Sunday, November 26, 2006

Viva Vermont and Sayonara Santorum

Though I’m not a Democrat, I was elated by the results of last week’s midterm elections. It was fun, after six years of disaster, to experience an election where the results just kept on getting better. In some cases, I was excited to see particular individuals elected to office, like Vermont Senator-elect Bernie Sanders, Progressive Representative-elect Susan Hatch Davis in the often conservative state house district where I work, and soon-to-be governors Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Eliot Spitzer in New York. I was also glad that Vermont’s Progressive candidate for auditor, Martha Abbott, an out lesbian, earned nearly 10% of the vote in that race.

In other races, I was delighted to see the change of party not out of interest in a particular candidate, but because of what the change represents. I’m glad Vermont’s House seat was won by a Democrat. I’m glad that Republicans in Ohio lost races for governor, secretary of state, and U.S. Senate. It’ll be tricky for Republicans to steal another presidential election there in 2008. I was surprised but impressed to see neighboring New Hampshire elect Democrats to both its U.S. House seats. And most of all, I was delighted to see Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, disparager of all things homosexual (see quotes below), go down to overwhelming defeat.

So, what can the Democrats in Congress learn from Vermont’s experience with divided government over the last two years?

In 2004, Democrats managed to win back control of the state House of Representatives after losing it in the 2000 backlash against civil unions. After the last election, they had a coalition with six Progressives and an independent that gave them a 90-60 advantage. Health care was at the top of the agenda. Unfortunately, the house and state Senate, with a 21-9 Democratic majority, brought forth little in terms of aggressive solutions to health care funding. To some extent, this was thanks to Republican Governor Jim Douglas, a darling of all private insurance companies. Some of this, however, was to an excessive emphasis on bi-partisanship on the part of legislative Democrats.

For instance, Vermont Democrats could have pressed for true health care reform legislation and forced the governor to veto a bill that provided health care to everyone, a veto that might have played badly this election season and helped his would-be successor Democrat Scudder Parker. In the arm wrestle of politics, however, Governor Douglas twisted the hand of the Democrats this way and that—and Democrats continued to bend and bend—until the legislature passed a much watered-down extension of benefits that did little to change the deeply flawed structure of health care provision we experience in the U.S. In the end, no one really believed that Democrats achieved their purported victory of extending benefits, and the governor benefited from not having to face questions about his blockade of health care reform. The Democrats lost their top issue and the governor coasted to reelection.

After this year’s elections in Vermont, Democrats have managed to extend their control of both chambers to 23-7 in the Senate and 101-49 (with six Progressives and two likely independent allies) in the House. These numbers could provide a two-thirds supermajority that could override a gubernatorial veto on a variety of issues, including legislation relating to health care, education finance, property taxes, and more; but Gaye Symington, Speaker of the House, has already signaled a lack of willingness to attempt to legislate by veto override. I would warn her and legislative Democrats that they have been elected in overwhelming numbers, and they need to take some risks in the next session; this tremendous support for them could quickly end if they are seen as lacking the ability to follow through on the sorts of legislation they were elected to implement.

With the U.S. Congress moving into Democratic control, I am hopeful that the leadership there will do more than their counterparts in Vermont. In Vermont, Governor Douglas was only presented with two bills controversial enough to require his veto. I would say to legislative leaders on both levels, give your executives something to veto. Do your best to set the terms of a new agenda. Show us what you stand for.

Nifty Santorum quotes

“[I have] a problem with homosexual acts, as I would with what I would consider to be acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships . . . if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.” –Rick Santorum on gay sex, AP interview

“In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality.” –Rick Santorum, AP interview

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On War

We are not at war. There is some danger inherent in this thesis, but in a world where people perpetually claim that we must sacrifice our liberties in the interest of war, let us assume we are not at war. In my Congressional district, a retired National Guard adjutant general runs for the seat on the Republican ticket; in a restaurant, a man at a nearby table suggests that she would be an apt representative because, “after all, we’re at war”.

But what if we’re not at war?

I’ve heard about war from my grandfather, who drove a tank destroyer through France and Germany during World War II. He has told me that the purpose of the army is to kill people, not to provide a college education, and not to be fooled by messages to the contrary. He lived in foxholes, ate K-rations, was shot at, and killed people. In many ways, he is representative of the men of his generation. Forty years later, he promised to take his grandsons to Canada if we were ever faced with going to war.

