31 October 2012

Kate Braun : Samhain Is a Time for Transformation

Time for transformation: Acorn Carved with Dremmel Tool. Image from Skull-A-Day.

Celebrating Samhain:
A time for transformation

By Kate Braun / The Rag Blog / October 31, 2012
“Under the moonlight we dance/ Spirits dance, we dance/ Holding hands we dance...”
Wednesday, October 31, 2012, is Halloween, aka Samhain, Third Harvest, All Hallows Eve. It marks a time for transformation and growth of the soul while in a spiritual hibernation between Samhain and Yule (Winter Solstice, when life begins to bloom again on Mother Earth).

This is the beginning of the agrarian year, a time of “being in the womb of the earth." We now have time to study, to reflect, to prepare land and soul for the next cycle that will begin at Yule. Honor the Crone (old, wise woman): she holds the tribal lore, stores the records of the clan. Now is the time to listen to the wisdom of the ancestors. Use this knowledge/lore to make plans for the coming year, not only for work, but also for your own spiritual growth and enrichment.

Samhain is also a time of great magick, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. Do not be surprised if you sense contact with spirits that have crossed this veil or are in transition between the worlds. If you choose to enhance whatever possibilities of communication might be, there are many methods: you may scry, using either a black mirror or water placed in a dark-colored bowl or cauldron; or contemplate the flame of a single candle in an otherwise-unlit room; or create a dumb supper, to name just three.

Be sure to use the colors black and orange in your decorating scheme. You may also use red, brown, and/or golden yellow as accent colors.

If possible, celebrate outdoors and have a fire. Begin your outdoor activities by sweeping the area with a besom or straw broom. This symbolically cleanses the area, sweeping away the past and opening the door to the future. If you invite your guests to each bring a broom or besom, this could become a group activity that could be turned into a celebratory dance.

Lighting a new candle for the “new year” that is now in gestation is also something that could be incorporated into your activities.

Serve your guests a bountiful feast that may include pumpkins, apples, nuts, turnips, all gourds, squash, beets, corn, mulled wines, cider, beef, poultry, pork. Any crops not harvested by this date should be considered taboo and left in the ground, and it is also taboo to share leftovers at this festival. You may, however, bury apples along a road or path for spirits who are lost or who have no descendants to provide for them. Apples are food for the dead.

Decorate with pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, cornstalks, cauldrons, brooms and besoms, apples, root veggies, images of black cats. Throw any bones from your feast into the fire as an offering to the Gods/Goddesses for healthy and plentiful livestock in the coming year. Then, when the ashes are cool, spread them over your garden. This blesses the land as well as nourishes the soil.

Be aware that various Nature Sprites are out and about and are said to enjoy playing tricks on humans. In olden times people dressed in white or wore disguises to fool these entities; today we put on costumes just for the fun of it.

[Kate Braun's website is www.tarotbykatebraun.com. She can be reached at kate_braun2000@yahoo.com. Read more of Kate Braun's writing on The Rag Blog.]

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30 October 2012

Harry Targ : The Real Romney Foreign Policy

Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up? Image from Foreign Policy.

Unleashing the military:
The real Romney foreign policy
Military spending would grow in a Romney administration, especially because of ties to the neocons and a hawkish Congress which promotes military spending district by district.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / October 30, 2012
After the outbreak of fighting on the Korean peninsula, NSC 68 was accepted throughout the government as the foundation of American foreign policy -- U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian.
The third and last presidential debate of the 2012 election season, October 22, 2012, addressed issues of foreign policy and their connections to the United States economy. The debates reflected the idiosyncrasies of American politics, 2012, as well as the enduring features of the United States empire.

As to the candidate’s realization that he needed to “move to the center,” Mitt Romney tried to portray himself as peace-oriented. This approach contradicted the neo-conservative vision of the 17 of 24 key foreign policy aides advising him. These former Bush advisors and associates of the Project for a New American Century or (PNAC), stand for a foreign policy designed to reestablish United States global hegemony.

PNAC, formed in the 1990s, in its official positions argued that the United States, as the last remaining super power, must use that power to remake the world. The PNAC vision combines the ideology of the United States as the “City on the Hill” and the “Beacon of Hope” for the world, with the advocacy of using overwhelming military force to achieve imperial goals.

Romney, contrary to prior statements, endorsed the Obama administration plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. He, like President Obama, supported the Syrian opposition short of U.S. direct military intervention. He called for maintaining sanctions against Iran to force the latter to end its alleged nuclear program while avoiding war. And Romney, like Obama, endorsed challenging China’s trade policy while engaging in constructive diplomacy with the burgeoning new superpower.

These and other Romney statements mirrored (for better or worse) the foreign policies of President Obama. The flexible Republican candidate “moved to the center” on foreign policy because of his perceived need to present an image of wisdom and caution to the America voters who oppose a continued presence in Afghanistan, getting directly involved in wars against Syria and Iran, and the wars on “terrorism,” “drugs,” and other crusades.

However, candidate Romney was firm in his commitment to increasing U.S. defense spending over the next decade, while he would cut domestic programs. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported in September 2012 that a President Romney would cap total federal spending at 20 percent of GDP by 2016, maintain defense spending at 4 percent of GDP, and rapidly repeal the Affordable Care Act (Richard Kogan and Paul N. Van de Water, “Romney Budget Proposals Would Necessitate Very Large Cuts in Medicaid, Education, Health Research and Other Programs”).

President Obama claims that the Romney military project would add $2 trillion to military spending over the next decade. Even though figures are loosely introduced to debates, it is clear that a Romney presidency would add enormously to naval programs, maintain high levels of troops, and continue drone programs that were expanded during the Obama presidency.

In short, military spending would grow in a Romney administration, especially because of ties to the neocons and a hawkish Congress which promotes military spending district by district.

The Obama defense budget projected for fiscal year 2013 would total $525 billion, a 2.5 percent decline from the 2012 budget (if inflation is considered). The basic DOD budget request does not include ongoing war costs, U.S. nuclear weapons systems, homeland security, military assistance, or other elements of security.

The DOD recommended cuts in troop strength in the army, marines, and reserves. The National Priorities Project reports that an Obama defense budget would modestly increase from about $525 billion in 2013 to just less than $530 billion at the end of a second term.

A Romney administration would unleash the military in terms of expenditures, and, if he listens to his neocon advisors, worldwide adventures. But, President Obama’s defense budget proposals continue the basic parameters of military spending into the future. As the National Priorities pie chart notes, the 2013 proposed federal budget allocates 57 percent of discretionary spending directly to the military, with 6 percent for education, 6 percent for housing and community, 5 percent for veterans benefits, 3 percent for science, 2 percent for labor, 2 percent for transportation, and 1 percent for food and agriculture.

National Security Council Document 68, written in the bleak Cold War winter of 1950 before the onset of the Korean War recommended that military spending should be the number one priority of every president before he/she discussed any other program or activity of government. NSC 68, just a wild proposal that winter, became policy after the Korean War started and has for the most part continued ever since, costing American workers trillions of dollars in taxes.

The Romney proposal, based on a vision of reestablishing the United States as the global hegemonic power, is based on the principle articulated in NSC 68. Spend more and more on the military and pay for it by cutting everything else. The Obama budget, while more circumspect and committed to the military contributing “their fair share” to the health and well-being of the nation, maintains the same commitment to prioritizing the military.

The task of the peace movement over the coming weeks is to first challenge the candidacy of Mitt Romney, who is committed to reinstituting the principle of NSC 68, and then, if the President is re-elected, to demand that President Obama reject the 60-year tradition of privileging unnecessary military spending over the basic needs of the American people.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical -- and that's also the name of his book from Changemaker Press which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Is Religion a Parasitic Meme or a Helpful Adaptation?

Moai at Easter Island. Moai are the living faces of deified ancestors. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Parasitic meme or helpful adaptation?
That humans are religious is indisputable. Like morality, religion in one form or another seems to be a universal aspect of human culture.
By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / October 30, 2012

It can be a bit daunting to draw philosophical conclusions from the state of scientific belief. Scientific theories change with the addition of new evidence. Different theorists sometimes disagree, and the informed but non-expert onlooker does not know which to take as grounds for philosophizing.

