Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Common Thread

The economy tanks and taxpayers foot the bill.  A continued occupation of two Muslim nations at a cost of $1 trillion. A crippled attempt at insurance reform. Still no significant financial reform to stave off another meltdown. Too big to fail remains the law of the land. A mine explodes; 29 dead.  The worst oil spill in our history, with 11 killed.  A humanitarian flotilla attacked and 9 activists executed Rambo-style. What do all these news events have in common?  They are all the end result of our nation’s corrupt campaign financing system.

Congress grills the CEOs of BP.  Sound bites for the constituents back home.  Great political theater.  But does anyone expect anything to come from it?  Hardly. Why? 

Because the real problem is not Goldman Sachs, Wellpoint, Massey Energy, BP or the Israeli government.  They’re simply doing what they’re doing because they can.  There’s no one to stop them because the nightwatchman on duty has been slipped a brown envelope. It’s called a campaign contribution.

Let’s face it:  corporations and lobbyists rule Capitol Hill, not to mention the White House and the courts.  As Senator Dick Durbin remarked last year regarding the banking industry’s unbridled influence in Congress, “They frankly own the place.”  No one was surprised at that.  So why are we surprised that this country is so boogered up? Why are we shocked that millions of our nation’s waterfowl now have to be rinsed in Dawn?

With one blow we can prevent a lot of these problems from reoccurring by reforming our campaign financing system. Probably the majority of our leaders truly want to serve the people who elected them– at least, they started out that way.  But if you have to spend most of your time in constant campaign mode, shaking constituents for money to fill your war chest, it’s mighty tempting to settle for one big check. 

So while we’re busy rapping CEOs on the knuckles and searching for walruses in the Gulf, let’s not forget to attack the root of the problem and pressure our lawmakers to do the same. We may be the “small people” but there’s more of us, and we can make a big noise.

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It’s Up to Us

Don’t look now, but when it comes to our government’s helping us reduce our demand for fossil fuels and develop clean energy alternatives, there’s no one driving the boat.  With all that’s happening in the Gulf, one would think this would be the perfect time to inaugurate a new and aggressive energy policy that would at last break our dependency on fossil fuels. Instead, our President tells us to “visit the Gulf States.”  That sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it?  I can still remember his predecessor telling us after 9-11 to “go to Disney World.” We really are living in a fantasy world, a Magic Kingdom of our own making, with elected officials who tell us only what we want to hear.

Yes, he did say in a recent speech that “…the time has come to aggressively accelerate that transition [to clean energy].  The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future.”  Sounds good, right?  I mean despite the split infinitives.  But wait there’s more.  “But the only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future.”  Doh!  Did you get that?  There it is again.  Our savior, the private sector.  I have news for you, Mr. President.  The private sector will not be interested in clean energy unless the government gives them an atomic wedgie or the American people get serious enough about our future to insist upon it and create a market for it. 

I’m old enough to remember even-odd gas rationing back in ’73.  I was twelve, and though I could not yet vote, I trusted that the man in the White House with the sweaty upper lip had the best minds on the problem.  I also recall sitting in a gasoline queue for two hours back in ’79, thinking, “At least it will never have to get this bad again. The guy in the yellow sweater sees the problem and has it all under control.”   Recently, I even caught myself thinking, “This BP spill is bad, really bad. But this is the kind of thing we’ve needed to turn ourselves around.”  Oh well, once a chump, always a chump, I guess.  Let’s face it.  If the government were really serious about getting our economy off the oil standard, they would have done it 30 years ago. 

What kind of crisis will it take to turn this nation around?  Does a huge tsunami of oil have to surge up the mighty Mississippi and crash upon Minneapolis?  What kind of cataclysmic event would be necessary to break our love affair with Big Oil?  Honestly?  Probably one in which the planet itself would not survive.  Unless…

Good people of America, our leaders are steering our nation over the falls and into the pockets of BP, Conoco, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell.  It is up to us now.  We have to jump ship.  And by that I mean, we can’t wait for our government to show us the way.  We are oil addicts, you and I, addicted to cheap oil, which not only pollutes our environment and atmosphere, but also forces us to bed down with dirty little tyrants and to slaughter and oppress millions in our thirst for just another drink of the viscous brown stuff.

Our European allies have high gasoline taxes that force manufacturers to produce smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles and drivers to be more realistic about travel; their taxes also help fund mass transit systems.  But no politician this side of the Big Pond has had the guts to raise our federal gas tax since 1993.  We kicked up such a ruckus then, they’re unlikely to try it again (not with an election coming– like the one this year, and the one in 2012, 2014, 2016, etc.)

