Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Talk

We’re not all ready to have the same conversation, but perhaps that’s a good place to start

      Reprinted from CommonDreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

 

A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can on Saturday, January 21, 2017. (Photo by Epics/Getty Images)

 

My most recent essay, in which I discussed a highly publicized controversy over the efficacy of plans for a comprehensive transition to an all-renewable energy future, garnered some strong responses. “If you are right,” one Facebook commenter opined, “we are doomed. Fortunately you are not right.” (The commenter didn’t explain why.) What had I said to provoke an expectation of cataclysmic oblivion? Simply that there is probably no technically and financially feasible energy pathway to enable those of us in highly industrialized countries to maintain current levels of energy usage very far into the future.

My piece happened to be published right around the same time New York Magazine released a controversial article, titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” in which author David Wallace Wells portrayed a dire future if the most pessimistic climate change models turn to reality. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” wrote Wells. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.” Wells’s article drew rebukes from—of all people—climate scientists, who pointed out a few factual errors, but also insisted that scaring the public just doesn’t help. “Importantly, fear does not motivate,” responded Michael Mann with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles, “and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.”

“We humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species…”It’s true: apocalyptic warnings don’t move most people. Or, rather, they move most people away from the source of discomfort, so they simply tune out. But it’s also true that people feel a sense of deep, unacknowledged unease when they are fed “solutions” that they instinctively know are false or insufficient.

Others came to Wells’s defense. Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and founder of the climate action group The Climate Mobilization, which advocates for starting a “World War II-scale” emergency mobilization to convert from fossil fuels, writes, “it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. . . . [I]t’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings—not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.”

So: Are we doomed if we can’t maintain current and growing energy levels? And are we doomed anyway due to now-inevitable impacts of climate change?

First, the good news. With regard to energy, we should keep in mind the fact that today’s Americans use roughly twice as much per capita as their great-grandparents did in 1925. While people in that era enjoyed less mobility and fewer options for entertainment and communication than we do today, they nevertheless managed to survive and even thrive. And we now have the ability to provide many services (such as lighting) far more efficiently, so it should be possible to reduce per-capita energy usage dramatically while still maintaining a lifestyle that would be considered more than satisfactory by members of previous generations and by people in many parts of the world today. And reducing energy usage would make a whole raft of problems—climate change, resource depletion, the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy sources—much easier to solve.

The main good news with regard to climate change that I can point to (as I did in  this essay posted in June) is that economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with lower-emissions climate change scenarios. As BP and other credible sources for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves figures show, and as more and more researchers are pointing out, the worst-case climate scenarios associated with “business as usual” levels of carbon emissions are in fact unrealistic.

Now, the bad news. While we could live perfectly well with less energy, that’s not what the managers of our economy want. They want growth. Our entire economy is structured to require constant, compounded growth of GDP, and for all practical purposes raising the GDP means using more energy. While fringe economists and environmentalists have for years been proposing ways to back away from our growth addiction (for example, by using alternative economic indices such as Gross National Happiness), none of these proposals has been put into widespread effect. As things now stand, if growth falters the economy crashes.

There’s bad climate news as well: even with current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, we’re seeing unacceptable and worsening impacts—raging fires, soaring heat levels, and melting icecaps. And there are hints that self-reinforcing feedbacks maybe kicking in: an example is the release of large amounts of methane from thawing tundra and oceanic hydrates, which could lead to a short-term but steep spike in warming.  Also, no one is sure if current metrics of climate sensitivity (used to estimate the response of the global climate system to a given level of forcing) are accurate, or whether the climate is actually more sensitive than we have assumed. There’s some worrisome evidence the latter is case.

But let’s step back a bit. If we’re interested in signs of impending global crisis, there’s no need to stop with just these two global challenges. The world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to current industrial agricultural practices; if we don’t deal with that issue, civilization still crash even if we do manage to ace our energy and climate test. Humanity is also over-using fresh water: ancient aquifers are depleting, while other water sources are being polluted. If we don’t deal with our water crisis, we still crash. Species are going extinct at a thousand times the pre-industrial rate; if we don’t deal with the biodiversity dilemma, we still crash. Then there are social and economic problems that could cause nations to crumble even if we manage to protect the environment; this threat category includes the menaces of over-reliance on debt and increasing economic inequality.

If we attack each of these problems piecemeal with technological fixes (for example, with desalination technology to solve the water crisis or geo-engineering to stabilize the climate) we may still crash because our techno-fixes are likely to have unintended consequences, as all technological interventions do. Anyway, the likelihood of successfully identifying and deploying all the needed fixes in time is vanishingly small.

Many problems are converging at once because society is a complex system, and the challenges we have been discussing are aspects of a systemic crisis. A useful way to frame an integrated understanding of the 21st century survival challenge is this: we humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species. We’ve been able to do this due to a temporary subsidy of cheap, bountiful energy from fossil fuels, which enabled us to stretch nature’s limits and to support a far larger overall population than would otherwise be possible. But now we are starting to see supply constraints for those fuels, just as the side effects of burning enormous amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas are also coming into view. Meanwhile, using cheap energy to expand resource-extractive and waste-generating economic processes is leading to biodiversity loss; the depletion of soil, water, and minerals; and environmental pollution of many kinds. Just decarbonizing energy, while necessary, doesn’t adequately deal with systemic overshoot. Only a reduction of population and overall resource consumption, along with a rapid reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels and a redesign of industrial systems, can do that.

Economic inequality is a systemic problem too. As we’ve grown our economy, those who were in position to invest in industrial expansion or to loan money to others have reaped the majority of the rewards, while those who got by through selling their time and labor (or whose common cultural heritage was simply appropriated by industrialists) have fallen behind. There’s no technological fix for inequality; dealing with it will require redesigning our economic system and redistributing wealth. Those in wealthy nations would, on average, have to adjust their living standards downward.

Now, can we do all of this without a crash? Probably not. Indeed, many economists would regard the medicine (population reduction, a decline in per-capita energy use, and economic redistribution) as worse than whatever aspects of the disease they are willing to acknowledge. Environmentalists and human rights advocates would disagree. Which is to say, there’s really no way out. Whether we stick with business as usual, or attempt a dramatic multi-pronged intervention, our current “normal” way of life is toast.

Accepting that a crash is more or less inevitable is a big step, psychologically speaking. I call this toxic knowledge: one cannot “un-know” that the current world system hangs by a thread, and this understanding can lead to depression. In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually. Some willfully ignore their own mortality for as long as possible; others grasp at a belief in the afterlife. Still others seek to create meaning and purpose by making a positive difference in the lives of those around them with whatever time they have. Such efforts don’t alter the inevitability of death; however, contributing to one’s community appears to enhance well-being in many ways beyond that of merely prolonging life.

In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually.

But is a crash the same as doom?

Not necessarily. Our best hope at this point would seem to be a controlled crash that enables partial recovery at a lower level of population and resource use, and that therefore doesn’t lead to complete and utter oblivion (human extinction or close to it). Among those who understand the systemic nature of our problems, the controlled crash option is the subject of what may be the most interesting and important conversation that’s taking place on the planet just now. But only informed people who have gotten over denial and self-delusion are part of it.

This discussion started in the 1970s, though I wasn’t part of it then; I joined a couple of decades later. There is no formal membership; the conversation takes place through and among a patchwork of small organizations and scattered individuals. They don’t all know each other and there is no secret handshake. Some have publicly adopted the stance that a global crash is inevitable; most soft-pedal that message on their organizational websites but are privately plenty worried. During the course of the conversation so far, two (not mutually exclusive) strategies have emerged.

