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 February, 2010

Gone Fishin

February 22, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

No posting this week, as I am in Florida soaking up the sun and trying not to let my relatives drive me over the edge.  If you don’t hear from me by next Wednesday, send a rescue team.

Growing Up Jewish – Sabbath Edition

February 19, 2010 By: Mel Category: Religion

It occurs to me that I don’t spend near enough time pointing out the lunacies of the religion I was brought up in.  And since I am leaving today to go to Florida, where I will visit my kooky religious mother, it seems a perfect time for the the first installment of Growing Up Jewish.

My mother was brought up orthodox.  Her parents immigrated to Montreal from the old country.  Picture Fiddler on the Roof, but with less singing.  Not sure if I should be happy or sad about that.  Who doesn’t love a good  show tune?

But I digress.

My mother wanted to continue observing the sabbath.  By Jewish law, that meant that from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday there would be no electricity, no car, no writing, no cutting, no pressing buttons, no flipping switches… There was to be nothing that had any potential for fun whatsoever.

For a little background, the sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest.  I can see where observing a day of rest has had its advantages over the years.  We all need a break.  I’m sure the idea of a sabbath gave people leverage over employers who would have preferred seven day a week workers.

Of course whatever usefulness the idea of a sabbath had was long ago overwhelmed by the absurdities that institutionalization and  modernity have caused.  So while giving your transportation a day of rest may have been kind when your transportation was a horse, making your family walk 10 blocks to shul (temple) because you aren’t allowed to use your car is ridiculous.

My father, in contrast, grew up in a much less religious household. He was not prepared to give up his car, his television, or his morning cup of coffee.  So my parents had to do quite a bit of compromising.  This led to some incredibly nonsensical rules.

We could go out in the car, use electricity, watch television, and boil water.  However, we were not allowed to draw pictures or make toast.  I distinctly remember getting into trouble with a friend of mine for attempting to punch rhinestones into a t-shirt during the sabbath.  (Hey, I was like eleven and it was the eighties, so shut up.)

The rules were arbitrary and made sense only in the twisted mind of my mother.  Is it any wonder I don’t like rules?

Friday night sabbath dinner was a big friggin deal.  There was no such thing as missing it.  It was in the dining room.  You had to wear shoes.  My mother lit candles, which she ran her hands over three times and then prayed over with her hands over her eyes.  She did not appreciate it if you took the opportunity to play peak a boo.

There was special bread (Challah, egg bread) and special wine (Manischewitz, sickly sweet).  We prayed in Hebrew over the wine and bread, but nothing else.  Apparently, jews don’t think it is necessary to thank god for chicken.  In fact, my family never prayed over food any other day of the week.  This may be the source of my lifelong thankfulness for alcohol and alcohol alone.

My father went through the ceremonial motions reluctantly.  He was forced to wear a yamulka (beanie), which he threw half-assedly on his head for exactly as long as the prayers took and then immediately removed. On at least one occasion, my father and I took the opportunity of my mother covering her eyes for the candle prayer to chuck pieces of challah bread at each other across the table.  Often, after the wine prayer was over, my father and I made lovely wine spritzers, which actually makes the Manischewitz somewhat drinkable.  My mother tolerated this reluctantly.

Once I became a teenager, the special hell that was Friday night dinner became particularly unbearable.  Each minute at the table was a minute I was not out getting into trouble with my friends.  My social life was further delayed by my dishwashing responsibilities.  And while our sabbath dinners ended well after sundown, no amount of arguing would convince my mother that washing the Friday night dinner dishes was work and not rest.

To this day, I have no idea why my mother chooses to follow these bizarro rules.  I think part of it is that she was brought up to think she had to be doing something every minute of every day and the sabbath gave her permission to do nothing.  Why she needed permission, I don’t know.  I also think she is a control freak and that the rules gave her the opportunity to make her world the way she wanted it with the veneer of god’s authority.

