Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Are we courageous enough to face the why?

It’s hard for me to approach this subject. I have no desire to capitalize on the current news cycle frenzy, but each time something of this magnitude happens I find myself thinking along very similar lines, and I feel I would be remiss if I did not call attention to the pattern that I see played out over and over and over...

Despite the continuous coverage dedicated to these events, the incessant repetitive replaying of every possible detail, the why of the tragedy never seems to come fully into focus. Those responsible are quickly categorized as “crazy,” their actions as “senseless,” any acknowledgement of their motivations is carefully sidestepped to avoid the appearance of endorsing their actions. Faced with such horror, people reflexively recoil; it is too frightening to think that there could be a reason for this behavior, that there might be a rationale to it, that it might be a predictable pattern. It is far easier to see it as the random terrible act of a disturbed individual, to see the act and the perpetrator as “evil.” But if we refuse to deal with the specifics of these tragedies in this way, how can we ever hope to address the multitude of factors that give rise to such tragic events?

We live in a society that is perpetually redefining our very concept of reality. Our leaders routinely tell half truths and often outright lie in order to score political points, their agendas validated by a media that willfully reinforces the chosen narratives. They initiate pre-emptive wars based on false intelligence, rationalizing the death of innocents through an ever escalating campaign of fear. While we watch our president shed tears for the Sandy Hook victims, his administration executes a predator drone kill list, resulting in numerous civilian casualties; men, women and children. We have been at war for the longest period in our country’s history, but less than 1% of our population is actively serving in our military. More soldiers are committing suicide than are being killed in action. The best selling video game of all time is a first-person shooter called Call of Duty: Black Ops, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide with more than half of those sold in the US alone.

We have “reality” television where the focus is almost invariably fame and fortune, certainly not the banal day to day details of our daily lives (there’s no ratings potential in that). Similarly, the “news” is so focused on sensational stories, that investigative reporting has become the exception rather than the rule. Important events often go unreported - as if they didn’t actually occur. Blockbuster films are increasingly dark and “gritty,” to infuse them with a sense of “realism.” Of late I have noted a reliance on depictions of pain and suffering to connect with the audience on a more visceral level, to convince them that what they are witnessing on the screen is more than fiction. These type of depictions no longer seem to have a genre (or story) specific character, and show up all over the map. Of course, the more common these depictions become, the less we respond to them, and the more intense they must be to elicit any response at all.

Inundated with images of violence and cruelty, our dominant narrative one of competition and conflict - are we losing our ability to envision alternatives? Politics, entertainment, & marketing have become indistinguishable, their influence on our lives so omnipresent that it is increasingly difficult to recognize their presence. The privatization of education is but another step in this process, another method for restricting our perception of “reality.” Many parents & teachers believe that they are preparing children for “the real world,” sparing them future suffering by forcing them to follow the rules. But the resulting stigmatization of difference, of resistance, of creativity can create a confusing impasse. We encourage them to be the best, to excel, to stand out from the crowd while we simultaneously demand they fit in. How are their young minds to make sense of this contradiction? Are we teaching them to create their own reality or simply accept the ones marketed to them?

Somehow, despite all the mixed messages, we expect people to be able to discern what is real and what is not, to recognize right from wrong, and to do it on their own. Ruling with absolute authority, whether as a politician or a parent, leaves precious little space for dialogue. In our punitive culture, where any deviation from the prescribed plan is met with ridicule, is it any wonder that people suffer in silence rather than seek counsel? Do people stay silent because they fear there will be consequences if they reveal their thoughts? Are we tolerant enough not to penalize those that step forward - tolerant enough to hear perceptions that may not match our own? Are we compassionate enough to deal with the sense of powerlessness that many in our society feel? Are we responsible enough to recognize our role in modeling violence as the solution of choice? Are we creative enough, and sensible enough, to come up with alternatives?

In the wake of the tragedy there are calls for gun control legislation, treatment for mental illness, greater security in our schools; but perhaps we need to move beyond these singular solutions. Are we courageous enough to face the why?
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Related - NYT Business, 12/24: Real and Virtual Firearms Nurture a Marketing Link

Monday, December 3, 2012

VOTE EVERY DAY

As to be expected, there is a lot of post election speculation as to how and why the Obama campaign emerged victorious. While the variety of explanations are as numerous as the reports themselves, there is one uniformly consistent thread that was sited before and after the election - voter turnout. On one side of the proverbial aisle are those who forecast another close election with a razor thin margin of victory, on the other are those that point to pre-election polls that seem to have predicted the final results with surprising accuracy. The emphasis on voter turnout comes out of the close election scenario: when the electorate is evenly split, the deciding factor may well be how many people show up versus how many stay home. Voter turnout may seem like a given in terms of deciding an election (any election), but the overemphasis on it in this particular case feels artificial to me, as if it is being used to draw attention away from some other perspective. I recently wrote a post questioning the 50/50 electoral polarization myth that has become such a staple of our political discussions. Voter turnout can be a factor when one party has a clear majority, but even if the minority party turns out every last one of their voters, they may still be in the minority.

The appeal to fear of a changing electorate was overwhelmingly strident throughout this electoral cycle. Republicans’ brazen attacks on African American, Latino, LGBT, and Women’s rights inspired a surge at the polls that could not be stopped even through rampant voter suppression. But the extremity of these attacks simultaneously allowed Democrats to adopt a protective stance, rather than one advocating to expand the rights in question. The fear cuts both ways it seems, insuring that those less enthusiastic about Obama’s record don’t take the risk of voting for someone more in line with their concerns. The Obama Administration is happy to accept your support whether or not you agree with their agenda - just keep it to yourself. But perhaps the changing electorate is more than the Democrats bargained for. What if those so passionately mobilized to vote by the attacks on their rights refuse to back down? What if they move beyond this protective stance to mobilize for the expansion of those rights? What if they shift en masse from a strategy of simply making demands on those in power to one of development and mobilization of their own alternatives, and start using those alternatives to withdraw their consent from the status quo? What if they are no longer satisfied with voting every four (two, four, six) years? What if they choose instead to vote every day?

A freshly re-elected president brought to tears in a moment of connection with the young volunteers so integral to his campaign; it was certainly not something I had seen before, and I found myself surprisingly moved by the spectacle. It appeared intimate, and personal, and the president’s words were remarkably humble. After I watched it I thought about how this address might be different from others that the president has made. Watching him enter and exit the scene I wondered if there would be any opportunity for these “smarter,” “better organized” and “more effective” volunteers to share their hopes and dreams for the country, to participate in an actual dialogue with their president? A little more than a week later I read a short article titled, “Obama campaign asks: What do we do next?” The link in the article delivered me to an Obama for America survey. Was this the medium for dialogue? Perhaps this document could be a starting point for the volunteers to input their ideas beyond the election cycle? As I read through the three pages it was apparent that the reference point for the questions was mostly limited to the campaign and future campaigns. There were a few questions that allowed for short “write in” answers and several at the end requested a sentence or two, but by and large the questions focused more on “how can we campaign better” than “What do we do next?”

One survey question asked “What issues would you be interested in volunteering or organizing around in the future?” Among the 24 options there was only one issue that expressed a specific viewpoint in the way that it was stated: “Avoiding the fiscal cliff.” When the Bush tax cuts were originally supposed to sunset in 2010, the Republicans played their tried and true “tax and spend liberal” card to flip the switch and claim that allowing the tax cuts to expire was in fact Obama raising taxes. A clear majority of the country was not in favor of extending the tax cuts for the wealthy, but Bush & Co. were crafty enough to design the tax cuts as a reduction of rates across the board. The tax cuts for the lower tax brackets were a pittance next to the windfall for the 1%, but tethering the two together allowed Republicans to push the idea that Obama would be “raising taxes” on everyone. The ball was already rolling on the so called “fiscal cliff” prior to the election, setting it up as a showdown, an impending crisis just beyond the horizon. Once again the Republicans are playing that same card, attempting to run the table. My understanding is that even after we go over the “cliff” Congress could pass legislation retroactive to January 1 (extending the cuts for the “middle class”), but the narrative would be significantly different. With the cuts officially expired, the Republicans would have to defend higher taxes on the “middle class.” Sounds like a pretty good move strategically, so why then is Obama for America promoting the “fiscal cliff” narrative?

