Sunday, August 10, 2014


Lessons about telling the truth come early. They rarely include warnings about the consequences.

A particularly memorable lesson found me when I was about 8 or 9. I was in the car with my mom, on the way to the grocery store. The road we were on was semi-rural but unexpectedly snarled with traffic. A long, long line of cars, with no visible end, barely moved in the summer heat. Suddenly, a motorcycle cop wheeled up to my mother's open window and told her to stop crowding the car in front of her. No ticket. Just a warning.

That was my first encounter with a policeman—especially one on a motorcycle—so at the dinner table that night, I described it to my dad. His reaction was forgettable; my mother's wasn't. When I carried my dirty plate into the kitchen, my mother was instantly behind me. "I don't like you any more," she hissed into my ear.

In the grand scheme of things, my mother's words weren't the most earth-shattering of consequences. But to an 8-year-old, the threat was overwhelming. So, the lesson was duly noted. Truthtellers, no matter how innocent, risk hatred, even by those who are supposed to love them. Of course, my mother's behavior was immature—something I can see with years of distance—but so are many reactions to truth that are registered in the larger world.

The dangers of truthtelling have been brought home to me, forcefully, by the tragedy in Gaza. For years, we have been warned by outspoken, prominent Jews that the Israeli narrative about Palestine was not the truth—men like scholars Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, historian Ilan Pappé and journalist Max Blumenthal. They have had the courage to tell the world that Israeli policies amount to a colossal grab of Palestinian land as well as a cleansing of its Arabic inhabitants and that Palestinians have a right to self defense and resistance to occupation (go to the links for details). For their efforts, they have been branded liars, traitors and 'self-hating Jews'. Norman Finkelstein's warnings cost him his job. Ilan Pappé's writings earned him death threats that forced him to move from Israel.

Vindication has come with the rise of social media. The world can see for itself that there is a powerful disconnect between the official Israeli line and what is actually happening on the ground. Non-Jewish voices are also telling the tale, such as journalist and commentator Chris Hedges and others bravely giving eye-witness accounts of Gaza's traumas. Their tales are the same as the earlier warnings, but with visual evidence to back them up. The attacks on Gaza, including the latest, are not about the self-defense of Israel. They are a human rights violation of massive proportions.

I am astonished at the courage of those reporting. The vitriol that is hurled toward them could make lesser beings buckle—has made lesser beings buckle, especially among heads of state. The truthtellers are accused of being allies of Hamas and of being in league with terrorists—even though Rabbi Henry Siegman, a German-Jewish refugee and former head of the American Jewish Congress, says about the situation:
The difference between Hamas and Israel is that Israel is actually implementing [a destruction policy] — actually preventing a Palestinian state which doesn’t exist. Millions of Palestinians live in this subservient position without rights, without security, without hope, and without a future ...
If you don’t want to kill Palestinians, if that’s what pains you so much, you don’t have to kill them. You can give them their rights, and you can end the occupation. And to put the blame for the occupation and for the killing of innocents that we are seeing in Gaza now on the Palestinians — why? Because they want a state of their own? They want what Jews wanted and achieved? This is a great moral insult.
The human striving for peace and contentment is sometimes paid for by ignoring other people's pain. After all, there is comfort in embracing the familiar, in not looking at other perspectives. How many times have we seen this willful ignorance in America? To name a few of our own historical crises: the civil rights struggle, the fight for equal rights for women (still not achieved), the labor movement.

All of the above resulted in the death, imprisonment, and vilification of the courageous truthtellers who dared to confront injustice. All of the above were preceded by a self-satisfied contentment on the part of those who chose to tell the biggest lie of all—the lie to the self that says everything is all right with my world and my perceptions, no matter who else is suffering or how much.

We all strive for peace, especially internally—at least, if we're sane. To look at the truth, and especially to tell it, brings discomfort, at a minimum, and sometimes much more. It brings others whispering in our ears that they don't like us or shouting from the rooftops that we are traitors. They neglect to mention that the treason is to their own perceptions or their own secrets or their own lies.

