American Winter: The Right’s War on Education and Contraception

It’s a shocking historical juxtaposition. The pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring is in significant part a consequence of rising literacy and declining birth rates in the Mideast. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Right is mounting a direct assault on education and a renewed war on contraception. This ought to tell us something.

It may be spring in the Mideast, but a chill wind is howling in America as America’s Right puffs its cheeks like Old Man Winter. Education and the personal freedom to control one’s body and sexual life fuel powerful democratic movements. What kind of movement then is America’s Right engaged in?

French social scientist Emmanuel Todd is explicit about the democratizing power of literacy and reproductive freedom. They lead to:

…the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens.

But the American Right seeks the opposite, the conversion of citizens into subjects. That they do so while speaking of liberty is just more authoritarian “denying and distorting of information” in the words of Italian humanist, Auschwitz survivor and anti-fascist Primo Levi.

Is the Right really mounting a war on contraception? While far-right conservatives have largely succeeded in snookering the credulous news media into framing its anti-birth control agenda as all about abortion, they seek much more than an abortion ban.

In a moment of unintended candor, a leading conservative Texas state legislator, Wayne Christian, recently confessed. The Texas Tribune asked Christian whether he was engaged in a war on birth control. He answered: Continue reading “American Winter: The Right’s War on Education and Contraception”

The Right’s War on Birth Control

If you thought the legislative attacks on family planning and Planned Parenthood were all about abortion, think again.

In a moment of unscripted political bravado, Republican State Representative Wayne Christian made clear to the Texas Tribune that the Right’s true agenda is not about what happens in health care clinics after all, but rather about what goes on in bedrooms between consenting adults.

When they declare “war on birth control” they are intruding into the private, personal decisions of every man, woman and family in Texas.

How extreme are they? Consider that they’ve already repealed the law that requires insurance companies to cover the pill just as they do Viagra, they’ve encouraged pharmacists to undermine doctors’ orders and deny emergency contraception, and now they are pushing an outright plan to defund family planning — even though none of the funds can be used for abortion.

It’s time to draw the line and get politics out of our bedrooms once and for all.

They’ve Got a Secret!

Secrets are gold to the world’s aristocracy. Information disparity is in many ways more important to them than income disparity. That’s why they are all very, very mad at Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The anger is not about some specific leak; it’s about the invasion of their privileged domains.

In fact, as only the Chinese aristocracy seems happy to admit, this whole damned internet thing sometimes seems like little more an impudent invasion of their private information counting houses. If something’s not done, the whole world will get above its raisin’.

Now, the global swells don’t need their secrets to be particularly important. The value is in the accrual of secrets, not in their substance. Secret information about the peculiar dining habits of Ambassador Cranky is nearly as fulfilling as intelligence about the location of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

More than half of the diplomatic documents released by Wikileaks weren’t even classified. Only 6 percent were classified as “secret.” Two-and-a-half million people already had access to Siprnet (Secret Internal Protocol Router Network) where they were stored.

I know, I know, I’m painting with an outrageously broad brush here. If we knew where Osama Bin Laden was, we might want to keep it a secret until we’d nabbed him. We don’t need to publish the president’s codes to the briefcased Buttons That Can Blow Up the World.

Continue reading “They’ve Got a Secret!”

Love and “Lost” in a Brokedown Palace

Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.

Grateful Dead, Brokedown Palace

The late author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey told a story about a West Coast Grateful Dead gig when, after the tragic 1984 death of Kesey’s son, the whole band turned to him and sang “Brokedown Palace.”

Kesey recounted with tears in his eyes that it wasn’t until that moment that he really understood what art was. He said that “All my life I thought art was this [he stuck a fist in the air]. But at that moment I realized that art was really this [he made a hugging motion].”

Now, arguments about art and political engagement have been with us awhile. But isn’t it the case that Kesey’s gesture of revolution (the raised fist) and his gesture of love (the hug) are not contradictory at all? Aren’t love and friendship among a people what tyrants fear most? Love is raised like a defiant fist in the gloomy faces of history’s despots.

Recently, Glenn Beck attacked Simon Greer of the Jewish Fund for Justice for writing in the Washington Post that “to put God first is to put humankind first, and to put humankind first is to put the common good first.” Talk of the common good, Beck said, leads to death camps.

Beck said:

Once you get into the common good, it’s over. And this is the perversion that every minister, pastor, priest, bishop — every single person in America, every rabbi should be at the pulpit saying the same thing — get away from anyone who talks about the common good. Because the common good — if you put that first, and you reject individual — you are headed for the death camps.

Beck, of course, is criminally insane (death camps?!!), but here he’s speaking about something authoritarians of the ages have long believed: love and solidarity among the oppressed is a dangerous thing indeed. It is part of the dark genius of the American Right (and its darling, Ayn Rand) to disguise its authoritarianism in the deification of the individual and the demonizing of the community. Only the master can be loved.

