Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Considered reflections to yesterday’s post.
Yesterday, I published Bitter Lake ripples, a post that, in turn, was my response to the fabulous comments left by readers of my earlier post Oil, money, banks, guns and blood. The overall feeling I read in those comments was one of terrible uncertainty about these present times. Or in the words of Sue Dreamwalker in response to a comment left by Patrice Ayme.
I have to say Patrice.. I agree with your comment here… And yes people are not understanding the whole of what is going on.. The Truth of it would seem unbelievable..
Patrice, in a post published on Monday entitled Arm Ukraine, Disarm Bankers sent shivers down my spine with the suggestion, the strong suggestion, that Ukraine, if not handled properly by ‘the West’ could be a tipping point into another major war between Europe (and the USA?) and Russia. Here’s an extract from Patrice’s post:
The way it was said, in conjunction with Putin’s recent admission that Russian “volunteers” were fighting in Ukraine, is basically a declaration of war. On top of this, the head of the Eastern Ukraine rebels declared that he was raising a 100,000 men army. This means he expect tens of thousands of Russian troops (Putin’s “volunteers”) to cross the border.
This is not contained. Putin is billowing out of control, all by himself. One has to see what the combination of Putin’s dictatorial powers, media control, psychology and sinking economy leads to. Let me spell it out.
Once Putin has conquered Ukraine, he will push for more: he is already partly occupying Moldavia, WEST of Ukraine. Putin is also messing up with Hungary: there were street demonstrations about this, just yesterday, in Budapest. Putin uses the fact that Hungary is extremely dependent upon Russia’s fossil fuels. Merkel, who desperately wants to avoid war with Putin, flew to Budapest in emergency, to sort the situation out.
Patrice continues the warning of possible terrible times ahead in a subsequent post: Mental Inertia, Evil’s Friend, published yesterday.
Just as it takes a long time to erect, or change a vast building, so it is with the brain. The brain has inertia. Thus psychological inertia.
This mental inertia is why human beings tend to go on with a task, or with an attitude, once they got launched into it (a Jihadist laden with explosives just flew by).
Once a force is applied to an object, for example a propaganda to a brain, it tends to gather momentum, and develop ever more inertia.
Putin of course creates his own propaganda, and then can listen to it, reinforcing his deviance, in a self-reflective way. It’s all the more efficient if others repeat his ideas, and he listens to them. Actually that’s not just a problem with Putin, but with all Great Leaders. (And that’s one reason why Great Leadership has to be discontinued, and replaced by Direct Democracy.)
This amplifies the inertia.
By not fiercely opposing Putin, one collaborates with him. It is not just a question of sanctions. Putin is a liar, and an aggressive one, he should be publicly called for what he is.
Thus in terms of my own personal ideas, I freely admit to struggling to see things clearly. Simply because I find it very difficult to get to the heart of these international issues through not having access to clear, impartial commentators who know what they are speaking about. As Patrice infers much of the media is corrupted by self-serving agendas.
However, on balance, despite Patrice Ayme being a ‘nom-de-plume’ and me having no idea who the person behind the label really is, I do trust his (?) writings and believe that Patrice writes from a position of having very good access to the inner workings of the US Government. (I am not privy to anything to support my proposition; just my guess.)
The other commentator whose opinions and judgements are trusted by me in equal fashion is George Monbiot. Mr. Monbiot has been gracious to grant permission to me for his essays to be republished here on Learning from Dogs.
On the 28th January, Mr. Monbiot published an essay that in words better than I could write encapsulates my response to the comments left on my Bitter Lake ripples post. Here is that post from George Mobiot.
The Lamps Are Coming On All Over Europe
28th January 2015
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th January 2015
Here is the first rule of politics: if you never vote for what you want, you never get it. We are told at every election to hold our noses, forget the deficiencies and betrayals and vote Labour yet again, for fear of something worse(1). And there will, of course, always be something worse. So at what point should we vote for what we want, rather than keep choosing between two versions of market fundamentalism? Sometime this century? Or in the next? Follow the advice of the noseholders and we will be lost forever in Labour’s Bermuda triangulation.
Perhaps there was a time when this counsel of despair made sense. No longer. The lamps are coming on all over Europe. As in South America, political shifts that seemed impossible a few years earlier are now shaking the continent. We knew that another world was possible. Now, it seems, another world is here: the sudden death of the neoliberal consensus. Any party that claims to belong to the left but does not grasp this is finished.
Syriza, Podemos, Sinn Fein, the SNP; now a bright light is shining in England too, as the Green party stokes the radical flame that Labour left to gutter. On Tuesday morning, its membership in England and Wales passed 50,000(2); a year ago it was less than 15,000. A survey by the website voteforpolicies.org.uk reports that in blind tests (the 500,000 people it has polled were unaware of which positions belong to which parties), the Green Party’s policies are more popular than those of any other. If people voted for what they want, the Greens would be the party of government.
There are many reasons for this surge, but one of them must be a sense of popular ownership. Green party policies are determined democratically. Emerging from debates led mostly by younger members(3), they feel made for their time, while those of the major parties appear trapped in the 1980s.
Let me give you a flavour of the political transformation the Green Party seeks. There would be no prime minister of the kind we have today, no secretaries of state. Instead, Parliament would elect policy committees which in turn appoint convenors(4). It would also elect a First Minister, to chair the convenors’ committee. Parliament, in other words, would be sovereign rather than subject to the royal prerogative prime ministers abuse, leaders would be elected by the whole body and its various parties would be obliged to work together, rather than engage in perennial willy-waving.
Local authorities would set the taxes they chose. Local currencies, which have proved elsewhere to have transformative effects in depressed areas (see Bernard Lietaer’s book The Future of Money(5)) would become legal tender(6). Private banks would no longer be permitted to create money(7) (at the moment they issue 97% of our money supply, in the form of debt). Workers in limited companies would have the legal right, following a successful ballot, to buy them out and create cooperatives(8), with funding from a national investment bank.
The hideously unfair council tax system would be replaced by land value taxation(9), through which everyone would benefit from the speculative gains now monopolised by a few. All citizens would receive, unconditionally, a basic income(10), putting an end to insecurity and fear and to the punitive conditions attached to benefits, which have reduced recipients almost to the status of slaves.
Compare this vision of hope to Labour’s politics of fear. Compare it to a party so mesmerised by the City and the Daily Mail that it has promised to sustain the Tory cuts for “decades ahead”(11) and to “finish that task on which [the Chancellor] has failed”: eradicating the deficit.
Far too late, a former Labour minister, Peter Hain, now recognises that, inasmuch as the books need balancing, it can be done through measures like a financial transaction tax and a reform of national insurance(12), rather than through endless cuts. These opportunities have been dangling in front of Labour’s nose since 2008(13), but because appeasing the banks and the corporate press was deemed more important than preventing pain and suffering for millions, they have not been taken. Hain appears belatedly to have realised that austerity is a con, a deliberate rewriting of the social contract to divert our common wealth to the elite. There’s no evidence that the frontbench is listening.
