12 11 2011

I’ve been eagerly following, and occasionally participating in, the Occupy! movement here in Nashville, and it gladdens my heart to see so many young people taking up the cause, just when it seemed like the only folks interested in a just society were just us old holdouts from the 60’s.  Suddenly the land is full of real “new green shoots,” and I am impressed with the intelligence, as well as the fervor, of this new generation.

Their reception has been mixed.  In New York, the unions are supporting the Occupation, giving it a far broader base of support than any left-wing movement in this country has had since the 1930’s.  I think I can call “Occupy!” a left-wing movement.  It certainly isn’t right-wing.  Faux News and the Republicans are not eager to support this non-corporate-funded, genuine grass roots movement, which, unlike the Tea Party, is not willing to be a patsy for corporate interests that seek to further eviscerate the regulatory functions of government.

In many rust-belt communities, where cities and whole states have long felt ripped off by the federal government’s “free trade” policies and what they have done to what was once America’s industrial heartland, the Occupy movement is being welcomed by local authorities, who have given up on asking for help through the normal channels.  “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW!?”

Richmond, Virginia, on the other hand, borrowed a page from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and sent in the bulldozers to remove Occupy Richmond.

And, on the other side of the country, we have had the spectacle of the Oakland Police shooting teargas cannisters directly at unarmed protesters, seriously wounding an Iraq War vet in the process.  The good news is, the mayor fired the city police chief for that little imbroglio.  Oakland Mayor Jean Quan later said

Like many Oaklanders, I support the goals of those protesting on behalf of the 99% today. Police Chief Jordan (he’s the NEW head cop) and I are dedicated to respecting the right of every demonstrator to peacefully assemble, but it is our duty to prioritize public safety.

In what was apparently supposed to be a conciliatory gesture, she allowed city employees who wanted to participate in the general strike to do so, as a “vacation day.”

Here in Nashville, there has been a fair amount of push coming to shove, all of it fortunately non-violent so far.  After Occupy Nashville! had been conducting a round-the-clock demonstration in Legislative Plaza for a few weeks, the state decided that it was going to close the plaza to the public between 10 PM and 8AM, and require anybody who wanted to have a political demonstration there to get a permit and a million dollars worth of liability insurance.  It didn’t take long for the ACLU and a judge to remind the state that this was a direct violation of the First Amendment, especially since state troopers failed to arrest theater patrons who crossed the plaza after 10PM.

And what will happen to the movement, all across the country, as we go into this winter, a winter that could truly be called “the winter of our discontent”?  Some Occupy movements are considering “occupying” foreclosed homes as a way to continue the protest indoors.  We shall see.

Meanwhile, “what do they want?” seems to be the question a lot of people are asking.  There has been a “declaration” issued by #Occupy Wall Street, which has been criticized by some as “unfocussed,” to which the Occupiers respond, “All of our Grievances are Connected!”  Indeed, they are.  I thought it would be worthwhile to look at both the Occupiers’ document and the U.S. Declaration of Independence, both to compare the two and to see how many of the Declaration of Independence’s charges against the English Crown might still apply to the relation between the American people and our homegrown oligarchy.  That’s what I’m going to start with, but first let’s take a music break.

music:  REM “Welcome to the Occupation


12 11 2011

Because I am deeply committed to “occupying” our homestead, and there’s nobody to do some of the chores but me, I haven’t spent a lot of time with Occupy Nashville, but, at one of the General Assemblies I was able to attend, a young woman brought up an issue that, to me, is “the elephant in the room” in this whole movement. She said her grandma had just died, and the family was trying to figure out whether to let the bank take the house back, since she was behind on her mortgage, or to let Medicare take it to pay back her substantial hospital bills. Her grandma, she said, had been on the point of getting the house paid off when the company she had worked for most of her life renegged on its pension promises, so she had to refinance the house just to have money to live on.

