by: Dan Brook and Richard H. Schwartz on December 1st, 2016 | No Comments »
Christmas and Chanukah periodically coincide and do so again beginning on Christmas Eve 2016, the first night of Chanukah 5777. Some are calling it Christmukah. Some are calling it another miracle!
Hope springs eternal. Indeed, it’s always been an integral part of Jewish and Christian history, spirituality, and politics. Without hope, there wouldn’t be a Chanukah; without hope, there might not even be a Jewish community; without hope, there might not be democracy or America. That’s the power of radical hope!
Christmas has been celebrated for over 1600 years and Chanukah has been celebrated for 2181 years. The two holidays may be united in our gratitude for Light, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Latkes. We don’t know if Jesus ever ate latkes, but as a Jew, it is highly likely that he celebrated Chanukah.
There can be no doubt that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, whether one idolized or despised him. For me, and many on the left, feelings toward Castro often left one dizzy with conflicting emotions of admiration, disappointment and frustration. Here is what he did: In 1959 he successfully challenged and struck a mortal blow to the social and economic remnants of slavery and colonialism in the tiny island of Cuba; he thrust off the iron grip of the United States’ control of the Cuban economy codified by the Platt Amendment, in place since 1904. Cuba, 89 times smaller than its northern neighbor, prevailed against the Goliath United States in establishing its sovereignty. In this regard, Castro continued the movement toward self-determination of a West Indian people that had begun with the Santo Domingo revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Castro was able to lead the Cuban revolution by galvanizing and articulating the desires for freedom on the part of the Cuban people, from rural peasant to urban worker, professional and intellectual. This was particularly evident in the peasant support of the guerilla fighters of the Sierra Maestra, as well as in the support of the urban trade union movement. That ability to engage the masses of Cubans did not diminish. In 1981, I visited Cuba with my mother—the day we arrived in Havana, we attended a speech by Castro in the Plaza de Revolution, a short walk from our hotel. There were hundreds of thousands of people in that square, and when Fidel spoke there was total silence and rapt attention. I had never witnessed anything quite like it, nor have I since.
I stand in solidarity with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton who made a statement to soon-to-be Electoral College-elect vice-president Mike Pence when he attended a performance of the play.
The statement was respectful, and, all things considered, restrained. It was civil. According to the New York Times, the statement said:
“We-sir-are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Full disclosure: I have not seen the play, but I am a fan. I ride around listening to the sound-track in my car.
The beauty of the production is that it uses Hip Hop, an art form invented by America’s non-white citizens, to present an interpretation of the early history of America with a multi-racial cast. It does what all good art ought to do, make us see the ordinary with extraordinary sight and thus help us know our own humanity better.
There is good reason for a diverse America to feel alarmed and anxious after a divisive campaign of fear and lies that Donald Trump and Mike Pence inflicted upon the nation to win the Electoral College and thus to win the presidency and the vice-presidency. Let us be clear: Trump and Pence are minority winners. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million votes. More than seven million people voted for a third-party candidate. Nearly half of Americans who could have voted did not. Most citizens of the United States do not want Donald Trump to be president, yet, he will take the oath of office in January, becoming both head of state and head of government, representing the United States in his person to history and to the world.
Since his campaign that emboldened white supremacists, violence against people of color, immigrants, and Muslims have risen. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 incidents of harassment in the first ten days after the election. (https://www.splcenter.org/) The Trump/Pence response to such hate has been tepid at best. Trump has made Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, a news organization that caters to white supremacists, his chief White House strategist. His other choices for cabinet positions, including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and his choice for the person to head the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that he will not protect voting rights or the planet.
Since we value a peaceful transition of power, what is the majority of citizens of the United States to do? We ought to resist in every peaceful way imaginable. We ought to stand up and boldly state what the shared values and beliefs of our society are.
by: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on November 30th, 2016 | 1 Comment »
I traveled to Standing Rock in order to help sustain the camp and be a witness. Here are some humble suggestions of what you might do if you travel to Standing Rock, and if you are in solidarity with indigenous struggles locally.
