lichtenstein_gun

Passionate views on gun control epitomize America’s underlying cultural divide

What are we to think of America’s agonizing political stalemate? Scratch the surface and you will find a conflict born of the widely divergent cultural experiences that forged the convictions of the different constituencies. It seems that the country is at some great tipping point, a point of massive resistance just before certain elements that dominated the past succumb to the pressure of an emerging new ordering of cultural priorities.

The politically and economically dominant white males of the Baby Boomer mega-generation are ungraciously unwilling to surrender their power to more worldly, multi-ethnic, technology-driven, and environmentally-oriented younger generations. The youngsters’ world-views were shaped by more rainbow-colored influences than the black and white post-World War II culture that set the stage for the young Boomers.

The evolving future colliding with the vestigial past is the cycle of death and rebirth inherent in all natural processes. Competition and conflict are inevitable. Sometimes the rough waters of cultural cataclysms can be navigated with skillful political leadership. Teddy Roosevelt was able to usher the country through the post-industrial upheaval of the early twentieth century, in part because he embodied elements of both the elite and the common man. Lyndon Johnson’s consummate negotiations with Congress enabled him to legislate a new domestic cultural agenda in the turbulent 1960s.

It is appropriate that gun control is emerging as the iconic clash of the Great American Stalemate. Past irresolvable cultural divides in American history have resulted in our two great civil wars.

The American Revolution was the country’s first cultural tipping point. The political system devised by the Founding Fathers was a revolutionary break from the old European monarchy, the birth of a new society that explicitly valued individual freedom.  The new government was a manifestation of the evolving political philosophies of the Enlightenment, including the concept of government as a social contract between the people and their leaders. Religious leaders likewise urged a break from tyranny as part of a religious Awakening that “reached across socioeconomic lines to encompass rich and poor, men and women, frontiersmen and townsmen, farmers and merchants.” The precipitating factors of the military conflict, however, were economic, as the French and Indian War changed the economic dynamics between England and America. Colonial resistance to the autocratic imposition of new taxes to recoup British war costs culminated in the Boston Tea Party and eventually the declaration of independence from King George III.

The American Civil War was America’s second devastating culture war. The southern states’ secession and the ensuing bloody conflict ended slavery and the plantation-based southern economy spawned by colonial economic forces. American colonization had primarily been funded not by European governments, but by individual investors who expected a return on the large sums of money spent in this highly risky endeavor. The lucrative tobacco and cotton trade seduced both Americans and the British to accept a race-based rationale for enslaving the workforce needed to grow these labor-intensive crops. After the Revolutionary War, southern raw cotton was shipped to factories in an increasingly industrial north. The cultural differences between the more urban industrial north and the agrarian rural south heightened unresolved tensions over states’ rights and slavery.

The Confederacy was able to muster an army because of cultural solidarity between yeomen and plantation owners with very different economic interests. The perceived superiority of the white race, the desire for freedom from outside oppressors, and solidarity with the home state were some of the ties that bound a diverse southern coalition.

Our understanding of the underlying causes and motivations behind these great American cultural disruptions have developed and ripened with the passage of time. Our personal stake in the current crisis distorts our ability to discern its true nature. How does history enlighten us?  Economic interests are a primary factor now as in the past. The paradoxical conservative alliance of rural folk and the rich urban business class follows the pattern of revolutionary and rebel coalitions whose shared religious and cultural beliefs trumped divergent economic priorities. And a common insistence on the “right to bear arms” should not be surprising in a country whose most beloved cultural icons include colonial revolutionaries, southern rebels, and frontier pioneers.

President Obama quickly seized upon the gun control issue in the wake of the eerie concurrence of mass shootings that ended with the Newtown tragedy. He may be trying to use the emotional energy surrounding these events as a wedge to break apart the heterogeneous conservative alliance. After all, what more powerful symbol of the threat to the future of our country could there be than the violent deaths of children and their teachers?

