Saturday, June 23, 2007

Thom Hartmann: Three Great American Myths

-- by Sara

The first thing that strikes you about Thom Hartmann in person is that he looks about 20 years younger than he actually is. The second is that he's got an energy level that's unbelievable.

"I got off the plane from DC at 3:15 this morning," he admits, apologizing for getting a name wrong in a story he was telling. "And I had to be on the air at six, so I'm running on very little sleep." It's now getting on toward two in the afternoon, and he's been speaking for 45 minutes, bouncing around the platform with energy and a recall of names, people, places, dates -- hundreds of years of American and English history -- that dazzles. If this is what he's like when he's been up all night, he must be hell on wheels when he's well-rested.

Hartmann's got a new book out (Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class). Thursday afternoon, given the chance to preach to the faithful of the religious left, the themes of the book became the text of his sermon. It's obvious that the skill set that makes for good radio talkers is pretty much the same one that makes for good preachers; and Hartmann warms eagerly to the task.

Today, he's debunking three dominant myths that he argues are undermining the American middle class. Culture, he says, is nothing more than a collection of shared stories -- collected over long periods of time, reflecting a lot of our past experiences. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves as Americans about what democracy is and what it means to us are fraught with myths. These stories are at the core of our thinking about democracy: we are living our lives and basing our decisions on the basis of stories that are, in fact, not true. And change will not occur until we puncture these stories in order to make room for new ones.

The first myth Hartmann wants us to puncture is the myth of the free market, which has been elevated to the level of a religion. He invoked Grover Norquist -- who famously said that he wanted to shrink government down to where he could drag it into the bathtub and drown it -- and noted that New Orleans was what ended up getting drowned instead.

"Why does the Bush administration replace competent people with ideologues?" asked Hartmann. The answer lies in the essence of the conservative worldview. Conservatives believe that corporations are morally neutral; but human beings are essentially evil. Given that equation, it's obvious that corporations are thus morally superior to human beings, and thus should be given greater rights and dominance. Government, on the other hand, expresses the will of the people -- and since people are inherently evil, government is inherently evil as well.

Liberals, on the other hand, generally agree on the moral neutrality of corporations; but they believe that people are fundamentally good. "This is the fundamental cleavage between these two world views," notes Hartmann, pointing out that this worldview is clearly reflected in the preamble to the Constitution. "Our founders' six stated purposes reflect this belief -- that government exists to lift people up to their highest potential." We provide for the common defense in order to protect ourselves from the handful of bad apples in the bunch; but the rest of the document, asserts Hartmann, is about maximizing human opportunity.

On the other hand: "The free market is just a euphemism for large multinational corporations controlling the planet," he concluded.

The second myth, says Hartmann, is that "those who grew up in the middle class in America think a middle class is a normal thing. This isn't true. The middle class is an aberration, not a norm." In every case of laissez-faire capitalism in history, he argues, what has resulted -- every time -- was a very small, preposterously wealthy ruling class; a relatively small middle class of professionals and trades; and a huge class of working poor.

"A middle class is not a normal thing. It has to be created." Historically, middle classes only emerge under unusual (and usually unstable) circumstances: in fact, there have only been four great middle class periods in the past 600 years. The first occurred in Europe around 1450, after a quarter to a third of the population died in the plague. This drove up the cost of labor; and this rise in wages created the first major European middle class. We now call this period the Renaissance; and it led to some of the earliest democracies in Europe.

In time, the European aristocracy pushed back with maximum wage laws and other means of destroying this emergent class; and feudalism gradually returned. But when the Spaniards discovered gold in the Americas (and the Dutch and others were trading elsewhere as well), the amount of wealth available dramatically increased. Wages went up, families grew richer, and another middle class formed. We now remember this period as the Enlightenment.

The third wave was the American settlement, in which relatively few people took lots of land (killing the residents who'd long husbanded a rich array of resources), and used them to create a prosperous middle class in both the US and Europe from the mid-1600s to the early 1800s. The upshot of this was the American Revolution. But once it was over, the upper classes reasserted themselves: from the 1830s through the early 1900s, we slipped back into feudalism.

To show how far that decline went, Hartmann pointed out that in 1900, the average American family made the modern equivalent of $9700 -- well below our current poverty line. Small business owners and family farmers struck back briefly through the Populist movement; and 30 years later, FDR codified their values in the New Deal, which reinvigorated the middle class once again.

