause long lasting, global damage to the Earth’s ecosystems andthreaten hundreds of millions of people….It would not cause the extinction of the human race, but it would bring an end to modern civilization as we know it.”

Even a limited nuclear exchange would affect the production of staple foods like corn and rice worldwide. “Significant agricultural shortfalls over an extended period would almost certainly lead to panic and hoarding on an international scale, further reducing accessible food,” the report says.

It is hard to get a handle on how to stop the steam roller of global carbon consumption, which in itself is a recipe for disaster.

Nuclear weapons, by contrast, are controlled by nation states, and can be precisely counted.

Nuclear weapons can be disabled and destroyed.

There is no sane reason for the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to maintain hundreds of nuclear warheads ready to go at a moment’s notice.

That 20th century Cold War mentality has to be consigned to the dustbin of a very dangerous, outmoded and counterproductive history.

Imagine what would be possible if instead of investing billions of dollars in nuclear weapons each year, those funds were invested in renewable energy sources, sustainable agriculture, and devising methods of increasing human health and welfare while also creating a sustainable human footprint on the planet.

There is so much to protest these days, and nuclear weapons seem beyond the ken of most ordinary citizens.

But these are our lives the generals are gambling with.

We need a concerted people’s movement to insist that the time of nuclear weaponry has come and gone.

We vote for peace and life. Tell me, Mr. Politician, are you going to vote against us?

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