During that same war, my great grandfather worked for my hometown supervising air raid drills. He combed the streets as people darkened their windows, stayed inside, extinguished their lights, waited for news. Even the Capitol dome in Washington was darkened. Life did not go on as usual in wartime.

My grandmother was a high school student at that time. She went without nylon stockings and painted on her hemlines with eye liner. Food was rationed, the yellow dye for the margarine was sold separately to be mixed in by women across the country. Scrap metal was to be saved and reused, as were all other resources. This was not hard for a generation used to scraping by on the edge of poverty and fleeting employment. Pennies were the color of nickels because copper was reserved for ammunition. You didn’t eat whatever you want and you didn’t throw away whatever you didn’t want. The president didn’t tell people to go shopping, burn oil, or forget about mourning.

A dear friend of my great grandmother lost her son in that war. He was a good boy who doted on her and was always patient and kind to his mother. She lived for fifty more years without forgetting him. She wept and pointed to the black and white photograph on her wall at least once every time I visited her as a child. Mothers who didn’t lose their sons knew what it meant to awaken each morning not knowing whether their boys were alive or what country they were in.

During Vietnam, every man in my father’s generation had, at least, to think about his response to a summons from his draft board.

In the wars I learned about, people made sacrifices. They sacrificed luxury, routine, basic needs, loved ones, innocence, and their own lives. The danger is in imagining that this somehow made acceptable the propaganda that led us into and through wars, the rights sacrificed by workers and citizens, and the disproportionate burden borne by the poor, the uneducated, immigrants. This is not the case; war is wrong and sacrifice does not make it noble.

But in a time when we are told that we are at war, perpetual war, experience and evidence don’t justify the claim. Except for one gruesome day five years ago, this country hasn’t been under attack. Yet the duration of this so-called war against terror has now gone on for longer than American involvement in the Second World War. We have not been asked to sacrifice luxury, routine, or leisure. Only a limited number have been asked to sacrifice time with loved ones. Though too many have lost their lives, that sacrifice is far from universal on American soil. In so many ways, we are not at war. In so many ways, this war is a cruel farce.

Despite this lack of universal sacrifice in true defense of each person’s well-being, our government has engaged in the worst domestic abuses in the name of a distant foreign war. It has deluged the citizenry with propaganda in an effort to silence dissent. It has sacrificed civil liberties and increased corporate wealth under the cover of national interest. And, as ever, it has required the greatest sacrifices of poor people, the least educated, and those who have been most discriminated against. In 1984, George Orwell warned of the dangers of perpetual war, when the appearance of war causes us to subjugate individuality to the dictates of the state and to pave the way for injustice in the name of nationalism.

Let us stop this talk of war when we are safe in our beds, happily vacationing, driving SUVs, buying on credit, producing inordinate amounts of garbage, and numbly watching our televisions. Let us reject the fallacy that wars are just or necessary, and let us unmask the intentions of leaders who use the illusion of war to manipulate us in the intervals.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Strangling the Corporate Beast

So, I’ve been thinking for a while about how I might do more to improve my impact on the world. It all started, for the purposes of this story, anyway, with the appearance of a maintenance fee of twenty dollars a month on my bank statement. I’m not sure where that came from. After using a major corporate bank in Vermont for the past six years, this new line suddenly appeared. My bank is now owned by a Canadian corporation, and for as much as I like Canada and Canadians, a corporation is a corporation.

Someone asked me why I’m getting this maintenance fee. My response is that I don’t care. It’s a wake up call, and as soon as I’m sure all my checks and bills have been switched over, I’m closing that account. You see, I’m taking my money and opening an account at a credit union. I had heard that there were several good choices for banking in my town. Two are banks, both with headquarters not too far away and both with good track records of positive participation in their communities. A couple others are credit unions.

Until recently, I didn’t know what a credit union is or how it’s different from a bank. The first thing I learned is that credit unions have members, not customers. This wasn’t a big deal, as I’m already a member of our local food cooperative. I know that members get to vote on issues of governance, elect a representative board to run the business, and get certain other privileges of membership, like better deals on certain products.

This was good, but then I learned something great! Credit unions are able to give members better deals on certain things like interest payments and reduced (or eliminated) fees for certain services. The reason for this is that credit unions don’t pay shareholders, they pay their members. In other words, they aren’t publicly traded corporations with a primary mission of making profits for people who own stock in the company. They are responsible for doing good business with their members and good work for them.

Well, in my naivete about the banking industry, I didn’t know this sort of opportunity existed until just this summer. And this is great for several reasons.

