Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Hello 2019 (Good-Bye Weimar)

As a history buff, I often feel like I'm living in a parallel universe, or living in two places at once, or something like that. I feel increasingly like understanding the history of a place, or just knowing about history generally, gives you another way to perceive the world, at least as important as forms of perception like seeing or hearing. It's the only way to give the world around you the dimension of time. Without history, the world only exists in three dimensions – far too few to allow us to understand it.

It often feels like I'm looking around me in the present day, but I'm like some kind of person who has traveled in time from the future, and I'm seeing people do things and I know what's about to happen, and I'm yelling at everybody but nobody can hear me because it's one of those forms of time travel where I can see them but they can't see me. But I'm not traveling from the future, I'm traveling from the past.

And it's a past that's so eerily familiar, I constantly feel like I've been here before, even though I only read about it in books that were written well in advance of my birth. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I have to try hard to remember what year we're in. I have to sort through some strange internal conversations in order to make sense of the morning news when I turn on the radio.

At first it was like “the Democrats have been in power for the past eight years, and although the cost of housing has risen by 50% during that time and the country has been thrown into even deeper poverty, everybody knows there's no real alternative to the status quo and they'll vote for the status quo again.”

That's when the out-of-phase experience started, I guess. No! I was shouting on Facebook (but people only saw the pictures of my baby that I posted). This is when the guy the rest of the establishment is calling a total idiot wins, because he's got huge popular support and the last government couldn't feed their people.

Then I hear the pundit saying, “The president is using his executive powers to withdraw from NAFTA, impose tariffs on imports, withdraw from the Paris Agreement, withdraw all US troops from Syria, and send thousands of soldiers to the Mexican border. His bizarre combination of policy choices prove that he is just making decisions based on the latest story on Fox News. But surely he'll soon be convicted for political corruption, thrown out of office, and the status quo will be restored.”

No wait a sec, I'm trying to respond. These things he's doing, they were all in his book. He's just fulfilling his campaign promises. These treaties he's withdrawing from, most of his people thought they were totally unfair, too. Calling the leaders of the former administration and the press 'the enemy within' may appear crazy, but there are millions of people really loving that stuff. Most people don't want the status quo back.

There's that talking head again. “But now he's shut down the government, exposing himself as a complete lunatic, a cornered animal, and soon the FBI will find him guilty, he'll be impeached, and everything will go back to normal.”

No, see, this is when he makes the gamble that all these laws only exist if we believe they exist, and if he says they don't exist anymore then they don't. He doesn't actually launch any invasions of other countries for another five years. This is just the point where he declares himself to the be the fuhrer.


History doesn't repeat, they say, but it often appears it does
Enough so that it seems like we should know just how it was
When in another time and place the party in the driver's seat
The Social Democrats ruled on behalf of the elite
And the next person who arose to lead the state
Said he'd stand up for his people and make his country great
He said everyone's exploiting us, and the reason why
Is we've been ruled by weaklings, and now it's time we must reply
Military spending and industry grew
And the razor wire tent camps did, too
He said we'll take the country back, and standing on the brink
He said it's anarchy or me, we can rise or we can sink
For Blood and Soil

From Budapest to London, from Chicago to Milan
There was the specter of all those so inspired by the man
He signed treaties that were broken before the ink was dry
He left the League of Nations and Prime Ministers would try
Appeasement, but whatever they would do
The fuhrer would just tighten the screws
Most of the news seemed real – at least after a while
The same propaganda, wherever on the dial
Germany was the victim – it would be victim no more
That's what he was saying years before the war
Years before the blitzkrieg, before extermination
Became the fate of so many then living in the nation
For Blood and Soil

He talked of enemies within and enemies outside
Who together had conspired and stolen and lied
He said they took us for a ride with treaties signed by those
Serving foreign interests, as every Aryan knows
But follow me, he said, you won't recognize the place
We'll be great again – we're the Master Race
People look back and wonder what could have been done
Many years before the war was won
When social institutions fell one after the next
And then faster than almost anyone expected
Few people could have even imagined the cost
Once it was too late, and the chance for peace was lost
For Blood and Soil

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

One Day in Kenya

It was December 21st, 2015. Just about two weeks earlier, candidate Donald Trump had announced that under his presidency there would be a Muslim ban.

Meanwhile in Kenya, a bus was making its way from Nairobi to the Kenya-Somalia border region. As usual, the bus was full of people from the region, coming from a mix of religious backgrounds including Christian and Muslim.

Around this week the year before, in an almost identical situation, armed men forced the bus to stop and the passengers to disembark, at which point Muslims and Christians were separated from each other, and passengers identified as Christians were massacred.

And on the 21st of December in 2015, the armed men once again forced the bus to stop, and ordered all the passengers to get off. As they were getting off, fearing imminent death, two people made a run for it and were gunned down by the armed men as they did so. Everyone else filed off the bus and lined up in front of it. But as they were doing this, Muslim women were quietly passing headscarves to the Christian women. When everyone was off the bus, they collectively refused to be separated into groups of Muslim and Christian.

