Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Way Forward

There is a Bob Dylan song on one of his 80's albums (Oh, Mercy) that is called "Everything is Broken."

It goes something like this:

Broken lines, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken

Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broken dishes, broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Broken cutters, broken saws
Broken buckles, broken laws
Broken bodies, broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin'
Everything is broken

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Broken hands on broken ploughs
Broken treaties, broken vows
Broken pipes, broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken

Boy, that sums up how everything feels to me this morning.

Part of London was on fire last night after a 29-year old father of four was killed by police and angry citizens rioted in response.

The newspaper headlines this morning are full of portending doom, with the S&P downgrade of the nation's credit rating from AAA+ to AA+ expected to harm an already weakening economy.

The nation's debt, fed by two rounds of Bush tax cuts and two overseas wars put on the nation's credit card, is forcing politicians to slash domestic spending, lay off government workers, and look to the social safety net for more budget cuts.

Meanwhile Tea Party Republicans refuse to discuss any revenue increases despite tax levels being at the lowest level since the 50's.

"Progressive" Barack Obama brags about bringing domestic government spending down to Eisenhower-era levels even as he ratchets up the spending on the wars in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The nation's unemployment rate stands officially at 9.1% but nobody really believes that number. The government is jiving us, the underemployment rate stands closer to 20%, the prospects for people long out of work are not good, especially if they are over 45 years of age.

Even as the job prospects for middle-aged and older Americans diminish, Barack Obama gets ready to raise the eligibility age and cut benefits on Social Security and Medicare.

The debt ceiling fight has left people feeling that the American political system is dysfunctional beyond fixing, that the extreme partisanship that has seen Tea Party Republicans actually claim they would rather see default by the nation on its debts than compromise with Democrats and raise any taxes whatsoever leaves you feeling that nothing of note or promise will ever be accomplished in Washington again.

Given what comes from Washington these days, from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top in education to the draconian food laws and regulations that are written by Monsanto lobbyists and benefit Big Ag over small farmers, maybe it's not so bad that Washington can't get anything of note through anymore.

Do we really want another Obama health care plan that mandates Americans buy crappy insurance or face tax penalties from the IRS?

Do we want the Obama No Child Left Behind II blueprint that calls for batteries of additional standardized testing in every grade at every level in every state and ties teacher pay and evaluations to those scores?

Do we want another Obama stimulus plan that spends billions on garbage like Race to the Top but fails to really create jobs, fails to put together some FDR kind of jobs programs that helps the country rebuild its Third World infrastructure?

I say no, we do not.

It may be time that we look away from Washington and government, indeed, look away from electoral politics in particular.

The American Empire is broken and cannot be fixed.

Electing somebody who runs on the "Audacity of Hope" will not makes things better.

Electing somebody who talks about "Change We Can All Believe In" will not change things for the better.

There is too much corporate money, too much corruption, too much poison in the system for there to be any meaningful progress to come from Washington.

Everybody's on the take, everyone's on the make, everything is broken - from the government to Wall Street to the banking system to the media.

The free market fetishists sell us on "market-based solutions" even as it has become quite clear that market-based solutions bring profits for the Elite and pain for everybody else.

Chris Hedges has written that:

The refusal by all of our liberal institutions, including the press, universities, labor and the Democratic Party, to challenge the utopian assumptions that the marketplace should determine human behavior permits corporations and investment firms to continue their assault, including speculating on commodities to drive up food prices. It permits coal, oil and natural gas corporations to stymie alternative energy and emit deadly levels of greenhouse gases. It permits agribusinesses to divert corn and soybeans to ethanol production and crush systems of local, sustainable agriculture. It permits the war industry to drain half of all state expenditures, generate trillions in deficits, and profit from conflicts in the Middle East we have no chance of winning. It permits corporations to evade the most basic controls and regulations to cement into place a global neo-feudalism. The last people who should be in charge of our food supply or our social and political life, not to mention the welfare of sick children, are corporate capitalists and Wall Street speculators.

