27 July 2011

How Terry Ripmaster Made Me Love the Sixties (even more)

Thirty years ago today, I was 18 years old, about to enter my junior year of college, and prepared to lose my virginity about American politics to a guy with an FBI file as long as his arm and a rad revolutionary name to go with it: Terry Ripmaster.

That summer I was clandestinely dating a medieval scholar who resembled Che Guevara, trying to avoid a diminutive librarian who didn’t, and recovering from 4 semesters at a stuffy liberal arts institution, whose idea of radical action was offering its seminal Margaret Drabble workshop. In choosing a summer class, I went with something a bit less buttoned-up at a school nearer home. But the class description hardly prepared me for what would become the most compelling hours of my week: watching the aptly named Ripmaster teach The Cultural History of the 1960s.

When I think of Terry, I see a firecracker, a firecracker with the flame burned to the end of its fuse, ready to go off. Bright hazel eyes flashing, he’d tear across his stage at the front of a huge classroom, rasp-voiced and on fire with his passion for telling the truth—the truths most of us innocents had little idea of. Because he’d LIVED it—taken Freedom Rides with the SNCC, suffered ribs broken by police hoses, landed in a Southern jail. And had the stitches, the attitude, and the rap sheet to prove it.

If ever a teacher defined enthusiasm, it was this guy. Despite some nasty rumors I’d heard, as a teenager I couldn’t yet fathom the degree to which my government was up to no good. I may have had an angry edge, but I didn’t yet have my facts. But Ripmaster had news for me—the reasons why the 1960s culminated in fits of violent revolution, why fires had been burning all over Newark and Paterson, NJ, why the FBI and CIA were hypocrites and liars.
And then he set the class loose on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. If you’ve not read it, this scholarly, radical classic (recently updated!) is the book to read when you want the real truths, the ones our high school history books seem to have misplaced.

A core group of us extended every class by inviting Terry to join us in the pub, where we sat around and talked about the ol’ days over pitchers. After a few suds had splashed his goatee, he’d get even more rambunctious, yell and pound the table even louder. And we ate it up because we were hungry. This was a class that was galvanized around a love of the era and a great desire to understand the meaning behind what we'd lived through as children. For 4 hours/week, we felt like we had gone back to our bellbottoms and were inhabiting those issues, taking the same stands our predecessors had, rebelling against the status quo, hitting the streets for justice, celebrating our collective triumphs.

Thirty years later, the world has thrown different kinds of nasty challenges our way, filled with the almost-daily horrors that I joke should be part of a card deck called “Deal a Disaster.” And while radicals of the '60s faced similarly hard times, their approach felt much more active. There was a sense that change could happen, if they worked for it. Today feels to me more like being ground into pavement by a steamroller. With Americans powerless to do much but buckle under, as protests fall on deaf ears.

Last week, in a fit of dejection-fueled nostalgia, I checked out a Jefferson Airplane CD, which sounded about as old as Alexander Graham Bell yelling, “Watson, come here!” into the phone. But Grace Slick’s voice brought back that summer when JA and CSN were the constant soundtrack, when “Almost Cut My Hair” actually felt anthemic. Wow, it’s been awhile. And while I sometimes snort a bit when I hear that song, I sure don’t laugh at the sentiment behind it and the young people who actually took to the streets in protest—something that would never happen in the US today. (Unless, of course, Michelle Obama removed kids’ Apple products and substituted them with the real thing.)

I’ve heard that Terry retired years ago, as it became frustrating for him to teach classes to the stone-faced children of hippies, the Alex P. Keatons who hadn’t set foot in the ’60s and had no sense of it. He could storm around exhorting equal rights and revolution all he wanted, and the best he could hope for was that they grasped a few sacrifices previous generations had made so that they could sit there texting and smirking. Without at least an appreciation of what it takes to truly change the world, that generation has a hard road ahead. Landing in jail for protesting for what you believe in may suck, but complacency sucks a whole lot harder.

I’m glad my mind was still open to someone who had the power to do something that most teachers never did: to change my worldview, alter my assumptions, shift around some paradigms. Like any decent Weather Underground protest, he smashed the glass of my trusting innocence around matters of US policy. Made me realize how much Americans have been blatantly deceived by their own government. Gave me a sense of how much human-rights work was still left to do. And for that I tip my Howard Zinn to him, wherever he is.

[For more stories about Terry Ripmaster, see Scrap Paper Review #42, http://www.hourwolf.com/spr/spr0042.html]

19 July 2011

The Demise of Borders: Buh-Bye Big Box

July 19 marks the death of both pork belly futures and Porky the Book Pig. And as a bacon lover, I feel worse about the former. As for Borders, save your tears--the behemoth has finally received its just rewards. While I’m not in the habit of taking pleasure in anyone’s ill fortune, Borders epitomized so much of the egregious behavior of the big-box raiders that it’s hard to waste Kleenex on them. Or bacon.

Yes, I am a former still-disgruntled Borders employee. It didn’t take long for me to get that way—back in 1998, I worked there for a brief while, in fact helped to build store 2226487 or whatever it was, in a Southwestern town that needed another bookstore like it needed another bottle of tequila. Before the marauder’s arrival, the town had lots of pleasant independent bookstores in which one could spend many happy hours browsing, drinking tea, and visiting with one’s bibliophile neighbors. Filled with literate clerks picking worthy inventory, they accompanied several decent music stores, of the High Fidelity variety… where you dared not bring the wrong selection to the register for fear of utter derision.

Within a couple years of Borders’ arrival--in the form of 2 stores, not just 1, in a town of 60,000--many of those same salubrious places were forced to close shop. And the ones that managed to stay open were barely squeaking by. Why? Because not only did Borders boast a much larger selection than indie stores could afford to keep in inventory, but also because the mega giant pushed the concept of discounting, whereas bookstores were previously able to sell books at full cost. I suppose we could point the finger at consumers for not supporting their beloved haunts, but in a town in which there are many smart-but-poor folks, the discount proved to be a big orange carrot. And yes, another finger could point to Amazon, but in 1997, Amazon was still a toddler.

