Why Coen Brother's Latest Flick Makes for Uncomfortable Watching in a Culture Drenched in Positive Thinking
Alternet is proud to feature content from Jacobin, a print quarterly that offers socialists perspectives on politics and economics. Support Jacobin and buy afour-issue subscription for $19.
At the Q & A session following a screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, a member of the audience asked lead actor Oscar Isaac what he thought would ultimately happen to his character, struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis. Since the movie ends with young Bob Dylan taking the stage, wouldn’t Dylan’s phenomenal success and transformation of the folk music scene serve as a rising tide that lifts Llewyn Davis’ leaky boat?
Oscar Isaac laughed at the very idea. “Llewyn’s stuck on the hamster wheel,” he said cheerfully, adding that maybe he’d wind up giving guitar lessons in Greenwich Village.
Nobody laughed in response. Even the suggestion that a fictional character would fail to make it in America is, apparently, deflating. It was a tough crowd for a Coen brothers film.
Because unlike most other American directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been interested in depicting failure. Their new film Inside Llewyn Davistakes such a steady, unblinking look at continuous humiliating defeat, it’s hard to see how the film can find an audience of any size, at least in the USA. Here, we don’t like to think about failure, though it stares most of us in the face every day.
We’ve been conditioned to believe in the power of positive thinking. If we can’t convince ourselves we’re moving Onward and Upward toward success, we’d rather not contemplate our lives at all.
If Inside Llewyn Davis weren’t so funny, none of us could stand it.
The exemplar of failure, Llewyn Davis claims to “fucking hate folk music” because he’s gifted at it, takes it seriously, and is getting nowhere with it, while other less talented and driven folk musicians do better than he does. The film’s set in Greenwich Village, 1961, right before Dylan’s ascension which will cause the general public to suddenly give a damn about folk music and start paying real money to hear it. In the pre-Dylan era, struggling folk acts play a few clubs in major cities and eke out precarious livings if they’re lucky.
Llewyn Davis is not lucky. He sleeps on the couches of those who are barely getting by themselves, and during the day he schleps his guitar around the snowy streets of New York City, trying to manage the mess of his life. The mess involves his chronic homelessness, his stalled career, his dicey relationship with his senile father and reproachful sister, his tendency to impregnate young women who then need money from him to pay for abortions, and his other tendency to alienate everyone including the people who are nice and kind and generous to him, or who at least could help him get somewhere career-wise. And then on top of everything else, there’s the cat.
The cat is very important to the Llewyn Davis narrative. A handsome, expressive orange tabby that escapes from the apartment where Llewyn Davis is crashing, the cat becomes a minor obsession of Llewyn’s. He keeps losing and finding it, chasing and carrying it around with him. But for all his trouble, the cat he returns to its worried owners turns out to be a female orange tabby virtually identical to the cat he lost. “Where’s his scrotum?” shrills Mrs. Goldfein. In valiantly trying to safeguard the cat, or rather both cats, Llewyn endeavors to get one small symbolic aspect of his life under control. And fails.
The circular storyline of the cat is part of the overall relentless cycle of the narrative, which starts and ends at the same place, in an alley outside a folk music club where Llewyn Davis is getting beaten up. This beginning/ending scene was the inspiration for the film, according to Ethan Coen: “We were in the office, and Joel said, ‘OK, suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City. That’s the beginning of a movie.’”
The Coens took as inspiration Dave Van Ronk ‘s musical repertoire as well as his album Inside Dave Van Ronk, with its haunting cover image of Van Ronk, rumpled and shabby, sharing a doorway with a self-possessed grey-and-white cat. The Coens also borrowed certain Dave Van Ronk traits such as his history with the Merchant Marines and his furious contempt for commercialized pop-folk groups like the Kingston Trio. Supposedly the Coens were even intent on casting a big, shambling Van Ronk-like guy, before they auditioned the compactly built live-wire Oscar Isaac and were wowed by his combination of formidable acting and guitar-playing skills.
Isaac’s performances of songs such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” and “Green, Green Rocky Road” add a level of painful poignancy to the film, because Llewyn Davis isn’t just some sad-sack —he’s fiercely talented. But he’s also alienated, strident, bristling with resentment, and inclined to be uppity about his refusal to sell out, until he’s truly desperate and has to grab the short-end money. In a moment of financial distress, he agrees to sit in on the recording of a hilariously dreadful novelty tune “Please, Mr. Kennedy;” then at a moment of professional arrogance he blows up at his kindliest, most supportive friends because they ask him to sing a song at a social gathering. (“You know, I’m not a trained poodle. I do this for a LIVING.”)
As executive music producer T-Bone Burnett pointed out at the same Q and A session, Llewyn’s a guy who, when he finally gets his big audition for agent Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), doesn’t sing something punchy like “Cocaine.” He sings “The Death of Queen Jane,” a slow, bleak ballad “about a medieval cesarean section.”
Llewyn Davis is ultimately no Dave Van Ronk—he’s not headed toward “Mayor of McDougal Street” status, mentoring Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Joni Mitchell, beloved by all. Bud Grossman’s delivers the implacable verdict on Llewyn Davis: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
The Coens’ tendency to observe human failure unblinkingly comes across as juvenile sadism to critic J. Hoberman, who in his review of Inside Llewyn Davispublished in Tablet Magazine, sums up their career in this way:
An undeniably talented two-man band of brothers, the Coens take pleasure less in confronting their audience or authority in general, than in bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement. Theirs is a comic theater of cruelty populated by a battered cast of action figures and a worldview that might have been formulated not from a Buick 6, à la Dylan but the Olympian heights of a bunk bed in suburbia.
It’s an interesting implication, that Bob Dylan’s creativity is rooted in true working-class struggle, whereas the Coens’ suburban middle-class background can produce no empathy for human suffering. (Actually, as is now well-known, Dylan’s early circumstances were middle-class Jewish Minnesotan, like the Coens.) Since Hoberman mentions it, however, it seems to me remarkable that the Coens, who were so successful so young, should remain such exquisite observers of angst-ridden lower-class life in America.
From the outside, people tend to imagine that a life lived perpetually struggling and short of money means melodramatically dreadful things, which of course it often does. But few imagine the continuous petty discomforts and disadvantageous trade-offs that make up the day-to-day grind. The sheer inconvenience and gratuitous difficulty of every aspect of life were among George Orwell’s major revelations when studying the lives of the working poor for his book The Road to Wigan Pier.
The Coens convey with great precision the kind of maddening details that consume the lives of people who are down and out, and create relentless chains of small, dark comic incidents leading to potentially dire consequences. And the consequences all seem to involve money.
For example, Llewyn tries to borrow money from his sister that would come from the sale of their father’s house. She tells him all the money is earmarked for their father’s care in a nursing home. In the midst of this distracting conversation, Llewyn is concentrating on floating the loan and carelessly tells his sister to throw away the last remaining boxes of his old stuff, which he considers worthless. Later, when in despair of ever succeeding in folk music, Llewyn tries to re-join the Merchant Marines, he finds he can’t just sign up and ship out, he has to first pay his back union dues, which takes every cent he has. Then he goes to say good-bye to his sister and pick up his Masters Mates and Pilots License, only to hear she gave away all his old stuff just like he told her to, including the box containing his license. Back at the union hall, he finds out there’s a substantial fee to replace the license, and Llewyn is flat broke. They won’t let him ship out, and they won’t return the dues money, either.
So it’s back to folk music, playing another dead-end gig at the Gaslight Cafe.
Or look at another chain of dread: Jane (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, maybe by Llewyn, and demands that he raise two hundred dollars for an abortion. Llewyn approaches his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), who also happens to be Jane’s husband, and tries to borrow it without telling him what it’s for. Instead of lending the money, Jim helps Llewyn financially by setting him up to play at the recording session for Jim’s song “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” In order to collect the money up front for the recording session so he can give it to Jane, Llewyn signs away his rights to any song royalties. There’s a strong implication that he’s given away his piece of a hit novelty song.
Any working-class person will watch these scenes half-laughing, half-cringing, because that’s exactly how it goes. It costs money to do anything, go anywhere, so if you can’t efficiently juggle how you lay out your precious bits of cash and credit here and there in complex patterns, you’re always in danger of grinding to an absolute halt. And this is a film about a character trying to avoid the dead-end by constantly circling. Or as the Coens describe it, Inside Llewyn Davis is “an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.” It’s a grimly funny exercise in futility, covering the Greenwich Village circuit with Llewyn Davis lugging some combination of guitar, overnight bag, and cat, on foot through the snow, on the subway, to his agent Mel’s office, to Jean and Jim’s apartment, to the Gaslight Cafe, to the Goldfeins’ apartment, back out on foot again.
Homeless and carless, Llewyn constantly negotiates the weather and its effects, which take on exaggerated importance. At a rock-bottom point in Llewyn’s life, when he’s stranded along a highway and has to walk through dirty snow-banks into town, he steps in a hole full of slushy water that engulfs his entire shoe and has to limp along the rest of the day with a sopping wet foot. The Coens have us gaze upon that foot in close-up as Llewyn sits in a diner, trying to unobtrusively get the shoe off in the vain hope his sock might dry out a little. For those not raised in a snow climate, you should know in order to fully appreciate this scene that there are few things more achingly uncomfortable, more lowering to the ego, more likely to make you go home in defeat if you have a home, than the cold, soaked foot in winter.
This is a winter film; cinematographer Bruno Delhommel casts a cold smeary pallor over everything. The look of the film was ironically inspired by the cover art of the album that made Dylan internationally famous, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, featuring happy Dylan and clinging girlfriend strolling the wintry streets of New York City. The desolate lighting shows up most chillingly during Llewyn’s eventual visit with his silent father, who suffers from dementia and doesn’t recognize Llewyn, in the stark nursing home room that glows dimly grey-blue. As Llewyn tells his sister bitterly, “Good to know what I have to look forward to.”
Only, if you follow the logic, Llewyn doesn’t own a house, and therefore has no major asset to convert to cash that would allow him to afford a nursing home anyway, even if he lived to achieve old-age senility.
There’s an unmistakably contemporary topicality to these themes of hardship, joblessness, pinched resources, scarce opportunities, and swiftly lowering expectations. Though the film is set in 1961, it’s not a 1961 we’ve ever seen posited in any other period film that readily comes to mind. Here is no vision of the “Camelot” presidency of JFK, of martini-drinking advertising executives in sleek suits, or even of the comparatively flourishing folk music scene in its Bob Dylan heyday.
Here is an alternate vision of America in its great era of prosperity. The Coens have made a movie about failure in an era when, the standard pop-histories tell us, nobody really failed. They continue to look at the struggle of those on the margins, at failure among bungling strivers with grandiose dreams. The directors somehow maintain their faith that we’ll actually be interested enough in our own lived experience to appreciate their black comic vision of it.
It also seems important to note that, alone among American filmmakers, the Coens continually find ways to represent or allude to the generally ignored leftist radicals of our history. Dave Van Ronk was an open Marxist and a Trotskyist member of the Fourth International. The character of Barton Fink from the film of the same name was partly based on Clifford Odets, a socialist and one-time Communist Party member who wrote his best-known plays for the strongly leftist Group Theater. Even Jeffrey Lebowski, “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, claims to have been a former ‘60s activist right at the pulsating center of legendary groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, taking a leading role in crafting their founding manifesto:
I was, uh, one of the authors of the Port Huron statement. The original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft.
The Coens’ odd-angle approach to this history is nevertheless telling, as it generally connects in oblique ways to their failure-and-struggle-oriented narratives. For example, as the Coens point out in a recent interview with Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, they were interested in the political factionalism of the early ‘60s folk music scene in New York City when working on Inside Llewyn Davis:
[There were] disputes among the communists, between the Trotskyites and the Schachtmanites … Llewyn is involved in a labor union. There’s this whole scene in Union Square on 14thStreet, where a guy that I know who was involved in that scene said you used to have guys like Ewan McColl in the union halls, trying to teach the guys in the unions how to sing these labor songs and folk songs. What was actually happening at the time, of course, was that all the kids downstairs were listening to Elvis.
Of course, Llewyn Davis’ union hall experience is just another scene of comically complete alienation and defeat. It’s not that the Coens approach the history of the radical left with any more piety than they do any other subject or group of people. It’s that they continue to observe and present it at all, especially in the context of struggle, hardship, and failure in America, which seems so remarkable.