Hedges proposes a solution, a solution that so far many of us who are still invested in the American economic and political systems have been unwilling to comply with:

None of this is going to change until we turn our backs on the Democratic Party, denounce the orthodoxies peddled in our universities and in the press by corporate apologists and construct our opposition to the corporate state from the ground up. It will not be easy. It will take time. And it will require us to accept the status of social and political pariahs, especially as the lunatic fringe of our political establishment steadily gains power. The corporate state has nothing to offer the left or the right but fear. It uses fear—fear of secular humanism or fear of Christian fascists—to turn the population into passive accomplices. As long as we remain afraid nothing will change.


We must embrace, and embrace rapidly, a radical new ethic of simplicity and rigorous protection of our ecosystem—especially the climate—or we will all be holding on to life by our fingertips. We must rebuild radical socialist movements that demand that the resources of the state and the nation provide for the welfare of all citizens and the heavy hand of state power be employed to prohibit the plunder by the corporate power elite. We must view the corporate capitalists who have seized control of our money, our food, our energy, our education, our press, our health care system and our governance as mortal enemies to be vanquished.

As we face another looming recession, the second recession in four years, as Europe reels from a sovereign debt crisis, as the world faces its second banking crisis in four years this weekend, as the stock market gives away all its gains for the year and looks to be heading for a 20% fall in the near future, as poverty rates soar across the world and here in the United States, as austerity measures are pushed that will ultimately dismantle what little is left of the American social safety network, as our water and air and soil is poisoned from corporate malfeasance and human greed, we have incontrovertible evidence that the current system is broken and cannot be fixed.

There is a saying that we cannot fix any problem if we approach it with the same mindset that created the problem in the first place.

All of these market-based solutions to fix the economy, to fix education, to fix our environmental problems, have caused more problems than they have fixed.

We are quite literally at the end of something here.

You can feel it, every day, on the street, on the road, in cities and towns and suburbs, in shops and stores (in the ones that haven't closed, at any rate.)

Our market-based system tells us that the highest good is consumption, that our purpose in life is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, consume as much as we can during our lifetimes and leave what is left to our kids (but just our kids.)

This system is unsustainable and not particularly good for either the earth or humans.

Even people who have all the material wealth they could ever want and more are not happy with what they have.

You can see it in the increase of eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction, and debt addiction.

The American Dream, the idea that material wealth will solve all your existential problems and bring you happiness and contentment, has been found hollow.

In addiction, one must have to hit bottom before any radical shift in behavior can occur.

Drunks don't stop drinking while the booze is still working, sort of, for them.

They stop when the booze stops working, the job is gone, the wife is gone, the house is gone, the self-respect and self-esteem is gone, the money is gone, the hope for the future is gone.

Mostly they stop when they get sick and tired of being sick and tired.

I don't know about you, but I think the nation is at this moment today.

We are at bottom.

We can choose help or we can make things worse by wallowing in our despair and doubling down on what no longer works.

There are a lot of shrill, violent voices that are angling to sell the public on the second angle.

I am hoping to see us choose the first option - the help.

I have a deep respect for Chris Hedges and believe him to be one of the most astute political writers of our age, but I am not sure that seeing the elites who are gobbling up all the wealth and sticking us with the austerity "as mortal enemies to be vanquished" will solve our problems.

I don't have ready answers for you, or a system to sell you on, but I do know that some have pointed a way forward for us out of this chaos and despair.

I have been reading this book by Charles Eisenstein called the Ascent of Humanity and this section of the Introduction particularly spoke to me:

The dashed Utopian dreams of the last few centuries leave little hope. Despite the miracles we have produced, people across the ideological spectrum, from Christian fundamentalists to environmental activists, share a foreboding that the world is in grave and growing peril. Temporary, localized improvements cannot hide the ambient wrongness that pervades the warp and woof of modern society, and often our personal lives as well. We might manage each immediate problem and control every foreseeable risk, but an underlying disquiet remains. I am referring simply to the feeling, "Something is wrong around here." Something so fundamentally wrong that centuries of our best and brightest efforts to create a better world have failed or even backfired. As this realization sinks in, we respond with despair, cynicism, numbness, or detachment.

