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 January, 2010

Irrational Fears and the Status Quo

January 29, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Stratification

It seems like I have spent my entire life trying to fight off the irrational fears that people have tried to instill in me.

I was advised not to ride the bus in Ft. Lauderdale or I’d get robbed. I was told if I went to Liberty City, I would get beat up. Before I went to Mexico, Estadounidenses told me it was too dangerous. When I was in Playa Chacala, they told me I would be mugged in Guadalajara. When I was in Guadalajara, they told me I would get mugged in Mexico City. In Mexico City, they told me I’d never survive Guatemala.

If I let myself be afraid every time someone told me horrible things about a place or a people, I would never go anywhere or talk to anyone.

The people who were trying to make me afraid weren’t fearful from experience or reliable knowledge.  It was all just rumor, sensationalist news reports, and general fear of the OTHER – especially if that other was poor and black or brown.  People are so ready to believe negative things about poor people of color that you have to assume they want to believe those things, need to believe those things.


What if that fear went away tomorrow?  What if we all assumed, just for a day, that everyone was doing the best they could to get by.  What if we assumed, just for a day, that poor people aren’t poor because they are less worthy, less smart, less hard-working, or just plain less?  Where would that leave us?

It would leave us with a lot of questions.  It would leave us asking how things got to be this way and what forces are at work keeping them this way.  It would leave us wondering about how those inequities relate to accidents of geography, skin color, and birth.  It would leave us wondering if those inequities aren’t accidental at all.  And it would leave us asking who benefits from us distrusting each other so much.

It’s easier not to think about those things.  Thinking about those things, for many of us, leads to questioning our privileges, our world views, our lives.  And we would rather not do that.  So we just live in fear and try to avoid looking at the everyday tragedies.

But every once in a while, a tragedy unfolds that is so catastrophic that we cannot ignore it.  So Katrina hits New Orleans or an earthquake hits Haiti and willful ignorance becomes impossible.  That’s when our schizophrenia takes hold.

We watch the tragedy unfold on the television and our hearts break.  We imagine the horror that those people are going through.  We send millions of dollars to relief organizations and stay glued to the news reports.  We ask ourselves, why?  How could something so horrible happen?  And we want to know if it could have been prevented.  Most importantly, we want to know if it could happen to us.

Before long, the news reports turn from rescue to rioting.  A little scuffle over some desperately needed food is played on a continuous loop.  Report after report conflates appropriation of the means to survival with, not just theft, but violence.

And all these scary reports happen just in the nick of time.  Some part of the back of our brains had begun to wonder if there was more to the story than just an “act of god.” Perhaps someone mentioned how poor Haiti was and we wondered for a moment why.  But before we had to take any trouble looking into it, those “journalists” showed us what dangerous people we were dealing with, incapable of organization or development.

So you see, this couldn’t happen to us.  We can rest assured that we deserve our privilege.  No need to examine history or economic systems.  No need to wonder why these “acts of god” are so much more destructive when they happen to poor people.  Just pat ourselves on the back for our generosity and move on.

And when the United Nations and the U.S. government prioritize “security” over medical supplies, leaving doctors to find saws in hardware stores in order to perform amputations, there is no need to question that decision.  These are dangerous people.  You are sure of it.  You’ve been told over and over your entire life.

There is no need to read about the history of Haiti.  There is no need to seek out journalists who are actually talking to the people we are supposed to be so afraid of.  There is no need to listen to people on the ground who tell us over and over and over and over and over again that the reports of violence are a lie.

Ignorance is bliss.

I’m not saying that there is no real danger in the world.  I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer to drive a bus through Zona 18 in Guatemala.  But isn’t it time we were a little more skeptical about the daily vilification of poor people of color?  Why is it that so many people found my blog looking for information about which non-profits are trustworthy; yet so few people show anything like that kind of skepticism when it comes to news reports making survivors out to be criminals?

So long as we allow fear to substitute for fact, the status quo will go unchallenged.  And that suits some people just fine.

Howard Zinn Will Be Missed

January 27, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Seeking

I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to see Howard Zinn at Busboys and Poets last year.  I wish I had a recording of his talk.  The gist of it was that no politician is going to bring us the change we need.  We have to make the change happen.  Here is an amazing interview (and critique of voting) with Walter Mosley (who I also love).

Women, Are You Up for a Gathering?

January 25, 2010 By: Mel Category: Events

You may have heard about a conference coming up in San Francisco called Libertopia.

Its purpose is to create a worldwide movement of individuals who choose their own form of governance – a voluntary society based on mutual respect for each individual’s dignity and ownership of his/her own body and property.