I’m hearing a lot of talk about the Obama ground game and the effective use of collected information - this tremendous marketing campaign seems to have paid off, but what have we learned? Are we being sold a president the same way we are sold a pair of sneakers or a box of cereal? Are we being invited to participate in our democracy when we answer the polls and surveys? Is this collected information useful in addressing the challenges we face or is it just a mechanism for securing our vote, and through that vote our deference to authority? I read an article that mentioned grassroots movements in conjunction with supporting the administration’s agenda, but this top down approach (the agenda being set by the president) seems contrary to the very nature of grassroots organizing. In yet another post election piece I read this:

Following re-election, the president wasted no time taking advantage of the organization's massive base. Obama spoke to 30,000 supporters on a conference call last Tuesday about the fiscal cliff, rallying the troops as he began negotiations with congressional leaders to find a deficit-reduction package.

"Our work can't stop now," he said, according to audio of the call. "We're going to need you guys to stay active. We need you to stick with us and stay on this and I'm pledging to do a better job even than we did in the first term in making sure you guys stay involved, that you guys know exactly what we're doing, that we're giving you guys clear directions and talking points in terms of how we keep mobilizing across the country."

We don’t need a marketing campaign to keep us engaged, keep us busy, keep us quiet. Can the OFA network, or perhaps another network altogether, be used instead to ask our people how they think we should address the challenges we face? Perhaps as a means to submit proposals, compile ideas, develop solutions to these challenges? Elevation of ideas from the bottom up is what grassroots is all about - the community participates, not as de facto liberal lobbyists and cheerleaders, but in the actual process of policy development and decision making. When it comes to the “fiscal cliff” Obama is asking us to make Republicans concede to his demands, not to make him concede to ours. With few specifics being offered we are expected to support an agenda that we have had no part in creating. I can recall talking to Bush supporters in 2004 about their “$300 tax rebate” when they brought it up as a reason to re-(s)elect Bush, and asking them if their city and state taxes went up to balance the loss of federal revenue. Isn’t bush getting your vote for nothing if the same amount of income is extracted from you one way or the other? How do you feel about getting duped like that? Will our states and cities be made to compensate for Obama’s proposed federal spending cuts? What and how much will we be asked to sacrifice in order to keep “our” tax cut and make the 1% pay their “fair share”? When you get to the end of the survey there’s a button labeled “submit.”

Is this entire campaign an empty distraction? Mobilizing Americans, not to stop federal fracking legislation, not to repeal NDAA indefinite detention, not to press for climate change ACTION in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but to tell stories to their congressional representative about what they could do with that 2,000 bucks (for a “typical” middle class family of four). I've written before about how electoral politics is used to distract us from pursuing any kind of direct democratic action: as a siphon of limited time and organizing energy, but also as a restraint to keep us in line. Is this new perpetual Obama campaign just another method of instilling a false sense of purpose in the volunteers? On Black Friday I saw a report on the news where a young man interviewed outside the local Walmart talked about the sense of camaraderie he found waiting in line - it was like they all had a common cause...

I recently worked on a video for a David Weinberger talk titled “The Networking of Knowledge and Storytelling.” The producer on the project and I had a discussion at our initial meeting about the formation and evolution of ideas, sketching tiny diagrams to represent the flow of information. Person A says “Apple,” person B says “Orange.” Weinberger presented a model of networked knowledge stemming from linked ideas, ideas often in contention. “We know now in networks, not as individuals.” It reminded me of concepts that I was becoming familiar with through involvement with Occupy Wall Street. I had been learning about consensus and was beginning to understand how an idea that was evolved through a small group, a working group or an affinity group, might avoid the defensive trappings of ideas proposed by individuals. An individual might spark the process in the group, but it seemed to me that most ideas had a kind of life of their own that preceded their initial proposal. It struck me that this process was a method to free “our” ideas from ownership, to let them exist independent of individual ego and belief, to invite and encourage modification of the ideas through alternative perspectives. Of course, the form of horizontal direct democracy that OWS is evolving is quite different than what we see practiced in our government.

When the president tells us that his first job is “to keep the American people safe,” he is fortifying his patriarchal role, inviting us to breathe a collective sigh of relief that we have someone in the White House watching out for us. Certainly there is comfort in trusting that our leaders know what to do and how to do it, but how does the president’s role as decider - protector - leader fit into the community organizing model that he seems to favor? There is comfort in having direction and feeling a sense of purpose, but folks need never define these things for themselves if they are consistently provided for them. Is it ultimately more empowering to take control and lead the way, or to allow people the freedom to choose their own path? And what do we lose when we supplant the collective potential of many people with the perspective of a single individual? The representative democracy practiced in the US need not inhibit community empowerment so long as representatives are selected by the community to represent the ideas of the community, but where there is forceful repression of alternative forms of democracy, there will likely be “leaders” who are no longer representative.

When Obama says “we’re all in this together,” does this togetherness involve us organizing/mobilizing with and for each other or only in support of the president’s agenda? The close election scenario, the polarized electorate, the “fiscal cliff,” whatever it is called - it is a contest, a conflict, a crisis marketed to the masses. Another distraction in a long series of ever more urgent events, signaling our minds to shut down our creative potential and focus on securing our survival. There may be actual consequences if action is not taken immediately (what kind of crisis would it be without dire consequences after all?), but this does not change the fact that it is a fabrication, an abstraction that we have created and that we consent to. We should not limit ourselves solely to the options that are placed before us, Democrat or Republican, taxes and/or spending cuts, jobs or environment, unions or budget shortfalls, energy independence or climate change action... This process is self perpetuating in that the original challenge is replaced by a conflict, requiring us to make a “choice” rather than seek a creative solution (or multiple solutions). Is it even possible within the present construct for the President to ask us for ideas and assistance without compromising his status as a “leader”? Whatever the answer, we must recognize that the limits of the presidency, the Congress, the government do not need to be our limits as well. Thank you for voting. Thank you for exercising your power. It’s yours - you can do it every day.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

33%

Ok - I have this theory that is looking for some research, but how does one research something like this? Since the 2000 (s)election, possibly even before that, my political advisor and I have been talking about a breakdown of the American electorate that amounts to approximately 60% of folks who are eligible to vote actually voting. A 50+% majority of this group of voters is therefore only 30+% of those eligible to vote. This brought me to a simple, perhaps unverifiable, intuitive idea: what if this 50/50 split, this “polarized” electorate we hear about after every presidential (s)election, before and after every congressional vote, is a myth? Why would the Republican party put such herculean effort into suppressing the vote (chasing statistically non-existent “voter fraud”) if they actually had the numbers to win? So I came up with a shorthand to use in our conversations: Republicans/Conservatives are only 33% of the electorate - there are no more votes beyond that cap. I believe this is why Bush & his cabal had to steal two elections and why the mobilization of greater numbers of eligible voters has made it impossible for the RNC to keep up. I have often wondered why the Democratic party and it’s supporters do not simply make these numbers (provided my intuitive sense is correct here) known publicly. Perhaps they are concerned that this would seem overly partisan? That going on record with something like this might be suppressive in itself, akin to telling Republicans/Conservatives that they can’t win so they should just stay home. Maybe it’s just too hard to get a real fix on these numbers in a country where the number of people who don’t vote is consistently higher than the “majority” that “wins” the (s)election. With that in mind, maybe the status quo (the 50/50 horserace model) is more appealing to the Democrats than the risky prospect of informing the electorate that a third party win is statistically possible...

I think that questioning authority requires a recognition that those in authority have the means to manipulate what we accept as “objective” facts, including control over delivery of these “objective” facts (via media, education, socialization, etc.). It is up to us to look to one another, alternative sources of information, and our intuitive understanding to see through the veneer of this “objectivity.” This is not to say that we should make a policy of disregarding “reality,” “truth,” or the “facts” but that a greater understanding comes when we keep in mind that we are all subjective beings, each with our own perceptions and interpretations of the “reality” around us.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

SNAKE OIL SALESMEN

Monday morning, back to work. The day before the election, a week after the storm. So many still in darkness. Challenging times like these can be opportunities to reflect on the decisions we have made and the path before us. I sincerely hope that we do not miss this opportunity in a rush back to the comfort of our normal routine.

