Farai Chideya

Will the Hip Hop Generation Go Green?

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 6: The Future of Political Parties from Farai Chideya's new book "Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters," (Soft Skull, 2004).

Third parties have generally failed to attract large numbers of voters of color, including the emerging hip hop generation political movement. The broad 18-to-35 year-old cohort of hip hop generation voters is looking for real representation. The third party movement is looking for new constituents and fresh ideas. Will these two movements connect?

Yes, say urban third party advocates, who are beginning to reach out to new constituencies like working-class African-Americans. In April 2004, a group of African-Americans hosted a forum called "Why We Joined the Green Party" in an Oakland church hall. The room was filled not just with African-Americans but local citizens of all races, some of them party members and activists, others distinctly skeptical.

Three party advocates, Donna Warren, Henry Clark, and Wilson Riles, told listeners why they'd joined the Greens. "I'm talking to my Black brothers and sisters. Go back to your communities and tell them the infrastructure is already in place if we want to have a voice," said Warren, a former Green Party candidate for California's lieutenant governor. "Join the Green Party. They will not do what the Democrats do to Black people. They [Democrats] want our votes but not our voice."

All three of the candidates tried to convince the audience that the Green Party's platform jibed with African-American interests. The Greens are the only party to support reparations for slavery, they said. The Greens favor education, not incarceration. And Riles spoke about changing California laws that have undermined public financing for schools and services, like Proposition 13. He favors reforming the law so that corporations, whose share of the tax burden has shrunk, pay their share. You'd think that reform of the criminal justice system would be an easy win for the Green Party with African-Americans. But this produced the biggest controversy of the night. During the question and answer period, a coiffed and poised woman raised her hand. LaDonna Williams said that she and her six children had "been through it, homelessness, you name it." She believed in instilling her children with a strong sense of discipline – and disagreed with the idea of eliminating California's "three strikes" law, which gives long sentences to anyone who commits three felonies. Oakland's seen more than its share of addiction and drug-related crime, especially related to crack cocaine. Even though Williams agreed that the sentences are unfair, she was afraid that reducing the "three strikes" penalties would remove a deterrent to drug use and crime. "I tell my kids they are accountable for their actions," she emphasized.

Warren replied that she understood drugs: her thirty one year-old son, a crack addict, had been murdered. "I want people to be accountable," Warren said, "but accountable to the truth. What keeps people away from drugs? Good schools, jobs, having an opportunity to succeed in this society. There's no options in our community," she said. Then she added, "I held my child accountable, but he got addicted to crack cocaine, and he's dead."

Finally another person in the audience stepped in. The tall young man had a tousled afro and a quiet but authoritative voice. "There isn't going to be a strategy for sentencing youth that prevents crime," he said. "We're focused on jail and that has never worked in America. If you look at the rest of the world, you see they know that." Instead, the government should focus on preventing crime by providing educational and job opportunities.

His name is Andrew Williams, and he told me he'd joined the Green Party right before the 2000 election, as he turned eighteen years old. "Bush was, well, Bush, and I wasn't feeling Gore," he said. Williams wanted to join a party he believed in, and he chose the Greens. Voting third-party doesn't run in his family, either. He laughed when I asked if his parents had prompted his choice. "No," he said, "I fight with my family about politics all the time."

I followed up with LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams (no relation) after the meeting. They're both black. They're both savvy and politically aware. And they each have very different takes on what American politics means to them.

For LaDonna Williams, deciding to vote in the 2004 election was not an easy choice. As a Jehovah's Witness, LaDonna's faith advocates against voting. "The answer to our problems lies with God," she says. And when God decides, "we're going to see world peace. ... But until then, you have to live life." For LaDonna, given the current political situation, that means choosing to vote. She is particularly troubled by America under the Bush Administration. "I think President Bush is doing such a horrendous job," she says. "He just outright lies and the people support it. And going to war. ... You want to protect our freedom of speech and the rights we have, but does that mean we violate everyone else's rights?"

"We talk about the weapons of mass destruction," LaDonna continues. "If you look over in Livermore [a nuclear weapons research facility in California], they've stored this radioactive stuff and they're trying to expand it more so they can build more bombs. We're the ones having the weapons of mass destruction here. It's so hypocritical."

