Saturday, October 21, 2017

#294 / The Inevitable Nature Of American Force

David Ignatius, one of those pundits who provide me with a reliable and almost daily dose of outraged irritation, does his business in The Washington Post. Why am I so irritated by our pundits and their punditry? Generally, it's because of their smug self-satisfaction, and their routine willingness to celebrate the "greatness of America," without a shred of empathy for any non-Americans involved. Ignatius is only one of many. The name Thomas Friedman also comes to mind. 

In a column I read in my local newspaper on Friday, October 20th, Ignatius celebrates what the United States has done in Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS Caliphate. Please see the pictures above, which I find appalling. Here is Ignatius' take:

The heaps of rubble in Raqqa that once housed terrorists and torturers convey a bedrock lesson, as valid now as in 1945: It’s a mistake to provoke the United States. It may take the country a while to respond to a threat, but once the machine of U.S. power is engaged, it’s relentless — so long as the political will exists to sustain it.

The "heaps of rubble" in Raqqa, as shown in the picture, are not, really, properly described as the remains of buildings that "once housed terrorists and torturers." In fact, the buildings now destroyed mainly housed men, women, and children who had nothing at all to do with terrorism. American violence has turned an historic city into a ruin, and has displaced almost all who lived there. The New York Times carried an article in its October 19, 2017, edition that properly notes that the fall of the ISIS capital will mean the dispersement of its jihadist membership elsewhere. In other words, here is a real life demonstration of the truth of that "morcellator metaphor."

Ignatius suggests that former president Obama and our current President, Donald J. Trump, should get together at the White House in a joint appearance, to celebrate and dramatize just how steadfast and solid is the American determination to reduce to rubble any city that houses people that the president decides should be destroyed. This, says Ignatius, is the "inevitable nature of American force." Raqqa is only one of many cities that have received the treatment depicted above. 

Allow me to suggest that what is pictured here is not a "victory." No celebratory words or actions are appropriate.

The kind of commitment and determination that Ignatius trumpets (to destroy the cities that house persons whom the president of the United States has decided should be extirpated), is a prime example of that "eye for an eye" philosophy that leaves the whole world blind. 

If you don't want refugees, don't destroy the cities where the people live.

Image Credit:

Friday, October 20, 2017

#293 / She Lives

Last weekend, I attended the annual conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. The conference topic was "Crises of Democracy: Thinking In Dark Times." As always, the conference was provocative and extremely worthwhile. This time, I visited the grave of Hannah Arendt, who, with her husband, is buried on the Bard College campus. 

Though Hannah Arendt is dead, her thinking most definitely lives on. Make no mistake, these are "dark times," and Arendt calls us, always, to both think and act. If you were to join the Hannah Arendt Center as a member, you could then participate in a "Virtual Reading Group," lead by Roger Berkowitz, the Founder and Academic Director of the Center. 

Consider, for instance, this discussion on the "Pursuit of Happiness," about which Hannah Arendt had a lot to say!

Image Credit:
Gary Patton personal photo.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

#292 / Next Best

The best time to have planted a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is today.

You can call this saying a Chinese proverb. You can dispute that attribution. You can remember how President Kennedy conveyed the same thought in a slightly different way

Whatever the origin of the thought expressed here, and however phrased, I think it's hard to dispute the truth of this observation.

We are always operating in a "next best" environment, and the only time we have is "now."

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#291 / Culture Eats It

According to Aaron Levie, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." In fact, says Levie, "Culture eats everything.”

Levie is the CEO of Box, a cloud storage business based in the San Francsico Bay Area, but with offices throughout the world. I ran across Levie's comment in a business-focused article that ran in The Los Angeles Times on September 22, 2017.

I am not much informed about the internal dynamics of internet-based businesses, but the main point of Levie's article, that a company's "culture" is the most important determinant of how well the business will do, seems right to me.

It's true in politics and government, as well.

"Culture eats everything." Which is why the state of our government today is so distressing to so many. It looks like an "uncultured" president is on his way to swallowing (and eliminating) the political "culture" that has sustained our society and democracy for more than 200 years.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

#290 / Working My Brand

David Brooks, the New York Times' columnist, says that this picture, to the left, is "What Sincerity Looks Like." The picture is of Chance the Rapper,  a hip-hop artist, performing in Santa Monica, California in September. 

Brooks was greatly impressed with Chance the Rapper's appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” If you click this link, you can see what Brooks was talking about, and listen to an unreleased and untitled track that deals with the impacts and perils of stardom.

Brooks contrasts "sincerity" with "authenticity." Pictured below, in her recently-released video, "Look What You Made Me Do," is the person Brooks says is seeking the latter (authenticity) rather than exemplifying the former (sincerity). Yes, he does mean Taylor Swift:

Here's what I liked best about Brooks' column. He says bad things about people who are "working their brand." That phrase irritates me, too. Here's how Brooks looks at it:

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

A person has a soul, which is what Chance is worrying about. A brand has a reputation, which is the title of Swift’s next album. A person has private dignity. A brand is a creation for an audience. “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,” is how Swift puts it.

For those who still remember the Bible, there is a verse in Matthew (16:26) that sums it all up: 

What will it profit you to gain the whole world, if you forfeit your soul?

I think I'll skip the bathtub filled with diamonds. I'm sticking with sincerity!

Image Credit

Monday, October 16, 2017

#289 / Prophecies And Predictions

Chris Hedges (pictured above) authored the essay mentioned in my blog posting yesterday. He conveys a rather daunting message: 

The American empire is coming to an end. The U.S. economy is being drained by wars in the Middle East and vast military expansion around the globe. It is burdened by growing deficits, along with the devastating effects of deindustrialization and global trade agreements. Our democracy has been captured and destroyed by corporations that steadily demand more tax cuts, more deregulation and impunity from prosecution for massive acts of financial fraud, all the while looting trillions from the U.S. treasury in the form of bailouts. The nation has lost the power and respect needed to induce allies in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa to do its bidding. Add to this the mounting destruction caused by climate change and you have a recipe for an emerging dystopia. Overseeing this descent at the highest levels of the federal and state governments is a motley collection of imbeciles, con artists, thieves, opportunists and warmongering generals. And to be clear, I am speaking about Democrats, too.

