“We may not have wings or leaves” like our fellow created beings, writes Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweetgrass, ” but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land.”
This is a great motto for me when I wonder about my purpose in life since I morphed from a writer of Eco Fiction to a political/environmental columnist for a world-wide publication and a contributor to a newspaper out of Frankfort. Michigan.
So, here we go! For those of you interested in a collection of my columns on the Trump Horrors, the Rise of Republican Fascism, the Nitty-Gritty of Political Organizing, How to Handle Climate Grief, and some of the alternative ways to redeem our good green world that we yearn for in these troubled times, check out my updates to The Worlds We Long For . Then, to cheer yourself up, you can see what my zany family and I have been up to at our Betsie River cabin now that, after long pandemic absence, we are together again!
A reader asked me “how can Black people be disinherited if they didn’t have anything in the first place?” This denies the long record of Black achievement since Emancipation, even in the face of Jim Crow and (now) White Supremacist constraints. The “talented tenth,” as the college-educated Black professional class used to call itself, made significant progress under Reconstruction policies enacted for their advancement: “Black Wall Street,” the Tulsa neighborhood that was destroyed while hundreds of African Americans were massacred, was a well-off urban community chockablock with businesses, banks, and substantial homes – all Black owned and Black administered. That was why it was so offensive to white people.
This morning I came across a review called “Upwardly Minded” in which Lawrence Otis Graham looks at how Elizabeth Dowling Taylor describes historic Black mobility in The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era: “Dowling Taylor recounts the rise of African-Americans during the time of Reconstruction and their fall during the subsequent decades, when legislation was advanced in order to again segregate, impoverish and humiliate a population that many whites believed had gained too much.” (italics mine). The point is, the minute Reconstruction policies provided opportunities, Black citizens like Daniel Murray took advantage of them and advanced significantly. Then, as now, Black achievement stirred racial animus and gave rise to the laws and intimidations – especially the hundreds of hideous lynchings-of the Jim Crow era.
White Supremacists have not changed their minds in all these years. Now they are attacking CRT (Critical Race Theory) using the term as a dog whistle to rally around banning the history of the Reconstruction era, along with the slavery that preceded it, from American educational curricula. Besides their fierce need to see somebody else’s face than theirs “at the bottom of the well” (see my Impakter article, they seem to be afraid that, as a “majority minority ” Black citizens will treat whites the way we whites have treated them. This ignores African American culture’s powerfully pragmatic non-violent ethic and the paradigm shift from power/over to power/with (or, from either/or to both/ and) impacting our quest for the common good in the multi-racial America of the 21st century.
One effective way to familiarize students with Black history is to teach Black literature. After never being assigned any works by Black writers during my entire education at Smith College (B.A. English), The University of Wisconsin (M.A., English), and Columbia University (Ph.D, Comparative Literature), it was a heady experience to be introduced to excellent but marginalized poems, novels, and plays while teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, an historically Black college for women.
How you include African American materials in standard courses must be carefully considered: first, a teacher needs thorough scholarly grounding in the material. Secondly, syllabuses must be constructed to “Mainstream” content. You want to avoid the condescension of “wagging the tail,” by sticking your one Black example like an afterthought at the end of your syllabus; nor do you want to “mix and stir” by plopping it in without comparative analysis. You need to avoid the “just like us!” attitude of facile inclusion, privileging Euro-American aspects as normative by praising the similarities between marginalized materials and the traditional canon. In order to avoid modelling racial superiority and racial ignorance you want to intersperse the previously marginalized materials throughout and in dialogue with other course offerings – I taught Winnebago cosmological myths , for example alongside the Book of Genesis; or you could let Frederick Douglas dialogue with Henry David Thoreau by teaching the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas: and “Civil Disobedience” side by side.
I asked my students at the University of Wisconsin, who were almost entirely white, to figure out what strengths of character Vyry drew upon in Margaret Walkers’s Jubilee, how Indigo survived racial and other life obstacles in Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo and why Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was beaten down by her life circumstances.
Students come out of reading such literature with empathy for the characters and a grasp of what life has been like for African-Americans over the generations.
When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1958, I thought the local newpaper was named The Birmingham Eccentric because I met so many eccentrics in Birmingham.
First, there was my fiancé’s family. His father was a fan of the Grand Trunk railroad and rode it to work in Detroit, but his great passion was for buying oddball cars – Volkswagens, Citroens, and Peugots – before anyone ever heard of them.
On my first visit, however, I was met at Willow run in an all-American brand, an open top, 1932 De Soto touring car. It was a huge, heavy thing – useful, as I discovered my first Birmingham Christmas, for rescuing hapless drivers of more lightweight vehicles. When it began to snow, I thought we would settle cozily around the fire. This was not to be: we buttoned up in layers and went out to the De Soto. My fiancé and his brother stood on the running boards, but I was assigned to sit on the hood to provide traction while we drove up and down big Beaver in the blizzard, pulling people out of the ditch.
