Monday, October 27, 2008

Walls

In Baghdad



In Palestine



On the US/Mexico Border



Around Gated Communities



More and more walls...what are they for?

I got a bit of a jolt about this as I listened to the cd of Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine on a recent road trip. At the end of the book she discusses the Israeli economy and the walling off of Palestinians in the occupied territories. She says,

What Israel has constructed is...a network of open holding pens for millions of people who have been categorized as surplus humanity.
.

I immediately thought of a speech given by David Simon (creator of the HBO show "The Wire") where he talked about the fact that, in our post-industrial economy, every day that goes by, humans are worth less. In other words, our current system as it now operates, needs less of us to make a profit and is content to categorize millions of people as "surplus humanity" and then wall them off to protect us from their anger and rebellion.

And in cases where we don't have permanent walls, we have this kind.



Or this...



It is therefore no surprise that one of the largest growth industries in the United States is our prison system and that we are now the world's leader in incarceration with over 2 million people in prison - a 500% increase in the last 30 years. Most states are going bankrupt building these kinds of walls that house one in three black men. And our federal government is spending millions to incarcerate an ever increasing number of migrants. Just another reflection of the growth of "surplus humanity" and an excuse for more walls.



This last week, Buhdy has been asking us to think about our vision for the future. This is one of the fundamental things I think we need to figure out how to change. Here's a little bit from the speech by David Simon that I referenced above.

I didn't start out as a cynic, but at every given moment where this country has had a choice - its governments, institutions, corporations, its social framework - to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god. You are not looking at a marxist up here, but you are looking at somebody who doesn't believe that capitalism can work absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy. Capitalism has to be attended to. And that has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed... At some point, either more of us are going to find our conscience or we're not.


I am not one that thinks an economic model can solve this, though a better one could certainly improve things. The capacity for disrespect of individual humanity has been equally demonstrated by both communism and capitalism.

As Simon says, its in our conscience where the change starts. We have to really believe that our fate is tied up with the fate of the millions of "others" who are being so casually discarded every day and find a way to include them in where we want to go.

That will take some evolving. It means that we will have to rid ourselves of our sense of US exceptionlism and white privilege. It means a lot of listening to the points of view of the people behind those walls that we create...not being afraid of hearing and feeling their anger for what we've done...and then working with them to find some common ground.

That's my vision...no more walls.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On finding "home"

I remember in the midst of the 2004 Democratic Convention, hearing Barack Obama speak for the first time. And like most of America, I was intrigued...who IS this guy? So a few months later when I saw his book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, I decided to read it.



In it, I found the journey of a young man with a Black African father and White American mother trying to find out where he belonged in the world. It was pretty hard-hitting and gut-wrenching at times. Here's a short passage from when Barack was in high school as an illustration.

Following this logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. N#####r.


The exploration of his identity continued from there and eventually through his journey to Africa to learn what he could about his father and his Kenyan family.

Shortly after this book was published, Obama's mother died. It was re-printed in 2004 when interest in him soared after his speech at the DNC. In the preface to the new edition, Obama laments that most of the book centered on his search to find himself by learning about his absent father. And he says this.

I think sometimes that had I known she (his mother) would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book - less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life...I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.


I just recently found an audio interview (pdf transcript) Obama did back in August 1995 not too long after the book was published. Its about 13 minutes long and you can listen to it here.



When talking about why he wrote the book, here's one of the things he said.

I talk a lot in the book about my attempts to renew the dream that both of my parents had. I worked as a Community Organizer in Chicago, (and) was very active in low income neighborhoods on issues like crime and education and employment, and seeing that in some ways certain portions of the African American community are doing as bad (as thirty years ago), if not worse, and recognizing that my fate remained tied up in their fates. That my individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country.


When asked whether he has ever been tempted to avoid the difficulty of these kinds of conversations about race, here's what he says.

I think there's an impulse among all of us to shy away from these issues. There's a certain race-weariness that confronts the country, precisely because the questions are so deeply embedded and the solutions are going to require so much investment of time, energy and money...

I think what kept me going is the recognition that we can't solve these problems by ignoring them or pretending they don't exist. One of the things that strikes me, and the country right now, is our tendency to either pretend that racial conflict does not exist, and to pretend that we live in a color-blind society...or to say that race is everything, that there is no possibility of common ground between black and white.