There’s no question, Inside Llewyn Davis is a great film. Though as Bud Grossman says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”Related Stories
In 2011, a 13-year-old student in Albuquerque, New Mexico burped audibly in class (perhaps the school lunch didn’t agree with him). His instructor summoned the school resource officer, one of a new generation of police officers and specially trained go-betweens stationed in school environments, and the student found himself booked into a juvenile detention facility. He had fallen victim to his school’s zero-tolerance policy, a framework used across the nation to crack down fast and hard on unwanted behaviors, but one that has resulted in what critics are calling a school-to-prison pipeline, as students are fast-tracked to juvenile courts for offenses like writing their names on desks.
It’s a pipeline that consumes some students more than others; students of color and disabled students are being suspended, expelled, and sent into the justice system at much higher rates than their white, nondisabled counterparts. Growing criticism of zero-tolerance policies has highlighted the way they ruin lives, burden the justice system and create more work for everyone, with experts like the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) noting that “research [on such policies] indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop-out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices.”
Forcing students out of school and onto the street or into the justice system, it turns out, may not be the best way of dealing with behavioral infractions. In recognition of the mounting evidence against zero-tolerance policies and the increasing outcry to radically rethink disciplinary policies, school districts in several parts of the country are now dropping or radically modifying their zero-tolerance policies, including in locales like Broward County, Florida.
Florida is a particularly interesting locale for a test case, since the Florida Code specifically carries a segment discouraging widespread use of such tactics. In Section 1006.13(1), the legislature states:
“It is the intent of the Legislature to promote a safe and supportive learning environment in schools, to protect students and staff from conduct that poses a serious threat to school safety, and to encourage schools to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies by addressing disruptive behavior through restitution, civil citation, teen court, neighborhood restorative justice, or similar programs. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies must apply equally to all students regardless of their economic status, race, or disability.”
Florida schools, in other words, have been put on notice by the legislature that it wants to see any application of such policies conducted in a fair and reasonable way, and that it would prefer to see schools pursuing alternatives to zero tolerance. Along with schools in New York, Chicago and other locations across the country, Broward County is exploring what that looks like for students, administrators and teachers.
NASP has identified three areas of focus when it comes to replacing zero tolerance with a more holistic and effective disciplinary approach: violence prevention, early intervention, and social skills training and behavioral support. Intervention not just from instructors but also from social workers, siblings, parents, and other potential authority figures is considered an important element of these alternatives to zero tolerance, creating a supportive but firm environment for students who may experience behavioral problems.
Students in schools that are rethinking the zero-tolerance approach to discipline are attending counseling, completing community service, and going to behavior intervention programs when they commit behavioral infractions, rather than being sent to court. This keeps them in the educational environment instead of pushing them out of school, and it minimizes contact with the juvenile justice system. If offenses escalate, students face more severe consequences, culminating in the risk of a referral to court if other means are not effective. The focus on rehabilitation and integration into the school community may reduce the risks that a student will drop out or move on to more violent and antisocial behaviors outside of school—as it stands now, such policies clearly increase dropout and arrest rates, and, in cases like Chicago, are contributing to “school deserts,” where students have nowhere to go thanks to a combination of zero tolerance policies and school closures.
In Broward County, officials are already seeing results, with far fewer students ending up in front of judges and in the hands of police officers. While their program is still new, it has promise as an alternative to the seemingly standard zero-tolerance approach, and it may provide a blueprint for modifying other districts.
Mark Jones (a pseudonym) teaches middle school in the suburbs of Chicago. His school has never used zero tolerance, instead relying on a system called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS). Effectively, the system uses positive reinforcement to cultivate desired behaviors in students, rewarding them for activities like walking on the correct side in the hallway and passing classes. The rewards are customized to the student, allowing more reinforcement for students who are struggling to encourage them to keep doing better.
“The idea is that the kids who don't behave will be motivated by these external rewards to behave. It also means that kids who do break the rules are not punished in the normal sense,” he explains. Instead, students who break the rules receive an intervention where staff meet with them, discuss why what the student did was wrong, and work on improvements for the future.” However, he points out, “for teachers, after the seventh or tenth offense, this can be a little frustrating. There need to be limits, and if the intervention isn't working, within the PBIS system, it is difficult to pursue other means of discipline.”
Another Chicago-area teacher, Marie Wells (also a pseudonym), is in a district that once relied heavily on zero tolerance and now is embracing aspects of other discipline approaches, although “we still have zero tolerance for things like gang activity, threats, physical fighting, and bringing weapons to school.” AlterNet talked with her about the changes she’s observing at her school as discipline methods shift and her high school English students encounter a new learning environment.
“I see the kids after they've been through the PBIS system...PBIS is a very popular initiative for middle schools in the area, so my students are familiar with that structure. While it isn't feasible to do some things they do in a huge school of 4,000 high school students (like rewarding them for walking on the correct side of the hallway), we do try to do as much positive reinforcement as possible.”
Notably, her school offers a particularly important option for disabled students: “We also have a Positive Intervention Room where we send students with IEPs [Individualized Education Plans, documents used to address specific accommodation and behavioral needs of disabled students] who are misbehaving instead of sending them to in school suspension. There, they work with a teacher to create a behavior plan that they then present to their teacher. If that plan gets broken, they are back to creating a new plan. It's really effective because it gives the kids onus over their own behavior. I wish we did it for everyone.”
Giving these students more control, autonomy and responsibility within this framework encourages them to take a more active role in the school community, and in turn, that’s creating better behaviors in the halls of her large school and leading to a drop in disciplinary problems for disabled students. It’s a proactive move, one that recognizes the higher disciplinary rate overall for disabled students and aims to correct the issue by addressing the core of the problem: what happens to students when they engage in unacceptable behavior.
Wells sees a difference in her school, and notes that even when zero-tolerance policies are applied, they’re now more likely to result in in-school suspension and intervention, rather than sending students through the justice system or expelling them.
Are we seeing a kinder, gentler approach to school discipline in the United States? The tide, at least in some states, appears to be turning. That is very good news for our children, who deserve to be educated in schools that function as communities, rather than as dictatorships under martial law.Related Stories
Amandla does not believe in miracles. Mandela is not immortal. He has lived the fullest of lives. Amandla! stands with his family, the ANC (the organization he lived and died for), his closest comrades, especially the surviving Treason Trialists and Robben Island prisoners, the South African people as well as millions of people around the world to mark the passing of a great man.
Our political system is neglecting black women — and we can change it. No one is making this argument better than black women themselves. Women like Roxane Gay, Brittney Cooper and countless others have written powerfully and eloquently about the unique experience of being a black woman in America, and I would like to add my voice in solidarity. Because it’s important that black men publicly voice our support on these issues – not just in order to stand alongside our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends, but because it is the best thing for our nation.
A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) entitled, “The State of African-American Women in the United States” highlights that the intersection of racial and gender disparities meets at the experience of black women. Despite this, in the last presidential election, they had the highest voter participation rate of any comparable group in the country.
Black women experience socioeconomic inequity more than anyone else, yet they vote more than all others (and almost always in favor of the Democratic candidate). There are two important implications in this reality. First, their policy concerns have gone largely unaddressed. Second, despite the evidence of the black electorate bellwether, there is little real effort by candidates to work hard for those votes. The Republican Party assumes it is unobtainable. The Democratic Party knows it can rely on overwhelming support from the black community because of precedent and, quite honestly, lack of a viable alternative.
These lead to the political alienation of black women. Their votes are taken for granted, and their most pressing socioeconomic concerns are unaddressed. This is not cool.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll from 2011 found the issues that black women worry about most include employment/personal finances, healthcare, and crime. Exit polls from last month’s Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections show the same concerns. These issues presumably influence how and for whom black women vote. Yet, voting has not reaped the results they – indeed, the nation writ large – deserve.
The CAP report states that 1 in 4 black women are uninsured. This is a primary contributor to them facing such issues as higher cancer mortality rates, the highest incidence of hypertension, and black babies dying at 2.5 times the rate of white babies. Though a fully implemented Affordable Care Act will help black women get insurance, the increasing doctor shortage will still disproportionately complicate their ability to receive care.
In education, black women are underrepresented in college degrees, have the slowest increase in graduation rates among all women, and are the most severely underrepresented in technical fields. Recent government cutbacks and student loan eligibility changes have left black students scrambling. This has contributed to a financial crunch in many historically black colleges and universities, a primary grantor of college degrees. Black women are hit especially hard since they comprise 66 percent of African Americans graduating with bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s, and 65 percent of doctorates.
On the economic front, black women have a higher rate of unemployment than white women – a rate that actually rose in 2013. Black women’s income is less than all men and white women, and their poverty rate is the highest in the nation. The national response? Cutbacks on funding for social safety nets, elimination of national programs that could help close economic gaps, and policies that exacerbate income inequality.
With all this evidence that black women are being ignored, they have plenty with which to be displeased. But square in the face of the despicable “angry black woman” trope, the Washington-Kaiser poll reveals quite the opposite. Nearly 3 in 4 black women felt it was a good time to be a black woman in America, and 85 percent report that they are satisfied with their lives as a whole.
Perhaps most interesting, black female entrepreneurs are the fastest growing segment of the women-owned business market. They are starting up at six times the national average, grew in number by 258 percent over the last 15 years, and generated nearly $45 billion of revenue this year.
So why hasn’t political alienation suppressed their vote? A Harvard Journal of African American Policy paper titled, “Political Cynicism and the Black Vote,” suggests a notable difference in black voting behavior. The authors argue that unlike other races, when black voters have high cynical attitudes – specifically the feeling of political alienation – they turn out in higher numbers. This might help explain why black women voting rates continue to rise despite the political alienation they experience.
This symbiotic relationship of cynicism and turnout, coupled with an uninterested Republican Party, leads to a continuation of a devalued vote and unaddressed concerns. This is the complex cycle that must be broken.
The only way to stop alienating black women is to have a targeted goal of reducing the inequity they experience. There are no shortcuts. There are no speeches or appearances at churches, conventions, or HBCUs that alone will allay concerns. The hard work of effecting real change must be done.
Black women have clearly made their most pressing concerns known: among other things, they need health insurance and more access to doctors, reduction of violent crime, equal access and opportunity to quality education, and a paycheck that does not discriminate against them for being black and female.
Not only is this not too much to ask, it’s the very least the country can do.
If there are doubters that think an effort to specifically boost black women is unfair in some way, there is a straightforward response to this concern, founded in three truisms. First, there is little more unfair than the disparities black women face across the socioeconomic spectrum. Though they are not the most marginalized in every instance – for example, Hispanic women have lower incomes on average – the confluence of all the factors makes their American experience especially imbalanced.
Second, an effort must be specific to black women (in addition to those for black Americans in general), because when considering the number of registered voters and participation rate, the political voice of black women is extraordinarily strong: In the 2012 presidential election, the voting rate of black women was almost 10 percent higher than that of black men.
Third, when black and white men and women were asked whether they identify more with their race or gender, the results were clear. Nine out of ten white men and women identified with gender first, not race. Black women, however, identified with race over gender at the highest rate, even 25 percent more than black men.
These three points taken together mean that when black women speak, they show up in numbers, they highlight issues of national importance, and they pinpoint a unique perspective of inequity that, if addressed, will close the gaps for all Americans. Long overdue, treating black women fairly is the right thing on its own merits, and also the best thing for the nation.
The political alienation of black women may prove beneficial to the winners who are swept into office from their high turnout, but the failure to adequately address the disparities they experience dooms any attempt at sound social policy. The nation would do well to ensure this alienation does not continue, but instead, as Toni Morrison once declared, go on and ensure the necessary work gets done.Related Stories
The following story first appeared on RH Reality Check.
Not long after the white puffs of smoke blew through St. Peter’s Square in March to announce his election as head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis set many a progressive heart aflutter, especially with regard to his oft-stated concern for the poor of the world.
The release on Tuesday of Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s manifesto for the renewal of the church, has set off a pandemic of swooning among liberals, particularly because of the pope’s welcome critique of so-called “free market” ideology and the gaping income inequality it creates. Overlooked is the internal inconsistency of the document, in which exclusion of the poor from full participation in society is rightly portrayed as an evil, while exclusion of women from full participation in the church is defended as necessary.
When it comes to inequality of the sexes, Pope Francis enthusiastically embraces Rome’s status quo, using his great treatise on his dream of a kinder, gentler church to sanction the exclusion of women not just from leadership, but from performing the most holy of its rites: celebration of the Mass.
“The reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion,” Francis writes.
While, in the same document, the pope also reiterates the church’s rejection of abortion as a moral choice and implicitly condones the marginalization of LGBTQ people, it is his blessing of a male-only priesthood that is arguably the most damaging, for it renders the church as a model justification for the view of women as subhuman—a view that lends cover to the rapist, the pimp, the bigot, and the chauvinist whose works the pope decries, even as he advances stereotypes about the “feminine genius” that women have to offer in acts of compassion and intuition.
