The Federalist Papers: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

Loneliness and Our Connection to Others

Cairns on Peaks Island

Peaks Island Cairns

There was this article posted in The Guardian that demonstrates the soul baring desperation that underlies loneliness, even in the midst of all the accoutrement of adulthood and family and work. It got me contemplating loneliness and considering my own relationship to it. Read the article, it’s good.

A warning: I’m about to spelunk into some serious naval-gazing.

I’ve lived for a number of years in relative solitude and had grown fairly accustomed to the sense of loneliness — to the point where I even fought internally against the concept of a long-term relationship and had to come to grips with the entirely wonderful idea that someone could be in my life unto marriage, that someone would be there every single day, loving me, forcing me to temper my long suffering loneliness into an entwinement that yes, would entail compromise and the sacrifice of idealistic, boyish visions of self-sufficiency.

Why had I so deeply resigned/consigned myself to perpetual loneliness? I think it was a manner of coping with who I was as a person. Even as a lad, I’ve always had “eclectic” tastes, meaning that I can be somewhat withdrawn, stubborn, and judgmental, and as I grew older, I refused to capitulate to the demeaning standard of bullshit that popular society deemed acceptable.

Given my personality, therefore, I had determined that I was destined for eternal loneliness, and thus sought for reconciliation with my natural state of being. Creative writingwithout a capitalistic purpose–had become an entrenched part of my existence (though my professional development has since necessitated some trimming of that sort of writing). An affection for mysticism has been part of this eclectic tendency. I like the philosophers of Zen, Sufiism, and holistic integralism of various Bohemian sorts. I fell in love with the passionate, drunken spirit-mind writing of Dostoevsky, Winterson, RumiDelillo, Pynchon, and whomever I happened to be reading at the moment. I found succor in running and hiking and reading and playing my djembe — activities that required no other to manifest enjoyment. I further discovered that going out to bars and clubs wasn’t about looking for sex or a soul-mate or any other person at all — it was about finding myself, and enjoying myself, and inviting others to come along for the ride.

Along this journey, from stubborn, eclectic individualism to marriage and a career, I’ve discovered that loneliness can be productive and beautiful, even as it dredges out a hollow in my heart. But I also rebel against the notion that artistic creativity is only produced from independent pursuits, and that things of beauty can only be created, Phoenix-like, out of despair. [Think of all of those poets of modernity, who killed themselves, seemingly out of creative consummation.] Rather, I think that what is created from the harmony and dissonance of relationships is simply different, and must be appreciated in it’s own context, apart and distinct from that which is a creation of loneliness. Times have changed, I believe, in the artistic sphere. Call it the Age of Aquarius or call it what you will, but there are too many talented and interesting individuals out there vying for attention for singular artists to dominate any one field in the manner Shakespeare, Picasso, and Davis once did. In some sense, the reality that has always been everpresent yet understated is becoming more definitive of our formal social reality: we are all artists, creating every single moment anew out of the materials of what has come before.

This freedom, this burden, of creative synthesis and production means that we all must become comfortable with the sense of loneliness and detachment from the hustle and bustle of everyday surface society. Otherwise, we will be unable to define ourselves, and we will become lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the concerns of others. Finding yourself necessitates two paradoxical movements:

  • stepping away from society and social media and other outlets* (self-knowledge and spiritual understanding)
  • stepping into society and social media and other outlets (knowledge of others and sharing)

*a definition: by social media and other outlets, I mean any mechanism by which we can connect to other people, whether Facebook, the pub, or speed dating

A balance must therefore be discovered, a balance that is difficult for us to achieve. A balance between being comfortable with loneliness, and being comfortable compromising with others in ongoing relationships. A comfort with solitude, and a comfort in being around others. A comfort with poetry, and a comfort with Twitter. A comfort with knowing ourselves, and a comfort in constantly redefining ourselves.

The hardest thing, perhaps, is to truly know yourself in a crowd of people who don’t know themselves. Or maybe the hardest thing is to truly know another person when you don’t really know yourself. Or maybe it’s all the same problem, and the solution lies right before us.

Growing Awareness of History

Public school door knob

I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!

We weren’t able to find much on-line. I hadn’t realized how complex and difficult finding out the history of any given building in NYC was. So I then expanded the scope of our research to our neighborhood.

The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.

Richman (Echo) Park

It opened up history for me as well.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,

Tremont Baptist Church

California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.

Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.

Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.

There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.

I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.

Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.

Pushing the Walls Away

It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.

Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.

But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.

Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.

It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.

Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.

Progress Towards Goals

In November, I posted some of the efforts and goals I was targeting within my school for the year. As promised, I will now review how I’ve done. I had a wide range of goals and they were kinda lofty. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned more about the challenges that are faced in the actual implementation of systemic changes. Some of the targets I originally began with have shifted as my school’s priorities have changed, as well as my own priorities and interests. Some goals I dropped not because I didn’t believe they were important, but because I saw that I’d be fighting a losing battle. I attempted to focus my efforts in areas where I knew I could make some headway or that I had earned enough political capital to advocate for.

As a review, here were some of the goals I’d outlined in November:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

I’ve encountered substantial frustrations in working towards my goals. These hurdles have taught me that for real change to occur, you have to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on the most basic foundations that will sustain that change. For example, one of the systems we were working to put into place in our school was structured grade level team meetings, held according to a consistent protocol. We envisioned these teams successfully performing inquiry into student work and collaboratively designing instructional units, interventions, and assessments together. And some teams did achieve this to a degree that was quite substantive in comparison to the past. However, the reality is that sustaining a focus amongst a group of teachers over the course of a school year requires some fundamental components in place that was all too often lacking. It requires a strong facilitator, consistent and frequent meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings, well established roles and responsibilities, an administration willing to hold teachers accountable for their meetings, and open channels of communication. When these components are scattered or missing, running meetings that are productive can be highly difficult. It’s also difficult when the majority of teachers view the meetings as an encroachment on their time instead of as a useful opportunity to collaborate as professionals.

