This article originally appeared in RobertReich.org, and is reprinted here with their permission.
Do you recall a time in America when the income of a single school teacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family?
I remember. My father (who just celebrated his 100th birthday) earned enough for the rest of us to live comfortably. We weren’t rich but never felt poor, and our standard of living rose steadily through the 1950s and 1960s.
That used to be the norm. For three decades after World War II, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. (Over the last thirty years, by contrast, the size of the economy doubled again but the earnings of the typical American went nowhere.)
In that earlier period, more than a third of all workers belonged to a trade union — giving average workers the bargaining power necessary to get a large and growing share of the large and growing economic pie. (Now, fewer than 7 percentof private-sector workers are unionized.)
Then, CEO pay then averaged about 20 times the pay of their typical worker (now it’s over 200 times).
In those years, the richest 1 percent took home 9 to 10 percent of total income (today the top 1 percent gets more than 20 percent).
Then, the tax rate on highest-income Americans never fell below 70 percent; under Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, it was 91 percent. (Today the top tax rate is 39.6 percent.)
In those decades, tax revenues from the wealthy and the growing middle class were used to build the largest infrastructure project in our history, the Interstate Highway system. And to build the world’s largest and best system of free public education, and dramatically expand public higher education. (Since then, our infrastructure has been collapsing from deferred maintenance, our public schools have deteriorated, and higher education has become unaffordable to many.)
We didn’t stop there. We enacted the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act to extend prosperity and participation to African-Americans; Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to the poor and reduce poverty among America’s seniors; and the Environmental Protection Act to help save our planet.
And we made sure banking was boring.
It was a virtuous cycle. As the economy grew, we prospered together. And that broad-based prosperity enabled us to invest in our future, creating more and better jobs and a higher standard of living.
Then came the great U-turn, and for the last thirty years we’ve been heading in the opposite direction.
Some blame globalization and the loss of America’s manufacturing core. Others point to new technologies that replaced routine jobs with automated machinery, software, and robotics.
But if these were the culprits, they only raise a deeper question: Why didn’t we share the gains from globalization and technological advances more broadly? Why didn’t we invest them in superb schools, higher skills, a world-class infrastructure?
Others blame Ronald Reagan’s worship of the so-called “free market,” supply-side economics, and deregulation. But if these were responsible, why did we cling to these ideas for so long? Why are so many people still clinging to them?
Some others believe Americans became greedier and more selfish. But if that’s the explanation, why did our national character change so dramatically?
Perhaps the real problem is we forgot what we once achieved together.
The collective erasure of the memory of that prior system of broad-based prosperity is due partly to the failure of my generation to retain and pass on the values on which that system was based. It can also be understood as the greatest propaganda victory radical conservatism ever won.
We must restore our recollection. In seeking to repair what is broken, we don’t have to emulate another nation. We have only to emulate what we once had.
That we once achieved broad-based prosperity means we can achieve it again — not exactly the same way, of course, but in a new way fit for the twenty-first century and for future generations of Americans.
America’s great U-turn can be reversed. It is worth the fight.
This issue of Briarpatch features the winners of our third annual Writing in the Margins creative writing contest. Among the entries submitted by talented writers from across North America, these two stories most impressed our judges. Briarpatch would like to congratulate Caitlin Crawshaw, chosen by Marcello Di Cintio for her non-fiction entry “The Other F-word” and Matthew John Loewen, whose short story “An Honest Man” was selected by Shani Mootoo.
Crawshaw’s piece is a well-written exploration of issues of body image that draws its narrative from the intimacy of the flesh rather than from sterile politics. Loewen makes use of language in a thoughtful way, well-suited to his heartbreaking tale of farm life.
Trina Moyles’ creative non-fiction entry “Women Who Dig” and Emma Feutl Kent’s short story “Mañana Picadillo” are this year’s well-deserving runner-ups; their stories will soon be on our website. Bruce Rice takes home the prize for best entry from our home-town of Regina for “Belfast Now.”
Thank you to our wonderful judges who took time from their busy schedules to support emerging writers and to” RPIRG”:http://rpirg.org/, the Willow on Wascana, House of Anansi Press and Goose Lane Editions for their support. And to the many courageous writers who shared their stories with us, thank you.
Illustrations: Lauren Simkin Berke
“Joan was burnt without a hand lifted on her own side to save her. The comrades she had led to victory and the enemies she had disgraced and defeated, the French king she had crowned and the English king whose crown she had kicked into the Loire, were equally glad to be rid of her.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Saint Joan
In France, Joan of Arc may be feted as a hero, but for many, the question remains whether she was simply mad. Psychiatric journals periodically publish theories about the arc of her narrative before retreating into silence once more. Was it tuberculosis in her temporal lobe? Epilepsy? Was she a highly functional schizophrenic? Or, to spite all attempts at diagnosis, was Joan instead a creative visionary destined to turn the tide in favour of the French in their Hundred Years War with the English?
Guided by the voices of saints only she could hear, Joan was convinced her mission was divine. From the remaining scraps of history, we get only tantalizing glimpses into her psyche. The few statements we have from her offer little guidance as to what was sincere, what was bravado, and what might simply have been deranged confusion. When asked at her trial why she refused to do the work expected of women in 15th-century France, she famously retorted, “There are plenty of other women to do it.”
Railing against the normality her persecutors would hold over her head, Joan used her mission to liberate herself from society’s expectations of a small peasant girl. Psychiatrists today may fault dopamine disequilibrium, but doing so denies Joan her passionate pursuit of freedom from the limitations of her circumstances, a personal quest on which she carried along an entire nation. The French celebrated her abnormality since it served a powerful political agenda. To allies of the English, however, this improbable warrior was a menace who so profoundly threatened their dominance she had to be put to death by fire. Three times, historians note, Joan’s body was burned.
Six hundred years later, we no longer have to resort to fire. With an injection, we could silence the voices of Joan’s guiding saints, training her neurons to suppress signals from the heavens and to process those from here on earth.
Anyone who experiences six months of auditory hallucinations and delusions of religious grandeur today, along with the concomitant social dysfunction that Joan’s detractors claimed she displayed, would meet the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known commonly as the DSM) for schizophrenia, an illness that distorts perception of reality. By diagnosing and medicating her deviance, we would vanquish with ease the threat she represented.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association published the fifth iteration of the DSM, which has been the basis of psychiatric diagnosis since its inception in 1952. The manual is periodically reviewed and updated by a panel of experts, but concerns persist about its objective validity, its professed universality, and its attempt to pathologize entire ranges of the human experience that have previously been integrated into community life.
Through its five editions, the number of conditions catalogued in the tome has only grown. This expanding scope may be the result of improved observation and understanding, but like any endeavour that seeks to classify human beings, such a system allows those wielding its power to exert immense social control.
Even those involved in the development of the manual have concerns with its evolution. In response to the changes incorporated into the DSM-5, Allen Frances, who chaired the DSM-IV task force, expressed regret for his panel’s work. “Inadvertently, I think we helped to trigger three false epidemics, one for autistic disorder … another for the childhood diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the third for the wild overdiagnosis of attention deficit disorder.”
In 2003, 7.8 per cent of American children had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In 2011, the figure had jumped to 11 per cent. Is one in 10 American children legitimately sick, or are they simply a variation of what is normal?
Debate rages. The clinical criteria for ADHD suggest it limits the functioning of children in at least two spheres of activity, such as in the home and at school, where it is most often noticed. Proponents argue that the condition has gone unrecognized, leading to generations of distressed children who could have been treated. Those more critical of the diagnosis suggest it is used to subdue children into the docile obedience required by the education system and, eventually, the labour force. No one wants a classroom or a factory full of Joans of Arc.
Critics point further to the DSM’s history as an instrument of social control. In 1957, the psychologist Evelyn Hooker stunned the field by demonstrating that gay men were no less psychologically well-adjusted than heterosexual men. In disrupting dogma, she forced experts to consider that any distress was therefore rooted in social factors, but homosexuality was not removed from the DSM until 1973. We may shake our heads now, but in 50 years, how will our treatment of people with ADHD, the other proverbial 10 per cent, be viewed when we rediscover how to engage with non-conformist learners?A diagnosis for them all
A September afternoon. The emergency room hums with activity. The crisis worker leads me into a room where an adolescent, sporting a shaved head and wearing glasses and shapeless clothes, waits, staring at the floor.
Jim has been in and out of the hospital for months, battling depression and bouts of suicidality. His father is concerned that, now that Jim is back at school, he is being bullied for being transgender. The father seems supportive, if unable to drop his reference to Jim’s birth sex. Jim remains monosyllabic.
It makes no difference when I ask the father to leave the room. Is it school, I ask? No. Is it bullying? Naw, my friends are cool. Do you feel safe at home? Silence. Are you sad? Don’t know. Do you want to kill yourself? Shrug. Are your folks supportive? They’re trying. Are you taking meds? Yes. Are you seeing the specialist down south? Yes. Did you feel any better when you last left the hospital? No.
The entire time, Jim’s eyes do not leave his feet.
I stop, feeling stuck between exasperation and despair. What have we learned in the 50 years since Hooker’s groundbreaking work? Thirteen years old, a trans Aboriginal kid, trapped in a rough northern mining town. Clinical medicine only gives me so many tools to find him a way out. Hospitalization is temporary shelter with no guarantee of safety. No medication treats a racist, patriarchal world.
The process of psychiatric diagnosis is supposed to incorporate the social factors that influence a disease’s course. Jim might have gender dysphoria and even associated depression, but other than noting the impact that isolation and ignorance have on his condition, there is little physicians can offer to cure those ills. In the run-up to the publication of the fifth edition, the British Psychological Society restated long-standing critiques of the DSM. Its statement insisted that mental distress needs to be viewed “starting with recognition of the overwhelming evidence that it is on a spectrum with ‘normal’ experience, and that psychosocial factors such as poverty, unemployment, and trauma are the most strongly evidenced causal factors.”
Prisons provide an interesting case study for this contention. Jails worldwide house a significantly higher proportion of people with psychiatric diagnoses than the general population. In Canada, the ratio is in the range of five times. While we know people who experience social stressors – such as extreme poverty and colonial oppression – are more likely to end up in the corrections system, the causal link with mental illness is less evident. Is it an independent factor for incarceration, or do social stressors contribute to mental distress, which leads to entanglement with the judicial system? We know that prison itself aggravates psychiatric conditions. The DSM might depict a world populated by sick people, but what if it is instead the world that is sickening for many who live in it?
The paradigm of psychiatry atomizes the experience of distress, making it an individual issue for which the collective bears no responsibility. Through diagnosis, we devolve responsibility for dysfunction onto the patient rather than holding accountable the structures that make people feel sad or crazy. Jim’s depression is only one example. There are immigrant parents driven to suicidality, unable to keep up with the rent, women who hear voices saying they are the root of all evil in the world, young veterans who lash out in rage at the slightest sound reminiscent of the battlefield. The DSM provides a diagnosis for them all. But does it lead us to a cure?Permission to grow old
Tom is a retired mining geologist, widowed 10 years ago. For eight months, he has been to the clinic with distressing regularity, concerned about his blood pressure. I have learned that repeat visits mean that someone is not asking the right question, that the problem stated is not really the problem at all. Tom’s blood pressure is probably the least of his worries.
I am new at the clinic, so I have the luxury of professed ignorance. I ask questions, probing fears, picking at worries, poking at despair. When Tom begins to cry about his dog who died, I realize I can stop. His son, who has been towering over his stooped but dignified elderly father, hisses, “Dad, it’s been two years!” But what do two years mean when the loss of his dog spelled the end of their rambling walks together, another sign that all the moorings to which he once attached his life are gone and that he too will soon be helplessly adrift? A spike in blood pressure makes him think he is about to have a stroke, which fills him with dread at his looming dependency.
I hesitate as Tom wipes his tears. In my mental checklist, he meets the DSM criteria for depression. But is it so much depression as it is the human condition? Do I offer medication when poets and philosophers have addressed his fears with as much – or perhaps as little – success as physicians?
Using the DSM to identify illness is only useful if there is an intervention to offer. In isolating a condition for treatment, we also silence the uncomfortable questions the condition asks us. The rise of psychoactive pharmacology has profoundly shaped our approach to mental health: it has been the root cause of a more comfortable, reductionist, biochemical approach to the human psyche. But the introduction of a profit motive – the ability to sell a cure for abnormality – has shaped it even more. When members of the DSM-5 panel were initially asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, there was vociferous opposition to this confidentiality clause, rooted in concerns about conflicts of interest.
Robert Spitzer, who led the development of the DSM-III, said: “Transparency is necessary if the document is to have credibility, and, in time, you’re going to have people complaining all over the place that they didn’t have the opportunity to challenge anything.” When nondisclosure was finally revoked, two-thirds of the DSM-5 panel declared direct ties to the pharmaceutical industry, a significantly higher proportion than previous DSM panels.
The DSM-5 panel’s expansion of diagnostic criteria means that one in 20 menstruating women now meet the criteria of a psychiatric disorder. Mood changes during the luteal phase of the cycle that have existed for millennia are suddenly a mental illness worthy of pharmacological treatment. The diagnosis of anxiety used to require that patients themselves recognize that a debilitating worry was in fact irrational. The DSM-5 abolishes this requirement for self-awareness, allowing clinicians to decide whether someone’s fear is truly warranted or not. The expanded scope has even encroached on bereavement, where the two-month grace period to mourn in the DSM-IV has been collapsed to two weeks before physicians can diagnose depression and thus prescribe antidepressants (a $10-billion industry in the United States alone).
