Laura Barcella

Can You Smoke Pot and Call Yourself Sober?

This article first appeared at The Fix.

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I Was Addicted to Sugar

It was 11:42 pm on a Monday, and I'd just been dumped by the nice guy from Alaska. We'd been dating for three months before he realized, after a messy and recent divorce from his "best friend," that he wasn't ready to fall in love again. I'd had my doubts about our relationship, too, but I'd stuffed them down—goddammit, this was going to work. 

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Full Frontal Feminism

Editor's Note: An excerpt from Full Frontal Feminism follows the interview.

As executive editor of the popular blog ("by and for young feminists"), Jessica Valenti has schooled millions of readers on the issues that affect everyday women. Her cadre of feisty female bloggers cover everything from breaking news (the heartbreaking federal abortion ban) to pop culture indignities (sexism in reality TV) with smarts, passion and political aplomb.

As the public face of Feministing, 28-year-old Valenti has helped bring third-wave feminism to the masses. But she doesn't only want to reach the stereotypical feminist suspects (women's studies majors and middle-aged, middle-class white women). In her new book, "Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters," Valenti hopes to pass the political torch to younger women who might feel and act like feminists but be too freaked out to call themselves that. The book is written in a light, sometimes sarcastic tone that aims to make women's rights cool again -- to make feminism a lifestyle as well as a movement.

AlterNet spoke with Valenti via telephone.

Why was writing this book important to you?

It was a natural extension of the stuff I've been doing at Feministing. I've wanted to write something like this for a long time. It was a book I wish I had when I was in high school. So much feminism out there isn't accessible to younger women who aren't in women's studies classes. I [see the book as] a fun, easy intro for younger women who might buy into the stereotypes; something really accessible that girls can talk about with their friends ... So many young women are afraid to get involved in politics; they think they don't know enough to get involved. They have the views but don't have the language.

So you mainly wrote the book for young women who aren't necessarily politically active?

Yeah, I'd say so. But I hope the book will be a refresher for women who already think of themselves as feminists.

Why do you think so many young women hesitate to call themselves feminists?

I think younger women have bought into the stereotypes because the stereotypes are so intense and pervasive. I think most younger women have feminist values; that's where the whole "I'm not a feminist, but ..." syndrome comes in. The language and the word [scares women away from using it]; that's how effective anti-feminist rhetoric has become. It's strategic; they're trying to keep you away from something. What's the best way to keep young women away from something? To tell them it's ugly and uncool, and that boys won't like them if they do it. We need to frame it as someone trying to pull the wool over young women's eyes, or get one over on them.

When did you first start identifying as a feminist? Have you always been politically active?

I've always been a feminist, but I didn't have the language to say so. My mom was a feminist. I didn't start identifying as a feminist until college, in women's studies classes. I was afraid to identify as a feminist at first, partly because I was [afraid of] people confronting me about it, asking what it meant. Then, in college, it was a feeling like 'I wish I had known about this, or gotten involved in this, earlier.' It would have affected my life.

In high school, I talked about feminist issues with my friends, and we were politically active in the ways that high schoolers are. But when you're a younger woman who is loud and opinionated, speaks her mind and is candid, you fall into the trap of believing people when they say you need to quiet down, be ladylike and not talk so much. Finding something that told me it was OK to be loud and candid would have been positive ... something that validated who I was.

What are the three feminist issues you're most passionate about today, and why should people care about them?

The idea of the care crisis: childcare and work/life issues. For younger women, that hasn't been as much of a political priority. It needs to start with younger women, though, instead of us worrying about it later on ...

Also violence against women, which has become so normalized that I find it intensely disturbing.

Also close to my heart is the sexual double standard, and how that affects younger women when it comes to repro rights and violence against women. The abstinence-only education thing falls into that, as well ... the idea that women shouldn't like sex; creating legislation that enforces traditional gender roles, or legislation that says that women shouldn't have a say over what happens to their own bodies ... like the case where the girl was gang raped on video in California.

