|Number 147||March 1, 2002|
My only thought on the comment that "Everything is different since September 11th" is that the volume of obvious and outrageous public behavior is now so staggering that I would have to publish Nygaard Notes 14 times per week in order to even mention all the interesting contradictions that I now see in the papers. I am wearing out my yellow highlighter pens, and my files are expanding so rapidly I may have to rent warehouse space!
I mention this because I have gotten some letters from readers asking why I haven't commented on this or on that important issue. My response? There is simply too much to comment on. From the small but revealing news items (like George W. being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – I'm not kidding!) to the huge and fascinating items (like the takeover of the War on Drugs by the War on Terror), there are so many things begging for comment and action that no one could hope to keep up in a weekly newsletter. I apologize to those of you who are disappointed in not seeing "your" issue in the pages of the Notes. I expect to get to many of them; I just don't know when.
February is over, and so is the Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! to all who sent in their pledges, and to all who took the time to offer feedback and ideas. Of course, you don't need to donate in order to offer feedback and ideas (unlike in certain corrupted political systems which I shall not name), so please send me your thoughts as the spirit moves you! In solidarity,
"President" Bush has been refusing to turn over information to Congress about the various "contacts" between Enron and the administration's Energy Task Force. Here's what he said in the New York Times ("All the News That's Fit to Print") of January 29th:
Who's this "ourselves"?
One of the joys of living in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is that it is very convenient to attend the annual "Meeting the Challenge" (MTC) conference that occurs every year at Macalester College between Ground Hog's Day and St. Patrick's Day. The conference is put on each year by local labor union members who embody the best of what unions can be. The sponsors of MTC really believe that "An Injury to One is an Injury to All," and get together each year to talk and learn about what it will take to spread such a sense of solidarity throughout the labor movement.
This year's conference will be organized around the theme of "Which Way Forward for the Labor Movement after 9/11?" Since the conference begins on March 8th, International Women's Day, it will open with an exploration of the relationship between International Women's Day and the labor movement by Gladys McKenzie, a long-time organizer and activist with AFSCME. Also on Friday's agenda is a new play by the Solidarity Kids Theater. If you haven't seen these youngsters before, you're in for a treat!
On Saturday, March 9th, in addition to hearing about local unions and their recent struggles (including info on the historic strike of State employees last October), presentations will be made by other organizations representing workers and immigrants in our community, including the Somali Justice Center, the Welfare Rights Committee, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Resource Center of the Americas. The centerpiece of Saturday's program will be an address from one of America's most respected labor historians, David Montgomery of Yale University, about the lessons of labor struggles during war-time situations in 20th century America.
All in all, this two-day conference is not to be missed. Friday's program begins at 7 p.m., and Saturday's at 9 a.m (coffee and check-in at 8). And then, as if that isn't enough, on Sunday night MTC collaborates with the exciting group Guerrilla Wordfare to present an evening of Spoken Word, Hip-hop, Music, and Performance celebrating Art/Work by People of Color. That starts at 7 p.m. The beauty of it is, you can be there the whole weekend, or just attend parts of it. And, if history is any guide, there will also be a wide array of labor-related literature, art, buttons, videos, you-name-it, available in the lobby.
For more details, including a look at the full conference schedule, visit the excellent labor website "Workday Minnesota" at http://www.workdayminnesota.org/ and click on the Meeting the Challenge link. Or call organizer extraordinaire, Peter Rachleff, at 651-696-6371. See you there!
I am always looking for good news that gives me hope for the future and, even with the many new threats and problems facing us in the wake of September 11th, I am happy to say that good news is not at all difficult to find these days.
One of the most encouraging things I can see is the ever-growing willingness of social-change activists of all sorts to move beyond the protest mentality and spend more time in the constructing and visioning realm. While it is certainly important to take to the barricades when necessary to protect ourselves, it is equally important to try to imagine and begin to build some genuine alternative structures and organizations that will be able to challenge and ultimately replace the systems that have brought us so much suffering and made us complicit in immoral behavior.
Attempts to gather people together for positive thinking and planning are evident everywhere one looks. On the global level, the most obvious recent example is the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil last month. In counterpoint to the World Economic Forum being held in New York City at the same time, the WSF brought together over 60,000 people from 90 nations—including 10-15,000 young people involved in a special youth forum and camp—to discuss and debate alternatives to the Free Market version of globalization that we are constantly told is "inevitable." To learn more, go to http://www.portoalegre2002.org/. The essay by Michael Albert ("WSF and Us") is particularly inspiring, and reminds us that we in the U.S. have a whole lot to learn from activists around the world.
So, chin up, people of compassion! Signs of hope are all around. If, as the saying goes, it's always darkest before the dawn, perhaps history will view the George W. era as the necessary dark prelude to an exciting new morning which activists and small-"d" democrats are currently working to create.
Last week I talked about Individualism, Dualism, and the Fetishization of Freedom, which I called the Three Pillars of American Ideology. I said that the elevation of these intertwined ways of thinking can be expected to lead us to exactly where we are, politically speaking, and that a clear understanding of them can help us to predict where we might be going. I said that this week I would explain these things and hint at some short and long-term strategies for change. I also said I would offer some suggestions as to how we might begin to develop an alternative ideology (a New American Ideology?) I promised a lot, so let's get to it.