Though universal, grief manifests itself in profoundly personal ways. Tom was not simply mourning his dog, but mourning a life well-lived, struggling to come to terms with mortality. Although the DSM dictated to me that he was ill, I could not bring myself to suggest that he pay for medical permission to grow old. “Maybe you can come back next week and we can chat some more … without your son,” I tell him instead. He looks at me and nods, even smiling through his tears.Social demons
For some, psychiatric diagnosis has been liberatory. The biological framework and the categories that arise from it have given people ways to understand their alienation, to understand why their reality jars with that of others. It has defused moralizing about those with addictions, and it has encouraged us to think about the diversity of ways in which people may interact with their social and emotional environments. Diagnosis has meant access to resources that were otherwise denied to some people.
Pharmacological treatment, especially if embedded in regimens that include social and psychological support, has transformed many lives. But people are not simply their biology, and biological determinism has its limits. We refuse to believe people can be explained simply by their sexual hormones, so what of their neurotransmitters? We contest the medicalization of birth, at hospitals instead of home, by procedure instead of patience. Why then push sadness or spirituality into the domain of medicine as well?
In medieval France, when alternate realities became inconvenient, they used fire. Today, perhaps thankfully, I reach for my prescription pad. But as a physician who has wavering faith in the potions I push, I struggle with the discipline of psychiatry. My colleagues approach their patients with the best intentions. But our contemporary paradigm emerges from a particular economic and political context, buttressed by powerful interests for control and profit.
A society celebrates or suppresses parts of the human psyche according to the demands of its own demons. We act now with the utmost faith that we have science and morality on our side, appalled at the way those who deviate from the norm have been treated by the barbarisms of the past. But who is to say that when we are studied from afar we shall not be similarly judged?
The biggest drops in the uninsured rate—or gains in the insured rate—came among lower-income and black people. In late 2013, 30.7 percent of people earning less than $36,000 a year were uninsured; now, 27.9 percent are uninsured, a drop of 2.8 percentage points. The uninsured rate declined a similar 2.6 percentage points among black people. Latinos lag, with their uninsured rate having dropped just 0.8 points, a disappointment, and one perhaps linked to the troubled rollout of the exchanges:With the highest uninsured rate of any racial or ethnic group, Latinos were expected to be major beneficiaries of the new health care law. They are a relatively young population and many are on the lower rungs of the middle class, holding down jobs that don't come with health insurance.
But the outreach effort to Hispanics got off to a stumbling start. The Spanish-language enrollment website, CuidadodeSalud.gov, was delayed due to technical problems. Its name sounds like a clunky translation from English: "Care of Health." A spot check of the Spanish site on Sunday showed parts of it still use a mix of Spanish and English to convey information, which can make insurance details even more confusing.Every fraction of a percent that the uninsured rate drops is a political problem for Republicans and they know it, no matter how many so-called Obamacare horror stories they trot out, only to have them debunked. The Republican response to this survey may be to celebrate that the biggest drops in the uninsured rate have come among low-income people and black people—groups they've long ignored—but in their partisan world, where repealing President Barack Obama's signature achievement and defeating Democrats are more important than the well-being of non-wealthy Americans, such a noticeable and immediate drop in the uninsured rate is not good news. For the rest of us, and especially for people who can now go to the doctor without fear of bankruptcy, it's very good news.
The Oshkimaadziig Unity Camp is a land occupation and cultural revitalization project being carried out by the Anishinabek Confederacy To Invoke Our Nationhood (ACTION).
Located in what is now Awenda Provincial Park, two hours north of Toronto, the project is a reclamation of Council Rock, one of six traditional embassies established in intertribal treaties between the Anishinaabek (Ojibwa) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).
The following conversation developed around a fire as Oshkimaadziig Unity Camp co-founders Giibwanisi, Kaikaikon, and Sleeping Grizzly discussed questions emailed to them by journalist Megan Kinch.
Megan Kinch: Mainstream environmentalism has been sidetracked into greenwashing, environmental capitalism, and tokenistic gestures. When even David Suzuki is writing essays about the failure of environmentalism, we know that something has gone wrong.
People affiliated with environmental justice movements in Canada have been trying to put solidarity with Indigenous peoples at the forefront, but these efforts haven’t gathered the kind of support that mainstream environmentalism used to enjoy, nor has the meaning of solidarity been well defined.
Do you see your struggle as relating to environmentalism? Is there an environmental movement that you feel could support struggles like yours? Or does a new movement have to be built from the ground up?
Kaikaikon: If you want to call our struggle “environmentalism,” yes, sure. But at the same time, we are much more than that. It’s a spiritual struggle. It’s a political struggle. [Our struggle is] a different kind. We have a way of life: it’s environmentalism, it’s spiritualism, it’s matriarchy. Environmentalism is just one aspect of it. We are so much more.
Giibwanisi: To answer that question, I think you have to look at the medicine wheel. You have to look at the physical, the emotional, the mental, the spiritual; the land, the air, the fire, the water. It is all one, one and the same. We cannot look at just one aspect.
Kaikaikon: It’s not under one genre or ideology of struggle or fight. You can’t categorize our fight as an Anishinaabek liberation movement and resistance. Even in the Anishinaabek Indigenous resistance movement where there’s our people who have security culture and, I guess, warrior-ism, for lack of a better word, what we’re doing is trying to achieve every aspect of who we once were and trying to bridge the gap with living in this society, with the technology of everybody who is in that medicine wheel.
When you go back and classify our individual struggle as environmentalism, then we’ve got to say no. People have their own definition of environmentalism. Greenpeace has their own view of environmentalism, and they are against seal hunts, which is people’s traditional diet and right to feed themselves from the land. There are some things our allies may not agree with, like hunting and trapping. And that’s not, in their eyes, environmentalism [laughs].
Sleeping Grizzly: It is not really environmentalism. It’s more of us living with the land, with what the land provides. But don’t take from the land more than you need. When you take from the land, you have to make sure that what you’re taking – like when we want firewood or we want to build a box or a canoe or something – we’re going to take from the dead. We’ll only take from the living when we need to build something with structure, something that can dry over time and provide a lot of strength, something we can manipulate to the way that we need, but not take more than we need.
Giibwanisi: I have not seen an environmental movement that could support struggles like us because, as we said before, there are so many different genres of environmental activism whether it’s fracking or tarsands or pipeline or nuclear or “save the water” or “save the trees” or “save the air.” There is not a single organization that I have seen that encompasses it all.
So if you want to consider Anishinaabekism or Haudenosaunee-ism who stands against all of these things, I don’t know. I have not seen it. Idle No More seems to be about the water and some of Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, but at the same time, they have their own view of liberation. And they’re very exclusive. So a lot of the times, we were not included in their liberation agenda because at one time they were adamantly and vehemently opposed to blockades and land reclamations, and they distanced themselves from them.
Kaikaikon: Look at the different camps, like the Unist’ot’en camp [in B.C.] and all these similar actions, who are living off the land. Under the definition of what an environmentalist is, I’m not too sure if it is or is not [laughs].
Giibwanisi: Yeah, I think I’d have to agree with the Unist’ot’en.
Kaikaikon: Because, first, under our teachings, it says we have to concentrate on the South, the family, community, nation, the people of our Turtle Island, our continent. Then we start making alliances with these other folks. And I think our ideas and teachings can really benefit this person who’s asking these questions. But they could learn a lot from our people if they have some humility because our people have been observing for thousands of years and survived. We’re still surviving. They can just observe from the people who’ve been here first and lived through a lot. There’s been a lot of environmental disruptions, and we’re still here surviving.
Your occupation at Oshkimaadziig Unity Camp is on the site of a Council Fire. It’s been an ongoing debate on the left as to how different peoples should relate to each other in struggle. Some would argue that everyone should be in the same organizations and struggle on a class basis, others that nationally oppressed peoples need their own separate organizations which should relate to others.
Today there is also the theory that settler organizers need to take direction from Native organizers, but this is more useful as a guideline for settlers participating in Native struggles rather than as a directive for social movements as a whole. What do you think should be the organizing relationships between Native and non-Native people?
Kaikaikon: In my own opinion, what we’re trying to achieve here is we’re trying to create a confederacy. We’re trying to rebuild our confederacy. We had alliances with other Indigenous nations, like the Haudenosaunee and the Cree and the Wendat, so we’re trying to build our own, reassert our own laws, our trade alliances, and through that came the Two Row Wampum. And the settler society, we have an agreement with them that we’re trying to uphold here.
I don’t want to sound racist [laughs]. I have to be careful about how I answer this. But our nations have been dealing with Eurocentric people for too damn long. It comes to a point [where] we need to drop out of these treaties, and even the 1764 Treaty of Niagara Covenant Chain belt, and re-establish something new [with] the other people who are oppressed from all over the world but something that is more representative of the minorities and the oppressed people. And when the question is asked about non-Native people, you have to ask: which non-Native people? I think we have to have an equal relationship, but it has to be with people of struggle who come from other nations. And they have to maybe start a new government.
Giibwanisi: So what should be the organizing relationship?
Kaikaikon: Until that happens, all lands come back to us! [laughs] We can establish zones like their cities and shit where they can remain but we’re still the landlords. This is kind of radical, but those people, they need to overthrow their friggin’ governments. But we need to work with these people out there to overthrow the governments and the police and the military – which is a damn hard thing to do, but we need to do that – and re-establish our governance, our agreements, our relationships. And that I believe is true for the other minorities who come here. They don’t even know the relationship that exists, and I think we’d find common ground to unite.
Giibwanisi: Going back to the Two Row Wampum, it says that we’re not supposed to steer each other’s boats. But the way that I perceive things is that the canoes have been hijacked and are actually aboard the settler ship. And we are basically trying to live our canoe way of life on top of that settler ship. So saying that I’m not supposed to steer the settler ship, well, you know what, my fucking canoe is sitting in that fucking settler ship. So national liberation for Native people and organizing is like saying, you know what, I don’t want to tell you how to run your own fucking ship, but your ship and the people that run it, the captains, they are not listening to the workers or to whomever, the deckhands and whatnot.
So I guess the way to answer that question is, if you are not actively trying to overthrow the captain, then I think that maybe it’s time that we are in a position to say, you know what, in order to save humanity, to save ourselves, save Turtle Island – because the original agreements have been so intertwined and entangled – I think at times that Native people do have to be in a position to tell non-Native people what to do.
Kaikaikon: We were just talking about this last night. And I was thinking about this all day, how to write this, because it’s been on my mind for a while, because it needs to be said without hurting people’s feelings, because it needs to be said and it needs to be brought out amongst our brothers and sisters out there who are working with these activists in the different organizations.
We’ve been colonized for so long that some of us, even on the front-line struggles and even back at home in our communities, have developed a kind of syndrome where we have all these fears and intimidations and feelings of inferiority to white people. This is something internal that we’re dealing with. So when we’re working with these people, there’s little, subtle ways in how they come and “help” that they make our people feel inferior.
Me, I feel like we’re dependent on their help. So no matter how they’re trying to help, it’s funny, but they’re still the colonists. The white people are the colonists. Because they’re helping to decolonize, but that word “colonize” is still in there. They are decolonizing, so they’re still the Indian agents running around trying to do what’s best for Indians. Because they’re the ones who think they know it all, so they’re helping us. Even by answering these questions, we use the English language and their ideology – we’re using everything that’s theirs. Even their Marxism.
Somewhere there’s our own war chiefs and our own ideas that we should be using to answer these questions. We’re still finding out ourselves, but we need to utilize other people’s … the revolutionary schools of thought, I guess. Marxism?
Do you think that Indigenous agreements such as the Dish With One Spoon and the Two Row Wampum are relevant here? Do they apply to the state, or do they apply to peoples including western revolutionaries?
Kaikaikon: What we’re trying to accomplish here is to rebuild ourselves and rebuild our alliances with other Indigenous nations. Our responsibility is to our people first and to our communities and our families. So it applies to the state and it applies to them. Because what you said, we can’t answer that. It’s up to them. It’s up to these newcomers to settle that and fight amongst themselves on that. Because we have our own fight to do trying to be with our people who are trying to speak and represent us, who are going against these original agreements. So we’re trying to liberate ourselves from what they’re doing to us, what our chief and [band] council and these peoples are doing. We’re trying to liberate ourselves, so we have to work together with our common allies to remove this shit in our own communities. So it is relevant.
Giibwanisi: Personally, I think that the Two Row, the two relationships between settlers and Native people that is the Two Row, is relevant because of the entire context, its fundamental principles. And the fundamental principle is the relationship, from an Indigenous perspective, with the Two Row Wampum and with everything, with the creator, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the wingeds, the crawleds, the ones that go in the water. And I think that, yeah, the founding principles of the Two Row Wampum, we could use those things.
But at the same time, the Two Row Wampum was never entered into with the one good mind from the settlers’ point of view. They did not use their one good mind to make this relationship. I think it can be applied if people come with that one good mind and they want to work together. I think that can be.