Eccentricity ran in that family: the teetotalling great-grandfather had been an inventor of copper tubing devices, but when he learned, to his chagrin, that they were being used in whisky distillery, he sold the business and moved to Birmingham, where he founded his own religion. I inherited his notebooks with hand written chemical formulas down one side of the page and, upside down on the other, the tents of his oddball sect.
Did I mention that my mother-in-law dried her paper towels in the oven to use again and removed the yolks from hard-boiled eggs to feed to the squirrels? They dropped dead all from overdoses of choresterol, but maybe that was the point?
Then there was Fred the milkman, who stopped for long chats in the kitchen and knew everybody in the neighborhood. And the hermit who lived in the woods across the street. And the family friend, a quirky loner who never saw a doctor and smoked himself to death while his house fell down around him.
Birmingham eccentricity manifested itself in dizzyingly idiosyncratic housing styles: stucco bungalows next to wooden Cape Cods, mid-century glass modern next to traditional brick ranches. The houses conformed, nevertheless, in being of the same size. Tiny homes ran along certain streets, two and three bedrooms prevailed on others, while, one street over, they might run to four or five. You mostly found real mansions on streets of their own, mainly clustered near the Cranbrook Estate.
The town itself was nice, though the proprietors of the hardware and drugstore and corner market were (you guessed it) somewhat quirky. It was a perfectly ordinary place to shop- you could get an apron at Kresge’s, a modest outfit at Crowley’s, splurge on something fancier at Jacobson’s, and have a chat about books at the Birmingham Bookstore.
Recently, we had an interim minister at our church, and when I asked him if he had walked downtown he threw back his head and laughed “that’s not a place for people to shop,” he explained. Birmingham, it seems, has been turned into a high-end outdoor boutique, affordable only by the (very) rich.
I guess you can tell that I like variety and difference and that I find Birmingham’s monochrome population a serious drawback. Historically segregated by zoning ordnances and redlining, it has been slow to attract a variety of residents. That was why, when I read about the city’s new plan for multi-unit, affordable housing along our major boulevards, I posted in our neighborhood email about how excited I was at the diversity the new housing might foster.
This was not well received. I learned that I belonged to the “cancel culture.” I had to ask around about what that meant: if it is monochromatic sameness in race and income I would like to see cancelled,, I plead guilty. I was asked why I thought other (?) people might want to live among us (?). One woman was convinced that living in Birmingham constitutes the pot at the end of a meritocratic rainbow for which only the wealthy should aspire; she expected her own young relatives to live in Royal Oak until they earned the right to live here.
Fear not: though we are an endangered species, Birmingham still has its eccentrics. For example: this is me writing on a paper plate on my head:
Keep your eyes open- you might spot one coming out of the woodwork anywhere around town. There are hoarders and hermits, quirky loners and cranks, off-the-grid artists, inventors and oddballs yet dwelling amongst us.
Consider the admirably persistent artist who rose at dawn for years and years to concoct beautiful assemblages of feathers and flowers and pine cones all along the path in Linden Park. Just yesterday, I discovered that she inspired an apprentice, someone who had covered the top of a sawed off tree trunk with stones, little figures, and decorations with colorful baubles dangling over from an overarching branch. And then, just a little way further down the path, I found a poem thoughtfully encased in plastic attached to a birdhouse, telling us all about the goldfinches in the park and how they warm out hearts.
After the riots on January 6, intended to stop our process of confirming Joe Biden’s election and assassinate our leaders, democracy prevailed. Like my previous columns on Making the Political Sausage for www.Impakter.com, This is my take on how it’s done. I am fortunate to have an excellent editor, Claude Forthomme, who has a wonderful way of coming up with videos to dig deeper into my subject!
Back in February 2019 (in what seems now another century!) I posted a blog on Making Political Sausage – how to get real political work done. Now, in these difficult times not only of pandemic but economic and racial turmoil, individuals feel more helpless than ever.
They are right: individuals can’t do anything; they need to join things. Starting at this point that I made in my previous blog, I go more deeply into how we can strengthen ourselves during these difficult pandemic times by joining like-minded groups.
But we are in a pandemic! This is no time to join things!
Think again, and tip toe into the world of tech. Your smartphone and your screen can exponentially strengthen your political outreach, and any organization you choose to join has a well set up program to help you.
Here’s my update, and I hope it makes you feel less helpless!
The way I keep my sanity during this pandemic lock-down is STRUCTURE, by which I mean doing the same things every day that I did before we got all closed in on ourselves. In my case this means writing for several hours two mornings a week (the other days include two for environmental activism and one for finances, with the weekends off.) As you may have noticed, the resulting blogs, posts, and tweets have been on the cheerful side – light-hearted, or even (I hope) humorous.
