Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Witch-hunts in academia

Columbia University students pay dearly for the privilege of obtaining their Ivy League diplomas. I'm not sure what the price tag is, but I'm sure it's somewhere in the range of $40K per year. Apparently, freedom of speech is no longer part of the curriculum, however.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger vowed to take swift action against professors and lecturers who dared to speak out against Israel. Bollinger, caving in to pressure from the Zionist Anti-Defamation League, promised ADL national director Abraham Foxman that "the matter will be handled immediately".

The right-leaning New York Daily News published an article in Sunday's paper naming names and publishing photographs of the school's transgressors.

While university presidents have never been known for their ability to stare down alumni threats, particularly from wealthy benefactors, to threaten "swift action" means what? Will Bollinger demand resignations? Fire the tenured professors? This all smacks of academic McCarthyism.

Not all agree with Bollinger's plans to take action. Jewish Rabbi and Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University, Arthur Hertzberg takes issue with the possibility of limiting academic freedom.

According to Hertzberg, "Certainly some blood does boil within the veins of concerned people, but I am very much afraid that those who would like to win arguments by charging that adversaries have limited their academic freedom may soon discover that those who would win by this sword can also lose in the same melee. "

If $40,000 doesn't buy you an education that instills critical thinking, then what's the purpose of education at all? When the supposed highest institutions in the land haven't the academic backbone to stand up to censors and demagogues, then why are we sending our best and brightest to these places at all?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Arrested for Nothing

In a news item that could only be considered weird, if it wasn’t for the reaction that it caused; three women, dressed up as marketers for “Nothing”, were arrested at their local shopping mall. Apparently in America, if you ‘ain’t shopping at Xmas time, you are asking for trouble.

The local rent-a-cops—seriously lacking in any measure of humor—got freaked out and called for state police backup. In the course of the exchange, the three women, all sisters, were handcuffed and taken to the state police barracks for processing.

One of the sisters, Anna White, had the following thoughts on the entire affair, which were posted at Atrios’ site, Eschaton.

“Our small action and the drastic response to it raises a variety of important questions and issues, such as: What is so very dangerous about a humorous promotion of purchasing NOTHING? In an era of declining public spaces and the rise of malls as the new "town centers" (and many actually naming themselves such), should not "freedom of speech" extend to these quasi-public commercial spaces? Why are taxpayer-funded state police protecting private commercial interests from citizens' free speech? How much longer can the devastating environmental and social impact of voracious American-style consumerism be ignored?”

White raises some pertinent questions that ought to be answered, but probably won’t. Americans want their freedom, as long as it doesn’t cost too much. And please, don’t you dare to encroach upon their right to consume a little more junk made in third world countries by exploited workers. That would be so gauche and anti-American. Good lord! That might even be communist!!

What this little episode illustrates loudly and clearly for me is this; you can get away with many things in America including murder, if you are the government. But if you are a member of the hoi polloi, don’t ever fuck with capitalism and commerce, or you’ll probably end up in the klink.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

An accepting faith

Religion has always been a losing proposition for me. As I’ve written about before, the organized variety of faith I have encountered has often left me confused, hurt, angry, or some combination of these emotions. Without resetting the scene, let me just say that while I consider myself spiritual, I no longer consider myself religious.

My father and mother-in-law had the opposite experience when they joined a Unitarian-Universalist congregation in a nearby town. My late father-in-law, one of the most intellectually honest men I’ve ever met, found the UU community a comforting way station for the end of his life’s journey. For the last 20 years of his life, he and my mother-in-law found this church to be a place that allowed them to continue their quest for knowledge and truth in an affirming and non-judgmental environment. My mother-in-law still attends regularly and today, I went to the morning service as the congregation dedicated a new sound system in my father-in-law’s memory. Since he believed that all people had dignity and were worthy of a hearing, my father-in-law had encouraged the church to look at upgrading their sound system in 1998. After he passed away from cancer in 1999, a fund was set up to purchase a new system “so that all may hear”. With the recent purchase of the new sound system, with engraved plaques on each of the speakers, it is a fitting way to remember this man and what he stood for.

Being part of the service this morning with my extended family was rewarding. It made me reflect upon the wonderful people that my in laws are (and were)—committed to the worth and special qualities of all people—as well as recognizing that not all faith communities force you into a narrow box.

