James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Eating a little crow, part 1

OK, OK. Munch, chew. I'm eating crow.

I was substantially wrong in my Nov. 4 essay about how big the vote for Democrats would be in the midterm election. I thought the Dems would get a small majority in the House and stay a couple of seats behind the Republicans in the Senate. Although I hedged a bit on the Senate, I did not anticipate the size of the Democratic win there.

Think I'll hold off on eating the promised raven and buzzard, however.

With each day it appears more likely that the change in Congress come January will involve party names and committee chairs but not much in the way of substance, certainly not enough to make progressives happy. If I'm wrong on that, as I was on the number of people calling themselves Democrats who were elected, I'll finish the black-feathered feast -– in maybe a year.

I was wrong for two reasons, I think.

The first was that though I was very aware of a deep anger in my part of the country about what the Bush crowd has done to this country – and not only in Iraq – I didn't fully appreciate how far that anger had spread into the Southeast, the West and even into the South.

Secondly, I guessed wrong about how far the Republicans would go with fraud and manipulation of the electoral system. They played some nasty games, all right, but they didn't go all out, and I think that was a deliberate strategic decision. Like some people who are closer to the action than I am, I still think there's an element of setup here.

(There were some pockets of major fraud, and the fact that the corporate media have chosen to ignore that fraud does not bode well for '08 and beyond. The boobs of the press decided some time back that we – or they – are better off not knowing about such things.)

The Republicans are stuck with Bush, but they're obviously no longer enamored of him, and they're going to have to establish a considerable distance from him before the 2008 election. (Bush? Bush who?)

Further, they know Iraq is a disaster, but they haven't a single idea about how to get us out – certainly not how to get out and also save face. Many think the best thing for their '08 chances is to turn disaster cleanup over to the Democrats and then blame them for the whole thing. The same with Afghanistan, where the Taliban is staging a comeback, and with other foreign policy screwups, looming economic problems and several other issues. We are on the brink of a very ugly time; may as well set up the Democrats to take the blame.

Republicans squatting all over our government created the messes, but they'll shake their fingers at Democrats and shout “Bad dog!”

I'm pessimistic about the Democrats' ability or willingness to fight effectively, or to use their present public support and act on the numerous and in some cases gigantic threats facing this country and the world. Thus my concern about substance in the next Congress.

Have you looked closely at who got elected under the label Democrat?

There are some good people, but there also are a substantial number of phonies who really belong in the party of George W. Bush.

A whole lot of them are Joe Lieberman clones. The 2007 Democratic freshmen class includes way too many anti-abortion crusaders, too many supporters of anti-gay legislation, “gun rights” and tax breaks for oil companies. There are far too many people who look at the rapidly accelerating global warming disaster and turn around to embrace the pollution industries' lobbyists.

Same is true of many returnees, of course. They gave Republican Joe – excuse me, Democrat Joe -- or, ummm, Independent Joe – a cheering damned standing ovation when he appeared on the Senate floor after the election.

We still have mean-spirited old Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii (actually of the state of Corporation) boldly promising a New York Times reporter that there will be no reduction in the distribution of pork, no cut in earmark spending or other methods used by long-tenured Congressional members to gather spoils unto themselves while defrauding the American public.

There are dozens of so-called Democrats in the new Congress who voted for the invasion of Iraq, for laws that make it almost impossible for honest but overextended Americans to declare bankruptcy. The same people made it possible for corporations to make such declaration for almost no reason, and thus shed union contracts and other legal obligations.

An even dozen of the returning senators who call themselves Democrats (oh, excuse me; good ol' Joe is now an "indpendent") voted for Bush's torture bill.

Washington teems with squads of Congressional Dems who sat mute, or worse, while our health care and educational systems have sunk toward the levels of the 1880s. There are dozens who played on the Bush team, and the Clinton team before that, as they gave the American economy away through NAFTA and a bunch of other agreements that sold American jobs cheap to industrialists who are only a step away from being slavers. (If you know anything about the conditions under which millions of people labor for American-run companies in poor places in the world, you know that is not just hyperbole.)

A few hours ago, as I write this, I filled out a survey sent to me by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC wanted to know what I (and many thousands of others, I'm sure) see as the major issues that should be addressed by the new Congress. It could legitimately be classified as a push poll. Among several major issues notable from their absence were pork spending, campaign reform, habeas corpus, torture and “special rendition.” Mention of environmental protection was brief and downplayed.

You're looking for progress? From those bozos?

Tell you what: It's possible, but only if we and all the organizations that actually won the election for the Democrats (as opposed to the party itself) are all over the Democrats, old and new, all the time, every day.

The indications right now are that with the help of the entrenched party leadership, they're all set to sink into the same old comfy ways of doing business by doing the business of big business. More on that very soon.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Needed: more gratitude, less greed

By Lydia Howell

Thanksgiving has long been to me, potentially the most real American holiday. Setting aside the Pilgrims and Indians story that covers up the violent colonization of this country, Thanksgiving reaches back as far back as human history goes. After all, celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for survivng another year is ancient and universal.

