Chomsky: The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy

I need only provide this poignant paragraph from Chomsky’s speech on the

Chomsky: The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy

It says it all.  The 2016 Election will be a perfect storm in the U.S., probably might next post.

“In short, Really Existing Capitalist Democracy is very remote from the soaring rhetoric about democracy. But there is another version of democracy. Actually it’s the standard doctrine of progressive, contemporary democratic theory. So I’ll give some illustrative quotes from leading figures – incidentally not figures on the right. These are all good Woodrow Wilson-FDR-Kennedy liberals, mainstream ones in fact. So according to this version of democracy, “the public are ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. They have to be put in their place. Decisions must be in the hands of an intelligent minority of responsible men, who have to be protected from the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd”. The herd has a function, as it’s called. They’re supposed to lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men. But apart from that, their function is to be “spectators, not participants in action” – and it’s for their own good. Because as the founder of liberal political science pointed out, we should not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms about people being the best judges of their own interest”. They’re not. We’re the best judges, so it would be irresponsible to let them make choices just as it would be irresponsible to let a three-year-old run into the street. Attitudes and opinions therefore have to be controlled for the benefit of those you are controlling. It’s necessary to “regiment their minds”. It’s necessary also to discipline the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young.” All quotes, incidentally. And if we can do this, we might be able to get back to the good old days when “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.” This is all from icons of the liberal establishment, the leading progressive democratic theorists. Some of you may recognize some of the quotes.”

Education and My Discontents

As I look out into the world after 28 years of educating college-age kids I can’t help but feel a sense of monumental failure.

I haven’t always felt like this. I didn’t always see things like this, but I suppose I didn’t take the time to look around either. Perhaps this is because I’m not just beginning; rather, I’m looking back at my career and trying to understand the place education occupies in our culture so that I can move on. But I don’t like what I see. And I worry that I had a hand in creating this mess.

Let’s do an experiment that can help you see what I see. Let’s start with George W. Bush’s Cabinet. This is an exercise I sometimes do with students. Where did the cabinet members attend college? Let’s look at a few …

  • Secretary of State: Colin Powell (2001-2005), West Point; Condolezza Rice (2005-2009), University of Denver and then Notre Dame, attending Moscow State University to study Russian, eventually becoming Provost at Stanford University.
  • Secretary of the Treasury: Paul O’Neill (2001-2002), California State University, Fresno, Claremont Graduate University and Indiana University; John W. Snow (2003-2006), Kenyon College, University of Toledo, and a PhD from University of Virginia; Henry Paulson (2006 – 2009), Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

Of course, who can forget George W. Bush, himself: Yale and Harvard. His VP, Dick Cheney (2001-2009), received his B. A. and M. A. in Political Science from the University of Wyoming.

What happens when we look at Barak Obama’s White House? President Obama, of course, our 44th President, attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School where he was President of the Harvard Law Review. His Vice President, Joe Biden, went to the University of Delaware and then to Syracuse University College of Law. Let’s look at the same offices.

  • Secretary of State: Hilary Clinton (2009-2013), Wellesley College and Yale University College of Law; John Kerry (2013 – ), Yale University and Boston College of Law.
  • Secretary of the Treasury: Tim Geithner (2009-2013), Dartmouth College, Peking University, where he studied Mandarin, and John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; Jack Lew (2013- ), Harvard College and Georgetown University Law Center.

Anything beginning to click yet?

Now let’s just take a quick look at Massachusetts, say, and Boston itself, a hub of intellectual energy. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there are 100 colleges and universities, including doctoral and research universities, baccalaureate colleges, associate’s colleges, master’s degree-granting institutions, and special-focus institutions. There are 60 institutions of higher education, of the 100, in Boston alone.

Between 2001 and 2013 (covering our initial look at the two White House Cabinets), Harvard University lists 9 Nobel Laureates, spanning fields such as Economics (Alvin Roth, Eric S. Maskin and Thomas C. Schelling, A. Michael Spence), Physiology and Medicine (Jack Szostak, Linda B. Buck), Al Gore and the 2007 Peace Prize, Physics (Roy J. Glauber, Riccardo Giacconi).

