Normally, I avoid looking at advertisements when I visit corporate news sites, but one caught my eye on Huffington Post last night. I just had to take a screen shot.
This is not the best of photos but the message about a corporate agenda for a dystopian consumer future is so alarmingly transparent.
The message reminds me why I still teach. It’s well worth the effort to face the challenges of creating opportunities for students to learn by paying attention to what surrounds them, to “see the wonder of life in a blade of grass,” and think critically about the world.
Speaking of teaching, I may be slow visiting blogs or responding to comments because I have many papers to grade at the moment.
I would have postponed posting this before the coordinating warnings that just came from the National Emergency Warning System. The loudspeakers and sirens in my neighborhood trumpeted the message, my cell phone screeched next, followed rapidly by a message on the classical public radio station I listen to each day. I’m just curious to know how many others have heard the warnings and if anyone has an inkling about what’s going on.
After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.
“What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?”
Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.
Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.
Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.
Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.
As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.
Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.
The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.
Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.
in the part of the city where Mr. Trump will soon appear
How fervently I wish real heart and intellectual power
would be restored to the people
as children are once again
being torn from the arms of loving families
The “Raised Fist Image” by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia, “… is a variant of the clenched fist motif which has been widely used by leftist, workers, and liberationist groups since the nineteenth century. The motif itself is not under copyright.”
Keith Tyler’s image was released into the public domain by its creator February 2007. “The wider motif itself is not protected by copyright.”
A few days ago, I checked the news on Huffington Post and read a story about garbage, something I have been thinking about lately. On Mondays and Tuesdays, overflowing garbage containers line the alley behind my house. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know where it goes.
I still haven’t made it a priority to investigate exactly how the city where I now live handles trash, but I do remember “garbage mountain” in the last city where I lived. The mountain rose high above the flat landscape, placed close to the state prison. I often wondered how the prisoners were able to breathe because I could smell the heavy stench miles away.
The Huffington Post article I read was disturbing on a number of levels. Here’s a brief excerpt:
China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.
The country has been the “world’s wastebasket” for decades. But starting Jan. 1, China has said “no more.” (by Dominique Mosbergen)
On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.
For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals — some 7.3 million tons of trash in all. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The ramifications of China’s recent ban has been described with language suggestive of a natural disaster. It has sent “shockwaves” worldwide, said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua. Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, compared the ban to an “earthquake.”
As recyclers and governments now rush to figure out what to do with their mounting garbage, environmental activists warn that the initial effects of China’s ban could prove detrimental to the environment and human health.
China’s decision seems reasonable to me. It’s not the job of Chinese citizens to continue to be buried in the world’s toxic garbage. I also wondered why the author of the article failed to use this as a golden opportunity to mention inventions that could potentially address a crucial part of the issue, plastic. I remembered reading about a Japanese inventor who had developed a process for converting plastic back into oil and did a quick internet search.
The inventor was Akinori Ito. He “created a household appliance which converts plastic bags into fuel. The fuel can be used for various applications such as the generation of heat” (interestingengineering.com).
I also found a fascinating video that features Ito describing the motivation behind his invention and demonstrating how it works. (This Japanese Invention Can Recycle Plastic into Oil).
My discoveries didn’t end with Ito. John Bordynuik describes his invention for converting plastic to highly refined oil on TEDxBuffalo.
In doing a little more research, I discovered that Borynuik was later found guilty of misrepresenting his company’s performance to stockholders. Initially, I decided not to post this piece and trashed my draft post. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about this issue. After further reflection, the corporate agenda to discredit an innovator by any means made me seriously question why any one has to make money on a process that helps us resolve a pressing human and environmental issue. Isn’t it enough of a benefit to deal with mountains and oceans of plastic pollution in more responsible ways?
It’s true. I was looking for an easy way out. I wanted someone else to rescue me from the responsibility of doing more myself to reduce what I contribute to the problem. It is also true that I believe science can help provide answers, although more than five decades have passed since my early college days when I was majoring in biology and chemistry. Setting our scientists to work on solutions to pollution would be a far wiser investment than building yet more bombers, nuclear weapons, and continuing our unsustainable environmental exploitation.
What concerns me most about Huffington Post’s article is the fact that Ito’s video was posted in 2010, and Bordynuik’s was posted in 2011. The science is known and both Ito and Bordynuik have demonstrated that it works, albeit on a small scale that requires time and money to carry out at this point. Their work suggests, however, a wiser way to invest in the future without fracking and drilling new oil wells on the shores of Alaska and Florida.
Just think what we could do if we stopped manufacturing new reasons for international conflict and agreed to work together to solve this challenge in ways that make sense! Figuring out how to deal with our own garbage responsibly is a daunting enough challenge to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future.
I wish that Huffington Post had taken a little more time to do research and frame their story in a more constructive manner. It makes me wonder whose interests are being served by presenting information in a tone that may well foment yet another excuse for international conflict. Our garbage.
Grading student papers is not an easy job. It’s the reason I haven’t been on WordPress often these past weeks. Yet I have learned how important it is to grade mindfully, because the words we use can change lives – for better or worse.
