Friday, December 21, 2007

Raising Leila

Idle ramblings on raising babies and children (and burning down the schools).

I’ve been spending most of my time lately hanging out with a baby – my daughter, Leila. She’ll be two at the end of next month. I’m often with her from dawn to dusk, five or six days a week, while her mother attends medical school. Spending all this time with her, naturally she starts to rub off on me in a big way, like a contact high. In her presence I’m generally in a state of mild euphoria, accompanied by emotional fragility. Like I know I’m very small and new here, but as long as nothing bad happens too often, the world is basically a fascinating and exciting place, there to be constantly rediscovered.

She went through a brief phase of gasping in wonderment at occasions that impressed her. These days she’s more into clapping vigorously and yelling, “yay!” repeatedly, or yelling the word relevant to the impressive event, such as “smoothie!”, “food!”, “doggie!”, etc. When something impresses her quite a bit but maybe not quite enough to make her start clapping and yelling, such as last week when she witnessed a dog run a hundred feet and then jump in the air to catch a ball in mid-flight, she’ll often say, “that’s crazy!” She got that from her wonderful punk rock babysitter, Hannae. She learned other phrases from Hannae, and she uses them all in context. When a friend and I were each holding one of Leila’s hands and “flying” her through the air, she said recently, “I’m so happy!”

With many other phrases, she knows what she’s talking about, but she poses them as questions rather than statements, because these are phrases she’s often heard that seem to be associated with certain activities. For example, if I walk out the back door of my apartment she’ll climb out to join me, saying, “are you coming?” This means, “I’m coming.” One by one, these “questions” start turning into statements, as she starts figuring out which is which. Just as “shoomie” became “smoothie,” and “Eya” became “Leila.”

At no point did anyone try to “teach” her how to properly pronounce her name. No one ever tried to explain to her the difference between a statement and a question. She figures these things out “on her own,” by living, by interacting with people, by watching, listening, trying things out and seeing what happens. She rarely becomes frustrated by her mistakes.

Lately I’ve noticed sometimes when she’s developed expectations about the way something works, and then when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, this can be a source of frustration. For example, she’s come to believe that when her pants are on, they’ll stay on unless she takes them off. Recently I had a pair of pants on her that were too big, and they kept inching their way down around her legs and she had to keep pulling them up, and after a while growled with frustration at this situation. (And I vowed to try harder to consistently dress her with clothes that fit properly.)

But generally, the world is new and undiscovered, and with an unfettered, creative approach to everything, fascinated by much of what she encounters in the world, applying the scientific method to every new situation, Leila goes forth. The more time I spend with little kids, the more I become convinced that they all start out like Leila – brilliant, graceful, full of enthusiasm for life, full of a desire to discover and enjoy the world, to understand everything there is to understand, to learn every new language they encounter.

Leila speaks two languages, mostly – her mother’s native French and my English. She mixes French and English with whoever she’s talking to, but mostly she tunes in to the language that people speak and uses that one. After a while she learns all the same words and phrases in both languages, but for the first while a new word or phrase will only be in one of the languages. “Cheese” is usually still “mage” (short for “fromage”), “pants” are usually “pantalon.” For some things that especially excite her, though, she learns to say it in both languages, and more immediately, in the hope that one of these words will work and someone will give her some – such as “ice cream” (“glas,” “helado”).

Recently my friend Reiko visited from Japan. I was encouraging her to speak Japanese with Leila. With Reiko’s enthusiastic warmth, I was sure it wouldn’t matter to Leila what language she was speaking anyway. Leila seemed to light up even brighter when she heard Reiko speaking Japanese. It was as if she was thinking, I’ve never heard people talk like this before! This is new and exciting! Let’s see, I’ll repeat what she just said and see what happens, see how people react, see what this means, cool... Within hours she had learned “oishi” (“yummy”), and “moshi-moshi” (“hello” when answering a telephone).

The thing is, nice new people, good food, and telephones are all very interesting, so naturally those are some good first words to learn in any new language. What grownups do – and even more, what older kids do – is automatically interesting. Walking up and down stairs, putting on and taking off clothes, talking (and especially talking on the phone), reading, writing. Other things are just innately fun, like swimming or taking a bath, playing in the park, or drinking smoothies. From Leila’s perspective, it seems, all of these sorts of things should be done often and well, if they are things that require mastery, and to one degree or another everything does.

When Leila encounters something she wants to master, such as, for example, climbing and descending staircases, she sets about the activity like a scientist playing a game. She enjoys the effort, the successes, and never seems to mind the “failures,” which she clearly views as learning experiences. Unless they cause physical pain or the fear of it, like if she falls down a stair or almost falls and needs to be rescued (on the very rare occasions she really loses it, I’ve generally been nearby enough to catch her before she falls down more than one stair). But in the case of physical pain from falling or crashing into something, she usually cries for a second or two, wants a brief hug, and then wants to get down and get right back into whatever she was doing that caused the damage, to figure out what went wrong and do it better.

Emotional pain is far worse than getting the wind knocked out of you for Leila. When she understood recently that I was getting on an airplane to go away for several weeks (for a tour), she was very upset and cried hard and heartbreakingly for quite a while. On a couple of occasions her mom’s housemate’s cat, Oliver, swatted at her when he was tired of being bothered. He’s a bit moody as cats often are, and not the most baby-friendly of them. Usually he’ll walk off in a huff after she tries to pat him for a few seconds, but sometimes he’ll tolerate a bit more of it, while other times he’ll swat at her instead of walking away. Leila doesn’t like it when he walks away, but when he swats at her she feels devastated and betrayed, it seems. When she’s crying about something like that, she seems to want to let me know what it is that’s upsetting her, so the last time this happened, in the midst of her sobs, she was saying “Meow! Meow!”

I felt like crying with her and laughing at her at the same time, but I did neither. What I feel compelled to do when she’s crying is hold her, which she generally likes. But the last time the cat swatted at her it wasn’t what she wanted. While still crying and obviously feeling hurt by Oliver, she wanted to work it out with him. He hadn’t walked away yet, and she wanted to try to work things out with him somehow, figure out what was going on. The truth is, if she figures it out, she’ll be the first, ‘cause he swats at everybody now and then. The rest of us just aren’t particularly bothered by it, because we know he’s a cat and cats can be like that (and anyway, he never draws blood from humans, unlike some other cats I’ve known).

Whether things are hard or easy, potentially painful or not, Leila dives into it. Nobody has ever needed to “teach” her how to do these things. Nor has anyone ever had to encourage her to learn new things, she just does new things all the time out of a love of life and an obvious, unhidden fascination with the world. No one has told her about the scientific method of figuring things out – her little brain did that all by itself, from the very beginning.

During her first year or so she lived in a house with no stairs. Around the time she was figuring out how to walk, we were staying at a place with a staircase for a few months. The stairs became a central fascination. At first, someone would always watch her like a hawk, but that rarely proved necessary, and after a short while it was clear that Leila just wouldn’t do things that she felt might result in falling down the stairs. She desperately wanted to be able to walk up and down the stairs with no hands like big people do, but she knew she couldn’t do this on her own, so she’d want to hold someone’s hand and go up and down the stairs that way. At least her hands weren’t touching the stairs, she seemed to be thinking. But she wanted to be able to do the stairs without help, so she improvised and taught herself how to crawl up them and crawl down them going backwards. She tried going down forwards on her butt, too, but that didn’t work as well so she ultimately settled on going backwards. When she was ready to start doing stairs by holding onto the railing, she did, and did so successfully. After a while she started doing stairs without holding onto anything. Each step of the way she’d challenge herself as much as seemed safe, never more, without ever needing anyone to say “don’t do this” or “don’t do that” or “that’s dangerous,” “be careful,” etc.

Leila is also learning to play the ukelele in the same manner. I have never “taught” her how to hold it, how to pick or strum the strings, etc. I just play it regularly for our enjoyment in my (our) apartment. I have several of them around, and of course they’re small enough for any baby to play. Sometimes she’ll pick one up while I’m playing another, but most often she’ll pick up the one I had been playing after I put it down. She hasn’t started fingering chords yet, but she holds it in the usual position (like I do), one hand holding the neck and the other hand playing the strings. She picks individual strings and strums as well, and sometimes sings while she’s doing these things. She sings beautifully, matches pitches, and may have perfect pitch (I haven’t tried to figure that out for sure and I don’t think it matters either way whether she has it or not). She likes music, and frequently requests this as an activity. I always have a guitar sitting on a guitar stand in the living room. She’ll walk up to it and gently strum the strings (only once accidentally knocking it over, which is easy to do with those little three-legged guitar stands), and she’ll say, “play music?”

Ours is a symbiotic relationship. We’re always doing something that we both enjoy doing, pretty much. If she’s doing something obsessively for a half hour, like climbing up and down a new staircase a hundred times or so (demonstrating brilliantly that babies do not have short attention spans if they’re into what they’re doing), I’ll tend to read the AP wire on my fancy new cell phone. When she’s done and wants to do something more interactive, I just put the phone back in my pocket and we go do something else. It seems to me there’s no particular reason for us to do stuff that one of us doesn’t enjoy, since there are so many things we both enjoy. Often, finding activities of mutual interest leads to me learning new things.