And the issue is particularly vexing in the social sciences, which do not lend themselves as easily as the physical sciences to experimental verification. Case in point: the evolutionary origins of religion.

That humans are religious is indisputable. Like morality, religion in one form or another seems to be a universal aspect of human culture.

By “religion” I mean any form of socially-organized relationship to what we might call an unseen realm of disembodied agency, including ancestors who are no longer living in the flesh; totemic spirits associated with places or objects; genies, angels and demons; deities such as the gods of the Greek pantheon; the all-knowing, all-powerful and eternal God of monotheism; and the All or Universal Soul of advanced mysticism.(1)

An intimate social relationship between living people and supernatural beings of some sort is characteristic of human societies everywhere.(2) The question for evolutionary psychology is twofold: how did religion come to be and what advantages did it provide to our ancestors?

The advantages seem straightforward. One aspect of religion is social cohesion; it “served as an extra cohesive force, besides the bonds of kinship, to hold societies together for such purposes as punishing freeloaders and miscreants or uniting in war.”(3)

Evolutionary theorists are divided on the historical causes of this effect. Does the explanation require the controversial notion of group selection, that genes can become fixed or spread in a population because of the benefits they bestow on groups, regardless of their effect on the fitness of individuals within that group?(4) Or is it instead merely that all humans benefit by being members of groups, and exhibit genetic or cultural traits that have evolved to enhance the ability to function well in a group, any group?

In either case religion, like language and sensitivity to norms, may well be one such adaptation.

Another advantage is a sense of hope or confidence in the face of adverse circumstances. When confronted with danger or something fearsome, the believer does not succumb to despair and hopelessness. (Those who did, who gave up, did not survive to produce offspring.) Instead he or she calls on God -- or the ancestors or the gods or guardian spirits, etc. -- for help.

As a person feels that help, he or she carries on and is more likely to survive and thrive. (This is the case regardless of whether the entity called on actually exists or not.) It is a survival characteristic to feel that God is with you.

But how did this characteristic evolve in the first place? We can only speculate, as there is little archeological evidence.

The so-called “New Atheists” -- those who invoke science to denigrate religion with much the same fervor as some believers defend their faith -- view religious beliefs not as useful adaptations, but as parasitic memes that have embedded themselves in human minds. (A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that replicates from person to person within a culture much like genes replicate from generation to generation of living organisms.[5]) Such beliefs started out as mistakes but then took on a life of their own, they say.

Daniel Dennett, one such atheist, believes it had to do with an extension of our species’ aptitude for theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states like our own to others. Humans have such an advanced capacity for what he calls the “intentional stance,” the propensity to attribute beliefs, desires, and a certain amount of cunning to anything that moves and seems to do so with intention, that we have difficulty turning it off.(6)

Citing other researchers, Dennett calls it a “hyperactive agency detection device,” a term that is widely used to mean a cognitive module that readily -- perhaps too readily -- ascribes events in the environment to the behavior of agents. Such a tendency confers a survival benefit: it is better to avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one.(7) We are the descendents of those whose agency detectors were overly, not insufficiently, vigilant.

Dennett’s argument, in brief is this:
  • When a person died, our ancestors got rid of the body, but had the persistent memory of the living person, so they thought of him or her as still existing as a ghost or spirit.(8) That is the hyperactive agency detector at work.
  • Then they started asking the deceased or the spirits for advice.(9)
  • From there it is short step to divination -- ceremonies and rituals to find out what the gods know -- and then to appeasement and prayer, to try to influence the gods to be good to us. At this point humans were treating the gods not just as disembodied beings who know things, but as agents who do things, who cause things to happen to us, both calamities and good fortune.(10)
  • Finally we get self-serving shamans and priests who promote belief in their authority as ways to enhance their own self-esteem, power, and wealth.(11)
Once religion is born, other mechanisms ensure its propagation. One is the natural tendency of people to believe what others in the group believe. Science writer Robert Wright observes, “If you are surrounded by a small group of people on whom your survival depends, rejecting the beliefs that are most important to them will not help you live long enough to get your genes into the next generation.”(12)

Another thing that helps is that the very idea of gods or a God is catchy. As Wright puts it,
[W]e would expect the following kinds of memes to be survivors in the dog-eat-dog world of cultural evolution: claims that (a) are somewhat strange, surprising, counterintuitive; (b) illuminate sources of fortune and misfortune; (c) give people a sense that they can influence these sources; (d) are by their nature hard to test decisively. In this light, the birth of religion doesn’t seem so mysterious.(13)
Memetic replication can, paradoxically, favor ideas that are hard to confirm. Truth-value is not the only attribute that causes memes to jump from mind to mind. Ideas that contribute to group cohesion, of course, tend to be reinforced within the group. And finally we get full-blown rationales such as that belief in God is the foundation of morality and in any case is important for its own sake.(14)

On this view, particularly in light of the sorry history of much of organized religion, religion and religious beliefs are outmoded and dangerous residues of our evolutionary heritage. If they ever did serve a useful purpose, that purpose has long been superseded, say the New Atheists. At best, God is a social hallucination or, to put it more kindly, something constituted intersubjectively. Belief in God is as mistaken as the belief in an external, objective morality.

But there is another view, equally steeped in evolutionary psychology, that says that religion has positive benefits.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his intellectually superb The Righteous Mind, claims that religion has been evolutionarily adaptive because it binds groups together in a way that enhances the survival prospects of their members. He observes that despite our innate tendency to favor ourselves human beings are able at times to be quite unselfish in service to the group or groups of which they are a member. We are not only selfish, we are also groupish:
We love to join teams, clubs, leagues, and fraternities. We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork. ... Our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interest in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.(15)
He attributes this trait to group competition.
[G]roups compete with groups, and that competition favors groups composed of team players -- those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving.(16)
He goes on to give a number of reasons for believing that the tendency to be a team player is not only cultural but has become a physical, genetic trait. This is a group selection theory: some groups fare better than others in the competition to turn resources into offspring(17) and members of those groups come to have specific genetic traits that help the group survive, traits such as a tendency to be loyal to the group and feelings of sanctity for the things others in the group value. “[G]roups in which these traits are common will replace groups in which they are rare, even if those genes impose a small cost on their bearers (relative to those that lack them within each group).”(18)

Can group membership really influence the genetic makeup of its members? Consider this (one among several arguments that Haidt advances): If you want to increase egg output, you would breed only those chickens that lay the most eggs, right? Actually that doesn’t work. In the egg industry, where chickens live in crowded cages, the best layers are also the most aggressive, and breeding such hens causes more aggression and fewer eggs. A geneticist tried a different approach:
He worked with cages containing 12 hens each, and he simply picked the cages that produced the most eggs in each generation. The he bred all of the hens in those cages to produce the next generation. Within just three generations, aggression levels plummeted. ... Total eggs produced per hen jumped from 91 to 237 [after several more generations], mostly because the hens started living longer, but also because they laid more eggs per day. The group-selected hens were more productive than were those subjected to individual-level selection.(19)
Haidt claims humans have become adapted to group living in much the same way. Natural, not artificial, selection has caused us to be groupish as well as selfish. As Haidt puts it, we are 90 percent ape and 10 percent bee.(20)

I am not going to adjudicate whether this phenomenon would better be called group selection, multi-level selection, or “individual selection in the context of groups.”(21) But it is undeniable that humans function best in groups and it does seem plausible that natural selection has produced specific adaptations in us to serve that end. One of them is the propensity to submerge self-interest in favor of service to the group. Dennett, in fact, recognizes the same phenomenon, but chalks it up to cultural evolution -- memes, not genes.(22)

What Haidt adds to the debate is the recognition that it is not just our behavior that inclines us to service to the group; it is our experience as well. It can be quite agreeable to lose our sense of individuality in a feeling of unity with something larger than ourselves. He gives a number of examples: the sense of well-being felt by soldiers when drilling in close order; the ecstasy of collective dancing; awe in nature; the effect of certain hallucinogenic drugs; and more.(23)

He does not mention the rhythmic movements and breath practices of the Sufis, the chanting and hand-clapping of Hindu bhajan and kirtan (devotional singing and dancing), nor the similar enthusiasm of certain evangelical Christians, but they certainly qualify as well. From the point of view of the phenomenology of lived experience, it seems that we thrive on ecstasy.