But peace never grows out of lies. The journey to peace begins in one place only—in the telling of the truth, regardless of the consequences.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Sure, Climate Change, Take My Burgers—But Can't You Leave My Bacon?

There's no easy way to say this, but I would have to be dragged into being a vegan, kicking and screaming. Unfortunately, it looks like that's exactly what the Universe has in mind for me.

In 2006, the word from researchers was that 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions came from the impact of animal agriculture. But now, just eight years later, the estimate is that 51% of GHG emissions comes from raising animals. That would include those raised for meat as well as those raised for what they produce, like eggs and dairy products. Figuring in all the resources that support the industry, including tons of water and land for grazing the animals, plus water and land to raise their feed, the problem starts to become obvious even to someone like me. The world's demand for meat and animal products is rapidly outstripping earth's ability to sustain their production.

I have been perfectly happy in my bubble of denial until it was burst by the documentary 'Cowspiracy', currently being unveiled across the western U.S. by its makers. According to the film, major conservation organizations don't want to talk about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. That's the side I would have like to be on, too. If the Sierra Club doesn't want to talk about the impact of animal agriculture, why should I? But by watching the film, I quickly confronted the enemy and discovered it was me.

Two main obstacles stand in the way of change for our population to adopt a more plant-based diet. One is the industry itself, and its lobbyists, who frown on any talk of reducing meat consumption. In Brazil, they go so far as to kill environmental activists who raise objections to the industry—an average of one a week since 2002. 

The other blockage is me, the consumer. Too many Americans don't want to change their destructive meat-eating habits. It's not just Americans. The rest of the world is quickly gaining a meat-eating appetite that could easily exceed our own. As a matter of fact, I'd like to point out that China is already more at fault than I am. China's demand for meat has increased astronomically since 1980, especially its demand for pork. I don't eat pork. Well, I hardly eat pork. Except for bacon.

I have to say that my first reaction to the documentary was to go home and snarf down a whole bunch of cheese. The next morning, I had a craving for bacon and eggs. After all, what if bacon and eggs were to disappear forever?

But I was simultaneously haunted by the information that was presented in the film, and the image of other things that could disappear forever. Rain forests are being sacrificed to the animal agriculture industry, for grazing land and for raising feed, at an unbelievable rate6000 acres (the equivalent of 4000 football fields) an hour. These forests are vital for helping clean the air of greenhouse gases, to say nothing of providing a habitat for countless other animal species and rare plant life. But not one more acre would have to disappear if we collectively came to our senses. The population of the whole world could be fed a plant-based diet with the land that is currently used to raise feed for the animal agriculture industry.

All of this information has brought me to the point where I can acknowledge I have to make changes. But I'm in the bargaining phase now. I'm not that crazy about beef. What if I give up beef? Can I keep bacon? When it comes right down to the bottom line, I'm most anxious to preserve my access to eggs, cheese, and milk. What if I just kept those?

At least a partial answer was provided by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, environmental specialists employed by the World Bank Group. They are among those who assert that 51% of GHG emissions are produced by animal agriculture and have warned that the window for reversing climate change is rapidly closing. Goodland recently wrote
We say that the only pragmatic way to do so [reverse climate change] is to replace at least 25% of todays livestock products with better alternatives this would both eliminate much more than 4% of agricultural emissions, and allow reforestation and forest regeneration on vast amounts of land, which could then absorb enough atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level. 

Twenty-five percent? I can do that. I can wrestle myself into much more than that. If I can, anyone can. Because if the window of opportunity slams shut, the consequences are too horrible to contemplate.

[This article originally appeared in elephant journal.]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Real Take On Sexuality and Abortion Puts Women In Charge

photo by SandyManase on deviantART

'Obvious Child's' label as a 'pro-abortion' movie is not exactly accurate. It's about living, loving, relating and the complexities that are involved. However, the handling of the abortion at the center of the story could change the way we talk about the subject.