LaDonna's politics are rooted in her love for her family. She wants a politics that reflects "family values," secures the finances of working Americans, has a strong and fair criminal justice program and delivers educational opportunity. She's hammered the importance of education home to her children, who range in age from twenty-five to just four. When her twenty-two year old was recruited to play baseball out of high school, she urged him to go to college. He's still hoping to play pro ball, but he's also finishing up a degree in environmental engineering.

So why did she show up at a Green Party meeting? "I'm not pleased with the Democratic Party," LaDonna says. "They really went out of their way to hush up Al Sharpton. With the debates, they really attempted to hush him up and Carol Moseley Braun. I think that was very disrespectful. If the Democratic Party is going to take it to the next level, they need to put a black person in a presidential or vice presidential position." But she doesn't believe just anyone should get the slot. She's holding out for a black leader with strong morals and good ideas. In the meantime, she likes Kerry, "more than [she liked] Dean, and definitely more than Bush." She still hasn't decided whom she'll vote for in 2004, but it probably won't be a Green Party candidate; she wasn't impressed with the answers she got on criminal justice at the community forum.

Andrew Williams, on the other hand, is committed to the Green Party as a vehicle for political change. It's just one part of his larger view of how to make change happen. When I reached him by telephone, he was in the middle of a "Stop Clear Channel" hip hop tour with musicians from an organization he founded, The Collectiv. The Oakland-based organization aims to connect like-minded musicians and activists, empowering the hip hop community through education and entrepreneurship. Their campaign against the entertainment industry giant, which owns over 1,200 radio stations plus music venues and television stations, centers on the way they've cut out local radio programming, blocked independent music promoters and even retaliated against top-selling bands by not playing their songs when the bands did promotions with other stations. Clear Channel has made news as part of the ongoing debate over the Federal Communications Commission and media ownership rules. And for organizations like Andrew's, focusing on the politics of music is a great way to get young voters engaged.

At the age of twenty-two, Andrew already has a finely-tuned political sensibility and a willingness to commit his own time and energy for social change. He is going to conduct a voter registration drive, but he admits he may not be that successful at convincing people to vote. "I have a hard time arguing with my friends when they say, dude, that's [voting is] a joke."

Yet Andrew is committed to voting as a way to "say your piece" and get a piece of the political action. He compares the way politicians target voters to the way advertisers and corporations target consumers. Companies spend a lot of money convincing people who already buy products to switch their brand loyalty. Politicians spend a lot of money convincing people who already vote to vote for them. As Andrew says bluntly, "If you didn't vote last time, they [politicians] don't give a fuck what you want."

Andrew votes Green because he sees both major parties as beholden to the same corporate interests. "There will always be a minority that have a vested interest and try to protect that interest," he says, "And there's always going to be a majority that fight against that interest." The problem is that that majority is fragmented, including many of the Americans who don't vote. For the record, Andrew is convinced that "most Democrats are Greens waiting for the Green Party to get to the point where they can make that decision [i.e., vote Green] and not make it feel reckless." He believes that by voting for a third-party now, he paves the way for more Americans to take them seriously. "God willing," he says, "I'm going to be living through a lot of elections. I don't want to make a decision [with my vote] that won't make long-term change." Still, he understands the position of older members of his family, who see a critical need to vote Democratic now, to, for example, ensure a more progressive Supreme Court. The most important thing is to make a choice on election day. "If nobody voted, it would be terrible," he says. "The cats who are doing what they're doing would be able to say, see, you wanted it that way. I need to say my piece. I need to be able to say fuck that: that's not what I wanted."

LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams reflect both the opportunities and hurdles for third parties wanting to reach new constituencies. LaDonna Williams is reflective of the social conservatism of many working-class African-Americans, which doesn't mesh easily with some more liberal third-party politics. The fact that she showed up to a community forum like this one – and spoke out about her needs and views – is a heartening reminder that Americans are still looking for new ways to participate in our democracy. And the fact that a member of the hip hop generation like Andrew Williams is committed to a third party highlights the changing face of politics – and the possibility that the growing hip hop generation activist movement and the third-party movement could join forces. All across America, individuals like LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams are exercising sheer raw will, transforming the nation's calcified political system into something that serves them and their communities better. If more people take a similar hands-on attitude towards politics, the question would not be whether our system will change for the better, but how soon.