To me, this is a prime example of one of the major processes that is impoverishing the middle class, one that nobody ever seems to talk about–between the rising costs of health care and “retirement homes,” most young people are not getting any kind of inheritance from their parents or grandparents. Instead, older peoples’ assets are sucked up by big corporations, whether in the guise of “elder care” for the healthy, or hospital care for the terminally ill,  which is frequently insensitive and invasive, and, at great expense,  prolongs the agony of death rather than the quality of life. I think a response to these widely accepted ripoffs needs to become a more conscious part of the demands of the Occupy movement.  It’s certainly part of the reason why so many young people find themselves trapped in poverty these days.

“Retirement communities” that isolate the elderly, and futile attempts to prolong the lives the dying are both examples of how our society has monetized everything it possibly can, at the expense of human relationships–and inheritances.   We need to return to multi-generational households, in which grandparents, among others, play an active role–and enrich their grand children’s lives by their presence.  In one of her better moments, Hillary Clinton quoted the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  “The village” is based on long-term relationships.  Our brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on are called “relatives” for a reason–we’re supposed to RELATE with each other.  In past, slower times, family members rarely traveled far, and stayed in relationship, for better or sometimes for worse.  I’m not saying we have to go back to being ignorant peasants.  We now know much more than we did two hundred years ago about how to communicate, how to maintain–or dissolve–boundaries, and many other aspects of human psychology and relationship.  We have the opportunity to grow up as a species, and some of us, it seems, have the courage and strength to climb that ladder.

So, there’s our relationships with the living, and then there is the question of our relationship with death and dying.  We have institutionalized our fear of death.  The societal supposition is that we will do anything possible to keep someone from dying, often even if it means that a life support system is beating their heart and pumping their lungs for them while they lie there comatose.  This is great for the Gross Domestic Product, it’s great for the hospitals and their staff, but it does nothing for the dying person and only sucks money out of the pockets of whoever is paying for their care.

It used to be that people died at home, surrounded by their families.  Death was no stranger.  Nearly everybody had seen someone, probably several someones, die.  Now, people mostly die isolated in hospitals, surrounded by machines and jacked-up medical personnel.  I humbly submit that this is not an improvement.  We have become estranged from death.  We need to muster up our courage and allow death back into our lives again.  It just might help the world slip back into harmony.

This may seem to be a long way from the immediate concerns of the Occupy! movement, let alone the politics of the Green Party.  But both the Occupy! movement and the Green Party are ultimately about a fundamental restructuring of society.  It doesn’t get much more fundamental than death and family.  If we’re serious, we have got to go there.

music:  The Waterboys, “Let it Happen

HOW CAN WE CREATE A BETTER WORLD….if we can’t even get along with each other?

15 10 2011

Last Saturday,I was invited to speak, on behalf of the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council, on the topic of “How can we create a better world.”  Here’s the text of the invitation:

Still being planned. Educate people against corporatism and militarism. This will be held at the Belmont United Methodist Church. WE NEED VOLUNTEERS! If you want to be a speaker on any related topic, or create and staff a literature booth on any topic that is related even indirectly, or help in any other way, contact J. H.  (note: NOT Jason Holleman!)

It seemed to me that the Green Party was a natural to participate in this event, so I invited another Green Party member in town to get together a table for the event–but then we got the word back, that because the Green Party is a political organization, and this is being put on by two 501(c)3 organizations, they couldn’t have any political organizations represented. This seemed pretty bizarre to me, and I decided that I would bring Green Party material to the teach-in and mention the exclusion of the Green Party in my remarks.  Here’s what I said:

Good afternoon!  I’m here on behalf of the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council, an organization which has been encouraging people to think local, non-corporate, low-tech, and sustainable for the last twenty-eight years. We are loosely affiliated with the North American Bioregional Congress, which holds hemisphere-wide gatherings every few years. The most recent one was actually here in Tennessee.

