Wake up America!

May 24, 2012

Expect chaos when the political process breaks down

ku klux klan 2012

Today, Occupy organizers sent me a very disturbing link to information about an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina, my home state. The group is planning a cross-burning on May 26 in Harmony, North Carolina. Can you believe the irony of such a hate-filled event in a place with a name like that?

Because my international readers may not be familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this group and its history:

Ku Klux Klan, often abbreviated KKK and informally known as the Klan, is the name of three distinct past and present far-right organizations in the United States, which have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as white supremacywhite nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through terrorism. Since the mid-20th century, the KKK has also been anti-communist. … (I)t is classified as a hate group…estimated to have between 3,000 and 5,000 members as of 2012.

The first Klan flourished in Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. Members adopted white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities. The second KKK flourished nationwide in the early and mid 1920s, and adopted the same costumes and code words as the first Klan, while introducing cross burnings. The third KKK emerged after World War II and was associated with opposing the Civil Rights Movement and progress among minorities. The first and third incarnations of the Klan have well-established records of engaging in terrorism and political violence…

Here’s what the Occupy organizer’s email had to say about this event:

We need to take this very seriously especially in light of the international, unprecedented capitalist crisis that has caused mass unemployment. Fascism started to rear its head a few years ago with Tea Party, fortunately there was a Left response from the Occupy Wall Street movement that helped shut down most that energy, or atleast the mainstream media’s obsession with it. These fascists are very dangerous, so we should also keep this in mind we decide to mobilize to counter protest. Our best self-defense is with a mass crowd and counter-rally. Comrades in FIST are beginning to mobilize for this rally on Saturday, anyone else down?

Here’s what I have to say about it:

This is very, very scary. We are living in dangerous times, and people need to be aware of what is going on. Our country is upside down and people are becoming desperate. Now that I am out of the rich enclave where I lived for many years, I meet people literally every day who are in very dire straits. Wake up, America! There is trouble ahead. The way of life that has evolved since WWII is about to blow up.  In America, when the political process is in gridlock as it is now, direct political action by grass-roots organizations is inevitable. Turn to the pages of American history written by the the 1960s protest movements to learn about just one of many episodes of such grassroots action in our past.

I turned to those pages myself today, and I was surprised by what I learned. Both protestors and police in Charlotte viewed the May 9 protest as a practice round for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September. When I learned this, I recalled  vivid images from the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that I watched on black-and-white TV as a 14-year-old. I remember watching police clubbing protestors’ heads as clearly as I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot. Both events were major shocks to the American political system.

In Charlotte I learned that protestors provoke police to get media attention. The 1968 police violence in Chicago demonstrates that this is a very dangerous game.

Occupy Bank of America Charlotte

Police arrest protestor at May 9, 2012 Occupy Bank of America Protestthat this is a very dangerous game.

But here’s what surprised me. I thought that the anti-war protestors were successful, and ultimately they were. But an outstanding, balanced 4-part You-Tube video about the ’68 Chicago convention reminded me that the violence the protestors evoked from the police backfired big-time. In the 1968 election, Republican Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, whose campaign was associated with the chaotic images televised the night he won his party’s nomination. The Vietnam War that activists were protesting went on for another 7 years.

The ’68 Democratic Convention now appears to me to be the event that pushed the political pendulum in the opposite direction, beginning the long swing toward ever more extreme conservatism that has brought us to where we are today.

I also made an interesting observation when I looked at a summary of political party control of the presidency and Congress since the early twentieth century. Prior to the financial system meltdowns of the Great Depression in the 1920s and the Great Recession starting in 2008, political control of both the presidency and Congress was held by the Republican party. This is fact, not opinion. It is my opinion that unchecked political power controlled by wealthy conservatives protecting their personal financial interests was a significant contributing factor to both financial meltdowns.

Yes, a Ku Klux Klan rally in a place called Harmony is ironic all right. But I learned long ago that God lives in irony and paradox, where opposites interact in attention-getting ways. God, the Spirit, Divinity by whatever name you want to call “It” is the Invisible Hand pushing the pendulum back and forth. At least, that’s what I think. And I do think. Not everybody does. Some people just act and react without thinking. That leads to trouble.

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?

You read it here first

October 25, 2011

Yes, I am being shameless. But when no one else does, you must toot your own horn.

David Brooks, N.Y. Times editorial columnist, is perhaps the most insightful journalist currently writing about the American and world scenes. In today’s editorial, he argues that if Americans are to regain trust in government, the debate should refocus on concrete choices facing the nation, and steer away from ideology:

Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.

Don’t just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.

If you don’t trust voters to be serious, they won’t trust you.

In my June 5, 2011 post I wrote: Ideology doesn’t solve problems. Only real, tangible, on-the-ground, practical, pragmatic, nitty-gritty hard work solves problems. Let’s stop arguing about theories and face the facts. It’s time to get real.

Remember, you read it here first.

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.


