Don't know much about history. Don't know much about ecology. Don't know much about a science book. Don't know much about the job I took. But I do know that I'm richer than you, And I know that if you watch Fox News What a wonderful world this would be. Don't know much about politics. Don't know much about economics. Don't know much about pollution. Don't know much about the Constitution. But I do know how to lie and cheat, And I know that if you read my tweets What a wonderful world this would be.
This month is Black History Month. In reality, every month is Black History month, because without black people, there would be no United States.
Black history is tied up with slavery and capitalism, territorial expansion, annihilation of native Americans, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and ongoing inequality. It is tied up with these elements not as a peripheral happening on the margins of America, but as central to American development.
The first person killed in the American Revolution was a black man in Boston; Crispus Attucks, born a slave, was shot during the Boston Massacre. What is more telling about the American revolution is the thousands of blacks who fled to the British to gain their freedom. In England slavery had never been authorized by law. In the American colonies, slavery was sanctified by the colonies.
The founders of our country embedded slavery into the American legal system. They continued the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They gave extra political power to the slave south by counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment and representation. They mandated that escaped slaves must be returned to their original owners. That’s all in the constitution, written by the founders, white men from both the North and South.
Thomas Jefferson opened up new pathways for slavery with the Louisiana Purchase, bringing parts of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico into the nation. This territorial expansion resulted in tremendous agricultural development, enabled through slavery.
Who were the slave owners? Our presidents, to start with. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor. Washington owned more than 250 slaves, Jefferson 200 slaves, Madison over 100, Andrew Jackson 200. But really, to own just one other person as property is damning all by itself. These men did not just own slaves, they sold slaves, whipped slaves, broke up the families of slaves, and raped slaves. This is not just part of black history, it is an essential part of American history.
Who is an American hero? Is it James Monroe, a signer of the constitution, our fifth President, and the absentee plantation owner whose overseers whipped slaves to work harder? Or is it Denmark Vesey, the free black organizer of a slave rebellion in South Carolina who was executed for this attempted act of liberation when Monroe was president? Is it Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831 in Virginia? Or is it Andrew Jackson, the president during this rebellion, who owned a prosperous Hermitage plantation built on the backs of hundreds of slaves, who waged war on the Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee Indians, and who signed and put into force the Indian Removal Act, forcing tens of thousands of Cherokee from Georgia, opening up the southeast for the expansion of slavery.
Black people turned the American civil war into a war of liberation. Once the war began, hundreds of thousands of blacks fled to union lines. They forced Abraham Lincoln to make this a war for the emancipation of slaves. And as white men faltered and refused to sign up to fight, black soldiers took their places, fighting for the union, for emancipation, for themselves.
The acts of black people, both free and slaves, to overcome slavery, to liberate themselves, to become people who could actually strive for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, these were and are acts of utmost patriotism.
During Black History Month we celebrate the accomplishments of black people who are not threatening, people like the former slave George Washington who founded Centralia, or George Washington Carver, the famed botanist. But in telling black history as the integral part of American history, we could and should be celebrating those people who fled the colonies to gain their freedom, who led the rebellions against American slavery and the expansion of slavery, who enabled slaves to escape to freedom on the “ underground railroad.”
We should be celebrating Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, the 54th Massachusetts (colored) infantry from the Civil War, and 20th century leaders who made the establishment uncomfortable, people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. These are the Americans who were brave and strong and lost their lives to help our country become, indeed, a more perfect union.
And we still have a long way to go.
Originally published at EOIOnline
The birth story of baby Jesus celebrates the promise of new life, but for girls it also sends a harmful message. How can we acknowledge this without spoiling the rest?
Most Americans, even many who are not very religious, look forward to Christmas as a time to celebrate warmth, friendship, generosity and good cheer. Familiar festivities weave together stories and traditions from many cultures, which makes it easy to find something for everyone. But maybe it’s time to look a little closer at the Christmas story itself.
The birth story of the baby Jesus is heartwarming and iconic—the promise of new life and new hope in a time of darkness. It has inspired centuries of maternal art and is the best loved of all Bible stories. It also has a darker subtext, especially for someone like me—the mother of two daughters.