For example, I play music for a living, and it’s good to practice playing, writing songs, etc. (It’s also good for me to get to answer my email on a regular basis so I can book gigs and such, but that’s boring for Leila so I only do it when she’s napping.) I usually play guitar with a pick. But anytime I pick up the guitar and start picking, Leila hones in on the pick, which fascinates her for some reason. (The innate fascination of humans with tools of all kinds, perhaps?) Once she has the pick, she may strum the strings with it a bit, but usually she’s more interested in dropping it in the soundhole and then saying something like, “Oh no! I don’t know where the pick go! Where did the pick go?” (She hasn’t figured out that “went” is the past tense of “go.” I imagine by next week or so she’ll have that one down.) Then I shake the guitar upside-down until the pick falls out, and Leila shouts, “there it is!” Then she immediately drops it back in the soundhole.

I get bored with this game. Her mother is concerned she might eat the pick and choke on it (seems very unlikely, but who knows, babies are reputed to do that sort of thing on occasion), so I don’t want to give her her own pick to play with. When I do, however (watching carefully to make sure she doesn’t actually decide to eat it), she just drops it in the soundhole and demands that I get it out so she can drop it in again. I could stand up so my hands and pick are out of her reach, but that seems like a mean thing for me to do, and when I try that she sometimes just reaches up towards my right hand, saying “Pick? Pick? Pick?” So I stopped using the pick at home, and have been getting much better at finger-picking, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for many years, but somehow never get around to (along with learning Spanish, and many other things).

In our meanderings around town, friends and acquaintances often comment that Leila seems to be exceptionally intelligent, dextrous, engaged with life, and good-natured. I think they’re mostly being authentic when they say these things, not just trying to impress the proud daddy. Perhaps there’s a genetic factor, and certainly there are physical factors – the finest organic breast milk is freely on tap every night (“boobie!” – which of course is just as nurturing emotionally as it is physically), most everything she eats is organic, etc. But more than anything, I’d say her being “exceptional” is more about many other children being “unexceptional.” That is, they are held back by their parents and other grownups in their lives, and especially by the schools. I’d suggest that most parents and the vast majority of schools – public, private, or “alternative” – are failing, often miserably, to allow children to be brilliant. I’m sure that many parents, teachers and school administrators care deeply about their children, but they’re just going about most everything all wrong and they have no idea, to be perfectly blunt.

They’re like mad biologists trying to raise parrots in the Arctic. The parrots are consistently freezing to death, but the biologists keep trying to teach them how to fly faster, do tricks, learn to say new phrases, etc., always hoping something they do is going to help the birds to flourish, but they just keep freezing to death no matter what they do. They start giving the birds drugs to increase their heart rate and keep them warmer, but that doesn’t work either. It never occurs to them that there are fundamental aspects of the environment they’ve brought the birds into which is consistently killing them.

I always knew our society (by which I mean the US, and to a large degree the “civilized” world in general) was messed up, but this awareness has never been greater for me than it’s been since I had a child. There has been plenty of good, widely-ignored and misunderstood research about how children and adults learn, how we maintain, improve or lose our physical, mental and emotional well-being. I’ve been reading about a lot of them lately, but I’m not going to get all academic here, I’ll just use my life in this world as a guide, I think that’s an easier way of describing things anyway. I’ve personally had extensive experience with self-directed learning, as well as many years in a reputedly excellent public school, and many years in a wonderful alternative school. I’ve also known (and know) many children and adults of all ages who have been raised in a wide variety of environments.

It starts at birth. From right at the beginning, although the practice has been widely discredited, including by the doctors who originally recommended it half a century ago, parents are confining their babies in a crib and letting them cry themselves to sleep. Whether consciously or not, this is the beginning of the process of teaching children that they don’t control their lives. The basic, primal notion for a baby, that their calls of distress should be answered by a nurturing older person of some kind, throws things out of whack and sets the stage for everything else. I used to think I was in a bit of a weird leftwing bubble, living on the fringes of society somehow, but I have been surprised to find, now that I have a kid and I’m around other kids a bit more often, that the practice of letting babies cry themselves to sleep is not uncommon within my own circle.

After “learning this lesson” that they don’t control their environment and their distress is not particularly important, within a few months they’re in the playground, where I often find myself with my daughter. Many of the kids are like Leila; self-confident, challenging themselves on the climbing thing but not doing anything that they can’t pull off. Occasionally Leila will fall a couple feet. In all the parks in Portland that I’ve been to, though, the ground is covered with soft wood chips, so it’s all good. But there are always parents who are trying to dictate their child’s every move in the playground. The playground – a place designed for kids have fun in -- somehow is turned into a source of exasperation for both parent and child. The parents create unnecessary boundaries, the children, of course, feel constricted by them, feel like they’re being prevented from growing and learning new things (and they’re right), and they push against them.

If Leila is doing something that a child a year older than her is not allowed to do, and then the other child’s parent decides to let their kid do whatever it is, say, climb a tall staircase (with a railing!), often the child, upon reaching the top, will say, “I’m scared.” Why are they scared? Because their parents have taught them at this early age that they cannot trust themselves. They have effectively stunted their physical and emotional development, already.

And then of course the next step in the process for the overwhelming majority of children: school. Now that many of them have already learned not to trust themselves, they are generally thrown into an environment where everybody else is within a year or so of their age except for the teacher. Regardless of the type of school, the implicit message here is these kids are in this box for a reason – they’re there to “learn,” and the teacher is there to “teach.”

Alternative schools can successfully alter this equation to the point where the overall experience is positive for the children, I’m sure. But the best of the alternative schools are trying (successfully or not) to create a “child-driven, experiential” environment. That’s good, because what that means is they’re trying to recreate the “real world” in a school setting. Because of our widespread societal preconceptions of what school traditionally is – a sort of rigid, “us” (students) and “them” (teachers and administrators) environment – it’s an inherent challenge to try to change the model and create an authentically alternative school. But even if an alternative school can create a situation where learning is actually experiential rather than all “taught” from on high, it’s still no replacement for the rich, infinitely more diverse environment that exists outside of the school building.

Of course, for most parents and others who care about children, keeping the kids out of school may not be a realistic option. Perhaps sending them to an alternative school isn’t realistic either, because of the expense usually involved. I’m not going to suggest that keeping your kids out of school is necessarily possible or even right for everybody. But for those people out there who think school is necessary or important for children, I would like to be one more voice in the chorus that vehemently rejects this notion. No, school is neither necessary nor important. In fact, the vast majority of time it will do far more harm than good. I’m talking about the schools that they usually call “good” schools (with the exception, perhaps, of some of the best of the alternative schools), not just the “bad” schools.

I know something about this subject. I have no degree, and I’m sure I don’t need one. I’ve known many parents and children, adults and young people, all over this world. I’m intimately familiar with the products of a wide range of private, public and alternative educational institutions, and I myself have spent many years as a student in a “good” public school system, an excellent alternative elementary school, as well as a more conventional private college.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve known (and read books about) many young people who have been kept out schools for much or all of their lives. They are consistently brilliant. Not just in terms of their capability for critical thought, but also for creative thought, and in terms of emotional intelligence. They’re fully alive. Oftentimes their parents don’t necessarily impress me as exceptional people, in terms of their academic or life achievements. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out if you were waiting in line at the post office in the Boston exurbs. But to spend time with young people who have not been to school is a profoundly convincing experience in itself. The ease with which they tend to interact with other kids their age, or younger, or older, or adults. The self-confidence, self-assuredness, the bright intellectual spark that shines in their faces, their ease with “adult conversation.”

Many of them are taking courses at a local community college by the time their in their early teens, so they often end up having experiences with conventional educational institutions, but it’s a self-directed contact – usually they’re just taking courses in things that interest them, usually things that are either not taught in most secondary schools, or not taught at a sufficiently advanced level.

Since I had a kid and took a stronger interest in the subject, I’ve been asking the many university professors I know to tell me about their contact with students who have been kept out of the school system up to that point. Consistently, they tell me how impressive these kids are, how far above their peers they are socially, intellectually, emotionally.

From my own experience with school, and with seeing the effects of school on others, this makes perfect sense. What I remember about first grade was that I learned that my needs, feelings and desires didn’t matter. I learned that doing what the teacher wanted was all that mattered, and I learned that this was impossible to do. I felt helpless, confused, and afraid most of the time. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the class feeling that way. It was my first experience with a classroom setting with desks and all that, and it was a potentially spirit-killing experience.

Luckily for me, my parents recognized that school wasn’t working out for me, and they looked for and found a wonderful alternative school that happened to be right in our little suburb in Connecticut, called the Learning Community. After spending quite some time being reclusive and essentially recovering from public school-induced PTSD, I did well in that environment, and was basically allowed to remain more or less emotionally intact. I can only try to imagine how things might have gone if I had had to attend the public schools or some other conventional school during that fragile period of young childhood. What I know for sure is I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

By the time I went to public school again, from grades 7-12, I was feeling enthusiastic about the experience. I wanted to see what it would be like. I was interested in science and math, and I was under the impression I’d get to learn about these things. To this day, I like to hear a good story, or a good lecture. But being talked at all day long by people who were clearly disinterested in what they were talking about, while sitting in a class with people who were equally disinterested in the subject material, was overwhelming. Day after day, week after week, year after year, I was going out of my mind with boredom. It was like being in purgatory. I never dropped out, but I never accepted this reality either, and I somehow survived the experience more or less intact, though in large part missing six potentially very formative years of my life. For my sister and many of my friends, the public school experience was far worse.

