30 June 2011

Paul Krassner : My Lesson in Mindfulness

Satirist Paul Krassner performs at a 2010 benefit for the Peace and Freedom Party.

My Lesson in Mindfulness

By Paul Krassner / The Rag Blog / June 30, 2011

In 1979, my life changed while I was covering the trial of Dan White for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Former police officer White had confessed to killing the progressive Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was becoming the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King. Now psychiatrist Martin Blinder was testifying that, on the night before the murders, White “just sat there in front of the TV set, binging on Twinkies.” Another psychiatrist stated, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”

In my notebook, I scribbled “the Twinkie defense” and wrote about it in my next report. On the 25th anniversary of those murders, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “During the trial, no one but well-known satirist Paul Krassner -- who may have coined the phrase ‘Twinkie defense’ -- played up that angle.”

The Twinkie defense rested comfortably between a severely bungled prosecution and a shrewdly manipulated defense. One juror remarked after the trial, “It sounded like Dan White had hypoglycemia.” The “diminished capacity” ploy had worked. And so it came to pass that a double political assassination was transmuted into simple voluntary manslaughter. White would be sentenced to serve only seven years behind bars. No wonder there was a post-verdict riot in front of City Hall.

A dozen police cars had been set on fire, which in turn set off their alarms, underscoring the angry shouts from a mob of five thousand understandably outraged gays. The police were running amuck in an orgy of indiscriminate sadism, swinging their clubs wildly and screaming profanity-laden homophobic epithets.

I was struck with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee and I fell to the ground. Another cop came charging at me and made a threatening gesture with his billy club. When I tried to protect my head, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side of my chest. Oh, God, the pain! It felt like an electric cattle prod was stuck between my ribs.

I had a fractured rib and a punctured lung. The injuries affected my posture, and I began to develop an increasingly unbalanced body -- twisted and in constant pain. I limped the gamut of therapists: from an orthodox orthopedic surgeon who gave me a shot of cortisone to ease the pain; to a specialist in neuromuscular massage who wondered if the cop had gone to medical school because “he knew exactly where to hit” me with his billy club; to a New Age healer who put one hand on my stomach, held the receptionist's hand with the other, and asked her whether I should wear a brace. The answer was yes.

But I decided to get a second opinion -- perhaps from another receptionist.

In 1987, I went to a chiropractor, who referred me to a podiatrist, who referred me to a physiatrist, who wanted me to get an MRI -- a CAT scan -- in order to rule out the possibility of cervical stenosis. But the MRI ruled it in. X-rays indicated that my spinal cord was being squeezed by spurring on the inside of several discs in my neck.

The physiatrist told me that I needed surgery. I panicked. I had always taken my good health for granted. I went into heavy denial, confident that I could completely cure my problem by walking barefoot on the beach every day for three weeks.

“You're a walking time bomb,” the podiatrist warned me. He said that if I were in a rear-end collision, or just out strolling and I tripped, my spinal cord could be severed, and I would be paralyzed from the chin down. I began to be conscious of every move I made. I was living, not one day at a time, not one hour at a time, not one minute at a time -- I was living one second at a time.

The head of orthopedics at UCLA assured me that I really had no choice but to have the operation. I asked if I could have avoided this whole situation with a different diet or by exercising more. He shook his head no. “Wrong parents,” he said, referring to hereditary arthritis.

My condition had been totally exacerbated by the police beating. I was one of 37 million Americans who didn't have insurance, nor did I have any savings. Fortunately, I had an extended family and friends all over the country who came to my financial rescue. The operation was scheduled to take place at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York.

A walking time bomb! I was still in a state of shock, but since I perceived the world through a filter of absurdity, now I would have to apply that perception to my own situation. The breakthrough for me came when I learned that my neurosurgeon moonlighted as a clown at the circus. “All right, I surrender, I surrender.”

I met him the night before the operation. He sat on my bed wearing a trench coat and called me Mr. Krassner. I thought that if he was going to cut me open and file through five discs in my upper spinal column, he could certainly be informal enough to call me Paul. He was busy filling out a chart.

“What do you do for a living, Mr. Krassner?”

“I'm a writer and a comedian.”

“How do you spell comedian?”

Rationally, I knew that you don't have to be a good speller to be a fine surgeon, but his question made me uneasy. At least his hands weren't shaking while he wrote. Then he told me about how simple the operation was and he mentioned almost in passing that there was always the possibility I could end up staying in the hospital for the rest of my life. Huh? There was a time when physicians practiced positive thinking to help their patients, but now it was a requirement of malpractice prevention to provide the worst-case scenario in advance.

The next morning, under the influence of Valium and Demerol, I could see that my neurosurgeon had just come from the circus, because he was wearing a clown costume, with a big round red nose over his surgical mask. He couldn't get close to the operating table because his shoes were so large, and when he had to cleanse my wound he asked the nurse to please pass the seltzer bottle...

“Wake up, Paul," the anesthesiologist, said, “Surgery's over. Wiggle your toes.”

My wife Nancy was waiting in the hall, and I was never so glad to see her smile. That evening, at a benefit in Berkeley, my friend, novelist and Merry Pranksters leader Ken Kesey, told the audience, “I spoke with Krassner today, and the operation was successful, but he says he's not taking any painkillers because he never does any legal drugs.”

Then Kesey led the crowd in a chant: “Get well, Paul! Get well, Paul!” And it worked. The following month I was performing again, wearing a neck brace at a theater in Seattle.

But, over the years, I gradually got gimpier and gimpier. My hip was so out of kilter that my right foot turned inward when I walked, and my left foot continuously was tripping on my right foot. More and more often, I found myself falling all over the place. Dozens of times. Finally, after I started inadvertently knocking down other people like dominoes at a book festival in Australia, I realized that I would definitely need to start walking with a cane.

Since then, at any airport, I have to put my cane on the conveyor belt, along with my carry-on bag and my shoes. And then the security guy hands me a different cane -- a wooden one, painted orange -- to help me walk through the metal detector without falling.

One time, in a restaurant, I tripped on my own cane and fell flat on my face -- bruising myself badly, yet grateful that I hadn’t broken any teeth. That’s my nature -- to perceive a blessing in disguise as soon as I stop bleeding. However, this time I was left with a dark, square-shaped scab between my nose and my lips. It looked like a Hitler mustache, and I became very self-conscious about it.

I will be 80 years old in April 2012, and now I really am a walking time bomb. I cannot afford to fall again. I must be careful when I walk. I have to be fully conscious of every step. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Any fall could injure me. It might even be fatal. I have surrendered to a process that is truly an ongoing lesson in mindfulness. I’m learning that when you are mindful in one aspect of your life, you’ll strengthen mindfulness in other aspects.

I am, after all, a Zen Bastard -- a title bestowed upon me when Kesey and I co-edited The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog -- and I certainly have no desire to trip while hobbling along my particular path.

[Paul Krassner published the satirical magazine, The Realist (1958-2001). His latest book is an expanded edition of his memoir, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture, available at paulkrassner.com. In 2010, the writers’ organization PEN honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very happy to receive this award,” he announced, “and I’m even happier that it’s not posthumous.” Read more articles by Paul Krassner on The Rag Blog.]

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Jonah Raskin : Interviewing Journalist and Gay Activist Allen Young

Allen Young, 2009. Photo by Diane Keijzer.

In and out of the closets:
An interview with journalist Allen Young

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / June 30, 2011

A week before Allen Young celebrated his 70th birthday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill legalizing same sex-marriage. The sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s reached a crescendo, and there was much to celebrate at Young’s birthday bash.

Born in Liberty, New York six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he’s been a life-long advocate of personal and political liberty, and all his life he’s been opposed to war. Since 1970, Young has been active in gay liberation and has written extensively about the oppression and the liberation of gay men and lesbian women.

In addition to books such as Gays Under the Cuban Revolution and anthologies he has edited with Karla Jay, such as Out of the Closets, he has written about his own region in Make Hay While the Sun Shines.

Once a reporter for
The Washington Post, and, at the height of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, a mainstay at Liberation News Service (LNS), where he was a colleague of Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer, Young lives now in Massachusetts, writes a regular column for the Athol Daily News, and is an active citizen in his community.

In this interview with long-time
Rag Blog contributor Jonah Raskin, he looks back at his life in journalism, the New Left, and Gay Liberation, and offers his reflections on the United States today: the mass media, right-wing politicians, and small towns.

Jonah Raskin: You’ve been a journalist most of your life. What’s the single most important change you’ve seen in your lifetime?

Allen Young: When I was growing up, the word homosexual rarely appeared in print. I never saw anything in print about gay people that was positive. That’s changed. There’s an often-repeated joke now that “the love that dare not speak its name won’t shut up.”

If there’s one story you’re proudest of writing what story is it?

It took courage to write about the persecution of gay men and lesbians in “revolutionary” Cuba. I’m particularly proud because I did not make excuses for this persecution, as others did, by blaming it on machismo and the Roman Catholic heritage in Cuba. Rather, I focused on the fact that this was ideology imported by Cuba from the international communist movement, going back to Stalinism, and enforced by a police state.

There has been a lot of attention recently to the underground press of the 1960s and 1970s. What would you say was your major contribution to the underground papers?

Although leadership was starting to become a dirty word in the late 1960s, often a synonym for elitism, I played a leadership role at Liberation News Service (LNS). I helped to mold the organization in the late 1960s into a well-organized collective with a stipend for its staff and a commitment to sending out news reliably.

Do you feel oppressed as a gay man in American society today?

I have great joy in my life, being partnered for 31 years, and with many supportive friends both gay and straight. But feelings of oppression linger because millions of Americans still regard people like me as inhuman, immoral, disgusting, and even monstrous. What also weighs heavily on me is the oppression experienced by gays and lesbians in nations around the world, especially Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

You’ve been active in the gay liberation movement over the past 40 years or so. Was life hell before gay liberation?