In the story, an angel appears to a virgin girl, announcing that she will conceive a baby boy. Her fiancé Joseph decides to stick with her only because her baby bump is of divine origins. The author of Luke makes a point of telling us that he refrains from sex with her till after the baby Jesus is born. All of this emphasis on Mary’s sexual history, or rather lack thereof, sends a message that can be shaming and harmful: Only an unbedded, unsullied, unused female—a virgin—could be good enough to birth a perfect child, the son of God.
Virginity Equals Purity
Girls who have sex are soiled. That may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we see a picture of Madonna and child or hear a Christmas carol, but the message is clear all the same, and the fact that it is subtext may make it all the more insidious for young women.
Mind you, Christianity is not the only religion that has assigned such extraordinary status to the pristine vagina or, conversely, treated female sexuality as something lesser or tainted. For example, Buddha’s mother Maya, called the “best of all women,” becomes pregnant after a god in a dream enters her womb from the side. Adding insult to injury, Buddhism tells us that a
“Bodisat leaves his mother’s womb erect and unsoiled, like a preacher descending from a pulpit or a man from a ladder, erect, stretching out his hands and feet, unsoiled by any impurities from contact with his mother’s womb, pure and fair, and shining like a gem placed on fine muslin of Benares.” — Mahapadana-sutra, Digha ii. 12
In the Ancient Near East, the birthplace of Christianity, some cultures saw the woman’s body as a vessel for a baby, which grew from the seed of a man or sometimes a supernatural being, much as a seed might grow in the earth. In this way of thinking, heroes and powerful men must have come from divine seed, and claims of a sexless conception underscored their supernatural origins. The Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Perseus, Romulus . . . even Augustus, Pythagoras, and Alexander the Great all were the subject of miraculous birth claims.
Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe
The enormous value that patriarchal cultures and religions place on female virginity has roots in biology. We’ve all heard the saying, “Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe.” From time immemorial men have sought to control female sexuality to ensure that the children in which they invest their time, money and life energy are their own; and also to maximize their own offspring. Male animals of some other species do the same. For example, when a new male lion comes into a pride, he may kill all of the cubs from the previous male, which brings the females into heat so that he himself can mate them.
Man’s Instincts Become God’s Edicts
In the tribal, herding cultures of the Near East a young woman’s sexuality—her ability to produce purebred offspring of known origin—was an asset that belonged to her father. In the Hebrew Bible’s legal code, a rapist can be forced to purchase the goods he has damaged and to then keep her as a wife. A girl who voluntarily destroys this family asset by having sex before her wedding is to be stoned—the same penalty that persists in Islam today.
A woman’s reproductive capacity is also valuable booty of war. In the battle between the Israelites and Midianites, for example, God’s messenger instructs that the Israelites are to kill all of the women who have been with a man but to keep the virgin girls for themselves. (These and other horrible references here.)
Culture and religion transform biological urges into legally binding prescriptions from God himself. Once that happens, patterns that may have started for practical or biological reasons take on a momentum of their own, and we see this in the history of the Virgin Mary.
The Sexless Union of Israel and Rome
The earliest sects of Christianity disagreed with each other about when and how Jesus became uniquely divine. Some believed that he was adopted by God at the time of his baptism or resurrection. But as Christianity, with its Hebrew roots, adapted to the cultures of the Roman Empire, the story of a supernatural, sexless birth won out. It beautifully merged the god-man tradition of the Empire with Judaism’s obsessive and multifaceted focus on purity—pure bloodlines, pure foods, unblemished bodies, monotheism, unblended fabrics, and, of course, virginity.
The Roman Catholic Church took the last of these new heights, turning Mary into a perpetual virgin for life and then for all of eternity, and eventually making vows of sexual abstinence a requirement of monastic life and the priesthood.
Actress Julia Sweeney, in her funny, tender monologue, Letting Go of God, describes an encounter with two fresh-faced Mormon missionaries. Finding herself incredulous at some their beliefs, she pictures door-to-door Catholics enthusiastically endorsing the faith of her childhood:
If someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the first time, and they said, “We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us . . .” I would have thought that was equally ridiculous. I’m just so used to that story.