They had no idea what the result of this act of human solidarity would be. But all over the world, throughout human history, there are innumerable examples of people risking their lives or livelihoods to show solidarity with others. December 21st, 2015 on the Kenya-Somalia border was one shining example of this phenomenon.

In the present period, with all the various politicians in so many countries who are trying to use fear of the other in order for them to gain more power, it's vital to remember that the human story, past and present, is full of anecdotes like this one. And if we as a species are not able to heed the lessons therein, then there is no hope for our species. But if we can be like these Kenyan bus riders, if we all suddenly, collectively decided to live or die by the old IWW catch phrase, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” then hope would be something to be found in abundance.

One Day in Kenya

It's a long way from Nairobi, travel across the country
To an arid northern little border town
If you leave early in the day you'll still be on your way
Long after the sun is going down
It began as just a ride to the other side
But then was interrupted by the sound
Of the shattering of glass as the driver tried to pass
The men with guns there on the dusty desert ground

There were two already dead, another shot as she fled
No question here whose lives were now at stake
When all is said and done it is instances like this one
When every move is one that just might make or break
All passengers get out, men with guns began to shout
You Christians now get up against the wall
But then everyone stayed still, saying now do as you will
You may leave, or you may kill us all

It wasn't far away, just over a year ago today
When people were massacred exactly in this manner
The pattern it was clear, all the Muslims here
Would be safe if they just stood beside this banner
Headscarves passed from hand to hand among this human band
Live together or together fall
And then nobody moved, showing each of them approved
Of saying you may leave, or you may kill us all

It wasn't set in stone – there's no way they could have known
That this time this act of solidarity
Would see the gunmen leave, goals left unachieved
On the border there in Mandera County
But sometimes you take a chance, then at a second glance
You see you've changed the world with the passing of a shawl
There are those who will remember those who on one day in December
Said you may leave, or you may kill us all

Thursday, December 13, 2018

1848 and the Yellow Vests

The so-called mainstream media that I keep tabs on seems to mainly be painting the gilets jaunes or Yellow Vest movement in France as little more than mindless rioting – anarchy, disorder, hidden Russian influence, and other bad things. The reason why they are painting this picture is because they are terrified. The reason they are terrified is because some of the more savvy among them are well aware that this kind of leaderless movement against unfair taxation, corruption and austerity is exactly the kind of movement that rose up at the beginning of 1848 and led to the formation of the Second Republic in France, and big changes in so many other countries, too.

They know that when those they are governing collectively realize that, fundamentally, their interests are not being represented by those that govern them, then governance becomes impossible. French authorities deployed eight thousand riot cops and unprecedented amounts of armor into the streets of Paris last weekend, but the Yellow Vest movement appears only to be growing, as well as spreading to neighboring countries.

The leaderless movement in 1848 also spread throughout France and across national borders, until it enveloped all of Europe. Most of the monarchies of Europe at the time were at least temporarily overthrown by popular revolt, very much including in France, whose previous ruler had been a banker back then, too. The ripple effects of this pan-European popular revolt were felt around the world in different ways, with veterans of the revolts going on to lead further revolts in Australia and elsewhere.

Despite all efforts to vilify the movement, despite the burning banks and charred remains of sports cars in central Paris, as people in yellow vests gather on highways throughout the country to shut it down for another day, all polls indicate the movement is overwhelmingly popular among the French public, unlike their very unpopular banker-turned-president, Macron.

Disaffection with mainstream political parties which have proven themselves unable to rise to the challenge of feeding their people throughout Europe and so much of the world has given rise to the growth of parties both right and left who at least appear to be united in their opposition to austerity and their support for the interests of their working class populations. But this movement is not led by any political party, and the movement's demands are fundamental in nature, never being just about Macron's latest regressive tax – that was only the catalyst that got this engine moving. Where the car is going is anybody's guess.

Popular uprisings are never neat. Revolts are messy in nature. People who are being spat on by arrogant, elitist rulers passing regressive taxes on the working class while removing taxes on the rich and then telling the rabble to tighten their belts to save the climate will react in different ways, not all of them noble. But as one who has personally seen the extremes of the disparities in living standards between the ever more squeezed French working class and the global elite that flaunts their obscene wealth in places like central Paris, my only desire upon seeing these department stores burning is to find a sharp stick and a bag of marshmallows.

If my wife were not currently 8-1/2 months pregnant, I'd be using up my frequent flier miles and taking my French-speaking daughter on a holiday trip to Paris next week. As it is, I'll just have to settle for getting regular updates from my friends who happen to be lucky enough to be living in France at this historic juncture.