What's one of the more outrageous or scary pieces of information or research you came across while writing this book?

I don't think anything was that shocking to me. But if you've been posting about different issues every day, writing about this stuff on a bigger scale is intense and horrifying. You'd like to think we had come so far, but as I was putting the book together I was like, "Jesus Christ, this is depressing."

How bleak is our reproductive rights climate right now, and what can we do to change it?

It's really bleak. It's insanely bleak. It's not just about Roe anymore. The different kinds of legislation going on in different states is terrible ... it's become a slippery slope -- not just about abortion but about contraception and pregnant women. Anti-choice laws are going to affect all women, not just women who want to have abortions, but also those who want to have babies. Like that [health provision] last year stating that women should treat themselves as pre-pregnant. It's become a slippery slope, using reproductive rhetoric to slowly chip way at women's rights -- all of our rights.

Are you hopeful that things will change for the better in 2008?

I try to remain optimistic. It's hard when you're writing about this stuff every day, but doing Feministing helps keep me positive about the future. So many people are writing in and doing stuff on a grassroots level to make change in their communities ...

What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see out there about the state of feminism and women's rights today?

That we're not out there; that we're dwindling or dying. The same anti-feminist organizations that say we're already dead are setting up groups across college campuses [to fight us]. If feminism is already dead, why are they trying so hard to kill it? If it's dead, leave it alone and let it die.

Something that we fight against on the website is [the idea] that feminism is just for older women; that it's useless, that we're trudging along not doing anything.

But there's a vibrant young feminist community on- and offline. Women are really interested in this work. Are you familiar with the Real Hot 100? Things like that prove that women are doing real feminist work all across the country. They might not even necessarily identify as feminists, but [they're doing feminist work].

Could you talk a little about the Kathy Sierra online death threats debacle? As a female blogger yourself, what issues did that raise for you? What can we do to prevent that sort of horrible cyber-harassment from happening again?

I think her situation was horrible and everyone felt awful for her, but it was good that it shed some light on misogyny online, as well as racism ... The anonymity of using the Internet allows people to be the biggest assholes they want to be. So many feminist bloggers have gotten death threats, including Feministing; we've had to call the FBI. It's sad that it's part of being a feminist, or even being online. But that's bullshit; being harassed daily shouldn't be an accepted part of your daily experience or your work.

You wrote a piece for TPMCafe about how there are generational "feminist sororities" within the movement, and how it's harder for younger feminists to be taken seriously. What prompted it?

I felt like that conversation needed to be had. It happens behind closed doors, but no one wants to talk about it. The backlash against feminism is so intense that showing any sign of strife is scary, because you don't want to give ammunition to the right.

It had been on my mind for a long time, and I finally put it out there. I think most people were great in their responses, like Katha Pollitt's -- it got the conversation started about what we can do to bridge the gaps. So many of us put forth this united front that all is great ...

I just think there needs to be an open discourse. The WAM list (Women Action Media) and their conferences are fantastic help. Not necessarily for women writers, but in national organizing scenes, the onus is on older feminists to pass the torch and make sure younger women aren't just fetching coffee but are in decision-making positions, being taken seriously.

What are your thoughts on the HPV vaccine? It's been debated quite a bit among feminist circles.

Ann [Friedman of Feministing] has written about it. I go back and forth about whether it should be mandatory. It's a really complicated issue. I think it should be affordable and available to younger women. But whether it should be mandated or not, I haven't really figured out yet ...

I know you responded to Carrie Lukas' recent Washington Post piece about the wage gap being a "bargain," and about how women make less money because they choose to. I'm guessing you think that's bullshit.

She used statistics to make a completely tired, crappy argument that women hate making money, that women would rather sit around changing diapers than make money. No one pisses me off more than women anti-feminists; they're selling us all down the river for a pat on the head from men. This is a woman who was well-educated and on the speaker circuit, who works her ass off and makes good money. Come on; tell a working single mother that the wage gap is a bargain!