During the same period, 2001-2013, MIT lists 26 Noble Laureates – too many to list here. In fact, MIT’s complete list (over 60 names) is daunting.

Are we seeing a pattern yet? Is there a relationship between these impressive curriculum vitae and the quagmire we feel we’re living in?

I’m wondering what it is that we’re actually teaching? I mean, if you look at the respective educational histories of our cabinet members, don’t you have to wonder why the problems in the United States are getting worse, not better? Don’t we have to wonder why it is that the White House and Congress (from equal pedigree) can’t seem to have a meaningful dialog when, at the core of these elite educations is, indeed, dialog, an extension of the Socratic method that has come to us through the ages?

History tells us that education is the key to understanding the world we’re in – and changing it for the better.

Between 2001-2013, covering both the Bush and Obama years, we had no less than 35 Nobel Laureates in the Boston area – nothing changed, except that things got worse. Now we have a huge surveillance system, a war we can’t get out of, debt, a slow economy, climate change deniers, a harsh, even brutally violent congress that’s hell bent on closing down all rights, not just women’s and minorities’.

My heart-felt question is this, and it pains me to ask: What did all these people sitting in the most powerful seats in our civilization, with teachers I assume like me, actually learn? Certainly not empathy, not compassion and nothing about love.

Humanity is actually a cause we have to fight for now – not a given. Let me state this again, cleanly: that quality of being human, kindness, benevolence, human nature are all things we have to fight for; they are not guaranteed. Inhumanity is though.

We live in a love-less nation where we tell the rest of the world that life is cheap; it’s for the taking. People are expendable. Materialism and growth for growth’s sake are the only things that matter. It’s a vertical ladder we have to climb, and we  have to claw our way over another. One look at gun violence, poverty and our disastrous apartheid system of education – to say nothing of health care and nutrition, as well as the horrors of industrial food production – will lead anyone to agree.  And we look to solve other nation’s problems, exporting this model for others to follow.  Are we in fact exporting inhumanity, too?

As a college and university teacher – a professor – have I been involved in a scam? That is, I’m beginning to think, along with Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion,that,

We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, that mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

Much to my displeasure in this late stage of my career, I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been involved in creating “managers,” people that will go right into the system and change a tire, a spark plug, the oil, but that don’t know how to truly overhaul an engine; that, in fact, don’t have the capacity, will and courage to look at an engine and throw it completely out and begin again by inventing something else. Obama is precisely the perfect example of this quagmire: while running on the notion of change, he’s changed nothing, really; in fact, he’s helped usher in a more stringent society, a more secretive society, while congress works to shut down our civil liberties, our needs as humans, creating a world where inhumanity is accepted as normal.

Wisdom is something I’ve not been able to model, to show and inspire, I think. How to get around this or that, I’ve taught. How to look good so as to be seen, I’ve taught. How to sound successful, I’ve taught too. How to write in the language of power and in acceptable forms, I’ve also done. I don’t think I’ve done well in the how to challenge department, not at all.

Take a single class that meets for 75 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks – that’s a student sitting with me for approximately 30 hrs. If I do this twice years, two semesters, that’s 60 hrs. In a career that spans 28 years (going on 29 this year, as I turn 60, which is hard to say and even harder to look at), that’s 1680 hrs, which is not counting emails and texts and facebook and a number of other social network connections. In that time, in one course, say, I’ve not affected any change. Instead I’ve been swallowed up, I sense, and perhaps condemned us all, as Hedges argues, to death.

I’m looking to September with a kind of despair. I know that I have to make my move to my students’ hearts, as well as my own, with greater conviction, throwing away the very comfortable ways in which education has of getting  the teacher to go along, ensuring that we preach that management techniques are somehow wisdom.

Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

Striking Thirteen: The World of Surveillance and Indifference

Since today, June 6, is George Orwell’s birthday, let’s begin with him. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” reads the opening line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Looking around this morning, I find that the clocks are, indeed, “striking thirteen.”

