The Political Challenge
Greenfuse #1 Fall 2000
This is my editorial essay for issue number #1 of monthly newspaper that, much to our surprise lasted for 15 years. Remember this was written before hanging chads, before G.W. Bush, before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before the Iraq invasion, before anonymous, before wiki-leaks, before so much we now know. It mostly stands up to scrutiny. Hopeless optimism has been tempered a bit by reality, but, none the less...
Politics, no matter the orientation, is the pursuit of influence in, or control of, organizations, institutions and government. To pursue this influence assumes an implicit acceptance of existing political structures. When we compete for influence over governmental policies we are expressing our support of a system that defines our non-representative, non-responsive state of government.
Knowing this, it is easy to understand why idealistic, hopeful and progressive thinkers may be disillusioned by politics. It seems that the only way to have any influence over government policy is to accept a role in politics, and that role requires working within existing political structures. In our system of government the actual arbitrators of influence and control are a slim minority, activated by an interest in maintaining the status quo- for their own benefit and the benefit of those that support them financially. No change in the orientation of government or society will be possible unless and until the overwhelming majority of the people begin to actually express their will.
On paper, our governments are conceived as inclusive structures in which the will of the people determines the role and priorities of government. In reality, government has developed a self-interested will of its own, largely dependent on those who pay for the election of politicians. While it is alleged that the majority opinion determines policy, the current level of participation in electoral politics means that slightly more than 15% of the people comprise a majority. That is, 50% of the 30% that actually vote- In other words, a super-majority of the 70% are disenfranchised, uninterested, discouraged, or left out of the complex system that determines the priorities and goals of our society. This is a powerful vote against the system, but by the rules of that system, it has no standing in the political debate.
The non-political must perceive governments as an inevitable fact, something with its own agenda that must be endured. The fact is that in this country our democratic government has come to fulfill the same function of the state in feudal oligarchies, absolute monarchies, or ancient theocracies- Unilateral control over the life of the masses. Democracy has become the power of any party that can command sufficient numbers of votes to do what it wishes.
Originally, the legitimate purpose and reason for democracy was to minimize injustice, not as it has become, to impose opinions or protect privileges. A political structure in which people are directed by law and force in what they may or may not do is not a legitimate democracy. The fact that rulers are chosen by majorities does not make governmental tyranny a democracy. Democracy presupposes a minimum of ordinary human intelligence in its participants. This is nearly impossible today in a country where intelligence is deliberately sabotaged by our educational and media institutions- Which avoid the great fraud of democracy; the fiction that the power conferred by a right to vote, is in any way comparable with the power possessed by the interests which have complete control of every other means of power, including absolute economic power.
Democracy was established for the purpose, and in the name of liberty. In a world where privileged power ruled, where it protected its tyranny over peoples lives by tyranny over their minds. Every advance towards intelligence of action or thought has been possible only by an advance in liberty- Liberty has been the measure of progress. In our era, democratic liberty has been sought as an end in itself. Democratic principles have bestowed equal liberty on privileged power and its victims- With equal rights to valid opinions which were suppressed by tyranny and on the irrational tyranny which oppressed them. Pursuing liberty as an isolated ideal has led to the absurd condition of equal rights for exploitive multi-national corporations, and the dangerous and entrenched, subtle tyranny of our government.
To develop a socially equitable liberty based on a rational understanding of the limits on resources, the needs of people, and the abuses of control, change is clearly indicated. Because only social justice can secure true liberty, what is required is no less than a revolution in understanding and action. A redevelopment and reorganization of our society based on common needs. Only by challenging the assumptions of what our potential is, and what the true limits are, can progress be made towards social justice.
This is a daunting task, which by comparison makes personality driven national politics look simplistic and inconsequential. Some intellectual heavy-lifting will be needed to develop an effective, equitable plan of action that can inform and inspire the majority of people to participate in a better system, electoral politics alone will never do this. Only when making the world a better place for all is a unifying community effort will true democracy be possible. Towards this end we can only do what we can, but we must do at least this; and no longer act out of fear, the fear of wasting a vote, or the absurd fear that casting a vote for a progressive candidate equals a vote for some else. It most certainly does not. Maintaining the status quo is no longer good enough. It is hard to imagine how much worse the disconnect between privileged power and the rest of us can get, but if it does get worse, this may be the only way things will ever change. Even the apathetic may be motivated if the status quo tips toward a more blatantly absurd abuse of governmental prerogative.