I think the truth of the matter is...some sense that although the lives of blacks and whites in this country are different, although our historical experiences are different, my family is an example - and hopefully I am an example - of the possibility of arriving at some common ground.


I have seen people who have been marginalized by this culture - be it because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. - have to go through similar struggles to find an identity they can call "home." Some never take the risk and pretend the marginalization doesn't exist. And I've seen the storehouse of rage that builds to explosive levels as a result. I've also seen those who stay in the place of that quote from Obama during his high school years. They are usually the ones who, as Obama said, see race (or other isms) in everything and remain trapped in their feelings of victim-hood.

But the ones like Obama, who have faced the ugly truth and grappled with the rage to come out on the other side, have a strength of self that can buffet just about any storm.

As I've watched the Obama campaign over these many months, I keep going back to the man I was introduced to four years ago as I read this book. My hope is that this is the man that shows up after winning the election to be sworn in as our next President.

How to combine

In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.

–Alexis de Tocqueville


Over the last few weeks I have grown increasingly interested in the community organizing aspects of the Obama campaign's ground game. I have no idea how history will record what has happened in communities all over this country over the last couple of years, but it seems to me that it is as responsible as anything else for the success of the campaign. But like most things that are new and don't involve the rich and powerful, it's happening under the radar of the MSM and pundit class.

Of course, alot of this comes from Obama's history as a community organizer. But relatively speaking, that was only for a short period of his life. The person who has brought the skill and experience to this aspect of the campaign more than anyone else is a man by the name of Marshall Ganz.

Lecturer in Public Policy, entered Harvard College in the fall of 1960. In 1964, a year before graduating, he left to volunteer as a civil rights organizer in Mississippi. In 1965, he joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; over the next 16 years he gained experience in union, community, issue, and political organizing and became Director of Organizing. During the 1980s, he worked with grassroots groups to develop effective organizing programs, designing innovative voter mobilization strategies for local, state, and national electoral campaigns... He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, organization, and strategy in social movements, civic associations, and politics.


Here's a short video where Ganz ties his previous work to that of the Obama campaign.



When you look at the work of Ganz, you can see it as the backbone that is being played out in the Obama campaign all across the country. In order to understand what a radical shift this is from how campaigns have been organized in the recent past, here's a summary from Andrew Golis.

Field organizing in the Democratic Party for the last 20 years has been built around a marketing model in which the candidate is a product to be sold. First you collect information on a voter by finding out what magazines they subscribe to, what organizations they are a part of, who they've voted for in the past. Then you solicit them for their support with a piece of mail, a knock on the door or a phone call in which your candidate just happens to care most about whatever random issue that person is most likely to care about. If the consumer sounds like they want to buy, they go in the database. Approaching election day, you call (and now email) them to remind them to vote, offer a ride to the polls, and emphasize that your candidate cares about what you believe they care about based on the data you've collected.

It's a charming process that has the three-part effect of losing elections, deadening our civic culture and forcing the progressive movement to rebuild itself from a list of names and preferences every two or four years. And it's got to end.

Luckily, there's a contingent of Democratic operatives and activists (of which I consider myself a semi-absent member) at war with the traditional model. Instead of treating voters like consumers, we believe they should be treated like citizens. It's a radical idea, but it just might work.

The new approach, based on old American traditions of political organizing, emphasizes the importance of engaging voters and bringing them into the campaign. You recruit activists to join your work not based on some narrow unpersonalized targeting but face-to-face meetings that bring a sense of common purpose. When they join your work you ask them to organize their own communities by finding common purpose with others. You help them to build neighborhood committees, host house meetings to recruit new activists, plan outreach that makes sense within their neighborhoods. You give up some control of the message and allow people to speak from the heart instead of from the handed-down Message of the Day.


Yeah, sounds alot like democracy, doesn't it? But is it a pipedream? If the reporting of Zack Exley, Sean Quinn, and Al Giordano is to be believed, it is not only possible, but just might be a major factor in why Obama is likely to win this election.

As I have mentioned in a couple of comments recently, this week I went to Madison, WI to hear Al Giordano talk about how this model might be used to continue to organize people AFTER the election. It was great to have the opportunity to meet Giordano and hear what he has to say. But it was only afterwards that I realized that my big question is really all about how this model might be put to use online in places like the blogs. That hasn't been the focus of much work yet, except that Giordano has incorporated social networking on his blog with the development of what he calls Fieldhands. Its a start.

