BUILDING BRIDGES

7 08 2010

I have long believed in the importance of talking with people with whom I disagree strongly, although I have not always been successful in creating the healing dialogues I long for.

Towards the end of the years I lived on the Farm when I  didn’t like the materialist direction in which things were going, my friends and I invited a lot of people to sweat lodges and full moon drum circles, hoping that sharing prayer and ecstatic experience would bond us and create a deeper basis on which to discuss the community’s direction.  The adults we wanted to commune with never showed up, but accused us of corrupting the youth when their kids did.  Socrates, I feel for ya. Eventually, pretty much all of us who held a “hippie/spiritual” vision of the community left, feeling like victims of subtle ethnic cleansing.

After that, I spent several years in Vermont, a place distant enough from The Farm that, if I said I was “from the Farm,” the most common response was, “which farm?”

Oddly enough, I did end up living at a place that everybody in the neighborhood referred to as “The Farm,” but that’s a digression….my experience with sweat lodges had left me curious about the sacramental role of tobacco in Native American ceremony, and so I planted a few rows of it in my garden, where, to my surprise and delight, it flourished, growing six feet tall, topped with huge clusters of white flowers that, unlike commercial cigarettes, smelled simply heavenly in the moonlight.

I dried my crop and found myself in possession of several pounds of organically grown tobacco leaves.  I have never been a cigarette smoker, but I crumbled up a little bit of dry leaf and stuffed it into a pipe.  The taste was not unpleasant, but the effects, if any, were pretty minimal.  Aware of the fact that I was messing with a plant that is not only highly addictive but also potentially lethal, I confined my tobacco use to rare, ceremonially appropriate occasions, and came up with an idea for political theater:  I would go to the Montpelier farmers’ market and offer tobacco in ounce and quarter-ounce baggies, as well as potted tobacco plants, for those who wanted to grow their own.  In this way, I hoped to start a dialog about tobacco, the sacramental use of herbs, the commercialization of sacramental herbs, addiction, and who knows what else.

First, I had to get it clear with the Farmers’ Market management, who were wary about being raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for selling tobacco outside the normal channels.  I called the BATF, and a gentleman there assured me that, as long as I was selling simple air-dried tobacco leaves that had not been “cured” in any way, they had no jurisdiction over me.

I had a good time, sitting there at my table full of rolled-up baggies, offering samples from a small pipe, selling rolling papers,  and getting double-takes from all the pot smokers in the crowd.  I could actually make decent money at it, generally managing to gross $30-50 over the course of a morning.  But the hoped-for dialogues never happened.  I found I was basically “preaching to the choir,” talking to hippies who already dug what I was doing, while straight, square types with cigarettes in their mouths or packs in their pockets barely gave me a glance.

With the help of friends, I eventually expanded my business, selling incense, spiritual books, and imported batik clothing to benefit the Buddhist center with which I was affiliated.  It was fun selling beautiful clothes to beautiful women, but what I enjoyed most was the occasional deep conversation about a book or the spiritual essence of tobacco or the other (legal!) herbs I sold.    That business wound down in the late nineties as the music festival vending scene became overcrowded and overpriced, and my modus operandi for seeking dialogue on serious issues morphed again.

I wore a shirt that said, “WILL WORK FOR BUDDHA” to a job interview for the produce department at the new Wild Oats store that was opening in Nashville, and it just so happened that the guy who interviewed me had been a student of Baba  Ram Dass,  and had helped him start Naropa Institute, a Buddhist university, in Boulder, Colorado.  Ram Dass’s partner in starting Naropa, was, of course,the famous (or, in some quarters, notorious) Chogyam Trungpa, who has perhaps done more than any other Tibetan to transform the somewhat arcane practices of Tibetan Buddhism into something culturally understandable by Americans.    As so often happens, I’m digressing–the upshot is, he hired me.

Ten years ago, when this happened, Wild Oats’ motto was, “Where the Wild Things Are,” and store clerks were expected to be not mere faceless shelf-stockers, but dynamic, knowledgeable personalities who could educate customers on the virtues of the stores’ products.  As someone who had farmed for nearly twenty years, both conventionally and organically, and who feels passionate about the virtues of organic farming,  I was a natural for the produce department.

For several years, I enjoyed this position.  Sure, I wasn’t talking with people who disagreed about the advantages of healthy, organic food, but I was able to educate a lot of people who already knew a little and wanted to learn more.

But Wild Oats was changing.  Management squared up and expected us to do the same.  I found I was being harassed for the same behavior I had been hired for, and left the company, landing in another health food store where, in spite of it being smaller and more informal, I was talking less with customers than I had at Wild Oats, if only because there were fewer customers and my duties kept me behind the scenes more of the time.

