Saturday, December 31, 2011


Modern Mexico was built partly on a socialistic foundation. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled that country for most of the 20th century, allowed rural Mexicans to control precious farmland through communal ownership, and protect it from the greedy hands of the millionaire class. Every village had perpetual control over its farmland and distributed it to resident families for them to farm as they needed it. On this basis, most of Mexico’s tens of millions of peasants lived in relative peace and economic security for decades.

Deb Bennett and I lived in Pustunich, a Yucatecan village, during the summer of 1970, when I went there to do some research on Maya identity. While there, our friend, Armando, told us a story about how the poor peasants of Pustunich organized a kind of “Occupy Pustunich” rebellion against the local “One Percenters.” (The peasants didn’t refer to their rich neighbors as “One Percenters,” of course, that’s my editorializing. They just called them the ranchers.)

The conflict began because the ranchers, who owned thousands of head of cattle, refused to fence their herds in, and the cattle began to wander onto the village lands and devour the crops there. The villagers pleaded with the cattle barons to put up fences, but the ranchers refused to act. When the peasants went to the local government to complain, the government, being in the pocket of the rich, did nothing.

So the village men got together and decided to kill the cattle that were on their land. They were all part-time hunters, so they were well enough armed to take down all the straying cattle and they acted quickly to do so. They vowed not to take any of the meat of the cattle for their households, to avoid being accused of selfish motives, and then they sent a message to the local government saying, “If you come to arrest any of us, you will have to arrest all of us, and if you try to do that, we will resist.”

Within a matter of days, fencing went up around the cattle ranchers’ pastureland. End of problem.

Our constitution guarantees us the right to bear arms solely for the purpose of organizing a local militia, and, in effect, this is what the Pustunich villagers were doing in their 1960s uprising. For them, the essence of their freedom was not in the murderous power of the guns, to which they rarely referred (and which, not being gun nuts, they didn’t glorify). Their freedom and their economic security were based on their capacity for collective action, and that’s what they emphasized when they recounted their story.

Socialism is a kind of patriotism – patriotism being a matter of our looking out for each other in our community and our nation. It does, in fact, take a village to properly raise a child, but the people in that village need to see each other as rooting for the home team – as the Pustunicheros did.

Our men and women in uniform, in fact, are part of a kind of socialistic organization. The overriding principle in the U.S. Army, for example, is concern for the group as a whole. The individual who acts for his or her own profit or glory is a lousy soldier. That’s socialism.

I wouldn’t actually call myself a socialist, but I would certainly like to see socialism treated with more honesty in our media and in our culture generally. But the vast right-wing conspiracy that dominates our media has sold us a bill of goods on its nature. Americans have been trained, like Pavlovian dogs, to react with hostility to anything or anyone that can be labeled as “socialist,” even though socialism offers real potential for the promotion of freedom and justice. The people of Pustunich knew this, but we in the U.S. have been trained to think otherwise.

On a lighter note, here are some pictures from Pustunich and other sites in Linda Mexico that Darla and I took during our 1990 stay in Merida.

Pustunich House

Pustunich Hatmaker with His Family

Backyard Vegetable Garden


In Pustunich, everyone sleeps in hammocks - and they often make their own: Hammock-Making Rack.

Turkeys would sometimes wander into homes in Pustunich. Revenge for the humans came in the form of turkey tacos - a Yucatan staple.

Pustunich Family Livestock

In the City of Merida: The Municipio or Local Government

Mexicans Love Their Children. A Children's Parade in Which the Youngsters Are Dressed Up in Local Garb.


Little Guerita Grace Watches the Parade on Dad's Shoulders

In 1990 Darla and I saw many welcoming signs in which the folks in the city affectionately referred to Americans as "gringos."

Adios, my fellow gringos.


Friday, December 23, 2011

This I Believe: On Noah's Ark and Individualism

There are apparently still six or seven American voters who have not yet made up their minds to detest Congress. Last week, in an attempt to win these last few holdouts over to the “Congress Sucks” bandwagon, Speaker John Boehner orchestrated a roadblock against a bill that would have extended tax breaks and unemployment compensation for millions of Americans.

Boehner’s scheme seemed to be working until, under pressure from Senate Republicans and the Wall Street Journal, he caved. Consequently, there may still be a few citizens who continue to believe that Congress will occasionally do the right thing.