So let me set things straight for President Obama and the NSA, this way no one has to come looking for me — or if you want to, I’m transparent: I frequently receive phone calls from Kabul, Afghanistan, sometimes even from other provinces; other times I receive communiqués from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong; I receive regular communiqués from Argentina and Great Britain, the odd couple, Spain and France, too. Sometimes Germany, though I’m sure you’re fine with that, unless it’s a white supremacist group. Welcome to the reality of global citizenry in the 21st Century. We’re all interconnected so we’re all under surveillance at all times — through Facebook, Twitter, etc. We’re all very willing to tell the world where we are at any given moment.

I am open about all of my communications because it makes little — or no — difference to the Obama Administration since it is pursuing with great force the Bush era Patriot Act section allowing for secret surveillance of US citizen’s phone records (number only for now). I am also a Verizon Wireless client, which is named in the New York Times (yes, I also have an iPhone — just keeping with the transparency). Screwed every which way, I guess.

And just to be clear, my conversations with Middlebury College alumni, which is mostly who I speak to, unless it’s family in Argentina, usually cover the following subjects:

  • The rejection of the Bush – Cheney lies that got us into Iraq, forgoing Afghanistan, until it was time to enter there.
  • The complete understanding that the government in Kabul is totally corrupt and millions U.S. dollars have been siphoned off and the Afghan people continue to suffer — and will suffer for yet another one or two generations. But we don’t really mind that.
  • The disgust over drones that in Obama’s hands makes Bush-Cheney war-mongoring seem like Sesame Street.
  • The militarization of key spots in the world to protect multinational oil business that, in turn, is channeling money to buy senators and congressmen, thus continuing our climate / environmental debacle and our dependency on fossil fuels.
  • The continued global policy, by the most powerful nations, to disenfranchise the poor – those without voice – on whose backs our way of living is built on, though, by all logical uses of statistical models we see that it’s in decline but we don’t want to look inward. So it goes.
  • The willful and systematic dismantling of public education in the USA — and education that’s meaningful globally — in order to ensure that production models of existence that malign one’s identity continue on our current conveyor belts to oblivion.
  • I also discuss, just to create a list of themes: Inverted Totalitarianism, the environmentalism of the poor, world wide, climate change, the industrialization of food and our decaying health, as well as the confusion over health care, which is an inalienable right.

There. If anyone this morning is looking around, just browsing and skimming, it’s impossible not to be depressed. Besides the U.S. secretly collecting the phone exchanges of citizens, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe says the IRS scandal leads to Obama — and it’s as bad as Watergate. So Obama is being compared to Nixon? At this point, does anyone really care?

Obama, back in 2008, ran on the promise of change. “Yes we can.” Indeed, we can. We have changed — and Bush-Cheney are having a grand old time smiling away their respective retirements because never in a million years could they have imagined that Obama would out Bush-Cheney them. Frankly, I don’t really know why the conservative right is all bent out of shape about Obama; he’s outdoing even them.

Let’s see:

  • Obama is weak on the environment, the Keystone pipeline likely to be the next feather in his cap.
  • Obama is weak on education, following No Child Left Behind — and Duncan’s rather mindless approach to any real education reform (I say reform rather then change, though they mean the same thing to this administration: privatization and homogeneity).
  • Obama is weak on civil liberties, particularly when it comes to our rights as citizens, going full force with an Orwellian (thus the beginning of this piece) scheme that will blanket the nation — and the world. (See the book: Chatter)
  • Obama is strong on keeping our banks strong, as I said he would during his 2008 election campaign; shortly thereafter appointing Timothy Geithner, a Wall Street insider, Secretary Treasurer — the fox in the hen coop.
  • Guantanamo is still open — what more can we say?