In 2005, Radio Free Nashville went on the air. I began doing this radio show, and started the blog that records it.  “Another chance for dialogue,” I thought, but for years comments were sparse, and favorable.  I began to feel like I was still just preaching to the choir.  In the last few months, that has changed.  Let me tell you, I have had some dialogues that about made my head spin.

The first ones were not too promising.  In response to my “OBAMA THE SOCIALIST AND OTHER DELUSIONS” post, “Commieblaster” dropped me a link about how “Obama is more Marxist than socialist.”  Simple, and easy to counter.  But then somebody named  “Wouldee” sent me a longer love note that started,

obama is just as confused as you, libtard. You idiots are amazingly ignorant of reality. bye bye. You sealed the deal for the youngsters’ better judgment, showing how stupid you marxist-socailist (sic) asshats really are on the LEFT. You will hate what is coming at you for reward….

What the hell, I printed it, and responded, in part:

I’m sorry, sir, that you’re so angry and looking for some satisfaction in blaming me for Obama and Obama for the mess we’re in. I agree with you that Obama has contributed to the mess, but, again–I’ve been saying since day one that Obama is part of the problem, not part of the solution. If you’re not paying enough attention to tell me from him, you’re not paying enough attention to keep yourself from getting hurt long before you have the chance to do damage to anyone else. Please be careful!

The ice was broken.  “Clarance R” went several rounds with me on “SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE” largely on the basis that plant medicines couldn’t possibly be as effective as synthesized, concentrated pharmaceuticals.  I’m not sure s/he ever did get the point that I think we need to look to the plants because the pharmaceuticals may not be widely available much longer, but the exchange evolved from an argument to a discussion, and left me feeling good about it.

Then I started hearing from “Jack,” who wrote in his opening response to “TEA PARTIES–BOSTON OR WONDERLAND?”

…in the past ten years I have moved to the right politically and by now the Tea Partiers make more sense to me than The Farm’s veterans…..

Reading your words I remember how I used to see the world a few decades ago and I realize how difficult it is to bridge the gap between, roughly, the right and the left, the red and the blue, the Tea Party and The Farm.

I don’t have a solution for that. The differences are real and they go pretty deep. The two sides talk but they don’t really hear each other because the words aren’t understood in the same way and they are connected to different sets of facts with different shadings of emphasis and different belief systems of how things fit together.

America is about as polarized now as in the sixties and seventies. I find it distressing but it seems like something we will just have to work through as best we can , with as much respect and love as we can manage, and that seems to be a tall order for everyone these days.

I responded, in part:

I share your concern about people not listening to each other, and not being able to hear/understand each other when they try. It will take some effort and commitment, but if we are as intelligent a species as we like to think we are, we can learn to do it. In fact, we had better.

In further exchanges, he pointed out that, if I’m really seeking dialogue, I might have more success without terms like “Repugs” and “deluded,” and I responded…anyway, with dialogue being a rare critter these days, I think it would be worth your time to go to the blog and check it out, just for a model of what Tea Party-Green dialogue can be.

there’s more.  “Rogerthesurf” doubted my claim that we are running out of oil (TRUTH IN STRANGE PLACES–LAMAR ALEXANDER):

You have to remember that we heard the same stories as you write above in the ’70′s and ’80′s.
Well the shortage then was manufactured by politicians, for example President Carter with his domestic oil price policy etc.

I came back with:

If we had taken Carter’s advice then instead of drinking Reagan’s Kool-Aid, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today, with the US running major deficits to import oil and major military missions (and consequent deficits) to secure oil supplies from Iraq because “the American way of life is not negotiable.” The oil companies wouldn’t be pressing to drill in dangerous, expensive places like a mile under the ocean or the far Arctic if they knew of “easy oil.”

And we were off!  It was quite a spirited debate, and about the last I heard from Roger was

Well Brother Martin, thanks for answering my questions so well.

I will leave you in peace.

However do you have any advice for the normal individual on how to prepare for the approaching holocaust?
For instance, are you taking any steps yourself?