The first strategy envisions convincing the managers and power holders of the world to invest in a no-regrets insurance plan. Some systems thinkers who understand our linked global crises are offering to come up with a back-pocket checklist for policy makers, for moments when financial or environmental crisis hits: how, under such circumstances, might the managerial elite be able to prevent, say, a stock market crash from triggering food, energy, and social crises as well? A set of back-up plans wouldn’t require detailed knowledge of when or how crisis will erupt. It wouldn’t even require much of a systemic understanding of global overshoot. It would simply require willingness on the part of societal power holders to agree that there are real or potential threats to global order, and to accept the offer of help. At the moment, those pursuing this strategy are working mostly covertly, for reasons that are not hard to discern.

The second strategy consists of working within communities to build more societal resilience from the ground up. It is easier to get traction with friends and neighbors than with global power holders, and it’s within communities that political decisions are made closest to where the impact is felt. My own organization, Post Carbon Institute, has chosen to pursue this strategy via a series of books, the Community Resilience Guides;  the “Think Resilience” video series; and our forthcoming compendium, The Community Resilience Reader.  Rob Hopkins, who originated the Transition Towns movement, has been perhaps the most public, eloquent, and upbeat proponent of the local resilience strategy, but there are countless others scattered across the globe.

Somehow, the work of resilience building (whether top-down or bottom-up) must focus not just on maintaining supplies of food, water, energy, and other basic necessities, but also on sustaining social cohesion—a culture of understanding, tolerance, and inquiry—during times of great stress. While it’s true that people tend to pull together in remarkable ways during wars and natural disasters, sustained hard times can lead to scapegoating and worse.

Most people are not party to the conversation, not aware that it is happening, and unaware even that such a conversation is warranted. Among those who are worried about the state of the world, most are content to pursue or support efforts to keep crises from occurring by working via political parties, religious organizations, or non-profit advocacy orgs on issues such as climate change, food security, and economic inequality. There is also a small but rapidly growing segment of society that feels disempowered as the era of economic growth wanes, and that views society’s power holders as evil and corrupt. These dispossessed—whether followers of ISIS or Infowars—would prefer to “shake things up,” even to the point of bringing society to destruction, rather than suffer the continuation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this last group may have the easiest path of all.

By comparison, the number of those involved in the conversation is exceedingly small, countable probably in the hundreds of thousands, certainly not millions. Can we succeed? It depends on how one defines “success”—as the ability to maintain, for a little longer, an inherently unsustainable global industrial system? Or as the practical reduction in likely suffering on the part of the survivors of the eventual crash? A related query one often hears after environmental lectures is, Are we doing enough? If “Enough” means “enough to avert a system crash,” then the answer is no: it’s unlikely that anyone can deliver that outcome now. The question should be, What can we do—not to save a way of life that is unsalvageable, but to make a difference to the people and other species in harm’s way?

This is not a conversation about the long-term trajectory of human cultural evolution, though that’s an interesting subject for speculation. Assuming there are survivors, what will human society look like following the crises ensuing from climate change and the end of fossil fuels and capitalism? David Fleming’s book, Surviving the Future, and John Michael Greer’s, The Ecotechnic Future, both  offer useful thoughts in this regard. My own view is that it’s hard for us to envision what comes next because our imaginations are bounded by the reality we have known. What awaits will likely be as far removed from from modern industrial urban life as Iron-Age agrarian empires were from hunting-and-gathering bands. We are approaching one of history’s great discontinuities. The best we can do under the circumstances is to get our priorities and values straight (protect the vulnerable, preserve the best of what we have collectively achieved, and live a life that’s worthy) and put one foot in front of the other.

The conversation I’m pointing to here is about fairly short-term actions. And it doesn’t lend itself to building a big movement. For that, you need villains to blame and promises of revived national or tribal glory. For those engaged in the conversation, there’s only hard work and the satisfaction of honestly facing our predicament with an attitude of curiosity, engagement, and compassion. For us, threats of doom or promises of utopia are distractions or cop-outs.

Only those drawn to the conversation by temperament and education are likely to take it up. Advertising may not work. But having a few more hands on deck, and a few more resources to work with, can only help.

Steve Frisch on Trump, Our National Embarrassment: “This Too Will Pass”

By Steve Frisch

The following impromptu “essay” was written by Steve Frisch in the form of a comment to his Facebook friends, and reprinted here with his permission, in honor of July 4th, 2017.

“I think the first step in celebrating America this weekend is recognizing that as much of a national embarrassment as Trump is … this too will pass.

“Yeah, I am embarrassed by having a President, apparently selected by my peers, who brags about grabbing pussy, bullies his opponents and staff, has been implicated by numerous women including his ex-wife in sexual assault, bought a beauty pageant so he could walk in on young women half naked, has been sued by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination, hob nobs with the New York mafia, has been fined for breaking casino gambling rules, has been sued for intimidating tenants in his buildings, was fined $750,000 for breaking anti-trust rules, has bankrupted 4 businesses while saying America needs to be run like one of his businesses, hired undocumented workers while saying we should build a wall, has stiffed literally hundreds of contractors on millions of dollars worth of goods and services delivered to him, and uses the money to buy his own books so he can say they are bestsellers and print fake covers of Time magazine to say how great he is. Oh and did I miss that he has a gold plated shitter?

“It says a lot that that paragraph is so long yet contains a mere fraction of his gauche behavior.

“But lets get real, he is 71 years old, and a friend of mine says we are just a funeral away from perfection.

“I know, I know, I spend a lot of time expressing how disgusted I am with Trump. But I spend a hell of a lot more time working hard to try to counter the idiocy that seems to have descended on our nation and eventually WE will win.

“To all my friends doing all those good things out there to make America a better place for everyone I salute you and love you today.

“Trump and his mind set do not represent this nation. You represent this nation.

“We are a nation that values freedom and individualism, expression and speech, privacy and free will, hard work and the benefits it brings.

“It may take time, and be a fight, and be too slow coming for ‘the other,’ but we value equality, ensconced it in our founding documents, rededicated in blood in the 14th amendment, fought for at Seneca Falls, the lunch counter, in farm fields, at Stonewall, and in court every goddamn day.

“More important, we are a nation and a people who look forward. We are less concerned with our European, or Asian, or African past and their social conventions and traditions than we are the future and making the future count. There is a fundamental American belief in progress and a better future.

“We are bold, brash, assertive, direct, rough hewn, and at times self indulgent and chauvinistic, but at the end of the day we value goodness, honesty, sacrifice and achievement. We still weep and revel in the accomplishment of others. We root for the little guy, followed the Cubs through a 106 year drought, and when every other option is exhausted as Churchill said, we end up doing the right thing. In the end by and large, we are good.

“So celebrate the 4th of July because we are here…and no one or any authoritarian blow hard can take that away.

“Once civic responsibility was a bedrock American value, and compared to many societies it still is…but if we have one challenge in the next few years it will be re-engaging to advance goodness. Our actions to advance democratic governance matter…it is the societies where people give up, hide, protect themselves putting their peers at risk, that democracy dies. We have a responsibility to defend all of those values articulated above every single day. Whether through involvement in an organization, on policy, through charity, in church, or at the indivisible meeting, we uphold democratic values every day and fight for our freedom.

“This too will pass and the next America will be defined by what you do today.”


Steve_Frisch

Steve Frisch is President of Sierra Business Council and one of its founding members. Over the last 20 years Sierra Business Council has leveraged more than $100 million of investment in the Sierra Nevada and its communities through community and public-private partnerships.  Sierra Business Council also manages the Sierra Small Business Development Center focusing on advancing sustainable business practices and linking new and expanding businesses to climate mitigation and adaptation funding. Steve manages SBC’s staff and programmatic development.

Prior to joining the Sierra Business Council, Steve owned and operated a small business in Truckee. Steve serves on the board of the California Stewardship Network, the Large Landscape Practitioners Network, the National Geographic Geo-tourism Council, Capital Public Radio, and Leadership For Jobs and a New Economy.  Steve is also a former Fulbright Exchange Program Fellow, sharing information and knowledge gained in the Sierra Nevada in China and Mongolia.  Steve is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Political Science.

 

America Last: Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?

By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first.  When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort.  He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability.  He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore.  And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.