Despite these challenges, however, progress was made. Some goals we’ve made substantial headway on, such as introducing the Common Core Standards and making the process of inquiry more authentic. Others, we’ve only begun to lay down the groundwork for. For example, thanks to the help of our network STOPP team, we now have an in-school team established for behavior referrals, and we have an official behavioral referral form. The fact that the groundwork has been laid is in and of itself noteworthy, because now there is a basis for renewed effort towards achieving real progress in the next year.

One of the biggest challenges I now am aware of that we face is that of the specters of external accountability, in the form of state testing and reviews of the school. In both circumstances, shit hits the fan. The administration freaks out and runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this induces the teachers and their students to assume an unhealthy dose of stress as well. I am not opposed to standardized testing nor to school quality reviews or state audits, but I think that the high stakes attached to them are blown far out of proportion to their actual value. All of the hard work our teams had been making fell to the wayside once we began gearing up for testing and an audit was being performed on our school (we hadn’t made AYP for some student populations). Teachers spent their time drilling in test taking skills and making sure that they had student portfolios neatly accessible for adult visitors. The administration spent its time making sure the halls were decorated and bulletin boards looked pretty. These things are perhaps a necessary evil, but I don’t think that long-term sustained efforts such as team meetings should be allowed to fizzle due to these external pressures. I am beginning to see why teachers become jaded and lambast the systems of accountability that produce this kind of short-term hysteria and frenzy, which is ultimately detrimental to real learning and progress.

One goal which I have expanded upon is the idea of making the process of inquiry more authentic. As it was rolled out to us by the DOE, inquiry was all about these rather dry and academic methods of looking at student data. Which I think can be extremely valuable–but it requires a foundation of professional teams with an established protocol, a culture of professionalism and collaboration. And building that foundation in a public school, as I mentioned above, is significantly harder than it sounds. It also requires that the school has a process of curriculum mapping in place, or at least an acknowledged and shared curriculum map in general. When this isn’t really there, inquiry work becomes hollow and useless, because here we are, looking at our students’ deficits and targeting those deficits, but we don’t have any guide to refer back to when we acknowledge that we need to collectively bolster our instruction in certain areas. Once I realized this, I focused most of my efforts towards the end of the year on building a foundation for curriculum development in our school.

I’ve written at length already about my views on the importance of curriculum, so it should be obvious that I place extreme value on it. I also place a lot of weight on the value of professional learning communities. I believe that curriculum must be developed within the forum of professional learning communities. So I focused my main efforts during the school year on promoting the structures for a professional learning community to develop and in developing the technological resources for curriculum development to occur.

Over the course of this year, we’ve been encouraging teachers to begin actively using our school’s Google account to share documents, record meeting minutes, and communicate and collaborate. Even simply getting teachers to log on has proven to be a significant hurdle, and I don’t say this merely to criticize non-technologically savvy teachers. Most of our computers are clunky and old, running Internet Explorer, which does not operate well with Google Doc functions. It makes it pretty hard for folks not accustomed to troubleshooting on computers to get a handle on. These obstacles to merely gaining access to the online resources are significant, because it reduces the efficiency of being able to simply email all the staff and know that people will respond online. Instead, in order to organize things, we’ve had to rely on a combination of word-of-mouth, printing out memos to place in mailboxes, and email. And since I and other teachers have extremely limited time, this greatly decreases the likelihood of us collaborating outside of the venue of scheduled meetings.

Anyway, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this all day, but it’s probably pretty boring stuff to an outsider. So let me just wrap this up by stating the things that we did accomplish:

  • The Special Education Team met at least 14 times over the course of the year, and discussed issues critical to special educators in NYC, such as implementing the new IEP system (SESIS), understanding Response to Intervention, understanding Phase I special education reform, issues of compliance with state law, building communication amongst all special education service providers, and conducting Functional Behavioral Analysis
  • The Inquiry Team and corollary grade level teams met fairly regularly until state testing rolled around, and began the process of establishing a more consistent protocol
  • I introduced the concept of core domain knowledge to the school, as well as the concept of developing a structured and systematic approach to developing curriculum within the forum of a professional learning community
  • Technology was utilized more widely and some basic issues of access were addressed

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part V

Gambier River

Image via Wikipedia

In my last post, I sought to balance the concept of achievement with the necessity of equity in education. Before I dive into curriculum (I know, I keep saying I will get into it), I would like to expound further on an analogy I made at the beginning of this series between ecology and public schools, and which has given the title to this series.

I’ve begun with the premise of schools as ecosystems. In any healthy ecosystem, there is a dynamic and interactive balance between all of the components of that ecosystem, from the trees, to the low lying shrubs, to the soil, to the bugs, the birds, the berries, the squirrels, the bears, and what have you. All components function to create an interconnected, interdependent system that naturally self-regulates to create sustainable conditions for the most productive life possible within that given environment.

Now that’s a “natural” ecosystem I’m discussing. Let’s explore the concept of a man-made ecosystem in order to better adapt that idea to schools. In a man-made ecosystem, such as a garden, the gardener works to recreate natural environments, but with a focus on a purpose that suits the gardener, such as food growth, or flower cultivation. Sometimes that focus is so monolithic that the gardener ends up in constant battle with nature, and must maintain their garden on life support infusions of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, there are methods of deliberately harnessing natural processes and dynamics to best serve our own selfish interests. When the gardener best recreates the conditions that will foster interconnectivity and diversity of life adapted to their environment, their garden will thrive.

Now let’s bring that idea back to schools. In education, instead of growing food or flowers, our work is to grow our kids’ minds. A lot of times, this effort of increasing achievement is presented as a type of competition, which is furthered through the use of punitive grading systems and high stakes testing. Sometimes the way we talk about it makes it seem like all we want to do is pump steroids into the minds of our youth. But we know that’s not what it’s about. Education is about nurturing, developing, instilling, guiding. And in terms of an ecosystem, the big idea is that ultimately, no one is really competing, even if it looks like that on the surface. Ultimately, we work to counterbalance each other and create an environment that best harnesses the resources available within that given community.