Despite many outward signs of personal success, such as winning scholarships, becoming editor-in-chief of my college’s daily newspaper, having articles published in The New York Times, and later becoming respected in the New Left, I lived daily with a powerful feeling that I could never tell anyone who loved me (much less strangers) about my true nature. That kind of self-loathing and hiding is indeed hellish.

What would you say changed for you most of all after the arrival of gay liberation?

I could feel good about myself and I could be honest. That was huge. Leftwing ideology did nothing to liberate me as a gay person and this realization led me first to question dogma and then to reject it and all forms of zealotry.

When you see gay men these days who don’t know their history what might you say to them?

Don’t take for granted the freedoms you have and be aware that many people, even those around you, are living in fear. The lives of gay people were very restricted in the past, and a political movement was needed to bring about change. In more than half the states in the U.S., it’s still legal for employers to fire gay workers just because they are gay, for example. A movement is still needed.

Who would you say are the unsung heroes of gay liberation?

The Stonewall Rebellion took place in 1969. There were no more than 1,000 gay men and lesbians (as well as bisexuals and transgendered people) active nationwide in the post-Stonewall gay movement. In New York, there were only a few dozen people who attended meetings of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and who demonstrated against the police, the media, and psychiatrists. To name a few names of heroes from those days: Ron Auerbacher, Bob Bland, Pat Maxwell, Step May, Roni Schnitzer, Ron Ballard, Jerry Hoose, Dana Gillespie, Marty Steffens, Suzanne Bevier, Mark Silber.

You’ve lived in rural Massachusetts for decades? What do you like about rural life?

The challenge of finding a way to relate to people with different worldviews and experiences. In urban environments, and in college towns, it’s too easy to conform and relate exclusively to people who agree with you. Life here is more “real.”

Allen Young, then with LNS, at an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Photo by David Fenton.

Do you think you’ve been shaped by one decade, say the 1960s or the 1970s, more than any other decade?

Every decade of my life shaped me. I think of myself as an aging hippie and a Sixties person. I feel a special affinity with the many people who drastically altered their lives in the 1960s to combat the Vietnam War and “the establishment,” and who enjoyed marijuana and LSD, but much of this continued into the 1970s.

What do you miss about urban life?

Not a thing.

What were the worst aspects of the New Left?

I have negative feeling, even shame, about the fascination with and glamorizing of armed struggle that was common in the New Left. I feel particularly bad about our insistence on displaying the flag of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. While opposing the war, we might have acknowledged that the NLF’s vision for Vietnam did not include civil liberties and democracy. New Leftists did a good job of expanding the ranks, but we did not do a great job of communicating with the rest of America.

And what about the best aspects?

The New Left emerged from the repressive McCarthy era and rejected the rigid and often dishonest dogma of the Old Left. Influenced by the beatniks, New Leftists challenged repressive American culture, including repressive drug laws, while celebrating the joyous and mind-expanding aspects of cannabis and psychedelics. The New Left presented a vision that would end racism, militarism, jingoism, and the exploitation of workers. There were hints of a loving community, though male chauvinism was a barrier.

What has surprised you the most about American life in, say, the last decade or so?

The widespread support for right-wing media, especially Fox News and stars such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. I’m also surprised at the extent to which people have embraced political figures I find extremely unattractive and witless such as George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. I’m surprised how few people are outraged about the excesses of the rich and powerful.

What if anything would you do differently if you could go back and redo your own life?

I would have come out as gay in my teenage years so I could have enjoyable sex and romance in my life when I was my most youthful. Fortunately, I did have an important and exciting physical and emotional relationship with a college classmate, but it was characterized by a lot of fear and I could not make it endure despite efforts to do so.

Are you hopeful about the future and if so why?

I have mixed feelings about the future. I’m hopeful because I see many young people acquiring an interest in sustainable agriculture. I’m pessimistic because I see powerful forces throughout the world promoting violent solutions to problems and doing nothing to stop global warning and environmental degradation.

What do you look forward to in your own life?

I look forward to remaining active and healthy and enjoying the companionship of my long-term partner, and facing death with dignity. I hope that I won’t suffer from a debilitating disease and die a slow death. I would like to have physician-assisted suicide available to me if I need it.

You have friends and neighbors in your neck of the woods. What do you like most about them?

They make me laugh and appreciate my sense of humor. They share my appreciation of small-town life, the concept of community and respect and love for the natural world. It’s rare, around here, to find people motivated by greed or hatred, or who use violence to solve problems.

What’s best about small town America?

The small towns in New England, at least the ones I know best, accept nonconformity and have a strong sense of community. I like the quiet of country living and the opportunity to grow my own food.

[Jonah Raskin is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and teaches media at Sonoma State University. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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29 June 2011

Glenn W. Smith : Conservative Lies About Human Nature

The "gloomy Hobbesian picture." Graphic from Apollo.Gold.

A dog-eat-dog world?
Conservative lies about human nature

By Glenn W. Smith / The Rag Blog / June 29, 2011

Since World War II, America’s elite policy makers have arranged and rearranged our political and economic relationships around an empirically false -- radically false -- understanding of human being and behavior.

Paradoxically, the false portrait of humankind feeds both an unwholesome worship of dog-eat-dog individualism and a sense of powerlessness in the face of godlike market forces that must be obeyed no matter the cost in lives, global environmental catastrophe, or gross economic injustice.

Its roots lie in the gloomy Hobbesian picture of unredeemable, brutish humanity and in the Enlightenment’s faith in universal reason. Twentieth Century conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and excuse the inevitable social destruction caused by unrestrained greed, simply invented new concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem essential.

It’s just one of many ironies that this authoritarian view was swallowed whole hog by so-called libertarians. (It should be noted that Robert Nozick, author of the seminal libertarian book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, later spit out the worm he’d swallowed and repudiated his earlier work.)

The ugly, empirically false portrait is this: a human is a cold and isolated individual who uses unemotional reason to reach predetermined ends. This is the widely discredited but still popular “rational actor” model. And there’s another color in the picture, which some are now calling the “rat choice” model. This tells us those predetermined ends are always selfish or self-interested.

We are, these conservatives say, rats.

As virtually every field within the human sciences has found, we are nothing like that. Because we are hard-wired for empathy, we can and do act altruistically. We seek fairness. Our selves are not isolated, but interconnected in many ways. We are competitive, but we are also cooperative. Reason and emotion are intertwined. There’s no such thing as unemotional reason. We don’t coldly follow the rules of logic in making moral decisions.

In his new book, The Fair Society, biologist Peter Corning writes:
Contrary to the stereotype about our innate selfishness and greed, most of us share a desire to live in a society where fairness is the operative norm, where everybody’s basic needs are met... where there is a robust sense of "reciprocity" -- a rough balancing of benefits and obligations.
Cognitive scientists like George Lakoff have been urging us to grasp the new 21st Century understanding of human being and thinking. Dozens of others have made similar points. We can’t advance a progressive social vision using false assumptions disguised as unbiased scholarship, assumptions intended to forever preclude a fair, progressive, democratic society.

In her new book, Cultivating Conscience, UCLA law professor Lynn Stout demolishes the concept of “homo economicus,” the descriptive name for the lonely, selfish, hyper-rational, and exclusively materialist creature invented by conservative propagandists.

That view, Stout says, “implies we are psychopaths.”

It should come as no surprise that corporations and wealthy conservative ideologues funded the multi-decade effort to convince Americans our nature is other than it is. First came the Rand Corporation. It was there that economist Kenneth Arrow articulated the so-called “rational choice” theory. Here’s how historian Alex Abella summed it up in Soldiers of Reason:
Arrow’s rational choice theory would become a mainstay of economics and political science; by the 1960s... it would redefine the foundations of public policy by assuming that self-interest defines all aspects of human activity... When applied to corporations, the theory exempted them from any social responsibility other than that owed to their shareholders...
Next came the so-called “law and economics” movement, centered mostly at the University of Chicago and spearheaded by Richard Posner, Gary Becker, and others. In a nutshell, its propagandists insisted that the “rational actor” model be employed to decide legal disputes.

Such right-wing benefactors as Richard Scaiffe funded the law and economics movement with millions of dollars to the University of Chicago, the Manhattan Institute, and other institutions. The funding was not intended to help a search for truth. It was intended to paint a picture of human nature that justified unbridled greed and the injustice that follows from its institutional legitimacy.

There are echoes here of other authoritarian traditions that condemned the rabble to justify elite power. The religious myth about the Fall of Man, for instance, is accompanied by the assertion that only priests and pastors can save us from ourselves.

Conservative columnist David Brooks is clearly alarmed that the dark vision of humanity that fueled the conservative movement for decades is being unmasked. He is trying to fit the new, more humanistic and hopeful portrait into a scheme for more, not less, authoritarian control.

In his book, The Social Animal, Brooks recommends the new human sciences be employed to shape (read: control) people’s behavior. He leaves untouched all questions about whether such control is moral.

Edwin L. Rubin, who elaborated on the “rat choice theory” mentioned above, summed up the motivations of those who invented the cruel, selfish homo economicus:
...rational choice theory and rat choice theory, when combined, provide a comprehensive argument for an unregulated market, an argument grounded in a theory of human behavior and human choices.
Just last week, philosopher John McCumber took on the rational actor model and homo economicus in The New York Times:
Whatever my preferences are, I have a better chance of realizing them if I possess wealth and power. Rational choice philosophy thus promulgates a clear and compelling moral imperative: increase your wealth and power!
A moral imperative for the pursuit of wealth and power, whatever the consequences for the many and for society at large. That was the goal of the confidence men who sold us a false and destructive view of our own natures. So successful were they that many progressives (and most Democrats) remain content to operate within the frames and narratives generated by the scam.

