Thursday, March 18, 2010

It's Your Money

We took a long weekend in NYC, (before the no-name storm), to eat some Chinese, see the Tim Burton show at the Modern, look for the breaking crocus buds in the park, and catch up with old friends. Dinner at their studio in the way east fifties included some folks who worked at the UN and were preparing for International Woman's Day. A lively conversation ensued in which the definitions of, and objectives of "development" were discussed. It was generally agreed that what we all required was a value shift. That simply having women join the elite crowd of those doing business as usual wasn't acceptable. At this table, as I am sure tables around the world, "Unacceptable" practices focused on the bonuses being distributed to the masters of the financial universe. The scale of this transfer of wealth was incomprehensible. From the article: "How about this. Currently, according to news reports, just 23 top investment banks, hedge funds and other Wall Street firms will get $140 billion in bonuses this year, a sum almost exactly equal to the estimated $142 billion in budget shortfalls for all 50 states in fiscal 2010. Or to put this another way, approximately 300,000 lucky rascals who fiddle with other people’s money on Wall Street are getting bonuses roughly equal to what 300 million Americans will lose for countless needed state services, or pay in the form of higher state taxes to cover state shortfalls. And these bonuses, please remember, are above regular salaries at these 23 Wall Street firms."

To add an international note to the scale of the taking consider the news that the cost to repair Haiti has come in at 11.5 billion.

We are all schooled in the excessive behavior of the wealthy and powerful. From David down we have read of the great, falling for the pretty young thing, building ridiculous palaces, squandering their nation's capital, venturing off on land grabs. Nothing seems to compare with the current excess, and the hubris that accompanies it, of those who mismanage the world's collective wealth, and get paid for their mistakes. They may have destroyed the world as we know it.

Dinner was concluded on notes of bafflement. The best guess as to how the world was going to solve this economic crisis was that we would inflate our way out of it. But no one could imagine what was in the minds of the men who took so much off the table.

We needed to walk off dinner. We were staying on the upper west side and we chose to walk cross town to catch an uptown train. We didn't map our route. It was governed by the pattern of red lights. Walk west, hit a light, turn north, hit another light, walk west again. In the course of this chicane we passed The NY Palace Hotel, The University Club, The Peninsula Hotel, and The Metropolitan Club. All haunts of the super rich. I paused outside the iron gates. "What was consistent to all of these places," I asked. And there they were. Double parked up and down the block: The limos, the town cars, the black pariahs. In a world in which any smart rap singer can acquire the house on the hill, drink the DP, get tickets to a Yankee's game, it is obvious that the last vestige of privilege is the ability to park where you want. This is the most exclusive club as civic employees have learned. No more will they be allowed to abuse their "official business", right to park placards, they toss on their dash-boards. Nothing pisses off the public more than to know parking rights are being abused. Seinfeld learned the hard way that wealth and fame just don't cut it when it comes to the ultimate perk. He was called out when his driver abused the privilege.

So that's it? That's what the hundreds of millions a year buys? That's all there is?

Not quite. The next morning our stroll to the station was interrupted by the screaming sirens of not one, but tens of cop cars preceding and following the blacked out GMC. We couldn't see in but the smart money was on Hillary. Clearly the ultimate perk isn't having the place to park, It's the motorcade.The ability to avoid red lights, stop traffic, and have the path cleared for you on your race to the next fundraiser.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Social Studies

I wasn't prepared for my visit to Taos Pueblo. I had been schooled in all the proper cliches; cowboys and indians as a child, giving way to the tougher reality of Russell Means and the American Indian Movement as a radical younger man. I have experienced first hand the relative poverty of the Seminole in the swamps of the Everglades, and witnessed the growth of the casino culture that now permeates the tribes. I had my Native American education. While traveling in the Southwest I resisted the traditional expressions of Native culture, the "craft stores", the fry bread stands. It seemed all too scripted. I was more impressed with an installation in Santa Fe, "Art Without Reservation".

Here were new artists, drawing on their traditions but now clearly "modern" and integrated into mainstream culture.

I was talking to locals in Santa Fe, old friends, about this experience and they advised the trip to Taos. I feared a Disney ride. "Stay away from the casino," they warned, the rest is the real deal. It's been occupied for 1000 years" For me the real deal was our guide, a 20 something college student on summer break and very secure in who he was. What he understood about the artists on display in Santa Fe was that their art was for us, the white guys with the money. They were about breaking through, crossing over, being respected on our terms. What he wanted Carrie and me to see, and touch, and taste was the core of his tradition. He wanted us to dip into Red Willow Creek, the stream that provides all the water for the Pueblo. He took us inside the jewelry studio of a wizened old craftsman, crafting the silver that the tribespeople wore. He feed us a "pickle" and sweet drink sold from a jug on a board spanned across two plaster buckets. "You are going to hear a ton of BS." he assured us "No one lives here anymore, everyone left for the creature comforts, that kind of thing." "Truth is people come and go. But they never leave the tribe." He showed how they powered everything they needed with propane. Told us they had been given exclusive rights to graze and harvest buffalo for a commercial meat market. He made sure we walked through the adobe buildings, "America's first condo", he joked, and then sped off in his pick-up at the end of his shift. It was complicated.