In Sweden and Brazil cars that run on biofuel now outsell traditional models.  Who makes them?  Ford.  But that is possible only because their governments got involved– and because of demand.  There they call it patriotismo, something on which we Americans pride ourselves, although we don’t often understand what is in our own best interest.   Massive government intervention is unlikely to happen here.  After all, we know who really runs this country, don’t we?  Big Oil has such a hammerlock on all branches of government, Tibetans will all be driving electric yaks before I’ll even see an E85 station near my home.

Last month in the US the sale of big gas-gulping SUVs was up 10%.  As the Pogo comic strip used to quip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  It’s time all of us voluntarily went on a fossil fuel diet, treating oil like a biohazard or something out of The Andromeda Strain.

This past week I started pricing conversion of my Corolla to electric. It’s pricey. I’d probably do better buying a used hybrid (you know, the ones that don’t stop when you apply the brake).  It’s time we clamored for electric vehicles and more options for alternative energy, using solar if possible.  Whatever is in our power to do, even (and especially) if we are the first on our block to do so, let’s just do it.  Sure it’s like pulling out a nose hair.  It’s never going to be comfortable. It’s going to hurt.  We just need to do it.   If we don’t, who will?  Really. It’s up to us.

We might just end up being heroes to our grandchildren, instead of lemmings hurling ourselves over the precipice.

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The Masque of Anarchy?

The years following the defeat of Napoleon brought with them great economic and political instability in the north of England. There, years of famine and unemployment, coupled with the high price of corn and the absence of voting rights, gave rise to radical political ideas.  When on August 16, 1819 a large crowd of over 60,000 gathered in Manchester to hear radical speaker Henry Hunt, the local magistracy ordered his arrest.  Instead, the cavalry unsheathed their sabres and charged the crowd. 15 people were killed and hundreds injured.  The British press, not to mention the public, was outraged.

Hearing of these events while in Italy, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote what is perhaps the first manifesto of the modern nonviolent resistance movement.  Here are some excerpts:

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war….
And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away
Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek….
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many — they are few. (1)

The purpose of nonviolent resistance is to effect political or social change through various peaceful methods, including civil disobedience, sit ins, or economic boycotts.  As Shelley so vividly describes it, in facing nonviolent resistance the aggressor must confront his own brutality and become ashamed.  The New Testament roots of this principle are obvious.  Toward the end of his life, Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote about pacifism at length as it relates to the Sermon on the Mount.  His book The Kingdom of God Is within You (1894) and his later brief but famous correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi had a life-changing effect on the direction of the latter’s activism.  As Tolstoy wrote in his last letter before his death, “[Christ] knew, as all reasonable men must do, that any employment of force is incompatible with love as the highest law of life, and that as soon as the use of force appears permissible even in a single case, the law itself is immediately negatived.”

The events of the past week, with Israeli forces attacking and boarding vessels crowded with activists on a humanitarian mission to bring relief to Gaza, have angered those on both sides of the issue.  Israel’s leaders and her supporters have accused the activists of deliberately forcing a confrontation; the flotilla’s defenders say it was a humanitarian mission.  Actually, both are right.  Before the eyes of a watchful world, Israel is now in the position of either lifting the siege of Gaza or continuing to enforce it with increasing brutality.

In 1960 four black college freshmen entered a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, where they purchased some items then sat down at the lunch counter.  “We don’t serve Negroes here,” they were told.  On the contrary, they replied, they had just been served at a cash register a few feet away.  Woolworth’s had taken their money, and they had the receipts to prove it.  The management accused them of stirring up trouble and asked them to leave.  They refused and sat at the counter until closing.

Were these four forcing a confrontation?  Yes.  Were they deliberately stirring up trouble? Well, that depends on which side of the issue you were on.  For them, they were simply refusing to obey the South’s unjust Jim Crow laws.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) 

“We see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation….I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'” (2)

There is a growing grassroots movement of nonviolent demonstrations in the occupied territories of Palestine.  There, with the help of the Palestinian churches, the people are waking up to the reality that hatred and violence beget hatred and violence. You Tube is filled now with media capture of Israeli forces attacking peaceful Palestinian protesters.  A few days ago an American art student lost an eye when an Israeli soldier shot a teargas canister directly at her face.  This morning in Jerusalem Israeli security police, trying to prevent a peaceful demonstration, barred worshipers from entering the Al Aqsa Mosque.  Instead, the Muslims conducted themselves peacefully, and when the muezzin gave the call to prayer, they prayed on street corners, store fronts and sidewalks.  You can’t stop people from praying to God. 

As I write another ship laden with relief supplies is heading toward Gaza. Let us pray its passengers will have the strength and courage to comport themselves non-violently.  Let us pray that Israel’s leaders too will see the futility of oppression and violence, that in King’s words, “the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

(1) from “The Masque of Anarchy” (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
(2) from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) by Martin Luther King, Jr.

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