Borders started all employees, regardless of their job responsibilities, level of education, or previous employment history at the same wage: one dime above minimum wage. Café employees were not permitted to set out a tip jar, which might have actually enabled them to earn a near-livable wage, ostensibly because Borders didn’t want their customers to feel “pressured” (the fact that there’s a tip jar on every other café counter in America mattered not). Oh, the utter filth of dollar bills sitting in a jar, distracting customers from their book-buying duties! I remember this being a great bone of contention, to the point at which some workers banded together and tried to form a union to address both the low wages and the tip situation. Goliath squashed them like a bug.

But lest you imagine that a minimum wage job in a bookstore means lots of time to kick back and read… I can't recall having read even a page. Borders was run very much like an army base. All that was missing were the drills with the rifles. On an hourly basis, we marched from job task to job task, in a timed and regimented fashion. Most bookstores (and I’ve worked in plenty) are laid-back and accommodating of individual work styles and preferences. If you want to cashier for a while, then shelve for a while, it’s easy enough to do that, as long as you maintain some semblance of workerliness. Instead, Borders had a job for every hour in your day, much like high schools have periods, and woe to you if you didn’t show up for your rotation. I’ve worked jobs that have paid 5 times as much and were 10 times less aggravating.

Unless you worked full-time, employee benefits were just about nil. Certainly no sick leave or vacation time, no stock options, retirement plans, and a measly discount on all food you bought at the café. Hey, at least you didn’t have to tip! They made a big deal of offering an “employee appreciation” 30% off holiday shopping day, which was a mad-festive 2 hours in which you got to enrich Borders’ coffers by spending your entire paycheck on their wares, yet somehow walked away feeling like Borders was so very generous for permitting this bit of holiday cheer. (Forget the fact that they made a mint on these employee-shopping sprees, as tens of thousands of workers drank the Kool-Aid.)

Borders’ managers were a cross between platoon sergeants and convent librarians. Sitting was not allowed, even when one was working the register and there were no customers for miles. Leaning was also verboten, even when one had worked an 8-hour day and had very sore feet. Talking or fraternizing with coworkers was frowned on, and employees who became too friendly were routinely separated or sent to a manager for a talking-to. Surprisingly, there was no detention. I was 35 when I worked there, but often felt like I was 12. I’ll be good…I’ll sell books…I swear…don’t hurt me…

Shockingly enough, Borders attracted the cream of the crop in employees—a fact I’m sure was completely lost on it. Among the original store clerk staff, I can count at least 3 with genius-level IQs, several with grad school degrees, a number who’d been in the workforce for at least 25 years, and many who would bend over backwards to help customers with even the most absurd requests. And when it came time to reward these shining stars, Borders stepped up to the plate with… about 25- to 50-cent/hour raises, after 6 months to a year.

The company relied on the fact that there was a degree of both desperation and masochism in the town’s job-seeking populace. For many workers, it was either this or unemployment. Borders took advantage of the fact that women who’d been long out of the workforce found it “pleasant” to get out of the house and earn a few bucks—literally. That those with PhDs in medieval philosophy would rather spend their days hocking Jude Deveraux novels than sitting home with an empty fridge. That writers like me were used to making pittances with their English degrees, so why not capitalize on this situation? And that some would have such low self-esteem that they’d even aspire to a higher level career as a manager in the corporation, and therefore be willing to “pay their dues” at starvation wages.

Fortunately my self-esteem and I took a big walk outta there 4 months later.

Did the giant shed a tear for the loss of a great employee? I think not.

Flash forward to 2005, when after gobbling through most conceivable American locations and shredding local indie timber like logs in a sawmill, the company opened its largest store: a 60,000-square-foot monstrosity in Malaysia, of all places. God knows they weren’t paying those Malaysian clerks the big bucks we Americans were making. And I’m guessing the rent was cheaper than in midtown Manhattan--or Boise, Idaho. But considering that Malaysia’s GDP for that year was less than US$8,000, I’m not clear on the logic of this move. Sometimes the patent manifestations of greed turn back in on themselves in a swirl of absurdity.

Trust me, I understand that bookstores are not high-profit entities, and thus, wages are low industry-wide. And of course there are certain sacrifices that bibliophiles willingly make to work with books, reasons why people may accept lower wages if working conditions are pleasant enough. However, most of the owners of independent bookstores I know do their absolute best to pay a fair wage and make damn sure their employees are happy and compensated in other tangible and intangible ways.

This was far from the case with Borders. The Goliath made it very clear that it was in BUSINESS. And to that end, it proceeded with an agenda of nothing but greed to systematically unseat all of its competitors in every market it entered. And enter it did, into just about every possible market—to the tune of 1,249 stores throughout the world. Just thinking about the loss sustained by all those businesses in its path makes me physically ill. Even if the leviathan was responsible for the closings of just two indie stores per location, that’s almost 2,500 local businesses felled by Augustus Gloop. And while Borders has filed Chapter 11 and its top execs are undoubtedly still sitting pretty with their multimillion-dollar severance packages, all of those 2,500 stores are gone forever. Not only is this an economic disaster, it also represents an inestimable loss of culture and community.

Big box stores were a giant soap bubble, the fantasy of children who wanted to believe that endless expansion and boundless wealth were possible. And for a while, that seemed in danger of appearing real. However, as E. F. Schumacher once noted, “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” I’m sure former Borders’ execs have not been sitting around reading Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. But now that they have a little time on their hands, maybe they can pick up a copy at their local independent bookstore.

14 July 2011

“Je est un autre”: David Guterson's The Other

David Guterson's novel The Other could well be this generation’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a beautifully written book that feels like a conversation between a man’s ego and his more rigid superego. It’s a conversation that perhaps most of us middle-agers have had, between imagining how things might have been had we followed our youthful ideals to their fulfillment, and reviewing the bargains with life we’ve made. Guterson has cited The Other as his most autobiographical novel, and his two characters do indeed reflect many of the details of his Pacific Northwest upbringing.