On June 23, 2011, I said that even with an Obama victory, nothing will change. GMO’s everywhere so that we can’t tell what’s what; a Farm Bill that, according to Mark Bittman in Welfare for Wealthy, is, well, just that, welfare for the wealthy — multinational agribusiness will be guaranteed pay-offs and given an open door to increase their monoculture production that has ruined land and air, while the poor will get less; Eric Holder is still on the ropes with the FBI scandal, the aggressive probing of journalists.

Has anything changed, really?

In my mind it has — but it didn’t change with Obama. In my mind things began to change and become more violent and aggressive, government more elusive, abrasive and prohibitive, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At 12:30PM, Central time, on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, the world changed — and if not the world, then the U.S. certainly did. A standing president could be assassinated. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X was assassinated (February 21, 1965), in New York City. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And, on June 5th of that year, shortly after midnight, Bobby went. In the span of 5 years, a sitting president, a brother running for president and two civil rights leaders were all shot down before our eyes. We were all witnesses. American violence played on the evening news, alongside harrowing images of Vietnam and dogs attacking Civil Rights marchers. We passed through the looking glass and became something else altogether different — callous, angry, colder and more reserved and reluctant.

It was no wonder that this lead to Richard Nixon and Watergate. The stage was set for the coming of our hostile age of surveillance and indifference, the twin brothers that accompany a politics that gives justice to malice.

In his seminal work, The Idea of Justice, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says that, “What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just — which few of us expect — but that there are clearly remediate injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” All around us, daily, we see, “inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to recent, but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live,” continues Sen.

So I want to be clear, I want to be transparent about what I’m saying, this way, Mr. Obama and the NSA have a clear mission: the most profound injustice, which is evident in the U.S., as a leader, and the wider world, is a resentment towards creative, free and open uses of the imagination; rather, justice, now, is interpreted as equal to or consistent with the injustice brought about by homogeneity and subjugation, the children of surveillance and indifference.

In other words, when I talk to my former students in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Great Britain, Germany and France and Spain, we all note the same thing: the closing of the American mind leads the world so powerfully that the abuses and violence we see in the rest of the world are a mindless mirror of who we are and what we’ve nurtured. That’s been the big change. We’re leading the world in our repression of social justice, of humanity. We’re all interconnected; it can’t be otherwise.

The Agony of Lucidity

For Leah and the girls down in Boston today

I’ve not been “on” this blog for some time. I want to apologize, say I’m sorry, but I don’t know who I’d say this too. And given what we face today, a darkness visible hanging over American culture, it’s hard for me to find the words to get through this. But here goes …

Boston changed everything. Boston brought me back to our interconnectedness, a notion or theme linking all my classes this term, a Writing Workshop and Social Class and the Environment. So that’s what I want to talk about. Interconnectedness.

CNN’s feed — such an influence! — compels me to create my own timeline to my emotions:

1. 3PM – 4PM, Monday, April 15: I was in a delectable bubble, sitting in my warm, safe and bright college office with a student, engaged in an incredible conversation about social justice, environmentalism, writing and creativity, a healthier future we imagined conceivable.

2. 4:10PM: I learned about Boston — the ugly violence, the havoc and instant suffering, the confusion that turned into a tremendous weight — and disbelief.

3. 5:30PM: On the ride home from school, I learned of the cowardly defeat of the gun bill. A heavier darkness set in. The NRA and Washington cowards intent on keeping power, not saving lives, are more powerful then the voices of American citizens. Washington exists outside our American lives.

4. April 17, two days later: The news of the poison letters sent to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and President Obama. And the darkness reigned supreme, a suffocating feeling.

The winter winds have begun to change in Vermont. Indifferent clouds race across the skies, the air is lighter — you can smell it — the temperature rising ever so slowly, as it does this time of year. Hints of sun remind us that it’s still there laboring to find its way back to us — finally. Something other then death, destruction and callous indifference has to come our way.

5. April 19, Friday: When one suspect is dead and CNN works to fit into every aspect of the unfolding manhunt, a tropical wind is screaming across Vermont. My chickens had a hard time getting across paddocks, pushing against it, literally going airborne and tumbling  when the gusts were incredibly harsh. It all felt surreal, confusing. At some point that night, maybe around 11PM, I learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second Boston marathon bombing suspect, was apprehended.

