Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On the house that greed built:

Several months ago, I began thinking about writing a post on the dangers of credit and how it has allowed the values of homes and tuition to get so out of whack. Well, I’ve been busy and haven’t gotten around to it, but now it must be said. Yesterday the Dow fell more than 700 points and I just know we are living several dismal paragraphs in my grandson’s history text book.

Aces and Kings are dropping off the teetering house of cards that is our economy, and the politicians and the financial analysts and the Wall Street moguls want us to shore it up.

Yes, I am outraged that they are telling me—a law abiding, hard working, barely middle class single mom-- to mortgage my child’s future to bail out people who’ve been proudly and happily stealing from us and undermining our economy in ways they understood much better than I can-- even now. But I’m against the bailout for an even more important reason. I’m not an economist, but it has occurred to me that our economy’s basis in credit may be a major reason for the development of the chasm of inequality that divides the haves and the have-nots in this world. By shoring up this untenable system, we may be unwittingly perpetuating the oppression of the majority of the world’s people and missing the only opportunity in generations to undo it.

Think about it: could the price of a “starter” condo in a city neighborhood reach $300,000 without credit? Could college tuition rise to a similar level? Before borrowing for school was widely done, my parents worked their way through, and on the other side, their wages were their own. I will probably be paying down my education debt (at the rate of over $300 a month) for the rest of my life. And in comparison to recent graduates of private institutions and to those who attended medical or law school, my debt is downright tiny. Having this debt at the very beginning of one’s adult life often means incurring even more debt to own a car and a home. It can mean building up large credit card balances to fulfill daily needs.

Credit may allow us to do lots of wonderful things. It also allows us to live beyond our means, and to pay interest on the debt which increases the cost even further. It allows the prices of things to go up disproportionately in regard to our salaries and for us to continue to believe we can “afford” those prices. Meanwhile, the masters of the universe who run the companies which supply the credit, make greater and greater profits. Relative to them and to the cost of living, we become poorer and poorer.

We may as well be indentured servants--even slaves-- to this credit economy.

Now our masters have driven the plantation into the ground and they want us to rebuild this tool of our own oppression by borrowing against our future and our national security. I say, “Enough!” A house of cards reinforced by still more cards will fall just as easily and with a greater flurry.

I have no doubt it will be hard to quit the credit habit. The next few years may necessitate changing The Great Depression’s moniker to “Great Depression I.” But if there is any promise of freedom from debt and equal opportunity on the other side, I think it will be worth it.

Since I doubt the vast majority of the people will agree to go cold turkey with me, I have a back up proposal. Any money the government puts into the crisis should be used to bail out the individuals who were sold bad loans, rather than the rudderless companies who sold them. If we’re going to intervene, let’s make sure we intervene on the side of the innocent.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On an organizer for our American community:

The other night, instead of telling us what their candidate plans to do in office, Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin chose to mock the significant life experience of Barack Obama.

They seem to have contempt for community organizing. What is it they find so contemptible? The people of our national community? The fact that, with the skilled guidance of organizers, those people are more powerful than any politician or any one party will ever be?

I spend my days (and sometimes my nights) working to raise funds and friends for an amazing group of skilled professional organizers and about 75 teenage organizers who work for the Hyde Square Task Force in the Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods of Boston. I work so hard to support them because the work they do is unique and essential in our community. Last fall, our youth used sophisticated organizing tactics like identifying targets, power analysis, utilizing the media and negotiation to persuade the mayor and school superintendent of Boston that they should add a dynamic civics class to the city’s high schools. This summer, the youth labored with 2 curriculum writers and the head of history and wrought the curriculum they believe will make all students of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) as thoughtful and active as they are.

As a former BPS teacher myself, I can tell you that these “kids” have accomplished more meaningful reform in one year than BPS, and indeed, the federal government has in more than ten.

As someone who has seen first hand the results of community organizing on an inner city neighborhood, I can say that organizing is, in fact, the perfect preparation to be president at a time when reform is so sorely needed. Unlike lifetime bureaucrats, who tend to become part of the problem, community organizers come from the outside, analyze the problems, determine what the community needs—what the people need—and then set about strategic action and negotiation to help the people get those demands met. Good organizers are able to get people fired up; a leader who makes moving speeches about hope and the need for change is exactly what helps mobilize the power of the people to make that change.

No, organizers don’t have responsibilities-- to lobbyists or special interests or even to themselves. In fact, their greatest responsibility is to the people with whom they work. It’s not the positions they’ve held that prove their worth—it’s the skills. They understand how to navigate complicated political terrain—how to bring opposing parties to the table. I believe these are exactly the qualities we need in a leader today.

