Friday, October 27, 2017

Beyond the Glass

The below letter was sent to Meredith L. Bastian, Curator of Primates and also emailed to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. on October 8th 2017.

Below this letter to Meredith L. Bastian, is the response I received from Caroline Winslow on October 30th 2017.

Dear Meredith L. Bastian,

Like you, I am concerned about the well-being and survival of primates. As an expert in this field, I hope you (or at at least someone from your staff) are willing to answer a few questions I had that have been bothering me since my last visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC. These questions concern my experience visiting the Great Ape House and regard the ethical treatment and well-being of the orangutans and western lowland gorillas, specifically.  

First, are the living conditions (enclosures) for these animals healthy and safe for their quality-of-life? I do not mention this to be dismissive to you, or your team’s work - I am concerned and, like you, respect these great creatures. I say this because I was saddened to observe a mice infestation throughout the Great Ape House, which I did not notice throughout the Think Tank. Also there was a noted amount of feces throughout these enclosures, which seemed excessive in relation to what I saw at the Think Tank. I am not a zoologist, just a visitor to the zoo and hopeful that this was just an “off day” for facilities maintenance and that my concerns have been cleaned up since my last visit there in June.

My second concern is more complex and regards the behavior I observed from these primates. Many of the apes were nesting in the corners of their enclosures. They were surrounding themselves with mounds of hay and/or covering their faces and heads with blankets. At first, I thought this was unusual behavior, but I did some research to discover apes nest. But why would these animals be nesting so early in the day? This was 4 p.m. Of course, when I now read this back to myself, I think, Yes! That would be a natural time to take an afternoon nap! However, this brings me to another part of my concern, which is that the apes do not seem to have an adequate environment (at least from observation) to find solitude and peace to take a nap.

I was most disturbed and troubled by the treatment of the 22-year old silverback, Baraka, who spent the entire 30 minutes I was in the Great Ape House, staring with marked irritation at the many taunting and aggressive zoo visitors from the other side of the enclosure’s glass, separating them. When not giving these visitors the death stare, Baraka would eat his own feces. Many visitors just laughed and taunted the great ape further into madness. I don’t think I need to question whether this is a healthy environment for such a powerful and intelligent creature, because part of me knows it is not. Baraka seems to be going stir-crazy. Wouldn’t an animal of his size and intelligence need more space for privacy and peace? I wonder if the Smithsonian has considered placing these apes further away from the public so that they do not feel so tormented and bullied by the onlookers? (I share similar concerns about the elephants.)

I guess I am trying to understand how can the Smithsonian both communicate a shared biological relation to these primates, while also expecting these “shared ancestors” to live, everyday, in such demoralizing and possibly abusive conditions? I realize you try to provide enriching experiences for the orangutans and gorillas (which I did see indications of in the Think Tank enclosure); however, maybe even these animals, in these enclosures, also need something more? As someone who respects the well-being of these animals, I would (as a zoo visitor) forego having such an “up-close” experience seeing them if it meant they had a better life. 

Thank you for your time. I am not an expert on any of the above. But I am concerned about the well-being of these animals and would appreciate a response. 


Nicholas Allanach
Woodside, New York

Mr Allanach,

Thank you for writing of your experience at the National Zoo Great Ape House and your concern for its residents.  You clearly observed closely both the animals and the humans observing them.

The great ape enclosures are well up to standard.  The National Zoo is accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and must therefore include the highest standards of care in all aspects of animal welfare. As I am sure you know, space for apes is counted in cubic footage rather than square, as apes will use space above the floor. These enclosures have many options for climbing and resting. Each enclosure is connected to an off exhibit space where animals can choose to be out of sight of visitors.  If individuals are nesting in exhibit spaces it is by their own choice.

Other choices our great apes are given include when to eat and when to go outside.  When food is left for them to have when they want and doors are left open so they can choose to be in or out we do end with rodents entering the space.
There is an Integrated Pest Management program at the Zoo which monitors, traps and assesses health of all types of animal pests. We do not poison due to the danger of ingestion by Zoo animals.  The number of rodents visible changes over the course of a day, a month, a year. For instance there are apt to be more in the buildings when it is cold outside.

Enclosures are cleaned daily, with the caveat that there are occasional instances where an animal(s) choose not to leave an area (enclosure) for the day, and therefore, we do not have the opportunity to clean that space. The amount of feces at any given time is related to the number of individuals sharing the space and the length of time since the last cleaning. Think Tank and the Great Ape House may have been on different schedules on the day you visited.

Your concerns about Baraka “going stir crazy”, feeling “tormented and bullied by onlookers”, being ‘taunted…further into madness” are definitely concerning. Please know, as I said above, each animal has the ability to go off exhibit at any time.  If Baraka sat and watched it was by his own choice. He could simply turn his back. If troubled he could leave altogether.

Often when people look at gorillas, particularly males, they read anger, boredom, upset into the ape’s facial expression.  Taken feature by feature the reason for this is because gorillas have very heavy brow ridges, they give the face the look of frowning or displeasure.  The ridges are in fact due to the strong attachment of heavy muscles used for eating the very coarse vegetation that is their natural diet.  Gorillas do express emotion by their body posture, and by the amount they open their mouths and whether or not they show their teeth.  The ‘death stare’ you saw is a normal resting facial expression.

I agree with you that visitor behavior can often be less restrained than one would wish.  We do try to share “Ape House Etiquette” (stay low, avoid staring, turn slightly away) with visitors. The message does not always get through.