Fortress America

I'm glad I got to see the world before it closed up shop.

In the past decade, I've been lucky enough -- blessed enough -- to travel to four continents. The countries I've toured are a literal A to Z, as I road-tripped from coast-to-coast in America and hiked through the mountains of Zimbabwe. And now, both within and without our nation, prospects for mind-expanding travel are narrowing to the aperture of a pin, or perhaps to the invisible width of a bit of data.

Today, the United States began photographing and fingerprinting non-U.S. citizens as they entered the country. The program, US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) is budgeted at $380 million. An estimated 24 million individuals each year will have to pass two finger scans and have their photographs taken as they enter the United States. The government's hope is that it will catch terrorists and those who overstay their visas.

In the words of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge, "As the world community combats terrorism ... you're going to see more and more countries going to a form of biometric identification to confirm identities." Biometrics is a developing, and lucrative, arena of technologies that map and quantify the body digitally.

Ironically, the International Biometric Industry Association had scheduled its annual conference for September 11, 2001, in Orlando, Florida. The association re-scheduled the conference, with a keynote called "Homeland Security and Biometrics," for February 2002. Since then, the financial prospects for biometrics firms have soared. In much the same way that the war on Iraq has improved the fortunes of military outsourcing firms like Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, our nation's response to the September 11 attacks is feeding the coffers of biometrics firms -- for an uncertain reward.

This holiday season, the United States blocked or delayed several international flights into the country because of security concerns. Ultimately, no arrests were made, and the government admits there may have been no terrorist plot to begin with. In fact, some of the flights had spelling errors on their passenger manifests that caused the delays. More specifically, a test of the US-VISIT program in Atlanta screened over 20,000 passengers and found just 21 people with suspicious records. None of them were suspected terrorists -- rather, they had been convicted of prior offenses including statutory rape.

On the one hand, no one wants criminals entering the United States. But at a cost of $380 million dollars a year, this program is wildly expensive and does not seem to net its target of terrorists (who may well have sophisticated ways of foiling the system). Instead, it may deter legitimate tourists and hurt an already ailing airline industry.

And moves like this one do not just affect non-estadounidenses. The tightening of global travel restrictions sends a message to Americans that the world is as closed to us as the United States appears to be to those on the outside. They add to the already rampant paranoia that the world is merely a dangerous (and not also a wondrous) place and the only safe haven is a gated community within a shuttered nation. Our country is becoming a fortress of our own devising, both psychologically and tangibly. For example, last week Brazil began fingerprinting and photographing American visitors as a tit-for-tat.

"At first, most of the Americans were angered at having to go through all this," said Wagner Castilho, a press officer for the Brazilian federal police. "But they were usually more understanding once they learned that Brazilians are subjected to the same treatment in the U.S."

We can't expect special treatment on the global stage. If we restrict access to the United States, others will restrict our access to the world. And that would be a devastating shame. In an era of terror, anger and recriminations, one of the healing balms is a one-on-one connection with people of other nations. We cannot heal the rifts in this fractious world by hiding in our domain. No screening program will make us absolutely secure. And if we retreat -- attempting to become an island fortress -- we will endanger not only our humanity, but our long-term security as well.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

Leave No Flygirl Behind

The only thing worse than having a marvelous booty call, only to find the person you're waking up next to is a Republican, is finding out that one of your best friends so loathes the political system that she has not voted and will not vote.

I had one of those shocks the other day. Keisha (name changed to protect the guilty) is not your average Jenny on the block. She is multilingual, has traveled extensively and lived abroad, and pulls down a six-figure salary. She's a compulsive reader and knowledge-seeker. And as a thirty-something African-American, Keisha is also part of a demographic whose political disappearing act should worry Democrats and anyone who cares about democracy.

Keisha's reasons for not voting are simple. She hates most of the candidates. "I vote," she says, "with my money."

