As flawed as who writes it

Yesterday, I wrote “The beauty of King’s divine dissatisfaction about reading more of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words. This morning, as I continued reading The Radical King, I encountered a man I’d not yet met in any of my prior readings: Norman Thomas.

This June 1965 King article excerpt on white socialist Thomas began thusly:

Truly, the life of Norman Thomas has been one of deep commitment to the betterment of all humanity. In 1928, the year before I was born, he waged the first of six campaigns as the Socialist Party’s candidate for President of the United States. A decade earlier, as a preacher, he fought gallantly, if unsuccessfully, against American involvement in World War 1. Both then and now he has raised aloft the banner of civil liberties, civil rights, labor’s right to organize, and has played a significant role in so many diverse areas of activity that newspapers all over the land have termed him “America’s conscience.”

(In 1963, King’s father described Thomas as “for us before any other white folks were.”)

As I read through the essay, it seemed more and more remarkable Thomas wasn’t included in any history I remember reading. I closed the book and reflected on that for a moment, and upon “history.” Continue reading “As flawed as who writes it”

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White Person Astounded

Last weekend, I got a hankering to read some James Baldwin. While I’d read some one- and two-sentence Baldwin quotes scattered through other readings, I’d never read anything more substantively Baldwin than that.

The bookstore I visited only had two Baldwin books: Notes of a Native Son and I Am Not Your Negro. The latter was actually a smattering of slightly longer Baldwin excerpts, but those gave me a better sense of the man and author than did my prior encounters.

The excerpts also left me wishing I’d read Baldwin much sooner, the better to have my earlier confusions more quickly eradicated: Continue reading “White Person Astounded”

Trayvon

This morning, I washed dishes, listened to a podcast, and remembered.

I’d selected this particular podcast based on one of three books I bought in my hometown last month. All three books had something to do with U.S. racism; this one, with Trayvon Martin.

Sometimes I forget that specific losses of specific lives led me to where I now stand, aghast both by the system and how many people still think the system is basically okay. “It’s just a few bad apples who mess things up!” they cry.

I didn’t always see these problems, or grasp that gruesome anomalies of U.S. history–genocide of Native Americans, slavery, convict leasing, casual imperial adventures of extraordinary lethality–weren’t really anomalies but expressions of the foundational idea that some lives are expendable.

As I washed, I remembered a recent conversation with my husband, Anthony. Continue reading “Trayvon”

The simplest form

On a now-defunct blog, I wrote about something I intended to write there someday: a summary of a memorable conversation with one of my law professors. I closed up shop at that blog soon afterward, without having written about that conversation.

I’m glad I didn’t write about it then. While I had a glimmer of an idea about my professor’s insight, it was fractional.

The books I’ve read the last couple of weeks have dramatically changed how I understand that conversation, and how it ties to … everything that’s frustrated me since I realized I’d confused a vision of reality with reality itself. Since I saw I’d been creating my vision of reality by fixedly looking at a little pond of things known to me while pointedly turning away from the vast oceans of information, ideas, perspectives that existed outside the pond. Since, most importantly, I decided to dive into the ocean.

The easiest way to summarize what I now understand is this: What’s left out of the pond is at least as important–often more so–as what’s let in. (Nowhere is this more startlingly clear than in the first few chapters of Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.)

But, of course, the simplest form seldom reveals–and often conceals–much. There’s more to come, after I’ve (1) finished reading Taleb’s Incerto books and (2) had time enough to articulate what I’ve seen so that it’s not as abstract as this … seed of what I hope will come.

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

The Fifth Shelf

Last night, I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. This completed my fifth shelf of “politics-plus” reading since middle of last August. Back then, I’d picked up Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some in hopes it’d answer some new-to-me questions about the troubling state of so-called U.S. democracy.

In my hometown for the fiftieth anniversary of some of my adopted parents, I’d get my kids in their hotel beds nightly. Then I’d pace the length of our hotel room, back and forth, back and forth, unable to read such horrifying things sitting in place.

I really thought one book would do it for me, but … you can see how that turned out.

fifth shelf.png

As I discovered after finishing my first Greenwald book, even an excellent book can only answer so many questions, doing so while opening many more: Continue reading “The Fifth Shelf”

Hope in history

My last post, “Austerity the Dangerous,” summarized what I’d taken away from Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. I mentioned I’d had to read slowly to ensure I grokked enough to proceed.

After I wrote that post, I picked up a copy of Richard D. Wolff’s Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. Within reading the first couple of essays, I wished I’d read it first. Wolff explains a lot in clear, straightforward language. The “key purposes of austerity policies,” for example, are “to (1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint of the government, and (3) reduce creditors’ concerns about rising US debt levels.” 

(As to number three, Wolff sums it up thusly: “because big banks and other large capitalists are among the major creditors of the US government, they wanted signs that their crisis-increased holdings of US debt were safe investments for them. Austerity policies provide just those signs.” Basically, to sum it up, austerity policies show investors that the government ranks paying lenders back as a far higher priority than, say, the health or employment of its citizens.)

While walking my dog a few minutes ago, I saw a chart that (1) made my blood boil and (2) reminded me yet again why understanding history is important.

From my last year of reading, I understood that a memo written by then-future Supreme Court Justice Powell in 1971 hugely shifted the U.S.’s economic and political history. Basically, Powell said that U.S. business was getting the shaft and needed to combine its various actors to change that situation. In response, U.S. business began acting in concert to ensure it succeeded–over labor and human rights advocates–in shaping the nation; the more resources for business, the better.

While lots of folks point to 1980–the beginning of Reagan’s presidency–as the beginning of U.S.’s takeover by corporation (“inverted totalitarianism,” per Wolin), business won some huge victories against its “detractors” in the couple years just prior. Powell had had his way, so that the foundation had already been laid  for Reagan and his cronies. 

(So sad for so many lives that this jackhole later became a Supreme Court justice! Business and other elite interests were given great power long before Citizens United.)

With each page of just about everything I read, I understand how the foundation for business supremacy was being crafted for at least decades before Carter’s presidency. Still, some sentences jar me especially as they remind me how much our (mis)understanding of history influences what we understand of now.


Referring to the above grid, Wolff writes, “After the war, corporations went to work to change the federal tax system. Not only did they succeed in shifting the tax burden from corporations to individuals already by 1960, but that shifting had gone on steadily to the present.”

Further, he summarizes more succinctly than anyone I’ve read so far, “The US federal tax system that right wingers portray as burdensome to the richest Americans allowed them for the last two decades to gather still greater income than everyone else. The US federal tax system enabled greater inequality.”

None of this was inevitable. It was shaped by people with shared vision and commitment. To move toward a different system–one which favors human life over corporate profits (and their executives’ obscene pay and bonuses)–will take like shared vision and commitment by people with different ideals.

In my vision, food, education, health, and shelter are human rights which want of profit cannot overcome. The U.S. tax system is completely overhauled so that corporations pay much, much higher portions of their income to taxes than do individuals with actual bellies to feed and thirsts that cannot be quenched without funds, given how privatization has granted these things to corporations (for their profit) at the expense of human wellness. Storing funds in offshore tax havens is criminal, with consequences for evasion that would help dramatically increase tax revenue to pay for life-improving human benefits. If corporations thrive, in my vision, it is because they’re bringing just benefits to all, not crushing more and more human lives so their balance sheets warrant gross bonuses.

Seeing anything like this come to fruition seems impossible … but then, the more I read history, the more I understand how today’s impossible was yesterday’s actual.

I didn’t see it a year ago, but today it’s crystal clear:

There’s hope in history.