Feces eating or coprophagy is something we do see in gorillas. The information we give our educational interpreters is: It is believed that gorillas exhibit coprophagy because of a possible dietary function. It likely allows for increased vitamin & mineral absorption.  It has been observed in the wild, but typically after prolonged resting periods during the wet season.  It does look unattractive when you think of it from the human values point of view.  But it makes sense for gorillas.

Gorillas, as you note, are intelligent beings, amazing beings that people relate to easily. The individuals at the National Zoo are given as much choice and control over their actions as can be safely achieved.

Caroline Winslow
Program Supervisor
Department of Education and Volunteer Services
Friends of the National Zoo

Monday, February 20, 2017

Dear President Trump:

February 20, 2017

The White House 
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Trump:

It’s President’s Day, congratulations, one month in office - you made it. We made it!

Likely you’ll never read this letter. After all, the work of the president is too demanding to read every correspondence. Millions vying for your attention because your words, decisions, and behavior affect national and international policy. Yes the job of the president is so important I wonder if you will even still be in office by the time this letter reaches the White House? (Wishful thinking. Because in a just world, you would not be sitting where you sit.)

I mean, it’s not like you committed treason by colluding with the Russian government during the 2016 election or anything. Of course, one way you could alleviate some of this concern would be to release your tax returns. But I suppose this is all just more “fake news” trying to rain some pesky accountability down onto the old MAGA parade. The critics are such losers! They just don’t get it.  

At least your supporters, those who still defend you (shamelessly wearing their sad MAGA hats) they get it. They know the truth and it starts with a capital T! Yes, they believe in you! This is likely why you decided to spend part of this weekend in front of a crowd of supporters instead of in DC? Then it was off to another pricey (at least for American taxpayers) weekend at Mar-a-Lago to be surrounded by paid staff, paying club members, and a nepotistic team of doting sycophants. In your mind, those who support you at your rallies and inhabit your world of Mar-a-Lago are “the real” Americans and everyone else is “the enemy.” This is delusional and dangerous thinking that can only shirk the responsibilities of the presidency for so long.

Your supporters don’t read the “failing” New York Times and tuned-off CNN long ago. Likely, they still read the same websites, blogs, and twitter feeds that supported you throughout your (apparently ongoing…) campaign. These sites continue to publish the same mind-blowing conspiracies and propaganda that frame you as a misunderstood and embattled hero standing up for the downtrodden against some “shadow government.” Well soak it up while you can. Bask in the adoration while it last, because make no mistake, most of these supporters will turn on you, or never even believed in you in the first place. They only voted for you, or supported you because they (like you) don’t seem to really give a fuck about anything but their own little pissed-off world.  

Yes, “your people” don’t yet see what a majority of us saw long ago - you’re a fraud and unfit for the job. So why do I spend time writing a letter you won’t read in these your numbered days?Good question. 

In fact, is there even a hard-mail room left in the White House to receive this retro act of civic engagement? The whole organization seems in such disarray it would be surprising to see a team of interns organized to even do this. In December, the New York Times Magazine published a piece on the Obama White House’s hard-mail room. Obama read ten selected letters a day. Of course, he was also an avid reader in general. Do you read letters? President Reagan answered dozens over the weekends. So, perhaps you’ll read this one? If not, this letter can at least serve as a trusted medium for gathering thoughts on where I stand. And to ask what comes next in this uncertain time for our country?

Unsurprisingly, I did not vote for you. I saw you as an inexperienced, dangerously unhinged, celebrity with sociopathic tendencies. Accordingly, ever since you won the election, when I am not mortified by your actions on television, I have a difficult time focusing on the day and sleeping at night. When I do sleep, I have bad dreams (Bannon is sometimes there!) Not that these dreams always have you in them, but I cannot help shake this permeating feeling of darkness. As if there’s a troll under the bridge, or some menacing force lurking beyond the shadows. I cannot see it, but I know it is there. In the morning, there is brief solace when my senses are still between sleep and awake, when it feels like maybe this was all just a nightmare. But then the reality of our shared collective-trauma hits - Trump is president.  

And if someone, like myself, who benefits from the privileges that I do experiences these feelings of anxiety and fear, how are other people feeling? How are empathetic people to live in this new “normal” when the new “normal” is fear and chaos? The office of the president sets a tone and the one you set is uncivil.

I am angry and frustrated by your willful disregard for humanity and reason. Moreover, this has not been a “peaceful transition of power,” but instead what Naomi Klein labelled as a “corporate takeover.” Unsurprisingly, you lied to your voters when saying you would not work with the same insiders and investors you criticized throughout your campaign. Yes, I could list the many frustrating, frightening, and, embarrassing aspects of your administration, but I cannot continue living in this unhealthy way. I need to practice self-care and interact more with the positive aspects of this vibrant and educated community around me. President Trump, your corrosive and toxic influence will not beat me and will not destroy us.

I continue to remind myself that you’re only one man who can only do so much. (Admittedly, only one man with the nuclear codes, but still only one man…)  You will not make me “go low.” I will listen, I will speak with my neighbors, friends, and family. We will ask questions, while holding a high bar of personal accountability, respect, and integrity as we set forth to enact positive change in this world.

As a political animal, I usually look forward to watching the State of the Union Address. To be fair, I didn’t really start watching until the W Bush years. I also clearly recall President Obama’s words setting a civilized, inspiring, and pragmatic tone. I wonder if the tone you will set on February 28th will be as appalling as the one you spew at your news conferences or pep rallies? If so, people like myself, won’t be able to sit through it. We will turn off the television and will just need to look somewhere else for leadership? This is not a bad thing. We must remain above your corrosive influence and breathe. Hopefully, more people will find their voice and use it to speak out against injustice and speak up for our shared human, environmental, and civil rights.

