Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for November, 2009

How I Became an Anarchist

November 27, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core

An anarchist future depends on more people adopting anarchist principles. It occurs to me that learning how individuals became anarchists may be useful.  So here is my story.

I’ve always been a little independent and rebellious, but my teenage years really brought that out. Partially it was my natural reaction to the suffocating socialization we are all subjected to. Partially it was me being pissed that the world turned out to be a lot shittier than I had been led to believe. I started learning real history at this point, particularly Native American history.

I got into a lot of trouble. I ran away frequently. Eventually, I was kicked out of school and out of my house. (Truth be told, I wanted to get kicked out of both. I really hated them.) Luckily for me I had been part of a work experience program in high school and, through them, had been working for a law firm.

I sort of skated into law firm work and was able to pay the bills without too much suffering. At twenty-five, I found myself managing the Florida operations of a litigation support service. I was busy and stressed and not particularly happy, but the money was good.

I started the office from the ground up. When a year had gone by, I called the home office to find out about their raise policy. I was told that, unless there was a promotion, nobody got more than .50 an hour raise. With a promotion, people could get a dollar.

Now the people who worked for me did not get paid what they deserved, not even close. Starting salaries for the organization were pathetic. And these people worked their asses off. They were there late and on weekends (sometimes with their kids). They didn’t get overtime.

After my boss told me what I could offer, I went silent on the phone. Sensing that I wasn’t happy about what she had just told me, she said “remember, if you pay your staff too much, you won’t get a big bonus at the end of the year.”

I got a percentage of the profits, you see, and that was supposed to motivate me somehow. But I knew that I never wanted to be that person, the person who gave other people less than they deserved so that they could get more. And I realized that all businesses operated on that same ‘me first’ principle. I left shortly thereafter to try my luck with nonprofits.

So off I went to California to get my bachelor degree and a nonprofit job. (Nonprofits require a B.A. to sweep the floor.) By that time I had my high school diploma and an A.A. in sociology – night school mostly. It didn’t take long for me to end up in a management position again. I didn’t plan for it or want it. I was trying to juggle college and a full time job, after all. I just had this stupid habit of feeling compelled to get done whatever needed to get done.

But, in the end, the nonprofit work wasn’t much better than the for profit work. We were helping people, but not as many as we should have been. We were government funded. When I calculated the percentage of tax dollars that actually went to direct services, it made me want to cry. Some of the grants went through so many agencies that, by the time each agency shaved their overhead costs off the top, there was virtually nothing left.

And even though the organization I worked for made a good pretense of listening to and caring about staff, much of it was for show. Additional funding we received went straight into raises for my boss and a fat consulting fee for a wealthy board member. Meanwhile, we were short-staffed and asking employees to start paying a portion of their rising health care costs.

Worse than the frustration, overwork, and disillusionment was how being a manager changed my relationship with all the people I worked with. Although I felt like I spent most of my day battling with my boss on behalf of the staff, in the end I was just one of the managers who was making decisions behind their backs – decisions they often did not like, decisions that were sometimes bad. It didn’t matter if I had fought the decision in those meetings. Once it was made I had to stand behind it.

I’ve worked for other nonprofits since that one. And while I have steadfastly avoided any more management positions, I have seen the same dynamic in every place I have worked. Larger nonprofits, especially here in DC, have the added issues of ivy league elitism and grotesque hierarchy (which they are in denial of). Yet somehow they think that they are going to make the world a more democratic, egalitarian, and just place from within an organization that is anything but.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Now I don’t mean to bag on the people that I have worked with. In fact, if the woman who told me that I wouldn’t get a big bonus if I gave my staff too much had been an asshole, my life might have taken a different course. The fact is that most of the people I have worked with aren’t any more evil or selfish than any other people. It was putting power into the hands of a few and pretending that they could actually represent the needs, desires and thoughts of everyone else that made everything go bad.

In short, experiencing the disasters of hierarchy led me to ask if it were possible to live without it. Once I started looking around, I realized that it is possible. In fact, I think it is impossible to live with it.

So that’s pretty much it. Take a fiercely independent person, let them experience the disasters of hierarchy from both perspectives, throw in a bit of anarchist leaning literature and…voila.

Any other anarchists out there want to share their journey or epiphany or slog to anarchism?


Things You May Have Missed

November 25, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

The situation in Mexico keeps degrading.  Predictably, increased police and military are being used against more than just drug cartels.  I mean they are so handy at getting rid of unions.  Also, they don’t actually have to worry about trials or anything, they can just shoot people and then kick back with a cold one.