Our most important task involves replacing the deceitful view of humankind with the new -- and true -- picture of cooperative, empathic, and complex human being (we can, obviously, be selfish, cruel and violent -- but that’s not all we are).

A society organized around the values generated by such a picture will look radically different from political and economic structures forced upon us by the greedy authoritarians who sold us a bill of goods about ourselves.

[Austin's Glenn W. Smith, according to Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, is a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” His excellent blog on politics and culture is DogCanyon, where this article was also posted. Read more articles by Glenn W. Smith on The Rag Blog.]

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Mary Tuma : Rick Perry (Selectively) Touts Texas Economy With Glenn Beck

It's all good. Rick Perry's broad brush. Image from The Last Refuge.

Schmoozing with Glenn Beck:
Rick Perry paints the Texas
economy with a broad brush
Texas leads the nation in the number and proportion of people making minimum wage or less.
By Mary Tuma / The Texas Independent / June 29, 2011

AUSTIN -- On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared via satellite on Fox News’ Glenn Beck Show -- this time sticking around longer than his 35-second in-person cameo on the program two weeks ago -- to tout the Texas economy and job creation numbers, his prime talking points as of late.

Beck, whose television program is set to end Thursday, prefaced the interview by lauding Texas for generating 37 percent of all new post-recession U.S. jobs since June 2009. Both he and Perry avoided mentioning the state’s structural budget deficit, sweeping cuts to health services and public education, and its surge of low-wage jobs, as noted by the Texas Independent.

From 2007 to 2010, the number of minimum wage workers in Texas rose from 221,000 to 550,000, an increase of nearly 150 percent. Texas leads the nation in the number and proportion of people making minimum wage or less.

Aside from the lack of a state income tax and Perry’s push for tort reform, neither the host nor guest paid much attention to other variables that could have influenced the job creation numbers, such as Texas’ natural resources, energy and high-tech industries, successful Gulf port business, and trade with Mexico and China, all factors pointed to by Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve -- the source of the 37 percent figure (via PolitiFact Texas).

Referencing a critical story in TIME Magazine’s Swampland, Beck asked Perry to assess the idea that he is a “master at the theater of job poaching” from other states like California and New York, to which Perry replied, that is what the “Founding Fathers had in mind with the Tenth Amendment.”

(That particular amendment explicitly asserts that powers not granted by the U.S. Constitution to the federal government are reserved to the individual states; unless those powers are prohibited by the U.S. Constitution to the states -- then they are reserved to the people.)

The TIME article recounted a trip Perry made to California last November in which he “crowed that he had stolen 153 businesses from the Golden State in 2010; some 92 companies moved the other way, leaving Perry with a net gain of 61 businesses.”

A CNN opinion piece, written by a former Dallas Morning News columnist, calls the “Texas miracle” a mere “mirage.” In it, state Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) says many of those highly touted jobs went to people moving to Texas in order to take those jobs, and therefore, fail to raise the employment rate of native Texans:
“That jobs thing is a sleight of hand,” Castro said. “More than half of those new jobs have been filled by non-Texans. So it’s people moving here to take those jobs. It underscores this bipolar state that we live in. You have a population in Texas that is generally lower educated, poor, isn’t covered by health insurance... all of these things... so you can recruit these companies to come here from out of state but your own people, often times, aren’t qualified to fill these jobs.”

The way that Castro sees it, this is all about long-term investment and conflicting priorities.

“We’re not creating a system that educates them well and prepares them,” he said. “We underinvest in these things, which is what Perry is doing in public education and higher education. We can create the jobs, and that’s great. But our own people who have gone through Texas schools and Texas universities aren’t the ones filling them.”
When Beck brought up the TSA “anti-groping” bill, added to the special session call by Perry, the governor took to the opportunity to voice his disapproval of federal employee-led unions:
Beck: Are you concerned at all about the organizing of the airport workers by the AFL-CIO? The security, homeland security?

Perry: Sure. I think anytime you have federal employees being unionized, I have a real problem with that. You don’t have to look much further than what we have already that those federal agencies, or the federal employees that are unionized at the end of the day, it’s not in the best interest of the citizens, certainly the citizens who aren’t part of the union.
As a “right-to-work” state, employees in Texas cannot be required to join unions upon employment. The classification is seen by opponents as a means to deter from collective bargaining, a way to dilute unionization and prevent employees from securing higher paying jobs.

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, the “right-to-work” law -- because it decreases wages and benefits, weakens workplace protections, and minimizes the likelihood that employers will be required to negotiate with their employees -- “is advanced as a strategy for attracting new businesses to locate in a state.”

The report’s analysis of Oklahoma, the most recent state to enact a “right-to-work” law, also found evidence that the laws could actually hurt the economic prospects of states looking to branch out from traditional or low-wage manufacturing jobs into areas such as high-tech manufacturing or “knowledge” sector jobs.

Referring to reporting by the Associated Press, Media Matters for America also notes:
Although Beck cited Texas’ AA+ rating from S&P, he neglected to mention that Texas is “unlikely to receive the top AAA rating because lawmakers have not addressed a structural deficit created by an underperforming business tax.”
Beck joked that he is considering moving to Texas and toyed with the idea of running for Perry’s spot, if he decides to make a presidential bid, saying,
You know, Rick, I mean this sincerely. And I know that you’re considering possibly running for president of the United States. And I’m considered possibly moving to Texas. I don’t know who your lieutenant governor is, but I am thinking that we’re not going to let you leave Texas. I mean, I could run for governor of Texas, I’m just saying.
Political observers expect current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to announce soon that he will campaign for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

[Mary Tuma is a reporter for The Texas Independent and will be contributing regularly to The Rag Blog. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Journalism, Tuma has worked for The Houston Chronicle, The Texas Observer, and Community Impact Newspaper. She is in the process of obtaining her master’s degree in media studies from UT-Austin. Born and raised in Houston, she now calls Austin home. This article first appeared at The Texas Independent.]

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Dr. Stephen R. Keister : Poverty and Public Health in America

The picture of poverty in America. Image from Bay View.

Poverty and public health:
The social causes of death in America

By Dr. Stephen R. Keister / The Rag Blog / June 29, 2011
"[The] incredible absolute size and commanding market positions [of a few immense corporations] make them the most exceptional manmade creatures of the twentieth century... In terms of the size of their constituency, volume of receipts and expenditures, effective power, and prestige, they are more akin to nation-states than business enterprises of the classic variety." -- Richard Barber, from the book Friendly Fascism by Bertrand Gross.
These days we are always on the lookout for a bit of encouraging news. But the final analysis of the Vermont health care plan comes as a bitter disappointment. The online organization Single Payer Action on June 21 provided us with the sad news: the much-touted Vermont plan is not single payer, not even close.

It seems that the phrase "single payer" was stripped out during the final negotiations, and the implementation of the legislation is dependent on federal approval. It also appears that agencies in Washington will not grant needed waivers. The bill permits the private insurers to operate in Vermont indefinitely.

ScienceDaily reports on a study done at the Columbia University School of Public Health that brings home once again the great failings of the healthcare system in the United States. The study “found that poverty, low levels of education, poor social support and other social factors contribute about as many deaths in the U.S. as such familiar causes as heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer.”

The investigators found that approximately 245,000 deaths in the year 2000 could be attributed to low levels of education, 176,000 to racial segregation, 162,000 to low social support, 133,000 to individual poverty, 119,000 to income inequality, and 39,000 to area-level poverty.

Overall, 4.5% of U.S. deaths were found to be attributable to poverty -- midway between previous estimates of 6% and 2.3%. However, the risks associated with both poverty and low education were higher for individuals ages 25-64 than for those of 65 or older. The authors’ findings for a broader public health conceptualization of the causes of mortality and an expansive policy approach that considers how social factors can be addressed to improve the health of populations.

Meanwhile, our elected representatives continue their budget negotiations in Washington with an eye on further cutting an already inadequate Medicaid program and "revising" Medicare benefits, continuing the downward spiral of health care for the poor, the disabled, our returning servicemen/women, and the emotionally ill.

Happily, there is some galvanizing opposition, as witnessed by a massive protest by National Nurses United in Lafayette Square demanding a tax revenue increase from corporations in order to prevent such cuts in Medicaid and Medicare.

I am encouraged by the rare occasions that a group of dedicated Americans will gather in public to speak up against injustice. But I also wonder about the lack of public militancy against injustice here that we see demonstrated by the citizens in our fellow democracies in Europe, especially in Greece, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom.

It would seem that there is an answer, a disturbing answer, contained in an article by Harriet Fraad, published in Tikkun and distributed by AlterNet. The title: "Why Are Americans Passive as Millions Lose Their Homes, Jobs, Families, and the American Dream?" While Dr. Fraad offers some suggestions, one hopes that they do not come too late.

Noam Chomsky peripherally addressed this matter in a 1995 essay when he wrote:
A final point, something I've written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers and in the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who... years ago would have been teaching in working-class schools, writing books like Mathematics for the Million, participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, they are not to be found, it seems, when there is an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country right now is in a very strange and ominous state.

People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer’s dream... It’s also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics who can (and, in fact, already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.
A few bright lights in the darkness: Senator Bernie Sanders is facing down the pharmaceutical industry. He has introduced a bill in the Senate authorizing government expenditures of some $80 billion per year to buy up the patents that were awarded to the drug companies for "carrying out research."

These patents, in essence, provide government-granted patent monopolies, thus providing the pharmaceutical companies the right to price drugs at hundreds of dollars per prescription and sometimes several thousand dollars per prescription in the United States.