In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington.  The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.

Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish.  He sensed that, too.  He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.”  And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.”  And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.

In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had.  The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do.  In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.

Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.

And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery.  He answered the $64,000 question.  (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.)  He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.

It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire.  He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here.  He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory.  It could prove to be a fall for the ages.  Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage.  Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers.  It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.

When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.”  It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it.  It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.

Applying Hard Power to a Failing World

As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon.  Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.

Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable.  Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory.  Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today.  They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way.  (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.)  To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices.  In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.

Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades.  If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal.  While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.

Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster.  This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East.  They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same.  More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikesmore.

After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse.  Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.

Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance.  Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”).  Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):

“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”

In other words, more!

Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”

The First American Laster?

If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement.  It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time.  When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push.  It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.

Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election.  It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel.  It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror.  It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch.  It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.

If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked.  Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was.  It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.

So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation?  Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster?  Will it truly be one for the record books?


 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt

 

In Praise of Warriors, Not War

Editor’s Note: I reprint this essay every Memorial Day. I sometimes feel that I should write something new each year for this special day that Americans celebrate so gleefully. But there are few human customs more perennial and more celebrated than war. The best and the worst of it are nothing new.

By Don Pelton

On this Memorial Day, I must speak a few words in support of warriors, and in opposition to war.

Despite reaching my formative young adulthood during the anti-war 1960s, and despite my minor experience with something remotely similar to combat – in the National Guard at the Watts riots in August of 1965, and at Berkeley’s People’s Park in May of 1969 – it occurred to me sometime in the early 1990s that I knew almost nothing about the “Good War” that our father’s fought, which left us with a world mostly free.

I studied American history in college, and read good histories such as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but aside from reading Shirer’s reporting from Berlin in the early years of the war, I had never listened to the voices of those who experienced the frontlines of World War II (and Korea soon after) first-hand.

So I began to read many personal accounts of those wars, and the harrowing reports that haunt me still are – particularly – E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_the_Old_Breed)), Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farley_Mowat#War_service)), and a report I’ll never forget, by U.S. Army historian S.L.A. Marshall in a collection I can no longer locate, about the hand-to-hand combat of an American squad against some Chinese infantry during the Korean War.

This effort to study war by reading first-hand accounts and by viewing documentaries and films on the subject serves as my poor but only possible substitute for the actual experience of combat. Every citizen who understands that some wars are unavoidable and necessary owes this same effort – to understand what combat really is – to those whom he may ask to risk their lives.

E.B. Sledge described the horror on the island of Peleliu in the Pacific, digging in to fight the Japanese, who were holed-up in caves. By the time he arrived on that island there had already been so much close fighting that he could find no place to sink his spade to dig a foxhole where there weren’t chunks of human flesh mixed up like rotting compost in the loose soil. If that isn’t a description of Hell, I don’t know what is.

Farley Mowat spoke of his upbringing in a patriotic Canadian family, and how the old stories of war filled him with a keen desire to find glory in combat, but not necessarily in the infantry (where he ended up). He finally found combat in the campaign to force the Nazis out of Italy. His vivid description of the savagery of war includes the awful poetic detail of his title, “… and no birds sang.”

S.L.A. Marshall told the story of an American squad that attacked a hill held by the Chinese in Korea, and despite heavy losses – with only three surviving the fight – they prevailed, killing all of the enemy. But the hand-to-hand combat with bayonets had so unleashed the blood-lust of the Americans that – with no more enemies to kill – they went on and slaughtered a small herd of horses that the Chinese had corralled there.

The power of this account – and the sadness of it – is in the awful realization that each of us is capable of such blood lust, given the same circumstance.

I take it as axiomatic that in war, all sides lose some portion of their humanity.

It also seems to be axiomatic that those who are least experienced in war are often the most gung-ho to start it, and those who are most experienced are most reluctant to undertake it lightly.

Then there’s the lethal shallowness of a man who experienced combat, but whose motives for taking us to war – when he became president – may have included personal insecurity. There have been plausible suggestions that George Herbert Walker Bush undertook the invasion of Panama in part to solve the problem of his “wimp image.”

As citizens, we must weigh the inevitable horror of war against the justness — or unjustness — of waging it. Anything less is a betrayal of those whom we claim to hold dear.

We honor the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers and remember them on days like this not because war is always glorious and just, but precisely because – whether just or unjust, whether noble or ignoble — it is always Hell, and we have asked them to go into Hell for our sake.

Statue of soldier (at Vietnam Memorial, Capitol Mall, Sacramento)


 

RELATED ARTICLE:

The following column by Howard Zinn from 1976 is completely in accord with what I wrote above. Here’s his intro to a reprinting of it in The Zinn Reader years later:

Memorial Day will be celebrated … by the usual betrayal of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments.

In 1974, I was invited by Tom Winship, the editor of the Boston Globe, who had been bold enough in 1971 to print part of the top secret Pentagon Papers on the history of the Vietnam War, to write a bi-weekly column for the op-ed page of the newspaper. I did that for about a year and a half. The column below appeared June 2, 1976, in connection with that year’s Memorial Day. After it appeared, my column was canceled.

“Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?”

 

The Constitutional Apocalypse

At the Kentucky Capitol in January, union leaders addressed those protesting a Senate-approved bill making it illegal for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to keep a job. (Photo: Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)

As Trump vilifies the press, the courts, immigrants, Muslims, Democrats, protestors and anyone who disagrees with him, it isn’t hard to imagine a modern day Mussolini… or worse. But, an even greater threat lies in the Republican’s march towards full control of state government. If they get there, they will have the frightening power to amend the Constitution into their own authoritarian image… or Ayn Rand’s.Republicans now control 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships. They have majorities in both state legislative chambers as well as the governorships in 25 states. The Democrats have total control in only six states and legislative control in two more (see here).If Republicans achieve veto-proof control in 38 states, they can do something that has never been done before ― hold a constitutional convention, and then ratify new amendments that are put forth. To date all amendments have been initiated from Congress where two-thirds of both houses are required. In either case 38 states would be needed to ratify the amendments. The Republicans are well on their way.We know what they are likely to do: end collective bargaining, outlaw abortion, forbid progressive income, estate and Wall Street taxes; prohibit class action law suits, privatize social security, guarantee “free choice” in all school systems, and so on. They would do what they’ve always wanted to do ― outlaw the New Deal and its social democratic programs. And if they get crazy enough, they could end separation of church and state and undo other portions of the Bill of Rights.A paranoid fantasy? Just say President Trump.How did we get here?Ask the corporate Democrats who have turned losing into an art form.Since 2008, they have lost 917 state legislative seats. Explanations range from Koch brothers funding to gerrymandering, to voter suppression to the rise of the Tea Party. All partially true.

The Democrats also shoulder a good deal of the blame. Ever since Bill Clinton triangulated into NAFTA and away from working people, the Democratic party’s embrace of financial and corporate elites have become the norm.

Hillary Clinton took $225,000 per speech from Goldman Sachs not because she was corrupt. Rather, this is simply the way the political game is played. You raise money from rich people, and then you back away from attacking their prerogatives while still trying to placate your liberal/worker base. Getting rich along the way is to be expected.

But as economist Jamie Galbraith put it, ultimately it is not possible for the Democrats to be both the party of the predators and the prey.


The failure and rebirth of progressivism?

The amazing acts of resistance popping up all over prove that the progressive spark is alive and well. Even seniors at the Progressive Forum in Deerfield Beach, Florida are planning to put their bodies on the line to stop ICE raids.

While raising hell all over the country, we also should re-examine how our strategies and structures may have contributed to the rise of the right. After all, this electoral coup happened on our watch.

Silo Organizing

Here’s our working hypothesis for how progressives contributed to the rise of the right: We have failed to come out of our issue silos to build a national movement that directly confronts runaway inequality.