And I answered,

cultivate a circle of friends of varied ages and aptitudes, and do things together that build your trust in each other. Learn and practice basic knowledge and skills–gardening, carpentry with hand tools, hand sewing, “barefoot doctor” medical skills, including herbal medicine and skin stitching, shoemaking, metal working, bow hunting, small animal raising, butchering, simple ways to preserve food–including meat. (I’m a vegetarian, but if I can’t raise enough beans and grains, I’m not going to starve for my principles! There’s more important things in life than what we eat.) Pay off all your debts. Make home improvements that improve the efficiency of your home. Cultivate good relations with your neighbors, even if they don’t end up being the people in your circle of close friends. Do your best to hip people to what you see coming–the greatest security is created by the maximum number of people being most prepared, not by who’s got the most guns and ammo.
Cultivate tolerance and humor, and do your best to be easy to get along with, caring and sharing.

As for what steps I/we are taking, that same list about covers it.

Hope that’s helpful to you. Happy trails!

A few days after that, “Sarah” left a note on the “TEA PARTIES” thread, saying

Maybe you should copy this thread as a post so more people will read it. Or post a condensed version.

Thanks for the suggestion, Sarah.  I’ve had to give a very condensed version, but hopefully it will inspire some of my readers and listeners to check out the conversation, and maybe even contribute something to it…meanwhile, I’m very happy to finally get to communicate with some people who challenge my views and make me think about why I think what I think.  Occasional rigorous examination of our own biases, opinions, and beliefs is as essential to a sane future as any material survival skill…as one of my favorite bumper stickers says, “DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK!”

Speaking of which, P.S. to Jack on the “McCHRYSTAL FOR PRESIDENT?” thread:  after reading Hansen, Jonah Goldberg, and a few other right-wing commentators, I see what you mean about it being unlikely that McChrystal will be the Republican presidential candidate…he bucked authority and that’s a big no-no….

music: The beatles, “Hey Bulldog

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OBAMA THE SOCIALIST AND OTHER DELUSIONS

12 03 2010

First, a little “I told you so.”  In August of 2008, I wrote the following words:

the Repugs probably are not going to steal this election, because they would rather let the Dims be the ones to fumble around and make idiots of themselves trying to clean up the mess that eight years of out-front pillage has made of the country. It’s much easier to criticize than it is to govern, after all…I should know that!

A great many of my liberal friends are totally thrilled that a dark-skinned man with the middle name of Hussein is going to be our next President. But I think the “Hope Honeymoon” will be over mighty fast, and the next four years will be no love feast for Barack Obama or the Democrat party. While I agree that he will be a better President than John McCain, I think we are in for a long series of increasingly bitter disappointments.  Let me tell you some of what I see coming down the road.

First of all, there is the misperception that Barack is a populist candidate.  He makes every effort to portray himself that way.  His demeanor and delivery are disarming and informal.  He does not come across like a stereotypical politician, but when you read the fine print you discover that he acts like one.

He is getting the bulk of his support from Wall Street.  It is good that the banking gang has recognized that the Bush Junta is not acting in their best interests, but the fact that they have settled on Obama means that he is unlikely to do the things he should to reign in big money’s influence on this country.  Obama has already signaled his willingness to play along with the bankers by his support of the so-called “Class Action Fairness Act of 2005,” which severely limits the ability of private citizens, or even States, to sue corporations.  The NAACP,  the ACLU, and the National Organization for Women, as well as fourteen state attorneys-general, all pleaded with Congress not to pass this Republican-sponsored legislation, but Obama spoke out for it….

Well, the only part of  my prediction I would disagree with at this point is the speculation that Obama is a better President than McCain would have been.  It looks to me like the Repugs are so out of touch with reality that if they had taken the reins of power, we would be a lot further off the rails by now, and further into creating whatever is going to come next….yes, I know it would be draconian and tragic, but think of it as the political equivalent of ripping a band-aid  off a hairy leg….do you want to go slow and agonize over the pulling of each and every individual hair, or just feel all the pain at once and yelp and get it over with?

And, certainly, the Repugs are totally stark raving batbleep crazy.  The fact that so many people have fallen for the ludicrous charge that Obama’s healthcare plan, which proposes to bail out the for-profit insurance business to the tune of  sixty billion dollars, is “socialist”  is a symptom of serious malaise in the body politic. Obama’s proposal is basically the same plan Republican Mitt Romney instituted in Massachusetts, although Mitt drank the kool-aid and claimed in his Presidential campaign that making everybody buy private insurance was ““European-style socialized medicine.”  Tell it to the Europeans!

Can you say “lacking integrity,” boys and girls?

The Romney/Obama plan does nothing to lower the exploitive rates charged by insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, or doctors who think their M.D. is a license to become a millionaire.  It ain’t “socialism,”  it’s a feed trough for capitalist pigs! but I digress….

