lessons learned in 2016

[Note: some of these lessons were mere reminders but even so they were still noteworthy if only that]

We don’t live in a democracy. Despite our repeated boasts about how we live in the “greatest democracy” of all-time, we must come to terms with the fact that we don’t. Evidence? While too abundant to mention exhaustively in a BLOG, here are a few of the most compelling to me: the Electoral College (ref 1), extensive voter suppression (before election day, on election day, and after election day) (ref 2a, 2b), inability to have a full recount (in several states) (ref 3a, 3b), extensive use of “no paper trail” electronic voting machines (ref 4a, 4b, 4c), exclusive “two-party” Presidential debates (ref 5a, 5b, 5c), and dominant media forms that fail to hold candidates accountable (ref 6a, 6b, 6c).

No country is above electing a racist, sexist, xenophobic, egomaniacal person. Largely because of our failures in democracy, a person with horrific human qualities was given a chance to win/steal a presidential election. According to the Democratic Party’s leadership, a Russian computer hacking or a FBI director’s questionable action had the most to do with Clinton’s loss. However, this take wrongly deflects us from the more significant reasons, many mentioned earlier; this misfocus by a major party isn’t surprising given the little attention they have paid to the other factors (factors, sadly, they seem to accept as “normal”). Add to these, significant miscalculations in strategy (including, saying that many people were “deplorables” and claiming that things are going quite well (as if neoliberalism is good), when they aren’t (and it isn’t)).

Too many continue to spend 90%+ of their political energy focused entirely on the presidential race. This is probably the most vexing to me. I see it in my own community. If only a couple of handfuls of citizens would dedicate themselves to the local political process signficant &*#$ could happen. Hopefully, now that folks see how discombobulated the national election scene is, more will look to act locally.

Misogyny is alive and well! When I first read that White women actually voted more for Drumf than HC, I was shocked (source). I didn’t believe it. When I heard some women easily discounting the blatantly misogynistic statements revealed by Drumf recordings, disregarding it as mere “boy” or “locker room” talk, I was sickened. How could this be? It is clear that the extreme attack on Hillary, one that has lasted more than a decade, has worked. She was built as the devil and enough people came to believe this. (She may not be an ideal candidate but she is no devil.) Also, this attitude is consistent with our generally condoning of violence (physically as well as economic) against women (and people of color) for hundreds of years, examples which have become more easily revealed to us by cell phone videos and texts. Clearly, we all must be more vigilant to expose and censure sexist and racist actions/statements. They are reprehensible and no person who revels in them should ever have the opportunity to be our commander-in-chief. I thought we had made more progress but recent events suggest we still have a long way to go.

Cancer is as debilitating mentally as it is physically. I’ve come toe-to-toe with this disease. It is something that many of us still don’t openly discuss (out of fear?) and yet it affects more and more of us every day. I applaud those that provide care to those who are sick. The doctors, nurses, social workers, and other care givers, often who work exhaustive hours even on holidays, deserve a lot of admiration.

Despite all the fear, hatred, irrationality, and hopelessness that we are fed every day, many good things continue to happen. Every day people are growing TONS of food in Detroit and elsewhere (ref 7), renewable energy is booming almost everywhere (such as the Philippines, ref 8), and volunteerism continues to thrive as well (ref 9). So, as we begin 2017, remember what the great Frederick Douglass said 160 years ago: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” (full speech here: ref 10).

Insanity continues

[This piece is being offered on “Columbus Day” on purpose. The fact that we still celebrate this barbaric man and validate the conquering of people is clearly insane…so it fits nicely. Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a similar full-page piece for The Zephyr—then an alternative local weekly newspaper—which I hear might be making a comeback! For those that want to read the old piece, click here.]

Perception and reality are often far apart. Projection, here the perceptions that we project (i.e., our cultural stories), and reality are equally so. Worse yet, the few people that contemplate on these glaring inconsistencies are often dismissed as weirdos, greenies, or catastrophists. Hence the flawed stories and the complacency, dependency and hopelessness they breed continue.