It should go without saying that "voting" for Gucci or Wal-Mart is not quite the same as voting for Bush or Sharpton or Dean. But the construct of American consumerism -- what writer Steve Waldman calls "the tyranny of choice" -- does give people a sense that they hold decision-making power. Politics, too often, seems to give us none. Many younger Americans see politics as a distasteful opportunity to make a series of wrong choices. As long as that is the case -- as long as the choice is the lesser of two evils -- then younger voters will continue to sit out the game.

The key to reinvigorating younger voters, and the untapped 100 million non-voters, is to find an aspirational, inspirational language for political change. The Republicans have been very adept at creating a clear narrative of power and self-determination that appeals not only to the people they serve (the rich), but to anyone seeking to better themselves. Thus the trend of the "NASCAR Dad," a demographic whose economic interests should go clearly Democratic but whose voting patterns are stubbornly Republican. Right now, at least, the Republicans are better storytellers.

Better, livelier, and more hopeful storytelling on the left and from Democrats is key to this election. Front-runner Howard Dean has been adept at attacking the Bush administration, but less able to paint vivid word-pictures of the nation he hopes to create. This kind of red-meat politicking appeals to party faithful and young Internet volunteers, but it may not bring many of the 100 million non-voters back into the fold. Messaging need not be an either-or dilemma. The candidates can continue to legitimately point out the failures of the current administration while honing their vision of a post-Bush America.

What would that vision consist of? Democrats have to reclaim the language of opportunity, enhanced by a solid grasp of social justice. The concept that a rising tide lifts all boats needs to be updated for the more acquisitive hip hop generation, who want immediate rewards for the fruits of their labor. The Democratic Party must be the party of strivers who are opportunistic but not parasitic, people who believe their own personal gain will not be enhanced by the misery of others. Right now some voters feel they have to choose between personal opportunity and social justice. A spot-on narrative will demonstrate that social justice -- including no more no-bid contracts for fat cats, more educational opportunity, halting the growth of the prison-industrial complex and better jobs creation -- benefits those seeking economic gain. Call it "Leave No Flygirl Behind."

Targeting the hip-hop generation -- people like Keisha -- with these messages is critical. The average age of white Americans is 41. The average age of black Americans is 31. Younger Americans are less likely to vote than older Americans. Black voters are 90-plus percent Democratic Party faithful. The Party has taken the black vote for granted, but as time passes, unless messaging is on point, the flow of black support will dwindle. The hip-hop generation is, of course, multiracial. Across ethnic lines, they are disgruntled with the lack of political storytelling that appeals to them.

It's not too late to find the language of inspiration. And it certainly isn't too early to start.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

An Open Letter to Michael Jackson

You were my first. Back when the other kids were swaying to nursery rhymes, I wanted to rock with you. I had everything I needed -- a portable stereo and an album of you singing with the Jackson Five. According to my mother, I would drag around my little stereo, and I would put you on, and I would dance. Nothing else in the world could have made me happier.

I remember you. Your lips were full and your nose was wide and your face was brown. This only rates mentioning because it is no longer true, so untrue, in fact, that sometimes I wonder if I imagined you as you once were. I'm sure at night, as a child, I dreamed of the boy with the afro who sang and spun on his heels like a miniature James Brown.

I wish that boy had become a man. That wish seemed reasonable all the way through "Off the Wall," when your nose grew narrower and hair more lank, but you were still visibly black. With every subsequent album your relationship to your original appearance grew fainter and fainter, until you were no longer even an echo of yourself. But the further you fled from black masculinity, the more international crowds lionized you. Today you are a grotesque.

And an alleged child molester -- that too? If we can believe what we see in the camera lens -- that this pale alien being (recently parodied in "Scary Movie 3") was once cute little Michael -- then we can believe anything. The danger for us is that we will judge you by your appearance. The danger for you is that you have set up a situation, with your reckless behavior around your own children and others', that we cannot help but judge.

In his book The Hip Hop Generation," Bakari Kitwana relentlessly outlines America's broken promise to black males. Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and unbalanced enforcement of drug laws have helped make prison a waystation or home for many more black men than white. In Los Angeles and Cincinnati, frustrated youth up-end their own neighborhoods to draw attention to police brutality. The global economy undermines the fortunes of lower-skilled workers, many of them African-Americans. The military, in many cases, remains the only way out.