I can't say I disagree with Hedges' analysis. How about you? Is the American Empire "coming to an end?" If it is, and I have already said that I personally think that Hedges' analysis is on target, here is question number two: Would that actually be a bad thing? 

The cartoon that headed up my blog posting yesterday has Uncle Sam, in the guise of a homeless person, holding up a sign that says, "Will Destroy The World For Money." To the extent that this is what the American Empire does (and there are some pretty good arguments that this is an accurate description), it would be hard to mourn that "End of Empire."

So, here is question number three: Is Hedges offering a "prediction" or a "prophecy?" In other words, is Hedges claiming to outline what must and will happen - as "predictions" do - or is he providing us a warning about what could happen? If the latter, that would make Hedges' essay a "prophecy," at least in the way I draw a distinction between these two different words that both relate to a forecast of the future. 

It is probably relevant that Hedges is a Presbyterian minister. He must certainly know about those prophets in the Bible. Those Biblical prophets typically forecasted doom, unless the people repented. Generally, as I'm recalling the Bible stories, the people didn't repent, and the projected doom arrived,  in spades!

After the listing reproduced above, here is what Hedges says about the coming of the End of Empire: 

Short of a sudden and widespread popular revolt, which does not seem likely, the death spiral appears unstoppable, meaning the United States as we know it will no longer exist within a decade or, at most, two. The global vacuum we leave behind will be filled by China, already establishing itself as an economic and military juggernaut, or perhaps there will be a multipolar world carved up among Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and a few other states. Or maybe the void will be filled, as the historian Alfred W. McCoy writes in his book “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power,” by “a coalition of transnational corporations, multilateral military forces like NATO, and an international financial leadership self-selected at Davos and Bilderberg” that will “forge a supranational nexus to supersede any nation or empire.”

That introductory phrase ("short of...."), which is in the nature of a call to repent, tells me that Hedges  is speaking in the prophetic tradition. Bad things will happen, and our doom will come, unless we do something now. 

Hedges calls that "something" that we might do a "popular revolt." I call it a "revolution." 

The changes we need don't have to be violent. In fact, to be truly an avenue to change, they can't be, because violence has permeated everything we do, today, and it will be "the revolution" when we eschew violence for a nonviolent future.

Is that possible? You bet it is!

It's not "inevitable," though. 

The future is never "inevitable," because human beings are possessed of the gift of freedom, and can always inaugurate something completely new, and create a "New Order In The World," a Novus Ordo Seclorum.

Hey, we did that once before, remember?

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) -

Sunday, October 15, 2017

#288 / Cartoon

There is no use adding words to an effective political cartoon. 

You can read the essay that went along with this cartoon on truthdig. The essay was written by Chris Hedges, and is titled, "The End of Empire."

Image Credit:

Saturday, October 14, 2017

#287 / One Nation After Trump

Here's a book that looks good! As is often the case, though, I can't really comment on the book itself, only on what I have learned from a review of the book. Sometimes, I think, reading a review may be enough to make an intelligent remark.

According to Ari Berman, whose review of One Nation After Trump appeared in The New York Times on September 26, 2017, the authors "were once known as the wise men of Washington." They all "worked at the city’s pre-eminent think tanks (American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution) and wrote for The Washington Post." 

Berman further characterizes these pundits as persons with "center-left views," close with politicians of both parties, and "rigorously committed to upholding Washington’s bipartisan governing norms ... If there was such a thing as an intellectual establishment in Washington, they were it."

It is not completely clear whether Berman deplores or celebrates the fact that this description of "the wise men" must now be placed in the past tense. At any rate, Berman's review highlights the fact that upholding "the bipartisan governing norms" of past times is no longer the way these wise men roll. According to Berman, they have, in fact, used their considerable persuasive powers to help make that change in perspective prevail:

During the Obama era, their carefully cultivated bipartisanship gave way to a withering critique of the Republican Party. Instead of blaming both sides for gridlock in Washington and extremism in American politics, as so many commentators did, they squarely held Republicans responsible.

Speaking of how we ended up with our current president, the "wise men" have said that his rise to power "reflects the longer-term trends that have shaped the modern Republican Party." Specifically listed are a four-decade war on the “liberal media,” the delegitimization of political opponents, appeals to racism and xenophobia, and hostility to democratic norms. According to the wise men, Trump is less of an outsider than he seems, and this actually explains "why so many Republican leaders are reluctant to call out Trump’s excesses and to acknowledge the risks he poses to our political system.”

I am pretty certain that this analysis is on target. In other words, the Republicans in Congress, and elsewhere in our social, political, and economic life, don't challenge Trump and his excesses, both personal and political,  because Trump well represents the last forty years or so of the Republican Party's approach to politics. 

The key to what we should do about it all, in my mind, is found in one of the elements that the "wise men" list: the "delegitimization of political opponents."

There is a kind of Gresham's Law of politics, because the principles that Gresham uncovered apply beyond the world of economics. Yes, bad money drives out good, but bad practice in almost any context drives out good practice. Once the athletes start doping, it gets to be a trend! Once one political party starts deligitimizing its opponents, the opponents will want to start delegitimizing right back. 

I think we all need to be careful not to let the example of the Republican Party prevail, and we must strongly resist acting as if our political opponents are not "legitimate." That even includes the president. 

In politics, we "all have something to say," and our politics will only be healthy if we all speak out freely, and if we give legitimacy to those with whom we disagree. 

Accord your opponents legitimacy. Disagree. Go out and persuade the majority that you're right and that the other side is wrong. Beat 'em at the polls!