Then there is tradition.  That’s a big one in Judaism.  And finally there is is the sick belief that all Jewish suffering is caused by Jews not being good Jews.  I remember hearing once that if all Jews observed the sabbath just once then all their suffering would end.  Get it.  Light the candles, drink the wine, say the prayers, and…abra cadabra…no more holocausts!

At least I got to drink wine.


Issue by Issue

February 15, 2010 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking, Stratification

Political parties and broad categorizations have warped the way we think about issues and problem solving.

We may think that we cannot work with a conservative on anything.  But which conservative do we mean – the Christian conservative from Focus on the Family or the follower of Buckley?  We may think we cannot work with a liberal on anything.  But which liberal do we mean – the liberal, gay man who wants low taxes and small government (but also wants to marry his partner) or the liberal, homophobic union member who thinks larger government can protect him from his boss?

People attach themselves to a certain label based on what they perceive that label to mean.  But that is often not going to be what you think it means.  Pro-life is a good example.  A recent survey found that 51% of people identified as pro-life.  Now to me, that means anti-abortion.  When I hear pro-life, my first thoughts are of rape and incest and putting women’s lives at risk.

But closer inspection of that poll reveals that only about 22% of respondents thought abortion should be illegal in all cases.  So the label pro-life tells you that a person thinks that some abortions performed are wrong.  And while 42% of those surveyed identified as pro-choice, only about half of those think abortion should be legal in all cases.  So the label pro-choice also likely means that the person thinks some abortions performed are wrong.

Not only does our political system encourage us to focus laser-like on those issues that are most divisive.  It discourages any meaningful conversation about what those labels actually mean to the people who embrace them.  And that is just one more thing that keeps us from being able to work together on those issues that we do agree on.

People are understandably skeptical when I speak of working together with “the other side.”  Self-described liberals or progressives, for example, usually bring up white supremacists or Christian extremists or just the people who still think Dubya was a good president.  But they miss the point.

We need to stop looking at the entirety of people’s beliefs and start focusing on the issues – one issue at a time.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has done an exemplary job of this.  Ethan Nadelmann found that his fellow liberals were not always his best allies in the fight against drug prohibition.  So he has gone about building a coalition of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians who all think the drug war is a bad idea.  Nadelmann will appear at the CATO institute on one day and the NAACP on another.  And DPA is happy to show that even many seemingly ideological enemies agree with them.

DPA’s “big tent” is one of the reasons why there is such movement right now in the area of drug policy reform, especially regarding marijuana.  And they show us that people on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can work on an issue without compromising their ethics and with a lot of success.

So instead of trying to find the overarching category or political party that you perceive to be closest to your set of beliefs, why not focus your energies on an issue?  Or two issues or ten issues.  A web of groups, each focused on a clear issue with clear goals, has a much better chance of success than large groups of people who have to spend all their energies trying to be all things to all people.

And there is no telling what unexpected benefits we might realize from these kinds of issue based coalitions.  Perhaps the interactions might change some participants views on other issues.  Maybe nobody would change their ideas at all, but would walk away with a deeper understanding of what “the other side” really thinks.  People who work together toward a common goal, even those who don’t like each other, will often develop a mutual respect.  And mutual respect would be a very good start.

Collaborating Across the Divide

February 11, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Here’s a hypothetical situation.

You work in a town with one factory.  You need your job.  Moving to another town, starting your own business, or getting some other means of survival is not an option at the moment.

One of your coworkers (let’s call him Bob) is a racist, sexist, homophobic SOB.  You are a black lesbian (let’s call you Michelle) who, for obvious reasons, does not get along with Bob.

You and Bob have found yourself in a situation.  Your employer (let’s call him Dick) is planning on cutting your salaries in half and doubling your work load.  Dick is counting on the animosity between you and Bob preventing any collaboration to thwart his plan.  Dick has his eye on a lovely yacht that he will be buying with your recouped wages.

What do you do here?  Take the cut in pay?  Move into your car?  Live on Ramen noodles?  Or do you find a way to work with Bob to fight Dick?