But also understanding the Two Row Wampum with the settlers, that was made with mostly white people. And now we find that we live in a society out there where there are many people of many different colours. And if we go back to that settler ship, there was class division on that settler ship: there was the captain, there were his lieutenants, there were the deckhands, there were indentured servants, and there were slaves stuffed in the back, stuffed in the bottom of those ships. So I think that the Two Row Wampum has to be inclusive of the other nations that are here. And I truly believe that, had our people known that there were slaves stuffed into the bottom of those ships, I truly believe that we probably never would have entered into those agreements knowing how they treat other humans. Because if we were to look and see those slaves, how could someone enter into one good mind with that?
To what extent do you find western philosophies of struggle – Marxism, anarchism, social democracy – to be useful to you? I’ve seen you identify capitalism as a central force to struggle against, in addition to colonialism. Does western analysis like Marxism help in understanding those forces? What are the limits of these philosophies for your struggle?
Giibwanisi: From my own perspective, I have to be open-minded to everything, to all sorts of struggles including those mentioned above.
But there are things that are useful and there are things that are not useful. I don’t subscribe to anarchism because I don’t believe in disorganization. I like some of the things that are said about Marxism, especially the scientific approach to understanding economics and political science. But at the same time, there are a lot of things that I do not agree with in Marxism. Marxists often omit two parts of the medicine wheel. Marxism focuses on a specific ideology which is the mental, and probably the physical, like taking physical action in revolution. But Marxists omit the emotional and the spiritual context of how we think and operate.
Interview adapted from the open source journal Alternate Routes.
Click to enlarge. Left to right: Aylool Market, Style Studio, A Small World Shop & Gallery, Harambe Ethiopian Restaurant, Riddim & Spice, Addis Cafe, and Piassa Hair Salon
What would a black community look like in Vancouver? Would it look like dinner at a friend’s place, getting your hair done at Nu Nu’s Hair salon, or a black history luncheon in East Vancouver? Let’s be honest: Vancouver isn’t known for being a chocolate city, and there’s no outlying black community like Shelburne, N.S., or Ajax, ON, in sight. We have the annual Caribbean Days Festival, where hundreds of us come out to a North Vancouver park in July, but when the weekend is over, we disperse back into our integrated pockets around the Lower Mainland.
Born and raised in B.C., I know what it feels like to be the only black person in my school, on the bus, or in just about any public space. Even if you find two or three of us at the same place and time, we might lack solidarity and connection because we’re each too busy trying to fit in. Eventually we may grow into being black and proud, but we’re never comfortable being “the other.”
Lacking familial ties, I have constantly been in search of a black community. Then in 2005, I found some other people searching for that same sense of belonging and became involved with the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project (HAMP), which was founded in 2002. HAMP was a group of predominantly self-identified black folks dedicated to keeping the black history of Vancouver alive and the present black community visible. As HAMP members, we got together to discuss both our own experiences being black and Vancouver’s black community more broadly. We held monthly meetings to explore ways to bring Vancouver’s black history to light and to better connect with past residents of Vancouver’s historic black community, Hogan’s Alley.
So what was Hogan’s Alley? It was literally just that, an alley, stretching from Union to Prior Streets, in the neighbourhood of Strathcona in East Vancouver. Park Lane (the formal name of the alley) and the surrounding area had a high concentration of black residents for the first six decades of the 20th century. Hogan’s Alley was the only place one could find a black church, a central foundation for black folks living there at the time.
There were also many black-owned restaurants, including several owned and staffed by black women. When performing in Vancouver, famous jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole made a point of visiting Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, a popular black-owned restaurant located at 209 Union St. in Hogan’s Alley. Ike Turner and the Mills Brothers actually performed in Hogan’s Alley at Harlem Nocturne, the city’s only black-owned nightclub, founded by jazz trombonist Ernie King.
Hogan’s Alley was a vibrant and supportive black community that unfortunately faced a lot of racial discrimination. Many residents were low-income, their homes were seen as blighted dwellings, and the nightlife was frowned upon. By 1970, most of Hogan’s Alley had been bulldozed in order to make way for the Georgia Viaduct.
The viaduct is a massive overpass that connects Strathcona to downtown and is, essentially, part of an unfinished freeway system that was otherwise successfully opposed through grassroots resistance, especially by residents of Chinatown. Canada has a long history of such racially motivated urban renewal projects, including the repeated demolitions of Calgary’s Chinatowns and the displacement of residents of Africville in Halifax in the 1960s.
As HAMP members, we were determined to make the elusive history of Hogan’s Alley more tangible. We went to the annual Black History Celebration luncheons where black families and community members came together, attended panel discussions, and spoke with relatives of Hogan’s Alley residents. We collaborated with street artists and planted a giant flower bed right on the bank of the Georgia Viaduct that read “Welcome to Hogan’s Alley.” We approached the B.C. Archives in hopes of making black historical information more accessible to the public. With Afua Cooper, a historian, author, and dub poet, and David Hilliard, an ex-Black Panther, we held an event focusing on the gentrification of black communities across North America. We even snuck inside the last residence of the Hogan’s Alley era, at 227 Union St., before it was demolished in 2007. It was three doors east of Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, and we were lucky to take some pictures and grab some memorabilia before it was torn down.
The areas surrounding what used to be Hogan’s Alley, like Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside (DTES), are currently undergoing serious gentrification themselves. But alongside these new waves of gentrification, Hogan’s Alley is being commemorated. A café opened up on the corner of Union and Gore named Hogan’s Alley Café. A Jimi Hendrix Shrine was established near the corner of Main and Union: Jimi Hendrix spent much of his childhood in Vancouver in the care of his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, who lived in Hogan’s Alley and co-founded the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel.
In February of last year, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation installed a commemorative plaque for Hogan’s Alley at Main and Union. “The plaque realizes one of HAMP’s original goals,” says Wayde Compton, an author and a co-founder of our group. The plaque publicly memorializes Vancouver’s black community. “[Before,] there was nothing that would indicate to a person walking through the area that there had ever been a black community there at one time.”
We’re all familiar with Little Italys, Little Indias, Koreatowns, and Chinatowns, but where is the Little Africa of Vancouver? Thinking of a black community, according to former HAMP member Adam Rudder, is almost whimsical. “Areas of town and monuments are all less interesting to me than the stories that weave together certain kinds of experiences and thinking about the ways in which these experiences challenge the way we think about things today,” he says. “The whole process is romantic and in certain situations it’s good. Oppressed people need a little romance; it can create hope and starting points.”
If there was a Little Africa, what would it look like? In 2007, I and fellow HAMP member Karina Vernon had a vision of a black city block inspired by all the black businesses on Commercial Drive. The specific inspiration had come when Karina showed me the book Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings. Opening it up, we turned to the colour insert and stared in amazement at the panoramic image of the 100 block on Hastings Street in the DTES. It was a block I walked by many times, a block that either went unnoticed or was associated with poverty and crime, comparable to Hogan’s Alley and so many other black communities across North America. This block lies across from the new Woodward’s building and today would be unrecognizable. The arresting panorama presented parallels between community displacement of the past and present-day gentrification of the DTES.
How does one reclaim space, even if just in the imagination? How could we visualize a black community in Vancouver? Commercial Drive is a place we knew had a high concentration of black-owned businesses. Perhaps we could create a black-owned city block today. We got to it with a three-megapixel, point-and-shoot digital camera (which was very sophisticated at the time) and started snapping away. We walked into each black-owned business and asked if we could take an exterior photo for the project. Everyone was friendly and helpful. We tried to capture as many black passersby as possible in the process, and we soon we realized that it wasn’t so hard to do – there were plenty of us walking around.
On Commercial, you can get plantains and patties; hear people speaking Patois, Bemba, and Somali; get your hair done; buy palm oil and a can of ackee; and dine on authentic Ethiopian cuisine. So perhaps this is what Little Africa might look like.
“The history here is particular, and there is much to celebrate and be proud of,” says Compton. “I’d like us to resist the impulse to view ourselves only in the light of other histories that are more famous or influential.” Even though the black population in Vancouver sits at a mere one per cent of residents, according to census data, we wanted to show that we are here, that we exist. We exist even if some people of African descent check the “other” box on the census form. We exist even if many folks don’t identify as black because they identify as Haitian, Nigerian, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Trinidadian, or Somalian. We wanted to show that an African diaspora has existed and still exists in Vancouver. Here, then, is your and our black city block.
The townsfolk were all stunned and abuzz. Shaking their heads and trying to find words for what Old Farmer Jakob had done. Recounting the accumulation of community knowledge; spinning out old yarns; reliving memories; sifting for some reason, some motive, some sign.
Saying all the while, “But he was such an honest man!”
They knew that he came from overseas and that all he knew was digging holes.
The first two he dug were for his brothers two weeks after armistice. They were torn apart in a flash and a shower of soil when their plow overturned a live shell sleeping in the family fields.
With his young wife, Ana, he had left on the next boat for the land of opportunity.
Jakob had calculating eyes that could divine the machinery working below the surface of life’s situations. His stubborn will stood firm in the face of hard truths. He was the kind of man who shouted to prove his confidence, but more often than not he was silent in thought.
Ana was a hale and hearty woman with clever hands that spun life’s wool into workable thread. With energy and wit that knit together their new marriage, she was the kind of woman who sang often and clearly to anyone with ears to listen. She smiled because sometimes it was all she could do.
Their love was deep and warm and quiet.
The two had claimed a plot of dusty turf some decades past as part of a church settlement deal. They tore the soil while it slept, and come spring it awoke, batting a green eyelash. They mostly sold the tears on those lashes to the grocer, Herbias J. Corningstone, a man who insisted his middle initial be included at every mention. His twine was constantly unravelling so that he sputtered when he spoke and fretted with his fingers, but he was always ready with a firm handshake and a fleet-footed quip from behind his big, black cash register.
Jakob and Ana’s cornucopia spilled into baskets on market day, where the townsfolk advanced with hungry families at home.
Jakob and Ana’s cracked lips rose in thin grins.
Their family swelled with children who loved their mother’s bedtime stories. When she read, the words came alive from the big book that seemed to hold every story ever told. Chores with their hard-working father reddened their hands and levelled their heads. Sons and daughters both civil and roguish grew to be men, women, and more. Some took up school, some married, and they all moved away. All the while, the tractors gritted their bits and squinted their eyes ever forward, lugging leather, metal, and wood through the fragrant earth.
After the war, it all seemed like a song of hope and plenty. It was a time of experimentation and abundance. Business boomed. And farming changed fast along with family and town.
Jakob moved along with the times. He arranged his old equipment in their red-painted hospice and bought a big, new tractor, seeder, and thresher. He purchased different laboratory seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers – the works. They kept a few animals for winter meat, and Ana refused to give up her cherished garden, but Jakob set his calculator eyes on wheat and wheat alone. He had to. Other farmers had green dripping from their hands, stuffed into wallets and banks, and he wasn’t about to be left behind.
Every morning Ana sang Jakob awake in tune with the coffee kettle in the kitchen. Sometimes, as he grumbled good-naturedly over his toast, she went out to fuel the tractor or fill the sprayer with the sweet-smelling, blue-green liquid that kept their crop clean. On those days, as she sang in the garden among her stacks of purple and white carrots, her rows of crisp peas and piles of outcast dandelions, the saccharine aroma lingered and clung about her, inviting a quiet worry to knit her brow.
Now and again they went into town to meet with their financier.
The bank was as bright and hard as the grinning banker, who spoke to Jakob about global surplus, bilateral trade agreements, the wheat board, and agricultural subsidies. Beneath a trim toothbrush moustache, the banker’s silver tongue danced and spun. As he spoke of ups and downs and flows and policies, Jakob stared out the window and silently tallied the bustle of town. Ana tried to smile through her disquiet.
Their plants pierced the sky and leaned with the weight of an ample harvest. But wheat prices dropped in this time of surplus, and hungry bank accounts gnawed at the townsfolk.
Like many other farmers in the flatlands, Jakob met with a company man and had his wheat shipped to the same place the money came from – Lord only knows where. He signed a document agreeing to send his crops off when the truck came, no buts about it. He agreed to buy his seed from the company man. And chemicals, too. All under contract. He liked that. He felt catered to. Looked after.
Herbias J. Corningstone’s country market went out of business, overrun by a stark food warehouse with well-lit aisles and special deals and fancy labels. They sold all manner of tools and clothing and foodstuffs at rock-bottom prices. No one really knew what came of the flighty Herbias J. He disappeared. Most suspected he just moved away of his own accord. Ana wasn’t so sure.
Ana often went out to the fading old barn, thronged with nesting swallows, to sit with the cantankerous old iron ox that now rusted and filled with mice and spiders. Pondering, she looked down at her hands – hands traced in turquoise in the fading evening light.
And then one day, the banker gave them the news. Payments had begun to outstrip revenue. Like many family farmers, Jakob and Ana were digging a different hole now. A seed planted in this hole eats down to nothing – it doesn’t sprout.
Day in, day out, they struggled. Tried to make the farm pay. But soon enough, the company man phoned, speaking in the language of contract about crop projections and moneys overdue. Old Jakob scribbled numbers on bills and in ledgers. He scribbled on the mortgage papers, too, and the banker gathered them up in eager hands. Ana still sang her old songs in the garden, but her voice quavered in a faint and unfamiliar key.
