The Insult and Absurdity of ‘Make America Great Again’

A "Make America great again" hat.

Of the many dangerous untruths espoused by the Trump campaign, perhaps none was so flagrant as the one embedded right in the campaign’s central promise, “Make America Great Again.” That phrase seemingly asks us to recall a period when the United States still offered freedom and prosperity to all– when the American Dream was alive and well, unmarred by today’s excesses of bad regulation, Washington elitism, and so-called “political correctness.” But when was that time? When was America great?1

  • Was America great in 1917, when President Wilson asked congress for a declaration of war against Germany, asserting “we are glad [to fight] … for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples? 1917, when suffragist Alice Paul was being force-fed raw eggs through a tube in the psychopathic ward of the DC District Jail, for the grave offense of suggesting women should be allowed to vote?2
  • Was America great in 1962, when President Kennedy rallied support for the audacious national effort to land a man on the moon? 1962, when US troops plodded through puddles in Vietnam, burning the huts of the rural poor, and Americans were “faced with the cruel irony” Dr. King would later remark “of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools?”

The United States has harbored an abundance of great ideas, great individuals, and great moments. But they have always existed in tandem with profound and unconscionable violence, oppression, and anguish. Moreover, the freedoms and liberties of American life have always fallen disproportionately on the white, the male, the straight, and the wealthy, while the nation’s crimes and atrocities have always fallen disproportionately on the black and brown, the non-straight, the female-bodied, and the poor. For these reasons and more, we cannot nostalgically label as “great” any period of American history.

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On “Permanent Revolution”

Karl Marx famously evoked the term “permanent revolution” in urging the disenfranchised working-class to rise up against their capital-owning oppressors. He was beseeching those suffering under the nascent system of industrial production to mount a sustained resistance against capitalist exploitation, and never settle for a compromise that made life slightly more tolerable but failed to alter the underlying power dynamic of their time.1

Things are different now– at least in much of the global north. The lines between ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeois’ are more ambiguous. Factory work has largely been replaced with service work and knowledge work. Many people now experience some degree of sovereignty and pleasure towards their jobs, even if they are not CEOs. Moreover, technological change has brought many comforts and securities to huge masses of people that were largely or entirely unattainable in the past.

Under these conditions, the notion of revolution may sound unpleasant and undesirable. The word might conjure up images of 18th century French revolutionaries beheading politicians, or Cuban revolutionaries ousting Batista through guerrilla warfare. Even poor Americans–living paycheck to paycheck, working multiple minimum wage jobs– are unlikely to desire that kind of revolution.

The fact is that revolution does not always need to be violent. But it does need to occur. Continually.

Continue reading “On “Permanent Revolution””

Dear Bernie

Dear Bernie,

It looks like the race to become the Democratic nominee is coming to a close. Whatever happens next, I want to thank you– both for the incredible presidential campaign you have run, and for the prior 30+ years you spent in public service. As I have educated myself about your political career, I have been profoundly inspired by your empathy, foresight, integrity, and drive.

I watched with awe and admiration how you passionately argued for military spending cuts before the House of Representatives in 1992:

We are spending $270 billion a year on the military, but we don’t have a major enemy! I know it hurts your feelings, I know you’re upset about it, I know you’re hoping and praying that maybe we’ll have another war, maybe somebody will rise up. But it ain’t happening! … Let’s have the guts to give leadership to this country. The Cold War’s over. Let’s reinvest in America.

Perhaps a dozen times I watched the clip of you rising in opposition to the 1991 crime bill to declare:

This is not a crime prevention bill. This is a punishment bill, a retribution bill, a vengeance bill… If you wanna get tough on crime, let’s deal with the causes of crime. Let’s demand that every man, woman, and child in this country have a decent opportunity and a decent standard of living, let’s not keep putting poor people in jail and disproportionately punishing blacks.”

And I wept as I watched you, realizing how uncommon this view was at the time, and knowing that those crime bills of the early 1990s did not make crime drop but instead helped construct today’s system of racially-biased mass incarceration.

