Tuesday, December 2, 2008

bargains to kill for

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, so named because it is the day retailers typically turn to profit for the year, Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by a bargain-crazy mob that broke through the doors of a Wal-Mart store on Long Island minutes before the 5 a.m. opening.

"By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless."

And later,

"When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping."

- The New York Times, November 29, 2008 (1)

I don't know what horrifies me more about this tragedy, that people can trample over another human being without regard, that they can ignore the pleas of his co-workers, or that they could complain when store managers tried to close the store after the murder but before the shoppers could get their bargains. Or simply that people would line up for eight hours in near-freezing temperatures overnight to save a few bucks on things they don't need. Watching refugees in Darfur clamoring around trucks handing out food donations? Understandable. Suburbanites willing to kill to save on a flat screen TV? Criminal.

Instead of using the economic downturn as a time for some much needed reflection on how rampant consumerism has impacted our lives, indeed our collective soul, Americans, like crack addicts on a budget, are going to extremes to get their next fix at a discount. Retailers and advertisers are our dealers, hyping shortages to increase demand. Witless tools of greedy marketers we as a nation have become.

Here's an idea: do without. Really. Job security hasn't been lower in 70 years. Personal debt has never been higher. Doesn't that point to saving? But don't just do it because it's responsible. Do it to re-set your definition of need. Because what is desperately needed now is a new equilibrium. A new normal for what we, as citizens of the world's richest nation, truly need to feel content. Once you have chosen to go without that which you had once deemed necessary, you may begin to look around at all the other things you thought you needed and see it as mere clutter.

I speak from some experience here. Out of necessity, I was forced to pare down my belongings as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda. And I had a lot of belongings. I was 37 when I started my service and had already had well-paying careers in advertising and education. I spent my leisure time perusing Pottery Barn catalogs and Banana Republic stores. This, before I could do it no longer, was a consistent source of entertainment. A new skirt or arm chair brought a sense of freshness and contentment for at least a couple weeks. But the returns were diminishing. The more stuff I got, the more I needed to reach the same level of satisfaction.

Then, I was told I could bring just 70lbs of all that I owned to Uganda for the next two years. I'm not embarrassed to say I was the volunteer who brought the most luggage. Not embarrassed because it serves my point here. If I could get used to less, so can most people. I went from a spacious one bedroom apartment to 200 square feet including my pit latrine and bathing room. Effectively living in a quarter of the space I used to occupy. But I hardly missed it. I didn't miss my TV. I didn't miss my extensive shoe collection. I didn't miss my computer. I had no trouble living within that space and within my means. In many ways, I felt liberated. I was no longer a slave to my possessions. When I returned to the US, I was often surprised and frustrated by the amount of time it took to check my email, manage my finances or shop for groceries. Nevermind the price of an avocado.

I had re-set my sense of normal. When I moved to Jakarta with its lavish malls and my tax-free expat salary, my old ways did not re-emerge. Yes, I bought some clothes to refresh my wardrobe for an office environment, but it was more a task than leisure activity. Instead, I explored my new surroundings, spent time with new friends, traveled, read, and photographed. In fact, it was in Indonesia that I renewed my passion for photography. Don't get me wrong, a cute pair of shoes still brings a smile to my face, but if I already have similar ones, I can pass them up.

So how do you reset your new normal, short of ditching your family and moving to an African village? First of all, I'm not talking about a drastic alteration (for most). I for one would have a hard time parting with my mobile phone. But we can all set a new personal standard for what we need to be content. Here are a few ideas:
  • Read this excellent, non-preachy guide (with cartoons!) to reducing your consumerism: Affluenza
  • Join (or at least explore) the simplicity movement. Read more here: Voluntary simplicity movement re-emerges and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simple_living
  • Get a fresh perspective: spend a night volunteering at a homeless shelter instead of lining up for deals. This will give you a whole new appreciation for the word need.
  • Make a list of the things you really want and then put off buying them for 3, 6 or 12 months (or ever), and I'm talking about a flat screen TV or that third pair of black heels, not health insurance. It may seem painful at first, but you may see over time that you don't miss the items.
  • Don't fill your leisure time with consumerism. Pick something you love to do - cycling, writing, photography - and do that instead. Yes, you may have to make some initial investments (don't use it as an excuse to gear up), but in the long run you'll have a much healthier and less expensive hobby than going to the mall.