Aphrodesia or Death
“Maniacally important” may be a quirky Julia Sweeney turn of phrase, but it contains an oversized grain of truth. The Catholic pantheon of saints and martyrs is peopled with females who, with Mary as their model of virtuous womanhood, valued their virginity (and their chaste yet semi-sexual devotion to Jesus) more than their lives: St. Agatha, in an attempt to break her virtuous resolve, was handed over to Aphrodesia, “an abominable woman, who, together with her daughters, publicly professed immodesty.” St. Lucy, “was yet very young when she offered to God the flower of her virginity.” St. Barbara’s “father, carrying out her death sentence, beheaded her himself, and in turn, legend says, was consumed by a fire from heaven;” and St. Ursula, was martyred on a prenuptial pilgrimage with 11,000 other virgins!
The glories of female virginity have spawned tributes ranging from paintings to pilgrimages and poetry to place names. Christopher Columbus christened the Virgin Islands in honor of St. Ursula and her untouched entourage, while the State of Virginia was named after England’s Elizabeth, “The Virgin Queen.” Virginia remains a popular girl’s name in the U.S., along with a host of variants such as Ginny, Ginger, Gina, Lagina, and Gigi. All of these mean chaste, fresh and maidenly—virginal.
Promise Rings and Purity Balls
Protestant Christianity is a rebel offspring of the Vatican, and even though the Protestant reformers rejected the cult of Mary, Catholicism’s supreme value on female chastity was deeply imbedded in their DNA, where it persists to this day. Among the more quixotic manifestations are purity balls and promise rings through which a young girl can pledge her maidenhead to her father for safekeeping until such time as he should hand it over to a mutually agreeable young man.
The image of a girl in a white dress dancing with her daddy, like a beautiful painting of Madonna and child, may evoke a feeling of sweet nostalgia. But rituals and icons like these are artistic residual of the ancient Near Eastern culture in which women (along with children and slaves and livestock) were literally possessions of men. As writer Jessica Valenti outlines in her book, The Purity Myth, they are the bright surface of a dark, deep cultural current that denies and shames women’s sexuality.
A woman used is a woman soiled. A woman raped is a woman ruined. A girl who explores her body with a boy is a licked lollypop. A divorced woman shouldn’t get married in white. Only an unbedded and so unsullied female—a virgin—could be pure enough to birth a perfect child, the son of God.
How can sex-positive people who also enjoy Christmas affirm what it means to be fully female, including the physical pleasures of the female body, not merely its reproductive potential? How can all of us teach our daughters that their bodies are wholesome and beautiful, whether or not they have been molested or assaulted or have had sexual experiences of their own choosing? How can we help to break down the harmful virgin-whore dichotomy, with the only alternative being asexual motherhood?
Some Christian theologians have returned to emphasizing the earliest Christ birth narratives, in which Jesus came into the world in the normal way. Two Church fathers, Origin and Justin Martyr, mention sects of Christians who believed Jesus was the natural son of Mary and Joseph. The Apostle Paul and even the writer of Luke appear to have held this perspective, and the virgin birth is now thought to be a late addition to the gospel narratives.
Episcopal priest, Chloe Breyer summarizes the long history of Christian debate over the virgin birth in her article, “The Earthly Father.” Even after virgin birth stories emerged, a countervailing illegitimacy tradition persisted for centuries. By the time the Bible congealed in the fourth century, such perspectives were considered heretical, but they have been revived in recent years. Such arguments admittedly go against the current, but they show that belief in a virgin birth—with all that implies about female sexuality—is not necessary to Christianity or to appreciating many kinds of symbolism in Christmas story.
Progressive Christians, do not treat the Bible as the literally perfect word of God but instead understand it as a human-made set of documents containing moral and spiritual insights (and failings) of our ancestors. Secularists, though they may not prize the Bible, understand all sacred texts in this way, which allows us to glean through, keeping the parts that fit and treating the rest as a window into human history and psychology.
For those who share this mindset, whether or not they retain some belief in the supernatural, the Christmas story and season offer valuable opportunities to open up conversation with young people about many aspects of humanity’s long moral arc, including perspectives on the female body. Simply leaving youth to internalize negative messages about sexuality or waiting for them to bring up awkward topics is asking them to do our job. The wise parent or aunt or friend tunes in to readiness and explores ideas and values as opportunities arise. Perhaps one of your gifts during this holiday season could be the gift of a conversation.