Work in the kitchen! Mounds of garlic are peeled daily to feed the thousands of people eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. There are five main kitchens throughout camp, so there are many opportunities to go into a nearby kitchen and ask when a good time to volunteer is. Working in a kitchen is a great way to contribute directly to the basic ongoing daily needs of the camp and to meet people!
Go to an early morning ceremony. Standing Rock is a prayer camp and attending an indigenous led ceremony is the best way to learn about the spirit of Standing Rock. Morning ceremonies start at 6 AM and may be led by women. The ceremony I attended by the sacred fires on Friday morning was led by a medicine woman named Blue Lightning, who I had the honor of getting to know while I was there. She asked me to be guardian of the east gate because she learned I was one of the first woman rabbis from young Jewish people from the Bay Area who contributed to building several tents for her family encampment. The morning ceremony was dedicated to “untangling” energies that need to come back into harmony. People were invited to dance in four concentric circles around a four directional altar created with crystals and shells. When the sun rose, about a hundred people walked down to the river for a pipe ceremony led by Lakota women who have greeted the dawn in this way by the shores of this river for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is their land.
Be in service. While I was at Standing Rock, I remained in service to Blue Lightning’s intergenerational family, which consisted of elders, parents, and children. I was able to serve in this way due to my relationships with Bay Area Jewish young people in their 20′s and 30′s who contributed funds for and built several winterized tents, each one complete with insulation, a wood stove, lots of heaters, a porch, chairs, cots, blankets, rugs, tables, and a complete kitchen with shelves, cooking utensils, a stove, storage bins, and wash station for Blue Lightning’s family encampment. The kitchen was dedicated by Blue Lightning to be a meeting place for elders. It’s warm and welcoming. I spent time setting up the kitchen and attending to immediate needs of the elders.
Participate in an action that feels right to you. There is nonviolent direct action training at camp. There is also an ongoing conversation about whether or not a particular action is sanctioned by elders. I chose to attend a Thanksgiving Day silent vigil by the river organized by indigenous youth with the sanction of the elders. The action had several components: some people remained in silence on the camp side of the river while others crossed over the river on a plank to get to Turtle Island, which is sacred ground to the Lakota. There were indigenous men protecting the nonviolent nature of the action by not allowing anyone to climb up the hill to the ridge where dozens of militarized police stood in wait threatening them with violence over a bull horn while telling people they didn’t want a confrontation at the same time. People were still traumatized by Sunday’s attack, which injured 166 people. While I was there, the police installed bright floodlights by the river. They also placed barbed wire along the ridge of Turtle Island and the river’s edge. If you are planning to be part of a direct action, please check in with the legal tent on Facebook Hill to be trained and find out about arrest procedures before you participate.
Listen to stories. Being in camp with an indigenous family allowed me to hear lots of stories such as Blue Lightning’s family stories; Lakota, Shoshone, and Ute histories; tribal origin tales, creation tales, and teachings about prayer; the story of this particular Pipe Line; eminent domain, broken treaties, and Native sovereignty rights; and stories about Standing Rock itself. Jane Fonda’s appearance at camp over Thanksgiving started some conversations. The threat of police violence sparks rumors, so don’t believe every story. Dallas Goldtooth is a good source for staying in touch with what is actually happening. Indigenous news sources are the best way to stay informed.
Even after President-elect Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon – the former head of Breitbart and an enabler of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other prejudices – as his chief strategist, some of our largest Jewish organizations remained silent about the hate that is being welcomed into the White House.
In their absence, Jewish activists around the country are leading our communities from the streets and standing up for ourselves and other minorities in line with Judaism’s ancient injunction: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
The Talmud tells of three rabbis – Yehudah, Yose, and Shimon – who met in the second century to discuss the fate of the Jewish community after it had been devastated by the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah suggested a conciliatory approach. Rabbi Yose was silent. Only Rabbi Shimon, who had watched as the Romans brutally executed his teacher Akiva, called out the Romans for their cruelty, materialism, and selfishness. Rabbi Shimon was reported to the Romans, who sentenced him to death. He escaped and went into hiding to preserve our tradition (Shabbat 33b).