In "Full Frontal Feminism," you write about how the "romance industry" keeps women distracted from larger issues by teaching them to obsess about their love lives. How destructive is this "industry," and how can women fight the obsession?

I'm glad you brought that up. Samhita [of Feministing] calls it the romantic industrial complex ... I feel like it's destructive to both men and women, because it reinforces these ill gender roles that position women as only caring about finding a partner as their form of personal fulfillment. But it also positions men as the caretakers, as only interested in sex and beer. The whole thing is so ridiculous and limiting for people. It's damaging all around, but to women, specifically, it's insane.

When I think about the amount of time, the number of things I could have done if I hadn't been obsessing about some boy ... it's incredible thinking about it. [Romantic obsession] is not a natural state of being for young women; when you have teen magazines shoving things down your throat, it's a little hard to break out of it.

When it comes to combating it, I don't know. People are subverting it in small ways. But I'm not going to sit and tell someone [they're] buying into the bullshit if they celebrate Valentine's Day or let their boyfriends buy them dinner.

Some feminist bloggers have taken issue with your choice of cover image for the book (a slim white woman's navel with hands on hips). How do you respond?

I can see why people find it controversial; I liken it to Feministing's mud-flap girl icon. It's ironic, and we're tying to flip it around as a fuck-you to the standards.

The book cover has this commercial image, but scrawling "feminism" across the stomach -- I liken it to Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) scrawling "slut" across her stomach. I'm comfortable with the idea that a teen girl is going to buy it because she thinks it looks poppy and commercial, and then get the knowledge dropped on her.

You're always going to piss someone off.



Copyright 2007 by Jessica Valenti from Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press (, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What's the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don't hold back, now.

You're probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.

Okay, now what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I've even heard the term "mangina."

Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that's not royally fucked up. Recognizing the screwed nature of this little exercise doesn't necessarily make you a feminist. But it should. Most young women know that something is off. And even if we know that some things are sexist, we're certainly not ready to say we're feminists. It's high time we get past the "I'm not a feminist, but ..." stuff. You know what I'm talking about: "I'm not a feminist or anything, but it is total bullshit that Wal-Mart won't fill my birth control prescription."

Do you think it's fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you? Does it piss you off and scare you when you find out about your friends getting raped? Do you ever feel like shit about your body? Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don't fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like?

Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you're a hardcore feminist. I swear.

Feel-Good Feminism
For some reason, feminism is seen as super anti: anti-men, anti-sex, anti-sexism, anti-everything. And while some of those antis aren't bad things, it's not exactly exciting to get involved in something that's seen as so consistently negative.

The good news is, feminism isn't all about antis. It's progressive and -- as cheesy as this sounds -- it's about making your life better. As different as we all are, there's one thing most young women have in common: We're all brought up to feel like there's something wrong with us. We're too fat. We're dumb. We're too smart. We're not ladylike enough -- stop cursing, chewing with your mouth open, speaking your mind. We're too slutty. We're not slutty enough.

Fuck that.

You're not too fat. You're not too loud. You're not too smart. You're not unladylike. There is nothing wrong with you.

I know it sounds simple, but it took me a hell of a long time to understand this. And once I did, damn, did it feel good. Why go through your life believing you're not good enough and that you have to change?

Feminism not only allows you to see through the bullshit that would make you think there's something wrong with you, but also offers ways to make you feel good about yourself and to have self-respect without utilizing any mom-popular sayings, like "Keep your legs together," or boy-popular screamings, like "Show me your tits!"

Really, imagine how nice it would be to realize that all the stuff you've been taught that makes you feel crappy just isn't true. It's like self-help times one hundred.

But all that said, I really do understand the hesitancy surrounding the f-word. My own experience with the exercise that kicked off this chapter -- "What's the worst possible thing you can call a woman?" -- was presented by a professor on the first day of a women's literature class after she asked how many of us were feminists. Not one person raised a hand. Not even me. My excuse-ridden thinking was, "Oh, there's so many kinds of feminism, how can I say I know what they're all about? Blah, blah, blah, I'm a humanist, blah, blah, blah. Bullshit. When I think back on it, I knew I was a feminist. I was just too damn freaked out to be the only one raising her hand.