Speaker Boehner

There were actually a number of good reasons for supporting the bill that Boehner tried to kill. First, it benefits tens of millions of Americans, particularly those whose extended unemployed status has kept them in desperate poverty. Secondly, it would give a needed boost to the economy when those citizens spend their extra income. After all, it is these very citizens who are America’s real job creators, not the corporate fat cats on whom the GOP seems to have an undying crush.

Of course, Tea Party Republicans had a powerful rationale for opposing the bill, namely that President Obama favored it. Tea Party doctrine says that anything Obama supports must be evil, socialistic and Kenyan, so they felt obligated to take a stand against it, but to no avail.

It is possible to move beyond the petty politics embodied in last week’s dispute, beyond the tiresome posturing that has spawned deadlock after deadlock in our government since the 1990s. There are, in fact, real philosophical differences that divide left from right, Democrat from Republican.

Leaving aside the hostility to gays, to non-whites and to non-fundamentalists that motivate much of the Republican base, we can consider the real discernible differences in ideas about how the economy works that divide liberals from conservatives. The essential difference boils down to a belief in individualism which conservatives embrace but toward which liberals are leery. The conservative view (as I, an outsider, understand it) holds that some people become rich and successful because they are hard-working or clever innovators or bold and prescient risk-takers whose efforts make the economy surge. So, if the government will simply back away and let the best people strive, the economy will naturally work out a just system of rewards while at the same time generating robust growth from which all, rich and poor alike, will benefit.

It is hard for me to write those words, actually, because they seem so patently false. But there you are. Right wing, anti-government hyper-capitalists are hereby invited to let me know if I have your philosophy wrong.

I would actually agree that there is an element of truth to this ideology, but it is a very limited element. It is true that, as a rule, a hard-working individual does better economically than a lazy one, given the same opportunities, etc. It is true that risk-taking investors help promote innovation and diversification of the economy. The problem is that the limited truth embodied in this ideology is pumped up by conservative propaganda into a kind of religious fervor. Conservatives seem to believe in this ideology with the same single-minded intensity that Pat Robertson believes in Noah’s Ark -- and in the face of similarly damning counter evidence. But evidence counts for little to those whose beliefs are based on religious fervor.

I’ve heard the conservative argument, for example, that the Federal Reserve is an evil institution that should be abolished because it entails government intrusion in the economy. Yet there is widespread agreement among economists that the Fed, since it was created, has muted the effects of most of the recessions over the past hundred years. During the hundred years prior to the creation of the Fed, the U.S. economy suffered one devastating panic after another.

The FDIC, a government program, has prevented the disastrous unregulated bank failures that impoverished thousands of middle class families in the 1930s.

The Social Security Act has made the lives of tens of millions of retired people comfortable when, before it was enacted, the misery and humiliation of the poorhouse was a common end-of-life experience for the elderly. Do right-wing efforts to “privatize” or otherwise destroy this government program really make sense? Is Social Security an example of government evil? If not, why argue that government intervention is always bad for the economy? Same thing with Medicare, unemployment insurance and the G.I. Bill.

On the G.I. Bill, I have to point out that a beloved gentleman of my acquaintance who, through hard work and intelligent effort lifted himself from Depression-era poverty to millionaire prosperity, once told me that the single thing that made the biggest difference in his life was the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill, this liberal Democratic program, this entitlement, allowed him to get a Bachelor of Science degree when, as a young man during the Depression, he never imagined there would ever be any way for him to attend college. Oddly, as a conservative Republican, he continued to rail against “government entitlements” throughout his life. It’s like a religion, I tell you.

This topic is too big to cover adequately in a blog post, but let me just end with a handful of questions for which I have never found convincing conservative answers: If effort and ability determine who gets rich and who stays poor, why is it that the overwhelming majority of Americans live and die within the same class into which they are born? Why is it that no child, born as a migrant worker, has ever become a senator, governor, or, to my knowledge, powerful CEO? Why did the American economy grow so rapidly during the heyday of liberalism (1945-79) and why has it done so much worse since the rise of conservatism? Why, during conservatism’s rise, have the “one percent” managed to suck into their own coffers such a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth? Did these one-percenters suddenly become more “hard-working and intelligent” after 1980? And, finally, what impressive personal qualities made George W. Bush a solid member of this privileged one percent?