What we need is planning that will be effective no matter who is the president or what his agenda is, planning that leads to a rebirth of civil society- A society in which all participants have an interest in advocating for what is right, and advocating against what is wrong, step-by-step, issue-by-issue, pursuing a civil process of social justice. This politics beyond presidency must by necessity be locally developed and implemented. Decentralized policy development that is networked between communities, which builds support organically, is the only way to reclaim a political process in service of people and the earth.
The International Green movement is an important tool of future politics; the key Green values include a fundamental understanding of the importance of ecological wisdom, personal responsibility, and decentralized politics and economics. The problems are clear and the time to act is now. We challenge you to make a difference for change.
A Greenfuse reprise from #18 winter 2002-
For 18 years the jungles and croplands of Columbia have been repeatedly sprayed with herbicides to eradicate coca and opium poppies. Last year alone, 203,000 acres were poisoned, up from 139,000 in the year 2000.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that farmers of all kinds have suffered crop losses, including necessary food crops, while forests, water and people have also been poisoned. U.S. officials claim an increase of spraying is required and acceptable to stop the flow of drugs into this country, while the growing supply continues to serve the habits of U.S. consumers. 75% of the $1.3 billion Colombian aid package approved two years ago included helicopters and training to help Colombian troops fight a civil war against the leftist guerrillas that protect coca fields and labs.
Herbicides used for war is not a new tactic. In Vietnam 86 million liters of herbicide was used both to defoliate jungles, exposing hidden combatants, and to destroy the food crops that sustained the population. 14% of the forests and over 50% of downstream Mangrove habitats were destroyed An estimated 400,000 people were killed or injured, by poisoning, in addition to the 500,000 birth defects caused.
Chemical pesticides in general are a product of war. Organophosphates originated as nerve gas for warfare. Following the World War II, manufactures touted these new compounds as miracle products for crop production. The industry grew from virtually zero in the 40’s to a market worth $31 million as of 1998. There are currently 100,000 pesticides in regular commercial use worldwide, with 2.5 million tons applied to croplands each year. It is little wonder that every person on the planet has absorbed 250 synthetic chemicals, many of which are persistent toxins.
Agricultural that requires chemical use, are supported by the majority of industry, government, and academia as the only way to produce consistent cropping. But like the twisted logic of the failed drug war, this ignores the facts: Agriculture based on chemical use is not sustainable, and does great harm to living beings and the environment necessary for any sustainability.
Though healthier for the planet and consumer, commercial organic crops are still a compromise. Most commercial producers rely on unsustainable fossil fuels to work their fields, transport incredible quantities of imported soil amendments, and bring their crop to market.
True sustainability demands a different scale of action; a human scale, seasonal diets, local production, diverse planting, and most importantly, responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
As a child I wrote to the president. My plan was to be logically persuasive: “How can the good people of this country deliberately kill and maim the people of another- for any reason?” I know I wrote that letter, because 25 years later my mother found it, unfinished and unsent. What had seemed a straightforward philosophical argument to my young mind, once laboriously banged out on the typewriter, suddenly felt useless and impotent. I realized nothing I could say would ever stop the napalm, bombs, and Agent Orange, or the tremendous waste and depravity of war. Overwhelmed with helplessness, embarrassed by my feeble attempt to reach the president with my simple truth, and mired down by thought of the pages it would take to justify my opinion, I gave up.
I never told the government it was wrong, but I knew it was. I still know it is, and I have been thinking of hope.
Assaulted by the news of greed and self interest that seems to motivate most government and corporate actions, I once again feel hopelessness. Searching for hope, I realize that the human actions that demean, despoil, and desecrate are in the end unsustainable actions. In the winter of my discontent, I recall the spring. Searching for meaningful actions I realize the ongoing desire for sustainability in my life is about hope, hope and faith.
