...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Deepest Fear in America

Okay, not yet another commentary on this week's biggest overblown news story, the Shirley Sherrod incident?  Yep.  But I want to say very little about Ms. Sherrod, confident that as far as I can see, she has been completely cleared of all the false charges.  But I do want to reflect on these false charges, where they came from and why.  For I think it is indicative of something that is so profound and deep, something that prompts the fear of mainstream American so violently that all talk of it is nearly censored out of popular discourse.

We know pretty much what happened.  A sleazy blogger, looking for attention and fame, doctored up an old speech that Ms. Sherrod gave in a way that made her look like she favored black farmers over white farmers many years ago (back in the days, for example, when South Africa was still ruled by a white minority.)  Then the rat-infested filth that calls itself the newsroom at Fox News jumped on the story, and gave yet another boost to their undeserved ratings by pouncing on it and making every effort -- without bothering to do the one thing a professional journalist should do more than anything else, which is check the validity of the story -- to pipe it into every TV set in America to prove how racist black people in power are.  Then the final blow came when our "hope for change" administration, including President "racism is a persistent evil in America" Obama, cowered in fear of those big, bad, bullies over at Fox and instantly -- again, without bothering to check the facts -- fired Ms. Sherrod, the only sane person in this whole ordeal.

Of course there's lots in here to make even the laziest journalist or pundit happy, lots to prove that political discourse in this country is about on a third-grade intellectual level (except that I can't imagine the worst bullies on my elementary schoolyard being so sleazy.)  Yes, Fox News -- if only it's millions of idiot viewers didn't actually believe their crap -- makes even the Daily Show look like old Dick Cavett reruns.  What troubles me, though, is their very deliberateness that they displayed in this affair.  And it is only one particularly grievous example of what they do every day.  But as an example of what they do every day, I want to examine it for a moment because I do think it reveals something about the deepest fear in America -- the fear that if "we" give them any power, people of color might turn out to be almost as bad as the white people who have ruled this country for the past two centuries.  The fear, in other words, that white people's privilege might yet turn out to be ill-gotten gains, and that judgment day is coming.

We all know, of course, that Hannity, Beck, and all those other blowhards are just that -- blowhards.  But they, and more importantly their "editors" are not stupid.  (I put the term editor in quote marks because I'm not sure what you call a decision-maker at an entertainment organization that poses as a news organization; I suppose "decision-maker who plays the role of an editor" would do, but that's kinda long.)  I have complete confidence that these people at Fox knew that this story was a sham, and they probably figured that they would get "busted" for it -- but they went with it anyway.  Why? Because they knew it would sell.  That's what they do -- sell entertainment.  Why did they know it would sell?  Because it was an image that people fear more than anything else -- a black woman, allegedly in a position of power, saying that she just might have the guts to every now and then treat a white person the way that black people have been treated for just about forever.  Oooo, white people don't like that -- it's almost like saying that white people might deserve to be treated like that sometimes, which is awfully close to the truth.  Maybe we don't actually deserve it, but it would be understandable if it were to happen.  That's why white people fear it so much, and that's what white people fear about Barrack Obama.  The demagogues at Fox News are eagerly awaiting (and seeking out) confirmation that Obama's hidden agenda is to give whites what they, in many respects, deserve, which is second fiddle.

Of course, as his reaction demonstrated, that fear is unfounded.  As one of those hard-core lefties who never had much faith in Obama from the start, this episode was not surprising to me.  It was not surprising that he cowered more quickly than an ostrich can even find the ground in which to duck his head.  It was not surprising because we've seen it happen before -- with candidate Obama.  Remember how quickly he distanced himself from his Pastor, Rev. Jerimiah Wright, when the same sleazeballs assassinated his character?  Obama distanced himself, called Rev. Wright some obligatory bad names, and then boosted his popularity by making a stirring speech about the persistence of racism in America.  It was obvious then that Mr. Obama was all talk and no action -- for action would have been to actually stand up for his friend and fellow citizen and defend Rev. Wright as one who is entitled to express his views, even if his views make some people uncomfortable.  Furthermore, upon election, Mr. Obama would have included Rev. Wright as a key member of his special anti-racism team that he would have appointed on his second day in office.  That would have been action.

One day, these sleazeballs might actually find someone, a person of color, working somewhere in this person of color's administration, who might actually have the audacity to, even once or twice, side with a person of color in an effort to correct history.  When they do find such a person and crucify him/her, I'll know who the real hero is.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Possibility of Cancer in our Genes

I'm going to write something here that would likely prompt many people to call me negative, a cynic, a dark and joyless creature.  So before I write it, I want to plead with any such reader (or one who would be sympathetic to such claims) to not judge too quickly.  I want to be considered, or rather I want my words to be considered, not as a negative assessment or a cynical vision of doom and dread, but merely as one possible vision of reality.  And if a reader is able to hear these words with an open mind as such, I hope that she/he would furthermore be able to grasp the implications of hearing what I have to say as a possible truth of our existence.  I, for one, have been thinking a lot about the implications of this version of reality, and it makes me wonder if we human beings are capable of grasping and accepting as truth something that makes all claims of cynicism or negativity moot – namely, that reality is far worse than we are capable of imagining.  In other words, perhaps it is not me who is biased toward negativity, but rather it may be that just about everybody else who thinks about the state of the world is hopelessly blinded by unfounded optimism and hope.  Perhaps the lenses in our eyes are, as a result of our own evolution, themselves rose-colored – no need for glasses.

