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”


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

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. 

Founding Myths

arundhati.pngLast Thursday, I readwalked outside L.A.’s Aratani Theater while waiting to hear Arundhati Roy speak. Though I’d received a copy of her new The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with my ticket, I was reading another book: Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past.

I finished Founding Myths just before the program (which was so moving I cried one half-syllable in). The book takes apart thirteen different American founding myths, many–despite having been debunked–still passed along as truth in U.S. textbooks. More than that, it explores why those founding myths hold such power … and how much power they continue to have.

I recently wrote about Winner-Take-All Politics on my main blog. One quote I’d hoped to include but couldn’t quite fit in that post was as follows:

That we tell the Everest saga, and so many others like it, as one of individual initiative is revealing. Such a view is deeply rooted in our culture. Observers of the United States have long identified the tendency to see the world this way as distinctively American. More than most societies, Americans believe that people rise or fall as a result of their own efforts, and therefore get what they deserve. Critically, when we say this is a nation of individualists, we don’t just mean Americans embrace individualism as a social ethic. Underpinning this ethic is a tendency to interpret the world in highly individualistic terms …

This preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness. We see individuals, but not the organizations that help to pool their resources and can vastly extend their range of social action.

But for Founding Myths, I’d have gone on thinking this “form of blindness” was a phenomenon of the last few decades. Founding Myths revealed otherwise, demonstrating how such blindness was cultivated over centuries to foster a pliant and politically disengaged populace.

Take, for example, the tale of Paul Revere, who barely warranted mention in historical texts before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took literal poetic liberty with his story more than a hundred years after it transpired. Longfellow’s poem, which was treated as source material in many subsequent texts, brought people to worship the individual Revere and what he represented, all while failing to address the hard work a great many “country folk”  had done to prepare for battle for months prior. While ignoring that several others rode that night, including one unnamed messenger who “successfully delivered [the] message … three hours before Revere would mount his horse.”

Sam Adams was elevated for different reasons:

Not wanting to grant legitimacy to any form of protest, conservatives in the 1760s and 1770s maintained that all troubleds in Boston were the machinations of a single individual. In the words of Peter Oliver, the Crown-appointed chief justice who was later exiled, the people themselves “were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch.” Mindless and incapable of acting on their own, they needed a director who could “fabricate the Structure of Rebellion from a single straw.”

According to this mechanistic view, one man led and everyone else followed.

Like distortions around Paul Revere, those around Sam Adams were quite purposeful:

Without Boston’s Sam Adams, there might never have been an American Revolution,” the Tories once said, and today we are saying it again. This is not a good sign. The reason we can pass off Tory tales as truth is that we have unconsciously adopted their way of looking at political processes. The tory way of thinking, to which we have regressed, sees common people as “perfect Machines” who need someone else to tell them what to do. One man leads, while the rest follow adoringly.

Had I not kids and tons of work to do, I could go on and on. Because I have plenty else to do, I’ll conclude by saying: This book is a quick, engaging read, and was well worth each of the 798 pennies I paid for it (yay, clearance!). I’d recommend checking it out if you’re interested in probing your own blind spots, as I’ve become in probing mine.

There are reasons for the stories we tell about our past and our present. This book especially helped me see both the embellishments and their democracy-subverting rationales … all while reminding me how much richer my life is for understanding that the present, far from being without context, is instead a (slowly evolving) continuation of all that preceded it.


The source of true power

My political education began a few months ago.

Before I began reading extensively in early August, I had the vague idea that the U.S. had done some not-nice things for corporate gains. As I read, that vague idea solidified into an awareness that the U.S. has–for many decades–played a brutal role in subjugating other countries for its own benefit.

Even so, I was horrified when I began reading 2007 bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The articles I’d read painted in broad strokes; this book, by contrast, gives very specific, detailed examples of how the U.S. has used dictators and tyrants to implement policies beneficial to its corporations, assisting in rape, disappearance, murder, and mass impoverishment for gain.

I grew up learning that the U.S., my country, was the great humanitarian nation.

The journey to understanding just how grossly this myth distorted truth has pained me, though my pain isn’t even a sliver compared to that endured by those my country has helped torture and disappear.

In The Shock Doctrine, author Naomi Klein describes how lessons learned from physical torture helped inform torturous economic policy. The goal of early CIA-sponsored psychiatric work was to create a “blank slate” from human minds upon which a whole new mental framework could be applied: Continue reading “The source of true power”