The whole time, however, I was working on this piece for Impakter, a European online magazine where I am a columnist. And in the middle of writing it, my older daughter, whose visionary ideas about the use of artificial intelligence to improve society are key to the article, came down with the coronavirus. Mercifully, she recovered.
Whereas Lorien envisions human beings fully capable of melding head and heart to build a better world, I am more skeptical about whether we have the moral will to achieve the world we long for once (if) we get through to the other side of the Pandemic Gateway.
On the night after the first Trump Impeachment Hearing, I picked up Jonathan Coe’s 2018 Middle England. It is a really good read – well written, with engaging characters, and a fascinating account of England right now. I was startled by the realization that England and America are going through strikingly similar crisis.
In Coe’s England neither Conservatives nor Labour have figured out how to deal with Brexit, which they voted in by referendum in June, 2016. Parliament is so consumed by the issue that nothing else is getting done. People are locked into Leave or Remain positions that have broken friendships and family ties. The country is full of anger, not only about Brexit but against immigrants and non-whites, giving rise to violent attacks. The nation’s mood of surly, punitive xenophobia seems to have been fueled before the Brexit vote by bitterly divisive social media traceable, in part, to the Russians.
In the United States, neither Democrats nor Republicans have figured out how to get bills through Congress in the face of violent differences about President Donald Trump, elected in November, 2016. Families are estranged by Pro- and Anti-Trump convictions, locked into positions over his campaign against immigrants and non-whites. Hate crimes against African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants have occurred every few months since his election; the xenophobic rage that fueled them was promulgated during the election campaign, much of it coming from Russian misinformation fed into social media.
Even I, who consider myself as rational as anyone, found my head spinning during Republican attacks on the distinguished diplomats at the Impeachment Hearing as they testified about Trump’s pressure on the President of Ukraine to give him dirt on the Biden family (along with proof that the Ukrainians, rather than the Russians, were responsible for the 2016 electoral interference). The Republicans worded their accusations with such forceful illogic that they aborted my thinking process and went straight to my (appalled) gut:
“Well what’s the deal,” one sneered, “they got their arms without doing the investigation, didn’t they?”
Legally, an attempted crime is still a crime: if you assault someone you go to jail, even if you don’t actually kill or wound him. And that’s the actual truth.
The impressively dignified and professional Ambassador to Ukraine, the target of screeds of invective, gave the best possible response; she just sat there and smiled, as we would like anyone to do, in the face of total nonsense.
But no, not anyone. In Russia, fake information has long been employed to reinforce a dictator’s appeal. The New York Times cites Peter Pomerantsev’s “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” about the “transgressive thrill in strong leaders thumbing their nose at the facts.” While Pomerantsev is writing about how the Russians feel about Putin, there are plenty of Americans who just adore the way Trump stands up in front of thousands of people and tells one lie after another.
In the interest of a balanced view I have made several attempts to get myself inside the Republican bubble. I tried to watch Fox News, but its spins left me nauseous. Then, at my gym, I found a treadmill with a Fox screen just to my left and MSNBC blaring away on my right, enabling me to juggle both bubbles simultaneously. They were discussing the July 25 telephone conversation between Presidents Zelensky and Trump, with Fox twisting Trump’s ask to investigate corruption in general, while MSNBC insisted it was about Vice President Biden and his son.
Each side was rendering its viewpoint in an entirely believable manner. It was easy to see how, as the New York Times puts it, “a loss of shared facts can be corrosive for rational discourse.”
As for me, I find what is happening to words and to reason, and to truth itself, profoundly disheartening.
Jonathan Coe’s newspaperman character, Doug, meets every few months with his source, Nigel, who is a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron.
“We’re going to win an overall majority,” declares Nigel. “We’re confident of that. That’s what the opinion polls are telling us.”
“But you just said you don’t trust opinion polls.”
“We don’t trust most people’s opinion polls. But we do commission our own. Which we trust.”
I am fascinated by the way, throughout most of our historical development, we human beings have found ways to share our resources for the common good. Throughout British history, for example, villagers set aside arable and pasture lands and then carefully worked out rules for how they should be allotted.
It turns out that the East Anglian Fen dwellers, who were the basis for my Infinite Games adventure series about their resistance to encroachments of early modern capitalism, followed all kinds of regulations about fishing, fowling, island pasturage, and gathering material for baskets, mats, and thatching.
So that is how I spent the scholarly interstices of my winter (when I wasn’t running around advocating for our environment): researching the history of commons and land-use methods in American, American Indian, and British history. I was curious whether our long history of sharing land means that we can develop the will to avert the tragedy of our planetary commons.