The famine had affected many people
From Ireland to the shores of the Baltic Sea
The soaring cost of food meant most of your earnings
And the shutting down of industry
No one knows for sure how it began
And spread from state to state
In the mountains and the plains, from Galway to Ukraine
Came the Rising of 1848

A pitchfork is no match for a rifle
But nothing that will give the king a fright
As when he looks out of the window
Sees his castle burning in the night
But that's what happened in fifty countries
Where landlords encountered such a fate
From Budapest to Sicily life would never be the same
After the Rising of 1848

Marx and Engels wrote a book, spread as quickly as the flames
From which the feudal barons had to flee
From the workers in the cities, from the peasants in the towns
And even from the petit bourgeoisie
United by a common sense of purpose
To throw off the crushing weight
Of the dynastic rule of hereditary Lords
Who owned the Europe of 1848

Tens of thousands died before it all was over
And some say it all ended in defeat
With a landscape transformed, serfdom abolished
Which is why we don't see history repeat
And the monarchs remembered when peasants with pitchforks
Came to burn down their estate
And most of them decided democracy was better
Than the Rising of 1848

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Windmills and Camp Fires

Paradise is lost, and other cities are next. As usual, there's a lot of other stuff in the news, too. One of them is the new UN report that says we have 12 years to get our act together or our species is doomed -- and they're actually using the word “doomed” to emphasize the point, not beating around the bush in the usual bureaucratese.

So, something needs to be done. But what might the kind of global movement we desperately require actually look like? How might it be organized? What sorts of tactics might such a movement employ?

Oftentimes when I go to a protest, I look around me and I feel like I'm in a TV commercial for Nike. Did these people with their signs on sticks and their rehashed chants from the 1960's learn how to hold a protest from watching corporate advertisements? I think so. Which is what it is – you gotta start somewhere.

But it seems to me that shouting “ho ho ho, so and so has got to go” is about as useful as writing a letter to your Congressperson. There are, however, other ways to get a point across effectively. Several of my favorite examples come from Scandinavia.

In the early 1970's, many countries around the world were building nuclear reactors. There was a growing movement against this extremely toxic, accident-prone, outrageously expensive form of energy which proponents then and now bizarrely try to sell as “clean.” For the most part, despite the movement, the nukes kept on getting built.

But not everywhere. In Denmark, the parliament was debating the issue of funding a nuclear energy program and building a reactor. There were protests. And then there were the people at a folk school in Jutland who decided that the best way they could think of to protest nuclear power was to build the alternative to it themselves. They set about to research, design and build the world's first industrial-scale windmill.

This windmill is still providing electricity to the town of Ulfborg. It's called Tvindkraft, and it was the model for all of the first generation of industrial windmills that were built soon after Tvindkraft went online in 1976, and the export of industrial-scale windmills became one of Denmark's biggest industries.

In this age of famine, flood and fire, it's worth remembering the story of Tvindkraft. Things can be different. In fact, in some places, they already are pretty different.

Some of the now white-haired folks who built that windmill live in the little village of Hellebaek, near Helsingor, just across the sound that separates Denmark from Sweden. One of the projects there is a cafe right on the water which is open during the warmer half of each year. It's called Cafe Hellebaek. For a couple weeks in early spring and then throughout the summer of 2019, I'll be the guest barista, running the cafe with my family. Drop by for a cortado if you're in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, here's a little more about that windmill. 

The Biggest Windmill

It was in the 1970's, the fuel crisis had begun
The choices were presented to us as if we had none
Leaders of industry said they could solve the problem
By mastering the power of the radioactive atom
Some folks in western Jutland got a notion in their heads
They thought there might be something they could offer up instead
A few hundred people gathered in a little place called Tvind
And declared their will to harness the power of the wind
We're gonna build the biggest windmill in the world

There were many who said their science wasn't sound
That such a mighty windmill would simply topple to the ground
Some of them were scientists, the vast majority were not
But they knew with years of effort you could do a lot
Word about the project spread far and wide
A hundred thousand visitors came to help and to advise
Until one day these windmill builders drove in with a crane
And lifted up their giant wings with a mighty chain
We're gonna build the biggest windmill in the world

When Tvindkraft was completed it reached up to the sky
Its wings churned in the air at 54 meters high
The critics all fell silent, no one now was jeering
As even industry agreed this was some damn fine engineering
The wind regaled Jutland from the north Atlantic sea
As it was seamlessly converted into electricity
It was power for the people, leukemia for none
When they declared in Denmark just south of the midnight sun
We're gonna build the biggest windmill in the world

They gave away the patents, they said knowledge should be free
And their plans were copied by a new-born industry
Soon Denmark would be known as the windmill-building nation
And it all started with some hippies at the Tvindkraft power station
Debates were held in parliament about which way things should go
Build a nuclear reactor, the majority said no
It could have gone quite differently -- in much of the world it did
Except for those in Ulfborg who said we're getting off the grid
We're gonna build the biggest windmill in the world 

Reflections on Singing for Wikileaks

My takeaway from the recent welcome news of Julian Assange's release from prison is that collective action works. When the news broke th...