The journey as joy

I began blogging in June 1995. I wrote about anything and everything, wanting my website to be more than a collection of links. Several times, I got in trouble for things I’d written, but didn’t bother changing what or how I wrote until I got a threatening letter in 2001.

My voice has changed some since I began blogging, but one common thread has run through: me, me, me. This seemed both natural and inevitable until I began learning to speak Politics. I began feeling unsettled by this emphasis on me, me, me. I wondered if I wasn’t losing sight of a bigger picture by always focusing on my infinitesimal piece of the universe.

How else would I write, though? With more than three decades spent focusing on my personal experience without much regard for its context(s), how was I supposed to change not only my vocabulary but the whole orientation of my words? How could I write about collectives of which my experiences are the merest fragment, when I’d spent so long just focused on me?

I rejoiced when I read Angela Davis, who wrote as I’d only abstractly envisioned as possible. She’s been working at doing so for decades, so that her experience shines through. Maybe someday, I’ll be half as skillful as she is now.

Already concerned with technology and (my own) narcissism, I then began reading Neil Postman. In his writings were all kinds of contexts, and histories about things I’d never imagined could have their own history. I found answers to other questions, and more than that, pure delight to have discovered someone who taught not what to think, but how to ask questions to reach my own conclusions.

Postman’s TECHNOPOLY was–laugh if you must!–a revelation. Years before I began worrying about technology’s impact on humanity, he’d already written on these matters with humor, wisdom, and compassion. His entreaty to readers to consider how we’re being used by technology, instead of simply using it, opened up new venues of inquiry and possibility for me.

Last week, I ended up reading another Postman piece that helped me change the question I was asking myself. I stopped asking, “How do I begin reflecting this seismic shift in internal meaning on my blog?” Instead I asked, “Do I even need to keep blogging as I always have, just because I always have?!”

The answer was an exultant no!, straight from the heart.

This blog isn’t about me, me, me, the same way my old one was. This is about my journey to understand something bigger than me, and situate myself within it instead of smack-dab in the center of my own personal universe; to keep pushing myself to seek that something bigger, and grasp how it cradles all things, even if I never do learn how to articulate its connections with any nuance.

What will the end result be? Will there be an end result? I don’t know, and that’s okay.

The journey itself is a joy.

This 4/7/17 post transferred from L2SP 8/21/17

Junk economics & debt bondage

One of my brothers-in-law is in town this weekend, which has been lovely for many reasons.

First, we’ve now been friends for more than half our lives. He’s been a rock to me and my siblings through many hard times, including during my mom’s escalating mental illness and her death to cancer. Having him near brings me such joy.

The day we tried to talk my mom into getting help

Second, his presence means much, much more relaxing mornings than usual. My family rises early and noisily seven days a week; with exhausted med school student Nick sleeping on our couch well past five a.m., we’ve eased the noisiness factor by allowing electronics early. We’ve gathered in the parental bedroom and lounged around for hours.

Yesterday morning, I used this time to catch up on Economic Update, Richard D. Wolff’s podcast. I’d subscribed to this about halfway through reading Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens

One of Wolff’s recent guests was University of Missouri professor Michael Hudson. My interest piqued by what I heard on Economic Update, I listened to another podcast featuring Hudson.

This morning, I began listening to yet another Hudson podcast. In this one, he talks about writing a 2006 article for Harper‘s predicting the 2008 housing market crash.
That article requires payment to access, but there’s a related June 2017 Harper’s interview with Hudson. While many things I’ve read have talked about banks lending more than people could pay, they’ve been convoluted in their coverage of why. Hudson, on the other hand, explains it in a few simple sentences, beginning:

It was very clear that more and more of everybody’s income had to go to buying a house. Housing prices were soaring, and the reason wasn’t because of population growth. And it wasn’t because people were getting richer. It’s because a house is worth whatever a bank is going to lend against it, and banks were lending more and more money against houses and pushing people further and further into debt so that basically they had to spend almost their entire working life to pay off the price of getting a home. People thought they were getting richer as house prices were going up, but while the sellers were getting richer, the people who had to buy the house had to pay a larger and larger proportion of their income.