As Sister Maureen Fiedler observes, Pope Francis “seems to think of women as a different species of human.” And it is from this “othering” of women from rest of humanity, I believe, that the church’s cruel and sometimes murderous denial of women’s reproductive prerogatives stems.
For Catholics, the Mass is a mystical, not just a representational, rite. The priest is believed to be the conduit, a channel of God’s grace, for the transformation of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. That’s an awesome power to have—rather god-like, in fact.
The church’s denial of priestly ordination to women is based on a trumped-up piece of theology known as the “natural resemblance” rationale. Simply put, since Jesus was a man, then only men can be priests. Fiedler, explaining and rejecting this theory, suggests that “to say that only males may image Jesus sacralizes masculinity.”
Put another way, Gloria Steinem, speaking at the National Press Club last week, quipped: “When God looks like the ruling class, the ruling class becomes God.”
Re-Branding the Church
Despite its tortured logic with regard to the rights and role of women, both as human beings and as members of the Roman Catholic Church, Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”) is a papal tour de force, both as a piece of literature, and for the institution Pope Francis puts forth as the church of his dreams.
The most radical changes called for by the pope in his exhortation have little to do with the critique of capitalism that has grabbed the headlines, but rather a proposed shift in the power dynamic of the existing hierarchy—he envisions a less centralized power structure—and a purge of corruption (described as “spiritual worldliness”) in the Vatican bureaucracy. But it is the change he seeks in the church’s image, which he has already set about by famously refusing to live in the sumptuous setting occupied by his predecessors, that has dazzled journalists and commentators.
In Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s language is vernacular and, in its English translation, at least, pleasing in cadence. It is quite a departure from the prose that ordinarily fills official Vatican documents. In it, Francis speaks of himself in the first person, and admits certain faults of the church. In confirming the church’s opposition to abortion, for instance, Francis states:
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?
Such an admission of the church’s shortcomings in tending to the needs of the desperate pregnant woman would have been unthinkable by this pope’s recent predecessors; in doing so, Francis casts himself in a more favorable light while doing nothing to change the doctrine that robs women of their full agency, and hence, their full humanity. It is also a doctrine that can rob a woman of her life.
The entire document, in fact, advances little change in the substance of church teaching, and more a change in style and tone. It is, at its essence, a blueprint for winning converts to the faith, and reeling in disaffected Catholics back to the church. It is a survival playbook for a church abandoned by its European flock, and losing substantial numbers among its North American constituency. In Latin America, the church faces steep competition with evangelical Protestant sects, and in Africa, it’s competing with those sects and with Islam. The stern and condescending Father-knows-best condemnations of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI—who launched a holy war against Latin America’s native liberation theology movement—proved to be deeply alienating.
A nice pope who seems to be of the people, who writes in an accessible style, who appears to understand the difficulties faced by those wriggling under the boot of global capitalism can only help the church’s predicament. And so Francis recasts the church’s social teaching on ministering to the poor in the language of progressive economists and the Occupy movement, and challenges unnamed Catholic politicians and business leaders (Rep. Paul Ryan [R-WI], House Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate,comes to mind) to abandon “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”
Such theories, Francis writes, pointedly, have “never been confirmed by the facts.”
Yet, in his defense of the faceless poor, Francis seems to miss the fact that women are more likely than men to be in poverty, and that is because of the very kind of structural inequality that his church models for the world as an image of holiness.
Doing Well by Doing (Some) Good?
I do not mean to suggest that the pope is insincere in his call to defend the poor. I believe that he is. And his pronouncement certainly does put those Catholics who advance thecause of Ayn Rand and the fortunes of the Koch brothers in an uncomfortable position. If that helps to save the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, from the chopping block, that’s all to the good. If the bishops put more of their diocesan budgets into bringing real services and comfort to the poor, that would be outstanding. But it would be naive not to note that Francis’ call to serve the poor also serves the pope’s obvious effort to re-brand the church, still suffering the moral bankruptcy of its child-abuse scandal, as a force for good.
So, too, does the pope’s admonishment, apparently aimed at members of the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy), to avoid going on “witch hunts” of those deemed doctrinally impure. Although again, the pope declines to provide examples, it’s hard not to think of the Vatican’s 2012 attack on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for facilitating the spread of “radical feminist ideas,” when reading those lines. The bishops and the Vatican lost big in the court of public opinion on that one, when it was revealed that American Catholics like their nuns much better than they do their prelates.
Francis cites the withholding of the sacrament of Communion from the impure—as has been done to punish pro-choice Catholic politicians—as not particularly helpful. He urges priests to stress the joy of the Gospel in their homilies, and advises them not to deliver sermons that comprise lists of obligations.
In an interview given earlier this year to the Jesuit journalist, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, Francis suggested that church officials stop harping on church teaching that opposes abortion and condemns homosexuality. He didn’t suggest that any change was warranted to those doctrines; just that it was not really helping the church to keep emphasizing them. (Interestingly, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker [R], who is Roman Catholic, recently told a press gathering organized by the Christian Science Monitor that while he is anti-choice and personally opposed to marriage equality, he preferred to talk about fiscal issues.)
“Exclusion, Mistreatment and Violence”
In the section of Evangelii Gaudium titled “The Inclusion of the Poor in Society,” Pope Francis throws this bone, without irony, to women in poverty:
Doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights.
All women, of course, “endure situations of exclusion” from the leadership of the church, and that very exclusion sows the seeds of their mistreatment both within the church and in the greater society. A powerful message, marginalizing women as creatures unworthy of respect and incapable of authority, is inherent in the very image of the church’s leadership.
Women are to content themselves with whatever grace trickles down to them via the transformative powers invoked by the male priest.
The Roman Catholic Church, with its own nation-state, temporal power around the world, and command of media attention, is arguably the most visible religious institution in the world. Any entity that treated any other class of people as the church treats women would rightly, in the 21st century, be a pariah institution. But since it’s women we’re talking about, it’s all right. And the sad thing is, I don’t think the pope even sees the internal contradiction in his words.
Surely you can give the pope some props for his comments on the evils of free-market economics, one liberal male friend said to me, when I expressed my disgust at the kudos raining upon the pope with the publication of his magnum opus. Wow, said another, you’re really going to lay into him for not making changes yet on the position of women in the church?
So here are my props on the economics section of the pope’s treatise. This from Evangelii Gaudium is just terrific:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.
But by that same logic, an honest person must then say “thou shalt not” to a theology of gender exclusion and inequality.
Such a theology kills.
Follow Adele M. Stan on twitter: @addiestanRelated Stories
"I'm proud to stand with ALEC today," declared Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Thursday, as he addressed the American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington D.C.
"I first came to ALEC over a decade ago. When I was serving in the Bush administration, I'd been privileged to work with ALEC in the federal government," Cruz said. "I've been privileged to work with ALEC when I was back in Texas with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, leading the 10th Amendment Center."
As Cruz addressed the conference, around 200 activists marched outside, waving signs reading "A Legislator for Every Corporation" and chanting "you can hear us loud and clear -- we want ALEC out of here!"
Cruz (who became notorious for his effort to shutdown the government) was at ALEC to give its corporate lobbyists and state legislator members a pep talk. It was a rough week for the organization that has become known as a "corporate bill mill."
This week, The Guardian published ALEC documents demonstrating that the group has recently lost around 60 corporate members, largely as a result of its role in facilitating corporate influence over state legislators, and for pushing voter ID restrictions, climate change denial, and an array of other controversial, corporate-friendly bills. The documents show that ALEC misled its members about the strength of the organization, and misled the press about its plans for forming a 501(c)(4), and suffered a $1.4 million budget shortfall in the first half of 2013, largely as a result of losing corporate funders.
The corporate exodus began after revelations about ALEC's role in pushing "Stand Your Ground" legislation modeled after the law that helped George Zimmerman walk free after killing Trayvon Martin.
"My advice to ALEC is very, very simple," Sen. Cruz said, reflecting on public backlash against the organization. "Stand your ground."
"Sen. Cruz also recently insisted to the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Russell Davis that Stand Your Ground is good for Black people," said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorOfChange. "The Senator's doubling down on his ignorant and tone-deaf defense of these deadly laws -- and ALEC's responsibility for spreading them nationwide -- shows how disconnected ALEC's champions have become from reality."
"We Became More Transparent." Really?
ALEC does appear to be "standing their ground."
Rather than addressing many of the issues that have made ALEC so controversial, it has instead focused more aggressively on public relations. Last year, the group hired global PR firm Edelman, which made its mark representing the tobacco industry, and now represents oil and pharmaceutical interests. ALEC paid Edelman nearly $500,000 last year, according to tax filings. ALEC disbanded the Public Safety and Elections Task Force responsible for the spread of Stand Your Ground and voter ID, but has done nothing to promote the repeal of those laws.
ALEC has also hired a former Edelman executive, Bill Meierling, as their in-house Director of Public Affairs, and paid $118,000 to "public affairs" consultants during the first six months of 2013, according to a budget published by The Guardian.
Oddly, as ALEC tried to weather the storm this week, the notoriously secretive organization tried to change the discussion by touting its "transparency."
"We became more transparent" in 2013, reads the first page of the meeting agenda. ALEC is "focused on transparency," ALEC said in a statement released this week.
ALEC is "moving towards transparency," said its spokesperson Meierling, as he refused press credentials to Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll.
ALEC's Meierling also touted the organization's "transparency" as it barred Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank from attending the task force meetings where corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on model bills. “Our business meetings are not open, and so the subcommittee meetings and task force meetings are not open,” Meierling told Milbank.
“What you fundamentally need to know about this organization is it’s completely legislator driven,” Meierling told him.
"Uh-huh," Milbank wrote. "And ALEC is proving that by keeping reporters from the rooms where the legislators are or are not receiving their marching orders from corporate patrons."
The Guardian also revealed new angles to ALEC's effort to evade state transparency laws.
Legislators who serve as ALEC State Chairs would be required to "inform ALEC of any public records/FOIA requests that include ALEC documents," according to a draft agreement.
As CMD has previously reported, this fits into a larger pattern of ALEC trying to keep its communications with lawmakers secret.
Despite ALEC's claims that "we became more transparent" in 2013, this year, ALEC began stamping the materials it gives to legislators with a “disclaimer” asserting that the documents are not subject to any state’s open records law. ALEC has also been sending communications to legislators via an online dropbox, which it admitted in June was an effort to try to evade disclosure under open records laws. In Texas, ALEC even went so far as to formally ask that its communications with lawmakers be exempt from the state’s Public Information Act, making the absurd claim that sunshine laws threaten its “freedom of association” rights. Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, rejected this claim in September.
ALEC Supports Local Control?
Another odd piece of spin from ALEC was its stated commitment to local control. “People are better served by local leaders,” said American Legislative Exchange Council National Chair Linda Upmeyer, a State Representative from Iowa, at Wednesday's luncheon.
ALEC's record sure doesn't suggest much faith in local democracy -- at least when local governments threaten the profits of ALEC's corporate backers. For example:
• The ALEC "Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act" would thwart local control by prohibiting city and county governments from establishing municipal broadband; the bill, which is a boon for ALEC members like AT&T, has become law in nineteen states.
• At ALEC's August 2011 meeting, legislators were handed a Wisconsin bill to preempt local efforts to guarantee paid sick days for workers; after that, paid sick days preemption bills have spread across the country and been introduced in twelve other states, in most cases sponsored by an ALEC legislator, and with the backing of ALEC members like the National Restaurant Association.
• The ALEC "Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act" would prohibit local governments from enacting a minimum wage ordinance that exceeds the statewide minimum; a discussion on minimum wage was also on the agenda for this year's meeting, as workers across the country walk out of fast food jobs to advocate for a minimum wage increase.
• The "State Pesticide Preemption Act" would bar local leaders from protecting the health of their communities by limiting the types of pesticides that can be used within city or county limits, and the "Biotechnology State Uniformity Resolution" calls for preemption of local GMO bans, both of which protect the profits of the corporations represented by ALEC member CropLife America.
• In one of the last acts of the now-disbanded Public Safety and Elections Task Force, ALEC even adopted a bill to prohibit local governments from banning machine guns or other firearms in their communities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are some indications that ALEC's claimed dedication to "local control" may actually have nothing to do with support for local democracy.
In a workshop at the ALEC meeting, Michael Farris, a Senior Fellow at the group Citizens for Self-Governance, advised ALEC members on messaging, and warned against the use of terms like "states rights."
”It’s not about states rights, it’s about local control,” he said.