Whether it wins or loses the general election, Labour is probably finished. It would take a generation to replace the sycophants who let Blair and Brown rip their party’s values to shreds. By then it will be history. If Labour wins in May, it is likely to destroy itself faster and more surely than if it loses, through the continued implementation of austerity. That is the lesson from Europe.
Fearful voting shifts the whole polity to the right. Tony Blair’s obeisance to corporate power enabled the vicious and destructive policies the Coalition now pursues(14). The same legacy silences Labour in opposition, as it pioneered most of the policies it should oppose. It is because we held our noses before that there is a greater stink today. So do we keep voting for a diluted version of Tory politics, for fear of the concentrate? Or do we start to vote for what we want? Had the people of this nation heeded the noseholders a century ago, we would still be waiting for the Liberal Party to deliver universal healthcare and the welfare state.
Society moves from the margins, not the centre. Those who wish for change must think of themselves as the sacrificial margin: the pioneering movement that might not succeed immediately, but that will eventually deliver sweeping change. We cannot create a successful alternative to the parties that have betrayed us until we start voting for it. Do we start walking, or just keep talking about the journey we might one day take?
Power at the moment is lethal. Whichever major party wins this election, it is likely to destroy itself through the pursuit of policies that almost no one wants. Yes, it might mean five more years of pain, though I suspect in these fissiparous times it won’t last so long. And then it all opens up. This is what we must strive for; this is the process that begins in May by voting, regardless of tactical considerations, for parties offering a genuine alternative. Change arises from conviction. Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope.
2. Green Party office, by email, 27th January 2015
13. I was not the first to propose these alternatives to austerity Peter Hain has just discovered, but even I had got there by 2011: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/06/march-26-protest-aims-first-draft
I said that Mr. Monbiot’s words were much finer than my own. No better illustrated than by his closing three sentences:
“Change arises from conviction. Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope.”
Reflections on last Thursday’s post.
Last Thursday, I published a post under the title of Oil, money, banks, guns and blood. It was such a departure from my normal style of blog post that I anticipated that it would slide by without any comment. Wrong! It had the highest readership of the week and attracted some powerful and insightful replies. So much so that I expressed the desire to reflect on those replies before responding. Thus, today’s post is my response to your comments and feelings.
First, Hariod Brawn of the blogsite Contentedness responded, in part:
Now, where are we? Val’s words are a good place to begin: “Nothing is what is seems, or will ever be the same again.” Nobody knows for sure, but piecing together fragments of world events, my instinct (fwiw) tells me that we are in the incipient stages of the collapse of the 20th.c. paradigm. Neoliberalism has failed; further than that, Capitalism has failed – we have no free markets where it counts; they’re all rigged. Politics has failed too, having been bought out by the corporates. [There are over 30,000 lobbyists in Washington alone] All that Western Governments have to offer is a doomed re-run of failed practices (same with Japan actually). Worse still, they have gone down on their knees and begged the financial sector to create a fix. The private banks have been given access to vast sums of QE cash at virtually zero interest in order to continue rigging markets (via their agents) all to their benefit whilst also creating huge market distortions in asset bubbles. Has the wealth they created trickled down? Has it hell. Whilst all this is going on, and as the film so clearly demonstrates, the Middle East looks like fulfilling its promise of the last century as being the flashpoint for warfare on a vast scale. And of course, if by some miracle we escape financial collapse, and world peace is not threatened by warfare, then the environment is going down the pan because – guess what? – our politicians have failed us once again. I have said enough on this.
Hariod then went on to recommend the films of Chris Hedges that will be featured on Learning from Dogs at a future date.
Then Val Boyco, her blogsite being Find Your Middle Ground, wrote a response before viewing the film:
Without being informed yet … my thinking is that the world we live in is so complex, stressful and fast that we can’t absorb everything that happens. We simplify and label, in order to make sense. We chop and segment in order to understand, but we miss the full story and many have lost the ability to grasp the bigger picture…. or are too fearful of going against the expectations of others and becoming one of “them” instead of one of “us”.
Then reinforced by her comment after watching the film:
I just watched the movie Paul. It is powerful and very disturbing. As you say, it undermines what we believe is real. It also reveals the complexity – misunderstanding – manipulation – corruption – opium, oil and the struggle for power – naivety – chaos.
In the dualistic fairy tale world of good vs evil it has created a nightmare of errors.
Nothing is what is seems.
Or will ever be the same again.
There was a comment from Patrice Ayme:
Giant American global corporations, the 200 largest ones, do 100 billion dollars of tax evasion through Luxembourg alone. Each year. Many are media companies. Wonder why stories make no sense?
Juncker directed that. Now he is head of the European Commission, and insist Greece shall pay every single penny.
As it happened, my dad was among a European group of geologists working for the Afghan government, who discovered Afghanistan’s riches… In the 1970s. All hell broke loose shortly thereafter.
I write about these sorts of things, day in, day out. But most people prefer the opium of feel-good…
Patrice then went further in offering a post over on his own blog that carried the specific title of Great Bitter Lake. Let me quote a little from that:
“Bitter Lake” is about the conspiracy between American plutocracy and Saudi plutocracy. Plutocrat Roosevelt was freshly flown from Yalta, to the Great Bitter Lake, on the Suez Canal. The idea was to steal the Maghreb, and the Middle East from the French and the British, by making a theocratic alliance.
At Yalta, Roosevelt had given half of Europe to his Comrade Stalin. (Plutocrats of the world naturally unite!)
Never mind that Poland had fought the Nazis courageously the Nazis, at a time when the USA was militarily and diplomatically collaborating… with the Nazis (or maybe, precisely, the Poles had to be punished!) Roosevelt had to be strict: the French had successfully escaped from the military occupation (AMGOT) he had set-up for them.
The movie “Bitter Lake” exposes (some) of the American plutocracy led conspiracies which led to the devastation, among other things, of Afghanistan, and other constituencies, thanks to the Wahhabist Islam it unleashed on the world.
Readers of this site will be familiar with the general ambiance.
One caveat: all what is in the documentary and makes American plutocrats (Roosevelt) and their servants (Reagan) look bad, is correct. However the real situation, the real badness is way worse. (For example the secret, official USA intervention in Afghanistan was under Carter, on July 3, 1979. However the real even more secret intervention, through the Pakistani ISI was even earlier and even more vicious.
So what is my response?
It is this:
In 1887, Oscar Wilde said, referring to the differences between the British and the Americans: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
By way of example there is a saying back in my old country that when something is “… going to the dogs”, it means an irreversible decline in standards; the phrase usually aimed at an organisation or even a country.
Many, especially those of my age, might nod sagely and reflect that something ‘is going to the dogs‘ in terms of the wider Western world.