Wiretap says that Latinos are Underrepresented in Nonprofits.  I can testify to that, having worked in Cali nonprofits for six years.  They say there is some better news when it comes to board representation, but I’m fairly sure those figures are misleading.  In Central California, the same handful of Latinos were on many, many boards.  In other words, they are counting the same few Latinos over and over.

Yvette brings up a good point about why women who are anti-porn don’t have equally scathing critiques about working at McDonalds.  Those women probably don’t buy porn, but they do buy cheap food from poor women (as I’ve written about before).

Janelle wrote a great article about sharing on Trust is the Only Currency.  It’s amazing how many ways there are to shift our lives in a more cooperative direction.

And, finally, this article over at the New York Review of Books talks about nonviolent revolutions since 1989.  It’s long, but there is a lot to debate about in the piece (especially for the revolutionarily inclined).

Pointless U.S. Drug Policy – Bolivian Edition

November 23, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics

Bolivian president Evo Morales says that exports to the U.S. have decreased 8% due to Bolivia’s decertification under The Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA).  However, Morales expects that agreements with Venezuela, along with demand from Arab countries, will make up for the loss.  (Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been strengthening his ties with Bolivia and Venezuela.)

Supposedly, the U.S. government frowns on the increasing influence of Chavez in Latin America.  Supposedly, the U.S. government is worried about Iranian power around the world.  Supposedly, the Obama administration is trying to turn over a new leaf with Latin America.  So why would the U.S. government do something that alienates Latin American countries and sends them into the warm embrace of the very people they are trying to isolate?

It’s inexplicable, at least to any rational person, but U.S. drug policy has never been rational.

The United States is the leading consumer of cocaine.  Rather than dealing with U.S. addiction and its related problems, our policy has been to go after the “source.”  Now it takes many ingredients to make cocaine – sulfuric acid, kerosene, lime, sodium carbonate – but we have focused on going after the coca leaf.

Going after coca leaves may seem to make some sense, as the coca leaf is where the alkaloids that make you high are found.  But coca is a bush grown by subsistence farmers, campesinos, who often have no other viable cash crop.  And the coca leaf is an integral part of Andean culture and has been since at least 1800 B.C.

Unfortunately for Andeans and their traditions, a German chemist named Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the alkaloids in coca leaves.  Andean coca growers were everyone’s best friend when coca was used in legal products like Coca Cola and cocaine laced wine.  But once a handful of U.S. drug warriors decided that cocaine had to be stopped, we expected Andean people to turn their backs on thousands of years of culture and to just give up an integral part of their economy.

As the drug war ratcheted up, Andean people in Bolivia and elsewhere suffered the consequences.  Bolivia was pressured to eradicate coca crops using herbicides and fungicides that damaged food crops, contaminated water sources, and made people sick.  Human rights abuses escalated as pressure was put on Bolivia to militarize their anti-drug efforts and to impose increasingly draconian penalties on people involved in the coca and cocaine trades.

In addition to interdiction and eradication, drug warriors from the U.S. promoted crop substitution programs.  Loans were provided to farmers to grow crops other than coca and special trade deals were arranged to help open up U.S. markets to legal Andean goods.  The ATPDEA was part of that effort.

All of our efforts to stop drugs at the “source” have been an abysmal failure.  Substitute crops were no replacement for coca bushes which need little care and bring in far more money.  The only things U.S. imposed drug policies were effective at was alienating Andean people.  Nobody knows that better than Evo Morales, former head of the Chapare coca growers union.

Morales has taken the position that Bolivia should say no to cocaine, but yes to coca.  His refusal to acquiesce to all U.S. demands when it comes to drug policy has contributed to a testy relationship with the U.S. and to Bolivia’s continued decertification.

Now the decertification doesn’t really matter much.  It effects only a small amount of trade.  And the U.S. officials know damned well that, even if Morales did everything they want, it wouldn’t do anything to resolve the drug problem in the United States.  So it makes absolutely no sense that we would take action to piss off Bolivians (and their allies) and drive a further wedge between the U.S. and other countries of the Americas.

But sense and drug policy don’t seem to go together in the United States.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

November 20, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification

Monica at TransGriot explains the history of the Transgender Day of Remembrance here.