So what is so insane about our world, or more specifically the Western civilization (that we’ve grown up in)? One not need look far. In fact, it is much easier to identify the “craziness” of our world than to find rationality. Let’s examine the two most fundamental aspects of any civilization: (1) human relationships with nature; and (2) human within species relationships. No rational civilization would consider itself successful if it didn’t function at a very harmonious level in these two areas.

So how are we treating the Earth and its other billions of inhabitants? On nearly all objective measures we are doing very poorly. The bees are down (ref 1), the bats are down (ref 2), the butterflies are suffering (ref 3), many bird populations are in steep decline (ref 4), and fisheries around the planet are collapsing (ref 5). Not a very good report card. And scarier still is the precipitous decline in ocean plankton (ref 6)—most concerning as these microorganisms are at the bottom of the food chain (and consequently will affect all life forms above them). I suspect many of you have heard of these things but given the grave nature of the news and the sources of their demise, most media sources steer clear of giving them too much attention. So not only are we seeing tremendous losses of other life forms but we’re all too busy to focus on this issue. Not surprisingly, I have heard no word on these matters coming from either major party during this year long campaign period.

I could go on and on about how much of the rainforest is razed each day (to grow more sugarcane or lifestock meat), how oceans are becoming inhospitable to large sea creatures because of sound waves emitted by military craft, or how many billions of pounds of new pesticides are being sprayed, etc. But no matter how many pages of scientifically-collected information I provide here, I realize that I am unlikely to raise much of an eyebrow. Reality tells us that humans are functioning in ways that are clearly in opposition to life and though an increasing number of “two-leggeds” are becoming aware of this, our civilization’s ways of “progress” beat on with little hope in sight.

Okay, so what about how humans are treating other humans? Clearly, an intelligent species would at least function to promote its own, right? Well, if the nightly news is any indication we are doing very poorly on that score as well. Murders, threats, conflict, and turmoil appears to be found everywhere one looks. But as I’ve warned in earlier blogs, we can merely trust the information emanating from our screens because of the monetary incentives involved in capturing our attention (and our fear). Looking at more objective statistical data provides some hopeful signs. Life expectancy (at birth) is way up. People are living to their 80s in the UK and to their mid-60s in India. Just one-hundred years ago these numbers were 54 (UK) and 25 years (India). Infant mortality is way down as well, from 122 (per thousand births) in 1960 to 32 in 2015. These trends certainly are signs of improvement. However, other statistics paint a different picture.

In the US, we put more people into prison than any other country and the proportion of our population in prison is nearly double that of Russia and nearly six times that of China! We subsidize corn (and a few other grains) that is largely turned into ethanol (driving up the cost of food worldwide) or fructose which does harm to our bodies in many ways. Much of the “cheap” food produced by large-scale corn and soy production is overconsumed by masses of our population who are overly stressed out economically and have limited options for fresh food in their neighborhoods. This has consequences in terms of child- or adult- onset diabetes; diabetes rates have grown from 1% of the US population in 1958 to 7% in 2014 (ref 7). Though we know that nutrition is key to health, very few doctors are taking nutritional courses in medical school and many of our schools are pumping “cheap” food into our children’s bodies (and minds) (especially given that most of it is now “freely” provided by the government, via these same subsidies, to the industries that make “cheap” food) and we are surprised that kids can’t concentrate. We are seeing significantly lower sperm counts among men (ref 8) and much faster sexual maturity rates among girls (ref 9), especially girls of color, and we hardly bat an eye at these very disturbing trends. And let’s not forget that nearly 100 million people were killed because of war in the 20th Century–and the 21st Century has gotten off to a similar start. These astonishing number aside, consider how we now have nearly all of our media outlets owned and operated by major corporations and yet most of us still go to them (e.g., CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, etc.) for our news and so few of us boycott the “debates” when these corporate outfits refuse to allow third-party candidates (and their ideas) to be represented. This is equivalent to asking the foxes how the hen house is doing! I could go on but these insane realities of our civilization should be enough to give major pause.