Protest Bank of AmericaReclaiming my idealism in the streets of Charlotte, NC

I’ve been getting a lot of criticism lately for being angry. I realize my anger makes other people uncomfortable. But anger is part of human nature for a reason. Anger is a motivator. When our souls are on fire, we are moved to take action. Anger gets us off our butts watching people on TV do things and causes us to take action ourselves.

Just in case you’ve been wondering, the Occupiers didn’t go away. Like sensible creatures, they holed up for the winter, planning their next move. Their planning has offered me a good outlet for some of my anger–Occupy Wall Street South, a march against Bank of America on Wednesday, May 8, in Charlotte, NC, where I lived for 30 years until July 2011.

I worked for nine years for NCNB, a Bank of America predecessor bank. I had been educated in business, a BA in economics from Duke and an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. I call those nine years with NCNB “The Period of My Disillusionment.”

I still remember the day in 1981 when the bosses came around and “suggested” I contribute to the NCNB-PAC. I had just finished business school. There, students had presented papers in my “Business and Society” class, the class that was supposed to cover ethics. For some reason, many of these presentations had been about PACs (Political Action Committees). Student presentations are boring so I hadn’t paid any attention. But ever since the Enron scandal I have thought that we should have spent more time in that class talking about ethics. Filling class time with student presentations was a cop-out for that professor, a foreshadowing of the ethical cop-outs MBAs subsequently helped to unleash on a gullible world that had entrusted them with our collective assets.

I am proud to say I had the courage to decline the arm-twisting to contribute to the NCNB-PAC, a bold move for a new employee.  Later I did contribute, when I understood that inter-state banking legislation was needed so that U.S. banks could get large enough to compete in increasingly global markets. I contributed  because I understood the issue, not because of corporate pressure.

In my bank job I managed the budget process for the operations subsidiary, figuring out how to quantify and track cost savings from our mergers with out-of-state banks. This was important stuff, so I worked up close and personal with senior executives and got to see how these people think. Their behavior, what they thought and cared about, is what disillusioned me. These men–and they were all men at the time–cared far more about ego and self-promotion than they did about the business of banking.

People say women are emotional and catty. These men were consummate back-stabbers, slammed doors on the executive floor, pouted and sulked, and were never happier than when they got big fat raises to spend on luxury cars and extravagant houses. Some did their jobs well, some didn’t. If you were a corporate executive, it meant you had played the corporate game well and picked the right coattails to ride on.

My observations are not sour grapes. I didn’t get fired, I quit my bank job in 1990 to focus on raising my children.  So the behavior I witnessed was way back in the 80s, when Ronald Reagan had made greed and excess acceptable again after the idealism of the 60s and 70s. Greed and excess became increasingly out of control until the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped out the financial security of hard-working people all around the world.

I don’t think Americans really understand the pain that our culture of greed has exported to the rest of the world. The recession is deepening in the Eurozone, where unemployment has risen again to almost 10%. In France recently, I was surprised by candidate posters in a primary election railing against the havoc wreaked by Wall Street and demanding retribution. In hard-hit Spain, citizens try to cope with a drink called the Anti-Crisis sold at bars for an affordable single euro.

It makes me angry that the unethical, self-motivated executives and their political accomplices who got us into this mess continue to live lavishly, while ordinary people who trusted these leaders suffer.

I am grateful to the organizers who are giving me a chance to participate in this protest in Charlotte. I did not participate in the protests in the 70s because I knew I did not fully understand the issues. I have always tried to think for myself. Most people don’t. Most people look to others to lead, and they follow.

Our corporate and political leaders led the world into disaster and I am not ashamed to be angry about it. After living in Charlotte for 30 years, I know a lot of people there, and my actions will make a lot of them uncomfortable. But you know, a lot of people all over the world are damned uncomfortable right now.