Most young women are feminists, but we're too afraid to say it -- or even to recognize it. And why not? Feminists are supposed to be ugly. And fat. And hairy! Is it fucked up that people are so concerned about dumb, superficial stuff like this? Of course. Is there anything wrong with being ugly, fat, or hairy? Of course not. But let's be honest: No one wants to be associated with something that is seen as uncool an unattractive. But the thing is, feminists are pretty cool (and attractive!) women.

So let's just get all the bullshit stereotypes and excuses out of the way.

But Feminists are Ugly!

Yawn. Honestly, this is the most tired stereotype ever. But it's supersmart in its own way. Think about it, ladies. What's the one thing that will undoubtedly make you feel like shit? Someone calling you ugly.

Back in fifth grade, the love of my life was Douglas MacIntyre, who told me I'd be pretty if only I didn't have such a big, ugly nose. I shit you not when I say that for months, every day after school I would stand in front of the three-way mirror in my bathroom, staring at the offending body part and trying to figure out how a nose could go so horribly, horribly wrong.

Ugly stays with you. It's powerful, and that's why the stereotype is so perfect. The easiest way to keep women -- especially young women -- away from feminism is to threaten them with the ugly stick. It's also the easiest way to dismiss someone and her opinoins. ("Oh, don't listen to her -- she's just pissed 'cause she's ugly.")

Seems stupid, right? I mean, really, what's with this na-na-na-boo-boo kind of argument? Have you ever heard of a Republican saying, "Oh, don't be a Democrat; they're all ugly"? Of course not, because that would be ridiculous. But for some reason, ridiculous is commonplace when it comes to the f-word.

For example, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh says that feminism was established "to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society." Okay -- have you ever seen Rush Limbaugh? Yeah, enough said. Oh, and by the way -- I think I'm pretty hot now. So screw you, Douglas MacIntyre.

But Things Are Fine the Way They Are! What do I know? Maybe things are fine for you. Maybe you're lucky and superprivileged and you wake up in the morning to birds chirping and breakfast in bed and all that good stuff. But chances are, that's not the case.

There are plenty of folks who argue that feminism has achieved its goal. The 1998 Time magazine article "Is Feminism Dead?" said, "If the women's movement were still useful, it would have something to say; it's dead because it has won."

There's no doubt that women have made progress, but just because we get to vote and have the "right" to work doesn't mean things are peachy keen. Anyone who thinks women have "won," that all is well and good now, should ask why the president of Harvard can say that maybe women are naturally worse at math and then have people actually take him seriously. Or why a teacher can still get fired for being pregnant and unmarried.

Seriously, are things really cool the way they are when so many of us are upchucking our meals and getting raped and beat up and being paid less money than men? And being denied birth control, and being told not to have sex but be sexy, and a hundred other things that make us feel shitty?

Methinks not. It can be better. It has to be.

Barbara Ehrenreich on the Importance of Collective Joy

Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Dancing in the Streets, is surprisingly optimistic. A "history of collective joy," it explores the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture -- and explains why modern Americans have grown so resistant to ... well ... having fun together.

Ehrenreich links the epidemic of depression to our growing lack of group bonding rituals (think church, feasts and carnivals). She also explores how, throughout the ages, group celebrations have brought people together in a spirit of solidarity, joy and union, helping to fight both oppression and depression. From the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion," Dancing in the Streets traces the roots of the very human need to dance, sing and revel together -- and how these sorts of festivities can be vehicles for social change.

AlterNet spoke with Ehrenreich via telephone.

Tell me how the idea for this book came to you, and why you wanted to pursue it.

I started working on this book 9 years ago. It wasn't like right after Bait and Switch I decided I wanted to do this. It required a huge amount of research. The [original idea] came from some questions I had about humans, and my species.