Originally published at Valerie Tarico.com
Christian Appy spoke at Town Hall Seattle, Feb 16, 2015 on his latest book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. Appy is a professor of history department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Appy was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1955. In 1964, his family moved to Westport, Connecticut where he attended public school and graduated from Staples High School in 1973. At Amherst College, Class of 1977 he majored in American Studies and wrote a prizewinning honors thesis on Appalachian coal miners. He received his Ph.D in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in 1987. His dissertation received the Ralph Henry Gabriel dissertation prize from the American Studies Association. It went on to become his first book, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Appy taught at Harvard and MIT… His book Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides is widely assigned to college students studying the Vietnam War, due to its unique and nearly comprehensive view of those involved in the war. In April 2013, he won the UMASS Distinguished Teaching Award.
The National Archives’ text of the Declaration of Independence reads as follows:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Notice that the sentence in bold is incomplete. It’s grammatical only if the preceding period and dashes are omitted and replaced by a comma. In short, the Declaration of Independence says it’s self-evident that Governments exist, in part, to secure our inalienable rights. Notice also the final words quoted above. Government has a positive role: effecting the People’s Safety and Happiness.
In fact, earlier versions of the Declaration of Independence had a comma and not a period. In total, there are about 70 versions of the Declaration, some with commas, some without.
This argument was made in depth by Danielle Allen in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. “The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality.”
The issue is timely because revisionist libertarians want us to believe that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were founded primarily as a reaction against tyrannical government and thus on libertarian principles. In fact, as is well known by historians, the Constitution was written explicitly to counter the failed experiment in small government embodied in the Articles of Confederation (hence the Constitution’s General Welfare clause, for example). Even at the earlier time of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, the founding fathers realized that government has a very positive role to play in effecting the People’s Safety and Happiness. Federalists such as George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton wanted a strong federal government. Members of the early Democratic-Republican Party — including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — favored a smaller role for government. The battle between small government proponents and big government proponents rages even today.
Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, based on the evidence available they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.
For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians grounded in this perspective have analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.
By contrast, other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.
The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. He points out that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.
Fitzgerald, who as his title indicates takes the “mythical Jesus” position, is an atheist speaker and writer, popular with secular students and community groups. The internet phenom, Zeitgeist the Movie introduced millions to some of the mythic roots of Christianity. But Zeitgeist and similar works contain known errors and oversimplifications that undermine their credibility. Fitzgerald seeks to correct that by giving young people interesting, accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.
More academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism. It is interesting to note that some of the harshest critics of fringe Jesus myth theories like those from Zeitgeist or Joseph Atwill (who tries to argue that the Romans invented Jesus) are from serious Mythicists like these.
The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that credible scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:
1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
In the words of Bart Ehrman (who himself believes the stories were built on a historical kernel):
“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)
2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!
Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded.
Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began.
For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .
4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at .
The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.
5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.
They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”
For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable:
Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.
In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith:”
Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.
We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.
Originally published at AwayPoint
This is the best talk ever. Anyplace: Michael Parenti,
THE JFK ASSASSINATION AND THE GANGSTER NATURE OF THE STATE
When Oliver Stone’s movie JFK opened in December 1991 a huge PR campaign was mobilized against the film. Even progressives spoke out. Noam Chomsky wrote in support of the Warren Commission’s findings – in contrast Michael Parenti gave one of his highly acclaimed talks criticizing the lone assassin theory and supporting Oliver Stone. The bitter questions that haunted defenders and critics alike was whether government agencies of a democratic country would do such a thing as assassinate an elected President.
In this talk Michael Parenti turns to that question first – he examines in part one what he calls “the gangster nature of the state.” In part two he goes over details of the assassination and critiques The Nation, The Progressive, Chomsky and Cockburn. He spoke in Berkeley, CA, on the 30th anniversary of the JFK assassination on November 22, 1993.
This is a “standing ovation” talk by Parenti. The master for this program was lost and this appears to be the only copy of the original recording.
By Stan Sorscher, EOI Board Member, and Labor Representative at the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace
I saw the movie Inequality for All, where Robert Reich explains the depth and meaning of inequality in America. He paints a compelling picture.
Reich sets up the movie with a teaser: “Something happened in the mid-’70s.”