States rights is associated with slavery, Farris said, but by using terms like "local control," “you just steer the language in the proper direction."Related Stories
This week Whitney revealed that many of the firms hired to infiltrate nonprofit organizations on behalf of corporations have their own revolving door of former government intelligence personel from CIA, NSA, DOJ, and more. These firms were identified in an exhaustive Center for Corporate Policy report, Spooky Business, which included a particular story about a group of these firms that referred to themselves as “Team Themis.” As CCP reported, Team Themis, led by HBGary Federal, a computer security firm, sent a proposal to Hunton & Williams law firm with an outline to infiltrate the nonprofit critics of its client, the US Chamber of Commerce. The array of unethical actions proposed by Team Themis is truly outstanding; infiltrate the nonprofit with a fake insider, wage electronic warfare, investigate staff and their families, and utilize former US military and intelligence staff to carry out operations.
How much does such a comprehensive strategy cost? According to CCP, Team Themis’ proposal came with a price tag of $200,000 per month for initial research and $2 million monthly for a full campaign.
Following Wikileaks’ threat to expose a scandal at a top US bank, Team Themis sprang into action and outlined another proposal for Hunton & Williams on a strategy to “destroy” Wikileaks. According to CCP’s documents that strategy included:
• Spread “disinformation” about WikiLeaks;
• “Submit fake documents and then call out the error.” In other words, forging documents, giving them to WikiLeaks, and then exposing them as false, to undermine Wikileaks’ credibility;
• Execute “[c]yber attacks against the [WikiLeaks] infrastructure to get data on document submitters”. Palantir, HBGary and Berico believe that this would “kill” WikiLeaks.
• An implicit threat to ruin the career of Glenn Greenwald, a prominent journalist, if he continues to support WikiLeaks.
These guys were, at least in print, very serious in their intent to spy on and disrupt these nonprofits. So why the jaunty name? For those, unlike myself, who were lucky enough not to take ancient greek in high school, Themis was the titan goddess of divine law and order (at the time social control by the gods), and a wife and counselor of Zeus. Somebackground to make you feel uncomfortable:
She was the divine voice (themistes) who first instructed mankind in the primal laws of justice and morality, such as the precepts of piety, the rules of hospitality, good governance, conduct of assembly, and pious offerings to the gods. In Greek, the word themis referred to divine law, those rules of conduct long established by custom.
Who are the gods to Team Themis and what are their “pious offerings”? Based on the Center for Corporate Policy’s report, it’s anyone with a few million and your data, respectively of course.
Team Themis was back in the news Thursday when Forbes revealed that one prominent member, Palantir Technologies, is seeking a $9 billion dollar valuation in its latest funding round. Palantir develops many different software applications that are largely used by the US Government and intelligence community (from 2005 to 2008, the CIA was their only customer). The name Palantir comes from the seeing stones in Lord of the Rings, which a certain PAI data specialist describes as a communication and tracking tool that, when in control of Sauron, allows him to see into the minds of his enemies. Apt to say the least.
But it’s clear from the fact that Palantir staff call their California office “the shire” that they see themselves on the other end of the seeing stone. The challenge of maintaining this good guy self image was clear when CEO Alex Karp personally apologized for Palantir’s role in the Wikileaks/Team Themis scandal and pledged support of “progressive values and causes”. From his statement:
The right to free speech and the right to privacy are critical to a flourishing democracy. From its inception, Palantir Technologies has supported these ideals and demonstrated a commitment to building software that protects privacy and civil liberties.
Palantir’s other co-founder and chairman, Peter Thiel, is a well known libertarian and generous, seven-figure donor to Ron Paul super PAC Endorse Liberty and limited government organization, Club for Growth. From his 2009 essay for the Cato Institute, The Education of a Libertarian:
I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”
It’s interesting to compare these libertarian fixations to what Palantir’s critics say about the company:
“They’re in a scary business,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien. ACLU analyst Jay Stanley has written that Palantir’s software could enable a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.”
I for one find it odd that a company with a CEO espousing progressive ideals and a co-founder obsessed with libertarianism would sell services that could be used to take down people and organizations that disrupt their clients. Aren’t they then working against the individual, in the interest of state control?
Karp is less concerned:
Karp, a social theory Ph.D., doesn’t dodge those concerns. He sees Palantir as the company that can rewrite the rules of the zero-sum game of privacy and security. “I didn’t sign up for the government to know when I smoke a joint or have an affair,” he acknowledges. In a company address he stated, “We have to find places that we protect away from government so that we can all be the unique and interesting and, in my case, somewhat deviant people we’d like to be.”
My guess is that deviants didn’t sign up for the government OR the US Chamber of Commerce to know when they smoke a joint or have an affair, but Palantir has shown it has the capacity to supply that pious offering to its gods.Related Stories
I tried to honor Nelson Mandela on the day of his death, and love my political enemies. But the white-washing of Mandela’s legacy, as well as the role of the United States in supporting both apartheid and Mandela’s long imprisonment, has to be rebutted.
It began on Mandela’s 95th birthday in July, when House Speaker John Boehner had the audacity to declare in a tribute “At times it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend.”
It got much worse when Sen. Ted Cruz announced Thursday night: “Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe.”
But Cruz’s political heroes opposed Mandela as a terrorist and a communist, and there’s little doubt the red-baiting Texas senator would have done the same had he been in Congress back then. (The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart and Foreign Policy’s Sam Kleiner(from July) have the two best pieces about “apartheid amnesia” I’ve read.)
It’s shocking how little American leaders of both parties did to oppose the rise and consolidation of the brutal apartheid regime in the ‘50s and ’60s, but it was Richard Nixon who developed closer ties. The anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and ’80s – where Barack Obama got his political start; I covered the University of Wisconsin’s successful divestment movement with the Daily Cardinal in 1978 — was demonized as the far left at the time. Moderates proposed alternatives like the Sullivan Principles, named after Rev. Leon Sullivan, a General Motors board member, which tried (and failed) to impose a code of conduct on companies doing business in South Africa (Sullivan eventually agreed they weren’t enough).
Ronald Reagan made it a priority to fight domestic and international divestment efforts — efforts that, in the end, helped pressure the South African government to enter negotiations and free Nelson Mandela. Reagan vetoed an amazingly (if belatedly) bipartisan bill to impose tough sanctions on the apartheid regime. Of course then-Congressman Dick Cheney had voted against the sanctions in 1986, and he defended his position while running for vice president in 2000, telling ABC: ”The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization. … I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.”
The Heritage Foundation was a clubhouse for apartheid backers; as late as 1990, when Mandela had been freed from prison and traveled to the U.S., Heritage suggested he was a terrorist, “not a freedom fighter.” Grover Norquist advised pro-apartheid South African student groups and declared that the issue “is the one foreign policy debate that the Left can get involved in and feel that they have the moral high ground,” while insisting that it was a “complicated situation.” It was not.
As late as 2003, the National Review attacked Mandela for opposing the Iraq war. His “vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise,” NR wrote, “given his longstanding dedication to communism and praise for terrorists.”
It’s also disrespecting Mandela to leave his radicalism out of his tributes. For a time he believed ending apartheid would require armed resistance, and although he eventually renounced violence, he refused to do so as a condition of being released from prison. He was a revolutionary who believed in a radical redistribution of wealth, and a global warrior against poverty, to the end. Yes, it’s important to remember his legacy of reconciliation, and love, toward white South Africans who had brutalized him. But it’s equally important to remember the commitment to equality that let him endure prison, and adopt reconciliation as the best strategy to achieve freedom and justice.
So I’m not dwelling on the hypocrisy of the right at this point, but I can’t ignore it either. In the spirit of Mandela, it is worth remembering that in the end, even conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich opposed Reagan and supported sanctions. “I think he is wrong,” Mitch McConnell said. “We have waited long enough for him to come on board.”
Credit where it’s due. That’s wonderful. But I can’t imagine anything like that happening today. Ted Cruz would likely be listing Mandela as a Communist, the way he did some of his Harvard Law professors. Amazingly, the Republican Party has moved backward while the world moved forward.
UPDATE: Ted Cruz’s Mandela-hating admirers, at least, see the incongruity of his stance. They’ve infested his Facebook post with rage at Mandela — and Cruz.Related Stories
U.S firearm sales are growing exponentially. Gunmakers in the United States say gun-related U.S. patents are at a 35-year high, according to Bloomberg.
These sales have skyrocketed since the Connecticut Newtown massacre. Huffington Post reported that net sales have increased up to 44 percent since the beginning of 2013.
And who is making money off this firearm purchasing frenzy? Well, the arms manufacturers, of course. Sturm, Ruger & Co, the largest traded gunmaker in the United States, reported that its profits surged 66 percent in the first three quarters of the year. Gunmaker Smith & Wesson also reported that their sales climbed almost a third in the same period.
So, what’s responsible for the sudden explosion of purchasing firearms? According to anti-firearm groups, the annual rush to stack up on guns was a result of fear that this year’s string of gun violence, particularly the Newtown tragedy, could trigger stricter gun-control legislation under the Obama administration, as AlterNetreported.
Retailers played on this fear by offering extreme firearms discounts, particularly in the post-Thanksgiving buying season.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest gun seller, came under fire for aggressively marketing its firearms, which anti-firearm groups said was nothing more than an irresponsible way for the giant retailer and gun lobbyists to capitalize on Newtown and other mass shootings.
Manufacturers are also competing for sales by marketing magazine improvements that are said to increase a bullet’s accuracy. Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns in North Carolina told Bloomberg said such demand was big business.
“There’s money to be made and everybody wants to protect their moneymaker. There is a huge amount of technology going into these products,” he said.
According to the FBI, background checks conducted every time a buyer attempts to purchase a gun revealed a 54 percent increase in purchases between 2008-2012. In 2012, there were a record 19.6 million background checks completed.
BROOKLYN (CN) - Confusing breath mints with Ecstasy pills, an NYPD officer wrongly arrested a man as he walked through Brooklyn, the man claims in Federal Court.
Robert Hankins says he was walking through a Brooklyn neighborhood in April when he was stopped and searched by New York City Police Officer Sean Nurse and other unknown officers. When Nurse spotted the mints in Hankins' pants pocket, he arrested him.
"Mr. Hankins explained to the officers that what they had found were mints and not drugs and asked the officers look at and smell them to confirm," the lawsuit states. "The officers refused to do so."
Again at the 79th Precinct Hankins tried to explain to officers that he had been arrested for possession of mints, but officers filed bogus paperwork falsely stating they saw him in possession of MDMA, or Ecstasy, Hankins claims.
He was held for 30 hours, and was forced to return to court several times to defend himself against the bogus charges before they were dismissed in October, Hankins says.
He seeks damages and punitive damages for civil rights violations, unlawful stop and search and false arrest.Related Stories
Squeeze and push. Punish and strain. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, elites across the world have been on a tear against ordinary citizens, promoting austerity policies that strip hard-working people of their jobs, their security, and their dignity. In many places, people have pushed back — violently. Maybe you’ve been wondering if it could happen here, too.
In some corners of America, plutocrats seem to be experimenting to find out. In North Carolina, discount store tycoon Art Pope, a close ally of the Brothers Koch, is installed in the office of State Budget Director, where he has placed his boot firmly on the neck of the public with regressive policies, including the denial of Medicaid expansion to 500,000 of the needy, slashes in unemployment benefits to 170,000 people, devastating cuts to education, and voter suppression to make sure it all sticks.
These actions have led to protests across the state, most prominent among them the Moral Monday demonstrations led by Rev. William Barber. Do a quick Google search of the terms “North Carolina” and “unrest”, and you find plentiful headlines testifying to an increasingly jittery population. The police have even resorted to sending undercover agents to church gatherings to collect information on presumed “anarchists” among the protesters.
So far, U.S. protests have been remarkably peaceful. What conditions have to happen before things get really ugly?
The work of Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth may help us find out. They are economists at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, the scene of massive —and often violent — anti-austerity demonstrations since the global financial crisis of 2008.
For a long time, academics have tried to understand which factors are involved in creating explosive social environments. For example, economist Ed Glaeser, who studied race riots in the U.S., found that you typically need two ingredients to spark racial violence: racially mixed neighborhoods and unemployment. Hard times alone weren’t enough do it.
Ponticelli and Voth decided to look closely over the history of Europe from 1919 to 2009, examining such events as riots, demonstrations, political assassinations, government crises, and attempted revolutions. Researching everything from minor civil disturbances to full-blown attempts to overthrow the established political order, the economists studied the conditions that attended explosive outbreaks of anger and dissatisfaction.
You might think that poverty would be enough of a catalyst to drive people to the streets. You would be wrong.