I am simply amazed at how many people in this country are ignorant enough to label a corporate shill like Obama “socialist,” not to mention that many of these same people believe climate change and peak oil are fabrications for the purpose of introducing “one world government,” and are obsessing over whether Obama is really an American citizen and whether his mother was married when he was born and what they will do when he orders in UN troops in black helicopters, instead  of seeking real solutions to the very real problems we face.  If just a few people were babbling about these fantasies,  they would be considered insane.  Unfortunately, there are millions of people who share these paranoid delusions, and they are a serious political movement. This fog of unreal and groundless accusations completely distracts these people from identifying the true sources of misery and oppression in their lives, whether that’s our corporate overlords or the demons in their own heads.

Yes, the demons in their own heads.   I know, this is a political rap, what am I doing talking about demons, for cryin’ out loud?

OK, demons, in this case, means neuroses, misperceptions, faulty programming like, “if you can’t control yourself, control someone else,” “the most emotional person in the room gets to run the meeting,” and other axioms of psychological power play.  Does that make sense to you?

We like to pretend that we are polite and civilized and ruled by our intellects, but for most of us, that is a sham.  When the pressure is on, as it is now, all that outer husk stuff blows away in the blink of an eye, and all too many of our fellow citizens revert to their inner two-year old, screaming bloody murder and falling flailing to the floor because Mommy won’t give them titty, or their favorite toy, or because it’s nap time and they’re fixated on what they’re doing but too tired to keep doing it happily.  It’s no way to run a country, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

In spite of the fact that, at least as recently as November of 2008, a sizeable majority of Americans knew that the Repugs are the problem, not the solution, the Dims have been dim enough to discourage a lot of their former supporters, who now seem amnesic enough to return the Repugs to power, in which case they will screw things up even more.  Here and there, where an election is local enough so that face-to-face contact can win out over media barrages, the Green Party will make some inroads, but neither we nor anybody else with sense and solutions is likely to come to power in this country.

It’s sad and poignant.  We are not only poised at the close of the American Empire, we are poised at the decline of human civilization as we have always known it.  We will never again be this wealthy and this powerful.  We are about to run out of cheap oil and the weather is about to go nuts, but nearly everybody is partying like the good times are going to go on forever.  They’re not.  The last two hundred years have been a deluded dream.  We are about to be rudely awakened, and will have one mighty hangover when we come to our senses.

music:  Greg Brown, Worrisome Years





closing notes

12 07 2007

I appreciate the overall tone of that song, but I have to take its gallows references as a metaphor for the end of a dysfunctional identity–like being a member of the Bush/Cheney administration—not the termination of a human life. Scum that they are, I wish them no harm. When I hear the refrain, ” I’d like to see him dance.” I do not visualize Mr. Bush dancing at the end of a rope. I see him—and his wife, and all that whole sad, inhibited, psychotic crowd–dancing around a fire at a Rainbow Gathering, dancing long past midnight to raging drums and shakers and shrill flutes, their eyes unfocused, sweat pouring off their bodies, hair gone wild, ripples of ecstasy shimmering through their brains, having the time of their lives at last. I don’t want the Bush junta hung, folks. I want them, as the Firesign Theater calls it, “returned for regrooving.” Enough said.

This month’s “truth in strange places” award goes to Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is famous for calling global warming “a hoax.” He joined with Senators Jim Jeffords, Mary Landrieu, and David Vitter to pass a bill closing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Channel, an Army Corps of Engineers boondoggle that helped the flooding of New Orleans last summer and has been responsible for the erosion of thousands of acres of southern Louisiana wetlands. Thanks, Jim. Now, about the rest of your record…

And we give the “one step forward, one step back” award to both Japan and Norway. Japan has decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq, and Norway is undertaking the construction of a a world seed bank on the isolated and, so far, frozen island of Spitzbergen; but the two countries teamed up to soften the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling. The Japanese got permission to expand the number of whales they catch for “scientific study”–and oh, their scientific studies are financed by selling the whale meat they just happen to harvest for $100 a pound. Thar she blows! And I mean it–that really blows!

And finally, we give the “my dog ate my homework” lame excuse award to the Bush administration and their leading defenders in Congress, who argued with a straight face for seizure of prescription drugs that individuals bring back from Canada on the grounds that they could be used to hide dangerous chemicals for terror attacks. If you or I insisted on something that ludicrous, we’d be candidates for prescription drugs, ourselves. But nooo, this is the government…..our tax dollars at work…good grief! Fortunately, even the Republican-dominated Senate wasn’t buying that level of looniness, and the bill failed.