This all sounds relatively banal, even to me, but the reason I keep pushing this analogy between gardening and education is because I’m seeking to apply permacultural principles to the ecosystems of schools. Permaculture is a philosophy of cultivating land grounded in holistic and sustainable design practices. I believe the permacultural approach is not only necessary to counter current devastating ecological practices, but is in fact superior to traditional methods and approaches to land use.

I believe that one of the critical issues underlying education reform is that we are all too often seeking superficial means of enhancing student performance. In a garden, we might temporarily achieve enhanced production through an arduous turning of topsoils and expensive input of chemicals. In a school, we might temporarily raise student test scores through test prep and infusions of outside contractors. But ultimately in both scenarios, we are only doing battle against nature and economy. In order to enhance productivity sustainably, we have to build up the foundations of our communities, our ecosystems. This requires targeted investments in the communities that most require it. There is no other way.

Growing Healthy Food and Children

Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because  . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.

The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.

Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.

An Analogy

Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.

There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.

The Big Idea

The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.

It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.

Appreciating Social Media

Envision the following scenario: you’re sitting around the waterhole with fellow colleagues and someone mentions their Facebook account, and one person says, “Huh, Facebook! Why would I want to post a bunch of shit that no one needs to know” etcetera, and then another person says “Hear, hear!”, and then another person says they’ve deleted their Facebook/MySpace account because they are so over it, and everyone sits there shaking their head at what unknown tragic end this world is coming to . . .

This seems to be kind of a common theme with some people in general–even those who utilize social media–you know, this deep-seated urge to bitch about how evil social networking is. Some kind of strange shame or guilt about posting things about yourself online or looking at other people’s info online, or something. You’ll see it in the news: the deleterious effects of the internet and how you can’t trust what is posted on-line, and how someone has been fired from their job because of a comment made on Twitter, ad nauseam.

But stop. Just stop for a minute, and think about the big picture here. Scan your brain back to 10 years ago, if you’ve been around for that long. Remember how we used to base all of our understanding of the wider world solely on the newspapers and TV? Well now scan back to now. Now, if you are savvy and Twitterized and blog literate and Facebooked and Buzzed and what have you–well, you keep up with the news of your friends and sorta friends and remote acquaintances and people you went to high school with and so forth. You see that Belinda over in New Mexico has just betrothed and has a new collection of abstract art viewable on Flickr, and you see that Zachary from your workplace is blitzed in Puerto Rico and that your cousin has a hamster that is sick and that girl from across the street that you thought was kind of cute is having her third kid, and so on and so forth. In other words, we are slowly converting over to getting our news from where it should be gotten from: from our friends.

It may be trivial and superficial and irrelevant and narcissistic and voyeuristic and all that, but . . . well, that’s what it is if that’s who we are.

Because we can still get the serious stuff from the newspapers or Google news when we need it. For all the rest of it–it’s just human nature converted into modern technology, now, ain’t it?

A Way to Subvert

A cross roads of sorts eventually asserts itself from the mist as you trudge ever onward towards inevitable oblivion. Is the inner development that you require necessitated by your outer reality? Is this really what you need? To be beaten down into submission before the homogeneity and failures in communication of the onslaught of desire? Everyday that you attend to reality, there is a reason to hate humanity, to give up the effort of continual sustained professional growth. There is a reason to shrink up within yourself and seek a means of escape.

But observe the one who maintains integrity: the way, the light that follows the heat. It isn’t about formulas, or scriptures, or any other formal adherences. It’s about following your heart. It sounds like Hollywood, Bollywood, but missing the essential main ingredient: your active oxygenated attuned rhythmic pulse conveying the life force that is you and all of the world but only you. Intuition. Empathy. Creation. Love. This. Moment. Only. Known. Now. Now. Now.

Rebel. Reinforce. Reinvigorate. Challenge the cold distant regularity and expectations that define your reality. Everyone that you know—including yourself—seeks comfort and coalescence in the face of an explosive and potentially destructive alien and dissociative desire. Ignore and let fall the immediate and reactive demands of public demand. There is something higher. Something quiet. Something powerfully calm and removed from immediate accessibility.

Life isn’t about Top 40. You make money? You plunder lots of virginal gullibilities? Let’s see how far you fare within your own tabulation of your life’s worth. Just awaiting your own death? Or what? What?

It’s about us. It’s about community. It’s about town, city, state, nation, world, way. It’s about identity as related to growth. It’s about me as related to you and them. It’s about everything. It’s about enemy, lover, and happenstance commuter companion. How much can you respect yourself in relation to me?

Enough. Either you are in, or you are out. Something within you or without you has determined this cosmic stance. What matters except your own life force of will, of choice, of effort? The confinement of the everyday delimits us all. Only the procreative will will find a way to subvert. Yes. And no. And Yes.

Collaborative Interdependence

I’ve been undergoing a mild case of “writer’s block” lately, wherein everything that I attempt to write just comes out flat or completely uninspired. Frustrating, because then it drives me to playing mahjongg instead of articulating deeper sentiment (mahjongg here being the virtual “bottle” in which to drown my woes).

One of the things I’ve been constantly trying to write about but having trouble clearly spelling out is my perspective on enacting progressive change. I’ve discussed elsewhere my evolving views on politics and economics, and I’ve been trying to find a way to more fully explicate my new views while still embracing, intellectually speaking, the perspectives which I’ve developed out of, such radicalism, anarchism, anti-globalization, postcolonialism, etc.

Rather than present a cohesive thesis, therefore, let me just discuss what my thought process is at the moment vis-a-vis these general topics and maybe I can work my way over the obstacles I’m currently facing just by talking it through.