But, before I go into our long and honorable history, and our continued relevance today, I want to speak up on behalf of an organization that was disinvited from this gathering–yes, told not to come–The Green Party.  We ( I say ‘we” because I am a member of the Green Party of Tennessee) were told that we are “a political organization” and that inviting us to this teach-in would violate the not-for-profit, charitable/educational status of both Belmont Church and the Peace and Justice Center.  I have also been told by the organizers that  they excluded a half-dozen Democratic Party tablers on the same grounds.  Now,  a half-dozen representatives from one of the parties that is generally held to be the cause of all this mess seems a bit much, but I think it would have been “fair and balanced” to allow one Democrat table and one Green Party table.   Republicans?  Maybe they could run a dunking tank–” See if you can dump Bill Ketron in the cold, cold water–3 throws for only two dollars!”

But seriously, as I understand the IRS’s rules, not allowing the Green Party–and the Democrats– to participate in this teach-in is a misunderstanding of IRS guidelines, which state:

“…the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

There is no impending election (unless you’re a Republican Presidential candidate). The Green Party’s representative at this gathering would not be a “candidate for public office,” –nor, considering the current political climate in Tennessee, would the Democrats be likely to produce a candidate, either–or at least, not a viable one.

The IRS’s guidelines further state:

The presentation of public forums or debates is a recognized method of educating the public. … (nonprofit organization formed to conduct public forums at which lectures and debates on social, political, and international matters are presented qualifies for exemption from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3)). Providing a forum for candidates is not, in and of itself, prohibited political activity. Candidates may also appear or speak at organization events in a non-candidate capacity.

My understanding of what that means is that there is no legal reason why The Peace and Justice Center cannot have a representative of the Green Party at this teach-in, and a Democrat too.  But it seems to me that, if we are going to talk about how we can create a better world, it would be important to have the Green Party in on the discussion since it, unlike the Democrats and Republicans, is not in thrall to our corporatocracy.  If electoral politics have a role in our future–and sometimes i wonder how long that will continue to be the case–the Green Party has a very important role in this movement, and needs to be included.  Just for openers, the Green Party does not accept corporate contributions, period.  While we are best known for our national candidates, we has had the most success in local races, which brings us back to the Green Party’s bioregional roots.  The Green Party in the United States, and here in Tennessee, was started by bioregional activists who wanted to bring bioregionalism’s local, ecological focus into the political arena.

OK, enough about the Green Party–back to the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council.  Nearly thirty years ago, when the Bioregional movement first took shape, peak oil and financial, political, and ecological breakdown were barely a whisper on the horizon, but when I look at what we were envisioning, it seems that perhaps we were intuiting a future in which human social organization would once again be highly decentralized and limited by how far a person could walk or drive a horse cart in a day.  Our message then, as now, is to dig in where you are, to get to know not just the people in your neighborhood, but the natural world you inhabit as well, and to base your decision-making not on short-term gain for human beings, but on the long-term benefits for the whole ecology.

“Know your watershed,” we have urged–know where your water comes from and where it goes, and make your watershed the basis of your political awareness. We view watersheds as embedded in “bioregions,” areas unified not just by proximity but by biotic community–similar forests, rocks, wild animals,  and weather.  Now, nearly thirty years on, this way of viewing the world seems more important than ever.  As global warming and other modes of increased human interference with the environment bring vast, unintended, and nearly unimaginable changes, more than  ever we need to cultivate a deep awareness of our local environment.  The odds are increasing on the likelihood that our watersheds, and not the global market economy, will be what provides us with food, shelter, medicine, household goods, and a social life in the future.  We had better learn the skills we will need to do this well, while we still have the leisure to do so.  A graceful future is still possible.  While it’s true that mere lifestyle changes aren’t enough to induce the transformation the world needs, without lifestyle changes the transformation won’t happen, either.  We need to pursue both the personal and the political.

