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.]