Let me be specific. There are destructive and dysfunctional issues in modern societies that I would list as: Selfishness; Power & Corruption; Short-termism; Materialism; Population growth; Greed, inequality and poverty. It’s not an exhaustive list!
Now many would argue the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ about what precisely is wrong with Western societies in this 21st century but far fewer would argue with the underlying premise; that something is fundamentally wrong with today’s world.
Indeed, one of the things that is impossible to miss is the body language, the look on a face, the shrug of a shoulder, when one casually remarks that these are interesting times! From strangers and friends alike.
There is no question that what mankind has ‘enjoyed’ these last fifty years or so cannot be continued for very much longer. That the era since the 1960s of growth, materialism and consumption is running one very basic and fundamental resource dry. You know the one I am referring to: Planet Earth.
My hope is that the widely-felt feelings that something is fundamentally wrong with today, are the feelings man has always experienced, since time immemorial, when mankind has passed through the threshold between two eras.
My hope is that the new era, one that we quite possibly may now just be entering, a new era of sustainable living on this planet, of social and political changes to replace extreme levels of inequality, of stronger communities of like-minded persons, will be obvious to all, but especially obvious to our next generation, within the next ten years; possibly fewer than ten years.
One thing is for sure. The sharing of ideas and feelings as is the style of modern blogging is critical to the forming of the opinions that precede the changes that so many now see as unstoppable.
The history of power, control, those who wield it, and where it has taken us all.
There is a real pain in me as I start into today’s post. A pain that comes from agonising over whether or not to write in this vein. A pain that has its roots in me being forced to accept that global politics, money and power-plays are much worse than I ever wanted to believe.
What, you must be asking, has got me plunging so far into this dark place? When just twenty-four hours ago I was writing of peace, calm and deep meditation?
Simply a film!
A film that was uploaded by the BBC a few days ago exclusively on to their BBC iPlayer platform.
The film is called Bitter Lake and here’s the trailer.
The full film is 2 hours, 20 minutes long. (But note that the film is age-restricted for obvious reasons.)
I can’t encourage you to watch it. For if you do, the world may never seem the same to you.
But Jeannie and I did watch it and think it should be shared widely. And, yes, it has changed the world for us.
Here’s how it is described by Adam Curtis and the BBC.
Published on Jan 26, 2015
Shown exclusively on the BBC iPlayer service in the UK
This upload is for those outside of the UK
Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events.
But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis – leaving us bewildered and disorientated.
And journalism – that used to tell a grand, unfurling narrative – now also just relays disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information.
Events come and go like waves of a fever. We – and the journalists – live in a state of continual delirium, constantly waiting for the next news event to loom out of the fog – and then disappear again, unexplained.
And the formats – in news and documentaries – have become so rigid and repetitive that the audiences never really look at them.
In the face of this people retreat from journalism and politics. They turn away into their own worlds, and the stories they and their friends tell each other.
I think this is wrong, sad, and bad for democracy – because it means the politicians become more and more unaccountable.
I have made a film that tries to respond to this in two ways.
It tells a big story about why the stories we are told today have stopped making sense.
But it is also an experiment in a new way of reporting the world. To do this I’ve used techniques that you wouldn’t normally associate with TV journalism. My aim is to make something more emotional and involving – so it reconnects and feels more real.
BBC iPlayer has given me the opportunity to do this – because it isn’t restrained by the rigid formats and schedules of network television. It’s a place you can go to experiment and try out new ideas.
It is also liberating – both because things can be any length, and also because it allows the audience to watch the films in different ways.
The film is called Bitter Lake. It is a bit of an epic – it’s two hours twenty minutes long.
It tells a big historical narrative that interweaves America, Britain, Russia and Saudi Arabia. It shows how politicians in the west lost confidence – and began to simplify the stories they told. It explains why this happened – because they increasingly gave their power away to other forces, above all global finance.
But there is one other country at the center of the film.
This is because Afghanistan is the place that has repeatedly confronted politicians, as their power declines, with the terrible truth – that they cannot understand what is going on any longer. Let alone control it.
The film shows in detail how all the foreigners who went to Afghanistan created an almost totally fictional version of the country in their minds.
They couldn’t see the complex reality that was in front of them – because the stories they had been told about the world had become so simplified that they lacked the perceptual apparatus to see reality any longer.
And this blindness led to a terrible disaster – support for a blatantly undemocratic government, wholesale financial corruption and thousands of needless deaths.
A horrific scandal that we, in our disconnected bubble here in Britain, seem hardly aware of. And even if we are – it is dismissed as being just too complex to understand.
But it is important to try and understand what happened. And the way to do that is to try and tell a new kind of story. One that doesn’t deny the complexity and reduce it to a meaningless fable of good battling evil – but instead really tries to makes sense of it.
I have got hold of the unedited rushes of almost everything the BBC has ever shot in Afghanistan. It is thousands of hours – some of it is very dull, but large parts of it are extraordinary. Shots that record amazing moments, but also others that are touching, funny and sometimes very odd.
These complicated, fragmentary and emotional images evoke the chaos of real experience. And out of them I have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan.
A counterpoint to the thin, narrow and increasingly destructive stories told by those in power today.
And I must include this comment from the relevant page on BBC Blogs:
Quite simply one of the best films I’ve ever watched. The theme and content made so many connections linking events of the last 40 years. It’s perhaps time to reflect on power ,control and those who wield it . The official narrative is not our narrative , we have a choice to decide what we believe . Time to reflect and make that choice.
Thanks for such an informing film.
Here is the film.
Trying to make sense of our place in the world – and probably failing!
Yesterday’s post, Making sense of who we are?, was built upon a recent essay from George Monbiot: A Small and Shuffling Life. It is a terrific essay, in the very best tradition of George Monbiot. I really hope you read it in yesterday’s post because today’s introspective jaunt is built on that essay. Two particular paragraphs of his essay really ‘spoke’ to me.
The opening paragraph:
Live free or die: this is the maxim of our age. But the freedoms we celebrate are particular and limited. We fetishise the freedom of business from state control; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to carry guns and speak our minds and worship whom we will. But despite – in some cases because of – this respect for particular freedoms, every day the scope of our lives appears to contract.
We carry with us the psychological equipment, rich in instinct and emotion, required to navigate that world. But our survival in the modern economy requires the use of few of the mental and physical capacities we possess. Sometimes it feels like a small and shuffling life. Our humdrum, humiliating lives leave us, I believe, ecologically bored.
In that second paragraph I sense something from Mr. Monbiot that is felt by me and Jean and appears to be shared very widely. A sense that something about today’s society is broken. That the last, say fifty years, of increasing living standards, health and prosperity, albeit not universally embraced, have brought us no closer to a golden future. That, as so clearly voiced in the preceding paragraph, “… our survival in the modern economy requires the use of few of the mental and physical capacities we possess.”