I'm not going to expound on the trajectory of the film. Buy a ticket and see it for yourself. Take a friend. You may be more motivated once you read the insights I think it offers. The topic of abortion has been so distorted and inflamed by religious rhetoric and conservative political dominance that the lessons of 'Obvious Child' are a welcome balm to the female spirit. So ...

1. Women enjoy sex. Yep, they do, because sex is fun. Sometimes fun is an end in itself with no larger goal in sight, like a ride on a ferris wheel.

2. Women can have one-night stands that they enjoy. Surprise! It's not just a guy thing. Yeah, I know the spiel about women need emotional attachment to enjoy sex, but it's not a fact chiseled in stone. Sometimes, sex is just sex because there's no relationship involved, but there's a lot of animal attraction. That can be okay. Heresy, some will say, but this is something women have learned since they  became free of the obligatory bonds of matrimony before having sex. Actually, they probably  learned it before that, so let's just say they are now more willing to admit it. Emotional attachment and intimacy in a committed relationship are qualities that both sexes usually view as desirable, and that both deepen and enrich a committed partnership, but that's not the whole story.

3. Pregnancy doesn't necessarily create tender feelings. Not all women see the products of conception as a baby until it is actually a baby. When the sperm, which is not a baby, meets the egg, which is not a baby, the result is still not a baby. It's a group of dividing cells called a zygote. After five days, the zygote becomes a blastocyst, which is still just dividing cells unless and until it is implanted in the wall of the uterus. It that happens, the blastocyst becomes an embryo. Eventually, the embryo could become a fetus and ultimately a baby, but that's not a given. See what a difference it makes to not speak of pregnancy in emotionally-laden terms?

4. Abortion doesn't necessarily create shame and guilt. Many women who have had an abortion are not haunted by negative feelings about it. The reason lies in point #2 — the whole zygote, blastocyst, embryo process, which unfolds over a period of time.

5. Women often see abortion as one of the best decisions they ever made. This is because most women have more going on in their lives and in their minds than motherhood. An unplanned pregnancy can uproot educations and careers and all the necessary preparation for creating a life that a person would want to live.

6. Shame is not necessarily the reason women are reluctant to talk openly about abortion. Often, the reluctance is due to anticipating the reactions of others. Sometimes they anticipate wrongly, but American society has done its best to demonize women who get pregnant outside of marriage as well as those who choose to abort — which, by the way, sometimes includes married women. The shame is society's, not the woman's.

7. Men can feel confused and uncertain about how to respond to an unexpected pregnancy and abortion, yet still find it in themselves to be supportive of a woman's decision. Without strong negative emotions mucking up the immediate environment, a man and woman can stick together through the event regardless of their long-term intent toward each one another.

8. Women seeking abortions are usually clear about their options and have thought through their decision carefully. A doctor's involvement is no more a necessity at this stage than it was at the moment of conception. If a woman needs answers, she'll ask questions. After all, the word 'woman' indicates the presence of an adult.

9. A conversation between generations about abortion can take unexpected twists and turns that are not necessarily negative. Women have struggled with the impositions of politicians and society upon their bodies since the founding of the country. Abortion has been a fact pretty much since pregnancy has been around. If every women who had ever had an abortion openly claimed it, we'd all be in for some surprises. As a matter of fact, that's exactly what women's rights organizations recommend. If we claim our abortions, people can see that their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends and neighbors are the subjects of the discourse. Familiarity engenders more empathy than labeling does.

10. Birth control can fail. Duh.

11. Abortion can be treated humorously, even by the woman having it. While I'm not that funny, 'Obvious Child' is hilarious. So go see it and let's seize control of the conversation.

[This article originally appeared in elephant journal]

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


image from

If there is one segment of the voting population that terrifies the GOP, it's single women. And rightfully so. Last November, single women handed victory in Virginia's gubernatorial race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. His conservative Republican opponent had a record of opposing reproductive rights -- a fact that McAuliffe emphasized throughout his campaign. The Democrat won by a bare 2 percentage points in the overall count. However, among single women, he won by 42 points.