That is how we have to do it. The other alternatives don't spell out as "democracy."

Image Credit:

Friday, October 13, 2017

#286 / Better Living ... Without Chemistry

Shmuel Thaler
When I was growing up, the DuPont Corporation told us we could achieve "Better Living...Through Chemistry." That was sort of like the statement in The Graduate, advising that "plastics" was the "one word" that would open up a positive future for all aspiring young people, and for the nation at large. Chemistry and "plastics" definitely do go together.

As time went on, I became deeply skeptical about "plastics," and chemistry, and about all "synthetics," as the way forward to a better living or a better future.

A few weeks ago, in an article in my local paper, I learned that strawberry growers have discovered a "natural fumigation" technique, eliminating the need for methyl bromide and other synthetic chemicals dangerous to all life. The article is worth reading.

Isn't it time that we abandon our quest to build a "synthetic" world, and realize that our lives will be better without chemistry?

I'm pleased to find that this is what local strawberry farmers are starting to understand.

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 12, 2017

#285 / I Am Sick

Why is this woman sick? That's a good question! As it turns out, the person expressing distress isn't actually a woman, and the malady being complained of isn't physical, but is political in nature.

I retrieved the image above from a posting on the Medium website, which captured, and republished, an online essay from Civic Skunk Works. The article that Medium republished was written by Nick Cassella, and was titled, "I am Sick of Having to Contact My Representatives."

I bet we all sympathize!

On the other hand (if I may permit myself a critical comment), Cassella makes the following observation at the top of his essay: "Contributor to Civic Skunk Works. I write about politics and economics—sometimes successfully." 

Unfortunately (and here comes the critical comment), I don't think that this was one of Cassella's more "successful" writings.

Here is how Cassella starts off his article:

I am so sick of having to constantly contact my representatives. There are people who will tell you that this opinion reeks of privilege—and anyway, don’t you know that direct participation is the bread and butter of democracy? They’ll say that when you live in a democracy your rights come along with civic duties. If anything, they’ll smugly remind you direct contact with representatives shows the system is working. 
I think it shows that something is rotten in the United States. 
Call me lazy, but you shouldn’t have to call your representatives every week to remind them not to vote for a bill that the vast majority of their constituents disagree with. 
In a functioning democracy, you shouldn’t have to check your inbox and Twitter feed daily in order to see whether or not some basic rights are about to be ripped away. And you certainly shouldn’t have to worry about your representative actually voting for such an abomination. In a democracy, you should conceivably be able to vote a representative into office and broadly trust that he or she would not require a barrage of emails and calls to vote in line with their constituents’ values ...
Today our politicians are in no way blind to our preferences. They are focus-grouped up to their eyeballs. And they have pollsters constantly working the field for them. They know what you think and why you think it. 
The fact is our politicians largely don’t care. 

As I said earlier, I bet we all sympathize - and I bet most of us suspect, as Cassella says, that our politicians don't really care what we think! Do we join with Cassella in feeling that something is "rotten" in the United States? I bet a lot of us do. 

Nevertheless, what various unnamed "people" have told Cassella is actually true: "Direct participation [by us] is the bread and butter of democracy." 

There are three basic ways that government can work, presuming that we all agree that we probably do need "government," though I understand the thought that maybe we don't.

If we do think we need "government," then the governing function can be performed by some person, or by some party or group, that asserts its own right to decide what happens, and how the governing will be done. In this sort of system, be it a monarchy, oligarchy, or full on dictatorship, the citizens are the "governed," not the "governing." That kind of system relieves the citizenry of any obligation to contact anyone, but this system of government is NOT associated with "democracy." In democracy, the "governed" are supposed to be personally involved in doing the "governing" themselves. Cassella's actual complaint, it seems to me, is that we are currently governed by an oligarchy, and the people doing the governing don't really think they have to respond to what the majority wants. Therefore, they don't. If that is true, then we have to do something about it, or just give in, and give up on "democracy." 

If we don't like the non-democratic forms of government, and want to opt for a "democratic" form of government (and that has been our historical choice, here in the United States), then there are two ways to set up the system. 

First, we can have "direct" democracy. That kind of democracy, very local in almost every case, requires citizens directly to govern themselves. Lots of meetings, and lots of governmentally-related work by citizens, are necessarily required in this kind of a direct democracy system. I bet Nick Cassella would get tired of that, too.

The system we have actually set up is the second way to have a "democratic" government. We call it "representative" democracy. In other words, the citizens don't do the actual work of governing themselves. Instead, they elect the people, who hire the people, who run their lives for them. That's the way I used to phrase it when I was serving as one of those representatives at the local level of government. 

The "problem" with representative democracy is that sometimes (maybe even most of the time - and certainly right now in the United States) the "representatives" don't actually do a good job of representing the people they are supposed to represent. One way of dealing with this problem is for offended and outraged people to "contact their representatives," as a first step in a program to force the people's elected representatives to do what "the vast majority" want (though I think Cassella may underestimate the actual differences of opinion that exist within the society on almost all fundamental issues). I think it is fair to say that the recent failure of the Congress to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act happened ONLY because millions of people "contacted their representatives." It was a lot of work, admittedly, but I think that the "vast majority" of the public didn't want what the majority of the elected representatives were preparing to do, and the people's willingness to "contact" those representatives, and to get all over them, made a huge difference.

I am sorry to say it, but there really isn't any way around this requirement that citizens get involved themselves - and spend a lot of effort on that, too - in times when their elected representatives don't really seem to care what the majority thinks, or wants. 

If enough of the public gets "sick" of trying to make representative democracy work, the upshot will be no more democracy. That is actually what I see as the greatest of our current political dangers. I think there are many people like Nick Cassella who are "sick of calling their representatives," and just want some person who is "above" typical, rotten politics to come in and run the government the way the "majority" wants it run. A lot of people who feel that way voted for our current president, and for his claim to near-dictatorial powers, because they didn't think that our elected representatives in Congress were truly representing us. The upshot of an election based on anger at the failure of our elected representatives to do what we want might well be an executive dictatorship. And then there are people who think we should, perhaps, call in the military, to control our "crazy" president. I have heard that idea from some of my "liberal" friends.