Hard times + austerity = chaos
Ponticelli and Voth found that the countries in their European study have an average of 1.5 incidents of civil unrest per year. But during times where the government is implementing austerity policies, that number goes up. When those cuts reach 1 percent or more of GDP, the number of events goes up by a third compared to periods of expanding budgets.
What’s more, the number of disturbances rises as cuts intensify. “Once austerity measures involve expenditure reductions by 5% or more,” write Ponticelli and Voth, “there are more than 3 events per year and country -- twice as many as in times of expenditure increases.”
In other words, economic shocks alone are not enough to cause people to flip out. It’s the way governments respond to them that sets the stage for blood in the streets.
After looking at Europe, the authors collected data on South America, and found the same connection: When governments pursue budgets cuts during economic downturns, all hell often breaks loose. “From Argentina in 2001 to Greece in 2010-11,” note the authors, “austerity measures have often created a wave of violent protests and massive civil unrest.”
Austerity sparks a vicious cycle: Political and social chaos that results from budget cuts tends to make the economic conditions even worse. With every additional percentage point decline in spending as a percent of GDP, the risk of unrest increases.
So what about the U.S.?
When people think of violent civil unrest in the U.S., they tend to think of the bloody race riots of the Jim Crow era or the student demonstrations and racial conflicts of the 1960s, or the more recent L.A. riots. They might recollect something about the history of labor riots, like the Haymarket Riot of the 1880s.
What many Americans don’t realize is that the U.S. has a blood-soaked history of austerity-related unrest, from the anti-rent and labor union riots of the 1830s that attended the bursting of the Jacksonian land bubble, to the Coxey’s Army protest of unemployed workers during the economic depression of the 1890s, right up through the various uprisings of the Great Depression. If you look closely at these incidents, you tend to find the government responding with inadequate aid and budget-cutting mania.
Following the shock of the stock market crash of 1929, American incomes collapsed, one out of five Americans found themselves unemployed, and starving people camped on the streets. President Herbert Hoover insisted on responding with budget-cutting austerity policies, which intensified not only the scope and duration of the economic crisis but led to massive civil unrest.
It got very ugly. By 1931, food riots were breaking out as hungry citizens smashed the windows of groceries. Before the New Deal made them illegal, many corporations kept private armies that could be unleashed to brutalize protesting workers, and companies like Ford and GM did just that during the Depression. In March 1932, three thousand unemployed workers marched on the Ford Motor Company's plant in River Rouge, Michigan, where a clash with company guards left four workers dead and many more injured. Destitute veterans camped in Washington, where violence erupted, causing Hoover to call in Federal troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur to assist D.C. police in clearing the veterans.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide over Herbert Hoover in November 1932, he promised a better government response to the catastrophe. Instead of cutting off aid to citizens, he would increase it. The New Deal, which focused heavily on enhancing aid and expanding government investment in jobs, was arguably the government’s strategy to keep the population from descending into total chaos. Economist A.A. Berle, a member of FDR’s “Brains Trust,” famously stated that “in a world where revolutions just now are coming easily, the New Deal chose the more difficult course of moderation and rebuilding.” Austerity, Berle new, was a path to revolution.
In the wake of the Great Recession, the Obama administration responded to widespread economic hardship with a stimulus package that kept the population from descending into a full-scale freak-out. But the package was inadequate, contributing to significant unrest, most notably the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011. Police buildup since 9/ll and a generally aggressive stance in the U.S. toward protesters may have worked to keep many would-be demonstrators at home since the crisis. But history shows that even the most brutal police and aggressive armies can’t keep the lid on when austerity becomes too severe.
Without an agreement in Washington this month, the U.S. could be facing a second round of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. In a recent speech concerning next year’s federal spending, the President took an anti-austerity stance with big talk about safety nets, education, and opportunity, but his words did not erase GOP-driven budget decisions which place increasing hardship on Americans. Hard-pressed citizens face decreased access to food stamps and unemployment benefits, and are looking down the barrel of a retirement crisis unseen since before the Great Depression.
In U.S. states where the GOP is in control, budgets are being balanced on the backs of working and middle class people who are already strained. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Scott Walker has gone full-throttle on austerity, promoting sharp reductions in spending. As a result, not enough jobs are being created, schools are operating on bare-bones budgets, and economic insecurity is increasing. (Meanwhile, neighboring Minnesota is faring much better with fiscal policy geared towards investment). The Walker administration, facing ongoing protests, recently ordered Capitol police to start arresting people. Right now in North Carolina, Moral Monday protesters who have been arrested are being tried in court.
Many who study American society wonder why violent protests have not yet erupted in the face of unemployment, police brutality, failing schools, segregation and poverty. Historian Michael Katz, in his 2011 book Why Don't American Cities Burn?ponders various explanations, including the idea that immersion in consumer culture may make Americans particularly docile. But hunches like this have to correlate to actual data in order to be useful, and so far such explanations have not been tested. The work of Ponticelli and Voth does suggest that countries where executive power is limited and strong democratic institutions prevail may have less intense social unrest. Historically this may have given the U.S. some built-in anti-riot protection, but those advantages are quickly eroding.
What’s special about the U.S. is that since the days of Herbert Hoover, the kind of austerity measures that have been tried in other parts of the world have not been implemented, despite the efforts of the GOP and the weak stance of Democrats. But if we do given into budget-cutting, we may expect this to change. States where the GOP has gotten the upper hand will likely be the first places that riots will happen.
Pundits and policymakers have been backing off claims that austerity can promote economic growth since the infamous Reinhart/Rogoff debacle last spring in which the work of two Harvard economists on the topic turned out to be based on faulty data. The truth is that budget cuts damage economies. Now we have research that suggests it creates social chaos, too.
Ponticelli and Voth’s work provides a cautionary message: austerity does have a tipping point. Ratchet up the budget cuts a few notches, and sparks will fly.
As tributes pour in following the death of anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela, it is important that we remember that as part of his ongoing crusade for global justice, Mandela was a passionate activist and longtime critic of many U.S policies and ideology.
More importantly, unlike others, he was willing to stand up and speak out against their implementation and even support their opposition in the face of controversy.
As we commemorate his death, let’s pay tribute to some of Madiba’s more memorable quotes and for telling it like it is. Such words impacted on American activism and hopefully will serve as a reminder that the struggle must go on.
1. Speaking out against the war in Iraq
In 2003, two months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Mandela said that any military action against the Saddam Hussein regime without U.N. Security Council approval would be illegal. He also condemned Bush for undermining the United Nations, Huff Post reported.
"It is a tragedy, what is happening, what Bush is doing. But Bush is now undermining the United Nations.If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings. Who are they now to pretend that they are the policemen of the world, the ones that should decided for the people of Iraq what should be done with their government and their leadership,” he said.
2. Calling Bush a small little man
Speaking out against the war in Iraq in 2003, Mandela denounced Bush.
“What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust. Why is the United States behaving so arrogantly? All that he wants is Iraqi oil.”
3. Denouncing the United States as a serious threat to world peace
While he initially supported the war in Afghanistan, Mandela then criticized the United States for its actions:
“The United States has made serious mistakes in the conduct of its foreign affairs, which have had unfortunate repercussions long after the decisions were taken…If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace,” he said.
4. Exposing the hypocrisy in Israel-U.S. relations
Mandela also called out the U.S. for its hypocritical stance on Israel in an interview with Newsweek in 2002:
"Neither Bush nor Tony Blair has provided any evidence that such weapons exist [in Iraq]. But what we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Nobody talks about that. Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white."
Mandela also condemned Israel and its supporters for the treatment of the Palestinian people:
“Israel should withdraw from all the areas which it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from south Lebanon and from the West Bank,” he said.
5. Refusing to tow the U.S.'s line on Cuba
In 1991, Mandela praised Castro and forged a long-lasting friendship with the leader, despite the United States' antagonistic relationship with Cuba. Mandela defended the Cuban Revolution:
“From its earliest days, the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orquestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gain made in the Cuban Revolution….Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro,” he said.
The following story first appeared on the American Prospect.
At 10 P.M.on a Sunday night in May, Lauren and John,* a young couple in the Washington, D.C., area, started an emergency 14-hour drive to the state where Lauren grew up in a strict fundamentalist household. Earlier that day, Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, who had recently graduated from homeschooling high school, had called her in tears: “I need you to get me out of this place.” The day, Jennifer said, had started with another fight with her parents, after she declined to sing hymns in church. Her slight speech impediment made her self-conscious about singing in public, but to her parents, her refusal to sing or recite scripture was more evidence that she wasn’t saved. It didn’t help that she was a vegan animal-rights enthusiast.
After the family returned home from church, Jennifer’s parents discovered that she had recently been posting about animal rights on Facebook, which they had forbidden. They took away Jennifer’s graduation presents and computer, she told Lauren. More disturbing, they said that if she didn’t eat meat for dinner she’d wake up to find one of the pets she babied gone.
To most people, it would have sounded like overreaction to innocuous forms of teenage rebellion. But Lauren, who’d cut ties with her family the previous year, knew it was more. The sisters grew up, with two brothers, in a family that was almost completely isolated, they say, held captive by their mother’s extreme anxiety and explosive anger. “I was basically raised by someone with a mental disorder and told you have to obey her or God’s going to send you to hell,” Lauren says. “Her anxiety disorder meant that she had to control every little thing, and homeschooling and her religious beliefs gave her the justification for it.”
It hadn’t started that way. Her parents began homeschooling Lauren when she struggled to learn to read in the first grade. They were Christians, but not devout. Soon, though, the choice to homeschool morphed into rigid fundamentalism. The sisters were forbidden to wear clothes that might “shame” their father or brothers. Disobedience wasn’t just bad behavior but a sin against God. Both parents spanked the children with a belt. Her mother, Jennifer says, hit her for small things, like dawdling while trying on clothes.
The family’s isolation made it worse. The children couldn’t date—that was a given—but they also weren’t allowed to develop friendships. Between ages 10 and 12, Lauren says she only got to see friends once a week at Sunday school, increasing to twice a week in her teens when her parents let her participate in mock trial, a popular activity for Christian homeschoolers. Their parents wanted them naïve and sheltered, Lauren says: “18 going on 12.”
Mixed with the control was a lack of academic supervision. Lauren says she didn’t have a teacher after she was 11; her parents handed her textbooks at the start of a semester and checked her work a few months later. She graded herself, she says, and rarely wrote papers. Nevertheless, Lauren was offered a full-ride scholarship to Patrick Henry College in Virginia, which was founded in 2000 as a destination for fundamentalist homeschoolers. At first her parents refused to let her matriculate, insisting that she spend another year with the family. During that year, Lauren got her first job, but her parents limited the number of hours she could work.
Even conservative Patrick Henry felt like a bright new reality. While much about the college confirmed the worldview Lauren grew up in, small freedoms like going out for an unplanned coffee came as a revelation. She describes it as “a sudden sense of being able to say yes to things, when your entire life is no.”
Family ties began to fray after she met John, a fellow student who’d had a more positive homeschooling experience growing up; he took her swing dancing and taught her how to order at Starbucks, and they fell in love. Her parents tried to break the couple up—at one point even asking the college to expel Lauren or take away her scholarship for disobeying them. Their efforts backfired; soon after her graduation, Lauren married John and entered law school.
For Jennifer, matters grew worse in the six years after Lauren left home. She rarely went out on her own except to walk the dog or attend a co-op class taught by other homeschooling parents. When she would ask to go to a friend’s house, she says, her mother would begin to cry; after a while, Jennifer stopped asking. She never had a key to the house. Tensions escalated after she went vegan. Animal-rights activists were communists and terrorists, her parents told her, and the Bible said she should eat meat.
By the time Jennifer made her call in May, Lauren and John had discussed that she might eventually have to come live with them. Jennifer wasn’t often able to phone her older sister, because their parents closely monitored cell use. But Jennifer kept a secret e-mail account, which she used to write to Lauren. After the fight that Sunday, she hid her phone as her parents were confiscating her computer, then sneaked an SOS call. Lauren phoned around their hometown, trying to find family friends to take in Jennifer and her pets. She asked the family pastor to check on her sister. But the friends seemed scared to intervene, and the pastor refused, saying he didn’t believe Lauren because she was estranged from her parents. So the couple started driving, switching off through the night, to meet Jennifer after her co-op class the next day. “I wasn’t even sure she still had the resolve to go through with it,” Lauren says, “but we thought, even if she doesn’t want to leave, she still needs to know that her big sister is going to drive 14 hours for her if it gets to that point.”