The first is John William Barry, a wealthy scion who’s drawn to esoteric philosophy and the natural world. To say that he is principled is to say that the Dalai Lama is a bit of a Buddhist. Fierce, stubborn, and brilliant, he harbors such strong resistance to American society (“hamburger world”) that he can relate to just about no one. Except his friend, Neil Countryman, who, while no ugly American, has opted to lead a more traditional life: wife, 2 kids, teaching job. These two first connect as teens at a track meet, becoming fast friends in their desire to explore the outdoors, play chess, discuss philosophy, and smoke weed. Neil, who comes from a blue-collar, public-school background, is somewhat awed by John William’s wealthy family and golden boy aura, which seems to predestine him for greatness.

But while Neil attends college, John William quickly drops out to hunker down in a remote patch of woods near Olympic National Park. Of traditional education, he remarks, “The stuff they teach you at school is just so they can own you.” Despite his intellectual prowess, he’s more keen to learn primitive survival skills and to practice his spiritual views. After spending months carving a cave from a large hunk of rock in the woods, he moves in. Neil frequently makes the arduous trip, visiting and providing food and comforts from the outer world.

While Neil often tells us that his life’s course sits more toward center, his superego remains a demanding taskmaster, goading him about the life he could have led in the woods. His deep feelings for his friend are mixed to no small degree with awe and envy. And of course, Into the Wild’s popularity has shown us that there’s something quite compelling about a person who can live out their principles to the nth degree in this culture that so often insists on compromise.

But while John William and Chris McCandless are soul brothers in their resistance of the mainstream, Guterson is clear that his character is not simply a fictionalization of Chris. He notes, “…McCandless is very much in what I would call the mainstream romantic tradition, which includes wanderlust—he wants to move around the world and meet people. [But] John William is a morbid Gnostic. He has no romantic impulse. He’s too much of a dark realist to embrace the world the way that Chris McCandless did.”

It’s striking that the two critics who wagged their fingers at Guterson for copying Chris’ character hailed from NY and LA—where obviously all young men who go live in the woods are alike, so foreign a concept is that to their urban sensibilities. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I encounter dozens of such young men every summer—and while they’re undoubtedly familiar with Krakauer’s book, they’re certainly not all trying to be Chris McCandless.

Guterson begins The Other with a fascinating quote by Rimbaud, “Je est un autre,” which translates as, “I is another.” Expounded on by philosophers including Hegel, Sartre, Lacan and Derrida, this concept posits that the self requires an other to define itself. (This notion will be clear to anyone who has shopped at any New Mexico Walmart, after which a bout of self-delineation spontaneously emerges.)

A writer’s writer, Guterson understands that much of the story is in the details—and the details he chooses to include are pure genius. Of John William, Neil says, “With his head coarsely sheared, his foot-long beard, his buckskin shirt, and his rudimentary moccasins, he was so flagrantly absurd, so filthy, so post-apocalyptic, and at the same time so evocative of the early-nineteenth-century American West as portrayed in a bad museum diorama, that anyone with the poor luck to come across him could not be blamed for assuming he’d gone comically mad, or maybe dangerously mad, or, if seeing him distantly, through trees, say in mist—say while crouching fearfully behind a log—that he had to be a figment or a flashback.”

Anyone who’s had a dream has spent time chasing it to its denouement, wondering what it would turn into if lived purely and without compromise. Guterson offers us one version, though it’s ultimately a pessimistic one. As he aptly suggests, whenever principle becomes overly rigid, we set ourselves up for a fall. He later spends many postgame pages trying to deconstruct from multiple perspectives how Neil's friend became who he was, introducing a spate of developmental psychology and attachment theory in the process. This feels a bit tacked on to me, and the fact that the narrator suddenly becomes a very wealthy man also seems somewhat unnecessary. It’s the kind of detail that makes for compelling jacket copy, but doesn’t seem to really matter within the context of the book.

Guterson interjects a fair bit of Gnostic philosophy into the story of “the Hermit of the Hoh.” But this may be lost on the average reader, and required me to do a little admittedly superficial Internet research. Gnosticism is a path of transcendence through interior means. It encourages nonattachment and nonconformity to the world, a “being in the world, but not of the world.” But it acknowledges that not all humans are ready for Gnosis and liberation. Some are earthbound, materialistic beings (hyletics), who recognize only physical reality. Others, such as Guterson’s hermit, live largely in their psyche (psychics). Interestingly enough, Gnostics believe that the world is flawed because it was created by a flawed creator. This correlates directly with John William’s personal history, growing up with an insane mother, whose deep flaws seriously impact his development.

Whether to live out one's ideals as a hermit or to learn how to compromise in order to live within the world we inhabit is a longstanding debate. In Asian cultures, long periods of hermitry are accepted for those who feel drawn to an introspective path. It’s unfortunate that in American culture following such a path is discouraged in us from an early age, and there is no real mechanism in place to accommodate such a desire, other than completely dropping out. With few available options, we can end up as Neil and John William, at either end of a spectrum that seems to lack a middle ground of integration.

07 July 2011

Lukas Moodysson's Mammoth: Who's Watching the Children?

The chubby hand of a Thai infant clutches a cellphone into which her prostitute mom sings a lullaby during a break from work. Such images from the modern world cut to the heart of Lukas Moodysson’s 2009 film, Mammoth, a fascinating, multiply-perspectived look at children, how we try to nurture and protect them, and how these attempts can go terribly wrong.
The Swedish director’s latest effort is his first English-language release and the most mainstream of his 10-film oeuvre.

As he noted in a 2009 IFC interview, “There are a lot of people who find it difficult to question how we, as a society, take care of our children. They're often neglected and forgotten, and our whole society is built upon the fact that we actually have to work and leave our children so much.”

The century’s first decade brought a small trend in movies that linked ostensibly unrelated people in a patchwork of intersecting lives and coincidence (e.g., Babel, Traffic, Crash, Amores Perros). But Moodysson weaves a different web-of-life theme, focusing less on synchronicity, more on interpersonal distance—of mothers from children, husbands from wives, wealth from poverty, our immersion in technology versus a yearning for the natural world.