Today, we are faced once again with a choice about how to respond to oppression and injustice. The Talmud leaves little doubt that Rabbi Shimon’s decision to speak out was the moral one, but many of our institutions have still opted for Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose’s passivity. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP), among others, have refused to explicitly condemn Trump or Bannon.
As head of Breitbart, Bannon turned the news site into the platform of the “alt-right,” facilitating threats against Muslims, conspiracies about Jews, discrimination against people of color, and hatred against women. When criticized for not taking a stance on Bannon, AJC spoke proudly of its commitment to “centrism.”
Centrism means respecting a wide variety of opinions; it does not mean refusing to condemn bigotry.
Institutions like AJC have made the mistake of thinking that moderation — or a warped idea of centrism — is a value in and of itself. Our ancestors did not deny that there is a time to be moderate: the Talmud records numerous times that caution and temperance brought about the best outcome. The rabbis also asserted, though, that certain situations demand moral clarity. In the Mishnah, they wrote, “Do not associate with a wicked man” (Avot 1:7). They did not follow up with a list of extenuating circumstances in which it makes sense to cooperate with evil. They did not advocate for centrism in the face of injustice. Their message was simple: the only response to cruelty — the only response that preserves the integrity of Judaism — is Rabbi Shimon’s.
That is why last week, IfNotNow led 1,500 Jews in the streets across four cities to demand that Trump fire Bannon and to call on our institutions to stand with us. Our voices have joined with Jewish rabbis and organizations across the country – JFREJ, the Anti-Defamation League, and T’ruah, among others – that have condemned Trump and Bannon and pledged solidarity with marginalized Americans. It is now incumbent upon our community – 76 percent of which voted against Trump – to get our other institutions to follow suit.
This Wednesday, we are organizing a national day of Jewish Resistance. As part of grassroots demonstrations in more than a dozen cities, thousands of Jews will continue to demand that Trump remove Bannon from the White House. At the same time, we will keep sending a message to the leaders and institutions that claim to represent us: stand up for us and our allies or step aside.
Only a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur, synagogues across the country read the words of Isaiah: “Let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6). Let us show LGBTQ folk, people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and our fellow Jews that we meant it.
The choice is simple. Will our institutions continue to be silent in the face of a white supremacy that threatens everyone, or will they stand up for freedom and dignity for all?
Aron Wander is a member of IfNotNow. He lives in New York City where he works as a political consultant, volunteers with PASSNYC, and blogs about Judaism with his roommate at Unconservative.
[Managing Editor's note: Rothbaum delivered these remarks Tuesday morning at a Fight for $15 protest at an East Oakland McDonald's at the intersection of 98th and International. He says protestors marched down International and some spoke in front of the McDonald's before the protestors sat down in the intersection. Police were already there, ready to arrest, and charged Rothbaum and others with a misdemeanor. The protest and action was one of many across the country on Nov. 29 demanding that corporations raise pay for fast-food, airport, child care, and home care workers, among others.]
Let’s talk about blessings. In this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca dresses her son Jacob in a costume of his brother Esau. His job is to trick their father, the blind Isaac, into giving him Esau’s blessing.
It works. Isaac is tricked. Jacob steals the blessing.
And ever since that moment, men have learned Jacob’s lesson, dividing us from one another in order to steal blessings.
But what if we could tell Jacob, tell the swindlers and hoarders and conmen: there’s enough blessing for everyone.
What if we said — at long last, stop dividing us!
Stop dividing cities from the country, when there’s enough blessing for everyone.
Stop dividing Jew from Methodist from Muslim from Mexican from Minnesota from Mississippi, when there’s enough blessing for everyone.
Stop dividing the white from the brown from the black, when there’s enough blessing for everyone.
Stop dividing the working-class white from workers of color, when a living wage would be blessing for everyone.
Why would we succumb to these simplistic distinctions, the distractions, this limitation of the sacred? This disintegration of the divine?
We’re not blind, like Isaac. We can see that justice for one is justice for all.