I hope you will find, like I did, that it's not only easy to pass by a "Sale" sign, but it can actually make you feel freer. And as you find your new normal, appreciate a simpler life with less waste and less impact on the environment. Think of it as an added bonus.

(1) Walmart Employee Trampled to Death

Monday, December 1, 2008

oh happy day

My dear friend Emily thought I went a little off the rails with my last post. Fair enough and she has a pretty wide perspective in this area having grown up under martial law in the Philippines and living in the States since her teens. But really, who could possibly trust this administration after the horrors of the last 8 years? Thankfully, few did. My concern lessened as each major broadcaster posted 800 numbers for voters to call if they faced problems at the polls. The feigned outrage over ACORN voter fraud turned into real outrage over the nefarious acts committed by the Republican Party during the last two presidential elections which gave us, in my opinion, an illegitimate government for the last two terms.

Alas, that is the past. (At least until the next election.) It's been four weeks since Election Day - one for which I came home and campaigned, because how could I not? I have yet to read an account of the momentous day with dry eyes. Jubilation doesn't quite fit my mood. It is more a sense of profound relief and gratitude that our long, national nightmare will finally end.

Relief has turned to a cautious optimism. Can we really restore our constitution? Our rights to privacy, freedom of speech, and due process for all whom we detain? Can we seek a multi-sectoral approach to simultaneously solve our energy, economic, and environmental crises? Can we really be released from the death grip of the Religious Right and lift the ban on stem cell research to give hope back to millions suffering from potentially curable diseases? And lift the Global Gag Rule that prevents non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from even talking about abortion if they receive US funds even if the funds are not used for abortion services but rather for pre-natal care, contraception or medication to prevent mother-to-child AIDS transmission? Can we really hope that the tools for national security include the proactive deployment of diplomacy and aid and that these are not simply incorporated as an afterthought to "win the hearts and minds" of the citizens of countries we have ravaged with our military might or used to force the "values" of a vocal American minority on the desperately needy? Can we restore our standing in the world and once more serve as a beacon of hope and an example of a democracy that not only values human life by forbidding torture, but fully comprehends that torture actually makes everything worse?

Yes, we can.

This President-Elect has stunned me with his foresight at every turn. (And by stunned I wish not to imply that I could not expect this of him, rather that I have come to expect so little of my president over the last eight years and even to grudgingly accept so much acquiescence from the elected officials I have supported in light of the unyielding Conservative grip on our Congress.) The campaign was not only masterful in its success at winning, but in its ability to allow us to cast a new eye on our nation's political map. President Johnson declared the South lost to a generation of Democrats when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Well, that generation is finally, mercifully over. The Republican Party and its red state versus blue state divisiveness are in retreat. There is, and yet was, little room for meaningful debate, compromise and problem-solving in such a discordant environment. President-elect Obama has set the ground for a new era of political discourse perhaps without knowing just how critical it would become. For how can we solve the daunting challenges of the moment if we are divided?

It is heartbreaking that the prior toxic approach kept us from preventing or mitigating so many of the security and economic blunders of the last eight years that have led to the current meta-crisis, but to imagine a President McCain, architect of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which wrested habeas corpus from our constitutional guarantees, with best chum and rabid deregulator, Lindsey Graham, and foe-to-both-planet-and-animals Palin at the helm! #@+*§!

This is going to take some getting used to. We won. Have to keep reminding myself of this.