The money would come from a tax on public and private insurers. The savings from lower-cost drugs would immediately repay more than 100 per cent of the tax.

The country is projected to spend almost $300 billion on prescription drugs this year. Prices would fall to roughly one-tenth the amount in the absence of patent monopolies, leading to a savings of more than $250,000 billion. The savings on lower drug prices should easily exceed the size of the tax, leaving a substantial net reduction in costs to the government and private insurers. For more details about the legislation, see "The Drug Market Scam" by Dean Baker on AlterNet.

The other side of the coin involves a decision by the Supreme Court on June 23, 2011, freeing the generic drug makers from providing consumers with the specific dangers of using a drug. The court, at the same time, gave the pharmaceutical industry access to prescriptions written by physicians for their patients. So much for “patient-physician confidentiality”!

The other bit of good news came in a June 16 New York Times op-ed by President Jimmy Carter, when he joined the chorus of those asking the government to call off the Global War on Drugs. Thus he added his voice to those of Richard Branson, George Shultz, and Paul Volker. President Carter pointed out that this legislation has increased our prison population from 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.3 million in 2009. The increase mostly is for crimes that are non-violent and related to drug possession. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher proportion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison, on probation, or on parole -- more than 3% of all American adults.

The cost? California in 1980 spent 10% of the state's budget on higher education and 3% on prisons. In 2010, almost 11% went to prisons and only 7.5% to higher education.

Of course, the fight for enlightened drug policy, as seen in most European nations, will be fought tooth and nail by those who are financially rewarded by the so-called war on drugs — the crime cartels and those receiving baksheesh from the criminal enterprises (corrupt law enforcement officers, politicians, judges, and the operators of our uniquely American private prisons).

One final personal thought: The Republicans keep repeating the mantra that if we increase the taxes on the wealthy, they will not have the funds to create jobs. Of course, this is pure and simple poppycock. Their wealth is not used to produce employment. In the autumn of 2008 at the time of the financial crash, I was talking to a Swiss banker who works for a typical big Swiss bank. In the autumn of 2008, he said, the bank’s below-street-level gold vault, encased in concrete, cracked open under the weight of the gold bullion being shipped in from the U.S.A.

Create jobs!?! Maybe for Swiss concrete workers...

[Dr. Stephen R. Keister lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is a retired physician who is active in health care reform and is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Dr. Stephen R. Keister on The Rag Blog]

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Harvey Wasserman : Countdown to Nuclear Disaster

Political cartoon by Olle Johansson, Sweden / Cagle Cartoons.

Countdown to disaster:
Fukushima spews, Los Alamos burns,
Vermont rages, and we’ve almost lost Nebraska

By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / June 29, 2011

Humankind is now threatened by the simultaneous implosion, explosion, incineration, courtroom contempt, and drowning of its most lethal industry.

We know only two things for certain: worse is yet to come, and those in charge are lying about it -- at least to the extent of what they actually know, which is nowhere near enough.

Indeed, the assurances from the nuke power industry continue to flow like the floodwaters now swamping the Missouri Valley heartland.

But major breakthroughs have come from a Pennsylvania senator and New York’s governor on issues of evacuation and shut-down. And a public campaign for an end to loan guarantees could put an end to the U.S. industry once and for all.

FUKUSHIMA: The bad news continues to bleed from Japan with no end in sight. The “light at the end of the tunnel” is an out-of-control radioactive freight train, headed to the core of an endangered planet.

Widespread internal radioactive contamination among Japanese citizens around Fukushima has now been confirmed. Two whales caught some 650 kilometers from the melting reactors have shown intense radiation.

Plutonium, the deadliest substance known to our species, has been found dangerously far from the site.

Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government have admitted to three 100% meltdowns but can’t confirm with any reliability the current state of those cores. There’s reason to believe one or more have progressed to “melt-throughs” in which they burn through the thick stainless steel pressure vessel and onto the containment floor.

The molten cores may be covered with water. But whether they can melt further through the containments and into the ground remains unclear.

Possibilities may include a “China Syndrome” scenario in which one or more still-molten cores does melt through the containment and hits ground water. That could lead to a steam explosion that could blow still larger clouds of radioactive steam, water and debris into the atmosphere and ocean.

At least three explosions have occurred, one of which may have involved criticality.

There is no doubt at least two containments were breached very early in the disaster. Unit Four is cracked and sinking. The status of its used radioactive fuel pool, which has clearly caught fire, is uncertain. Also unclear is the ability of the owners to sustain the stability of Units Five and Six, which were shut when the quake/tsunami hit.

That stability depends on continued power to run cooling systems, which could disappear amid seismic aftershocks many believe are inevitable. A very substantial quake hit after the tremors that led to Indonesia’s devastating tsunami, and few doubt it could happen again -- soon -- at Fukushima.

All the above is dependent on reports controlled primarily by Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government. There is every reason to believe the situation is worse than it seems, and that those in charge don’t really know the full extent of the damage or how to cope with it.

Just five years ago a quake shut seven reactors at Kashiwazaki. The entire nation of Japan sits on a wide range of fault lines. Tsunami is a Japanese word.

Radiation from Fukushima has long since been detected throughout the northern hemisphere, with health effects that will be debated forever.

Some 50 reactors still operate in Japan. According to some, the Japanese public has the legal right to shut them all.

Let us pray they do. Yesterday.

LOS ALAMOS: A massive wildfire has swept at least to the outskirts of the national laboratory that was at the core of the program that built the Atomic Bomb.

The first explosion irradiated a nearby valley on July 16, 1945. Then came the two that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are significant quantities of stored radioactive material in and around Los Alamos. How much there is, where it is, how badly it is threatened, how much (if any) has already been engulfed in flames remains to be seen. Evacuations are underway.

Official reassurances are not reliable.

Nor are estimates of the potential for radioactive fallout to spread throughout North America and beyond.

Political cartoon by R.J. Matson / The St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Roll Call.

VERMONT YANKEE: Entergy, owner of the one reactor in Vermont, has sued to shred a solemn public contract.

The one thing certain here is the company’s contempt for the sanctity of its own word.

Years ago Entergy sought official permits at VY. It promised in return that the state could choose to shut the reactor on March 21, 2012, which it’s now done.

In recent years VY has spewed tritium into groundwater and the Connecticut River, in some cases from underground pipes whose existence the company denied. A cooling tower has collapsed.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has extended the reactor's license and asked the federal Justice Department to intervene on behalf of the utility.

The request trashes any credibility retained by the NRC. The Commission was established in the mid 1970s to be a disinterested party on which the public could rely. For it to now take a partisan stand on behalf of a reactor owner it’s bound to regulate thoroughly contaminates the core of its existence.

Entergy has sued so it can buy some $65 million in radioactive fuel the people of Vermont do not want burned on their land.

This will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the future legal sanctity of any and all public contracts signed by any corporation, nuclear or otherwise, may be determined.

NEBRASKA: The flooding Missouri River continues to threaten at least two heartland reactors.

Late reports indicate Cooper may still be running, with public assurances it could be shut very quickly. What might happen if the operators are a little bit late has not been explained.

Nor is there much to go on about the impacts of flooded cores and fuel cooling ponds on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers or the eco-systems along the way to a Gulf of Mexico still reeling from BP’s toxic dose.

But an almost surreal set of circumstances surrounds the true nature of design specifications and protections in place (or not) at Ft. Calhoun.

They may be best summarized by what happened to a “flood berm” meant to protect Ft. Calhoun. This huge rubberized water-filled sausage was 16 feet at the base and eight feet high.

But CNN has quoted a company representative as saying that some sort of equipment “came in contact” with the berm and punctured it.

Not to worry: the “same level of protection is in place” as had been prior to the installation of the berm.

In other words, the device was installed to protect the reactor. Then somebody punctured it. But things are as they were before so they must not have needed that berm in the first place. Got it?

It’s as yet unclear whether flood waters will continue to rise at these two reactors, whether the operators can protect them, and what will happen if they can’t.

The corporate media is carrying virtually zero coverage of any of the above stories. All are subject to rapid, dangerous changes about which we may have little reliable information.

But we do know for sure that U.S. Senator Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA) now wants to see more deeply into one of the key holes in the nuclear façade: evacuation.

After Three Mile Island’s 1979 partial melt-down, new federal legislation allegedly gave states more power over how to get people out of the path of a melting nuke.

But after an as-yet unopened Perry reactor was damaged by a 1986 earthquake, Ohio's then-Governor Richard Celeste sued to keep Perry shut pending a state evacuation study.

The NRC refused and won in federal court. Perry opened. Ohio’s official study then said evacuation was virtually impossible.

A quarter-century later, Casey wants to see what it might now take to move downwinders out of harm’s way from a TMI, Perry, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Vermont Yankee, Cooper, Ft. Calhoun... you name it.

Casey’s being joined by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose demands for the shut-down of Indian Point, 35 miles north of Manhattan, have left its owners “shaken.”

Cuomo and Casey might do well to join governors of states like Vermont, Massachusetts, California, and others in testing the law on evacuation planning. Populations have vastly increased at virtually all U.S. reactor sites since TMI. And the ugly realities that define the so-called “peaceful atom” are still making themselves all too apparent.

Whether the U.S. will now turn with Germany, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, and others away from atomic power and toward a green-powered Earth is up to us. The Solartopian technologies of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, ocean thermal, bio-fuels, increased efficiency, and conservation are now demonstrably cheaper, safer, cleaner, more reliable, more job-producing, and quicker to install than anything atomic energy can promise.

A $36 billion loan guarantee give-away still mars the proposed 2012 federal budget. Constant pressure on Congress and the White House can kill that, and any other proposed funding for still more of these nightmares.

The stream of reactor disasters spewing from this dying industry is certain to escalate. The toll rises with each leak at Fukushima, every flame at Los Alamos, each legal brief at Vermont Yankee, every foot of Nebraska floodwater.