Sadly, it appears from looking at the list of speakers, that this voluntary society is going to be made up exclusively of men (men who can afford the cost of the conference registration, hotel, and cruise).

I tweeted a few complaints about the all-too-typical invisibility of women at anything remotely libertarian and ended up in a convo with @solidadrocks about these kinds of conferences in general.

Long story short, there are tons of women out there who aren’t just sitting around talking theory.  They are doing amazing things to “create the new world in the shell of the old.”  But we never hear about them.  And women rarely take the time to step back and talk to each other about what we are doing.

So, I thought, why don’t we have a conference/gathering/meeting/whatever focused on anarchist/libertarian/anti-statist/whatever women who are doing amazing things?  We could learn from each other and find potential collaborators.  I’m thinking it would be:

  • Women focused – I don’t think that means men should be banned, just that women, and what they are doing, would be the focus of the sessions.
  • Activity focused – That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk theory at all, but I want to hear about actions.  I want to attend sessions on organizing, cooperatives, alternative currencies, radical art…And I’d like to walk away with all sorts of ideas and plans.
  • Inclusive and diverse – Transgender, intersexed, straight, gay, bisexual, young, old, differently abled, black, white, Latina, Asian, Native American…And massive effort would be made to make sure everyone would be included (outreach, accessibility, childcare…).
  • Cheap – As close to free as humanly possible.

As far as location goes, I am in Washington, DC.  I’d be willing/able to travel pretty much anywhere in North America.  I’m thinking we can see who is interested and then decide which location makes the most sense based on that.  (If there is a lot of interest, maybe we can plan on doing more than one for different areas.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Step one is gaging interest, so what do you all think?  Share your thoughts in the comment section.  And, if you are interested, send an email to and let me know:

  1. Where you are (city,state, country)
  2. If you would want to be on a listserve for general info.  And, if so, what email address to use.  (Clearly, your email would not be sold, published, shared…)

Let’s see where this goes.

Are Cynic and Optimist Mutually Exclusive?

January 22, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

People often complain that I’m cynical and pessimistic.  I’m always looking for the catch, the ulterior motive, the dark side.  Every new plan, from health care to tax reform, I am immediately poking holes in.  Many of my friends are liberal, nonprofit types who are very attached to these plans.  And they get pretty frustrated with me.

And maybe I am cynical.  Certainly, I question people’s motives.  But I prefer to see it as being honest.  I see what happens with each of those grand plans and new policies.  I see how putting our future in other people’s hands leaves us feeling lost and powerless.  I see every person who gets power abusing it.  I see the “solutions” to problems causing more problems than they solve.

Willful blindness isn’t going to make those problems go away.  It isn’t optimistic to put all your faith in a charismatic leader and cross your fingers.  It isn’t optimistic to ignore the hypocrisy, backroom deals, corporate giveaways, ethical compromises, obstructionism, and usual screwing of the public.

On the contrary, the pessimists are those people who think that is the best we can do.  I think we can do better.


Things You Might Have Missed

January 20, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

I know there are some people who really believe that enforcing anti-prostitution laws will help women, but it is really hard to have patience for those people when I read things like this.

On a more inspiring note, these women in South Korea are bad asses.

Howard Zinn recently spoke about the myths of Americas three “good wars.” It is most definitely worth a listen.

Great article on Tranarchism called Why I am Still an Anarchist.

Amazing article by Amy Hamilton called Why I Broke Up with the Anarchist Community.

And finally, how about a little old school Kropotkin on prisons.

Preparing for Peace

January 18, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Seeking

Many people believe that some injustices are so heinous that violence is not only necessary, it is obligatory.  But they rarely take the next step.  They rarely imagine what would happen after the violence stops, assuming it can be stopped.  Who among them is going to create a better, more just world?  A soldier?

A soldier is not trained to create.  He is trained to destroy.  Military training is about smashing a person’s ego until they are willing to obey without question.  It is about instilling hierarchy.  It is about learning to dehumanize the “enemy.”  It is about suppressing pangs of conscience.  It is about becoming a killer.

When the soldier returns from whatever horrors he has to see and participate in, he brings the horrors back with him.  Returning soldiers have mental health problems.  They are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems.  Many are suicidal.  Some are homicidal.  Is that soldier, with all his problems, the person who will be able to create a better way of life?

Contrast the training of a soldier with the training of a non-violent resister.

Imagine the inner strength, patience, and command over your own emotions it takes to face down dogs without responding with violence?  Imagine the vision that comes from that kind of discipline and self awareness.  How could that not be better preparation for building a more just world?