In addition to turning our great nation a lovely shade of purple, the Obama campaign also established a meaningful dialogue with its supporters, which the President-elect now seeks to expand to all Americans. Just go to http://www.change.gov/. I have already submitted my thoughts on environmental and healthcare policy and am gearing up for when they ask about foreign policy. The transition sub-teams also put out (admittedly light-on-substance) videos about their policy areas (but, hey, they're trying) and the President-Elect's weekly addresses can be found on youtube and iTunes. Can you even imagine President Bush asking for email advice on global warming? I mean even in a surreal, dream-like sequence?

Indeed it is a new reality. And a new happy day.

Friday, October 24, 2008

take nothing for granted

I don't mean to sound alarmist, but there is a lot going on in the U.S. right now that is being woefully under reported. And a lot of it could impact the upcoming election. As Republicans turn on each other in the final days and Democrats start calling the race over, the rest of us need to think about what it all really comes down to: voting. Here are a few things that may prevent us from doing just that.

1) For the first time since 1807, the President has put boots on the ground inside the United States. This after deploying Blackwater troops to the streets of New Orleans to fight crime in the aftermath of Katrina and expanding his power to commandeer National Guard Troops in 2007. Clearly Mr. Bush is seeking to establish and deploy his own private army within our borders.

Naomi Wolf writes at huffington.com:

The Bush administration has unilaterally decided to defy federal laws that have kept the military off our streets since 1807, almost since the birth of this nation: The John Warner Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 expanded the president's authority to deploy troops within the United States. The people raised a hue and cry -- and this power was then substantially limited by a new provision in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act. But Bush signaled, with a signing statement, that he would not recognize these new limitations.

And so it came to pass...
On October 1, 2008, President Bush deployed a brigade -- which means three to four thousand warriors -- somewhere in America. We do not know where they are deployed though citizens have informally reported to me having seen military vehicles and troops in Georgia and Alabama. We do know that their official mandate according to the first report is 'crowd control' as well as action in the event of a mass civilian catastrophe. Initial reports described their technology 'module package' as involving Tasers and rubber bullets.

According to Amnesty International, more than 300 people in the United States have died since 2001 as the result of being Tasered by law enforcement authorities. According to the first reports, the mission includes subduing 'unruly individuals.' After an outcry, more recent statements from military spokesmen have backed off from identifying those tasks as being the ones the troops will be charged with. Why worry about the deployment of troops in our nation?

First, the founding generation set a bright line to keep military from policing our streets in 1807 because they knew from their own experience how easily military forces -- King George's -- could subdue civilian society. The First Brigade is Bush's force: they are not answerable to Congress or to the Governors of states: they are answerable to the Commander in Chief... troops (who) must obey the president, even if he asks them to arrest Congress or fire on civilians or attack media outlets. If they do not obey orders, he notes, they face five years in prison.
More information on this development has come out since this first report. The brigade is based in Georgia and is now saying they will not be used in cases of civil unrest, however, ultimately this is the call of the Commander in Chief. Democracy Now! did a well-balanced report on this (here), albeit not reassuring.

Questions remain. Why are these troops on the ground in the US? Don't we already have a National Guard for domestic disasters? A National Guard that is under the command of 50 individual Governors, not one increasingly powerful President? Why is this happening now, as a contentious election approaches? Can we expect to see them at the polls in swing states on Election Day? I don't mean to suggest that blood will be shed, but surely there exists the potential to scale up the kind of voter intimidation we saw in Florida in 2000 where, among other things, police checkpoints were set up on the roads to polling places in districts with high minority populations under the pretense of looking for citizens with outstanding parking violations.

2) Journalists and protesters are being intimidated at levels not seen since the 1960s. For instance, did you know that eight young Americans have been charged as 'terrorists' under the Minnesota Patriot act after being arrested at the Republican National Convention in St. Louis? They are now known as the RNC 8. Did you also know about the mass arrests and police brutality of 200 peaceful protesters and 40 journalists, including two ABC producers, at the RNC where where the RNC 8 were arrested? Arrested by police officers trained and armed with federal dollars for this occasion and with federal dollars to cover any lawsuits that may arise from their conduct? No? Maybe because the police confiscated all the video, except this, which was buried in the ground to prevent confiscation:

3) Elected officials are also being intimidated. Rep. Brad Sherman stated on the floor of the House that if the banker bailout bill was not passed martial law would be declared in America.