This social warfare has hardened many black men, aiding and abetting the culture of hypermasculinity that permeates hip hop. It's hard to be a sister and be down with the bitch/'ho lyrics, hard to be down with men who spout rhymes full of anti-female fury. Commercial hip hop may appeal to young women who can pretend that the men are calling out someone else, but to an older head like myself it sounds as if they are speaking my name. I cannot listen to it. I cannot dance.

But I long to take the floor with the same childish glee that I did when you and I were together. I desperately want you to be there for me, to reassure me that things aren't so bad that the primary options open to black men are hatred of black women or physical and mental disintegration. I would like to think that you, the shadow Michael who never had a chance to grow up, wouldn't treat me the way those other men do. But I'm the furthest thing from your mind.

In your absence, the absence of a Michael I can relate to, I have only questions. Why does America destroy and pervert black men? Were you squeezed between racism and perfectionism until your very soul compressed? And what about those without your millions of dollars? What options are left for them?

I feel -- and I know it cannot be true, for I still breathe -- that if you cannot exist, I cannot exist. If there is no room for a loving black masculinity in the world, I fear there is little room for the black feminine as well. You, Michael Jackson, are not all black men, and for that I am grateful. But your decline says more about America than we can bear to hear.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

A Double Standard for Heroes?

What do you call a black war hero? A nigger.

In the crudest of senses, this twist on the old joke about black PhDs sums up the political backdrop of Calvin Baker's lyrical novel "Once Two Heroes." Set in the European battlefields of World War II, in black Los Angeles and in the white South, the book ranges masterfully across geography, race and point of view. The novel follows the struggles and glories of two war heroes, one black, one white, and their divergent and fatally convergent life paths. Although it is a period piece, its echoes are very much present day.

Take the case of Shoshanna Johnson.

Johnson is a single mother of a young daughter. She enlisted in the Army in hopes it would help her become a chef. Instead, the Army specialist was deployed to Iraq, shot through both legs and held prisoner for 22 days. (She was captured in the same ambush as Jessica Lynch, but remained in captivity longer.) Her slow and painful recovery was not charted by the media with the same zeal as her friend Lynch. In fact, there was hardly any coverage of her journey at all.

Today Johnson remains partially disabled, unable to stand for long periods (which clearly impacts her desired career), and haunted by flashbacks to her ordeal. But the U.S. Army, so buoyed by the publicity around the Lynch case, has now dealt Johnson and her family a severe blow. While Jessica Lynch is being discharged from the army with an 80-percent disability benefit, Johnson is being discharged on only 30-percent disability. The difference will mean a loss of nearly $700 per month for Johnson and her child.

Reluctantly, the Johnson family began to turn to the media that had spurned them, speaking out about her plight. Her father, Claude Johnson, told reporter Lee Hockstader of the Washington Post that there was a double standard.

"I don't know for sure that it was the Pentagon," he said. "All I know for sure is that the news media paid a lot of attention to Jessica."

The family has enlisted the help of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Although his help is bound to be effective, it is necessary only because of the tiresome dance of race in America, where whites are seen as the default models for society, and black achievements are looked at with puzzlement.

Jessica Lynch's face graces the cover of Time magazine; her interviews and excerpts of her book have been scattered across national television. Now, only because of a small but growing outcry, Shoshanna Johnson may get her due as well.

Nuyorican Poetry Slam winner Kahlil Almustafa has even written a poem about Johnson. It begins:

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The Age of Uncertainty

It seems like half of my friends are unemployed and the other half are stuck in jobs that don't match them, like ill-fitting suits. Maybe it has something to do with our age. Most of us are in our mid-30s, too old to work happily for peanuts at some crap-ass job, too young to stay put for a pension. (They still have those, don't they?)

We are desperate for change, desperate for guidance and vision and prospects and improvement. There's only one problem. We want the same amelioration in political life as we seek personally.