My garden, like every seed ever planted, is based on hope, and the clean, clear truth that; living healthy soil, the right seasonal timing, and a diverse balanced population of flora and fauna will insure that a natural seed, with it’s ancient encoded genetic material will do its best to grow and thrive. When we lose faith poisons seem necessary. When we doubt, when we fear, and when production systems we use demand too much. When production out of balance with actual need, reasonable expectations, or natural capacity, sustainability is easily bargained away.
More than just not using toxins, sustainability means giving back as much or more as we take. Demanding material equity and social justice may be the antidote for greed. At its core sustainability demands simple actions; Do not harm, do not destroy, do not waste. I can do that, planting on faith, reclaiming what living is, reclaiming hope.
A version originally published in GREENFUSE #98, November 2008
Our lives are caught up in current events, all attention drawn towards the bouncing ball of politics speeding past the sand traps and water hazards of foreign policy, and rolling to a rest in the weeds of economic collapse as history plays through.
History is the critical element of our ephemeral memes – the mental equivalent of our biological genes that enable culture and civilization through tradition, myth, story, song, and metaphor. This complex transmission of experience and knowledge, mediated forward from the past, history- forms all we are, what and how we believe.
Learning how to learn, the educational model of the past, valued the inquiry, and analysis that conditioned the muscles of intellect for the heavy lifting of thought. Back when philosophy mattered; and the lessons of history were at least considered, books were read, critical thinking was esteemed, and now, much history has been neglected or forgotten.
The casual discovery of hidden nuggets of thought printed on age stable rag paper inspires in me a treasure hunt for lessons from the past.
One of my discoveries, a treasured gem, is:
'BREAKDOWN'- The collapse of traditional civilization. Written by Robert Briffault in 1932. Born in 1876 France to a Scottish mother, He emigrated with her to New Zealand following his father’s death, where he trained as a surgeon. Entering medical practice in 1905, he saw service on the western front during the “Great War” and then settling in England, becoming historian, social anthropologist, and novelist.
The contents page of 'BREAKDOWN' alone tells the story:
an excerpt from the chapter DEMOCRACY:
"THE obliteration of the criteria of thought makes democracy impossible. When the opinions founded on valid grounds and opinions founded on none are accounted equally entitled to respect, the scales being heavily weighted in favor of the latter, when sanity and insanity are set on the same level, democracy built upon that basis can only be a madhouse let loose. Social order cannot be built upon mental chaos. Democracy has proved itself impracticable, absurd, and intolerable. No other result could be expected.
But the fantastic experiment of modern democracy built upon a criminal organization and a madhouse is irrelevant as regards the principle of democracy.
The breakdown of modern democracy is not due to that principle, and has no bearing on proving or disproving it. It is due to the defiance of sanity and the studied cultivation of insanity in defense of authority of tradition and constituted abuses. Social and political efficiency cannot be extracted out of mental deficiency.
The legitimate purpose of democracy is to minimize injustice, not to impose opinions. If it should be proposed to settle a problem of astronomy, or archaeology, by a count of heads, the suggestion would be regarded as that of a lunatic. It would however, be no more insane than is the unrestricted and undefined application of the principle of democracy in traditional civilization. The principle has developed as the only means of obtaining any approach in administrative governments to social justice, that is, any protection against grossly oppressive violence. Defense against that violence cannot be delegated. Justice cannot be dispensed from above by paternally benevolent ruling classes. They are, as already noted, unqualified to apprehend the meaning of justice, which can be fully appreciated by those only who suffer from injustice. Every measure of social justice has, accordingly, been wrung from privileged and powerful persons by those who have suffered from that privileged power. And since every class is oppressed by those who possess more power, the only possible safeguard against oppression is universal democratic power. That ostensible protection against gross social oppression and violence is the function of democracy, and the ground for its necessity. It is the reason why it has come into being. Its function is not to settle vexed questions of astronomy or archaeology, or any other opinion.