John and Beth will be here with you next week. Good night!

music:

James McMurtry: See the Elephant

The Waterboys: Wind in the Wires





AN IMPORTANT BUT KINDA DULL STORY

11 05 2007

When you start loading Nashville mayoral candidate David Briley’s website, the first thing that pops up at you (even if you’ve got a popup blocker) is a green-and-white page proclaiming that David Briley is “The Green Mayor,” and an accompanying sustainability program that, really, isn’t bad at all from a Green standpoint.  Now, the Nashville mayoral race is supposed to be nonpartisan–but “Green” is, after all, the name of a certain political party that is active in this state, although Mr. Briley did not ask for our endorsement or even permission.  He has hijacked our brand name!  Should we sue?  What’s a poor third party to do? And I do mean poor! But then, there are “green building codes” and “greenways” and “green power switches”  and a memorable REM album that don’t have anything to do with us, either, but they’re not political offices.  How should we resolve this confusion?  I’m open to suggestions.

But I’m not going to comment on Mr. Briley’s sustainability proposalsright now.  I already have.  I would like to comment on Governor Bredesen’s proposals for changing the way education is funded in the state, which Mr. Briley brought to my attention via his endorsement of them. Here’s the deal:  Tennessee spending on schools averages around $5500 per student and is among the lowest in the nation, in part because we don’t have an income tax (an issue which neither Briley nor Bredesen will touch), and in part because, besides not having an income tax, our tax rates and revenues are among the lowest in the country.  The source of revenue that Governor Bredesen has found is…a higher tax on cigarettes!  Because Tennessee’s cigarette tax is the third lowest in the country!  Bredesen wants to triple the tax rate, to sixty cents a pack, which still leaves Tennessee in the low third on tobacco tax rates.

Basing increased funding for education on cigarette taxes does present a bit of a conflict , though—it gives the state an interest in promoting tobacco usage, doesn’t it? “Smoke a cigarette, pay a teacher!” And really, shouldn’t higher cigarette taxes go for anti-smoking campaigns and medical care for the cigarette smokers, who are going to need it sooner or later?  But, I digress.  About that funding proposal….

Now, when I start talking about education, I kind of have to split myself into an absolute Green mode and a relative Green mode.  From the absolute, Deep, Deep, Deep Green Perspective, public schools are a way to indoctrinate young people into hierarchical, bureaucratic society, and should be abolished, along with many other elements of Life As We Know It.  From that Deep, Deep, Deep Green Perspective, we need a complete reorganization of society—but, much as my soul yearns for that, I don’t think it’s gonna happen tomorrow or next year or even in the next decade…the next twenty years, maybe.  So, in the short term, we need to find a way to apply our ideals to what is in order to prepare the way for what needs to happen, and that is the “relative Green” spirit in which I am approaching Governor Bredesen’s proposals.

The first proposal simplifies the way in which a county’s ability to contribute to its school costs is calculated, by returning to a formula of  adding property tax and sales tax revenues, which makes it much easier to understand.  It is currently figured out by “a complex statistical regression equation.”  When I tried to find out what THAT means, my eyes started to glaze over as I ran into terms I hadn’t grappled with since I nearly failed Algebra II back in high school and decided not to even attempt calculus.  I think of myself as an educated person, but I’m educated in the social sciences, not math.  If we can take care of government business without resorting to “complex statistical regression equations,” I’m all for it. ( Sounds like something Dave Barry  would say, doesn’t it?)  Anyway, I’d go along with this on the grounds that it’s important for decision making processes to be transparent.  Phil says the more complex way wasn’t working that well anyhow, and I’ll take his CEO word for that.

The second proposal eliminates the “cost differential factor” which helped increase school salaries in communities with high wages.  There are only seventeen of these in Tennessee, which should come as no surprise, and Nashville is one of them, but according to David Briley, even with that factored in, Nashville, which has ten percent of the state’s schoolchildren, has only been getting five percent of the state’s school funds, due to a sales tax distribution formula that predates the ascendancy of Williamson County as an area-wide shopping destination.

Bredesen wants to eliminate this in part because only seventeen school systems in the state benefit from it, and in part to free up more money for teachers’ salaries all over the state.  I think he’s on shaky ground here—sure, all teachers deserve better pay (disclosure:  my mother was a teacher!), but it does cost more to live in Nashville than it does in, say, Hohenwald, and since the state provides the bulk of the money for teacher salaries, it only seems fair to me for the state to help reflect this.

And the next proposal is to return the state’s share of school salary funding to 75%–it was cut to 65% a few years ago and that has been a hardship on many school districts and their employees.  Bredesen also wants to increase basic teacher salaries to forty thousand dollars a year from their current level of thirty-seven five.   This is mostly what is getting paid for by that extra forty cents from every pack of cigarettes sold.  Buy ’em up, folks!  Along with this is an injunction that counties must maintain their current school funding levels—no slackin’ off because the state’s chipping in more!