First, I generally find capitalism repugnant. The fact that corporations are primarily committed to making money usually happens at the cost of quality of life for workers, neighboring communities, and the environment. I believe fervently in strong labor, strong communities, and a healthy environment. As a result, I want to keep my assets out of corporate hands as much as possible.

The second advantage of keeping my money out of corporate hands is that corporations give profits to people who do nothing to earn the money. All kinds of non-producing members of society are able to live off of the work of others, and in the case of banks, off my money and maintenance fees without making any meaningful contribution to society and without having to earn the profits. Why should I place my money in the hands of organizations whose primary goal is to put it into the hands of people who do no work? Why should I subsidize the leisure of wealthy people with trust funds while my parents have worked hard for nearly everything they have earned in their lives? Why should I support a system of economic injustice, particularly since I’m on the losing end of it? Clearly I shouldn’t. Indeed, none of us should. So, since I’ve found one way of opting out of that system, I’m happy to take it.

There are other ways of opting out of providing corporate welfare, too. While reading literature about the possible expansion of my local food cooperative, one member wondered what will happen if Whole Foods moves into the area? While prices are a bit steeper at my coop, there are several advantages to sticking with the coop. There’s the fact that the food they sell tends to be as local as it can be, and that they make a great effort to ensure that the production of the food is fair to both workers and the land It tends to be safe, healthy, and fresh, not to mention it also tastes better.

Even if a large natural and organic food chain should move into the area, though, I can rest assured that, at the coop, my purchases are not contributing to the wealth of the shareholders who own most large-scale grocery stores. The store itself pays profits, when it has them, to those of us who shop regularly in the store. To a great extent, this keeps my money out of the hands of people who get rich and hold a disproportional share of the nation’s wealth without contributing their work to the common good.

As my quest for more sustainable living continues, I plan to investigate and participate in more ways to starve the beast of corporate capitalism.

Monday, September 04, 2006

On the Democrats

How we function in the world, as individuals and as groups, depends upon the context in which we set ourselves. There are people who always cast themselves as “the victim”, for example, and those who do buy into the notion that they are powerless and innocent in situations that afflict them. Other people cast themselves as “the hero” in their stories; this gives them a sense of self-importance and strength. Groups can act the same way, embracing an identity of victim-hood or casting themselves as the saviors of the world. As the elections of 2006 and, especially, 2008 approach, I am concerned about the story or stories that Democrats will be telling about the world and our role in it as Americans. In order to win the next presidential election, Democrats must agree upon a new narrative that can recontextualize the place of Americans in the world and what constitutes a just society at home. They must offer a compelling alternative that can persuade people that the self-centered, fear-mongering Republican myth can no longer serve as our national story.

My interest in the power of narratives is reignited each year when I teach Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.(1) In this novel, the main characters begin by tracing the roots and evolution of the story we tell ourselves about Western technological history. Quinn emphasizes that the story has a beginning, middle, and end. His sequence is something like this: The world was made for mankind. It is mankind’s job to rule it. Successful rule will turn it into paradise. The implications are enormous. Among them is the notion that the world isn’t yet a paradise because we have not yet learned to control it completely. This is the story that has given us license to overpopulate, destroy the environment, commit genocide, and enslave people in other cultures–physically, economically, and psychologically. It is a story that provides a simple rationale for capitalism and the wars and injustices that come with it. As Quinn makes clear, this is a story that casts mankind as the enemy of the natural world.

Near the end of his novel, however, Quinn asserts that it is possible to combat this story only by providing an alternative tale, one more compelling and one filled with hope. It must be a story that links mankind’s fate with that of other species and the health of the planet. Unfortunately, the novel ends in an inchoate, hackneyed series of chapters that fail to articulate an alternative narrative. Other literature, though, has taken on the job of elucidating the possibilities that may allow us to live successfully on Earth. Through them, a new story is beginning to emerge. We know such a story is quietly beginning to make its presence known within our culture. Along with messages that encourage us to buy and throw away more–not simply a media message but one that has ensconced itself as a cultural value–is a quieter message that tells us to recycle, to turn off the lights, not to use so much air conditioning, to drive more efficient vehicles, to carpool. Not everyone hears this message, especially those who stand to benefit financially from ignoring it. But it would appear that a majority in Europe and a significant minority in the U.S. are beginning to understand this new story and to tell it with increasing force. And as such stories guide and perpetually reinforce the principles by which we live our lives, they wield enormous power to influence our behavior as individuals and as a culture.