A living wage for the poultry farm, the factory floor, the flight attendant, the fry cook, the father’s home-health aide, the airport worker.
Can we find the blessing of fair pay in the city and the country, the red state and the blue state, the frustrated and incarcerated, the fatigued and the disenfranchised?
We stand today to insist, to demand, to shout it and sing it and pray it and teach it. To you, and to the ages. The promise is real. Don’t pretend to be blind. We can see it, right before us. As plain as day. Enough blessing, now and at last. For everyone.
Rabbi Mike Rothbaum serves as Bay Area Co-Chair for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and lives with his husband, Anthony Russell, in Oakland. His writing and speaking has been featured in Tikkun, the Huffington Post, The Forward, KQED radio, CNN, and Zeek.
The air around me is swirling with opinions on “identity politics” and the failure of the Clinton campaign to capture the loyalty of what are variously called “poor whites,” “white working-class voters,” and so on—formulations that join class and race.
Readers have sent me Mark Lilla’s piece in the New York Times (“The End of Identity Liberalism”), bemoaning the “fixation on diversity” and calling for a “post-identity liberalism,” symbolized by his experience of singing the national anthem with a public hall full of multiracial union members.
Franke says that Lilla’s “is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built,” while dismissing the calls for equity from others as a form of selfish whining.
As someone who’s been an activist for my entire adult life, I can second this critique without reservation. Women, for example, have been told to sit down and shut up by every progressive movement, on the grounds that our grievances draw attention away from the “real” issues—until women finally forced open the doors of leadership and began shaping those movements. Can you imagine Black Lives Matter without the leadership of women?
by: Rabbi Michael Rothbaum on November 23rd, 2016 | 5 Comments »
Trump’s America, Wednesday morning, 9:03 AM.
I head in to my local post office. I’m out of stamps. I also need my passport renewed. It expires this month.
Rather than flee the country, I vowed that, if Trump won the election, I’d stay in the U.S. and fight along with the people who would be endangered by the new administration. I still feel that way – but I am not comfortable having an expired passport.
Thousands of Citizen Artists have been working on this platform for a long time. It is based on the USDAC’s ongoing action research, inviting people across the U.S. to share hopes, dreams, and concerns through art and culture. In dozens of Imaginings, in National Actions from the People’s State of the Union to #DareToImagine to USDAC Super PAC, people have told fierce and beautiful stories of a future they want to embrace. With the help of our National Cabinet, we’ve translated these visions into powerful practical proposals.
All of that happened before 11/9.
Many people gathered here at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 have spent the last ten days in dialogue with friends, neighbors, family members living in fear that families will be torn apart by deportation, internment, forced registration. People fear that now more than ever, their communities will be made sacrifice zones, ravaged to feed the bottomless appetite for profit of the hungry ghosts this system breeds. And in the face of this massive insult to the body politic, people under attack and their allies are rising once again to annihilate injustice and give birth to the beloved community.
This platform proclaims and defends the right to culture: the right to be who we are, to show up in our fullness—in both our rich particularity of difference and our transcendent oneness—and to be valued, honored, and treated with respect as a fundamental human right. Some of the platform points will be immediately doable, especially locally—tools we can use to create sites of true belonging. Others are aspirational, pointing us toward the cultural democracy we deserve regardless of who occupies the White House.
The challenges we face under President Trump—racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, institutionalized greed, state-sanctioned violence, and every other form of predatory behavior—are not new. But the level of response is already astounding. We will be working in countless local communities to build on the courageous action already seen from mayors of sanctuary cities, leaders who have declared their refusal to normalize hate, vast numbers of individuals and groups who have already—less than two weeks after the election—taken action in the courts, on the streets, and in their own lives and communities.
Protecting and defending are urgent, essential priorities. The USDAC stands with all who are endangered by policies that deny belonging and further threaten the people. We stand to support and assist all those who are affected by the repression of rights. We will work with you to co-create a network of connection and support, to share skills in planning and executing creative resistance, and to bring as much attention as possible to your courageous work in kindling a shared vision of cultural democracy and putting it into practice.
