Last Words of a Civilized Man

Here are the words of one of the few remaining civilized politicians in America, on the day that he died. We should mourn his loss and the loss of civility (and humor) in American politics and we must fight to restore it. Now is the time to call upon all politicians to restore the civility to the public service that, whatever the conflict or dispute, retained a sense of the public good.

My Last Words for America

By John D. Dingell, The Washington Post, 10 February 19

John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who served in the U.S. House from 1955 to 2015, was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history. He dictated these reflections to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), at their home in Dearborn, on Feb. 7, the day he died.

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John D. Dingell in 2014. (photo: Jeff Kowalsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

ne of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.

In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.

And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.

My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler. We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.

Think about it:

Impoverishment of the elderly because of medical expenses was a common and often accepted occurrence. Opponents of the Medicare program that saved the elderly from that cruel fate called it “socialized medicine.” Remember that slander if there’s a sustained revival of silly red-baiting today.

Not five decades ago, much of the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — our own Great Lakes — were closed to swimming and fishing and other recreational pursuits because of chemical and bacteriological contamination from untreated industrial and wastewater disposal. Today, the Great Lakes are so hospitable to marine life that one of our biggest challenges is controlling the invasive species that have made them their new home.

We regularly used and consumed foods, drugs, chemicals and other things (cigarettes) that were legal, promoted and actively harmful. Hazardous wastes were dumped on empty plots in the dead of night. There were few if any restrictions on industrial emissions. We had only the barest scientific knowledge of the long-term consequences of any of this.

And there was a great stain on America, in the form of our legacy of racial discrimination. There were good people of all colors who banded together, risking and even losing their lives to erase the legal and other barriers that held Americans down. In their time, they were often demonized and targeted, much like other vulnerable men and women today.

Please note: All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.

I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a part in all of these efforts during my service in Congress. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement.

But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).

In my life and career, I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.”

It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).

I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. It was a lesson learned at home from my father and mother, and one I have tried to impart to the people I’ve served with and employed over the years.

As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.

May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

Conservatives, Liberals, Deviants and Rebels

What’s up with all this controversy over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her diverse freshmen Democrat colleagues in the House of Representatives? What is so different about their public pronouncements? Why are even centrist Democrats attacking them? Something is happening here and their elders don’t know what it is, do they, Mister Jones?

Most of us believe that we act reasonably and hold our beliefs because they are true. Yet, we disagree so much and so often. How can that be?

Imagery and emotion often control how we view facts and how we apply reason to evidence in everyday life, and especially in politics. We all started out with “questioning minds.” That is why children drive parents to distraction by incessantly asking “Why?” As often as not, the answer elicits another “Why?” In our maturity, we question only those who fail to conform to what we have come to believe.

Conservatives Conform

As they grow up, most folks stop questioning everything and accept the conventional explanations of how the world works. We conform to the worldview of those around us because it seems to make sense, and, after all, those most respected around us hold these views.

Most people want to “fit in.” They gradually shape their understandings of the world in the context and with the perspective of the social group to which they belong. That works well for most people in most situations, especially when things are stable. However, in the late stages of the modern world, as we have known it, things no longer seem all that stable.

Liberals Accept Deviance

Some do not simply conform to the norm, they deviate from what others consider normal. They take on the identity of rabble-rousers if they are outspoken in their challenges to the conventional wisdom. If they break with convention, adopting peculiar lifestyles or dress, sociologists label them deviants.

Some deviants just go about their lives just wanting to be left alone to their different lifestyle. They simply deviate from the norms of the social group, community, or society they belong to because they have taken on a different perspective. These deviants get in trouble to the extent that conservatives demand that they conform, sometimes invoking laws against deviant behavior. Liberals generally defend the right of deviants to deviate, as long as nobody gets hurt.

Almost Nobody Likes a Rebel

The social deviant is considerably different from the rebel who intellectually and openly challenges the status quo and the conventional wisdom about life and some core societal arrangements. At some point, the moral dimension enters the picture. Some rebel against particular norms, conventional practices, or unfair elements of the social structure itself. That is where moral indignation becomes political protest.

The “establishment” in any society resists all forms of protest or demands for change, particularly in the structure of power itself. Elites, who sit comfortably atop the establishment, frame such demands as threats to the social order, and as challenges to the core values of the nation. The propagandists and marketing directors they pay, know this well and exploit it fully.