As I know you will never read this letter, I am also fairly certain you will not do anything to earn my respect moving forward, but this is okay. You have awoken something very powerful - an educated and engaged electorate who will hopefully appreciate and understand the value of the press and our civic institutions. So, thank you.

In your book, “The Art of the Deal,” you write, “I play to people’s fantasies.” You call it “truthful hyperbole … an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”  Your administration seems to be working under the understanding that the electorate doesn’t care if you have told and continue to tell demonstrable and perhaps treasonable lies. (Lies that you cannot continue to just blame on the media.) True, you will always have some who will support you, or will continue to say they do as if they were pissing in the wind. I call these the “fuck it voters”. But alas, I am again reminded of something President Obama said in his final address to the nation, “A selective sorting of facts is self defeating.” 

Exactly, because soon, reality and facts will catch up with you.


Nicholas Allanach

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Man's Best Friends

Lonnie and Flex (Astoria, Queens, NYC - 2010)

      I have a stack of books I might someday read. I have acquired these books from stoop sales, free-book piles, and then there are the ‘recommended reads.’ I do not discard book from this stack easily. I believe each is awaiting the opportune moment to intersect with my experience. Likely, I will not be able to read them all (especially as this stack continues to grow and change.) Sometimes, I begin one book but become disinterested, or distracted, and so decide to liberate it back out into the broader cycle for potential readers. Other times, the book is exactly what I am looking for - it comes into my life when I need advice or an alternative perspective. Books can be an escape, provide comfort, and can also teach empathy and understanding.
       I suppose, books are a lot like dogs.

      This fall, I found an old copy of Jack London’s classic adventure novel, The Call of the Wild - a canonic piece of literature I had (for whatever reason) yet to read. That afternoon, I read about, Buck, the sled dog while sitting on a Florida beach wearing shorts and applying copious amounts of sunblock to my pale skin. Although I was in the sun, my mind was right there beside Buck as he led his pack through the unforgiving Canadian Yukon learning the “law of club and fang.” I became so emotionally attached to this dog’s story that my skin broke out in goosebumps when I read about “the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead” and wept quietly behind my sunglasses when arriving at the sad scene of Dave’s death. This simple story of a tame dog, kidnapped from his home to be sold as a sled dog is about a popular theme - survival.
       My reaction to London’s story of a dog’s struggle to survive in a brutal climate became cathartic. I attribute part of my emotional response to reading the book while visiting my mother - a woman who has always cared for dogs, seems to relate to them more than humans, and whose impoverished, uneducated life reminds me of just how unforgiving this all to human world is. 
       I also intimately related to The Call of the Wild because our beloved dog, Flex, had recently died. Flex a fifteen-year-old rat-terrier mix, was cute, had a lot of character, but also held a rather temperamental disposition. Flex was a small dog with a limp in his left hind leg. By the last year of his life, he mostly hobbled around the apartment, or just yelped for someone to pick him up to lay on the couch. I miss the way Flex slept between us at night. I was carrying Flex during the final moments of his life. I felt his body go limp in my arms as his heart started to fail and watched helplessly as he took his last breaths on the floor of our apartment.
       Our second dog, Lonnie, a pit-bull, lab, dachshund mix, was also having medical concerns at the time of my reading The Call of the Wild and would need to be put to sleep three months later. Lonnie was a loving, loyal, gentle dog. Timid, always smiling, and wagging his tale - Lonnie was the quintessential “man’s best friend.” His eyes were always there for you and his soft head was there to be pet. Lonnie never harmed a living creature. 
       Accordingly, Flex and Lonnie would have not survived the brutal Yukon. Both were rescued dogs who only lived the comfortable life they did because of the care, patience, and attention my loving wife provided them. I only met these dogs, Flex and Lonnie, because I became romantically involved with and later married to their “master.” At first, I was unenthusiastic about dating someone with dogs. I liked dogs. But dogs were an extra, unneeded hassle. Why would anyone want to willingly take care of something else? I grew up with dogs as a boy and knew the work they entailed. I decided I would never have dogs. I didn’t want to wake up when they wanted me to or to be home when they needed me to be. They were a responsibility I chose to forego. But love eventually showed my heart another way. 
      Dogs come into our lives for a reason. 
      Flex and Lonnie intersected with my life when I needed to learn some lessons. One lesson was patience (still learning…) I also discovered how important it is for these companions in life. Dogs need us as much as we need them. Flex and Lonnie required me to feed them and take them for walks, but eventually the feeling became mutual - I was the one who needed them, but on other levels.  I learned about leadership, dogs require a confidence and assurance from their owners (i.e., pack leaders). Dogs do not benefit from pampering or abuse. Dogs are attuned to our energy.  
       Now that they’re gone, I miss them and the way they would be here waiting for us when we return home. I have relearned the other reason to why I never wanted dogs - when they die it hurts.   
       Of course they are no longer here physically, but I still feel them while I am preparing food in the kitchen, cleaning the apartment, or just walking along the street where we used to walk, together.

   Rest in peace, Flex and Lonnie, we love you.
Flex and Lonnie series (2001, Astoria, Queens, NYC)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Resist. Rise up. Rebel.