Health Care, Education, Energy, Environment, Jobs... During the 2008 election cycle I produced two campaign videos to draw attention to the essential differences between Kucinich policy positions and the obligatory bullet points found on each of the other democratic primary candidates respective websites. For example, when Dennis Kucinich talked about “universal health care,” he was talking about a not-for-profit single payer system: Medicare for all - House Resolution 676. Barack Obama and media covering the primary used the term “universal health care” interchangeably with the newly minted “affordable health care,” obscuring the definition of the term “universal” and making it next to impossible to have a conversation about the relative differences of the policies. Later in the primary (long after Kucinich had been vanquished from the debate), we learned that this was a special enforceable mandate free kind of affordable. The five points were spelled out phonetically in the videos to poke fun at their over use and mis-use, to mock the arrogance of a political system that time and again presents these same bullet points as a bottled panacea to cure all that ails us. They treat us like children, too ignorant to understand the finer points of our own suffering. As is often the case with real children, we are rarely consulted and included in these adult discussions of our fate. We are relegated to the status of “swing state” campaign stop backdrop, selected as a scripted validation of whatever political point needs to be made.

In 2012 this already deficient five point perennial campaign platform has been narrowed even further, all other issues funneled through one single point - jobs. Health care in the USA continues to exist primarily as a benefit of a “good job,” rather than as a function of the common good. The power of this incentive (coupled with the scarcity of “good jobs”) keeps many tethered to jobs (and treatment on the job) they would otherwise reject. Education “reform” is predicated on the idea of lifting young people out of poverty by enabling them to compete for these “good jobs.” Absent from this argument is any discussion of how education enriches and empowers our youth (and our society) through creative and critical thought, regardless of economic outcomes. It has been suggested that a college education may be as key to attaining the highly specialized jobs of the 21st Century as secondary education was in the 20th century. Between this and the retraining of workers to keep up with technological progress, how much life will we actually spend learning to live? Most outrageous, in light of the recent storm, is how the issues of energy and environment have been consumed whole by this focus on jobs. Democrats and Republicans (and a complacent media) conveniently limit any discussion to the relative economics and job potential of their respective “plans.” Environmental, health and safety concerns have all been labeled “job killing.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some economists are even talking about a potential bump to the economy in particular sectors...

About a week ago I watched a news program that brought together Mike Caputo, Vice President of The United Mine Workers of America and Tyson Slocum, director of the Public Citizen Energy Program. Mr. Caputo spoke in depth about the 70,000 - 100,000 dollar jobs with excellent health care and benefits, as well as the families and the economies of entire communities that depend on these jobs. Mr. Slocum pointed out that, despite wide acceptance of the science of climate change, the politics and economics of energy policy dominates the discussion specifically because the US is the largest fossil fuel producer on the planet. I enjoy watching this show because of the host’s ability to bring people together in constructive dialogue, but here there didn’t seem to be time to go much deeper than presenting two sides of the argument. One thing that really struck me was when Caputo mentioned that the jobs that wind farms create are minuscule compared to coal mining. I haven’t fact checked this claim myself, but I thought about how he might actually be making a sustainability argument for coal jobs, after all coal needs to be mined continuously as it is used. Wind power? Not so much. But isn’t that part of the point? Is the labor intensive nature of mining actually an asset? If in fact we are maintaining an industry that is detrimental not only to the planet (and all life on it), but also to the long term health and safety of those involved in it, can’t we find other (perhaps better?) ways to address the issue of job security for these workers? Can we do this in a way that is mindful of the dignity and self worth that is engendered through work? I faced some of these feelings myself when the economy crashed and I couldn’t find work. It can be challenging and frightening facing the prospect that the work you have spent most of your life doing may simply no longer be necessary. All of this got me thinking about the underlying hopes and fears of all involved, wondering what could be accomplished if our politicians were not consistently framing the argument as a battle between environmentalists and those directly affected in terms of their livelihood. Everyone involved and affected must be included in the discussion, and after Hurricane Sandy there will likely be many more in the United States who will have reason to participate in this discussion. And what of the millions affected by Sandy and multiple storms this season outside the US? They must be involved in this discussion as well. This isn’t about government bureaucrats making decisions that adversely affect the lives of citizens (as it is commonly spun); this is, at its heart, about a 1% that profits from the desperation of those who are made to prioritize their immediate survival over their survival a year, ten years, 50 years from now…

Romney claims he will win the election if he wins Ohio. When I read articles about Romney family holdings in a company that manufactures voting machines, it is hard not to hear his claim as back story to validate another stolen election. Key to stealing an election is the appearance of a close race, and that is just what the pundits are spinning about Ohio. When Romney and Obama got into a pissing match over who loves coal more in the second CPD debate, they were talking to “coal voters” throughout south eastern Ohio and West Virginia. Notably their focus was on the coal industry itself rather than the welfare of these workers and their families. Is this really about jobs, or is it a cynical manipulation of the fears of these men and women? Are they making a case for the prosperity of these workers or are they relying on the fear of a lost job to drive these workers into the voting booth? And if this is the case, how does this relate to policies that keep these families dependent enough to submit to this manipulation? During the match, neither candidate addressed the mining disasters that have made the headlines recently, and how the corporations responsible in those cases get fined, rather than shut down. Not surprisingly neither of them addressed acid rain, mountain top removal, or climate change either. The singular focus on jobs dominates the discussion, wiping away all other concerns. Month after month of “opinion polls” pushing this single word to the top of the pile, conditioning us to accept that only the most pressing, most desperate, of concerns need be addressed. Everything else is extravagance, a burden we can’t afford to even talk about. So says the austerity model.

Matthew Fox writes in his book The Reinvention of Work:

Under the pressure of the world economic crunch that is creating a worldwide depression, the grave danger looms that we will seek only jobs–jobs at any price–and ignore the deeper questions of work such as how, why, and for whom we do our work.

So, if all of these issues are being funneled through this single point, what happens when we remove jobs from the equation? Just for kicks, what happens with climate change if all coal miners the world over were to suddenly find themselves independently wealthy? What if all the tax payer money we spend subsidizing the mythical “clean coal” was spent instead to provide a cushion for miners to decide what they want to do without it being a question of economic survival for their families and their towns? And I’m not talking about a bridge loan here, or a program to retrain these workers, or a mandatory resume writing seminar to get your unemployment check. I’m talking about dignity, and respect, and a well deserved reward for years of hard work. What if health care was independent of your job so you could make career choices based on what you want to do rather than what type of benefit package you can get? What if we dealt with child poverty (which is of course family poverty, community poverty, etc.) before we sent children to school, rather than as the ultimate objective of education, so that our youth could instead focus on how best to contribute their unique genius to our society? When our politicians speak of “winning the future” through education fueled innovation, what kind of message are we sending to our youth? Are we at all concerned about their freedom to build the life, the world, they desire? Or are we just priming them to take their role in saving the existing system from collapse? What is the impact on innovation when an entire generation of young people seek MBAs based on the ratio of return for their education dollar? And finally, what impact would removing this singular focus on jobs from the equation have on our elections? If your boss sends you a memo “encouraging” you to vote for a particular candidate, is it ok for you to send  a reply “encouraging” your boss to mind their own business? Which issues rise to the top of your list when the issue of jobs is removed? How many of them are issues of economics? What would it take for you to prioritize the ones that are not?   