My guess is that George Monbiot and Terry Hershey have never met. One might suggest that their backgrounds are as different as two people might be. Take their respective ‘About’ pages on their blogsites. Here are their closing paragraphs.
My work is more sedentary than it used to be, so I temper it with plenty of physical activity: sea kayaking, ultimate frisbee, running and some heavy duty gardening: growing my own vegetables and much of my own fruit.
Here are some of the things I love: my family and friends, salt marshes, arguments, chalk streams, Russian literature, kayaking among dolphins, diversity of all kinds, rockpools, heritage apples, woods, fishing, swimming in the sea, gazpacho, ponds and ditches, growing vegetables, insects, pruning, forgotten corners, fossils, goldfinches, etymology, Bill Hicks, ruins, Shakespeare, landscape history, palaeoecology, Gavin and Stacey and Father Ted.
Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.
Here is what I fear: other people’s cowardice.
I still see my life as a slightly unhinged adventure whose perpetuation is something of a mystery. I have no idea where it will take me, and no ambitions other than to keep doing what I do. So far it’s been gripping.
I used to ask of myself and others: what have you accomplished? Where are your credentials? What does your job and your bank account say about who you are?
Now, my questions are different:
Are there butterflies in your garden?
What are the color of loved ones’ eyes, when they are looking at you with hope?
And when was the last time your house smelled of paper-white narcissus?
Do sunsets make you smile?
When was the last time you stood in stocking feet just to stare at the rising moon?
Have you ever seen a sunflower bloom?
Does the laughter of children do your heart good?
At what angle does the sun enter your house?
Do I understand that life is full of complications, obligations and distractions? Yes. I do. My wife and I raise a teenage son. We run two businesses. So, yes, I know a bit about down-to-earth realities.
But this, too, is reality:
I love to watch the hummingbirds dance.
I love that my son likes to put on his dancing shoes.
I love to join him when we play
old-time rock and roll.
I love to stretch out on a garden bench on a
warm summer day.
I love a hot shower and drying with an expensive,
oversized cotton towel.
I love books, delight in poetry,
and find sustenance in writing.
I treasure the certainty that grace
gives us all many second chances.
I value the times I can simplify life by letting go of my need to validate my humanity through productivity.
And I love to lose track of time in a garden.
I also know that sharing this with you – offering my practices for pausing, resources for doing less and living more, reflections in my blog —feeds me.
So I invite you, too, to join us — and together we’ll share, remind, and support each other, to “do less, live more.”
Yet, despite the differences in backgrounds, cultures and much more, to me there is a common openness, an honesty shared, and a passion for the truth.
All of which is a very long introduction to this week’s Sabbath Moment from Terry; republished in full.
Finding sanctuary and grace
January 19, 2015
Today I am sitting in a café (and bar) in Vaison-la-Romaine, in the Provence region of France, nursing my espresso. The old men of the village (actually all of them are about my age) gather. They unload, swap stories, sip pastis, and watch petanque on TV. Some read the newspaper–with stories about Charlie Hebdo and photos of “Somme Nous Charlie“–carrying reminders of hope in our fragile and broken world.
I am glad to be here. Today. In this place. There is an air of familiarity among the men, and comfort in their ritual. I am grateful for reminders and invitations to live well into a place. Not just a physical space, but a tonic and sanctuary to the spirit. The invitation is a permission to settle down. (In the words of Jesus, “to come away and rest awhile.”) A sanctuary is a place that restores us, replenishes us, nourishes us. In this renewal, we are reminded, once again, of what really is important.
I agree that it is easy to sentimentalize. But living into the moment doesn’t smooth the edges of our life. It allows us to pay attention. I like to think that we can name the edges, to welcome and invite them into the sanctuary.
Outside a bicycle club gathers in the village center parking lot, ready for their weekend excursion. Their spirit is eager, their uniform bearing homage to their journey to the top of Mont Ventoux.
Sitting in the café, my thoughts meander, with no agenda or responsibilities to tether them. So I let them wander, a gift to embrace. But my reverie is interrupted with worry … I need a Sabbath Moment. And I don’t have a clue (I tell myself). It’s not easy on vacation. Especially without wi-fi.
I am on my annual trip to Europe with my good friend Bill McNabb to taste wine. He’s a wine writer (and pastor) in the San Francisco area. But mostly, he’s a friend. I’m his aide-de-camp and connoisseur.
We travel to wine regions and are blessed to taste beverages that we cannot afford, but offer us a glimpse of heaven.
Yes I’m biased. But then wine is not a beverage here; it is an experience. Your choice is to savor and take delight.
We visited wineries harvesting grapes from vines 100 years old. These are businesses passed down through the generations, grandfather to father to son (and now thankfully, often to daughter). A world where terroir is king, the personality of the soil. Meaning that this wine is born of a place, a very specific place. Here in the Rhone Valley, I’m honored to be in the company of crafts people. Like being with a great gardener. The men and women I met coddle their vines–they call them trees–lovingly.
Unlike Peter Mayle, I don’t have “A Year in Provence.” I only have a few days. But that’ll do… It is my first visit and I’m sure won’t be my last.
We’re in our gite–a rural rental property in France–we relish the evening light, a layer of bruised purple (pourple) above the slopes in Provence (Cotes du Rhone). Below the hills, vineyards roll through the landscape, the vines–still in winter and pruned–pose as menorah renderings in the dusk light.
Yes, this scene is a tonic. There is something about these moments that carry significance, because they are reminders, and they are sacraments. Partial, yes, but containing the full sustenance of grace.
And I think of the question a friend asks me, “What holds you?”
In other words… What sustains you, and carries you gently through your days?
Ryoken, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut, only to discover there was nothing in it to steal. Ryoken returned and caught him in the act.
“You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the disillusioned prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. But he took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon, “Poor fellow,” he mused. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
Sometimes I feel like that thief. Standing–in my own home, or in front of an audience, or in a crowd, or all alone–I am looking for something, for whatever ails me or creates a hole or emptiness; but, like that thief, not finding it. “What am I missing?” I ask myself. What am I wanting, yearning for, that I find myself in such a pell-mell-hurry or weighted down… hoping to fix it, or find it, or mend it. So I run and race and call on God, or the sky, or roll the dice with some prayer from my childhood. This will solve it, I tell myself. But the more I push, the more I ask, the more I beseech, the further I move from the center.
Here’s the deal: In my state of distraction, I cannot see that the core of my identity, the place where I stand in this moment (even at times without clarity, or stability, or faith, or answers)… I stand smack dab in the center of an awesome and illogical grace. Smack dab in the center of the sacred present.
If I do have the permission to see that place, I know that I am grounded.
I am now able to breathe in
and rest in this acceptance.