Bredesen also wants to give more funds to help educate students who are learning English as a second language, and more to help educate “at risk students,” that is, students who are at risk of dropping out of high school.  The education of “at risk students” should be of special interest to all of us who are committed to alternative education, because it’s usually the “at risk” kids who get innovative, more free-form programs that are more like what school ought to be for everybody, as long as we’re going to have public schools.  “At risk” kids are also frequently kids who have understood the failings of contemporary society and are open to a more radical education.

And that’s it.  Hardly “a dramatic overhaul of education funding in Tennessee,” as Bredesen claims on the state website. Aside from funding the “at risk” kids, there’s nothing about content, which is left to school boards and the tender mercies of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In many ways, it’s a very unsexy issue, but it’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts thing that we need to learn about if we are going to become an effective third party in this state and in this country.

In closing, I have to add that I find it totally shocking that Governor Bredesen has spent so much of his attention on a minor tweak of state education funding while letting Phillip Workman, an innocent man,  go to his death, and leaving Paul House, who has actually had his sentence overturned, to languish in jail, suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.  Phil, this is the kind of behavior that gives Christianity a bad name.  How can you sleep?  Listeners, call the governor’s office at  (615) 741-2001 or email

phil.bredesen@state.tn.us

and say: “Philip Workman did not shoot Ronald Oliver. How could you let a man be executed based on a lie—and why is Paul House still in jail?”

music:

B52’sTell It Like It Is





MEASURING A TRAGEDY

10 05 2007

Is everything connected?  Is there a link between a butterfly in Mexico and a tornado in Kansas?  Is there a connection between the mounting tension of the gathering showdown over misuse of the US Department of Justice and Seung-Hui Cho’s decision that he just couldn’t take any more?

I don’t know, although my poor paranoid’s almanac response when I first heard the news that the Gonzalez hearing had been postponed on account of Virginia Tech was “Manchurian Candidate!  Distraction!”  I think I was wrong about that part—but if that were true, it would be less troubling than the truth revealed by the case of the late Mr. Cho, who apparently has been on the same trajectory most of his life.  The troubling truth is that nobody knew him well enough.  We were all just too busy to really sit down with the five-year old, the eight-year old, the twelve-year old, the sixteen-year old, the twenty-year old Seung-Hui Cho and really get to the bottom of what was going on inside him.  Maybe I’m just as weird in my way for blaming society as Jerry Falwell is in his, but I believe that in a saner, less distracted and preoccupied society, this tragedy would never have happened.

And sure, stricter gun laws might help.  Let’s face it, the only reason pistols exist is to hurt or kill other human beings.  Nobody hunts with a pistol, y’know?  Pistols, like coal-fired power plants, shouldn’t just be heavily restricted, they should be shut down entirely.  They should not be manufactured. All existing pistols should be melted down.  Turned into frames for solar panels, or bicycles.  No more pistol ammunition—without ammo, a pistol is just a funny-shaped club.  And sure, some crazy somebody somewhere will keep producing them somehow—I mean, I hear you can still get LSD if you know where to look, and that’s been illegal and heavily suppressed for forty years now.  But there is just no reason for pistols to be commercially manufactured, any more than cigarettes.

How much safer would this make us?  How about thirty times safer?  In England, where handgun ownership has been illegal for ten years, there is one firearm death per million people annually.  In the US, there are thirty handgun deaths per million people every year—so Mr. Cho’s little spree accounted for only about one third of one percent of the firearm deaths in the US this year—what’s everybody so upset for?

Meanwhile, thirty-two people are dead and twenty-five injured, and it’s a tragedy for families,friends, and survivors–and I can certainly understand that.  In all my nearly sixty years of life, no one close to me has been murdered.  I feel very lucky to live in such a safe part of the world.

It’s when I start looking at other parts of the world that I see just how safe it is here, how easily we are shocked by one outbreak of violence.  In Iraq, during the same week as the Virginia Tech shootings, according to a fairly conservative estimate, there were five hundred civilian deaths from violent causes, over seventy a day, more than twice the Virginia Tech massacre every day of the week—and five hundred civilian deaths a week is on the low end for Iraq.  In order to put these numbers in perspective, let’s factor in the differences in population between the US and Iraq.