In the dominant American ideology, anything that works against or limits Individual Freedom is seen as "bad." No matter if the "limits" are supported by a majority of people, or if those limits are needed to ensure some concrete social benefits. Dualism doesn't allow for such balancing and weighing.
The natural and obvious tension between Freedom and Democracy is the "fairly simple" issue to which I referred last week, the one that is so easily obscured by unthinking adherence to the Three Pillars. In the world of Either/Or, one must either be "for" Freedom or "against" it, and the same goes for Democracy. Since all good Americans must be "for" both of these important values, then the two values must be the best of friends. Right? Well, actually...
In a truly democratic process, everyone has a say in decisions, which is a good thing. But it's extremely rare for any decision to be totally unanimous. In non-unanimous decisions, then, those in the minority can't be free to just ignore the will of the majority. Often, this means that they must accept some agreed-upon limits to their "Freedom," in the interests of the group. (I'm assuming here that the majority has in mind the best interests of the whole group, and is not simply intending to tyrannize the minority. This is a very real problem with democracies, but I don't have time to discuss it this week.)
Maybe an example will illustrate the point: Imagine that a country decides that access to high-quality health care is a human right. (That's hard to imagine in this country, I realize, but bear with me.) Using a democratic process, this country decides that the costs of providing care will be shared by every citizen, each of whom will pay in a small percentage of their annual income, in the form of taxes. Necessarily, the paying of such taxes will make each individual less "free" to direct their earnings to advance their own individual interests. In a society where Freedom is uncritically adored—that is, fetishized—it is highly unlikely that you will get everyone to agree to "limit" their Freedom to the degree necessary in order to guarantee health care for all.
In case you don't see where I'm headed here, the United States is the only wealthy country in the world that has so far refused to formally guarantee health care to its citizens. I suggest that my theory about the Three Pillars goes a long way to explain this and other examples of American exceptionalism, and also helps to explain why we are so often out of sync with the rest of the world. In many other countries, individual Freedom is not fetishized to the degree it is in the United States.
Where Are We?
Politically speaking, I would say we are in what might be called the Age of Privatization. Domestically, for some years now we have been seeing full-frontal attacks on any sort of "social," or public, programs, from welfare to Social Security to public health to you-name-it, all in the name of "privatization." It's completely understandable, since privatization—the conversion of publicly-owned resources to ownership by private individuals or corporations—is essentially an attempt to increase the "freedom" of individuals and corporations to do as they see fit with their "property." To argue against privatization, in the dualistic world, is to argue against "Freedom" or, in the terminology of the libertarian right, in favor of "tyranny."
Such a perverted use of the ideal of Freedom is also evident in the realm of American foreign policy, where the threat of a loss of "national sovereignty" is invoked to argue against American participation in international organizations such as the United Nations, or against agreement with international treaties or protocols such as the Kyoto environmental protocol (which our government has recently rejected).
Such a loss of "sovereignty" (the national equivalent of "Freedom") on the part of the biggest and most powerful country on the planet would likely involve an enormous liberation for the smallest and weakest countries in the American Empire. Freedom for the strong often means bondage for the weak, and every weak country knows it. Residents of the most powerful nation typically lack such a basic understanding of power relationships, with the result that, within our borders, the abstract notion of Freedom is almost guaranteed to be distorted beyond recognition.
Where Are We Going?
What can we expect in American politics in the near future? I think we'll see increasing numbers of our elected leaders arguing for policies that reduce the role of public institutions that they perceive are limiting "Freedom." The individualist, libertarian ideologues who are increasingly setting our national agenda have three main targets in the current era. The first target, already mostly obliterated, was "welfare," targeted because any public assistance to anyone works to "distort" the labor market and reduce "competition" for jobs.
The second, current, target is Social Security. Weak though the American version is, it still is a "social" program that keeps large amounts of money out of the financial markets, reducing the individual Freedom of Wall Streeters to profit from it. Many wealthy people also very much resent having to share any of their wealth to provide security for poor people. So the privatization argument, which only became "respectable" about six years ago after spending decades as a fringe position, will be on the agenda for some time, with results uncertain.
The third major target of attack from the Freedom Fetish crowd is the income tax. Individualists hate taxation in any form, but the income tax is seen as pure "confiscation" of their "property." In the state of Minnesota, our libertarian Governor is very straightforward in his assault on the income tax, preferring to fund the state's budget mostly through the sales tax. The argument goes that the sales tax is more "fair" because people only pay it when they "choose" to buy something. Similar arguments can be heard, dimly, on the national level. If the attack on Social Security is successful, look for the "Anti-Income Tax" crowd to appear at center stage, arguing loudly for the "freedom" of the wealthy to keep all of their money, not just most of it.
Well, I'm out of room for this week, and still haven't gotten to the best parts, the parts about long-term strategies for change and developing an alternative ideology. So, next week, we'll move Beyond Freedom to Liberation.