For more than a generation progressive organizations have shied away from big picture organizing around economic inequality. Instead we’ve constructed a dizzying array of issue silos ― environment, LBGQ, labor, immigration, women, people of color, criminal justice and so on. We are fractured into thousands of discreet issues, enabled by philanthropic foundations that are similarly siloed.

Few of our groups focused on the way Wall Street and corporate elites strip-mined the economy. Very few of us mobilized around the great crash. Few of us noticed as the CEO/worker income gap jumped from 45 to 1 in 1970 to an incredible 844 to 1 by 2015. We collectively missed how this growing economic inequality was causing and exacerbating nearly all of our silo issues.

We didn’t connect the dots.

Most importantly, we failed to grasp how runaway inequality was alienating millions of working people who saw their incomes decline, their communities whither and their young unable to find decent jobs.

While the Tea Party and the right had a clear message ― big government is bad ― progressives had little to say collectively about runaway inequality.

Enter Occupy Wall Street

By the summer of 2010, the progressive failure was painfully obvious. After Wall Street had robbed us blind and crashed the economy, a Democratic president was about to enter a “grand bargain” with the Republicans to promote austerity. Think about this: While Wall Street got bailed out in full, Obama and the Democrats were about to cut Social Security. Amazing.

Then out of nowhere came Occupy Wall Street. (Out of nowhere is correct because the actions did not originate from any of our progressive silos.) In six months there were 900 encampments around the world. Thankfully, “We are the 99%.” shifted the debate from austerity to inequality.

Unfortunately, Occupy believed in spontaneous political combustion and shunned any and all organizational structures and agendas. Social media, consensus decision making, horizontal anti-organizing, and anti-leadership were to carry the day. In six months they were gone.

Meanwhile the traditional progressive groups watched it rise and fall from the outside. We were spectators as we continued to press forward in our issue silos.

Enter Bernie Sanders

We got a second chance. Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist with a clear social democratic agenda, decided to challenge Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee. At first, few of us took him seriously. After all, he’d been around for 40 years, saying the same things but never gaining any traction outside of Vermont.

But like Occupy, he and his message hit a nerve, especially among the young and among disaffected working people who were entirely fed up with the corporate Democrats.

In a flash, Sanders did the impossible. He beat Hillary in several primaries. He drew much larger crowds. He even raised more money from small donors than the Clinton machine could raise from the rich. Progressive unions like the Communications Workers of America and National Nurses United went all in. For a few months the dream looked possible.

But too many other large unions and liberal issue groups committed early to Clinton, thinking she would win easily. That would allow them to gain more access for their issues and for themselves. Didn’t happen.

Trump toppled the Clinton machine in the Rust Belt. Some say he did so with a toxic combination of racism, sexism and xenophobia and that certainly was the case for a good portion of his vote. Others are certain that Comey and Putin made the difference.

But in the Rust Belt Trump won because he picked up millions of those who previously had voted for Obama and Sanders. It is highly likely that runaway inequality, and the trade deals that exacerbated it, defeated Clinton in the Democratic strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan alone Hillary received 500,000 fewer votes than Obama. (see here)

What now?

We need to turn the marvelous anti-Trump resistance into a common national movement to that binds us together and that directly confronts runaway inequality. We need to come out of our silos because nearly every issue we work on is connected by growing inequality.

Such a movement requires the following:

1. A common analysis and agenda: As we’ve written elsewhere, resisting Trump is not enough. We need a proactive agenda about what we want that goes beyond halting the Trump lunacy.

The Sanders campaign offered a bold social democratic agenda to young people in particular. Progressive should be able to build broad support around a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street, free higher education, criminal justice reform, humane immigration policies, Medicare for All, fair trade, real action on climate change, and a guaranteed job at a living wage for all those willing and able.

2. A common national organization: A big problem. We have no equivalent to the Tea Party. We have no grand alliance that links unions, community, groups, churches and our issue silos. There are excellent websites like Indivisible that are successfully encouraging widespread resistance on the congressional level. But they consider themselves to be purely defensive against Trump.

There are hundreds of demonstrations popping up all over but no organizational glue to hold them together. There’s Our Revolution ― an outgrowth of the Sanders campaign ― that is still getting its sea legs. But to date we have no common center of gravity that is moving us forward organizationally.

Ideally we should all be able to become dues paying members of a national progressive alliance. We should be able to go from Paterson to Pensacola to Pomona and walk into similar meetings dedicated to fighting for our common agenda to reverse runaway inequality. Perhaps the hundreds of town hall meetings will head that way? It’s too early to tell.

3. An education infrastructure: The Populist movement of the late 19th century waged a fierce battle against Wall Street. It wanted public ownership of banks and railroads. It wanted livestock and grain cooperatives. It wanted a progressive income tax on the rich and public banks. The organization grew by fielding 6,000 educators to explain to small farmers, black and white, how the system was rigged against them and what they could do about it.

We need about 30,000 educators to hold similar discussions with our neighbors about runaway inequality, how it binds us together and what we can do about. (If you’re interested in getting involved see here.)

4. A new identity: Our toughest challenge. For 40 years we’ve been conditioned to the idea that runaway inequality is an immutable fact of life ― the inevitable result of automation, technology and competitive globalization. Along the way, neoliberal (free market) values shaped our awareness.

  • We accepted the idea that going to college meant massive debts for ourselves and our families;
  • That there was nothing abnormal about having the largest prison population in the entire world;
  • That it was part of the game to pay high deductibles, co-pays and premiums for health insurance;
  • That it was OK for the super-rich to hide their money off-shore;
  • That there was nothing to be done about chronic youth unemployment, both rural and urban, other than to try harder and pull themselves up;
  • That it was perfectly natural for a factories to pick up and flee to low wages areas with no environmental enforcement;
  • And that somehow private sector jobs, by definition, were more valuable to society than public ones.

These mental constraints have got to go. We got here as the result of deliberative policy choices, not by acts of God. We need to reclaim a basic truth: the economy should work for its people and not the other way around.

Most importantly, we have to relearn the art of movement building which starts in our own minds―we have to believe that it is both necessary and possible, and that each and every one can contribute to it.

We desperately need a new identity―movement builder.

Is this so difficult to imagine?

Les Leopold

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is working with unions, worker centers and community organization to build a national economics educational campaign. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015), is a text for that effort. All proceeds go to support this educational campaign. (Please like the Runaway Inequality page on Facebook.) His previous book is The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green/2009).

(Join Us! at Runaway Inequality: Resistance is breaking out all over. Millions are eager to help take back our country from the hard right. To get there, we need educators — thousands of them — to spread the word.) 

Loving America and Resisting Trump: The New Patriotism

By Frida Berrigan

So reality has inexorably, inescapably penetrated my life.  It didn’t take long. Yes, Donald Trump is actually the president of the United States. In that guise, in just his first weeks in office, he’s already declared war on language, on loving, on people who are different from him — on the kind of world, in short, that I want to live in. He’s promised to erect high walls, keep some people in and others out and lock up those he despises, while threatening to torture and abuse with impunity.

Still, a small personal miracle emerges from this nightmare. It turns out that, despite growing up an anarchist protest kid who automatically read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States alongside the official textbooks, I love this country more each day.  So I find myself eternally upset about our new political reality-show, about a man so thin-skinned he lashes out at everything and so insulated in his own alt-reality that no response to him seems to matter.

Above all, I am so mad. Yeah, I’m mad at all those people who voted for Trump and even madder at the ones who didn’t vote at all. I’m mad at everyone who thinks the sum total of their contribution to the political well-being of this country is voting every two or four years. I’m mad at our corporate-political system and how easily distracted people are. I’m steaming mad, but mostly at myself.

Yep, I’m mad at myself and at the Obamas. They made empire look so good! Their grace and intelligence, their obvious love for one another and the way they telegraphed a certain approachability and reasonableness. So attractive! They were fun — or at least they looked like that on social media. Michelle in the karaoke car with Missy Elliot singing Beyoncé and talking about global girls’ education! Barack and a tiny Superman at a White House Halloween party. Michelle, unapologetically fierce after Trump’s demeaning Access Hollywood comments came to light. I loved those Obamas, despite my politics and my analysis. I was supposed to resist all his efforts at world domination through drones and sweeping trade deals and instead I fell a little bit in love, even as I marched and fasted and tried to resist.