And while this massive outpouring of creative resistance unfolds, we can’t surrender our dreams because we awoke on 11/9 to this funhouse nightmare of democracy.
A platform is a compendium of ideas for policy and action. Ideas are essential to reveal and explore the true depth of demand for cultural democracy which has been increasingly evident over the years as artists and allies show up everywhere, investing creativity in social and environmental justice. Ideas are essential, but without action they are stillborn. To create the conditions for action, we need a national conversation bringing the right to culture to the fore as a foundation for belonging without barrier, belonging that knows no borders and needs no papers.
A tall order, you may say—noticeably taller than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Never once in all the time this platform was in development did I think, “Oh, we’ll release the platform and the new Clinton (or Sanders) administration will adopt it. Mission accomplished!”
What I did think about while the platform was taking shape was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s August 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered on the tenth anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In it, he paraphrased something that had been said by abolitionist Theodore Parker a century earlier:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Both Dr. King and Parker, as with Moses whom Dr. King alluded to in the mountaintop speech he gave the night before he was murdered, never lived to see the fruits of their labor. Parker died in Italy, of overwork and tuberculosis, a year before the start of the Civil War. A quarter-century later, when Frederick Douglass visited Florence, he went straight from the train station of Parker’s grave.
There is a line of continuous transmission that pumps like a drumbeat through all those who love justice, who see the moral grandeur and culture of possibility that is the best of humanity.
If you put your hand on your heart, and you will feel it pumping now.
We have to be in it for the long haul if we are in it at all. But we are not in it alone.
Just about every worthy social initiative has been a long time coming. Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that legitimated racial segregation, was decided in 1896. How many court cases, years of legal research and strategizing, decades of activism, eons of fundraising did it take to end that doctrine? Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, 58 years later, and that is when the struggle began.
It took just as long for the idea of social insurance, introduced by progressives and unionists, to become law as Social Security in 1935. It took 70 years after the mid-19th century Seneca Falls Convention for women’s suffrage to be ratified by the 19th amendment. The struggle for LGBTQ legal rights persevered for decades before same-sex marriage began to be legalized.
Changing these laws has been just one part of these movements for social justice, and it couldn’t have happened without changing the story first.
History’s pendulum swings. Tearing down can be very fast: a symbol of social progress disappears overnight, generating a tidal wave of disappointment and anger. Building is what takes time. Good parents and teachers know the painstaking investment required to nurture a young and promising life; good farmers and foresters understand permaculture and sustainable harvest; good healers are prepared for the long haul of preventive care; good organizers understand the cultivation that democracy requires.
When the pendulum swings away from justice, what sustains our perseverance?
Cultural organizers and transformative arts workers know this: whatever engages the whole person—body, emotions, intellect, and spirit—the work that braids pleasure and purpose, is the most powerful, the most sustaining, and the most likely to accomplish the great awakening needed now.
That work feeds us because it is love in the service of justice and healing—personal, political, and planetary.
Dr. King’s remark about the arc of the moral universe came late in a long speech recounting the SCLC’s progress and the work that remained to be done. I want to share some things he said first:
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
Then he called for a much-needed program that is now point number 10 in our platform. This is 1967, mind you, a few months before he was murdered:
We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income.
He went on to say:
[O]ur country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.
If he could be here, Dr. King might say that the United States government has spent 8.3 million dollars per hour since 2001 on war—that’s $20 billion not in one year, but every 10 days. A universal Basic Income Grant would cost much more today, but it would save a significant amount compared to spending on means-tested and often punishing social service programs.
For the last five years, I’ve been quoting something Van Jones said in the midst of 2011 protests against the union-busting of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: “Don’t adapt to absurdity.” He was making the point that over time, if we let it, even what seems preposterous becomes normalized—as was clear on #11/9. Flexibility is one of humanity’s best qualities, enabling us to adapt and advance. But it’s also one of our worst: it can be just as easy to adapt to harm, going along to get along until what has been imposed feels “natural.”