One percent power players love to use the term “redistribution of wealth” to attack those seeking economic justice, but they never use this term to refer to the enormous direct and indirect government subsidies (tax breaks, tax credits, loans, incentives, deals, etc.) their own corporations receive. Occupy Wall Street chants, “Banks got bailed out - we got sold out!” This is a somewhat different response from the Wall Street vs. Main Street narrative I heard over and over after the crash. The idea of taxing Wall Street a small percentage on transactions, in order to generate funds to offset the damage done to Main Street is clearly a downward spiral. Getting a kickback from the guy who is robbing you will not get back the home or the job you lost. And he can always gouge you more (put you into debt) to pay off your cut... It’s important to recognize that the bailout is a redistribution of wealth, from the tax payers to the wealthy. It is the same redistribution of wealth that happens when public resources and services are privatized, directing our tax dollars into the bank accounts of private corporations, rather than back into the hands of our citizens. The OWS chant doesn’t ask for a corporate handout (is that an oxymoron?) or a government bailout for the people. The People’s Bailout, the Rolling Jubillee, comes from the people directly. I remember Bush senior talking about “a thousand points of light” and thinking what an asshole. But that was a time when those thousand points responded (when they actually did respond) more out of sympathy, pity, charity. The thousands of points of light I witness in Occupy are coming from empathy. Many in the movement have experienced or are experiencing the same suffering that they are responding to directly, and progressively more and more folks throughout the country are having similar personal experiences that move them to take action. The “safety net” is no longer keeping them safe and in its place they are seeking to build communities of trust and mutual aid. Within these communities they can be who they want to be and do the work they want to do. The adversity they face is simultaneously an opportunity for greater solidarity, for deeper connection. Occupy Sandy is a wonderful example of this dynamic.

From Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin’s book Your Money or Your Life:

And they call this making a living? Think about it. How many people have you seen who are more alive at the end of the work day than they were at the beginning? Do we come home from our “making a living” activity with more life? Do we bound through the door, refreshed and energized, ready for a great evening with the family? Where’s all the life we supposedly made at work? For many of us, isn’t the truth closer to “making a dying”? Aren’t we killing ourselves–our health, our relationships, our sense of joy and wonder–for our jobs? We are sacrificing our lives for money–but it’s happening so slowly that we barely notice. Graying temples and thickening middles along with dubious signs of progress like a corner office, a private secretary or tenure are the only landmarks of the passage of time. Eventually we may have all the comforts and even luxuries we could ever want, but inertia itself keeps us locked into the nine-to-five pattern. After all, if we didn’t work, what would we do with our time? The dreams we had of finding meaning and fulfillment through our jobs have faded into the reality of professional politics, burnout, boredom and intense competition.

My political advisor astutely suggested that I look into what is being done in other countries to address the dignity of coal workers AND the continued existence of life on this planet. Due to the storm I have not been able to research this point, but I will certainly look into it and post my findings when I have my phone and internet back up and running. This post is dedicated to him on his birthday.
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Still haven’t gotten around to the research above, but came across a related article today that I really enjoyed - read it here 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Are you listening?

As the wind gusts outside I find myself experiencing a peculiar kind of fatigue. Over the last couple days we’ve made a few trips round the neighborhood stocking up on supplies to prepare for this year’s big storm. The panic driven consumer frenzy that surrounds these storms always has me shaking my head. It’s only common sense to get prepared with a storm on its way, but I can’t help but note how this consumer reflex is becoming our response to everything. On the surface this consumption looks like preparedness, but is it really? Like so many other things in our culture, isn’t this just another way to cope with a situation we feel powerless to control? It reminds me of our current health care model: wait till it breaks, then attempt to fix it. If it’s too late to actually fix it (which it is more often than not) - medicate it so that the symptoms are at least tolerable. Today I heard one of “our” Senators explaining all of the different ways that people would be compensated for damages they suffer from the storm. There were even programs to cover lost business revenue. Here again, we respond to damage after the fact, accepting the outcome as inevitable rather than addressing the underlying cause. Perhaps the Senator is just trying to make us feel more secure, explaining that the government has our back when times are tough. Hey this is what you pay your taxes for right? This is one of those moments when we recognize the benefits of having a safety net, when something REALLY BIG happens and we can all feel... um... safe. So then what is my fatigue about? Buying emergency supplies wasn’t all that stressful. Yes, the lines were loooooong, but we are lucky enough to have food to buy. I have a roof over my head that will in all likelihood withstand the wind. I am fortunate to live in an area high enough to avoid the flooding. I’ve got the electricity to write this blog entry...

But I can’t shake this feeling. I’m tired. I’m tired and honestly, I’m a bit frightened. I’m tired of people not listening. A historic storm by all accounts, days before a presidential election, large enough to threaten the entire Atlantic coast - I feel like I’m living in some sort of Bizarro World vacuum. I want a bit more from “my” politicians than an explanation of how I can get compensation for damage done. Three debates and not one mention of climate change? Campaign ads airing between hurricane updates? Katrina. Irene. Sandy. She's raising her voice. How loud does she have to get before you listen?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Binders full of women - a debate stage full of men.

Today I am reading Romney’s “binders full of women” quote everywhere. While the issue brought up is clearly more substantive than Big Bird, does it really surprise anyone? I read article after article leading up to last night’s debate bemoaning the president not bringing up women in the first debate, and prioritizing the importance for both candidates to play specifically to women voters in the second. Well it would seem that Romney fulfilled expectations putting his foot firmly in his mouth last night saying, “We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women.” I imagine Ryan might say that Romney was “obviously inarticulate” in making this point, if he himself was capable of recognizing the problem with it. Perhaps Mitt is simply trying to say that employers are going to be anxious to hire good workers and women are good workers, but the statement comes off sounding like it says that employers are going to be “so anxious to get good workers” that they will even hire women.

So Obama gets points for Lilly Ledbetter, defending Planned Parenthood, and he has two daughters he wants to make sure “have the same opportunities that anybody’s sons have.” He sounds like he cares. And maybe he is being sincere, but watching two women (who are running for the same office) being manhandled and arrested by a bunch of burly officers outside the debate gives me pause. The Obama campaign is not simply complicit here, it is the Democrats and Republicans acting in concert through the false flag of the Commission on Presidential Debates that have excluded these women’s voices from the debates. The “Nonpartisan” Candidate Selection Criteria For 2012 General Election Debate Participation, Adopted on October 20, 2011, sets forth three specific “nonpartisan” criteria for selecting candidates to participate in the 2012 general election presidential debates: (1) constitutional eligibility, (2) ballot access, and (3) electoral support. Though I personally believe both the second and third criteria need redress, the candidacy of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala actually meets criteria one and two. The third criteria, however, is a self-validating circle of nonsense:

INDICATORS OF ELECTORAL SUPPORT

The CPD's third criterion requires that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% (fifteen percent) of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination. 

"Electoral support” is simply not the same thing as “indicators of electoral support," in the same way that “votes” are not “opinion polls.” Under these criteria, a candidate needs to have enough support to be selected to debate to get enough support to be selected to debate... nonsense. A debate is at its heart about finding out where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to us; and five selected national polling organizations, the CPD, and the two parties that run it should not be allowed to determine which voices we get to hear and which get to go to jail for showing and speaking up.

One other thing stands out to me about the debate and it’s critique: I’m seeing some very talented people that I respect taking Romney to task for his comment, “Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs.” But why not also take Obama to task for saying, “I think a lot of this campaign, maybe over the last four years, has been devoted to this notion that I think government creates jobs, that that somehow is the answer. That’s not what I believe.” I wrote a bit in an earlier post about mobilizing the American people to support legislation that they actually want, rather than simply adopting Republican talking points in some kind of hopeless crusade to out Republican the Republicans. When Obama declares “I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded,” and tempers this with his fair shot, fair share, play by the same rules refrain; is he offering us the necessary vision to move beyond this win/lose competitive paradigm, or is he simply strengthening it? With the concepts of independence and competition so central to our core identity as Americans, is it even possible to address “fairness” without it being viewed as an affront to those very same ideas? If you insist on fairness aren’t you just making excuses for your own lack of success? Perhaps you are just too lazy, or unwilling (to work harder), or maybe you’re just not smart (educated) enough. Are we truly “free” if we cannot freely choose not to participate in this game?
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Mark Halperin at Time Magazine posted the leaked Memorandum of Understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns Monday, a 21 page legal document delineating the rules governing 2012 presidential and vice presidential debates. I read it this morning. And then I made a cup of coffee to try to wake myself back up. It did of course contain specifics regarding who gets to debate, the topics that will be “debated,” and the format of the debate (as I wrote in an earlier post); of the many restrictions here are a few that set off some bells for me:

1. (d) The parties agree that they will not (1) issue any challenges for additional debates, (2) appear at any other debate or adversarial forums except as agreed to by the parties, or (3) accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format or otherwise involve the simultaneous appearance of more than one candidate.