Jennifer was ready, though. The plan was to gather her things while their mother was out shopping and their father was at work. Instead, their mother pulled into the driveway while the sisters were loading Jennifer’s dog into the car. As their mother lunged for Jennifer, Lauren says she tried to stop her by grabbing her in a bear hug. Her mother wrestled free, slapped Lauren hard in the face, screaming that she was trying to kidnap Jennifer and destroy the family. She pulled the dog away from the girls so hard that Jennifer feared he would choke. Lauren called the police, and her mother summoned her father home.
“I was so scared I had a hard time breathing,” Jennifer says. Her father told police that John had brainwashed Lauren and that Jennifer had “the mind of a 12-year-old” and was too immature to be trusted. Because she was an adult, however, the police allowed her to leave—but only with some clothes and toiletries, which she piled into trash bags as her father trailed her through the house, yelling. The rest of Jennifer’s stuff-—her computer and her pets—had to be left behind, since she had no proof of ownership to show the officers.
On the long ride back, Lauren and Jennifer were stunned by what they’d done. They tried to think about pragmatics: What now? How would they handle college applications without parental involvement or get Jennifer insured or find her a job? Lauren called extended family members, trying to stay ahead of the story their parents would tell. She and Jennifer didn’t want to lose everybody. “I was on the phone for hours,” she says, trying to explain to relatives who hadn’t witnessed the family’s abusive dynamics and had a hard time believing her—especially after years of hearing how Lauren had been corrupted by her husband and turned her back on her family.
“Children in these situations are taught that if you talk badly about your parents, that’s a sin, and you’re going to hell,” Lauren says. “So when they finally get the courage and determination to say something, no one believes them, because they didn’t say anything all those years. You end up having to find an entirely new support network of people who actually believe you.”
In Washington, that new support network immediately kicked in. Through an informal group of young women who broke away from fundamentalist families, Lauren had become friends with Hännah Ettinger, who writes “Wine & Marble,” a blog about transitioning out of fundamentalist culture. When Lauren told her the story of Jennifer’s rescue, Ettinger posted a brief account. She asked readers to chip in to defray Jennifer’s costs of starting over: buying a computer, acquiring normal clothes, applying for community college. Within the first day, the blog’s readers donated almost $500. Then a new website, run by another former homeschooler, linked to Ettinger’s appeal, and within a few days, close to $11,000 had been donated.
It was a surprise, but it was hardly a fluke. Jennifer’s rescue coincided with the emergence of a coalition of young former fundamentalists who are coming out publicly, telling their stories, and challenging the Christian homeschooling movement. The website that linked to Jennifer’s story wasHomeschoolers Anonymous, launched in March by two homeschool graduates, Ryan Stollar and Nicholas Ducote. Their goal was to show what goes on behind closed doors in some Christian homeschooling families—to share, as one blogger puts it, “the stories we were never allowed to talk about as children.”
As of October, Homeschoolers Anonymous had published nearly 200 personal accounts and attracted more than 600,000 page views. For those outside the homeschooling movement, and for many inside it, the stories are revelatory and often shocking. The milder ones detail the haphazard education received from parents who, with little state oversight, prioritize obedience and religious training over learning. Some focus on women living under strict patriarchal regimes. Others chronicle appalling abuse that lasted for years.They want to show what goes on behind closed doors in some Christian homeschooling families, to share "the stories we were never allowed to talk about as children."
Growing up in California and Oregon, Stollar wasn’t abused, but he met many other homeschoolers who were. His parents led state homeschooling associations and started a debate club in San Jose. The emphasis on debate in fundamentalist homeschooling was the brainchild of Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College, and his daughter Christy Shipe. Farris believed debate competitions would create a new generation of culture warriors with the skills to “engage the culture for Christ.” “You teach the kids what to think, you keep them isolated from everyone else, you give them the right answers, and you keep them pure,” Stollar explains. “And now you train them how to argue and speak publicly, so they can go out to do what they’re supposed to do”—spread the faith and promote God’s patriarchy.
As a teenager, Stollar toured the national homeschool debate circuit with a group called Communicators for Christ, sharpening his rhetorical skills and giving speech tutorials. Along the way, he found himself increasingly disturbed by what he saw. He met families that follow the concept of “Quiverfull,” wherein women are submissive to men and forgo contraception to have as many children as God gives them. He encountered entire communities where women wore only denim jumpers for modesty’s sake, where parents burned their daughters’ birth certificates to keep them at home, where teenagers practiced “betrothal,” a kind of arranged marriage. He met homeschooling kids who dealt with the stress by cutting themselves, drinking, or developing eating disorders—the very terrors their parents had fled the public schools to avoid. “Even as a conservative Christian homeschooler,” Stollar says, “I was constantly experiencing culture shock.”
A decade later, Stollar, who lives in Los Angeles, was still hearing the stories from his peers. The ex-debaters and homeschoolers were now grappling with the fallout from their childhoods: depression, mental illness, substance abuse. “I was starting to see these patterns emerging,” he says, “and we all felt that they came from the same places.” Homeschoolers Anonymous was inspired by a woman who fled her Quiverfull parents and published an essay online, appealing for financial aid so she could go to college and then establish a safe house for refugees like herself. When her appeal went viral, Stollar and his friends decided to create an outlet for more such stories. Around 40 homeschooling alumni planned the site together on a secret Facebook group.
The timing was propitious. For several years, mothers and daughters who had escaped from Quiverfull families had blogged about their experiences and organized to help others get out on sites like No Longer Quivering. “Survivor” blogs written by former fundamentalists were also proliferating online. The bloggers doubtless inspired one another, but an additional factor was at work: Children from the first great wave of Christian homeschooling, in the 1980s and 1990s, were coming of age, and many were questioning the way they were raised.
Homeschooling leaders had dubbed them the “Joshua Generation.” Just as Joshua completed Moses’s mission by slaughtering the inhabitants of the Promised Land, “GenJ” would carry the fundamentalist banner forward and redeem America as a Christian nation. But now, instead, the children were revolting.
Homeschooling didn’t begin as a fundamentalist movement. In the 1960s, liberal author and educator John Holt advocated a child-directed form of learning that became “unschooling”—homeschooling without a fixed curriculum. The concept was picked up in the 1970s by education researcher Raymond Moore, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who argued that schooling children too early—before fourth grade—was developmentally harmful. Moore’s message came at a time when many conservative Christians were looking for alternatives to public schools.
Traveling the national homeschool debate circuit, Ryan Stollar (right) says, taught him to "look at different sides of an issue." Here, at 16, he debates a family friend.
Moore’s work reached a massive audience when Focus on the Family founder and Christian parenting icon James Dobson invited him onto his radio show for the first time in 1982. Dobson would become the most persuasive champion of homeschooling, encouraging followers to withdraw their children from public schools to escape a “godless and immoral curriculum.” For conservative Christian parents, endorsements didn’t come any stronger than that.
Over the next two decades, homeschooling boomed. Today, perhaps as many as two million children are homeschooled. (An accurate count is difficult to conduct, because many homeschoolers are not required to register with their states.) Homeschooling families come from varied backgrounds—there are secular liberals as well as Christians, along with an increasing number of Muslims and African Americans—but researchers estimate that between two-thirds and three-fourths are fundamentalists.
Among Moore and Dobson’s listeners during that landmark broadcast was a pair of young lawyers, Michael Farris and Michael Smith, who the following year would found the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). With Moore’s imprimatur and Dobson’s backing, Farris and Smith started out defending homeschooling families at a time when the practice was effectively illegal in 30 states. As Christians withdrew their children from public school, often without requesting permission, truancy charges resulted. The HSLDA used them as test cases, challenging school districts and state laws in court while lobbying state legislators to establish a legal right to homeschool. By 1993, just ten years after the association’s founding, homeschooling was legal in all 50 states.
What many lawmakers and parents failed to recognize were the extremist roots of fundamentalist homeschooling. The movement’s other patriarch was R.J. Rushdoony, founder of the radical theology of Christian Reconstructionism, which aims to turn the United States into an Old Testament theocracy, complete with stonings for children who strike their parents. Rushdoony, who argued that democracy was “heresy” and Southern slavery was “benevolent,” was too extreme for most conservative Christians, but he inspired a generation of religious-right leaders including Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. He also provided expert testimony in early cases brought by the HSLDA. Rushdoony saw homeschooling as not just providing the biblical model for education but also a way to bleed the secular state dry.
With support from national leaders, Christian homeschoolers established state-level groups across the country and took over the infrastructure of the movement. Today, when parents indicate an interest in homeschooling, they find themselves on the mailing lists of fundamentalist catalogs. When they go to state homeschooling conventions to browse curriculum options, they hear keynote speeches about biblical gender roles and creationism and find that textbooks are sold alongside ideological manifestos on modest dressing, proper Christian “courtship,” and the concept of “stay-at-home daughters” who forsake college to remain with their families until marriage.
HSLDA is now one of the most powerful Christian-right groups in the country, with nearly 85,000 dues-paying members who send annual checks of $120. The group publicizes a steady stream of stories about persecuted homeschoolers and distributes tip sheets about what to do if social workers come knocking. Thanks to the group’s lawsuits and lobbying, though, that doesn’t happen often. Homeschooling now exists in a virtual legal void; parents have near-total authority over what their children learn and how they are disciplined. Not only are parents in 26 states not required to have their children tested but in 11 states, they don’t have to inform local schools when they’re withdrawing them. The states that require testing and registration often offer religious exemptions.
The emphasis on discipline has given rise to a cottage industry promoting harsh parenting techniques as godly. Books like To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl promise that parents can snuff out rebellious behavior with a spanking regimen that starts when infants are a few months old. The Pearls claim to have sold nearly 700,000 copies of their book, most through bulk orders from church and homeschooling groups. The combination of those disciplinary techniques with unregulated homeschooling has spawned a growing number of horror stories now being circulated by the ex-homeschoolers—including that of Calista Springer, a 16-year-old in Michigan who died in a house fire while tied to her bed after her parents removed her from public school, or Hana Williams, an Ethiopian adoptee whose Washington state parents were convicted in September of killing her with starvation and abuse in a Pearl-style system. Materials from HSLDA were found in the home of Williams’s parents.
Homeschooling leaders argue that child abuse is no more prevalent in homeschooling families than in those that enroll their kids in public school, and they push back against even modest attempts at oversight. In 2013, HSLDA lobbied against a proposed Pennsylvania bill that would have required a short period of oversight for parents who decide to homeschool and already have substantiated abuse claims against them—in essence defending the right of abusive parents to homeschool without supervision. The group is currently challenging state laws that allow anonymous tips to Child Protective Services to be grounds for investigating parents. In June, the HSLDA–authored Parental Rights Amendment was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives with 64 co-sponsors. The amendment would enshrine in the Constitution parents’ “fundamental right” to direct their child’s upbringing however they see fit, free of state interference.
To the parents and the movement that brought them up, the ex-homeschoolers know they must seem not just disappointing but unfathomable. Their parents believed they had a recipe for raising kids who would never rebel and would faithfully perpetuate their parents’ values into future generations. But the ex-homeschoolers say that it was being trained as world-changers that led them to question what they were taught—and ultimately led them to leave.“I grew up hearing that we were the Joshua Generation,” says Rachel Coleman, a 26-year-old leader in the ex-homeschooler movement. “We were the shock troops, the best trained and equipped, the ones who were to make a difference in the fight—a fight between God and Satan for the soul of America.” Coleman, who co-founded the watchdog site Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, is writing a doctoral dissertation at Indiana University about children and the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and 1980s. Her parents, she says, told her and her 11 siblings that they hadn’t become missionaries themselves because “they’re raising up the 12 of us to go be pastors, missionaries, and politicians. They’re changing the world through these kids.”
When he addresses incoming students at Patrick Henry, Michael Farris likes to dream aloud of the day when the president of the United States and the Oscar winner for best picture are homeschooling graduates who roomed together at the college. That would be a sign that fundamentalist homeschooling was, in the movement’s lingo, “winning the culture.” Youth civics ministries like TeenPact, which hosts training camps for homeschoolers to mingle with lobbyists and write sample legislation, encourage homeschoolers to “change America for Christ.” HSLDA’s youth-activism group, Generation Joshua, works on voter-registration drives, lobbies at state legislatures, and door-knocks for conservative candidates. As Farris told The New York Times, “If we put enough kids in the farm system, some may get to the major leagues.”
For Ryan Stollar and many other ex-homeschoolers, debate club changed everything. The lessons in critical thinking, he says, undermined Farris’s dream of creating thousands of eloquent new advocates for the homeschooling cause. “You can’t do debate unless you teach people how to look at different sides of an issue, to research all the different arguments that could be made for and against something,” Stollar says. “And so all of a sudden, debate as a way to create culture-war soldiers backfires. They go into this being well trained, they start questioning something neutral like energy policy, but it doesn’t stop there. They start questioning everything.”