Haidt calls this experience being in a sort of hive mind, “a mind-set of ‘one for all, all for one’” in which we are willing to work for the good of the group as a whole, not solely for our own advancement within it.(24) Just as evolution has caused sweets to taste good to us, it has caused the experience of being in harmony with others, of moving in unison and sensing that we are part of a larger whole, to be profoundly satisfying.

And religion is one of the ways we do that. This version of the story of the rise of religion starts in the same place as that of the New Atheists: our hyperactive agency detection device gave rise to belief in disembodied ancestors, spirits, gods, and the like. But far from being memetic parasites, such beliefs served a positive benefit: the cohesion of the group. The gods condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, and the gods can see what you are doing.

It is a fact verified by experiment that people act more ethically when they think somebody is looking and less ethically when they think nobody can see them. “Creating gods who can see everything, and who hate cheaters and oath-breakers, turns out to be a very good way to reduce cheating and oath breaking.”(25) And if those gods are said to punish the group for its members’ infractions, then people in the group will be more vigilant towards and gossipy about each other’s behavior. “Angry gods make shame more effective as a means of social control.”(26)

The upshot is this:
[T]he very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.(27) ... Gods and religions ... are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.(28)
And there is evidence that religious people are more kind, generous, and charitable than non-religious people. This is true regardless of the specifics of the theology. What really matters is how enmeshed people are in relationships with their fellow religionists. It is religious belonging that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.(29)

The New Atheists have it wrong; certainly many religious beliefs are irrational, but that is not the point. The point is that religious belonging, regardless of belief, triggers altruism, although it is often a parochial altruism, aimed at members of the in-group.(30)

Does this mean that religion is a good thing, and we should embrace it? Well, no, not necessarily. We need to be choosy. Evolution has equipped us with a desire for and a response to being subsumed in something greater than our individual selves. But that instinct can be triggered by all sorts of things: football games, social clubs, political movements, religious congregations, and more.

The yearning to be absorbed in the hive can be exploited by a fascist rally as well as evoked by a mystical dance. Devotion to the in-group can be seen in a mafia gang as well as a Quaker meeting. Given that we have an innate predilection to lose ourselves in something greater, it is up to us to decide where to place our allegiance.

There is no question that hideous things have been done in the name of religion: the slaughter of infidels; the abuse of children and women; lies, deceit, and hypocrisy; arrogant exercise of domineering power. And there is no question that many beautiful and noble things have been done in the name of religion: feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; housing the homeless; comforting the afflicted; standing up for the oppressed against the abuses of the dominators. If you feel drawn to religion, you get to choose which it will be.

As Bob Dylan says, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.(31) Will it be the monolith of a fascist state or the community of the faithful? Will it be the rigidity of a top-down institution or the living flexibility of a decentralized organism?

Best of all would be the fellowship of those committed to working for the good in all things.

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin's '60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]

(1) Buddhism and Taoism, arguably non-theistic religions, nevertheless stress the importance of something nonphysical that influences human affairs, which can be understood as an attenuated form of more-than-human agency.
(2) King, Evolving God, p. 13.
(3) Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 72-73.
(4) Wikipedia, “Group selection,"
(5) Wikipedia, “Meme.”
(6) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, pp. 108-112.
(7) Wikipedia, “Evolutionary psychology of religion.”
(8) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, pp. 112-113.
(9) Ibid., pp. 125-131.
(10) Ibid., pp. 132-135.
(11) Ibid., pp. 167-173.
(12) Wright, The Evolution of God, p. 464.
(13) Ibid., p. 468.
(14) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, chapters six through eight, pp. 153-246.
(15) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 190-191.
(16) Ibid., pp. 191-192.
(17) Ibid., p. 217.
(18) Ibid., p. 195.
(19) Ibid., p. 214.
(20) Ibid., p. 220.
(21) Pinker, “The False Allure Of Group Selection.”
(22) Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 184.
(23) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 221-233.
(24) Ibid., p. 223.
(25) Ibid., p. 256.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid., p. 257.
(28) Ibid., p. 264.
(29) Ibid., p. 267.
(30) Ibid., p. 265.
(31) Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Dylan, Bob. “Gotta Serve Somebody” on Slow Train Coming. New York: Columbia Records, 1979. Lyrics available at http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/gotta-serve-somebody as of 5 October 2012.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
King, Barbara J. Evolving God: A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
Pinker, Steven. “The False Allure Of Group Selection.” Online publication, URL = http://edge.org/conversation/the-false-allure-of-group-selection as of 19 September 2012.
Wade, Nicholas. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006.
Wikipedia. “Evolutionary psychology of religion.” Online publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology_of_religion as of 21 October 2012.
Wikipedia. “Group selection.” Online publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_selection as of 6 December 2009.
Wikipedia. “Meme.” Online publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme as of 21 October 2012.
Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. The appendix, “How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion,” is also available as an online publication, URL = http://www.evolutionofgod.net/excerpts_appendix/ as of 20 August 2009.

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Lamar W. Hankins : Paul Ryan Makes War Against People, Not Poverty

President Lyndon Johnson marked the start of the War on Poverty with a visit to Tom Fletcher's front porch in Martin County, Kentucky, in April 1964. Photo by Walter Bennett / Time magazine. Image from Daily Yonder.

Paul Ryan’s war:
Not against poverty, but against people
In 1964, long before Paul Ryan was ever swaddled in a diaper, President Lyndon Johnson declared that because America is a great nation, it should not have nearly one quarter of its people living in poverty.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / October 30, 2012

In a hackneyed play on words, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s extremist vice-presidential running mate, declared, “In this war on poverty, poverty is winning.” His claim created an enticing sound bite for the evening news, but it is factually incorrect.

Ryan’s argument:
With a few exceptions, government’s approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs. The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends. The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this top-down approach created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.
Correspondent John Nichols of The Nation took a look at the census data and found a different reality:
In 1959, 22.1 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line. In 1969, 13.7 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line. The poverty level has varied since 1969. It has gone as high as 15 percent. But it has never again gotten anywhere near where it was in 1959.”
In 1964, long before Paul Ryan was ever swaddled in a diaper, President Lyndon Johnson declared that because America is a great nation, it should not have nearly one quarter of its people living in poverty. I was a junior in college then. Lyndon Johnson’s vision of an America in which all people had adequate food, clothing, shelter, and work moved me to drop out of college for a year to join Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). I was assigned to a migrant labor project developed by a local nonprofit organization in South Florida.

While we helped many migrant farm workers in a modest way, what we did was a drop in the ocean of America’s poverty. But programs and agencies like Medicare, Food Stamps, Job Corps, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and Head Start made a vast difference in the lives of the elderly poor, impoverished families, poor youth in need of job skills, and the young children of America’s poor families.

After graduating from college, I spent seven years working for a local nonprofit agency in Texas that operated Head Start centers, job training programs, summer programs for poor teens, family planning and women’s health programs, and a host of projects developed by VISTA volunteers working for our local nonprofit agency -- housing programs, a credit union, employment services, tutorial programs, recreation programs, buying clubs, food distribution, and more. What was done was limited only by the imagination of the participants and those who wanted to help them, and available funds.

What I experienced in those years was far more than what Paul Ryan blithely describes as “centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs.” After getting a law degree, I spent over three years working for a local nonprofit legal services program operating in six counties in the Bryan-College Station area. It, too, was created by Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty initiative to provide a modicum of civil justice to poor families.

From my personal experience, I know that what Paul Ryan said is an outright lie. He might not have intentionally lied, but he did intentionally parrot the Republican, right-wing position against making America a better, more prosperous country by correcting many of the deficiencies, injustices, and inequities in our economic, social, and legal systems.

Ryan’s opponent in his other political race (he is running also to keep his seat in Congress), Rob Zerban, had this to say about Ryan’s views on anti-poverty programs:
If poverty’s winning the war, it’s because of policies Paul Ryan supports. By doubling down on his radical plot to gut Medicaid, privatize Social Security, and decimate food assistance programs, Paul Ryan is betting against working families -- all to hand out new tax breaks for millionaires and Big Oil.
As John Nichols points out,
Paul Ryan has taken a side in the war on poverty. He’s against what works. Ryan has a right to take the positions that he does. But no one should confuse those positions with a sincere commitment to fighting, let alone ending, poverty.
And that about sums up Paul Ryan as a politician and a human being.