So not only does the agreement restrict who can debate, but it also restricts the two candidates to only debating one another, and only in these CPD sanctioned debates.

3. Participants
If one or more candidates from the campaigns other than the two (2) signatories are invited to participate pursuant to those Selection Criteria, those candidates shall be included in the debates, if those candidates accept the terms of this agreement.

This effectively says IF you meet the criteria to be invited to debate that you still have to agree to the terms of the agreement (that your party had no hand in writing) IF you want to be included in the debate.

5. (e) The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the four debates.

Ah well - rules are made to be broken.

7. Additional Rules Applicable to the October 16 Debate...

Too much here to re-type, but here is my summary: Audience members submit their questions to the moderator prior to the start of the debate. Moderator approves all questions to be posed and “eliminates” any questions she (and she alone) deems “inappropriate.” If any audience member poses a question or makes a statement that is in any material way different than the question that they submitted for review, they get cut off by the moderator and the Commission can cut off their microphone. All audience members describe themselves as likely voters. The audience is selected by Gallup Organization, but the campaigns have the final say on the “methodology” used for selection.

9. (a) (viii) All members of the debate audience will be instructed by the moderator before the debate goes on the air and by the moderator after the debate goes on the air not to applaud, speak, or otherwise participate in the debate by any means other than silent observation, except as provided by the agreed upon rules of the October 16 town hall debate. The moderator shall also state that, should an audience member fail to comply with this requirement, he or she will be will be subject to removal from the audience and from the facility. 

10. (a) ... Each campaign shall be entitled to receive directly from the Commission one-third of the available tickets (excluding those allocated to the participating audience in the October 16 debate), with the remaining one-third going to the Comission.

Basically, what we have here is some sort of facsimile of democracy in action, with all of the inconvenient randomness, diversity, and unscripted participation stripped out. And you are more than likely not invited.
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An additional note: beyond the specifics relating to distribution of tickets, section 10. (c) of the memorandum specifies seating arrangements, in order to “insure that supporters of each candidate do not sit in a block and are interspersed with supporters for the other candidate and interspersed with tickets distributed by the Commission.” Notable here is that there is no specific allotment for supporters of a different candidate entirely, or neither candidate, or those who have simply not decided (it is a debate after all). Perhaps folks in these categories can sit anywhere they like? If not, they could always sit outside in the street, or better yet, in a jail cell...

MIC CHECK!!!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

“I take your stuff...”

On the weekend of the Occupy Wall Street anniversary I attended a meeting of the Strike Debt assembly in New York. The meeting was a book release for The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, but also a working meeting to get input from all that attended. At the onset of the meeting a couple of people shared their personal stories of debt with the group. This sharing of stories was intended to address the shame, frustration and fear that many feel in connection with their debt. I could understand the logic here, but I found myself having a very strong reaction to the idea of shame being a common reference point for our discussion of debt. I wanted to share my story, but I didn’t think it fit within this construct. I’m in debt, but it is not shame that I feel, it is outrage. I don’t buy into the common American debt narrative: you are in debt because you bought something you couldn’t afford, because you were living beyond your means, because you are lacking in personal responsibility, because you are lazy, etc. The underlying idea here is that debt is a product of choice. But debt is about much more than choice, it is a deliberate and coercive means of control.

After several people involved with Strike Debt had spoken about different aspects of the project, a facilitator asked us come up with a question concerning debt to be posed to the group. I wasn’t really sure how to frame my question, but I was eager to offer my input and get some feedback. So when the mic came around to me I asked, “How does debt relate to theft of resources by 1% corporations?” When corporations go into countries and steal resources to sell them on the global market, often back to those they originally stole them from, how does this relate to debt? The facilitators wrote down the questions people had posed, inviting us to break out into smaller groups and choose one of the questions to discuss. The group I was part of was interested in discussing several of the questions, one participant even adding a question of her own to the list. A few people in the group were particularly interested in the question I had posed and asked me to elaborate on it. I appreciated their interest and enthusiasm, but at the time I felt reluctant to do so. I was much more interested in engaging in dialogue and listening, than in elaborating on my question. Deference to leadership is common within our culture, a show of respect for those who appear knowledgeable and capable (or, in seeming contradiction to the origin of this nation, are divinely appointed). When this is coupled with individual ownership of ideas, another root tenet of our culture, it can be difficult to contribute to a conversation without appearing attached to the ideas one contributes. But if we are truly looking to evolve “our” ideas, and not simply own the soap box, perhaps we should be seeking to free them from ownership, to let them exist independent of individual ego and belief, to invite and encourage modification of the ideas through alternative perspectives.

When it comes to movement building I have always been a big proponent of broadening our focus to include allies internationally, to more objectively understand and address the obstacles we face, as well as to learn and share successful strategies for moving forward. While focusing on a single issue may seem like good strategy for mobilizing a specific group of people affected by and passionate about that particular issue, it can also create a kind of tunnel-vision, blinding us to the broader interconnectedness of multiple issues affecting our larger community. Similarly, we can become trapped inside our own cultural identities, unable to recognize that many of the obstacles we face are a function of these identities. Inclusion of alternative perspectives, free of this cultural bias, can often allow us to see past these obstacles.

International debt relief has been a focus of the global justice movement for many years, but that concept of debt appears quite different from the American (USA) model. It occurs to me that the major difference here is this American illusion of “choice.” When a Bolivian farmer is made to choose between paying for water or feeding his family - is this really a “choice”? When our seniors are made to choose between heating their homes or medicine to keep them alive - is this really a “choice”? When our youth are made to choose between getting an education or supporting their families - is this really a “choice”? All of these “choices” have something in common: resources that have been privatized and then sold off to make a profit. The corporations and financial entities (and governments that empower them) that have privatized (stolen) these resources have no intrinsic right to them, though they often receive public subsidies to extract and/or refine them. We are so indoctrinated into a system of individual ownership in the US, the very concept of “property” enshrined in our Constitution, that we can scarcely conceive of the commons belonging to us. When we provide our labor, why do we not conceive of it as a resource? When we speak of success, why is it not as a function of the combined labor (physical and intellectual) of those who have come before us? When the air, water and land we need to live is jeopardized by corporate abuse, why do we not simply take it away from them? Even our genetic information, the very mystery of life itself, is but another resource to privatize and commodify. Key here is that, once the resources have been extracted, the people will require assistance to make up for the loss to their economies, their livelihoods, their ability to provide for their people’s basic needs. And, as if on cue, in swoops the benevolent benefactor (you know - the same one that stole all your stuff moments ago) to generously provide that needed assistance - at a price...

So how can we recast this American debt narrative of “choice” to be more in line with the one that is known throughout the world? One person in our break out group suggested that we might come up with a sort of overarching metaphor, something to cut through all the complicated financial bs that insulates debt from critique. I mentioned something about native cultures’ conception of land as communal, a gift from the creator, rather than as some thing to be owned. It got me thinking that a deeper look at the concept of ownership itself might be helpful when examining debt. As the break out groups were called on to report back to the larger meeting, I quickly jotted this down in my notebook:

I take your stuff, then I make you pay for it. I take the lion’s share then I make you fight for the crumbs. Then I offer you a “loan” to make up for your loss. Then I sell your debt/use it to make even more money.