Those of us who remember the American middle class as it existed between 1945 and 1985 find it hard to adjust to the idea that it doesn't exist any more. And, says Hartmann, we're right to be worried about it. "FDR got that a middle class is a) essential for democracy; and b) doesn't happen by accident. It isn't even normal."

Like earlier eras of middle-class dominance, the one just past was also a time of cultural renewal and unrest. Hartmann reminds us that conservatives consider the 60s a terrible aberration that must never be repeated -- and know that one way to keep it from repeating is to eliminate the middle class, thus reducing the number of agitators. "If you leave it to the corporate class, you will destroy the middle class. They know that when people are working 60-hour weeks, they don't have time to show up, be informed, or even vote." If the price of "social stability" is an entire nation of underpaid working poor, then it's a price our ruling classes are apparently all too happy to pay.

The third myth, according to Hartmann, is that we elect leaders in the United States. "We do not elect leaders…we elect representatives. We elect people to represent us." (And, looking at our leaders, it's sobering to consider just who and what it is that they represent.) "We can't sit around thinking some politician is going to save us….Congress, the Senate, the president, Ralph Nader's group -- none of them are going to do a thing until we push them into it. "

Politicians, Hartmann told us, don't initiate change. Invariably, they wait for a parade to form, and then get out in front of it and claim it as their own. "If enough of us create the parade -- I 100% guarantee it, because it's always happened this way -- some politician will run out in front of it, hoist up his flag, and say "This is my parade!"

So, concludes Hartmann: Like every generation of Americans before us, it's our turn to get out there and be the parade. The fate of the comfortable American middle class -- and the democratic government it supports -- hangs in the balance.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Generally Assembled

-- by Sara

Dave's on his way home from the Dream Train, which is why things have been so quiet around here. And I finally got my laptop back -- just in time to haul it along to the Unitarian Universalist Association's national General Assembly in Portland, which started yesterday.

I hadn't planned to blog this. What happens at church stays at church, I always say; far better to leave the public displays of religion to the fundies. But you gotta love a church where the national convention features Riane Eisler, Thom Hartmann, and James Loewen all speaking under the same glass-spired roof on the same afternoon. (Tomorrow, attorney Sherrilyn Ifill will be talking about how we confront the legacy of lynching; and Joanna Macy will discuss the seismic cultural shifts that confront us in the near future.) And, since so much of what they're discussing covers the purview of this blog -- and the Oregon Convention Center thoughtfully provides wifi -- I reconsidered, and decided to share a bit of my intellectual windfall with you over the next couple of days.

And then there's sweet comfort of sharing space with 6,000 earnest, polite, intelligent people -- most of whom are at least as well-informed and often more liberal than I am. You just sit down (or stand in line, more usually) anywhere, and someone will strike up a fascinating conversation about corporate accountability, sustainable living, or (yes, sigh) immigration policy. The Web is a daily reminder that there are a lot of people in the world who share my values. But there's nothing quite as affirming as having this many of them -- live, in person, all in one place together, talking about the stuff that matters and calling it church.

Lots of great blogging fodder. I'll post as I have time (and power -- outlets are, unfortunately, less ubiquitous than the wireless network). More soon: I've got to go hurry over to take Thom Hartmann to task for something he said on the air last week about moving to Canada being a cop-out. (It can be. But it's not mandatory.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

What America looks like

[Outside Union Station in Chicago. All photos by Visperd Mada-Doust.]

-- by Dave

One of the real attractions to joining the Dreams Across America train, for me at least, was that I would get to see so much of the country up close. When nearly all of your travel is done by air, you see America from a distance (if you even bother to look out your window).

But when you do it by land -- train, bus, car, or bike -- you really get to see it. I intend someday to cross the country by bike, though I haven't much desire to do the bus or car thing. But a train? That always sounded very cool to me.

And it has been. But what's turned out to be even more special about this trip is the fact that I've been traveling with a train full of immigrants from all walks of life from all over the nation.

If America is as much its people as its landscape, I've seen America up close and personal both ways on this trip. And it has been an amazing thing.

The group of immigrants and their advocates that has gathered for this tour is incredibly diverse. They range from Native Americans to Caucasian housewives to African-American teachers to Germans and Italians and Poles to Pakistani and Korean mothers to Iraqi soccer players to Salvadoran refugees to, yes, Mexicans.

