Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rhythms, Blues, and the ABCs of Distress

This article was published in the last issue of Left Curve journal, No. 38. (Purchase the issue.) The hard copy issue was published in 2014, three months after the death by cancer of Csaba Polony, artist, publisher, and friend.

As I squat over the Tupperware container I read the Standard Phonetic Spelling Alphabet sticky-taped onto the narrow space between my boat's starboard berth and the ladder. I start at the top of the first column and read downwards:
       A   ALPHA
       B   BRAVO
       C   CHARLIE
       D   DELTA

After KILO, LIMA, and MIKE at the bottom of the first column my eyes drop to the dusty fire extinguisher below the notice and, moving down, I read the labels affixed there:
       Do not remove.
       By order of the State Fire Marshall...

I check the level in the Tupperware container to ensure no overflow...then, starting at the bottom of the Alphabet's second column, I read upwards:
       Z   ZULU
       Y   YANKEE
       X   X RAY...

I place the Tupperware container on deck, climb the short ladder, and step out to pour the golden liquid overboard.

Last summer, I became a “live aboard” in a rented sailboat in the least expensive marina in the Oakland Estuary. For the first few weeks, new kid on the dock, I dashed down the rickety wooden jetty to the marina toilet whenever “nature” called. Distance, dark nights, and cold weather soon eroded my landlubber instinct for a flushing toilet. Now, instead of the discarded magazines I had read in the marina bathroom, I read notices glued inside my boat’s cabin. 
As I adjust to a life in tune with the tides I ponder this “lifestyle choice” — and joke with my friends that, soon enough, a skewed economy, lack of jobs, and climate change-induced sea level rise will force other landlubbers aboard too; I am just slightly ahead of the rush.
What makes a 58-year-old, more healthy than wealthy, single-by-choice, non-sailor grandmother give up her beach-front condo and move on to a 36-foot sailboat with tight quarters, primitive cooking facilities, and no bathroom amenities?
Depending on the day, my answers range from practicality — work fewer hours to make rent, gain more hours to devote to creativity — to getting down to the basics of what is important, to politics and “feelings.”
I feel I can no longer participate in a day-to-day, year in/year out life whose ultimate goal is a comfortable retirement while awaiting, well, death.
I feel—indeed, I am certain— that, living what I consider a worthwhile life is far more than keeping my head down, my IRA up, and going along with an increasingly corrupt social pact.

“Please her, please him, buy gifts/Don't steal, don't lift...”

I am a “little guy”, a member of “the 99%”, and I perform as expected within US culture: I work hard, pay taxes, raise children, and (try) to “love” my neighbor, play fair, stand up for justice, etc.
Nevertheless, I look around me, read the newspapers, and find that my life—along with the lives of 99 percent of the population like me—seems increasingly irrelevant. Our ethics and values, once mainstream, are anachronisms in the current moment. What counts is money and power—by whatever means necessary—and, as the rich get richer the “working stiff” gets less financially and socially secure, our culture’s espoused principles of democracy become ever more quaint.
Further, I feel my heart, one small but not insignificant expression of our times, is broken by the apparent willingness of the majority of other “little guys” to concede to “global capital”, “the 1%”, and the Decider class (to coin a Bushism) plundering and privatizing the resources upon which all life depends.
Among these unsettling feelings lurks a primitive stubbornness: I will not succumb to bleak fatalism; I will push through the fragmentation, alienation, and apparent powerlessness to answer, as ruthlessly as possible, the questions that trouble me:
Is it possible for a disparate collection of people to modify our worldview enough that we change the course of our collective future?
If so, how do “we” – largely well-meaning though unskilled in collective endeavors – do it?
In theory, I agree with the not new although most recently expressed sentiment of hero-of-the-moment Edward Snowden:
…you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important. And if living unfree but comfortable is something you’re willing to accept—and many of us are—[do that:] get up every day, go to work, collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that the world you helped create is going to get worse with the next generation, and the next... you realize you might be willing to accept any long as the public gets to make their [sic] own decisions about how that’s applied.”
But, who is “the public”? How will it rouse itself enough to make its “own decisions”? Is it ready to apply and accept “any risk”? After all, the hardy people I witnessed participating in the brief efflorescence of Oakland’s Occupy movement was quickly discouraged by police and judicial brutality…as well as over-reaching organizers.  Moreover, “the public” is under the impression that it makes decisions through the ballot box – an avenue proving to be a cul-de-sac.