I make up this hypothetical situation because I think this is where we are stuck.  This is why, even when the majority of Americans want the wars to end or a public option or whatever else, we can never get what we want.  Yes, there is a lot of money and power blocking our way.  But that money and power would be no match for an organized and united population.

The other day on twitter, one of the people I follow retweeted the following:

Jane Hamsher on MSNBC just endorsed certain aspects of Tea Party.  I for one want nothing 2 do w/teabaggers or firebaggers.

So I asked my twitter-friend, “If the libertarian wing of the teabaggers got behind a massive anti-war movement (which they are talking about), you wouldn’t consider working together?”

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Him: No.  Just because ppl who want to undermine us support 1 thing I do is no reason to break bread with them

Me:  So you would rather have war continue and people die?

Him:  No, id rather the war end and not enable ppl who want the countrys destruction

Me:  You are stereotyping a whole lot of ppl you don’t know based on impressions from TV.  Really think you can trust TV impressions?

Him: Stereotyping, no, just listen to what they say

Me:  U mean that you have talked to them 1:1 or you listen to the ppl the tv likes to quote?

He never answered my last question.

I understand where he is coming from.  The tea party movement is, at best, blind to the racism underlying their movement.  And the movement has undoubtedly attracted many white supremacists and Christian conservatives whose views of the world are everything I would die in opposition to.


I do not believe that every person who is skeptical of government or resentful of government’s power over our lives is a neo-nazi.  And I definitely don’t believe that I can trust the media’s portrayals of who is at those gatherings.

I know that when thousands of average-looking people gather for a liberal anti-war demonstration, the media will find the one group of naked hippies with “Fuck the Gap” spray painted on their asses and present them as representative.  I know that thousands of preppy families could show up for a gay rights march and the news will find the two guys in bondage gear and present them as representative.  And so I must assume that they do that with everyone.

I don’t believe, as a Jew, I could ever work with a neo-nazi.  I don’t think, as a woman, I could ever work with a misogynist who believes he should have the right to beat his wife.  So I understand that there are some people that a person could not work with because of their extreme views.

However, I believe that people are called “extremists” for a reason.  And if we decide that we cannot work with anyone who is ignorant, fearful, distrustful, prejudiced, or angry – who would we work with?  Aren’t all of us struggling with those things to some extent?  Isn’t that part of being human?

The entirety of U.S. history is the story of elites fueling our prejudices and playing us against one another to their advantage.  If we have any hope of making things better, everything needs to be seen through that lens.

Things You Might Have Missed

February 10, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

If you ever wondered how to confront the racism, sexism, and homophobia of your family and friends, Model Minority shows us how it is done.

Tech Dirt covers the creative ways music artists are getting it done outside the traditional system.

Alternet has an amazing article highlighting the stories of three children of white supremacists.  I am particularly in awe of Carolyn Wagner.

Kevin Carson wonders when exactly we were in control of our government.

Renee at Womanist Musings posts about how anti-abortion campaigners are targeting the black community.

And yet another student is criminalized for nothing.

Over-Reliance on the Law

February 08, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Over the weekend, a friend of mine posted a video (below) about a Fox news report that was squashed.

Several years ago, Fox reporters were working on a story about Monsanto and rBGH.  Monsanto, upon getting wind of the story, had their attorneys send Fox a letter threatening to sue.  Fox wanted to squash the story, but were afraid the reporters would tell the world.  So instead, Fox management beat the story into a form that Monsanto would like better.

The reporters were eventually fired for not being willing to lie in their news report.  The Fox station attorney sent them a letter confirming that is why they were fired.  The reporters understood this to be a retaliation claim.  They believed they would be protected under the whistleblower statute.  But the courts ruled that a news show lying on the air was not illegal and therefore there was no whistle to blow.  Ergo, no protection for the reporters.