A more modern connection occurs to me, too, one of the popular solgans used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: Keep an attitude of gratitude. The necessity of such watchwords is applicable to more than simply those struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. Frankly, far more Americans need to adopt such an outlook to grapple with the massive materialism addiction that's relentlessly fostered in the dominant culture.

This is a good moment to consider those words, with 'the biggest shopping day of the year' being the day after Thanksgiving.

Has any culture on Earth devoted more creativity to selling products than the U.S. has?

I'm not an asetic by any stretch of the imagination and don't suggest others take up some sort of grim material deprivation. But, I do think it's overdue for Americans to examine their relationship to "buying stuff".

Consumer goods from designer clothing and sneakers to gas-guzzling vehicles to the latest "must have" gadget from i-pods to x-boxes, we Americans increasingly define ourselves by the objects we own. More and more, who we are is expressed by what we can buy, what we wear, what we drive--rather than what we actually do with our lives, how we think, what we create. Even raising children seems to often come down to providing designer Baby Gap clothes or Air Jordans for 12 year olds or a $400 x-box gaming system for teens---instead of instilling self-confidence based on abilities or values like empathy with others. The obession with having more and more things isn't limited to the wealthy or the middle-class but, goes all the way down to the stuggling poor, too.

Madison Avenue advertising agencies have attained incredible sophistication at how to market our insecurities entwined with our dreams, our real needs wrapped inside products that are fake solutions. Commericals stimulate desire turning almost all of us into shopping-mall rats in a cage pressing the bar--uh, swiping the credit card. While half the U.S. bankruptcies are due to medical bills, there's no doubt that a significant chunck of Americans' debt is due to consumerism run rampant. College students graduate in debt--not only due to the ever-rising costs of tuition and the decline in grants, making student loans inevitable. But, the same students also graduate with several thousand dollars in credit card debt--setting the precedent for a lifetime of over-consumption on the monthly installment plan.

One of the saddest things about all this buying and getting of stuff is how little happiness seems to come from it. The shine wears off fairly quickly and one must go out and shop again for the perfect thing that will make one feel successful, beautiful, confident---until that object also becomes less effective at creating the manufactured Self promised on tv and the cycle starts again.

In the midst of this all-American aqumulation, I see damn little thankfulness. Adults and children alike seem to ahve a sense of entitlement without limit. Adults are embittered about what they can't buy and kids' are ever-ready to whine and accuse of parents of being deficient in love, if the credit card isn't pulled out on demand. The only ones who benefit from such obvious unhappiness are the corporations selling this empty, shopping mall "American Dream" to us.

Such entitlement on a material level also creates one more curtain of denial about many real issues: continued injustices here at home--especially towards Indigenous people and African-Americans; the resentments of other countries who have become American sweatshops or who's resources are plendered by us, as half the world lives on @2 a day or less;environmental degradation and climate change.

Though, again let me say, that those 'on the bottom" of American society are not immune from the obsession with material things and getting them "by any means necessary"(with apologies to Malcom X). When youth will murder another youth to take his NBA starter jacket or Air Jordan sneakers, something has gone deeply wrong. Poverty alone cannot explain such actions.

In short, while American materialism is not new--de Alexis Tocqueville observed it in the 1840s--this attitude does seem to have intensified in ways that stunt the character of Americans of all ages. American culture from the latest car commercial to hip hop music, has substitued being someone for buying something--and thinking the two are the same thing. We've traded accomplishment for aquisition. We've dropped empathy for entitlement and forgotten caring in the pursuit of conumption.

This is the value system driving U.S. foreign policy and gang violence on American streets alike. Yes, there other deeply important issues also propelling the 'war on terror' and 'gang wars'--poverty, racism/white supremacy, widening wealth gaps and a truncated, inequitable eduation system, to name a few. But, a values crisis, which only the rightwing fundamentalists have been willing to (rightly) raise and (wrongly) define is crucial to recognize.

To feel gratitude is to also feel a sense of responsibility: to the ones we love, to those who've given to us, to the society we're part of and to the planet we've been blessed to live on. Gratitude requires something of us. Gratitude demands right-minded actions, not the passivity of purchases. Gratitidue also gives us something: a deeper awareness of what we already have and what it's true worth is. Gratitude reminds us of where we are, reinvigoratng a sense of belonging--to a place, a planet, to a family, to humanity.

So, I'd like to see a revival of gratitude as a starting place for healing the unhealthy (and unhappy) American character. Some much-needed national introspection about who we are, what policies are put into effect in our name and how we relate to the rest of the world, might have a better chance, if we find the humblness to be thankful for what we already have. For individuals from the top of the economic ladder to the bottom, asking who we want to be and what we want our lives to mean--instead of what's for sale and what we want to own--has the power to not only change who we are, but, make us far happier.

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis poet, freelance journalist and host of a public-affairs radio show. This essay also appears on her blog at http://www.blog.myspace.com/lydiahowell