Each person here stands for thousands who have the capacity, conscience, and talent to change the story, refusing to adapt to the absurdity of a system that lavishly underwrites war profiteering, energy corporations that poison the environment, and a massive prison-industrial complex, then tells us it is too broke to underwrite creativity, equity, and justice.
Each person here is a storyteller and a truth-teller for love and justice. The earth-shaking power of our collective energy cannot be weakened by a little thing like an election.
Believe me, I am not underestimating the might of our opposition when I say that our greatest obstacle is the risk of internalizing the oppressor’s voice, allowing ourselves to be overtaken by fear and self-doubt, and believing the propaganda that since there is no chance our aims can be realized immediately, we should postpone them again.
Given that risk, I want to ask you a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, especially when I feel vulnerable to the self-ratifying propaganda of the far right, which 24/7 broadcasts the message that resistance is futile.
When I was paralyzed with doubt, a wise friend asked me this: What would it look like to take yourself one hundred percent seriously?
“What do you mean,” I asked, “you want me to take myself more seriously than this?”
He was asking me to resist the temptation to identify with the world as it is, to reject the world in which we are expected to assimilate the unspoken assumptions and agreements that sustain an absurd order. We are expected to treat that order as normal, even natural, and in some sense right and proper. We are expected to learn our place in it, following the path others have laid for us. If we are in conflict with this received version of reality, we are expected to adapt to absurdity rather than ignore or demolish it.
How seriously can we take ourselves? Taking ourselves one hundred percent seriously not only means fighting back, it means knowing and representing our deepest truths, what matters most, our heart’s desires. Taking ourselves one hundred percent seriously means releasing our identification with the absurd world because it is blocking our view of how things could be. It means freeing our minds to see what is really present, rather than whatever others say we should see. It means embracing and inhabiting one hundred percent of our potential as artists and organizers and owning fully the value that holds for ourselves and the world.
This platform is not a plea to some all-powerful ruler who can decree it with a pen-stroke. It is for everyone seeking a response to the fact that in this nation, the right to culture is under attack. We have experienced a long, painful stretch of punishment and persecution by a system that treats identity as a crime: driving while Black, protecting sacred lands and waters, walking in one’s own city, dancing in a public club. Now fear abounds of more and worse to come.
In asserting the right to culture enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the platform stipulates that rights are only as real as the actions and resources used to protect, express, and extend them.
In a few moments, we’ll say more about your power to advance these claims, joining to build a world of beauty and healing, freedom, love, and justice. Right now, I ask you to listen to ten amazing thinkers and doers as they offer the ten points of Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform. We may not be able to fully realize this vision for some time—as Adam said last night, quoting “Crazy He Calls Me” by Carl Sigman and Bob Russell, famously sung by Billie Holiday, “the impossible will take a little while.”
As you consider these ten points, I invite you to put your hand on your heart, feeling the beat that connects us to the ancestors who inspired us and the generations who will benefit from our love.
[Download the Platform to discover and endorse the ten points that Judy Baca, Tunde Ogunfidodo, Martha Richards, Lily Yeh, Roberto Bedoya, Jack Becker, Amelia Brown, Dave Loewenstein, Dana Edell, and Daniel Banks shared at the plenary.]
* * *
We ask you to take this platform home—download the full text to read about the tools and examples we’ve shared and take steps to put them into practice, making cultural democracy real.
Let us stand together with the most vulnerable and the most courageous. Let me say it again: We have to be in it for the long haul if we are in it at all. But remember, we are not in it alone. The USDAC is here for you in every way possible. Talk to us, take part in USDAC actions, let us help you figure out how to put the platform into practice in your own community. Let us help each other resist normalizing absurdity.
Earlier, I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now I want to quote another great figure of twentieth century history, Che Guevara, a doctor, revolutionary, writer, and diplomat who famously said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”
You’ve heard people talk about love a lot here at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016: Adam Horowitz in his opening plenary, Carlton Turner in yesterday’s plenary. We did not orchestrate this beforehand. I did not know what either Adam or Carlton planned to say. Speaking for myself, love is a word I use in public contexts with that same slight reservation Che expressed. More than once, I’ve written something about cultural democracy and been told that the piece is good, but if I want to be taken seriously, I need to choose a different word than “love.”