Without further prologue, here is what I'm going to say:  I'm wondering if we human beings are Gaia's cancer.  I'm wondering if our mission on Earth – intentional or not, conscious or not – is to kill the Earth.  If we think of the Earth as a living organism, as the Gaia Hypothesis suggests, and all living creatures and organisms and species as various cells that make up this living Earth, there is good evidence to suggest that we human beings are the cancer cells in this big organism.  I know that Edward Abbey and others have made striking metaphors suggesting that we human beings – those in the industrialized world, anyway – are like a cancer, for we consume our surroundings at an unsustainable rate only to feed our irrational “growth.”  Those are powerful analogies, for sure.  But what I've been pondering is not metaphor – it's not that I think we are like cancer, I suspect that we are cancer.  Take a moment to ponder that: you and I and everybody we know, young and old, mean and kind, stranger and friend, are all cancer cells with a mission to consume our host before our host's own immune system kills us off.

I admit I'm in over my head.  To ponder this possibility, one has to understand what cancer is – not cancer the metaphor but cancer the disease that kills people, and I'm not sure I really know what it is.  I do know that cancer is identified as a condition in one's body in which certain cells, probably acting on bad information, start growing faster than all the others and consuming more resources doing so.  They also tend to multiply quickly, and either kill off or transform other cells in the host's body with which, if all information was good, they should be more or less harmoniously interacting in a way that benefits all – cells and host.  Given that basic knowledge, it is rather easy to see the metaphor relating to the way we humans in the industrial world treat this world that could be thought of, in this metaphor, as being like a living host.

But what is cancer, really?  These rouge cells are acting on information that apparently is not entirely random.  The information that they are getting from their DNA is surprisingly common, tends to be passed from one generation to the next, and exhibits many somewhat predictable patterns.  This suggests to me that cancer is not any type of substance or chemical or anything like that – cancer is information.  It is information that has made it way into, or developed within, the human genome (among other genomes.)  It is information that instructs cells to act in a particular way, just as other information contained in DNA does.

So, if the Earth actually is a living organism, perhaps we humans simply have bad information in our genes that predispose us to rape and plunder, extract and pollute, grow and consume, and gobble up countless other species on our own road to ruin.  Perhaps we do all this not so much because we don't think we have any other choice – perhaps we don't really have any other choice.  Perhaps our consciousness or our intellect gives us reason to pause and reflect, and try to do better.  But at the end of the day, we can't seem to stop extracting and consuming, etc. – we just find different ways to do so.  If we understand this precept, the most relevant question is whether we'll kill our host before our host kills us.  The secondary question is the one I started out with: are we capable of accepting this as our destiny?  Perhaps part of our “cancerous information” instructs us to believe that this couldn't be possible – we are divine creatures on a divine mission and we simply can't believe that the human race, in all its supposed grandeur and glory, is simply a disease that is best killed off as quickly as possible.

I don't like being dark or negative (though I admit cynicsm is often fun,) but I'm not sure I can find an easy way out of this one.  Do I believe what I wrote above to be true?  I don't think so, because if I did I'd probably be filled with much deeper despair than I seem to be.  But as the rational arguments against this proposition seem to crumble more every day, I wonder whether my more optimistic belief is just a symptom of this bad information I've been given.  I can't dismiss this possibility.

To any who have read this far: thank you.  I don't like being alone here.  I'm well aware that when people write or talk about things as “negative” as this, they usually try to conclude on a positive note, try to instill a little hope in the face of despair.  I want to resist the temptation to do so, for I fear it might diminish the chances that readers will be capable of fully accepting the possibility of this proposition (I don't expect readers to accept it, just accept that it is possible.)  But at the same time, I feel compelled to offer one hopeful thought in the context of this possible reality.  That thought is that if we are indeed cancer, and can accept it as an ontological truth, then we also might have the capacity to transcend our programmed mission.  We might have it within us to choose to live differently than we feel accustomed to living, and to intentionally work to balance our relationships with all other species and our host organism with the goal of a harmonious and stable relationships among all.

We might.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jobs, jobs, jobs: what are they for?

The story on NPR yesterday was probably typical.  In it, we heard about campaigns for Congress this coming November (still four months away, but it's always more interesting to talk about what is going to happen than what is happening.)  The reporter's impression?  To win in November, you (politicians) must talk about jobs, jobs, jobs.  That is the mantra, the winning formula, the simplistic bumper-sticker dumbing down of complex issues for a bubble-gum culture of political discourse.  The story, of course, featured real people with real problems, like the woman in Missouri who has been unemployed for well over a year now.  Even though she's been getting by with contract work and other assistance, things are looking grim -- her unemployment benefits are set to expire next month.  Listening to this story, my thoughts go to profound tragedy -- is this woman going to survive?  Is she going to wind up homeless?  Being "unemployed" myself, I think of these things; having known homeless people and heard many stories of unfortunates dying on the streets while others pass by, I realize how close we all are to the sharp edge of death.  Every day, thousands of children die around the world for lack of basic clean sustenance.  Will she be next?  Will I?