(Trump Doodle from Aug. 2015) #notmypresident

      In April, students left a "Civil Disobedience Training" flier for a Trump rally on my desk. I was inspired to see organizing against a man I see as a misogynist, racist, bully. How could voters choose a moneyed-thug with zero experience for the most powerful office? How could anyone who offended so many become the representative of this unique and influential country? I am embarrassed by my naive delusions. How could I be so blind to the true obscenity, cynicism, and arrogance of American politics?

        On Election Day, my mood was giddy. I was relieved this bitter campaign would be over. All that wasted cognitive energy could be focused on more enriching subjects. My egalitarian idealism was encouraged by the diversity of voters at my polling site in Queens. I was moved seeing a mother show her young daughter how to vote. But the United States, like politics, is imperfect. This election was supposed to be about the values I thought "We" all valued: reason, equity, justice. That "We" were better than the hate and ignorance dividing us. I was so wrong. 
        Like many people, I was certain Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States. As I went about my day, first, at the university and then teaching English to newcomers, I remained blissfully unaware of the political upset to come.
      To be fair, information I received up to that point only indicated to a Clinton victory. I listened to the pundits and political experts. I read op-eds and analysis. I watched Steve Kornacki manipulate graphics and present data on a “smart” screen that only offered scenarios of Trump losing and losing hard. A certain pompousness permeated the studios of 30 Rockefeller Center as the talking heads gleefully assured the audience that Clinton was well on her way to victory. But then, something went wrong - there was a glitch in the system. Kornacki’s screen froze. All the data and reasoned opines couldn’t curb the anger, resentment, and emotion so many Americans have decided to unleash. 
           Perhaps I was the one reading the "fake news"?

      As of this writing, Hillary Clinton has gathered 2.5 million more votes than President-elect Donald Trump. Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, continues to press for recounts in a handful of states. Nevertheless, the out-dated, un-democratic, legal mechanism of the electoral college ensures there is little anyone can do but protest, shout, and watch Trump assemble his nepotistic and inept cabinet. Trump’s administration is also poised to control a Republican House of Representatives, Senate, and there are the looming court appointments. The future looks grim for anyone showing up for social, environmental, and economic justice. 
         Those disrupting Trump rallies were right to speak up and are so now as they continue the protest into the streets and to the fights ahead. People are angry, afraid, and concerned about the real threats of a Trump presidency. To be fair, those who voted for Trump will also have legitimate concerns. Those of us who didn’t disrupt before the election are going to have to start catching up to those who have been. When we do this, we will need to do so in a more effective, intersectional, and holistic way. Effectiveness will mean having conversations with people who voted Trump. The time has come for the hand-wringing, navel-gazing, ineffectual liberal class to admit it - we have been apologist to power for too long and will now suffer retribution for our inaction.
         I voted for the experienced policy-wonk, the establishment candidate, the centrist, neoliberal, Democrat. Hillary Clinton wasn’t ideal and perhaps her public perception was flawed from the start. But often (especially in politics), one must check their idealism and just comprise. Clinton would have been a pragmatic and effective leader. She would have protected women's right to choose, she wanted to expand social security, supported voting rights, believes in climate change, etc. Unfortunately, reason and truth were not animating forces throughout this election.
      The Clinton campaign pushed an optimistic message of America being a great place already. Our differences made us “stronger together.” We were a diverse nation of decent people. The real villain was Trump and his divisive and deplorable bullying. Unfortunately, this warm and fuzzy hand-holding was not what many Americans felt. Neoliberal economic trade deals and the expansion of a growing prison / military industrial complex have adversely affected our very humanity. Human abuse of the ecosystem is now being felt. The grievances and hardships are the same for many, yet somehow the Democrats could not speak to this real hurt. Trump did, through anger and strong bombastic assertions. This election may have revealed deep divisions between our coastal states, urban centers, and rural countryside, but it also revealed a glaring hypocrisy between what we consider civil and decent.
       Trump spoke to a base that grew tired of thinking, pontificating "PC" politicians, and academics long ago. His supporters got much of their information from "fake news" sites. They said, ‘fuck it’ and voted accordingly. Trump was the closest thing to a middle-finger running for President. “Be obscene!” Disrupt the status quo! Why be measured or cautious? Who says you need to be apologetic to your own crimes or even those from history? Trump is unrestrained. He encourages racism and sexism. These aspects of his behavior should not be tolerated by any civil society. Yet we have accepted them, so what does it say about this society? How can conservatives stand beside this tawdry, lewd man? Because he is also their strong man who promises change.
        Part of Trump’s base is labeled the “alt-right.” Trump’s special advisor, Stephen Bannon, has been integral to the success of the "alt-right" message, which rejects egalitarianism, universalism, and multiculturalism. They consider civic and social values a threat to their "white" identity. Essentially, the “alt-right” is a nationalist movement that sees accelerating immigration and globalization as diminishing their “white culture” in the US. But they are not Trump's only supporters.
         Trump also recognized that emotion outweighs truth in politics. He manipulated people’s despair and gave them a story to believe in - even if one rife with lies. Truth is something you feel it to be. Trump utilized “False Evidence that Appears Real” (FEAR). For instance, hyperbolic statements of lawlessness and people being "gunned down in the streets" did not speak to the reality that violent crime has actually gone down. Xenophobic rhetoric was also central to the FEAR campaign. At numerous rallies Trump claimed Muslims in New Jersey were "cheering in the streets on Sept. 11, 2001." Untrue.
        Of course, why should we expect anything less than lies from the carnival barker? Trump’s views and opinions have always been situational. He is no more than a common opportunist. He doesn't hold any true position (other than the obvious - privatization of our social services.) Unfortunately, this shifting, hyperbolic, reactionary stream-of-conscience plays to Trump’s favor. In a sense he is a blank canvas for people to paint whatever dark, twisted, or even noble picture onto. Many of Trump’s supporters admit they took him seriously, but not literally. Which is perhaps why folks who once voted Obama, and then Bernie Sanders, were able to somehow vote Trump in 2016? I don't know. We live in confusing times. 
             Trump managed to turn the presidential primaries and general election into an absurd and disturbing reality show. (I’m embarrassed to admit I watched the first season of “The Apprentice.” I am now embarrassed for watching this election, and for my country…) As with most reality TV - Trump cultivated a persona in which cruelty was entertaining. Clinton expressed her concern about Trump’s “temperament.” Obama called him “unfit” for office. But on reality TV, assholes are rewarded for dishonest and extreme behavior. Arrogance and blind-confidence are just tools of the game. Empathy, nuance, and understanding are seen as weakness. All traits Trump now brings to Washington.
     Ultimately, desperation may have inspired people to vote Trump. But let's face it - the hyperbolic reactions to a Clinton presidency on both the left and right were absurd. I am tired of the blame, the whining, and cynicism. To be fair, the Democrats have a lot of soul-searching and planning to do ahead. They must recognize this as the failure it is. But reflection will need to also take place within the ‘centers of power’ (the media, the academy, celebrities.)
         I can no longer afford to be arrogant. I cannot be blind by emotion - too much is at stake. I recognize the fragility of society. The fabric of civilization is a delicate thing to keep intact. This fabric can be torn by extreme acts, natural disasters, war, and can cause the threads we feel between us to fray.
            Perhaps the USA deserves Trump? 
            Those who voted for him, got him.
       The rest of us must defend our values and not give in to despair.  Now is the time to resist, rise up, and rebel. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Bernie: Too Big to Fail...