I’m not an expert in finance or debt. I have a BFA, not an MBA. But swimming in this financial cesspool of intentional obfuscation, perhaps more expert testimony is not what we need. Perhaps a bit of intuitive common sense instead. When the banking/brokerage kings of finance are allowed to sell 30-40 times more debt (most of it in bundled home mortgages) than they can back up with actual cash money (liquid assets), turning profit on every sale along the way, knowing full well that our taxes will bail their asses out when the junk debt they’re selling goes belly up; maybe we need to be looking beyond the paltry sums that we “owe” them - to the massive amounts of profit they make dealing “our” debt. Whatever we decide to focus on, we should keep in mind: it is only through our common consent to their hoarding of our resources, that we remain indebted to them.
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Today we will be meeting, marching, and MAKING SOME NOISE in New York and across the world. Perhaps you will join us wherever you are :)
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I wrote a bit about the 1% austerity model in a related post here

Saturday, October 6, 2012

BLACK SUIT / RED TIE

Psst... Romney’s not Reagan. Neither is Ryan. Steal & share. Click for larger image.

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Apparently it isn’t enough to be a CEO playing a politician playing an actor playing the president - you actually need to have your vp candidate inform your base (and the media) that this is in fact what you are doing...

From October 7th (the day after I posted my split screen):
Paul Ryan Compares Romney's Debate Performance to Ronald Reagan

"Did Mitt Romney not knock it out of the park the other night in Denver?" Ryan asked a crowd of about 200 donors at a fundraiser here Saturday evening. "I was so excited to see that because I was thinking to myself, finally people are seeing the guy we know. Finally - I mean didn't you kind of think of Ronald Reagan when you were watching that?"

A donor interjected that Romney's debate performance actually reminded her of the man standing in front of them.

"We were thinking of you," a donor yelled.

Two Reagan’s for the price of one.

Friday, October 5, 2012

WHO WON THE DEBATE?

I am fully aware of how electoral politics is used to distract us from pursuing any kind of direct democratic action: as a siphon of limited time and organizing energy, but also as a restraint to keep us in line. If organizing a social justice movement (political campaign) without the stated objective of influencing electoral politics is ineffectual (as those in power brand it), then why bother? Just stick to voting every couple of years. Reading my blog, it may not surprise you when I write that the win/lose construct is one of the most effective tools to discourage us from participating in shared dialogue. That said, I feel like there is an opportunity for us to move forward here by simply recognizing the missing point.

Try this - when thinking about what was said at the debate, apply this filter: every single attack Romney made on Obama at the debate was for something that Republicans had requested, initiated, or modeled prior to Obama picking it up and moving it forward. Does this alter your perception of the debate?

A little background. There was a lot of media attention and speculation when Supreme Court Justice Roberts presented his “dissenting” opinion concerning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act mandate. Left leaning media hailed it as a victory for Obama, citing dissension within the court between Roberts and Scalia. Strangely I did not find, and still don’t find, anyone writing about how saving the legislation would be a boon to the Romney campaign. The logic here is simple - “Obamacare” is the single most important issue specific avenue of attack that the Romney campaign has in its arsenal. Other values based issues have been used again and again in Republican campaigns, but this issue is specifically a product of the Obama Administration, often described as Obama’s “signature legislation.” Removing this issue from the table would have been disastrous for Romney, having spent so much of his campaign focused on “repealing Obamacare.”  Roberts’ re-contextualization of the mandate as a “tax” was widely panned as a stretching of the law, but it did do one thing perfectly: it defined a specific difference between Obama’s healthcare legislation and Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare legislation. Romney’s was a mandate, but Obama’s was a TAX. And Republicans love taxes.

After Paul Ryan gave his speech at the Republican National Convention, there was again an uproar in the press over all the “lies” he told from the stage. But again, I saw no specific critique that pointed out that each of the legislative problems Ryan blamed on the Obama administration was actually dreamt up and put into motion by Ryan and his cohorts. This was a blatantly transparent strategy of toxification. You have an issue that you will undoubtedly use against me in a debate. I preemptively attack you for creating the issue in the first place. My base believes my attack because they do not have any other information to dispute my claim. When it is time to debate, you cannot bring up the issue without immediately being blamed for it - it has been made toxic. Your ace in the hole is now my ace in the hole.

This is the strategy that Romney used throughout Wednesday’s debate. Once this strategy has been put into motion it is practically impossible to defend against. If all of what I witnessed on Wednesday was not simply scripted spectacle, then it would seem that Obama’s campaign is not quite as smart as they are given credit for. It is too late to mount a defense when you finally realize that each of the legislative compromises you made is a trap which will be used to attack you. If you defend yourself by saying “I gave you what you wanted,” they will only label you a weak, whiny liberal. When Romney flipped the switch attacking Obama repeatedly for making cuts to Medicare (under the guise of balancing the budget, reducing the deficit, reigning in spending, ALL Republican talking points) there was simply no defense he could mount. When Romney attacked Obama on Obamacare saying that it was a failure at a federal level while declaring (for the first time) that his own Massachusetts plan was a model for all states to emulate, what could Obama say? But my plan is based on yours? If yours is a success, then SO IS MINE!? How does one draw attention to the essential difference between oneself and one’s opponent when the majority of one’s “successes” come through compromise with them?

So why didn’t the Democrats see this coming? Is this just the ultimate outcome of bi-partisan politics? I don’t have any faith in this President, but I also know that Romney/Ryan could be even more of a nightmare, for the simple fact that their base offers little or no resistance to (and would even celebrate many of) the draconian measures they would certainly codify into law. Even with all of his outrageous expansions on policies initiated during the Bush (and Clinton) years, Obama still has to maintain a public image as benevolent leader that Romney will not. Of course, all bets are off during a lame duck presidency...

There really is only one way (that I can see) to deal with this Republican flip the switch strategy. Mobilize the American people to support legislation that they actually want. Basing new policy on past Republican policy proposals in order to garner Republican support? How’s that workin’ for ya? Yeah, not so much. Perhaps our current “great communicator” president wasn’t up to the task of popularizing a program of renewal with the American people, or perhaps his pragmatism keeps him from launching the kind of ambitious plan that Americans could actually get excited about, or perhaps he is actually just the smiling face of corporate control. Whatever the reason, it is up to us to recognize how these concepts link, and how they yield predictable results - if we don’t want to get swept up in the horse race frenzy that our political system has become.

Who won the debate? Who cares.

P.S. Regarding Big Bird - remember this? Are we really this easy to manipulate?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

COKE OR PEPSI?

I’m not going to try and convince you that Obama and Romney are exactly the same. I’m not going to make a case for not voting or voting third party. I don't yet know who I will vote for in November myself. And I like it that way. When is the last time that you remember going into an election cycle looking for the candidates to introduce themselves to you, to communicate their specific positions on issues important to you, to actually listen to you and reflect on what they can do for you as your representative? Do you remember that far back? Do you even remember that at all?

The first CPD sponsored presidential debate of the 2012 election cycle will take place tonight. By my count there are still more than two dozen citizens running for the office of president across the country. How many of those candidates will be allowed to speak in tonight’s debate?

Two.*

Who gets to debate, the topics that will be “debated,” the format of the debate - all decided on and agreed to ahead of time by the Obama and Romney campaigns. So who is this CPD that sponsors the debates? The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private “non-profit” corporation started by former heads of the Democratic and Republican National Committees in 1987. It replaced the League of Women Voters in 1988 and has been sole sponsor of every presidential debate since that time. The CPD itself currently has seven sponsors including three companies, the largest of which is Anheuser-Busch (that's right Budweiser is sponsoring your democracy). While people mobilize across the country to battle efforts by the right to limit ballot access (a nice way to say steal the vote) , the CPD quietly acts as a limited liability shill (as corporations often do) for the censorship of any dissenting opinion at the presidential debates. It is only through the inclusion of alternative voices that the dialogue can be expanded and that candidates can be kept honest. This limiting of the number of voices at the debate by folks who are already in the debate is clearly a conflict of interest. My “more voices” graphic below includes four alternative voices (among many) that should be part of the debate: (from left to right in no particular order) Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Jill Stein of the Green Party, and Anonymous. Please feel free to “steal” it and share it EVERYWHERE. Click to enlarge image.


I could go into depth about instant runoff voting (IRV), public financing of elections, voting “no confidence,” but there is one thought that I want to draw attention to above all the others. Representational democracy is about voting for the person that best represents your interests. So regardless of who you choose to vote for in November, I sincerely hope you will remember that it is your choice and not the choice of pollsters, pundits, or the CPD.