I think what I’m finding is that I can still relate very well to viewpoints such as socialism and anarchism because such perspectives are ultimately humanist, in that there is an idealistic attempt to extricate humanity from what are perceived as inhuman and oppressive structures. There is still a lot of misunderstanding out there about what “anarchism” really means, and you can see this quite powerfully in The Dark Knight as depicted by the Joker, as one current example. People think of chaos, terror, pimply youth in black apparel heaving Molotov cocktails as an expression of aimless hormonal angst. But anarchism is not about chaos and terrorism: it is simply a philosophical rejection of the need for institutionalized systems of governance. Extending out of this are many disparate branches of anarchist philosophy, but that is its central tenet. Contrary to being a negative and nihilistic perspective, this is in actuality an extremely positivist take on human nature, in that anarchists believe that human society will run much more efficiently and naturally when not subsumed to overarching systems.

I was drawn to anarchist philosophy because of this deep humanism, and some anarchist writing is the most well-articulated writing out there on politics. You don’t feel like you are being talked down to. Go here and browse through the library to see for yourself. It isn’t much at all about violence or chaos. It’s about believing in a world that can be better than what we are taught to accept.

However, one of the problems with this perspective is in answering the question: well, how do we get from here to there? There are many different answers to that, some of which I will agree with, but ultimately, what one comes to understand is that holding the highest of ideals makes it extremely difficult to come to terms with the existing state of the world, generating anger, bitterness, and violence and/or apathy.

I will devolve into an oblique comparison here: in a long-term relationship with another human being, you come fairly quickly to realize that compromises must be made between you and your partner’s ideals in order to live together. If your ideals are too high, it may be that instead of coming to terms with the human reality of your partner and accepting them as they are, you are rejecting parts of them in order to try to fit or mold them to your ideals. These high expectations can blind you to the beauty of the person that already exists right before you, if you could allow them to be themselves rather than what you want them to be. You both can work together on developing towards the ideals that you share and cherish.

This does not mean that you should accept a drab reality. What I am getting at is that there is a process in working towards ideals. There must be development and evolution in order for ideals to become reality. Perfect harmony does not just fall into your lap without extensive effort. So one could feasibly hold anarchist philosophy as the ideal state of human society, but still work within and around existing government and market structures in seeking to achieve that ideal.

That is fairly self-evident, I suppose, but as I talked about in my other post, it seems to me that there are a lot of idealists out there who are constricted, rather than motivated, by their ideals.

In any case, even though I sympathize with the philosophy of anarchism and of radical thought in general, I ultimately feel that it is misguided. Anarchists and other philosophies of dissent rightly perceive that there are problems with institutional and market systems, but they wrongly perceive the correct redress as being a complete rejection of these systems. To use another obtuse analogy, it is like looking at a fan which doesn’t blow air very efficiently or equitably about a room, and deciding that the solution is to throw out the fan. While such a solution might appeal to instinct, it would make much more sense to attempt to analyze the failure of the fan and seek to alter, jerryrig, or otherwise upgrade to a whole new model.

To say this, however, doesn’t mean that one couldn’t choose to live ones life according to anarchist or other radical ideals. One has that right and capability. But what I am talking about is being involved in the greater community, and subsuming some of those ideals to accepted law and policy in order to extend greater influence.

Another issue I think I see with philosophies that reject existing market and government systems is that they are often mired in a mentality of a bygone era. We have come into a time, due to the unforeseen confluence of technology and rapid information dissemination and sharing, in which civil society and individuals as a whole have a power and command that they did not once have. Civil society thus is becoming evolutionarily enabled to play the critical part in balancing and restraining and guiding the efforts of institutions and markets in providing a fairer and more sustainable society. Demonstrators and protesters, even when not covered explicitly by the big media outlets, have a strength that corporations and governments have had to pay close attention to. Anti-globalization protesters, though misguided in their conclusions (multi-national corporations and interconnected markets = evil), have had a tremendous and positive impact on drawing attention to economic inequity and iniquitous barriers to trade. Similarly, the increased influence and power of “bloggers” has given big media a run for its money. Due to this increased power of civil society and of individual citizens, people are not simply oppressed workers underneath the inhumane strictures of the one-dimensional demand of capitalism. In collaboration—not opposition—with public policy, the legal system, and economic investments and incentives, civil society, government, and the economy can work in tandem to address the problems that exist in society.

This is not an argument against dissent or protest. What I’m attempting to get at is that the process of speaking up and getting involved and asking critical and probing questions is in fact a necessary and positive aspect of well-organized and functioning social systems. It is not a movement against the “system” or against the “machine” or whatever one chooses to call government and business structures: rather, it is a movement that enhances, collaborates, and guides these systems into greater harmony.

I have argued elsewhere for the need to view these systems in the sense of design, with a holistic, whole-systems approach. This is especially apparent when it comes to entrenched issues such as the current failure of many of our public schools to adequately and equally educate all our nation’s children, irregardless of race, class, or gender. Educational policy, on both a federal and state level, often nobly, but wrongly, attempts to tackle their problems solely within the confines of the classroom by initiating misguided programs that work to increase performance on standardized tests. Obviously, there are circumstances outside of the classroom that are critical to a child’s success, such as family, friends, and wider local community support, in addition to institutional programs. It will take a multifaceted approach, addressing not only education, but furthermore socio-economic conditions, access to information and technology, not to mention access to healthy, positive, inclusive environments and public spaces for children to study and play in.

Our schools have become effectively segregated due to the seemingly innocuous effort by well-to-do parents to place their children in “successful” schools. The successful schools being the ones with money and community support. It is thus apparent that investments must be made simultaneously not only in education and the public school system in general, but furthermore broader investments must be made in low income neighborhoods, to provide access to healthy public spaces, to provide access to technology and information, to provide smart planning for a sustainable future in employment, etc. The more that the middle class divides itself from the poor, the greater problems will become.