Mammoth’s story spins around Leo, a wealthy Web game designer; his wife, Ellen, an ER surgeon; 7-year-old daughter Jackie; and her nanny, Gloria, who sends her salary home to 2 children in the Philippines. These SoHo dwellers live in a house brimming with material wealth—a fridge overflowing with food, though mom can’t do more than slice an apple, a child’s room oozing FAO Schwartz—yet the only truly comforting place appears to be a gigantic pillow on which the family plays in the rare moments when all three are together in one place.

Moodysson deftly tacks between NYC, the Philippines, and Thailand, where Leo travels to ink a deal on a new Website, while struggling to enjoy Bangkok’s charms. His psychic tension mirrors that of the other characters, who can’t seem to derive pleasure from their current surroundings, however superficially copacetic they may be.

Within this global context, the director puts forth a thoroughly unsurprising notion: that despite all that contemporary life enables, children still need their mothers. (The word mammoth itself is connected to the concept of “mother” in Swedish.) Yet 21st-century matriarchs are inextricably tied to economic factors, and thus, children are sometimes left in the hands of other caretakers, who may or may not be up to the task. Not lost on Moodysson is the irony of a world in which mothers must leave their children to go mother others’ children for pay. As well as the resultant decision that some of their children make: to enter the sex trade so that their moms can return home.

We learn little backstory on the film’s central male character, Leo. It’s a well-acted but fairly low-key role for Gael Garcia Bernal, who through much of the movie wears two wristwatches--one set for NY, one for Thailand, though his role in both places feels tenuous. As he’s entrenched in an online gaming fortune, his sense of play is flagging, and while the natural world holds some appeal, as it does for the English in E.M. Forster novels, he’s perhaps too far gone to fully embrace it. While the elephant Leo spots on the roadside appears to have something to teach him, the closest he gets to this primitive energy is a $3,000 fountain pen made of ivory from a frozen mammoth, with which he signs a $45 million contract. Meeting a young sex worker awakens Leo’s protective impulses. However, his own fantasies ultimately trump his ability to give her anything of value.

Michelle Williams (who’s acted in every film I’ve rented in the last 6 months) plays Leo’s wife, Ellen, a physician who works long hours to save children’s lives, yet despite her best intentions, struggles to connect with her own daughter. Her work has taken her to the edge of emotional burnout, yet she can’t find her own form of nurturance. As the film opens, a dying young patient forces her to question maternal instincts overall.

The film aches with all of its human-made chasms, and it’s easy to relate to the irony of a world more closely “connected” than ever, yet so often falling flat in matters of the heart. Through their ubiquitous cellphones, these characters seem to be shouting into the void, while lives hanging in the balance are compromised and even lost.

Given the contemporary world’s great challenges to intimacy, Moodysson appears to hold out little hope for our future (as even the film’s title suggests). At movie’s end, two exhausted characters want to do better but remain trapped on a wheel built of money, overwork, disconnection, and an inability to restructure lives and priorities.

I was surprised to see how many mediocre reviews Mammoth received and to hear that it was even booed at the Berlin International Film Festival. Moodysson is a talented director working at a deep emotional level, which is apparently too subtle for the American Netflix crowd. I greatly enjoyed his 2000 film Together (Tillsammans), about a group of Leftist Swedish commune dwellers during the 1970s. But this is a more fascinating, more layered film, which raises many questions for the mothers and children of our modern world.

02 July 2011

Does Patriotism Do More Harm Than Good?

Thank you to Tony White for articulating so well the thoughts I've had for a long time: that patriotism does more harm than good in separating people and creating war. On this holiday of often mindless flag-waving, I think it's important to consider what is actually worth celebrating in America in 2011, and stop the kneejerk rah-rah-rah. Yes, despite all the disturbing news we absorb every day, there are still qualities to celebrate about this country, but calling them to mind consciously, rather than reflexively, seems important this weekend. Thank you to Tony White for presenting what feels like a radical notion, given all the brainwashing we receive about the necessity for patriotism.

Pledging Allegiance to Peace
by Tony White
From Friends Journal, July-August 2011

Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests, rights, liberties of American citizens are no more dear to us than are those of the whole human race. Hence, we can allow no appeal to patriotism, to revenge any national insult or injury. —William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist, “Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by the Peace Convention” (1838)

Most Americans take for granted that patriotism is a virtue. We are taught at home, in school, and by the media that love for and pride in our country rank among our highest moral duties. We are exhorted to patriotism daily by flags, songs, holidays, monuments, marches, speeches, images, and literature that extol the glory of our country. So deeply ingrained is our belief in the value of patriotism that even to question it is taboo. When someone criticizes our personal sense of patriotism—always a ready-made tactic for trashing peace activists—it stings, and makes us very defensive. We think they just don’t understand what true patriotism is all about, and perhaps we are moved to buy a bumper sticker reading “Peace Is Patriotic.”

But is patriotism peaceful? Based on my life experience, studies, intellect, and conscience, I am led undeniably to the conviction that patriotism is immoral: It is selfish and irrational, hinders our judgment, divides the world, contributes to militarization, causes war, and contradicts the teachings of Jesus.

Patriotism is an attitude of favoritism toward “my country” and “my people.” If egotism or pridefulness toward oneself is a vice, then patriotism or pridefulness toward one’s particular country is likewise deplorable.

Patriotism clouds our judgment; it hinders objectivity and detracts from our ability to assess political situations rationally. Patriotism biases us toward our country’s perspective, encumbering our desire and ability to consider outside perspectives. Patriotism breeds conformity and closed-mindedness. Furthermore, it makes us overly trusting of those in power over us, and susceptible to abuses of that power.

This is evidenced by what happened after 9/11: Americans were swept up in a wave of feverish patriotism and fell in line with a corrupt agenda. As a prime example, take the USA Patriot Act—who would dare oppose such a noble-sounding ordinance? Never mind that it involves gratuitous violations of civil liberties; what freedom-loving U.S. citizen does not also love warrantless surveillance, wiretapping, search and seizure, as well as detention and no-fly lists? Clearly, the act was given that title because politicians know the efficacy of patriotism for manipulating public opinion.