Right now, coming off the recent election, with hate looming so large in campaign rhetoric, I see no alternative. The antidote to despair is to glimpse the world we are trying to help into being, to glimpse the beauty and meaning emerging from the gifts of artists of social imagination and to know what is possible. The antidote to hate is love as the always-brilliant James Baldwin defined it in The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Our task now is to live into that love so that everyone we meet understands that though we are many, we are one. This is beautifully expressed in a few lines I will leave you with by the 15th-century poet Kabir, whose work is a converging stream of Hindu and Muslim cultures:
This love between us goes back to the first humans; it cannot be annihilated.
Here is Kabir’s idea: as the river gives itself into the ocean,
What is inside me moves inside you.
Thank you for your caring, courage and grace. For all you have done and will do. Know that you are loved.
During his second term in office, Pres. George W. Bush designated four large Pacific island areas as national monuments, thus protecting them from energy extraction and commercial fishing. The last three were created on January 6, 2009, two weeks before Bush left office, and at a White House ceremony commemorating the signing, he explained that the sanctuaries would benefit sea birds and marine life, open up new territory for scientists to explore, while, “for the American people, they will be places that honor our duty to be good stewards of the Almighty’s creation.”
The creation of the first of these sanctuaries, to be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, was the result of an informal seminar set up by James Greenwood, a former Republican Pennsylvania congressman, and attended by Elliot Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau. A highlight of the evening was a screening of Cousteau’s documentary Voyage to Kure, which takes its name from a remote coral atoll at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian archipelago. The atoll is a nesting area for a wide species of birds, including nearly all of the world’s population of Laysan albatrosses. It also happens to lie in the path of a current that brings great tangles of fishing nets and tons of debris onto the beaches. Bush reportedly said over dinner that night that he got “a pretty good lecture about life” from Earle.
Fast forward to November 2014, when Republican Congressman John Culberson was named chair of the House Commerce, Justice, and Science spending panel, whose jurisdiction includes both NASA and NOAA. Culberson, like Bush, was a Texan, and, like Bush, he invoked the Almighty, albeit under another name, to justify his spending priorities. In a January 2015 Science magazine article about Culberson, Bill Nye (“the Science Guy” who heads the non-profit Planetary Society) is quoted as saying of the Texas congressman: “He quotes the Bible and says he believes that a higher power has put life on other worlds. He wants to find it on his watch.” The place in space Culberson was confident he would find evidence of life was under the frozen crust of Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, considered by many scientists to be the most likely place in the solar system, apart from Earth, to harbor some form of life.
In June 2015, the House of Representatives passed HR 2578, the spending bill for NASA, NOAA, and other agencies that had been drawn up by Culberson’s nine-member spending panel. It awarded NASA’s planetary science division $1.63 billion – an increase of 13.4 percent, with a stipulation that the agency must not only apply $175 million to a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, but that the mission must have a lander component. NOAA, for its part, received a mere $462 million for research related to both the atmosphere and the oceans, and $58 million for climate research, instead of the requested $89 million, and $10 million for ocean acidification research – a third of the requested amount. Furthermore, the spending bill cut funding for the oldest carbon dioxide observatories on the planet, thus disrupting the ability to track fossil fuel emissions in the U.S. Industry could hardly have asked for more.
With only minor changes, the bill became the law that was bundled into the $1.1 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act designed to keep the federal government running until October 1 of this year, and then, to prevent a shutdown of Congress during an election year, extended to December and then, in all likelihood, punted into the new year for a new Congress to consider the implications of the discrepancy in funding for NASA and NOAA. Does the discrepancy mean that the United States is more interested in finding some sign of life in planetary space than in preserving life on planet Earth? Does it mean that America’s elected representatives have concluded that Earth’s problems are intractable and it is time to move on, letting the rest of the world fend for itself? Or is the explanation simpler: space research and development have a constituency – and a Hollywood-enhanced glamour – which research related to the atmosphere and the oceans’ depths lacks?