The one thing they all have in common is an enormous strength of character and an idealistic belief in the American Dream. They are, really, America at its strongest and finest.

Take, for example, Mike Wilson. He is a member of the Tohono O'Odham Nation, a tribe whose reservation is located in the Sonoran desert on the Arizona-Mexico border. Wilson of course is not an immigrant in the least, but he is a fierce advocate for them, particularly for defending the humanity of the border crossers, who have been dying in ungodly numbers on his tribe's land. As a leader of Humane Borders, he makes it his business to set out water, food, and aid supplies in the desert to help save the lives of the crossers. In person, he's quiet and yet powerful, and you can tell that his convictions are backed up by sobering real-life experience.

Or there's Cathy Gurney, the Sacramento woman who tells her story in video here. Gurney operates a landscaping business that relies almost entirely on Latino labor; as I've mentioned, Gurney makes a powerful case that her business would not survive without that labor, not merely because it's work that white Americans won't do, but also because of the incredible work ethic that Latinos bring to the table. Gurney is bright and vivacious, a lifelong Republican, and absolutely adamant about the importance of recognizing Latino laborers as the formidable component of the nation's economic engine.

There's Hee Pok Kim, also known as "Grandma Kim," an elderly Korean woman from Los Angeles (originally from Pyongyang) whose lack of English skills doesn't keep her from communicating a real warmth and intelligence, as well as her fierce determination in helping to change the nation's immigration laws -- not for herself, but for her children and family and others like her, who have to jump through so many hoops to become "legal" immigrants that it's no wonder they eventually give up.

Or Samina Faheem Sundas, a middle-aged Muslim woman from Pakistan who runs American Muslim Voice. Samina's passion to fix the broken immigration system runs so deep that she gave up her job with a preschool-education foundation in order to make the trip. Or Doris Castaneda, an elderly woman from Guatemala who came along to try to change the laws for the sake of her children and grandchildren. Two of them -- a pair of beautiful little girls named Ashley and Desiree -- accompanied her on the trip to help make that point.

The list, really, goes on and on: Robert Guajardo, a bearded, very Caucasian-looking fiftyish man of Spanish lineage who emigrated here from Mexico. Jules Boyele, who came here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Virginia Franklin, an African-American educator from Los Angeles who came along to help fight for the Dream Act, which aims to eliminate the provisions of federal law that harms the education of immigrant children. Father Giovanni Bizzotto, an Italian priest who spent 10 years in Mexico before relocating to California. Tonio Antonioni, a former soccer player from Iraq who fled Saddam Hussein's tyranny and whose wife remains in limbo in what he calls "the worst country in the world."

And on and on: Brian Bautista, a sergeant in the Marine Reserves who found his path to citizenship through a tour of duty in Iraq. Fermin Vasquez, a onetime undocumented student who fled a political nightmare in El Salvador to try to find peace and a new home in America. Gabriella Thomas, a blonde German woman who emigrated here in 1969.

Or Hang D. Youk, a Korean man who arrived in Houston in 1998 to join his family and found himself in limbo after his father, a legal immigrant, was killed in a robbery. Wynona Spears, a formerly undocumented emigrant from Belize whose love of jazz led her to dream of a better life, and whose son served two tours of duty in Iraq.

These people are the true face of America in the 21sty century: some white, some black, some Asian, some Latino, whatever -- you name the location on the planet, and there are Americans from there.

It might be easy to shrug them off, along with their stories, with the simplistic perspective of the nativists: "Well, these are all legal immigrants, and the problem we have is with illegal immigrants." But it is of course not that simple. Many of these now-legal immigrants were themselves "illegal" at one time or another in their journeys toward their dreams.

Moreover, as Nathan Thornburgh recently pointed out in his remarkable cover piece for Time on the amnesty issue, it's not logical to expect there not to be law-breaking when the law is onerous to the point of Kafkaesque absurdity:
If people are frustrated, as they should be, by the fact that some eligible immigrants have been waiting for citizenship for as many as 28 years, then by all means, fix that problem. Streamline the process for legal immigration. But don't blame that red-tape nightmare on the millions of low-wage illegals already here, who form a very different (and vastly more populous) group.

A century ago, the face of America was decidedly white. But two centuries before that, it was primarily Indian. The world changes and shifts, demographics with it.

What America has always been about is our shared values -- a love of freedom and a respect for others' freedoms, our willingness to work hard, our desire to raise our families in a safe and healthy place, and our wish to pass all that on to our children and their children.