I am glad to be taking my anger to the streets of the town that trashed my idealism. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

This blog post is excerpted from the column “Otherwise Occupied: What Price Revolution” by Hal Crowther in the November 30, 2011 issue of The Independent, a weekly newspaper in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Triangle area of North Carolina. Crowther is singing off my hymn sheet, so I happily hand him the microphone:

Every time a citizen with good intentions provokes a police-state reaction from the local authorities, the angels smile and society moves one millimeter closer to salvation… in liberal, affable Chapel Hill,, a reporter with a camera recorded steroidal officers in full SWAT-team battle gear, pistols and assault rifles at the ready, charging an unarmed encampment of self-described anarchists who had “liberated” a vacant building. A few seconds later the reporter was arrested, handcuffed and forced to lie facedown on the pavement with the unfortunate anarchists, who had neither resisted nor threatened any crime greater than trespassing. Amazed bystanders chanted “Shame! Shame!”

Shame, indeed. Attempts by the police chief and the mayor to defend this preposterous cinematic overkill only added to the embarrassment. They claim that the assault rifles were not aimed at the protesters, but the photograph is there for everyone to see that they’re lying.

…The liberators of the derelict auto dealership in Chapel Hill were acting independently of the local “Occupy” encampment… But the Occupiers, whose critique of America emphasizes its mindless materialism, are no doubt delighted to point out what a sleepy Southern town full of Ph.D.s will do to protect abandoned property. …

Idiot force has been deployed against Occupy at dozens of its tent cities, although assault rifles have yet to appear anywhere other than Chapel Hill. Every image of belligerent overreaction to a nonviolent protest—diligently videotaped, instantly online—is a victory for this promising experiment in civil disobedience, which in the digital age commands an audience inconceivable to Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.

But those great martyrs of nonviolence, who succeeded in spite of the violence they failed to survive, laid down the rules of this game. It’s about self-control: You conquer by conquering yourself. Your enemy is exposed, isolated and in the end defeated by his brutality and lack of restraint.

… You make a stern, life-altering commitment when you take your grievances to the street…It’s cold, dangerous and not always rewarding…My generation, the one that marched against segregation and the war in Vietnam, can point to major achievements and major disappointments. On our worst days we feel that we, as a generation, are a major disappointment. …how did the egalitarian dreams of the ’60s decay into the grim corporate feudalism that Occupy Wall Street so quixotically confronts? At what point, exactly, was it clear that greed had trumped altruism and cash had devoured representative democracy?

If this is a revolution we’re watching, perhaps it’s not so much class warfare as generational warfare. The most deluded members of my generation join the mock-revolution they call the tea party, funded by fascist billionaires, scripted by the usual talk-radio gargoyles and apparently so stunted by the brain plaque of advancing age that it imagines the government is its archenemy, to the great amusement of the corporate leviathans who operate that government like a hand puppet.

This cruel farce draws most of its recruits from my own demographic group, and I’m ashamed. Who knows why expired testosterone leads to big guns, silly hats and prayer breakfasts? …The truth, in spite of all the graybeards who keep running for president, is that our time is over…

It’s up to them now, the green, clean, unexpected revolutionaries one Manhattan office worker called “those terrific kids in the park.” It’s up to you, whoever you are, and encouraging polls indicate that most Americans don’t buy the predictable smears from the right-wing coven, the ones that dismiss you as spoiled children of privilege who would rather demonstrate than work. …

My sympathies are obvious. What you in the tents can accomplish remains to be seen. But what I think I see, through the media fog of polarized America, is the return of the full-fledged idealists …who seemed to go underground around 1980, possibly because the mass media abandoned them during the mudslide of self-celebration that began with Reaganism and culminated in Facebook.

I say God bless them, and God will if he still has any investment in the United States of America. … The good news is that “the kids” are right on target. Their diagnosis is bull’s-eye correct, and the patient is critical. For this country to survive, it must find saner ways to pursue and multiply wealth, and find them quickly. The cannibal capitalism that produced a Goldman Sachs and a Bernie Madoff is subhuman and obscene. …

…. The Industrial Revolution fueled the metamorphosis of capitalism into a ravenous monster that devoured resources, landscapes and human beings on a scale no wars or natural disasters had ever approached. The wealth generated by this devastation created colossal corporations and financial operations far more powerful than elected governments; long ago the individuals who controlled these giants learned that it was cost-effective to buy up the politicians and turn governments into virtual subsidiaries. …

Investment banks and hedge funds were designed as perfect engines for multiplying the assets of the affluent. The Wall Street elite of the 20th century—Masters of the Universe, Tom Wolfe called them—flew so far above the laws of the land that they began to imagine themselves exempt from all laws, including economics, physics and averages. This magical thinking came to a head with a wave of death-defying speculation in mortgage-backed securities, and quite suddenly, in 2008, the walls came tumbling down, exposing a phantom economy based on nothing but arrogance and sleight of hand.

