Movement Vision Lab

The 17th Amendment is Good for America

There’s a movement afoot to repeal the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution which allows for the two US Senators from each state to be “elected by the people thereof.” As proof that the Tea Party wants to infringe on your democracy and make it easier for elite corporate interests to control Washington, they want to take away our vote and allow state legislators to secretly appoint Senators through back-room deals.

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Why Ethnic Studies Are Good for America

There’s a proverb that says, "Until the lion tells his own story of being hunted, history will always glorify the hunter." This, in essence, is the reason for ethnic studies.

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Why an 81-Year-Old Widow from Iowa is Marching to Bring the Banks Under Heel

An 81-year-old widow from Des Moines, Iowa, Ferol Wegner wasn’t the type of person who would normally go to a protest against the banking industry. But that was before she lost 30 percent of her pension in the economic downturn. Without mincing her words, Ms. Wegner blames the big banks. “Fraud, corruption and greed,” she says. “These folks must be held accountable.”

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Now Is the Time to Shake Up Society at the Roots

When I facilitate trainings for grassroots leaders, allies, and staff on why we do strategic communications work in relation to our community organizing I inevitably talk about hegemony. Hegemony is the common sense we have to challenge when we are trying to make change. The limits of collective imagination and understanding create the limits of the change we can make.  Once, in a training, someone offered this metaphor: hegemony is the water the fish swims in, it shapes the fish’s experience and determines understanding, it is everywhere.  But hegemony isn’t just the water the fish swims in; there are limits to the fish’s world, hard edges beyond which the fish can’t move -- the fishbowl.

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Is Corn Leading Us Towards Social Change or Ecological Disaster?

Understanding corn could be the key to social change that saves the planet and helps us create democratic communities and local food supplies. Or, left to the philosophy of corporations like ADM, Cargill, Monsanto and DuPont, ignorance and inaction will make corn, a gift of Mother Nature and ancient civilizations, a curse to destroy ecosystems around the world and add to the problem of global warming.

In recent years corn became a topic of concern thanks to the writing of Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine and his best-selling book, the Omnivores Dilemma (I am the featured corn farmer in this book.) The corn we're talking about is harvested as a grain, not the sweet corn for summer picnics. Ancient societies in Mesoamerica worshipped corn because it could be stored from year to year in reserves to prevent famine in case of crop failures. The natural co-evolution of corn (like wheat, rice, or soybeans in other civilizations) involved saving seed that seemed to exhibit the best characteristics for yield, adaptability, and usefulness.

The basic problem with corn and its companion crop, soybeans, is that they required destroying the natural prairie which allows for soil erosion. Also, these crops, using fossil fuel intensive techniques and fertilizer, can produce more simple protein, carbohydrates, and oil per unit of land and labor than any plants on the planet. They can be shipped almost anywhere and used for livestock feed, corn sweetners, vegetable oil, processed foods, industrial inputs and many other uses. Without proper government policy, the natural tendency of the "free market" is for these crops to be planted horizon to horizon in a virtual monocropping system. Another consequence is the tendency for intensive livestock production using corn and soybeans as livestock feed, rather than extensive production on family farms with soil conserving crop rotation and waste recycling.

In the United States, with its vast land resources including the deep rich prairie soils and cheap fossil fuel, the industrial revolution allowed the exploitation of these resources along with the productivity of crops like corn and soybeans to industrialize our food supply. Railroads, highways, refrigeration, and many forms of corporate-controlled technology created an abundance of food without most people recognizing the costs to society or the environment in the process. Despite many economic catastrophes through the years, it wasn't until the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that the federal government in Roosevelt's New Deal finally stepped in to remedy the inevitable problem of over-abundance--low commodity prices and soil and water degradation.

Giant agribusinesses who process and export food or who provide technical inputs to corn and soybean production would rather have the "free market" lead to overabundance because it improves their bottom line. Other corporations like cheap food to feed their workforce and to displace rural people to become members of that work force. This is why these corporations used their political power to end New Deal farm programs and usher in "globalization" under various free trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA. Rather than requiring corporations to pay fair prices to farmers, recent farm bills substituted billions of taxpayer dollars paid to crop producers (subsidies) just to avoid a collapse of the farm economy. Globalization extended the process of industrialization, rural displacement and land degradation internationally. So while it seems that "subsidies" benefit farmers and cause over production, it's the corporations who benefit and actually require taxpayers to finance the destruction of diversified family farms around the world.