Hudson recently published J is for Junk Economics, which I’ll be buying before long. First, though, I’d like to read his 2015 Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy

For now, though, elated by the joy of discovery, I’ll climb back into my bed and listen to more Hudson … all while savoring the closeness of my family, including the three boys on the bed and the one on the couch.

(What a weekend!)

Spiritual garbage

I read Michael A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul because Kelly Brogan, M.D., recommended it. I’ve been so touched by Brogan’s writings, I felt compelled to see if I, too, would be moved by Singer’s books.

The short answer is, nope. The longer answer is that I could appreciate aspects of The Untethered Soul, which was written as if a general reflection on the state of the universe. I was soothed enough by it that I decided to read The Surrender Experience, which was a thousand times the “no” to the mild “yes” I felt reading The Untethered Soul.

The premise of The Surrender Experiment was that Singer decided to surrender to whatever life threw at him. Because he surrendered, he fell into mad money wherever he rolled. People, property, and dollars were just things that happened to fall into his lap because he’d opened himself enough to the universe.

So, hear that, people who are being bombed in Afghanistan? The problem is that you’re not opening your heart enough to the gifts of the universe! Open harder, and you’ll survive, even if your village, your close family, and your extended family bite it while you watch! (Should’ve opened your heart harder, eh?!)

And, hey, teenager caring for your two kid siblings in a decrepit area long bereft of training and employment opportunities? If you don’t have solid employment despite the obstacles in your neighborhood, it’s because you didn’t open your heart enough to the awe and wonder of the universe!

Mom who just lost her child to suicide, as one of my neighbors once did: You know what would have helped? Opening yourself to the universe! Letting it flow through you, so your daughter wouldn’t be molested by her uncle and kill herself! If only you’d just, y’know, embraced the universe more, all your material needs would have been met. And isn’t overflowing in material wealth really the sign you’ve made it, after all?! Doesn’t that make up for losing one of the great loves of your life?!

I try not to get this overtly cranky when I write about books, but The Surrender Experiment is basically a noxious variant of The Secret: if you’re not winning, it’s because you’re not attracting hard enough. If you were doing it right, you’d be affirming daily, “I’m smart, I’m open to the universe, I’m listening, and, most of all, I’m sure my success had nothing to do with the fact my dad was a banker and I had done most the work for a Ph.D. before I had my miraculous epiphanies.”

The converse of Singer’s claims that the universe opened to him because he opened to the universe is that the universe closed to others because they didn’t open to it. This is an easy claim for someone who’s known little genuine adversity to make, but a much more difficult claim for anyone who’s seen just how hard it is simply to climb from the rubbish heap into the sunshine when you’ve started in the rubbish.

The good news is that I listened to a few Jon Kabat-Zinn podcasts as I was struggling with The Surrender Experiment. Unlike Singer, Kabat-Zinn is genuinely concerned with your well being, no matter where you are. He’s not concerned with proving how opening yourself to the universe brought him and will bring you material riches. He’s interested in showing you how mindfulness can enrich your experience of the universe, no matter where and how you’re living within it.

So, spiritual garbage of Springer? No, thanks, though I’m glad he’s part of what inspired Brogan to care as she does.

The spiritual uplift of Kabat-Zinn, on the other hand? That, concerned with internal well being of many as opposed to the material wealth of one, I can and will so get behind.

Useful insecurities

I’m a white woman married to a Black man. I’m also the mother of two Black sons.

When I write that neoliberalism created the conditions for Charlottesville, it’s not to excuse racists, white supremacists, or nationalists. It’s not to to diminish the harm they can and do cause. It’s to put their rise into historical and political context, the better to rectify its root cause, or “the fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem.”

I am deeply interested in my family’s ongoing safety. Such safety won’t be won by painting Manichean pictures of good-versus-bad, us-versus-them totality. It is much more likely to be won beginning with nuanced examination. By looking at history and asking, “How did we reach this point? How do we get away from this point, and build political systems that ensure we stay away for a good, long time, if not forever?”

While I began following #BlackLivesMatter about three years ago, I didn’t understand how its grievances fit within a larger context of oppression. It took last year’s American Democratic primaries for me to understand there is a larger context, and to realize I’d need to read more than a few short articles to wrap my head around that. Inspired by Hamilton and my siblings, I began a reading campaign.