The aging couple grew a plentiful harvest. But it grew short of targets. So they grew short of coin and short of food. Then they were short of health and short of time. But Old Ana still smiled. She smiled and swelled with hope and with cancer, singing softly to herself in her vibrant garden. She sang among the thick scarlet runner beans, flowers whirring with hummingbirds, rows of crisp cabbage heads, and a small forest of purple-crowned chives.
But her own vigour failed.
While his wife quietly ebbed away in a quilted room, Old Jakob toiled on. He toiled for her medicine, toiled for her food, and he toiled for her doctors. He worked his bones into the soil. The sprinklers wept. The hogs lamented. The weather vane twisted in the prairie wind. Jakob harvested teardrop kernels from acres of golden lashes.
And when Ana quietly slipped away, Jakob dug another hole as his children headed home.
After the funeral service and the hubbub of well-wishers and mourners, his children left once more to tend to their faraway lives. Jakob felt a numbness creeping in, and he paced about the empty house to chase it away. He stopped and stood for a long time at the bookshelf in the living room to look at the old photographs, to lose himself in the memories and wonder at the way everything had grown and moved and changed so fast.
He pulled out the old tome of fairy tales that was Ana’s favourite, and the children’s too. Tucking it under his arm, he walked out to the old, washed-out barn. He sat down again in the high metal seat atop the ruins of his tractor, the mice and swallows and spiders gathering all around.
He opened the book to a marked page. And there he saw a picture of Snow White, pale as Ana in her deathly sleep, a poisoned apple tumbling from her outstretched palm. Something twisted, snapped inside him. He closed his eyes and fought the grief and guilt and rage that threatened to swallow him whole.
The banker phoned to offer his condolences, but also to remind him of debts owed. Old Jakob proved his modesty and resolved to accept his fate.
Well after the roosters crowed at sunrise, the company man and the grinning banker arrived. The suits wore their men well. They were two peas in a pod, with civil and unyielding briefcase hands. They wrinkled their noses at the pigpen and knocked on the door. Old Jakob invited them in for breakfast and business.
Mugs of bitter coffee clinked. Jakob swallowed and watched the suits do the same. They didn’t notice the blue-green stain on Ana’s fine white china. Jakob’s thin lips shook. His eyes flared with doubt and triumph. The air in the room shifted and fled, and a cry of sorrow caught in his burning throat.
And so Old Jakob dug his final holes.
By James Daschuk
University of Regina Press, 2013
In the context of a Canadian popular imagination still permeated by myths about heroic voyageurs, intrepid Mounties, and an inexorable yet ostensibly “peaceful” and “lawful” acquisition of other peoples’ lands, James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains is a vital intervention. Described by historian Elizabeth A. Fenn as a “tour de force that dismantles and destroys the view that Canada has a special claim to to humanity in its treatment of Indigenous peoples,” Daschuk’s study of Indigenous health and disease on the Canadian Prairies draws on decades of research to recount Canada’s policies of forced starvation and ethnic cleansing. More broadly, it’s a good introduction to the history of Canadian expansion into the northwest and the nature and evolution of Canadian Indian policy in the 19th century.
Research for Clearing the Plains began some 20 years ago as part of Daschuk’s doctoral program in history at the University of Manitoba under the supervision of D.N. Sprague. Sprague was himself a scholar of Canadian and Métis history, perhaps best known for his lengthy feud with Tom Flanagan over interpretations about Louis Riel, presumptions of government “benevolence,” and the causes of Métis dispossession in the Red River valley. Like Sprague’s own work, Canada and the Métis (1988), Clearing the Plains finds little evidence of Dominion “benevolence” in its annexation of the Canadian northwest or in its post-Confederation dealings with First Nations.
However, Daschuk’s is also a work of environmental and epidemiological history. As such, he argues that human agency, greed, and colonial power are “only half of the story.” In his view, the field of biology is equally important to understanding Indigenous history, not just in present-day Canada but also throughout the hemisphere. Much of what follows is an attempt to strike a balance between these two sides of causation, with Daschuk see-sawing between a portrait of epidemic disease as an inexorable, objective, even organic force, and a counter-portrait that emphasizes the social determinants and policy-induced nature of compromised immunity, disease outbreaks, and death.
The historical scope of Clearing the Plains is sweeping. The book opens with an assessment of pre-European health and well-being on the northern Great Plains, then concentrates on the impact of the fur trade era and nascent European settlement, and ends with the post-Confederation treaty era and the “nadir of indigenous health” in the wake of the Northwest Resistance of 1885. Throughout the book, Daschuk emphasizes the relationships between Indigenous health, outbreaks of epidemic diseases, and environmental factors, as well as settlement expansion, settler ideology, and most crucially, Indian policy. In this regard, Clearing the Plains joins a growing body of historical work examining the social determinants of health and, in particular, the relationship between Indigenous health and Canadian policy.
Overall, Daschuk’s book is important less for unearthing new and surprising historical facts than for expanding upon, reinterpreting, and publicizing them. For example, one of the central theses of Clearing the Plains is that famine was a deliberate policy weapon used to coerce “unco-operative Indians” onto reserves and remove them from lands coveted by white settlers. This isn’t a revelation for anyone familiar with existing scholarship. In his influential 1983 article, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree,” John Tobias persuasively demonstrated that starvation was a weapon used to impose the reservation system, bring “recalcitrant” leaders such as Big Bear to heel, and force the Cree to capitulate to treaty terms. Clearing the Plains not only expands on such themes, bringing to light further evidence and examples, but its publication has made them accessible to a much wider public.
Daschuk’s interpretive framework sheds the congratulatory and smug self-image that still dominates in much Canadian historical writing. He is unafraid, for example, to label the settler-colonial process in southern Saskatchewan “ethnic cleansing,” and elsewhere he has described the foundation of modern Canada as resting upon the twin truths of “ethnic cleansing and genocide.” Those wanting a crash course in Prairie colonial history would do well to read Daschuk’s book alongside Sarah Carter’s Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900 (University of Toronto Press, 1999). Both books are carefully empirical but rooted in a deep commitment to social justice. Together, they serve as excellent points of departure for further research into colonial policy in the Canadian Prairie provinces.
We may have once believed that the darkest days were behind us, and that slow and steady progress for middle-class workers would continue to be made. But greed and good sense are forever in competition. Gains made in our country's progressive years are, a century later, once again in serious jeopardy.
1. The Commons: A Toll Gate in the Grand Canyon
In the early 1900s the Grand Canyon had been taken over by speculators, especially Ralph Henry Cameron, an entrepreneur and soon-to-be Arizona Senator who laid claim to much of the canyon land. He built a hotel on the main trail, set up a toll gate, and even charged exorbitant prices for water at the steamy canyon bottom.
We're heading back in that direction, and we don't have Teddy Roosevelt to knock some sense into Congress. Attempts to privatize federal land were made by the Reagan administration in the 1980s and the Republican-controlled Congress in the 1990s. In 2006, President Bush proposed auctioning off 300,000 acres of national forest in 41 states. Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity has proposed to sell millions of acres of "unneeded federal land," and the libertarian Cato Institute demands that our property be "allocated to the highest-value use." Representative Cliff Stearns recommended that we "sell off some of our national parks." Mitt Romney admitted that he didn't know "what the purpose is" of public lands.
2. Safety Deregulated: Workers Fell "Like a Living Torch to the Street"
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 was one of the deadliest tragedies in U.S. history. 146 garment workers died, most of them young immigrant women, some as young as 14. They worked from 9 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, forced to keep up a pace of 50 stitches per second in the preparation of blouses, all for 15 cents an hour. They were all on the 8th and 9th floors when the fire started near the end of the Saturday work shift. Up on the 10th floor were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the "Shirtwaist Kings."
The factory was not equipped for safety. There were few government regulations in the early 1900s. Only two exits existed: one quickly became blocked by smoke and flames, the other was locked; the only man with a key ran off at the first hint of fire. A few workers raced up the open stairway before it filled entirely with smoke. Blanck and Harris also ran to the roof, without alerting the 9th floor.
In the final minutes, as the elevator made its final descent, the few fortunate women inside heard the impact of bodies falling on the elevator roof. About twenty girls ran out to an incomplete, poorly constructed fire escape, which collapsed under their weight, hurling them all 100 feet to the sidewalk. A reporter wrote, "I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture -- the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk."
At some of the windows girls engulfed by flames joined in an embrace before leaping to their deaths. In the words of a reporter, one girl who was "screaming with clothes and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street."
Blanck and Harris were acquitted of all charges of manslaughter for blocking escape routes and ignoring simple safety measures. They took their insurance money and faded into obscurity.
A century later the attitude of big business is that self-regulation works best. For the profit margin, it certainly does, but not for workers. The Texas fertilizer plant, where 14 people were killed in an explosion and fire, was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over 25 years ago. The U.S. Forest Service, stunned by the Prescott, Arizona fire that killed 19, had been forced by the sequester to cut 500 firefighters. The rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec followed deregulation of Canadian railways. Other examples include a salmonella outbreak that was exacerbated by shoddy FDA oversight; tainted syringes from a company that went two years without a federal inspection; and a sudden increase in coal miner deaths while the U.S. House was rejecting a proposal for safety measures.
3. Inequality: Workers Demand a 76-Hour Week in the Era of a $300 Billion Man
A reader may have to look twice at the photograph to believe the numbers. Barbers were demanding a shorter work day -- down to 12 hours, and 16 on Saturday.
A wage crisis exists today among fast food workers, who make about $18,000 a year. According to the Working Poor Families Project, the income required for basic needs for a family of four is about $45,000. A McDonalds worker would have to work 100 hours a week to reach that level.
Far removed from the wage issue is individual wealth. During the time of the barbers strike, John D. Rockefeller, according to Forbes, had over $300 billion in today's dollars. Andrew Carnegie was right behind him at $280 billion. Today we're approaching those Gilded Age extremes again, with just 30 rich Americans owning as much as HALF of the U.S. population (about $800 billion).
4. The 14th Amendment: It Worked for Slaves 6% of the Time, and for Corporations 94% of the Time
On July 28, 1868 the right of US-born slaves to full citizenship was guaranteed by the adoption of the 14th Amendment. For a while conditions improved for blacks. But sentiments were quickly changing, especially among Supreme Court justices, whose corporate friends were beginning to lay claim to what they deemed their fundamental rights as "persons." Of 307 14th Amendment cases brought before the highest court between 1890 and 1910, nineteen were on behalf of blacks and all the rest (288 cases) in support of corporations.
Today the American people are again under attack by the Citizens United and Speechnow decisions, which allow unlimited corporate campaign financing through independent "Super PAC" organizations, and by the pending McCutcheon v. FEC case, which would allow unlimited individual contributions. Meanwhile, we have people like Mitt Romney assuring us that "Corporations are people, my friend."
Our great shame is that we forget the past, or perhaps simply refuse to learn from it. We have traveled this path before. We have seen the worst of times for our most vulnerable citizens, for people who fought for many years for modest gains, only to see the self-interest of a powerful few whisk those gains away.
NAPANEE,ON - Ontario Provincial Police released a statement this afternoon listing the charges laid following arrests at Tyendinaga
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.
For some time now, observers -- a surprisingly wide range of them -- have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant” of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch -- a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.
A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office -- or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.
What could have given Obama such a strange perspective on how the American political system was meant to work? Let us not ignore one obvious and pertinent fact. He came to the race for president in 2007 with less practice in governing than any previous candidate. At Harvard Law School, Obama had been admired by his professors and liked by his fellow students with one reservation: in an institution notorious for displays of youthful pomposity, Obama stood out for the self-importance of his “interventions” in class. His singularity showed in a different light when he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review -- the first law student ever to hold that position without having published an article in a law journal. He kept his editorial colleagues happy by insisting that the stance of the Review need not be marked by bias or partisanship. It did not have to be liberal or conservative, libertarian or statist. It could be “all of the above.”
This pattern -- the ascent to become presider-in-chief over large projects without any encumbering record of commitments -- followed Obama into a short and uneventful legal career, from which no remarkable brief has ever been cited. In an adjacent career as a professor of constitutional law, he was well liked again, though his views on the most important constitutional questions were never clear to his students. The same was true of his service as a four-term Illinois state senator, during which he cast a remarkable number of votes in the noncommittal category of “present” rather than “yea” or “nay.” Finally, the same pattern held during his service in the U.S. Senate, where, from his first days on the floor, he was observed to be restless for a kind of distinction and power normally denied to a junior senator.
Extreme caution marked all of Obama’s early actions in public life. Rare departures from this progress-without-a-trail -- such as his pledge to filibuster granting immunity to the giants of the telecommunications industry in order to expose them to possible prosecution for warrantless surveillance -- appear in retrospect wholly tactical. The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes, and the U.S. senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation: this was the candidate who became president in January 2009.
The Man Without a Record
Many of these facts were rehearsed in the 2008 primaries by Hillary Clinton. More was said by the Republicans in the general election. Yet the accusations were thrown onto a combustible pile of so much rubbish -- so much that was violent, racist, and untrue, and spoken by persons manifestly compromised or unbalanced -- that the likely inference was tempting to ignore. One could hope that, whatever the gaps in his record, they would not matter greatly once Obama reached the presidency.