Like Ryan and so many cut from his mold, I can tell anecdotes from personal experience about people unmotivated to take advantage of available opportunities, but I can tell far more about people who eagerly made the most of opportunities that were available -- about children who received health and dental care as they learned what they needed to prepare for public school; about their parents, who learned how to help their children be more successful in life than they ever imagined was possible; about people with few marketable skills who acquired job skills that lasted a lifetime.

Stories about high school dropouts who obtained their GEDs and went on to colleges or jobs that enriched their lives, not just with money, but with hope made possible by opportunity; about families with renewed pride because they helped to build their own homes; about women whose lives were saved by having access to preventive health care for the first time in their lives; about elderly people who, because of Medicare and Medicaid, avoided the misery their parents experienced in old age.

In the spring of 1969, the local nonprofit agency I worked for received a crudely-written letter addressed only to “Headstart, Washington, D.C.” It had been received at the national offices of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the agency responsible for the Head Start program at that time. The Washington office sent it to the regional OEO office in Dallas, which forwarded it to my agency. It had been sent by a man who lived with his family of four children and his wife in rural Williamson County, Texas, where we provided services.

The man had heard a public service announcement on the radio promoting Head Start, the pre-school OEO program. His letter stated simply that “he needed a headstart.” While he had not correctly understood the announcement, he had heard that there might be an opportunity for him and his family to get some relief from their misery, and he desperately wanted that opportunity. The director of my agency, Rawleigh Elliott, a former mayor of Georgetown and businessman, asked me to find the family and offer help.

After a bit of searching, a friend and I found the family’s house -- a shack with a wood-fired stove, no insulation, and no paint on its weather-worn clapboards. We talked with the family, assessed their needs, and started finding them the help they needed to get their own “headstart.” Such families exist all over this country, even as many politicians dismiss their plight and even their existence.

One such politician is Paul Ryan, who has a deformed and myopic view of life. Ryan has never believed the words of his party’s progenitor Abraham Lincoln, that our government is of, by, and for the people. Many things are wrong in this country, but none of them involve actions by “we, the people” to make everyone’s lives less degrading, less impoverished, and less unjust, with more decency and opportunity for all.

It will be a sad day for America if someone like Ryan is put in charge of our government.

[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.]

The Rag Blog

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25 October 2012

Jay D. Jurie : 'Weimar Moment' or Chicken Little?

"Pillars of Society." Painting by militantly anti-Nazi German Dadaist George Grosz, 1926, during the Weimar Republic. Image from Alpha History.

It can't happen here:
A 'Weimar moment' or Chicken Little?
Whether or not the U.S. is at a 'Weimar moment,' those who are concerned about such a possibility should not be accused of needlessly worrying that "the sky is falling."
By Jay D. Jurie / The Rag Blog / October 25, 2012
"When and if fascism comes to America...it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, 'Americanism.'" -- Prof. Halford E. Luccock, Yale University Divinity School, quoted in The New York Times, September 12, 1938.

"...fascism will come to America in the name of national security." --Jim Garrison, Playboy magazine interview, October 1967
Is fascism imminent in the United States? This is a not a new question, it has been debated for decades. For more than 100 years it's been argued that a serious crisis threatening the political and economic order may well lead to a right-wing takeover.

When such a crisis reaches a prospective tipping point, the question becomes: will society pull back at the last minute, or will it take the plunge into authoritarianism? This potential tipping point is sometimes referred to as a "Weimar" moment, after the German republic that led up to Hitler and the Nazis.

Even before the term fascism was coined, an authoritarian takeover in the U.S. was the inspiration for Jack London's 1908 novel The Iron Heel. When fascism did come about in Europe, the fictional theme was picked up by Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 It Can't Happen Here, and in 1962 it even found its way into science fiction, with Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Perhaps sensing a rekindled interest in this subject, in 2004 Phillip Roth wrote of a fascist electoral victory in his The Plot Against America.

Whether or not fascism or authoritarianism is at hand has also been of interest to social researchers, historians, and other non-fiction writers, as in Herbert Marcuse's 1972 Counterrevolution in Revolt, Bertram Gross's 1980 landmark Friendly Fascism, and Sheldon S. Wolin's 2008 Democracy Inc.

Reportedly, a plot was hatched in 1934 against the "New Deal" government of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Quoted in a 2005 Daily Kos article, U.S. Ambassador to Germany William Dodd wrote that
a clique of U.S. industrialists is hell-bent to bring a fascist state to supplant our democratic government...a prominent executive of one of the largest corporations told me point blank that he would be ready to take definite action to bring fascism into America if President Roosevelt continued his progressive policies. Certain American industrialists had a great deal to do with bringing fascist regimes into being in both Germany and Italy.
How and when such a takeover might occur is often framed with a comparison of the current U.S. experience with the Republic of 1919-1933, named Weimar after the town where it was formed. In one final desperate bid for a World War I victory, Germany's naval high command decided in October 1918 to attack the blockading British fleet. Influenced by the Soviet revolution the preceding year, having already had enough of the war, and viewing the proposed attack as suicidal, the sailors of the German fleet anchored at Kiel revolted.

On November 7, a popular revolt against the war and in favor of a popular government to replace the monarchy of Wilhelm II broke out in Munich. These revolts, combined with a destitute economy and exhausted population, left Germany with little choice but to sue for peace. An armistice, the Versailles Treaty, was imposed that was very favorable toward the victorious Allies and was widely viewed as a humiliation within Germany. Although both revolts were crushed, on November 9 the monarchy of William II was brought down.

From the beginning Weimar was unpopular. According to historian Louis Snyder, its initial leaders were held responsible for ending the war on unfavorable terms, while the monarchy and military escaped blame for the disaster that had befallen the country. A split within the ruling Social Democratic Party soon ensued, with the minority Spartacist faction under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg forming the Communist Party of Germany. In factional fighting that broke out on January 11, 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by right-wing troops with whom the majority had sided.

An uneasy coalition of Social Democrats with those to their right prevailed for the next 14 years. During this period, of all the industrialized nations, the German economy was hit the hardest by the Great Depression. By November 1923, the German mark had sunk to its lowest value; stories abound of how money was used as wallpaper, to fire up stoves, and so on. That same month, the Nazis staged their infamous Beer Hall Putsch.

1925 proved to be a critical election year. Rather than rallying around Wilhelm Marx, the centrist candidate, the left was split, with Communists running their own candidate, Ernst Thalmann. As a result, Paul von Hindenburg, the candidate of the nationalists, monarchists, religious traditionalists, and conservatives, was elected president. Under the aging and relatively ineffective Hindenburg, the Republic limped along until its last election in 1932.

Between 1925 and 1932 the Nazis grew tremendously. They not only blamed external forces for Germany's predicament, but internal enemies such as the Social Democrats and the Communists, as well as scapegoats such as the Jews. By the 1932 elections, the Nazis were Germany's single largest party. Hindenburg had once been viewed as a rightist candidate, but now his candidacy was supported by those seeking to block the Nazis. According to William Allen, the Social Democrats actively campaigned for Hindenburg as the "lesser evil."

The Communists again ran Thalmann as their candidate. Louis Snyder relates that the Social Democrats "hated the Communists even more than they hated the Nazis." Hindenburg won a narrow plurality in 1932. On January 30, 1933, he appointed Hitler as chancellor, effectively ending the Weimar Republic.

In the United States, there have been two other periods since World War II where the far right has made significant gains. The first was during McCarthyism in the 1950s and 1960s. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy manipulated anti-Soviet Cold War fears to create a climate of repression. This receded when it became apparent his self-serving motives had gone too far and public attention shifted to the "New Frontier" of President John F. Kennedy, the emerging civil rights movement, and the onset of the Vietnam War.

The second period, which might be termed a long-term sweep, began in the late 1960s under President Nixon as a so-called "silent majority" backlash against the civil rights and anti-war movements, women's liberation, and anti-establishment politics generally. While there was no underlying economic crisis, elite groups and their right-wing allies were fearful that the gains of these movements threatened the overall system.

