Thursday, June 28, 2012

America, the land of deeply confused white people

I never bought a man who wasn't for sale.

(William A. Clark, 19th century Montana “Copper King”)

He is as rotten a human as can be found anywhere under the flag...

Mark Twain, in 1907 essay entitled “Senator Clark of Montana”)

Your Priorities

King of the hill

As an aging white American male looking back over the past and occasionally glancing toward an uncertain and very finite future, it's pretty clear to me that I may have been part of the most privileged group in human history, in a general sense, and coming right after Tom Brokow's “The Greatest Generation.”

But whether or not the word “greatest” is hyperbole of the worst kind, I have to give my father and mother some credit: They survived the Great Depression, beat Fascism and kept sociopaths like Stalin and Chairman Mao at bay. They also made it possible for my generation to have the highest standard of living in human history (albeit with its unforeseen consequences we can no longer afford). In the total scheme of humanity's oftentimes dismal history, it was a better than average performance.

Of course, ignorance and magical thinking is ecumenical; it's an intrinsic characteristic of Homo sapiens. Just pick any location on earth, regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, sexual preference or any other qualifier. No, I don't want to “just” pick on white Americans, because they've got enough problems at the moment.

The difficulty is however that a relatively large number of white folks in America, especially those over the age of 50, genuinely believe they're above reproach, are unwilling to move beyond a dying status quo, and really do have a sense of entitlement regarding who “owns” the United States … and whose rights really matter the most. This, in my opinion, is a very big problem.

Failure is an option 

America is now a failed state, not because we look like Somalia, have a government like Syria's or have to exist on a daily basis under the watchful eye of a police state like China, but because the United States is for sale and its institutions broken.

While the Democratic party has proven to be feckless and has long since forgotten who it once represented, the Republicans are now nothing more than a degenerate cult and made up of some of the foulest segments in American society, from outright racists, an affliction that has haunted a significant segment of white America from the very beginning, to 19th century theocrats, who apparently fear knowledge and the modern world and would, if given the opportunity, turn this country into something very dark and unpleasant.

Enough has already been said about economics. Suffice it to say that China has proven that what we refer to as “global capitalism” does not require free … open … democratic … representative government to work reasonably well.

Enough has already been said by some remarkably stupid and corrupt billionaires and their political errand boys (and girls). Enough has already been said by some of these ridiculous libertarians and their childish narcissism in a diverse country of 300, 000, 000 people. Most certainly enough has been said by fools that think climate change is a “plot,” or that we can't “create” jobs without showing suicidal disrespect for the planet we live on.

Putting our money where....

Time to move off the entire grid, literally and figuratively and start making a new country. We do know how. Don't we?

After all, aren't we the country with all the entrepreneurial ability, the individual drive, the determination to preserve our “liberty” and “freedom.” To form our own government? To remain free? Here's our chance … to prove it.

Julian Assange & Norm Chomsky & Tariq Ali

Friday, June 15, 2012

We stole it all fair an' square

On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.... I am an Epicurean.

(Thomas Jefferson)

Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.

(Lucy Parsons, 1853-1942, activist and organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World)

If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.

(Emma Goldman, activist, 1869-1940)

The security of serfdom

More than thirty years ago I spent a long weekend with my family at a hacienda in the Ecuadorian countryside. It was almost as though we had stepped back into the nineteenth century for three days. On the second day we went horseback riding in the early morning and soon came upon an old man standing quite still by the side of the dirt road, as though he'd been waiting for us to appear.

As we rode past he doffed his straw hat, bowed slightly and said to me in Spanish, “Good morning, Patron.” It was an expected ritual, a gesture of respect and courtesy in the presence of the “landlord,” the person who exerted considerable power over the lives of the peasants residing on the patron's property, even in the late 20th century. It was about the 1 percent. It was about the 99 percent.

More than 30 years later, across the globe, it's easy enough to recall the famous line by William Butler Yeats in The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

In the land of the free and the home of the brave--America-- the citizenry flounders in ignorance, superstition and delusion, its institutions slowly imploding and that very American trait—paranoia--seeping into the cracks everywhere. As someone said recently, America is merely the “cleanest” of the dirty white shirts. The bar is getting lower by the minute.