At the same time that the GOP hopes to gain control of both houses of Congress, it has been waging an all-out war against the fastest growing population of voters in the country. There are now almost as many single women of voting age as there are of either married men or married women. These women vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers. Plus, they're angry. Many of them are single mothers, trying to make ends meet, but Congressional Republicans are determined to deprive them in ways that hit them hard in the pocketbook: by a refusal to raise the minimum wage, to institute wage equality, to provide either affordable contraception or child care, or to give them the safety nets of unemployment benefits, food stamps, and financial assistance that would allow them to further themselves with an education.

Plus, it's the GOP that has installed so many white, male, Roman Catholic Supreme Court justices (five) that conservatism on the court is relentlessly strangling hard-won rights for which women fought since the founding of the nation. A Republican-dominated Congress could well be in a position to confirm future Supreme Court nominees. Undoubtedly, as women examine these facts, Republicans should be very afraid.

However, Democrats also face a problem in November's election. Even though one-fourth of eligible voters in the country are unmarried women, they don't turn out to the polls in the midterm elections in the same numbers as in a presidential election. The Democratic Party is keenly aware of the fact. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research  has recently come out with a study that is allowing them to hone their message to single women. The study found that when the message is an empathetic one, focused on an economic agenda, unmarried women "shift from +17 Democratic margin to +31 and their turnout increases by 10 points." Turnout would be most affected by the "GOP attitude toward equal pay" and "GOP attacks on Obamacare and economic policies".

While minority voters tend to be concentrated in certain areas, and are certainly sparse in the most heavily red parts of the country, single women exist everywhere, able to vote in every district, in every state. But the difficulty with turning them out is that they often are highly stressed and focused on economic survival to the detriment of paying attention to politics. The Sacramento Bee states that:
"This year’s 'Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink' reported that 1 in 3 American women lives on or over the brink of poverty – or is churning in and out of it."
The research is helping Democrats utilize the same strategy that worked in 2013's off-year gubernatorial race in Virginia for this year's election. They are reaching out to unmarried women in every way possible -- by phone, email, online, and through personal contact. Their emphasis is on the resistance of Republicans in Washington to the bread-and-butter issues that are crucial to women. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emily's List, and Planned Parenthood are among the groups making a concerted effort to contact women, provide them with information on voter's registration, and follow-up with them from now until the election.

A personal touch is crucial to getting women's attention. That's the way women tend to network, in smaller more intimate ways than men do. In pivotal states, the effort to knock on doors and establish one-on-one contact could well turn the tide in Democrats' favor. Women know that their welfare depends on Democratic victories; Republicans are not their friends. They also need to know that each and every vote is absolutely vital to accomplishing those victories. In every way possible, women need to help other women in the effort. A supportive sisterhood, working to get women to the polls, could make all the difference in November -- and reshape Congress in the process.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

R.I.P. American Civilization

Our land is soaked in blood -- from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Sanford, Florida to Newtown, Connecticut to Aurora, Colorado to Santa Barbara, California, and to countless points in between. There is only one reason that this is true. It isn't because of the gun manufacturers. It isn't because of the National Rifle Association. It isn't because of Congress.

It is because of us. Americans lack the moral outrage, the moral courage, to stand up and demand a righteous country. To stand up to corrupt, bought-and-paid-for politicians. To stand up to a craven gun organization. To stand up to the immoral profit mongers behind the weapons industry.

The idea that the United States is a shining example for other countries to emulate is nothing more than a joke at this point in time. No other country in the world guns down its people at the rate that our country does. And yet we don't take to the streets. We don't mow down the corruption at the ballot box. We don't strangle the profits of merchandisers. We don't humiliate the members of the NRA for their inhumane stanch, their assertion that their 'right' to guns of any type and any level of lethality trumps the right of our people to live.