For a powerful and amazing spoken word performance that really gets to the heart of how our society fears and terrorizes transgender people, check out this video of Julia Serano

Women and Politics

November 18, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

Amazingly, there are still people out there who claim that women just aren’t interested in politics.  I discovered this when I started nosing around on Libertarian blogs where they wondered why there weren’t more women in their midst.

Allison Brown says “I personally know no other female libertarians, and when I discuss the topic with other women they’re generally apathetic on the topic of politics in general, and libertarianism in particular.”  Rather than actually looking for information on women and political interest, Allison just proceeds into some drivel about women being emotional and less independent (more on that in upcoming posts).

Terje, a commenter at Thoughts on Freedom, also wonders about our interest in political debate, saying:

The extent to which women are involved in political debate at all (libertarian or otherwise) is a relevant consideration. Maybe men are more prone biologically to expend energy scaning the horizon for signs of trouble/opportunity whilst women are more interested in more immediate concerns.

Let’s break this down a bit shall we?

First of all, we have to define “political”.  You don’t get to define political as only that which entails a theoretical circle jerk between privileged people with way too much free time.  Politics isn’t only that which has no immediate application to reality.  “Immediate concerns” like being able to feed your family are political.  It isn’t that women aren’t interested in politics.  It is that some people define politics so narrowly that it only applies to pseudo philosophers.

Access to water is an immediate need and a dilemma often left up to poor women to grapple with.  Who has access to water sources, whether or not water is privatized or a public utility, whether or not water sources are protected from pollution – these are all very political issues connected with a very immediate need.

So lets look at a few proxies for women’s political interest.  Do women:

  1. vote?
  2. participate in public protest?
  3. follow the news?
  4. study political science?
  5. run for public office?

Women vote.  In fact, in the United States, women vote in higher numbers and in higher proportions than men do.  Even in Afghanistan, 40 – 55% of women braved the polls this year, despite Taliban threats.  And in 2004, when things seemed somewhat safer, 70% of Afghani women voted.

Public protests are filled with women.  Perhaps the most famous protester in the United States is Medea Benjamin of Code Pink.  And it was s a woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death became the symbol of Iranian protest.  Even in the most repressive regimes, women like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo continued stand up when nobody else was.

Women follow the news.  Women are more likely to follow network news (morning shows, nightly news, and news magazines).  They are almost as likely to watch cable news.  What women are somewhat less likely to do is read newspapers, listen to talk radio or get their news online.

News sources by gender

News sources by gender

Perhaps women don’t read newspapers like the Washington Post because 90% of the Post’s opinion pieces are written by men.  Perhaps they don’t want to listen to vile shmucks like Rush Limbaugh on the radio.  Perhaps women don’t spend as much time online because they are actually working at their desks (not me, obviously, but some women).  Whatever the reasons for the differences in news sources between men and women, it is clear that women are following the news.

As for political science, according to the American Political Science Association, 42% of all PhDs in political science go to women.  It is true the number of women who complete the tenure track to become full professors is only a fraction of the number of men.  As the APSA report shows, that isn’t due to lack of interest, but to less support and more responsibilities.

Obviously, there are far less women in public office than there are men.*  There are people who would like to claim this is due to lack of interest.  There are people who would like to claim that women are less ruthless and power hungry. I would like to believe it is because all those women are secret anarchists, but I think we all know it is much more likely a result of the barriers to women being elected to office.

So no, my Libertarian friends, a lack of political interest is not the reason there aren’t more women in your midst.


*Only Rwanda has near parity in male/female political representation.

The Problem with Economics

November 16, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification

I came across a study this week that reminded me why I focused on history and not economics.

Carl-Johan Daigaard and Ola Olsson, economists at the University of Copenhagen, published results of a study called Why are Rich Countries More Politically Cohesive?.  They conclude that there is a correlation between market integration, wealth, and politically cohesiveness.

Basically, as people specialize and trade with each other they become interdependent.  That interdependence brings on a meeting of the minds.  This turns into an upward spiral of wealth and political cohesiveness.  That’s the theory.

In order to test their theory, they needed to compare political cohesion.  They use the World Value Survey.  On the survey, respondents rate themselves from one to ten on a left to right political scale.  Daigaard and Olsson looked at the number of respondents who rated themselves at the extreme ends of the scale.  They argue that countries with fewer people self identifying at the extremes have higher degrees of political cohesion.

They admit that this is only a proxy for political cohesion and that people in different countries hold different ideas about what is extreme left or extreme right.  But they claim “it is clear that individuals who answer ‘one’ or ‘ten’ are deliberately signaling extreme political views in the context of their political landscape.