Yes, the Republicans show a great deal of contempt for great Americans like Barack Obama who do tough, selfless, essential work for little compensation, but I’m not sure that’s what they really feel. It's possible that contempt masks a fear that a President Obama might help bring about changes to a status quo that’s pretty good for the fat cats who run the Grande Olde Party.

How happy are you with how things are today? With the help of a few good organizers, some good people, and a great president we might just be able to change them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On martial law in Trinidad—USA:

On June 7th, martial law came to America. Police in Washington, D.C. set up checkpoints on a one way street leading into the city’s Trinidad neighborhood. Anyone attempting to enter the area is asked for ID and a “legitimate reason” for going into the so-called "Neighborhood Safety Zone". Since when does an American innocent of any crime need to justify his or her travels around our free country as “legitimate?” This extreme and un-American tactic is being used ostensibly because there were 3 murders in a weekend and they are trying to prevent more drive bys. It is interesting to note that many of the media reports about this development mention that there were 7 murders that weekend, despite the fact that the majority of them were not in Trinidad. This smacks of the fear-mongering that Naomi Wolf identifies in her book, The End of America, as a tool utilized by many a would-be dictator seeking to precipitate a fascist shift in a free society.

“All those who seek to close down an open society invoke a terrifying external threat [internal threats are also invoked, see tens steps below]. Why is it so important for such leaders to whip up this kind of terror in a population? Free citizens will not give up freedom for very many reasons, but it is human nature to be willing to trade freedom for security. Before 1922 in Italy and 1933 in Germany, citizens of those nations suffered from mayhem playing out in the streets, and labored in economies ravaged by inflation and war. In both Italy and Germany, many citizens were eventually relieved when fascists came to power because they believed that order would be restored.” (The End of America, Naomi Wolf, 2007, p 36)

“Among the themes that fascist elites develop when they are driving toward an authoritarian system are: a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions…” (Wolf p 37)

When I first read the review of Wolf’s book, subtitled Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, I saw that she devoted a chapter to each of the ten steps she says dictators always take to close down a free society. They are:

1. Invoke an external and internal threat
2. Establish secret prisons
3. Develop a paramilitary force
4. Surveil ordinary citizens
5. Infiltrate citizens’ groups
6. Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
7. Target key individuals
8. Restrict the press
9. Cast criticism as “espionage” and dissent as “treason”
10. Subvert the rule of law

I knew the Bush administration had taken some of these steps but I did not understand how far down the road we’ve come until I read more carefully. Wolf spells out how each of these steps has been taken—is being taken-- and how each causes us to allow our freedoms to slip away.

We need to address this, despite the upcoming election, because our laws have been altered, reinterpreted and ignored such that Bush and any subsequent executive has too much power.

"Hitler could never have ascended to power as he did if the Reichstag [Parliament] had not first cravenly, but legally, weakened Germany’s system of checks and balances. Lawmakers who were not Nazis—who in fact were horrified by Nazis—unwittingly opened the door for Nazis to overturn the rule of law, and did so before the Nazis came formally to power." Wolf, p 39

"Hitler’s predecessor… was a centrist… but he tampered with the framework of the German democracy, reduced the power of the Parliament, and restricted civil liberties in a way that Nazis seized upon. Increasingly the republic was governed by emergency decree. The erosion of the rule of law unbolted the door for Hitler then he used the law to burst it open and let the flood ensue." Wolf pp 39-40

• Nazi “Hermann Goering informed Germany it was now on a ‘war footing’ because communist terrorists… planned to poison the water supply…” Wolf, p 41

• Another Nazi “introduced clause 2 which suspended parts of the German constitution” which, among other things, “gave police forces the power to hold people in custody indefinitely without a court order…” Wolf, p 41

• Then Hitler convinced Parliament to amend the constitution with the Enabling Act, “which would allow him to permanently circumvent some powers of the Parliament—it was now legal for the state to tap citizens’ phones and open their mail.” Wolf, p 41

“Not wanting to be seen as unpatriotic, there was little debate: lawmakers of all parties passed the Enabling Act by a wide majority…From then on, Hitler could govern by decree.” Wolf, p 41

Sound familiar?

We have already come too far down the road. One tactic of the ten that has not yet been widely employed is the turning of strong arm tactics on ordinary citizens by the state, usually by a paramilitary force (Don’t think Bush has one?—read the book!). If we go there, either because of fear of an outside threat like Islamic terrorism or an inside one like urban gang activity (or both!), I am afraid we will have passed the point of no return.