Potato pickers

As consumerism and globalization crumbles in Greece it appears, according to Greece's'potato movement' grows in power, that the Greeks are inadvertently attempting to create new economic models while, at the same time through trial and error, developing resilient communities.

Getting off the “global grid,” downsizing and building resiliency is no longer a lifestyle choice just for a handful of the affluent, the well educated and a few libertarians desiring to build an old mythical America of “hardy yeoman farmers.”

The ideology of death eating

The Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, are unique and one of the most remarkable and spiritual (perhaps was) places on Earth, in my opinion. I was fortunate to have spent some time there and was saddened to have come across a recent article entitled Galapagos menaced by tourist invasion.

While human stupidity and bottomless greed—if given the opportunity—will all too often treat the planet like a personal amusement park, our predatory and archaic economic system only encourages the worsening destruction, which offers no Hollywood ending.

Who is John Trudell

Of course climate change may, sooner than we think, let us know what choices we have remaining. But perhaps ignorance is truly a state of bliss, as so many Americans are proud to proclaim: Satirist Stephen Colbert has suggested we just make climate change illegal, while Virginia Republicans ForceScientist to Stop Using 'Climate Change' Terminology.

The Gallup organization has come out with a recent poll ( In U.S., 46% Hold Creationists View ofHuman Origin ), which once again suggests we Americans are, well, “challenged” in so many ways.

Clowns in the Volkswagen

In the United States we can go on debating which of the two principal political factions, Democrats or Republicans, are the most corrupt and clueless, how useless large media organizations have become, the terrible reactionaries that control the Supreme Court, the destructiveness of corporate America, repulsive billionaires and so forth and so forth.

But if we continue to merely complain about these decaying institutions or throw up our hands in frustration we are just part of the same problem. There is no easy, comfortable or convenient way out at this point, for us Americans or anyone else.

We are going to have to build quite literally those resilient communities, develop new institutions, write better creation myths and confront the status quo continually. Of course it will likely be very painful.

But you also have the option in America of hoping you're one lucky break away from being one of the “masters of the universe” … or for that matter just standing on the side of the road clutching your straw hat when the landlord rides by.

There is no social order without trust and no trust without truth or, at least, without agreed truth-finding procedures.

(Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, historian)

Additional Reading:

Monday, June 04, 2012

Liberty and freedom in America and the right to be forever duped

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country.... Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow....

(President Abraham Lincoln, 1864)

Season of everyone's discontent

The Roman poet Virgil said more than 2,000 years ago, “Blessed is he who has succeeded in finding out the causes of things.”

The cause, easier said than done. In the United States the dreary political season is upon us, not because we don't have the general right to elect our political representatives (at least for the moment), but because we have chosen to make the process as banal, corrupt and irrelevant as possible.

A book worth reading while wending your way through the spreading inanity of “talking” snakes, stupid billionaires, the “zombie apocalypse,” barely literate politicians and a confused citizenry is entitled The Swerve, by literary historian and Pulitzer prize winner Stephen Greenblatt.

While a handful of critics have suggested that the book does not have sufficient academic gravitas, it is a fascinating story for a general—and literate—audience. That's what makes it a compelling read.

It is about the very real discovery of the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini in the early fifteenth century and what he uncovered in a monastery in Germany, an ancient poem by the Roman poet Lucretius, which influenced the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, men like Darwin, Einstein and Thomas Jefferson. Above all, it seems to me, it says something about human curiosity and optimism, even when everything else appears bleak and hopeless. It is a reason to keep going on and not give in.

Deciding to change

Out of the Mouths of Children—in Canada

Get out while you can. While you still believe. While you still have a soul.

(character of Dr. Fredericks, in the movie The Good Shepherd)

If you're infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit [Pakistan's] Waziristan.