Herbert Marcuse labeled this reaction a counterrevolution:
The counterrevolution is largely preventive and, in the Western world, entirely preventive. Here, there is no recent revolution to be undone, and there is none in the offing. And yet, fear of revolution which creates the common interest links the various stages and forms of the counterrevolution.
Initiatives to roll back gains achieved by the left picked up speed in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s with the formation of the political New Right and the religious "Moral Majority." Through direct mail techniques, organizing for local elections, and with a base in religious fundamentalism, the "counterrevolution" built strength and enjoyed some successes. All of this groundwork played a key role in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who in turn substantially contributed to the expansion of the right-wing agenda.

There have been brief interludes that have slowed the advance of the counterrevolution, including the elections of Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Here, a comparison with the Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic may be apt. Like the Social Democrats, while safeguarding some progressive gains, the Democrats also generally represent the interests of the prevailing economic elite. Like the Social Democrats, they are hostile toward those to their left.

These trends were all exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and more explicitly, by the onset of the economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Largely funded by elite business interests and organized by their operatives, the Tea Party undertook vociferous opposition to Obama, the Democrats, and the left. Through an orchestrated effort, right-wing thugs disrupted town hall forums on health care.

Tea Party members began showing up at political events wearing guns, or carrying signs denouncing President Obama as a socialist or communist, or employing racist caricatures of him. Threats of violence were made against other Democrats, and violent acts were carried out, including the 2009 assassination of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. As the Nazis had scapegoated those who were relatively powerless, most particularly the Jews, far-right elements in the U.S. began to scapegoat Muslims, immigrants, and women seeking to exercise their rights, among others.

President Obama has shown no interest in protecting the Bill of Rights or repealing legislation put in place since 2001. Indeed, violations of civil liberties and human rights have increased under his watch. Police attacks against Occupy demonstrators showed evidence of national coordination and an intolerance of dissent. Regulations against demonstrations on federal property have been tightened.

While obvious comparisons can be made between the Weimar experience and what is taking place in the U.S. today, no two historical circumstances are exactly the same. Theses that speak of an encroaching authoritarianism can readily find supporting evidence. It can also be said that, like the Weimar Republic, the Democratic Party is in a role somewhat analogous to that of the Social Democrats.

As Marcuse pointed out, there is evidence of a long-term trend to firmly establish a permanent counterrevolution. Virtually every Republican presidency since that of Nixon has promoted this tendency, and every Democratic presidency has moderately slowed its advance while willingly or grudgingly giving ground.

Whether or not the U.S. is at a "Weimar moment," those who are concerned about such a possibility should not be accused of needlessly worrying that "the sky is falling." It should be regarded as prudent to act as if such a "moment" may be a distinct possibility, and to do all that is possible to stop it from happening. If there is one lesson to be taken from the Weimar Republic, it is to act effectively before it is too late.

[Jay D. Jurie graduated from the University of Colorado and Arizona State University. He researches and writes in the areas of public policy, public administration, and urban and regional planning, and lives in Sanford, Florida. Read articles by Jay D. Jurie on The Rag Blog.]

References and sources for further reading:

Allen, William S. 1965. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930-1935. Chicago: Quadrangle.
D., Steven. February 27, 2005, "The Real Plot to Overthrow FDR's America," Daily Kos: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/02/27/95580/-The-Real-Plot-to-Overthrow-FDR-s-America
Evans, Richard J., 2005, The Coming of the Third Reich. NY: Penguin. Freeman, Robert, March 15, 2009, "The U.S. is Facing a Weimar Moment," Common Dreams: https://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/03/15
Gross, Bertram, 1980, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America. NY: M. Evans.
Hedges, Chris, June 7, 2010, "The Christian Fascists are Growing Stronger," Truthdig: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_christian_fascists_are_growing_stronger_20100607//
Henwood, Doug, November 5, 2012, "Why Should the Left Support Obama?" in The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/170650/why-should-left-support-obama#
Marcuse, Herbert, 1971, "The Movement in a New Era of Repression: An Assessment," Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 16, pp. 1-14.
Marcuse, Herbert, 1972, Counterrevolution and Revolt. Boston: Beacon.
Snyder, Louis L., 1966, The Weimar Republic. NY: Van Nostrand.
Whitehead, John M., "Occupy Wall Street and 'Friendly Fascism': Life in the Corporate Police State," The Huffington Post:  
Wolin, S.S., 2008, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

The Rag Blog

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RAG RADIO / Thorne Webb Dreyer : 'Texas Jewboy' Kinky Friedman Mulls Second Run for Governor's Mansion

Kinky Friedman in the studios of KOOP-FM in Austin, Texas, Friday, October 19, 2012. Photo by William Michael Hanks / The Rag Blog.

Rag Radio podcast:
The Kinkster talks music and politics
and second run for Texas governor

By Thorne Webb Dreyer / The Rag Blog / October 25, 2012

Noted Texas Singer-songwriter, mystery writer, and social satirist Kinky Friedman of “Texas Jewboys” fame -- and a former independent candidate for governor of Texas -- said on Rag Radio, Friday, October 19, that he’s seriously considering a second run for governor in 2014, this time as a Democrat.

On the show, Kinky speculated about his political future; discussed his musical past and current “BiPolar World Tour”; related his experiences with musicians like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan; and talked about his latest books, Heroes of a Texas Childhood, and Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, written with Nelson, and his views on such topics as “political correctness” -- a tenet that he has happily violated in the past.

Kinky also performed three songs live during the show.

Rag Radio is a syndicated radio show produced in the studios of KOOP-FM, a cooperatively-run, all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas. You can listen to the podcast of Thorne Dreyer's interview with Kinky Friedman here.

Rag Radio features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history. It is broadcast live on KOOP Fridays at 2 p.m. (CDT) and streamed live on the Internet, and is rebroadcast on WFTE-FM in Mt. Cobb and Scranton, PA., on Sunday mornings at 10 (EDT).

Kinky Friedman, who ran for Texas governor as an independent in 2004, received some 600,000 votes, about 13 percent of the total cast, and raised more money than Democratic candidate Chris Bell. Kinky -- whose campaign slogan in 2004 was “Why the Hell not?” -- said if he runs next time, it will be as an “old-fashioned Harry Truman Democrat... a real happy-warrior blue-dog Democrat.”

Counting such Texas Democratic legends as Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, and Ann Richards as his political models, Kinky said he thinks he could not only win the Democratic primary, but also gain substantial support among independents and even Libertarians and Tea Party-types in the general election.

Concerning the often sardonic approach of his last run, Friedman said, “I’ve evolved.” During his 2004 campaign, “People asked, ‘Do we want a comedian in the Governor’s mansion? Do we want a clown?’ Now they realize we’ve had one for nearly 12 years,” he said with a wry smile, referring to multiple-term Texas Governor (and failed presidential candidate) Rick Perry.

Kinky was roundly criticized by progressives after he wrote an article about Rick Perry for The Daily Beast on August 24, 2011 -- which the Beast headlined “Kinky for Perry.” In the feature, Friedman answered his own hypothetical question -- “Would I support Rick Perry for president?” -- with a resounding “Hell, yes!”

On Rag Radio, Kinky said he never intended to actually endorse Perry, whom he characterized as his “political nemesis,” and meant the article to be humorous. “I’m not in the business of endorsing people,” he told us. “I’m a musician, which is a much higher calling than a politician.”

“Perry’s not a bad guy,” he said, and he’s “given us the best business climate in the country,” though he added that that probably would have happened even "if a blue-buttocked baboon were governor.” He criticized Perry for cutting funding for education, an issue which he said “isn’t even on Perry’s radar.”

"I don’t think that Perry and [Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst have done anything in 12 years for the people, except they’ve both gotten rich," Kinky said.

Kinky Friedman sings "Autograph," dedicated to the late Levon Helm, on Rag Radio, Friday, October 19, 2012. Filmed by William Michael Hanks, The Rag Blog.

Kinky Friedman is a country-rooted singer-songwriter, a novelist whose witty detective stories gained him a wide audience and critical notice, and an edgy humorist and social satirist. He first gained fame with his band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, whose 1973 Vanguard album, Sold American -- which featured songs like "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and his feminist lampoon, "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed" -- was a masterwork of social commentary and raucous humor.

In the mid-1970s Kinky toured with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review. In the ‘80s he was a mainstay at New York's legendary Lone Star Café, where his shows featured guests like Robin Williams and John Belushi. He was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live in its first season and claims to have been the first “full-blooded Jew” to appear at the Grand Ole Opry.