4) The candidate aligned with the party of the president is making extreme accusations that community organization group Acorn, which has mishandled some of its voter registration forms, is "now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy," a call that distracts citizens from the real story - systematic and systemic suppression of Democratic votes since 2000. Read here for more.

Why should we care about any of this, you might reasonably ask, since George W. Bush will step down as President in a mere 3 months? Because there is still an election and a peaceful transfer of power to be had.

The only way to ensure none of this highly concerning activity results in a disruption of our electoral process is for Senator Obama to win by overwhelming and indisputable margins. This means getting everyone you know out to the polls to support Obama and making sure every vote counts. Don't listen to the pundits who say this race is over. After Florida 2000, Ohio 2004 and in light of the above events, we can't take anything for granted!

Here's what you can do:

1) Before you vote, download and read the comic book at www.stealbackyourvote.org which includes 7 steps to make sure your vote is counted; preview the movie while you're there.

2) VOTE (early if you can)

3) Volunteer to monitor polls in Democratic districts, especially those in minority neighborhoods.


More from Naomi Wolf:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

up is the new down

When referring to Obama's tax policy, Sarah Palin said in an interview with CNN:

"I'm not going to call him a socialist, but as 'Joe the Plumber' has said, it looks like socialism to him," she said of Joe "the plumber" Wurzelbacher.

The GOP ticket and their supporters have invoked Joe the Plumber numerous times ever since the Ohio man confronted Obama about his tax policy in an impromptu campaign moment.

Palin said Wurzelbacher is representative of "Jane the engineer and Molly the dental hygienist and Chuck the teacher."

Where do I start?

1) According to the ever reliable Wikipedia, "Economically, socialism denotes an economic system of state ownership and / or worker ownership of the means of production and distribution."

How exactly is a 3% increase on the top tax bracket a move toward state and/or worker ownership of the means of production and distribution? Do they consider Bill Clinton a socialist? Because this is the very plan he implemented in the 1990s, the decade that left us with surpluses as far as the eye could see.

2) Does she really believe that Jane the engineer and Molly the dental hygienist and Chuck the teacher are making more than $250,000 a year? Can you say "out of touch"?

3) Let's assume Joe the Plumber really was a licensed plumber, who really was seeking "to buy a company that makes" (his words) up to $280,000 per year (none of which turns out to be true). Under Obama's tax plan, Joe would see tax breaks not tax increases.

Obama's plan is to restore Bill Clinton's tax on people making $250,000 per year in personal income not in gross business receipts. Assuming Joe's new company has expenses and investments exceeding $29,999 per year, it is safe to assume Joe will not yield a personal income higher than $250,000. Therefore, he would see no tax increase under Obama's plan and would see a tax cut if he makes less than $250,000. In addition, as a small business owner, he would receive a 50% tax credit for each employee's healthcare costs and would pay no capital gains tax on business investments.

Lastly, and most importantly, his customer base would also see personal income tax breaks making them more able to afford his services.

The real Joe Wurzelbacher, who makes closer to $40,000 per year would net a personal income tax break under Obama that's three to seven times larger the one he would net under McCain.

So how is it that Sarah Palin is still holding up Joe the Plumber as an example of the "real American" the McCain/Palin campaign is trying to help? You got me. But then this is the same woman who when found to have abused her power by violating the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act said, "I'm very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing, any hint of any kind of unethical activity there."

Up is indeed the new down in Palin World.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

nobody does it better

Friday, October 17, 2008

couldn't have said it better myself

To the (New York Times) Editor:

Fair taxation isn’t about “redistributing the wealth” — it’s about giving back to the great country that gave you the opportunity to benefit so greatly.