I remember how at the beginning of each school year the students were given the opportunity to choose their class schedule. Each year, many or most of the courses were required, but at least you could choose between “Intro to Physics” or “Intro to Chemistry” (forget about astronomy, anthropology, or other subjects of potential interest to kids). You could choose between western European history or US history (all of course taught from the perspective of the rich white slave-owning Indian-killers, and you can forget about studying history of eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa or Asia). You could choose between French and Spanish, taught by non-native speakers. I’m sure there were not more than a tiny handful of students who were anywhere close to conversational at either language by the time they graduated, and I’m sure most of them were exchange students. But still, we were being offered a choice, and this was exciting. As I realized later, this was the only time during the year that we were effectively being offered a choice, and the choice we were being given was essentially between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.

This was in the early 1980’s, in one of the most well-funded school systems in one of the wealthiest towns in one of the wealthiest counties in the US, a “good” school by most accounts. In fact, my parents moved to Wilton from New York City largely because of the school system there.

But even if the teachers had (at least at some point in their careers) been interested in what they were doing and talking about, I’m still convinced that it’s the basic, hierarchical, teacher-oriented structure of school that is the essential problem. School teaches you that you need teachers in order to learn. It is fundamentally disempowering and dispiriting. The false idea is rife that you need to study “Algebra I” before you can study “Algebra II” before you can study computer programming or astronomy – rather than learning algebra through the study of something potentially interesting and practical, such as computer programming or astronomy. We learn that in order to learn anything really interesting, you first have to bore yourself to death for years by studying other stuff. Gratification is always delayed.

In language classes, for example, the teachers don’t even start trying to get the kids to speak until they’ve given them a year’s worth of grammar and vocabulary tests. With this kind of regimentation it’s a wonder anybody learns anything at all.

People often hold up European public school systems as being far superior to US public schools. I’ve spent a lot of time all over Europe, known many young and old Europeans, and for various reasons, I agree that, for example, the German public school system is much better than ours. But having spent a lot of time in Germany’s second city, the great cosmopolitan city of Hamburg, I couldn’t help but notice that most Germans do not speak fluent English. Many do, usually because they’ve traveled a lot, lived in England, Ireland, the US, or had an Irish boyfriend or whatever. But for those who haven’t had those kinds of experiences, although the vast majority of them graduated from the German public schools and studied English for ten years, they still never became fluent.

In Japan it’s incomparably worse. Japan is widely acknowledged to have an extremely hard public school system, and many students are studying various subjects with tutors on a daily basis, even after their long hours in the schools themselves. As in Germany, Japanese students have all studied English for ten years or more. Yet, from my experience traveling in Japan last summer, it would be very generous to say that 10% of Japanese people can speak English with any degree of fluency.

What explains this failure of the school systems in two of the world’s richest countries? And why the huge difference between English fluency in Germany compared to, say, the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where (by my estimation) about 90% of the under-60 population are highly fluent in English? One difference is in Scandinavia and Holland, many of the movies and sitcoms on TV are from the US. Many of the documentaries are from the BBC. And the most common language spoken by international visitors is English. English is all around them on a daily basis. Experiential learning. In Germany, a much bigger TV and film market than Scandinavia, most foreign programming is overdubbed rather than subtitled, and because it’s a bigger market, much more of the programming is produced in German by Germans. (Same goes in Japan, France, Italy, etc.)

But then, perhaps the Germans and the Japanese just don’t want to learn English, so they don’t learn it, despite the fact that it’s being taught in the schools daily for most of their formative years. Or is it because of that fact? Which is the point. Scandinavians want to learn English because it’s around them in their nonschool environment, in the real world. In Germany, English is largely something forced down your throat in school, so naturally, many people basically reject it, do what they need to do to pass, and little more. They are offered no choice, subjected to a fundamentally disempowering situation, and they reject it because they are human. (Perhaps they also reject it to some degree because it is the language of the countries that carpet-bombed their cities and killed millions of their fellow citizens.)

By contrast, I spent a summer eight years ago traveling around the US with a German woman and her eight-year-old daughter. Her daughter spoke not much more than a few words of English at the beginning of the summer. By the end of the summer she spoke English better than her mother. Her mother may have known some big vocabulary words that she didn’t know, but her mastery of pronunciation and grammar far surpassed her mother’s. For example, by the end of the summer, upon meeting my father, this girl recognized the fact that my dad has a very mild Brooklyn accent, something which many native English speakers wouldn’t even pick up on.

So, you can spend one summer traveling around the Rockies and hanging out in the Navajo Reservation with your mom and become fluent in English, or you can go to school for your whole childhood and probably learn English less well by the end of it.

And this is not just about the much-vaunted (but still widely ignored by most schools) child’s receptivity for learning languages. I’m convinced that to a large extent, we don’t ever need to lose that penchant for learning that children have. In fact, we lose that penchant for learning because of school. Those who stay out of school, from my observations, tend to hold on to that magic spark that all children start out with. (And they probably hold onto it much longer if they can avoid having to get some mind-numbingly boring office job as adults.)

In the Learning Community as well as in the Wilton public school system, music education was negligible. There was no opportunity within the schools to play music, unless it was to learn how to play a brass instrument for the marching band (so you could perform during football games) or the “jazz” band in high school. The overwhelming diversity of music in this world was completely absent from school, aside from castrated versions of jazz standards. (In fairness, I believe both of the music teachers in the public schools I went to were good players who genuinely liked jazz music, but they were no match for the lifeless institutions in which they were trying to work.)

My parents, being both very accomplished, professional classical musicians, expected me and my sister to get a classical musical education, too. When each of us were around nine, I remember having conversations with my parents about whether I’d like to take music lessons, and if so, what instrument I’d like to play. I was being given a choice of instrument, but not a choice of musical style. As with the school system that says you have to study algebra before you can study astronomy, my parents felt that you had to have a classical musical education if you wanted to go anywhere good with music. My dear mother also used to say (though it’s been a long time) that if I wanted to really disappoint her when I grew up, I could either join the military or become a rock musician. (She doesn’t recall ever saying this, and in fairness, I may be making it up.) My folks always said that I wasn’t named after anybody in particular, but I always had the impression that I was named after a virtuoso cellist and friend of the family named David Wells. I also loved his playing, he was so passionate and so damn good. I don’t remember my exact thought processes at the time, but the cello was the instrument I chose. (My sister, who was named after a great flutist, chose to play the flute when it was her turn to choose an instrument.)

Although two out of three of my cello teachers were outrageously good players, really nice people, and very sympathetic teachers, I never really took to it, and I basically withered under the pressure. I don’t remember how fully I understood this at the time, but it was the basic lack of choice in the whole situation that I found oppressive. Practicing the cello became a source of conflict at home.

After five years of this I quit. I needed several years of playing no music before I felt moved to explore music on my own. I’m sure that growing up around music and musicians was a positive thing, in terms of having great live music around me all the time, and in terms of the example my parents and their friends set as accomplished players. In fact, one of my most postive musical recollections as a kid was when my dad and I would play the piano together, and he’d make up stories about dinosaurs, using the piano for background music and sound effects. And there were many, many other very positive aspects to my environment at home as a child in terms of providing a rich cultural experience, among other things, but having formal music lessons was not one of them.

I took a couple dozen formal lessons on bass guitar and guitar, but mostly I “taught myself.” By this time I was beginning to more clearly understand that “formal education” was not all it was cracked up to be. From master songwriters and musicians that I met personally, like Jim Page, and from listening to the words of other masters like Utah Phillips, I learned that the way so many of the songwriters and musicians that I had come to revere had learned their craft was by steeping themselves in the musical traditions they were interested in, and then by writing songs, while continuing to listen to other music and be part of the (evolving) tradition that they were in. My “music teacher,” essentially, was the music itself, which, I’d venture, is the best teacher of all, along with your own ears, mind, and hands.

“Teaching myself” in this way, I’ve become a fairly accomplished professional. If this were unusual, it wouldn’t be worth noting. But actually I’m pretty sure it’s the norm. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d be surprised if more than a small percentage of people making a living in the music world are graduates of Berklee College of Music, Julliard, etc.

I learned to read and write by doing it with my parents, like most people. (As has been well-documented by authors like Jonathan Kozol, very few children of illiterate parents actually learn to read in school, demonstrating once again the failure of many schools to do anything that could be defined as “teaching” – because if no one’s learning, no one’s teaching!) Other skills I learned as a child that I use regularly today, such as typing, organizing mailing lists, and using computers, I learned at home from helping my dad with the workshops he and my mom were running. The rest of what I needed to know about how to do things like book gigs, I learned from watching other people do it. Just about everything I know about current events, history, and pretty much every other subject, I learned outside of school, by reading books of my own choosing, or books recommended by people who knew about stuff I wanted to know about. In all my years in school I barely learned anything of value, at least up until college, where I had a couple of good Marxist professors.

I’m currently in the process of writing a DIY Guide to Writing Songs, Playing Music and Booking Your Own Gigs, for PM Press. I could make it much longer by including lots of autobiographical tales of how a certain song was written or how I got a certain gig or first toured in a certain country, etc., but as it is, as a guide, with tricks of the trade and such, it’s not very long. I hope it will prove useful to people, but the basic message in the book for doing any of these things is to work with and follow the examples of other people who do it well, and then try it yourself, and keep learning from other people and learning from your own experiences.