(Markets and Morals by NYT columnist Nicholas D. Kristof)

Thinking About Health Care Differently

Paul Krugman: Falling Apart

Additional Reading:

GrowingEducation Divide in Cities (the cities that make it)

Thehigh price of 'dark fusion' (government propaganda for Americans)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Nick Hanauer, Seattle venture capitalist on actual 'job creators'

Cultural 'cuisine'

It was a photograph in Newsweek Magazine, a picture of a dead shark that had drowned because its fins had been cut off and then thrown back into the ocean. Shark fins are considered a delicacy among many people in Asia. Some shark species are being driven to extinction.

Whether it's the butchering of dolphins, whales, tigers, the overfishing of Blue Tuna, the simple human sickness of shooting the endangered rhinoceros or, closer to my home, the ceaseless, mindless slaughter of wolves in America, it's often referred to by its defenders as cultural cuisine.

In Asia this usually means food. “We've been doing this for 500 years.” But cultural cuisine also refers to the junk food we stuff into our minds without thinking much about it … or deliberately avoid thinking about.

No stinkin' abyss for me

In the United States it does matter what kind of society we create, not just for us Americans, but the world in general. At the moment there is no shining city or cities on the hill to step into the vacuum. In fact, the alternatives are fairly grim. We're going to have to get beyond fairly soon the nonsense about the market always knows what's best, the wonders of the global economy or we're going to have to squeeze you into serfdom in order to make you well.

Yeah, so what do we do?

What we do is begin creating those resilient communities throughout America. It could be on a regional basis, city wide, but most likely neighborhood by neighborhood. Yes, small is oftentimes beautiful and appropriate technologies are getting better and better, whether it might be for example solar and wind energy, hydroponics, local food production, 3DPrinting, local currencies and so forth. There is now a wealth of information available and people and communities who have already embarked on this new venture across the globe. The first requirement is to stop saying I don't know what to do.

This is most definitely not about some survivalists mumbling to themselves in a cave while fondling their guns. This is about building open communities that can stand on their own and encourage participation, innovation, growth and cooperation. If it ends up being about mumbling survivalists then we've failed.

William Black explains the basics of “Crony Capitalism”

Additional reading:

Don't Mess withMassachusetts (think about what this means in general for your well being)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thinking about 'what if'

These people, the .01 percent, are mostly childish idiots.

(Alex Pareeme, writer)

Will work for food

Of course it's ultimately going to be about “jobs” in the 2012 American elections, in the European austerity crisis, watching for unrest in China and the whole world festering....

But who among us will figure out how to tie jobs to something much larger, something that will actually resonate? That would be the real Nobel Prize for Peace.

Leonard Cohen

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Picking a reality that's best for you

Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.

(Walter Benjamin, German essayist, 1892-1940)

Super PACs may be bad for America, but they're … good for CBS.

(Les Moonves, president of CBS)

We'll show them

We Americans got good and mad just before the 2010 mid-term elections. After all, it had been two years since the global economic collapse in 2008 and life had not returned to “normal.”

Well, we got up from the couch, turned off the TV and voted da bums out, in congressional and state elections. In 2010 the bums happened to be the Democrats. We then turned the TV back on and collapsed back on the couch after our hard work.

The only problem was that we neglected to read the second chapter on how to be good citizens. That's the part that tells you about being somewhat informed, knowing something about the issues and having an inkling about the candidates who promise you they can of course do a better job than the persons currently holding the office. We are now paying a very big price for our intellectual sloth.

Facts and other assorted irritants

Mitt Romney, the likely Republican candidate for president, criticized President Obama the other day on the anemic monthly job creation report—and the report was weak. Romney claimed that we should be creating 500,000 jobs per month! Hm-m. Of course, we haven't had that sort of monthly performance in 30 years but … does anyone know that?

In Who Are the OtherAmericans Now? we once again learn that there are a lot of “poor” Americans and the numbers are growing but, here again, some people point out that “80 percent” of poor people have air conditioning in America. For some apparently this raises the question of how poor the poor really are. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The economist Joseph Stiglitz says Politics Is at the Root of the Problem and suggests that some of the change will have to come from the street. How will the facts effect the outcome? How will the street affect the change?