On June 7th, Hillary Clinton will likely win the California primary, essentially securing her the Democratic presidential nomination. For the former first lady, senator of New York, and secretary of state, this has been a surprisingly arduous political contest. I have said (and still believe) Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate for president; however, an impressive resume doesn’t automatically make her electable. Full disclosure, I support democratic-socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, and believe in the political revolution his campaign has inspired. Moreover, I think Bernie Sanders stands the best chance of beating the Republican nominee - Donald Trump. Accordingly, I continue to support Sanders until he officially suspends his campaign (which I begrudgingly realize is coming soon.) So as we approach the conclusion of this energetic primary (and before directing our attention to this summer’s conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia), let’s reflect on why anyone would still support the long shot candidate from Vermont. 
     For one, Bernie Sanders has ignited a “political revolution” and backing away from any revolution, especially after becoming so invested, is not so easy. Perhaps the cynical will invariably scoff at such hyperbole, but what else to label this inspiring movement? The Sanders campaign can rightfully label itself a ‘revolution’ because Sanders has influenced and changed the minds of millions of young and newly-registered voters to actually engage in a political process that many had all but given up on. A number of Sanders’ supporters are also first-time Democrats. Thus, even if Sanders loses California, he has already won a number of delegates, captured 20 states, and raised $210 million in funds. The DNC must acknowledge that Sanders has effectively changed the game. If and when there is a transitional moment for Sanders to publicly endorse Clinton, it will need to be at the convention, or before; otherwise, a number of Sanders’ emotionally-invested and passionate supporters could become finicky with party procedure (especially, realizing their candidate is not going to win) and become further disengaged and totally turned off by politics altogether.     
     Sanders has changed the conversation, raised our consciousness, and reinvigorated the Democratic Party in exciting ways, but it is now up to his supporters and the DNC to continue carrying this enthusiasm into future movements. As Sanders reminded us at the start of this campaign, “No president can bring about the changes working families deserve.” And “No president can do what needs to be done alone.” This is important - an ongoing revolution will take millions of courageous and compassionate people to achieve, which would still be the case if Sanders has a comeback, clinches the nomination, and becomes president.
     Throughout the campaign Sanders has forced Clinton to defend her presumably progressive stance on a number of issues. Sanders has criticized Clinton’s support and ongoing relationship with Wall Street banks, inferring this makes her ill-equipped to enforce any real regulations. She has also taken contributions from fossil-fuel companies, making her equally weak on climate change. And, of course, Clinton has been unable to shake her 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq.  
     On the other hand, Bernie’s message has remained consistent - get money out of politics and out of the pockets of the billionaire class (i.e., the 1%). The most significant value that sets Sanders apart from any candidate is that he is not owned by the banks, nor the lobbyists who place profit before people. Sanders has not received contributions from any super pac. He should be commended and emulated for this. In fact, it would behoove Clinton and the Democratic Party, to promote and work to repeal Citizen’s United for good.   
     Most refreshing, Sanders is doing something long overdue - holding the Democratic Party and our political process itself accountable to the values it purports to uphold. There are millions hungry for a new kind of politics. But can the Democratic Party speak to those Bernie has brought into the tent and to do so in a genuine way? I hope those who have supported Senator Sanders will realize the importance of staying involved in politics. If Bernie can hold the Democrats accountable, what prevents us from continuing to hold ourselves accountable? We can carry on this political revolution. Newly-registered Democrats now have the ability to support candidates who uphold the values Senator Sanders espouses: renewable and sustainable energy alternatives, environmental justice, prison divestment, criminal justice reform, a humane and sensible immigration policy, universal healthcare, tuition-free college, etc.
     So we arrive at the question that may keep some in the Clinton camp awake at night - will Sanders suspend his campaign respectfully, encouraging his supporters to fall in line with the rest of the Democratic Party and vote Clinton? And if Sanders does this, who can say his supporters will vote Clinton? Is Clinton able to get people excited enough to get out the vote and do so with the same grassroots fervor? I doubt it. Which is why we get back to why I am still supporting Bernie - he is the only candidate who could possibly beat candidate ‘Trump-enstein’ in the general election. For instance, I have even anecdotally heard people say they would go so far as to vote Trump so as to “guarantee a revolution.” However, what these voters fail to comprehend is that politics is not a zero-sum game. Just because you’re candidate doesn’t win, shouldn’t mean you give up on everything.
     I am not ashamed for sticking with the “socialist Jew” until the bitter end. This is all part of the primary process, and part of a healthy democracy. (As we may recall, Hillary Clinton was also still in the race at this point back in 2008.) The major differences that separate Sanders from Clinton are significant and should cause us all to advocate for real reform, but these differences are not large enough to completely ignore our collective responsibility come November - to get out the vote. 
     If you’re not convinced to vote for Hillary Clinton, fine - that’s her job to do (besides, the game is not over, yet.) But please any reasons for not voting Clinton should not be because Bernie didn’t go all the way. I don’t think Clinton needs to come off as America’s best friend, just reasonable enough to run our country, which I think she is. Our ideal candidate may not be the one to run in the general election, but I am excited to see more people standing up for progressive values. I believe if we keep at it, and continue to hold ourselves accountable, our day will come. But only if we keep up the fight and stay in the game. 
    I know Bernie would.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Got Privilege?