“You don't need a weatherman/to know which way the wind blows”

One sunny Saturday soon after Hurricane Haiyan ripped through the Philippines (and politicians pointed fingers about whether it had claimed 10,000 or 2,000 lives) I worked in the boat and listened to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
The lyrics are more true today than they were almost 50 years ago when Dylan wrote them.
Cost estimates attributed to climate change have skyrocketed —from $200 billion to the current $400 billion per year. Except to the most ideological, the physical evidence is undeniable — unprecedented hurricanes, droughts, floods, fires, dwindling supplies of fresh water, and a rise in new diseases that include cancers never before seen in young children. Such evidence, however, is far less motivating than financial indicators that promise business opportunities for the enterprising and the innovative and investment opportunities for the rest.
Much of “the public” knows that Fukushima Daiichi is stewing in its waste, that Baghdadis are burning, that Syrians are in the cross-hairs, that Egypt, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and the Ukraine are melting down, that the Congo and Sudan are imploding, and that, closer to home, our system of government acts more to enable corporations than to protect our democracy. The small segment of “the public” that is concerned with ever more extravagantly designed machines ravaging the natural environment is overwhelmed by the larger segment that is unconcerned —at least, more concerned that the Dow Jones Industrial Average came “Within 1% of All-Time High” and that Hurricane Haiyan offers the US an opportunity to reinstall strategic military bases in the Philippines.

“I'm on the pavement/Thinking about the government”

To cope—or simply to do something — a handful of “little guys” experiment with sustainable ways of being. Some morph from landlubber to “live aboard,” some threaten to depart the US for Canada/Mexico/ Costa Rica/ “anywhere but here!” Others refurbish traditional ways of being: urban gardens replace the commons; squats and communal households replace village life; informal collaborations replace crafts guilds; online networks of the “like-minded’ replace town meetings.
Others, full of passionate intensity, mutter intricate conspiracy theories or complain that no one confronts self-interested elites/greedy capitalists/ revolving door lobbyists...or that not enough is being done to address crises rooted in corporate profit/ national security /stultified power structures/ misguided policies /the lack of veneration for air, oceans, earth, owls, whales, rhinoceros....
Sitting on my boat, rocking on the wakes of passing vessels, I peruse a computer file I named “neurosis.doc”. It is a collection of politicians’ quotes and propaganda published in mainstream media that I gather and nurse as evidence of Einstein’s definition of insanity: hearing the same things repeated over and over and expecting different results. I mull a few: 
  • In 2010, Federal Reserve Bank chair Alan Greenspan assures Congress that “no one could have known” the US economy was heading toward catastrophe.
    Members of Congress accept his statement without demur.
    In 2013, Greenspan publishes a small amendment in his narrative of blamelessness: “no one of note could have known....”
  • Decorated Vietnam veteran/Secretary of State John Kerry describes the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria as “an inconceivable horror” and that “the dead included 426 children.” He assures the public that the “US already had the facts, and nothing that the UN weapons inspectors found could tell the world anything new”. Syria's president, he informs us, is “a thug and a murderer.”
  • President Obama addresses the nation on his “measured response” to Syria, “when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death...I believe we should act.” He adds, “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
  • Obama addresses the UN General Assembly: “America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, to the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up, not only for our own interests, but for the interests of all.”
  • While fundraising as chair of the non-profit organization Points of Light, Neil Bush concurs with Obama and promotes American exceptionalism, freedom, and “‘limits to government’: We are the only country motivated consistently by compassion and morality....We recognize that with the blessings of freedom comes a clear responsibility to help others.”
  • Russia’s President Putin editorializes in the New York Times, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation....We are all different...but...we must not forget that God created us equal.”
  • CNN reports that Putin’s words made Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez “almost want to throw up”; House Speaker John Boehner said he was “insulted.”
Worrying over my burgeoning collection of propaganda is like probing a sore tooth with my tongue: it’s painful and fascinating and macabre and difficult to stop.
Who falls for this crass rhetoric?
Well, we, “the public”, fall for it. Despite each of us individually believing “I see through it,” most of us are vulnerable to national-ego-stroking. Indeed, much of “the public” willingly contorts logic and commonsense to align itself with feel-good propaganda, even those among us who suffer the effects of government’s harshest policies.