Many women leaders in the ex-homeschool movement had fewer opportunities than men to join debate clubs or political groups like Generation Joshua. They developed their organizing skills in a different way, by finding power in the competence they gained as “junior moms” to large families. “All of these girls who are the oldest of eight, nine, ten children—we are organizational geniuses,” says Sarah Hunt, a Washington, D.C. attorney who grew up the oldest of nine in a strict fundamentalist family. “We know how to get things done. We know how to influence people. Put any of us in a room with other people for 45 minutes, and they’re all working for us. That’s just what we do.”
Like other homeschooling daughters, Coleman assumed outsize responsibility as a teenager not only for household chores but for teaching and disciplining her younger siblings. Her initially mainstream evangelical parents moved right as they homeschooled, adopting ideas like young-earth creationism and patriarchal rights. They made it clear that Coleman, like their other daughters, was to stay under her father’s authority until she married a man of whom he approved. Her parents became activists, too, joining the steering committee of their local homeschooling group. Coleman’s mother was charged with sending out the “welcome packet” to new homeschooling families, suggesting reading materials and movement magazines. When other mothers came to watch her homeschool, she’d give them a copy of To Train Up a Child.
Like most homeschoolers, Coleman believed that her family was an anomaly. But in 2009—after she’d gone to college, married, and broken away—she came across No Longer Quivering. The site was aimed at Quiverfull mothers, but it had already sparked a number of “daughter blogs.” For Coleman, it was the first time she’d seen people critically discussing the kind of culture in which she’d grown up. “You were discouraged from saying anything negative about homeschooling,” she says. “You were never allowed to speak really, truly honestly, and even if you did, your own sphere of what you’ve seen is so limited that you can’t speak outside of that.” Soon Coleman was connecting with other Quiverfull exiles and working to inspire young women to, as she puts it, “pick freedom.”When they reject the certainties they were raised with, they leave behind an all-encompassing world: not only families and faith but the moral code that guided all their choices.
Thanks largely to sites like No Longer Quivering and Homeschoolers Anonymous, a critical mass of homeschoolers and Quiverfull daughters now know that their families aren’t unique and that they aren’t alone in questioning the certainties with which they were raised. But when they take the next step and reject those certainties, they leave behind an all-encompassing culture: not only their families and their faith but the black-and-white moral code that guided all their choices. “When you’re raised in this lifestyle,” says Elizabeth Esther, author of a forthcoming memoir about leaving fundamentalism, Girl at the End of the World, “everything from politics and religion to your tone of voice, the clothing you wear, even how you open and shut doors—everything is based on doing it in a manner that was pleasing to God.
“I had never really lived in the real world. I didn’t understand how Americans thought. All my language was religious language. I didn’t know how to interact with people without trying to convert them. I had a lot of really discouraging experiences where I realized that you could leave fundamentalism, but at the end of the day fundamentalism was still inside of me.”
Nothing easily fills the void. Esther found pop culture vapid and alienating and atheism bleak, a common experience for former fundamentalists. But when she tried going to different evangelical churches, she suffered panic attacks; it was too familiar and seemed to confirm her greatest fear: “I truly believed that leaving my family was tantamount to leaving God.” Esther ultimately found a home in Catholicism, which to her was appealingly mysterious and impersonal, a more comfortable way to practice her faith. But she still struggles with the perplexing transition from her family to the mainstream.
The closest parallel to transitioning from strict fundamentalist families to mainstream society may be an immigrant experience: acclimating to a new country with inexplicable customs and an unfamiliar language. “Mainstream American culture is not my culture,” says Heather Doney, who co-founded Homeschooling’s Invisible Children with Coleman. Doney, who grew up in an impoverished Quiverfull family in New Orleans, felt for years that she was living “between worlds,” never sure if her words or behavior were appropriate for her old life or her new one. She didn’t understand what topics of discussion were considered off-limits or when staring at someone might be disconcerting. She couldn’t make small talk, wore “oddly mismatched clothes,” and was lost amid pop-culture references to the Muppets or The Breakfast Club. When public-school friends talked about oral sex, she thought they meant French-kissing.
More than a decade later, Doney still finds herself resorting to a standard joke—“Sorry, I live under a rock”—when people are taken aback by her. “It’s a lot easier to say that,” she says, “than to explain that I was raised hearing that you’d be allowing demonic influences into your house if you watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I feel like an expat from a subculture that I can never go home to, living in one that is still not fully mine.”In the past, those who left Quiverfull and homeschooling families had to look for help through an informal grapevine of survivors. Now the young rebels are using their organizing skills to build a full-scale online network. They share stories and connect on sites like Homeschoolers Anonymous and No Longer Quivering. They strategize about how to combat the homeschooling establishment on the Protect Homeschooled Children Working Group; offer practical and moral support through the Quiverfull Sorority of Survivors; and collect data on abuse cases at Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. Through a group provisionally called Ruthslist, they’re organizing safe houses and compiling a “Quiverfull daughter escape guide.” They’re finding a new sense of purpose to replace the one they were once assigned by their parents, always motivated—sometimes haunted—by the thought of the siblings left back home and the old friends who are “still in.”
In May, two months after the launch of Homeschoolers Anonymous, the ex-homeschoolers declared their first social-media war. Homeschool alumni converged on the Facebook page of the Home School Legal Defense Association, challenging what they see as the group’s record of defending abusive parents, covering up evidence of abuse, and lobbying for laws that remove state oversight of children’s education and well-being. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued as homeschool parents clashed with homeschool graduates. The debate has begun to shake the foundations of fundamentalist homeschooling.
Some homeschooling leaders have reacted just as the ex-homeschoolers expected—by suggesting that parents further tighten the reins. Kevin Swanson of the Christian Home Educators of Colorado warned listeners of his podcast, Generations with Vision, about “apostate homeschoolers” who were organizing online. Swanson, who helped bring debate clubs to Colorado, said he’d seen a “significant majority” of debate alumni turn out wrong, becoming “prima donnas” and “big shots.” “I’m not saying it’s wrong to do speech/debate,” Swanson told his listeners, “but I will say that some of the speech/debate can encourage sort of this proud, arrogant approach and an autonomous approach to philosophy—that truth is relative.”
For the ex-homeschoolers, defensive reactions are better than no reaction. They were surprised, however, when for the first time, the HSLDA felt forced to respond. In July, the organization posted a new page about homeschooling and abuse on its website, complete with instructions on how to report suspected child abuse. It was an imperfect set of guidelines, suggesting observers address behaviors with parents before reporting them. But it was a sign of how seriously the homeschooling establishment is taking the upstart challenge. Another sign: In October, HSLDA President Michael Smith contacted Rachel Coleman to request a meeting to discuss the ex-homeschoolers’ concerns.
Darren Jones, a staff attorney for HSLDA, declined a telephone interview for this story but responded by e-mail. The stories of abuse shared on Homeschoolers Anonymous dismay and sicken him, Jones wrote, but need to be seen in a broader perspective. “Some of the grievances I am reading now against homeschooling seem to be merely differences of philosophy in child-rearing,” he wrote, “similar to the reactions that young adults in the 1960s had against their ‘square’ and too-conservative parents. But I don’t say that to discount actual abuse. I have read some of the stories of abuse and neglect from homeschool graduates. These people really suffered, and their stories turn my stomach. I have nothing but sympathy for them—and anger toward those who abused them.”
Still, Jones expressed the HSLDA’s long-held position that abuse cases are too rare to warrant new regulation. “Although abuse does exist in the homeschooling community,” he wrote, “we believe that statistics show that it is much less prevalent than in society at large. This is one of the reasons that we have always opposed, and continue to oppose, expansion of monitoring of homeschoolers.”
Willie Deutsch, a Patrick Henry graduate who worked on HSLDA’s Parental Rights Amendment campaign, says the leadership is far more worried about the resistance than Jones acknowledges. “When you’re focused on protecting the right to homeschool,” he says, “it takes a while for it to get on their radar, but I think it’s getting on.” There’s a growing sense among HSLDA staffers, he says, that “if people don’t wake up to the problem and continue to double down and defend the movement, we could be in for a lot of trouble down the road. It will be a general black eye.”
As their movement spreads, the ex-homeschoolers are developing a reform agenda. Members are teaming on state-by-state research assessments of homeschooling policy, drafting policy papers, and grading the states on how well they protect homeschooled children. Participants jump in with their own expertise: Coleman’s academic research, Lauren’s legal skills, Doney’s and Ryan Stollar’s writing and editing skills. The ultimate goal is to build a lobbying counterforce to the HSLDA, challenging its message of parental rights and religious freedom with a voice that has long been absent from discussions of homeschooling: that of children.
When she was growing up, Elizabeth Esther remembers wondering, “Does anyone know what’s happening to us, does anyone care?” The question, she says, filled her with a tremendous loneliness that she can sense in the other exiles she’s met—and in those who haven’t made it out. “I know there are young women and men who, even if they can’t tell me, are depending on us to tell the stories, until they get free.”
When President George W. Bush asked the American people, back in 2000, “Is our children learning?” left-leaning people everywhere got a big hoot out of it. Little did they know that the joke was on them.
The question not only revealed the inability of our national leaders to manage something as basic as English grammar. It reflected the incoherent means to which American education policy, with the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, would ultimately go about attempting to assess the impact of the country’s entire schooling enterprise.
Beginning with No Child Left Behind in 2001, an elaborate scheme to answer the question, “Is our children learning,” rolled out wave after wave of various assessments across every state in the country.
Results from national diagnostic tests, such as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which had previously never made much of a splash outside of academic circles, suddenly became throat-clutching events anticipated with days of media buildup.
Results from obscure international assessments – Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – suddenly became crucially important “data” for determining the nation’s potential prosperity.
The results of all these exams have now become fodder for nearly every politician and government official to make grandiose claims that their campaign or their administration is “for the kids.”
Economists use the test results to build elaborate spreadsheets to justify all sorts of pronouncements about “what works” in education. And a parade of Very Serious People in news shows and symposiums obsess over pinhead arguments based on testing “output.”
Are all these assessments useless? Of course not. As a diagnostic tool, each may or may not reveal something worthwhile.
As University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham recently observed, “Just as body temperature is a reliable, partial indicator of certain types of disease, a test score is a reliable, partial indicator of certain types of school outcomes.”
But that’s not how the assessment results are being talked about in the media or how they’re being used to leverage policy and change.
Now, hardly a week goes by when another data dump from testing of some kind doesn’t send Americans scrambling to see how our country, state, city, school or child is doing academically.
Last month, the most recent results from the NAEP provoked an array of media types – from “reform” enthusiasts like Michelle Rhee to all-purpose pundits like Nicholas Kristof – to make huge rhetorical overreaches using NAEP results to advance their opinions.
This week, the latest round of PISA results came across the transom, and a media feeding frenzy ensued.
“U.S. Test Scores Remain Stagnant” rang the alarm from the education writer at the Huffington Post. The headline at U.S. News and World Report exclaimed, “American Students Fall in International Academic Tests, Chinese Lead the Pack.” (Note to USN editor: The “Chinese” in the case of PISA are students from one city only, Shanghai, which represents an insignificant sample of the Chinese national population.)
Arne Duncan Dissembles
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the release of the PISA scores as an opportunity to use the resources from his own department, funded by the American taxpayer, to choreograph a mostly negative P.R. campaign aimed at public schools and educators.
The point of Duncan’s campaign was to use “stagnating” PISA scores to spur urgency for a political agenda. He worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which conducts the PISA, and other groups to stage PISA Day, a media event that spent most of five hours (!) arguing that the PISA scores were reasons to get behind policies that have been branded as “reform.”
At one point in the discussion, moderator Amanda Ripley noted that none of the top scoring nations from the PISA were particularly keen on ideas the Duncan platform espouses, such as using student test sores in teacher evaluations and promoting more charter schools as a competitive parallel school system.
Duncan replied with anything but a straightforward response, hauling out familiar talking points about the need for “accountability for student learning.”
Has anything from PISA caused you to question what you’ve been promoting, Ripley asked? Duncan replied with more bromides about the need to “raise standards,” yet another conclusion in no way supported by PISA (or any other research for that matter).
Michelle Rhee Pours On More Rhee-form
Michelle Rhee took to the pages of Time to use the PISA scores as an opportunity to scold Americans about settling for “mediocrity.”
“America needs to hit bottom – 34th out of 34 – before we’ll truly embrace reform,” Rhee suggested – “reform” being, of course, the policies she helped implement in Tennessee and Washington, D.C.