Continue reading “Love and “Lost” in a Brokedown Palace”

The World is a Silk Road

The history of the ancient trade routes now known as “The Silk Road” is a tale of profound cross-cultural influence among peoples – Chinese, Turks, Persians, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Europeans, Malays, Tibetans, Egyptians, East Africans. It was multicultural before there was anything labeled multicultural.

Of course, it was a silk road long before it was the Silk Road, a name given to multiple East-West trade routes by a European geographer in the 1870s. The Silk Road. It’s a good metaphor for an interdependent modern world that grows smaller and more complex all the time.

The view from the Silk Road also gives a good perspective on the transiency of empires, on the laughable arrogance and self-delusion of one people imagining they can forever subjugate other peoples, live eternally or dine with the gods. Travelers on the Silk Road have seen many an empire’s swollen fools disappear like the lost in a Taklamakan Desert of time.

Every cruel and pompous dream of domination fails, the fantasists of empire doomed to misery, paranoia, and, finally, dismay that they too will die of dysentery, typhus or the assassin’s blade. The fantasists shouldn’t be surprised. History, literature and art confirm the truth. It may yet take some time for the poor to inherit the earth, but all dreams of empire damn sure disappear into it.
Continue reading “The World is a Silk Road”

Tea Partiers, Keep Your Damned Authoritarian Hands off of Thomas Jefferson

oklahoma-city-bombing-4I got an email from the conservative website, Texas Insider, pointing me to a blog by one Bernie Quigley. It’s all about how the Tea Party movement is all about the restoration of the power of individual states and the illegitimate power of the federal government. So much for interstate highways, the Post Office, and the military the secures all 50 states, not one or two. Whatever became of the National Anthem? Or the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States?

Speaking of the military, some Republican legislators in Oklahoma and that state’s Tea Partiers are calling for the creation of a state militia to go to war with the U.S. government. You can’t make this stuff up. And,  you’d think the citizens of the state victimized by a “volunteer militia” in the horrible 1995 Oklahoma City bombing would be just a wee bit skeptical about using their tax dollars to pay for  a, uh, “volunteer militia.”

Anyway, Mr. Quigley, after taking the broadest possible mud brush to the 1960s, complains about the broad brushing of the Tea Party movement. He does, however, have the good sense to note that the movement will fail if it continues to call for the creation of state-based armies to go to war with the rest of the country. Top notch thinking, Mr. Quigley.

You will enjoy E.J. Dionne’s masterful teacup-smashing analysis here.

What most irks me about the Tea Party — besides the thuggish racism and the constitutional ignorance — is its defense of the corporatist status quo and dis-empowerment of individuals and communities by, say, the insurance industry, which kowtows to neither state nor fed. I’m with the Tea Party on individual liberty, and I’m stronger than they seem to be on individual responsibility (I’m still waiting for the first Republican this millennium to accept responsibility for something, anything).

Continue reading “Tea Partiers, Keep Your Damned Authoritarian Hands off of Thomas Jefferson”

When First Unto This Country

You could see it coming in the eyes of Walker Evans’ Depression-era tenant farmer, Allie Mae Burroughs, and it’ll make you cry, that razor’s edge of a sad smile about her that says, “You, too.”

You could see it coming. Somewhere, a young boy in a dinosaur t-shirt holds his dying mother’s hand and remembers that the distant voice on the phone, the Insurance Voice, said simply, “No.” He could be forgiven for fearing he’d spoken to someone he shouldn’t have.

You could see it coming. Wall Street banks are too big to fail, and the black-souled ghouls of hate radio and FoxNews tell us our neighbors’ lives are too small to save.

Schoolbooks are being rewritten to redeem Joseph McCarthy, make of Phyllis Schlafly something like an authoritarian madonna, and turn the Separations Clause into a guarantor of theocracy.

Andrew, Son of Schlafly, is rewriting the Bible, too, no doubt replacing Amos with Milton Friedman and “justice like a mighty stream” with trickle-down economics. Joseph saw seven years of famine in Pharaoh’s dream. “Merely the lower strings of a cats cradle in the Market’s invisible hand,” Schlafly’s Joseph will say, adding with certainty, “It’s the business cycle.”

Joseph’s coat of many colors is back in his father Jacob’s mournful hands in the traditional American tune, “When First Unto This Country.” It was an Austin group, The Gant Family, who brought the song to folklorists in the 1930s. Bob Dylan called it “my foreign language song, my only foreign language song.” And I wonder what he means, because isn’t Jacob’s 11th son a little like us, post-Declaration America’s 11th generation, give or take? In a dream our ancestors hold our bloodstained coat and say, “We warned you to be careful.”

It’s an authentic American Joseph who sings “When First Unto This Country.” He wears his innocence like his “cap set on so bold.” He loses it, along with his coat of many colors. Still, we should remember that Joseph had enough sense to outsmart Pharaoh and to make sure his people got his bones out of Egypt.