… Instead of a stable economy and an affluent society we confronted a hemorrhaging scandal, a crime accurately portrayed as the looting of America. We woke up from our consumer coma to discover that the bastards had stolen everything. You’ve seen the numbers: The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the super-rich targeted by OWS, emerged from this shattered, looted economy with a net worth greater than the “bottom” 90 percent.

In the past 30 years they’ve nearly tripled their after-tax income—275 percent—while the poorest fifth gained a virtually stagnant 18 percent. Economist Paul Krugman emphasizes that it’s the one-tenth of 1 percent, the fabulously rich one-thousandth, who account for a lion’s share of the 1 percent’s gains. These high lords of lucre have increased their income 400 percent since 1979.

Meanwhile,…a full one-third,100 million—live in poverty or what The New York Times calls “the fretful zone just above it.” One in 15, the largest percentage since the Great Depression, falls 50 percent below the poverty line, with an annual individual income of less than $6,000…Meanwhile, …Wall Street banks on taxpayer life support continued to pay out billions in bonuses, monstrously inflated CEO salaries showed no signs of shrinking and the Republican Party campaigned for more of the bloody same, and a stronger dose of it: no taxes, no regulations, no unions…

A slate of demands from Occupy Chicago struck me as savvy and dead-on: repeal tax cuts and close loopholes for the rich, prosecute the Wall Street felons of 2008, separate commercial lending from investment banking, rein in lobbyists, eliminate corporate personhood and overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010.

This last demand is perhaps the most critical. The decision that defined campaign contributions as free speech, delivered by the court’s 5-4 Republican majority, removed the last legal obstacles to a wallet-based political system that leaves the 1 percent, or one-hundredth of 1 percent, in unchallenged control of our fortunes and our public lives. It opened the floodgates for a multibillion-dollar campaign to defeat President Obama, and any candidates who might resist corporate feudalism, in 2012.

In the words of the late Molly Ivins, “We either get the money out of politics or we lose the democracy.”

There’s a grave possibility that it has already been lost. But those “terrific kids” in the tents… seem to be the only Americans who are dead sure what’s at stake. “I want us to be the country’s moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience…” said one rebel named Katie…

(Katie) and her friends may be the last, best hope, if hope there is. Join them if you’re young and tough enough, send them money if you can still afford it, but for God’s sake listen to them. Their voices represent either America waking up at last, or its final, futile protests about to be smothered by dumb money and dumb force. Will you sit on the sidelines and watch?

Occupy Madison Avenue

November 11, 2011

As Luke and Mark say in the Bible “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In a culture with an economy comprised 70% of consumer spending, how and where we choose to spend our dollars is often more important than how we vote. So I was pleased to run across this article today in the New York Times pointing out that shoppers are pushing back against the latest ploy by big retailers to grasp for Black Friday sales. Power shoppers who go after the post-Thanksgiving sales have said “Enough” to retailers who have moved store opening times to midnight or earlier on Thanksgiving night and are starting to boycott the Black Friday frenzy. The marketers have finally trespassed too far into personal lives, as the earlier start times interfere with the Thanksgiving celebrations of both shoppers and employees.

The “rituals” that Black Friday shoppers say they have come to enjoy appall me. But I realize the many of these bargain-hunters are people (the 99%) doing their best  to meet absurd cultural expectations for making Christmas “merry” with their limited personal resources. Finally, as individuals, the boycotters are throwing off these cultural shackles and voicing their opinions with their credit cards.

