06 November 2010

Opposite Directions

Springtime Flowers in Patagonia
In my recent post at Because the World is Round..., while reporting on two big news stories that might have been drown out by the histrionic midterm elections in the States, I marvel at how reversed the directions of movement are between the northern and southern hemispheres of America. While the death of Ex-President Néstor Kirchner opens up all kinds of speculation about Argentina’s future, the most likely path will continue toward the breaking down of cultural barriers in favor of human rights, following in the footsteps of the recent legalization of same-sex marriage – and this, in a nation that not so long ago was constitutionally linked to the Pope. Whatever opportunistic political games the Kirchners might have played, both Néstor and his wife and presidential successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, they have undoubtedly been responsible for decreasing the power of both the military and the Catholic Church in Argentina.

In Brazil, last week’s elections delineate a course that will continue in the direction set by outgoing president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, where Dilma Rousseff will become Brazil’s first female president. Her election more dramatically emphasizes the political cycle in South America having come around in response to the brutal and undemocratic right-wing military dictatorships of the 1970’s. Like Uruguay’s President José Mujica, Dilma Rousseff was once a Marxist guerilla fighter who had been imprisoned and tortured when democracy morphed into a tyrannical dictatorship that was brought on by the fear of socialist tyranny. Now, those fears are being dispelled by the stable growth of the nations of Uruguay and Brazil, whose leaders, I believe, are ahead of the learning curve of how to deal with economic difficulties and are dedicated to steadily growing the prosperity of everyone in their countries, not just the wealthy elite. The people of the United States, in these difficult times, would do well to study their stories.
In contrast to this motion are the election results in the United States. If all politics are cyclical, the directions of the cycles in the north and the south seem to be in opposition to each other. While South America continues the long-term push to free itself of the corporate influence emanating from the North, which has been undermining their democratic institutions throughout their histories, the United States only falls deeper under its spell, falling victim to its illusion that corporate freedom is equal to individual freedom. Where progressives in the United States should have been able to make some gains in the past two years, only small, tentative steps have been achieved, while the push to reign in the military’s might, to bring more transparency and accountability into government, and to curb the power of corporate involvement in governance have either met a brick wall or been set back. And now, because of the very same fears that brought the wrath of such anti-democratic actions as Operation Condor upon the Southern Cone, a wave of political reactionaries has swept across the United States of America.
I am particularly alarmed by the ousting of Russ Feingold as a United States Senator from Wisconsin by the Tea Party member, Ron Johnson. Whereas the Tea Party is supposed to be all about rooting out corruption and standing up to “Washington insiders,” this millionaire CEO has replaced probably the most ethical Senator in existence, the only senator to have stood outside of the rest of Washington by voting against the USA PATRIOT Act when it was first introduced in 2001 (perhaps because he was the only one who actually read the thing?). He has been a model of voting on the basis of principles rather than for political purposes, often standing up to his own party leadership, and despite his progressive positions on such social issues as capital punishment, “free-trade,” and immigration reform, he has made a strong personal commitment to uphold that principle which is most dear to the Tea Party: stemming government waste. Quoting from Wikipedia,
Feingold is also a well-known advocate for reductions in pork barrel spending and corporate welfare. Citizens Against Government Waste, the Concord Coalition, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, three nonpartisan organizations dedicated to those causes, have repeatedly commended him.
Feingold, who was elected to Congress on a promise not to accept pay raises while in office, has so far returned over $70,000 in such raises to the U.S. Treasury. In addition, he is notoriously frugal in his office's spending, and sends back the money that he does not use. In one six-month period in 1999, for example, his office received $1.787 million in appropriations and returned $145,000, a higher percentage than any other senator. Since becoming a Senator in 1993, Feingold has returned $3.2 million from his office budget back to the Treasury.
The incoming senator, Ron Johnson, as a member of the Finance Council of the Catholic Archdiocese of Green Bay, recently testified before the Wisconsin Senate in opposition to a bill that would have helped child sex abuse victims sue their abusers. He campaigned heavily as an opponent of the Recovery Act, despite having discussed making a grant proposal for funding from the program in 2009. He thinks global warming is due to sun spots, is opposed to abortion rights, gay marriage, and stem cell research, and caused a bit of an uproar when he invited a speaker to an education event who had co-authored the book, The Bell Curve, which argues that white people are inherently, genetically more intelligent than people of color. The man is neither an educator nor a scientist, but rather, a policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. All of these positions, combined with the fact that this guy was able to unseat Russ Feingold, suggest that the Tea Party movement is more about social and cultural issues than they will ever admit, while the corporate mentality that upholds the enormous income gap between CEOs and employees doesn’t seem to figure into their calculations about how to limit Big Government (until it comes to exaggerating the amount of money that President Obama is spending on doing his job as the Head of State of the most powerful nation on the planet.)