With the moral values of fundamentalist Trinitarians supposedly guiding voters during the election, I found the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism to be a welcome contrast to the absolutism of many religious leaders currently basking in the media spotlight. For those unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, here are the seven principles that all congregations affirm and promote:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Not a bad set of guiding principles, if I do say so myself.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cultural twilight

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve run out of library books (just finished David Halberstam’s wonderful October 1964), so I began scouring my own bookshelves for reading material. I read several essays by the late Neil Postman (from Conscientious Objections) and then began skimming through my own bookshelves looking for other nuggets. I came across Morris Berman’s book, The Twilight of American Culture, which I bought back in 2001. Berman, a cultural historian and social critic, offered a fascinating prescription for dealing with the cultural rot that seemed prevalent in America at the time. Having seen things shift perceptively more negative since my first reading, I’ve begun pulling fascinating material from my second trip through the text.

While Berman spends plenty of time detailing our cultural race to the bottom, I think he paints a prescriptive option for maintaining our dignity, intelligence and preserving the best of Western ideals. His concept draws upon the monastic movement of the Middle Ages to illustrate ways individuals can ward off the onslaught of McWorld and corporate hegemony.

Berman gives many anecdotes and quotes statistics, as well as drawing upon the work of other writers and researchers to illustrate our dropping levels of literacy, critical awareness, and general intellectual awareness.

One statistic he quotes from Paul Fussell’s book, BAD, Or The Dumbing of America that shocked me was the statistic that only six percent of Americans read one book per year, with “book” being anything from harlequin romance novels to self-help books. Berman cites the depressing statistic that 60 percent of Americans have never read a novel! I know we are not a nation of readers, but these numbers are terribly deflating.

I have not been able to substantiate the numbers that Berman cites, but they have certainly whetted my curiosity to do more investigation.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Buy, buy, buy!!

With Thanksgiving over 'cept for the pile of leftover turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and other assorted items, it's on to our next holiday--the Christmas retail season.

Starting very early, with some stores open before sunup, shoppers will flock to buy alot of stuff
that they don't need, for people who won't appreciate it.

I've always had an aversion towards the commercialization of Christmas. For me, whether I have any warmth for religion/xianity or not, the day has always had some kind of deeper significance--the whole "peace and goodwill towards man" thing. I love the carols, Charlie Brown's Christmas special, the something magical that hangs in the air, the ringing of the bells by Salvation Army workers, etc.

With each successive year, holding on to the spiritual significance of Christmas becomes harder and harder. I detest shopping from Nov. 26-Dec. 24 and since I'm a procrastinator, I never get any of my shopping done prior to this. While my wife and I no longer do the crazy Christmas dash to dispense cash any longer, some sanity has returned to the day. However, I will go out and pick up a couple of rather inexpensive items and I'm brought face to face with the shoving, pushing, screaming consumers trying to pick up that last gift for Aunt Millie. God forbid that you get in their way!

For those of you who would like an alternative to your consumeristic Christmas past, here's a suggestion for making Christmas a little less frantic.

If you are going out to the mall today, be careful and don't get hurt.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Some companies get it

While on the subject of retail, living wages and ethical consumption, the Wal-Mart model doesn't have to be the one chosen by U.S. corporations.

Costco manages to compete with Wal-Mart while paying a living wage, offering health insurance and allowing employees to have a life of quality.

It's refreshing to hear an American CEO offer the following sentiments about valuing people over profits. In a recent interview, CEO Jim Sinegal expressed his belief in compensating the people who have built the $42 billion business into what it is today.

"They're entitled to buy homes and live in reasonably nice neighborhoods and send their children to school," he said.

If you live in an area where you have a choice of shopping at Costco or Wal-Mart, I think you know what you need to do. See if you have a warehouse near you.

Sweat-free shopping

This holiday season, I decided to take a seasonal job to pay some bills and help supplement my income while launching my first book. Many Americans use seasonal employment as a means to close the gap between the incomes from their five or six/day a week gig and the growing cost of living in many parts of the U.S.

I was rehired by a large retailer that most outside the Northeast would know. Their retail store is tourist destination for folks visiting my home state during the summer and fall. Founded by a “real” Mainer, the company has changed dramatically since their founding in the early 1900’s. What has disturbed me while answering calls from catalog customers is the number of items that the company now offers that are made in countries such as Thailand, China, Madagascar, El Salvador and other countries notorious for sweatshops and the labor abuses that go along with that. While one of the perks of seasonal employment usually is the discount that goes along with having the extra income, I’m finding it difficult to find any products that I want to buy, as every item I look up appears to be made in a third world country. While I'm sure there are reasons why this is so, I'm concerned that the primary one is profit. Not only is their merchandise made elsewhere, they aren't exactly paying top-shelf wages either.

I’ve heard many rationales for why Americans shop at retailers like Wal-Mart and others who continue to ignore calls to stop importing sweatshop-made merchandize. Some people either tune the reality out, or are too narcissistic to care. In speaking to a seasonal co-worker the other night about this very issue, his response was, “I don’t worry about that.” While his lack of concern was troubling, I believe many Americans are caring people. If presented with a way to buy well-made products at comparable prices and support the workers producing their merchandise, I think most Americans will opt to do the right thing.