All of us discussing the post agreed that it was appalling.  The poster suggested that we start a campaign to make lying by the news stations illegal.  It was an instinct I understood, but all I could think of were the potentially disastrous consequences.

If we want to see what happens when it is easier to sue a news organization, look no further than the United Kingdom.  Libel laws there are much different than in the United States.  And corporations are taking advantage of those laws to sue newspapers and bloggers.

News organizations afraid that they are going to be sued are likely to self censor.  In fact, this very Monsanto incident is the perfect example of the kind of self censorship that news organizations are practicing.  Monsanto threatened to sue them, presumably for libel.  And rather than risk the expense of a court battle, Fox’s response was to cave to the threat of a lawsuit.

While this Monsanto case is disgusting, how would yet more laws that people can be sued under help rather than cause even more self censorship?  And even if there was no danger from self censorship, how could we be sure that honest mistakes were not prosecuted?

This is not just an issue of a free press or of free speech.  It is about how we are handling all of our society’s problems.  Our first instinct is – We must do something!  We must pass a law!  It has gotten to the point where we can’t walk out of our house without breaking a law.

Every time we try to resolve a problem by passing a law, we give up that much more of our power.  And we tip the scales that much further in the direction of the wealthy and specially educated.

Access to the justice system, and results from the justice system, are dependent on how much money you have and how much understanding you have of legal codes, precedents, rules of procedure and a million other pieces of specialized knowledge that most of us do not have access to.

When we turn everything into a law, we turn everything into something that requires an attorney and a judge.  We empower those people at the expense of our own power.  If every solution proposed requires a law, then availing yourself of that solution requires an attorney.  Can you afford an attorney?  I can’t.

This post isn’t about bagging on attorneys.  I worked for attorneys for a decade.  And some of the attorneys I worked for were fighting the good fight.  They worked on civil rights cases and sexual harassment cases.  (I’m talking quid pro quo – you can keep your job if you suck my dick kind of cases, not ooh I don’t like the bikini calendar cases.)  I even did a millisecond internship with the ACLU.  But even the attorneys fighting the good fight cannot deny that the courts, for all the publicity that those few breakthrough civil rights cases get, are all too often on the wrong side of history.

There is no way to craft laws that can only be used for good, that cannot be exploited by those with the power and money to exploit.  The solution does not lie in empowering more attorneys and judges.  It lies in addressing those inequities of power and money directly.  It lies in taking back our own power.  It lies in coming up with solutions and problem solving mechanisms accessible to all of us.

The Art of Non-War

February 05, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict

Let’s set aside for just a moment the horrors of war.  Ignore the cost in human lives, the suffering, the destruction.  Ignore the repercussions that are felt for generations.  And let’s ignore any debates about what it means to declare “victory” in a place like Iraq, where people continue to fight and die long after we supposedly won.  Ignore questions about whether or not there can ever be a winner when millions die.  Ignore all of that and just ask yourself this:

How do you win a war?

You win a war through strategy.   You win a war by controlling supply chains and by having access to more energy (oil).  You win a war by controlling transportation and mastering communications.  You win a war by having more people on your side.  You win a war by propaganda.  You win a war by being willing to keep fighting after your opponent has quit.

In other words, you win a war by being smarter.

People who scoff at the idea of non-violence do not stop to consider whether or not the side willing to be the most violent and ruthless is the side that wins in a war. If they did stop to think about it, they would have a difficult time making the argument that England was more ruthless than Germany in WWII or that the colonists were more ruthless than the English in the American revolutionary war.

The reason military strategists study prior wars and battles is to learn tactics.  The reason that our military focuses so much on psychological operations is because they know that force is often impossible.  The government needed to trick us in order to get people to support invading Iraq.  The military strategy in Iraq is to “win hearts and minds” because they can only stop fighting if the citizens of Iraq let them.

So if wars are won through strategy, through tactics, through smarts – and not through ruthless violence – why not focus on the strategy without the violence?