Last night, above the slopes to the south, a slivered crescent moon rests, the sky a cobalt blue canvas. It is visceral, arresting, piercing. And for whatever reason, reassuring. This snapshot is imprinted, and I know in my heart that it is in some way essential, indispensable. I accept this gift of the moon, even though I don’t yet know why.
I don’t know what to tell you to do, exactly. Only that I too, wish I could give you the gift of that crescent moon.
I know this for certain: when we do not pay tribute, we are like the thief in the Zen story–without even knowing it–and we settle for less. So much less. So it is not just a question of what hold us, but of what holds us back… from being wholehearted, true to our self, fully alive, unafraid of uncertainty, and grateful for the gift of this moment.
Lord knows we look for ways to bottle it and sell it, when I reckon we should just get out of the way.
Our gite sits squarely in a vineyard and a working farm. A perfect setting to replenish. For years I’ve been writing about sanctuary and the need for restoration. And I’m my own worst enemy. There’s not a week that goes by that a Sabbath Moment friend doesn’t remind me to follow my own advice to pause… and let my soul catch up with my body. Gladly, this week I did.
My penultimate reflection to today’s post is with a short, six-minute video from Professor Dan Gilbert. The video is entitled: The psychology of your future self. I hope you see it as offering a calming perspective to two days of inner psychological ramblings!
Published on Jun 3, 2014
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” Dan Gilbert shares recent research on a phenomenon he calls the “end of history illusion,” where we somehow imagine that the person we are right now is the person we’ll be for the rest of time. Hint: that’s not the case.
My final reflection is the lesson that dogs teach us; that one about living in the present.
The appalling attitudes of those who kill wild animals for fun!
You will recall that in yesterday’s post, I referred to the fact that Jean and I are supporters of Oregon Wild. If you drop in on the OW blog, one of the items you will read is A New Year for Oregon’s Wolves. Here’s how it starts:
Jan 12, 2015 | Rob Klavins
A new year provides opportunities for reflection – and prognostication. For wolves in Oregon, 2014 was a good year. Journey finally found his mate and Oregon continued a management paradigm where killing remained an option of last resort. The result was a small but expanding wolf population and a continued decrease in conflict.
However, it’s not an understatement to say that 2015 is poised to be among the most consequential years for Oregon’s wolf recovery since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
After a hard-fought legal settlement, Oregon’s fragile wolf recovery is back on track under the most progressive plan in the country. Though the plan is working for all but the most extreme voices, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) is re-igniting old conflicts by caving to political pressure and giving serious consideration to weakening basic protections for wolves.
Moving on but staying in theme; so to speak.
For a few months now, I have been subscribing to a blog called Exposing the Big Game. Here’s a little from their About page.
This blog site is a haven for wildlife and animal advocates, a wildlife refuge of sorts, that’s posted “No Hunting,” as any true sanctuary should be. Just as a refuge is patrolled to keep hunters and poachers from harassing the wildlife, this blog site is monitored to keep hunters from disturbing other people’s quiet enjoyment of the natural world.
It is not a message board or a chat room for those wanting to argue the supposed merits of animal exploitation or to defend the act of hunting or trapping in any way, shape or form. There are plenty of other sites available for that sort of thing.
Hunters and trappers: For your sake, I urge you not to bother wasting your time posting your opinions in the comments section. This blog is moderated, and pro-hunting statements will not be tolerated or approved. Consider this fair warning—if you’re a hunter, sorry but your comments are going straight to the trash can. This is not a public forum for animal exploiters to discuss the pros and cons of hunting.
We’ve heard all the rationalizations for killing wildlife so many times before; there’s no point in wasting everyone’s time with more of that old, tired hunter PR drivel. Any attempt to justify the murder of our fellow animals will hereby be jettisoned into cyberspace…
Well two days ago, Lydia Millet wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times that was republished on Exposing the Big Game. It was about the American Gray Wolf. I asked permission to republish it in full here.
Opinion: High Noon for the Gray Wolf
By LYDIA MILLET JAN. 18, 2015
In December 2011, a wild gray wolf set foot in California, the first sighting in almost a century. He’d wandered in from Oregon, looking for a mate. In October 2014, for the first time in almost three-quarters of a century, a gray wolf was seen loping along the forested North Rim of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. She had walked hundreds of miles, probably from Wyoming or Idaho.
The return of these animals to the homes of their ancestors — however fleeting — was a result of their 40-year protection under the Endangered Species Act.
OR-7, or “Journey,” as schoolchildren named the first wolf, had been born to the Imnaha pack, the first one in Oregon for many decades. When he wandered south, his brother, OR-9, wandered east. Shortly after he crossed into Idaho (where wolves are not protected), he was shot dead. OR-7 lived on, after his repeated incursions into California (where wolves are protected), to sire a litter of pups just north of the state line. He became the subject of a documentary — in California, even a wolf can be a star.
The story of the Grand Canyon wolf, though, may be over: Three days after Christmas, it appears, she was shot and killed in Utah by a man media outlets have called a “coyote hunter.” (A DNA test is pending.)
For almost two centuries, American gray wolves, vilified in fact as well as fiction, were the victims of vicious government extermination programs. By the time the Endangered Species Act was passed, in 1973, only a few hundred of these once-great predators were left in the lower 48 states. After numerous generations of people dedicated to killing wolves on the North American continent, one generation devoted itself to letting wolves live. The animals’ number has now risen to almost 5,500, thanks to their legal protection, but they still occupy less than 5 percent of their ancient home range.
Since 1995, the act has guided efforts to raise wolves in captivity, release them, and follow them in the wild. Twenty years ago this month, the first gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.
But this fragile progress has been undermined. Since 2011, the federal government has moved to remove federal protection for gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) and in the western Great Lakes (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan), the two population centers. Management of the species was turned over to these states, which responded with a zeal that looks like blood lust.
Relying on the greatly exaggerated excuse that wolves threaten cattle and sheep, the states opened their doors to the killing of wolves. (In some states, bait can be used to lure the animals to their deaths; in Montana, private landowners can each kill 100 wolves each year; in Wisconsin, up to six hunting dogs on a single wolf is considered fair play.) Legions of wolf killers rose to the challenge, and the toll has been devastating: In just three and a half years, at least 3,500 wolves have been mowed down.
There’s been an outcry from conservationists, ecologists and people who simply like wolves, but this has not stopped the killers. Some say wolves are a threat to their livestock investments (despite the existence of generous rancher-compensation programs in all wolf states save Alaska); others invoke fear of wolves; still others appear to revel in killing. Online, you can find pictures of wolf carcasses held up proudly as trophies and men boasting of running over wolves with their cars. Judges have started to step in. In September, a federal court decided that wolf management in Wyoming — which had allowed people to kill as many wolves as they wanted, throughout 84 percent of the state — should be returned to the federal government. In December, also in response to a lawsuit, another federal court reinstated protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes. These decisions should make clear that the states alone simply can’t be entrusted with the future of our wolves.