She claimed, “The countries that are excelling academically are doing similar things. Setting high standards for all students. Investing in teacher effectiveness. Ensuring accountability at every level.” None of which is true.
By “standards … effectiveness … accountability,” what Rhee means, of course, is more emphasis on her reform agenda of assessing schools, teachers and students with high-stakes test scores – not at all an agenda uniformly accepted by top-scoring nations.
Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg corrected her on a blog site at the Washington Post, noting that Finland’s PISA scores are routinely at or near the top, yet “the Finnish approach to educational policy has stood in direct opposition to the path embraced by the United States.”
It’s the Diagnostics, Stupid
At the Atlantic, Jordan Weissman observed, “U.S. teens have tended to botch these sorts of tests ever since the 1960s … Which raises a question: If we’ve been so bad at these tests for so long, why worry now? In the last 30 years, our growth hasn’t lagged other developed countries. Our allegedly underdeveloped American minds still managed to build the Internet.”
Indeed, Weissmann noted, “Some have gone so far as to suggest that an over-emphasis on test-taking could harm an economy.”
Yet, “none of this is to say we should entirely ignore assessments like PISA,” Weissmann concluded.
Like Dan Willingham’s analogy to a thermometer, standardized tests of any kind – from international assessments to end of year exams for individual students – can be useful diagnostic tools for uncovering more “serious issues” than mere rankings.
Regarding PISA, for instance, virtually no one commenting about what the tests may have revealed, other than Dana Goldstein at Slate, bothered to look at what’s actually on the test.
Similarly, standardized tests given in American schools are implemented in a way that provides absolutely nothing diagnostically significant to the people whom the tests affect most. Schools are not privy to the exam questions, teachers don’t get to see the results until months after the test was given (indeed, often after the students are no longer in their classes), and parents and students get no significant feedback other than raw scores with peer or grade level comparisons.
When it comes to the way the media talk about tests and how policy leaders use test results in decisions, nothing beyond mere ranking and spin ever seems to enter the discussion.
In fact, the whole question of how test data of any kind fits into the policy-making process has a $1 trillion answer.
The Big Money in Student Testing
Last month, global consulting business McKinsey & Co. published a report concluding that the market for data in education from both public and private sources represented a new business venture worth between $900 billion and $1.2 trillion in annual economic value worldwide, about a third of it in the United States.
As reported in Education Week, the report contends that more “open and transparent” data on students’ academic performance and backgrounds would lead to multiple advantages – including improved instruction, more efficient administration, and better “matching” of students to higher education and employment – that represent billions of dollars in “added economic value in education.”
One such system has indeed already rolled out, called inBloom, with the blessings and support of the U.S. Department of Education and the financial backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Value for Whom?
Who provides the “value” in such a data system, undoubtedly, are the students themselves who have their personal and demographic information loaded into the system and their test results constantly open to the scrutiny of others.
But who reaps the value of such an arrangement is not well understood. Once students’ academic information becomes essentially available, it’s not at all hard to imagine it becoming the subject of financial speculation at any scale.
In fact, a recent blog post, again at Education Week, by an analyst for an education venture fund explained exactly how that sort of speculation would work at the individual student level. “Why can’t I invest in 20% of the future earnings of a first-year Harvard Law student?” he asked. “Now what about the high school junior from Hunts Point that works two jobs to help pay rent that just got an 800 on her Math SAT? … And the nine-year old from Odessa that just aced the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR®) Reading section?”
Of course the answers to these “why can’t” questions are obvious: Because what if the investor suddenly decides to pull out or sell the shares to someone else? And what about all those students who aren’t such attractive “investment targets”?
But the main point is that the market for test scores has in effect turned student learning – and by extension, the students themselves – into a commodity. This makes test scores the ends in and of themselves for speculation of all kinds – whether from media bloviating or on the floor of trading houses on Wall Street.
Testing’s Place on the Balance Sheet
Further, test data feed decision making among policymakers intent on using an economic model rather than an academic one to determine policy.
Traditionally, the “value” of education has been calculated in terms of what it means to a child’s personal well-being and the future of the country. But shortsighted policymakers have decided they want a value proposition that shows payout in the here and now.
With the costs of education – mostly physical plant and personnel – entered on one side of the balance sheet, business-minded policy leaders need “revenue” to show on the other side.
So “reform advocates” decreed that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools – operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money – could be related to a test score output.
Now standardized test scores are the “currency” of education that enables all sorts of resource swaps that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
With something on the revenue side of the balance sheet (test scores), venture capitalists can “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups – from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools – could be rationalized on the basis of test scores.
It’s About the Values, Stupid
What get lost in this whole lousy scheme are the goal of real learning and the authentic purpose of education.
Back to Dan Willingham, in another post, who said the purpose of education is to change the world, “to make it more similar to some ideal that we envision.”
Thus, education “must entail values, because it entails selecting goals.” (his emphasis)
“We want to change the world – we want kids to learn things – facts, skills, values. Well, which ones?”
Right now, governed by an “Is Our Children Learning” policy, the answer to that question is unlikely to be found in the next test results.
Fox News on Mandela's Death: Rick Santorum Compares Apartheid to Obamacare; O'Reilly Brands Leader a Communist
As the world grieves the loss of Nelson Mandela and an outpouring of praise and gratitude roll in, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly seemingly felt the urge to brand Mandela a communist.
The republican made the remarks while speaking to former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum on The O’Reilly Factor about the future of the Republican party, Meditate reported.
“He was a communist, this man. He was a communist, all right? But he was a great man! What he did for his people was stunning!...He was a great man! But he was a communist!”
O’Reilly's decision to invoke Mandela into the discussion about GOP politics can only be described as stupid, yet Santorum didn’t do much better in comparing the struggle against apartheid to fighting against big government here in the United States.
“He was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives – and Obamacare is front and center in that,” Santorum said.
As tributes continue to pour in, it is expected that ‘more stupid’ will continue to roll in from the Republican party.
Watch the two make d*cks of themselves here:Related Stories
In his speech from the dock, at his 1962 trial for inciting African workers to strike and leaving the country without a passport, Nelson Mandela described the initial formation of his political ideas. "Many years ago, when I was a boy brought up in my village in the Transkei, I listened to the elders of the tribe telling stories about the good old days, before the arrival of the White man."
President Nelson Mandela was truly a transformative force in the history of South Africa and the world. My heart weighs heavy about his transition, but we are reassured because his life was full, and we know the imprint he left on our world is everlasting.
If ever the teaching that "Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith. In the end faith will not disappoint" rang true, it did in the life of Mandela.
Despite imprisonment in Robben Island for 25 years and 8 months, Mandela never lost faith in winning freedom for the South African people. Suffering breeds character.
Mandela was a transformational figure; to say he was a "historical figure" would not give him his full due. Some people move through history as being the "first this or that" – just another figure in a lineage of persons. To be a transformer is to plan, to have the vision to chart the course, the skills to execute. To be transformational is to have the courage of one's convictions, to sacrifice, to risk life and limb, to lay it all on the line. "Historical figures" will reference Nelson Mandela.
I recall marching against apartheid with Oliver Tambo and the enormous rally at Trafalgar Square in November 1985. I later met with the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher to decry Britain's economic, political and military support of the apartheid regime. Let us not forget that Britain, the US, all of the western powers, labelled Mandela a terrorist and steadfastly propped up the apartheid regime – they were on the wrong side of history. I appealed to her to support the release of Mandela, and departed for South Africa.
My heart burst with excitement on that day of Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison, 11 February 1990. When word got out about his impending release, maids started doing the toya toya in the hallways, beating pots and pans, weeping and demonstrating. "In the end, faith will not disappoint."
I met Mandela and Winnie at City Hall, and when we spoke later at our hotel, he thanked me and recalled hearing about my 1984 convention speech. Even from his jail cell, he was keenly aware of the outside world, and the ebbs and flows of the world. Three years later, as part of the official US delegation, I was honoured to celebrate Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president of the new, free South Africa.
We forged an everlasting relationship. We've welcomed him to our home and headquarters in Chicago. We've met numerous times in South Africa – the last time in 2010 where we spoke about boxing, sports, politics and traded baseball caps.
Mandela was a giant of immense and unwavering intellect courage and moral authority. He chose reconciliation over retaliation. He changed the course of history.
Now, both South Africa and the US have unfinished business to complete.
Nelson Mandela is not gone, he remains with us always. He'll always be a chin bar to pull up on. He has indeed forged South Africa as a new "beauty from ashes". He has left this earth, but he soars high among the heavens, and his eloquent call for freedom and equality is still heard amongst the winds and the rains, and in the hearts of the people the world over.Related Stories
Coca-Cola Now Owns Zico Coconut Water, Honest Tea, Odwalla, and Vitamin Water: The Dark Side of Coke's "Healthy" Brands
This story first appeared on the Huffington Post.
On November 22, Coca-Cola completed its acquisition of Zico Coconut Water. The company now owns a string of beverage brands marketed to people who like natural foods, including not just Zico but also Honest Tea, Odwalla, Simply Orange, and Vitamin Water.
In the last few years, sales of natural and organic foods have become big business. Annual revenues have nearly tripled since 2001, and they now exceed $91 billion. Healthy food isn't just for hippies any more, and corporate America wants in on the action.
While sales of Coca-Cola's soft drinks have been slumping, company profits were up in the third quarter of 2013, thanks to strong and growing sales from Coca-Cola's non-soda and healthier beverage offerings.
But not everything is cheery in organic-land. Some natural food lovers are uncomfortable with the fact that most of their treasured brands have been bought by corporate behemoths. Clorox bought Burt's Bees. General Mills claimed Cascadian Farms and Muir Glenn. Even Kellogg's got into the natural foods buy-up bonanza by purchasing popular brands like Kashi and Gardenburger. In fact, 80 percent of organic brands are now reportedly owned by mega corporations.
This means that natural foods consumers might be unknowingly contributing to the profits of, and supporting the policies and practices of, parent companies like Coca-Cola with whom they have profound disagreement.
For example, the vast majority of natural foods consumers want Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. GMO labeling is already mandatory in 64 nationsincluding the entire European Union, and recent polls find it supported by 93 percent of the American public. But profits from the sale of Coca-Cola's healthier brands have been used by Coca-Cola to fight labeling efforts. It stands to reason that the company doesn't want the public to know that its soda pop is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup made from genetically engineered corn.
Monsanto and Coca-Cola might like to dismiss GMO labeling advocates as a bunch of uninformed Luddites who are afraid of science and don't care about the world's hungry. But many scientists and informed humanitarians have real and significant concerns about GMOs.
In the 20 years since genetically modified crops first came on the market, studies have found that they have led to higher pesticide use, and no meaningful improvement inflavor, nutrition, yield or water requirements. And many independent scientists are deeply concerned that they have not been adequately tested and may even present health risks, and that their use has led not only to vastly increased use of pesticides but to a host of other environmental problems.
But companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Kellogg have joined forces with Monsanto to bankroll efforts aimed at keeping Americans from knowing which foods contain GMOs. And they've used money from sales of their natural brands to help finance the effort.
In November, Washington State voters narrowly rejected ballot initiative 522, which would have mandated the labeling of GMOs. The "no on 522" campaign broke state initiative fundraising efforts by pulling in more than $22 million, all but $550 of which came from out of state. They spent much of their record-setting haul on a barrage of ads deemed "mostly false" by the Seattle Times.
More than half of the "no" campaign funding came in the form of allegedly illegally laundered money. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle were the leaders in a group of companies that tried to finance the campaign through secret contributions to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. It took a lawsuit from the state attorney general to bring the truth to light.
It turns out that sales of Honest Tea, one of the world's fastest growing organic and non-GMO brands, were joined by sales of Zico, Simply Orange, Odwalla, and Powerade, along with Coke itself, in helping to bankroll a secret scheme to keep GMOs from being labeled.
Fortunately for fans of the right to know what's in our food, there's a petition and boycottcampaign underway, launched by the Food Revolution Network (for which I serve as CEO), and the Center for Food Safety. We are pushing Coca-Cola to be accountable to the natural foods consumers from whom it profits, by ceasing to fund efforts aimed at derailing GMO labeling. More than 135,000 people signed on in the first two weeks.
Want to help? Join the Coca-Cola brands boycott, and find out how you can get informed and take action, here.
Ocean Robbins is co-author of Voices of the Food Revolution, and serves as adjunct professor for Chapman University and CEO and co-host (with best-selling author John Robbins) of the 100,000+ member Food Revolution Network. Join the Coca-Cola brands boycott here.Related Stories