Kinky Friedman’s droll and highly engaging detective novels feature a fictionalized version of himself solving crimes in New York City. He has also written books about everything from social mores to armadillos, and was a columnist for Texas Monthly magazine.

A 2007 compilation album called Why the Hell Not... featured artists like Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, and Asleep at the Wheel covering Friedman's songs.

Kinky's latest CD, Live from Woodstock, was recorded on the "first American leg" of his "BiPolar World Tour.” In March 2013 the tour will take him to Europe and Australia, where he will do “35 shows in 36 days, each one in a different city.”

Kinky was in Austin October 19 to perform live with rising country star Jesse Dayton at the Cactus Café, in a feisty (and often raunchy) showcase gig filmed for later broadcast by ESPN’s Texas Network. Dayton -- known for his work with Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash (and horror filmmaker Rob Zombie) -- recently recorded an album of Friedman's songs titled Jesse Does Kinky. Dayton also starred as Friedman in road productions of Becoming Kinky, by noted playwright Ted Swindley.

Kinky also told the Rag Radio audience that a Russian filmmaker is currently making a movie of his detective book, Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned. “It’s about three Merry Prankster types who are trying to bring down a Starbucks in New York City. It’s a counterculture type of book. They’re doing it with a very European sensibility,” he said.

Kinky Friedman lives in Kerrville, Texas, at the Echo Hill Ranch, a summer camp for kids run by his family since 1952. He also runs the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch at the same location. “We take in stray and abused animals,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for 14 years now, and we’ve adopted thousands of animals.”

And that experience has taught Kinky an important life lesson: “Money can buy you a fine dog, but only love can make him wag his tale.”

Rag Radio, which has aired since September 2009, is produced in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

The host and producer of Rag Radio is Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

All Rag Radio shows are posted as podcasts and can be found at the Internet Archive.

Rag Radio can be contacted at ragradio@koop.org.

Coming up on Rag Radio:
THIS FRIDAY, October 26, 2012: Historian Martin Duberman, author of Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.
November 2, 2012: Jan Reid, author of Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards.

The Rag Blog

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24 October 2012

BOOKS / Mike Davis : The Reds Under Romney's Bed

The reds under Romney's bed
The image of the Red Cavalry going into battle with the Book of Mormon in their saddlebags is quite a stretch; most of us, on the contrary, would probably vote for Mormon 'socialism' as the ultimate oxymoron.
By Mike Davis / The Rag Blog / October 24, 2012

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, by John G. Turner (2012: Belknap Press, Harvard Univ); Hardcover; 512 pp; $35.
History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic, and Decidedly Revolutionary, by John S. McCormick and John R. Sillito (2011: Utah State University Press); Hardcover; 456 pp; $39.95.

In 1884 the journalist Edward Bellamy, struggling with an idea for a utopian novel, visited the only actually-existing communist society on earth: Utah. More precisely he spent a week in Brigham City, seat of Box Elder County, where Apostle Lorenzo Snow, who would later become the fifth LDS president (and the last to have personally known Joseph Smith), showed him the workings of a dynamic community based on pooled wealth, producer and consumer cooperatives, and the use of labor scrip instead of money.

Bellamy, like many previous Gentile visitors, was greatly impressed by the Mormon gift for disciplined cooperation. A decade earlier the celebrated explorer-scientist, John Wesley Powell, had championed the Mormon principle of communal water-management in his landmark but controversial Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. But Bellamy -- like Lincoln Steffens returning from Russia in 1921 -- was even more enthusiastic: he had seen the future and it worked.

Looking Backward (1888), Bellamy’s portrait of a prosperous but authoritarian socialist America in the year 2000, became a bestseller and seeded the "Nationalist" club movement that was an immediate precursor of the Socialist Party of America. (The iconic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles was built by a wealthy Bellamy supporter as an anticipation of the architecture of that socialist future.)

The similarities between Bellamy’s collective commonwealth and the Mormon ideal of "consecrated" community, as well his "Industrial Army" and the semi-military organization of Young’s Deseret, have ignited controversy for more than a century. Indeed one rabidly anti-Mormon website currently makes the claim that as Brigham City influenced Looking Backward, so did Bellamy’s novel influence Bolshevism, thus implicating the Romneys through their church in "the horrors of communism."

But the image of the Red Cavalry going into battle with the Book of Mormon in their saddlebags is quite a stretch; most of us, on the contrary, would probably vote for Mormon "socialism" as the ultimate oxymoron. But millenarian ideologies -- whether the Sermon on the Mound, the revelations of Joseph Smith, or the ideas of Karl Marx -- have an unfortunate tendency to be coopted by advocates of antithetical values.

John G. Turner’s new biography of Brigham Young -- a scholarly and judicious book that is unlikely to be burned in Temple Square -- portrays a social experiment, the most ambitious in American history, that until Young’s death in 1877 explicitly rejected the core values of Victorian capitalism: possessive individualism and Darwinian competition.

He emphasizes, for instance, that while “the nexus of American evangelicalism was individual salvation, Young’s theology, like that of Joseph Smith, centered around extended families.” “For Brigham Young, like Joseph Smith, the chief end of humankind was eternal fellowship and familial glory. ‘[If] men are not saved together, they cannot be saved at all.’” And Smith famously vowed that he would rather go to hell with the Saints than to heaven without them. [161]

Moreover classical Mormonism, like Pentecostalism in the twentieth century, was a religion of the poor and the ruined: hard-scrabble farmers, rural laborers, artisans and downwardly mobile craftsmen, failed small businessmen, and, most strikingly, an army of refugees from England’s Satanic mills that Young and others led to America.

Dickensian England was the major target of early Mormon proselytism. Young arrived in Manchester, capital of the Industrial Revolution, in 1840 in time to witness the formation of the National Charter Association, the first working-class political party, amidst epic social turmoil.

Like Friedrich Engels two years later, Young was appalled by the living and working conditions of the factory working class as well as the servility of the poor. Lancashire, Turner tells us, was already over-run with itinerant preachers and tiny sects broken from Methodism, but Young and his companions were more eloquent egalitarians, offering economic as well as spiritual solutions to proletarian misery.

"Mormon missionaries focused on evangelicalism rather than on politics or socioeconomic analysis, but with no ties to British elites or the established order they unflinchingly lamented the poverty of the labouring, classes, denounced the monarchy’s conspicuous consumption, and promised their converts land and employment in Illinois.” [70]

After the exodus to the Great Basin and the establishment of the briefly independent state of Deseret, Young tirelessly preached the impossibility of coexistence between the communitarian values of Zion and the greed-driven capitalism of Babylon (the United States). Indeed even before the Saints’ wagons had reached Salt Lake City he had repulsed mutineers who wanted to keep going to fat valleys and gold fields of California, straight into the open maw of Mammon.

The driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, however, flooded Utah with cheap Eastern goods as well as outlaws, mineral prospectors, and Gentile immigrants. A few years later the Crash of 1873 demonstrated that Utah was no long insulated from what Young denounced as “the oppression of monied monopolies.”

“The sooty misery of working-class England,” Turner explains,” had left Young with a lingering belief that capitalism could produce an existence worse than chattel slavery.” Convinced that the Kingdom of Saints was now threatened with moral and economic absorption into a society run by Robber Barons and stock jobbers, Young launched a Mormon Cultural Revolution: the United Order of Enoch.

Under the Order, “the Latter-Day Saints would consecrate their property and resources to common management, divide labor according to specialized ability, and eliminate disparities of wealth.” (399) Young, although old, fat, and in declining health, spent most of 1874 and 1875 passionately -- and sometimes threateningly -- shepherding his people into lives of deeper generosity and unity. The original template was Brigham City, but some of the poorer frontier Mormons “attempted to fully live out Young’s communitarian vision." (399)

The most complete embodiment was Orderville, east of Zion National Park, where private property had been abolished, members ate in a common hall, and there was no trade with the Gentile world. Turner quotes Wallace Stegner’s estimation of Orderville as a "communism of goods, labor, religion, and recreation such as the world has seen only in a few places and for very short times." [400]

Although Orderville, Brigham City, and a handful of other Mormon kibbutzes survived through 1880s, the United Order encountered intractable resistance from an emerging upper class of Saints, some of them in lucrative business partnerships with Gentiles. A mining boom, meanwhile, diverted the loyalties of many working-class Mormons. Despite Young’s ceaseless campaigning, public enthusiasm for the United Order died within a few years.