Things You Might Have Missed

February 03, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

I am so tired of hearing about kids being beat up and criminalized.  Are you prepping them for life or prison?  (That was a rhetorical question.)

Racialicious has a really beautiful and brave post by A. Rahman Ford called Race, Disability and Denial.

Far be it for me to tell Americans that they should be more French.  But if we had a little more of this, we might have a little less of this.  And just for kicks, maybe we could throw in a little protest Brussels style.  I do love a good foam party.

Two interesting posts on elections in the last couple weeks.  Jeremy writes an excellent post tackling anarchists ideas about voting.  And Charles points out the amount of wasted resources that go into elections.

Db0 tackles the issue of how anarchists handle crime in the present without compromising their anarchist principles.

Finally, on Trust is the Only Currency, a A Socratic dialogue between a Buddhist Lama (BL) and a Mainstream Economist (ME).

Media and Anarchists Violent Reputation

February 01, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Conflict

Picture an anarchist in your head.  What do you see?

For most people the image is of a black clad, pubescent boy throwing rocks through a store window or spray painting an anarchist symbol.  People with a better sense of history might picture a slightly older, wild-bearded man making assassination plans.

And it is true that those images have some reality behind them.

There have been anarchists who have participated in violence.  Anarchists fought in the Spanish civil war.  Anarchists have claimed responsibility for political assassinations and other “propaganda of the deed.”  And there are certainly anarchists who have participated in symbolic acts of property destruction.

But does that make anarchists especially violent?

How many philosophies have not been used as an excuse for violence?  We fight wars in the name of democracy.  Assassinations are committed in the name of democracy.  Entire cities have been leveled in the name of democracy.  And yet few supporters of democracy believe their philosophy is particularly violent.

It makes little sense that a few violent acts and some (arguably) violent property destruction warrant anarchists getting such a bad rap.

Then, of course, there are the many anarchists who are/were also pacifists.  Some, like Tolstoy, derived their pacifist anarchism from Christianity.  Gandhi, who was inspired by Tolstoy, meshed his philosophical anarchism with Hinduism.  Anarchists from Howard Zinn to Alex Comfort were pacifists.  Even Emma Goldman, who once supported “propaganda of the deed,” changed her mind after seeing the effects of violence.

Clearly, we have a case of selective, collective memory.  How did that happen? Why are people only associating anarchists with violence?

Perhaps it has something to do with the way media selectively covers anarchism.  The coverage of Howard Zinn’s death is instructive.  An Associated Press story picked up by the New York Times and Washington Post says that Howard Zinn wrote about anarchist Emma Goldman, but doesn’t describe Howard Zinn as an anarchist.  Bob Herbert’s New York Times op-ed doesn’t mention “anarchist” once.  In article after article he is referred to as “left” or “radical,” but not as an anarchist.

Lest you get the idea that the media are loathe to use the word anarchist or anarchy, just try to search news coverage with those words.  The New York Times is happy to associate anarchists with al-Qaida or with Lenin.  Even if no anarchist claims responsibility for a bombing, they are almost certain to get credit for it.   And that doesn’t even begin to cover the times that newspapers try to scare the crap out of their readers by labeling catastrophes as scary anarchy.

Newspapers like the Times and Post are staunch defenders of the establishment.  And the establishment has every reason to try and make anarchists look bad.  As Howard Zinn said,

No doubt that anarchist ideas are frightening to those in power. People in power can tolerate liberal ideas. They can tolerate ideas that call for reforms, but they cannot tolerate the idea that there will be no state, no central authority. So it is very important for them to ridicule the idea of anarchism to create this impression of anarchism as violent and chaotic. It is useful for them, yes.

That doesn’t mean that every lowly reporter is consciously trying to to vilify us.  As a former media person told me, “they have a script” and they are playing it out.  They are writing the narrative that they have been brought up to write, the narrative that will get them promoted, even if that means conjuring up imaginary conflicts while ignoring real ones.

So the question is, what can we do to make it more difficult for the media to vilify us?