This from the wiki:
"The deep feeling of belonging to a community, summed up in their phrase, “we are in one nest,” has held the Taos people together. Both men and women are expected to offer their services or “community duties,” when needed. One should be cooperative and never allow their own desires to be destructive of the community’s interest. One of Taos’s strongest institutions is the family. Descent on both the father and the mother’s side of the family is equally recognized. Each primary family lives in a separate dwelling so when a couple gets married, they move to their own home. With relatives so near by, everyone is available to help care for the children. The elderly teach the young the values and traditions that have been handed down, which protects the integrity of the Taos culture."

It got more complicated when our friends suggested that we attend the annual corn dance in the Santo Domingo Pueblo. We were cautioned to appreciate the fact that what we were about to experience was not for our benefit. This was a centuries old tradition, not a pow-wow for consumption by gringos.

Hundreds of visitors sat on a berm on the edge of the plaza fronting the pueblo. Two elders walked carefully over the ground, I'm going to guess 4 acres, picking up small stones, anything that might impede the dancers. Then the sound, the roar of drums is heard. The drummers from one tribe enter the space. Then the babies appear. The children led by their elders, are adorned in tribal dress, some of their bodies are painted in adobe mud, and they are moving in the dance step they have mastered as young as three. Soon the plaza is filled with dancers, hundreds of family members, ranks and files, adorned with crowns, and bells, and rattles, and skins, all cued by the drums to move in an elaborate choreography, a thousand years in the making. Tribe yields the space to tribe (they have come from other pueblos) and the succession of dancers proceeds throughout the day. Suddenly it ends. We are not 4 feet from a row of dancers. A young man shape shifts before our eyes. He is back from the trance he has been in for the last hour and asks his buddy, "So I have to change and then we'll meet up, cool with you?"

The above is so not any piece of any curriculum I have been exposed to. This trip into the American reality is a must do for any and all of us and would be a critical "field trip" for me and my fellow students of any age. What is happening with Native American Studies to a great degree is concerned with the integration of the
Indian kids into the mainstream, or protecting their culture. Reforming the teaching of Thanksgiving seems to be a big issue.

What is not happening is the wider exposure to the life lessons to be learned by example, of the multigenerational "dance" and the meaning for the rest of us.

When a Native American professor out of Yale develops a revised curriculum unit in American History for implementation in a New Haven magnet school. I get interested.
It is troubling to say the least when you scan the curriculum at the school for which the course was prepared and find no evidence that it is present.

C.A. Bower, a professor of great influence for those of us concerned with environmental studies, has bemoaned the loss of tradition, in the name of neo-liberal transformative education.

The following is an excerpt from an article posted on his web site:

Title: Is Transformative Learning the Trojan Horse of Western Globalization?
Author: C. A. Bowers, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies, University of Oregon

It is important to acknowledge that the rise of liberal/Enlightenment ideas in the late
18th and 19th century led to basic improvements in the lives of the people of Western Europe who had been oppressed by feudal ideas and institutions—and by the authoritarian political systems that were equally resistant to change. The emphasis on the authority and power of critical reflection to overturn unjust traditions, the idea that change can lead to social progress, the view of the individual as having the power of self-determination, and the idea that new forms of knowledge will mitigate the ravages of the illness and the stultifying nature of work, led to important advances. But it also needs to be kept in mind that the widespread acceptance in the West of these ideas also coincided with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. And more importantly, these liberal ideas had no self-limiting principle. That is,the dominant motivation has been to achieve more and faster progress, more reliance on critical reflection (increasingly by experts promoting the development of new technologies and markets), more labor saving technologies (and now the elimination of the need for workers), newer drugs (and the control of the American Congress to ensure the growing dominance of the drug industry), and more self-determination—including self-determination in the construction of knowledge and values. The lack of any self-limiting principles, which made these liberal ideas even more problematic when they were merged with the market liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, and, later, Herbert Spencer, becomes especially evident when we consider the current drive to turn every aspect of the environmental and cultural commons into market opportunities—and to convert the entire world to a survival of the fittest business mentality.

What from the beginning of human history has been understood as the commons, and
which exists today in various state of viability in the diverse cultures of the world, is the only alternative to the way in which the West’s industrial culture is creating greater dependence upon Western style consumerism and technologies. The nature of the commons varies from culture to culture, and from bioregion to bioregion. What they have in common is that much of the culture’s symbolic patterns as well as the natural systems of the bioregion are available to the members of the community on a non-monetary basis. That is, they have not been enclosed—that is, privatized, commodified, monetized, incorporated into an industrial process, and so forth. This general account of the commons does not mean that all of the culturally diverse commons where entirely free of political systems that gave certain groups
special advantages—including the right to restrict the commons to the bare essentials for sustaining life, such as access to water, soil for growing small crops, animals, traditions of ceremonies, patterns of reciprocity, intergenerational knowledge of how to use medical plants, preparing food, and so forth. To make the point more directly, the commons should not be understood as always free of status systems and the unequal use of power. On the other hand, many of the cultural commons have been and still are characterized by local decision-making—an important phenomena that is now being undermined by the World Trade Organization and capitalistic forms of enclosure where decision about the use of the commons is now made by corporations and private owners who are unaffected by their decisions. The enclosure (privatization) of municipal water systems, as well as the corporate ownership and sale of supposedly “pure” bottled water, are examples of how the process of enclosing the commons also undermines local democracy.

What we experienced in Taos is a living example of an authentic commons in action. There are lessons to be learned there.