Off the top of my head I see two major problems with this measure.  First, they are assuming that all people are equally comfortable claiming their political views.  That is a big assumption.  Let’s take Guatemala for example.  In the handy chart below, you will see that Guatemala scores about the same as France on political cohesion.

Chart showing degree of political cohesion

Chart showing degree of political cohesion

I’m not an expert on France, but I have spent considerable time in Guatemala and studying Guatemala.  I can’t think of a person I encountered who would have admitted to extreme left or extreme right views (although I would bet that some people had them).

This is not because of political cohesiveness.  It is because of a 36 year civil war, during which hundreds of supposedly leftest villages were burned to the ground and an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared.  And while the Guatemalan far right still enjoys prestige and power, their traditional political impunity may be beginning to erode.  All of which is to say that the accuracy of any self-identification is problematic at best.

And then there is the issue of trying to compare one country to another.  Is it really surprising to find that countries scoring low on the political cohesiveness scale are also countries who had their national borders imposed on them by colonialist powers?  It isn’t exactly shocking that Vietnam and India would fall at the bottom of the scale, given their colonial histories.  Or, to put it another way, if national borders weren’t so nonsensical, political cohesiveness proxies would look much different.  (ie. Imagine looking at just Iraqi Kurdistan and not Iraq as a whole.)

Then there is the measure of wealth that they used, GDP per capita.  Gross Domestic Product per capita doesn’t measure actual wealth distribution.  Wouldn’t it make sense that wealth distribution would have an effect on stability and political cohesion?  Let’s go back to our example of Guatemala and France.  According to the UN, France has a per capita GDP of $40,090.  Guatemala has a GDP per capita of $2,504.  Why?

By their theory, it would have something to do with trade interdependence within their national boundaries.  By their theory, it might be the relative self-sufficiency of the Guatemalan highland indigenous that correlates to any lack of political cohesion.  This ignores Guatemala’s colonial history and imposed borders.  It also ignores the very different results of their two revolutions.

France’s revolution successfully overthrew the ruling classes and brought about lasting land reform.  Guatemala’s attempts at land reform, on the other hand, were violently prevented.  Seventy percent of the land in Guatemala is possessed by 0.2% of the producers.  Is any lack of political cohesiveness due to lack of interdependence or to land scarcity (a topic not discussed in their paper)?

They aren’t the first people to suggest that trade brings about interdependence and cohesion.  As they mention, there is a whole sect of political science devoted to ideas of “the liberal peace” that arises when nations trade with each other.  What Daigaard and Olsson don’t mention is that the results of studies on the subject are ambiguous.  In fact, some types of trade (oil, for instance) are correlated with increased conflict.

There are other issues with their theory, some peripherally addressed (power imbalances, ethnic tensions, greed) and some not (risks of specialization, colonialism, and dependency).  And they base everything on the underlying principal that “without market exchange, the welfare of inherently selfish individuals will be mutually independent (and)…political in nature.”  That is also debatable.

There’s more, but this post is too long already, so let me go back to where I started.  The problem with economics is that, all too often, economists try to simplify human actions to such a degree that it renders their conclusions virtually meaningless.  They make a pretty equation and then try to fit people into it.  Which brings me to my personal favorite assumption:

As usual, we assume rational and forward-looking individuals who can perfectly assess the effects of choices in each stage.

Good luck with that.

Some Stuff You Might Have Missed

November 13, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

I really liked this post over at Reconcile.  It’s time we start talking about higher education.  We shouldn’t just accept “get an education” as an answer to all our social ills.

And speaking of school, sometimes (just for a moment) I forget the horror that it was to be a teenager.  Then I read an article like this and that feeling of being strangled by socialization comes flooding back.

May as well stay on the subject of being oppressed in school.  I’m still livid about those Innocence Project kids being targeted by the prosecutors office.  I don’t know how she sleeps at night.

Finally, if you hadn’t heard, the DC Catholic Archdiocese says they will stop providing social services in DC if DC passes the same-sex marriage law (which also requires them not to discriminate).  So typical.

The Danger of Good vs. Evil

November 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization, Politics

The Heritage Foundation put out a morning bell yesterday.  The gist of the message is that Obama slighted Reagan by not showing up for the Berlin wall ceremonies and for not mentioning Reagan in his speech.  Reagan is, of course, the savior who freed the world from the communists.