Falling in Love With My Country

Now, we have a new president. And my love is gone, along with my admiration, my pride, and my secret wish to attend a state dinner and chat with the Obamas over local wine and grass-fed beef sliders.

What’s not gone, though, what’s strangely stronger than ever, is my love for this country.

I didn’t love the United States under Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or Bush the First. I was a kid and they were names on protest banners and headlines in the news. My parents were the Catholic peace activists Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan, and I grew up in an anarchist collective of Christian resisters. My parents and their friends went to jail repeatedly and resolutely. We demonstrated, rallied, and railed at every institution of power in Washington. Those presidents made the adults around me angry and agitated, so they scared me.

I didn’t love the United States under Bill Clinton either — I was young and in college and opposed to everything — nor under George W. Bush. I was young and in New York City and still opposed to almost everything.

I started calling myself a “New Yorker” three years after moving there when, on a sunny Tuesday morning, airplanes became weapons, tall towers fell, and 3,000 people died. I emerged from my routine subway ride at 14th Street, unaware and unscathed, to stand still with the rest of the city and watch the sky turn black. I spent the rest of that day in Manhattan with friends trying to reach my parents and following the news, as we all tried (and failed) to come to grips with the new reality. Once the bridges reopened, we walked home to Brooklyn that evening, terrified and shell-shocked.

9/11 provided the rationale for sweeping changes in Washington. War by fiat, paid for in emergency supplementals that circumvented Congressional processes; a new Department of Homeland Security (where did that word “homeland” even come from?); a proliferation of increasingly muscular intelligence agencies; and a new brand of “legal” scholarship that justified both torture and indefinite detention, while tucking secret black sites away in foreign countries. All this as the United States went to war against “terrorism” — against, that is, an idea, a fringe sentiment that, no matter how heavily weaponized, had been marginalized until the United States put it on the map by declaring “war” on it.

The U.S. then invaded and occupied big time, including a country that had nothing to do with the terrorists who had attacked us, and we’ve been at war ever since at a heavy cost — now inching toward $5 trillion. Conservative estimates of how many people have been killed in the many war zones of what used to be called the Global War on Terror is 1.3 to 2 million. The number of U.S. military personnel who have lost their lives is easier to put a number to:more than 7,000, but that doesn’t count private contractors (aka mercenaries), or those (far more difficult to quantify) who later committed suicide. Now, President Trump has begun adding to this bloody death toll, having ordered his first (disastrous) strike, a Special Operations raid on Yemen, which killed as many as 30 civilians, including children, and resulted in the death of an American Navy SEAL as well.

September 11th was a long time ago. But I finally fell in love with my country in the days following that awful attack. I saw for the first time a certain strain of patriotism that swept me away, a strain that says we are stronger together than alone, stronger than any blow that strikes us, stronger in our differences, stronger in our unities. I’m talking about the kind of patriotism that said: don’t you dare tell us to go to Disney World, Mr. President! (That was, of course, after George W. Bush had assured us that, while he made war, our response as citizens to 9/11 should be to “get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”)

Instead of heeding that lame advice, some of us went out and began to try to solve problems and build community. I had read about it in books — the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — but I hadn’t seen it myself, hadn’t been a part of it before, and I fell in love.

Of course, the drumbeat for war started instantly in Washington and was echoed throughout the nation, but many of us — the intended victims of that attack — said “our grief is not a cry for war.” We circled around the victims’ families; we reminded America that it wasn’t only lawyers and hedge-fund managers who died that day, but cooks and couriers and homeless people and undocumented immigrants, too.

We pulled people from the rubble.  We made the “pile” a place of sacred memory long before a huge monument and gift shop were erected there.  We honored the first responders who died, we stood up for Muslims and Arabs and all those whom ignorance scapegoated.  We marched against war in Afghanistan and then in far vaster numbers against war in Iraq.  We called for an international police response to those acts of terrorism — that weapon of the weak, not the powerful — instead of the unilateral, militarized approach adopted by the Bush administration. We celebrated, and saw as a strength, New York’s incredible diversity. We made art and music and poetry. We prayed in all languages to all the names of God.

The Donald, a One-Man 9/11

I guess I’ve been thinking about September 2001 again because, only weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump already seems like a one-man 9/11. He’s ridden roughshod over business as usual without even a geopolitical crisis or calamity as an excuse — and that’s not so surprising since Trump himself is that calamity.

With a razor-thin mandate, considerable bluster, and a voracious appetite for alt-facts (lies), he’s not so much tipping over the apple cart as declaring war on apples, carts, and anything else beginning with the letter A or C.

It seems almost that random and chaotic. In these weeks, he’s shown a particular appetite for upending convention, saying screw you to just about everyone and everything, while scrapping the rules of decorum and diplomacy. With a sweep of his pen and a toss of his hair, he takes away visas, nullifies months of work by advocates for refugees, and sends U.S. Special Forces off to kill and be killed. With a few twitches of his thumbs he baits Mexico, disses China, and throws shade at federal judges. With a few ill-chosen words about Black History month (comments that would have been better written by my 10 year old), he resurrects Frederick Douglass, disparages inner cities, and slams the “dishonest” media again (and again and again). His almost-month as president can be described as busy and brash, but it barely hides the banality of greed.

Flying Our Flag

Sure, Donald Trump’s a new breed, but perhaps in the end our resistance will make him the aberration he should be, rather than the new normal. So many of his acts are aimed at demeaning, degrading, demonizing, and denigrating, but he’s already failing — by driving so many of us to a new radical patriotism. I’m not the only one falling in love with this country again and this love looks like resistance — a resistance that, from the first moments of the Trump era, has seemed to be almost everywhere you looked.

Even at his inauguration, a group of young people stood on chairs wearing matching sweatshirts spelling out R-E-S-I-S-T in big letters. They had positioned themselves in the inner ring of the Capitol and were loud and visible as Chief Justice John Roberts swore the new president into office. The environmental group Greenpeace greeted Trump’s White House with a daring banner drop from a crane across the street — a huge, bright banner also emblazoned with RESIST. Pink woolen “pussy hats” were popularized by the Women’s March, a global event and possibly the largest demonstration in American history, one that rekindled our hope and strengthened our resolve on inauguration weekend. Now, those hats help us recognize and salute one another.

We’re working hard. We’re tying up the phone lines all over Capitol Hill, turning town halls into rowdy rallies for health care and human rights, shelling out money to support Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the immigration lawyers fighting for people barred from the U.S. and the closest Black Lives Matter chapter. We’re getting organized, getting trained, getting prepared, and getting connected. And we’re doing it all with a sense of humor: the Bowling Green Massacre Victims Fund? Priceless!

We are, in short, resisting in old ways and new.

Given my background, it’s no surprise that I’m not a flag waver. While growing up, I learned a lot more about what was wrong with my country than about what was right with it. But I’m seeing so much that’s right about it in this new Trump era of engagement or, if you prefer, call it radical patriotism. I’m mad… I’m scared… I’m hopeful… I’m still in love — more so than ever — with this country Trump is trying to hijack.

I don’t live in a big city any more. I’m not a scrappy kid in my early thirties either. I’m a mother of three kids and a homeowner. I’ve sunk my roots in a small, struggling, stalwart community along Connecticut’s eastern shoreline and I’m planning to live here for the rest of my life.

New London is a community of 27,000 or so, poor and diverse.  It’s almost a majority-minority community, in fact. We’re home to three refugee families settled from Syria and Sudan. We have a good school system, getting better all the time. Every Wednesday, the chefs at the middle school up the street from my house cook a meal, open the cafeteria, and invite the whole community to eat dinner for five dollars per person. I went with my girls a couple of weeks ago for Cajun shrimp stew and white rice. The room was full and the mood was high. Young professionals and hipsters with kids ate alongside folks who had just stood in line for an hour and a half for a free box of food from the United Way across the street and gotten a free meal coupon as well for their troubles.