After writing another macro-historical book about war (Blood Rites), I was interested in the bright side of human bonding. Not the bonding of humans in opposition, but how bonding holds a community, and even strangers, together.

We are a very social species. I was reading about it for months and months, but came across this universal pattern of ecstatic rituals -- it's hard to think of any society that doesn't have them. They all seem to feature these ingredients of costuming, dancing, masking, face/body painting, feasting ... techniques that people in widely different cultures have used to generate joy. Why have we got so few [ecstatic rituals] today?

In a nutshell, generalizing over many cultures and times, these sorts of activities have been suppressed by elites -- according to class, race, gender -- because the [rituals] came to be seen as disruptive, subversive and even dangerous. They were seen as antithetical to the social discipline that came to be expected by mass society.

Class and issues of power are a huge part of this. In the Caribbean in the 19th century, carnival would be a huge part of slaves' revolts.

Why did you think the time was right to publish it now?

This isn't timed to anything specific, but I think it's very important for people involved in social movements to think about [this stuff]. I'm struck by the ways that, in the last 67 years, there has been a carnivalizion of protest. Especially in the anti-globalization movement -- there's been an increased amount of music, face painting, and costuming at demonstrations.

People want to experience collective joy and solidarity in artistic and fun ways. The other thing that's larger, in a way, is that if we are going to have an ecologically sustainable world, it can't be about giving up things we have now -- cars, plastic. We need to think about positive gains we can have. How can we find joy in ways that don't just involve trashing the environment? [In this book], here it is.

In modern America, where do we stand on the collective joy scale?

Well, it's interesting to me how sports fans have managed to carnivalize sports events -- consider rhythmic activities like the wave -- turning sports from something where you just sit and watch athletes, into something where you're a participant in a great big collective event. We had an outbreak of this in the rock rebellion of the 1950s and '60s, where a new kind of music invited people not to sit still anymore ... to turn an event into a participatory event where you can get up and dance with other people.

America also experiences this in the Pentecostal religious movement, with people achieving trance states. People creating completely new holidays and occasions out of nothing -- Burning Man is the best example. And the Berlin Love Parade, where a million people have danced in the streets. Halloween, in gay culture, has become more of an adult celebration, but it's not necessarily political ...

Do people experience collective joy differently in different parts of the country?

Every culture has its own context, whether it's seen as religious or recreational. But the ingredients are universal: dancing and music; costuming, masking or face painting.

In our culture, face painting has become the universal mark of having a good time, from children's birthday parties to sports events. Then there's feasting and wine ... There can be a procession through a town or village. Sports events, theater, mockery of the authorities; those are worldwide.

Which modern cultures tend to be most open and encouraging of collective joy?

Latin America, Brazilian culture, African [culture]. Trinidad has a huge carnival; it's less commercial.

Why do you think modern America has gotten so resistant to experiencing communal joy? Are we too solitary and self-possessed for our own good?

Yeah, and I think we are paying the price for it with the epidemic of depression. I talk in the book about how [depression in this country] has reached epidemic proportions. People are isolated.

It's not that all human problems would be solved if we got out and danced together, but it's a classic, prehistoric method of people bonding together. We don't do it anymore ... or not enough.

Can you expand on that? You write in the book that the "death of carnival might have contributed directly to the epidemic of depression."

I was struck by the ways that traditional festivities got wiped out, most dramatically in northern Europe. Around the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of Calvinism, you had clergymen and physicians talking more about melancholy -- how they were seeing it in more people. I thought there must be some connection, but I didn't want to oversimplify.

I concluded that ecstatic rituals were a cure for depression -- you can see that in many cultures. An example of a culture that uses it as a cure is some North Africans -- if a woman were to take to her bed and become depressed, family would call in a zar healer who would bring in musicians and healers to engage in days and nights of ecstatic dancing, and soon the woman would get up and join. Some cultures would see this as a cure for melancholy. We do drugs instead, both antidepressants and illegal drugs.