What is evident in an issue such as this is the approach that I am talking about: a whole systems, collaborative approach. Civil society must do its part to draw attention to the problems. Government must do its part to respond with effective and unbiased policy changes. The market must do its part with directed investments and innovative micro-businesses. What is apparent, to me at least, is that we can’t rely on any one of these systems to do the job for us. The market is not going to solve any of our problems unless we direct it and harness it with policy and incentives. Government will not update its policy or open up funding unless it has its attention drawn to the problem. Civil society, NGOs, citizen organizations must agitate, petition, utilize the media, and organize to focus on the problems.

Furthermore, policy making and business governance and legal affairs cannot be over-specialized. They can’t be compartmentalized and vivisected such that they can’t work effectively across the fields of public health, education, fiscal tuning, management philosophy, environmental departments, etc. They need to be able to unite and work within these fields all at once.

This kind of approach demonstrates that no matter what ones particular ideals may be, what is the most important is a pragmatic and responsive attention to the current climate and issues in our society. Putting our heads in the sand, whether due to reactionary or radical or centrist thought, is simply unacceptable. Good management, governance, and policy practices are forged by looking ahead to the future, constantly and consistently. Our future lies in our children. Whatever our beliefs may be, we all want our children to be healthy, to be successful, to have access to the resources that will empower and enable them. We want them to be educated, to be well fed, to be well read, to be sound of body and of mind. We want them to be positioned to respond effectively to reality, to be positioned for a market that looks ahead to sustainability.

The process, therefore, in achieving an equitable and sustainable future is determined by the collaborative interdependence of differing aspects of human identity, mind, infrastructures, and society. Only when these multiple points converge and work together are effective and positive changes made. It is misguided to focus ones efforts solely in rejection and opposition to existing systems. The more positive approach is to focus on working across boundaries to enact changes beneficial to all.

Phew. You can see why I’ve had trouble laying this out. It’s kind of a big mess in my mind. I’m working on getting this out in a more concise manner.

Movement Towards Inclusion

“The bell jar [as described by Braudel, signifying the exclusivity of the capitalist sector of society] makes capitalism a private club, open only to a privileged few, and enrages the billions standing outside looking in. This capitalist apartheid will inevitably continue until we all come to terms with the critical flaw in many countries’ legal and political systems that prevents the majority from entering the formal property system. . .

Few seem to realize that what we have here is one huge, worldwide industrial revolution: a gigantic movement away from life organized on a small scale to life organized on a large one. For better or for worse, people outside the West are fleeing self-sufficient and isolated societies in an effort to raise their standards of living by becoming interdependent in much larger markets. . .

Like computer networks, which had existed for years before anyone thought to link them, property systems become tremendously powerful when they are interconnected in a larger network. . . .

Political blindness, therefore, consists of being unaware that the growth of the extralegal sector and the breakdown of the existing legal order are ultimately due to a gigantic movement away from life organized on a small scale toward one organized in a larger context. . .

The primary problem is the delay in recognizing that most of the disorder occurring outside the West is the result of a revolutionary movement that is more full of promise than of problems.”

Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

De Soto’s insights are tantalizing: his essential message is that the poor are seeking to become a part of the larger market system, but are denied access through exclusive laws and fiscal policies. Faced with the inability to become a part of the global market, the poor then must operate within small-scale, community “extralegal” markets and negotiations. I have referred to this market activity, so visibly abundant and active within South America, as a “micro-economy,” not recognizing that this teeming market life was not necessarily included within the larger economy in a formal sense.

What I also like about De Soto’s vision is his recognition that the poor have always historically recognized the opportunities inherent in a larger market. The movement to urban centers during the Industrial Revolution is well documented, and the same movement is now occurring in developing countries daily. The poor innately recognize opportunity when they see it, and recognize that fundamentally, global markets can provide access to a wider network of capability and progress.

Of course, simply giving the poor land titles and opening up their economies to globalization does not necessitate a better life, due to the great imbalance of power and wealth in favor of developed nations and small populations within developing nations. De Soto’s simplistic diagnosis has thus been rightfully critiqued. But with corrected fiscal policy and global law, these imbalances can be addressed to become more inclusive. De Soto’s insights can very neatly be coupled with the insights provided by social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus. With the tool of microcredit, the poor can be given the ability to become included within the wider market and use their properties as capital assets.

The wider the embrace of networks can become, the more powerful and effective they will be. A market that can include and embrace all of the teeming activity of the micro-economies of the poor (and thus raise them out of poverty) is a healthy and balanced market.

What I also appreciate about De Soto’s vision is his emphasis on the global movement towards interdependence. Accepting membership into a greater community is to shed a degree of self-sufficiency and isolation. There is a strong undercurrent within environmental activism as well as nationalist reactionaries towards self-sufficiency and isolationism. It is certainly important to have integrity and inner strength. But at a certain point, interdependence within greater networks provides a greater strength and resiliancy.

I can best phrase this within the context of death: when someone you are close to passes away, you can feel a humongous hole cut out from inside of you. It makes you realize just how interconnected you are with everyone else in your life, and of how illusory is the concept that you are alone and detached.

When acts of violence and terrorism are committed, they are best viewed as perverted and desperate attempts to become included into the networks that they have been excluded from. The answer, therefore, in fighting terrorism is not in utilizing weapons and occupations, but rather in fighting poverty, by seeking to include, in an effective and positive manner, the developing nations and those in extreme poverty into the global market and body politic.

It is no secret that those nations mired in extreme poverty harbor terrorists. So what should we do? Bomb them? Or seek to include them into the greater networks of which they so desperately want to become a part of and which they have been routinely denied. Isn’t the answer obvious?

Natural Pornography

You know, whenever I check my blog stats, I am always perturbed to find that there are always the same search strings that lead people to my site, and they generally consist of something like, “nature porn,” or “porn in nature,” simply because I entitled one post Nature Porn, in reference not to outdoor humping, but to the commercialization of nature as embodied by Yosemite National Park. It’s just frankly weird, that men (I assume they are men, but perhaps I am being sexist?) out there are doing daily multiple searches for “nature porn.” Who cares in what environment the porn takes place? You’re just watching other people have sex. Is it that you are turned on only when the sex act takes place next to the phallic imagery of trees, or by the verdent spread of grass? Or is this some kind of weird environmentalist impulse? Do people also do searches for “industrial porn,” or “office porn,” or “yacht porn”? (I guess I’ll find out from my blog stats soon enough.)