During the depressing malay, the chants of Boston Strong, the Red Sox game and Neil Diamond, my brain turned to a movie, The Siege, directed by Edward Zwick. This film is about a fictional situation in which terrorist cells make several attacks in New York City. Despite objections, the US President declares marshal law and the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies and seals off Brooklyn. People of Arab descent are rounded up and detained in Yankee Stadium. New Yorkers stage violent demonstrations against the army and the racial profiling of the Arabs and the Army fights to maintain control.

The Siege, again, a fictional account — I’m compelled to repeat this, just to pinch myself — is not the Boston lock down, but it gave me pause. Is this what we’re facing, our future? Surveillance. Tighter controls, literally and virtually. A military-like presence in our cities. Fiction has been turned into our lives.

Regardless of the ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers, they grew up in the United States. In the West, many fundamentalist radicals intent on following terrorist actions are being bred in our communities. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whatever they did to get to that tragic day that colored the Boston marathon with such harshness, had friends in the community. They had family, went to schools like everyone else’s — even excelled. They went to work, too. In other words, they lead American lives in an American community. They were, at one point, normal, as we like to say.

In an interconnected world, everything is possible.

Welcome. This is our world now.

Where do we go from here, knowing what we now know?

I’m a father of 4. I’m a husband. A son. A brother. And I’m a teacher. This Sunday, April 21, my mind is on the Middlebury Women’s Tennis Team: they took the trek to Tufts, in Boston, yesterday, Saturday, because the original trip, a long weekend of matches, first against MIT, then Tufts, was put on hold by the Tsarnaev brothers. Everyone was on tenter hooks. With some anxiety, these beautiful, wanting kids took the trip to Boston. They went to do something they love; they went to meet their responsibilities. That’s what we’re called to do. I know they’re safe, but I can’t help thinking of them because they’re young, like my children. Hell, they are my children — they’re all our children. They’re young and innocent working so hard that it sometimes brings me to tears to watch them grapple with our difficult world. Sometimes we cry together.

I feel totally guilty for the world my generation is leaving behind. It’s a world where neighbors can’t trust neighbors; where important people in important positions, graduates of our most elite institutions, can’t be trusted at all. This is the world we’ve given them, the tomorrows colored by a siege scenario. Unacceptable.

All I can say to them, my students, is I love you. I have nothing else, nothing left. How else can you teach any kid anything today? Love and Health are the only curriculum. What we pass along as knowledge and information makes no sense — not to them, not to us. The material I teach, I find almost irrelevant. In the face of Boston — and the Bostons to come — I’m driven to my knees. I’m sorry, yes, I can say that only to them. I know that now. I love you is what I must say to them and show them, let them know that in their time with me, they’ve been loved, unconditionally; that this is love in this heartless universe — so harsh. We’ve become so harsh and reproachful.

Why are we here?

6. April 21, about 1:40: the girls are on the courts at Tufts. Brazilian Girls: Some people want to burn the world with their greed. We just want to have a good time, all the time.

I had to travel some, today, to get to the Brazilian Girls. Given how dark I felt, after morning chores I turned on Al Greene. His Greatest Hits have a way of lifting me — even though my wife, Nina, laughs. You know nothing about music, she says. My son, Devon, agrees. But Nina is in a workshop in NY and I’m a weekend bachelor, left alone with the weight of things. But Love and Happiness — Love will make you do right, make you do wrong, just wasn’t doing anything for me; it existed somewhere else. Love is, Love is walking together, talking together…

Is it? Can it be?

Feeling so alone, I took to cooking. And somewhere between the chili con carne and the lamb (White Dorper, our own) with lentils, and Bonnie Raitt,  Used to Rule the World began to lift the veil of darkness. I began to see, slowly, a bit. Brother lovejoy. Yeah, Raitt’s raspy voice, that guitar — she touched my soul, showed me the way, aching. With her cover of Right Down the Line — You know that I need your love, you got that hold on me — I had 3 dishes going simultaneously — the lamb, the chili and a kale and potato soup. And I was moving to Raitt. She was moving me towards light.