Indeed “something did happen in the mid-’70s.” For one thing, since then workers’ wages as a fraction of the total economy have lagged by over a trillion dollars per year. If workers’ wages had kept up with gains in productivity since the mid-70′s, wages would be double what they are now. Most new income goes to the top 1 Percent.
The movie translates my blue squiggly line in the graphic below into human terms, seen in the faces of families, students, workers, co-workers and neighbors. Their struggle, disappointment, and diminished prospects answer another key question in the movie: Does inequality matter?
It matters. A lot.
Our current downward spiral leads us to a Lesser America — less social cohesion, less political stability, less prosperity, less ability to compete globally.
Figure 1. Workers’ wages have fallen as a share of total GDP.
The upward spiral of my parents’ era expressed American ideals — stronger communities, opportunity and fairness, shared prosperity, and investment in the future.
In one scene in the movie, Robert Reich is speaking to power plant workers facing layoff. One worker says the owners are probably smarter and more deserving than he is, and they should keep the gains he produces. He is happy to take whatever they offer.
We hear a different view from a co-worker’s wife. Her husband takes his job seriously, works hard and creates value through his work. Don’t rich people have enough already? What is gained when the 1 Percent have even more? Isn’t there some left over for her family?
This woman has just enough self-esteem to claim a fair share of the wealth her husband creates. Her husband’s work has dignity, and her family has a legitimate claim when our society divides the gains from work.
Attitudes matter. My daughter once told me that I usually make eye contact with housekeepers in a hotel, or a waiter filling my water glass, or a cab driver. Actually, most people I know in the labor movement do that. It’s a fundamental labor value — all work has dignity.
Look at this image from the Norman Rockwell Museum, representing a Vermont Town Hall meeting. The tradesman with dirty fingers has the attention of his neighbors. His interests matter.
It took decades to create this trillion dollar money pump for the 1 Percent.
First, advocates for the 1 Percent took away the dignity of work. In today’s political discourse, the tradesman in the Rockwell painting is thrown together with teachers, public employees, construction workers, grocery store clerks, students in public universities, and fast food workers as moochers, or parasites.
Second, public sentiment and public policies shifted bargaining power away from workers, in favor of the 1 Percent.
Business strategy replaced “stakeholder” value with shareholder value. These terms are obscure, but the very real effect was to abandon any commitment large businesses may have had to communities and workers.
Job security has largely vanished. The idea of “a career” has been replaced by contingent or precarious work. We see more part-time, and temporary work, “perma-temps,” unpaid interns, wage theft, and dumping older experienced workers in favor of cheaper younger workers. Good jobs are privatized or contracted out, where the same worker comes back at lower wages, with worse benefits and less job security. College professors — the ultimate knowledge workers — are displaced by precarious adjunct faculty.
When workers are regarded as commodities, businesses provide less training on the job, externalizing those costs to workers and communities. Pensions express a long-term employment commitment. The message of a 401(k) is portability — you will leave this job, probably in 3-5 years.
Executives aggressively oppose union organizing, spending millions of dollars to intimidate, discourage, delay, and punish union organizers. We hear less and less about a strike, where workers seek more or defend what they have. Now, it’s lockouts by employers demanding concessions — at ports, in hockey, basketball and football — even symphony orchestras in Minneapolis and New York!
Households have stopped saving, piling up huge debt instead. Families, living paycheck to paycheck, are constantly at risk of ruin from layoffs or medical expenses. Crushing student loans make recent graduates very compliant and risk-averse in the labor market. Changes in bankruptcy laws favor investors, and banks, but put homeowners, students and retirees in the back seat.
Speculative hedge fund income and capital gains are taxed at a fraction of rates the rest of us pay on wages and earned income.
Millions of good manufacturing jobs moved offshore. Job growth is strongest in lower-paid service jobs. One-sided trade agreements consolidate investor rights and corporate rights at the global level, handcuffing civil society in every country. Investor rights take priority over the environment, labor rights, human rights, public health, and prudent financial regulation.
The ultimate loss of bargaining power for workers is the billions spent to elect our political leaders. Having cornered the market in electoral politics, the 1 Percent are furiously discrediting the role of government, eroding worker protections, and dismantling programs that offered economic security and opportunity for past generations.