Here is my advice to Nick Cassella, and to all of us who tend to feel the way he does about how our representative democracy is working right now: (1) Take an aspirin; (2) Call your representatives; (3) Form or join a political group and work to make it powerful; (4) Demand that your representatives actually do what the majority of their constituents want them to do; (5) Get some new representatives, if they don't!

Democracy is a definite bitch! Unless you are willing to let other people run your life, then keep reminding yourself about what those "people" told Cassella. It's true.

If you want self-government, you have to get involved yourself!

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

#284 / Out Of Balance

John Malkin reviewed Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance in the September 28, 2017, edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Malkin's review called the film both haunting and prophetic, and said that it now "makes more sense than ever."

I saw Koyaanisqatsi when it first came out, in 1983, and Malkin's review made me want to refresh my recollection. The film is composed of images by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass - and nothing more. The video below is a powerful excerpt, the ending scene. Watch it to remember, or to get a taste of how Koyaanisqatsi presents itself, if you are not familiar with the film.

I recommend both Malkin's review, and the film itself, which is available not only individually, but as part of a DVD boxed set, with extras, called the Qatsi Trilogy. The image at the top of this blog posting is from the cover of the Trilogy, which includes the following films:

Prophecies are not "predictions." They state no inevitabilities. They are provided as a warning. Sometimes we find (and perhaps all too often we find), that when prophecies are ignored, the future comes upon us as we have been advised it might. Prophecy becomes prediction. A failure to heed the words of the prophets is a prediction of our doom.

So it is recorded in the Bible. And so we find it true today. Thirty-five years after Koyaanisqatsi, and fifteen years after Naqoyqatsi, don't we, in fact, find ourselves caught up in "Life as War?"

Perhaps (and we are advised to believe this, and to act accordingly), there is still time to avert the full and final advent of the prophecy found at the very end of Koyaanisqatsi. The Byrds, too, have provided a prophecy in music. There is:

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it's not too late

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

#283 / Biblical Exegesis And The Weather Report

Charles Schulz, creator of the fabulous "Peanuts" comic strip, is pictured above. Schulz slipped Biblical references into his cartoons, from time to time, and several books have explored this dimension of his work. Two of the best known are: The Gospel According to Peanuts, and The Bible According to Peanuts.

The following cartoon, which appeared in my Sunday newspaper on October 8, 2017, has Lucy citing to Isaiah 6, as she (once again) pulls away that football that Charlie Brown is (once again) trying to kick. 

I am giving you the text of Isaiah 6, below, so you can form your own opinion on whether or not the prophet is really "protesting" the judgment that God has had him articulate. The prophet's plaintive question, "How Long, O Lord?" can, I suppose, be read as an implicit objection to God's plan, as Schulz has Lucy suggest:

A Vision of God in the Temple

6 In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said:

“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without men,
and the land is utterly desolate,
12 and the Lord removes men far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

My own reading of Isaiah 6 has always focused more on the penalties to be imposed on a recalcitrant humanity than on any protest of those penalties by the prophet, if such a protest is, in fact, actually being made.

Schulz' cartoon has the person afflicted by the prophesied penalties (Charlie Brown) raise the protest cry, "How Long?" In the Bible, though, it is the prophet who asks the question. That would be Lucy in the cartoon rendering, and she gives the same answer to Charlie Brown's question that God gives to Isaiah: We will suffer these penalties and scourges our entire lives, until we repent and change our behavior. (Charlie Brown has to give up his idea of human triumph and dominance, and he just has to stop trying to kick that ball).

Assuming that the World of Nature is sacred, a world that we did not create ourselves, and that demands our allegiance and our worship, then Isaiah 6 suggests that God is trying to tell us that all our human works within that world will be laid to waste, until we change our ways. 

To me, Isaiah 6 looks a lot like a weather report, in our era of global warming.

Consider the Atlantic hurricanes we have experienced this year. They are laying to waste all our human constructions: Katia, Harvey, Emily, Cindy, Irma, Franklin, Bren, Don, Arlene, Lee, Gert, Jose, Maria...

There will be more on the way. Nate, in fact, is already here.

And then.... fires, too!

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) -
(3) -

Monday, October 9, 2017

#282 / When It Starts

The Sun magazine, which I have recently discovered, and which I find remarkable, has printed "The Low Road," by Marge Piercy, in its October 2017 edition. 

The following is almost the whole poem, but I am ending where I have often said, in this blog, we must all begin. 

Marge Piercy says it more powerfully She says it better than I ever could:

The Low Road

What can they do 
to you? Whatever they want. 
They can set you up, they can 
bust you, they can break 
your fingers, they can 
burn your brain with electricity, 
blur you with drugs till you 
can’t walk, can’t remember, they can 
take your child, wall up 
your lover. They can do anything 
you can’t stop them 
from doing. How can you stop 
them? Alone, you can fight, 
you can refuse, you can 
take what revenge you can 
but they roll over you. 

But two people fighting 
back to back can cut through 
a mob, a snake-dancing file 
can break a cordon, an army 
can meet an army. 
Two people can keep each other 
sane, can give support, conviction, 
love, massage, hope, sex. 
Three people are a delegation, 
a committee, a wedge. With four 
you can play bridge and start 
an organization. With six 
you can rent a whole house, 
eat pie for dinner with no 
seconds, and hold a fund-raising party. 
A dozen make a demonstration. 
A hundred fill a hall. 
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; 
ten thousand, power and your own paper; 
a hundred thousand, your own media; 
ten million, your own country. 

It goes on one at a time, 
it starts when you care 
to act, it starts when you do 
it again after they said no, 
it starts when you say We ...

