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Triggered by Charlie Hebdo

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo left me pondering our attitudes towards religion, satire, and sacrilege.

I have never understood religious faith. One of my earliest childhood memories is of a routine my brother and I engaged in while living in a shelter after our parents’ arrest. As I wrote in An Execution in the Family, “We were supposed to pray at our bedside before going to sleep each night. I resisted this, but Michael told me I had to or I would go to hell. I knelt by the side of the bed, folded my hands together, and [prayed], but upset him by giggling and muttering, ‘Goddammit.’ ”

I still don’t “get” religion. However I’ve learned from working with many deeply religious people on a range of economic and social justice issues, how religion can move people to do important, good work.

On the other hand, I do enjoy ridicule and satire. I have always delighted in making up clever and derogatory nicknames that stick to my intended target like freshly discarded chewing gum.

Perhaps these juvenile propensities led me, as I got older, to revel in making fun of sacred cows. I don’t confine this practice to people I disagree with. During the light bulb joke craze, I remember waiting for Elli to return from her feminist discussion group so I could ask her, “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb.” Her stony-faced “That’s not funny” reply, made me laugh. That, of course, was the punch line of the joke.

But the violence against Charlie Hebdo makes me realize that we need to take power into account when considering satire and parody. When oppressed people parody the elite it can be liberating, but when the powerful ridicule the oppressed, it can be deadly. So I was delighted with the cancelation of the racist television program, Amos ’n Andy. In the 1950’s, that program (in which the two white stars, in blackface, played African-Americans as lazy, boorish, ignoramuses) demeaned African-Americans. Such cultural stereotyping dehumanizes and enables hate crimes.

The concept of sacrilege – the violation or ridicule of something considered sacred – is especially dangerous. Individually, such violations often provoke violent responses. When coupled with political and/or economic power, this concept can become genocidal. People may scoff at others’ cherished beliefs while failing to recognize our own sacred cows. Americans who condemn a strong response to visual depictions of the Prophet Mohammed might be inclined to assault someone who was burning an American flag.

So while I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish their often offensive and sophomoric cartoons, I do criticize them for publishing cartoons that, for the most part, appear to single out and offend the sensibilities of an oppressed minority. And while I abhor the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, I find it profoundly ironic to see world leaders marching in Paris in support of the magazine, world leaders who have themselves caused or facilitated so much death, destruction, economic misery and censorship. Their self-righteous hypocrisy is more than I can bear. Read More 
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In last week’s blog I listed 10 possible courses of action to fight global warming and consequent climate change during 2015 and asked readers to discuss which actions they felt were best. A reader named Darcy suggested a eleventh action: “I think the list is missing something big though, soil/agriculture. Changing fossil fuel use is critical but we might actually have a chance at stopping climate change by getting more carbon back into the soil. It is the hidden toll of industrial fertilizers etc, we're adding individual nutrients instead of composted organic matter.” She also provided a link to an article about this (click link "soil and carbon" on left)

Her point is an excellent one. An article published in late 2012 reported that a partnership of 15 international research institutes concluded that our global food system generates one third of humanity’s greenhouse gas output. Many people are already attempting to counter this by supporting locally-oriented sustainable practices; many parts of the country have seen an explosion of “locavore” eating and farmers’ markets.

Elli and I are part of this trend, but I don’t always practice what I preach. I thought about this the other day in the supermarket. We wanted blueberries for a fruit salad. Maybe we shouldn’t have; we couldn’t expect to find locally grown organic blueberries in New England in early January (it was 15 degrees out). I had two choices – a small plastic container of organic blueberries at $13/pound, or a large plastic container of regular blueberries at $5/pound. To make matters worse, either choice came from Chile.

I could picture the weekly stream of Boeing 747s loaded with thousands of plastic boxes and bags of blueberries and grapes headed for supermarkets throughout the Northeast. I wondered about the carbon footprint of the petroleum-based fertilizers coating the endless acreage needed to produce fruit on that scale, coupled with the fuel costs of air transport, farming equipment, trucking to and from the originating and arriving airports, and the carbon generated by manufacturing massive quantities of petroleum-based plastic packaging.

Yet, I bought the bigger package of blueberries.

I’m not always guilty. Elli and I eat a lot more locally grown and organically produced food than we used to. We’ve stopped buying red-meat for environmental reasons. I’m aware of our carbon footprint, and try to reduce it. But my own inability consistently to make the least greenhouse gas intensive choice reflects the limits of trying to solve humanity’s global warming dilemma through individual choice. Until we alter the institutional underpinnings of multinational corporate food production, we’ll do no more than nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or rationalize that our minor carbon indulgences don’t matter, but it means that if we are to succeed we must change the system. Read More 
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What to do in 2015?

The turn of the year has me thinking about how to fight global warming and consequent climate change in 2015.