This was the major political and spiritual defeat of Young’s reign. At the dedication of a new temple in St. George, the same southern Utah town where he had launched the United Order only three years earlier, the LDS President gave a fierce speech against the corruption of the Morman soul by capitalism, railroads, and mines. He warned his People that they would “go to Hell” unless they repented materialism and greed. For emphasis he pounded the pulpit with his gnarled hickory cane. Six months later, in August 1877, he died.

MacCormick and Sillito’s fascinating history of the Utah Socialist Party in the early twentieth century (it won 115 state and local elections ) includes a detailed account of the Church’s eventual embrace, after Young’s death, of the capitalist civilization and rule of money that he and Smith had so abhorred. This great U-turn was partly driven by heightened inequality, even class conflict within late-Victorian Mormon society. It was also compelled by the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 which confiscated the Church’s assets, as well as disenfranchising women in the territory (they had won the vote in 1870) and disinheriting the children of plural marriages.

Washington’s message to the LDS was simple and implacable: abandon polygamy and open the doors to eastern capital or face destruction. Brigham Young doubtlessly would have defied the Republicans in Congress, taking his people into the mountains or moving to Mexico, but his successors capitulated: abolishing plural marriage in 1890 and sending church leader Heber J. Grant to Wall Street to establish a credit line for the Church. After statehood, moreover, they moved the LDS hierarchy into the ranks of its former archenemy, the Republican Party.

“Thereafter,” write MacCormick and Sillito, “Church leaders would not only feel increasingly at ease with the ways of American capitalists, but they would be beholden -- at least in the short run -- for their services. Within another decade these influences would go so far that muckraking journalists would begin to cast the Church in the role of a Wall Street plutocrat.” [383]

After three generations of persecution, migration, and backbreaking labor to achieve an egalitarian Zion, the conservative reformation in Salt Lake City was deeply disorienting to many Mormons. As original research for Utah Radicalism has established, at least 40 percent of the Socialist Party membership in Utah before 1920 were Mormons, most of them devout.

Many were the children of the United Order, like Lillie Engle who grew up in Orderville and became a Socialist candidate in Emery County in 1912. (In a poignant reminiscence, she equated the “sorrows that only the domestic servant, the widow, the ‘Mormon,’ the unpopular socialist, and the poor oppressed workers of the world know.”)

Despite increasing attacks by the Church on "satanic" socialism, a number of well-known Socialists were able to play prominent roles in both of their faiths, like Bishop Alexander Matheson in Cedar City or Gottlieb Berger, a Socialist who served on the Murray City commission from 1911 to 1932 while president of his ward’s High Priest Quorum. But the most potent individual link between repressed Mormon communism and Debsian socialism was Virginia Snow Stephen, the daughter of Lorenzo Snow of Brigham City fame, who campaigned to save the life of Joe Hill in 1915.

Gentiles, especially evangelical Christians, have obsessed for 175 years about the occult internal doctrines and practices of the Mormons. But secret handshakes and passwords can be found in any Moose Lodge, weird underwear is widely en vogue, and washings, annoitings, and sealings are just so much boilerplate religious mumbo jumbo. The real scandal of the modern Church is that its so-called Prophets refuse to hear Brigham Young, hammering on the ceiling of his tomb with his hickory cane and demanding the overthrow of Babylon.

A version of this article will be published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

[Mike Davis is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. An urban theorist, historian, and social activist, Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire. Read more articles by Mike Davis on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Jonah Raskin : 'Uncle Tom' Vs. Simon Legree, 2012

Uncle Tom and Simon Legree. Image from Uncle Tom's Cabin Reconsidered.

Election 2012:
'Uncle Tom' Obama 
Vs. 'Simon Legree' Romney
Ironically, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, modern-day Americans are once again in need of emancipation and without an emancipator anywhere in sight.
By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / October 24, 2012

From the wilds of northern California, which is solidly Democratic, it looks and sounds to me, a registered Democrat, that the main issues of the 2012 presidential election are gas, guns, and what might be called gender.

Drivers here don’t like the fact that they’re paying higher prices for gas than ever before at the pump. They don’t like the fact that the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was gunned down, or that U.S. guns ended up in the hands of Mexican drug lords in a botched operation known as “Fast and Furious.”

The price of gas close to home, the death of an ambassador far away, and guns spilling over the border with Mexico have all added to the sense of unease and anxiety that voters feel. On gender issues such as abortion and a woman’s right to choose, northern Californians are also anxious because they feel that a Romney victory would give conservatives the upper hand and leave women at the mercy of religious Catholics like Paul Ryan and religious Mormons like the Republican party candidate for president.

Not surprisingly they’re talking about fleeing to Canada.

The televised encounters between Obama and Romney have also multiplied anxieties. In the first debate, Obama's body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions suggested a candidate who had lost a sense of direction and urgency.

In the town hall meeting with questions from the audience he was agile on his feet and in his head, and in the last debate when it came to foreign policy he had more facts and a more comprehensive view than Romney. He sounded like the black emperor of the American Empire.

For Democratic voters here in Northern California, however, the President has seemed all too often ineffectual, burned-out, and like a man running scared. Sometimes he has seemed just plain silly as when he talked about "Big Bird" and funding for public TV as though he could simply ridicule Romney out of the race.

Voters here see Romney as energized, aggressive, and self-confident -- a man who plays on basic fears and whips them up, too. Northern Californians view Romney as an actor playing the part of a grandfatherly, paternalistic plantation owner and slick salesman who claims to know what’s best for the citizens who are slaves to their cars, to gas, to guns, and more.

They see the president himself as all too meek in the presence of the white plantation owner and when confronted with Wall Street plutocrats. Granted, he talks about the middle class, but he never talks about blue collar workers, pink collar workers, or about African Americans. Our African-American president seems to have forgotten about his own African-American roots, though I will still vote for him. I will cast my ballot for Obama and criticize him, too.

I know that the term “Uncle Tom,” which comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin has rarely been used fairly when applied to African Americans who have survived injustice, discrimination, and more for centuries. And with a sense of real dignity, too.

Still, Obama seems more than a little like an Uncle Tom: an African American who is meek and deferential when it comes to rich, powerful white men. Romney, with his size and shape, skin-color and smile, seems more than a little like a confident contemporary incarnation of Simon Legree, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s representation of the evil, insidious slave owner.

Stowe’s best-selling novel has long been credited with starting the American Civil War. When Lincoln met the author in 1862 he apparently said, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” There is no book today that expresses anywhere near the equivalent of the moral force of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; there is no movie or manifesto that has woken the conscience of the country to the current crisis.

Ironically, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, modern-day Americans are once again in need of emancipation and without an emancipator anywhere in sight. Our Uncle Tom president might take a page from history and learn from Lincoln himself, before the country, which is already deeply divided, descends even further into cultural and political warfare which would benefit no one.

Meanwhile, women voters -- the moral descendants of Harriet Beecher Stowe -- will have the power on Election Day to decide, more than any other single group, the fate of the nation.

[Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University is an author and a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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Alan Waldman : NBC's Short-Lived 'Life' Is Smart, Quirky Cop Show

Waldman's film and TV
treasures you may have missed:
Short-lived NBC cop show Life is smart, quirky, and gripping. Damian Lewis is wonderful as the LAPD cop, falsely imprisoned for murder, who pursues the real killer and conspirators.
By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / October 24, 2012

[In his weekly column, Alan Waldman reviews some of his favorite films and TV series that readers may have missed, including TV dramas, mysteries, and comedies from Canada, England, Scotland, and Ireland. Most are available on DVD and/or Netflix.]

In May 2009, after 32 episodes, NBC cancelled the terrific policier Life, starring the hugely talented British thespian Damian Lewis. With a flawless American accent, he played an LAPD cop who returned to work after serving 12 years in prison for a triple murder he didn’t commit.

Over the course of the series, Lewis’s character Charlie Crews solves that crime and pursues the crooked cops who set him up. He and his female partner also crack interesting criminal cases each week.