“Hang around the theaters.../Lookin' for a new fool”

The shopping cart props up an American flag (right). The US Labor against War poster (foreground) states: Real security = health care + education + housing + jobs... not war, weapons, occupation. (Photo: Susan Galleymore.)
I shot this photograph on the edge of an Oakland tent encampment erected by “the homeless” — men, women, and children — in the porticos, patios and parking bays of the Kaiser Convention Center, abandoned in 2006.
The legend carved on the building's facade proclaims: “Auditorium of the City of Oakland Dedicated by the Citizens to the Intellectual and Industrial Progress of the People - 1914.”
In the photo, the shopping cart props up an American flag (right, visible in tree limbs). The US Labor against War poster (foreground) states: Real security = health care + education + housing + jobs... not war, weapons, occupation.
I asked members of group around me why they flew the flag. Answers ranged from blaming themselves for their homelessness to “we're the best no matter what”, to “our country, right or wrong”, to “hard times”, to “rich folks run The System so they can get richer.”
After one man said, “the flag is our symbol of democracy”.
Another man reminded us of the area’s history: The Beaux Arts style landmark Oakland Civic Auditorium was constructed with public works funds during an era of public works projects that included massive harbor improvements, dredging nearby Lake Merritt, building the current city hall, establishing pioneering Oakland Public Museum, and vastly expanding and improving the city’s sewers, streets, lighting, electricity, and fire and police departments.
After a renovation in 1984 the building was renamed the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, “an honorific,” our homeless historian smiled ruefully, “bestowed upon someone who spent not one penny on the building’s construction or renovation.” He added, “This is just one example of the lie put out at the 2010 Republican Party National Convention that, ‘We built it’.”
He continues, “The Man rewrites history to have a clear conscience about the blood, sweat, and tears of folks who work for a living and still end up living in tents!” He shakes his head then adds, “These days, truth is confused by propaganda.” Like Henry J. Kaiser, not only did the Republican Party “We”— rich folk — not build or pay for anything, their “We” writes law that ensures “We” never pay taxes to build or maintain any national infrastructure or social net. “The little “we” do the work, and the big “We” take the credit!”
While a homeless encampment may not have been what Sarah Palin had in mind when she mocked Obama’s campaign message, it is appropriate to repeat it here: “How's that hopey, changey stuff workin' out for ya?”

“It's something you did/God knows when/But you're doing it again...”

I scroll through my propaganda collection and compare free-market-advocate-in-chief Alan Greenspan – who claims “no one of note” could have known deregulation would lead to worldwide economic crisis – and Eric Schmidt. Google’s executive chairman is far less coy than Greenspan:  “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.”
Google donated $700,000 to Obama's re-election campaign while it failed to pay its 2011 tax bill of $2 billion. Schmidt also turned down President Obama's offer of a top government job saying, “I have no interest in working for the federal government.”
Foreign Policy scribe Stephen S. Roach opines that, “Mr. Greenspan has been blinded by a dangerous combination of politics and ideology....”
UK Guardian blogger Andrew Brown shares deeper insights into how politics and ideology function. After former president G.W. Bush addresses a fundraiser for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (a non-profit organization that attempts to convert Jews to Christianity and promotes the second coming of the Messiah), Brown explains:
“...[C]onversion of the Jews, and their restoration to Jerusalem, was a great enthusiasm among English evangelicals in Victorian times. ...[W]ithout the belief of Victorian upper class evangelical Englishmen — almost exactly the equivalents of George W. Bush —there never would have been a Balfour Declaration. And without that declaration, there could not have been the Jewish immigration to Palestine that laid the foundations for the State of Israel...
In the end, what matters is not so much what you believe about God, as who you think you are. The upper classes of any global empire feel certain that God is on their side. The Bushes feel that now as surely as the Balfours did a hundred years ago – and two thousand years ago the Caesars believed that gods were actually among their family members.”
For a moment, imagine a worldview different from the one that resulted in the Balfour Declaration’s slow, inexorable genocide of Palestinians, the 19th century-style usurpation of their land, and the ongoing political upheaval it causes.
Then, imagine a way of thinking that actively engages men, women, and children in controlling and enjoying their lives beyond a day-to-day scrabble for fresh water, jobs with adequate wages, decent health care, quality education, and safe housing.
Instead of that world, people “of note” and the “upper classes” continue to replicate a world that neither the planet nor the vast majority of its people can afford.

“Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine”

State Policy Network is a 501(c)(3) think-tank and lobbying machine for major corporations and rightwing donors.
Based in each of the 50 states, SPN’s annual war chest of $83.2m pushes policies from cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, opposing climate change regulations, advocating reductions in labor protections and the minimum wage, privatizing education, restricting voter rights, to lobbying for the tobacco industry.
Its major donors include the Koch brothers, Philip Morris and parent company Altria Group, Kraft, GlaxoSmithKline, Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon.
American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that works with state lawmakers to ram through legislation for the same corporations, funds bills that would oppose fracking disclosures, requires climate change denial education in public schools, and attacks voting rights.
Pew Charitable Trusts is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that, “Most people,” writes, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi:
think of as a centrist, nonpartisan organization committed to sanguine policy analysis and agnostic number crunching… an odd reputation for an organization that was the legacy of J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil (the future Sunoco) during its early 20th-century petro-powerhouse days.... Pew…left nearly $1 billion to a series of trusts, one of which was naturally called the “Freedom Trust,” whose mission was, in part, to combat "the false promises of socialism and a planned economy.”
[In 2011] Pew began to align itself with a figure who was decidedly neither centrist nor nonpartisan: 39-year-old John Arnold, a former Enron executive and founder of the 501(c)(3) non-profit Arnold Foundation…dedicated to reforming the pension system.... The two have been proselytizing pension reform all over America, including California, Florida, Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky and Montana...claiming...that the national “gap” between pension assets and future liabilities added up to some $757 billion and dryly insisted the shortfall was unbridgeable, minus some combination of “higher contributions from taxpayers and employees, deep benefit cuts and, in some cases, changes in how retirement plans are structured and benefits are distributed.”
These are three out of thousands of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that, by definition, are prohibited from supporting political candidates and are subjected to limits on lobbying and, directly or indirectly, participating or intervening in political campaigns. The law states that “No substantial part…” of a public charity's activities can go to lobbying although charities with large budgets may lawfully expend a million dollars (under the “expenditure” test), or more (under the “substantial part” test) per year on lobbying.
Despite this, corporations, politicians, lobbyists, the religious, the wealthy, and other rightwing proselytizers increasingly funnel big money, tax-free and tax-deductible, into non-profit organizations to influence how “the public” thinks — and votes.

“Twenty years of schoolin'/And they put you on the day shift”

Concurrently bombarded by propaganda and burdened with the minutiae of bootstrapping toward The American Dream, what is a “little guy” to do?
Even if he agrees with the problem as stated by Snowden— the world you helped create is going to get worse – how does s/he make a determination about what is important then work with the like-minded to institute change?
I asked a handful of tent dwellers about flying the flag and heard a different answer from each. Ask one million members of “the public” what is important and you will hear two million different answers.
There is little actual agreement about a way forward to institute change even among those who largely agree upon an issue. Take, for example, the highly determined attendees at COP 19, the 2013 Warsaw Conference of the Parties. Hurricane Haiyan’s battery of the Philippines emphasized calls for a “new mechanism” with reparations to poor countries damaged by carbon emissions from the world’s biggest polluters.
The response of Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change and lead climate negotiator at COP 19, was unequivocal: “We don’t regard climate action as a matter of compensation or reparations or anything of the kind.”
Clearly, Stern represented a “We” that did not encompass the conveners of the “new mechanism”. But, the conveners themselves did not consider that using the language of “mechanisms” perpetuates the Western worldview of humanity and nature as a machine. This is the very language that smooth-talked genocide, slavery, and environmental destruction and continues to manipulate the genome, genetically modify organisms, and manufacture and market chemicals as panaceas for everything from headaches to hemorrhoids; “mechanisms” geo-engineer the weather and wage surgical strikes on targets that, too often, turn out to be social gatherings.
Moreover, the language of “mechanisms” obfuscates the reality that “rich countries” are made up of rich elites — Stern’s “We”? —that will never willingly implement anything that diminishes access to enriching resources. 
Physicist Albert Einstein warned against trying to solve problems using the same thinking that created them.