My childhood memories can be somewhat vague, and I certainly had a generally positive experience with the Learning Community as a kid, but I find it interesting that one of the most vivid memories of my time at that school was when one of the parents got a flat tire. With the teacher’s encouragement, my whole class emptied out into the parking lot, where the car was with the flat tire. One of the older kids in my class had mechanical skills, and many other skills, which he had learned at home. He changed the tire while the rest of us helped out a little or watched. Even though I was only one of the ones watching, it was still a memorable event, I think because it was something that happened in the real world, outside school (even if it was only just outside school).

I’m quite certain that I’m one of many, many people who don’t learn well in forced, artificial environments, but flourish in real-world learning environments. One reason why this makes sense is that humans have been doing experiential learning very successfully for far longer than we’ve had schools. And still today, in the Kalahari Desert or the Amazon jungle you will find teenagers with enough botanical knowledge to fill several encyclopedias. In small towns in the Scottish highlands you will find teenagers who have a thousand tunes memorized which they can play beautifully on five different musical instruments, none of them learned in school.

I think about these things, think about the soul-crushing things most schools do to most students, see how brilliantly Leila has learned so many things and isn’t even yet two years old, and I don’t know what to say to the many people I’ve met who are aghast at the idea of raising a child with no “formal education.” If my kid really wanted to go to a school of some kind, I’d look around for a good one and let her try it. And if she didn’t? I’d no sooner send her to school than send her to prison.

As a professional musician who is happy enough living below the poverty line, I’m very privileged, and I know it’s not an easy thing to figure out for anyone, how to not do school. Schools work well in many, many ways with modern, (post-) industrial society, and of course it’s not just schools that suck, but most jobs people end up having to do. But for those of us who think society has some serious flaws that need serious attention, I’d say that figuring out what to do about the whole concept of school would be a good place to start. And in the meantime, those of us who can may opt to keep our children out of school and give them encouragement and opportunities to live and learn and pursue their interests in the real world.

It seems to me that children need teachers about as much as they need bullies. It seems to me that what they need is fun, respectful, knowledgeable and talented friends of all ages. And trees, grass, and libraries.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The RIAA vs. the World

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing massive multinational corporations with tentacles in every corner of the global economy including the music business, has just won a lawsuit against a mother of two who refused to be pushed around. Jamie Thomas’ pockets were not nearly deep enough to mount the kind of legal defense for the occasion, but she rightly thought that paying an out-of-court settlement of several thousand dollars for the “crime” of sharing music online was ridiculous. So she told the RIAA they’d have to take her to court. They did, and they won.

The fact that one of these cases actually went to trial, the amount of money involved, and the fact that the defendant could have been your neighbor, a middle-aged single mother of two who was not selling anything, but was just engaging in commonplace song-swapping via Kazaa’s peer-to-peer network, has made this case newsworthy. But what lies beneath it are the ever-growing tens of thousands of people who have been spied upon, harassed and threatened with lawsuits if they didn’t pay the RIAA thousands of dollars for sharing copywritten music in a way the RIAA, the US government, the World Trade Organization, etc., deem inappropriate.

In spite of the RIAA’s campaign to staunch the profit losses of it’s corporate members by waging a campaign of fear and intimidation against your average everyday music fan, the numbers of legal and “illegal” downloads continue to rise rapidly. However, the industry’s campaign is not just about robbing working class American music fans of hundreds of millions of their hard-earned dollars. The music industry is waging a war for the hearts and minds of the people of the US and the world, spending tremendous amounts of money on advertising campaigns to convince us of the rightness of their cause and the wrongness of our actions.

The RIAA is both powerful and desperate. They are a multibillion-dollar industry that has been “suffering” financially for years, and they are up against the very nature of the internet – that being peer-to-peer sharing of information in whatever form (stories, songs, videos, etc.). The internet has given rise to unprecedented levels of global cultural cross-pollination, and it has led to a democratization of where our news, information, music, etc., comes from that has not been seen since the days of the wandering troubadors who went from town to town spreading the news of the day.

The RIAA is trying to use a combination of the law, financial largesse, and encryption and other technologies to try to reassert their dominance over global culture. But perhaps most importantly, they are trying to reassert the moral virtue of their position, the rightness of their positions vis-a-vis the concept of intellectual property and the notion that the fear campaign they’re engaged in somehow benefits society overall and artists in particular.

The success of their campaign to convince us that the average person is essentially part of a massive band of thieves can be easily seen. Look at the comments section following an article about the recent lawsuit, for example, and you will find people generally saying they thought Ms. Thomas was wrong but that the amount of money involved with the lawsuit is outrageous. You will find people admitting that they also download music illegally, and they feel bad about it, but it’s just too easy and the music in the stores is too expensive.

Obviously the idea of anyone being financially bankrupted for the rest of their lives because they shared some songs online is preposterous, and very few people fail to see that. But the idea that Ms. Thomas did something wrong is prevalent, even among her fellow “thieves,” and I think it needs to be challenged on various fronts.

“We’re doing this for artists”

The RIAA represents artists about as effectively as the big pharmaceutical companies represent sick people. I’ll explain. The vast majority of innovation in medicine comes from university campuses. The usual pattern is Big Pharma then comes in and uses the research that’s already been done to then patent it and turn it into an obscenely profitable drug (especially if it’s good for treating a disease common among people in rich countries). Then they say anybody else who makes cheap or free versions of the drug is stealing, and by doing so we’re stifling innovation and acting immorally.

Similarly, the vast majority of musical innovation happens on the streets by people who are not being paid by anyone. The machine that is the music industry then snatches a bit of that popular culture, sanitizes it, and then sells it back to us at a premium. They create a superstar or two out of cultural traditions of their choosing and to hell with the rest of them. Sometimes the musicians they promote are really good, but that’s not the point. The point is that if the RIAA were truly interested in promoting good artists, they’d be doing lots of smaller record contracts with a wide variety of artists representing a broad cross-section of musical traditions. But as it is, if it were up to the RIAA we’d be listening to the music of a small handful of multimillionaire pop stars and the other 99.9% of musicians would starve.

The overwhelming majority of great music in the US (and most certainly in the rest of the world) is not supported by the RIAA. Rather, it is marginalized as much as possible. “Payola” is alive and well. The commercial radio stations are paid to play RIAA artists and paid not to play anyone else. A strategic, financial decision is made to promote a few styles of formulaic anti-music, each style represented by a few antiseptic pop stars, the lowest common denominator that can be created by the corporations behind the curtain. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of great writers, recording artists and performers are ignored, denied record contracts, promotion, airplay, distribution, etc.

In short, the RIAA does their best to stifle art, at the expense of money. They represent some artists, no doubt – a few very well-off ones, the few (occasionally very talented) beneficiaries of their money-making schemes. In the US, even the system through which royalties are distributed ends up benefitting only the industry and a few pop stars. The comparatively little airplay independent artists receive is measured by organizations like ASCAP in such a way that it is largely ignored, and royalties we should be receiving end up in the pockets of the industry.

“Downloads hurt CD sales of our artists”

OK, so the RIAA’s claims to represent artists in general may be laughable, but surely they have a point when they complain about the annually decreasing CD sales of Coldplay and the Rolling Stones? Even if they are just a cartel representing the interests of the few and trying to prevent access or representation by the many, surely suing average music listeners is at least some kind of response to their artists losing sales to these free downloads?

The kind of logic that sees loss of CD sales for major label artists as a direct response to being able to download their music online for free is flawed. It assumes that people would be buying the CD’s of these artists were it not available for free. The reality, I’d suggest, is very different and also hard to measure with any degree of accuracy.

With the rise of the worldwide web has come an explosion of interest in an ever-broadening array of music. People are downloading for free and paying for new music from all over. When bigtime artists get loads of conventional publicity and everybody can’t avoid knowing that Janet Jackson has a new CD out because this news is covering the sides of every bus in the city, many people will go ahead and download tracks from her new CD if they can find them on the web for free. But would they bother buying the CD in the current, rich musical environment of the internet otherwise? Or would they just move on and download other stuff from the independent artists they’re constantly discovering out there on the web instead?

I’d suggest the latter, and I’d further suggest that there is no reliable way of knowing whether or not I’m correct. If the major artists are losing sales because of the availability of their songs for free on the web, I couldn’t care less. However, I think what is more the case is they are losing sales to the internet itself, as a result of the blossoming of grassroots musical culture that the internet is fostering.

“Giving away music hurts small artists”

This is an argument the RIAA is fond of putting forward. Sadly, many of my colleagues, many other independent recording artists, believe it. They seem to think that if the major artists are losing sales to the internet, it must be happening to us, too. Either deliberately or through inaction, they don’t put their music up on the web for free download. Fans of theirs, it often seems, respect this and don’t put up the music either (sometimes). I’m convinced this is all born out of confusion, and these artists are shooting themselves in the foot.

What’s good for GM is definitely not what’s good for the guy in Iowa City making electric cars out of his garage. I constantly run into people who assume that I must be losing CD sales and suffering financially as a result of the fact that I put up all of my music on the web for free download. Sometimes they are artists who think I’m something of a scab. Other times they’re fans who appreciate the free music but are concerned for my financial well-being.

Principles aside for the moment, on a purely practical level, the reality is that many independent artists, most definitely including myself, have benefitted from the phenomenon of the free MP3. Like others, the fact that I’m making a living at all at music -- unlike the overwhelming majority of musicians – is largely attributable to the internet, and specifically to free downloads.