With thanks to Cousin Sarah for her home made sausage photo
“What’s needed now is research on tactics and strategies at the organizational and societal levels: moving beyond public opinion and messaging to get elbow-deep in how the proverbial sausage is made.” Sarah DeWeerdt, “Climate research needs a better understanding of power,” Jan 8, 2019 in Anthropocene Magazine
Every day, protesters from our local resistance movement shouted outside our Republican Congressman’s office, demanding he hold a town hall and deploring his cowardice for not doing so by brandishing rubber chickens. If, as Deweert suggests, “What climate advocates need to know is how to build enduring relationships with political decision-makers,” was this the way to do it?
I didn’t think so, and that was why I was not among them. I had been visiting him for several years as a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, promoting carbon fee and dividend policy. CCL’s long term goal is to develop the political will of both citizens’ and legislators to reduce global warming. Our strategy is for local chapters to cultivate their Members of Congress; our tactic to that end is civil conversation. Here’s how that goes:
1. We start our meeting with a statement of gratitude for an action he/she has taken.
2. We ask for his/her views on environmental issues and listen as he/she talks for items we hold in common.
3. We speak from those common interests, then provide information on carbon fee and dividend policy.
4. We have one “ask” per meeting. For example, “would you consider joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives?
5. We offer ourselves as resources on environmental questions and provide a notebook of carefully organized background materials as we say our goodbyes.
By no means a moderate, our Congressman came out against Pipeline 5, which endangered Lakes Michigan and Huron; he signed a letter to President Trump asking him to urge Canada not to dump Nuclear Waste near Lake Huron; he joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives and, to top it all off, co-sponsored The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act when it was introduced in the House of Representatives late in the 2018 session.
Did I mention that CCL is bipartisan? Our Congressman’s political will was undoubtedly influenced by a member of our group who had worked in his previous campaign. With local chapters conducting respectful visits with Members of Congress all over the country for a period of years, you can see how this tactic of civil discourse creates legislative results. That is how interest group politics works: think of the Sierra Club, for example, The National Organization for Women, The League of Conservation Voters, The NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In “The Path of Greatest Resistance,” a review of two books on the Resistance Movement, David Cole worries that demonstrations and marches do not, in and of themselves, create movements. “The challenge is this,” assert researchers quoted by Deweerdt: “in most cases, the null assumption is that activism becomes power at scale: that collective action is merely the sum of its parts, and the more people who take action, the more likely a movement is to achieve its goals.”
Historically, political sausage is made by mass demonstrations as the end result and public face of long term planning. Take the case of the Civil Rights Movement: the Selma March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Poor People’s Campaign were effective public outcomes built upon years of organization. The timely dissemination of strategically worded press releases, careful decisions about who was to speak on TV and word by word crafting of their statements were tactics in a long term strategy designed to create national support for the desired legislation.
“Whether #MeToo and other progressive movements will achieve lasting reform,” Cole asserts, “will depend on these organizations working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls, and, most importantly, at the ballot box. We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.”
Wait a minute! Contemporary political movements use smartphones and screens to sharpen their messaging and widen their base; tweeting and posting, messaging and emailing are powerful and effective tactics of long term organizational strategies.
Flash back to 1967 when I set up the first National Organization for Women Chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. This involved telephone calls back and forth to Betty Friedan on our landline (a hard person to reach, which she made up for by calling us day and night), a telephone tree for letting members know about actions and meetings (extremely time consuming, as you couldn’t leave a voice message for fear you were talking to a misogynistic family member), and tons of slow moving snail mail to and from national headquarters.
Fast forward to 2019, when social media has exponentially strengthened political effectiveness. In the case of CCL the organization’s web site provides detailed instructions on such tactical items like how to set up a a meeting with your Member of Congress and what talking points to use. I am in a group that alerts me by email when to respond to a newspaper article with a Letter to the Editor, and also a Social Media unit which notifies me when a Tweetstorm needs to be raised or a Post needs a commented on and shared. Where in an earlier life I established newsletters for every NOW chapter I joined, now I administer the Facebook page for our local CCL.
From my experiences as a long ago NOW organizer and a present day environmental activist, it seems clear that the development of political will and the achievement of legislative success depends both on crowds waving rubber chickens and lobbyists making nice, on a strategic blend of rabble rousing and long-term planning.
“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills,” queried poet William Blake in dismay at the destruction that industrialization was wreaking on England’s “Green and Pleasant Land.”
Jonathan Greenberg’s America 2034: Utopia Rising, where the long-time President now calls himself Donald Jesus Trump, depicts the triumph of mercenary cruelty over human comfort. Like most dystopias, his book is dark and full of gloom; fortunately, he devotes equal time to what a better world would be like.