We have never lost the capacity for collective joy. It's part of our nature. But if you look at how little we get to exercise it ... if we compare ourselves to the French in the 14th century, with Saint's Days and this huge calendar of festivities, we just don't do it very much, if at all.

This [lack of festivities] represents a triumph of the powerful, and their idea that you have to work all the time. This is a recent [development]. Historically, peasants worked when they had to, when they had to plant or harvest. When they didn't have to work, they worked on having a good time -- planning festivities, costumes, dance steps; great expressions of human creativity.

Can you provide some historical examples of authority figures trying to suppress ecstatic rituals that were viewed as dangerous or disruptive?

The book maps out this repression. One striking example is the repression of Dionysian worshippers in ancient Rome; it was an extremely bloody repression. Dionysus was the god of ecstasy, who required that his worshippers engage in revelry and drink wine and enter trances of dancing. Women were chief among his worshipers. This alarmed the authorities ... charges were brought; they hunted and killed the worshipers of Dionysus.

In the Christian era, it's been a long battle against the 'common people' who thought the church should involve music, dance and revelry.

Things got much worse with the Protestant era, and the crackdown on Saint's days, festivities, holidays and sports.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

It's a big thing to come across a lost tradition. I want people to own it and rediscover it. I want people to say, 'Hey, this is a human skill and tradition, and we can generate joy without commodities -- without someone setting it up for us.'

What are your favorite ways to experience this sort of pleasure?

If there's an occasion, a party, I'll dance and enjoy it a lot. I'm not a good dancer, but that's not the point. One of the things I hate about the TV show "Dancing with the Stars," which I have watched a few times, is that it's so intimidating about dancing ... It's very judgmental and critical. They're featuring couples dancing, which is a very late addition. In the 16th century [couples dancing] became big; it's innately more threatening than dancing in a line or circles, which is the more traditional thing to do.

How can progressives use collective joy to help motivate people and promote our causes?

People who are working for change need to think about how to make their events draw on the solidarity and creativity of lots of people together. That's been happening ... but it's something we need to address. Bringing art and culture into politics is a way to express what we are seeking, what our vision of the world is.

More 9/11 lies

As you might already know, on the rapidly approaching five-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, ABC (which is, of course, owned by Disney) is slated to air a 6-hour docu-drama called "Path to 9/11."

According to Act for Change:

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The Slow Death of the Middle Class

In his new book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class, Air America host Thom Hartmann provides an exhaustive argument that America's backbone and lifeblood -- its middle class -- is vanishing. (Or being cast out, set aside, and methodically destroyed, depending on your perspective.)

Hartmann blends current affairs with a vital crash course in history to demonstrate the ways in which -- under 25 years of right-wing wonkery -- working people, once treasured as the foundation of our economy, are now neglected to the point of extinction. Through concrete examples of laws passed, unions busted and programs dismantled, Hartmann reminds us how, since Reagan's 1980 ascension to the throne, conservative policiticans have done little except "conserve" their own wealth- and power-grubbing interests.

But it wasn't always like this, as Hartmann makes sure we remember. With the creation of post-Depression initiatives which benefited everyone, such as Social Security, antitrust laws and the minimum wage, America's most forward-thinking politicians helped revitalize the economy and make the country a more unified whole.

Why can't it be like that again? In an AlterNet telephone interview, Hartmann explains that it can -- but that it will only happen when more Americans get out and elect the few politicians who actually give a damn about the rest of us.

Laura Barcella: What are the three biggest hurdles currently affecting the middle class?

Thom Hartmann: Free market ideology; a variety of practices to drive down the cost of labor -- from destruction of the union movement to encouragement of immigration, both legal and illegal; and the promotion of the idea that democratic institutions are an aberration, that vast wealth is the natural order of things in the human and animal kingdoms.

LB: In Screwed, you write about the "Golden Age" of the middle class. Can you remind us of what a healthy middle class looks like?

