Monday, December 3, 2012

Calamity Jeff speaks

The time for justice and peace is going up in a cloud of warming gasses

There is a notion—the idea of an ethical human race, a human race for which justice comes first—that I wish was understood and widely embraced. Further, I wish that we all lived by that ideal.

If we did there would be a whole laundry list of very important outcomes that would be realized in such a world. Indeed, where to start itemizing?

Here, in the United States, we would have an economy in which wealth, income and healthcare were more fairly distributed. People would be able to find jobs close to home that were satisfying, or perhaps a little further away, maybe a reasonable commute on public transportation, say, if they wished a particular job in their area of expertise or one that paid a bit more than those available closer to home. People would live in decent housing located in safe neighborhoods with good public schools. And college educations would be more affordable.

U.S. domestic policy would require that investments in communities be generally equal except where historic injustices required reparations in the form of additional investment in Native American and African American communities.

U.S. foreign policy, too, would be different, and the country would back off from its historic insistence that global resources be divided in the interests of Americans. The United States and China—by an overwhelming margin the biggest producers of carbon pollution—would join with other countries to vigorously pursue reductions in the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other climate change gasses, and invest in climate change mitigation projects domestically and internationally.

Elsewhere, Israelis would recognize the ongoing injuries suffered by Palestinians first as the state of Israel was established and later as the Occupation began and new settlements were established. In pursuit of a productive and just Israel-Palestinian peace process, Israelis would support both land and reparations for peace, and Palestinians would relinquish their justifiable claims in exchange for a viable homeland.

Israelis would also recognize that no theocracy, Muslim, Christian or Jewish, can guarantee equal rights and would take further steps toward true democracy. In such a world, terrorism, both the Middle Eastern kind and every other variant, the frequent recourse of the raging wounded, would wither away.

The list could be much longer, of course, and, regardless of the depth of commitment to equality and justice and a sustainable future, the devil would truly be in the details of how we get to such a utopian place. Even the process of defining the place would itself be devilish, but no matter. The real question is what might motivate us all to invest our hearts and minds into doing so much good.

The answer would have to lie in the fact that failing to do so, at this point in human history will result in a train wreck of apocalyptic proportions. Humans, after all, have become, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (or, even, since Columbus sailed into the Carrribean), so much more efficient at laying waste to populations and to planet.

Never in the previous ten thousand years of history could we kill or destroy so quickly and so epically. Our production of death and misery and desperation is at historic highs these last 150 years or so, outpacing production in previous centuries and millennia by orders of magnitude. The degree of that increase of destructive power could be hypothesized and investigated using scientific tools; we need no Mayan calendar to predict the famines and super storms and holocausts to come.

If Howard Zinn were alive, and were willing to read this essay, I can guess how he might respond to my thesis. Zinn, of course, was no Pollyanna. He was a historical revisionist who would gaze unflinchingly on the truth of American and world history in order to name the policies and people who have inflicted so much damage on working people and people of color and women and sexual minorities, in order to name the names and crimes of people, generals and corporate heads, celebrated by more conventional versions of history.

But in the face of such painful stories and depressing outcomes, Zinn insisted on fighting back. No matter the power that might be arrayed against activists, power organized in defense of the status quo, Zinn believed in the efficacy of collective human action.

“Surely history does not start anew with each decade. The roots of one era branch and flower in subsequent eras. Human beings, writings, invisible transmitters of all kinds, carry messages across the generations,” Zinn wrote in his essay, Failure to Quit (collected in a book by the same title).

“I try to be pessimistic, to keep up with some of my friends. But I think back over the decades, and look around. And then it seems to me that the future is not certain, but it is possible,” he concluded.

Zinn would not have argued that the future we are looking at now is anything but grim. “The word ‘optimism’ used [in The Optimism of Uncertainty], and in the subtitle of [Failure to Quit], makes me a little uneasy, because it suggests a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time,” he wrote. “But I use it anyway, not because I am totally confident that the world will get better, but because I am certain that only such confidence can prevent people from giving up the game before all the cards have been played.”

The point I am making here is based on my assumption that there are now so few cards remaining in the deck that a loss of all our fortunes seems almost inexorably close. Nevertheless, this essay of mine is no call to action. It is instead a call to agreement on certain truths that seem to me to be almost self-evident. Effective action requires such agreement.

We are on the cusp of a global catastrophe that will wound us all and kill many, and even that wounding and killing will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. The coming changes are the outcome of centuries of human activity and policies that encourage and result in the grievously unequal distribution of resources.  What we do in the near future depends on widespread agreement that what we have been doing for millennia brought us to this point, and must not be the model for what we do henceforward.

In the absence of such an understanding, some people will still forge ahead in the effort to change what can still be changed in the interests of greater justice. I do not believe that collective action on less than a global scale will win the future that Howard Zinn believed in, but perhaps it will and we will all of us reap the benefits of the fight that remains in stouter hearts.

But we must surely ask ourselves why it is pestilence, war, famine and death in the saddle, rather than justice, peace, equality and sustainability.


  1. A great piece, Jeff! It satisfies my hope and perhaps even my naivete.
    From my experience, history is taught and learned from a trivial standpoint of dates and names. To keep with the pace of a syllabus, deep comparisons to current times are often overlooked. Economic and environmental factors are washed over by battles and speeches. Zinn typically did a great job at painting the mood of the oppressed rather than the prowess of the victor. Perhaps that's why he is known more of in circles of history hobbyists rather than high school history students. And the sad thing is that many voters fall in the latter category.
    Past readings of European forays into the new world because of resource issues as well as Jefferson's well-kept secret strategy of enticing Native Americans into debt with trade to leverage their land away are great examples of humanizing history to modern themes. Big bank leverage and corporate pressures (East India Companies) have been used for centuries. From my angle through, few have been exposed to those historical perspectives to really take an inventory of the precipice we stand on today.
    Unfortunately, it would take a mutiny at Fox news to break the current trend. Perhaps comparing network news to drug pushers, but I guess that's a little too much pontification from a progressive to sell in the red states.

  2. Thanks for the "attaboy," kp. And for your further comments. I intend to follow up on this post with another look at the deep roots of our apparent national and global dysfunction, which you have also begun to identify with your observations about European colonialism and Jeffersonian policies in regard to Native Americans.

    Injustice left unaddressed, uncorrected and unredeemed seems like it ought to have the same effect on national political psyches that unresolved trauma and conflict have on the lives of individuals--which most often seems to be the path to further conflict and dysfunction.

    I'm going to call on Calamity Jeff to consider the whole question in subsequent posts.