You were right right about the crime bill, Bernie– they were wrong. Just as you were right to oppose war in Iraq. Just as you were right to repeatedly oppose the Patriot Act and the mass surveillance it entailed. Just as you were right to gallantly filibuster the 2010 agreement that extended Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. Just as you were right to vote and speak out against ineffective “war on drugs” policies again and again and again. You have been right so many times over the years, Bernie, while the popular view has been painfully, dangerously, destructively, wrong. Why couldn’t more people see that?

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Pooping with Java

I’m currently living in a 17-person, sustainability focused community on Carleton College’s campus, called “Farm House.” When it comes to toilets, we tend to adhere to the classic environmentalist manta “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”

Here is a java implementation of this central dogma, which I recently taped up in several bathrooms.

An image of a java version of "if it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down."

 

The Myth of Conscientious Consumption

*Originally published in The Carletonian.*

The Viewpoint section of my school’s student Recycling symbolnewspaper posed the question “As a college student, what are your strategies for being a conscientious consumer without breaking the bank?”

This question implicitly relays the myth that ethical and sustainable living is prohibitively expensive. We are so inundated by ads for “eco-friendly” and “socially-responsible” products, we easily forget that simply not consuming is often the most powerful choice we can make.

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Beyond Vegetarian: One Man’s Journey from Tofu to Tallow in Search of the Moral Meal [Interview]

daniel_zeta
Photo of Daniel Zetah, taken by Kristine Leuze

I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn isuzu pickup, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.

I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.

I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.

Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?

Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.

Until I was in my early 20s I ate nothing but crap. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket.

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In Defense of Divestment

What is fossil fuel divestment?

It is an international network of campaigns calling on powerful institutions to sell any stocks/bonds they hold in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Many colleges, governments, and foundations have already divested: my own Carleton College has not.

Why might an institution want to divest?

ExMIt was recently unearthed that as early as 1977, ExxonMobil– the world’s largest oil and gas company– knew that their product was causing global temperature rise that could prove catastrophic. Rather than change their business model, they spent tens-of-millions of dollars propagating misinformation, obstructing political action, and cultivating denial across the globe.1

The other major players have all done the same: deny, distract, and drill baby drill.

While many of these companies have changed their tone, they have not changed their actions. “For well over a decade, several of the oil majors have claimed to be voluntarily using their profits to invest in a shift to renewable energy,” writes Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, “but according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 went to ‘renewable and alternative energy ventures.’”2 The rest went to shareholders, uber-rich executives, climate denial lobby groups, and the pursuit of ever-more-elusive oil, gas, and coal.

For decades, fossil fuel companies have unequivocally failed to recognize and respond to the threat their business creates. Moreover, they have deliberately suppressed localized and renewable energy models3 and disproportionately targeted communities of poor people and people-of-color as the sites of pollution-generating wells, refineries, and pipelines.4

To divest is to acknowledge the myriad offenses of fossil fuel companies and emphatically declare “We can no longer, in good conscious, make the profits of fossil fuel companies our own.” It’s a powerful symbolic gesture gaining traction across the world. But it is often misunderstood.

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Wit and Wisdom in ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’

The cover art of Edward Abbey's book "The Monkey Wrench Gang"Per a friend’s recommendation I read Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang this year. The novel follows four unlikely companions who– angered by the destruction of their beloved southwestern American desert by ever-expanding industry– turn to sabotage.

The gang is comprised of the wise and eloquent Doc Sarvis, the strong-willed Bonnie Abbzug, the “incorrigibly bucolic” Seldom Seen Smith, and the brutish, testosteronic Vietnam vet: George Hayduke. These characters come from diverse backgrounds, but are unified in the conviction that no one has a right to destroy the the impeccable and essential wilderness they cherish.

So they disassemble bulldozers, they blow up assembly lines, they uproot survey stakes… you know… eco-terrorist stuff. They come together to strike back against the oil companies, coal companies, and mining companies destructively extending their greedy paws into the pristine desert of the American southwest.

Entertaining and artfully constructed, the book challenges the assumption that permanent growth is both desirable and necessary, which seems to be largely ingrained into the American psyche. Though Abbey’s writing is often confusingly scattered and alarmingly opinionated, it is also excellent. Abbey unleashes an impressive vocabulary– often bending obscure words into unlikely contexts, in a way I find beautiful and exciting– and presents many deep and compelling thoughts.