New London’s mayor held a press conference soon after in the lobby of City Hall where the heads of all the city departments asserted their support for immigrants and refugees in our community. The last city council meeting was standing room only as people pushed an ordinance to keep fracking waste out of our area.

The weekend after the inauguration, my husband and I raised a flagpole on the second story porch of our house and hung a rainbow peace flag from it. I look up at it every morning waving in the breeze and I’m glad I live here, in this country, in this moment of radical upsurge and a new spirit of patriotism.

I’m talking to my neighbors. I’m going to city council meetings. I’m writing letters to the editor of our local paper. I’m taking my Sudanese neighbors grocery shopping and to the post office. I’m loaded for bear (nonviolently, of course) if anyone tries to mess with them.

american_rainbow_flags_thumbMy kids are the anti-Trumps. “We went to the women’s march in Hartford, Mommy,” two-year-old Madeline shouts every time she hears the word woman. She knows enough to be proud of that. “Look, Mommy! They have a flag like ours!” says four-year-old Seamus with delight whenever he sees another rainbow, even if it’s just a sticker. He’s learning to recognize our tribe of patriots.

We’re engaged, we’re awake, we’re in love, and no one is taking our country from us.


Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Frida Berrigan

10 Films to Keep You Inspired After the Women’s March

Movies to remind you there’s hope in the fight for justice and equality.

By 
Reprinted from Yes! Magazine under a Creative Commons License

 

In the days since his inauguration, Donald Trump has given women around the country—and the world—new motivation to fight for equality.

After the Women’s March ended, which was estimated to be the largest peaceful demonstration in U.S. history, many were left wondering: Now what?

If you’re reading this, we’re confident there will be more marches, calls to senators, and civic engagement in your future. But in between those and the normal business of living, it’s important to stay inspired.

So we’ve compiled a list of films to do just that—inspire you, make you mad, and remind you that there’s hope in the fight for justice and equality.

1. 20th Century Women (2016)

When you want role models, or want to know how to raise a good feminist.

This film (in theaters now) follows an independent single mom, her teen son, and their housemates in 1979 Santa Barbara. When the mother, stellarly played by Annette Bening, asks her son’s girl friends to help him figure out how to grow into a man, they do their best, and end up teaching him to be a feminist in the process. It’s uplifting and honest.


2. Mustang (2015)

When you need an achingly beautiful reminder of why you’re fighting for equality.

Mustang follows five orphan sisters as they grow up in a conservative village in rural Turkey. Spirited and vivacious, they’re confined to their home as their family prepares to marry them off. It’s a good movie for anyone who wants to feel motivated to fight for women’s rights around the world.


3. Whale Rider (2002)

When you need to believe in the next generation of women leaders.

Set in New Zealand, Whale Rider is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Pai who knows she’s destined to be her tribe’s next chief. But in order to become their leader, she has to change the mind of her conservative grandfather, who believes the next chief can only be a man.


4. Miss Representation (2011)

When you want teen girls to understand that they are more than their pretty faces.

This documentary explores the ways in which American culture undermines women in power, and the way the media often reduces women to their appearance, rather than focusing on their substance. While some trappings of this film already feel a little dated (flip phones are featured in the opening scenes), the message and content are, unfortunately, not dated at all.


5. Sisters in Law (2005)

When you want to be inspired by brave women’s work for justice.

Two women magistrates in Cameroon work for justice and heal their community as they handle cases of those who have been neglected, abused, and raped. A documentary tear-jerker.


6. Frida (2002)

For anyone striving to find their own voice and live unapologetically, despite great obstacles.

Based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, this biopic follows the painter through the dramatic ups and downs of her life. Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek, must overcome a debilitating childhood accident and fight for her own place in the art world when many overlook her in favor of her famous husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Despite the challenges she faces, Kahlo lives with unapologetic verve and passion—and does things her own way until the end.


7. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014)

When girls want a role model who defends her community, fights for survival, and wins.

In this post-apocalyptic world, a cruel gladiatorial game pits teens against one another in a fight to the death. Everyone expects Katniss Everdeen, a girl from the country’s poorest district, to lose. But her bravery and love of family and friends disrupt her world’s cruel social order.


8. Saving Face (2004)

When you’re having a hard time with family members who have different views from you.

This film follows a young Chinese-American surgeon, Wil, who’s scared to come out to her mother and her community. But when her mom becomes pregnant by an unknown man and comes to live with Wil, the two must bridge the gap between them with honesty, understanding, and love.


9. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

When you want to imagine that a post-apocalyptic future could still hold hope.

This film might be named after a guy, but it’s the women in this movie who steal the show, especially Charlize Theron, who plays badass desert renegade Imperator Furiosa. Over the course of the film, she and other brave women go from prisoners to revolutionaries, overturning a scary despot and fighting for a new reign of respect for the earth.


10. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

When you want to get angry about gender injustice.

Based on a real-life story, this film follows a transgender man named Brandon Teena who goes to Nebraska to make a life for himself. Along the way, he finds love but struggles to live in the midst of other people’s hatred and prejudice when they realize he was assigned female at birth. This tragic story reminds us that the fight for gender equality—for all—is far from over.

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism,consider subscribing to YES! today.

Breena Kerr wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Breena is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about feminism, social justice, crime, science, travel, psychology, gender, and sexuality. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Vice, the Baltimore Sun, Teen Vogue, The Wisdom Daily, and many others.

Hope In Dark Times

“Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”

From Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope In The Dark

Hope_In_The_Dark

Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage

[Editor’s Note: An essay from 2003, with a  bit of history and a message more urgent today than ever]
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

By Tom Engelhardt at 3:47am, May 19, 2003.

hopeYou know how, out of the blue, someone can walk into your life? Sometimes, for a book editor, a manuscript walks in the same way. Sometimes, for a reader, a voice drifts in.

It happened to me recently, and it was the voice of Rebecca Solnit, arriving enfolded in an essay about hope. Hope and consequences, you might say. It seemed to have everything in it I’ve been wanting to say (but, for whatever reason, couldn’t) – or rather everything I’ve been feeling all of us needed to hear and hadn’t.

“Activism,” Solnit writes, “is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.” Exactly. And history, she adds, “is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.” At the end of a game, she might have added, it’s so simple. You tote up the score, sort out the winners and losers, close up the board, and go on to something else. At a pause in history, as at present, if you tote up the score, close up the board, and go home, you’re making a disastrous mistake.

A lot of the antiwar movement has done that in the wake of our second Iraq war. And I don’t blame them. All those people marching. All that opposition. And still a war — and look at the opinion polls now! But what’s so beautiful about Solnit’s piece, the gorgeous writing aside, is that she wants us to stop adding up the score in that game-like way. She wants us to acknowledge the darkness of our moment and our world, but also realize that the score isn’t in, that it can’t be known. Not ever. Not really. And then she wants us to make a wager, to take that leap into the dark, and bet on hope. She wants that because we simply can’t know the consequences of our acts, a point she makes with particular grace.

The pleasure of having a weblog is that — thanks, in this case, to the kindness of an author and a magazine — I can share with you the experience of that unexpected stranger entering the room. Solnit, an activist (environmental and antinuclear) as well as a writer, is the author most recently of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. But as for myself, I’m now reading an older book of hers, a beauty called Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West about, among other things, our dress rehearsals for Armageddon, those atomic tests our government carried out above and then under the Nevada desert from the 1950s into the 1990s (tests the Bush administration wants to start up again).