It’s not simple, and it’s fairly easy to hypothesize one thing or another and back it up with selective information. But overall, my experience has been that I sold a few thousand CD’s a year before the internet, and have continued to sell a few thousand CD’s a year after the internet. Gig offers and fans in far-off places have multiplied, however, and in so many of these cases it’s clear that they first heard my music on the internet, usually because someone they knew guided them to my website.

Every year, over 100,000 songs are downloaded for free from my website, and many more from many other websites where they are hosted in one form or another. This represents many times what CD sales could possibly have been for me without a major record contract, previous to the internet. My conclusion is that the free download phenomenon behaves more like radio airplay that I never would have had otherwise. And it’s international airplay that has led me to tours in countries around the world and gigs in remote corners of the US that resulted directly from someone telling someone else about songs of mine they could find online for free.

The reality, pop stars aside, is that the overwhelming majority of musicians who are able to make a living from their music make it from performing. For DIY musicians who are not having their tours booked by Sony BMG’s booking agencies, the most valuable resource are fans, especially the ones who are well-organized and enthusiastic enough that they want to organize a gig for us somewhere. Through fans like this, we can cobble together another tour. This process has been helped immensely by the “viral marketing,” the buzz that can happen when music people like is freely available on the web.

I’m sure that there are many people who would have bought my latest CD if they weren’t able to download it for free. Of this there is no doubt. But to think that this is therefore how the free download phenomenon works in general is extremely simplistic. For every person who downloads the songs instead of buying the CD, I’d guess there are 100 who hear the music on the web for the first time, who would probably never have heard it otherwise. For every 100 people who hear the music for free, say one of them will buy a CD to support the artist. For every 1,000, maybe one will organize a paying gig. This may not cause a big rise in CD sales, but ultimately it doesn’t hurt them, either, and what it does for sure is dramatically increase the overall audience of independent artists around the world.

“But people are stealing private property on those P2P networks”

There are many ways to try to compensate artists for original work, scientists for ground-breaking research, inventors for great new inventions, etc. There is no single, sacred way to do this. There are many ways to support art and artists in society and reward them for their work. Paying royalties based on airplay, downloads and/or CD sales is one way among many.

If royalties are going to be a primary way artists are compensated, there are many ways to do this, too. With CD sales, according to the current system, the songwriter gets something like 7 cents per song per CD sold in the stores. With radio airplay, the onus on paying the royalties that may eventually get to some of the artists is on the radio stations, and the radio stations are usually supported by corporate advertisers.

If the RIAA really thought their artists could compete with the rest of the world’s artists on a relatively open playing field, they’d probably be busily trying to create some kind of web-based infrastructure where corporate advertising would pay some kind of royalties for their artists. If this infrastructure existed, people would drift towards it as the path of least resistance, compared to finding music on P2P networks.

The problem is, the RIAA doesn’t control the internet the way they control the commercial radio airwaves, and they know that the musical tastes of the people are broadening, and threatening their pop star system, threatening their profit margins. They can’t keep out the competition, so they’re trying hard to control the environment in a way that’s most beneficial to their corporate interests -- screw everybody else. Screw independent artists and screw the public at large.

I don’t know if anybody can predict these things with certainty, but it seems to me the basic nature of the internet will ultimately triumph over the narrow interests of the music industry. The music industry will not cease to exist by any means, but it will shrink somewhat, and will have to give way to the flourishing grassroots music scene which the internet has nurtured.

It seems to me that the most relevant question in terms of the efforts of the RIAA is, at what cost to society at large? How far will they go to maintain this broken system, to maintain the inequities of their star-making machinery?

And another crucial question: why should a system be allowed to continue that massively rewards a few artists for their “original” records full of “original” songs, while leaving destitute the masses of musicians and others who created the cultural seas in which these “original” artists swim?

Musicians, as a whole, represent some of the richest people in the society and many of the poorest. The music industry’s system, in conceptual terms and in practical terms, is broken. It represents the interests of the monopolies against the interests of the rest of the world’s people, cultures, musical traditions and musical innovations.

To my fellow musicians I say put all your music up for free download, help your careers and screw the music industry. To music fans I say keep on downloading, don’t feel bad about it -- and try not to get caught.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Next Attack Is Coming: Six Years After 9/11

My friend Robert woke me up from my slumber at his cabin next to the Hoosier National Forest. “They’re saying we’re under attack.” I came inside and listened to NPR with him. At this point they weren’t sure whether it was military or commercial planes involved. My immediate thought was, there’s no country’s leadership in the world who’d do this, no leader wants to attack the US on US soil and risk having their own nation annihilated by US retaliation. Then the second plane hit, and they were confirming that these were, in fact, commercial planes that had been hijacked.

At that point, like so many others in the US and around the world who had not been living in a cave for the past century, my next thought was, why did it take them so long? For the past several decades the CIA had been overthrowing democracies in the Muslim world and installing and supporting vicious dictatorships. The US government had been supporting every Israeli aggression against it’s neighbors, and throughout the 1990’s had imposed – with the collaboration of the UN security council – genocidal sanctions on the people of Iraq which had been directly responsible for the deaths of half a million children, according to UNICEF. Under Clinton as well as Bush, the US Air Force had been bombing Iraq on a weekly basis since the invasion of 1990-91.

It seemed obvious that it was only a matter of time before someone decided that the indiscriminate slaughter of Arab civilians by the US should be avenged by another act of indiscriminate slaughter. And given that the targets appeared to be the symbolic centers of US political, military and economic might, this slaughter was actually far from indiscriminate! Every few months I find myself driving down I-95 in Connecticut, passing the sign on the highway marking the exit for a monument to the dead from 9/11 – in Fairfield, the town that was home to the largest number of the dead from the World Trade Center. Fairfield, one of the richest towns in the US, one of the richest towns in the world, in one of the richest counties in the US, Fairfield County, home also to the wealthy suburb of Wilton, where I grew up among the children of the business executives who took the train every morning to New York City to go to work in places like the World Trade Center.

I thought about these Republicans who I knew well, these businessmen with their messianic belief in neoliberal economics and the idea that the US is a force for good in the world, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. I thought about their children, living in their blissfully ignorant suburban fantasy worlds, some of whom would suddenly discover that there was a world out there, and it had reached into New York and taken their fathers from them. I thought about the daycare center at the federal building in Oklahoma City, and wondered whether the World Trade Center had a daycare center in it, too. I thought about all the temp workers who could have been doing data entry for some nasty corporation in one of those buildings that day. It could easily have been me instead of them, had it been Boston in 1991 instead of New York City ten years later.

At the same moment I thought about my friends from the Muslim world, and their families in the US and abroad. I wondered whether crazed American mobs would burn down Dearborn, Michigan. I wondered how many mosques would be firebombed. I wondered whether Bush would decide to use nuclear weapons against the beautiful cities of West Asia, in some kind of unimaginable escalation of the slaughter. I was happy to note, over the days and months following, that some of the worst-case scenarios that played out in my imagination did not materialize. The lynch mobs did not take to the streets, and for the time being, the ICBM’s stayed in their silos.

I knew, of course, that my government would use these attacks to further their goals of world domination. I knew, as any leftwinger with their eyes open knew, that the US government would use this as an opportunity to jump-start Daddy Bush’s “New World Order” and the Monroe Doctrine from whence it sprang. I knew they would find a way to blame governments for the crimes of nongovernmental organizations. I was not surprised that our support for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would not wane, while blame would be placed where it was most convenient for the neocons and neoliberals – against any regime that refuses to roll over on command from the State Department.

And my other thought in those first few minutes after the second plane hit the towers was, there goes the global justice movement.

I heard the confused, patriotic journalist on NPR trying to make sense of the situation. “Yesterday they were protesting the World Trade Organization, and today they’re attacking the World Trade Center.” That was it. This would be their line. Before Bush’s speechwriters could come up with the line, “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” someone on NPR had made the point in their own, slightly more subtle way. There is no clear distinction between those who want to undermine the US empire through killing thousands of people, and those who sought to change government policies through peaceful protest. Certainly there was now to be no distinction between those who would kill thousands of people, and those who would engage in protest actions involving property destruction or, God forbid, these terroristic college students who would dare throw the tear gas cannisters back at the police when they landed in their midst. While this behavior was never tolerated, it would now be considered as the moral equivalent of Osama bin Ladin.

I knew when I heard those words on NPR that this mostly young movement, these activists that the pundits had incorrectly dubbed “anti-globalization,” would be unprepared to deal with this new challenge. The movement was under constant, coordinated attack by the powers-that-be with surveillance, infiltration, and massive police brutality as a matter of course in dealing with peaceful civil disobedience. The movement was involved with a big internal dispute over tactics and how to relate to the Black Block. But the movement was growing, had plenty of vision and analysis, and was promoting ideas that were gaining increasing popularity.

Along with so many others around the world with their eyes open, I was living within an historical moment that could have gone in many different directions. A window had opened that was dramatically changing the composition of the air in the room, but now this window would begin to close, as quickly as it had been blown open only two short years before.

We on the left are always waiting, organizing, arguing, or some combination thereof, trying to determine what will be the next spark that will set off the next powder keg. We exist in the knowledge that the class divide, the race divide, the impending environmental holocaust, the growing disparity of wealth in the world are untenable, unsustainable. We exist in the knowledge that these things cause stresses in society that can go in many different directions, but that generally, oppression will breed resistance of one kind or another.