In Washington, the threats persist. The Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a proposal that would strip federal protection from almost all gray wolves in the lower 48 states, not just the ones in the Rockies and the Midwest. Meanwhile, right-wing Republicans in the new Congress are champing at the bit to remove the wolves from protection under the act — politics trumping science.
President Obama should direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to retain protection for wolves; if it doesn’t, they could be wiped off the face of the American landscape forever. A unified wolf-recovery plan for the nation is required. Not only do wolves play an important role in keeping wilderness wild, but they were here long before we were, and deserve to remain. Not for nothing was the environmentalist Aldo Leopold transformed by the sight of a “fierce green fire” in a dying wolf’s eyes.
I’ve seen wild gray wolves only once, as they trotted across a dirt road in front of my own family car in a New Mexican forest. There were three of them on the road, no doubt a wolf family, and three of us in the car: my husband, my daughter and me. In the back seat, my little girl was engrossed in a picture book and didn’t look up fast enough. I want her to have another chance; I want her to keep living in a world where something beautiful and wild lurks at the edge of sight.
Lydia Millet is the author, most recently, of the novel “Mermaids in Paradise.”
Going back to that blog post over on Exposing the Big Game, I was inspired by many of the comments. Here are two examples:
From Rosemary Lowe (who blogs over on EARTH for Animals)
I so agree with your comments, Roger. Here we are, staring at the Faces of Extinction, while, so-called “wildlife groups” grovel, hat in hand, to these agencies, and to the ranchers and hunters, offering yet another “collaboration” or “compromise” so we “can all work together.” I am sickened as to how many of these groups make no apology about having hunters/ranchers on their boards and on their staff. An all out War against these special interests, and their agencies does not seem to be on group’s agenda. So much has already been lost. As you stated, so little is left: the massive slaughter of native wild animals & wild habitats since the 1800’s is criminal, yet there seems to be little passion about it.
Here from Sharon Lee Davies-Tight (who blogs over on Word Warrior Davies-Tight)
Thanks for the article. Strange isn’t it – the killing spree for sport against the wolves for their predatory behavior, yet these same people aren’t calling their behavior or the behavior of hunting dogs predatory?
Finally, here’s the trailer to that film about the wolf OR7
Please do all you can to ensure that federal protection for gray wolves in all US states is maintained.
How we treat wild animals defines how we treat the planet – the only one we have!
The Children’s Climate Crusade.
But first some thoughts for the newer followers of this blog.
Being the author of this blog I have no idea how people find this place, and more importantly, what they make of it! It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it is as a result of a web search associated with dogs. Let’s face it, the blog is called Learning from Dogs!
It also wouldn’t surprise me if many don’t drop in to the About this blog page and read:
The underlying theme of Learning from Dogs is about truth, integrity, honesty and trust in every way. We use the life of dogs as a metaphor. The first Post was published on the 15th July 2009.
Be part of this yourself in whatever way you would like.
All of which is my way of explaining why, more often than not, the daily post has nothing to do with our beautiful canines. But I do hope if a post is not about dogs then it is about “truth, integrity, honesty and trust in every way.”
So with that off my chest, let me use the rest of this post to republish in full the final broadcast from Bill Moyers, the link to which was kindly sent to me by friend John Hurlburt. Thanks John.
The Bill Moyers programme is less than 30-minutes long. It is extraordinarily fine viewing, especially for the younger viewer. Do share it widely.
Full Show: The Children’s Climate Crusade
January 1, 2015
The very agencies created to protect our environment have been hijacked by the polluting industries they were meant to regulate. It may just turn out that the judicial system, our children and their children will save us from ourselves.
The new legal framework for this crusade against global warming is called atmospheric trust litigation. It takes the fate of the Earth into the courts, arguing that the planet’s atmosphere – its air, water, land, plants and animals — are the responsibility of government, held in its trust to insure the survival of all generations to come. It’s the strategy being used by Bill’s recent guest, Kelsey Juliana, a co-plaintiff in a major lawsuit spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, that could force the state of Oregon to take a more aggressive stance against the carbon emissions.
Wood tells Bill: “If this nation relies on a stable climate system, and the very habitability of this nation and all of the liberties of young people and their survival interests are at stake, the courts need to force the agencies and the legislatures to simply do their job.”
Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns.
So having explained why dogs often aren’t featured in posts, there’s only one way to close today. That’s with a picture of young Ollie, our latest member of the family, taken last June.
Turn aside if you are looking for a bright, optimistic start to the week.
Two separate experiences have come together to offer, well anyway for me, a sense of now not recognising the world I grew up in. The first was Episode One of a programme on BBC Television, broadcast last Thursday, and the second was an essay from Ann Jones on the TomDispatch site, published yesterday.
First, that BBC programme. Despite not being able to view it directly here in Oregon, both the programme details and a first-hand account from a British viewer confirm the essence of this two-part series. Here’s what is on the BBC iPlayer website:
The Super Rich and Us
First shown: 8 Jan 2015
Britain has more billionaires per head than any other country on earth, yet we’re also the most unequal nation in Europe. We were told the super-rich would make us richer too, so why hasn’t that happened, and what does the arrival of their astronomical wealth really mean for the rest of us? In programme one of this two-part series, Jacques Peretti looks at how the super-rich first exploited an obscure legal loophole to make Britain one of the most attractive tax havens on earth. He argues this was no accident. Wooing the super-rich was a deliberate strategy by government to reconfigure the British economy, under the belief their wealth would trickle down to the rest of us. But it didn’t. The OECD now say the British economy would have been 20 per cent bigger had we not pursued the super-rich. So who sold us the fallacy and why?
Jacques meets the super-rich themselves – from those buying premiership football clubs to the billionaires who are breaking ranks to criticise the decisions that made them richer and society more unequal.
Jacques challenges the architects of these policies, as well as tracking down the foreign multimillionaires who are buying up Britain and turning us from a nation of property owners to a nation of renters. He uncovers new research that shows growing inequality has been driven by this key factor of unaffordable property, and the far-reaching effect this will have on every aspect of our lives. Inequality is reshaping Britain into two simple classes: the 99 per cent and the one per cent. This is the story of how it happened and what it means for all of us.
While, for obvious reasons, the programme can’t be included in this post, one can get a flavour of the degree of inequality in Britain from this BBC News item from last May.
The second experience was reading the latest post published over on the TomDispatch site; an essay from Ann Jones (see bio at end). Some while ago, Tom Engelhardt, he of TomDispatch, was sufficiently generous to give a blanket permission for his essays to be republished on Learning from Dogs. Here is that essay from Ann. (NB: In the original there are numerous hyperlinks to other materials, too many for me to transfer across: Apologies.)
Tomgram: Ann Jones, Answering for America
Posted by Ann Jones at 8:00am, January 11, 2015.