TH: Teddy Roosevelt was the first in the modern era to identify what it would mean to [have a] middle class in a society that wasn't propped up by slavery and land taken from the Native Americans (which was largely responsible for the first middle class, in the 1700s).

The Republican Roosevelt realized that without government intervention clearly defining the rules of [business] to serve society as well as capitalism, there couldn't be a middle class.

[Roosevelt] suggested that the hallmarks of a "living wage" (he was the first person to use that phrase), were that with an honest week's work, a single family's wage-earner would be able to support their family, raise their children, provide education for those children -- including college, care for all their health needs -- even in times of sickness (quoting Roosevelt), take an annual vacation, and set enough aside that retirement and old age would be comfortable and secure.

Franklin Roosevelt set about putting that vision into place 30 years later with the Wagner Act in 1935, which established the right to unionization, and the Social Security Act providing a safety net for old age (and for people incapable of working due to 'circumstances of birth'). ... All of this led to the strongest middle class this nation has ever seen, in the '50s, '60s, '70s and the beginning of the '80s.

LB: And then what happened?

TH: Then in the 1960s and '70s, a group of worried ideologues saw the social upheavals of that era -- women demanding equal pay and reproductive rights, African-Americans demanding voting rights, working people demanding [fair wages], activists demanding a clean environment -- and the ideologues thought what they were seeing were symptoms of society melting down.

It confirmed their fear, which echoed a fear of the early founders (John Adams and Alexander Hamilton), that too much democracy would lead to social anarchy. A ruling elite operating under the guise of democracy was the most stable form of government, and if we had a strong middle class like we had in the '60s and '70s, people had too much time on their hands and too little fear. ...

These folks (who comprised Ayn Rand's objectivists, libertarianists, and old-line segregationist conservatives who agreed with Edmund Burke that in order to be stable, society must have "classes and orders") set out to restore a more hierarchical, more "stable" America. They didn't believe in democracy; they thought they were doing the right thing. ...

Special interest groups, like the NRA, joined forces to roll back the healthy middle class and the dissent associated with it, and replaced it with a Dickensian reproduction of Victorian-era society, where there's a small powerful ruling class, a small mercantilist middle class, and a large class of working poor who are sufficiently afraid of losing what little they have that they aren't going to engage in social or workplace protest.

LB: So when, in your opinion, did the middle class officially begin to start falling apart?

TH: Nixon's Southern Strategy brought the racists into the fold in 1972, and George Bush's courting of the Christian right brought the fundamentalists into the fold.

But Ronald Reagan officially launched the [war on working people]. He kicked it off with busting PATCO. We are now 26 years into that war, and papers no longer have labor sections -- they only have business sections, and most workers no longer have pensions.

We've gone from 25 percent of the work force being unionized -- when Reagan came into office -- to about eight percent of the private work force being unionized. The small sliver that's still unionized is under aggressive attack, and they represent the last bastion of the classic middle class.

The conservatives can't allow them to survive; [unions] bring democracy into the workplace, so they represent a threat to conservative wealth and power. ... The only thing that will allow unionization to happen is force of law; to elect public officials who are willing to enforce the Wagner Act and repeal the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This requires [politicians] who represent the will and needs of the middle class, instead of the wealthy, powerful gentry.

LB: Who are a few of the politicians you feel are up to this task?

TH: Bernie Sanders. Byron Dorgan. Peter DeFazio. There's not a shortage of good people in politics; they are just not a majority.These aren't radical positions, they are ones that Eisenhower held. And there are good, honest Republicans like Kevin Phillips and Paul Craig Roberts out there, pointing out [the ways the GOP has been corrupted], but their voices are a distinct minority.

LB: Talk a little about George W. Bush, and how his politics and presidency have affected the plight of the middle class.

TH: G.W. Bush is the most toxic president we've had against working people in the U.S. since [William] McKinley. Bush absolutely believes in a ruling elite -- into which he was born, by the way -- and serfdom. It wasn't a slip at that Town Hall meeting a few months ago, when he asked a woman what she did and she said she worked three jobs, and he patted her on the head and said, "Isn't that great? That's an all-American story."