Democracy Now! ran a great in depth piece on the CPD today - watch it here

*Democracy Now! is airing a LIVE expanded debate tonight from 8:30 - 11:30 pm ET, pausing after questions to include equal time responses from Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party - watch it here

Learn more and get involved at opendebates.org
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October 15, 2012 - Mark Halperin at Time Magazine posts leaked Memorandum of Understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns - read it here

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rahm Emanuel is the Democrat Scott Walker

Back in high school I had a professor who asked our class what we all thought was a simple question: “What is culture?” I had answered this question correctly a number of times before on various tests. You could even look it up in the index of the world studies book we were using. Yup, there it was in graphic black and white: “Culture - a way of life.” So you can imagine our surprise when we offered up this definitive answer in unison only to become the target of our professor’s scorn. Apparently we were all participating in something called “regurgitation,” and she quite forcefully demanded that we do something else instead - think. Well this didn’t sit well with many of our school’s best and brightest. Hell, we wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to be in this class if we hadn’t gotten that answer correct on all those tests I mentioned before. I'll never forget the silence in the class, the conditioned inability to respond to her question in depth. What the hell did she want from us? This is the single professor I admire most from my years in the public school system. When I invited her down to the art room toward the end of the term, to see the artwork I was working on all those 30 days in a row that I had skipped her class, she was honored her feedback was that important to me.

In the mid 90’s, while I was working in on-air graphics at VH1, I witnessed a major shift in the music industry: away from talented artists who had creative control over their music, toward generic musical acts that could be more easily manipulated to match market trends. Creating their own “artists” from scratch gave the record companies ultimate control over the product - no debate, no compromise, pure profit. All through the Bush (W.) years my political advisor and I would make jokes about the Friday afternoon press dumps, simultaneously launched from multiple sources within the administration and rarely ever in agreement. By Monday they would know which story had polled best and run with it, relying on the few people who actually kept up with such things to forget who originally said what. It’s a kind of consumer marketing campaign. Testing the waters, seeing what the consumers will accept and what they will reject, researching ways to get them to accept (and even support) an agenda that is not in their best interest. When I see Paul Ryan being rolled out as the standard bearer for the Republican Party, from relative obscurity, charged with championing a budget plan that seems all but DOA; I can't help but think of a certain young Illinois State Senator bursting onto the political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. When Kerry conceded the presidency that year, Obama was all over the airwaves explaining away yet another stolen election, with a new democratic narrative connecting the loss to “moral values.” Who was this fucking guy I thought? Why was he lending his support to the Karl Rove strategy playbook? Prior to the election, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend over dinner about how the same-sex ballot measures engineered by Karl (“Bush’s Brain”) Rove were NOT really intended to increase turnout at the polls, but rather to be used retroactively as validation of yet another stolen election “victory.” Post election studies showed that voter turnout was no higher in states with ballot measures than in those without. Though I sincerely hope we don’t have to go through another stolen election this year, I think it’s important to keep in mind how our two party system uses these opportune election moments to roll out “next year’s model.” The more obvious spectacle is often just a cover for the machinations that are going on behind the scenes. 

Watching the teachers in Chicago take to the streets I immediately thought of the Wisconsin uprising. Reading a few articles on the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike I saw some bits about how the teachers were seeking higher compensation even though they were the highest paid in the country, how compensation was by law the only issue that they were allowed to strike over, how if the strike were allowed to go on that the parents might turn against the teachers due to the inconvenience of having to find something to do with their children. I was unfamiliar with the specifics of the strike itself, but all of this sounded like spin to me. I knew that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; a Democrat, former Obama Administration Chief of Staff, had presided over the crackdown on Occupy Chicago (touched on this in my last post). I knew that his coming out against the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU) was not something new. I knew that Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was the former Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). And I knew that all three; Obama, Duncan, and Rahm are proponents of education reform programs that include privatization of public schools and teacher/student evaluation through standardized testing. So I went to the CTU website and read a press release titled CPS Fails To Negotiate Fair Contract To Prevent First Strike In 25 Years. In it I found a bunch of information I hadn’t seen in the articles I’d read, most importantly this: “Another concern is evaluation procedures. After the initial phase-in of the new evaluation system it could result in 6,000 teachers (or nearly 30 percent of our members) being discharged within one or two years. This is unacceptable. We are also concerned that too much of the new evaluations will be based on students’ standardized test scores. This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator. Further there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.” I was seeing a familiar pattern here, a political party running a controlled experiment to see what they can get away with through a combination of scripted narrative and sleight of hand. Wisconsin was the chosen test subject for the Republican attack on collective bargaining rights, but the model would be replicated in Republican run states all over the country. Their objective? To completely remove the ability of the opposition to mobilize on their own behalf, insuring that any future Republican legislation could be enacted with no opposition whatsoever. This is of course nothing short of an attack on democracy itself, with the Republican narrative casting democracy as an inconvenience in the face of economic crisis. Walker, Rove, the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch and their whole cabal don’t seem to have any reservations about using actual people as lab rats (and as a vegan I don't use this term lightly) in their little poli-sci experiment.

When CTU refused to end the Chicago teacher’s strike, Rahm Emanuel released a statement claiming the strike was “illegal on two grounds – it is over issues that are deemed by state law to be non-strikable, and it endangers the health and safety of our children.” Further, he claimed that the strike was one of “choice,” and suggested that the children were being “played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union.” The state law that Rahm mentions in the statement? That’s SB7, legislation requiring an increase in CTU’s threshold to strike from a simple majority to 75% of its membership. What he is referencing specifically, though the law seems to have different interpretations, is a restriction of CTU’s right to strike to issues of economics only (wages, benefits, etc.). Emanuel lobbied for the passage of this legislation and unlike Wisconsin, where the Democratic legislators left the state in order to stop Walker’s plan to crush collective bargaining, the Illinois Democratic (majority) state assembly and governor voted FOR this “reform” legislation to restrict the CTU. The legislation passed almost unanimously (House 112-1 / Senate 54-0) in May of last year. As in Wisconsin, this is a set-up, a trap, a manipulation of circumstances in order to force the opponent to play the role that has been scripted for them. In Wisconsin the public unions were cast as lucky beneficiaries of a free ride at the taxpayers’ expense. In Chicago the union, and by association its membership, are cast as law breakers and a danger to children. Yup, that’s right your child’s teacher is a dangerous criminal - thanks Rahm.

These may sound like different strategies, but they actually issue from the same source - economics. The 1% austerity model involves engineering an economic crisis and then attacking those most impacted by it for not being willing to sacrifice even more than what has already been stolen from them. Proponents of “education reform,” push the idea that more education, more vocational training, more personal responsibility, will lift our poor and disenfranchised citizens out of poverty and ensure personal success and success for the country. But if the 1% create the crisis that causes your misery, and then cynically offer you a path out of misery working to make a profit for them, isn’t this just a modern take on indentured servitude? Of course, you’ll have to go into debt to acquire the level of “educational excellence” that is required to qualify for one of those “good jobs.” We have laws against child labor in this country, but no law against transforming our public education system into a private system of vocational training to make sure that our youth will be able to get those “good jobs.” Prioritizing education as a competition, a “Race to the Top,” an “escape from poverty,” de-emphasizes the importance of creative and critical thinking that is essential to our advancement as individuals and as a society. Our public education system can be so much more than a system of indoctrination to prepare our youth for a life of servitude. Yes Rahm, this is a strike of “choice,” a choice not to allow ourselves and our children to be used as lab rats, pawns, or servants in this bi-partisan 1% consumer marketing campaign.

Two weeks ago a Wisconsin judge ruled Walker’s anti-union law “unconstitutional.” Last week a judge ruled the mass arrests of Occupy Chicago demonstrators “unconstitutional.” The successful Chicago Teacher’s Union strike is inspiring educators, parents & students to stand in solidarity throughout the country, to look beyond the austerity narrative that they are being sold. We need not wait for the president to put on his comfortable shoes and join us on the picket line. Together we can revitalize our system of public education, infusing it with the creativity, the curiosity, and the critical thought to see past the 1% script and write a narrative of our own choosing.
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While writing this post I came across an article with a similar theme (and a damn near identical title) by Joseph A. Palermo as well as another great article on the CTU strike by Matt Reichel.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

To PVC, or not to PVC, is not the question.