The power plant worker in the movie accepts his wage peonage, dependent on his patrón for his livelihood. His co-worker’s wife still believes in her husband’s career.
The first step toward disabling the trillion-dollar money pump is within our power as individuals. We can recognize a key human value — the dignity of work. We are all connected to our communities. We all do better when we all do better.
Originally published at EOI Online
This is a recent review on Donald Gutierrez’s new book, Feeling The Unthinkable that I wanted to call to your attention. I sincerely believe that this book should be read by every American concerned about where our country is headed.
J. Glenn Evans
FEELING THE UNTHINKABLE
By DONALD GUTIERREZ
AMADOR PUBLISHERS, LLC
611 Delamar Ave NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107
Every once in a while a book comes out that all of us should read regardless of age, status or political belief. The 48 essays and reviews in Feeling the Unthinkable by Donald Gutierrez are a literary feast. His essays hit in the gut, but his many reviews of other writers’ work introduce us to sources of information of which we need to be aware. They help you to think and ponder on where we’ve been and where we’re going. It is an incredibly powerful book from not only a prophet but also an historian and a philosopher that you will not want to miss.
Who would have believed a few years ago that America used torture? Except for Nazi Germany, it was thought that torture went out in the Middle Ages when the elites used the rack. Yet now we find that America used waterboarding in the conquest of the Philippines. In Gutierrez’s review of Alfred W. McCoy’s book, A Question of Torture, it was disclosed that by 1972 the Provincial Interrogations Centers, each directed by CIA personnel, 20,000 Vietcong were murdered in a “pump and dump” practice. How many were guilty and how many were innocent, nobody knows, except they were fighting a foreign invader.
By the time we got to Iraq and Afghanistan:
A colossal miscarriage of justice behind all this brutal increase of psychological and physical torture emerged when it became clear that, according to military intelligence from allied nations, 70 to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees had been arrested by mistake. What comes across in this massive injustice is the culpability of a chain of command from the White House lawyers to Rumsfeld to senior military officers like Generals Geoffrey D. Miller and Ricardo Sanchez to ordinary soldiers who followed their orders. Who takes blame if all this torture came to be proven illegal leads McCoy to the crucial issue of impunity. (63) … McCoy argues, further, that torture is not effective against terrorism, citing the very high number of innocent detainees from whom meager intelligence was coerced at Guantanamo. (64)
If we were not the most powerful nation militarily, our leaders would be brought before the world courts because of Nuremberg crimes. A quote from Gutierrez’s review of Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot is enough to send shivers up your back when you consider what has recently been happening here in the U.S.
“Both Italian and German fascism came to power legally and incrementally in functioning democracies; both used legislation, cultural pressure and baseless imprisonment and torture, progressively to consolidate power….both aggressively used the law to subvert the law” (119)
In his essay, “The Great Military-Defense Swindle of America,” Gutierrez brings out the numbers, what we and our kids pay into the Military/Industrial Complex: $8 trillion on military expenditures from 1975 to 2000; $21 million for each M1A2 Abrams Tank (the army has 3,000 of them); $850 million for each Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer (the Navy acquired 17 since 1971 for around $11 billion); more recently 7 more Burke destroyers for around $33 billion. The destroyers cost around $30,000 a day to operate or $11 million a year plus training costs. Navy 18EF fighter-bombers, called “Super Hornets” cost $80 million each and the Navy wants 1,000 of them.