I’m going to challenge my readers to carefully choose where you buy those items that aren’t necessities. For instance, your Christmas gifts this year—how about refraining from purchasing any items that are not made in the U.S.—it might take some effort, but it also might be more in keeping with the true spirit of the holiday.

If you are interested in being a better consumer, you can check out the No Sweat! site that gives consumers information about ways to avoid supporting exploitation of other humans.

Additionally, there is a great retailer that I’ve been using of late. With some great blue jeans, as well as quality mock and regular t-shirts, I’ve found a U.S. company that still pays living wages to their employees. Not only are their products union-made, they are less expensive than sweatshop-made products that I’ve made comparisons to.

Here’s an opportunity to start making a real difference by being a wiser and more humane consumer. Studies show that if Americans made a commitment to buy just one union-made garment during 2005, that would be $9 billion of merchandise—that creates an amazing amount of jobs by one relatively easy act! The choice is yours—do you buy products that provide quality lives for others, or do you act in your own self-interest, knowing others are suffering as a result?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Turkey Day

Thanksgiving, as much as any truly American celebration, is wrapped tightly in the mythology of God, flag and our superior goodness as a people.

The more I learn about the mythical Pilgrims, the less I am to want to laud the day with the significance that many do. The idea that this special group of God-fearing English settlers got together to share their bounty with the local savages that they were helping to socialize might be comforting for some, but seems rather condescending and downright racist to me.

Here is just a bit of background to ponder while settling down for that turkey and gravy:

Despite the propagation of the Thanksgiving story in books and encyclopedias, some historians believe a good deal of Pilgrim lore is just plain false. It's generally agreed that sometime in early October, not late November, fifty or so Pilgrims held a three-day harvest bash. Beyond that, there is little evidence to authenticate the stories. Writers and painters have tended to moralize and romanticize the story, embellishing it with colorful anecdotes and side stepping the grimmer details.

According to William B. Newell, a-Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day Commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies. The Indians were celebrating their annual green corn dance--Thanksgiving Day to them--in a meeting house when they were attacked by English and Dutch settlers. The Indians were ordered from the building, and shot down as they came forth. Those who were left inside died in the building, which was set on fire. Another such "thanksgiving" day was proclaimed by Gov. Kieft in February 1644.

Whether they were celebrating Indian deaths or truly giving thanks for a good harvest, the Pilgrims consumed a good deal of home brew. Each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of ale a day. According to one account, when Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe first visited the Plymouth colony, he was given a pot of brandy. It is said to have "made him sweat all the time after."

We know the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, but the year the feast went national is anyone's guess. Some scholars say Thanksgiving became a formal holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it in response to a campaign by a magazine editor named Sara Joseph Hale, the author of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Others say it was President George Washington who proclaimed it a holiday in 1789.
(This information was reprinted from The Vegetarian Times, 1982)

What does all this mean? I for one am going to eat my turkey, celebrate the opportunity to see my son (home from college) and other family members--Americans don't take enough time to get together with one another--as well as enjoy a day when most business shuts down. I'll also keep in mind that the mythology that I was taught in school was a lie and give thanks that I'm aware that much of what passes for the truth is worthy of skeptical consideration.

The older I get, the more difficult I find it to just go along with many of the "holidays" that we celebrate. What I've been doing is finding new ways to imbue these days with some sense of reality, while not totally shunning participation in the activities. I enjoy the festive nature of many of these celebrations, but often despise the superficial meaning that many try to maintain in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Having said all of this, I still take the time to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, whatever that means to you and yours.

Signature stamp

Imagine that your son or daughter was recently killed during one of the many battles in Iraq. While overwhelmed with grief and a flood of memories from their life, you receive a letter from the U.S. Military. In opening the letter and reading the condolences, when you arrive at
the signature of Sec. of Defense Rumsfield, you are shocked to see that he didn't have the decency to sign his own letter! Preposterous? Read on!

Two colonels in the Pentagon, under the cover of anonymity (in the Bush Admin., you comment anonymously if you want to keep your job and honor the truth) stated that Sec of Def Rummy has relinquished the time consuming task of signing KIA letters to a machine in order to maintain his tight schedule (including his regular squash game).

Sue Niederer, whose son Seth was also killed in Iraq, sums it up: “My son wasn’t a person to these people, he was just an entity to play their war game. But where are their children? Not one of them knows how any of us feel, and they obviously aren’t interested in finding out. None of them cares. And Rumsfeld depersonalizing his signature – it’s a slap in the face, don’t you think?”