I’m posting a poem my colleague shared with me tonight that speaks to this truth with power and eloquence.
My Name Is Not Those People, a poem by Julie K. Dinsmore, read Danny Grover on YouTube:
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen Welcome to the circus Our main attraction may appear to be the orange clown He will perform astounding feats of buffoonery
His act is intended to distract your attention Perhaps he will also be able to divide you, the audience, into illusory opponents and maybe even provoke you to fight with each other But don’t be fooled
*** His main objective is to keep you from noticing the machinations of the puppeteers who, behind the scenes, are building structures that will imprison you in joyless lives of endless servitude to feed their insatiable appetites for yet more power.
This morning I awoke early, feeling the urgency to finish writing something I began before going to sleep in the wee hours. It was a rambling incoherent reflection that explained my absence from WordPress this week.
There are days when “real world” responsibilities keep me away from blogging – preparing courses, working on a book manuscript, paying bills, chipping ice from my sidewalk and driveway, buying groceries, and weaving new social networks. Other times, I need to retreat and re-energize, taking time to balance and reflect. Especially now. The fear, anger, and divisiveness are palpable, even virulent at times. It’s a delicate balancing act to remain hopeful and objective in tumultuous times.
This evening when it was movie time for my parakeet, Queenie, I opted to explore dramas based on real life on Netflix. Queenie prefers movies with music. So the first choice, toward the end of a long list, was the movie “The Idol,” the story of Palestinian singer Muhammed Assaf. The second was among the recommended videos when our first movie ended, “East Jerusalem West Jerusalem.” The movie chronicles David Broza’s initiative to bring Israeli, Palestinian, and American musicians together to produce an album. Both were hopeful examples of artists using their gifts to spread a message of peace and human connections.
Today, while the USA erupts into divisiveness, it seems fitting to celebrate the artists and peacemakers among us who focus on reaching across borders to unite people in our shared humanity.
“East Jerusalem West Jerusalem,” directed by Henrique Cymerman and Erez Miller, follows David Broza’s work bringing artists together across cultural divides (Israeli, Palestinian, and American) to collaborate on an album in a recording studio in Arab (East) Jerusalem. “Over eight days, the artists build cultural bridges, finding common ground through their music and their commitment to peace.” (Skirball.org)
Following is a video of David Broza’s account of the process.
The video and lyrics from one of the songs on the album, Jerusalem by Steve Earle, underscore the contributing artists’ shared commitment to peace and unity.
I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
It’s easy to divide people. The divisiveness will continue to be trumpeted and fomented by mainstream and social media today and for months to come. However, I wish to celebrate another possibility today by honoring the peace-makers who grace the world. I realize there are many ways to deal with these times.
While some are celebrating the US presidential inauguration and others are protesting, I’ll be at home chipping the ice that still covers my sidewalk and driveway if weather permits and working on a PowerPoint for the first meeting of the social justice course I’m co-teaching tomorrow. I’m grateful to artists like Muhammed Assaf and David Broza who use their talents to promote peace and unity.
How can one remain uninspired by their examples? I do question if it’s possible for us to find common ground. For the sake of my grandchildren, I know I have to continue trying. And I know I’m not alone.
Do you ever begin writing without a clear message or destination in mind? Yesterday and today are like that for me. I’m still surrounded by a sea of ice permanently bonded to sidewalks and earth, watching as snow falls to add another layer to the challenge of digging out. But I’m thankful for small blessings. Yesterday, I was able to clear the ice that had frozen my front door and front gate shut. Being locked-in by weather reminds me of the feeling of powerlessness that often sweeps over me these days.
These feel like truly bleak times. I’ll get back to that later, after I revisit memories. Maybe the process of remembering will help me find hopeful, realistic solutions. Developing a coherent course on social justice will only be possible then…
Had I remained in the New Jersey home of my childhood, I may have assimilated and accepted American values as my own. That didn’t happen, though. Instead I spent my twelfth summer on an Ojibwe reservation with my grandmother before moving to northwestern Pennsylvania, a dreary place from my perspective then and now. My only real friends were elders in the nursing home my mother bought and administered. Despite my father’s unemployment, erratic combative behavior and profligacy, we were catapulted from the working class into relative affluence. We had a summer cottage on the Allegheny River, a 40-acre farm on top of a mountain, and a third-floor apartment above the nursing home. My mother’s business made enough profit to send me off to a private Catholic women’s college in Chicago.
I could escape small town homogeneity, believing that I would find answers and skills that might help me make a difference. I sometimes still wonder what might have been if I had stayed focused on my original goal as a chemistry and biology major – to become an ecologist. I didn’t have enough self-confidence then to overcome all of the barriers I faced and a young woman. Or perhaps it felt too much like escape from the suffering I encountered in the communities I was exposed during those college years. I spent my vacations in the hills of Kentucky, or on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. My evenings and weekends were spent tutoring a lovely young black student in the inner city of Chicago or hanging out with Latino youth there.
Yes, I could lose myself for hours and days trying to decipher the chemical composition of compounds. It was exciting to answer my curiosity. But I wondered if anything had really improved in the world because of this discovery. Would this path ever lead to a reduction of the needless oppression and pain I had witnessed? I didn’t think so at the time, but still I sometimes wonder.