I don’t want my friend Thomas to become a cause—a poster child for what happens when someone falls between society’s cracks. But I fear this result if Social Security denies his disability application for the third time. Another denial will sentence him to a long continuation of his state of homelessness that I don’t think he can endure. The light of hope would be too faint, too far in the distance for him to continue to bear the coarse life in the men’s shelter—a life too rough for a man with the temperament of a gifted artist like Thomas.

Without hope, it is easy to imagine him erupting into a violent outburst that would land him in prison. Thomas himself frequently speaks of his own fear of such an outcome. Without hope, a relapse into drug use from which he would not recover is a real possibility. Without hope, he could choose to end his own suffering. The last time I dropped Thomas off at the homeless shelter I sensed that the thread of hope on which his life dangles has grown dangerously thin.

Over his lifetime, Thomas’s mental illness has caused him to ricochet from one precarious situation to another. In his fifties now, he has been homeless off and on for the last 10 years. Last spring, to escape the violence and regimentation of the shelter, he set up a tent camp by the railroad tracks. This attempt to take his life into his own hands nearly ended in disaster when an unwelcome visitor pulled a knife on him in his own camp.

A well-intentioned group of friends tried to help by providing temporary shelter and short-term employment until Thomas could “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” The friends underestimated the amount of effort it takes for a penniless person without transportation to get himself to sources of free meals. His well-meaning employer encountered the personality problems that no doubt have interfered throughout Thomas’s life with his ability to maintain steady employment.

Although Thomas has received mental health treatment in the past, the suggestion that his mental illness might be a disability that would prevent his future employment was a surprisingly uncomfortable confrontation for him. As I consider his reaction now, I see that if you are desperate and have only your self to rely on, facing a diagnosis of impairment due to mental illness would be devastating.

This is a warning to all those who want to dismantle government, and to all who stand idly by while this travesty of the American dream is foisted on a naïve and unsuspecting public. As long as you are of sound mind and body, America offers you great hope for a secure and prosperous life. But if you should suffer a misfortune that impairs your mental or physical health beyond what your own resources can provide for, you will find, as Thomas and I have, that the much-vaunted private sector offers you no safety net at all. With no resources and no safety net, you will find yourself in a hole with very steep walls. As a beggar, you will lose your dignity, your self-respect, and eventually your hope. You will become a permanent dependent or you will die a premature death from illness, violence, or simply despair.

If you measure life in monetary terms, you will be impressed that Thomas’s artworks sell for thousands of dollars. But is that really what life is all about—how much money you can make, how much stuff you can acquire? Ironically, a keen focus on money makes the most sense for those who don’t have any at all. But often it is people who have more than they need that maintain the most anxious grasp on their cash. What causes financially secure people to act like that? Could it be mere selfishness and greed, all wrapped up in a red-white-and blue political ideology?

“Power is only important as an instrument for service to the powerless.”  -Lech Walesa, human rights activist, Polish president, Nobel laureate (b. 1943)

We’ve got to stop passing the buck.

On this, and perhaps nothing else, I agree with Republican Mike Huckabee, who spoke on July 4 at the “part religious revival, part political rally” at First Baptist Church here in Charlotte.

The 2008 Wall Street debacle, said Mike, was caused less by a lack of regulation or a failure in finance policy than by the business traders’ flouting of ethical principles. Huckabee called on his audience “to get involved in politics as a way of restoring America’s moral bearings.”

Yes, we have ethics problems in America, where greed and treating one another with contempt have become socially acceptable behaviors.

And yes, we had all better get involved. The two recent collossal regulatory failures, first of financial markets and now of oil producers, are compelling evidence that government regulators can’t save us from ourselves. The regulators and top managers at the industries they regulate  play musical chairs, and the interests the regulators protect the best are their own, not ours. Our legislators, who write the regulations, are also part of this game.

But if the powers that be want to play musical chairs, it’s the American people who turn the music on and off, and it is time we stop letting ourselves be the ones who end up without a chair.

Even as we despair that government as we know it has become gridlocked and corrupted, new forms of citizen involvement are evolving that may dramatically change the way government and politics work in our country. For example, social networking sites can now connect us individually with organizations that can keep us informed about issues we care about. These new organizations make it easy to contact legislators and can make us aware of other, perhaps new ways to take personal action. (This link will take you to a MSNBC report on the BP Makes me Sick Coalition.)

These new non-governmental organizations are embryonic, but hopefully the period from gestation to maturity of this new modus operandi will be short,  just as the evolutionary cycle of new technologies has accelerated in recent years.

Systemic change is necessary for us to work our way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. As the saying goes, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” In so many areas–energy policy, education, national and individual fiscal status, health care, the environment, even the way we produce our food–we have gotten ourselves into situations that make us vulnerable both as individuals and as a nation.

So it is as individuals that we must find a way to act that will change the course of our nation. That is the way our system of government was designed to work, and if there is a system of government on this planet that offers more hope to the individual, I and the millions of immigrants that clamor to our shores don’t know about it.

So, evolve people, evolve! Don’t wait for somebody else to fix things for you, because we are all in this together. You and me and Mike Huckabee are all in the same boat, and we all better start rowing, even if just to keep from capsizing, while we figure out which way leads us out of the storm.


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