Americans have forfeited any claim to the title of 'civilized'. We watch the slaying of other peoples' children and then quickly forget. It isn't our community, our family, our children. But it will be. And when the time comes that it is our community, our family, our child -- and that time will surely come -- we have nothing left to do but look in the mirror and say:
"I did that. I sacrificed my child on the altar of indifference. I looked the other way when it was someone else's child and now -- mine is gone."
Even Michael Moore has grown weary of trying to engage us in the fury that should be ours. For the fifteen years since the shootings at Columbine High School, he has been waving a red flag in our faces, but we refused to recognize that the red flag was the American flag, dyed with the blood of innocents. When asked to comment on Friday night's shootings at Isla Vista, California, Moore said:
"I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life."
Normal American life. Those words should chill us to the bone. It is normal -- normal -- for innocents across the United States to be gunned down mercilessly. Just cover up the bodies. The shooter is gone by his own hand, or that of the police. So move on to the next thing. The next thing.

Next. What is next? Whose neighborhood? Whose loved one? Whose school? Whose workplace? Because make no mistake: no one and no place in this whole wide country is safe from our indifference.

Are we willing to someday stand at a child's grave and tell the truth? Are we willing to say: "I did this"? Nothing less will suffice, but even this declaration -- to the depths of the grave, to the heights of the heavens, to the ears of our gods -- will fail to scour the crimson stain of guilt from our souls.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sexual Assault And Police Brutality: Do Americans Condone Their Use Against Protesters?

If you're a woman activist, Judge Ronald A. Zweibel and the Manhattan Criminal Court have just given the police permission to sexually assault and abuse you. Zweibel totally controlled what evidence could be presented in the three-week trial of an Occupy Wall Street protestor, Cecily McMillan. McMillan was pronounced guilty by the jury and immediately remanded to Rikers Island city jail with no bail granted. She'll sit there until sentencing on May 15th, at which time she will face a prison sentence of up to seven years.

The case began two years ago. On March 17, 2012, a rally was held at Zuccotti Park in New York City to celebrate the founding of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Police swept through the park, "in formation and with batons", and arrested about 70 protesters in the ensuing chaos. Many protesters reported incidents of police brutality. Cecily McMillan alleges that someone grabbed her from behind, bruising her breast. She reacted with an elbow to the assailant's eye. Although in plain clothes, the assailant turned out to be NYPD Officer Grantley Bovell. Bovell was also accused of brutality by other protesters that night.

Nevertheless, it's McMillan who was charged with assault. She chose a jury trial because the prosecutor insisted that she be charged with a felony. While other protesters were allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanors, McMillan was not given that option.

Journalist Chris Hedges has reported on other Occupy Wall Street arrests, to which he was an eye-witness. In an article entitled 'The Crime of Peaceful Protest', he wrote about McMillan's trial:
"The judge seems to have alternated between boredom and rage throughout the trial, now three weeks old. He has repeatedly thrown caustic barbs at her lawyers and arbitrarily shut down many of the avenues of defense."
Judge Zweibel apparently guided the jury to a guilty verdict, an outcome that he seemed to have  decided on before the case was presented. McMillan's defense team wasn't allowed to present the bigger picture of what was happening in Zuccotti Park, or of the other incidents of violence at the hands of Bovell and the NYPD. According to Molly Knefel of The Guardian -- who, like Hedges, has provided eye-witness accounts of the OWS movement -- so much evidence was prohibited by Zweibel that: 
"To the jury, the hundreds of police batons, helmets, fists, and flex cuffs out on March 17 were invisible rendering McMillan's elbow the most powerful weapon on display in Zuccotti that night, at least insofar as the jury was concerned."
The judge imposed a gag order on the defense team, but as soon as the verdict was announced, the team released a statement condemning the way the trial was conducted, including the relentless determination of NY District Attorney Cy Vance. The team wrote:  
"This is unfortunately not isolated to Cecilys case but is indicative of a system concerned not with justice but with the unrelenting harassment of dissenters and the powerless."
Molly Knefel argues that the way the trial unfolded shows to what degree police violence is accepted as normal in the United States. Her argument is reinforced by the fact that there was a failure of the mainstream media to cover the outcome on Monday. While Britain's Guardian, Russia's RT news, and Al-Jazeera English all provided extensive coverage, publications like The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times ignored it. The NYT did publish an article in the regional section, but it didn't make it into the nationally distributed edition. The silence is shocking, even if unsurprising.