The democratic and environmental answer to the undemocratic free market is the concept of Food Sovereignty championed by the international movement of farmers, peasants, and farmworkers called La Via Campesina. Food Sovereignty requires democratic policy to assure fair prices to farmers and wages to farm workers, the avoidance of wasteful overproduction, control over cheap, low quality imports, provision of food security reserves, conservation of land, water, and biodiversity, social control over potentially disastrous technology such as genetic engineering, and facilitation of local food production.

The farm bills recently passed in the House and Senate and proposals from the Bush administration still enshrine the downward spiral of the global free market. There will be no price floor under commodities, no food security reserve, no control over cheap imported commodities for the industrial food and agrofuel system. Providing for conservation and local food system will be a difficult if not impossible task. But if we want our food to do what it's supposed to --- feed people, not greedy corporations --- we need to prioritize Food Sovereignty today.

Why So Many Films About Going It Alone?

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

This year's most-honored films mostly are rather bleak. "If a movie-goer manages to see all the Oscar-nominated films, a generous dose of antidepressants will be in order," remarked Washington Post writer Robin Givhan.

With at least one survey finding 75 percent of Americans feeling that our country is on the wrong track, the trend toward gloomy movies may seem to be a case of art imitating life. Yet as the ideology of hyper-individualism runs its dangerous course through our politics and culture, the American public may be drawn to entertainment that depicts the future we're desperate to avoid.

In the 1932 film Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo uttered her most famous line, "I want to be alone!" Yet, despite her anguished pleas for solitude, in the end Garbo's once-suicidal misanthropic character seeks out love and companionship. The tragedy of the film is that the companion she now craves has been killed.

Many of this year's films follow an opposite path. When Best Picture nominee There Will Be Blood begins, Daniel Day-Lewis' character is part of a community -- trying to figure out together how to more efficiently extract oil from the earth. The film tells the dark tale of his descent into loneliness, as he pushes away -- or kills -- everyone around him. The tragedy is not that Day-Lewis' character ends up alone despite wanting community. The tragedy is that he chose isolation and then learned its consequence.

Films like No Country for Old Men, also up for Best Picture, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead similarly progress from being stories of community -- husband-wife, parent-child, sheriff-town -- to everyone being on his or her own, fighting in isolation, one against the other.

Thomas Hobbes' "war of all against all" leading to lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" is a popular story line in our culture today. From Survivor to American Idol, we enjoy watching people duke it out in mock struggles of life and death, or being voted off the show, which equals death in reality TV. But perhaps these films and shows are popular not because they reflect our lives but because they repulse us. For every Lone Ranger on the screen, there are thousands of families and communities pulling together and looking out for one another. Maybe we enjoy watching malnourished fashion models eliminate each other precisely because we can turn the TV off and turn to the people around us, safe in the knowledge that they help us when we're in need and help us achieve our dreams.

To be sure, individualism and community are not at odds. The Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" Individual autonomy and expression are essential to a democratic society. Yet our increasingly high-tech, low-touch consumerist society has force-fed us the idea that we're nothing more than individuals. This year's breakaway hit film was "Juno," in which a high school student who got pregnant by "connecting" with a schoolmate, decides to give her baby to a suburban mother longing for connection herself. Throughout the film, Juno's family and friends support her. It's the kind of movie that makes us feel good because it captures the world we crave, where the ideology of individualism succumbs to a deeper sense of interconnectedness. The same hunger for positive change and unity is clearly transforming political discourse as well.

In a moment of self-reflection in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis' character confesses, "I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people." But then, foreshadowing his descent into selfish isolation, he says, "I can't keep doing this on my own." None of us can. And the moral of this year's stories is that none of us want to.

Should the N-Word Be Banned?

In a move designed to garner headlines instead of results, municipalities across the country, including the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners (BCC), propose criminalizing, albeit without penalties, the use of the n-word. Like so many other acts debated and passed by government bodies, this one will take up time, space and public interest, but will have no beneficial impact whatsoever on the lives of poor, black people.