If you’ve hit upon this post because you were querying “nature porn”, perhaps you could take a second before continuing on with your research to clue the rest of the world in to this mysterious erotic fetish.

Traffic and Fearlessness

It would seem that there is much less fear in general in Colombia: fear of death, fear of strangers, fear of sickness, etc. This translates often into brazen displays of recklessness, such as absolutely insane feats by buses and taxis, but it also seems to produce a greater social cohesiveness—it’s like every man for himself, but everyone accommodating each other in getting everything for themselves. This is seen most visibly in the manner that cars and buses and trucks nearly seamlessly merge and wend around each other in dense forests of flowing traffic, all without any concern for lanes or signals. The vehicles get literally within centimeters of each other and pedestrians, often while flying along at 80 mph on a residential road. Accidents certainly do happen here, but they don’t seem to happen any more frequently than in the States—if anything, the frequency of hearing the sirens of an ambulance wafting across the night air seems to be much less. Thus, much more attention is paid to your surroundings and the people around you, because it is recognized that your life may depend on it.

So it would appear at a glance that life is devalued by this apparent lack of concern for safety, but this is not so. Clearly, people here enjoy themselves and don’t seem incredibly stressed by fear or worry, even if many of them live well below modern “living standards”. This closeness with death rather translates into a relaxed enjoyment of fleeting pleasures. Dancing, music, sitting in the sun, etc. So perhaps it is a superficiality that is similar and contrary to the superficality of modern materialism in its way. In the United States, everyone is frightened of each other, frightened of death, frightened of cancer, etc. And I don’t know that we enjoy ourselves any more as a result of our worry and stress, even though we garner higher standards of living. I also don’t know that our traffic moves any more efficiently or safely as a result of our wider streets, multitudinous traffic laws, and giant SUVs. Maybe we need to just relax and enjoy ourselves a little more, and accept death a little bit closer into our daily existence as the inevitable reality that it is . . .

A List of Ways to Reduce Your Waste

The main problem right now in all of the world, including within each of our own lives, is waste. We waste our time, we waste our resources. Our social, economic, and political systems waste money, people, natural capital, time, and energy. We have all been taught to waste, because we have been taught—and we allow ourselves—to be blind, heedless, “good consumers”.

Businesses can strive to become closed loop production systems, in which they use a whole systems approach to reduce and eliminate waste. This ultimately saves them money and allows them to become increasingly efficient and agile in adapting to the market. So too in our individual lives we should strive to eliminate our output of waste as well as our input of short-term or function-less products.

People always seem to be confused about what they can do in their individual lives, aside from donating money to charity, to really enact change to regressive and repressive social, economic, and political systems. As in any grassroots movement, the real change comes from within. And then it begins to affect daily lives. And daily lives—the furthest downstream from centralized, sloth-like systems—affect everything.

So as an exercise, I thought it might be useful to attempt to compile a list of ways to reduce waste from our everyday personal lives. I don’t do many of these things myself yet, either, so take these as suggestions and goals. If you know of other ways that individuals can act to reduce their production and consumption of waste, please feel free to add more in the form of comments. Also, think of ways that you can mirror some of these actions within your community or workplace. Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you could change.

Please note also that almost all of the items detailed below will ultimately save you money, in addition to the social and environmental benefits, so please get beyond the dismissive mentality of labeling me as a “treehugger” or “hippie”—that’s the kind of perspective that lends itself to further waste.

1) Purchase from local businesses and food sources as much as feasible.

2) Reduce or eliminate the use of a personal vehicle. Walk, bike, and utilize public transportation. Delimit the sphere of your personal social needs to as localized an area as feasible.

3) Utilize your free time for things that make you feel good, foster interaction with other people, and that are productive. Reduce or eliminate mindless activities such as TV watching. Learn new things. Take classes at your local community college. Check out books from your library.

4) Make exercise a part of your daily existence, such as in biking or walking to work, or biking or walking to a bar or bookstore or cafe. Try to eliminate the perception of exercise as an accessory chore or activity to become more desirable.

5) Cook your own food. Mend your own clothes. Make your own coffee or bring your own coffee mug to coffee houses. Utilize whatever resources you have to do your own thing.

6) Eliminate the use of plastic bags at stores. Bring along a tote bag or backpack to carry items in whenever you go shopping.

7) Stop buying water bottled from municipal sources. Get yourself a Brita filter and drink tap water.

8 ) Buy produce directly from local (preferably organic) farmers; attend farmer’s markets or join food coops.

9) Make your own household cleaning solutions

10) Purchase only energy star rated appliances and lighting systems; convert all of your lighting to compact florescents

11) Insulate your house with energy efficient windows

12) Convert your lawn to a natural food source

13) Compost your food and outdoor waste; utilize kitchen scraps for the making of stock

14) Harvest rainwater and utilize in shower and household use and/or garden irrigation

15) Design and implement a greywater system

16) Reduce your use of paper and wood products; reuse paper as much as possible (double-sided printing) or eliminate altogether through the use of a computer. Use alternative woods, reclaimed wood, or engineered wood products whenever possible when designing and building structures.

17) Take yourself off of junk mail lists; utilize e-mail notification services where possible for bank notices, cellphone bills, etc.

Future Building

Smoke n Sky

In a post a little while ago, I attempted to introduce the concept of living life with the awareness of the potential of natural (and unnatural) destruction to your home and possessions. But I think this idea is necessarily vague, because exactly how, one would ask, are we supposed to stop living in homes? Should we live in mobile homes, or large communal spaces that we all own?