Meanwhile, it may be pertinent to point out that the Gulf of Mexico, which laps the south Texas shore, vies with the Baltic Sea for hosting the world’s largest “dead zones” – areas that cannot support marine life due to depleted oxygen levels. It also seems worth noting that three Texas congressmen who helped to assure the passage of the 2016-17 funding bill – John Culberson, of Houston; Bruce Babin, who served as chair of the House Space Subcommittee of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee during the 113th and 114th Congresses and whose Houston congressional district is dominated by the Johnson Space Center; and Lamar Smith, who has twice chaired the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology – are all dismissive of claims that whatever warming there may be is caused by human activity (Smith’s position on the subject was summed up in a Washington Post headline last year: “Meet the House science chairman who’s trying to put global warming on ice”).
In a press release announcing his appointment as chair of the spending panel, Culberson said, “It will … be a source of great joy for me to help lift up NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to ensure that America will always lead the world in space exploration and scientific discoveries.” Culberson’s failure to mention NOAA would seem to be indicative of the congressman’s lack of interest in an agency that deals with merely earthly matters – a lack notable in Congress as a whole since 2012.
In that year, NOAA’s budget for its Undersea Research Program was cut to zero for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1. Thus, it was left to millionaire Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, of Avatar and Titanic fame, to explore the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench, in the Marianas Trench Marine Monument created by George Bush three years earlier. Cameron made his solo descent on March 26, 2012, in a custom-designed submersible called Deepsea Challenger. According to New York Times science reporter William J. Broad, the submersible cost Cameron “roughly $10 million of his own money,” apart from whatever Rolex paid (A Rolex watch attached to an arm of the submersible functioned normally throughout the expedition). Ten million dollars is more than twice the amount NOAA’s Undersea Research Program received annually until October 1, 2012, when its funding dropped to zero.
The much-publicized descent into the abyss did not yield much in the way of scientific discovery. As Cameron said, “I didn’t feel like I got to a place where I could take interesting geology samples or found [sic] anything interesting biologically.” He also said, “I just sat there looking out the window, looking at this barren, desolate lunar plain, appreciating.” And, “I really feel like in one day I’ve been to another planet and come back.”
Not another planet, of course. Our planet. An as-yet-unexplored part – the deepest – of our planet. According to the text of a special National Geographic issue devoted to Cameron’s expedition, “Scientists are particularly interested in microorganisms living in the trenches, which they say could lead to breakthroughs in biomedicine and biotechnology. The Mariana Trench’s microscopic inhabitants might even shed light on the emergence of life on Earth. Some researchers, such as Patricia Fryer et al at University of Hawaii, have speculated that serpentine mud volcanoes located near ocean trenches might have provided the right conditions for our planet’s first life-forms.”
It is undeniably more thrilling to imagine finding life – even if it is only a speck of bacteria – deep within the frozen ocean of a distant planet, which Congress has directed NASA to do in its Europa mission, the centerpiece of its Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, than to look for the origins of life in the depths of the Earth’s ocean. Easier, too, than trying to heal a wounded planet, whose oceans are steadily rising and becoming increasingly acidic, and thus hostile to marine life. And it is more thrilling yet to imagine establishing human colonies in space, as billionaire Elon Musk plans to do on Mars, as do even such respected scientists as Freeman Dyson and Stephen Hawking, who, in his latest book, writes, “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.”
There can be little doubt that the human race will have no future on the planet that gave birth to us if we turn away from the reality within which we live and focus our hopes and dreams – and spend our treasure – on starting a new life in outer space. Before year’s end, Congress must decide, in the form of its appropriations, which comes first – the preservation of Earth and its oceans or exploring other planets for signs of life and with an eye to relocation of our self-destructive species. Given the results of the recent election, it is not hard to predict what the choice will be.
Jon Swan is a poet, translator, and freelance journalist whose reporting on environmental issues has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, OnEarth, and World Rivers Review. He lives in Yarmouth, Maine.