Yet, despite all the insanity, there is hope. Yes, I know, it doesn’t seem possible given the insanity. But there is. Everywhere you look there are humans that are doing their part to make this world sane again. From those that dedicate their lives to growing food in humane ways to those who reject materialistic ways and work to spread love and peace instead. The precautionary principle has a lot to offer us in new ways of thinking (ref 10, ref 11). There are much more intelligent ways to activate a truly democratic country. But unless we firmly recognize how insane our ways are right now, we have very little hope of doing the work and making the sacrifices and changes that are needed to right our ship. Columbus and his ilk took us down a path of genocide and conquest, one we’ve continued on for the past 500+ years. It is time to alter our course and live in peace and sanity.

stand, sit, kneel, or lock? (modern protest)

Just over a week ago a professional football player (Colin Kaepernick, but let’s call him Kaep for short) decided that he wasn’t going to stand during the National Anthem because he believes that people of color are being mistreated by police. This simple act of protest became the most prominent sports story for the next week and counting. People from all corners of society weighed in on Kaep’s action and a fair bit of exchange ensued. Most discussion sadly focused on whether Kaep should or shouldn’t protest in this way rather than on the issue that Kaep was trying to raise awareness of. A few days later it was revealed that Kaep has also been wearing socks during practice which depict “pigs” wearing police uniforms. Immediately, a huge outcry was heard denouncing Kaep for this disrespectful showing, even from many that felt the initial “sitting” protest was admirable. Within a day of this “revelation,” Kaep kneeled during the anthem (an act expressing his respect to those that serve in the military), performed well in the preseason game that followed, and announced afterwards that he would be donating $1 million (of his $11 million annual salary) to the causes that he was bringing attention to. Many saw this “gift” as a gesture of Kaep’s commitment to the issues and many praised him for this significant offering. And now there are reports out that Kaep’s jersey sales are way up, and some evidence of a new found admiration of his recent actions. We are only a few days into this Kaep activity and the regular NFL season starts in a matter of days (although it isn’t clear how prominent a role Kaep will play on his team, his stock slipping mightily since he took the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl). Yet, very few athletes have gotten so much mileage out of what otherwise would seem like a very mundane action. How so? And what does it tell us about our modern society?

Were Kaep’s actions so courageous and, hence, worthy of such attention? Let’s look at what Kaep did in basic terms. He refused to stand for the National Anthem. He wore mocking socks to football practice a few times. He then changed his anthem stance from a sit to a kneel. These are very minor acts at some level. They require very little effort. And, they weren’t dangerous. Now, let’s compare Kaep’s actions to Dale American Horse Jr. who locked himself to a backhoe in North Dakota in protest of the pipeline that is being built to transport oil from the North Central Plains to states further south. (Here is more on this story that probably got 1/1,000th of the coverage that Kaep has received, link). Dale American Horse Jr. performed this action knowing that it was a violation of U.S. law and that a host of police would extricate him from the machine and charge him with a criminal offense, with unknown penalties, financial or jail time. On the face of it, it would appear that Dale American Horse Jr. faced much greater danger in more unpredictable circumstances–many other protesters were pepper sprayed and some, including children, were bitten by dogs “managed” by security agents. However, while Dale American Horse Jr.’s actions are definitely risky and courageous, Kaep, a well-known professional athlete, risked the loss of corporate endorsements and even his professional career (and its lucrative salary) by falling out of favor with the corporate executives that own NFL teams. He also risked eliciting the wrath and boos of millions of American’s who find his actions (and words) offensive. But, even still, an unspecified jail sentence seems like a lot more ominous than a loss of millions of dollars (but that is probably because I don’t have millions to lose).