In the article a Target spokesperson refers to shoppers as “guests”, a euphemism I find particularly insulting. How many of us would invite guests to our homes for an event that starts in the middle of the night after an already exhausting Thanksgiving Day? Recently, however, I heard an NPR commentator describe most American interactions as “mutual exploitations.” And David Brooks described Americans in yesterday’s editorial as “a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other.”

We don’t have to be that kind of people, however, if we choose not to. Each of us simply must raise our individual consciousness and realize in how many ways the big institutional powers in our society have usurped both our goodness and our individuality.

For the record, today (11/11/11) is viewed by some New Agers as “a gateway to a higher opening of consciousness on the planet.” Let’s hope so.


Finally. The people are speaking out about corruption and abuse of power.  The “Occupy” movement is here.

To learn more about Occupy and to see how technology is facilitating this movement, check out the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together web sites.

In my “Time for a paradigm shift” post, I commented that individuals “must find a way to act that will change the course of our nation.” I hope that the Occupy movement is the beginning of that change.

To people who remember the protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s, Occupy may look familiar. A columnist in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel believes that is a misperception:

These “occupiers” are making a fundamentally different and more profound statement than has popularly been reported.

It is direct democracy. It is a new vision of change. It is community values in action.

It is also no wonder the media has had a hard time making sense of it. The “occupation” isn’t what we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t lend itself to the familiar narrative arc of a protest: “You meet these demands, and then we’ll go home.” Instead the occupiers are protesting our economic system by offering a direct alternative, by actively living out values of trust and representation and interdependence — values that the surrounding financial institutions obscure and repress.

Tea Partiers should take heart and journalists who don’t get what is going on should take note. The movement is not necessarily asking government to step in to solve all our problems. The corruption of government by monied interest groups is well understood to be part of the problem.

Instead, the movement is about “actively living out” what young people see as “new” values, and what older people should recognize is a return to individual responsibility, compromise, and consensus-building. The movement is promoting cultural change by acting it out in their people’s assemblies. Younger activists may not realize that the culture of greed and self-indulgence that became acceptable in the ’80s is very different from American mores of the preceding five decades.

Rapid technological change, government corruption, and consumer economy ethics are world-wide phenomena that have led to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. So the Occupy movement is part of a global movement that includes the Arab Spring and activism across Europe earlier this year.  American young people (are) collaborating with young people around the world to invent a future that embraces a common good.” 

Just when mainstream American politics seems to many to have reached new depths, the pendulum of history has begun its inevitable swing back from right-wing extremism. But the arc of history is more than the simple back-and-forth movement of a pendulum. The shape of history’s movement is a spiral, ever pushing its way upward toward a higher plane of consciousness.

The spiral is repeatedly expressed both in nature and in the religious symbolism of many cultures from ancient to present times. To understand history’s spiral-shaped trajectory is to glimpse the divine. To trust that the unseen future will be better than the past is to have faith.


Original Jogger

February 11, 2011

On the importance of the individual spirit

Just for fun, I used to tell my kids that I was the original jogger. It wasn’t until later that I realized it might be true, and it wasn’t until now that I realized there was something to learn from my silly jogging story.

What you do matters. It can even change the world. By now, we’ve all seen Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This little story shows the truth of his message:

The basketball bounced off my head when I briefly entered a game during my sophomore year in high school. Not allowed to be a quitter, it wasn’t until my junior year that I blessedly ended my abysmal participation in the sport. A passable field hockey player and swimmer, winter became my fallow season as far as exercise was concerned, and it wasn’t long before I noticed my weight starting to creep up.

So several days a week I began running laps around the circle of streets in my neighborhood, gradually increasing my distance to a mile, and then to two very slow miles. My mother told me the neighbors commented to her about seeing me in my solitary pursuit, because in the winter of ’70-’71 I had the pavement all to myself. I was serious enough about my endeavor that I bought myself some running shoes, the original Adidas Gazelles, track shoes with very flat soles because they were designed to be light weight, the only running shoes available at the time.