I personally want to explore the possibilities of community organizing on the blogs rather than just at the local level. As a place to start, I'd offer some of Ganz's work on the importance of leadership and what it means to successful organizing. To understand what he means by leadership, Ganz has this to say,

Developing a leadership rich organization not only requires learning to delegate. It requires a conscious strategy for identifying leader­s (opportunities for leaders to emerge), recruiting leaders (opportunities for lead­ership to be earned), and developing leaders (opportunities for leaders to grow).

Identifying leaders requires looking for them. Who are people with followers? Who brings others to the meetings? Who encourages others to participate? Who attracts others to working with them? Whom do other people tell you to "look for?" [Saul] Alinsky writes about community networks knit together by "native" leaders - people who take the responsibility for helping a com­munity do its work out of their homes, small businesses, neighborhood hangouts, etc...Where would you look for these kinds of leaders around here?


And what is the role of effective leaders in organizing?

So what makes the difference? Why are some groups disorganizations and other groups organizations? It is the quality of the work leaders do within them that makes groups work.

• Leaders turn division into solidarity by building, maintaining, and developing rela­tionships among those who form the organization.

• Leaders turn confusion into understanding by facilitating interpretation of what is going on with the work of the organization.

• Leaders turn passivity into participation by motivation - inspiring people to commit to the action required if the group's goals are to be accomplished.

• Leaders turn reaction into initiative by strategizing - thinking through how the organization can use its resources to achieve its goals.

• Leaders turns inaction into action by mobilizing people to turn their resources into specific actions by means which they can achieve their goals.

• Leaders transforms drift into purpose by accepting responsi­bility for doing the leadership work which must be done if the group is to succeed and challenging others to accept their responsibility as well.


If you'd like to learn more about the teachings of Marshall Ganz on effective community organizing, he has a whole online course featuring both written materials and videos.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Imagination

In my dream, the angel shrugged & said, If we fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination & then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand.

- Brian Andreas



Imagine My Surprise

Imagine my surprise,
sitting a full hour
in silent and irremediable
fear of the world,

to find the body
forgetting
its own fear the instant
it opened and placed
those unassuming hands
on life's enduring pain,

and the world for one
moment
closed its terrifying eyes
in gratitude.

Saying,
"This is my body, I am found."

- David Whyte




Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

- Albert Einstein

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I cried my last tears yesterday

I must admit that this has been a hard week for me. As if the collapse of the global economy weren't enough, we've witnessed a presidential campaign successfully stir up the hatefulness that lies underneath the veneer of our so-called "color-blind" society.

I decided that it was time to take a tour of the diversosphere to see what they were saying about all of this. The condemnation of the McCain/Palin strategy was not that different from what I read in the rest of the progressive blogoshere. But I did find something that was amazing and just what I needed...a reservoir of strength and determination.

For most people of color, this election is about a struggle they've been fighting for generations. The fact that it engenders hatefulness is nothing new to them. They've been dealing with it their whole lives. And now, just when we are about to cross one of the most significant milestones in our nation's history, they are not about to be intimidated. To get an idea of what's at stake, just look at the picture that is at the top of the page on Jack and Jill Politics.



So I'd like to share a little of what I found with you. First of all, at RaceWire, there is a video of Donna Brazille during a panel discussion at the New Yorker Festival.



I’m gonna say it and get it off my chest, because for the next thirty days, I’m gonna be the best Catholic woman ever….As a child who grew up in the segregated Deep South, we’ve come so far in this country….But I remember when I used to get on the bus: my mother would tell me, “Donna, when you get on the bus, you and your brothers go all the way to the back, and don’t look at anybody.” We have changed. This is a more tolerant, open, progressive society. And yet, we’re having this conversation because [Obama] is biracial. He spent nine months in the womb of a white woman. He was raised…by his white grandparents…He got out of school and went to Harvard, and all of a sudden he’s “uppity” and there’s something wrong with him? What is wrong with us?…You can vote against him, but don’t ever put me in the back of the bus. I’m not going to the back of the bus! I’m not going to be afraid! My black skin does not make me inferior! And may I add: being a female does not make me dumb!


Carmen D. over at All About Race gives a shout-out to Richard Trumka, the Secretary Treasurer of AFL-CIO, and his courage to take a stand.