While the verdict is ominous for all activists, it is especially so for women. Women have seen a concerted effort to wrest them back into the past, back to when they were forced into silence, submissiveness, and acquiescence to their inequality -- often by being jailed or confined to mental institutions. Women in this country were long demonized if they were too outspoken, too 'unruly'. Well, here we are again. As Cecily McMillan sits on Rikers Island, the message is clear: 'shut up or this could happen to you'.

But we're not going to shut up. We must not back down. Our rights are in serious peril. Activists visibly take on the risks for all of us. However, if we don't have their backs, we will each bear the consequences some day at a personal level -- and sooner rather than later.

As Chris Hedges points out:  
"The corporate state, which has proved utterly incapable of addressing the grievances and injustices endured by the underclass, is extremely nervous about the mass movements that have swept the country in recent years."
The state is thus trying to 'neutralize' activist leaders, apparently unaware that others will simply step in to fill their shoes. But, we don't have to wait on leadership. Everyone can take action to petition New York's Governor Cuomo to pardon Cecily McMillan. Here's a link to the petition. Together, we need to show that not only do we care, but also we won't be controlled by the corporate state. Together, and only together, we can succeed in facing down the abuse of power. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

ANOTHER Oil-By-Rail Explosion; Will The U.S. Act This Time?

credit @UpperJamesRK

Yet another rail shipment of crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota derailed and exploded on Wednesday afternoon. The accident occurred in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, a town of 75,000 people. Fifteen cars went off the tracks, three of which exploded and burst into flames before sliding down the banks of the James River and into the water.

No injuries were reported, but hundreds of people were evacuated from Lynchburg. An estimated 30,000 gallons of crude spilled into the James River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay. The James also provides the water supply for a number of cities, including Richmond, Virginia.  

This latest explosion comes just one week after Canada'sTransport Minister, Lisa Raitt, announced tough new regulations for oil shipments by rail that were to take effect within 30 days. The U.S. has yet to take action. Fortunately, this country hasn't suffered the human loss that Canada has from loading unsafe rail cars with highly volatile crude. At least, not yet. But with these explosions occurring within our cities, how long will that remain true?

Not all derailments result in explosions, but when one occurs, an older railroad car with inadequate reinforcement, the DOT-111, is often to blame. When it derails, it is easily punctured. At least some of the cars in the Lynchburg conflagration were DOT-111s, although which cars exploded was still being determined. Canada is requiring all DOT-111s manufactured before 2011 to be off the rails before the end of May.

The U.S., on the other hand, has relied on voluntary compliance by the oil industry in replacing the dangerous rail cars with the sturdier variety manufactured since 2011. The rail industry has been asking for a tougher standard from the government because it is over a barrel, so to speak. By law, the railroads can't refuse to ship oil or any other product. 

Ironically, the Lynchburg accident happened on the same day that U.S. regulators sent their recommendations for new standards for tank car construction to the White House for review. The U.S. Department of Transportation has already warned that the oil being shipped from the Bakken field is probably more volatile than other crude. The National Transportation Safety Board has been asking for the tougher regulations. So what has been holding things up? One phrase in a Reuters story says it all: new measures would 'raise costs for shippers'.

How much are lives worth to the oil industry, or to the U.S. government, for that matter? Much less than the cost of new tanker cars, apparently. There have been six fiery oil-by-rail accidents in North America since Canada's tragic loss of 47 people in the Lac-Mégantic explosion last July. Canada took its loss to heart and acted while the United States has continued to trivialize the value of American lives. But, as witness Lorrie Saunders said, "It was a miracle it didn't set the whole town of Lynchburg on fire."

Miracles instead of regulation? How many people would be willing to stake their lives on that?