Perhaps what we really need is a wantologist to help us get in touch with our correct personal reality. The only requirement is the cash to pay for the service. See below: The Outsourced Life.

Foreigners to the rescue?

Nope, not going to happen. For the time being we're stuck with figuring it out ourselves or at least doing the bulk of the repair work. That new world order is a good ways off. Pepe Escobar has an interesting article entitled A history of the world, BRIC by BRIC (see below). The predator classes in these countries are as ignorant, greedy, shortsighted and misguided as any in the old world order. Their reality could leave us all with a very unpleasant world.

So on to the streets but with a lot less banging of the drums and a much better plan for concrete action.

The art of bloodletting

Additional reading:

Self-made men, debunked (of course you didn't make it all by yourself)

Gadgetopia: Chasing After AnElusive Dream (reason for sharing the wealth of productivity)

The real job creators (no it's not clueless billionaires shuffling money around)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Los Afectados

{This article was written in 2007, a year before the collapse of global capitalism and its underlying rot. Los Afectados first appeared in the Kansas City Star.}

The oil field is named Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha, a Quechua word. Quechua was the language spoken by the people that lived in the region now called Ecuador, long before the Spaniards arrived in search for gold, glory and God.

The Spaniards that trudged up the Andes Mountains in the 16th century were not the effete from the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but hardened peasants in search of the “better” life. The clash of civilizations was inevitable, a clash the Incan rulers lost in a relatively short period of time. Today, a struggle on a global scale is taking place and Ecuador is both a metaphor for this battle as well as a very real, heart-wrenching example of an environmental heart-of-darkness.

The present day story of Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha or ITT caught my attention, as I had lived in Ecuador in 1973 working with the Peace Corps and the Pan American Health Organization, a year or two after oil drilling had begun in earnest, but which at the time I knew little about, except for the occasional oil executive I noticed being driven to the presidential palace or the “roughnecks” I’d run into at some bar in Quito, the capital. The Ecuadorian oil story, however, started well before ITT.

In actuality, hardly anyone in Ecuador knew much about the search for oil, including the corrupt archetypal military junta that ran the country, albeit useful to the decaying oligarchs dwelling in their colonial past, as well—in another reality—assorted North American corporations.

Out of sight and out of mind was the reality. The oil was located in the unmapped and remote Amazon region of the country. Of course nothing of importance was there, except for animals, plants and a few jungle “primitives,” who could hardly be called human by the standards of the ruling class in Quito and the oil executives in Houston and New York.

Of course everyone had a view of the “others.” Those that lived in the Sierras referred to the coastal people as los monos, the monkeys. The “Indians” were merely held in contempt, even among some mestizos, those that were only half-Indian.

Above all, this was the early 1970’s. “Green” was just a color, “climate change” yet to be discovered, and Earth Day only recently established. Finally, the United Nations had declared Ecuador one of the poorest countries in South America; the indigenous people lived lives of quiet desperation, at least the ones that resided in and around cities and towns. Could oil be Ecuador’s salvation?

Texaco obtained the concession in 1964 and the oil started flowing by 1972. Over the next 20 years or so the company constructed a 300-mile pipeline that led from the oil wells in the Amazon jungle to the Pacific Ocean. Out of sight and out of mind was the guiding principal. By some accounts, over the time period of the Texaco concession, the pipeline leaked more oil into the soil and water than the entire Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Today, an area of more than 1,500 square miles may be one of the most contaminated industrial sites in the world, with high levels of chemical toxins that are associated with oil drilling and extraction. For the majority of Ecuadorians the country is still poor.

In an article in Vanity Fair, written by William Langewiesche and entitled “Jungle Law,” Langewiesche tells of a lawsuit brought by some 30,000 Amazonian settlers and indigenous people against Chevron, which purchased Texaco in 2001. It is possibly the largest environmental suit ever filed. The suit wants Chevron to “clean up the residual mess that continues.” The clean up is estimated to cost possibly some $6 billion. In 2005 alone Chevron earned $14 billion in profits. It’s expected that this lawsuit may drag on for years. The residents of Ecuador involved in this class action call themselves Los Afectados—the affected ones.