His performance in the campaign indicated that he had a coherent mind, did not appeal to the baser passions, and was a fluent synthesizer of other people’s facts and opinions. He commanded a mellow baritone whose effects he enjoyed watching only a little too much, and he addressed Americans in just the way a dignified and yet passionate president might address us. The contrast with George W. Bush could not have been sharper. And the decisiveness of that contrast was the largest false clue to the political character of Obama.
He was elected to govern when little was known about his approach to the practical business of leading people. The unexplored possibility was, of course, that little was known because there was not much to know. Of the Chicago organizers trained in Saul Alinsky’s methods of community agitation, he had been considered among the most averse to conflict. Incongruously, as Jeffrey Stout has pointed out in Blessed Are the Organized, Obama shunned “polarization” as a valuable weapon of the weak. His tendency, instead, was to begin a protest by depolarizing. His goal was always to bring the most powerful interests to the table. This should not be dismissed as a temperamental anomaly, for temperament may matter far more in politics than the promulgation of sound opinions. The significance of his theoretical expertise and practical distaste for confrontation would emerge in the salient event of his career as an organizer.
As Obama acknowledged in a revealing chapter of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, the event in question had begun as a protest with the warmest of hopes. He was aiming to draw the attention of the Chicago housing authority to the dangers of asbestos at Altgeld Gardens, the housing project where he worked. After a false start and the usual set of evasions by a city agency, a public meeting was finally arranged at a local gymnasium. Obama gave instructions to two female tenants, charged with running the meeting, not to let the big man from the city do too much of the talking. He then retired to the back of the gym.
The women, as it turned out, lacked the necessary skill. They taunted and teased the city official. One of them dangled the microphone in front of him, snatched it away, and then repeated the trick. He walked out insulted and the meeting ended in chaos. And where was Obama? By his own account, he remained at the back of the room, waving his arms -- too far away for anyone to read his signals. In recounting the incident, he says compassionately that the women blamed themselves even though the blame was not all theirs. He does not say that another kind of organizer, seeing things go so wrong, would have stepped forward and taken charge.
“I Can’t Hear You”
“Leading from behind” was a motto coined by the Obama White House to describe the president’s posture of cooperation with NATO, when, after a long and characteristic hesitation, he took the advice of Hillary Clinton’s State Department against Robert Gates’s Defense Department and ordered the bombing of Libya. Something like that description had been formulated earlier by reporters covering his distant and self-protective negotiations with Congress in the progress of his health-care law. When the phrase got picked up and used in unexpected ways, his handlers tried to withdraw it. Leading from behind, they insisted, did not reflect the president’s real attitude or the intensity of his engagement.
In Libya, all the world knew that the planning for the intervention was largely done by Americans, and that the missiles and air cover were supplied by the United States. Obama was the leader of the nation that was bringing down yet another government in the Greater Middle East. After Afghanistan and Iraq, this marked the third such American act of leadership since 2001. Obama, however, played down his own importance at the time; his energies went into avoiding congressional demands that he explain what sort of enterprise he was leading.
By the terms of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a president needs congressional approval before he can legally commit American armed forces in “hostilities” abroad. But according to the argument offered by Obama’s lawyers, hostilities were only hostilities if an American was killed; mere wars, on the other hand, the president can fight as he pleases -- without the approval of Congress. No American soldier having been killed in Libya, it followed that Obama could lead the country from behind without congressional approval. This delicate legal sophistry served its temporary purpose and the bombing went forward. Yet the awkward description, “leading from behind,” would not go away. These days, the phrase is mostly used as a taunt by war-brokers whose idea of a true leader runs a remarkably narrow gamut from former president George W. Bush to Senator John McCain. These people would have no trouble with Obama if only he gave us more wars.
The curious fact remains that, in Obama’s conception of the presidency, leading from behind had a concrete meaning long before the Libyan intervention. When approached before the 2008 election by labor leaders, community organizers, foreign policy dissenters, and groups concerned with minority rights and environmental protection, each of which sought assurance that he intended to assist their cause, Obama would invariably cup his ear and say, “I can’t hear you.”
The I-can't-hear-you anecdote has been conveyed both in print and informally; and it is plain that the gesture and the phrase had been rehearsed. Obama was, in fact, alluding to a gesture President Franklin Roosevelt is said to have made when the great civil rights organizer A. Philip Randolph put a similar request to him around 1940. Roosevelt, in effect, was saying to Randolph: You command a movement with influence, and there are other movements you can call on. Raise a cry so loud it can’t be mistaken. Make me do what you want me to do; I’m sympathetic to your cause, but the initiative can’t come from me.
It was clever of Obama to quote the gesture. At the same time, it was oddly irresponsible. After all, in the post-New Deal years, the union and civil rights movements had tremendous clout in America. They could make real noise. No such combination of movements existed in 2008.
And yet, in 2008 there had been a swell of popular opinion and a convergence of smaller movements around a cause. That cause was the candidacy of Barack Obama. The problem was that “Obama for America” drank up and swept away the energy of all those other causes, just as Obama’s chief strategist David Plouffe had designed it to do. Even in 2009, with the election long past, “Obama for America” (renamed “Organizing for America”) was being kept alive under the fantastical conceit that a sitting president could remain a movement leader-from-behind, even while he governed as the ecumenical voice of all Americans. If any cause could have pulled the various movements back together and incited them to action after a year of electioneering activity on Obama’s behalf, that cause would have been a massive jobs-creation program and a set of policy moves to rouse the environmental movement and address the catastrophe of climate change.
By the middle of 2009, Barack Obama was no longer listening. He had already picked an economic team from among the Wall Street protégés of the Goldman Sachs executive and former economic adviser to the Clinton administration, Robert Rubin. For such a team, job creation and environmental regulation were scarcely attractive ideas. When the new president chose health care as the first “big thing” he looked to achieve, and announced that, for the sake of bipartisan consensus, he was leaving the details of the legislation to five committees of Congress, his “I can’t hear you” had become a transparent absurdity.
The movements had never been consulted. Yet Obama presumed an intimacy with their concerns and a reliance on their loyalty -- as if a telepathic link with them persisted. There was a ludicrous moment in the late summer of 2009 when the president, in a message to followers of "Obama for America," told us to be ready to knock on doors and light a fire under the campaign for health-care reform. But what exactly were we to say when those doors opened? The law -- still being hammered out in congressional committees in consultation with insurance lobbyists -- had not yet reached his desk. In the end, Obama did ask for help from the movements, but it was too late. He had left them hanging while he himself waited for the single Republican vote that would make his "signature law" bipartisan. That vote never came.
The proposal, the handoff to Congress, and the final synthesis of the Affordable Care Act took up an astounding proportion of Obama’s first year in office. If one looks back at the rest of those early months, they contained large promises -- the closing of Guantanamo being the earliest and the soonest to be shelved. The most seductive promise went by the generic name “transparency.” But Obama’s has turned out to be the most secretive administration since that of Richard Nixon; and in its discouragement of press freedom by the prosecution of whistleblowers, it has surpassed all of its predecessors combined.
In the absence of a performance to match his promises, how did Obama seek to define his presidency? The compensation for “I can’t hear you” turned out to be that all Americans would now have plenty of chances to hearhim. His first months in office were staged as a relaxed but careful exercise in, as was said at the time, “letting the country get to know him.” To what end? The hope seemed to be that if people could see how truly earnest, temperate, patient, thoughtful, and bipartisan Obama was, they would come to accept policies that sheer ideology or ignorance might otherwise have led them to doubt or reject.
It was magical thinking of course -- that Americans would follow if only we heard him often enough; that people of the most divergent tempers and ideas would gradually come to approve of him so visibly that he could afford to show the country that he heard the call for reform. But one can see why his presidency was infused with such magical thinking from the start. His ascent to the Oval Office had itself been magical.
To be known as the voice of the country, Obama believed, meant that he should be heard to speak on all subjects. This misconception, evident early, has never lost its hold on the Obama White House. The CBS reporter Mark Knoller crunched the first-term numbers, and some of them are staggering. Between January 2009 and January 2013 Obama visited 44 states, led 58 town hall meetings, granted 591 media interviews (including 104 on the major networks), and delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks. From all those planned interactions with the American public, remarkably few conversions ever materialized.
By following the compulsion (which he mistook for a strategy) of coming to be recognized as the tribune of all the people, Obama squandered indefinite energies in pursuit of a finite opportunity. For there is an economy of gesture in politics, just as there is in sports. Show all your moves too early and there will be no surprise when the pressure is on. Talk steadily on all subjects and a necessary intensity will desert you when you need it.
In Confidence Men,the most valuable study so far of the character and performance of Obama as president, the journalist Ron Suskind noticed the tenacity of the new president’s belief that he enjoyed a special connection to the American people. When his poll numbers were going down in late 2009, or when his “pivot to jobs” had become a topic of humor because he repeated the phrase so often without ever seeming to pivot, Obama would always ask his handlers to send him out on the road. He was convinced: the people would hear him and he would make them understand.
He sustained this free-floating confidence even though he knew that his town halls, from their arranged format to their pre-screened audiences, were as thoroughly stage-managed as any other politician’s. But Obama told Suskind in early 2011 that he had come to believe “symbols and gestures... are at least as important as the policies we put forward.”
The road trips have proved never-ending. In 2014, a run of three or four days typically included stops at a supermarket outlet, a small factory, and a steel mill, as the president comforted the unemployed with sayings such as “America needs a raise” and repeated phrases from his State of the Union address such as “Let’s make this a year of action” and “Opportunity is who we are.”
In discussions about Obama, one occasionally hears it said -- in a mood between bewilderment and forbearance -- that we have not yet known the man. After all, he has been up against the enormous obstacle of racism, an insensate Republican party, and a legacy of bad wars. It is true that he has faced enormous obstacles. It is no less true that by postponement and indecision, by silence and by speaking on both sides, he has allowed the obstacles to grow larger. Consider his “all of the above” energy policy, which impartially embraces deep-sea drilling, wind farms, solar panels, Arctic drilling, nuclear plants, fracking for natural gas, and “clean coal.”
Obama’s practice of recessive management to the point of neglect has also thrown up obstacles entirely of his devising. He chose to entrust the execution and “rollout” of his health-care policy to the Department of Health and Human Services. That was an elective plan which he himself picked from all the alternatives. The extreme paucity of his meetings with his secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, in the three years that elapsed between his signing of the law and the rollout of the policy makes a fair epitome of negligence. Indeed, the revelation of his lack of contact with Sebelius left an impression -- which the recent provocative actions of the State Department in Ukraine have reinforced -- that the president is not much interested in what the officials in his departments and agencies are up to.
The Preferential President
Obama entered the presidency at 47 -- an age at which people as a rule are pretty much what they are going to be. It is a piece of mystification to suppose that we have been denied a rescue that this man, under happier circumstances, would have been well equipped to perform. There have been a few genuine shocks: on domestic issues he has proven a more complacent technocrat than anyone could have imagined -- a facet of his character that has emerged in his support for the foundation-driven testing regimen “Race to the Top,” with its reliance on outsourcing education to private firms and charter schools. But the truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.
Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions -- and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.
More than most people, Obama has been a creature of his successive environments. He talked like Hyde Park when in Hyde Park. He talks like Citigroup when at the table with Citigroup. And in either milieu, he likes the company well enough and enjoys blending in. He has a horror of unsuccess. Hence, in part, his extraordinary aversion to the name, presence, or precedent of former president Jimmy Carter: the one politician of obvious distinction whom he has declined to consult on any matter. At some level, Obama must realize that Carter actually earned his Nobel Prize and was a hard-working leader of the country. Yet of all the living presidents, Carter is the one whom the political establishment wrote off long ago; and so it is Carter whom he must not touch.
As an adapter to the thinking of men of power, Obama was a quick study. It took him less than half a year as president to subscribe to Dick Cheney’s view on the need for the constant surveillance of all Americans. This had to be done for the sake of our own safety in a war without a visible end. The leading consideration here is that Obama, quite as much as George W. Bush, wants to be seen as having done everything possible to avoid the “next 9/11.” He cares far less about doing everything possible to uphold the Constitution (a word that seldom occurs in his speeches or writings). Nevertheless, if you ask him, he will be happy to declare his preference for a return to the state of civil liberties we enjoyed in the pre-2001 era. In the same way, he will order drone killings in secret and then give a speech in which he informs us that eventually this kind of killing must stop.
What, then, of Obama’s commitment in 2008 to make the fight against global warming a primary concern of his presidency? He has come to think American global dominance -- helped by American capital investment in foreign countries, “democracy promotion,” secret missions by Special Operations forces, and the control of cyberspace and outer space -- as the best state of things for the United States and for the world. We are, as he has told us often, the exceptional country. And time that is spent helping America to dominate the world is time that cannot be given to a cooperative venture like the fight against global warming. The Keystone XL pipeline, if it is built, will bring carbon-dense tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and probably Obama would prefer not to see the pipeline built. Yet it would be entirely in character for him to approve and justify its construction, whether in the name of temporary jobs, oil industry profits, trade relations with Canada, or all of the above.