I heard about the checkpoints in Trinidad on National Public Radio, but I’m concerned that I haven’t heard a major outcry. When I googled to find articles about it, I couldn’t find them easily on the web (I had to search NPR’s site). The press is being restricted in insidious ways (read the book!). Wolf says bloggers, like the patriots who circulated pamphlets in the run up to the Revolution, must take over the responsibility of reporting the truth, thereby giving the people the ability to judge when action needs to be taken.

I believe that time is now.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

On a nominee for all of us:

It’s a bizarre irony that in this age of political correctness, tolerance and supposed acceptance, the latest excuse for why we can’t have a black president is that the candidate is a member of the elite. They used to tell us that black people were too dumb or backward to even vote, never mind run for office. Black people were portrayed as dirty, poorly dressed, slang-spewing monkeys. Now we’re presented with a guy whose intelligence can’t be denied, and he’s too smart?

The idea that Barack Obama is an elite who is out of touch with what real Americans face is a non-starter. (Compared to Dubya, who is seen as an everyman, despite the silver spoon in his mouth since birth, only because he sticks his foot in beside it constantly??) The fact that this is the only objection offered is proof that those who oppose a non-white president are fresh out of arguments. (I’m not sure it’s even possible to be black and elite in America. Blacks who have amassed wealth or been educated are just not entitled in the same way as white elites—but that’s another post.)

I’ve been quiet till now. We do need to be careful about this issue of race in America-- we are most certainly not past it. I have to say that it has been my experience that biracial people have a special ability to transcend race and understand it at the same time. My dad—who is looking down from up there somewhere smiling in giddy disbelief tonight-- made sure I understood, despite my lily white skin, the challenges of being black in our society. But he also lived his life in mainstream America and he did pretty damn well despite having to work twice as hard as any white person to get half as far. That taught me more than any bitter words he could have uttered-- though he uttered quite a few.

The next generation in mixed families—Barack and I—have a somewhat different perspective. The clothes and the degrees and the positions of power have come a little easier to us thanks to those who have come before. We haven’t forgotten the pain of our fathers (and mothers) but perhaps since its not our own, we can see it, give it its proper weight, and also manage to look past it to see the pain that defines and shapes the experience of others. Because we can "pass" in both worlds, we can see the racism and also know (and even love) the people behind it: the fears, the misconceptions, as well as the commonalities. That’s what Barack was talking about in his speech a while back.

Barack Obama looks at the same battlefield as the Reverend Wright and he refuses to take sides, ignore the problem or surrender to the difficult task of working it out.

Our nominee is mixed. It’s not his only feature, but it’s not something I think we should ignore because I believe it’s the reason he might actually—finally—offer Americans of all races, colors and creeds reconciliation.

(Dare we hope that he’ll offer the same to America the world actor and its enemies?)

We’re ready. Let’s elect a president for all of us.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On tilting at Windmills:

Every once in a while, sitting in traffic or looking out the window of a tall building, I have a moment where I involuntarily step back and look at the world and see it literally swarming with cars. It’s at these moments that I become pessimistic and I say to myself and whoever will listen, “we’re doomed.” And though I think we probably are, I believe we owe it to the Earth that has sustained us to at least try to change.

I know how hard it is. I try—I recycle my toothbrushes (Preserve brand) and use paper produce bags (or none) for just a couple of examples--but because of my situation I find I have to drive my car. It takes several buses to get to my son’s daycare and I have nowhere to store a bike.

But we need to try harder. We need to start making wholesale changes. We need to use tax breaks and subsidies and market forces to push people and corporations to change.

Cars are a major problem-- for me and for everyone. We’ve got the technology to make cars more efficient, but more efficient hybrid cars remain more expensive and hard to get. The government should be putting its research dollars and brains into this rather than into landing on Mars. Large scale production of biofuels is wreaking havoc on our food system. Maybe they’re not the answer (or maybe we need to change the focus of the food system—corn sweetners and soy are ruining our health anyway). I think we need to look not just at how to continue driving as we always have, but at ways to restructure our communities to make long distance travel an occasional indulgence, rather than a daily necessity.

Eating locally would also cut down on emissions generated by the transport of food. This would probably mean curtailing sprawl (maybe even taking back already developed land) to make room for farms. Finally, a justifiable use of eminent domain.

The silver lining in the ridiculously high gas prices we’ve been experiencing (we’re finally beginning to catch up to the rest of the world—it’s been $6+ in Turkey for years) is that people are starting to reduce their use. They’re buying smaller cars and taking the bus more. The gas tax holiday that’s been proposed will only help undo the positive work high prices have done and won’t help consumers much anyway. Let’s make sure policies make sense and don’t just pander to desperate consumers who often can’t see beyond their next paycheck. Government is supposed to help us take the long view not let us avoid facing reality.