I could not have been in Washington Square Park for five minutes when I was surrounded by police. On Saturday I attended the Occupy Town Square, arriving late in the afternoon. The Park was filled with people: occupiers, people there for the folk festival, and the general public. When I arrived I approached a friend who was lending a hand bracing the OTS banner on a breezy day. Our conversation was interrupted when a Parks Department official came up and told my friend that pvc (plastic) tubes were not allowed and “asked” him how long it would take to switch the pvc for cardboard tubes. I put ask in quotes here because it didn't actually sound like a question at all, but more like a threat. The three Parks Department officials were accompanied by a rapidly growing circle of NYPD officers who said nothing during the initial exchange, but moved in rapidly to surround the banner and the few people that were near it, myself included. As the circle of officers grew tighter, it was apparent that they were not looking to patiently wait for the pvc tubes to be replaced, but were simply using the non-issue as a means to escalate the situation - likely to provide a rationale for suppressing the entire event. Needless to say, it is rather alarming to be in the park talking with a friend and then to find oneself suddenly surrounded by police officers. It is especially alarming when the police seem to be silently enacting some preplanned strategy that does not involve actually communicating to you what it is that you have done to warrant this treatment. I took the opportunity to step outside of the circle when it presented itself, realizing that I might be subject to arrest just for standing where I was.

Having been a banner wrangler in the past I was familiar with the claims being made about the pvc tubes. The tubes themselves are not illegal. According to the NYPD, “the carrying of signs or objects at a demonstration is protected First Amendment activity. However, where it can be shown that the object carried, i.e. a wooden pole with a sign attached or a bat, (italics mine - a bat?!) has the potential for being used as a weapon, the police may prohibit the carrying of the object during the demonstration. Persons who insist on carrying objects that are potential weapons should be directed to put the object down and leave the area of the demonstration. If they refuse to do so and continue to congregate with others in the demonstration, they may be arrested for Disorderly Conduct, Penal Law Section 240.20.” Clearly, the OTS banner is NOT a weapon, nor is it a structure that would violate the Parks Department’s prohibition on “unlawful camping.” Reading through the current rules and regulations concerning the regulated uses of the NYC parks, it would seem that our constitutional right “peaceably to assemble” now requires the permission of the parks Commissioner when we chose to exercise it in our city parks.

Once away from the circle, I decided to mic check to the crowd as I was particularly struck by the absurdity of the situation, and hoped that shedding some light on it while it was occurring might raise the awareness of folks in the park. Some occupiers seemed upset when I was vocal about the situation, perhaps recognizing that this engineered conflict was a distraction and not wanting us to focus on it. My concern was that people, particularly those outside of OWS, should know why the police action was being taken - that it was not really about plastic tubes, but about the suppression of OWS.

Back in February of 2002, I was stopped by NYPD on the sidewalk when leaving a demonstration focused on the World Economic Forum that was happening in NYC that year. I was blocks away from the demonstration when I saw two officers that had been deployed to protect a nearby Starbucks. One of the officers demanded that I surrender the cardboard tube that my sign was stapled to. I asked them what would happen if I did not, and they told me that I would be detained until their superior arrived, and that he would decide what to do with me. I removed the tube (one of hundreds I had purchased months earlier) from my sign staple by staple as the officers looked on, and surrendered it to them. I lifted my sign high above my head as I walked down the block. I recall thinking about the police busily confiscating all of the x-mas wrapping paper that must have flooded that entire area of the city just a few weeks back, and how absurdly selective this confiscation of my property was.

So big deal. It’s just a tube. Why is this so important to me? Well, it’s easy to recognize that the police presence, tactics, actions are intended to intimidate protestors; but I believe community intimidation to be the real focus of these overwhelmingly disproportionate displays of force. These police spectacles are staged over and over at Occupy events, an over reaction to fabricated danger that is simply not present at these events. In a self-validating cycle, it is the police presence itself that creates the appearance of a conflict that they must then police. The 1% are aware just how unpopular their policies are, and the consistent repetition of their “occupiers clash with police” mantra (delivered through their corporate media) is meant to discourage others from joining the movement. While OWS works to broaden the movement and make protest more accessible - the NYPD is tasked with forming a barrier between OWS and the community; via police lines, barricades, vehicles, etc. The implied message is “if you join these folks in protest, you may be subject to arrest.” The heavy police presence can be alarming to those of us who are not faced with it every day in our communities. For those at greater risk of arrest, deportation, etc. these patterns are all too familiar; but the choice to run the gauntlet, when NYPD has been deployed as a barrier to participation, cannot be an easy one to make. It’s a set up. The 1% want you to believe that in order to join the movement, you have to be willing to breach that barrier, to risk arrest. But this is a distraction - the police should not be the focus of Occupy, a manufactured conflict to siphon off our creative energy. The NYPD officers are by definition part of the 99%, being played as pawns to protect the king. It is up to us to stay focused and not let the one percent use us in a similar fashion.

Over the last year we have heard numerous statements by the Secretary of State and even the President himself concerning protection of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, Russia, etc. but they have been entirely mute when it comes to the crackdown on those same freedoms here in the United States. It was Chicago Mayor Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel that presided over the arrest of more than 300 Chicago occupiers during the shut down of their encampment. I called the White House to inquire when the President would be contacting his former Chief of Staff, to ask him why people were being arrested for exercising their 1st Amendment rights. Not surprisingly - they had no answer for me. Within a matter of weeks numerous occupations that had sprung up all over the US (and the world) were systematically shut down one by one, with New York, Oakland, Oregon, Denver, and Zurich forcibly cleared in a single night. When folks talk about the demise of Occupy and/or its disappearance from the headlines, it seems like such nonsense to me - like a self fulfilling prophecy. When the main stream media shows up to a demonstration hours after all the demonstrators have been forcibly removed and claims that the demo is a dud because no one showed up, do you buy what they are selling you? When a New York City Councilman is shoved by NYPD three times at the OWS one year anniversary, do you hear about it on the news? When another New York City Councilman was roughed up and arrested during the raid on Liberty Square, does Mayor Bloomberg / Commissioner Kelly apologize? With over 7000 US Occupy activist arrests, some 2,500 in NYC alone, when will our government address the issue?

The Wisconsin protests last year are a powerful example of what is possible when people stand in solidarity and can see past the political double speak of 1% politicians. The outcome of the recall effort reminds me of those “self fulfilling prophecies” hurled at Occupy. A thirty million dollar Walker war chest was countered with lukewarm support from the DNC and a hours before election day tweet of support from the President. Despite all the talk of community and grassroots organizing in the 2004 Obama campaign, it seems pretty obvious that supporting a recall made possible through popular protest was just not a priority. A victory that might embolden people to think they can actually make the “change” themselves might not be the best strategy for an incumbent in an election year, especially if you have to share that year with Occupy... One of the things that stood out to me about the Wisconsin protests was the bridge that was formed by the participation of the local police. The Madison police were there in solidarity with their union brothers and sisters, but they could speak to their fellow officers in the Capitol Police as brothers and sisters as well. So is it somehow possible to duplicate this kind of bridge in NYC, to lessen the grip of the 1% on New York’s Finest? A few weeks back I asked a friend from Wisconsin what it would take to get the local Madison police officers out here to march with OWS, today I read a joint statement from the Madison Professional Police Officers Association and Dane County Deputy Sheriffs Association: “The right to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly are two of the fundamental rights upon which our democracy is based. Since the birth of our nation, the courts have taken great pains to protect these rights vigorously, and view any infringement upon these rights with great skepticism. We believe the recent enforcement action at the Capitol clearly violates these rights in a way that should be unacceptable in a free society.”

Read the statement in its entirety here
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OWS never got that apology from Bloomberg and Kelly, but there is this