Values become quite malleable, especially when propagandists reinterpret or distort them to exploit emotions like fear. We sometimes hold tightly to the comfort of sacred words, not realizing that powerful forces have changed their underlying meanings. Dominant institutions, advertisers and politicians often manipulate the imagery and emotions attached to our key cultural concepts.

Moral Protest

The corporate, financial, and political elites who for decades have concentrated more and more power among themselves, fear and despise moral protest. It points directly at their ethical failings. We see their fear today in their responses to the challenges of the

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@AOC

New Progressive Democrats in Congress, the @AOCs and the Sunrise Movement. These new progressive members and their allies are self-aware rebels who have penetrated the core of the political center of power. They are not afraid to speak their minds and ask “Why?” which shocks and offends their elders. However, they know that “well-behaved women rarely make history.”

These political rebels consciously (or should I say, conscientiously?) fail to conform to the “traditional” norms that require new members of Congress to sit down and shut up until they have secured the privileges of seniority and rank among their older (mostly white male) peers. The new progressive female congresspersons of color will have none of it. They have arrived to speak truth to power, so naturally, they offend those old white men who have hidden behind their privileged status for decades.

George Lakoff explains in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, how corporatist “conservatives” often win politically by “framing the debate” with emotions and imagery that influence voters far more than the fact-filled policy-wonk talk of conventional “liberals.”

All they are trying to conserve is their own power and that of their corporate sponsors, not any core American values, such as those expressed in the traditional American progressive ideas of a “Green New Deal.”

In that, they are bucking the tide of growing public sentiment against their privileges, against excessive wealth and power, and for saving people and planet from their sanctimonious greed.

On the Road Again: Huanacaxtle and Martín

(continued from January 11, 2019 post)

After a few days and a couple of back-and-forths with Seff Ramirez, locating a source of Huanacaxtle near La Peñita didn’t work out, so I tried another tack. I’d seen what appeared to be a tiny carpinteria in Los Ayalas, a small nearby beach town dominated by hotels and condos. I went to the carpinteria on a back street and asked to buy some wood. “No, no tenemos ninguno para vender; debe hablar con Martín en La Peñita.” He described the location of Martín’s Carpenteria y Maderaria (carpentry shop and lumber yard). I got the general area, but graphics always beat language for me.

“Tiene una mapa?” I asked. He drew me one on a scrap of wood. It was accurate to less than a half city block. What I saw there when I found Martín’s shop, the uninformed might consider a wood junkyard – they would have been oh so wrong.

I think that Martín the carpintero, has something, maybe a lot of things, to teach us post-modern corporatized professionals and entrepreneurial elitists in a world gone industrially mad. For now, I’ll just scratch the surface.

Despite my marginal Spanish conversation skills, Martín and I talked for over an hour as he showed me his dirt-floored shop, minimal machinery, and the wood he had stacked everywhere. We discussed wood and life at length.

I lusted for some exquisite 2-inch thick planks of Huanacaxtle more than two feet wide and maybe 15 feet long – absolutely beautiful. But I had no way to transport such a long

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My Huanacaxtle

piece – woodworker’s rule of thumb: never cut a piece of wood unless you need to for what you are making. So I looked for pieces I could fit into the bed of my pickup truck. I picked out a couple of boards that had exceptionally interesting grain patterns. They were a bit longer than my six-foot truck bed, but we were able to fit them in diagonally. I later packed all our stuff on top of those boards for the trip home to Santa Fe.

Martín has a passion for his work like I cannot remember seeing in anyone else. “Madera es mi vida!” he smiled. He had been to many cities in the U.S. earlier in his life, but for the past 50 years, he had been working with wood in his home town, making beautiful furniture, windows, doors, and cabinets from Huanacaxtle and other tropical woods. Martín has definitely “followed his bliss” in La Peñita. He will die one day a contented man. How many of us can say that?

I have a hunch that if we of the industrial-consumer culture had been able to find our bliss, and then follow it, we would not be in the disastrous position we find ourselves in today. Instead, we have followed the ideology of everlasting economic growth, personal acquisitiveness, and national empire building, all at the expense of our humanity. It was a great ride in some ways, for some, while it lasted – and a heavy burden for many more. But it is nearly over now, except for the kicking and screaming.