If not so courageous, what explains the attention? I contend that it occurred because Kaep’s act is contentious. The modern media loves a good debate (as long as the parameters stay within a relatively narrow box; for example, we are not going to debate the sources of abject poverty in our country, the “richest” in the world, because that would implicate the same large corporations that run our media outlets). Kaepernick was a well-enough known celebrity to draw consumer gazes in a specific direction. Nearly all media now are full of advertisements and news outlets are competing harder and harder for this gaze; this explains the sensationalism that permeates media today. But why would not standing during the anthem cause such a storm? It is because many people in our society have developed a visceral attachment to the U.S. flag; recall the post 9-11 flag frenzy. To do anything to disrespect the U.S. is considered blasphemous to some. To others, the flag, the most recognizable symbol of the United States, deserved disrespect because of the outrageous things that have been done it its name (mass incarceration, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, My Lai, etc.). To these people, how better to show your disapproval of the actions of a nation than to desecrate its “sacred” image. Either way, mess with the flag and you’ll get attention, tie yourself to oil machinery and just let the local authorities handle this one (certainly no need for national exposure); facetiousness intended.

The surprising attention to Kaep also stems from the immense amount of attention that we give to sports these days. Athletes are household names. Most people probably know the starting quarterback on their cities team more so than they know who their U.S. Senators are. Certainly, most care more about what the QB does than what the Senator does (as long as it isn’t something scandalous, such as sexting). And given this heightened position, it makes sense that Kaepernick, and other athletes, might use it for some social good. For example, I am just some lowly professor (who makes less than 1% of what Kaep will make this year). I am likely not going to get any attention if I do something like not standing for the National Anthem or wear some offensive socks. I might get the scorn of people around me but no one who lives in a neighboring town will ever know that I am “protesting.” However, if I were a world-renown scholar, then I would likely consider protesting for my beliefs. (There certainly are a lot of things worth protesting for.) The point is this: athletes are so prominent in our lives (even more so than most of our political leaders), is it any wonder why we coast along in this economic malaise without much of a hiccup?

In the end, I am thankful that some well-to-do people, be them athletes or not, are willing to sacrifice their millions for a higher calling. Our culture has such a short attention span. A mass shooting occurs and that keeps its grip on it for a week or two, then we are back to normal. Structural racism has been hard at work in this country for nearly 400 years (when the first African slaves arrived on this land). Kaep’s effort to keep it in our consciousness is worthy of praise not scorn. Whether it will result in a positive outcome remains to be seen. And as much as we should focus on his efforts/words, we cannot forget the others that struggle mightily for justice elsewhere but simply due to their “less favorable’ (and visible) status have their battle cries go unheard.

playing with systemic thinking

One of the major weaknesses of the current dialogue about critical issues of our time (race, poverty, disease, etc.) stems from our inability to think systemically. This inability is crippling our efforts to reach workable solutions and making it much harder for us to “get to the bottom” of our collective challenges.

To understand what “systemic” means, let’s actually look at a few problems that we don’t’ look at systemically. Many say “drugs” are the problem in the US. And by the huge increase in incarcerations, it must be a major problem (sarcasm intended). Others think violence is a major problem. And this must be a major problem especially when we have the most mass shootings of any country by a long stretch (ref 1). And on top of drugs and violence, our lack of jobs must be a major problem; oddly, latest figures say that less than 5% of our adults are unemployed (down from 10% in 2010), however this is largely due to a misleading accounting practice as many people aren’t counted anymore (such as, those imprisoned, those that have stopped seeking work, those that are on disability, etc.). How about hunger? As I have previously outlined, food insecurity is a very serious problem in the US (ref 2) with almost 50 million Americans living in food insecure households. So now that we have a pretty good list to work from let’s look at how we deal with these “problems.” (How would you order these four “problems”? What would you add to the list?)