But democratic modern traditional states have inherited their notion of the nature and function of the state from feudal oligarchies, from absolute monarchies, from ancient theocracies. In the enthusiasm for the conquest of democratic liberty it never once crossed the mind of anyone that a state could be anything but an absolute ruler possessing the same unlimited despotic rights as a king by divine right, a Czar, Grand Turk, or Pope. Democratic power was understood as the power of any party that could command a sufficient number of votes to do exactly according to their own fancy without limit, restriction, definition, rhyme or reason. Democracy resulting by an inevitable social mechanism from the natural reaction of the excluded classes against the oppression of the exclusive classes, could, it was never doubted, be used for altogether different purposes than protection against injustice. Not to protect people against being killed, despoiled. and roughly treated without power of appeal or protest, but to enable people to dictate to others what they shall drink, read, or how they shall amuse themselves, has been conceived to be the legitimate right of democratic power. Democracy has been used, in short, to enable the most insane portions of the population to impose any of their opinions...
A democracy is a political order in which every citizen has the resource of appealing against intolerable oppression, and a political disorder which enforces intolerable oppression does not function as a democracy, no matter how meticulously the count of heads is carried out.
A democracy presupposes a minimum of ordinary human intelligence. It is impossible in a community where intelligence is deliberately sabotaged, where the ordinary criteria of intelligent thought are repudiated, and no distinction between it and groundless opinion is, even in principle, admitted. In such a condition of the social aggregate the conversion of democratic power into a tyranny more oppressive than that of an autocracy or a theocracy is inevitable..."
Briffault's 'EUROPA', a 1935 best seller in the U.S. is a tour de force of pan European character studies, tracing the path of his protagonist through all levels and classes of society, as all blithely head towards the disaster of the war he had actually experienced. Briffault died in 1948 after yet another world war, no doubt more convinced that his thesis expounded in BREAKDOWN was accurate.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel of political/social analysis. Like many books from the past, this time capsule of thought reminds us that we are not living in an isolated or unique span of chaos and quandary. 76 years out, we are still enmeshed in throes of a changing humanity that demands our consideration.
A Greenfuse reprise from #112, January 2010
Why do you think they call it hope?
Following the announcement of a U.S. troop increase in the war on Afghanistan, Barak Obama has accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1901 the first co-recipient of this prestigious award was a founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross. From this committee came the 1st Geneva Convention that established humane rules of war- that govern the treatment of prisoners, wounded, and dead during armed conflict. Armed governments predilection for violence always overrules ideals. –Forming a committee to end the legitimacy of warfare was never an option, so rules about how to respect its victims have to do.
In his acceptance speech Mr. Obama’s acknowledgement of the aspirations of morality and faith, and his condemnation of misguided faith was put in terms of religious belief, but misguided believers can be found elsewhere. The Golden Rule, fundamental to all religious faiths: do unto others as you would have them do unto you- treating all as one would like to be treated by all, is translated by the language of civil authority into JUSTICE. When an armed government wishes to become uncivil, with some purpose- in the support of some particular article of their belief, this is a faith empowered by a moral flexibility that enables what is termed a “JUST WAR”. A modern upgrade of the archaic “TRIAL BY BATTLE”- in which disputes were settled by close combat, where the victor, obviously favored by God, must by his deeds, be in the right. A Just War makes war not only permissible, but a necessary duty for faithful and powerful believers in justice. The insensible “need” for war is made a sensible pursuit, reconciling the irreconcilable.
Is the Karma of violence that ambiguous morality leads to it perpetuation? Academic empathy, or theoretical compassion by leaders for the sacrifices of the “fallen”-those human beings on all sides, of all types, whose lives are torn by cruel agony, is inadequate. Concluding that blood splattering, gut spilling, bone crushing, home wrecking, family-destroying violence is necessary, because of a belief in peace and justice, is the same misguided faith that Mr. Obama warns against.
How does the Golden Rule apply to the orders that create the destructive chaos of war? It only can with a mind numbing cognitive dissonance, the background tinnitus of our society. “Believe what we say, not what we do” is the smoke on the mirror of politics that becomes what we expect, where hope is dashed on the rocks of reality- a merciful killing- before it becomes the cruel and misguided; “false hope”, which transparently exposes itself as, no hope at all. More blatantly known as- Hopeless.