Solnit is also a columnist for Orion, a twenty-one year old environmental magazine that describes its task as exploring “an emerging alternative worldview. Informed by a growing ecological awareness and the need for cultural change, it is a forum for thoughtful and creative ideas and practical examples of how we might live justly, wisely, and artfully on Earth.” Orion, which has already posted “Acts of Hope” at its site, and Solnit have together given me permission to publish it as well. It’s important. Please do read it and share it widely.Tom

Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage
By Rebecca Solnit

What We Hope For

On January 18, 1915, eighteen months into the first world war, the first terrible war in the modern sense — slaughter by the hundreds of thousands, poison gas, men living and dying in the open graves of trench warfare, tanks, barbed wire, machine guns, airplanes — Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. People imagine the end of the world is nigh because the future is unimaginable. Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world without the USSR and with the Internet? We talk about “what we hope for” in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it’s a more powerful and more joyful way to live. Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swathe of the north back to its indigenous people, or that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa?

Twenty-one years ago this June, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock — one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then — say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

Unending Change

A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction, and regard the lack of one as failure. After all, activism is often a reaction: Bush decides to invade Iraq, we create a global peace movement in which 10 to 30 million people march on seven continents on the same weekend. But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences.

Some years ago, scientists attempted to create a long-range weather forecasting program, assuming that the same initial conditions would generate the same weather down the road. It turned out that the minutest variations, even the undetectable things, things they could perhaps not yet even imagine as data, could cause entirely different weather to emerge from almost identical initial conditions. This was famously summed up as the saying about the flap of a butterfly’s wings on one continent that can change the weather on another.

History is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does. That’s why you can’t save anything. Saving is the wrong word. Jesus saves and so do banks: they set things aside from the flux of earthly change. We never did save the whales, though we might’ve prevented them from becoming extinct. We will have to continue to prevent that as long as they continue not to be extinct. Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor dust doth corrupt, and this model of salvation is perhaps why Americans are so good at crisis response and then going home to let another crisis brew. Problems seldom go home. Most nations agree to a ban on hunting endangered species of whale, but their oceans are compromised in other ways. DDT is banned in the US, but exported to the third world, and Monsanto moves on to the next atrocity.

The world gets better. It also gets worse. The time it will take you to address this is exactly equal to your lifetime, and if you’re lucky you don’t know how long that is. The future is dark. Like night. There are probabilities and likelihoods, but there are no guarantees.

As Adam Hochschild points out, from the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished it in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women’s rights movement, which took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women, has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done. Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.

Writers understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might just rot. In California, some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Faith, recounts how she put together a book of teachings by the Buddhist monk U Pandita and consigned the project to the “minor-good-deed category.” Long afterward, she found out that when Burmese democracy movement’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was kept isolated under house arrest by that country’s dictators, the book and its instructions in meditation “became her main source of spiritual support during those intensely difficult years.” Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin and Arthur Rimbaud, like Henry David Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of the bestsellers of their times. Gandhi’s Thoreau-influenced nonviolence was as important in the American South as it was in India, and what transpired with Martin Luther King’s sophisticated version of it has influenced civil disobedience movements around the world. Decades after their assassinations they are still with us.

At the port of Oakland, California, on April 7, several hundred peace activists came out at dawn to picket the gates of a company shipping arms to Iraq. The longshoreman’s union had vowed not to cross our picket. The police arrived in riot gear and, unprovoked and unthreatened, began shooting wooden bullets and beanbags of shot at the activists. Three members of the media, nine longshoremen, and fifty activists were injured. I saw the bloody welts the size of half grapefruits on the backs of some of the young men–they had been shot in the back — and a swelling the size of an egg on the jaw of a delicate yoga instructor. Told that way, violence won. But the violence inspired the union dock workers to form closer alliances with antiwar activists and underscored the connections between local and global issues. On May 12 we picketed again, with no violence. This time, the longshoremen acted in solidarity with the picketers and — for the first time in anyone’s memory — the shipping companies cancelled the work shift rather than face the protesters. Told that way, the story continues to unfold, and we have grown stronger. And there’s a third way to tell it. The picket stalled a lot of semi trucks. Some of the drivers were annoyed. Some sincerely believed that the war was a humanitarian effort. Some of them — notably a group of South Asian drivers standing around in the morning sun looking radiant — thought we were great. After the picket was broken up, one immigrant driver honked in support and pulled over to ask for a peace sign for his rig. I stepped forward to pierce holes into it so he could bungee-cord it to the chrome grille. We talked briefly, shook hands, and he stepped up into the cab. He was turned back at the gates –they weren’t accepting deliveries from antiwar truckers. When I saw him next he was sitting on a curb all alone behind police lines, looking cheerful and fearless. Who knows what will ultimately come of the spontaneous courage of this man with a job on the line?

Victories of the New Peace Movement

It was a setup for disappointment to expect that there would be an acknowledged cause and effect relationship between the antiwar actions and the Bush administration. On the other hand… • We will likely never know, but it seems that the Bush administration decided against the “Shock and Awe” saturation bombing of Baghdad because we made it clear that the cost in world opinion and civil unrest would be too high. We millions may have saved a few thousand or a few hundred thousand lives.

• The global peace movement was grossly underreported on February 15th. A million people marching in Barcelona was nice, but I also heard about the thousands in Chapel Hill, NC, the hundred and fifty people holding a peace vigil in the small town of Las Vegas, NM, the antiwar passion of people in even smaller villages from Bolivia to Thailand.

• Activists are often portrayed as an unrepresentative, marginal rabble, but something shifted in the media last fall. Since then, antiwar activists have mostly been represented as a diverse, legitimate, and representative body, a watershed victory for our representation and our long-term prospects.

• Many people who had never spoken out, never marched in the street, never joined groups, written to politicians, or donated to campaigns, did so; countless people became political as never before. That is, if nothing else, a vast aquifer of passion now stored up to feed the river of change. New networks and communities and websites and listserves and jail solidarity groups and coalitions arose.

• In the name of the so-called war on terror, which seems to inculcate terror at home and enact it abroad, we have been encouraged to fear our neighbors, each other, strangers, (particularly middle-eastern, Arab, and Moslem people), to spy on them, to lock ourselves up, to privatize ourselves. By living out our hope and resistance in public together with strangers of all kinds, we overcame this catechism of fear, we trusted each other; we forged a community that bridged all differences among the peace loving as we demonstrated our commitment to the people of Iraq.

• We achieved a global movement without leaders. There were many brilliant spokespeople, theorists and organizers, but when your fate rests on your leader, you are only as strong, as incorruptible, and as creative as he — or, occasionally, she — is. What could be more democratic than millions of people who, via the grapevine, the Internet, and various groups from churches to unions to direct-action affinity groups, can organize themselves? Of course leaderless actions and movements have been organized for the past couple of decades, but never on such a grand scale. The African writer Laurens Van Der Post once said that no great new leaders were emerging because it was time for us to cease to be followers. Perhaps we have.

• We succeeded in doing what the anti-Vietnam War movement infamously failed to do: to refuse the dichotomies. We were able to oppose a war on Iraq without endorsing Saddam Hussein. We were able to oppose a war with compassion for the troops who fought it. Most of us did not fall into the traps that our foreign policy so often does and that earlier generations of radicals did: the ones in which our enemy’s enemy is our friend, in which the opponent of an evil must be good, in which a nation and its figurehead, a general and his troops, become indistinguishable. We were not against the US and for Iraq; we were against the war, and many of us were against all war, all weapons of mass destruction — even ours — and all violence, everywhere. We are not just an antiwar movement. We are a peace movement.

• Questions the peace and anti-globalization movements have raised are now mainstream, though no mainstream source will say why, or perhaps even knows why. Activists targeted Bechtel, Halliburton, Chevron and Lockheed Martin, among others, as war profiteers with ties to the Bush administration. The actions worked not by shutting the places down in any significant way but by making their operations a public question. Direct action seldom works directly, but now the media scrutinizes those corporations as never before. Representative Henry Waxman publicly questioned Halliburton’s ties to terrorist states the other day, and the media is closely questioning the administration’s closed-door decision to award Halliburton, the company vice-president Cheney headed until he took office, a $7 billion contract to administer Iraqi oil. These are breakthroughs.