When James Baldwin and Malcolm X debated each other (recordings below), Malcolm X asserted his right to defend himself.  He claimed that the black man’s freedom rested on his willingness to do “the same thing that Patrick Henry did to make this country what it was for white people.”  And in doing so, he called out the hypocrisy of idolizing the actions of one person and vilifying those same actions when another claims the right to them.

That hypocrisy is indisputable.  So is the fact that Americans idolize violence and violent heroes.  But while Baldwin did not dispute Malcolm X’s facts, he did dispute his conclusions.

“Patrick Henry is not one of my heroes…I don’t see any reason for me, at this late date, to begin modeling myself on an image which I’ve always found frankly to be mediocre and not a standard to which I myself could repair…the only thing that really arms anybody when the chips are down is how closely, how thoroughly, he can relate to himself and deal with the world…I don’t think that a warrior is necessarily a man…It is very difficult to be a man…What it involves, for me anyway, is an ability to look at the world, to look at whatever it is and to say what it is and to deal with it and to face it.

A soldier will have a very hard time looking at the world and seeing it for what it is.  A soldier has to lie to himself.  How could a soldier stand not to?  You can’t make a better world by creating people who can’t look into their own hearts, who have to live in denial of their actions.

We all have the right to defend ourselves, but we also have the obligation to examine what we will become by exercising that right.  If, in the process of becoming the victor, you have to also become a monster, what have you really won?

Haiti Donations and How Nonprofits Work

January 15, 2010 By: Mel Category: Nonprofits, Work

There has been a lot of internet chatter on what organizations to donate to in order to best help the Haitian people.  Naturally, you want the maximum amount of your dollars to go to the people who need it.  So you read articles like this one about Yele or you go to charity navigator and you check out what percentage of donations go to program vs. administration or fundraising.

The thing is, those percentages can be deceiving. One of the biggest expenses for any nonprofit is salary costs.  So while your idea of “program cost” might be medicine bought and provided for someone in need.  In actuality, program cost might be the salary of the program assistant who does paperwork in the office.

Or let’s say you receive an email report from a nonprofit that also includes a link for donations.  You might think that goes to fundraising, but it probably gets coded with media, outreach, or campaigning.

How an organization codes things depends a lot on the person doing the coding.  Some organizations are more likely to code things to show less administrative costs.  Organizations that have been around longer have more experienced staff who understand that donors don’t want to see high admin costs.  Organizations that receive restrictive grants will have more constraints they are working within.  Large organizations are often more closely scrutinized.

Low administrative costs could also mean that administrative people are being screwed.  The organization could be using a ton of unpaid interns to do work.  Not only are they relying on free labor, they are restricting their labor pool to only those privileged enough to be able to work for free.  Or they could just be underpaying their admin staff.  I’ve seen full time admin positions in New York being offered less than $30,000 a year.  Do you really want to support an org that doesn’t pay its people enough to even pay the rent?

All of that is to say that you should not use program cost percentage as your only decision maker.

Then there is the choice between large and small organizations.  In the case of an emergency situation like Haiti, there are many large humanitarian organizations who have vast experience with catastrophes.  They know how to set up camps and what to do for sanitation.  They are experts at providing potable water and avoiding diseases.  That is invaluable expertise.  They have also been around long enough to have tested systems and they probably have survived a lot of scrutiny.

But there are downsides to larger organizations.  Many of them do not work in Haiti all year round, although they may begin to now (especially if they receive massive funds that have been restricted to use in Haiti*).  Aid workers flown in will not necessarily have knowledge of the language, community, politics, and culture – knowledge that will also be important in the coming days.  Large organizations can be bureaucratic and experience diseconomies of scale.  They are usually heavily populated by managerial class elites from the United States and Europe.

Smaller, local organizations are closer to the community.  They are more likely to have local staff in key decision-making positions.  Your money won’t go to pay salaries of people based in London or DC.  Their people will be sticking around.  They won’t be moving on to the next catastrophe when the immediate crisis is over.  They don’t require large bureaucracies or  thousands of dollars in conference calls.

But small organizations have their problems too.   They can’t respond on the same scale as large organizations.  Their inexperience can be costly.  There may be less accountability, because fewer eyes are on them.  The staff are even more likely to be massively underpaid.  Their equipment is probably held together with duck tape and rubber bands.  They are less stable, especially when new, and have fewer processes.  The loss of one employee (and their institutional knowledge) can set the organization back months or years.