He has already softened the appearance of surrender by a device that is in equal parts real and rhetorical. It is called the Climate Resilience Fund: a euphemism with all the Obama markings, since resilience is just another name for disaster relief. The hard judgment of posterity may be that in addressing the greatest threat of the age, Barack Obama taught America dimly, worked part time at half-measures, was silent for years at a stretch, and never tried to lead. His hope must be that his reiterated preference will count more heavily than his positive acts.
Copyright 2014 David Bromwich
© 2014 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175816/
It happens to the best of us. Our lives get shaken; our grooves get broken. We get a little disoriented or maybe a lot. It’s all we can do to keep it together and every little further perturbation; real or perceived is a threat.
So we circle the wagons, hyper-vigilant against attacks, challenges, feedback or questions. We get prickly and rigid, insistent that we’re on top of things, precisely because we’re not. To those around us it can look like the height of arrogance but it’s actually vulnerability. We don’t think more of ourselves, but less and are grasping for the self-certainty we’ve lost.
For some of us it’s not a phase but a way of life. We need affirmation and never have enough. Like hummingbirds who need nectar every 15 minutes to stay alive, we need a shot of self-certainty every few minutes. We bend and contort all conversations, all topics and all comments into positive reflections on us. Like corporate spin-doctors in a crisis, it’s all about damage control, even when there are no signs that damage has been done. The people around us wonder why we need to keep proving ourselves every few minutes, why our bravado is always in high gear.
Often we tie ourselves to the mast of some popular or pariah grand social campaign. We’re on a mission purportedly to convince people of some world-saving ideology, a solution to a global existential crisis. But it doesn’t come off that way. It’s not the world we’re saving but ourselves. We’re treading water, exhausted, frantic, flailing, trying to save ourselves.
These world-changing campaigns have their seasons. The missionary Christian, Muslim, leftist, new ager, Republican, Tea Partier, even climate crisis solver, all on a tireless mission, tiresome in the execution. Our achy hearts resonate with the global crisis we’re on a mission to solve. We project the problem as out there, not at home in our achy hearts. We get insistent, overwhelming, preachy, oblivious to our audience. For example, I’ll sometimes raise a question with friends about how to resolve the climate crisis, and get surprising blowback, normally considerate people telling me the one true and absolutely sure-fire way to deal with the problem. If there was one problem that dosen’t have an absolutely sure-fire solution, it’s climate crisis.
Fragidity doesn’t always attach itself to a grand campaign. It can manifest as a general prickliness, a tendency to feel attacked whether we are or aren’t. A symptom is what I call “leaden answers” a counterpart to “leading questions.” A leading question is a loaded question, like “Were you cruel to him?” Since cruelty is obviously bad, the question leads us to answer no, regardless of the situation.
With someone suffering fragidity, it doesn’t matter if the question is loaded, the answers are leaden by even the slightest whiff of threat. “Were you frustrated this morning?” “Of course not, I’m not frustrated. I wouldn’t be frustrated. I’m always reasonable! How dare you insinuate otherwise?” as though frustration is a mark against you.
Such leaden answers are leaden in two ways. The answer is being led by the emotional nose, no regard to substance only threatened status, and the conversations that ensue are deadly dull and heavy, like lead. They go nowhere, slow, the fragid person's insistence drowning out all true exploration.
Nor can you bring up how the conversation is going nowhere without that too feeling like a threat. Dealing with the brittle fragid person means living in what’s known as a double bind. Regardless of what you feel about the fragid person’s behavior, they coerce you into regarding them as above board and honorable. That’s the first bind, and if you try to get out of it with some process talk, the fragid response will be “How dare you insinuate that I’m anything but above board.” That’s the second bind. The fragid person’s insistence on his rightness is exhausting, perhaps deliberately, prone to long monologues about their virtue and victimhood. Dare to raise the slightest challenge to his interpretation and he’ll start the monologue over from the beginning.
Close relationships, especially romantic ones are breeding grounds for fragidity. We partner in large part for a reliable source of very local affirmation. They start with a honeymoon of mutual admiration, but as reality kicks in, we discover that the coziness has confined us in very close quarters with someone who can destabilize us, on purpose or impulse. If we don’t watch out, the relationship becomes not cooperation but black and white competition for who gets to occupy the high ground, leaving both parties prickly and impractical, unable to negotiate for anything but dear life.
Dear life is at stake for all of us, due to everyone’s potential for fragidity. When the going gets tough, all of us might feel disoriented, as though the groove we travel had its walls dismantled and we’re drifting loose, unguided by what to do.
If you noticed people getting more prickly during the economic crisis; if you find people getting more rigid and brittle in general in our increasingly uncertain world, that’s fragidity. Fragidity makes us frigidly rigid in idiocy.
The Tea Party and Republican excesses of late are right on schedule. They’re just the response we would expect in times like these. And though the fragid response is always firm and absolute, it’s anything but consistent. Circumstances don’t matter; content doesn’t matter. All that matters is protecting the fragile vulnerable brittle ego. With that as the crisis’ priority, being consistent doesn’t matter either.
Fragidity is the opposite of resilience and adaptiveness. So how to protect against it?
Know it, and not just as what stupid people do but what we all might do in a pinch. Look for it in yourself as well as in others. Remember that diagnosing it in others is always guesswork. Sometimes people are insistent because they’re right or at least because they really mean it. Fragid people are the first to accuse others of fragidity.
The clearest symptom of fragidity is that it's systematic, it’s not insistent here or there but absolutely everywhere. The best diagnostic tests I’ve found for it are asking seemingly fragid people what they’re uncertain about. What don’t they know or have down pat? Where are they still wondering about things? If their answers are defensive, hollow or non-existent, it’s a good, though not a sure sign that they’re suffering at least a bout if not a lifetime of fragidity.
If you can, steer clear of people you bet are fragid. Fragidity is contagious. It’s hard to be around the brittle without becoming brittle in response. When we’re fragid all that matters is self-defense, which generally takes the form of attacks on others, you for example if you're within range. “I’m absolutely right” generally translates as “You’re absolutely wrong.” When it gets as black and white as that, we’re all under attack, and agility goes out the window.Related Stories
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
Yesterday was a bad day for pretty much anyone who cares about racial equality, voting rights, police violence and that vague thing we call “justice.” But leave it to the brilliant Angela Davis to turn the blow into a rallying cry to counteract violence — both institutional and intimate.
First, here’s what happened. After an intense lobbying campaign by the police union — officially called the Fraternal Order of Police; you’ll see why the name is important later — the senate blocked President Obama’s nomination of Debo P. Adegbile to be the chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Adegbile, who headed the NAACP’s legal defense fund for years, was tarred by the police’s union, and subsequently by Democrat and Republican senators alike, for having helped represent journalist and Black Panther member Mumia Abu-Jamal in an appeal of his death sentence for allegedly killed a Philadelphia police officer.
No matter that Adebgile and the team won the appeal. Or that Abu-Jamal’s case is riddled with inconsistencies. Or that Adebgile has been a leading champion of voting rights and civil rights for decades.
Appearing on Democracy Now! this morning, Baruch professor Johanna Fernandez, editor of the forthcoming "Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu Jamal," explained that the effort to block Adegbile’s nomination is part of a broader campaign to protect the impunity of police departments — and police brutality — at all costs.
In other words, the Fraternal Order of Police sent a pretty clear signal: Don’t f*ck with the cops, or they’ll f*ck with you.
So, what we’re really talking about is violence: who has the right to use it with impunity, and — more broadly — who has the right to exert violent control over others. And once we start talking broadly about violence, especially two days before International Women’s Day, it’s important to examine how intimate violence and institutional violence are intertwined to create a thoroughly unjust society.
Appearing later in this morning’s Democracy Now! segment, Angela Davis explains how gendered violence helps us better understand state-sanctioned violence like police brutality and mass incarceration. “Feminism allows us to reframe imprisonment within a larger context,” Davis said. “The violence that happens in relationships is connected with that of street violence, that of institutional violence, that state violence.”
As she explains, it’s part of a continuum: violence in the home, violence in the streets, violence of incarceration, violence of one nation (often the United States) against another. Put another way: Violence is both grassroots and top-down, literally inflicted at the ground-level and falling out of the skies.
And it’s astonishingly common — especially when we begin talking about the violence of men against cis- and trans-women. As Rebecca Solnit writes in an essay, “The Longest War,” which will appear in her forthcoming book "Men Explain Things to Me," “There is … a pattern of violence against women that’s broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked.”
The manifestations are different: Domestic violence looks different than a maximum-security prison. But the end goal of violence is always control. As Solnit writes, “This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with the premise: I have the right to control you.”
This Saturday, people across the world will mobilize to speak out against violence against women. Protests, speak-outs and even dance parties are planned in major cities across the globe. In advance of Saturday, it’s important for us to listen to Angela Davis’ words and reflect on the way that we speak out against gender violence. Can our demands respond to both intimate violence and institutional violence? Can we strive to, as Davis calls for, place feminism within an abolitionist frame, and abolition within a feminist frame?Related Stories
British trend forecaster James Wallman has coined a new word: “Stuffocation.” (Think “stuff” and “suffocation.”) Wallman claims it’s one of the most crushing afflictions of modern society. Not only does the materialism it’s caused by have a disastrous ecological impact, the argument goes, it’s keeping us from leading more fulfilling lives.
The first step toward recovery is recognizing that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness — something Wallman says is already happening. The second is finding something more meaningful to replace material items. That something, he argues, is experience: doing things instead of buying things. It’s an idea that, slowly but surely, he sees moving from the fringes of society to the mainstream.
If stuffocation is the key affliction of our time, in other words, then experientialism is going to be the key solution. In “Stuffocation,” his recently released book, Wallman chases down the people who are shifting away from acquiring and toward doing; speaking with Salon, he makes a convincing case for the rest of us to follow in their footsteps. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
“Stuffocation.” Aside from the clever name, what’s new about this idea? Is it just a clever name for materialism, or is there something else you’re trying to get at?
The important thing about being a good cultural analyst and a good trend forecaster comes from applying the methodology sensibly and intelligently. And I say that because the way that I forecast the future is inspired by something a futurist named William Gibson once said: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So my role is to see the future here in the present and to identify the innovative ways of doing things that are happening now that I believe are going to catch on and move into the mainstream.
Some people have said, “What’s new about the problem with materialism? Everybody knows this. What’s new about saying that experience is better than material things? Lots of people say they know that already.” But I don’t think anyone else has quite said it. I don’t think anyone has identified this as being the defining problem. And stuffocation, for me, in some ways feels like a bag and I’ve put into it all the different aspects that explain this problem.
What’s new is the way I’ve bagged up these problems together. So some people say, just hold on a second, it just sounds like “affluenza” or “status anxiety” 2.0. “Status Anxiety,” by Alain de Botton, is also a great book, but it says that we’re feeling anxious because of today’s society. Affluenza says the ways we live our lives, all this affluence, is causing us to be depressed. But if you look at stuffocation and all of the problems involved with it, it’s not just about the stress that comes with modern life. It’s about all the problems that come with modern life, which could also include the impact we’re having on the environment, for example. So what I’ve done is, I’ve taken these other things that other people have identified and I’ve synthesized those into a whole, which is the problem of stuffocation.
My use of the term “experientialism” is much more cultural than it’s been used in the past. It’s a value system that underpins what we’re doing, but no one has identified it as the better way for us to live, as the way to solve the problems of stuffocation. No one’s stated that as a manifesto and no one has made that forecast that we are moving from a value system of materialism to a value system of experientialism. No one’s said that that’s going to be the key defining, cultural trend of the 21st century.
And you’re saying that it will be the defining trend?
Yes, I believe it will be. It’s important to note that this is for developed Western, successful countries and those who have moved from the problem of scarcity to the problem of abundance. The defining problem of the 20th century in many ways has been the defining problem of human existence: scarcity. The magic of the Industrial Revolution met the geniuses who created the consumer revolution, particularly the mad men and women of the ’20s who created a consumer revolution. And it worked first in the United States.
The “American paradox,” as Christine Frederick called it, is that it worked so well in the States that everyone else, the Brits, the French, etc., said, “Hold on, their standards of living are going up in this incredible way and we want ours to do that too.” So those of us who were lucky enough not to get bamboozled by communism followed suit as quickly as we could after the Second World War. And then the magic of that idea meant that all the others followed too: the Brazilians, the Indians; they all want some of this too. So that was the big idea of the 20th century, and I think — for all the reasons of stuffocation — that doesn’t work anymore.
I think people are pretty familiar with the narrative of how materialism became this key way of living. But when did the shift away from that and toward experientialism begin?
The thing about seismic cultural change is it doesn’t really work so well for news pegs. There’s very rarely a kind of moment when you say, “right, that’s it.” Especially at this point it’s very hard to identify the turning point. You know, if you look at the Industrial Revolution, that took 150 years to happen. So for people living every day it was evolution, not revolution. But looking back we can say it was revolution. I think what we’re going through to later historians might look like revolution, but for those of us living every day it will feel much more like evolution.
And so in terms of picked moments, it’s really hard to put your finger on it. To give you one example, in 1970, 80 percent of people were materialistic, now it’s 50 percent. And that’s been a gradual shift. In 2011, the experiential luxury section was bigger than any of the other sectors for the first time. There’s this guy named Chris Goodall — he’s an ex-McKinsey consultant, he’s a Cambridge University grad, and he taught economics at Harvard briefly — he thinks that we’ve reached the point or we’re passing the point of “peak stuff.”