The story went on, her story, to report that if something didn't change for her soon, there'd be no "big ticket" purchases in her future.  Her problem?  Her car has 180,000 miles on it, and she's going to have to get a new one.  But without a job, she can't.

I have no desire to make light of this woman's situation.  But two thoughts came to mind.  The first: is this the depth of tragedy that awaits those who are negatively affected by the bad economy?  No big ticket purchases?  What about food and shelter?  Does anybody in this crazy economy ever have to worry about those things?  Do we ever wonder whether we'll survive?  (We should.)  I think the answer is yes, many of us do worry about those things, but apparently NPR caters its programming for listeners who don't -- they are more interested in how economic anxiety might play out in the grandest of all sporting events that happens every year in this sports-obsessed culture: the big game between Democrats and Republicans.  The other thought was that this was a perfect illustration of how addicted we've all become to something over which we have no control.  No wonder we have to rely on politicians to constantly try to "fix" the economy -- because it's irrevocably broken.  We have to get jobs, keep jobs, and always get more jobs just so we can do things like buy new cars so we can get to our jobs every day.  Many have been saying it, but few are listening: WE'RE A NATION OF ADDICTS!

I do wonder how we'll survive.  How will we find ways to feed and shelter our families?  How will we keep ourselves reasonably healthy?  How will we protect ourselves?  The answers to these questions are complex, I'm sure, but I can tell you what they ain't: no amount of "jobs" is going to save us.  In fact, as long as we continue to rely on "jobs" we're doomed.  I know this -- I'm looking for a job right now, and am worried how I'll survive if I don't find one.  But I'm hoping to find a part-time job, so I can have enough time left over to do things that really matter, like learning how to wildcraft and preserve food and make clothes and all those other things that everybody did just a few generations ago before we became addicted to jobs.  In fact, jobs exist and are so omnipresent precisely because they keep us dependent upon them.  Remember back in the pre-welfare reform days when welfare was routinely derided because it would create a culture of dependency?  How is welfare any different than jobs?  Jobs drive the economy?  Well, no, we have to implore politicians to create them for us.  Jobs provide for the public welfare?  Well, no, most of the truly important jobs are done by illegal immigrants or in foreign factories or by poor people who seldom get interviewed by NPR.  Jobs less addictive?  Doubt it.  Why is it so important to tie health insurance to employment?  That's right: to keep us addicted.

We all have work to do.  If we wake up and truly pay attention, we'll see that the vast majority of it has nothing to do with our "job."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Eyes on the Prize"

First I read this article by Christine Ahn about the just-finished US Social Forum in Detroit.  In it, she contemplates the uneasy alliance between those working for economic justice and the peace community.  Ms. Ahn's perception is that the peace community is primarily a white, middle-class presence, while the economic justice people tend to be a broader cross section of racial and ethnic groups working to achieve some sense of fairness as they have not benefited from several decades of prosperity.  Yet she found that when these two groups came together, they did indeed find common ground in their shared opposition to the militaristic aspects of the US economy.  The common ground could very well be summed up by the old phrase "butter, not guns."  If we de-fund all our illegal wars, occupations, and reckless military escapades, and cut the "defense" budget down to a fraction of its present size, we could invest even a small portion of all that money into local communities, in things like health care, education, renewable energy, etc.  This is all well and good, and indeed is critically important at this time.  That is the beauty of bringing together disparate groups with similar values yet differing agendas -- larger and more fundamental truths emerge.

Then I thought about the chair I might sit at in such a gathering.  I am a peacenik and have been involved in a number of peace-oriented groups over the years; and yes, I am a white, educated, middle-class American male, and I know that the perception that the peace community is mostly white has truth in it.  I've also long been an advocate of economic justice, though in a less public way, mostly in my own personal opinions and not so much by my direct actions and involvement in community organizations.  To make matters worse, more recently I've become, somewhat reluctantly, known as an "environmentalist."  Shudder the thought.  As I look at my own writings on this blog, and the way I've chosen to live my life, this label certainly might fit (thought I totally agree with Wendell Berry in rejecting that label; he prefers "conservationist" and I lean toward "ecologist.")   Nevertheless, as I live off-grid in a rural intentional  community, work part-time at a number of odd jobs, and spend much time and energy doing things like working in the garden and making solar ovens, labels like "green" certainly are applicable.  As if to confirm all remaining stereotypes, I live and interact with mostly other white, educated, English-speaking people and tend to be wary of massive "investment" projects in job creation and urban infrastructure.  I even wince a little when well established lefties I support like Michael Moore or Jim Hightower lament the disappearance of the old "middle class" and the exportation of all our good manufacturing jobs.  Sure, it is a tragedy that these jobs are no longer here, but the last thing in the world we need is to bring them back!  Good Lord, I can't help but listen to myself and think "am I just one of those elitist liberal environmentalists who wants to protect my precious green world by keeping a third of the world's people living in abject poverty?"