For most of the past century -- since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which codified the racist desire to keep out people who were not white (specifically, Chinese and Japanese) -- our immigration laws have been predicated on the desire to keep people out, because we believed their skin color and nationality mattered more than their values. As the Dreamers and their stories make clear, it is time to find a way to welcome those who are, inside, truly American.

When that happens, we finally will begin living up to our own great ideal: the American dream.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Onward from Chicago

[The Dreamers enjoy some fresh air in San Antonio. Photo by Visperd Madad-Doust.]

-- by Dave

Well, the trip aboard the Dreams Train from Los Angeles to Chicago was in many ways a test of the Dreamers' endurance -- but so far, everyone's holding up well. We got cleaned up, fed, and rested in Chicago. We also got a fresh addition of even more Dreamers.

So as we pulled out of Union Station tonight, the energy was warm and positive. Everyone's looking forward to getting into D.C. this afternoon.

It helps, of course, that we all know the hardest part of the trip is behind us. It's all been worth it, because an important component of the experience has been in seeing America -- what it looks like, what the people are like, how they live and make their livings.

Getting from L.A. to San Antonio was unquestionably the worst. Once into the desert, the landscape became interminably dull, except for stretches of the Arizona desert, which can be quite beautiful. (Having grown up in southern Idaho, there is probably nothing more uninteresting and aesthetically unpleasant than unremitting sagebrush scrublands for me -- and it seems most of my fellow riders shared that feeling.) The route the train followed through New Mexico was much the same, and western Texas was even worse. It reminded me of nothing so much as the country between Boise and Mountain Home, which I think has been scientifically proven to be the most godforsaken and boring stretch of landscape in the United States.

[The Arizona sky and landscape. Photo by Visperd Madad-Doust.]

Things picked up quite a bit in central Texas on the second day of the trip -- the plains turned greener and grassier, and we saw quite a bit of wildlife: antelope, mule deer, even golden eagles and javelinas. As it grew dark near the town of Alpine, Texas was starting to look much better.

The problem was that, by then, we were many hours behind schedule. There is a good deal of track repair going on along that line currently, and the train was often forced to pull over and wait for hours at a time for the track to clear. Moreover, since the freight lines actually own the track, the passenger trains are forced to pull over and wait for oncoming freight lines whenever the schedule requires.

By the time we pulled in to San Antonio early Friday morning, we were eight and a half hours behind schedule. We were supposed to have had a night in a hotel there, which would have given us a break from the constant rocking, rolling, surging and stopping of a train ride and given us a chance to clean up and stretch our legs. Instead, we spent a second night sleeping in our cars, and once in San Antonio (which looks like a lovely city, but we didn't get to find out), we had to get out, wait at the station for three hours as the next train pulled up (the one we were on continued on to New Orleans) and get back on.

[Mike Wilson of Humane Borders watches the scenery, Photo by Visperd Madad-Doust.]

The trip through Arkansas and Missouri was remarkably scenic; I particularly enjoyed the stretch through the Mark Twain National Forest. But the toilets in our coach clogged up, and when we hit St. Louis, the Amtrak officials were unable to get them fixed and so we rolled on our way.

It was clear that someone in the Amtrak home office horribly miscalculated just how crowded the train was going to be, what with fifty dreamers on top of the regular riders. Food kept running out. Saturday afternoon, there were only about 30 lunches available. And then the train hit something that broke the water line in front, so none of the toilets on the entire train worked properly.

[The evening sky at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church in Chcago. Photo by Visperd Madad-Doust.]

Fortunately, we arrived in Chicago that evening. We pulled in to Union Station hot, tired, sweaty, smelly, and hungry. The worst part of it, I think, was that we had just spent four consecutive days riding relentlessly, squeezed together on a train and living on top of each other. People were getting irritable, and I think we were all tiring of one another -- though it was nothing that a big meal (courtesy of the Chicago organizers and our hosts at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church), a hot shower, and a good night's rest on a stationary bed couldn't fix.

The truth is, in fact, that everyone on the trip has been extraordinarily patient with one another. And that has a lot to do with the character of the people aboard the train.

The Dreams Across America train, in fact, has been most remarkable in my mind for the collection of people who have come together to ride on it. It's an incredible group of people, nearly all of them immigrants -- and you know what? They, too, look like America.

More on that shortly.