My personal favorite bit is the quote from Nile Gardiner:

Barack Obama simply does not view the world as Reagan did, in terms of good versus evil, as a world divided between the forces of freedom on one side and totalitarianism on the other. For the Obama administration the advancement of human rights and individual liberty on the world stage is a distinctly low priority, as we have seen with its engagement strategy towards the likes of Iran, Burma, Sudan, Venezuela and Russia.

Oh the irony of inferring that Ronald Reagan was a great defender of human rights.  The Reagan administration supported the most oppressive Central American governments in El Salvador and Guatemala.  They illegally sold arms to Iran to raise money for brutal counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua.  They closed their eyes to the massive illegal drug operations of their Contra buddies while incarcerating obscene numbers of American citizens for using the drugs.  And they invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada in flagrant violation of international law.

But I’m not writing this to rag on Reagan.  Too easy.  I want to write about the first part of the quote, the part about Barack Obama not seeing the world in terms of good vs. evil.  I want to write about the damage done by people who insist on dividing the world up like that.

What happens when you try to divide the world into good and evil is that the “good” people can do no wrong and the “bad” people can do no right.  How convenient to be on the hero’s side and never have to face an ethical dilemma.  The hero is good, therefore everything they do is good.  If they lie, cheat, murder, or torture it doesn’t matter.  They are the good guy, so their actions must be good.

And that victim of the lying, cheating, murdering, and torturing?  Well they are the villain.  Everything they do is bad.  If the villain saves a baby from a burning building, that inconvenient information is left out of the narrative or explained away as part of a sinister plot.  And how easy it is to dehumanize the bad guy.  Their guilt is pre-determined.  When someone from a vilified group acts in the way we expect, it confirms all our suspicions.  How easy it is to just throw them away, even a child.

Life is not a cowboy film or a fairy tale.  And we can’t afford to listen to people who have the worldview of a toddler.  Time to grow up.

Rewriting the Drug War News

November 09, 2009 By: Mel Category: Drugs

Ever read a news story and want to bang your head on the wall because of all the underlying assumptions written into it?  Me too.

Stop the Drug War has a new project called the Drug Policy News Writing Demonstration Project.

The Drug Policy News Demonstration Project seeks to raise awareness of the consequences of prohibition as they routinely occur on a daily basis, but which are rarely identified as such in news reports. We are doing this by presenting rewritten versions of drug-related articles published by mainstream news outlets. This effort is a project of the Drug War Chronicle newsletter, a publication of

I’ll be participating in this project and will be sure to link from here.

Ignoring Elites is so Elitist

November 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking, Stratification

Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen at Politico wrote a story about how Obama’s White House is “working systematically to marginalize the most powerful forces behind the Republican Party.”

The Heritage Foundation quoted that story and then did a fascinating little maneuver where they tried to turn “the most powerful forces behind the Republican Party” into the “average Americans” that progressives have “contempt” for.

The argument goes like this.  Obama’s people are shutting out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh, Wall Street executives, and Fox News.  This shutout shows that Obama is targeting those organizations, just like Saul Alinsky advises people to target their enemy in his book Rules for Radicals.

Alinsky said that the middle class was “materialistic, decadent, bourgeois, degenerate, imperialistic, war-mongering, brutalized, and corrupt.”  Ergo, Obama, who is using Alinsky’s tactics, has contempt for the middle class.  Since all Americans are, of course, middle class; Obama hates you and wants his elite friends to make all your decisions for you.

Let’s break that down a little.  Wall Street executives, whose bonuses are being paid with the tax money Obama gave them, are feeling shut out?  Even better – Wall Street, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are “average Americans?”

And, goodness me, aside from Saul Alinsky, no one on earth has ever attacked (by ignoring) another person – not ever.  So this must be an Alinsky thing, cause the world of politics was all civility and roses aside from that.

Oh, I could go on and on.

What should we take from this (aside from the fact that Heritage is full of shit)?

Republicans have done a very good job of painting Democrats as elitist.  That isn’t particularly difficult.  Democrats are elitist.  So are Republicans.  This whole town is elitist and everybody is working to get their elites as much as they can.

The good news is that many (most?) Americans, while still widely accepting of all the hierarchies that prop those elitists up, have a little voice in their head that responds negatively to the idea that ivy league Wall Street schmucks should get bonuses for screwing us or that you need alphabet soup at the end of your name in order to be capable of making a decision.

That’s why people respond to messaging like that.  And that’s a good thing. Or, at least, it could be if people besides The Heritage Foundation were tapping into it.