Lucidity. The agony of lucidity.

Lucidity is both a gift and a punishment. Lucid comes from Lucifer, the rebellious angel, the Devil. But Lucifer is also the morning star, the first star, the brightest, the last to fade. Lucid comes from Lucifer, Lucifer from Lux and Ferous, meaning that he who has light, who generates light, who brings the light allowing inner vision. Good and Evil together. Pain and pleasure. Lucidity is agony, and the only pleasure we can know, the only pleasure, remotely like joy, is that of being aware of our own lucidity. “The silence of understanding, the silence of merely being. There, the years go by. There, beautiful animal joy went,” said Pizarnik. Brilliant. (Lugares Comunes, Adolfo Aristrain, Director, 2002)

Lucidity is agony. This morning I sent my students a note, just a quote, something to ponder in this extraordinarily blinding world:

Academics who act as ambassadors of the oppressed are no substitute for enduring arrangements that might enable the oppressed to explain themselves and pursue their own interests as they wish … When humanists claim to set aside crude, worldly, practical concerns for the sake of purely ‘philosophical’ inquiry, they actually fall prey to the optical illusion of a pure thinker somehow separate from the world. (Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-first Century, Kurt Spellmeyer, 2003).

I blame myself for the world we have. Us professors, in our elite institutions, have presumed a position that is an illusion: the world is out there, we are somehow living in loftier terrain separate from the world. We have separated people; we have separated ourselves from feeling the world. This false position has created the world we’re in. We’ve failed to describe a world that Don DeLillo gives us in Underworld (1997) where everything is interconnected: the guy making toothpaste and light bulbs is also making nuclear warheads. How do we tell the good from the bad? asks DeLillo.

Our way of life has consequences. Our leisure, our comforts — and discomforts — come at a price; we can’t have what we have unless someone pays. This is what Rob Nixon calls slow violence (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; 2011). Struggles for existence, for human rights, are extraordinarily symbolic — as well as physical (banking; military) and intellectual (ideologies; academia). Thus, the overwhelming force of the West has created cultures of doubt coupled to systems burdened by national debt. It’s not a stretch to imagine the rise of terrorism from here.

Now it’s come home; it comes from us. If we are to enter into this age with meaning — to try to understand our complicity, first, then find a way through — the agony of lucidity must be central, and it begins by recognizing that everything is interconnected, as DeLillo would say; that what happened in Boston is not because of some foreign force, rather it’s, in part, due to our own force, our own blindness in our uses of force, the cataclysmic development of structural violence worldwide.

From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town — to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.

The Polling Vacuum of American Politics: How Ideas Get Sucked Out and We Focus on the Surface

Following the first presidential debate, I asked friends, “What do you think?”

Response: “We survived Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes — we can survive Romney.”

This is the sense of things today — survival. This is the outcome of an American Political System where the select win, the rest of us are left to survive. It’s a tragic truth that defines what is arguably the most perfect socioeconomic system in the world, ours: it controls, manages and induces people through the mindless insistence that what’s happening in front of our faces, on screens, is reality; it pushes, not ideas, dialog, negotiation and collaboration, but rather, sound bites, jingoes, and substanceless generalizations. It’s all about the performance, the sense that we’re watching an end product; the powerful punditry that critiques the acting — all the world’s a stage — then submits a critique of the unnatural surface structure.

The most profound evidence for this argument — that we have the most efficient form of capitalism tied to the illusion of democracy — can be found in the ever holy polls. The best example I found happened the other night on the PBS Newshour where Margaret Warner talks to the Rothenberg Political Report’s Stu Rothenberg, USA Todays’s Susan Page and Pew Research Center’s Any Kohut about the latest elections polls coming out of the first presidential debate.