Yet no matter how complete the despair, no matter how bitter the cynicism, a possibility beckons of a world more beautiful and a life more magnificent than what we know today. Though we may rationalize it, it is not rational. We become aware of it in moments, gaps in the rush and press of modern life. These moments come to us alone in nature, or with a baby, making love, playing with children, caring for a dying person, making music for the sake of music or beauty for the sake of beauty. At such times, a simple and easy joy shows us the futility of the vast, life-consuming program of management and control.

We intuit also that something similar is possible collectively. Some of may have experienced it when we find ourselves cooperating naturally and effortlessly, instruments of a purpose greater than ourselves that, paradoxically, makes us individually more and not less when we abandon ourselves to it. It is what musicians are referring to when they say, "The music played the band."

Another way of being is possible, and it is right in front of us, closer than close; that much is transparently certain. Yet it slips away so easily that we hardly believe it could be the foundation of life; so we relegate it to an afterlife and call it Heaven, or we relegate it to the future and call it Utopia. (When nanotechnology solves all our problems. . . when we all learn to be nice to each other. . . when finally I'm not so busy. . .) Either way, we set it apart from this world and this life, and thereby deny its practicality and its reality in the here-and-now. Yet the knowledge that life is more than Just This cannot be suppressed, not forever.

Another way of living is possible, we have the opportunity now to search out that way of life, to find it in the brief moments when we can let go of fear and despair and see the glory of life.

The way forward is in each of us, in our hearts, our souls, ourselves.

I see it when I spend my lunch period talking to a freshman about her anger at her father for abandoning her and watch as she works through that anger over the course of the year and comes to understand that she does have worth, that she is a loveable, valuable person no matter how her birth father has treated her, but holding onto the anger toward him isn't helping her in her life, in fact is holding her back from growing into the person she can be.

I have quite literally seen this transformation in a student.

It won't be counted in the Bloomberg data, Chancellor Walcott won't hold a press conference over it and Michelle Rhee will not add this kind of thing to her Students First agenda, but this is the kind of work that can and will change the world, one person at a time.

I believe this in my heart.

I am not naive enough to think I will see a noticeable world shift in my lifetime.

I am not naive enough to think that shift will occur even in the next few generations.

I don't know, maybe it will never occur.

But I do know that if I take actions to change myself, to grow emotionally and spiritually, to let go of fear and anger, to shift my perceptions from "What Can I Take And Keep From Others?" to "How Can I Give?", I know that the despair I sometimes feel watching the world these days will diminish and even disappear.

I could easily be one of those people in London rioting over injustice, setting fire to buses and looking for blood from the Establishment.

There are a few folks at Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase that I think the world would be better without.

Same goes for the Bloomberg administration and at Microsoft.

But if I give in to those angry thoughts, those impulses, I add violence and anger and discord to the world.

I become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

That doesn't mean that I don't do my best to protect myself from those folks, it just means that I work hard not to hate them.

I heard somebody say once that even the greedy elites who are stealing you blind are still people too.

I think this will be the way forward for me today.

Think of it as a 12 Step Program for World Recovery.

And it starts with me and me alone.

Take the next right action.

Be part of something bigger than myself.

Let go of anger, replace it with love.

These actions may seem small and they may not be for everybody.

And they can be really, really difficult.

It's a day-to-day thing, sometimes a moment-to-moment thing.

I mean, ask me how well I am letting go of my anger when Bloomberg comes for my job or Gates wants to film me in my classroom.

But honestly, I can see no other way forward for me these days.

As I say, I know I could help push a bus over and set it on fire.

But that won't solve this.

So instead, I look to find a new way forward.

POSTSCRIPT: My time here at is done. I want to thank NYC Educator for giving me the platform to air my views and comment upon the extraordinary events taking place this summer in the world. We indeed live in interesting times.
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