Image Credit:

Sunday, October 8, 2017

#281 / Our Constitution

Ganesh Sitaraman (pictured) is a Professor of Law at Vanderbilt Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2011 to 2013, he served as Policy Director to Elizabeth Warren during her successful Senate campaign, and then as her Senior Counsel in the United States Senate. You can click here for links to Sitaraman's books, academic articles, and popular articles. 

On September 16, 2017, The New York Times published Sitaraman's Op-Ed, titled "Our Constitution Wasn't Built For This." In this article, Sitaraman advances the view that the United States Constitution was not designed to operate in a situation, like our own, in which society is characterized by extensive economic inequality. 

I think Sitaraman is undoubtedly correct that within the political community as then defined (Native Americans, African-Americans, and women being categorically excluded), there was a great deal more economic equality in 1787, the year of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, than there is today. However, I don't think I agree that the Constitution is not able to function properly in today's society, even thought it wasn't "built for" our current conditions of economic inequality. 

While it is not easy to do it, our political system does allow all those qualified to vote (and that currently does include Native Americans, African-Americans, and women) to allocate the economic resources of the nation to support the purposes and projects upon which we, collectively, decide to embark. The conditions of our current economic inequality, in other words, can be changed. We live in a "political world," and our problems and challenges are "political," and not "constitutional."

That, at least, is my view. The most wonderful thing about the Constitution is that it does not contemplate any specific economic, social, racial, religious, or other order. It works for all of us. It is, truly, "our" Constitution. Professor Sitaraman's ancestors were not on the Mayflower (that would be my bet). We are, in fact, a "nation of immigrants," and "Our Constitution," while not "built for" the society we have become, is fully functional and capable of responding to the needs of "We, the People," as we look around today, and discover who "we" are.

Image Credit:

Saturday, October 7, 2017

#280 / Sooooo Big!

Pictured is hurricane Maria. That's the hurricane that officials in Puerto Rico say has created "apocalyptic" conditions on that island. When I saw the picture, coming my way as an illustration in The Great Change blog, I was reminded of the "Sooooo Big!" game that my mother played with me when I was a very young child. And I think I played it with my children, too!

As it turns out, other parents also played the "Sooooo big" game with their children. For instance, I found the following recollection on the I Am Future Wise website: 

I remember a game I used to play as a toddler, when someone in my family or my relatives would ask the question How Big? The automatic response I gave, was to throw my arms up in the air, in a state of joy, and everyone around me would shout sooooo big! Little did I know, that particular “how big” question and its implications for life would reappear over and over again throughout my lifetime, but in a wider and expanded variety of contexts ... Over time, as both my age and understanding has expanded, sooooo big has taken on a completely new set of meanings. The great news is, that there is an entire “world” of the SELF inside us to discover. We are sooooo big that we can unfold this world over our lifetime and still have room for more of our full potential.

I don't want to disparage this insight, because it certainly has considerable merit, but my thoughts tended to go in the almost opposite direction when I look at that photograph of hurricane Maria. 

No mater how "big" we are, and no matter how "big" the world that we build may become, we are all living within the World of Nature, and are ultimately dependent on that Natural World. The World of Nature is much bigger than we are, and much bigger than any of our human constructions could ever be. We need to realize our dependence, and act accordingly. As the Resilience blog put it, we need to realize our situation "Before The Wind Consumes Us." 

The Great Change, commenting on Maria, and on the climatic conditions that produced it, phrases the necessary caution this way: "Do we still imagine that ... we shall ... subdue and tame all this? Do we expect some wise authority figure to step in and just fix it? Or are we ready now to admit that by tampering with weather we have been poking the hornet’s nest, even while breeding, in our hubris, ever larger and more venomous hornets?"

That blog  quotes Einstein, and I think he's got the right way to think about that "Sooooo Big" feeling.  It's not to proclaim our SELF sufficiency:

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling separated from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Image Credit:

Friday, October 6, 2017

#279 / Ideas From The Times

If there is merit in the critique implied in my blog posting from yesterday (nothing really new is being proposed, culturally or politically), then let's consider a couple of recent ideas gleaned from The New York Times. 

Two articles that appeared in the Sunday, September 24, 2017, edition address important political issues, and suggest that there could be some different approaches to a couple of current political "realities." 

First, accompanied by a jumbo rendition of the image above, Nicholas Kristof tells us how we can win the "war on drugs." Follow Portugal's example, he suggests, and "treat addiction as a disease, not a crime." That could work! It couldn't be worse than our current approach, that's for sure!

And what about "war" itself? As our "dotard" president crosses threats with the maniac "Supreme Leader" of North Korea, it might be a good time to start looking for some alternatives. Louis Uchitelle convincingly documents that the United States economy "Still Leans on the Military-Industrial Complex." What if we built a jobs-oriented political movement to shift our economy from its current, military foundations to an economy based on peace? That would definitely be a new idea, culturally and politically. 

The "communes" may have largely disappeared, but I think we've still got a chance for some "utopian" approaches to the challenges we face today. 

Couldn't be any worse than our current approach. That's my view. Let's give utopia another chance.

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 5, 2017

#278 / Where Have All The Communes Gone?

Members of a commune located about 20 miles from Madison, pose for a 'family' portrait outside the barn where they conduct a flourishing candle business 10/23/1969-Cross Plains, Wisconsin.

Where, indeed, have all those communes gone? That is the question posed by In These Times, in an article published on September 18, 2017. Jessa Crispin, the former editor of Bookslut, which is now no longer publishing, provides an answer that draws from experience in Germany, where Crispin now lives. Her answer is, is in some ways, rather hopeful:

All of those social deviants of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, by taking a nonviolent, extreme position, managed to pull the culture closer to them. The once-conservative German society now has very low marriage rates, a blasé attitude toward single parenting, and an innovative and successful educational system—all areas the Kommune and similar groups were experimenting with.