This administration continues to outdo itself in its insensitivity to people asked to make the supreme sacrifice. Despite the rhetoric and propaganda, it's fairly obvious that those in charge care little if any for the young men and women paying dearly for whatever our reason is for being in Iraq. When you can't even sign the letter to parents notifying them of their child's death, you aren't much of a leader at all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Run Howard, run

With the Democratic Party failing to provide much of any opposition to the Bush administration, Progressives, Liberals and other folks committed to systemic change have little to be optimistic about in the short term. Short of creating a viable third party, it looks like we are in for right-wing ideology and demagoguary for at least the next four years and possibly longer.

The DLC, which has been as responsible for the party's shift rightward as any culprit, needs to be unseated if Democrats are going to be Democrats again. Once again being the party of the working-class, rather than the ruling class.

There is a movement afloat to draft Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. I think Dean is one guy who could set the party back on its moorings. Not only that, I believe he could attract the kind of support among the grass-roots that the party has been lacking. Driving Votes is another "draft" Dean site, with a petition to sign encouraging the good doctor to take up the mantle of party housecleaning and reform.

If the Democratic Party has any hopes for mid-year success in 2006, let alone the Presidency in 2008, it needs to find someone to chair the Party that understands how to attract new blood--that man is Howard Dean!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Native shakedown

There are a number of blogs that I go to regularly. I've become a fan of their abilities to ferret out news and information. Many of them are the "new journalists" and reading them is similar to reading a favorite columnist or reporter if operating in a print media context.

One such writer/blogger is David Neiwert of the blog, Orcinus. Neiwert also guest blogs over at The American Street. His most recent article has to do with our old friend Ahnuld.

Apparently, The Governator has set his sights on Native peoples and has become sort of the spokesperson for the campaign to end tribal sovereignty. (link)

Neiwert references an article by Alan Murray of CNBC in which Murray champions Schwarzeneggar's attempts to "shake down the tribes for all they are worth". According to the article by Murray, “the anti-Indian movement is shopping for a national voice and face,” and seems to conclude that the leading candidate so far is Schwarzenegger.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Prayer for presidents

Tony Campolo proudly calls himself an evangelical, yet there are serious differences from the manner he practices his version of the term than many so-called evangelicals that voted for President Bush’s re-election.

Campolo, a Baptist and self-described bible-believing xian has been criticized by many who resent his more broadminded approach to the teachings of Christ. Interestingly, Campolo’s fiery benediction at the opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library raised some eyebrows, particularly those of George and Barbara Bush and their son, the president.

Watching a rebroadcast of the event today on C-Span, the camera caught Campolo’s fiery prayer in which he asked God to bless Clinton and specifically prayed for the current leadership. His prayer spoke about tolerance towards gays and lesbians, for our country to embrace peace over war, to care for the impoverished and for our leaders to hear the voices of their prophets.

The cameras caught the lack of respect that the Bush family had for Rev. Campolo. While the Clintons and Carters had heads bowed in reverence for the prayer and the preacher. It was a moment that spoke volumes for the differences between those gathered on the podium. Son George had the same look of condescension on his face that he wore during the first debate with Kerry, when the Senator upbraided him on his policies, particularly in Iraq.

Interestingly, Google searches and other means have yielded nothing about this. It amazes me how the right can continually bitch about the liberal bias of the media, while basking in its adulation and free pass given to them.

There is an interview worth reading with Campolo at BeliefNet about the hijacking of evangelical xianity by the left.

Progressive Values

Whenever a new topic is seized upon by the media, the ensuing fallout can be mind-numbing, as well as stifling to critical thought. The current hysterical bleating about “morality” and “moral values” illustrate the phenomenon.

If you’ve been living anywhere other than a cave, it’s been hard to insulate yourself from the barrage of commentary regarding this subject matter.

Personally, I resent having morality or moral values defined for me. I am confident at my advancing age, that I’m capable of determining what is moral and right for me. I am particularly galled when others, lacking an ethical and moral core themselves, preach that my morality is somehow foreign, or “un-American”.

George Lakoff has an excellent article in The Nation about the differences in values between people like myself—considered progressive—and those morals championed on the right—considered traditional, American, or family in nature.

In his article, Lakoff clearly contrasts two sets of values, delineating the differences between them. (link)

He uses the labels, “moral values” to speak to common values that all of us hold; care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life, opportunity and community, cooperation and trust, honesty and openness.

He contrasts these with “idealized family values” held by many who voted for President Bush and who might be characterized as right-of-center; he characterizes these as being part of a “strict-father family model” that determines what’s “right” from a values set.

I encourage you to read Lakoff’s article as it thoughtfully looks at the issue in a less shrill, histrionic way than much of the current commentary about important differences in our country.