“Better jump down a manhole/Light yourself a candle”

As a woman not of note and with a limited social and political circle (Alan Greenspan and Eric Schmidt appear in my world only as straw men) and increasingly resistant to the “passionate intensity” of political and social activists around me, I turn to physicist and social theorist David Bohm. He writes:
One of the difficulties in thinking…is fragmentation, which originates in thought [and] divides everything up…. Every division…is a result of how we think….we select certain things and separate them from others – for convenience at first [then] we give this separation supreme importance. …
But…thought is very active [and] the process of thought thinks that it is doing nothing – that it is just telling you the way things are. When we see a “problem”…we say, “We have got to solve [both that problem and that sort of problem]. But we are constantly producing [problems] the way we go on with our thought…If we keep on thinking that the world is there for our convenience, then we are going to exploit it in some other way, and we are going to make another problem somewhere. We may clear up, [say] pollution, but…create some other difficulty, such as economic chaos, if we don’t do it right.
The point is: thought produces results, but thought says it didn’t do it….
Bohm’s way of approaching the problems facing humanity appeals to me because, instead of encouraging the prevailing binary point of view — such as, the US already has the facts; the other guy is a thug and a murderer; America is different/exceptional/the only country motivated consistently by compassion and morality — Bohm defuses ideological finger-pointing and explores “the tangle” within the physical brain:
our ‘new brain’ [forebrain and the cortex which allows for complex thought] developed rather rapidly and did not come into a harmonious relationship with what was there before [that] never learned to tell the difference between an image and reality, because it had no need to. …
Bohm is realistic about social communities:
People come…from different cultures and subcultures, with different assumptions and opinions. And they may not realize it, but they have some tendency to defend their assumptions and opinions reactively against evidence that they are not right, or…defend them against somebody who has another opinion….We don’t usually do it on purpose…we just feel that something is so true that we can’t avoid trying to convince this stupid person how wrong s/he is to disagree with us….we can’t really organize a good society …on that basis. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work but it hasn’t.
He offers no panacea but suggests the work that must be done is in the head of each one of us.
Certainly, “we”, “the 99%, “the public” have a long way to go 1) to retrain recalcitrant brains to think “differently”; 2) to recognize, then negotiate, the versions of egotism  each of us manifests  3) to figure out how to connect with one another and manifest “collective” thinking.
While Bohm is unequivocal about politicians — “We can’t do anything at the level of presidents or prime ministers. They have their own opinions” — I suggest, however, that publicly deconstructing the political propaganda with which each of us is bombarded is one possibility:
…for the transformation of consciousness, individually and collectively; whether this can be solved culturally and socially depends on dialog…[I]f one individual changes it will have very little effect. But if it happens collectively, it means a lot more. If some come to “truth” while a lot are left out, it’s not going to solve the problem. We would just have another conflict….The question is: do you see the necessity of this process?
In a radio interview, former USMC Lieutenant Tyler Boudreau describes his process of un-tangling his thought process. “Rather than ask myself, 'why do they do what they do?' I look in the mirror and ask myself, 'why do I do what I do?' I try to be as honest with myself as possible and, if my answer is, ‘because I am exceptional’, I dig into the nature of ego, self, and exception. I try not to shy away from uncomfortable answers.”

Meanwhile, with so many tangles in my own thinking, I expect to continue life as a “live aboard” —with Tupperware—and welcome new insights.
Insights are free. Soon after memorizing the Phonetic Spelling Alphabet, I notice another small notice glued behind the ladder in the cabin. This one displays the San Francisco Bay’s VHF Radio Channels: 16 is the frequency for Distress and Calling.
Now, here is a mechanism that is also a metaphor to live by: to respond to distress, find your frequency, then call and call and call…. Someone out there might answer....

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