There is no perfect organization.  If you want a guarantee that your money will go straight into the hand or mouth of a Haitian, then you should go to Haiti or Miami or New York and drop a wad of cash on someone.  If you donate to a charity, you need to accept that some of your money will be spent on administration.  Some may be spent on fundraising.  A large portion will pay staff costs (program and otherwise).  Some money will likely be wasted.  Some may even be stolen.  Given the absolute chaos in Haiti, expecting that not to be the case is just unrealistic.

So how do you decide?

Check the organization out.  Go to Charity Navigator or Guidestar or the charity’s website.  Look what people have to say about them.  Read their 990s (the form U.S. nonprofits have to file with the IRS) or their annual report.

Who are the board members? How much do the big shots make – officers and employees?  Board compensation is reported on 990s, as are salaries of some highly compensated employees.

How are their expenses broken down by function?  One organization may have a higher percentage of program costs, but it is all in staff salaries. Another organization may have lower program costs but give that money in direct aid.  One is not necessarily better than the other (humanitarian staff need to get paid), but it gives a more detailed picture than just program v. management or fundraising.

Does the organization have local offices?  Have they been working in country for a long time?  Does it look like they will stick around?  Are they staffed by locals or is it all people from the U.S. or Europe?

What kind of programs do they do?  Are they in keeping with your values?  If you are passionate about environmental issues or health care for all, then you should support organizations whose mission most closely matches your own.

If the organization doesn’t have much history, are you willing to treat it like a startup?  Are the ideas so great that you are willing to risk your donation on the chance that they can use this new (extremely rare)  influx of capital to get their dreams off the ground?

My recommendation is to spread it around.  Give some money to a large experienced organization with the planes and equipment ready to address the rescue, food, water, and sanitation needs. But also give money to smaller and/or local organizations whose salaries are paying locals and who are likely to stick around.  Haiti will need help long after the Red Cross moves on to the next disaster.

You can find a comprehensive list of organizations to donate to here.


* If you send money and tell an organization that you want it to be used for a certain project or place, they must do that.  In most circumstances, I would actually discourage you from restricting your money.  For smaller nonprofits, funds for basic expenses are hard to come by.  Having all their funding restricted actually weakens the organization and, in the end, could lead to less accountability – no money for auditors, bookkeeping staff, board training, etc.


Disclaimer:  All thoughts and opinions on my site belong to me alone.  I am usually quite careful not to post anything even remotely related to my day job.  This post is a bit close to the line, as I work for an organization that is working in Haiti.  They are not an organization that I have listed or talked about on my blog.  I have no intention of recommending or not recommending them.  If you know where I work, nothing should be read into that.  I just don’t want to have to vet my blog through my work and, if I spoke about them directly, I would feel that obligation.

Why Haiti?!

January 13, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

Could things get any worse for Haiti?  Of all places in the world for something like this to happen.  It’s beyond words.

I’m from Miami and so have had the privilege of getting to know many Haitian immigrants.  In fact, I had a peak at my ideal world while riding a bus in Miami with Haitian women.

It was in the afternoon and the bus was crowded with Haitian women and children.   There weren’t any open seats left when a woman got on the bus with her children.  She was holding an infant and three or four small kids got on the bus in front of her.

The woman was paying and the children started walking down the aisle of the bus.  As they walked along, random women picked the children up and put them on their laps.  The kids didn’t mind in the least.  When the mother was done paying, someone moved their kid off of a seat to let her and her baby sit down.

The mother that had just boarded the bus didn’t say a word to the other women.  There was no thank you or even a hello.  There was no awkwardness about making room for her and her kids.  There was no hesitation in accommodating the new arrivals.  The people on the bus saw that there was a need and they met it.  No questions.  No complaints.  No bureaucracy needed.

I thought for a while, as I rode the bus, how much more of a production that would have been with some of the spoiled people that I knew (not that most Americans ever ride the bus).  I imagined someone calling the city to complain about lack of bus seats and the city forming a commission to study the subject.

The ease with which those women interacted and helped each other has stuck with me.  And I really hope that, for once, the Haitian people receive the help they need  quickly, generously, and without strings – just like those women would give it.

I know everyone is telling you to donate to massive relief organizations.  And you should.  Many of them are experts at rescue and sanitation and they know how to handle the crisis.  But I know that people tend to forget about a place once it has been off the news cycle, so I hope you’ll consider making connections with some of the organizations that work in Haiti all year round.

Yele Haiti – You have probably heard about Yele by now.  If not, it is Wyclef Jean’s organization and they have grassroots programs all over the country.

Haiti Reborn – Haiti is an ecological disaster.  Deforestation is a particular problem and is the focus of this Quixote Center funded project.

Kiva – You have probably heard of Kiva by now.  They connect you with people around the world who need microloans.  And they work in Haiti through their partner.