Like every other word in any other language, the n-word is a string of letters combined to make a particular sound, which is associated with a specific meaning. This is not an attempt to minimize the importance, value and impact of words or language, and that goes double for this word. However, what makes this word so ugly and harmful is not the combination of letters or even the enunciation (either ending with "a" or "er"), it is the devastating history of actions and impacts associated with the word.

Let's be blunt. Nigger means lynching. It means hundreds of white people, including children, gathered to watch a black man, a human being, dragged, beaten, hung from a tree and cooked alive. It means grinding poverty. Today -- not 30 years ago, but today -- blacks are disproportionately poor, hungry and die of illnesses which do not kill whites. This is true all across planet earth and all over the United States. It means police harassment and brutality. Being pulled over by the police for lesser, or no transgressions; being shot 41 times after going for your wallet; it means a toilet plunger; it means a disproportionate number of black people arrested, convicted and imprisoned.

Why do other ethnic slurs, such as 'cracker,' fail to engender the same passion as the n-word? That's easy: there is no widespread association between those words and murder, torture, abject poverty, discrimination and other inhumane impacts. The word is highly problematic, to be sure, but the word is not the problem.

If all we had to do to end racism, sexism, poverty and oppression was to ban a few words, this would be a wonderful planet, full of happy people with a delightfully limited vocabulary. However, banning the n-bomb does not ban the racist collateral damage which that word has come to represent. And, in the final analysis, what is so harmful and degrading to the black community are the racist sentiments, actions and impacts, not the individual words which brutally encapsulate those sentiments, represent those actions and foreshadow those impacts.

This is not a defense of the use of the n-word, but it is a call to stop fighting for symbols as a means of drawing attention away from the fact that you are not fighting for anything of substance. If forced to choose between getting rid of the word and getting rid of the very real impacts and conditions the word represents, most sane and rational beings, of any race, would vote to keep the word. The truth is that if everyone stopped using the word tomorrow, we would still have poor, hungry, undereducated and unemployed black people living in squalid slums.

Society as a whole, and the black community in particular, must condemn and sanction people who use racial, sexists, homophobic and classist epitaphs. However, as it relates to racism, it is not the government's job to control what people say, it is their job to stop racist actions and correct or change the impacts of those actions.

Like other local municipalities, the BCC has no power at all over the use of this, or most other, words, but are spending valuable time, money and brain power on a fight which, at the end of the day, is symbolic at best and irrelevant at worse. What is so infuriating is that local governments do have the power to change the conditions which give the n-word such horrific value to this day, but are not trying to change the conditions over which they have power, only the symbols over which they have none. It is insulting to think that the government bodies contemplating a symbolic ban on this word, are the same ones which consistently divert tax dollars earmarked for the black community over to wealthy white business interests. I submit that banning the latter activity will do more to defend the integrity of the black community than banning the former.

If elected officials really want to defend the black community, they should:

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The Endless Game Between Homophobes and Assimilationist Gays

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when I was just a baby activist in college, there was ongoing tension between two sects of "The Gays": those of us who felt it was important to be accepted given -- or even because of -- our differences and those who believed that it was important to emphasize the idea that we are just like straight people, with just a smidge of difference, and should be accepted despite our differences. In essence, the debate was between the "Queers" and the "Assimilationists." I was part of the first group. At one point, the tension between the two groups reached such a crescendo that the Queers copied images from lesbian and gay porn, bordered it with lines from the Declaration of Independence and wheat-pasted it all over campus with the tag line: We are not just like you. The Assimilationists were both incensed and mortified. We Queers were just tickled ...

As the LGBTQQI-rights agenda has shifted in recent years to closely mirror the assimilationist viewpoint, moving away from demanding "liberation" to a more pragmatic and achievable agenda aimed at political and social rights,. Is it possible that we have lost sight of a basic truth of our marginalization?

Historically, the marginalization of many communities in our country's history has been rooted in or justified by the need to maintain certain normative and oppressive sexual power structures.

For instance, the rationale among many for the subjugation of African-Americans after emancipation was to keep white women safe from the danger of black men. While most Americans have an idea that the nation has a history of lynching -- though likely no idea of the extent of lynchings, nor how far into the late 20th century they reached -- many are unaware that castration was often as much a part of lynching as the noose, a newly resonant image given events in Jena, La., at Columbia University and elsewhere recently. Every black man until recent decades knew not to look at white women for fear of being beaten or lynched and made an example of like Emmett Till. Lest he suffer the consequences, my own maternal grandfather left his home in Alabama for Chicago at age 12 after being accused of "looking wrong at a white woman."