In the meantime, the Pentagon and its allies in Congress continue to seek rationalization for the mammoth military budget. Partly this is needed to conceal the enormous contradictions between legitimate military preparedness and the irony of keeping unused defense factories open by designating perfectly suitable ordnance as outmoded to justify spending further billions for ever more high-tech killing weapons. Thus, the worst thing that could happen to the Pentagon and America’s war industry is peace. A more fitting definition of a society led by lunatics and greed would be hard to find, at least among nations describing themselves as democratic. (142-143)
Some interesting figures are brought out in Gutierrez’s review of Helen Caldicott, The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex. The quotation from The Defense Monitor put out by retired military officers reflects what could be done with only one third of the military expenditure:
“Globally the annual military expenditure stands at 780 billion dollars. The total amount required to provide global health care, eliminate starvation and malnutrition, provide clear water and shelter for all, remove land mines, eliminate nuclear weapons, stop deforestation, prevent global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain, retire the paralyzing debt of developing nations, prevent soil erosion, produce safe, clean energy, stop overpopulation and eliminate illiteracy is only one third that amount–$237.5 billion dollars.” (134-135)
In “Attending College Must Be Free Again (For the Country’s Own Good),” Donald Gutierrez brings out the fact that in the 1950s he was able to attend college at the University of California in Berkeley with no tuition. There was a $35 semester charge described as an Incidental Fee for the use of the gym, campus hospital and a first rate library. Now the semester tuition is $5000 and $16,000 for a nonresident of the state. He states that Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law cost almost $18,000 per semester, including living expenses and expensive books. Private schools are a lot more. Why this must change:
Extreme financial stress on responsible college students is not only unjust, it is dangerous to the country’s future. Higher education should be free to all young people who show an aptitude for and aspire to advanced learning and professional or technical training. Society needs doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, scholars, engineers, lawyers, economists, novelists, poets, and social, political and cultural critics and other experts—now and in the future. If, however, those high college debt hurdles remain, the consequences are obvious and pernicious: For the most part, only youths from wealthy or comfortable families will be able to afford college, especially quality colleges. The result will be not only a class-based educational structure—Yale vs. Flatsburg City College—but the hardening of a class-structured society. (177)
We not only have the Military/Industrial Complex, as President Eisenhower warned against, but now the Prison/Industrial Complex that allows corporations to make fortunes on other people’s misery. Punishment for crime and rehabilitation for return to society are functions of the state and must not be delegated to private enterprise. It behooves all citizens to be aware of what goes on in prisons. With our present system of justice, any of us, innocent or guilty, could end up in prison. Protest an injustice and be labeled a terrorist, you become a victim of indefinite detention, especially if you are nonwhite. Gutierrez reflects on “The New Electrical Meanspiritedness in America”:
An alarming trend in American prisons is the use of electrical devices on prisoners. This usage constitutes a serious erosion of what some regard as essential ethical restraint on prison authorities from imposing cruelty on convicts. In a long 1997 article in the New York Review of Books entitled “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, USA, discussed the increasing use of such devices as stun belts, stun guns, shock batons and electric shields by law enforcement officials to control prisoners. … According to Schulz:
“Stun belts deliver 50,000 volt shocks to the left kidney which fan out from there through blood channels and nerve pathways. Shocks can be administered by guards form a distance of up to 300 feet simply by the push of a button. An 8-second application of shock inevitably knocks a person to the ground and may induce urination, defecation or unconsciousness.” (195)
From his own personal encounters with racism, to the hell of the Nazi death camps, to the reality of war, the global exploitation of the earth’s resources, and worldwide abuses of human rights, Gutierrez reminds us how the past haunts the present.
Gutierrez concludes the collection with a subject dear to me as a poet and writer: “The Power of the Pen.” From a review of Howard Zinn’s The Zinn Reader, he moves on to the teaching of the humanities in college, fiction, war poems, the concept of “Us” versus “Them”, our mother earth as a living vital force, and finally poetry as both a prophetic and an humanitarian response to the dark side of human nature. He takes us full circle with the Occupy Movement.
Dozens of books on American imperialist foreign policy and corporate greed have been written. Some of them may seem general and abstract, and in Gutierrez’s collection of essays in Feeling the Unthinkable, he reviews a number of those books. Many Americans prefer not to think about the abuses of power by its government, and who can blame them, but reading Gutierrez, we feel our humanity rise, to extend it in empathy toward the victims of American foreign policy, and to know that it is our common humanity that binds us together. This is the gift of Gutierrez’s collection of essays in Feeling the Unthinkable.
Donald Gutierrez was a member of the University of Notre Dame English Department faculty from 1968 to 1975, then joined the English Department at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. He retired from WNMU in 1994 and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife Marlene Zander Gutierrez. He received a “New Mexico Eminent Scholar Award” in 1989. Gutierrez has published six books of literary criticism, two of which focus on D. H. Lawrence and one on Kenneth Rexroth. He has published over fifty essays and reviews, most of which concern social justice and American state terrorism abroad.
Reviewed by J. Glenn Evans, poet, novelist, activist, and founding director of PoetsWest
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