This brings us back to the Ispingo oil fields. ITT is located in the middle of Yasuni National Park, which covers some 1.7 million acres, about the size of the state of Delaware and which may be the most diverse forest on earth according to some biologists. It is also home to numerous indigenous people, who are dependent on a healthy rain forest for their survival.

But finally, according to the University of Maryland’s Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program, Yasuni National Park could sequester possibly a half-billion tons of CO2—which in 2007 we know could be increasingly important to all of us.

To add more complexity to the ITT story the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has publicly stated that he will seriously consider not developing this oil field, even though his country is poor and most certainly can use the oil income.

Correa will postpone oil development for at least another year if the international community makes a commitment to compensate Ecuador for approximately half of the projected lost revenue, estimated to be more than $300 million per year.

The Ecuadorian president has acknowledged the environmental significance of Yasuni, but is also asking the wealthy countries to now acknowledge—in concrete terms—what Ecuador will have to give up. To put the $300 million in some perspective, the United States over a four year period has spent more that $400 billion for the Iraq war.

At the present time the Brazilian national oil company as well as the Chinese and Venezuelan governments have oil concessions in the region and want to expand their operations in order to extract even more oil.

We Americans buy some 10,000 gallons of gas a second, yet we give little thought where it comes from or what it takes to get to that pump. We become nearly hysterical when the retail price slips above $3 a gallon. Politicians demand investigations and automotive companies—and their unions—claim the technology isn't “ready” to improve fuel efficiency. The oil companies until recently told us that global warming was … well, lacking sound science. The excuses are endless. And what do we want the Chinese to do?

William Langewiesche in his article tells of a discussion he had with one of the original settlers living in the region when Texaco arrived. “This used to be a paradise. The waters were clear and full of fish. We used to see all sorts of wild animals. Birds, parrots, and everything. It was beautiful. A paradise. But then it was all gone. The oil company came.”

We know the value of oil and we know how to compute its price. Do we know the value of clean air, water and biodiversity? Is there a price to pay?

We will all become Los Afectados. We will all become the “affected” ones, perhaps much sooner than we are willing to contemplate.

Update 2012

Water is the source of life. Without clean water we can't survive.

Emergildo Criollo, leader of the Cofan people, Ecuador)

After more than 18 years, an Ecuadorian judge in February 2011 ordered Chevron to pay some $17 billion in fines and punitive damages over the environmental contamination in Ecuador.

Chevron, not surprisingly, said it would appeal the ruling, calling it “illegitimate and unenforceable.” Eighteen years before, when the suit was first filed in a New York court, Chevron fought to have the jurisdiction moved to Ecuador because the oil company claimed they could get a “fair trial there.”

Since the judgment was handed down in 2011 the case has weaved its way through the legal system with all the attending minutia. It also ended up in the International Arbitral Tribunal. For anyone interested in the legal proceedings, see “Arbitration-Ecuador” below.

Ecuadorian indigenous leaders eventually went to England to meet with the major institutional investors in Chevron corporation. At the present time even some of Chevron's supporters are now saying that, as the company's litigation prospects have dimmed considerably, its time for Chevron to reach a specific settlement. The plaintiffs themselves are now in the process of moving to seize Chevron assets in Latin America and throughout the world. It is not over but there may be a faint end in sight.

It's about an oil field named Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha and the people, animals and plants that have lived near it for a long time. But it's ultimately about all of us and what we're willing to do to make the necessary changes.

Coming home to America

For us Americans there are lessons as well. It goes way beyond waiting for some “new” technology to save the day, tinkering with the tax code, praying for a different type of politician, texting our colleagues, conjuring up a third party or even attempting to amend the Constitution. Of course all of these things have merit and are worthy of our time and effort.