With each book I read, I understand more keenly exactly how we reached this point. I understand intuitively, if not yet at a readily articulated level, what it will take to go–and stay–somewhere else.

I read Princeton professor Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. in May. More than any other, this book helped me understand how a very specific sequence of actions and inactions brought the U.S. people the Trump presidency: Continue reading “Useful insecurities”

No warrant other than power

Only 72 pages into U.K. professor Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, I already have much I’d like to write about it. Instead, given current time constraints, I’ll share a couple short quotes for you to ponder along with me.

Government debt … can be thought of as a means for upward redistribution of income, from ordinary taxpayers to rich bondholders. Instead of taxing rich people, governments borrow from them, and pay them interest for the privilege.

The above quote was excerpted from Doug Henwood’s Wall Street: How It Works, and for Whom. The below quote is direct from Sayer, and sums up neoliberalism just about as succinctly as I’ve seen:

The rich would rather lend to the rest at interest and enlarge their unearned income than have to pay taxes to support them. Neoliberal governments obligingly cut the taxes of the rich, sell off public assets to them and replace government spending on education with loans to students that will yield interest. Governments then have to borrow more from the private sector to fund the public sector, thereby increasing the power of the rich and their ability to dictate policy.

For a little more context, Sayer distinguishes between earned and unearned income: “While earned income depends on providing goods or services, unearned income does not.” He breaks unearned income into two forms, “transfers” (entitlements) and “extracted unearned income,” concluding:

whereas earned income is work based and depends on producing use-values, transfers (or donated unearned income) are warranted on the grounds of needs, while unearned income based on control of assets has no warrant other than power.

Behind Charlottesville, economic violence

Earlier this morning, I wrote a little about my least favorite Rebecca Solnit essay. Now, having had time to reflect while driving to and from the grocery store, I’d like to write about one of my favorites. Though the essay is about the violence of climate change, it has much to do with what went down in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday.

Solnit begins “Climate Change is Violence” with the below:

If you’re poor, the only way you’re likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it–by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car. 

But if you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you’re the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers–the United States and Russia–still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on earth.

In the page margin next to this, I wrote, “I spent hours this morning thinking these same things, less eloquently!” I’d specifically been thinking how much I now loathe the saying, “hurt people hurt people.” The kind of hurt it sets forth is a very narrow, limited kind of hurt compared to that wrought by a handful of people with enormous political and economic power. The people who say it are focused on violence at an individual versus social/structural level, thus concealing (from self and others) the kinds of hurt they passively participate in wreaking on people worldwide. They move violence to a micro scale that captures only a fraction of the macro scale hurt perpetrated today.

Further on in the essay, Solnit writes:

Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16 million children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us.

In the next sentence, she sums up the problem so succinctly it still strikes me breathless:

We are a country whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.

What does this have to do with Charlottesville, exactly? My answer borne of a year’s worth of reading is similar to Solnit’s here:  Continue reading “Behind Charlottesville, economic violence”

Civil obedience

About midway through my time living in Japan, I bought Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells American history from the side of conquest’s victims instead of its victors.

When I’d finished reading it, I set it aside and classified it as representing interesting perspectives. That was the extent of my engagement with its material: “interesting perspectives.” I left my copy of the book in Japan, and thought little of it afterward.

I just checked out the audiobook from my library. I’m still very early in, but it’s discomfiting to approach the same text with such different understandings of the world. 

2005 me thought the book interesting, but failed to engage with it in any meaningful way. 2017 me looks back and wishes my 2005 self had tried just a little harder to look beyond the moments captured to instead explore the themes, patterns, and power dynamics they reflected.

None of this is “just history.” History is the foundation on which the present continues to be built; its cruelties and assumptions are perpetrated today, as long as people broadly assume that then was then, now is now, and there’s not much understanding then can do to improve now.

While I am still a small part of the American problem, I’m nevertheless heartened–in one regard–to compare these two points in time. Now, at least, I recognize that there is a problem.

With any luck, 2029 me will have gone yet another step beyond, having moved from seeing the problem to effectively working to change it.

So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.

Howard Zinn