Because of the power of narratives to contextualize our existence and give us meaning in life, Democrats must seize upon this tool in order to become a successful governing force and to begin to lead our nation out from the bleakness of the Republican myth. Though I have argued in the past that the Democrats do not offer the sole or best alternative vision for the future, I am offering this analysis to all who oppose the right, and the Democrats are in charge of that opposition at the moment. In order to create a new story, we might first look at the story Republicans have been so effective at telling Americans. Since I do not subscribe to this story, I may have it a bit out of order, but I can certainly point to the essential elements. It goes something like this:

America was founded by Christians who were chosen by God to fulfill a unique destiny and create the most perfect civilization in the world. He gave us native intelligence, ingenuity, and enormous natural resources to use in order to fuel our civilization’s growth. As God’s chosen civilization, it is our responsibility to convert the world to our way of living. Those who oppose America’s example deny the will of God.(2)

In case this is one degree too abstract to be readily recognized, here is how we more commonly hear this story:

America is the greatest country on earth. God has blessed us. We are the strongest, free-est, and richest country in the world. Our freedom means we are free do as we see fit with our land, money, children, and possessions, and no one can take that away from each of us. Because of these gifts, it is our responsibility to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. Those who oppose us hate freedom, so let’s just nuke ‘em.

Much like Quinn’s encapsulation of the narrative of Western civilization, this story, in either version, gives active permission for American to commit atrocities in order to advance its best interests, as perceived by the government. It places the Christian God at the center of our national narrative, making it absurd to banish God from our schools and centers of government. It allows the economy to run rampant over individual rights. It places the environment in grave peril and allows us to treat scientific issues such as global warming and evolution as political issues. It allows the rich to prosper and the poor to languish. It allows us to assert force without question, and though we might invent pretenses like “weapons of mass destruction” for invading foreign lands, the truth is that our story of “spreading freedom” is so ambient in national consciousness that our citizens hardly demand justification for violation of another nation’s sovereignty.

This story is so common in contemporary American culture that the only people who cannot recite it are those who know it only as “the way things are” (to paraphrase Quinn) and as such cannot recognize it as a story. But it is only one story–a myth, in fact–and it leaves room for other narratives, other people’s versions of the truth. Hence, the importance of creating another story upon which to base our political dialogue.

At the moment, indeed, for the past four to six years, the Democratic opposition has lacked a story. Its two principle identities have varied. In one version, Democrats are merely a kinder, gentler version of the other major party–Republican Lite. While this is certainly close to the truth, as both parties occupy what to the rest of the world is only the rightmost section of the political spectrum, it does not provide an identity that resonates with many who vote Democratic or the 50% of Americans who don’t vote at all. The other identity is Not the Republicans. It’s like saying a boy has a penis and a girl doesn’t–there is no strength or integrity in identifying oneself solely as the absence of something. Not surprisingly, these approaches have helped the Democrats lose two presidential elections, contests in which so-called centrist Democrats have pilloried their leftist counterparts as “too liberal”, despite the fact that each of their anointed candidates failed miserably against a feeble-minded figurehead of the right.

Happily, the Democrats have in their own history a few good examples of individuals who told Americans a different story, the kind of story that just might work. In 2004, Howard Dean finally provided a voice for the millions of Americans who believe the Iraq War is wrong and that President Bush is a liar. A man of the establishment himself, Dean was quickly squashed by his party’s “centrists”, vision-less Republican clones like John Kerry. At the same time, John Edwards began to tell a personal story that demonstrated his personal connection to what it’s like to be an ordinary, struggling American. Although he’s left the factory town and found success as a smarmy trial lawyer, he took the first steps toward connecting the Democrats with a real American’s agenda. More famously, Bill Clinton used his personal story to great success in 1992, saying in reference to his hometown and the spirit of his campaign, “I believe in a place called Hope.” The man from Hope provided a glowing alternative to the man from Connecticut or Texas or maybe Kennebunkport, Maine.

To understand what it is to create a story that can change a nation, though, Democrats need only look a little earlier in the century to John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kennedy presented himself as the candidate of youth and a rejuvenated national spirit emerging as veterans of the Second World War began to assume a significant place in society. He exalted the ideal of service, he welcomed art and intellect into public spaces, and together with his brother Robert, he inspired much of a generation. His leadership evoked images of vitality and possibility. For his part, Roosevelt confronted economic depression, the greatest national crisis since the Civil War, with a message that emphasized the triumph of hope and possibility over fear in its many forms, including poverty and fascism.
From these examples, one constant emerges: a message of hope can conquer a message of fear. For five years, Republicans have reveled in their ability to govern through the fear of foreign terrorists. Indeed, Mr. “I’m a uniter, not a divider” Bush has led a government that encourages people to be afraid not only of terrorists, but also of all Arabs, Mexicans, gays, secular liberals, unions, artists, scientists, and so on and on. This message of fear has encouraged people to sacrifice their own liberty, the possibility of true justice under the law, and the kind of national esprit de corps that might allow us to see great economic, educational, medical, and social inequity as un-American.