Indeed, when I continued my running around campus in college, people often suggested that I join the track team, because those were the only runners back in those days. In college I remember one girl friend who, like me, ran on her own; over the years a trickle of others started kicking up their heels.

In 1977, a year after I graduated from college, I was joined on an elementary school track near my apartment in Atlanta by several other joggers, all of them wearing some strange-looking shoes–the first wide-heeled waffle trainers! Jogging as a national fitness craze had been born. By then I had been running for 6 or 7 years.

Do I really think I was the original jogger?” Of course not. Did I unknowingly play a role in bringing about jogging as a popular activity in America? While waffle trainer inventor and Nike founder Bill Bowerman is widely considered the primary apostle of American jogging, early joggers like me played a role too by bearing witness to the sport on the streets and country roads around America. Who knows who I might have inspired to tie on a pair of sneaks and hit the road? As Olympic runner Jeff Galloway said about the running revolution in his 1984 Galloway’s Book on Running, “it seemed to be a natural evolution.” My early jogs were part of “the spirit of the times” that Galloway says were “reflected and magnified” by Bowerman and others like him, catalyzing a fitness running phenomenon that continues to this day

I want to point out that my original jogging was my own idea, drawing on my own sports training experience to respond to my own weight gain. Why does that matter? Because the creativity of our individual spirits is a divine spark waiting to be ignited within each of us so that God’s evolutionary  plan can unfold. Each one of us is responsible for helping to light the world with personal action that sets our own individual souls on fire.

Most of us aren’t going to set the world on fire. But it pleases me that I was part of the cultural evolution that brought an important healthy activity into the mainstream of American life at a time that was ripe for just such a change.

South African activist Desmond Tutu spoke at my son’s college graduation a couple of years ago. His exhortation to the graduating class still resonates in my ears. “Help me, help me,” he repeatedly chanted in a child-like voice during his speech. This, he said, is what God needs for each of us to do, “Help me!”

How does evolution happen? One creature, one person at a time. We all matter. How simply divine.

A recent Google search of “spiritual evolution quotes” led me to a brilliant mind who spoke specifically about the focal point of this blog, the intersection of spirituality and history. I was led to the words of none other than Albert Einstein. Einstein believed in following his intuition (the spirit moving in the individual), and he understood our interconnectedness with one another and with the universe.

Many people believe that Einstein was an atheist, but this is far from the truth. Rather, he saw the Divine in the order, rationality, and harmony that he found while searching for the underlying principles of the universe. After making his ground-breaking discoveries, including the general theory of relativity, he spent the remaining decades of his life trying to discern what he called “unified field theory, a single law that would encompass all the fundamental forces of nature. Einstein himself had this to say about his unfulfilled quest, which many of his contemporaries considered foolish:

“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us closer to the secret of the ‘Old One.’ I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.”

The search for a unified theory continues. I can profess to only the most superficial understanding of  Einstein’s work and of quantum mechanics. No matter (no pun intended!). It is Einstein’s thoughts about society that interest me:

“When considering the actual living conditions of present day civilised humanity from the standpoint of even the most elementary religious commands, one is bound to experience a feeling of deep and painful disappointment at what one sees. For while religion prescribes brotherly love in the relations among the individuals and groups, the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one’s fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in the school and, destroying all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection.”

Einstein made this statement in 1948, but it seems to me that it describes today’s political and economic scene rather well.

I am repeatedly disheartened when hate- and fear-mongering political dialogue comes from people who cloak themselves in the garb of religiosity, and who apparently believe that we are incapable of rising above greed as a motivating principle to live by.

Einstein had similar sentiments in his day:

“There are pessimists who hold that such a state of affairs is necessarily inherent in human nature; it is those who propound such views that are the enemies of true religion, for they imply thereby that the religious teachings are utopian ideals and are unsuited to afford guidance in human affairs.”

I believe that humans are destined for more, for better than this, and that in time we will learn to support, rather than break down one another. It will not be religious dogma, but the human spirit, harbored within each individual soul, that will take the world to this better place. All in good time…

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