Getting back to my point about political cycles in reverse, here is an example of just how backwards the trends are. I always argue that rather than being merely reactive change, progressive change is long-term, patient change that learns from the past and moves all of society forward, and the political movements in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil reflect this kind of change. The South American socialist uprisings of the 1960’s and 70’s were met with state violence, the nations eventually made their way back to democracy, and they have been healing themselves and slowly, steadily moving forward to where they are today. Meanwhile, we have a snapshot of Wisconsin during the late 1970’s in the story of James R. Lewis, a Wisconsin legislator, which ties directly into the theme of hypocritical politicians as well as my previous post about religious outreach being less than genuine. The Wikipedia entry on the man is short but chock full of key phrases that sum his story up nicely: “Moody Bible Institute;” “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association;” “Citizens for Decency Through Law;” “...attempted to persuade laser scientist...;” “...to sell it to Guatemalan colonel Federico Fuentes in order to raise funds to build a laetrile factory in South America;” “FBI;” “pled guilty to perjury for lying to a federal grand jury;” “tearfully apologized.”
Talk about cycles – how often do variations on this same story repeat themselves? Over and over, the public in the United States falls for the “ethics” of such characters. The cycle repeats itself, moving through more progressive phases and then regressing again under ever-growing corporate pressure that opportunistically utilizes the cultural issues to create fear and loathing. The direction is anything but forward-moving. And the Tea Party has nothing new to offer, just a romantic vision of a past that was good only for a certain segment of society. A major portion of the United States is stuck in a narrative that is steeped in phobias that should have been dispelled, now that the youths of the 1970’s have grown up and proved that they are just as competent, just as capable of creating stable and loving families, just as smart and mature as those who feared them and their message of real freedom and liberty.
Thankfully, not all have succumbed to the illusions, and there is always the potential that the cycles will be broken free of and real progress can be made. To that end, I say thank goodness for California’s shining Moonbeam.

Biltmore House
Asheville, North Carolina

The Ft. Lauderdale trip was a practice run for us. We loaded our dogs and our suitcases into our minivan and went down and back, then got ready for our real cross-country travels. First, we headed up to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to visit our best friends in Asheville for the weekend. Appalachia has its beauty and unique history. My favorite things that come from this region are bootleg liquor and the sounds of a mandolin or a banjo in the hands of a great musician, blending that Appalachian pickin’ style with other genres of music, honoring old traditions by refreshing them and using them in new and creative ways. In general, however, I much prefer to be out West, especially in the dramatic Desert Southwest. Jamie and I always rejoice when we cross over the Mississippi River heading west, a psychological indicator that we are entering a wilder, freer, more open zone. Everything is more spread out, landscapes are more powerful, the skies bigger, emotions more vividly expressed by those expansive Western scenes. Maybe it is all just nostalgia. Maybe it is the very different history, or the interaction of the different energies of the landscapes – or simply something about the dust and dryness of the air. Whatever the explanation, our hearts are there, open to its joys as well as its heartaches, not anywhere in the repressed East. And although Asheville has become a very popular city, we are terminally turned off by the 175,000 square foot Biltmore House that is so admired, while the fact that it was built as a summer home for George Washington Vanderbilt II with money that he inherited from Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ruthless shipping and railroad tycoon who amassed obscene amounts of money through shady business practices, seems to be all but forgotten. In fact, there have been many who prefer to call the Robber Barons, “Captains of Industry,” claiming that without their business leadership, this country would not be the world power it is today. This may be true. This argument may also be made in regard to ridding the continent of most of the native people and moving the survivors out of the way, who had lived here for hundreds if not thousands of years before Europeans arrived, because they impeded “progress” and failed to acquiesce to the unreasonable demands of the Anglos. And it applies to the use of slavery in this country as well. However, I feel that the wrongs that have been committed in the past cannot be justified in such a way and do not feel very satisfied that my luck at being born a middle class white person in the United States of America during the second half of the twentieth century has brought me benefits that were in part a result of such wrongs. The past cannot be undone in any way, but it still lingers and should not be ignored. Just as people have memories, so do places, and stones, and buildings, and old trees. I believe that past wrongs should not be forgotten or subverted, but honored and learned from, so that they will not be committed again in the future, thus freeing Humanity from the haunting, destructive cycles of bigotry and hatred, the endless back and forth feuds, like that of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

taste some of that sweet homegrown appalachian spirit: http://www.revjeffmosier.blogspot.com/

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