Fear is a powerful motivator; it is an extremely effective manipulator of the hearts and minds of Americans. Democrats may survive simply by pointing out the folly of Republican positions on nearly any issue, positions that reliably work for only perhaps the richest one to ten percent of Americans. To do more than survive, however, Democrats need both a candidate and a national ethos that embrace a new vision of what it means to be American, and such a new American narrative needs to begin with a renewed sense of hope and possibility.

[(1) Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, was published in 1992 by Bantam/Turner in New York; (2) Some thoughts in this section were inspired by Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, chapter 1, “The Slow Death of the American Dream”. This book was published in 2004 by Tarcher/Pengin in New York.]

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Affairs to Remember

My season of four weddings is over. Actually, it was more than a season. I think it started about a year and a half ago when I mused that it would be fun to go to a wedding, that I hadn’t been to one in a few years. Be careful what you wish for, right? Before I knew it, I had plans for August 13th, October 1st, December 31st, and February 25th. That’s a lot of weddings, in my book.

Now, I like weddings. I like the pomp and pageantry. I like the costumes... I mean, outfits. The thought has crossed my mind that the reason so many gay men are in theater is because we have historically been denied the fun of planning our own weddings. Hey, I loved planning my own straight wedding – nearly nine years ago, now. When the marriage is between well-matched mates who are clearly in love, I like that, too. I’m a big fan of love.

One of the neat thing about going to these four weddings is that they were really quite dissimilar. I went solo to all four. The first, between a former student and her high school sweetheart, was a working class affair at a small lake and lodge. It was a hot but beautiful summer day. The ceremony was short, secular, and smart. I cried with joy; I think most people did. The photography took forever. The families prepared their own buffet. There was a DJ and the younger folks danced. It was informal and delightful.

The second wedding was at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was the wedding of a second cousin and was an upper-middle class event done in high style. The ceremony was a full Catholic mass at an elaborately-appointed Polish-American church. It was a reunion of sorts for me, as ten years had passed since seeing many of my relatives, so the time elapsed for photography was absorbed in visiting and in getting the cocktail hour started. The band was outstanding and we danced like maniacs; even our septuagenarian relations made several trips to the dance floor.

The new year’s eve wedding was thoroughly alternative. The groom is a friend and the art teacher at my school, and his wife is now a good friend, as well. It was so unique that it would take a whole essay just to describe it completely. It started with a procession into the park behind the Vermont statehouse. The ceremony took place at the foot of the neo-gothic stone tower that overlooks the surrounding hills and valleys. It was short and secular; the groom cried and I smiled with joy. After the ceremony, guests were invited to go sledding in another section of the park. The reception was at an old town hall in a nearby town. The bride’s family catered, a family friend provided excellent dance music, and friends of the couple made a thousand and one paper cranes, strung them, and hung them from the lights. I danced like a fiend again, and we younger friends of the couple stayed til midnight to ring in the new year.

The fourth and most recent wedding, that of a friend and work colleague, was center of the road middle class with some lovely touches. The ceremony was Catholic but did not include a communion service. It snowed beautifully. The photography was quick and gave the guests time to have a drink or two and socialize. The food was excellent, and the first dance and cake cutting were seamlessly integrated into the reception–it was the most natural flow. There wasn’t much dancing, but the couple had cleverly labeled each table with a location from their time together and included a card with enjoyable stories from their time in that place. They also displayed photographs of the weddings of relatives before them–a wonderful touch.

So, four weddings and a couple hundred in presents later, I’m tempted to give a quick analysis. First, all of the weddings, across the financial spectrum, worked because the couple and families put their time, money, and effort into some aspect of the wedding that would be memorable and fun. My former student chose a great location and had a sweet ceremony. My cousin seated us in groups of people we cared about and then provided fantastic music. My artsy friends created a Vermont event that took advantage of the park, an old town hall, and the snow, and also emphasized the contributions of most of the guests in decorating and preparing. The last used a traditional format with a number of little twists and surprises that made it fresh and fun.