Why is that a problem? To state the obvious, if sobering, truth: What's good for America seems good for President Bush. If the war in Iraq is "contained," it increases the President's chances of re-election. If the economy blossoms rather than withers, the same is true. America is fundamentally a conservative country: conservative in the sense of conserving energy and reserving harsh judgment. Voting out a sitting President, even one with such an egregious track record on issues from the economy to the environment, strikes many Americans as somewhere between impossible and undesirable.

Progressives/left/liberals/you-name-it must move beyond the politics of opposition, where what's bad for America is good for the President's foes. We cannot rely on America's fortunes continuing to tank -- the up-tick in the economy proves that. There has to be a way to encourage and enjoy any improvement in America's fortunes while still building a base for change.

What if? That simple statement is one of the most powerful in the human imagination and in politics as well. If the left and America are to do well simultaneously, we must "what if" our way into a new vision of progress.

What if the President had listened to his own father, who wrote in his 1998 memoir A World Transformed:

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American Jihad

There are several battles going on simultaneously in Iraq. One is to secure the country against lawlessness and terrorism. Another is to dole out the spoils of the oil resources. Third is to secure victory for George W. Bush in the 2004 elections. And yet another is to win a public relations offensive, convincing the world that this was a just war in the first place.

In that last campaign, mark one for America in the "skirmish lost" column.

Recently NBC News broadcast footage of Army Lt. General William Boykin, a deputy undersecretary of defense, equating our campaigns in the Middle East to a religious war. Among his arguments: that Islam is "a spiritual enemy. He's called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan," out to destroy America "because we're a Christian nation."

For bonus points, Boykin also pegged God (not the Supreme Court) as the deciding factor in the 2000 elections. "Why is this man [President Bush] in the White House?" he said. "The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."

Who does it serve to antagonize not Islamic terrorists, who need no further incentive for their deeds, but the rest of the members of the world's fastest growing religion? If any Islamic cleric or politician were to make similar statements about Christianity in a public forum, you can bet our government would decry their hate speech.

Therefore the most troubling aspect of the Boykin incident is not his words, but the Bush administration's reaction to his attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Boykin "an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States Armed Forces." He then defended the Lt. General's statements on free speech grounds, saying, "We're a free people."

A free speech defense has great appeal. But this administration, which has relentlessly criticized those who speak out against the Iraq war and occupation, seems to have a very selective view of its uses. (Remember former White House spokesman Ari Flesicher admonishing Bill Maher of 'Politically Incorrect' and "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do"?)

Much has been made of the evangelical Christianity of President Bush. He has tried to blend his courting of evangelical voters with attempts to extend an olive branch to a growing political force, Arab-Americans. But the President and his administration cannot have it both ways. They cannot restrict the meaning of "true American" to "Christian-American," and also purport to believe in a pluralistic society. And they cannot allow the military to promote the idea of an American Jihad -- a religious war -- while claiming to fight a religion-neutral war on terrorism as well.

The issue of religion in American identity will be one of the lynchpins around which the 2004 election turns. Currently the Supreme Court is debating whether schoolchildren should use the phrase "under God" (which was only added during the Red Scare of the 1950s) while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court may well bar the use of the words in school -- but every politician running for President will then, to court voters, leap to their defense. On a much deeper level, the Red State/Blue State faultline corresponds nicely with states in which evangelical or fundamentalist beliefs pervade (Red) versus states with a healthy, if hard-won, sense of religious pluralism (Blue).

In our own nation, and abroad, we cannot take lightly the threat that religious warmongering holds for our Union or our standing in the world. The administration must recognize the speech of Lt. Gen. Boykin and any others like him for what it really is: a threat to national security and American democracy as well.

Avoiding the Rush to Gloat

I was going to write this snarky column on the allegations that Rush Limbaugh is a pill-popper (as well just being dinged from ESPN for racism). Wasn't it just delicious that this malicious conservative firebrand, this master of condemnation, was living in a house of glass? Wasn't it just the comeuppance that he couldn't hack it without uppers and downers?

I only had one problem. I just couldn't finish that piece.

It strikes me that this sad, angry man says more about the tragedy of America's emotional life than an attack piece could convey. Who is he, this standard-bearer for anger and hate, and why did he allegedly feel it necessary to douse his own flames with illicit painkillers?