Having lost his wife, his friends, his job and most contact with the outside world, Crews emerges as a follower of Zen with an amusing fixation on fresh fruit. Critics have compared Lewis’s character with the idiosyncratic protagonists of House and Monk.

Damian Lewis won this year’s best-actor Emmy for Homeland and was previously nominated for three other honors for Band of Brothers. He is delightful in this droll, offbeat role. The Life cast also includes Sarah Shahi, Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve), Adam Arkin (four award nominations for Chicago Hope) and Brent Sexton (The Killing).

Several good actors play villains -- especially Titus Welliver and Garret Dillahunt. A consistently amusing subplot involves the doings of Arkin’s character Ted Early, Crews’ housemate, financial advisor, and former prison pal. He develops a crush on Charlie’s father’s fiancée, played by Christina Hendricks (three-time Emmy nominee for her memorable role as the redhead sexpot on Mad Men).

The whole series has aired in Australia, Italy, and Lithuania and is available here on Netflix instant streaming.

[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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Lamar W. Hankins : Texas Cheerleaders for Jesus

Kountze High School cheerleaders with banner at football game. Image from Atheist Camel.

Cheerleaders for Jesus:
Texas politicians jump
on religion bandwagon
Can cheerleaders who represent the Kountze Independent School District, while acting in their official capacities as school cheerleaders, promote their personal religious views?
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / October 24, 2012

SAN MARCOS, Texas -- It seems that it is still popular to beat up on atheists and agnostics in Texas, in spite of gains in acceptance of both groups. At least, politicians have found that they can stir emotions and benefit politically from standing up for God and Jesus, whether or not God and Jesus want their help.

Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott recently jumped on the religion bandwagon yet again to denounce atheists and, by implication, their partners in non-belief -- agnostics, freethinkers, infidels, and secular humanists. Abbott directly attacked the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) as an organization from out of state.

While it is true that FFRF’s headquarters are in Wisconsin, FFRF has 700 members in Texas, including me. At its recent annual conference, there were members from 46 states in attendance. It is a national organization with affiliated groups in Texas and members from virtually every state.

The “outside agitator” description has been used forever to denounce anyone or any group that is not from the particular community where a controversy has arisen. In this case, the community involved is Kountze, Texas, located in Hardin County between Beaumont and Woodville, in the heart of what is known as the Big Thicket, an ecologically diverse and sensitive part of southeast Texas.

There is even a national park located there dedicated to preserving the unique natural environment of the area. Members of my family have lived in Hardin County for over 50 years, and I have done legal work there.

The current controversy in Kountze concerns a straight-forward constitutional question: Can cheerleaders who represent the Kountze Independent School District, while acting in their official capacities as school cheerleaders, promote their personal religious views?

Reasonable people might differ on their answer to this question (more about that later), but there is nothing reasonable about Perry and Abbott, both of whom have used religion to gain political advantage. On October 17, Perry and Abbott held a joint press conference to proclaim their undying support for Jesus and the Kountze cheerleaders’ right to press their religious beliefs on everyone attending football games while representing Kountze High School.

Gov. Rick Perry said, “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the State of Texas to come into the state, to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics, to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”

Attorney General Abbott chimed in with, “After receiving a menacing letter from an organization with a reputation for bullying school districts, the Kountze [school superintendent] improperly prohibited high school cheerleaders from including religious messages on their game day banners.”

FFRF does not bully anyone. What it does is routinely send letters to governments after receiving a complaint about practices that violate the separation of religion and state, practices which are prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. In response to such a letter from FFRF, the Kountze ISD sought legal advice and concluded that because the cheerleaders were representing the school when they placed bible verses and religious messages on a banner prepared for the football team to burst through at the beginning of each school-sponsored game, the practice should stop.

The cheerleaders, through their parents, then sued the school district in state district court, represented by the Liberty Institute, a fundamentalist legal organization in Plano, Texas, that seeks to inject religion into government at all levels. FFRF is not involved in that law suit, but the group makes a handy whipping boy for political gain by Perry and Abbott. FFRF explained the issue this way:
The Constitution and FFRF are not "preventing freedom of expression," we are defending freedom of conscience. The Constitution differentiates government (public school) speech from individual speech. Those cheerleaders are free to worship as they like, go to the church of their choice, but not to exploit a public school event, and their school-sponsored podium, to push their personal religious views on an entire stadium. That’s just plain bad manners.
Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, added,
Since the state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and its highest executive officer, Gov. Rick Perry, have openly expressed contempt for atheists and the Establishment Clause, this leads to a climate of intolerance. It takes courage to face down the full apparatus of state government, but we need those brave few to contact FFRF. Don’t let collusion, politicking, and religious fervor in Texas destroy respect for keeping public schools free of religious divisiveness.
Most people seem not to understand that the Constitution is not a self-enforcing document. Unless there is someone willing to ask a judge to determine whether a constitutional violation has occurred, the violation will continue unabated, sometimes for decades or centuries. We had segregated schools until the mid-50s, when several parents stepped forward to contest the separate and unequal public educations afforded their children.

Unless someone is willing to challenge government practices, most politicians are too unprincipled to stand up for the Constitution and end unconstitutional practices, especially when those practices are popular with a vocal group. When it comes to government support of religious practices, fundamentalist and evangelical citizens make their voices heard, and politicians usually acquiesce to their vehemence and emotion.

The closest case to the Kountze cheerleader situation involves having public prayer at football games sponsored by the school district -- a government entity established by the state. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the importance of preserving the secular nature of such high school functions in Santa Fe ISD v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).

Santa Fe ISD is a school district near Houston. The school had a policy of electing a Santa Fe High School student to serve as student council chaplain, who would deliver a Christian prayer over the public address system at the beginning of home football games. As explained by FFRF,
One Mormon and one Catholic family filed suit challenging this and related practices as violations of the Establishment Clause, because the policy clearly favored the predominant Protestant viewpoint to the effective exclusion of non-evangelical students and audience members.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion in Santa Fe ISD, which held that student-led, student-initiated prayer at school events violates the Establishment Clause. The school had claimed that the prayers were a student choice, and that attendance at an extracurricular event like a football game is voluntary. The Court found this rationalization unpersuasive because the prayers were authorized by the public school and took place on public school property at a school-sponsored event.

These salient facts lead a reasonable person to conclude that the school endorses the message of the students, making the students' remarks public speech, not private religious expressions. Proponents of student-led prayer believe that students should have to choose between attending school functions or not attending to avoid school-sponsored prayer. The Supreme Court disagreed, writing,
The Constitution, moreover, demands that the school may not force this difficult choice upon these students for it is a tenet of the First Amendment that the State cannot require one of its citizens to forfeit his or her rights and benefits as the price of resisting conformance to state-sponsored religious practice.
An earlier U.S. Supreme Court case in 1992 affirmed nearly four decades of court precedent against school prayers. In Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, the court held that prayers at public school graduations are an impermissible establishment of religion. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, "if citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people."

While neither of these cases is exactly like the Kountze situation, they raise such similar issues and arise from such similar facts that it is logical to conclude that they control the behavior of the Kountze cheerleaders when they act in an official capacity on behalf of the Kountze ISD. Attorney General Abbott has not explained why these cases should not apply to the Kountze controversy, but he jumped at the chance to intervene officially in the case.

FFRF has noted these two cases, as well as six others that seem to provide adequate precedent to conclude that what the Kountze cheerleaders are doing violates the rights of other students. They include cases concerning prayer at high school graduations, prayer in public schools, devotional Bible-reading in public schools, and pre-football game invocations at public high school football games.

Clearly, the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have concluded that public schools have a legal duty to remain neutral toward religion. If the Kountze ISD allows official school representatives -- the cheerleaders in this case -- to promote religion through the display of signs that include both Bible verses and religious admonitions much like prayers, the Kountze ISD fears that it will be seen as promoting religion. For now, the state district court has ruled that the religious banners can continue. A trial on the issue is set for next summer.

For those people who want government to promote religion, court interventions are a hindrance to their theocratic ambitions. But there is no excuse for the Governor and the Attorney General of Texas to play politics with government promotion of religion. They know what the federal courts have held, but they choose to ignore the holdings -- a sort of modern day interposition and nullification intended to undermine the U.S. Constitution, which both have sworn to uphold.

[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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