One principal difference came from whether the ceremony was religious. When couples write their own vows, it sounds like they’re marrying each other. In the Catholic ceremony, it sounds a little like the couple is marrying God. Another difference is in the time taken for photography. It was most comfortable when the photography was efficient and there was access to a bar or social activities (like sledding).

Some aspects of weddings depend on the circumstances. While I liked being seated at a table better than sitting nearly alone, being seated is great only when assigned to sit with people one knows and likes – as happened both times I was seated. There was no easy pattern to whether the music worked or not. One professional music person was great, as was the band. The others were just good. Two crowds were big on dancing while two weren’t. Sometimes it was fun to watch the couple dance with their relatives, sometimes it was unremarkable.

My final word must remain equivocal. I’m ambivalent on the thought of getting married again. While I wish to have a committed relationship, I’m not sure I feel the need to get married. I did it once; it was a lot of work. It was fairly stressful for the friends I saw creating their own weddings, but weddings are clearly memorable. While they’re hardly necessary anymore, as everyone I can think of either lives together or at least has sex before marriage, ceremonies can mark a turning point or simply be a celebration of love and the joy of having found one’s mate. As weddings are ways of marking the progression of our lives, I like them. And as we as a society partake less in social institutions, it is important to continue to find ways of marking the major changes and transitions of our lives.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Everything Grows Together, because You Are One Piece

I’ve been thinking lately about what it’s valuable for my students to know. My sophomores have been studying global warming, and I’ve been wondering what kind of minds they’ll need as the world changes in rapid, unprecedented ways. The business world claims to want graduates who think flexibly, yet they also desire individuals who don’t thinktoo radically, who don’t question the underpinnings of the situations to which they must adapt, who aren’t too radical to take orders. But that isn’t good enough for me, and it won’t ultimately get our civilization out of its greatest dilemmas. For instance, while scientists agree that climate change is already happening, some scientists suspect that the earth’s climate will reach a tipping point that precipitates sudden, radical changes. Such changes may come to pass in the span of a decade, rather than over the course of a century or more.

It’s this scenario of rapid change that fascinates me. Maybe it’s because I’m impatient. I’m also very curious and like to witness change. I’m hoping that more radical things will happen in my lifetime. I hope to see radical reforms sweep away capitalism as we know it in the United States. I’d like to witness radical action of any sort, actually, especially if it includes a sudden global reckoning with the exploitation of our planet and fellow humanity—the aggregate of behaviors that define much of what we call civilization. Ordinarily, civilizations move slowly. Geologic time is yet infinitely more ponderous. Yet human population is expanding exponentially, and with it comes the extinction of other species and alteration of ecological communities at increasing rates. Our expansion is marked by speed. Perhaps the consequences will come with unprecedented swiftness, as well.

I wonder about these possibilities when I teach. One of my courses is a team-taught class called Living Systems. I work with two colleagues to create a course that incorporates sophomore English, world history, and life science. We teach skills, for sure, in our traditional disciplines. Indeed, I have never taught analytical essays or research with as much focus and enthusiasm as I do when helping students to craft papers about the questions of history, society, and science. It is as we work across the boundaries of traditional departments, however, that we emphasize our most important lesson, that everything is connected. Each species affects other species. Each society affects other societies. People affect the earth, and the earth shapes societies. Ideas shape culture and behavior. How we communicate affects ideas. Connection is unending. The kids know it, and beyond yelling out “everything is connected” on cue, they’re also getting good at spontaneously identifying connection.

Of course, I think teaching connectedness is a good idea. When young people see connections between disciplines, they may also begin to see connections between societies, ecosystems, nations, and races. If they work at it, they may begin to see that seemingly unfair, inexplicable events trace their origins to human behavior and motivations that are as frequently calculated as they are accidental. They may begin to see their own behavior as connected to outcomes that are both individual and societal. They may someday work at forging the sorts of connections that allow for the creation of societal change. And being able to make connections, to analyze and synthesize information, may allow them to think critically, to respond flexibly to unanticipated changes in their surroundings, and to engage in the sort of thinking that makes them distinct as individuals. They may be more sensitive to their surroundings and perhaps more creative in finding ways to make meaning of the absurdities they encounter as they grow.