 From America's Top One Percent: George W. Bush

Sunday, December 11, 2011


My gut-feeling says that President Obama has about a 53% chance of getting re-elected. This is close enough to a toss-up that we might as well call it a toss-up.

His advantages are that he is an obviously intelligent and well-intentioned man who has tried to avoid ideological extremism while striving to bolster the economy and provide some protections (like access to health care) for the poor and marginalized.

His main disadvantage is that the economy is improving only very slowly and, though he has done a lot to prevent a depression and to push us in the right direction, he will be, as presidents always are, blamed for the weak economy if weak it still is next November. He’s like a firefighter who struggled to put out a raging house fire, but is now being blamed because he hasn’t restored the damaged parts of the house to their original mint condition. So, the voters are threatening to send him packing and bring back the arsonists who started the fire in the first place. Short memories, the voters.

One of the worst consequences of an Obama defeat would be the packing of the Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues. Republican presidents are in the habit of appointing justices who are unbendingly conservative, which is to say, pro-corporate. One obviously problematic consequence of the pro-corporate bias of the current court is the Citizens United decision of 2010 which enhanced, in Justice Stephens’ dissenting words, “the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering.” But “enhancing the corrupting potential of corporations” is what conservatives are all about, so we can expect a Republican-packed Supreme Court to produce a “Corporations Gone Wild” electoral environment.

So what kind of people would a GOP president apppoint? Well, think about Dick Cheney’s good buddy, Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia was a driving force behind the Bush v. Gore decision which, on the basis of the privilegio de favoritum candidatum principle, shut down the ballot recounting following the 2000 election. The conservative justices held that continuing to count the ballots would have resulted in more democracy than was good for the country. Scalia and his right-wing pals seemed to think the Florida voters were being uppity in favoring Al Gore over Bush and Cheney and needed to be reminded who was boss. Clarence Thomas, an appointee of George W. Bush's dad, was also a strong supporter of the Bush v. Gore decision.


And there’s more. When, in 2006, Scalia was confronted with criticism from citizens who continued to fault him for his part in Bush v. Gore, he responded by saying, “Get over it…that was an election ago.”

Now there’s a legal principle for you, the “Get Over It” postulate. I wonder how Osama bin Laden might have made the same argument to the Seals as they burst into his lair last spring. “Are you Americans still resentful over 9-11? Come on, that was two or three terrorist attacks ago!”

Anyway, it is people like Scalia and Thomas who will dominate the Court for decades to come if a Republican wins the 2012 election. A shady, pro-corporate Supreme Court wouldn’t be the only horrible consequence of a GOP victory, but it would certainly be among the worst.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

He Touched Me

So Herman Cain is suspending his presidential race. Well who can blame him? After all, several women have totally made up a bunch of stories about him having harassed them sexually and now here comes this Ginger White lady claiming they had had a long-term sexual affair. But, as Mr. Cain has clearly explained, she was merely his “secret friend about whom his wife knew nothing” for 13 years and that’s all she was.

Somebody isn’t being straight with us here and, according to Mr. Cain, it’s the media. After all, it’s the media who keep reporting on this army of women that Mr. Cain never approached sexually in any way, and it's the media, as the good candidate has repeatedly stated, that we should blame for his downfall. See? This is really all Brian Williams’ fault.

Don’t forget that Herman Cain is a businessman and not a politician. As several people have pointed out, this means he would make a terrific president. For sure we don’t want professional politicians in the White House. We tried that with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lord save us from that lot. And I bet not a one of them could answer questions about Libya any better than Herman can.

What we want is someone that businessmen all over America can point to with pride as a non-politician. We want Herman Cain! Or someone of his character.

Oh, Herman, isn’t there a chance that you’ll reconsider? There can’t be that many more women out there that will keep making up stories about your horny ways.

And note that a recent poll in Florida showed that 15% of Republicans in that state still want to vote for you, even now, after Brian Williams has done his dirty work. These are probably the smartest 15% in the whole GOP, and they are bound to have some influence on their fellow Republicans in the upcoming primaries.

All I’m saying is, do you really want to give up? Aren’t you the Cain who launched a thousand pizza trucks and dazzled the peerless powers of mediadom? Is there no chance that you’ll reconsider? Oh Herman, we can’t believe you would leave us now – not after having touched so many of us in such a special way.