The need to stop the madness grows more desperate every day.

[Harvey Wasserman edits the NukeFree.org website. His most recent book is Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth. His “Solartopia! Green-Power Hour” is at www.talktainmentradio.com every Wednesday, 8-9pm. Read more of Harvey Wasserman's writing on The Rag Blog.]

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28 June 2011

FILM / Gregg Barrios : 'Incendies' is Scorching Odyssey of Death, Rebirth

Lubna Azabal in Incendies. Courtesy of eOne Films.

Denis Villeneuve's Incendies:
A scorching odyssey of death and rebirth

By Gregg Barrios / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2011

[Incendies. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve; Featuring Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, and Rémy Girard.]

The opening sequence in Incendies is a stunning piece of poetic filmmaking: A desert in the Middle East framed in the window of a barracks where a dozen young Muslim conscripts readied for combat are having their heads shaved. Radiohead’s haunting “You and Whose Army?” quietly plays as the camera zooms in on a child soldier who refuses to blink.

Quick cut to modern day Montreal. A lawyer is reading the last will and testament of Nawal Marwan (Azabal) to her adult children twins Jeanne and Simon. They learn that their late mother wants them to deliver a letter to their father and their brother. This surprises both since their father has been long dead and they never knew they had another sibling.

Nawal also states that she wants to be buried “naked, face down, away from the world.” No name or epitaph on a gravestone because she did not keep her promises in life. However, once the letters are delivered, she can rest in peace in the knowledge of what she was never able to tell her children alive.

While this set-up might strike some viewers as shop-worn, it is the stuff that makes Shakespearean drama, grand opera and Greek tragedy lasting forms of storytelling.

Incendies (nominated for a best foreign film Oscar last year) tells a tale of lost children, fathers and sons, and mothers who hold those secrets at a great cost. Director Villeneuve renders his film in an almost epic scale. Its mash-up (section titles, pop anthems, and non-chronological structure) echo Olivier Assayas’ Carlos or Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Still Villeneuve weaves his riveting tale alternating past with present to a fever pitch.

Their quest leads them -- Jeanne willingly, Simon reluctantly -- to a fictional Middle East country (modeled after Lebanon and their long civil war between Muslims and Christians).

The film parallels their search with the mother’s life: as a teen, the Christian-born Nawal has a romance with a young Muslim. Pregnant, she is forced to give up her child as a foundling but not before a midwife tattoos the child’s heel. The child’s mother vows to find him at whatever cost.

Nawal (Azabal’s dramatic portrayal is pitch perfect) is a raging life force whose devastating ordeals and star-crossed fate are constantly shifting as she too learns more about herself. As her story unfolds, I dare you to watch without blinking.

It is said that the cry of the mythical phoenix after having its nest reduced to ashes is that of a beautiful song. Ditto Nawal. When she is incarcerated, the inmates and guards call her “The Woman Who Sings.”

Incendies retells that age-old song of songs with beauty and grace.

[Gregg Barrios is a journalist, playwright, and poet living in San Antonio. Gregg, who wrote for The Rag in Sixties Austin, is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. This article was also published in the San Antonio Current. Read more articles by Gregg Barrios on The Rag Blog

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Lamar W. Hankins : Michele Bachmann's Revelations

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., blows a kiss to a supporter after her formal announcement to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Monday, June 27, 2011, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Charlie Riedel / AP.

(And a few of my own...)
Michele Bachmann’s revelations

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2011

In this revelatory time, it should come as no surprise that there are lots of revelations going around. Michele Bachmann has announced frequently that God has told her to do various things. When she ran for a seat in Congress in 2006, she said this:
God then called me to run for the United States Congress. And I thought, what in the world would that be for? And my husband said "You need to do this." And I wasn't so sure. And we took three days, and we fasted and we prayed. And we said "Lord, is this what you want? Is this Your will?" And after -- along about the afternoon of day two -- He made that calling sure.

And it's been now 22 months that I've been running for United States Congress. Who in their right mind would spend two years to run for a job that lasts for two years? You'd have to be absolutely a fool to do that. You are now looking at a fool for Christ. This is a fool for Christ.
Bachmann has now gone through another period of decision-making that has culminated in another message from God that she should run for President of the United States. She told Iowa Public Television at the end of May that she has “had that calling” to run for President.

Apparently, God also has told her that part of her job as a representative is to oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act approved in 2010, which she refers to as “Obamacare.” In addition, she has celestial marching orders to oppose the teaching of evolution, to let Glenn Beck solve the debt crisis, to repeal the minimum wage, to reject 99% of climate scientists who have identified the evidence that climate change is at least partly man-made, to oppose gay marriage, and to obey a whole host of other directives from God.

Apparently, if Michele Bachmann is for it or against it, the sole reason is because God has told her what position to take.

Bachmann is not the only politician to receive a revelation from God to run for political office, including the presidency. It happened to Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin, among others.

I suppose that some people are comforted by politicians who tell them that what the politicians are doing is directed by God. But I’m skeptical about such claims. First, the claims can’t be verified. We have only the word of the politician that a revelation has come from God.

Even when these politicians appear to have the highest level of sincerity, probity, and righteousness, it is impossible to know that they’ve actually received a revelation from God. After all, the stage, television, and movies aren’t the only places where we find good actors.

I haven’t found the particular brand of religion followed by these revelation-receiving politicians a reliable way to judge their veracity either. Revelations seem to come from evangelicals of all kinds, from Catholics, from Mormons, from Baptists, and maybe even from some Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists (although Methodists are known mainly for getting warm feelings in their hearts -- an experience I had at a younger age).

Character is also an unreliable measure of the truthfulness of reports of revelations from politicians. Newt Gingrich, for instance, delivered divorce papers to a former wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. That doesn’t demonstrate much character.

Michele Bachmann has virtually disowned her half-sister after she made public that she was lesbian. While I can’t judge Bachmann in any religious way for her rejection of her half-sister, such abnegation of another person for her love of a person of the same sex seems, at best, cruel, not in keeping with Jesus’s kindness toward prostitutes and others whose behaviors were disappointing to him.

The positions politicians take on political issues give no clue as to the authenticity of their revelations from God. Some are for capital punishment; others against it. Some are for universal health care; others oppose it. Some are for raising the debt ceiling; others see that as a lack of appropriate stewardship of our God-given resources.

Some support our military ventures in the Middle East; others see them as a great moral failing, condemned by God. Some apparently believe God is OK with extramarital affairs; others view such actions as sinful. On man-made climate change, the revelatory politicians are all over the ballpark. So political positions don’t give me guidance about which politicians have really received revelations from God and which haven’t.

I’ve looked at general credibility as a guide to whether a politician has been called by God to be a political leader. With regard to Bachmann, Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone provided a litany of falsehoods she has put forward:
She launched a fierce campaign against compact fluorescent lights, claiming that the energy-saving bulbs contain mercury and pose a "very real threat to children, disabled people, pets, senior citizens." She blasted the 2010 census as a government plot and told people not to comply because the U.S. Constitution doesn't require citizens to participate, when in fact it does. She told her constituents to be "armed and dangerous" in their resistance to cap-and-trade limits on climate-warming pollution. She insisted that Obama's trip to India cost taxpayers $200 million a day, and claimed that Nancy Pelosi had spent $100,000 on booze on state-paid flights aboard military jets.
Recently she has denied a report by the Los Angeles Times that she has benefited from government subsidies given to her husband’s counseling clinic and a family farm, though she reports income from both businesses on federal financial disclosures.

Based on her work with the Maple River Education Coalition in Minnesota, Bachmann apparently believes that public school teachers should not encourage children to share because sharing is too socialistic.

She believes that the federal government is moving us toward “one-world government” that will control us by pushing sustainable development, pantheism, evolution, socialized medicine, and other nefarious concepts. As bizarre as some of these ideas sound to many people -- Taibbi has called them part of Bachmann’s “lunacy” -- they are not useful as a way to judge the authenticity of her revelation that she is called by God to be president.

After considering all these matters, what I’m left with are some revelations of my own. It seems that God -- the same God from whom Michele Bachmann receives her revelations -- has revealed to me that I should not vote for any politician who claims to be called by God to seek political office.

A further revelation of mine is that God will not take positions on political issues. What I can’t understand is why God would give people such contradictory messages. Could it be that such revelations are merely projections of the individuals who report them? Or maybe such people can’t make a persuasive argument that justifies our support without claiming divine sanction.

I haven’t been able to figure it out. It’s all just a mystery, I guess.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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27 June 2011

Alice Walker : Why I'm Joining the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza

Poet and Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker in Gaza City in 2009. Photo from AP / The Guardian (U.K.).

Why I'm joining the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza
Pulitzer prize-winning American writer Alice Walker is on board an international flotilla of boats sailing to Gaza to challenge the Israeli blockade. Here she tells why.
By Alice Walker / The Guardian (U.K) / June 27, 2011
See 'After the excitement of the Arab Spring, has the Palestine issue slipped out of view?' by Emine Saner, Below.
Why am I going on the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza? I ask myself this, even though the answer is: what else would I do? I am in my 67th year, having lived already a long and fruitful life, one with which I am content. It seems to me that during this period of eldering it is good to reap the harvest of one's understanding of what is important, and to share this, especially with the young. How are they to learn, otherwise?

Our boat, The Audacity of Hope, will be carrying letters to the people of Gaza. Letters expressing solidarity and love. That is all its cargo will consist of. If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. This should go down hilariously in the annals of history. But if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us, as they did some of the activists in the last flotilla, Freedom Flotilla I, what is to be done?