It’s not about taking money from “Joe the Plumber.” It’s about making sure that “Joe’s Mega-Plumbing Incorporated” gives back to the country and the people who gave him:

• Roads and bridges for his trucks to roll on.
• Support for research for his latest plumbing equipment.
• Public education so he can have a well-trained work force.
• Markets so he can raise capital.
• Police and firefighters so his business is protected.
• Health care so the employees who helped him build his business can stay on the job.
• Freedom so that he can build his business creatively.

If “Joe” has been able to become wealthy because of the bounty of America, then he should pay his fair share back to America — that is patriotic.

Daryl Altman
Lynbrook, N.Y., Oct. 16, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

i want my country back!

John McCain and Sarah Palin desperately want us to see the danger in electing a risky, liberal, unknown Democrat as our next President. Someone who doesn't see the world as they see it. Someone who is so different from "us" that he can't be trusted. McCain went off the rails last night with his divisive politics in the last (thank God) presidential debate by trying to link Obama to Acorn, accusing Acorn, and by association Obama, as "now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." Seriously? A network of community organizations working to enfranchise poor people who are predominately minorities and first generation Americans by helping them get housing and voting rights? Who exactly is trying to undermine our democracy, Mr. McCain?

What happened to my America? My land of opportunity? What's happening to our huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

I have lived in the Northeast, the West and in the South. I have lived in Uganda, Indonesia, and France. And if there is one thing I have learned over and over and over again is that there is far more that unites us than divides us. People are people all over the world. And I am sick to death of the Republican Party trying to tell me otherwise.

From 1986 to 1999 I traveled extensively throughout the South, even living in New Orleans for a few months. But things changed after 2000. Life took me in a new direction, mostly overseas, but politics, too, took me away. We were no longer a rich, diverse country full of vibrant stories and varied experiences. We were red states and blue states, liberal coasts and a conservative South and heartland. We were divided by our different backgrounds, no longer united by love of our country and what it stood for.

In my college and post college days, the South was the land of Athens, Georgia, REM and the B-52s, The Indigo Girls' sweet ode Southland in the Springtime, Flannery O'Connor's Everything that Rises Must Converge, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Alice Walker's everything. It was muffalettas, The Maple Street Book Shop and the Neville Brothers at Tipitina's in New Orleans. It was the juicest fried chicken at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah. It was K.T. Oslin and Lyle Lovett, and Gordon Parks's gorgeous photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It was my first Krispy Kreme donut, hot off the presses in North Carolina, and the mist that rose up and over the Habitat houses we were building in the Appalachian hills of Pikeville, Kentucky. It was flying over the New River in West Virginia with eighty-five-year old Five Dollar Frank, his one-engine Cessna, his two hearing aids, and my terrified sister. In 1986, I fell in love with the South. In 2000, we broke up.

In 2005, deep into the Bush and Karl Rove years, I drove with my sister and brother-in-law from Washington, DC to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Stopping at a roadside restaurant in North Carolina, my brother-in-law declared somewhat ominously, "this is Bush Country." At once, I felt dread that we would be exposed for the Northeast Liberals we were but also an overwhelming sense of loss. Because I once knew, even just a little, but since lost a place that holds so much magic and mystery, memories of struggle and despair from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, and yet also a persistent sense of hope and renewal. A place so rich with history, creativity, culture, and beauty it can leave you breathless.

But a place that didn't seem to want my blue self around anymore.

I miss my country. I want my country back. Not just the blue states, but the purple ones and yes, the red ones, too. I want the rugged coastlines of the Northwest and the raucous fun of New Orleans. I want the gentile and rhythmic life of Savannah and the Low Country. I want New York City jazz and Nashville, Tennessee country; Seattle, Washington mountain grandeur and small town Minnesota warmth. And I want to be accepted in all of these places as simply a fellow American.

I want this:
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too:

We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.

We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

-Barack Obama, 2004

I want my country back.