There are about three hundred million Americans, and about twenty-six million Iraqis, making the difference between the two populations a factor of twelve.  Per capita, then, the death of thirty Americans is equal to the death of about two and a half Iraqis—but the death of five hundred Iraqis is the equivalent of the death of six thousand Americans, and the total number of Iraqis killed—it’s hard to know, really—some estimates run around seventy thousand, some were saying a hundred thousand three years ago, and some have estimated as high as six hundred and fifty thousand—translate to between 840,000, 1.2 million, or as many as 7.8 million American civilian deaths.  Forget thirty unlucky students and teachers at Virginia Tech.   That’s the entire population of the state of Virginia.

Think about that—for the equivalent of the death of two Iraqi civilians, America is traumatized—and responds with attention and compassion—counselling, days of mourning, outpourings of help and sympathy.  And all the while our tax money is going to feed dozens of Virginia Tech massacres every day in a small country, far away, and the Democrats won’t even do anything to stop it.   Getting US troops out of Iraq wouldn’t precipitate a bloodbath, as some imperialists claim.  There’s already a bloodbath going on.  Removing US forces and substituting a Muslim peacekeeping force would likely go a long way towards settling things down in the Middle East.

While we’re on proportions, think of the refugees.  An estimated two million Iraqis have left the country, while about the same number have fled one part of Iraq for another.  That’s like having forty-eight million Americans displaced, half to Canada and Mexico and half internally.  By contrast, the largest mass evacuation in US history occurred when 1.2 million people were evacuated for Hurricane Katrina—the equivalent of a hundred thousand Iraqi refugees—a small fraction of what’s going on there now.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is said to be one of the guiding principles of Christianity and Judaism.  If we’re going to get back what we’ve done to Iraq, you’d better brace yourself.

I’m done with that comparison,  but I’m not done.  I was talking about Seung-Hui Cho—who only did what our military trains people to do—kill people he didn’t know.  Oh, sure, the military conditions its recruits to only kill when they are following orders, but we have unleashed a monster in Iraq and Cho is likely not the last American who will be overpowered by the zeitgeist and kill, kill kill.  According to the American Academy of Neurology, about forty percent of returning Iraq War vets have some kind of “mental disorder,” and not all of them are getting—or even seeking—treatment for it.

On one hand a lot has already been written about denial of mental illness in the military, and on the other, the mainstream mental health diagnosis and treatment paradigm leaves a lot to be desired, but what it boils down to is this:  serving in Iraq drives a lot of people violently crazy, and the government not only doesn’t give a hoot, it lacks the resources to do much about the problem if it did care.  As these veterans return to civilian life, they are going to bring the terrors of the Middle East to middle America—and considering how devious the Bush junta is, maybe that’s how they want it.

Terry Allen, “This Ain’t No Top 40 Song





GREAT JOB, BERTIE!

9 05 2007

On Thursday, we had the Alice-in Wonderland spectacle of  Uberfuhrer—I mean Attorney General– Alberto Gonzalez testifying that, although he “takes responsibility” for New Mexico U.S. Attorney Jefferey Iglesias being put on the firing list, he has no idea who put Iglesias’ name there. Like his famous “I can’t remember” testimony before a Senate committee last month, this put the Torturer-General’s legal skills to the test—how well can you hide the truth under oath without perjuring yourself?

The truth appears to be that the Republicans have politicized the DOJ and attempted to use it as a tool to ensure a “permanent Republican majority.” This has been well reported; I hardly feel I have to go into it here, except to say that our Truth In Strange Places Award this month goes to Representative Adam Putnam, the third-ranking Republican in the House, who told a Florida newspaper, “I had been saying all along that his (Gonzales’) future was in his own hands by his testimony before the Senate committee and I don’t think he did well….His credibility is so severely damaged with the committee that he is no longer able to advance the president’s programs before Congress….This has to be affecting the efficiency and the morale of the people who work for the Department of Justice.  Clearly they are distracted by all of this and by the continued investigations and committee requests. The country deserves an attorney general with the credibility to perform this extremely difficult job, and it is now time for fresh leadership.”

Well, we’re probably not going to get that, because Bush knows that, lily livered as the Democrats are, they are not going to give him a pass on a new Attorney General.  They’ll keep funding the Iraq war and make sure Iraq’s oil is turned over to American companies.  They’ll support attacking Iran.  They’ll pass a watered-down revision of the Helping America Vote Republican Act that doesn’t really change anything, and refuse to investigate the REAL vote fraud cases that the DOJ is ignoring.  And they won’t impeach Bush and Cheney.  So Gonzalez is likely here to stay.  He’s the cornerstone of Rove’s plan to stonewall the Democrats, which, alas, will probably work.  Great job, Bertie.