We are always hoping that this resistance will be a sensible sort of resistance that can lead to a better world – not white power but people’s power, not survivalism but cooperatives, not nationalism but internationalism, not religious war but class war, not authoritarianism and fascism but real democracy and socialism. But we know that these stresses in society are volatile, and can lead to many different kinds of developments. We’re all trying, in one way or another, to figure out how to bring things forward. Organizations come into existence, rise and fall based on whether they seem to know how to bring things forward or not.

The efforts of the many different groups around the US struggling for real democracy – economic democracy – bore fruit and managed to bring to birth a vital, youthful social movement in the streets of Seattle in November, 1999, that used mass nonviolent civil disobedience in a way it had not been used in the US in several decades. The WTO meetings were shut down. Around the US and around the world, people took notice, people were inspired, and the ripple effects rapidly spread across the globe.

Billions of people around the world who had been fighting the dictates of the US elite and the institutions doing it’s bidding – the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the free trade deals, NAFTA, GATT, these arrangements that were so destructive to the working people of both the Third World and the US itself, so destructive to real democracy, to the environment, to the idea that the people of a country, not a country’s billionaires, should be controlling their collective destiny – these billions of people had been wondering, where are the Americans in this equation? Do they not realize that they’re also being screwed? Do they not have a conscience, do they not care about the rest of the world at all? And then, after so long, they received an answer. There was a stirring in the belly of the beast.

Union leaders, their unions shrinking down to the point where they only represented 5% of the private sector, had finally begun to realize that nationalism was not the answer, that internationalism was. And people, young and old, who cared about the state of the environment, the welfare of the poor and homeless, the prosperity of the people of Mexico or Peru, the ability of the women of the world to have control over their own lives, people who cared about the very idea of to whom does this green earth rightfully belong, people who didn’t want to see their schools, hospitals and infrastructure privatized -- people came together, in large numbers, realizing that what we needed more than anything was economic democracy. People began to realize that the vital argument was between the idea of the commons and rights of living things and the idea of the sanctity of greed obscene profits.

There in the streets of Seattle, and later in the streets of many other cities in the US and around the world, was a crystalization of the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the world.

On one side was the government and it’s servile corporate (and “public”) media, spreading disinformation, focusing on the few involved with trashing, ignoring or distorting the actions of the many involved with civil disobedience, giving the likes of Milton Friedman complete access to the newspapers and TV stations to make their case for these trade deals while almost completely censoring the voices of the global justice movement.

On one side was all the power of the state and the repressive arm of the executive branch – the police chiefs like Patrick Timoney and their lackeys, their brutality, arbitrary arrests, raids and detention, their increased border security, turning away activists in trying to cross borders in any direction, their infiltration of groups, their many provocateurs, their armored vehicles, their threats of deadly force, their fleets of helicopters, their unlimited supplies of tear gas, their unlimited budgets.

On the other side were grassroots organizations like Indymedia, the Direct Action Network, Food Not Bombs, nonprofit groups like Global Exchange and 50 Years Is Enough, unions like the Longshoremen, lots of college students and other concerned citizens from all over the place.

And the ranks were growing. Of course there were (and are) the luminaries like Subcommandante Marcos, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, connecting the historical dots, making the links between US economic, military, foreign and domestic policies. But largely it was a young, inexperienced movement, well-informed about US economic policies but often relatively uninformed about the history of other social movements, past repression against them, or of the history of US military adventures around the world -- faced with a massive, well-coordinated campaign of disinformation and repression. But still it was growing, and the air was filled with optimism and possibility.

There were small and large protests happening everywhere, even a full-time protest-hopper like myself couldn’t get to half of them. Grassroots organizations were constantly being formed. Bands of hardworking activists were burning the candle at both ends everywhere, working hard, taking advantage of what was clearly a historical opportunity to win the confidence of the majority of the people. Through words and actions to spread the idea that real, economic democracy belonged to the people, that 90% of us had common interests, that the elite were screwing all of us, that we could change this situation.

I remember talking with a friend who was tirelessly working throughout the summer of 2001 to organize the next round of protests against the IMF and World Bank’s upcoming meetings in Washington, DC. After much debate and wrangling over the Black Block and other issues, the unions were coming down on the side of civil disobedience to a degree not seen in half a century. Tens of thousands of union workers and tens of thousands of other people from throughout society were preparing to shut down Washington, DC, to shut down the meetings of these elitist, anti-democratic institutions that had led to such misery around the world, that were so intent on causing so much more. My friend and other organizers were convinced that this protest was going to be much bigger than Seattle. There were rumors that the IMF and World Bank were thinking of cancelling this round of meetings, and coming up with an excuse that would attempt to hide the fact that they were cancelling them out of fear of the power of this growing movement.

In the end, they didn’t need to fabricate an excuse. The World Trade Center was destroyed, the IMF and World Bank cancelled their meetings, the unions cancelled their role in the upcoming protests, and we had a small conference instead of a large action. Even at that conference, the seeds of what would become the antiwar movement were being formed, while at the same time the feeling that this historic window that had been opened in the struggle for economic democracy was being slammed shut.

Over the next few months thousands of Afghan civilians would be killed by our Air Force, the country occupied, Osama nowhere to be found. Within two years, Iraq would be occupied, with the most sweeping agenda of economic privatization ever imposed on a country being put into place, causing unbelievable suffering to the people of the region, on top of the constant massacres being carried out by our military and by the civil war the occupation has provoked.

The movement for economic democracy that was, in part, emboldened by the protests in Seattle has continued to grow around the world. The forces of economic democracy have risen up and taken power in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere, and have, predictably, been denounced thoroughly by the forces of plutocracy in Washington. The size and scope of the global justice movement in Europe, Korea and elsewhere has continued to grow. And just as they did before, US citizens are actively supporting these movements around the world, actively organizing protests, writing press releases, building latrines, singing songs and doing the work of movement-building alongside their global comrades.

But in the US, for now, the movement is “submerged,” that’s one word I’ve heard used. Of course there are always good people organizing all sorts of things as always. Large antiwar protests are being planned for this month and next month all over the country. Many people are getting more active around climate change and the lack of any positive initiative being taken by the powers that be. People in Colorado and Minnesota are organizing civil society’s response to the conventions of our two elite parties in this electoral cycle. Activists do the work they do as always, organizing, writing, teaching, running local Peace & Justice Centers, having weekly vigils, feeding the homeless, and so many other things.

But the IMF, World Bank and other such institutions have their meetings largely unopposed in the US these days.

A score for the forces of world domination, the forces of the rich and powerful, for whom 9/11 was a wet dream, a gift, a way out of the ideological battle they were losing, a way to avoid losing the consent of the governed in their neoliberal policies, a way to divert attention from the massive scandals at Enron, Worldcom, Xerox, a way to make someone like Bush look “presidential,” a sacrifice well worth making to allow them to further their sick agenda of “full spectrum dominance.”

But once again, their facade is crumbling. Support for Bush and the Democrat-controlled Congress are at all-time lows, CNN and Newsweek have to admit it, grudgingly, sporadically. The movement is submerged, but the bulk of the people of the US are more cynical than ever. It seems to me that something else is going to happen. Every self-respecting leftist would like to know exactly what form it will take, but nobody seems to know for sure. What’s sure is that as long as there is inequity there will be resistance. As long as people keep their humanity, they will want to show their solidarity with their brethren around the world.

The only thing that can temporarily muzzle this spirit is the maintenance of the idea that “the other” is not like us, he is bearded, angry, evil. The powers-that-be can maintain this idea through propaganda, and they can maintain this idea by killing enough innocents so that the next Mohammed Atta is a matter of inevitability.

And ultimately they can maintain this illusion best if the next attack comes soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Letter from Nagasaki

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

I met Eduardo and Lilly Zaragoza two years ago at an event I was singing at, the annual fundraising dinner of the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center. Eduardo was 79 years old at the time. A short, gentle, quiet man, he had joined the US Navy at the age of 17 and was sent off to occupy the defeated nation of Japan. One month after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, his ship docked in the port, beside the many melted, ruined ships that sat lifelessly in the harbor. He and his shipmates took a walk around the annihilated city, the vast expanse of charred and melted rubble that used to be the city of Nagasaki. On that day, Eduardo joined the ranks of what the Japanese call the hibakusha, radiation survivors.

His life has never been the same since. No matter how much he has tried to forget, the nightmares of the visions he saw have never ceased. The masses of bloated bodies floating in the water. The horribly burned, disfigured, screaming survivors in the makeshift hospital wards he visited. Like the rest of the hibakusha, Eduardo was mentally scarred by what he saw. His body has also never been the same. The symptoms of what we now know as radiation sickness began on his first day off the ship. When I met him, he and his wife were both struggling with cancer.

Eduardo and Lilly described to me how they had had four children, not including the miscarriages. One was stillborn. Two others died of the same rare disease as young adults. Their last surviving child was suffering from cancer when I met them. Both of them came from families with a history of longevity and no history of cancer.

Eduardo was one of many thousands of US soldiers who were purposefully exposed to nuclear radiation. Many of the others, in experiments easily worthy of the Nazi Dr. Mengele, were ordered to walk through desert areas where nuclear bombs had just been exploded. The horrifying results on their fragile human bodies were quite predictable, just as predictable as the military’s denials of reality.

Corbin Harney died of cancer last month at the age of 87. Untold numbers of other hibakusha in what we now call the Southwestern United States did not live to such a ripe old age, but Corbin was special, he was a Western Shoshone medicine man, from a long line of medicine men. Corbin was a veteran of World War II. Upon returning home, his reward for his service was for his home, the Western Shoshone Nation, to become, technically, the most bombed nation on Earth. He was to spend most of his adult life campaigning against nuclear testing in his homeland, the area now generally known as Nevada.