Nobel laureate Obama tells us with certainty, that we can aspire to peace, even as we pursue war- as needed for our purpose. This paradox of human nature condemns any understanding of morality. When moral aspiration can be explained away with a well-reasoned argument for the global control of risk. This political expediency rivals any debased religion in its single-minded, fundamentalism. When military action is conflated with enlightened self-interest, peace inevitably becomes quaint or naïve. Declaring an abhorrence, and an acceptance of violence, is a calculated doctrine that enables the fabled paradox of: “Having your cake and eating it too”- is this part of the corruption that power creates, the hubris that leadership seems to imply?
I sometimes wonder why I am compelled to register my incredulity with the current state of political play. What do I hope to achieve by pointing out the flaws of reason that confront us? Perhaps I am exercising my own sort of faith. The heart of the impulse that has generated the religions of the world begins with an unshakable faith in something external. What then follows is a belief that through knowledge, care, and action, one can transmit important truths forward to the future, affirming recognition of our common roots and destiny. Peace comes with honest integrity, critical thought, selfless generosity, respect, and trust. It is its own reward, and its own argument. Any faith in a hope for peace must share the peaceful aspiration that, by living with peaceful intent, with peaceful purpose, by being humane, and doing no harm, we can one day create a peaceful commonweal.
When faith is polluted by political force, the control derived and governed, well meaning or not, by either outright coercion, or corruption, or at the least, a dubious legitimacy of a majority opinion, leaders compromise, just as the early Christian priests restricted by scripture and vows from blood letting in battle, found a loophole, by avoiding edged weapons in favor of the Mace, bludgeoning their foe to death, they killed the priestly way. Mr. Obama essentially tells us tells us that; our most revered spiritual leaders, the near sainted, fellow Nobel laureate Martin Luther King Jr., and the 5 time nominated, though mysteriously, never actually honored Mahatma Gandhi, though righteous, progressive, revered champions of justice and non-violence, were in the matter of war, misguided. Where the important realms of leadership and power projection are concerned, sometimes the ends DO justify the means. When examined under the harsh light of geopolitics, brotherly love has its limits, and so, faith in the soul force of Gandhi is ineffective, does not fit the needs of a dominant superpower, and is inadequate to deal with the dangers that weapons can fix, to further the goal of peace.
The Hubble space telescope enables the most distant view of the universe yet seen. Pointed into the darkest corner of deep space, recording the faintest shimmering light from billions of years in the past, we can see through the gloom a view filled by hundreds of millions of galaxies, each containing more stars than we can imagine, expanding away from us at enormous speed. Look at these phenomena and tell me truly that anyone has any right to claim certainty about the nature of life or faith.
Sorry Mr. President, pragmatic as it may be, any policy that willfully empowers brutal, destructive chaos, as a just, unavoidable necessity, cannot be in the service of peace or hope. The truly pragmatic must see, the party is over, and there is no more cake.
A Greenfuse reprise from #69 May 2006
The current controversy over what is called immigration is truly about the concept of migration, an ingrained human impulse that has added to our success as a species. My immediate experience of migration is limited to status as a domestic refugee, fleeing the twilight zone of suburbia. Unable to afford low end housing in my high rent home town; I was leveraged into the quasi ghetto of the San Francisco peninsula. First on the border of a busy boulevard, with bizarre juxtapositions of commerce peppered between drab apartment buildings- appeased by a tiny swimming pool in the din of neo-urbanity. Followed by the more pleasant sylvan slum of the unincorporated county fringe, where my substandard, sublet, converted garage ended up under water in winter. Of course greener pastures were to be desired. A triumphant return to the under belly of San Francisco, having decided to never live there again without sufficient funds, was predicated on the recognition of the fact that cities are where they keep the money! The plan: go there, get some, and get out. My mission was accomplished in my version of my immediate ancestor’s search for their place in the sun, and their turn of the century migrations.