There is a scene in the movie Gandhi that is very moving to me: it is when the unarmed Indian protesters line up to confront the armed forces of the British Empire. The soldiers beat them unmercifully, but the Indians, their broken and dead lifted tenderly out of the fray, keep coming.

Alongside this image of brave followers of Gandhi there is, for me, an awareness of paying off a debt to the Jewish civil rights activists who faced death to come to the side of black people in the American South in our time of need. I am especially indebted to Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who heard our calls for help -- our government then as now glacially slow in providing protection to non-violent protesters -- and came to stand with us.

They got as far as the truncheons and bullets of a few "good ol' boys'" of Neshoba County, Mississippi and were beaten and shot to death along with James Chaney, a young black man of formidable courage who died with them. So, even though our boat will be called The Audacity of Hope, it will fly the Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner flag in my own heart.

And what of the children of Palestine, who were ignored in our president's latest speech on Israel and Palestine, and whose impoverished, terrorized, segregated existence was mocked by the standing ovations recently given in the U.S. Congress to the prime minister of Israel?

I see children, all children, as humanity's most precious resource, because it will be to them that the care of the planet will always be left. One child must never be set above another, even in casual conversation, not to mention in speeches that circle the globe.

As adults, we must affirm, constantly, that the Arab child, the Muslim child, the Palestinian child, the African child, the Jewish child, the Christian child, the American child, the Chinese child, the Israeli child, the Native American child, etc, is equal to all others on the planet. We must do everything in our power to cease the behavior that makes children everywhere feel afraid.

I once asked my best friend and husband during the era of segregation, who was as staunch a defender of black people's human rights as anyone I'd ever met: how did you find your way to us, to black people, who so needed you? What force shaped your response to the great injustice facing people of color of that time?

I thought he might say it was the speeches, the marches, the example of Martin Luther King Jr, or of others in the movement who exhibited impactful courage and grace. But no. Thinking back, he recounted an episode from his childhood that had led him, inevitably, to our struggle.

He was a little boy on his way home from yeshiva, the Jewish school he attended after regular school let out. His mother, a bookkeeper, was still at work; he was alone. He was frequently harassed by older boys from regular school, and one day two of these boys snatched his yarmulke (skull cap), and, taunting him, ran off with it, eventually throwing it over a fence.

Two black boys appeared, saw his tears, assessed the situation, and took off after the boys who had taken his yarmulke. Chasing the boys down and catching them, they made them climb the fence, retrieve and dust off the yarmulke, and place it respectfully back on his head.

It is justice and respect that I want the world to dust off and put -- without delay, and with tenderness -- back on the head of the Palestinian child. It will be imperfect justice and respect because the injustice and disrespect have been so severe. But I believe we are right to try.

That is why I sail.

[Alice Malsenior Walker is a poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, anthologist, teacher, editor, publisher, womanist, and activist.
The Chicken Chronicles: A Memoir by Alice Walker was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Her critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Walker won the 2010 Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace. This article was originally published in the British daily, The Guardian. A longer version appears on Alice Walker's blog, alicewalkersgarden.com/blog.]

Activists involved of the new Gaza flotilla called "Freedom Flotilla Two" at press conference on Feb. 7, 2011, in Madrid. (At left, Cindy Sheehan.) Photo by Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty Images.
After the excitement of the Arab Spring,
has the Palestine issue slipped out of view?

Just over a year ago, in the middle of the night, Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship in international waters just off the coast of Israel, opened fire and killed nine activists. The Mavi Marmara was one of six ships in the Freedom Flotilla, which was attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and the actions of Israel's military brought widespread international condemnation.

This time, as Freedom Flotilla II sets sail over the next week, with 10 ships carrying many of the same activists who traveled last year, including Swedish writer Henning Mankell, American human rights campaigner Hedy Epstein, and writer and academic Alice Walker, the Israeli government's response will be closely watched.

This week Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the UN, wrote a letter saying: "Israel calls on the international community to do everything in their ability in order to prevent the flotilla and warn citizens... of the risks of participating in this type of provocation." The purpose of the flotilla, he said, is "to provoke and aid a radical political agenda." He later added: "We are very determined to defend ourselves and to assert our right to a naval blockade on Gaza."

"The threats of violence won't deter us," says Huwaida Arraf, one of the flotilla organizers. "Nobody is going in to this lightly, but we feel it has to be done. Israel has to realize its violence against us is not going to stop our growing civilian effort to challenge its illegal policies. The size of this flotilla, the number of people involved in organizing it, even after Israel killed nine of our colleagues last year, is testament to that."

She says half a million people applied for the few hundred places: depending on how many of the 10 boats are seaworthy in time, there should be around 400 people on the flotilla.

The campaign began in August 2008, when 44 activists on two small fishing boats set off from Cyprus and managed to reach Gaza. Later that year, the Free Gaza Movement, as it became known, organized several other voyages, usually sending single boats containing small but symbolic supplies such as medicine and toys, and volunteers, including doctors, lawyers, and politicians.

Amid allegations of violence and hostility from Israel's naval forces at sea, the activists decided they would need to send a flotilla, and after months of fundraising and negotiating with NGOs from other countries, particularly Turkey, several ships met in the Mediterranean sea in May last year with the intention of reaching Gaza.

"We didn't make it to Gaza and we lost a lot of colleagues," says Arraf, "but one of the things that was achieved was that people realized what Israel's policies meant, and the violence Israel was using to maintain them. We think our action will put pressure on Israel to end its blockade on Gaza, and we hope the respective governments of all the people participating will take action and do what they should be doing, instead of having their nationals putting their lives at risk like this."

There is a danger, says Chris Doyle, director of the council for Arab-British understanding, of the Palestinian issue being overlooked -- in the west at least -- as focus shifts to countries going through the extraordinary changes in the Arab Spring. "There is a danger that people forget how important this issue is, and that it is boiling. It is still an unresolved issue. At a time when international politicians -- Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, and others-- are concentrating so much on other areas of the region, the issue of Palestine has not gone away."

"Everyone has been so amazed and shocked at the beauty of the Arab revolutions, seeing these incredibly brave and wonderful citizens, that it quite naturally seizes the attention, but at the heart of the Arab revolutions is Palestine," says Karma Nabulsi, an academic and expert on the Middle East. "I would say it hasn't been properly covered in the west, but Palestine is central to what people -- the Arab media, the people who are participating in the Arab revolutions -- talk about all the time."

So where does Palestine fit into the Arab spring? Doyle says: "A Palestinian spring is more than possible. Many senior people within Fatah and the Palestinian authorities have been saying this is the way to go because the negotiations are not seen as credible, and they will have to adopt different tactics. I think that, on the one hand, those tactics could be against the Israeli occupation, but also it represents a threat to the Palestinian authority itself, both to Fatah and Hamas."

The flotilla "gives people heart and encouragement, that the struggle for freedom has friends and supporters," says Nabulsi. "What the flotilla did last year, these plucky little boats, was bring the entire world to look at what [the Israeli government] were doing. Not just because of the brutality of the response of the military, but it shows how simple gestures get to the heart of the issue -- breaking through the silence and the siege, and all the things that seem so big and impossible to do. They did it and they're going to do it again, and that's what is so remarkably brave."

-- Emine Saner / The Guardian (U.K.)
The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Robert Jensen : The Anguish in the American Dream

The Anguish in the American Dream

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2011

Robert Jensen will discuss the American Dream and more as Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Friday, July 8, 2011, 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on Austin's community radio station, KOOP-91.7 FM, and streamed live on the internet.
As we cope with downturns in American power in the world and the American economy at home, there is much talk about reviving, renewing, rescuing, or redefining the American Dream. We would be better off facing the anguish inherent in the American Dream. Once we recognize that the dream has always been dependent on domination, we can see more clearly our options for a just and sustainable future.

[A version of this essay was delivered at MonkeyWrench Books in Austin, Texas, on February 10, 2011.]

Whether celebrated or condemned, the American Dream endures, though always ambiguously. We are forever describing and defining, analyzing and assessing the concept, and with each attempt to clarify, the idea of an American Dream grows more incoherent yet more entrenched.

The literature of this dream analysis is virtually endless, as writers undertake the task of achieving, saving, chasing, restoring, protecting, confronting, pursuing, reviving, shaping, renewing, and challenging the American Dream.

Other writers are busy devouring, recapturing, fulfilling, chasing, liberating, advertising, redesigning, rescuing, spreading, updating, inventing, reevaluating, financing, redefining, remembering, and expanding the American Dream.

And let’s not forget those who are deepening, building, debating, burying, destroying, ruining, promoting, tracking, betraying, remaking, living, regulating, undermining, marketing, downsizing, and revitalizing the American Dream.

We are exhorted to awaken from, and face up to, the dream, as we explore the myths behind, crisis of, cracks in, decline of, and quest for the American Dream.

My favorite book title on the subject has to be Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream, which explores the comedian’s career “within a broader discussion of the ideology of the American Dream.” According to the book’s publisher, the author
brilliantly decodes Kaufman in a way that makes it possible to grasp his radical agenda beyond avant-garde theories of transgression. As an entertainer, Kaufman submerged his identity beneath a multiplicity of personas, enacting the American belief that the self can and should be endlessly remade for the sake of happiness and success. He did this so rigorously and consistently that he exposed the internal contradictions of America’s ideology of self-invention.
As we can see, writers are eager to dive deep into the American Dream to find strikingly original insights, bold new interpretations, previously unexplored nuances. I will take a different approach: I want to skate on the surface and state the obvious. It’s a strategy seldom employed, I believe, because such a reckoning with our past leaves us uneasy about the present and terrified of the future. That strategy leaves us in anguish.

I believe that to be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of a broken world. My anguish flows not from the realization that it is getting harder for people to live the American Dream, but from the recognition that the American Dream has made it harder to hold together the living world.