I wasn’t motivated by the same things as the other young women at the somewhat elite Catholic women’s college I attended. Lord knows I tried to understand their worldviews. A few of my classmates introduced me to books and music that unlocked new ideas and possibilities. But many appeared to only be concerned with superficial appearances that didn’t interest me. And quite frankly, some of the stories I heard about their cruelty toward their unpopular, “unattractive” roommates was a warning to remain on the margins out of their sight. Some of their victims barely survived. It’s the major reason why I developed a strong negative bias toward privilege that has only grown over the years.
Let me fast forward to the age of 24. I had dropped out of college when my daughter was born. When she was one and a half, I decided to see if it was possible for us to live a simpler communal life. With nothing but a vision, twenty dollars in my pocket and hope for what was possible, we set off not knowing what we would find. Not surprising in retrospect, I found that one cannot easily escape from the problems in the world I was trying to avoid. It’s how I became fascinated by the concept of power and it inspired me to learn about hegemony.
Because I grew up with an abusive and emotionally volatile father, I had learned to always question authority. Threats and punishment could not force me compromise what I thought was right. Witnessing the willingness of others to follow the often whimsical and foolish orders of “the leader” of the commune initially amused me. Yet I still held out hope because of the good-hearted people who held a clear vision of what we could create together by growing our own food and living simply. Despite my earlier experiences, I still saw the world from the vantage point of honest innocence and good-will, incapable of imagining that anyone would willingly harm others.
That view changed over time as I gradually rose from the outer fringes of the commune hierarchy to the buffer position between the 200 community members and the inner leadership circle. My job was to collect weekly donations from all members and purchase supplies for all of the geographically dispersed “houses.” The leadership wanted to extract every penny it could from the members.
Some members worked extra jobs and donated all they earned without taking care of their own needs. Others contributed little and made sure they got more than they gave. There were also wounded souls who might not survive under other conditions. The leadership only cared about money, not the well-being of individual commune members. Sadly, most members cared more about being accepted by the leader than about living according to their own values.
It took time for me to understand that the funds were used to support an extravagant lifestyle for a few. That’s when I left the position and returned to the periphery to see if it was still possible to build a sense of community vision. A confrontation with the leader made it clear that changing “his” community was not a viable option. So my daughter and I left. This time we had a few friends, a place to stay if we made it across the country, and $150.
We started over and I didn’t look back. I wouldn’t learn how bad the oppression really was for others until I reconnected with some of the commune members 40 years later and heard their stories about the leader’s cocaine and other drug addictions and the children and women who were repeatedly raped by the leader and his inner circle. Clearly they violated the community’s alleged guiding principles that were imposed on members – “no drugs or promiscuity.”
Five years after I left the community, I re-entered school and began another journey from the outer to inner circles of hierarchies. I even learned my own lessons about the allure and dangers of having a little power. This is where these reflections led me today.
The privileged elite in any system need buffers to protect them from “the masses.” The most gifted buffers are those who only see the good in others. But even they will ultimately realize their trust and hope is misplaced. Then, like me, they face a decision point. Either they leave or they consciously decide to compromise their own values because it’s more comfortable to settle for a small piece of the pie than it is to risk the uncertainty of starting over with nothing.
Nothing, that is, but self-respect and the knowledge that they have started over many times before. Solutions come in their own time if one is patient, resourceful, and grateful for the many gifts and memories that remain.
Eventually, spring will come. Of this I am certain, although I have no idea what it will bring. Hopefully, though, it will be warm enough to melt the ice that still remains despite continuing efforts to do what I can to remove it without harming others, the environment, or myself in the process…
A final thought occurred as I was chipping ice, much to the dismay of my forlorn little helper.
Buffers beware. As you salivate over the possibility of eliminating yet more of the meager safety net – access to public education, health care, housing and social security, remember that you too are expendable. You may someday all too soon find yourself among us, the masses. At least those of us who don’t die off first from never-ending global wars, austerity, starvation and disease. We’re just in the way you know. We consume resources that the elite want for themselves to feed their insatiable need for power and amusing diversions to keep them from looking at empty, meaningless lives spent in gated communities. After all, they will still have a hefty prison slave population to serve their needs when we’re all gone.
…Unless we wake up, that is, and begin to work together to envision and build other alternatives in our ordinary everyday lives. Despite these dark thoughts during an icy winter stretch, I still believe there are enough goodhearted people to make that a real possibility…
The circumstances feel eerily similar. Two vastly different cultures collide, one with fear and lethal weapons, and one with hope, ceremony, and prayers. One to exploit the earth for short-term individual profits, and one to protect the earth for all our relations, now and in the future.
Despite all of the tragic lessons of past history, I still hope that love and peaceful solidarity will finally triumph over brutality, oppression and fear. I humbly ask all who read this to please do what you can to let governments, police, and corporations know that the world is watching. Please do all you can to let the Water Protectors know you support them and stand with them in spirit.
Chi Miigwetch. (Ojibwe for “thank you very much.”)