Now we must figure out how to unwind the industrial leviathan and live at human scale again. This time we have the advantage, if we take it, of immense technical and scientific knowledge. We can even use some of that knowledge to develop new ways to live in harmony with the natural world we may again recognize ourselves as part of. We must construct a new human culture, extending the benefits of the old ways, in order to reintegrate with the living Earth System that once sustained us. To get it right we need to learn from those who still understand the old ways. To achieve that would not be unlike Martín’s life, at least in some very important ways.

On the Road Again: the Run to La Peñita

I was never much of a winter person. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a coastal desert of Mediterranean latitude that became an urban desert many generations ago. The big seasonal changes in LA were not really that big, but very consistent when I was growing up there. Lately, at least for the last couple of decades, climate destabilization seems to be pushing conditions to extremes of drought, fire, and flood.

No “New Normal,” just No Normal!

This year, huge fires caused havoc in Northern and Southern California. Just wait, some winter torrents just may wash away more Malibu hillside homes this year. In the past, we had the occasional forest fire and flood. But today the scale is unprecedented.

Typical LA seasons went from hot and smoggy September and October to rainy winter to spring and summer coastal fog. The high deserts of the Great Southwest, where I now live, are very different. Droughts have come and gone for centuries. So have heat waves.

But things have changed here too. The bark beetle extended its reproductive cycle with global warming and it has killed off most native piñon trees and now threaten the mountain Ponderosa forests. The Rio Grande barely keeps flowing as western states puzzle over water allotment agreements much greater than available water. There is no “new normal.” Normal is gone.

I’ve always like the desert. It has a certain stark beauty that changes seasonally much more than most people realize if they have not lived in a desert, especially a high desert. Of course, the urban desert doesn’t change much from season to season, even though the seasons grow increasingly erratic.

The high desert of Northern New Mexico experiences distinct seasonal changes. Yet its beauty remains as it is transformed each cycle. The monsoon rains of late summer turn the landscape quite green in the Santa Fe area if the monsoons do not fail us as they did last year. Winters are relatively dry, except for the snow, which varies considerably from year to year.

Several years of drought have resulted in part from such a small winter snow-pack that little water is available to store or recharge aquifers. In fact, most of the snow evaporates before it ever has a chance to melt into a runoff. This year looks better so far, but it still seems a struggle to reach “normal” snowpack.

The New Familiar

But after ten years away from Southern California, well, I miss the beach.

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Santa Fe is famous for its sunsets as well as art galleries and high-end restaurants, but the sunsets at La Peñita are serious contenders.

So, for the past few years, we head south for the coldest months of winter. After all, jubilación (retirement) allows a certain freedom of movement. Besides, a good laptop and

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Copper loves to run on the Beach and swim in the surf.

an adequate Internet connection will allow me to write and post my Mad Jubilado rants and also my climate and society posts here on TheHopefulRealist.com. And, I love to take my dog for a good run on a deserted beach.

The road trip from Santa Fe through Central Mexico to a little town, La Peñita, on the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta takes a few days. But it offers insight into the contrasts and parallels in how people in Mexico and the U.S. live in this era of unrecognized transformation. Each fall now, I look forward to experiencing the wonders, charm, and rough edges of Mexican culture, economy, and those warm sandy beaches over these three months or so of warm winter on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What will the contrast tell me about how we live in the U.S. Southwest? I’ll let you know in coming posts…

It Takes a Child to Challenge Deniers of Climate Chaos

Once again, the world’s “leaders” have met and accomplished next to nothing to mitigate the most extreme existential crisis humanity has ever faced. It takes a child…

Greta.Thunberg shames COP24

Greta Thunberg shames world “leaders” at COP24.

Here is the transcript of a stunning speech the other day near the end of the COP24 climate meetings in Katowice, Poland, condemning global inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change. A young girl from Sweden has every right to shame the “world leaders” who dance on the grave of old coal mines in Katowice, Poland, while the planet burns. Indeed, she took it as her personable responsibility to call out the moral failures of her elders. Her words are even more powerful when you listen to them on the video, which is available here.

GRETA THUNBERG: “You Are Stealing Our Future”

“My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old, and I’m from Sweden. I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now!

Many people say that Sweden is just a small country, and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.

But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses, and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people. Thank you.”

Communication, Contagion, and Conspiracy

Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous

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A tulip, known as “the Viceroy,” 1637

collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.

The New Contagion

Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.

Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.