That patriotic propaganda measures are increased during wartime should be reason enough to give us pause concerning patriotism. Notice also how many flags are displayed for U.S. holidays associated with war—Presidents Day (celebrating the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, both notorious for leading war efforts), Memorial Day, Independence Day (celebrating the day war was declared by the colonists on Britain), and Veterans Day—and how few flags appear on other federal holidays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (honoring a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), Thanksgiving (purportedly celebrating gratitude and cooperation between European colonists and Native Americans), and Labor Day. The bond between patriot­ism and war is not even covert.

I personally experienced the intoxication of patriotism. Right after 9/11 (before I was a Quaker), I supported the Iraq war. I believed that the cause was just. Looking back, I realize that I was living in a fog, basing my opinions on fleeting, vague notions. Because I heard something about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), I was able to watch “shock and awe” approvingly, naively envisioning the United States speedily wiping out terrorism by force across the world. I cringe when I recall arguing with someone publicly that the United States should ignore the United Nations’ caution about entering Iraq.

When it became clear that Iraq had no WMDs or links to 9/11, and that the war was based on lies, I felt betrayed. I also felt guilty for my own poor judgment—how could I have been so gullible? Grappling with this, I eventually saw that I had fallen prey to the stupefying effects of patriotism.

In kindergarten, I learned a mysterious morning chanting ritual in which one robotically pledges one’s life to a flag and to one nation under God, “invisible” (as my child’s mind heard it) with liberty and justice for all. Now I understand what I was saying. And I understand that people, and certainly Christians, should not pledge at all, certainly not to a material object (an idol), certainly not to one particular nation among many, and certainly not to something under God. I also know now that no kingdom save an invisible one could truly have liberty and justice for all.

I remember getting emotional about the war song known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In seventh grade, I even won third place in an essay contest on the topic “What does patriot­ism mean to me?” I virtually equated America with freedom—faulty reasoning on which the essay was based and for which I was rewarded.

Many of us are taught in school that “America is the greatest country in the world,” while the darker aspects of our history are largely ignored or glossed over. So how could I not view the United States as innocent, and anyone who opposes it as unreasonable and even evil? How could I not assume that whatever the United States does is destined to work and that the president always speaks the truth?

Patriotism divides the world. Anarchist Emma Gold­man, in a 1908 speech on patriotism and militarization, said: “Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate.” Patriotism separates us from other little spots and builds pride in our us-ness, setting societies against each other under the pretext that to protect us we must be prepared to kill any of them. If all countries are encouraged to be prideful toward themselves, how can we be surprised when war occurs? Further, patriotism has a tendency to result in nativism, for example, in Nazi Germany and in discrimination against immigrants in the United States.

For patriotism to be a universal virtue would be illogical. If it were virtuous for every human being to be patriotic toward the same country, then this—while crude—would be self-consistent. But if it is right for the English to be patriotic toward England and the French toward France, then when England and France have a conflict of interest, morality will conflict with itself. Two leaders will disagree and both will be right, and two armies will clash and both will be doing the right thing.

Patriotism is a major factor contributing to militarism and war. It is the primary force that glorifies combat, and nothing contributes to the propagation of war more than military hero worship. As long as the view prevails that there is no more glorious, honorable, and heroic service than to train to become a killing machine, there will be war, as any leaders who fancy an attack will have legions of glory-seeking yes-men at their mercy. Military hero worship is what makes it possible for a decent person to murder on command in good conscience. Albert Einstein wrote in The World as I See It in 1931, “The greatest obstacle to international order is that monstrously exaggerated spirit of nationalism which also goes by the fair-sounding but misused name of patriotism.”

Patriotism is contrary to the teachings of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.”

In the context of Hebrew law, here referenced by Jesus, neighbor meant “fellow Israelite,” that is, compatriot. Thus, enemy, used in contrast to this, would likely be understood to refer to a national enemy. Jesus was demanding that no distinction be made between countryman and foreigner.

In fact, allegiance to any current government is consent to violence. Governmental power is rooted in violence—in the military, as well as the armed police. No one sincerely committed to the principle of nonviolence can in good conscience give consent to an institution based on military force. We can contrive many rationalizations for the supposed necessity of government, but this contradiction cannot be denied. The United States Constitution, purporting to be the “supreme law of the land,” grants the government the power to declare war.

We Christians are called to recognize a different law as supreme—since we cannot serve two masters, let us not be servants of men, but let our sole allegiance be to the Kingdom of God, a kingdom not of the worldly kind and so one that does not require its subjects to fight for it, for we have only one Master and are all brothers and sisters.

Leo Tolstoy, in his 1896 essay “Patriotism or Peace” (how’s that for a bumper sticker slogan!), writes, “If Christianity really gives peace, and we really want peace, patriotism is a survival from barbarous times, which must not only not be evoked and educated, as we now do, but which must be eradicated by all means, by preaching, persuasion, contempt, and ridicule.”

In “Patriotism and Government,” published in 1900, Tolstoy writes: “It is immoral because, instead of recognizing himself as the son of God, as Christianity teaches us, or at least as a free man, who is guided by his reason, every man, under the influence of patriotism, recognizes himself as the son of his country and the slave of his government, and commits acts which are contrary to his reason and to his conscience.”

The usual rebuttal to condemnation of patriotism is that some patriotism is bad, but not all; only excessive, imperialistic, blind, narrow-minded, exclusivist patriotism, go the many variations—but not our “healthy” patriotism.

Patriotism in its purest form—from which all others derive—is the desire for one’s country to claim glory and power over all others due to its people’s superiority. To say that excessive patriotism is bad, but that there is a “golden mean” of patriot­ism, is to say that excessively promoting violence is bad, but moderately promoting it is good. Non-imperialistic patriotism still implies acceptance of past imperialism. What country was not founded on or upheld by unjust conquest?

And yet we have no reservations in our allegiance. Patriotism itself blinds and narrows our minds; it is essentially a bias. This supposed “clear-sighted” patriotism doesn’t exist, unless perhaps for self-interested manipulation of others, because to see patriotism clearly is to see its pernicious implications. If we remove all that is exclusivist about patriotism, nothing remains.