Like conservative moralist William Bennett, who lost millions of dollars gambling, Rush Limbaugh may become a symbol of the moral hypocrisy of the hard right. These two men helped build the frenzy to impeach President Clinton on charges of lying to the public. But were they themselves living a public lie?

If the ongoing investigation proves that Limbaugh got his housekeeper to buy thousands of addictive OxyContin illegally, he will join Bennett as a symbol of right-wing moralists' deadly dual consciousness. Morality is for the little people, and for liberals. (Same thing.) Talking about welfare queens and poverty pimps, not to mention philandering presidents, excuses your own failings.

So why not, excuse the pun, rush to judgment? In the book "The Power of Now," philosopher Eckhart Tolle speaks of a cycle of identification with the negative aspects of life that hurts the thinker as much as anyone around him or her. "To complain is always nonacceptance of what is," Tolle writes. "It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim."

Conservative complaints about the poor, about liberals, about (Rush's term) "feminazis" are a veiled form of victimology -- the very syndrome they decry. Beset by enemies of his own making, is it any wonder that Limbaugh could feel the need to turn to powerful drugs for relief?

But before we get too comfortable bashing Limbaugh, we should question the negativity in our own lives. Individuals on both sides of the political fence are prone to complaining, to victimology, more than problem solving or acceptance. Our collective anger also leads to a collective need to numb that anger -- the multi-billion dollar legal alcohol, television, and tobacco industries, as well as the illegal and illicit drug trade. This world is dangerous and beautiful, war-torn and peaceful, the site of both negative and positive changes. The more we can see the world for what it is, the better decisions we'll be able to make.

Would the vast majority of our political leadership have voted to give the President powers to invade Iraq if they had truly seen the world for what it was, not simply looked for a target? We must remember that Democrats as well as Republicans, left as well as right, voted to endorse this breach of the Constitution. Our need for revenge blinded us to the fact that our actions in Iraq truly had little to do with the hurts we suffered on September 11, 2001.

And now, as we seek to deal with the ramifications of the Iraq war, are we seeing the world as it is, or looking for scapegoats? Are we willing to look clearly at the situation we face, or do we feel the need to escape? The more we focus on the blame game versus problem solving, the more likely we are to self-sabotage by seeking false relief. Most of us are a little closer to being Rush Limbaugh than we'd like to admit. If that thought isn't scary enough to cause us to evolve, I don't know what is.

The opposite of complaining is not silence. As Tolle writes, "When you speak out, you are in power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness." Nor is acceptance the opposite of change. Acceptance of our situation allows us to see clearly and make change. If we can see the world as it is, and speak to the necessary and positive changes we need to implement, we can avoid the trap of victimology and make America the nation we dream.

Farai Chideya writes a regular column for AlterNet.

Community and Adversity

A man grilled chicken outdoors, giving it away to passers-by. A few blocks away, people from all over the city showed up spontaneously to visit a friend. And as the sun went down, neighbors who rarely spoke to each other gathered in Tompkins Square Park, dancing in a circle around a fire, laughing and smiling.

No, this wasn't a community block party. It was the New York City blackout -- the most joyous celebration of an emergency I've ever seen. It was an emergency, with disabled people stuck in skyscrapers and commuters stranded under the city on the subways. But for those who were lucky enough to be out and about, much of it was a big party.

I was struck by the way that normal class, race, and age barriers lowered or even disappeared. Late at night in the park, residents of the projects by the East River mingled with trendy yuppies from new condos a few blocks away. Anarchist street punks and business people, kids and parents, the locals and the staying-with-a-friend-'cause-it's-too-far-to-walk folks all, in the words of the much-maligned Rodney King, just got along.

There's something about the harshness of emergencies that sheds light on our more ridiculous day-to-day worries. Maybe that morning we waited an extra five minutes for the subway, fuming the whole time. Or our favorite bakery was out of apricot-bran-carrot muffins. Or, far more serious, a freelance assignment was late with a check, which meant rent would be late. All of that -- the small problems and the big ones -- disappeared for a moment as we realized the freedoms we had to reach out to one another and break the daily routine.