I think the problem is something else, that I was attempting to work towards, and sensing the pulse, but not digging deep enough. I’m thinking now that the problem is the whole structure of our society; everything from the way we make our money to the way we organize our communities. Again, this is vague, but let’s just stop and consider for a minute where current events like global warming, pollution of groundwater and oceans, peak oil, and depletion of topsoils is leading us. These dire symptoms of the dessication of the biosphere are the direct result of the way we live our lives right now. They are the direct result of the products that we manufacture, the food that we eat, and the lifestyles that we have grown to think are our birthright.

So to bring this back to something down to earth—when a natural disaster occurs, as I had said before, what we should be learning is not just how glad we are to have it be over with and to have survived—what we should be learning is just how disconnected we are from some of the most fundamental and basic of natural cycles. And these cycles are what we need to be mimicking and learning from in order to progress.

I am reading a book right now, called The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken (which I fully recommend if you’re interested in either economics or ecology at all), that elucidates these points very clearly in terms of business and the need for a new ‘restorative’ economy. The focal point of the book is to try to wake businessmen up to the fact that the economy must be altered to accommodate human beings and the earth. One point of Hawken’s vision is the need to recycle products nearly endlessly, as nature does, thus conserving resources, eliminating toxic waste, and building a sustainable economy that will produce fulfilling jobs.

What is insightful about Hawken’s book is that while we are all, understandably, pointing fingers at McDonald’s and Halliburton and Walmart, what we are failing to do is to begin considering, positively, how these corporations can be changed, and what kind of economic environment could be created that would reflect this change (which Hawken’s book addresses). What we are doing is pointing our fingers at symptoms of the structure that is failing, and labeling what is causing the world to fall apart as evil. Instead, we should be focusing our energies on what way the structure can be re-created sustainably and in tune with the lessons of nature. Almost everyone, other than the dinosaurs and rich idiots that have their heads stuck in the sand, recognize that there are problems. Now it’s time to start conceptualizing in what way these problems can be solved, and laying down the blueprints.

To bring this back to my immediate environment, right now the citizens of Lake Tahoe are pointing their fingers at the TRPA, the regional planning agency, which attempts (admittedly imperfectly, given that it is governed mostly by moneyed interests) to impose regulations on development in the region and keep the environment healthy. People are angry and blaming the agency as the cause of the wildfire, because they do not allow homeowners to cut down whatever trees they want, and restrict the wanton clearing of forest. This is obviously ridiculous. If you are building a home made out of wood in the midst of a dense forest, then you should be aware that the forest is subject to wildfire. Lightning is all it takes to set such an occurrence off, let alone idiots with cigarettes and camp fires, such as what set off this most recent and cataclysmic Angora fire.

So people are seeking to blame a governmental agency simply because their homes burned down and because there were a lot of dense trees on their properties. But obviously, the fact that trees are dense in inhabited areas has more to do with the very fact that humans are developing there in the first place—fires are suppressed and brush and trees are condensed with fuel. So the problem is much deeper. It lies in the very planning and design of human communities. It lies in the disconnection with natural processes that accompanies every step we currently make within our economic, social, and mental structures—from the food that was shipped from across the nation or globe to be wasted on our tables, to the tropical wood we used to build our kitchenette, to the conversations we make about ideas distant from what we actually feel.

When I talk about “disconnection with natural processes,” I refer to the whole conundrum modern society has placed us into with relation to the biosphere, from agri-business that depletes the soil and devastates insect populations and pollutes the groundwater, to the production of non-degenerative toxic substances to house a product that will last 2 months. We don’t know how the products we buy were made, we don’t know what the cow we ate in the form of a cheeseburger was fed, we don’t know how the stitches were sewn into the clothes that we buy. We are disconnected from the most fundamental aspects of how we live our lives. This is a form of arrogance compounded by ignorance.

And when a cataclysmic event like a wildfire or a terrorist attack occurs, it temporarily shreds this veil apart, and you see just how deeply the rifts that separate you and your society from the rest of the world are. And there’s two reactions to this: 1) you embed yourself even deeper in blind ideologies that will support your short-term comfort and complacency; or 2) you begin to seek how to address these rifts and heal the deeper wounds. Once you’ve made the obviously correct decision, then suddenly things don’t seem so bleak anymore. Yes, the challenges that are ahead of us are massive and possibly insurmountable; but they are also great opportunities for positive change, social mobility, and creative design. This is where the future lies: in intelligent and creative people hunkering down to work, with their minds clear, their visions unclouded, and their anger and bitterness released. The task at hand is much greater than any loss that you personally have ever undergone. The task at hand is the distinct possibility that human existence could be obliterated by our own past ignorance and current inefficacy.

So it’s about time to work past guilt, blame, and anger. It’s time to begin the building of a future. This will necessarily be in conjunction with governments, corporations, and everyday people—but only in new and completely altered forms.

Interconnectivity as Survival, as Thriving Life

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Research continuously supports the premise that social networks are incredibly vital to a human being’s health, both mentally and physically. A conscious awareness of our everyday and divine interconnectivity is further critical to our survival as a species, not only as individuals. How easy is it to sever a string? How difficult is it to tear through an intertwined mass, with no discernable ends?

In a garden modeled on nature, where there is a dense, layered collection of diverse plants, with various microclimates, insect, bird, and animal interrelationships, and a thriving, teeming soil-life, there is little chance for “weeds” or for “pests” to destroy the life therein. In conventional gardens, with widely spaced rows and monocultural cultivation, the plants are isolated and ripe for destruction.

Similarly, in human life, where there are multi-dimensional, intimate relationships, both familial and within broader society, there is a greater strength and ability to cope with trauma, disaster, and despair. Individuals who cultivate their main relationships with any one dominant thing (bottles, TV sets, money, etc) are setting themselves up for easy predation. But as human beings are supposedly at the top of the food chain, this predation comes rather in the form of self-administered demons: dark thoughts, anxiety, and invisible cancerous cells.