My first visit to Louisville, Kentucky was in the late-eighties. My father (who was then chief of police in Westbrook, Maine) took our family on a road trip to Kentucky to attend a police convention. I even invited a childhood friend (whose dad was also a cop). As kids we thought police were cool. COPS aired Sunday nights on Fox, I dressed-up in my dad’s old uniforms, and played ‘cops and robbers’ with children in the neighborhood. I even skipped school once to watch one of those corny Police Academy movies. This was the world I knew and, like my white privilege, this upbringing socialized my perspectives on the world.
        The second time I visited Louisville was in March 2015, this time I was there to examine and challenge this socialization while attending the White Privilege Conference (WPC) with Dean Mary Watson and some colleagues from The New School.

The WPC is a gathering of students, educators, social workers, administrators, members of faith organizations, lawyers, and, yes, police. Dr. Eddie Moore held the first WPC in Iowa in 1999 and has been meeting in cities throughout the US ever since. When I spoke with Dr. Moore before the conference, he told me when he first thought of the idea, people advised him to “Change the name to something more palatable like the ‘diversity’ conference.” Critics decried that the powerful title 'white privilege' would invariably turn people away. This has not been the case. Over the years, the WPC has become more popular. At this year's conference, there are close to three-thousand attendees. (Admittedly, some locals I encountered in Louisville were confused by the title, thinking it was a conference encouraging white supremacy.)
        According to its website, The WPC “offers solutions and team-building strategies for anti-racist organizers to work toward a more equitable, just, and humane world.” Attendees gather to learn about power, privilege, and oppression in not only America, but internationally, and (perhaps toughest of all) internally. This was to be a strikingly different experience from my childhood trip to the city of bourbon and BBQ, but one I was glad to have had to reflect on when considering the ongoing discriminatory practices of law enforcement against black lives alongside the militarization of police throughout our communities. What seemed cool as an ignorant child now seemed perverse and unjust as an adult.   
A week before the WPC, President Obama spoke from Selma to commemorate and honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in which civil rights activists were brutally attacked by Alabama State Police when attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th 1965. The President said, “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.” 
      Part of the work happening at the WPC was just that - to give purpose and to inspire the work of future generations to not only learn about the specious tenants of racism, but to develop ways of dismantling them as well. The WPC creates a safe place for people to openly discuss and understand race and privilege. Like any other conference, there were inspiring keynote speeches, informative workshops, performances, film-screenings, and lots of networking opportunities. But one of the more challenging (and unique) aspects of the conference was at the close of each day when attendees broke-up into their respective 'caucuses' - white people met with whites, black people with blacks, asian people with asians... Each caucus was led by a trained facilitator. The point of the caucuses were for people from similar racial groups to freely talk through what they had learned and/or were having trouble understanding. 
      I was surprised by the amount of ignorance evident in my own white caucus. I assumed most people here had already done some anti-racist workshops. Of course, many were well-intentioned liberals -some who had, yes, done the work to understand their own privilege, some volunteered time in underserved communities. Nevertheless, it became clear even the most well-meaning whites (myself included!) have a lot of work to do.  
      To be fair, these attendees were at least working to understand and challenge their prejudice and privilege. Most white people prefer outright ignore their advantaged position in society. We are oblivious to these benefits and often refuse to even acknowledge that white supremacy has been with the United States since its inception and (despite the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, the election of the first black President, etc.) is still alive and well. 
White supremacy is expressed in America explicitly (through the attacks and violence we continue to see against black bodies by domestic terrorists or perpetrated by the state through the hands of authorized police) and implicitly (through unjust voting laws, lack of access to equal-opportunities like education and jobs, to racially biased mandatory minimums alongside our profitable prison industrial complex.) Bigotry, racism, and fear continue to deprive people from engaging in any politics to realistically address the role systemic racism and white supremacy play in the creation and perpetuation of this American empire. 
      As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, man in this country, I take so much for granted. Consequently, my perspective and experience with race is limited, because I have the luxury  of ignoring it. I must work to understand, address, and curb my own internalized racism, which appears in my socialized mind as externalized racial superiority. (i.e., “If you’re white, you’re all right.”) If I hope to enact any real change in this world, I must start with myself. I must recognize that this system has -through no fault of my own- advantaged people like me and disadvantaged others. This oppression has always been both unfair and hypocritical. What is my fault is when I don’t call this system out, or worse, reap the benefits from its ongoing existence. 
      Talking about race can be tough; especially, for white people and yet, white people are almost always racially comfortable. This comfort becomes accustomed, expected, and entitled. Dr. Robin DiAngelo defines this as 'white fragility'. Accordingly, when white people here the phrase ‘white privilege’ they often take umbrage because they only hear ‘privileged’ whites – this is a common defense mechanism socialized into us. 
      Whites often feel the term ‘white privilege’ somehow delegitimizes their own struggle and adversity (i.e., “I came from poverty. I worked hard! My family and people had it rough too!”) True. No one can ever fully understand where each of us came from, nor the struggles we traversed to get here; however, to ignore structures that have benefitted and continue to entitle some, while blatantly discriminating and attacking others is not helpful for any of us. Most importantly, no matter who we are, white supremacy keeps us all in poverty.
      Accordingly, we must begin to dismantle the systems that continue to keep so many of our brothers and sisters in chains. Much of this work will need to be done in our communities, together (i.e., "We the people, united, will never be defeated.") And as we approach an election year that is already shaping-up to be a lively one, we must recognize #BlackLivesMatter will and should continue to disrupt these proceedings so as to ensure our presidential candidates not only address the need for Racial Justice but provide concrete policies and proposals on how they will makes this an integral part of their administration.
President Obama also said from Selma, “action requires we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.” Obama went on to reject the notion that “nothing has changed.” He continued, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties.”  
       Agreed, things have changed; however, the work is never complete. And, to be fair, many experience racism in this country as something 'endemic' and there is still, racism that is 'sanctioned by law' in this country. Accordingly, I hope we can shift our perspectives toward humility and away from narcissism and fear. We need to learn about other people’s experience so as to work collaboratively in creating a more just and equitable society. Most importantly, we must do this work from a place of love. 
      After all, this work isn’t -as WPC keynote speaker Loretta J. Ross warned- “about calling people out. This work is about bringing people in.” Indeed, let’s bring more people in and let’s also lean in to the difficult conversations - unafraid of making mistakes as we grow together. We must acknowledge our racial, ethnic, and religious differences through not only the adversity but through celebrating our identities as the “joyous explorations in ambiguity” that they are.