In the United States, trends since the 1960s do seem to parallel what has apparently happened in Germany - but only to an extent. I'd say that marriage rates are significantly down, and I do think that there is a relaxed, if not a blasé, attitude toward single parenting. I would not think, however, that the United States can boast of much progress towards an "innovative and successful educational system."

Furthermore, to go directly to the question posed by In These Times, I can't personally think of a single commune that I could visit, should I want to, and I have great doubt that the candle commune from Cross Plains, pictured above, is still intact and in place. Click the "Cross Plains" link to see how this village of 3,500 residents is presenting itself today. Not much evidence of a counter-culture approach to life, although I do note that Dane County, in which Cross Plains is located, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton last November, even though the State of Wisconsin, as a whole, went for Donald Trump. Of course, that's probably mostly due to the vote in Madison, also located in Dane County. Any reader who wants to find a "commune," and they often bear other names, can peruse the Directory of Intentional Communities, available online. 

In These Times is definitely on the "progressive" or "left" side of the political spectrum, so I was happy that Crispin included the following observations in her article:

The Left defines itself mostly by what it is against—white supremacy, misogyny, capitalism—but is vague on what it is for ... It seems we’ve resigned ourselves to neoliberalism, rapacious capitalism and endless war. The most radical suggestion anyone ever comes up with to deal with the housing shortages in every major city around the world is maybe to build some more rent-controlled housing. Where are the champions of socialized housing, communal living with private quarters but shared domestic spaces (co-housing), single-sex communities, or even large-scale occupation of the increasing amount of vacant real estate bought only as investment? Our relentlessly profit-driven healthcare system is one of the most expensive and ineffective in the world, but the dominant progressive fix is to expand private insurance coverage. What about nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry, forbidding religious orders from running hospitals, and revamping the mental health system to prioritize holistic treatment over drugging patients into stupors? Marriage remains a support system for the patriarchy, but no one even talks about abolishing marriage anymore (except for maybe me, inappropriately, at parties, after a couple martinis). It’s as though we've decided this world is inevitable and we must adjust ourselves to it, rather than adjust the world to better suit us. 
As Czech political dissident-turned-president Václav Havel noted, politics follows culture, so there will be no revolution or improvement in our condition coming down through the legislature. To believe otherwise, to legislate cultural issues through politics and ignore the will of the people, is to support tyranny [emphasis added].

Those "counterculture" activists of the 1960s and 1970s were definitely trying to define themselves, and the society they were determined to create, by what they were "for," as opposed to what they were "against." If Václav Havel is right (and I think he was always a rather perspicacious observer of all things political), we need to "culture" a new society like those who care about good food and drink need to "culture" their sourdough starter and a "Mother" for their homemade Kombucha

That kind of culture comes (as it did in the communes) from small groups of people who define what they are "for" by how they live together. It's that Margaret Mead thing all over again

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

#277 / Talking To Strangers

One of my neighbors (never met him) posted an appeal on the Nextdoor website, recommending "Next-Door Strangers: The Crisis of Urban Anonymity," an article by Marc J. Dunkelman. Dunkelman is a fellow in International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute at Brown University, and his article appeared in Hedgehog Review.  You can read the article by clicking the link above. 

Since the point of Dunkelman's article is that the Internet is not really a very good way to forge meaningful human relationships, and that using the Internet to connect with others is not really the best way to build community, it is somewhat ironic that my neighbor went to the Nextdoor website to make his recommendation. On the other hand, the alternative would have been for my neighbor to go door to door around the block, handing out copies of the article, or a slip of paper with the URL, and that would have taken a lot of time.

It turns out that Dunkelman and my neighbor are not alone in thinking that we need to find better ways to establish "real" community connections. In looking for an image to head up this blog posting, I immediately found an article in the Chicago Tribune that echoes Dunkelman's point. It refers to a book by Kio Stark, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don't Know Can Transform You. Stark has a TED Talk video on this topic, as well, and Dunkelman has his own book out, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. I am certain that this does not exhaust the available literature on this subject, making clear the need for "real" as opposed to "Internet" community. The name Zeynep Tufekci comes to mind - she is one of my favorites - and I have pontificated to his effect, myself

Let's stick to Dunkelman for the moment. I thought that this story, excerpted from his article, really made the point:

Late one afternoon nearly two decades ago, having made my way down the length of Manhattan’s west side, I met my grandfather at a quaint Italian restaurant in the West Village. He greeted me in the vestibule, gave me a hug, and asked how I’d thought to recommend this particular trattoria. I explained that an old buddy who’d grown up in New York had suggested it, but I quickly added that in the near future neither of us would have to depend on personal recommendations. That same friend had recently offered me a demonstration of Vindigo (a precursor to Yelp, the social networking site that rates local businesses). Once installed on a Palm Pilot (a precursor to the iPhone), the app would list all the restaurants near any given Manhattan intersection, sorted by cuisine. After a user selected the restaurant, Vindigo would offer walking directions. 
I’d expected my grandfather to guffaw—oh, the wonders of modern technology! Instead, he frowned. “Marc, when I was a young salesman traveling between hosiery mills in the small towns of North Carolina, I’d get off a train with nothing but a suitcase and make my way over to a friendly looking stranger. ‘Is there a good place to eat around here?’ More often than not, that guy would direct me to a hole in the wall or a diner a few blocks away. With some frequency, we’d strike up a conversation—sometimes he would join me for the meal. He’d tell me when he served in the war and share some of the local folklore. After a few minutes we’d invariably be talking about our families. That’s how I got to understand the world—by talking to strangers.

That is how democracy works, too: talking to strangers! It's called "precincting," in the political context. Sometimes it is called "canvassing," and that means going door to door. I have some personal experience. It really works!