I have a confession to make:  i don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job of getting connected with  my own neighbors.  My wife and I don’t seem to have a lot in common with them culturally, or counterculturally, and so we doubt that we would be very effective organizers. We don’t sit easy with that, and are looking for ways to cross the cultural divide without having to act like we are something we are not, or acting like we are not something we are..  We’re open to suggestions.

There’s another aspect of our experience in the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council that I can’t stress too much, and that’s the long-term relationship aspect.

In its earlier years, the Council was a kind of “Tennessee, North Alabama, and South-Central Kentucky Federation of Hippies, Anarchists, and Activists,” and in many ways, it still is.  Back then, however, our quarterly convocations at members’ country farms and communities were great tribal gatherings, with a hundred or more–sometimes many more– adults and children camping out, sharing practical knowledge during the day, and then having delightfully wild parties that, for some at least, lasted until dawn, and beyond.  We sang, played guitars and an assortment of other instruments, drummed, danced, and interacted deeply with each other.  Those of us who are still involved from those early days are bonded in ways that are rare and precious in the alienated culture in which we are all now enmeshed.

But not all of our early companions are still with us, and  I don’t mean because they have already died, although that is a seemingly inescapable part of life.  With deep interaction comes not only the possibility of deep bonding, but the possibility of deep wounding.  We have lost people from the Council due to betrayal, divorce, and disappointment, to name just a few of the separating circumstances.–not to mention the occasional participant who became so obnoxious when the energy was up that few others wanted to keep including them in our activities.  What led to this dispersal, to a certain extent, in my opinion, is that we lacked a common psycho-spiritual technology that might have enabled us to be more sensitive to each other, to listen to each other better, to let go of our own neuroses–you can’t make anybody else let go of theirs, all you can do is try to set a good example–to give each other the love and attention, not to mention the appropriate treatment, that might have kept our ranks strong and united. There are ways for groups of people to do that with each other, ways with names like  Nonviolent Communication, Active Listening, Empathic Listening, Mindful Listening.  I can’t say a lot about these, because I don’t practice any of them in a formal sense myself, but I like to think I’ve benefited from what exposure I’ve had to them, as well as other practices I have been involved in.

In summation, it’s easy to be in solidarity with people for a few weeks or months of struggle.  The tricky part is keeping the bonds of affection alive through years of changes,.  Sooner or later, we will show each other our worst, in spite of our best intentions . Can we keep looking each other in the eye through that?  The changes I see happening in the mid to long-term future are going to shrink the world each of us inhabits.  At some point, the internet will go down, and we will lose all our “Facebook Friends,” except for the ones who are actually part of our daily lives. To build a graceful future, we will need to really be friends with each other, and not withdraw from each other forever at the first sign of anger, selfishness, or foolishness.  It’s certainly not always easy; but I have seen the alternative, and it doesn’t work very well. The bioregional movement provides a coherent vision of a sane future, but it takes more than ideals to keep a movement together.  It takes the work of consistently caring about and connecting with other people.  That, in the end, is what will make or break our revolution.

That’s what I said, to an audience of about a dozen people, in a room whose acoustics were awful.  I’m not sure how much my audience actually heard.  One young woman apparently misheard my message and used up most of our discussion time accusing me of being a Luddite.  I’m not a Luddite–I love technology, I’m even dependent on it in more ways than I’d like to be, because I’m not sure how much longer we are going to be able to maintain this amazing, magical web of complexity.

The strongest energy at the teach-in came from the mostly young people who were there in association with Occupy Nashville.  Their main meeting at the teach in was held in the same acoustically-impaired room I had talked in, so I stayed there and, with some difficulty, observed the way they took care of business.  I was impressed–they seemed much more organized and balanced than the wild, passionate SDS meetings I remember from the 60’s.  It’s reassuring to have a sense that the younger generation is, in some ways, an improvement on the older one.  Here’s a music break, and then I’ll talk more about the “Occupy” movement.

music:  Steve Earle, “Amerika v.6.0″

%d bloggers like this: