Saturday, January 30, 2010


OK, I'll admit to being totally overwhelmed. Ever since I decided that I want to go back to school there have been so many daunting hurdles, and questions to find answers to. An obvious one is 'how to afford it?' I'm a poor musician in a lot of debt, no credit, and ineligible for federal aid due to my status as a draft registration evader. Jen urged me to look into scholarships and did a perfunctory glance through a web index of opportunities to get me started and quickly discovered what looked to both of us like a great start. It was an essay contest sponsored by an organization I had never heard of called the SEVEN Fund, which appeared to be geared toward solving issues of world hunger and poverty. The theme of the essay was to be "The Morality of Profit." First prize is $20,000 and there are virtually no eligibility requirements. Perfect, I thought.
Then I read their guidelines. They wisely suggested reading some sample essays from previous contests to get a sense of what they were looking for. Quickly, things began to look fishy. As an example of "moral authority," they suggested applicants should read the essay "The Backbone of A New Rwanda," by Paul Kagame, current president of the long-suffering African country. I found a copy online and settled in to read a not-terribly well-written pro-entrepenourship piece suggesting that Africa needed aid less than it needed development and trade. Really? This organization thinks that business is a moral remedy to the brutal hisory of manipulation and victimization in Africa? Is SEVEN Fund suggesting that capitalism and pro-business policy is the rescue that a starving continent needs? I did a quick search on president Kagame online (being, as I must confess, pretty ignorant when it comes to African leaders of today) and saw that his human rights record is pretty bad. The Economist said, Kagame "allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe", and "anyone who poses the slightest political threat to the regime is dealt with ruthlessly." Reporters Without Borders listed Rwanda in 147th place out of 169 for freedom of the press in 2007, and Human Rights Watch has accused his military of "serious violations of international humanitarian law." Moral authority, my ass.
The other examples of the type of essays they are looking for are written by a former employee of the World Bank, their own co-founder who is a self-described "angel investor" (also a founding shareholder of a major pharmaceutical company), a former head of marketing at Microsoft, and another co-founder of SEVEN who is a Swiss venture capitalist. Disappointment set in as I accepted the fact that the essay I'd envisioned about the violent nature of profit-seeking, and the numerous ways that free trade deprives people of their freedom to choose self-sufficient ways of life for their local communities was not going to have a chance in hell at winning me any damn $20,000 bucks. Even more disappointing was the thought that now I don't have a reason to write the damn thing! And I was looking forward to it! So, screw it, I am writing it anyway. I'll post it here when it's done. Maybe I'll even submit it to the SEVEN Fund and see what they say.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I don't think it's enough that we make art and vote. I don't think it's enough that we choose not to buy the products made by those companies we disagree with. I don't think it's enough to read books and watch movies that tell the truth. I don't think it is enough to sit in silent meditation on the impermanence of all.

I believe that we must speak. We must tell those in power that we are against what they stand for, and we need to refuse, resist, and organize. I went to bed last night just after receiving the news that Howard Zinn died while vacationing in Santa Monica, CA. This morning, watching the retrospectives and profiles of this truly great humanitarian and historian I was struck by how different his stance was than most of my supposed Democrat friends, who seem to have been sold on this faulty notion of bi-partisanship and bridge-building. Zinn spoke eloqently again and again on the purpose of protest being to make those in power uncomfortable, to make them upset. He stressed again and again that that was the whole point of civil disobedience, that the power of the people is most effective when it's spent making power uncomfortable.

We have been sold a lot of myths, and one of them is the idea that we can somehow create more progressive change by reaching out to those who vehemently oppose it by saying "please." But the great, meaningful changes in the past came from the people demanding it, and from demanding the genuine article, not compromised versions we think will be more soft, and more palatable. When did we become a people who don't want to offend? The Right doesn't mind offending us. What if Moses had sent a letter to Pharoah saying, "I respectfully request that you let my people go, in a gradual pullout over the next year, as long as it doesn't hurt the economy?" It's time to say things plainly, and to take action. President Obama is very good at saying the right things, but taking action is another story. He took action to bail out the banking industry, with the supposed philosophy that it was in the interests of the People, that our entire financial system was at stake. Now he is proposing that in order to pay for that huge expense, and the huge expense of our illegal wars abroad we put a freeze on domestic spending, in effect making we taxpayers the ones to sacrifice to pay ourselves back for the money we gave to the bankers. He can go on TV and admonish the bankers and we feel like, "yeah, he's taking a stand!" But his actions don't follow the rhetoric. I see this a lot from him. He admonishes the Supreme Court for their terrible decision in favor of corporate spending on elections, but what solution does he offer or suggest? He says he supports legislation. We can now sleep at night thinking "yeah, Obama is on our side," but until something is done his words are meaningless.

So we must speak, and we must do more than speak. As Manuel Zelaya, the leftist president of Honduras who exited his country in exile today (due to a military coup that ousted him in June of last year) said, "I prefer to march on my feet than to live on my knees."

Friday, January 15, 2010


On Wednesday I lined up in the cold with about 800 other people to take in a symposium at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (co-sponsored by the Indypendent) with authors Naomi Klein and Raj Patel, moderated by Amy Goodman, on the subject "how we can work for change in the current political and economic climate." As I looked around for a seat with decent sight lines it seemed the packed auditorium was teeming with energy. A man who'd been holding a seat for a no-show friend let me take their spot and I expressed my astonishment at the full house. He looked dreamily at the crowd and speculated, "I guess about half are here for Amy and half are here for Naomi." I wondered if he thought anyone was there for Raj Patel who a day before had made an impressive guest on Democracy Now!, the show Goodman hosts weekday mornings via the Pacifica network. "Well I don't really know him," he said. The response from the crowd when he was introduced made it obvious that many in attendance did know him and were ready to receive.

Patel's book is The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, and as Goodman announced during opening remarks it had just made the NY Times Bestseller list. Goodman made a point of underscoring the potential meaning of this fact, saying, "There is hope, and people do care." Klein's fame began ten years ago with her highly influential book "No Logo,", now freshly revised and reissued, and is currently the rage for her more recent The Shock Doctrine.

Naturally, the conversation began on the subject of Haiti, which had dominated the news the previous 24 hours, as it continues to today with report after report on the terrible devastation and loss of life, as the people wait for aid that seems to be coming, but coming later than those on the ground can bear. The speakers attempted to put the situation in context, beginning at the beginning, the slave rebellion that was the genesis of Haiti, the various ways that debt had been used to dominate and discipline the country, and its environmental degradation that makes a natural event like this earthquake have impact that would not be so severe in a country with more self-sustaining wealth, power, and infrastructure. The U.S. has intervened over and over in Haiti, all to its detriment, whether it was decimating their rice industry or arming the Duvaliers or ousting Aristede. Meanwhile, the U.S. government scoffs at socialism but gives the U.S. rice industry a billion dollars a year in subsidies. You may ask yourself, how is subsidy different from socialization? The difference is where the profits go, obviously. Anyway, the speakers revealed other means by which haiti and countries like it are manipulated for corporate greed--um, I mean globalization--by the IMF and others, forcing them to privatize utilities and allow trans-nationals in as a condition for loans.

Patel tended to illustrate as many of his points as possible in the context of what he calls "the food crisis," and in doing so spent time introducing the audience to the concept of "food sovereignty." The term has been around since the mind 1990s and I'm sad to say it was completely new to me. Patel said that the Wikipedia entry explaining it was actually quite good, so I will send you there too.

Most of the rest of the evening was spent talking about climate change and climate debt, a Klein specialty, and she made many strong arguments about the responsibility of the developed world to the developing world with regard to this pressing issue. I thought I had caught her in a slight gaffe as she was rightly outlining ways that the climate crisis exacerbates the suffering people go through in the developing world when natural disasters occur, like hurricanes and so on, and the increase in such phenomenon due to the effects of emissions. She used Haiti as an example saying that more of these kinds of things are going to happen and I scribbled a note to myself: "is N.K. saying earthquakes are caused by climate change??" I hadn't heard of this being suspected before. Well, one quick Google search later I see page after page of data. We don't know if this particular quake was related, but her point was quite valid and I am psyched to have learned something.

From Patel I learned about the Tragedy of the Commons, the article and concept by Garrett Hardin that advances the idea that individuals acting their own self-interest will naturally deplete their shared, limited, natural resources even when it is clear that it's not in anyone's long-term interest. This doctrine turns out to have been used time and again since the late 60s to appropriate and privatize the resources of indigenous people for supposed preservation, but ends up alienating already poor populations and managing the commons in far worse ways, sometimes by under-utilizing it.

Towards the end of the idea-packed two hours the talk turned to president Obama. Klein provided sober analysis in pointing out how Obama was "a mirror held up to us," reflecting back what we believe without promising much of anything and at this point not delivering much. Patel called him the "pizza delivery guy of change."

There was so much more I am not getting to...a great discussion of the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen and the Seattle WTO protests, Patel's insistence that shopping green isn't close to enough and that the situation demands radical political change as well, as well as Klein and Goodman's reassuring words about community and the hope that we-the-many can affect the actions of the powerful few. The capacity crowd gave its resounding approval in the form of a standing ovation.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I haven't done my mood any favors in the last week by continuing to read Derrick Jensen's major work, Endgame, which is a sprawling twin-volume opus that does a very convincing job of supporting its central premise that human civilization is based on violence, is unsustainable and is going to kill the planet dead unless it's killed first. Actually, Jensen lists 20 premises, but they pretty much boil down to that main point. I'm not even close to finished but I had to take a break because the more I read, and the more I find myself unable to disagree with him, and seeing no hope for a solution, the more depressed I get.

It is very hard to face up to the conclusion I am coming to, a very pessimistic one, that civilization is going to have to collapse under its own weight and fallacy in order for the planet to be "saved." Sure, some might lend a hand in pushing over that which is leaning, but even many a concerned environmentalist or far-leftist or Earth First diehard is going to have a hard time understanding how to save the world when you realize that basically there are just too many of us, and unless enough of us were willingly or forcibly returned to a life where there are a lot fewer people and those who remain live in a stone age level of civilization, the planet is pretty much screwed, and it's time to fight back.

But how am I gonna fight back and still have my computer and my music collection, and my tomatoes year-round and my gas stove? Reading Endgame I am struck by how much I am unwilling to give up, even though I think of myself as far less materialistic and more conscious than so many other citizens of this culture. Is it largely conceit and an unwillingness to look plainly at the reality of where we're at? Jensen asks, why it is that we're willing to poison our bodies? Why are we willing to kill off our only world? Watching coverage of the Copenhagen climate summit on Democracy Now, I wanted to feel like a difference could be made, but reading Jensen I feel like the conclusion I'm being led to is that even if we get the governments of the biggest polluters to pay, and even if we reduce carbon emissions, and maybe even stop the privatization of water, we're all pretty much screwed.

But this can't be it, right? Is my role simply to live in a way that I can stomach, fiddling while Rome burns because it's gonna burn anyway? Or is my role to cheer on the burning? Or is the right thing to try to encourage revolution? Beats me, but I don't feel very hopeful right now. What feels like might happen is that for a few short weeks I'll look at everything in my life in a new way, seeing even those organic foods and recycled products as more than can be justified when species are vanishing from the planet, and I'll contemplate the ways in which our choices of candidates for office are pointless to contemplate because they only offer us differently-worded menus that serve the same doom to our world, or I'll see that while I would consider spending all my time growing my own food and making my own tools and clothes and living off the local land, I have to make money to pay rent to somebody, and my having made the choice to go caveman didn't affect the world much at all, because the drumbeat goes on, the trees are still being hacked, the land is being stripped, the mountains are being blown apart, the arctic ice vanishing... Most people I meet don't even want to consider not buying Nikes, let alone think about the idea of living in accordance with nature.

If the feeling does last, then where does that lead me? What is the point then of careerism and study? What is the point in watching a movie or working on my resume? Why should I bother voting, even for someone I really like? Well, I guess it makes me think about the things I can do that don't have to do with civilization. I can enjoy watching the snowfall with my girlfriend, and listen to the sound of my breath and be grateful for these things which take no resources of any kind to produce. I'll be curious to see if Jensen offers a way to live in the world with this. I know he lives and works for money and pays for things and lives in the culture. How does he deal with the problem of living? Meanwhile, how do I?