Of course, the postslavery narrative of hysteria around black sexuality followed the antebellum/slavery history of white male subjugation and rape of black women (and by extension the emasculation of black men) contained its own schizophrenia around white and black sexuality. See: Strom Thurmond and others. Diane Roberts' book The Myth of Aunt Jemima does an excellent job of outlining the split personality way in which whites -- abolitionists and apologists alike -- reacted to and used black sexuality to their own ends.

By the 1960s, changes were on the horizon. Mainstream messaging and overt talk about the fear of sex between black boys/men and white girls/women went on the down-low. Instead, we developed new wink-and-nod codes to signify the same idea. There was the need to maintain "separateness" -- a drive that reached its crescendo around the unthinkable idea of black boys and white girls in school together. (Of course, no one was ever concerned about white boys and black girls together; see Strom Thurman and others.). There was the lack of integration on teen dance shows and at sock hops -- John Waters has managed to make a movie, a musical and the same movie again about this. By the 1980s this shorthand was so sophisticated that all Ronald Reagan had to do was go to Philadelphia, Miss., and declare that he was in favor of "states' rights." By the 1990s, Papa Bush had only to invoke Willie Horton. Whatever was said out loud, the subtext was always fear of black male sexuality.

With respect to the marginalization of lesbians and gay men, when the layers of rhetoric around the oppression are peeled back, they reveal a similar strain of guilt/confusion/envy/repulsion among homophobes and heterosexists. At its root, anti-Queer sentiment is based in a visceral sense that what we do is wrong and distasteful. Our staunchest opponents do not care about nor are they compelled by how much we love each other, how successfully we raise our children, or how dutifully we pay our taxes, or how we serve the public good in numerous other ways. In the final analysis, they just think we're nasty.

Anti-Queer arguments based in religion, culture and the creation of children are all smoke screens to cover up something that's really very base: disgust. Trying to rationalize and cover up disgust with other excuses merely serves to justify the perpetuation of political, social and physical violence against Queer communities. But if we pay attention to the messages from the LGBTQQI movement -- particularly the messages we send ourselves -- it would appear that we have forgotten that our marginalization is based in others' discomfort around our sexuality, and we've responded by not talking about our sexuality and instead talking about love.

Love isn't the answer when Queers are being accused of recruiting, contaminating, enticing and luring more and more people into the mysteries and ecstasies of our sexual depravity. Love isn't the answer when the media and public respond with hysteria that there are "men on the down-low" as though it's a new, dangerous dynamic peculiar to only African-American men as opposed to all of the closeted masses. Love isn't the answer when we're accused of threatening the "institution" of marriage -- an enterprise with a 50 percent success rate -- or held partially responsible for bringing about terrorist attacks ...

The answer is sexual freedom, in which self-expression and fluidity in sexuality is seen as enriching and valuable, not nasty. But we no longer have a sexual freedom -- or even a personal freedom or liberty -- movement. But that shouldn't be surprising -- we are, after all, Americans, and most Americans have no idea that they don't truly have sexual freedom. This is a battle we must wage.

And this battle didn't begin with us. The tradition of fighting against the sexual empowerment of anyone except well-resourced, straight white men is long and continues today. From the role of sexuality in the repression of African-Americans to the suffragette movement, where leaders and rank-and-file participants were derided as being loose, lesbians, godless and witches. One hundred years ago in 1907, an anti-suffragette scientist wrote that "women's desire for the vote came from their "katabolic" condition, which, if unchecked, would unsex them and depopulate the cradle." Talk about anti-sex hysteria.

But when vibrators were banned in Alabama in 1998, women there did not march en masse to the State House in Montgomery for the right to their orgasms by any means necessary. After all, vibrators are nasty, right?

We must not lose sight of the fact that the Queer struggle is rooted in exploding the strictures on sexual freedom in America. The fear of us is the fear of an America in which every adult is free to find sexual satisfaction with the consenting adult of their choice in whatever manner they choose. We would do well to remain clear about the motivations of our enemies when we go up against them -- and respond by denying our nastiness, not just proclaiming our love. They certainly have not forgotten.


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