Her working three jobs means she won't be out in the street demanding economic, reproductive or social rights -- which is exactly the way he would like it.

LB: And what about the war's effect on working people?

TH: The war in Iraq's impact on the middle class has been extremely corrosive. I wouldn't [even] call it a "war;" I'd call it a successful invasion that took only a few months, and the subsequent occupation. All illegal, by the way.

The occupation of Iraq has been financed by borrowing money in our names -- and in the names of our children and grandchildren -- from China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and a few very wealthy families, like the Bushes. Those creditors will be beneficiaries of the war, and the middle class will pay the bill eventually, just like the economic difficulties Jimmy Carter suffered after the bill was due for Vietnam. The next generation will have to confront some very difficult times as a result of Bush's $9 trillion debt.

This year, over $300 billion of the federal budget is interest on a debt that Reagan ran up in order to make the economy look good, on borrowed money, to get himself reelected. That's enough money to provide full scholarships to public universities for over 15 million students.

LB: Talk a bit about the impact of the minimum wage.

TH: The minimum wage can be thought of in two ways. One, it provides a floor for workers, and should be set at a level matching Teddy Roosevelt's' criteria which we discussed earlier. We are a wealthy-enough country that if you play by the rules and work hard, you should be able to have a decent life.

The other thing the minimum wage does is provides a warning flag [about] the fiscal health of working Americans. In that regard, the fact that the minimum wage is the lowest it's been since the1940s, when the middle class was just emerging, tells us that conservatives have been successful in producing a large, terrified class of working poor, who can be easily manipulated and who don't have enough time to be politically active.

LB: What can people do to help stop the death of the middle class?

TH: The thing so few people get about why the middle class is vanishing is that it's not just [driven by] greedy industrialists. It's not just about money. In fact, it's not even half about money. It's about power. It's about reestablishing the world Dickens described in "A Christmas Carol," where Bob Cratchit had to beg for a lump of coal and health care for his child. Conservatives look at that time in that world and they see a time that was comfortable, stable and predictable. Those are higher values, to them, than freedom and egalitarianism and social justice.

When America gets it that these are ideological issues -- not just economic -- then it will translate into the political realm, and something might be done about it.

LB: But how can more Americans "get it"?

TH: In my book, I reproduce a 1936 speech by Franklin Roosevelt about this issue -- how royalists were trying to seize control, how allegiance to democracy requires the overthrow of such corporate power.

Ever since the '80s, since Reagan conservatives started [insisting] that communism was being taught in school civics classes, we have had a generation of people who came of age in the '90s who have no recollection of what was conventional wisdom in 1936: that there is an economic and class war going on. As Warren Buffet said, "Of course there's a class war, and my class is winning."

We need to reawaken people under 30 and 40, to remember what the ideals of this country traditionally have been, and how healthy that is for the world -- not just the U.S. [We need to] keep telling stories of how it was in the old days. The conservatives are doing everything they can to strip American history.

Design like you mean it

A lovely new architecture book called Design Like You Give a Damn recently made its way onto my crowded desk. Edited by the founders of Architecture for Humanity (a grassroots nonprofit shelter group), the book features photos, interviews and articles about some of the design world's most visionary responses to homelessness, poverty and unsafe housing across the world.

Included are poignant portraits of communities like Bayview, Virginia's "Rural Village." Under the guidance of architect Maurice D. Cox and resident community leader Alice Coles, the town was transformed over the course of six years (with financial help from about 17 different funders, including a grant from local arena-rockers the Dave Matthews Band). What was once a decaying 52-family outpost with only one contaminated well as its water source has become a vibrant rural community with affordable, high-quality homes to rent and own.

Design Like You Give a Damn covers many other, equally innovative (though less publicized) initiatives by architects around the globe -- from northern Ireland to Chile, Vietnam, India, Alabama, Los Angeles and NYC. It's definitely worth picking up.

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