Friday, May 22, 2015

This Changes Nothing...

Not much has changed since Naomi Klein published her book in Fall 2014, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Instead, a dire situation only continues to deteriorate. That same week, world leaders gathered at the UN to set goals to “reduce carbon emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will.” They were also there to agree on an ambitious goal to limit the rise in global temperature by no more than 2-degrees Celsius in the coming years. Three-hundred-thousand also took part in a People’s Climate March to show solidarity with those fighting on the frontlines against the extraction industry. Later that same week, hundreds of activists “flooded” Wall Street, to draw attention to the ways our economic system continues to place profit above the needs of not only this planet but the survival of everyone on it. Indeed there was much education, energy, and emotion driving “climate action week.”  Many were poised and ready to do more.
But, frustratingly, there has been no abrupt, sweeping change to anything, let alone everything. We’re still consuming and polluting like we have multiple eco-systems to spare. Sure, there have been moderate steps taken in the right direction, and lots of awareness concerning the science of climate change, but nothing close to what is realistically needed to begin rolling-back the inevitable effects of our industrial-era binge. Climate change will happen and is happening. Just because this winter was the coldest on record throughout North America, does not mean it wasn’t the warmest globally. The weather is getting wilder and weirder. So, how will we adapt?
It is inspiring to read about the noble efforts and hard-won victories from the Climate Justice Movement. For instance, environmental activists worked alongside indigenous communities to succeed in blocking the development of the XL Oil pipeline. Universities (like The New School) and cities have divested from fossil-fuel companies. The state of New York (standingwith four European countries) agreed to ban hydraulic fracturing. Students, activists, educators, and yes, even entrepreneurs continue to remain committed to enacting real change. Nevertheless, despite these wins, the climate justice movement suffers no delusions about how difficult it will be to truly change everything.
Small victories have taken place, but they do not outweigh the surge of ongoing developments that continue to challenge and damage the limits of our environment. While the climate justice movement rallies in the streets and takes the fight to the courts, the extraction industry and its powerful influence ensures valuable interests and profits are protected. For example, while we debated the XL oil-pipeline, the United States added 11,600 miles of pipeline over the last decade, increasing its capacity by a quarter.
What is most troubling about Klein’s book is the sheer magnitude of the change we’re tasked to collectively make now, so as to potentially delay the collapse of civilization. Extreme weather patterns throughout the foreseeable future are inevitable, what is frightfully unclear is how humanity will react. Likely, obliviously, and stupidly – there is no denying a horrible truth staring right back at us – our stupid, wasteful ‘stuff’. Human consumption, and all its many incantations of flavors, needs, and demands, consumes at an insatiable, unrelenting pace and doesn’t seem to abate. Sure, we can talk a good game about climate action: reduce, reuse, recycle, plant a community garden, but we’re still locked into a trajectory that does not bode well for our ongoing survival.
Robert N. Stavins opines about “Climate Realities” in The New York Times. He writes, “In theory, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change with an intensive global effort over the next several decades. But given real-world economic and, in particular, political realities, that seems unlikely.” Unlikely indeed; for instance, although the U.N. has set a goal of keeping global temperatures from rising no more than two-degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, China alone “is expected to add the equivalent of a new 500-megawatt coal-fired electric plant every 10 days for the next decade.”
And what of the extraction industry, which remains steadfast in pursuing profits at whatever costs? As Bill McKibben made clear in his 2012 essay, “Global Warming’sTerrifying New Math”, one of the greatest challenges facing the Climate Justice movement is finding a way to convince the most profitable corporations in the world (e.g., ExxonMobil, et. al.) that they will need to leave at least 80 percent of the carbon they have claims to in the ground. Meaning all that property and resources investors are counting on cannot be touched. How can we convince these companies (along with their multi-million-dollar lobbying firms) to just walk away from trillions in wealth?
McKibben’s cautions that "to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million (ppm) to below 350 ppm. Right now we're at 400 ppm, and we're adding 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Unless we're able to rapidly turn that around and return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering tipping points and irreversible impacts that could send climate change spinning truly beyond our control."