So, our task here is to tell the truth about the domination that is at the heart of the American Dream so that we may face the brokenness of our world. Only then can we embrace the anguish of the American Dream and confront honestly our moment in history.

The epic dream

James Truslow Adams appears to have been the first to have used the phrase “the American Dream” in print, in his 1931 book The Epic of America.[1] This stockbroker turned historian defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” But he didn’t reduce the dream to materialism and emphasized U.S. social mobility in contrast with a more rigid European class system:
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Adams was, in fact, concerned about the growing materialism of U.S. life, and he wondered about “the ugly scars which have also been left on us by our three centuries of exploitation and conquest of the continent.” He was writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, coming off the go-go years of the 1920s. So, not surprisingly, his list of those problems will sound familiar to us:
how it was that we came to insist upon business and money-making and material improvement as good in themselves; how they took on the aspects of moral virtues; how we came to consider an unthinking optimism essential; how we refused to look on the seamy and sordid realities of any situation in which we found ourselves; how we regarded criticism as obstructive and dangerous for our new communities; how we came to think manners undemocratic, and a cultivated mind a hindrance to success, a sign of inefficient effeminacy; how size and statistics of material development came to be more important in our eyes than quality and spiritual values; how in the ever-shifting advance of the frontier we came to lose sight of the past in hopes for the future; how we forgot to live, in the struggle to "make a living"; how our education tended to become utilitarian or aimless; and how other unfortunate traits only too notable today were developed.
Yet for all his concerns, Adams believed that the United States could overcome these problems as long as the dream endured, and that led him into the dead end of clichés: “If we are to make the dream come true we must all work together, no longer to build bigger, but to build better.” For Adams, as the book’s title makes clear, the story of America is an epic, and “The epic loses all its glory without the dream.”

But dreams of glory are bound to betray us, and 80 years later the question is whether the story of the United States is an epic or a tragedy. More on that later.

The dream and domination

Adams’ definition of the dream as the belief that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone” is rather abstract. One historian’s “short history” of the concept[2] highlights the dreams of religious freedom, political independence, racial equality, upward mobility, home ownership, and personal fulfillment that run through U.S. history, but a concept used by so many people for so many different purposes can’t be easily defined.

Rather than try to organize the complexity, I want to focus on what has made the American Dream possible. That much is simple: The American Dream is born of, and maintained by, domination.

By this claim, I don’t mean that the American Dream is to dominate (though many who claim to be living the American Dream revel in their ability to dominate), but rather that whatever the specific articulation of the American Dream, it is built on domination. This is the obvious truth on the surface, the reality that most dreamers want to leave out, perhaps because it leads to a painful question: How deeply woven into the fabric of U.S. society is the domination/subordination dynamic on which this country’s wealth and freedom are based?

First, the American part: The United States of America can dream only because of one of the most extensive acts of genocide in recorded human history. When Europeans landed in the region that was eventually to include the United States, there were people here. Population estimates vary, but a conservative estimate is 12 million north of the Rio Grande, perhaps 2 million in what is now Canada and the rest in what is now the continental United States.

By the end of the so-called Indian Wars, the 1900 census recorded 237,000 indigenous people in the United States. That’s an extermination rate of 95 to 99 percent.[3] That is to say, the European colonists and their heirs successfully eliminated almost the entire indigenous population -- or the “merciless Indian Savages” as they are labeled in the Declaration of Independence, one of the most famous articulations of the American Dream.

Almost every Indian died in the course of the European invasion to create the United States so that we may dream our dreams. Millions of people died for the crime of being inconveniently located on land desired by Europeans who believed in their right to dominate.

Second, the dream part: Adams pointed out that while this is always about more than money, the idea of getting one’s share of the American bounty is at the core of the American Dream. That bounty did not, of course, drop out of the sky. It was ripped out of the ground and drawn from the water in a fashion that has left the continent ravaged, a dismemberment of nature that is an unavoidable consequence of a worldview that glorifies domination.

“From [Europeans’] first arrival we have behaved as though nature must be either subdued or ignored,” writes the scientist and philosopher Wes Jackson, one of the leading thinkers in the sustainable agriculture movement.[4] As Jackson points out, our economy has always been extractive, even before the industrial revolution dramatically accelerated the assault in the 19th century and the petrochemical revolution began poisoning the world more intensively in the 20th.

From the start, we mined the forests, soil, and aquifers, just as we eventually mined minerals and fossil fuels, leaving ecosystems ragged and in ruin, perhaps beyond recovery in any human timeframe. All that was done by people who believed in their right to dominate.

This analysis helps us critique the naïve notions of opportunity and bounty in the American Dream. The notion of endless opportunity for all in the American Dream is routinely invoked by those who are unconcerned about the inherent inequality in capitalism or ignore the deeply embedded white supremacy that expresses itself in institutional and unconscious racism, which constrains indigenous, black, and Latino people in the United States.

The notion of endless bounty in the American Dream leads people to believe that because such bounty has always been available that it will continue to be available through the alleged magic of technology. In America, the dreamers want to believe that the domination of people to clear the frontier was acceptable, and with the frontier gone, that the evermore intense domination of nature to keep the bounty flowing is acceptable.

Of course the United States is not the only place where greed has combined with fantasies of superiority to produce horrific crimes, nor is it the only place where humans have relentlessly degraded ecosystems. But the United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world, and the country that claims for itself a unique place in history, “the city upon a hill”[5] that serves as “the beacon to the world of the way life should be,” in the words of one of Texas’ U.S. senators.[6]

The American Dream is put forward as a dream for all the world to adopt, but it clearly can’t be so. Some of the people of the world have had to be sacrificed for the dream, as has the living world. Dreams based on domination are, by definition, limited.

Jackson reminds us how these two forms of domination come together in the United States when he asserts, “We are still more the cultural descendants of Columbus and Coronado than we are of the natives we replaced.”[7] Citing the writer Wendell Berry, he points out “that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we never knew what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing.”[8]

Dreams based on domination by people over the non-human world are dreams only for the short-term. Dreams based on domination by some people over others are dreams only for the privileged. As Malcolm X put it, “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”[9]

Justice and sustainability

A world based on domination/subordination is a profoundly unjust world and a fundamentally unsustainable world.

The state of our unjust world: A third of the people on the planet live on less than $2 per day, while half live on less than $2.50 a day.[10] That means at least half the people in this world cannot meet basic expenditures for the food, clothing, shelter, health, and education necessary for a minimally decent life. Concern about this is not confined to radical idealists. Consider the judgment of James Wolfensohn near the end of his term as president of the World Bank:
It is time to take a cold, hard look at the future. Our planet is not balanced. Too few control too much, and many have too little to hope for. Too much turmoil, too many wars, too much suffering. The demographics of the future speak to a growing imbalance of people, resources, and the environment. If we act together now, we can change the world for the better. If we do not, we shall leave greater and more intractable problems for our children.[11]
The state of our unsustainable world: Every measure of the health of the continent -- groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the surrounding oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity -- suggests we may be past the point of restoration. This warning comes from 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.[12]
That statement was issued in 1992, and in the past two decades we have yet to change course.

These days when someone seeks my support for an idea, project, or institution, I ask whether it makes some contribution to the struggle for justice and sustainability. No one idea, project, or institution can solve our problems, of course, and perhaps even no combination can save us. But I am convinced we must ask this question in all aspects of our lives.

I have concluded that the American Dream is inconsistent with social justice and ecological sustainability. So, I’m against the American Dream. I don’t want to rescue, redefine, or renew the American Dream. I want us all to recognize the need to transcend the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the American Dream. If we could manage that, the dream would fade -- as dreams do -- when we awake and come into consciousness.

That’s my principled argument. Now let’s consider two questions about political and rhetorical strategy.

Strategic considerations I: A radical core

A few years ago, sometime around the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, I got a call from a New York Times reporter who was writing a piece about the anti-war movement’s attempt to rally folks around the idea that “peace is patriotic.” I told him I never used that phrase and routinely argued against patriotism -- instead of trying to redefine patriotism, I wanted to abandon the concept as intellectually, politically, and morally indefensible.[13]

He was intrigued and asked me to explain. Realize, this was the first, and so far the only, time I have been interviewed by a Times reporter, and so even though I know that newspaper to be a tool of the ruling class, I wanted to make a good impression.

First, I pointed out that critiques of patriotism have been made by radicals in the past and that there was nothing all that new in what I had to say. After I explained my argument, he said he couldn’t see a hole in the reasoning but that it didn’t really matter. “No one is ever going to accept that,” he said, and so my position -- no matter how compelling -- didn’t end up in his story.

Perhaps I can take some solace in knowing that he thought my argument was right. But it’s not enough just to be right, of course -- we want to be effective. Is an argument irrelevant if it can’t be communicated widely in the mainstream? Is that the fate of an assault on the idea of an American Dream?

It’s certainly true that the American Dream is a deeply rooted part of the ideology of superiority of the dominant culture, and there is evidence all around us that this ideology is more deeply entrenched than ever, perhaps because the decline of American power and wealth is so obvious, and people are scrambling. But that doesn’t automatically mean that we should avoid radical critiques and play to the mainstream. I believe those critiques are more important than ever.

This conclusion stems from an assessment of the political terrain on which we operate today. This is not a mass-movement moment, not a time in which large numbers of Americans are likely to engage in political activity that challenges basic systems of power and wealth.

I believe we are in a period in which the most important work is creating the organizations and networks that will be important in the future, when the political conditions change, for better or worse. Whatever is coming, we need sharper analysis, stronger vehicles for action, and more resilient connections among people. In short, this is a cadre-building moment.

Although for some people the phrase “cadre-building” may invoke the worst of the left’s revolutionary dogmatism, I have something different in mind. For me, “cadre” doesn’t mean “vanguard” or “self-appointed bearers of truth.” It signals commitment, but with an openness to rethinking theory and practice.