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

#276 / Stocking Up

In a recent posting to his blog, In The Public Interest, Ralph Nader discusses "Destructive Stock Buybacks - That You Pay For." The following quotation captures the essence of what Nader has to say:

In a massive conflict of interest between greedy top corporate executives and their own company, CEO-driven stock buybacks extract capital from corporations instead of contributing capital for corporate needs, as the capitalist theory would dictate. 
Yes, due to the malicious, toady SEC “business judgement” rule, CEOs can take trillions of dollars away from productive pursuits without even having to ask the companies’ owners—the shareholders—for approval.

The specifics of the stock buyback issue aside (and I do agree with Nader's analysis), the article should remind us that corporations may be "persons," as the United States Supreme Court said in the Citizens United case, but our government has the right to regulate "persons." Look in the mirror! You're a person, and you're regulated. Corporations can be regulated, too.

In fact, corporations are uniquely created by and under legal arrangements made by various governments, and since corporations now seem to have more impact on our lives than the government itself, it might be a good time to start focusing some of our political energy on corporate reform and control strategies. 

This is just a thought. I think the public is (or ought to be) ready to turn its outrage into real regulations! Until we effectively start controlling the corporations, they will continue to control us. As Nader says, they're "stocking up," and it's at our expense. 

Image Credit:

Monday, October 2, 2017

#275 / Surfing The Silver Tsunami

My friend Rob Caughlan, who was the first President of the Surfrider Foundation, is known to friends as "Birdlegs." This sobriquet is actually somewhat descriptive

Rob has had a long and wonderful career, working for both Senator Dianne Feinstein and President Jimmy Carter. He helped start Friends of the River and served with me on the Board of Directors of the Planning and Conservation League. He has produced a wonderful documentary about the life of Pete McCloskey, a Korean War hero who became an anti-Vietnam War Member of Congress. For those who think that politics is inevitably venal, and to be avoided, watch Rob's film about McCloskey, Leading From The Front, and learn otherwise. 

Most recently, and certainly not of least importance, Rob has been a leader in efforts to protect public access at Martin's Beach, in San Mateo County

A couple of weeks ago, Rob sent me a copy of a speech he made in November 2016, at the Green Festival in San Francisco. He called it, "Surfing The Silver Tsunami." The topic is "green burials," and I was hoping it was online, so I could share it with friends, but it doesn't seem to be. 

I can now report, having done my search, that there are a number of OTHER speeches online, all with the exact same title ("Surfing The Silver Tsunami"). All of them are probably quite worthwhile, and discuss various impacts that can be expected as people like Rob and me (now silver-haired, but still kicking) move into an ever-older age bracket, but they are definitely not on Rob's topic. Given the plethora of other presentations, with identical titles, Rob's paper should probably be called: "Surfing The Silver Tsunami: Green Burial Edition."

Here is Rob's speech. It is worth reading, and worth thinking about. It is time for some new public policy, it seems to me!


Surfing The Silver Tsunami [Green Burials]

NOVEMBER 12, 2016

Good morning everyone. My name is Robert Caughlan. I am a political and environmental organizer, and I am going to talk about how each one of us can make our last act on earth be an important little contribution to the health of our planet.

I have been active in the environmental movement for almost fifty years. When I was in high school President Kennedy challenged my generation to go out and do something good for the country, and I got interested in politics and got my degree in political science and international relations. As a surfer, I naturally drifted to the green end of the political spectrum because I fell in love with the ocean.

As an environmental activist, in l974, I was a co-founder of a group of dam fighters called Friends of the River. In the 80s I was elected as the first President of the Surfrider Foundation, a group of surfers who fight for a cleaner ocean. In politics, I worked for Senators Dianne Feinstein, Alan Cranston, Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Leo Ryan (who, you may remember, was murdered by a cult group leader in Jonestown), and in the Environmental Protection Agency, and in the White House for President Jimmy Carter.

One of the projects I worked on was a major study of international environmental issues called The Global 2000 Report. It was, unfortunately, the only time the US government has attempted to do any long range, holistic trend analysis.

It ended up to be an l400-page study of the global environmental problems and the way they were going and growing.

It was a sobering picture. We made some good projections. And we missed some big issues. But one of the major conclusions was that there are no big magic bullet solutions to any of the giant environmental issues that we face today. We need lots of little solutions.

That is why the environmental slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally “is so important.

Some of the problems are very predictable. The Global 2000 Report was very accurate in predicting that the world population was going to be about 6 billion people by the year 2000.

We have a similar big issue coming at us in the US today. It is a historic and gigantic demographic anomaly. It is the demise of the Baby Boomers. 80 million of us boomers are going to boom in the near future.  There is no issue that is more predictable.

And, depending upon the way we deal with this phenomenon, we will either add millions of tons of weight onto our already Paul Bunyan-sized  boot print, or substantially help lessen our impact on the climate. It’s a huge environmental issue that no one has paid much attention to yet.

I didn’t coin the phrase, but as a surfer, I like it. This demographic anomaly has already been called The Silver Tsunami.

Silver Tsunami Slide*

I have spent a large portion of my life attempting to get people involved in solving environmental problems. As I mentioned, I’ve organized river lovers and helped get the surfers involved. Now I want to get a large new constituency participating – dead people.

(Getting dead people active may actually be easier than it was to organize surfers.)

Here’s the situation. When Americans are buried in a typical tomb-stone cemetery, they are buried under flat green grass that has been watered and filled with pesticides. (The Skylawn Cemetery in San Mateo uses $300,000 of water every year).

Embalming Slide

Then the body is filled with embalming chemicals. We place four million gallons of formaldehyde into the ground every year.

Brass Coffins Slide

Twenty million board feet of lumber a year is used on the caskets. I don’t have any problem with that if it is not endangered South American hardwood. A good book about all of this, Grave Matters by Mark Harris, estimates that the average ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground has l,000 tons of casket steel.

But worst of all, all are the cement vaults. These cement boxes keep the lawns flat, keep the tomb stones from tipping, and makes it so they can pack more caskets closer together.