It is difficult to comprehend how climate deniers continue to have any clout. It seems like every month a new report is published communicating the urgency and irreversibility of the real changes that will in fact change everything. For instance, just this week, NASA published a report indicating the likelihood that the Larsen B ice-shelf would break-off and melt sooner than initially predicted. This also tends to be the frightening trend of any updated climate report - the predictions are always adjusted, but never in the affirmative, only to further perpetuate a presumably hopeless situation.
Perhaps this is the reason it is so intoxicating to fall in-line with the climate deniers camp? Ignorance (or oblivion) is bliss. Better to pretend everything is okay; especially, if you're privileged enough to benefit off the valuable resources of this planet. But what happens when the effects of climate change begin to really affect our communities? It's easy for Americans to ignore the affects of climate change when it is happening over there, but when the waters begin to rise in Miami, water becomes increasingly scarce in Los Angeles, and New York City swelters through extreme summers and braces for winters with "super-storms", deniability would be laughable if the subject wasn't so depressing.
When talking climate change, conversations tend to display a wide-range of emotions: dismissive, extreme, cynical, outright refusal, etc. Accordingly, this is because there is one thing that remains the same for all of us, climate change affects everyone, thus it is inherently personal (whether we admit it, or not). Naomi Klein explains that This Changes Everything was the toughest book she has ever written. As a recent mother, Klein wrestles with raising her child in this “the age of extinction.” But despite the grim realities facing future generations, Klein remains hopeful. Her time spent with activist and indigenous tribes fighting the extraction industry (i.e., “blockadia”) helped her “to imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak.” But Klein leaves her reader with the sense that the climate justice movement will need to ready itself for a broader battle.
Accordingly, Chris Hayes warns in his essay, “The New Abolitionism”, That “there is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy. No use trying to persuade people otherwise.” In the same issue of The Nation, Naomi Klein again connects the struggles of the Climate Justice movement with consumerism. She writes, “Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy… At its core, [this] is a crisis born of overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy, which means the world’s most manic consumers are going to have to consume less.”
Of course, consuming less is not a phrase in the lexicon of multi-national corporations making billions off the continued abuse to our ecosystem, let alone the millions of first and developing-world consumers demanding the comforts of modern industrial living. As natural resources such as our air, water, and soil continue to become unsuitable for the propagation of life on this planet – religions, communities, and ideas will fight to survive. The wealthy will try to protect themselves and their property through security systems and isolation. But no one will be exempt from the repercussions of our industrial-era actions.
Despite all this, think tanks, lobbying firms, and institutes are all pushing efforts for broader fossil-fuel exploration alongside, continued exploitation of the local communities in the way of corporate interests. Humanity has become the key causality of late capitalism. For instance, consider the Hudson Institutes recent report titled, “Energy: The West’s Strategic Opportunity in the Eastern Mediterranean”, which outlines the “geostrategic significance of the middle east.” The report draws attention to recent hydrocarbon discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea and goes on to encourage ‘the west’ to unlock the “economic and geostrategic benefits of the East Med’s energy potential.” The bulk of the report reads as a warning to ‘the West’, which must pro-actively (i.e. militarily) “secure” interest in the region, or lose all that valuable fossil fuel to another regional player. This report is just an example of the many delusions intoxicating the structures of power that determine the fate of our planet.
I would like to believe our species is capable of reasonably confronting this huge challenge. But I also fear this is an unrealistic and idealistic lie we tell ourselves. Can this really be the subject that mobilizes people enough to create a catalyst for a just and equitable society as a whole? Likely not... But if we could, if there is to be hope, we must present and develop viable economic alternatives to the extraction industry. As Klein writes, “One way or another, everything is going to change. But at least for this moment, it is still up to us to contribute to this change and what it will look like.”
The climate justice movement has a costly and difficult task ahead of itself. It is no wonder many are already suffering from burnout. In order to make the changes required to potentially slow the effects of climate change, the international community must work collaboratively and cooperatively – two qualities hard to imagine in this volatile geopolitical landscape. Even if we reduce emissions, regulate the extraction industry, and everyone is engaged in a lock-step effort to enact real change, the planet is still poised for a wild and weird ride.
Still hanging on…