This is not a new question for me. I became fascinated with the weather as a child and began reading about climate history in college. I may be the only person on the planet to have read Stephen Schneider and Randi Londer’s 562-page tome, “THE COEVOLUTION OF CLIMATE & LIFE: FOUR BILLION YEARS OF WEATHER: CLIMATE, SOCIETY AND THE DESTINY OF THE PLANET as change-of-pace reading while studying for the Massachusetts’ bar exam.

The birth of my first grandchild in 2008 goaded me to do more than just learn about global warming. I began reading more intensely on the subject and became more alarmed. In the past three years I’ve studied a couple dozen books and many more articles about the science and politics of the situation, culminating in facilitating two climate change study groups in 2014. Despite all of this I still can’t figure out an effective course of action to combat global warming.

The study groups have given me a good sense of the options:

1. Work with local groups who are opposing the development of fossil fuel infrastructure, and fighting for local green initiatives.
2. Engage in lobbying and national electoral politics to make our economy more sustainable.
3. Join national campaigns such as 350.org to fight the XL pipeline and promote divestment from fossil fuel companies.
4. Focus on environmental justice for people of color and the poor who contribute the least to - but suffer the most from - environmental disasters.
5. Build coalitions between the divestment, environmental justice and peace movements by publicizing the environmental consequences of the military-industrial complex.
6. Build the Green Party on both a local and state level.
7. Engage in civil disobedience to prevent climate-destroying business as usual.
8. Protect plant and animal communities from depletion or extinction by fighting habitat destruction and invasive species.
9. Promote a green socialist alternative to capitalism.
10. Engage in sabotage to destroy industrial civilization’s ability to further degrade the environment.

I doubt this is an exhaustive list and, of course, many items are not mutually exclusive.

Looking over the list, I can eliminate some immediately. Without first building a mass movement, neither national lobbying, nor presidential politics, will bring about the rapid radical changes we need. And even if those who espouse destroying industrial civilization to save the environment are analytically correct, I won’t sabotage anything and find the idea of starving most of the human race in order to save the planet morally repugnant.

However, the list includes other options. They all have weaknesses, and none provides an overall strategy to achieve THE solution, but I resolve in 2015 to engage with least one of them. I’d like to start a conversation about this. And so, my question to you is: which actions or combination of them do/would you choose? Read More 
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The Torture Report: What’s Animal Rights Got To Do With It?

Like many of you, I was shocked but not surprised by the contents of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. I’ve only read a few snippets of it, but that was more than enough. I read that in July, 2002 the CIA asked the Department of Justice permission to use the techniques described in the U.S. Air Force’s “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)” program. The SERE program was designed to help American prisoners of war counteract coercive interrogation techniques, so this was, in effect, a request to turn the program on its head. Once given the go-ahead, the CIA hired two psychologists who applied the underlining theory of “learned helplessness” to these techniques. I was curious about their use of learned helplessness and looked it up.

The term learned helplessness was coined in 1967 by two University of Pennsylvania psychologists investigating the causes of human depression. They placed three groups of dogs in harnesses. The first group was just harnessed and released after a set period of time. The second group was given electric shocks that would stop once the dog pushed a lever. The third group was harnessed to the second group, and was also shocked, but this group’s lever did nothing. Thus, a dog in the third group experienced having no control over the shocks, since they only stopped when the dog it was harnessed to pushed its lever. The first two groups quickly recovered from their experience, but the third group became passive and exhibited symptoms similar to human depression.

Evidently that wasn't enough. The psychologists next placed the same three groups of dogs in a box in which the dogs could escape the shocks by jumping over a low partition. The first two groups escaped easily, but the third group didn’t even try. The psychologists concluded that the third group had learned to be helpless. These experimenters apparently felt there was nothing wrong with abusing dogs in order to learn more about human depression.

Although the Senate Torture report’s contents did not surprise me, the background of the strategy did. Experimentation on animals formed the theoretical underpinning of the techniques applied by the CIA’s contracted psychologists. Their goal was to turn the human beings under their control into blobs of putty whose passivity matched the dogs in the University of Pennsylvania study. Reading about the origins of the CIA’s torture program drives home the connection between animal and human rights activism.

Some of my left-wing friends feel that fighting for animal rights is a trivial pursuit when compared with preventing the horrific crimes against humanity carried out by our military, and the multinational corporations and governments they influence or control. I’ve attempted to convince my friends that animal rights groups are fighting our shared enemies, the same foes we face every day. And the values that these young activists seek to spread are those to which other progressives aspire.

The psychologists who made millions by tormenting the post-9/11 detainees in the name of fighting terrorism have much in common with those who thought it acceptable to shock dogs into helplessness to study human depression. An unexpected – but important – takeaway from the Torture Report. Read More 
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