I see this kind of organizing in some groups in Austin, where I live. Not surprisingly, they are groups led by younger people who are drawing on longstanding radical ideas, updating as needed to fit a changing world. These organizers reject the ideology that comforts the culture.

The old folks -- which I define as anyone my age, 52, and older -- who are useful in these endeavors also are willing to leave behind these chauvinistic stories about national greatness.

To openly challenge the American Dream is to signal that we are not afraid to (1) tell the truth and (2) keep working in the face of significant impediments. This kind of challenge speaks to those who are hungry for honest talk about the depth of our problems and are yearning to be part of a community that perseveres without illusions. That isn’t a majority, maybe not yet a significant minority, but those people have the resolve that we will need.

Back to the patriotism critique: Despite the popularity of the “peace is patriotic” bumper stickers, I have continued to offer my argument against the concept of patriotism, and whenever I speak about it in a lecture, people tell me that it was helpful to hear the position articulated in public.

Over and over, on this and other issues, I hear people saying that they have had such thoughts but felt isolated and that hearing the critique in public shores up their sense that they are not crazy. Perhaps these kinds of more radical analyses don’t change the course of existing movements, but they help bolster those who are at the core of the more radical movements we need, and they help us identify each other.

Strategic considerations II: Engagement

Although a radical critique of the American Dream isn’t likely to land in The New York Times, we shouldn’t ignore the ways we can use such arguments for outreach to liberal, and even conservative, communities.

Once again, an example about patriotism: I have had conversations with conservative Christians, who typically are among the most hyper-patriotic Americans, in which I challenged them to square that patriotism with their Christian faith.[14] Isn’t patriotism a form of idolatry?

I can’t claim to have converted large numbers to an anti-empire/anti-capitalist politics. But as the evangelicals say, we sometimes make progress one by one, from within. Framing questions in a way that forces people to see that conventional politics is at odds with their most deeply held moral principles is a potentially effective strategy.

It doesn’t always work -- we humans are known for our ability to hold contradictory ideas -- but it is one resource in the organizers’ toolkit.

So, we might consider critiquing the American Dream by contrasting it with another widely embraced idea, the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity, which says we should treat others as we would like to be treated. That principle shows up in virtually all religious teachings and secular philosophy.[15] In Christianity, Jesus phrased it this way in the Sermon on the Mount:
[12] So whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. [Matt. 7:12]
One of the best-known stories about the great Jewish scholar Hillel from the first century BCE concerns a man who challenged him to “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel’s response: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”[16]

This is echoed in the repeated biblical command, in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” [Lev. 19:18] In Islam, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s central teachings was, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”[17] In secular Western philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative is a touchstone: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[18]

On the surface, the American Dream of success for all appears to be an articulation of the Golden Rule, of equal opportunity for all. When I suggest that the two ideas are, in fact, in opposition, it gives me a chance to make the case that the Dream is based on domination and, therefore, a violation of that core principle.

How can we reconcile our commitment to an ethic of reciprocity while endorsing a vision of society that leads to an unjust and unsustainable world? How can we face the least among us today, and our descendants tomorrow, knowing we turned away from the moral commitments we claim to be most dear to us? A critique of the American Dream can open up that conversation.

Telling the tale: Epic or tragic hero?

The American Dream typically is illustrated with stories of heroes who live the dream. But the larger story of American Dream casts the United States itself as the hero on a global stage. The question we might ask, uncomfortably: Is the United States an epic hero or a tragic one?

Literature scholars argue over the definition of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win.

A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of the protagonist becomes his downfall.

Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others.

This distinction is crucial in dealing with the American Dream, which people often understand in the context of their own hard work and sacrifice. People justifiably take pride, for example, in having worked to start a small business, making it possible for their children to get a college education, which is one common articulation of the American Dream.

I can tell you a story about a grandfather who emigrated from Denmark and worked hard his whole life as a blacksmith and metal worker, about parents who came from modest circumstances and worked hard their whole lives, about my own story of working hard. That story is true, but also true is the story of domination that created the landscape on which my grandfather, my parents, and I have worked.

Pride in work turns to hubris when one believes one is special for having worked, as if our work is somehow more ennobling than that of others, as if we worked on a level playing field.

When we fall into hubris individually, the consequences can be disastrous for us and those around us. When we fall into that hubris as a nation -- when we ignore the domination on which our dreams are based -- the consequences are more dramatic. And when that nation is the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, at a time in history when the high-energy/high-technology society is unraveling the fabric of the living world, the consequences are life-threatening globally.

Not to worry, some say: After all, other empires have come and gone, other species have come and gone, but the world endures. That flippant response glosses over two important considerations. First, empires cause immense suffering as they are built and as they decline. Second, the level of human intervention into the larger world has never been on this scale, so that the collapse of an empire poses new risks.

To toss off these questions is to abandon one’s humanity.

To face this honestly, we need to recognize just how inadequate are our existing ideas, projects, and institutions. Quoting the late geographer Dan Luten, Jackson reminds us:
[Most Europeans] came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. We built our institutions with that perception of reality. Our political institutions, our educational institutions, our economic institutions -- all built on that perception of reality. In our time we have become rich people in an increasingly poor land that is filling up, and the institutions don’t hold.”[19]
Developing new institutions is never easy. But it will be easier if we can abandon our epic dreams and start dealing the tragic nature of circumstances.

The end of the epic, for us all

To conclude I want to return to the words of our first American Dreamer, James Truslow Adams: “The epic loses all its glory without the dream.”

Glory is about distinction, about claiming a special place. The American Dream asserts such a place in history for the United States, and from that vantage point U.S. domination seems justified. The future -- if there is to be a future -- depends on us being able to give up the illusion of being special and abandon the epic story of the United States.

It is tempting to end there, with those of us who critique the domination/subordination dynamic lecturing the American Dreamers about how they must change. But I think we critics have dreams to give up as well. We have our epics of resistance, our heroes who persevere against injustice in our counter-narratives.

Our rejection of the idea of the American Dream is absorbed into the Dream itself, no matter how much we object. How do we live in America and not Dream?

In other words, how do we persevere in a nightmare? Can we stay committed to radical politics without much hope for a happy ending? What if we were to succeed in our epic struggle to transcend the American Dream but then find that the American Dream is just one small part of the larger tragedy of the modern human?

What if the task is not simply to give up the dream of the United States as special but the dream of the human species as special? And what if the global forces set in motion during the high-energy/high-technology era are beyond the point of no return?

Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee we can control the destruction we have unleashed.

It may be that no matter what the fate of the American Dream, there is no way to rewrite this larger epic, that too much of the tragedy has already been played out.

But here’s the good news: While tragic heroes meet an unhappy fate, a community can learn from the protagonist’s fall. Even tragic heroes can, at the end, celebrate the dignity of the human spirit in their failure.

That may be the task of Americans, to recognize that we can’t reverse course in time to prevent our ultimate failure, but that in the time remaining we can recognize our hamartia, name our hubris, and do what we can to undo the damage.

That may be the one chance for the United States to be truly heroic, for us to learn to leave the stage gracefully.

An audio version, on CD or MP3, is available from Alternative Radio. Video of the talk is online here.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of
All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009) and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

[1] James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (New York: Triangle Books, 1931).

[2] Jim Cullen,
The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] See David E. Stannard,
American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997). Churchill argues persuasively that the fact that a large number of those indigenous people died of disease doesn’t absolve white America. Sometimes those diseases were spread intentionally, and even when that wasn’t the case the white invaders did nothing to curtail contact with Indians to limit the destruction. Whether the Indians died in war or from disease, starvation and exposure, white society remained culpable.

[4] Wes Jackson,
Becoming Native to This Place (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), p. 19.

[5] This phrase is attributed to Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which draws on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” [Matt. 5:14] The late president Ronald Reagan was fond of describing the United States as a “shining city upon a hill,” as he did in his farewell address on January 11, 1989. http://www.reaganlibrary.com/reagan/speeches/farewell.asp

[6] Kay Bailey Hutchison, Senate debate on “Authorization of the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq,” (S.J. Res. 45) October 09, 2002. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/Z?r107:S09OC2-0011

[7] Jackson,
Becoming Native to This Place, p. 15.

[8] Wes Jackson, “Becoming Native to This Place,” Thirteenth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures,

October 1993, Yale University, New Haven, CT. http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/publications/lectures/Jackson/Wes/becoming-native-to-this-place

[9] Malcolm X,
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, George Breitman, ed. (New York: Grove, 1965), Chapter 3, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” p. 26.

[10] World Bank, “World Development Report 2008,” October 2007. www.worldbank.org/wdr2008

[11] James D. Wolfensohn, address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank Group, September 23, 2003. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/NEWS/Resources/jdwsp-092303.pdf

[12] Henry Kendall, a Nobel Prize physicist and former chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ board of directors, was the primary author of the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” http://www.ucsusa.org/ucs/about/1992-world-scientists-warning-to-humanity.html

[13] For this argument, see Chapter 3 of my book
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2004). That chapter is also available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/CoEPatriotism.pdf

[14] For an example of this in the context of the American Dream, see David Platt,
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010). Unfortunately, his critique of the American Dream appears to be rooted in a conservative theology that asserts Christianity as the one true faith tradition, replacing a reactionary nationalism with a reactionary religion.

[15] For a summary, see “Shared belief in the Golden Rule.” http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm

[16] Talmud, tracate Shabbat 31a. http://www.come-and-hear.com/shabbath/shabbath_31.html

[17] Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi,
Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), Hadith 13.

[18] Immanuel Kant,
Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 30.

[19] Wes Jackson,
Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), p. 117.

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