Dealing with these “problems” takes the form of proposedn solutions. So let’s look at the solutions to these problems as offered regularly by our politicians and the mainstream media. Our “drug problem,” we are told, can be solved by: (a) putting those people who use or sell them in prison so they can no longer use/sell them; and, (b) teaching our children to “Say No to Drugs” by convincing them of the harms that drugs do to our bodies (ironically, this message continues concurrently with the massive expansion of “legal” drugs by big pharma and the expansion of alcohol use in our popular culture). Violence, we are told, can be solved by: (a) surveilling everyone with the intent of figuring out when/where/who might commit such crimes; (b) making it harder for people to get access to deadly weapons; (c) increasing police presence in our communities; (d) making sure “good” people have readily accessible “defensive” weapons to protect themselves and others in case of a violent attack by a ne’er-do-well, and, (e) increasing our military presence everywhere we can and using brutal methods (including drones and robots) to kill preemptively those that might do us harm. Unemployment can be remedied by: (a) forcing people to “work” by making it increasingly difficult to get workers’ compensation or unemployment payments or “welfare”; (b) keeping minimum wage low so as to allow companies to employ more people; and, (c) keeping taxes on corporations and the wealthy low because this will allow them to spend more of their “hard earned money” employing people. And, lastly, hunger can be dealt with by: (a) filling community pantries with large amounts of processed food; (b) subsidizing school lunches using overage from industries that produce highly-processed and nutritionally low-density foods; and, (c) subsidizing a few food crops in the U.S. (primarily corn, wheat, rice and soybeans) to the tune of ~$20 billion a year enabling processed foods to remain inexpensive (and therefore the staple of choice for an increasing number of people).

Do you notice anything about these “solutions”? They are almost all reactive to the specific “problem” that is being addressed. None of them deal with basic questions that anyone making a serious attempt to understand the nature of these identified (or other) problems. Such questions would include: Why are people using so many drugs? Why are so many people choosing to sell drugs knowing full well that the penalties for getting caught are extreme? Why are people committing violent acts, be they terrorist, hate-crimes or domestic in nature? Internationally, what impact does killing innocent people (purportedly to bring peace) have on the creation of future terrorists and people willing to kill others out of revenge? Why have many of the efforts to reduce the most violent crimes only be met with increases in frequency of these types of crimes? Why are so many people unable to pay their bills despite being full-time employees? Why are mental health services so hard to find (or afford) for most people and why are mental health matters usually not considered part of our health care program? What influence does poverty, malnutrition, and systemic violence and racism have on our individual and collective mental health? Why are so many former “criminals” unable to find meaningful work (which would allow them to reintegrate smoothly into society)? Why are most things we purchase made in other countries? Why have so many manufacturing plants in the US (which used to be filled with hard working, often unionized, domestic laborers) moved to foreign countries? Why are so many mothers unable to get maternity leave so that they can properly nurture our future generations? How can so many people be hungry in the “richest” country in the world? Why are processed foods so much less expensive than more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables? Why are an increasing number of neighborhoods in the US seeing food markets (with fresh fruits and vegetables) being replaced with liquor and convenience stores? Why are increasing numbers of people choosing to eat processed and “fast foods”?

These questions try to get to the bottom of the “problems” of drugs, violence, employment and hunger. They are not exhaustive by any means (and I hope readers will share their illuminating ones here as well) but most have something in common, the word “why.” In so doing, they attempt to understand why these things are happening rather than just trying to stop them. Trying to stop something without understanding why it is happening in the first place is inane and harmful but consider how commonplace it is for us to react in exactly this way rather than to think more holistically about the origins of our collective challenges.

What happens when we start asking the “why” questions? I suspect we’ll begin to make connections between “problems,” such as drugs, violence and unemployment. We’ll begin to recognize that many of our current problems are merely symptoms of more systemic issues such as inequality, historically-rooted prejudice and racism, and hypermasculinized forms of power and governance. When we start looking deeper into these systemic issues, we will likely have very different conversations about our “problems” which will lead to very different solutions being offered. Yet, those in power benefit from the status quo and, as such, do their best to keep us “sheeple” reacting ineffectively to symptoms rather than addressing core injustices. Until we acknowledge this we will not be very successful in solving much of anything. Let the “Systemic Games” (riffing off of the Olympic Games which are taking place right now in Rio) begin!