Here are some examples of the wit and wisdom exhibited in The Monkey Wrench Gang.

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To the Daily Camera: Stop propagating climate change denial

*Originally published in the opinion section of Boulder’s “The Daily Camera,” April 6, 2014*

Greetings. I’m a senior at Fairview High and I’m writing to urge the Daily Camera to follow the example of the Los Angeles Times and commit to no longer publishing letters to the editor that deny human-caused climate change. The claims made by climate change deniers are not only inaccurate, but also damaging, and newspapers have no obligation to propagate their misinformation. In fact, they have an obligation not to.

From pixabay.com.

Let me begin my argument with few words about science. There exists a faction of citizens, pundits, and politicians that like to remind us that climate change is “just a theory” and therefore any attempts to mitigate it would be thoroughly premature. Per the diligent conditioning of my biology teacher, I would like to state that the term “theory” bears a different significance in the sciences than it does in casual conversation.

To a scientist, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation. Gravity is a theory. The idea that some diseases are caused by microorganisms is a theory. The idea that an object heavier than air can achieve flight when lift balances weight and thrust exceeds drag, which makes air travel possible, is a theory. And the theory of special relativity that makes your GPS function is, in fact, a theory. To oppose one of these concepts and not another would be hypocritical, for each is subjected to the same degree of rigorous review.

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The Joy of Cycling

Note: This piece was originally written for my Common App college application, in response to the essay prompt “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

Fourteen years ago I learned how to bike, but six months ago I learned why. Six months ago I discovered the true power of biking, not just as a form of transportation, but also as a tool for improving personal and planetary health. My embrace of cycling began as an environmental gesture: I decided for all the global-warming-related fear I bear, I should explore the viability of biking more and driving less. This seemed like a simple action I could take to directly reduce my carbon footprint, and while I anticipated the change would make my life harder and less comfortable, that was a sacrifice I felt willing to make. Before long, however, I found biking was not a sacrifice at all, but rather… a gift. I have discovered that biking creates a space in my life to connect with my mind, body, and environment, in a society where that space can be hard to find.  Continue reading “The Joy of Cycling”

Quotes of the Week

I wanted to briefly share a few interesting quotes from different sources I’ve come across over the past week or so.

1) Politics

From Yes! magazine:

Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not just dehumanizing. It also fails to recognize how one person’s ‘freedom’ of economic choice is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There is no possibility for true freedom until we are all free, and this will only come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom than the one that consists of going to a grocery store and ‘choosing’ between 5,000 variations of processed corn.

yes!I thought this was a wonderfully articulate snippet regarding the importance of shifting our views on freedom and capitalism. When we commit ourselves entirely to the idea of unbridled free market capitalism as the surest guarantee of personal freedom, we loose freedom in other ways, such as the freedom to live in a world with clean air and water and healthy plants and animals and ecosystems, among other things.

I read this in a copy of Yes! magazine I stumbled across– an exciting publication  that “empowers people with the vision and tools to create a healthy planet and vibrant communities.” From the same edition I highly recommend the article, Get Apocalyptic: Why Radical is the New Normal.

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[Original Song] Ode to HD 40307g

While doing some research for a blog post that I will probably never publish, (a fate that befalls most of the blogs I start to write,) I learned that scientists have recently discovered a planet that could be habitable by humans. My initial reaction, sadly enough, was something along the lines of “hey, that’s great, because when we trash this one, we’ll have another in store.”

I felt that concept could make for an interesting song, and when I realized the “D” and the “g” in the planet’s name basically rhyme, making the name sing-able, I decided it had to be done.

This is my ode to the poetically named and utterly ineffable HD 40307g.

(Note: The video at the start is from “slatester,” the Slate News Chanel.)

Lyrics:

Intro:

It’s the year 2073
And the world’s no longer habitable by you or by me me
So it’s pretty clear we’ll simply have to leave
We’re headed for HD 40307g

Continue reading “[Original Song] Ode to HD 40307g”