I say to all of my friends, of all skin colors, you must not tolerate racism in your space. If you want things to change, you must change. You must dig deep for the courage to say how you feel...Why should a racist comment be given more room to breathe and to grow than one that confronts it down? I know it can be scary, but there are others like you, like us, on the front lines here.

And your voice is needed.

Listen to Richard Trumka and know that you are not alone in the journey to creating a better America.



But I've saved the best for last. Al Giordano at The Field posted an email he received from a reader with the subject line: "I Cried My Last Tears Yesterday."

Dear Al,

The words in the subject line are from a gospel song by Mary Mary:



I feel that way. I write to you because I think you know how I feel, where I am coming from, and the struggle that we have all been on for so long.

If it matters, I am an African American single mother-This election means more to me than I can find the words to describe. I love this country despite all of our history.

And yesterday, I cried my last tears, after I watched the venomous, vile, and vitriolic display at the McCain-Palin rally unfold over the last few days. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, and I was taught as a young child when things look bleak and you are backed up against a wall you just let go and let God. We as AAs have been subjected to the system and have the philosophy ingrained that we have to accept the things that we can not change.

Well here and now damn it--I have cried my last tears yesterday. I am going to fight!


These folks are standing up to say that they are not going to the back of the bus, they are not going to stay silent, and they are going to fight. I am humbled by their strength and motivated by their perseverance. So I'll join the fight...if not for ourselves, then at least for the children.



In this country, justice can be won against the greatest of odds; hope can find its way back to the darkest of corners; and when we are told that we cannot bring about the change that we seek, we answer with one voice - yes, we can.

- Barack Obama, Raleigh, North Carolina, May 6, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fearless Thought

Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth -- more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages ... But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back -- fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.

-Bertrand Russell




Perhaps our current day exploration of this can best be found in the comedy of Stephen Colbert, especially in his performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner where he satirized the Presidents reliance on "gut instincts" and included the memorable line: "reality has a well-know liberal bias."

I'd like to think that liberals are much more comfortable with the fearlessness of thought, and for the most part, I think we live up to that. We have had to fight through the lies and media spin for years now to actually think about things like what it means to invade another country pre-emptively rather than loose ourselves in the need for revenge. We've had to think about what the constitution means when it provides for things like privacy and habeas corpus rather than give in to the feelings of fear and insecurity from "terrorists." We've had to think about what the words "separation of church and state" mean in a pluralistic society rather than worry that "our way of life" is somehow being threatened by those who hold different beliefs. At times we've even had the courage to think about our own privilege...as US citizens, or as white people, or as men, or as heterosexuals, or as able-bodied, or as members of the middle class...rather than give in to the fear of "the other."

I'd say that we have become very adept at thinking fearlessly about what comes at us from conservatives and the right. But I wonder how fearless we have been when it comes to thinking about our own delusions? Are we capable of self-examination or are we too, as humans, subject to falling into patterns of reaction rather than thoughtful response?

Nezua, at the Unapologetic Mexican, wrote beautifully about this a while ago in a post titled We Stand in No (Every) Place.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view...

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


I think what Russell wrote about how we get trapped into surety is very profound, especially that last line about being proven less worthy of respect than we have supposed ourselves to be. Buhdy addressed this a few months ago in one of my favorite essays he's ever written at Docudharma, Eating the Bitter.

We work hard and struggle to build a Progressive Utopia...until it gets too hard or someone says something we don't like. We are full of high ideals and noble goals. Until the shit hits the fan.

Then we are just humans again, having to face our own pain, instead of the pain of others. Having to face our own limitations, instead of bemoaning the limitations of the wingnuts or Bush or the enemy du jour.

Working for high ideals and noble causes and making a difference (and believe me, we do) is sweet. Having to face our own limitations, our own pain, our own humanity and all its failings in the course of that...is bitter.


It is indeed bitter. I'm trying to eat a little of that bitterness myself right now as I examine the fortress of cynicism that has been built up around me over these last 8 years. My knee-jerk reaction is to disbelieve and fight every word I hear because the lies and deceptions have been so enormous. I don't want to be the fool, but I'm trying to learn how to stop myself from being so sure...to take the risk to really think about what I'm hearing and seeing. I don't want to miss that "newness of becoming" that Nezua was talking about simply because I'm too angry and jaded to notice the possibilities when they arise.

For me, the emotional constructs of cynicism from years of living in rage are very real and must be given their due attention. But I want to also think about where I am right now...fearlessly.