The considerable power of the sun, water and wind remain largely untapped. Massachusetts has been tied up in the controversy over putting a windmill farm off Cape Cod for years. I don’t really understand the controversy. There are several large turbines in the marshes outside Atlantic City, where I grew up, and the birds don’t seem to mind at all. People like them too. Don Quixote was right: they are a bit like giants—though these are beneficent ones. Once again, I think the government needs to take a stand against wealthy interests on the Cape who don’t want their view “spoiled.”

Maybe we are tilting at windmills but, paradoxically, policies that let us build a few more windmills might give us a fighting chance.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On trees: not for human consumption

I was driving down American Legion Highway in Boston a few months ago when I was suddenly assaulted by the sun where it hadn’t shone before. I knew immediately something was different and it wasn’t long before I realized that some of the venerable old trees that made that highway a parkway were gone. The road had been under construction for some time (one of those blue pet projects signs boasted “renovations” were being done and credited the Mayor and other officials), but I had not known taking trees was in the plan. I considered calling the city to complain but decided that in this era of greening they couldn’t be planning to take them all. It just wouldn’t make sense.

Day after day more of the 30 or 40 year-old trees disappeared. It was too late to call the city. There was no going back.

That’s the thing about trees. What’s taken half a century to grow can be cut down in half an hour.

They came through after the last frost and popped in a bunch of spindly new saplings (planted them too close together, I’m pretty sure). I’m glad that tree-lined is still a goal, but little tiny trees are in all ways inferior to mature trees. They provide no shade, less in the way of cooling effects due to water content, less carbon abatement, less beauty. And with global overheating, it’s harder to get a young tree to survive its youth. I almost lost the Heritage River birch I planted in our yard last year; it was quite a bit more established than the new highway trees and I had just one to worry about. The city is notorious for planting truckloads of trees and then neglecting them in their hour of drought. Then they come through with another truck and pull out the casualties.

In our consumer culture, new is always ideal. If we aren’t buying new cars, new furniture, new clothes, our economy will suffer (and we might fall out of fashion—God forbid). Economists and our own elected officials are unabashed about encouraging us to buy more junk we’ll soon throw away (See the Story of Stuff in last December’s post). They’ve even arranged this year for us to get checks meant expressly to be wasted on purchases that will stimulate the economy before ending up in a landfill.

But when it comes to trees, old—or at least middle aged-- is the epitome of fashion.

If we’re not too busy renovating, redesigning and renewing, accumulating stuff to replace too soon, we might leave a few trees, and we might realize that the very best has grown up around us all on its own. We need only enjoy the shade.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Israel, one state of denial:

This week, Bush is in Israel to celebrate Israel’s 60 years of existence and, without irony, America’s 60 years (minus 11 minutes) as its unwavering champion.

How is it consistent with our—or at least Bush’s-- value of promoting liberty throughout the world to support unconditionally the state of Israel, despite human rights abuses as egregious as bulldozing houses, checkpoints and walls to restrict and contain innocent people, the taking and retaking of land, government without representation, 40 years of occupation? I am not immune to the horror that was The Holocaust but isn’t the Palestinians’ Naqba (catastrophe) a similar atrocity?—albeit grinding, relentless and innocuous rather than brief, diabolical and mind-blowing in scale. A religious minority is systematically forced from its land, deprived of basic rights, targeted for all kinds of brutal, invasive and humiliating treatment and killed indiscriminately while the aggressors justify their actions with self-serving illogic.

I don’t see how Bush or anyone else can justify continuing blind support of the Israeli state at all, but this is especially difficult while that very support makes enemies of a great many people in the world-- and rightly so. Some may call Muslims who are desperate and angry about the treatment of the Palestinians fundamentalist crazies. They may decry some Palestinians’ efforts to change the intractable situation in which they find themselves as terrorism. I ask you, is there any other alternative for an oppressed people without a state and an army? What could they do to protect and defend themselves that would be considered legal by the state of Israel and by the world? Further, if our own revolution had not succeeded, wouldn’t the rebels we now call patriots have been labeled terrorists by history?

Once again an American President is claiming he will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of his term. If it is ever to be resolved, Americans must take off the blinders we wear where Israel is concerned. It is not anti-Semitic to call Israel on its transgressions. In fact, enabling Israel to continue to pursue its policy of oppression is as detrimental to its democracy as our new policy of preemptive war is to ours.

Those who claim to be working to prevent another holocaust are fond of quoting George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I would ask them to step back, look at the plight of the Palestinians, and read those very words again.