Grateful Dead, “New Speedway Boogie

note:  “new,” “speedway,” and “boogie” are all separate links!





THE FRENCH DISCONNECTION

8 05 2007

As the Bush presidency continues to crumble, it is perhaps ironic that good news for conservatives comes from France, the land they have spent so much time maligning–”freedom fries,” anyone? In an apparently clean election, in which a near-record 85% of the voters participated, the French chose Nicholas Sarkozy as their new president, rejecting Segolene Royal’s bid to become the first female president of France, and the first socialist in twelve years.

Now, Sarkozy is not your typical American conservative—he’s in favor of legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, ending homelessness by building more low-income housing, and wants to integrate the country’s large Muslim minority (Islam is now the second-largest religion in France) by instituting an affirmative action program. And he has already chided the the Bush junta for its refusal to take global warming seriously. But that’s about where the good news ends.

Like American conservatives, “Sarko l’Americain,” as he is called in some quarters, looks back to the pivotal years of the late sixties and wants to roll back the changes that happened then. In case you’ve forgotten, that happened here in America in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the countercultural movement in France in 1968 was far more widespread and focused than its American equivalent. We had a Love-In in San Francisco; they went to Paris , put up barricades, and invited the working class to join them—and, unlike American “hard hats,” two-thirds of the French working class joined the general strike and nearly threw out President DeGaulle, who ultimately resigned a year later when Constitutional changes he advocated were rejected in a nationwide referendum. But, I digress…and it wasn’t even to be funny.

Although the May ’68 uprising fizzled out in the short term, in the long term it changed the dynamics of social discourse in France and, ultimately, the rest of Europe, leading to a common assumption that it is the job of government to take good care of its citizens. This is why European countries have national health care systems, (and high-quality social welfare systems in general), good public transportation, shorter workweeks with higher productivity than the US, government-mandated long vacations and family leave time, and a standard of living similar to America’s, that only uses about half the energy.

Sarkozy is not going to be able to change all that, any more than Bush could privatize Social Security, but it is his stated belief that French workers need to cut back on their standard of living in order to remain competitive, and now he has the initiative. This is not good, especially since it isn’t true, any more than wage/benefit cutbacks and social service safety net erosion have been necessary for American workers to “remain competitive”–it’s not about “remaining competitive,” it’s about putting more money in the pockets of the already wealthy, and yes, Sarko wants to cut estate and inheritance taxes.

So, how does a guy who wants to make life worse for the majority of his countrymen manage to get himself elected? Besides cheating, like the Bush junta did? The answer is the same combination of four-letter words Karl Rove has taken extreme advantage of: PLAY THE FEAR CARD. Sarkozy rose to fame and notoriety when his derogatory remarks about unemployed Muslim youth and his strong-arm police tactics helped trigger the Paris riots of 2005. Nothin’ like fear of brown-skinned furriners to galvanize the electorate!

Unfortunately, this is not just posturing on Sarkozy’s part. In an interview with philosopher Michel Onfray, Sarkozy revealed that he believes that criminal/deviant tendencies (such as pedophilia, suicide, and drug use) are genetic, not culturally learned, a belief that flies in the face of mainstream psychology but marches in goose step with Nazism and France’s perennial far-right bogey man, Jean Marie LePen, whose thunder Sarkozy effectively stole. What this means, in practical terms, is that there can be no correction, only punishment—and this seems to be a widely-applied view of Sarkozy’s. He does not take criticism well, and has reputedly used his connections with France’s conservative media barons to derail the careers of journalists who have disagreed with him. He has also been criticized for using police power to violate the civil rights of political protesters. He wants to test three-year-olds for “behavioral disorders,” and, presumably, medicate them if “necessary.” His election does not bode well for the future of open society in France. Oh, and did I mention he wants to increase France’s reliance on nuclear power? Yeah, you figured as much.

He also benefited from weak opposition. Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, talked about fostering a more nurturing government, but ran to the right, joining Sarkozy in advocating ratification of the European Constitution, which the French public has rejected by popular vote, and in calling for crackdowns on crime and tightening immigration standards, although she did advocate retention of taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage. Many French voters said they liked her platform more but voted for Sarkozy anyway, because he seemed like a better leader. It doesn’t take much analytical ability to see a certain sexist bias operating here.

There are two responses to change. You can either accept it and open up to it, or close down and reject it. In either case, change will happen, but the open option is the smarter one in the long run. In the face of massive global social, political, ecological , and economic changes, France has chosen by a narrow margin to shut down and fight. There’s still a little time left to change your minds, guys….

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, Material Man








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