Corbin believed in the healing power of natural hot springs, among other things. I met him at his home, the Poo Bah ranch, in Nevada near the California border. For decades, Corbin got up before dawn every morning to greet the sun in a ceremony to which anybody was invited to join. The ceremony always began with Corbin playing a drum in front of a small fire. When people gathered with him around the fire, on the morning I joined him, like thousands of other mornings, he alternated between singing in his Shoshone language and speaking in English about the importance of the different elements of life.

He spoke first about the dark, and how important that was, how everything needs to rest, how the light comes from the dark, and how important the dark was “in the times when we were hunted” by the white invaders, to hide. He spoke about the rocks, how they are all alive, how some of the rocks are radioactive, which is fine, as long as they are left in the ground where they belong. He spoke about the wind, and the wind gusted. He spoke about the light, and just then, the sun poked up above the horizon. He spoke about the rain, and in this arid desert, for a few brief seconds, right then, the rain fell.

A few days before Corbin died on July 10th, he joked with his friends and relatives present that he would die at 11:00. Not to anyone’s surprise, he kept his word. After he died, his relatives saw four dog soldiers appear from the fog outside his window to take him away. I believe them.

I remember reading in a book how there was a brief period when the Indians were more or less left alone, near the beginning of the 20th century. After decades of “shoot on sight” genocidal warfare against the Indian nations of the west, after the lifeblood of so many people, the buffalo, were systematically slaughtered nearly into extinction by the Army and the settlers, after the last of the free Indian people were driven at gunpoint onto barren reservations and then starved to death en masse by corrupt government officials, there was a brief time when they were allowed to try to survive on their barren reservations. A brief period where although the buffalo were gone, their land was stolen, their previous means of livelihood were robbed of them, at least they were not being slaughtered by the Army.

Then on the Lakota and Navajo reservations and elsewhere, oil, coal and uranium were discovered. For so many hundreds of thousands of people ever since then, life has once again been a nightmare of uranium and coal mines, back-breaking labor, poisoning of the water, land, and air, and premature death by cancer -- or by bullets, for daring to resist the uranium-mining corporations, such as the dozens of unsolved, uninvestigated murders of American Indian Movement activists in the 1970’s.

I remember reading somewhere that the cancer rate on the Navajo reservation – where there are hundreds of uranium mines, some closed, some still functioning, all toxic wastelands – is eight times the national average. It was sometime after that, in the early 1990’s, after the first US invasion of Iraq, that I read another statistic, that the cancer rate in Iraq had also risen by eight times what it had been before the invasion. And in southern Iraq, where most of the US artillery had been fired and bombs had fallen, so many of them full of “depleted” uranium, vaporizing on impact, the cancer rate was far higher.

I write this from Japan, where I’m doing a concert tour. I was unprepared for the extreme heat and humidity here, it’s like Houston or New Orleans, and with climate change kicking in it’s even hotter than usual. Seeking respite from the heat, I found myself in my air conditioned hotel room in Hiroshima, reading Robert Fisk’s most recent, magnificent book, The Great War for Civilization. That day I was on the chapter about the “Gulf War” and it’s aftermath. He didn’t use the word, but Fisk was writing about Iraq’s hibakusha, the innumerable children turning up at the overstretched hospital wards of Basra with “rare” cancers – children with leukemia (cancer of the blood), brain cancer, young teenage girls with breast cancer. Cancers the experienced Iraqi doctors had never seen in people so young, and certainly in nothing like the kind of numbers they were having to deal with at that time, and ever since then.

I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport just about a month ago, and witnessed the almost completely rebuilt megalopolis that is Tokyo, and the seemingly unending expanse of cities surrounding it. During the war with the US, almost every major city in Japan was bombed into oblivion. Hundreds of thousands of children, women, senior citizens and others were indiscriminately slaughtered from the air. A few cities were being saved as potential A-Bomb targets, and the beautiful city of Kyoto was the only major city to survive the war structurally intact. After the USAF began running out of major cities to destroy, they started bombing small cities and larger towns. Indiscriminately bombing hospitals, schools, temples, churches, houses, entire neighborhoods – and yes, factories, too. All this with “conventional” weapons.

At my first hotel room there by the airport, NHK (Japan’s equivalent of the BBC) was delivering the news, talking at length (with English overdubs available at the push of a button for some of the programs) about the earthquake that had just hit northern Japan before I left Portland, and about the nuclear reactor – the world’s largest in terms of electrical output -- that had caught fire and leaked radioactive water as a result. Usually this time of year northern Japan is bustling with visitors, but tourism in the area over the next weeks was down by 90%, NHK said. Apparently most Japanese people didn’t believe the government’s assurances that the radioactive leak was “insignificant.” After all they’ve been through with radiation, it’s easy to understand why.

On NHK they were also broadcasting the Asian Cup, the Asian version of the World Cup, one of the most-watched sporting events on the planet. (Except for in the US, where the 45 minutes of uninterrupted play make soccer a commercially unviable sport for TV.) Iraq won, and in halting English, the Iraqi team’s captain spoke out in front of the world’s media against the US occupation of his country, and said that after the game he was going to Qatar because it wasn’t safe to live in Iraq. He spoke of some of his dead friends and family members.

And then it occurred to me, not for the first time, but there in Japan for the first time, the thought hit me that the United States has been bombing a nation somewhere in Asia for most of the past 66 years. So soon after the virtual annihilation of Japan from the air, the USAF went ahead and did the same thing in Korea, dropping even more bombs on Korea than all sides in WWII combined, killing millions of innocent people and half a million Chinese soldiers (did you even know, dear reader, that we fought a war with China?).

In the same year that that war ended, we were sending in Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit, to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Iran, replacing him with one of history’s most tyrannical dictators, the Shah, who was to rule Iran with unspeakable brutality for the next quarter century. Then a few years later we were to invade Vietnam, completely destroying the country over the course of fifteen very long years, in the course of which we also invaded Laos and Cambodia, killing an estimated three million innocent civilians through indiscrimate carpet-bombing of three countries, leading directly to the insane Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia which then proceeded to kill so many more. (And I wretch every time I hear yet another person in the US say that “55,000 people died in Vietnam.” Just what defines “people” to those who would utter such a scandalous sentence?)

There are always pretenses for these invasions, and they are never called invasions. We support dictatorships in the name of democracy, overthrow democracies in the name of fighting “communism,” and when that bogeyman no longer inspired fear, then “terrorism” became the new watchword. And every day, more people worldwide die in car accidents than die in a year from non-state terrorism. Every day, more people die from falling down the stairs than those who die in a year from non-state terrorism. Every day, far more people die from breathing the toxic air – of cancer – than those who die in a year from non-state terrorism. But we invade countries and kill millions to stop the “terrorists,” while we relax environmental laws (in the name of “the economy”) which results directly in the deaths of millions more.

And when people in “America” doubt the wisdom of these invasions, when people raise questions about our government spending more every year on “defense” than the rest of the world combined while our cities are flooded, our bridges are collapsing, and millions of our children are going to bed hungry, sick and without health care, or the ability to read or write, we are told that we mustn’t be “isolationist.” We are told that there are “evil men” and “evil regimes” in this world that we must stop before they acquire nuclear weapons.

But they are mostly arming themselves to defend themselves from a possible – even likely – invasion by us. This is the historical reality, whatever the pundits say, whatever the textbooks say, whatever the politicians say. (And if you’d like to see the hard evidence, please pick up a copy of Joseph Gerson’s excellent book, Empire and the Bomb.)

Somehow we are never the ones who started it. Somehow we need to have these 10,000 nuclear weapons, each one 1,000 times deadlier than the bomb that annihilated Hiroshima. And if you don’t believe it, they say, if our arguments about evil regimes and WMD’s and democracy are not convincing, remember World War II. Remember Hitler, remember the Nazi holocaust, remember the “Good War.” (Now, if you believe that the US entered the war in Europe to save my Jewish relatives then maybe you also believe that we’re in Iraq to save the Kurds and the Shiites, and I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Minneapolis, but I’ll save that tract for another essay.)

Remember the Good War. Remember the Rape of Nanking, when Japanese occupation soldiers raped and murdered their way through China, killing an estimated 100,000 in Nanking alone. Remember Hitler, who systematically killed millions in an orchestrated orgy of death unlike anything the world had ever seen -- well, at least not since the Turks and their Kurdish underlings did the same thing to the Armenians, with nobody seriously doing anything to stop them, one short generation earlier, during the dying throes of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Systematic killing of millions in an orchestrated, high-tech genocide, aimed at wiping out entire populations of human beings.

Walking around the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the reminders of the atomic bombings, and of the desire of the people of these cities for a peaceful world free of nuclear weapons, are everywhere. On plaques, in museums, in the parks. Everywhere I went, walking around beneath the blazing sun that shines mercilessly, constantly, after the rainy season ends every summer, I just kept getting the same cold, eerie feeling I remember well from visiting the concentration camps that have been preserved for posterity in Germany.