How fine it would be for the young man with the dying mother to sing this song to the Insurance Voice on the other end of the phone line. But that’s the thing. He did, and if you don’t believe me ask Walt Whitman, who heard it and knew the young man and all America learned it from the delicious singing of their mothers. Continue reading “When First Unto This Country”

Finding America’s Lost Horizon the late 1930s, Depression-weary Americans turned to a movie (based upon the James Hilton novel), Lost Horizon, about a hidden Himalayan paradise, Shangri-La. In the 2000s, anxious Americans turned to Lost, a sophisticated sci-fi mystery television show set on a hidden island. As Lost’s Mr. Eko warns, we shouldn’t mistake coincidence for fate. Still…

There’s more than escapism to the popularity of Lost and Lost Horizon. Both stories call upon the yearning for freedom and for solidarity among a people challenged by divisive circumstances and their own irascibility. Freedom and solidarity aren’t idle fantasies. America was founded upon their possibility.

Storytellers have long understood that character is best revealed in crisis. Just think of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey. Our contemporary economic, political and environmental crises are producing just such character-revealing moments. Conservatives want to turn back the clock to some imagined paradisiacal past. Progressives want to do what their name implies, move onward through the fog.

This tug-of-war in time has always been a part of our culture, if not every culture. It is certainly represented in both Lost and Lost Horizon. Both tales are marked by conflict between characters who want to press forward and those who want to go backward.

In recent decades, the backward-tugging team is winning. The rise of the Right has pulled the nation further and further from its true horizon. Fear, retrenchment and retreat have weakened the promise of popular democracy, of freedom and empathic solidarity.

Continue reading “Finding America’s Lost Horizon”

Prairie Humanism: The (Just Now) Emerging Progressive Movement

OB-BarnRaising-600To date, there is no authentic, 21st Century progressive movement. Those may be fightin’ words to some, but I think they’re true. The contemporary progressive resistance arose in response to a consolidation of neo-liberal, authoritarian power, maybe just in the nick of time. The resistance knows what it resists; it’s less articulate about its own vision of a progressive future.

Our collective actions have the feel of an anti-colonialist movement. Metaphorically at least, it helps to look at the advances of the Right as an imperialistic, re-colonization of America. We resist the Right with a defensive action. We lack an effective offensive, though, because we don’t have a shared sense of where we want to lead America.

Recently, there are signs that the resistance is maturing into an authentic progressive movement. Author and organizer Zack Exley’s Huffington Post piece, The New Right’s Secret Sauce, called attention to our missing worldview while pointing to the Right’s shared vision as the source of its strength. Arianna Huffington has selected Jeremy Rifkin’s fine new book, The Empathic Civilization, as her book of the month. Rifkin has penned condensed versions in recent published essays.

Jeffrey Feldman has approached the problem in many ways, most recently in his work on corporatism. I’ve tried to do my part, beginning with my book, The Politics of Deceit, and in the series, “The Promise of Popular Democracy: Origins”; “Part II: Solidarity of the Shaken”; “Part III: The Promise”.

Most recently, I’ve employed the term prairie humanism to refer to a moral vision deeply embedded in the American grain. It refers to a committed and attentive neighborliness, to an understanding that we are responsible for ourselves AND for one another. I’ve spent a lifetime among folk of the West/Southwest. They’ll break their backs to help a neighbor in need; but, as individualists, they want others to mind their own business, too.

Exley captures the economic and political implications of this spirit when he writes of the balance between individualism and cooperation:

It is the tradition of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and so many others who saw no contradiction between individual and collective enterprise. That tradition was suppressed through the rise of big capital after the Civil War, and then it was forgotten forever when the left was flooded by European Technocrats, Communists, Socialists and Fascists in the 20th century.

Continue reading “Prairie Humanism: The (Just Now) Emerging Progressive Movement”

Be Like Me. Or Else.

Glenn's DimeBrother, can you spare a dime?

If you still have one, look on the back of the coin where it says “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one) and ask yourself this question: Why do many Americans seem to translate the Latin as “be like me or else”?

This grand contradiction in the land of freedom – liberty means an imperative to conform – came to mind last week as the Texas State Board of Education met to set standards for social studies textbooks. Janie Brittain, a conservative activist, urged the elimination of progressive leaders from the texts and said:

We need to be teaching, in our schools, our form of government versus socialism, because it’s the difference between tyranny and freedom.

Asked if she wanted to indoctrinate students, Brittain responded:

If you want to say we’re indoctrinating, then yes, we want to indoctrinate students in the American form of government.

You’ll be tempted to shake your head again at those darned Texans, but beware. “Be Like Me or Else” is a pervasive motivation, among conservatives and some progressives, too.

Brittain, and many who share her politics, can’t see the contradiction because in her worldview it’s not a contradiction at all. Freedom has meaning for her only within a context of conformity to a set of authoritarian practices.

The “be like me” phenomenon is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Tribal solidarity and security was built upon judgments of the similar and the dissimilar. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds trust of an exclusivist sort.

The great promise of America, though, emerged from its unique historical circumstance: it was to be a nation of extraordinary diversity, peopled by the folk of many nations, religions, cultural traditions, and skin colors. It is the potential creative possibilities of diversity that gives American democracy its kick.

Continue reading “Be Like Me. Or Else.”