Strength lies in being able to express and envision many different aspects of yourself and others, while still retaining integrity. You can take on many masks–your work mask, your father mask, your son mask, lover mask, cool mask, funny mask, angry mask, intelligent mask, sensitive mask, athletic mask, etc. You are able to shift, like the dunes in the desert wind, while still retaining the inner essence of what you are. You can be many things to many people, and many things to yourself, but out of this multiplicity you begin to form a broader, deeper vision of unity. And you can allow other people to be what they are, even when they express themselves only limitedly. Because everything has its place, everything has its context, beyond the confinements of understanding. Acceptance and conscious arrangement stand for so much more.

Some parts of yourself are jettisoned into the darkness, like skin shed painfully in the night. Out of this death steps new life, like the dead husks of plants spread on the bower of the soil to recompose and give back new life and nutrients as a mulch, and then taken back like lovers into the roots of growing life, to fruit and flower once again, again and again. Cycles are seen for what they are. There is no depression and despair in a place where nothing is wasted.

Waste nothing. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your love, don’t waste your life away on things that make you feel alone and hopeless. Every single day of our lives we have to remind ourselves that we are more than this. We are more than words, more than thoughts, more than actions, more than histories. We are alive, we are beautiful, we are powerful, and we are deeply interconnected, so deeply interconnected that it really is facile and reductive to pretend that we are anything but one. And facile and reductive to pretend that everything is anything but us.

Multifaceted Universe

You think, perhaps, as you are entertained, that you are simply an observer. You think maybe when you sit alone in your apartment watching your TV that you are detached. You might pretend to be completely uninvolved in politics, war, and other issues relating to the outer world. You might tell yourself, and you may be told: I am a civilian, I am a consumer.
But such reductions of reality eventually lead only to pathologies. Looking at a three-dimensional world in one dimension will only get you so far before you see the blood on your hands, or see your blood on other hands.

You are not a mere observer. You are a creator. You are a destroyer. You are not alone, not when every thought and feeling within you have eventual impact on another human being. You are not uninvolved in politics–every move you make has political ramifications. You are not a civilian, you are a potential target. You are not simply a consumer; you guide the market.

Things are much more complex, much more deeply interconnected than we are taught to admit. We aren’t supposed to know that the decisions we make affect people on the other side of the globe. Remember the butterfly of the chaos theory? A butterfly flaps its wings and a hurricane blows somewhere else. Forget the theoretical butterfly. Consider this: you flap your lips and a storm will blow inside of someone else’s heart. Imagine the compounded effects of that.

People watch sports, they gather together in stadiums, they rise together in staggered sequence, their arms rising and falling in the air, the intentional mass reproduction of a wave. It is cute, it is tame. It is like a child trying out a bicycle with training wheels.

People amass into crowds, into mobs, they can grow suddenly violent, suddenly barbarous. Nothing can get in their way. Cars will be overturned, whole city blocks destroyed. It is disturbing, it is wild.

The inherent power in an individual lies in that individual’s ability to identify with a collective. An empowered collective, aware of itself, can do almost anything.

Healing Rituals

ssc-fall-06-097.jpgThis weekend I came to realize how powerful ceremony and ritual can be in our lives. Growing up going to church and subsequently rejecting it’s regimented, institutionalized blather and feel-good propoganda, I instinctively shy away from most semblances of worship. But getting together with a group of amazing friends and sitting down and making a concerted effort to truly get beyond appearances and on into deeply spiritual life matters is a consciousness broadening experience. We sat in a circular manner and expressed gratitude to various forces in our lives which had brought us to that moment. We meditated and we sang and we played instruments. We planted trees and plants. We looked into ourselves and we looked into each other. And I realized afterwards just how important doing such a thing is–how in fact it may be necessary. Reaching your own inner realizations is of course a beautiful thing. But when it just sits inside of you and doesn’t bear witness and corroboration in other people, then it can wilt and fade away. Sharing your inner heart with other people who have similarly looked into themselves is a joyful and heartening experience, because you understand then that you are not alone–and it gives you hope. It gives you connection and beauty and power. And then you can go back to your daily mundanity with this flower within you, knowing that it is more securely there, and blooming.

Thank you to all those of you who were there–and for everyone who wasn’t, even if you don’t know it–you were.

my pad part ii

i set up my pad back up again, so now i’ve got me a home to reside within for some space of time once more, and as i sat there on the sofa and drank a nutty, dark brew, it hit me how important space is in relation to the objects in my life. how important the objects are in relation to space. how important it is to have this zone in which i feel established as myself, in which i can just sit and chill and listen to music and think or read or whatever. and that is the best thing about coming “home.” is finding again that context wherein i am comfortable and can truly relax.

i used to just throw all my shit wherever, in a kind of endlessly replicating pile, in which whatever i used last goes on top. such can be functional in terms of knowing exactly what you need for the next day, but it goes nowhere in terms of organizing anything beyond immediacy. now i’m pretty into the feng shui of my space, i feel the appropriateness and purpose of the objects that i place and their interrelations with the rest of the room. it really does matter. i’m not anal retentive, i simply have come to realize the importance of maintaining organization and clarity in my life–and that includes my chill space. i want people to come into this space and share it, so i purposely try to foster an atmosphere that welcomes others while at the same time delineates itself from the outer world. it is mine, yet yours, yet mine. know what i mean?

something in the details

The smell of nag champa settling into the carpet. The swirl of yellow leaves in storm winds, husks spiralling into the lake, sprawled wetly across the road. Cold drizzle on your jacket, the warmth when you come into the dining room and shed your outer layers. The headlights of a car in the night rising and dipping. The shock of the water when you jump in, the almost instantaneous numbing of your limbs as they descend into the void. Habanero sauce hitting the back of your throat. An uncorking of a bottle of wine with dinner, this time a musty Bourdeaux. The darkness which always comes too early now. R&B in the afternoon, hung over on the couch. The light and the darkness. The loneliness and the comraderie at the edge of a vast emptiness.