Most people will grant that my argument holds in the context of despotism. Some, however, may object that since our government is a democracy, the right to dissent is its distinctive mark and, in fact, what makes it worthy of patriotism in the first place. It follows that it is our patriotic duty to question authority, and that, as the late social historian Howard Zinn said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

Given the First Amendment, I can understand why someone might believe that dissent is patriotic, and I used to. But consider this statement by linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

In public discourse, there is a sense that we can disagree as we may, if only in the spirit of patriotism. Thus, it seems as though dissent needs patriotism to legitimize it. So while we may dissent on particular issues, a prerequisite is assent to the system as a whole—a system rooted in violence. Each time we patriotically dissent, we buy into this violent system all over again. Perhaps nothing reinforces the violent status quo more than patriotic dissent: It implies that whatever our disagreements, the one premise that even the most radical dissident dare not question is rule by violence.

To break from patriotism may seem shocking and painful. But I daresay that many people in the United States reading this do not really love the United States, though we think we do. What we really love is an idealized version of the United States. We love the values of equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. But these values did not originate in 1776; they existed long before, and will continue long after the United States is gone. And the actual United States has never really lived up to these ideals.

Inequality and lack of freedom were written into the U.S. Constitution with the institution of slavery, and have since continued through various forms of oppression. To this, we might retort that what we love is the tremendous courage and perseverance of the people of the United States in overcoming these injustices. But why give credit to the United States for what resides in the human heart? Have not people from all corners of the earth exhibited this same spirit? Most great reforms are initially opposed by governments, and thus much of the people’s perseverance has actually been subject to persecution.

Some assert that patriotism keeps countries together. But why presuppose that this is good, that the status quo ought to be maintained? That this is even offered as a response reveals the depth of our indoctrination and directly reflects the view that the powerful have always endeavored to inculcate in the masses through patriotism—that whatever upholds the current establishment is good and necessary. If patriotism alone were keeping a country together, it would be an artificial basis propping up an outlived tradition. Political establishments should be maintained only as long as they are just and beneficial. A sound social organization should be able to self-persist organically, rendering patriot­ism superfluous at best.

If we want to achieve world peace and a form of society not based on violence, the time for change is now. But if we eradicate patriotism, what unifying principle can replace it? One answer is humanism. It unites not a particular group, but all people.

If humanism proves too weak a sentiment, let us embrace universal love. This can happen when we realize our connection to others and the underlying unity of all things; when we experience the Divine inherent in ourselves and recognize this same divine essence in others; when, as Quaker founder George Fox wrote, we “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

Tony White teaches philosophy at Pennsylvania College of Technology and Misericordia University. Excerpted from Friends Journal (Feb. 2011), a periodical designed to serve the Quaker community and other spiritual seekers through the publication of news, essays, poetry, letters, and art. www.friendsjournal.org

Photos #2 and #3 by Heidi Utz.

01 July 2011

Las Conchas Fire Woke Us Up—Let Us Now Stop The Plutonium Bomb Factory

I don't normally repost articles, but in this case I will make an exception, as it is extremely well-researched and such important reading.From Common Dreams.

by Subhankar Banerjee
The Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico is still burning. It is rapidly growing by the day. On June 29, I did a phone interview with Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and his colleague Scott Kovac; and sit down conversation with Marian Naranjo, a prominent native American elder and activist from the Santa Clara Pueblo and Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. As you’ll see, the Las Conchas Fire has woken us up. It is time we learn from this deadly fire and stop a proposed plutonium bomb factory at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). I’ll tell you how your voice is crucial in this matter, but first here is an update on the fire that is also burning Santa Clara Pueblo lands.

Las Conchas Fire Update

On the morning of June 28, when I posted my first piece on the subject, the Las Conchas Fire had burned about 50,000 acres. As of yesterday 10:30pm it has burned 93,678 acres, 322 acres shy of being the largest fire in New Mexico history—by the time this piece is posted it’ll be the largest. Mother Nature is in a frenzied state right now and breaking record after record on wildfires across states. Last month Arizona broke their record with the Wallow Fire.

If you’re not right underneath the smoke it is difficult to get a sense of the scale of a large fire. NASA’s Aqua satellite flew over the area on June 28. Following day NASA released a photo of smoke over land that you can check out here.

Last year smoke over Moscow made international headlines. Siberia was ablaze also and NASA released a fascinating image of smoke over Siberia and the adjacent Arctic Seas, also taken by the Aqua satellite that you can check out here.

According to NASA the fires over central Russia, Siberia and Canada during summer 2010 created an enormous poisonous ring around the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately it didn’t get coverage in the US press and media. Nevertheless very large fires send a lot of toxic pollutants into the air that are hazardous to human health.

The wind has spread the Las Conchas Fire generally in a north–south direction. If the fire had expanded east toward the Area G, where 20,000 drums (each 55 gallons) of plutonium contaminated waste are sitting on the surface inside fabric tents, air in our region probably would have been nuked by now, but that is not the case, so far.

We do not know what ecological and human health impact the Las Conchas Fire will leave behind, but since the fire started we’ve been very concerned about what’s in Area G and is there any possibility that the fire could reach there? In a June 27 article, when asked by an AP writer a LANL spokesperson “declined to confirm that there were any such drums now on the property.” In a June 30 AP article, asked by the same writer another LANL spokesperson said that there are 10,000 drums stored there. Why didn’t the government tell us the truth, the first time? And, are we still getting the truth—10,000 is not same as 20,000, but who is counting?

Joni Arends told me, “After the Dome Fire of 1996, we asked for hardened onsite storage for these drums. They did nothing. Then after the devastating Cerro Grande Fire of 2000 that burned 47,000 acres including 5,000 acres inside LANL, we pressed for it again. They laughed at us and told us that by the time they get the permit to build the hardened storage, all the drums will be offsite. Here we are 11 years later, 20,000 drums containing plutonium contaminated waste are still sitting stacked three high inside fabric tents between a super volcano—Valles Caldera to the west and the Rio Grande River, our main water source to the east, on an active seismic zone, in a forested wildfire habitat.”

Jay Coghland walked me through a June 29 Google Earth image with overlay of the fire that you can check out here.