The Angel of Alternate History

American history is dialectical. What is best about it is called forth by what is worst. The abolitionists and the underground railroad, the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, the environmental and human rights movements were all called into being by threats and atrocities. There’s plenty of what’s worst afoot nowadays. But we need a progressive activism that is not one of reaction but of initiation, one in which people of good will everywhere set the agenda. We need to extend the passion the war brought forth into preventing the next one, and toward addressing all the forms of violence besides bombs. We need a movement that doesn’t just respond to the evils of the present but calls forth the possibilities of the future. We need a revolution of hope. And for that we need to understand how change works and how to count our victories.

While serving on the board of Citizen Alert, a Nevada nonprofit environmental and antinuclear group, I once wrote a fundraising letter modeled after “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Frank Capra’s movie is a model for radical history, because what the angel Clarence shows the suicidal George Bailey is what the town would look like if he hadn’t done his best for his neighbors. This angel of alternate history shows not what happened but what didn’t, and that’s what’s hardest to weigh. Citizen Alert’s victories were largely those of what hadn’t happened to the air, the water, the land, and the people of Nevada. And the history of what the larger movements have achieved is largely one of careers undestroyed, ideas uncensored, violence and intimidation uncommitted, injustices unperpetrated, rivers unpoisoned and undammed, bombs undropped, radiation unleaked, poisons unsprayed, wildernesses unviolated, countryside undeveloped, resources unextracted, species unexterminated.

I was born during the summer the Berlin Wall went up, into a country in which there weren’t even words, let alone redress, for many of the practices that kept women and people of color from free and equal citizenship, in which homosexuality was diagnosed as a disease and treated as a crime, in which the ecosystem was hardly even a concept, in which extinction and pollution were issues only a tiny minority heeded, in which “better living through chemistry” didn’t yet sound like black humor, in which the US and USSR were on hair-trigger alert for a nuclear Armageddon, in which most of the big questions about the culture had yet to be asked. It was a world with more rainforest, more wild habitat, more ozone layer, and more species; but few were defending those things then. An ecological imagination was born and became part of the common culture only in the past few decades, as did a broader and deeper understanding of human diversity and human rights.

The world gets worse. It also gets better. And the future stays dark.

Nobody knows the consequences of their actions, and history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways. I was one of thousands of activists at the Nevada Test Site in the late 1980s, an important, forgotten history still unfolding out there where the US and UK have exploded more than a thousand nuclear bombs, with disastrous effects on the environment and human health, (and where the Bush Administration would like to resume testing, thereby sabotaging the unratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). We didn’t shut down our test site, but our acts inspired the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, on February 27, 1989, to read a manifesto instead of poetry on live Kazakh TV — a manifesto demanding a shutdown of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, and calling a meeting. Five thousand Kazakhs gathered at the Writer’s Union the next day and formed a movement to shut down the site. They named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement.

The Soviet Test Site was indeed shut down. Suleimenov was the catalyst, and though we in Nevada were his inspiration, what gave him his platform was his poetry in a country that loved poets. Perhaps Suleimenov wrote all his poems so that one day he could stand up in front of a TV camera and deliver not a poem but a manifesto. And perhaps Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel that catapulted her to stardom so that when she stood up to oppose dams and destruction of the local for the benefit of the transnational, people would notice. Or perhaps these writers opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too — poetry in the broadest sense — would survive in the world.

American poets became an antiwar movement themselves when Sam Hamill declined an invitation to Laura Bush’s “Poetry and the American Voice” symposium shortly after her husband’s administration announced their “Shock and Awe” plan, and he circulated his letter of outrage. His e-mail box filled up, he started www.poetsagainstthewar.org, to which about 11,000 poets have submitted poems to date. Hamill became a major spokesperson against the war and his website has become an organizing tool for the peace movement.

Not Left But Forward

The glum traditional left often seems intent upon finding the cloud around every silver lining. This January, when Governor Ryan of Illinois overturned a hundred and sixty-seven death sentences, there were left-wing commentators who found fault with the details, carped when we should have been pouring champagne over our heads like football champs. And joy is one of our weapons and one of our victories. Non-activists sometimes chide us for being joyous at demonstrations, for having fun while taking on the serious business of the world, but in a time when alienation, isolation, and powerlessness are among our principal afflictions, just being out in the streets en masse is not a demand for victory: it is a victory.

But there’s an increasing gap between this new movement with its capacity for joy and the old figureheads. Their grumpiness is often the grumpiness of perfectionists who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible. This is earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, women will be raped, men shot, and far too many children will die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation: these are victories.

Nearly everyone felt, after September 11, 2001, along with grief and fear, a huge upwelling of idealism, of openness, of a readiness to question and to learn, a sense of being connected and a desire to live our lives for something more, even if it wasn’t familiar, safe, or easy. Nothing could have been more threatening to the current administration, and they have done everything they can to repress it.

But that desire is still out there. It’s the force behind a huge new movement we don’t even have a name for yet, a movement that’s not a left opposed to a right, but perhaps a below against above, little against big, local and decentralized against consolidated. If we could throw out the old definitions, we could recognize where the new alliances lie; and those alliances — of small farmers, of factory workers, of environmentalists, of the poor, of the indigenous, of the just, of the farseeing — could be extraordinarily powerful against the forces of corporate profit and institutional violence. Left and right are terms for where the radicals and conservatives sat in the French National Assembly after the French Revolution. We’re not in that world anymore, let alone that seating arrangement. We’re in one that for all its ruins and poisons and legacies is utterly new. Anti-globalization activists say, “Another world is possible.” It is not only possible, it is inevitable; and we need to participate in shaping it.

I’m hopeful, partly because we don’t know what is going to happen in that dark future and we might as well live according to our principles as long as we’re here. Hope, the opposite of fear, lets us do that. Imagine the world as a lifeboat: the corporations and the current administration are smashing holes in it as fast (or faster) than the rest of us can bail or patch the leaks. But it’s important to take account of the bailers as well as the smashers and to write epics in the present tense rather than elegies in the past tense. That’s part of what floats this boat. And if it sinks, we all sink, so why not bail? Why not row? The reckless Bush Administration seems to be generating what US administrations have so long held back: a world in which the old order is shattered and anything is possible.

Zapatista spokesman Subcommandante Marcos adds, “History written by Power taught us that we had lost…. We did not believe what Power taught us. We skipped class when they taught conformity and idiocy. We failed modernity. We are united by the imagination, by creativity, by tomorrow. In the past we not only met defeat but also found a desire for justice and the dream of being better. We left skepticism hanging from the hook of big capital and discovered that we could believe, that it was worth believing, that we should believe — in ourselves. Health to you, and don’t forget that flowers, like hope, are harvested.”

And they grow in the dark. “I believe,” adds Thoreau, “in the forest, and the meadow, and the night in which the corn grows.”


 

This article first appeared on OrionOnline.org. To see Orion magazine’s illustrated version of the piece click here.

Or if you would simply like to sample Orion’s website, go to www.oriononline.org.

The Sometimes Huge Power Of Small Acts of Resistance

small_actsWe were not among the millions of people who took to the streets of the world yesterday, in the most inspiring outburst of protest in my long lifetime … against everything vile that Donald Trump stands for.

If you were among the demonstrators, I’m inclined to ask you: Did you feel like a small part of a great movement, or a great part of a great movement?

Did it feel — from the inside — as powerful as it looked from the outside?

If you are in doubt — as I have sometimes been about my own activism — about the effectiveness of your small action, consider this beautiful bit of history by Rebecca Solnit, the best writer on hope at work in the world today, in her collection of essays, “Hope In The Dark“:

Twenty-one years ago this June, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock — one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then — say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

Never question your commitment, or the value of even your smallest acts and gestures in the service of your beliefs.

 

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