Visting Buchenwald I remember the feeling, how can such an unspeakable horror as the Nazi holocaust possibly be represented effectively within the walls of a building? How can pictures, videos, hair, shoes, teeth, the few remains of the many dead, how can these things project the scope of this nightmare? They can’t, really. But somehow, being there – and I know I’m not alone in this feeling – the ghosts are alive. Sit quietly for a few minutes in Buchenwald and you can hear the screams of the dying, feel the silence of the dead. The single candle burning in the middle of the empty room in the former gas chamber, with the Jewish prayer for forgiveness in the background, somehow communicates more than you might imagine if you haven’t been there.

It’s like that in Hiroshima. Seeing the few documentaries that ever make it onto TV in the US, hearing the testimonies of the hibakusha who occasionally visit the country that destroyed their cities and speak to the relatively few people who come to hear them, just isn’t the same. These cities were wiped out. They ceased to exist. Everything was gone. How can nothingness be memorialized? It can’t. But of the three steel-reinforced, concrete structures in Hiroshima that partially survived the apocalypse of August 6th, 1945, what is known as the Atomic Dome has been left as it was on that day. Mostly destroyed, but still recognizeable as a building. Most of the concrete turned to rubble, steel beams bent like straw, the inside completely gutted and burned long ago, when my parents were children.

This is what happened to an earthquake-proof, steel-reinforced structure. But this was a city of small wooden houses with clay tile roofs. All around this dome for miles, in this city surrounded by mountains, in this valley as far as the eye could see, were just flattened houses. In and around those houses, 70,000 people died in a matter of seconds, mostly women, children, and senior citizens.

Thousands more lived long enough – sometimes only a few minutes, sometimes a few hours – to walk, naked, their clothes having been burned off of them, their bodies charred black and red, their skin hanging off of them like seaweed, their arms outstretched, crying, walking on top of the collapsed houses of their neighbors, stepping over the dead and dying, walking towards one of the two rivers that flowed through the city. Many died before they got to the river, others died once they got to the river, and the rivers turned red from blood, and then black from radioactive ash that rained down from the sky. There were so many bodies in the river that they piled up and formed a huge dam.

Standing between those rivers, there in front of the dome at 3 am one evening, the words of the hibakusha I had had dinner with earlier came back to me. They were recounting the bits that they remembered, that trauma-induced amnesia had not obliterated. Every time was like reliving the experience, but they felt duty-bound to tell the stories to those who would listen.

Dr. Shoji Sawada was 13 when the bomb fell. He was sick that day, and unlike most people in Hiroshima, at 8:15 am he was not up and about, but was in bed, shielded by walls from the initial flash of light that burned tens of thousands of people to a crisp instantly. Shoji suddenly found himself covered in the rubble of his house, but managed to squirm out from under it.

Then he heard his mother calling. He looked around and couldn’t see her. Then he realized she was beneath him, pinned underneath a smoldering beam of wood. He tried with all his might to move the beam, but it was far beyond his physical abilities. He looked outside for help, but everyone around him was dead or dying. He went back in and tried to move the beam again, to no avail. The initial blast was as hot as the sun, which is what instantly killed anybody within a kilometer of it who was directly exposed, and most people within several kilometers of it. Immediately following this was a massive gust of wind many times stronger than the strongest typhoon, which is what flattened all the houses and snapped all the trees like toothpicks (leaving only parts of those few aforementioned steel structures, and a number of smokestacks, their cylindrical shape protecting them from the blast of wind).

Just after the wind, Shoji-san explained, everything combustible immediately caught fire. With the flames lapping at his legs, unable to move the beam of wood, he said, “forgive me, mother,” and ran towards the river. “Study hard and be a good student,” were her last words. And then she was burned to death, as her son survived the rest of the day in the river, surrounded by what can only be described as hell on Earth. Every day he remembers his mother, and her last words, and feels the pain and the guilt of the survivor once again.

Now multiply this scene by 70,000.

This was premeditated, high-tech mass murder targeted at civilians. Genocide. It was the Japanese holocaust. It was done to a country that was in complete ruins, whose government was in the process of attempting to surrender, but the “Allies” were pretending not to hear these messages because they wanted to drop the bomb first, to “send a message” to the Soviet Union, among other reasons. It was done to a country that had virtually no functioning industry. Yes, Mitsubishi had an armanents factory in Hiroshima, I learned from a visit to the museum there, but what the museum didn’t mention was that the workers were going there and waiting for parts which never arrived. Japanese industry was essentially totally crippled by the summer of 1945. There was no military value to the city of Hiroshima – even if having military value could possibly justify slaughtering 70,000 civilians.

Against the advice of most of the top military brass, Truman and Churchill connived to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima, knowing full well that it would result in indiscriminate death and destruction to an entire city.

And then they did it again, three days later, in Nagasaki, after the Japanese emperor had personally become involved in attempting to surrender to the “Allies,” under the same conditions of Germany’s surrender at Potsdam. Incidentally, the bomb over Nagasaki was dropped directly above the biggest concentration of Catholics in East Asia, almost directly over the biggest cathedral in East Asia, over a city that contained a POW camp, and all this was known to Truman and Churchill and his advisors who supported dropping the first and second bombs.

Completely annihilating one city full of civilians, and then doing it to another – after raining down death from “conventional” bombs indiscriminately throughout almost every population center in the nation. This “conventional” holocaust of unprecedented proportions was carried out by “FDR,” that great hero of the working class in the United States. Nuclear hell on Earth was brought to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by that down-to-Earth hoosier who never went to college, Harry Truman, and by his good friend Winston Churchill, the man lionized in the history books for saving Britain from Nazi tyranny. The fact that he also ordered the gassing of Iraqis a few years earlier and supervised the firebombing of Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg and most other major cities in Germany, himself responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians, is usually conveniently overlooked.

There was no “Good War.” Every war the US has been involved with since the “American” Revolution has been a war for empire, based on lies just as blatant as Colin Powell’s 31 lies he presented to the UN a few short years ago, as the corporate media hung on every ridiculous word. The victors write most of the histories, but many other histories are out there, often out of print, growing mold on the book shelves in the libraries of “America,” rarely used. As a result, we are a nation made up largely of idiots (thank you, Green Day). A Gallup poll two years ago asked people in the US whether they thought the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan was “necessary” to end the war. 57% said it was. This is beyond shameful, not to mention completely ahistorical, proof of the effectiveness of the bald propaganda of the victors of this “Good War.”

What if you asked a modern-day German whether they thought the holocaust was “necessary” -- perhaps “necessary” to garner support for the German occupation from the largely anti-Semitic populations of the nations of eastern Europe? Even the very question would be appalling. Anyone answering “yes” would be considered something akin to a holocaust denier, some kind of monster, appropriately enough. What if you asked a modern-day Japanese person if the rape of Nanking was “necessary”? If he was a politician and answered in the affirmative to this question he would probably be driven out of office, just like Prime Minister Abe’s Defense Minister last month.

No, the Japanese Holocaust was not “necessary.” By any reasonable accounting of history, what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a holocaust as horrible in scope as what the Nazis did to Europe, except that it was carried out in a matter of seconds rather than years. By any reasonable accounting of history, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill were morally equivalent to Adolf Hitler. By any reasonable accounting of history, those in charge of the US Air Force were moral equivalents of the SS.

And why does it matter whether long-dead presidents were war criminals or not? Because the cliché is true: if you don’t understand history, you are doomed to repeat it. Because many of the hibakusha in Japan and around the world are still alive, and they deserve some ounce of dignity. Because if you believe the billionaires that run this country are capable of fighting a “Good War,” capable of defending the rights of the oppressed somewhere in the world, you might believe they could do that again. But they never have, they aren’t now, and they never will. Not in Vietnam, not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, not in Iran, not in Syria, not in North Korea, nowhere.

They are running an empire -- a vicious, genocidal empire that’s been dominating much of the world for many decades. Kennedy was running it – he nearly ended life on Earth twice in his short tenure as president. Eisenhower, the butcher of Korea, was running it. Johnson, the butcher of Vietnam, was running it. Nixon, the butcher of Cambodia, was running it. Clinton was running it – he, like the rest, threatened to use nuclear weapons against both Iraq and Korea. He said “nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of our foreign policy.” His wife, Hillary, has also said “all options are on the table.” And we hopefully all know about Bush.

All of these people were (and in the case of the Clintons and the Bushes, are) terrorists of the worst kind. They are nuclear terrorists. What they seem to have learned from history is that it’s OK to kill and to threaten to kill millions of innocent civilians – and to risk the lives of billions more, including hundreds of millions of vulnerable people inside the United States – if they deem that it serves their interests.

What is clearly in our interests – and certainly in the interests of other human beings around the world – is to rise up against these “democratic” despots. If there is any possibility of redeeming the soul of this place we call “America,” this madness must be stopped. We may have exported our entire manufacturing base to China, but the weapons of mass destruction (and most of our “conventional” weapons) are still made in the USA.

The functioning of the government requires the consent of the governed. It can and must be withdrawn. One by one, or hopefully, in our millions. The most important lesson of history, the one that the rulers of “America” most want to keep from us, is that mass movements can achieve everything. That another world is possible. That democracy is in the streets. And that “evil” does not usually come in the form of a frothing-at-the-mouth dictator.

Evil, as has been pointed out before, is more often banal. Evil pays taxes. Evil pushes papers. Evil designs missiles, programs computers. Evil drops the bombs, but evil also sits by while others do that, and evil watches and fails to act. Evil is silent. Evil is patriotic. Evil waves a flag. Evil writes lying propaganda for textbooks and newspapers. Evil believes that genocide could possibly be excusable, let alone “necessary.”