Polling is not about a deep inquiry into an issue; instead, polls question only the surface action, the performance, basing their questions on image — the one liners, the sound bite, the images of the candidates, the “battles” in debates. In other words, polls measure Americans’ reactions to the glitz, the buzz, the immediate. Polls are about instant gratification scheduled to begin right after an event.

Susan Page, of USA Today, for instance, speaking with Margaret Warner on the PBS News Hour, said that, “the Romney camp understands that he needs to be seen as a credible commander in chief if he’s going to be elected president. There’s a bar he needs to get over there.” This is pollster talk: bar to get over, needs to be seen are suggestive of what the poll will ask after the second debate. There’s nothing here about the historical value and insight of the policy, this is because what comes out of a candidate’s mouth is a cascade of over generalizations meant to create a caricature, not a thinking individual grappling with subtlety.

In-between the first and the second debate, Romney, to appease the testosterone – laden, NFL-like politics of America, needs to show that he’s a man; that he will command and shape history using the most powerful force in the world. That no one asks whether this is imperialism and neo-colonialism on steroids is lost on me; that no one asks how we’re going to pay for this muscle flexing, and the aftermath, is also confusing given that the state of our union is directly related to the Bush-Cheney muscle flexing, and their looking the other way as banks pillaged our village. And that no one asks about what we will say to the thousands that are surely to lose lives as we expand our need to control history by force, well then, this too is very confusing.

This reality demonstrates the perfect congruence of baseless, narrow politics, media and technological power, and how pollsters actually work in support of both, creating narratives that suit television and social media that will suit the unfocused American public that wants no pain, only a pill that will fix this — an easy answer. Polls give us easy, immediate answers; they help cast a black and white narrative that anyone more focused on the NFL and the Kardashians can understand. Only the world doesn’t work this way. Our problems are deep and complex, requiring a nuanced approach.

Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, also talking to Margaret Warner, said, about Romney, that “people say he’s the candidate with new ideas. He ties Obama now on the — for strong leader, when a couple of weeks ago and when we did our September survey, it was Obama who was seen as a strong leader.” How viewers can change their minds after a single event suggests how uniformed — how unconscious? — the American voter actually is. And then to actually say that Romney is the candidate with new ideas seems like a delusion of epic proportions since Romney spoke about policies that were Reagan’s on steroids, for starters — nothing new: deregulate, open it all up to anyone, cancel out or carve out the cost of this on the backs of existing programs, including education, early childhood education, social services and Medicare. This is not new — nothing here is new; it’s been tried, but Obama’s more nuanced argument couldn’t get through the thick wall of pollsterism, the narrative consistent with image and the hunger for an easy black and white narrative.

And even though Romney contradicted everything he’s said prior to the first debate, Stu Rothernberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report, told Warner that the debate made “Romney more likeable, and the leadership is really strong,” meaning that as long as we imagine we see, on the surface of things, the sense of a constructed strength that comes to us through mediated sports, movies, songs, etc., we’re comfortable — even though the moral underpinnings of the individual are questionable, even though his past business practices are highly questionable, and even though there has always been an issue of trust concerning Romney that confounds us all. Who is this man? Polls, focused on performance, removed this question from the electorate. I’d argue that this is extraordinarily immoral.

In the end, pollsters are not asking how moral it is that we may be heading towards a government intent on building its economy on the backs of the disenfranchised and needy — a plantation model; pollsters are not asking about the ethics of a militarism that expands US imperialism in a big way rather then negotiating, which will certainly create more enemies; and pollsters are not addressing the very large education crisis we have that fails to address how children go to school, particularly in communities where the cycle of poverty has stifled social mobility.

Solutions, from either candidate, are slim, though we see the slow, hard road ahead that Obama paints, something we can actually sink our teeth into, regardless of how we feel about his change mantra of 2008, a moment, like this one, that no one asked about how to change. We went along because we were desperate after Bush – Cheney; we went along because we’re always in the position of having to survive the idiocies of our elected spokespersons for special interests. We’re short on ideas, wedded to imagery, which means we have to, once again, embrace our beleaguered image of the dying person crawling to a distant oasis — perhaps a mirage, after all.