Conspiracy of Concordance

Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.

The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.

Science and Sanity

The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of

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High water coming to Miami soon.

plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.

It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.

It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.

Departments of Insecurity and Dysfunction

I remember when most Americans most of the time lived in a world of predictable events, stable relationships, and reasonable expectations for the future. Well, our worlds are mostly not so stable anymore. That, after all, is what much of the current political turbulence is all about. Everyone seeks the novelty of interesting things, but not if they interfere with the stability of our everyday lives.

In 2016, fed-up with the self-serving political stagnation and corruption, voters decided to try an “outsider.” Had the Democratic Party nomination process been democratic, they might have chosen an independent predictably moral grandfather figure. But an inveterate real estate huckster effectively conned them into picking the brash disrupter over a corporate insider.

Never mind the fact that she won the popular vote; never mind the voter suppression, never mind gerrymandering; never mind Russian trolls. Resentment of stagnation and corruption of the political process drove many angry voters, as Michael Moore put it, to throw a political “Molotov cocktail” into the arena.

Even in these turbulent times, when the lives of so many have destabilized, we tend to see the institutional world out there as a given. Well, not so much. What we thought was certain, what we thought we could count on, has been “kicked under the bus.”

Constitutional Chaos

We tend to see American society as a stable institutional structure, ordained by the Constitution. We may see politics as an unfortunate if necessary disturbance of the normal process of constitutional government. Even in these times of administrative disruption of numerous departments and agencies, we believe that the institutions of the nation are rock-solid entities beyond the range of any threat to their existence. We remain placidly comfortable in the Constitution and the institutions it supports as if nothing could change what the founding fathers wrote in it. We see villains pecking at the perimeter, but no real threat.

Whether we are strict constructionists or interpretive relativists, we see the Constitution as a sacred and solid guide to the conduct of government and of citizens. Well, actually, no institution is any stronger than the beliefs and actions of the people who sustain it. The ties that bind an institution together are only as strong as the commitment of the people charged with overseeing its operations. What interests do they have in holding it together as required by the Constitution? What if a president appoints political hacks to cabinet posts or as directors of core federal agencies, who are diametrically opposed to the very mission of those institutions? Well, here we are.

Destructive Deconstruction

We now have plenty of evidence for what happens when a leader intends to “deconstruct” a department or agency. Typically, the appointed leader is “in bed with” the entities that legislation mandates the institution to regulate or prosecute. If so, s/he can do a lot of damage to the mission and morale of its members. Such “leadership” can divert and stifle normal operations and drive dedicated public servants away in despair.

Institutions do not stand alone. They stand only in the values of leaders who believe in them and support employees in carrying out their mandate. Yes, people come and go as members and leaders over the years. Yet in normal times, the structure and purpose remain stable and clear. That is because leaders of variable competence and commitment either drive the institution to greater achievement or do not much get in the way of effective performance.

However, if a president appoints a “leader” to administer an agency or department with the explicit intent to eliminate its function in society by budget constraints, executive orders, or censoring reports, all hell breaks loose. Employees committed to the mandate of their organization will retreat into obscurity to keep their jobs or they will resign on principle. The organization and its mission suffer severely and the destroyers claim victory.

Plunder and Plutocracy Propagate Profusely

Today, a presumptuous president produces an increasingly dysfunctional federal government. His executive appointees are hell-bent on reducing and eliminating any function or operation that does not serve his and his cronies’ economic interests. The plutocratic class of super-rich corporate and financial elites have already benefitted immensely, both financially and politically. They wallow in new freedoms from social and environmental responsibility and from windfall tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The appointment of Supreme Court justices that favor corporations and the ultra-wealthy over the people and the public interest, assures the continued future strength of the plutocrats. Hence, continued climate denial in the face of overwhelming catastrophic facts. No wonder the Republicans, who are more heavily bribed by the wealthiest of the wealthy than the poorly organized corporate Democrats, faun over the political pretender they initially despised. No wonder they are now so “loyal” to the would-be dictator. Their greed matches his.

Rob Riemen warns us in his brief book, To Fight Against this Age, of the dangers of the new rise of fascism. Timothy Snyder urges us to practice citizenship as argued in his small book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, to avoid falling under the spell of a would-be fascist dictator. These two scholars, one Dutch and one American, sum up the clear lessons of history on how to retain democracy and freedom. We must learn them or lose both.