I have a similar experience almost every year. It's called Burning Man, a festival of free expression every Labor Day week in the Nevada desert. It's a little hard to describe to anyone who hasn't been there, like explaining Cirque du Soleil to someone who's only seen the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In fact, Burning Man is a circus -- a volunteer effort where everyone comes and contributes whatever of beauty or wonder that they have. A rollercoaster, a temple, huge public artworks, and a mind-boggling display of costumery and plumage are only the start.

What I love most about Burning Man is the same spirit of openness and community that suffused the New York City blackout. Urban refugees drop their unapproachable city-faces, offer free food and drinks and jewelry; in other words, do almost anything to help their fellow man enjoy their time on the playa. This year, my camp and I gave shelter to a member of the Paiute tribe, whose lands are near the festival. He helped us with our camp and told us about his tribe's history, which included successfully defending their land against American troops. By the end of the festival, his first, he declared himself an enthusiastic member of the Burning Man tribe as well as his own.

How can we bring this spirit of celebration to everyday life? It begins with small things, like smiling instead of scowling on the street. We can question our attitudes, particularly towards people who serve us in some capacity (waiters, attendants). There is a certain kind of disdain that masquerades as formality in this society. Be a rebel. Break it. Live.

Let's make every day an emotional state of emergency

Operation FUBAR

In Iraq last week, the United States launched Operation Jimmy Hoffa with a raid in Khalis, north of Baghdad. Members of a crime ring were apprehended. But like the body of the former teamster leader, the weapons of mass destruction used to justify war cannot be found.

I'd like to propose a name for the next massive raid: Operation FUBAR. This is a military acronym for F*ed Up Beyond All Recognition, a phrase which certainly seems to fit our failed empire building exercise in the desert.

But how, Farai -- you might say -- can you argue we went to Iraq to feather our own nest? I think I got the idea from Paul Bremer III, the U.S. Envoy to Iraq. In a telling interview with NPR's Juan Williams, Bremer made the case for spending billions more of U.S. money in Iraq. "Even if we succeed in getting our oil revenues back to normal," Bremer said, that won't pay for the cost of our military presence. "When you say our, you mean Iraqi" oil revenues, Williams interjected. "Yeah," said Bremer, without much enthusiasm.

Let's face it: From afar, Iraq looked like a cash cow, a place that could provide an additional base for U.S. operations plus a steady stream of black gold. Now the black gold has become a quagmire devouring U.S. and Iraqi lives, and U.S. dollars.

Next week, the Congressional Budget Office will forecast the federal budget deficit for the next year. According to a new report in the New York Times, the forecast will likely be over half a trillion dollars, even larger than previous White House estimates. Of course, those White House estimates didn't include the cost of a protracted war in Iraq, a war estimated to cost nearly $5 billion per month. "There will be no retreat," says the President. But there may be no victory, politically or economically, either.

What are the upsides of this FUBAR situation? Perhaps Americans will learn to let go of one of the most persistent myths in U.S. politics: Republicans stand for good economic governance.

The median family income and GDP grew more under President Clinton than President Reagan. Fiscal management under Bush I inspired the Democratic attack line, "It's the economy, stupid." And Bush II is turning out to be even worse than Bush I.

In a persuasive article, writer David Brock argued that Americans vote for Republicans rather than Democrats because Republicans speak to the aspiration to be rich. Nobody wants to be told that you're poor and you're going to suffer. Nobody wants to hear that taxes will rise because of the profit-taking which occurred in a past presidency. This presents the Democrats with a critical challenge: how to preach the politics of rebuilding without offering only austerity. (We Americans have never been good at austerity.) After a bruising four years, Americans going to the ballot box in 2004 will be looking for hope. We hope that the economy will recover, that the FUBAR war will end, that no more terrorist attacks will hit our shores.

There are ways to blend realism and inspiration. By re-aligning our political priorities, we can end the slow destruction of the public school system, provide decent healthcare for working Americans who can't afford it, and make sure that our strong military is also a smart military. If that isn't cause to wave the flag, I don't know what is.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.


Happy Holidays!