He specifically pointed to the western edge of the lab, which is heavily forested. He showed me several red squares, which means there was fire activity in the last 0–6 hours in those areas. This is known as Tech Area 16 adjacent to Hwy 501 where there is a large Tritium Facility. Jay said, “this is a micro location which is pretty heavily contaminated with heavy explosives residues that would release dioxin and other toxins in the air that cause cancer.” He also shared his worry about the northwest corner of the lab, Tech Area 3, which he said has the densest concentration of lab facilities and employees. This area was also burning heavily.

I wanted to learn from him other radioactive contaminated areas in and around LANL. He told me the story of the acid canyon. “During the WWII days, the lab used to dump radioactive fluid literally over the edge of a canyon on the north side of the lab. This area later came to be known as acid canyon,” he said. “It is not threatened by the fire so far.”

Joni Arends told me, “The lab has acknowledged that there are only 1,000 toxic dump sites at Los Alamos, including a PCB dump where the levels are 38,000 times normal. The story that comes from the lab is not true.” She urged me to read Glenn Walp’s book, Implosion at Los Alamos: How Crime, Corruption, and Cover–Ups Jeopardize America’s Nuclear Weapons Secrets.

Marian Naranjo shared with me their spiritual beliefs about the land they inhabit, “The Pajarito Plateau on which Los Alamos National Lab was built is a sacred place to the native pueblo people since time immemorial. Look at the Bandelier National Monument, our ancestors lived there, but right now it is threatened by this fire. There are 19 fingers in the Pajarito Plateau that you call canyons. Those are sacred to us. That is where the springs are. Fire is sacred to us, as it replenishes life. Cloud is sacred to us, as we wait for rain. Rain is sacred to us, as it keeps everything alive in the desert. But after Los Alamos was built, our spiritual belief system has been shattered. Now when we look up at the sky and see cloud, we wonder, is there radioactive elements in the cloud? When we get rain, we wonder, could it bring poison to our communities. We’re afraid of our own rain. You talk about Area G as if it is an inanimate place, but all those plutonium–contaminated drums are sitting on one of our largest sacred Kiva’s. The lab is destroying our spiritual belief system.”

The government is heavily monitoring the air in the area for toxic pollutants. They’re using dozens of monitors on the ground as well as a specially outfitted twin–engine plane with sensors that came from the Environmental Protection Agency. As of June 29, “top lab officials and fire managers say there have been no releases of toxins.” Let us hope we’re getting the full truth.

Marian Naranjo told me, “you cannot see radioactive elements in the air, you cannot smell it, you cannot taste it, and just because it cannot be detected with technical toys, doesn’t mean its not there. After the Cerro Grande Fire the government told us that no radioactive element was released in the air. We never had leukemia in our children, now we do, in Santa Clara and the San Ildefonso Pueblos.”

Santa Clara Pueblo Land Is Ablaze

“Santa Clara is on fire now,” Marian’s voice was filled with pain, “it reached our reservation line yesterday. The smoke was so bad at Santa Clara that they had to distribute masks to our community members. I cried. All that water, all that effort, all that building of fire lines are for protecting the lab. Who is protecting our community? Are they letting the tribe burn? It doesn’t feel very good to be on the short end of the stick. Fire has also reached the Cochiti Pueblo on the south. This is a very deep environmental justice issue.”

By June 30 the Las Conchas Fire had burned 6,000 acres of the watershed of the Santa Clara Pueblo. It is continuing to destroy cultural sites, forest resources, plants and animals that the people of Santa Clara depend upon for their livelihood and culture.

On June 30 the Santa Clara Pueblo Governor Walter Dasheno issued a Declaration of Emergency. “We are devastated to witness the destruction of our precious homeland,” said Governor Dasheno. “From time immemorial to this day our community has been stewards of this land, have fought to regain portions taken from us and have invested millions of dollars in restoring the forest and resources.”

The fire exploded across the western third of the reservation, including P’opii Khanu, the headwaters of the creek, which the Pueblo regained in 2000 after 140 years of struggle. “Our canyon is the source of our Santa Clara Creek that we rely upon for irrigation but, more than that, it was a beautiful place of abundance in wildlife, clean water, culturally significant trees and medicinal plants,” said Governor Dasheno.

Pueblo officials have urged Senator Tom Udall and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, in helping to stop the progression of the fire. They’ve also stressed that financial and technical assistance will be needed over the next several years to address the fire’s impact.

“This is the fourth fire that has impacted our homelands and all of them have begun outside our reservation. Santa Clara alone cannot bear the extreme costs to help Mother Nature restore herself,” said Governor Dasheno.

Massive Plutonium Bomb Factory Proposed at Los Alamos National Lab

Los Alamos National Lab is proposing to build a massive plutonium bomb factory. Here is a short description of the project based on my conversations with Jay Coghland, Joni Arends, Marian Naranjo and Scott Kovac, and from various hand–outs Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety had prepared for community meetings and hearings that happened earlier this year to oppose this plan.

In 2003, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) completed an Environmental Impact Statement for its proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project at the Los Alamos National Lab. The acronym CMRR hides the simple fact that it is a plutonium facility for expanded nuclear weapons production.

An 185,000 square–feet Radiological Laboratory, Utility and Office Building was completed in September 2009 costing nearly 1/2 billion dollars, including equipment. But this facility will not handle large quantities of special nuclear materials, like plutonium. For that purpose CMRR’s final phase would be the proposed Nuclear Facility. If built, this complex will quadruple LANL’s plutonium production from 20 pits per year to 80 pits per year. All of this will be used in making bombs to blow up places, people and animals, if such opportunities do arise.

Jay told me that the original EIS did not take into account the seismic risk that is now known. That coupled with the fact that there is a proposed 50% increase in size, citizen pressure mounted and finally NNSA prepared a hurried Supplemental EIS (SEIS), which was released on April 22.

Scott Kovac explained to me the seismic risks. In a 2007 site–wide seismic report LANL issued a warning that there was not enough information on the seismic properties of the reference rock. There is not enough information to determine seismic safety of the old buildings and the new proposed facility.