One of the grimmer small events of recent American life occurred just as 2014 was ending. A mother had her two-year old toddler perched in a shopping cart at an Idaho Wal-Mart. He reached into her purse, specially made for carrying a concealed firearm (and a Christmas gift from her husband), found his mother’s pistol in it, pulled it out, and shot and killed her. And she wasn’t the only victim of a child who came upon a loaded weapon. Between 2007 and 2011, at least 62 children 14 or younger died in similarly nightmarish accidents with loaded weapons.
Nor was this specific incident an anomaly. In fact, if you are an American, you are statistically in less danger of dying from a terrorist attack in this country than from a toddler shooting you. And by the way, you’re 2,059 times more likely to die by your own hand with a weapon of your choosing than in a terrorist attack anywhere on Earth. You’re also more than nine times as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a terrorist.
And remind me, how many American taxpayer dollars have gone into “security” from terrorism and how many into security from weaponry? You know the answer to that. In fact, guns of just about every variety seem to circulate ever more freely in this country as the populace up-armors itself in yet more ways. Think of it as a kind of arms race. Emboldened by the National Rifle Association (NRA), Americans are ever more weaponized. There were an estimated 300-310 million guns in the U.S. in 2009 (a figure that has undoubtedly risen), and up to four million Americans now own assault rifles — one popular weapon of choice, by the way, for mass killers. In the meantime, the percentage of Americans who favor a ban on handguns (25%) has fallen to an all-time low.
As for “carrying,” it’s now legal in every state in America and allowed in ever more situations as well. In the last year, for instance, Idaho, where that mother died, became the seventh state to green-light the carrying of concealed guns on college campuses. To put all this in perspective, less than two decades ago, fewer than a million concealed weapons were being legally carried in the U.S.; now, more than one million people are permitted to carry such weapons in Florida alone. In twenty-first-century America, the “right to bear arms” has been extended in every direction, while there has also been a “sharp rise” in mass killings.
Meanwhile — since what’s an arms race without a second party? — the police, mainlining into the Pentagon, have been up-armoring at a staggering pace. It’s no longer an oddity for American police officers to be armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers as if in a foreign war zone or to arrive on the scene with a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle previously used in our distant wars. And by the way, while much anger has been displayed, by the police in particular, over the recent murders of two patrolmen in Brooklyn by a disturbed man carrying a Taurus semiautomatic handgun, that anger seems not to extend to his ability to arm himself or to the pawnshop filled with weaponry that originally sold the gun (but not to him).
One mistake you shouldn’t make, however, is to imagine that Americans consider the right to bear arms universal. Just consider, for example, the CIA’s “signature drone strikes” in Pakistan and elsewhere. Over the last two presidencies, the Agency has gained the “right” to drone-kill young men of military age bearing arms — in societies where arms-bearing, as here, is the norm — about whom nothing specific is known except that they seem to be in the wrong place at the right time. The NRA, curiously enough, has chosen not to defend them.
If, to a visitor from Mars or even (as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out) Europe, all this might seem like the definition of madness, it’s also increasingly the definition of a way of life in this country. What was once the “tool” of law enforcement types, the military, and hunters is now the equivalent of an iPhone, a talisman of connection and social order. It’s something that just about anyone can put in a pocket, a purse, or simply strap on in the full light of day in a land where all of us, even toddlers, seem to be heading for the O.K. Corral. Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, has seen her share of carnage and experienced her share of stress. Today, however, she considers another kind of stress, the pressure to explain to others a country whose citizens don’t even notice how inexplicable they are becoming. Tom
Is This Country Crazy?
Inquiring Minds Elsewhere Want to Know
By Ann Jones
Americans who live abroad — more than six million of us worldwide (not counting those who work for the U.S. government) — often face hard questions about our country from people we live among. Europeans, Asians, and Africans ask us to explain everything that baffles them about the increasingly odd and troubling conduct of the United States. Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase. Which means that we Americans abroad are regularly asked to account for the behavior of our rebranded “homeland,” now conspicuously in decline and increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.
In my long nomadic life, I’ve had the good fortune to live, work, or travel in all but a handful of countries on this planet. I’ve been to both poles and a great many places in between, and nosy as I am, I’ve talked with people all along the way. I still remember a time when to be an American was to be envied. The country where I grew up after World War II seemed to be respected and admired around the world for way too many reasons to go into here.
That’s changed, of course. Even after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I still met people — in the Middle East, no less — willing to withhold judgment on the U.S. Many thought that the Supreme Court’s installation of George W. Bush as president was a blunder American voters would correct in the election of 2004. His return to office truly spelled the end of America as the world had known it. Bush had started a war, opposed by the entire world, because he wanted to and he could. A majority of Americans supported him. And that was when all the uncomfortable questions really began.
In the early fall of 2014, I traveled from my home in Oslo, Norway, through much of Eastern and Central Europe. Everywhere I went in those two months, moments after locals realized I was an American the questions started and, polite as they usually were, most of them had a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy? Please explain.
Then recently, I traveled back to the “homeland.” It struck me there that most Americans have no idea just how strange we now seem to much of the world. In my experience, foreign observers are far better informed about us than the average American is about them. This is partly because the “news” in the American media is so parochial and so limited in its views both of how we act and how other countries think — even countries with which we were recently, are currently, or threaten soon to be at war. America’s belligerence alone, not to mention its financial acrobatics, compels the rest of the world to keep close track of us. Who knows, after all, what conflict the Americans may drag you into next, as target or reluctant ally?
So wherever we expatriates settle on the planet, we find someone who wants to talk about the latest American events, large and small: another country bombed in the name of our “national security,” another peaceful protest march attacked by our increasingly militarized police, another diatribe against “big government” by yet another wannabe candidate who hopes to head that very government in Washington. Such news leaves foreign audiences puzzled and full of trepidation.
Take the questions stumping Europeans in the Obama years (which 1.6 million Americans residing in Europe regularly find thrown our way). At the absolute top of the list: “Why would anyone oppose national health care?” European and other industrialized countries have had some form of national health care since the 1930s or 1940s, Germany since 1880. Some versions, as in France and Great Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems. Yet even the privileged who pay for a faster track would not begrudge their fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive health care. That so many Americans do strikes Europeans as baffling, if not frankly brutal.
In the Scandinavian countries, long considered to be the most socially advanced in the world, a national (physical and mental) health program, funded by the state, is a big part — but only a part — of a more general social welfare system. In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have an equal right to education (state subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond), unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions, and more. These benefits are not merely an emergency “safety net”; that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy. They are universal: equally available to all citizens as human rights encouraging social harmony — or as our own U.S. constitution would put it, “domestic tranquility.” It’s no wonder that, for many years, international evaluators have ranked Norway as the best place to grow old, to be a woman, and to raise a child. The title of “best” or “happiest” place to live on Earth comes down to a neighborly contest among Norway and the other Nordic social democracies, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.