These are enormous hopes upon which to found a three-credit course for sophomores, but those hopes give purpose to my teaching. And rather than requiring my students to wait years to discover why I take their time teaching the rigors or reading and writing, I hope that they discover, sooner than later, the purpose of their learning: that these skills are connected with the sort of critical thinking and participation that may someday further ecological sustainability and social justice in our world.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Descending Brokeback Mountain

Watching Brokeback Mountain is one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I knew it wouldn’t end well; I’d been warned of that. In fact, I’d heard a lot of things. I’d heard that only one of the two main characters married a woman–in fact, both did. I heard that it wasn’t a love story but a statement of oppression–a coldly clinical analysis that oversimplifies the story for political purposes. And I’d heard that the relationship between the main characters was more violent than loving–a statement that is only possibly true if one overlooks forms of sharing love that are not overtly physical or sexual.

But most of all, I’d heard that it was a cowboy love story starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Well, it was certainly that and more. But initially, I thought it was a joke–they don’t make the fantasies of gay men (and some of their straight female friends) into mainstream movies, right? Well, not if they’re just sexual fantasies, no; but a fully realized characterization that goes to the depths of the human heart and soul is another matter.

And that’s what Brokeback Mountain is. Indeed, the fantastical moments are quickly and easily overshadowed by the aspects that are vividly heart-wrenching and true-to-life. That’s why I left the theater with tear-stained cheeks and a sadness that took nearly a week to dissipate. Well, that and the fact that it brought rushing back feelings from some of the hardest times of my life. It reminded me of the days in my youth and very early adulthood when I used enormous amounts of energy to hide who I really am and to construct some sort of perverse, parallel life in its place. It reminded me of the elusiveness of pleasure, of the fact that there were four and a half years between my first and second boyfriend. It reminded me that, while living my old shadow life, the dominant themes was desperation.

At that time, a sense of desperation pervaded everything–my thoughts, my actions, my moods. I was governed by the perception of obligations and duties, while my mind was dominated by an inner struggle waged from waking til sleep. The words of W. B. Yeats in “The Second Coming” are an appropriate reflection of my emotional state and, in the last two lines, my impulses at that time.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This sort of anarchic demolition of reserve eventually leads one to despair or action. As with the character of Jack Twist, my body and soul raged against the restraints imposed by my mind. This revolution brought Jack into the hands of his killers, but it set me free. It was the stoicism of Ennis Delmar, however, the left me most astonished. What strength it takes to forge a compromise that permits restraint to exist without ending in the corrosiveness of despair or an explosion into action. And what a sad, unnecessary sacrifice.

So, it is not Jack’s death but Ennis’s life riddled with loss and abandonment that left me most bereft. It was the extinguishing of hope, the failure of a lifetime’s passion to be ultimately consummated that left me sobbing in my bed that night. As this film brought me to dwell with Ennis in bleakness, it brought back the dominant emotions from my moments of greatest despair, and therefore my greatest fears: failure, loss, isolation, and hopelessness.

My escape from the traumas of these recollections was gradual. At first, I tried to reconstruct the story in ways that ended happily, as I sometimes do upon waking from a nightmare. I agree with the notion that straight people would not have made such a story the success that it has been. For one, tragedy was consistent with the lives of these characters, and for another, there is a long modern tradition of gay characters dying–and films that deny this convention are as trite as straight films that end happily ever after.

For me, what ultimately worked best was to compare the opportunities I have in my life to those that the characters lacked. They were never set entirely free; I am. They let countless opportunities pass; I have not and need not do the same. If there is to be a happy ending, it will be created by those of us–gay, lesbian, and straight–who build upon the efforts of past generations, living and letting each other live with peace and with love.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Revamping Education

I have read a great number of news articles over the years by writers, reporters, and politicians who think they know what the answer is to the woes of public education in America. That may be fair, as I do my own share of taking on literature, the news, and politics. Recently, however, I find myself brainstorming in increasingly alternative directions. My most ambitious hope would be to reorganize the graded system that provides about 13 years of public education, roughly divided into elementary, middle, and secondary levels.

Since we know that brain development is tremendous from birth to age two, and that the rate of learning remains incredibly high through age six, starting to teach kids at age five is too late. Perhaps this system was more excusable when educated mothers were at home with their small children or when early brain development was less scientifically understood. Today, however, many small children end up in unstimulating environments, with parents or day-care providers who are not fully aware of how to tap the learning potential of infants and toddlers.

According to our current understanding, then, formal public education should begin with one- or two-year-olds and informal education of parents and children must begin with the birth of the child. This need not stand in the way of parents who wish not to enroll young children in school; they can raise their children at home, as homeschoolers do today with young people of any age. For many people, though, early education would start with a five-day program which required the participation of parents one full day a week. Teachers of children in their first two years of life would primarily teach parents how to provide a stimulating and nurturing environment for their children.