Unless we can provide people with better alternatives, about forty percent, or thirty million, of us 80 million Boomers will probably choose to be buried in this manner.

Coal Mines Slide

Each cement vault weighs more than a ton. (Cement is a large contributor to global warming gasses and most of the cement is made with coal-fired energy). I saw one study that said as much as 10% of global CO2 emissions come from the production of concrete.

BTUs Slide

Each vault contains about five million British Thermal Units, BTUs, of energy. So, we will burn 150 TRILLION BTUs to create all those cement vaults. That’s 150 with 12 zeros:


Put another way, a barrel of oil contains 5.6 million BTUs. So, we will burn the equivalent of 27 million barrels of gasoline. There are 42 gallons of gasoline in every barrel, so that equals 1.125 billion gallons of gasoline.  (26,786,000 x 42)

Even in my old gas guzzling muscle car, which only got 25 miles per gallon, I could drive about 30 billion miles,  around the planet 1,172,000 times, if I had that much fuel to waste.

Now, mainly because it is less expensive, the other 60% of the baby boomers, about fifty million people, will choose to be cremated.

Cremation Slide

It takes about l5 therms of energy to cremate an average body. (A therm is l00,000 BTUs).

That means burning the rest of the Boomers, the other 50 million, will require 75 trillion more BTUs of energy.

Or another 625,000 drives around the planet.

Then, of course, there is the smoke from 50 million burning bodies. Cremation is correctly viewed as being easier on the planet than full body burial. And cremation will probably continue to be a bit less expensive than natural burial plots.

In Japan, 95% of the people are cremated because Japan is a small country. They don’t have a lot of space. In the United States, we have plenty.

From an environmental point of view, natural burial is by far the best.

There is a growing movement in Europe and the United States for natural burials. These so-called “green burials” are really just a return to the old ways, doing what the Pilgrims did. Bury the person in a pine box or a shroud and plant a tree over the grave. What we now call “green burial,” used to be called “burial.” 

I think this is a positive and important new aspect of environmental preservation.

We are lagging behind England. They have more than 250 green cemeteries, or natural burial parks or ancestral groves. We only have a couple dozen, although that number is growing. I just saw the plans for a new one in Florida.

The Willows Slide

There are many within the funeral industry who are, understandably, not big fans of the natural burial movement. Green burials are not as expensive as a typical flat lawn cemetery. They won’t get to sell as much concrete or brass or formaldehyde.

Ramsey Creek Slide

But more and more of the typical flat lawn cemeteries are starting to respond to the increasing interest in green burials by dedicating parcels of their properties for green burial. These are now being called hybrid cemeteries.

The Fernwood Cemetery in Marin County was the first in California. Skylawn in San Mateo has three areas that will be dedicated to natural burials, although they have been pretty slow to start offering the green burial option.

Steelman Town Cemetery Slide

But hybrid cemeteries will not be enough. Most of our typical cemeteries are already almost full! We need to start planning and creating a large quantity of new cemeteries to accommodate the millions of Americans who will choose full body burial. We will need to accommodate about eight million people right here in California, in the very near future. Like I said, there is no future problem that is more accurately predictable.

It is difficult to set up new cemeteries. The rules in California are tough. But I think we could help solve the shortage of cemeteries and provide people with a green burial option by working with land trust organizations.

Plant Trees Slide

The concept is simple. Land trusts dedicate a small portion of their holdings for a natural burial park. The consumers purchase a plot and the burial service. The land trust plants trees or native grasses over the graves and uses the proceeds to protect more open space. It’s called a conservation cemetery - it has a higher purpose than just storage.

Alvin Toffler, in his seminal book, Future Shock, emphasized the importance of developing better long-range vision. We need to get better at looking ahead because the problems are coming at us so fast, and we need time to prepare for their consequences and get started on the solutions.

Penn Forest Slide

Because you are the kind of people who care enough about environmental issues to come to an event like this, you have much more influence on things than you may understand. Let me explain.

In political science classes, everyone learns about the 80/20 law. That law says that in all societies - large countries or small tribes, regardless of ideology - that about 20% of the people shape the actions of the other 80. The 20% are called “opinion leaders.” They are the ones who are known by their peers, or community, to be informed about current events and particularly knowledgeable about certain issues. As people who are already involved in environmental issues you are part of that 20%. Your influence will become more important as this issue starts to be noticed.

How? Just talk about it with your friends.

Harley Burial Slide

All the trends are showing that people want more participation in the end of life events. Home funerals, hospice midwives, and innovative burial events are increasingly popular.

Star Trek’s James Doohan had a portion of his ashes shot into the Earth’s orbit. Outdoorsman John Grayson Rogers had his ashes put into an eternal reef ball placed near the coral reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.

I believe that there are many thousands of people in California and around the country, like Prius buyers and Whole Foods shoppers, who care strongly about environmental issues and climate change who would rather spend their money for a more for an ecological end of life alternative.

Marshall McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

I believe natural burial can be a win-win-win idea. It’s a win for open space preservation because it would help fund land trust protection efforts. And, it is a double win for us Boomer consumers. We save some money. And we benefit from knowing that our last act made a small but positive contribution to the overheated little planet that we will soon be leaving to our grandchildren. And that makes it a win for the planet.

The eloquent environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote,

A rock decays and forms soil. In the soil grows an oak,
Which bears an acorn, which feeds a squirrel,
Which feeds an Indian, Who ultimately lays him
down to his last sleep in the great tomb of man
– to grow another oak.

Hearse Slide

Thanks for your continued interest solving environmental problems. If I can answer any questions I’ll be glad to try. I am going over to The Final Footprint table with my friend Jane Hillhouse. She can even show you some more of her beautiful ecological caskets.

Image Credit:
Rob Caughlan - Image accompanying the article cited in this blog posting
*The heading titles indicate that this presentation was accompanied by a set of presentation slides.