In Norway, all benefits are paid for mainly by high taxation. Compared to the mind-numbing enigma of the U.S. tax code, Norway’s is remarkably straightforward, taxing income from labor and pensions progressively, so that those with higher incomes pay more. The tax department does the calculations, sends an annual bill, and taxpayers, though free to dispute the sum, willingly pay up, knowing what they and their children get in return. And because government policies effectively redistribute wealth and tend to narrow the country’s slim income gap, most Norwegians sail pretty comfortably in the same boat. (Think about that!)
Life and Liberty
This system didn’t just happen. It was planned. Sweden led the way in the 1930s, and all five Nordic countries pitched in during the postwar period to develop their own variations of what came to be called the Nordic Model: a balance of regulated capitalism, universal social welfare, political democracy, and the highest levels of gender and economic equality on the planet. It’s their system. They invented it. They like it. Despite the efforts of an occasional conservative government to muck it up, they maintain it. Why?
In all the Nordic countries, there is broad general agreement across the political spectrum that only when people’s basic needs are met — when they can cease to worry about their jobs, their incomes, their housing, their transportation, their health care, their kids’ education, and their aging parents — only then can they be free to do as they like. While the U.S. settles for the fantasy that, from birth, every kid has an equal shot at the American dream, Nordic social welfare systems lay the foundations for a more authentic equality and individualism.
These ideas are not novel. They are implied in the preamble to our own Constitution. You know, the part about “we the People” forming “a more perfect Union” to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Even as he prepared the nation for war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt memorably specified components of what that general welfare should be in his State of the Union address in 1941. Among the “simple basic things that must never be lost sight of,” he listed “equality of opportunity for youth and others, jobs for those who can work, security for those who need it, the ending of special privileges for the few, the preservation of civil liberties for all,” and oh yes, higher taxes to pay for those things and for the cost of defensive armaments.
Knowing that Americans used to support such ideas, a Norwegian today is appalled to learn that a CEO of a major American corporation makes between 300 and 400 times as much as its average employee. Or that governors Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chris Christie of New Jersey, having run up their state’s debts by cutting taxes for the rich, now plan to cover the loss with money snatched from the pension funds of workers in the public sector. To a Norwegian, the job of government is to distribute the country’s good fortune reasonably equally, not send it zooming upward, as in America today, to a sticky-fingered one percent.
In their planning, Norwegians tend to do things slowly, always thinking of the long term, envisioning what a better life might be for their children, their posterity. That’s why a Norwegian, or any northern European, is aghast to learn that two-thirds of American college students finish their education in the red, some owing $100,000 or more. Or that in the U.S., still the world’s richest country, one in three children lives in poverty, along with one in five young people between the ages of 18 and 34. Or that America’s recent multi-trillion-dollar wars were fought on a credit card to be paid off by our kids. Which brings us back to that word: brutal.
Implications of brutality, or of a kind of uncivilized inhumanity, seem to lurk in so many other questions foreign observers ask about America like: How could you set up that concentration camp in Cuba, and why can’t you shut it down? Or: How can you pretend to be a Christian country and still carry out the death penalty? The follow-up to which often is: How could you pick as president a man proud of executing his fellow citizens at the fastest rate recorded in Texas history? (Europeans will not soon forget George W. Bush.)
Other things I’ve had to answer for include:
* Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s health care?
* Why can’t you understand science?
* How can you still be so blind to the reality of climate change?
* How can you speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want?
* How can you hand over the power to blow up the planet to one lone, ordinary man?
* How can you throw away the Geneva Conventions and your principles to advocate torture?
* Why do you Americans like guns so much? Why do you kill each other at such a rate?
To many, the most baffling and important question of all is: Why do you send your military all over the world to stir up more and more trouble for all of us?
That last question is particularly pressing because countries historically friendly to the United States, from Australia to Finland, are struggling to keep up with an influx of refugees from America’s wars and interventions. Throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia, right-wing parties that have scarcely or never played a role in government are now rising rapidly on a wave of opposition to long-established immigration policies. Only last month, such a party almost toppled the sitting social democratic government of Sweden, a generous country that has absorbed more than its fair share of asylum seekers fleeing the shock waves of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”
The Way We Are
Europeans understand, as it seems Americans do not, the intimate connection between a country’s domestic and foreign policies. They often trace America’s reckless conduct abroad to its refusal to put its own house in order. They’ve watched the United States unravel its flimsy safety net, fail to replace its decaying infrastructure, disempower most of its organized labor, diminish its schools, bring its national legislature to a standstill, and create the greatest degree of economic and social inequality in almost a century. They understand why Americans, who have ever less personal security and next to no social welfare system, are becoming more anxious and fearful. They understand as well why so many Americans have lost trust in a government that has done so little new for them over the past three decades or more, except for Obama’s endlessly embattled health care effort, which seems to most Europeans a pathetically modest proposal.
What baffles so many of them, though, is how ordinary Americans in startling numbers have been persuaded to dislike “big government” and yet support its new representatives, bought and paid for by the rich. How to explain that? In Norway’s capital, where a statue of a contemplative President Roosevelt overlooks the harbor, many America-watchers think he may have been the last U.S. president who understood and could explain to the citizenry what government might do for all of them. Struggling Americans, having forgotten all that, take aim at unknown enemies far away — or on the far side of their own towns.
It’s hard to know why we are the way we are, and — believe me — even harder to explain it to others. Crazy may be too strong a word, too broad and vague to pin down the problem. Some people who question me say that the U.S. is “paranoid,” “backward,” “behind the times,” “vain,” “greedy,” “self-absorbed,” or simply “dumb.” Others, more charitably, imply that Americans are merely “ill-informed,” “misguided,” “misled,” or “asleep,” and could still recover sanity. But wherever I travel, the questions follow, suggesting that the United States, if not exactly crazy, is decidedly a danger to itself and others. It’s past time to wake up, America, and look around. There’s another world out here, an old and friendly one across the ocean, and it’s full of good ideas, tried and true.
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project.
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Copyright 2015 Ann Jones
ANN JONES is a journalist, photographer, and the author of ten books of nonfiction. She has written extensively about violence against women. Since 2001, she has worked intermittently as a humanitarian volunteer in conflict and post-conflict countries in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and central and south Asia. From Afghanistan and the Middle East, she has reported on the impact of war upon civilians; and she has embedded with American forces in Afghanistan to report on war’s impact on soldiers. Her articles on these and other matters appear most often in The Nation and online at www.TomDispatch.com. Her work has received generous support from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where she held the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellowship in 2010-11, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2011-12), and the Fulbright Foundation (2012). She lives in Oslo, Norway, with two conversational cats.
My apologies if you, too, have been disheartened by today’s post. However, these fundamental issues about how nations serve their peoples really do need to be very widely broadcast.