A child would enter the next four stages based on readiness for the type of learning required and the level of emotional development around which each style of learning is focused. The youngest group would consist of what we now call pre-school and the early elementary years. Those students would engage in exploratory learning activities designed to prepare the child for our traditional literacy-based program. The mid and late elementary years would be devoted to learning about the world through literacy, while maintaining the exploratory aspects of the earlier years.

Middle level learning would be significantly different. It would begin for different students between ages 11-13, and would be primarily experiential. I would probably organize these schools around a model that might resemble a summer camp. Most schools would be outside, consist of a variety of buildings, and incorporate a very active schedule. The program might be centered around meaningful work activities, social and emotional learning through collaborative activities, and a maintenance of literacy levels of earlier years.

After several years of these activities, perhaps when a student would usually enter eleventh or perhaps tenth grade, students would be given several choices. They would be offered the opportunity to attend technical institutes or college preparatory academies. Others might take up community-based internships or apprenticeships. At this point, the focus would move from social and emotional learning to rigorous, content-based learning. Traditional offerings could be departmental or interdisciplinary, but students would be expected to behave appropriately to an academic setting and maintain their studies independently. At the end of three to four years, students could complete an associate’s degree (publically financed) and then apply for further studies or for employment.

My hope, in extending publicly funded education from ages 0-20, is that at each stage of development, a form of education appropriate to a person’s intellectual development and to his or her emotional development would be available to help individuals fulfill their greatest potential as ethical, engaged, and motivated human beings.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

On Renewal

For this installment, I would like to share with readers my wishes for the new year for venues from large to small.

For the world

It’s not easy to narrow this down, but I guess I would wish the world a measure of equity. My hope is that the hoarding of resources that causes great pain throughout the world might be alleviated. With a measure of economic fairness might come a reduction of anger and resentment, and with that a reduced inclination to war and atrocity. It’s long past time for people to organize and stand up for a modicum of fairness across geographic and political boundaries.

Bonus: some global cooling so we can get some good snowy winters.

For the nation

I wish for the United States a big dose of humility. I desire to see a world in which the US does not assume it knows better than all other nations on issues of global warming and nuclear defense, one that is able to recognize that terror can be perpetrated by prison guards, corporations, the military, and elected leaders. Poor people who fight may be terrorists, but rich people who oppress surely are not liberators.

Bonus: Democratic control of Congress as a last-ditch rebuke to the recklessness of the Bush regime. I’d like to see a female Speaker of the House, my friend Lauren counsel to the majority staff of the Senate Labor Committee, and a spoiled rich boy from Texas who gets a good spanking.

For my state

May this be the year that the Vermont legislature passes the first single-payer health plan in the country. Of course, passage by the legislature would surely be vetoed by our quietly pro-corporate and pro-big insurance governor. But forcing the governor to veto such a law might demonstrate to folks that our governor is not the gentle moderate so many people think he is. And it would create a path to fair access for insurance.

Bonus: more state holidays, like Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, Poetry Day, and Foliage Day. And closure of businesses on holidays so workers can seize a bit of leisure like those of us in professional fields.

For my city

I wish for the city of Montpelier some affordable housing. Some is on the way, but this city needs to build more places for average folks to live. Not everyone is as wonderfully ethical and generous as my (Republican) landlord. Poor quality, over-priced housing abounds, and it’s time for Montpelier to do the right thing and make this an affordable city for those of us who enjoy it but don’t live on trust funds.

Bonus: a good clothing store for men. I can dream, right?

For my town

For the small town where I teach, I wish compassion. For a community that has been too long in the position of underdog, I wish for them the knowledge that becoming successful is best accomplished by citizens who care about and help each other.

Bonus: a good sit-down restaurant with tasty hot dishes, fresh baked goods, and blue-checked table cloths.

For my school

For the progressive folks there, I wish perseverance. In a climate of worldwide fear and instability, and in a nationwide educational climate that favors testing over real knowledge of the liberal arts (a term that includes science, folks), I wish lots of energy to keep up the good fight for what we know to be meaningful learning and the right treatment and respect for adolescents.

Bonus: smooth sailing for our renovation project.

For myself and those I hold dear

I wish for all of us the ability to make the changes in our lives and worlds that we want to see, and to accept life’s challenges with courage and strength.

Bonus: well for me, it would be nice not to spend another new year’s eve single. Is that really too much to ask? Happy New Year!