Madre – This is a women’s human rights organization that is partnered with a clinic in Haiti called Zanmi Lasante.  You can also donate to the clinic through Partners in Health

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund – This is a Berkeley based solidarity organization.

Fonkoze – They are a micro-finance alternative bank for the poor in Haiti.

Lambi Fund of Haiti – A Haitian and American organizations that supports democracy and grassroots development.

There are also several organizations that have long connections with Haiti and are good sources of information on current issues and U.S. policy.  They have advocacy campaigns for debt relief, protected status for Haitian immigrants, fair trade…

Alliance for Global Justice


Global Exchange

Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

TransAfrica Forum

Finally, if you don’t know anything about Haiti, look into it.  Haiti has one of the most fascinating histories of any place I’ve ever heard about.  Unfortunately, entirely too much of that history involves disastrous U.S. policy.  A book I read a long time ago is called Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth.  It was a good book and imminently readable.

In the meantime, you can check out the Flash Timeline of American Policy Towards Haiti in the 20th Century over at Mediahacker (who I am happy to hear is o.k.).  Or you can check out the comprehensive coverage on Democracy Now.

Christianity and False Forgiveness

January 11, 2010 By: Mel Category: Religion

By now you have probably heard about Brit Hume’s on air proselytizing directed at Tiger Woods. If not, you can watch the video below where Hume suggests that Christianity offers a forgiveness that Buddhism does not and recommends that Tiger Woods convert.

Really Brit Hume? Christianity offers a special kind of forgiveness? Tell that to the more than 3,000 inmates on death row.  According to gallop, 71% of protestants support the death penalty.  Christians say that, since god prescribed how death sentences should be meted out in the bible, the death penalty isn’t a problem.  In fact, the death penalty is love.

When Christians support three strikes laws that give people life in prison for theft crimes, is it all about love and forgiveness? How about the quadriplegic man who died in DC prison, after refusing to promise the judge he would never smoke pot again.  Was he, like the thousands of others put in prison for marijuana, supposed to have felt the love and forgiveness of the (primarily christian) people who work for the justice system?

Or maybe Hume is talking about the kind of forgiveness Iris Robinson has received.  She is the anti-gay bigot who was recently busted having an affair.  She confessed to have treated her family horribly, but says that god has forgiven her.  (Note: Nothing in the article about her family forgiving her.)

I often think that –  even more than fear of death, attachment to tradition, desire for community, or the need to deal with tragedy – it is trying to face their own mistakes that makes people turn to religion. Yet for so many people, their religion gives them the worst of two extremes.

On the one hand, Christianity paints a world in stark black and white, good vs. evil terms.  Christians labels people as sinners and are quick to throw them away when they screw up.  The religion lays on guilt and judgment for things as normal and necessary for life as sex.  And so it creates people unable to accept their own humanity, ashamed of who they are, unable to deal with their own desires and mistakes.

To the other extreme are those Christians who think their religion is like a get out of hell free card.  You can do whatever you want to people and then just say a few Ave Marias and all is well again.   These people act as though forgiveness can be bestowed, like a queen knights her subject.

Forgiveness is work.  You don’t develop compassion for other people until you can face your own worst mistakes and forgive yourself for them. And you don’t get to just accept easy forgiveness from your god without any attempt at reparations to the people and community you hurt.

While there may be those whose find in Christianity a path to the “soul searching” that makes forgiveness and reparations possible, more often than not their religion only seems to get in the way of that process.

Things You Might Have Missed

January 06, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

Great post by Jason Laning In Defense of Anarchism.  In response to the idea that anarchists wouldn’t be able to “resist power-seekers who want to dominate and control others” he says,

That is, his hypothetical scenario of an anarchist society doesn’t seem to have many anarchists in it. Instead, it’s full of roving fascists (which seems more appropriate for a hypothetical society of roving fascism, no?)

Love it.

Radley Balko has a nice summary of the snowball war drama in Reason.  If this story doesn’t clearly show how far gone police and corporate media are, I don’t what would.

At the Republic of T there is a response to Newsweek’s recent cover about the “People Who Matter.”  Some interesting quotes on “rankism”, which I know nothing about, but it seems like a theory that just needs a little push into anarchism.

Kevin Carson’s post at CSS calls out the hypocrisy of people who claim the surveillance state isn’t problematic…until it effects them.

At Anarchist6[zero]6 there is information on a study that shows how power corrupts.

And, finally, on the Daily Beast there is a lengthy post about Pope Pius XIIs collusion with the Nazis and the Vatican’s current attempts to canonize him.  (If you have never read Hitler’s Pope, I would highly recommend it.)