Goodall’s research began in 2003, and that’s when he’s kind of set his point. He found that our behavior has been changing: We’re now consuming less cars, concrete, paper, steel, fertilizer — a lot of key parts of our economy. We now are what’s called “dematerializing.” So, I would say, the first decade of this century is probably a reasonable time to peg that.
You write a lot about these extreme case studies where, for example, people are selling all their possessions. I think also of things like micro-apartments — this sort of thing feels like a fringe movement. If this is something that’s going to become mainstream, how do you see it taking hold in larger society?
The book almost followed the journey of me identifying this problem and then going looking for the answer. So it’s a very whittled down list — I came across a far larger number of ideas, but I just wanted the ones that I thought were most relevant. The message of “Stuffocation” at the end of the day is not anti-consumerism or anti-capitalism. It’s not anti-stuff, it’s not about getting rid of all of our stuff. I don’t believe we’re going to do that.
The people who are minimalists, who are taking this to the extremes, are reacting. There’s no doubt about it, there are some small number of millions in the States who are doing it and it’s spread around the world. For me, I don’t think we’ll be getting rid of all of our stuff, but what makes me think that this is mainstream is the way it resonates. The response I’ve had from journalists, and from readers, is that even when people don’t agree with everything I talk about, the idea of stuffocation resonates with them: “Oh yeah, I know what you mean, we’ve got too much stuff.”
If you think about the study by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families in Los Angeles, the most comprehensive report on contemporary living ever created, they reached the conclusion that we’re living in the most materially rich society in global history. We have light-years’ more possessions than any preceding society. We’re facing material saturation. We are coping with extraordinary clutter and we’re in a clutter crisis. And just to be really clear, those aren’t my terms. Those are the terms of ethnographers and anthropologists whose job it is to be objective. They were beating drums to tell people what they should do. And I think that because we have so many positions, because things have become ubiquitous and cheap and it’s so easy just to buy things nowadays, because we’ve been trained to become that way, that when you tell people, “Yeah, I’ve got too many of this, I’ve got too many pairs of shoes, I’ve got too many books on my shelf that I’ve never read. I’ve got loads of stuff that I just don’t use that just fills up my home” — it just resonates for people.
So there are a lot of things playing into this attitude, and you point out that concern for the environment could be one of them. Do you think that plays a prominent role in people moving away from materialism, or is it more of a secondary outcome?
It’s funny, because when I talk about stuffocation, I very rarely mention the environmental aspect. And it has a very small mention in the book. That’s partly because I feel it’s so obvious. But also, not only is it obvious, I think it’s one of those drivers of stuffocation — one of those things that fits into the bag of stuffocation — is that it’s all well and good for some people to be concerned about the environment, but there are a lot of people who a) aren’t bothered about the environment, and b) even if they are bothered about the environment they aren’t bothered enough to do something about it and stop consuming stuff.
So firstly, like I said, this isn’t a trend for 2014 that’s going to be gone by 2015. This is not something that means that Cyber Monday and all those sale shopping days aren’t going to happen. People aren’t going to stop going to the store. It’s not going to happen overnight. Because all of the reasons for stuffocation aren’t short-term blips. They are observable, long-term trends. I think as we see climate change continue to happen, there seems pretty clear evidence that things are changing. As we see that start to affect more and more people in terms of weather patterns changing, there will be increasing concern about the environment and that will affect us.
But at the same time, even if you have no interest in the environment, all of the other things that are causing stuffocation — status anxiety, affluenza, the clutter crisis, the stable society that we live in today — all of these things will push us to shift from materialism to experientialism. You don’t need to believe in environmentalism to agree with the other aspects of stuffocation and the other reasons why we’re shifting from materialism to experientialism.
What are some of those other reasons?
One of them is the knowledge that we get more happiness from experiences than we get from material goods. And that is very new knowledge. That was discovered in a paper in 2003 by two psychologists called Thomas Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven. The paper, wonderful name, was called: “To Do or To Have, That Is the Question.” For me, that was a watershed moment because before that time, you couldn’t say for sure whether an experience or a material good was better. Someone could say, “Look, if you think experience is better than material goods, you’re buying the wrong stuff.”
It sounds like more of a philosophical debate.
Yeah, exactly. There was no answer. But these guys proved, in a social science way, that experiences are better than material goods. It didn’t really get a lot of publicity until about 2009, but the thing is, once we have that knowledge — and there are other works and books coming out about this — once you know that, if you continue to put your focus on material goods rather than experiential you’re making the choice not to be happier.
Let’s go back to the idea of knowing that jogging is good for us, for example, which I think was discovered in the 1950s or 1960s, or that cigarettes were bad for us, or that eating blueberries is good for us, or eating broccoli is good for us — the thing is, it’s quite rare that once we discover that we start changing. It wasn’t when it was discovered that there was a correlation between smoking and disease that you suddenly saw people jogging more. It took a number of decades for it to really change. But it has changed our behavior. It has changed our culture over a number of decades. And by the same token, the knowledge that experience is better than material goods at making us happy, giving us identity, giving us status, giving us meaning in our lives, is going to change the way people make decisions.
I’d love to talk about the different facets of experientialism. As you say, it’s something that can require spending a lot of money. What are some of the ways you see this as an improvement over materialism?
I’m really glad you brought that up, because a lot of people sometimes have a bit of an issue with the way that I talk about experientialism as going skiing in Tahoe or Park City or going to Morocco on vacation or wherever. And the fact that the shift from materialism to experientialism is not anti-capitalist, not anti-consumer. It’s not about spending less money. Because a really important part of our system is that we need people to keep spending money to give people jobs, to create the great standards of living that we have. If we want to have more, we have to spend more — it’s a very simple correlation in terms of our economy. I’m not trying to bring down the economy at all.
But at the same time, the magic of the experientialist viewpoint is you don’t need to go to Peru on a holiday. You don’t need to go to Marrakech for a vacation. You don’t need to spend a whole bunch of money to have a great time and experience. If you look at the statistics, living near a park makes you happier. Going for a walk with friends. Being in nature. Just doing things is good for you in terms of making you happy.
So it depends on what you define as significant experiences.
Well, it depends on you. It depends on your choice. Some people like to go skiing. Some people like to go for a walk. Some people like to rock climb. Some people like to ramble in the hills. There’s a very interesting piece of research that I came across recently that says really gung-ho, seat of your pants, exciting experiences really work well for young people whereas for older people, what they should look to do is the simple experiences. Going for a walk with a friend, having dinner with a friend, whatever it might be. I think you’re trying to make a statement about who you are. And what’s interesting, I think today, is that instead of making a statement about who we are in terms of our material goods, we’re much more focused on making a statement on who we are through experiences instead. So if you think of the rise of Tough Mudder, there’s a great example.
And one of the interesting things about that discovery in 2003 is since then there has been lots of research into why experientialism is better than material goods at making us happy.
You beat me to the question.
So there are five key reasons why experiences are better than material goods at making us happy. The first thing is something that social scientists call “hedonic adaptation.” And that’s simply a way of saying that with material goods you get bored of things quickly, whereas with experiences you don’t. The great example is the mobile phone. When you first get it you press the buttons, you play with it, you tell your friends about it, you’re excited. A week later, not so excited. A month later, ehh. Three months later it’s part of the furniture. You just get used to the thing being around.
The second thing is “positive reinterpretation.” That’s basically, if you buy a bad material good, let’s say a pair of shoes that actually don’t fit that well or a pair that squeak or that coat that swishes or makes a weird noise when you’re walking, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s just a bad decision. That’s it. But with an experience, if it goes wrong, it doesn’t really go wrong at all.
Think about being on a long bus ride, and you’ve sat next to a person who’s sick – literally sick – all over you. And there are chickens on the bus, the windows won’t open or shut, you bang your head, the seat is really uncomfortable, and you break your coccyx and you’re just in agonizing pain, it’s supposed to be a one-hour journey and it takes three days. At the time, that’s a really horrible thing to be going through. But the more you tell it, the better it is, right? There’s that magic. The magic of a bad experience is that it’s almost like there’s no such thing as a bad experience. That’s probably my favorite reason.
The third reason why experiences are better than material goods – and this actually references the status anxiety – is that experiences are much harder to compare than material goods. And that means that we don’t get the same kind of tension that comes with comparing things. You know, if you’ve ever bought a handbag, and your colleague turns up the next day with the better one – let’s say you got the one from Top Shop, and it’s a great bag, but your colleague got the Gucci one, and there’s no doubt about it, it’s a better bag. Or I have a Nissan, it’s a very plain, average car, and one of my neighbors has a Porsche, another one has an Audi. And there’s no doubt about it that they have nicer cars than me.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that for a holiday your neighbor goes to the Four Seasons in Hawaii, or the Maldives, or one of those amazing islands off Brazil and stays in a five-star resort, and drinks champagne from the refrigerators, which are on the beach. And you go to Wales for a rainy camping holiday. Or you drink warm beer on the beach, or whatever it might be. Now there’s no doubt about it that they had a swankier holiday than you. But did they have a better holiday? Is chilled champagne on the beach better than warm beer? People often smile at me when I say this, and say of course they did.
But actually, you might be really wealthy and having what looks like an amazing time, but you might not be happy and having fun. It’s much more about the people you’re with and what you’re doing. But anyway, from that basis, it’s much harder to compare experiences than it is material goods.
You could argue, though, that people going on social media and posting photos of their vacations is breeding a lot of envy, couldn’t you?
Definitely. The FOMO [fear of missing out] idea is, I think, the 21st-century version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s been fascinating talking to people – particularly in the salons I’ve been hosting recently –they have a real problem with status and with the idea that people are posting pictures of where they are, and that’s destroying the experience. There’s no doubt about it: If you spend more time worrying about what you’re going to be posting or tweeting or putting on Facebook that you’re not going to have as good a time. There was great research lately that showed that if you Instagram shots of your food, you enjoy your food less. I think we can all relate to the idea that if you’re focusing on what other people think about your time, you’re not going to have as good of a time.
So there are some issues with replacing material things with experiences as a kind of better way. But I think people get too obsessed with the idea that taking a picture of something is about status. I’ve taken pictures of me and my brother and father on a ski slope in Chambery, or a wonderful picture of a cloud that was over Mont Blanc, for example, and I didn’t take that picture to show off to people I was there. I mean, possibly slightly, but I took it as a memory that I was there, and to share it with, for example, my niece who’s on Instagram and wants to see a picture of her family skiing together. It’s not just about status. It’s just about sharing what we do.
So back to those last two reasons …
Yes. So No. 4 is about identity. If you think about the things that you have versus the things that you’ve done, the things you have contribute far less to your identity. Wedding gifts are a great example, as compared to actually having had a wedding. Or if you just had to choose between giving back $1,000 worth of clothes and things that you have, versus giving back $1,000 worth of a weekend away with friends, most people would give back the stuff. Have you seen the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”? Experiences really matter — things that happen to us, that we have done, really contribute to our identity.
If you’ve climbed the hill, if you’ve done the Tough Mudder course, if you’ve learned to surf, if you’ve learned how to make bread or cupcakes, or you’ve run the New York Marathon, or you’ve gone ice skating in Central Park — that contributes to who you are. Whereas having a material good doesn’t contribute in the same way nearly as much.
The final point — and this one is really key — is that experiences tend to bring us closer to people. Because we’re social animals, being closer to people tends to make us happier. So if you’re buying something, it tends to separate you from other people (it doesn’t always, obviously there’s a mix here), whereas doing something tends to bring you closer.
There are two pieces of research I love. One shows that talking about experiential goods makes you happier than talking about material goods. The other shows that we prefer to listen to people who talk about experiences rather than materials. So if you know that piece of information, and if you have a choice of having $100 or $1,000 to spend on a material good or an experiential good, you’ll know that with the experience, you’ll enjoy doing it more, you’ll enjoy talking about it more, and people will be more inclined to listen to you. So in every single way, it will bring you closer to other people and it will make you happier.Related Stories
This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.
The following text is adapted from a speech delivered on February 8 to the Strategy Summit hosted by Progressive Congress (progressivecongress.com), an organization founded in 2009 by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and leaders of progressive NGOs.
Thanks for allowing a scruffy Texas populist to join you here at “The Summit” for this uptown, down-to-earth, back-to-basics populist-palooza. It makes me happier than a mosquito at a nudist colony to be looking out at you unabashed, untamed progressives. Thank you for fighting on behalf of America’s workaday majority, who’re being kicked out, knocked down and stomped on by the bosses, bankers, big shots, bastards and bullshitters. They seem to think they’re the top dogs and ordinary people are nothing but fire hydrants, so, again, thank you for standing up and speaking out against their plutocratic power plays.
I know it isn’t easy in the House to make these fights. Wow—what a menagerie of Koch-headed, right-wing, GOP mutants you have to mess with! It’s enough to make you feel sorry for poor ol’ John Boehner. He’s as confused as a goat on AstroTurf! What a hoot it was to watch him hype the Republicans’ stripped-down immigration bill recently, but have to declare it dead less than a week later because his Tea Party swarm turned on him. Then he blamed Obama for their recalcitrance. After all, he couldn’t admit the truth, which is: “My members are bull-goose, howl-at-the-moon lunatics!”