My grandparents were born in: Japan (via the diplomatic corp), Mexico, New York, and San Francisco, from wildly different backgrounds. What they all share is a family history of migration in search of better circumstances. My paternal great grandparents were of Bavarian and French descent, at least one of whom left their homeland to avoid conscription in the German army. A mighty need for change and opportunity must have driven the later migration from Arkansas, through pre-canal Panama on donkey back and on to San Francisco that my great grandmother took as a two years old. Both sides of my father’s family were in California by 1852. Not content with merely immigrating to a new continent, they pushed onto the roughest edge of the frontier to find their fortune. My maternal grandmother’s parents were from the foot of Italy- Calabria, and Sicily. Landing in New York, they eventually fled west for some semi rural merchant class entrepreneurship, and a more Mediterranean, land based lifestyle. My Grandmother learned to speak Spanish by tending the family store that served the Hispanic immigrant population of the former Mexican territory. One of these recent immigrants became my Grandfather. A product of small town rural Mexico, his mother was half French, from the migration of soldiers and colonists that followed Napoleon’s brief acquisition of Mexico. I’m not sure how Grandpa entered the country, but it is a safe bet that walking was involved, and train’s I imagine. If trains were his link to the U.S., they also made him a middle class American with his lengthy tenure as Southern Pacific Rail man. Working his way up from gardening in San Diego, to mineral mine trackman, to Rail yard supervisor, he ended up in his in-law’s tri-lingual, semi-rural edge of San Jose. When of age my mother vowed to never again live in San Jose, and eventually moved along the old mission trail, El Camino Real, south, and back again San Diego to Monterey. My father following opportunity migrated to Hawaii in 1967. People seek their place in the sun- or snow like my families Japanese exchange student, who ended up in college in Oregon and Los Angeles, and now lives in Switzerland. We all want to find the place we can prosper, live in peace, and hopefully enjoy living with family and friends. Doesn’t that best serve our common purpose? There are literally billions, of variations on this story of human migration that have made our country and others what they are. So, it is no surprise that the most widespread and largest demonstrations ever seen in this country followed the proposed criminalization and marginalization of immigrants.
In April the Courts reversed a Los Angeles ordinance that criminalized sleeping on sidewalks, a violation with penalties of up to 6 months in jail and/or $1000 fine. The Court in it’s decision found that it is an unavoidable consequence of being human that when one has no home, one must sleep somewhere. Therefore, unless the city offers beds to the homeless they have no right to punish sleeping publicly. I would argue that this “unavoidable consequence of being human” defense could justify the migration towards a better chance of opportunity, safety, and prosperity. Unless an unlikely global redistribution of wealth occurs, needful migrations can never be criminal acts. Support of immigrant rights is nothing less than support of human rights. The idea that a nation exists with a unity of purpose, a mono-linguistic identity, and unchangeable borders is a relatively new concept abstractly realized in great part by the work of romantically idealistic German philosophers of the 18th century that championed the fad of patriotism and national identity that eventually blossomed into fascism. The flux of national boundaries and what they have represented over the span of modern history proves the folly of nationalism. Old Europe addressed the major cause of centuries of war by intentionally tying the economies of Europe together as one common interest and open borders, consciously subverting the “need” for armed conflict among themselves. In the new world, the 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar dreamed of an organization of American states to settle disputes and provide mutual protection, and a unified Latin America that serves the needs of the people.
The fact is, all humans aspire to the same things, and the borders that “protect” us also serve to isolate us from the potential of progressive unity. In our unjust world the U.S. acts as a pressure valve for the struggling people of Latin America. If we close that valve, the pressures south of the border will splash all over us when it finds release. Fear of open borders is in part is in part a fear that our standard of living could fall as the flood of immigrants overwhelm us, but how long can our border control really avoid the natural leveling effect of over population, over exploitation, and over expectation? Eduardo Galeano observed in his historical indictment of imperialistic colonization, “Open Veins of Latin America” that when we, the civilized societies of the north, look to the south, we must realize we are not looking into our primitive past, but rather into our future- the logical result of 500 years of abuse, exploitation and nationalism.