The draft SEIS has two geologic options: deep and shallow alternatives, for constructing the proposed Nuclear Facility. In the shallow alternative they would build a 17 ft thick slab on an existing weak layer of ash. The building would float in a raft–like fashion over soft, volcanic ash that forms a weak geologic layer. “Starting at about 50 ft all the way down to about 75 ft below the surface there is an extremely fragile ash layer,” Scott said. The scoping for the draft SEIS was completed by November 2010. Then April 2011 LANL released a memo that describes why the soft option is not safe to prevent the proposed building from collapse into the underlying layer: compression of the layer of soft volcanic ash by the heavy building; seismic shaking from an earthquake; and liquefaction of the volcanic ash because of water leaks. Scott also talked about the deep alternative that would involve digging out the entire soft layer and then pour concrete and build on top of that but it is a much more expensive option. “The government has not done enough seismic analysis, they do not know if there is no fault line at the proposed site. They’re designing it with an earthquake of maximum 7 Richter scale. They do not know what would happen if an earthquake of larger magnitude hits. They need to do more research and find all the faults,” Scott said.

I asked Jay, did the government in their draft SEIS took into account the latest knowledge about climate change in the American West. Then I realized they could not have as the draft SEIS was completed in November 2010 and some of the most important findings about climate change have come out after that.

On December 13, 2010 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Arizona scientists published a major study that concludes that the American West maybe entering a prolonged 60–year drought. “The CMRR project would require 16 million gallons of water each year for its operation,” Jay told me. I asked him where do they intend to take this water from, to which he responded, “from the San Juan River and from underground wells.” In simple terms it means that the lab would take precious water away from human and animal communities in a severely drought stricken region to build nuclear bombs to blow up the planet.

Now, add wildfires to that equation. In a climate changed drought stricken American West the forests are dying too, the fires are getting larger, burning hotter and coming more frequently. Right now as I write this, in addition to the devastating Las Conchas Fire, in New Mexico, we also have the Pacheco Fire in the north that has burned more than 10,000 acres since June 18; the Donaldson Fire in southeast that started around 9 am on June 28 and has already burned 72,650 acres; and the devastating Wallow Fire of Arizona that since May 29 has burned 538,049 acres including 15,407 acres in southwestern New Mexico. Fires are everywhere in our state right now, and, we’re also planning to build nuclear bombs to blow up the planet.

July 4th is approaching—fire is on the minds of many New Mexicans. We may begin to think about how we celebrate July 4th in a climate changed American West—not with fireworks that might ignite more fires of the larger kind, but by coming together to repair our communities.

The CMRR project would cost taxpayers an estimated $6 billion.

Jay said, “We need to begin questioning whether expanded nuclear weapons production at Los Alamos is feasible in a possibly long–term drought and climate warming punctuated with catastrophic forest fires. More broadly, as we face increasing budget and resource constraints, we need to decide whether our money and water go into expanded nuclear weapons production, or do they go into repairing schools and infrastructure for the common good of society?”

Joni and Marian suggested an alternate use of that $6 billion: Jobs that would go to 12,000 individuals including from the distressed communities like Santa Clara, Cochiti and others; $50K a year for each individual for ten years—for forest restoration, watershed restoration and management, replenish our communities, and give people back their humanity. Sounded like an excellent plan to me, but instead, we’re planning to use that money to build nuclear bombs to blow up the planet.

“In 2008 we passed the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribal Resolution No. 08–16 in which the Pueblo opposes the expansion of plutonium pit production. This was in response to the Complex Transformation Supplemental Programmatic Environment Impact Statement. Along with the one–page resolution we also included 22–page comments from 256 community members, and some of which were included in congressional record. Joni and I went to Washington, DC and told them that the Santa Clara Pueblo is serious,” Marian told me. “Here we are in 2011, and they are still ignoring our comments and our beliefs. They’re arrogant and disrespectful. Its addiction, they need to go into rehab. It is heartbreaking that they disregard the sacred nature of our land. They want to make Los Alamos a permanent and perpetual nuclear bomb factory. Maybe we’re talking about genocide of pueblo people.”

What Can People Do?

I asked Jay the simple question, “what can I as an individual do right now?” He suggested, “submit your comments to oppose the CMRR Nuclear Facility project.” He explained that even though the deadline for public comment submissions was June 28, no one at the lab has been reading comments anyway, because the lab is closed due to the Las Conchas Fire. So we can assert force majeure and submit our comments. He stressed that we must submit our comments today by email at NEPALASO@doeal.gov.

Joni told me that Rick Wayman of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara is having to photocopy 4,500 comments that were submitted electronically through the Department of Energy website, but it bounced. So he is planning to mail the hard copies.

“People are apathetic, they need to engage right now at this crucial time and do what they can including writing letters to the editor, calling and emailing their members of congress. Most importantly the New Mexico congressional delegation must be pressured to stop this plan to make New Mexico a permanent nuclear bomb production state,” Jay said.

It’s not about stopping everything, everywhere, but also to imagine a different and more sustainable and just future for all life on earth. There exists a brighter future for New Mexico, one that is powered by the sun and the wind—not by nuclear, coal, oil and gas that our Governor Susana Martinez would like to continue to keep us locked in. The New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe based small non–profit organization has already imagined such a bright future and are fighting right now very effectively.

Why is the government pushing the CMRR Nuclear Facility project in such a hurried manner? The supplemental EIS must be retracted and the public comment period must be extended. The Las Conchas Fire has woken us up. We must now stop the maniacal plan to build the plutonium bomb factory at Los Alamos.

Further Resources

Nuclear Watch New Mexico
Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety [note: their website gets hacked frequently]
Cultural Energy, Taos, New Mexico
New Energy Economy

Note for readers: I’d like to thank Marian Naranjo, Jay Coghland, Joni Arends and Scott Kovac for letting me tell their stories. I’d also like to thank Lorene Mills of Report From Santa Fe for her crucial help with this story.

© 2011 ClimateStoryTellers

Subhankar Banerjee is founder of ClimateStoryTellers.org. He is an Indian born American photographer, writer and activist. Over the past decade he has been a leading international voice on issues of arctic conservation, indigenous human rights, and global warming, and over the past five years he has also been focusing on forest deaths from global warming. He received many awards, including Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship. Subhankar is currently editing an anthology titled, “Arctic Voices“ (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012) and has been appointed Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for fall term 2011.