Take Steve Stockman… please! A certifiably insane, far-out right-winger representing a Houston suburb, he actually put out a re-election bumper sticker that says (and I’m not making this up), “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”
Nothing is too extreme for that bunch, and too much never seems enough for them. When I see them going full-tilt goofy, I think of some advice I got as a teenager: in sex, using a feather can be erotic. But using the whole chicken—well, that’s just kinky.
As our friend Bill Moyers said about them and their agenda, “The delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seat of power.”
Well, that’s their problem. But we Democrats are facing a big question of identity, too. Who will we be? Will our party be the home of populist, grassroots Democrats (both “little-d” democrats as well as big-D Dems)? Or will it be a bastion of Jamie Dimon–Wall Street Democrats?
Your Progressive Caucus is the key to answering that. You have achieved a strong presence inside Congress, and you now have a unique potential to amplify your voice by linking with us “outsiders”—i.e., the vibrant and growing network of activist progressive groups and unattached mad-as-hellers across the country. You have both the official standing and political credibility to rally our forces into something bigger and more cohesive than our many separate entities, thus creating a more effective national force for confronting the corporate plutocracy that is fast enthroning itself over the people’s democratic sovereignty.
Your theme at this summit, “Building a Progressive America,” is both right and doable, and your focus on populism is the right blueprint for getting it done. First, let’s make clear to a confused mass media what populism is not. It is not Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Grover Norquist or the Koch-funded, corporate-hugging, laissez-fairyland ideologues of the Tea Party. Nor is it a meaningless tag for lazy media outlets to attach to any spasm of popular discontent.
Rather, populism is the un-corporate America. It is a distinctive, very progressive and very American democratic -ism that not only acts politically but also economically, socially and culturally. As old as the USA itself, populism has a rich egalitarian philosophy, a deep history, noble accomplishments, and a broad reach that cuts right through the conventional political boxes that are deliberately designed to divide us.
Populism comes down to this core, unifying truth about today’s America: too few people control too much of the money and power, and they’re using that control to grab more money and power from the rest of us.
We don’t have to create this populist sensibility, for most people have a visceral sense of it. After all, they experience corporate control daily as workers, consumers, voters, small farmers, environmentalists, etc.—or by simply being female, Latino, black, LGBT, immigrant or anyone else those with power feel free to take advantage of. Especially today, the rapidly widening chasm of inequality between the elite few who have money and power and the vast majority of people who don’t has moved to the hottest burner of American politics. From in-depth Pew polls to the homilies of the pope, and even in the pews of supposedly conservative evangelical churches, the national discussion is focused exactly where the powers that be do not want it to be: on them.
The recent rise of populist fervor is showing once again that the true political spectrum in our country is not right to left (that’s theory, ideology—and most Americans are not ideological, or they’re ideological mutts). The actual spectrum runs from top to bottom, for that’s real-life experience—it’s people’s ZIP codes, income and other measures of their relationship to those at the top.
We need not fear talking to the people about even our strongest progressive proposals, for they’re already with us—or ahead of us. Citizens United? Eighty percent want it repealed, including 76 percent of Republicans! Hike the minimum wage? Hell, yes—again including a majority of Republicans and even 42 percent of Tea Partiers. Equal pay for women, no more NAFTAs, Medicare for all, big spending to restore our infrastructure, a “moon shot” to convert the country to green energy, a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculators, a stop to the NSA’s domestic spying and even gay marriage—thumbs up to all!
So we don’t have to generate public support for a populist politics, for it’s already in the hearts, minds and guts of the majority, though most don’t know the name for it. Rather, we have to bring this natural constituency to the realization that (1) they are populists; (2) they are not alone; (3) they have much more in common than they’ve been told; and (4) they can forge a new, noncorporatized people’s politics that can achieve all of the above—and far more. As Jesse Jackson puts it: “We might not all have come over in the same boat, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Our first job is to reach them with a message of unity and progressive possibilities. Here are a few of my thoughts on doing that, based on the enormous creativity and grassroots successes that I’ve encountered as I’ve crisscrossed the country:
*Don’t forget that cultural shifts produce political change, not the other way around. This includes the big cultural shifts, the dawning on society that a way of thinking has been wrong. The great progressive movements (including the phenomenal mass democratic movement generated by the nineteenth-century Populists themselves) have advanced not only by good organizing, but by a steady altering of the public’s perception. The watershed moment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s came when a critical mass of Americans saw news films of such raw ugliness as the police dogs that Bull Connor turned against peaceful protesters in Birmingham. Stunned viewers said (first to themselves, then to others), “That’s not right.”
We’re in the midst of a huge cultural shift today, as both the LGBT and the immigrant movements are enjoying an abrupt and stunning shift in public attitudes. The shift is led by young people, who have had the temerity to say to the elders who are demonizing gays and undocumented people: “You’re wrong. I know Mary (or Maria). I stand with her.”
Such shifts are largely propelled not by statistics and clever debating points but by storytelling, art, songs, puppets, social media and other forms of cultural expression that have emotional resonance. Take the free-form, nonhierarchical Occupy movement. It’s been dismissed by the cognoscenti as an undisciplined failure that produced no legislation. But come on—a legislative agenda isn’t change. Occupy’s great contribution was that it was a genuine, noninstitutional, non-wonkish, morally compelling uprising against the prevailing culture of inequality—and it touched people in ways far deeper than old-line issue politics can ever do. Indeed, Occupy turned Wall Street’s pampered brats into social pariahs and put America’s yawning chasm of inequality right at the center of the country’s policy discussion (as the clueless Mitt Romney learned the hard way).
*Building a people’s movement requires taking the long view. As my friend Willie Nelson has observed, “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
We just saw a sterling example in New York City of how this long-term view pays off. In November’s elections, the Working Families Party enjoyed sweeping victories, including being a major force in electing new mayor Bill de Blasio. Long associated with the WFP, de Blasio won 73 percent of the vote on a proudly populist platform that included a major hike in the city’s minimum wage, increased taxes on the rich and pre-kindergarten education for every New York City child. Also, WFP members Letitia James and Scott Stringer won the other two citywide offices (public advocate and comptroller, respectively), and a dozen progressive candidates backed by the WFP were elected for the first time.
What a 2013 success story, huh? No. All of these politically transformative wins were ten years in the making: ten years of recruiting good candidates and campaign organizers, training and retraining them, building credibility with successful issue campaigns, developing strong door-to-door relationships in the city, constantly organizing, harmonizing and mobilizing… then winning.
*Expand the movement by reaching out and connecting with other movements that don’t identify as progressive but are in fact populist and also are actually on the move. Consider the widespread, disjointed, furious, truly grassroots rebellion against Big Oil frackers. This thoroughly destructive drilling process is largely happening in supposedly conservative places, but the corporate arrogance and deep harm being done has sparked uprisings that are uniting farmers, environmentalists, property rights advocates, corporate reformers and just plain folks. The fledgling coalitions are scrappy (and are winning some significant fights), but they’re up against ruthless corporate giants. They’re having to learn as they go—and they feel alone. So I ask you: Why aren’t we—the progressive forces generally, and this caucus specifically—out there standing with them?
One group that is connecting and has experience in forging and developing effective populist coalitions is National People’s Action. Led by George Goehl, this excellent organization has some of its organizers here today. Maybe the Congressional Progressive Caucus could explore teaming up with NPA, drawing in others and finding ways to be of tangible assistance to those folks in the fracking fields, while also adding to the populist movement’s base.
*To reach people in compelling ways, we progressives would do ourselves a tactical favor by not dumping our whole landfill of facts and talking points on every person we meet. Instead, let’s draw back a bit from our intense “issue-speak” and offer more about our core values (of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all) and tell personal stories that paint pictures in people’s minds. As Van Jones has pointed out about Dr. King’s historic 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he didn’t say, “I have a position paper.”
There’s a fledgling coalition in North Carolina that is leading the way on this. Last April, fed up with the right-wing rampage by the Republican supermajority in the legislature, the Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, launched a people’s nonviolent protest in the Capitol, calling it “Moral Mondays.” At first a few came, then a lot, then thousands, with hundreds getting arrested. Teachers might lead the protests one week, unemployed people the next, then seniors, students, labor, anti-poverty advocates, doctors, ministers… so no one group is “in charge” and the spotlight is not on any one issue, but on the rank immorality of the legislature’s corporate-backed assault on decency, the common good and democracy itself. As one participant put it, they are here “to save the soul of our state.”
Moral Monday protests have spread across the Tar Heel State, with more than 8,000 people turning out recently in downtown Asheville. Also, Moral Mondays Georgia has cropped up, and a South Carolina coalition has launched Truthful Tuesdays. Something big is percolating in the South, and we shouldn’t just take note of it, but show up and ask the people there what we can do to help.
Some say that a populist movement can’t hold together, that it’s like herding cats. But those who say you can’t herd cats never tried a can opener. They will come. And our can opener is that set of progressive values: fairness, justice, opportunity for all.
*Finally, the most useful message that I bring to you today is this: get the hell out of Washington!
You are not just a caucus of Congress, but also representatives of America’s progressive movement. The people of that movement need to see you, hear you, talk to you, connectwith you. The CPC has more punch and a greater potential than you realize—not merely inside Congress, but especially outside. Your caucus can become the rallying point for the burgeoning grassroots forces of populism. By rallying the “outside,” the CPC would geometrically increase its voice on the inside.
As you know from your work in your districts, there is no organizational center of the progressive movement. You could provide that. I don’t mean any grandiose hierarchical structure, but a nationwide channel for connecting the movement’s many components, amplifying its voice and increasing its reach. You could (and should) become this hub, not by holding a press conference or proclaiming that the CPC will take the lead, but by simply doing it. Here are a couple of ways:
One, start going to the countryside with a series of CPC hearings on the minimum wage,Citizens United, fracking, etc. As you know, a member of Congress is not that big a deal in your own town, but I guarantee that if groups of three or four of you held progressive congressional forums in places like Des Moines, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Albuquerque and Spokane, you would fill the biggest hall in town with people eager to start mobilizing in a big, interconnected, progressive movement. Media coverage would be extensive in each place, and people would be energized by the mere fact that someone in power gives a damn about connecting with them and has bothered to come out to enlist them.
Two, help set up a progressive speakers network, so we routinely have outreach in cities, suburbs and towns, providing nationwide education and action on populist principles and causes. The nineteenth-century Populist movement had 40,000 “lecturers” in its speakers program, constantly going directly into communities to spread the word. We don’t have forty now who are out there regularly. But we do have plenty of good speakers, each of whom could commit to doing maybe a half-dozen local events a year, with community groups and social media generating content and crowds. I can tell you from experience that these grassroots speaking events, combined with a bit of music and some libations to turn them festive and lubricate the movement, are not only enlightening and invigorating for the audience, but for the speakers as well.
My overall point is that to have a mass movement, we have to go to the masses. I’ll leave you with this thought, which I stole from the advertising pitch of a small moving company that was in my town of Austin, Texas, back in the ’70s. This company was really just a couple of good ol’ boys (named Skeeter and Booger, as I recall) with a truck, but they had a winning ad in the Yellow Pages that said, “If we can get it loose, we can move it.”
There’s our challenge: get the grassroots loose, and the people themselves will move America forward to a bright populist future.Related Stories
All those flower children who said, “Dropping acid/dancing with Lucy/a dose of this stuff melts your worries away, man” weren’t (just) tripping, after all.
The results of the first clinical study of the therapeutic use of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in humans in more than 40 years were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease this week. They show that LSD can promote statistically significant reductions in anxiety.
Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser and his colleagues conducted the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, sponsored by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). They tracked 12 people who were near the end of life as they attended LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions. Eleven of the 12 subjects had never taken LSD prior to participating in the study.
"My LSD experience brought back some lost emotions and ability to trust, lots of psychological insights, and a timeless moment when the universe didn't seem like a trap, but like a revelation of utter beauty," said Peter, an Austrian study participant.
The study was approved by SwissMedic, the Swiss authority responsible for authorizing and supervising all therapeutic products, in December 2007. The first subject was enrolled on April 23, 2008, and the last long-term follow-up interview was conducted on Aug. 8, 2012.
In his report, Safety and Efficacy of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-Assisted Psychotherapy for Anxiety Associated With Life-threatening Diseases, Gasser concluded that the study subjects’ anxiety "went down and stayed down." The results also indicate that LSD-assisted psychotherapy can be safely administered in these subjects, and Gasser wrote that the results warrant further study into the potential of LSD-assisted psychotherapy.
MAPS noted in a press release that there is “considerable previous human experience using LSD in the context of psychotherapy.”
Between the 1950s and early '70s, psychiatrists, therapists and researchers administered LSD to thousands of people as a treatment for alcoholism, as well as for anxiety and depression in people with advanced-stage cancer. However, since then LSD has been strictly controlled. In the U.S. it is listed as a Schedule I substance, which indicates that it is dangerous and has no medicinal value.
"This study is historic and marks a rebirth of investigation into LSD-assisted psychotherapy,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of MAPS. "The positive results and evidence of safety clearly show why additional, larger studies are needed."Related Stories