The status quo, however, is not going to roll over and fade away and will certainly use violence if its core interests are threatened. It's going to come down to mobilization from below and organized action in the streets and within the various institutions. There is no short term, convenient fix at this point. We Americans are now Los Afectados.

Additional Reading:

Panama: Village of thedamned (indigenous people, Panama)

“They're killing us” (indigenous people, Brazil)

The Globalization of HollowPolitics  (French elections)

World Bank helps corporations with land grabs in Africa

The First Global Man (closer to what actually took place in the Americas)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Be happy don't worry

Life is worth more than gold.

(slogan adopted by indigenous people in Ecuador and Peru in protest over environmental destruction)

If any question why we died tell them, because our fathers lied.

(Rudyard Kipling)

Gulf Seafood Deformities

A short story about Latin America

It's unlikely that many Americans are aware of the unfolding changes that are occurring in Latin America, certainly beyond what Chavez of Venezuela says about the U.S. or the endless stories about the growing economic power of Brazil.

One of the less publicized changes—outside Latin America at least—is the spreading movement of indigenous people throughout the region to protect their communities from corrupt governments, global corporations and large state controlled enterprises such as found in China. These are the people whose ancestors inhabited the region long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

Mobilization efforts in particular have been directed at protecting water rights and mining exploitation but are now spreading beyond just the local or a few particular issues. Well organized movements at the present time can be found in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala.

Voices are being raised that are calling for the protection of the environment, basic civil rights, an end to mono-culture agriculture, forest destruction and the endless mineral concessions given to trans-national enterprises. See Why the International Day of Peasants' Struggle is Important and Peru sets up close scrutiny of Conga mine.

Passing through North America

The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Prize winner in literature, once said, “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but … life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

What do we Americans think we're obliged to do? Perhaps we really are too frightened at this point to let go of the status quo even as it crumbles around us. Maybe we are so bereft of new ideas at home that we better see what is happening in the rest of the world, even though many of us can't believe the rest of the world has anything to teach us, certainly not some peasants in Latin America.

What can those indigenous people possibly know about the 21st century and the environment, that is centered in a global market economy? For an interesting “thought piece” on us Americans and what we might consider, read the New Yorker article Evening the Odds. Then read the short article National Journalreports: Things are bad in Real America.

Monster in the closet

We ultimately, it seems to me, cannot escape going back to the subject of climate change, even while we're dealing with the dismal here and now. Yes, yes we know now that changing minds entails a lot more than just the facts, but we still need the facts to help change the minds—many of them.

For an excellent article on the subject go to How We Know Global Warmingis Real and Human Caused. When you reach the Skeptic sight scroll down to the article. It was written by Donald R. Prothero, an actual climate scientist. Of interest as well, read the comments at the end of the article.

The fundamental problems have not been resolved … The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more lethal phase.

(George Soros, in Financial Times 2012)

Additional Reading:

“Doubt is our product”:PR versus science (the corporate art of confusion)

A Stain That Won't Wash Away (BP and the Gulf)[must log in to read article]

Mandato Por El Agua, La VidaY La Dignidad De Los Pueblos (movement of indigenous people in Latin America)

Why nations fail (point of view)

Cultural Cognition and theChallenge of Science Communication (video presentation, University of Cambridge)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

You're feeling sleepy ... 'job creators, job creators'

Richard Wilkinson on economic inequality

All is well!
(Kevin Bacon, in the movie Animal House)

A story in every pot

The congressman's facial expression was, for me, an Orwellian blankness, as he stated that further tax cuts for the rich would be good for the “job creators.”

While I did wonder at first if Representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, a Tea Party favorite, actually believed in his proposed draconian budget--a Gilded Age erotic dream--I concluded that he most certainly believed in what he said, at least a good part of it. Ryan is a true believer.

Over the past ten or twenty years there has been considerable research on how the brain functions and processes information and, while we hardly have a definitive understanding, we are a lot closer to knowing what takes place.

Naturally enough it was only a matter of time before we started speculating on political ideology and the how and why we choose particular sides. See 'The RepublicanBrain': Probing the Limits of Left and Right and Understanding theIdeological Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives.

At the same time, a healthy skepticism is necessary when we even hint at some sort of neurobiological determinism in deciding, for example, whether or not a person can accept the science of climate change, economic fairness or discarding the status quo. Of course, those of us that want to develop a new narrative ought not to dismiss these neurobiological possibilities too quickly.

Writing the bestseller

No one said it would be easy to write the new tale. It never is. The “old” European-American story began in the 17th century with the Puritans, many of whom believed fervently in communitarianism, but by the time our Founding Fathers were putting together the country called the United States in the 18th century, these privileged white men were focusing on and fearful of too much concentration of power.

For our founders, “democracy” back then meant preventing “mob rule and the triumph of passion over reason to serve the ambition of the demagogue.” The spirit of 18th century European Enlightenment guided these quite extraordinary individuals.

It was Alexander Hamilton in June 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who said, “Your 'people,' sir, is nothing but a great beast.” In the 21st century we've arrived at the pinnacle of pathological individualism that's fraying rapidly around the edges.

Of course our new story must have as a central component actual fairness and the actual opportunity for all of us to seek the “dream” if we choose to do so. As well, the story is incomplete if there is no expectation of civic responsibility and shared sacrifice on the part of everyone without exception. Thus the story begins. “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I can pay one half of the working class to kill the other half.
(Jay Gould, 19th century speculator and financier)

We are safer here than in that little boat.
(John Jacob Astor, standing on the deck of the Titanic as it sank, April, 15, 1912)

It's war. It's like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
(Steve Schwarzman, Chairman of Blackstone Group, world's largest private equity firm, angry at President Obama for suggesting the 1% should pay more in taxes, 2010)

I hope Obama's teleprompters are bullet-proof.
(Foster Friess, multi-millionaire and initial supporter of Rick Santorum for president)

War is Peace, slavery is Freedom, ignorance is Strength.
(1984, a novel by George Orwell)

Monday, April 09, 2012

Building a story, working together and fundamental disillusionment

Without wiping out the debt, we cannot restart the economy.

(Michel Bauwens, founder of Peer-to-Peer Foundation)

Contemplating various realities

Somewhat surprising, a recent poll conducted by ScienceDebate 2012, indicates that the American public in general believes it's more important for presidential debates to focus on science challenges rather than faith and values debates.

The poll also indicates that such things as alternative energy, climate change, innovation, as well as our ability to maintain our leadership in science is very much on the minds of the voters. It is a reason to be cautiously optimistic . . . and think seriously about creating that new narrative which can not be postponed any longer.

At the same time, the “gangrene” continues to spread throughout many of our institutions at all levels. At what point do we have to conclude that the “baby” really does need to be thrown out with the bath water? The U.S. Senate recently was unable to even get rid of oil subsidies. The reason why requires no advanced degree. See BigOil Gave $23.5 million.

We apparently also have more in common with Tajikistan than we might think. See U.S. Flunks Corruption Index. Now imagine the oil companies deciding North America is one big plantation ripe for the pickings. See Third Worldification.

The art of storytelling

A recent article in Science Daily ( 4/2/12) reported on a team from the University of Toronto and Hebrew University, who now believe there is sufficient evidence that our human ancestors were using fire possibly one million years ago, which would mean that some of the earliest humans understood fire approximately 300,000 years earlier than was originally thought.

Michael Chazan, anthropologist and co-director of the project, thinks that the use and control of fire would have been a “turning point” in human evolution. Chazan said, “Socializing around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human.”

The beginning of storytelling and making connections is part of what makes us human. To what degree does weakening those essential connections and turning away from community harm us? Does a collection of individuals staring into the mirror and surrounded by barriers of one kind or another make it more difficult to create a functioning narrative that works for everyone?

A storytelling post script

A colleague of mine has a fairly new site called ImaStory. It is where you can write your own story, about yourself or your ancestors. It is also where children can write a story about their parents. It's about making connections and preserving a history of who you are and where you came from, to be preserved as long as you wish. It can be a solitary effort or a collaborative creation. It can be public or private. Create an account and look through the site. It's free.

Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.

(Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth)

Additional Reading:

Monday, April 02, 2012

The clear and present danger of mandatory broccoli

A lot of us who love your country [America] do not see where change can come from. We see all the barriers you have now to structural and fundamental change. It feels like you've lost your amazing ability to adapt politically.

(Jon Johansson, political scientist, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

The creaking system

It was the “official” story shrouded in cobwebs that came to mind as I listened to some of the audio recordings of the recent Supreme Court debate on the health care law. I am neither a lawyer nor a constitutional scholar, but it was hard not to conclude that some of the justices were clueless about the reality of the American health care system, among other things.

One of the justices in particular stood out. Antonin Scalia, nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1986 and one of the better known proponents of Originalism or New Originalism, depending on your tolerance for minutia, came across as smug and arrogant. He wondered sarcastically if Americans would be forced to eat broccoli next and then proceeded to put on his “legislative” hat to muse about the votes in congress.

More Americans may by now have warmed up to the idea that revolution and upheaval cleans out the societal rot. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who talked about the “tree of liberty” needing to be”refreshed” periodically. But a lesser known aphorism by our third president observed that an “ignorant” nation cannot be free.

It is however not blood in the streets or some Syrian style apocalypse that needs to be flowing at the present time in the U.S. but a new story, one that's true and reflects a 21st century world. We're way overdue.

Who gets to decide

The narrative needs to say that liberty, freedom, fairness and social justice must all be present if we are to have a country worth caring about. You don't get to choose the one or two items that you like and discard the rest.

Yes, millions of immigrants arrived in America in the early 20th century seeking “freedom,” but America was also founded on genocide and slavery and only one form of slavery ended in 1865.

We had a good chance after the Civil War to get closer to the ideal but failed to do so. Ozark Reflections, an American Story.

We're clearly at a crossroads today and accepting the fact that the cavalry isn't coming and George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or FDR won't be arriving to make it better may be the most difficult concept for Americans to come to terms with. As well, a new story is of course threatening to some.

I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.

(Eugene V. Debs, American Labor Organizer, in speech in 1910)

Additional Reading:

States with the most laxanti-corruption laws

Monday, March 26, 2012

A future only a mother could love

You gentlemen are making a great mistake. The exchange is a perfect institution.

(Richard Whitney, president of the New York Stock Exchange during the crash of 1929)

I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and gas run out before we tackle that.

(Thomas Edison, in conversation with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, 1931)

We want ours

China and India together have more than two billion people, approximately a quarter of the world's population, a fact that ought not to elicit unrestrained optimism for planet Earth and its inhabitants, in spite of the economic “successes” of both countries, especially China.

Of course we can hope that China and India will somehow get it right in the not too distant future, but the pressure to improve life for the millions and the attempt to expand the middle class is likely to only speed up the unsustainable treadmill, as the search across the globe for finite resources becomes even more frenzied and destructive. We probably don't have another 100 years to finally realize we went down the wrong path.

Try to imagine

Curt Stager, paleoclimatologist, has written an interesting book on the theoretical what if. Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth asks us to look at the possibilities of what could happen to our planet and ultimately to all life on it. What happens after global warming? is one of the questions Stagner raises. What might we do now to avert the worst possibilities?

What to do

While too much time has already been spent complaining about the climate denialists or corporate misinformation or political corruption or even public ignorance—certainly in the United States—we have not done a lot of thinking about our ability to tell stories effectively. It's the creative narrative that needs to be created.

Yes, as has been said, scientists need to become better storytellers when it comes to science and the public—like it or not. But the rest of us have a part to play. The Occupy movement has taught us that we can change the same old tired narrative and create a compelling new story. It is however not a part-time effort. So what are we willing to do?

What we need to invent … are ways in which farsightedness can become a habit of the citizenry of the diverse peoples of this planet.

(Margaret Mead, Atmospheric Science Conference, North Carolina, 1975)

Additional reading: