Green oats in June

An Irish day on Cape Cod: It began with a 5K walking race along Nantucket Sound in South Yarmouth (Cape Cod Irish Village Road Race). At the conclusion of the race we enjoyed Irish music at the Irish Village. Unfortunately, any loss to our waistlines from the race was fully counteracted by hamburgers and pints of stout.

The day ended with listening to Celtic Sojourn on WGBH. That program featured a beautiful poem by Patrick Kavanagh, which is appropriate for Mother’s Day, or for remembrance on any loved one.

But I don’t read the poem as being only about remembrance; it’s more about valuing the “earthiest” aspects of all our daily interactions–walking “together through the shops and stalls and markets” or among the “green oats in June.” Kavanagh reads the poem in the video below.

When we lived in Dublin in 2007-08, I remember walking many times along the beautiful Grand Canal, which was near our apartment. You can see a statue of Kavanagh there (“The Crank on the Bank”). It’s also shown in the slide show and below.

The bronze Kavanagh is sitting on a bench as the flesh and blood one once did. It was inspired by his “Lines written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin”:

O commemorate me where there is water
canal water preferably, so stilly
greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
commemorate me thus beautifully.

If you were to visit Dublin, I recommend sitting beside him to contemplate the people walking by, the ever-present swans, and the stilly, greeny water.

Patrick Kavanagh, Royal Canal

Patrick Kavanagh, Royal Canal

In Memory of My Mother

by Patrick Kavanagh

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday–
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle–‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life–
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us — eternally.

The New Jim Crow

US incarceration timeline

US incarceration timeline

In his now classic analysis of the criminal justice system (The Crime of Punishment, 1966), Karl Menninger wrote, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” That was at a time when the number of people in the US who were in jail or prison amounted to around 300,000. Today, that number is well over two million. The US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, well ahead of the #2 jailer, Russia, or that of many regimes considered to be dictatorships, police states, backward regimes, failed states, or otherwise democracy-challenged.

In a piece originally published in and recently updated for TomDispatch, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American UndercasteMichelle Alexander writes,

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow

If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

I just finished reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), which piles on the stunning and depressing statistics. But the book does much more than to amplify a sorry state of affairs that most of us know about, but rarely talk about. Several points came through strongly for me:

  • Through actual case stories, the book shows what these numbers mean for the felons for life, their families, their communities, and our democracy. In many cases the people so labeled are innocent, coerced into a plea bargain, or at most convicted of a minor crime.
  • Those who subsequently become subject to legalized second-class citizenship are disproportionately African American. Large numbers are convicted of drug crimes, even while their White counterparts are bigger users and sellers of drugs.
  • The mechanism by which this happens is a maze of laws and court rulings, which have severely compromised civil rights for all of us, even though their impact is primarily on people of color. One more item was added to the maze this week, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that correctional officials may without cause, strip-search a person arrested for the most minor offense. Albert W. Florence was strip-searched twice after being wrongly detained over a traffic fine. Florence said at the time, “It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
  • The interlocking system including bias, laws, police procedures, courts, prison industry jobs and profits, has created a shameful justice system, far worse than the one lamented by Menninger.
Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Alexander says that she had several specific audiences in mind for the book. One is “people who care deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I’m writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.” Another was for people “lacked the facts and data to back up their claims” about how the criminal justice system was operating as a third mode of racial caste making (following first slavery, then Jim Crow). I felt I fit in both of those camps, and fortunately not in the third, that of people trapped in the system.

Following her work on an ACLU racial justice project, Alexander says “I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely…Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Coming to appreciate that system in a deeper way makes the book powerful for me. It doesn’t in any way try to excuse crime, or to lay the blame for it on lack of employment, poor education, or inadequate housing, as many liberals might do. Nor does it link the injustice of the system to individual bias per se. Furthermore, it debunks accounts of individual responsibility, moral failure, or familial inadequacy as some conservatives might propose. Instead, it shows how the system operates, how it developed and grew, and why it will be so hard to change. Yes, better Supreme Court justices matter, but they won’t dismantle the system. Affirmative action is helpful, but it’s far from a solution. All of those explanations for crime and incarceration matter, too, but they’re not the central narrative.

The book is disturbing, and depressing at times. It cannot be said to end on a happy note, but in the last section, “All of Us or None,” there is at least a vision of what could make a difference. Alexander calls for a conversation on race in which “us” means “all of us,” or as Martin Luther King said, that a shift was needed from civil rights (interpreted simply as rights for those who are dispossesed) to human rights.

This means, among other things that

Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. (p. 244)

The book closes with an excerpt from James Baldwins’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That entire letter is worth reading and re-reading many times, but I’ll just end here with a small excerpt from that excerpt:

this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.  For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

A house concert with RUNA

Moving to Wellfleet, I wondered whether I’d be trading cultural life for nature. With the National Seashore, ocean and bayside beaches, 17 ponds in Wellfleet alone, walking and biking trails, forest and dunes, I was prepared to make that trade, assuming that we’d seek out music, art, and so on, in Boston or other places. But the reality has been the opposite. Yes, the natural world feels especially close at hand, but cultural events seem more, not less accessible.

I do miss the human diversity of the university or the large city, but there’s been more on that score than I expected. In terms of public events, we’ve been to many galleries and art shows, enjoyed the Saturday Tea and Music concerts in the Wellfleet Public Library, book talks, and just saw the Blind Boys of Alabama in the recently renovated Provincetown Town Hall.

About a week ago we attended a wonderful house concert by RUNA, a Celtic music group. They’re an international ensemble comprising vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan, guitarist Fionán de Barra, percussionist Cheryl Prashker, and fiddler Tomoko Omura. They play both traditional and more contemporary Celtic songs and instrumental pieces from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the US.

The performances were excellent. I especially enjoyed the traditional songs, but some of the more recently composed ones, too. The video here is not from the concert we attended, but we did hear Fionnghuala there.

Vivir y ayudar a vivir

Vida/SIDA

Vida/SIDA

The mural on the front of Vida/SIDA in Chicago includes the phrase, “vivir y ayudar a vivir” (to live and help to live). That’s very appropriate for a health clinic, but it’s really the motto for everything done in the Paseo Boricua community. The idea is that in order to build a healthy community, people need to move beyond “live and let live,” which can mean “live for myself and to hell with you.” The more expansive motto, “vivir y ayudar a vivir,” can be seen there on murals, brochures, websites, and coffee cups.

I know that other groups have used the same phrase, but I’ve never been sure of its origin. Some people attribute it to Orison Swett Marden, a 19th century writer associated with the New Thought Movement. He founded Success Magazine and wrote extensively on how our thoughts influence our actions and experiences.

The Voice of Industry

The Voice of Industry

The general idea is of course much older. For example, the Jain Center of Cincinnati Dayton has an historical marker asserting that the motto of Jainism is “live and let live and help others to live.” And Jainism dates at least from the 6th century BC, if not earlier.

More recently, both in the course of events, and in my own discovery process, I came across The Voice of Industry, a labor newspaper published from 1845-48. It was founded by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. An article from November 14, 1845, “Live -Let Live -Help Live,” gives one of the clearest and earliest explanations of the phrase that I’ve seen. Basically, it says that there are three sorts of people: those who take for their motto live regardless of others, those who adopt live and let live, and those who say live and help others to live.

I’d like to hear about other sources, or uses, of the phrase.

Almost counting herring

Black Pond, Wellfleet

Black Pond, Wellfleet

Because of the warm winter on Cape Cod this winter, the alewives are returning early to the local rivers. Alewives are a type of herring. They’re anadromous, meaning that they live in the ocean, but swim up freshwater streams to spawn.

Their population is declining in New England, so the River Herring Network organizes herring wardens and volunteers (called “monitors”) to assess their numbers during the spring run. The counts go on for two months, with volunteers assigned specific times each week to count.

field test kit

field test kit

Locally, the count is connected with efforts by the Friends of Herring River to restore that river to something akin to its condition before the Chequessett Neck Road Dike was installed and the surrounding wetlands were developed.

Susan got the official training for the count, so she’s the real Monitor, but I went along as a volunteer for the volunteer. I guess you could say that I was an Unofficial Herring River Estuary Alewife Monitor Assistant (UHREAMA).

water temperature

water temperature

We decided to cycle to the site for our first scheduled count. It’s only a half hour away, but has some good hills and soft sand paths to make the cycling interesting. We passed Black Pond and a friend’s house on the way. You can these and other photos at photos from the count.

The official count site is at a beautiful bend in the tiny Herring River, with a fallen willow marking the spot and serving as a convenient shelf for the field test kit. Byu the way, there are many Herring Rivers. This is the one in Wellfleet.

Here’s the data for our first foray:

  • Time: 9:07- 9:17 am
  • Air temperature 12 ºC
  • Water temperature: 13 ºC

Unfortunately, the number that matters most is this one:

  • Number of herring: 0

Somewhere else, this bridge over the Herring River would be seen as in need of a little repair, but here, it’s just a reminder of the alliance between culture and nature in the National Seashore area. That alliance isn’t without its problems, as we can see in the decline of the Herring River and its herring, but at least there’s an effort to try to make it work.

US suppresses minimum wage in Haiti, and more

The release of 1,918 Haiti-related diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks this summer reveals details of US involvement in Haiti from 2003 to present. Unfortunately, the cables support the historical pattern, just adding in disturbing details. If there is any good news here, it’s of a rare example of responsible journalism. The Nation is collaborating with the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté on a series of groundbreaking articles about US and UN policy toward Haiti, which are based on those cables.

Revolution in Saint Domingue

Revolution in Saint Domingue

The pattern goes back at least to the earliest days of the 19th century, when President George Washington, a slave owner, had Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson grant the first significant foreign aid of the United States to the slave owners in Haiti in a failed effort to suppress the slave revolution there. Following the success of that revolution, the US enforced a diplomatic and trade embargo against Haiti until 1862. From 1915 to 1934 the U.S. imposed a military occupation ostensibly to stabilize the country and keep out Europeans, but also to shape Haiti into a profitable neo-colony.

As popular resistance to occupation grew, the U.S. withdrew and shifted its support from 1957 to 1986 to the fascist Duvaliers, father and son, and their Tonton Macoutes paramilitaries. After suffering from years of bloody military coups and massacres of protesters, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide by a landslide in 1990. Aristide called the mass movement that put him into power Lavalas (“torrent” in Kreyòl). His election succeeded despite the millions that the US gave to his opponent, Marc Bazin, a former World Bank Official. In 1991 a US-backed military coup deposed Aristide as president. René Préval replaced Aristide in 1996, but Aristide was re-elected later, replacing Préval in 2001.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

The newly released cables pick up the details from 2003 on. Because Aristide had disbanded the army in 1995, it was difficult for the U.S. and its allies to organize a coup. On Feb. 29, 2004,  U.S. Special Forces kidnapped Aristide and his spouse, Mildred Trouillot Aristide, taking them to the Central African Republic.

The cables also show how the US, the European Union, and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections, despite the exclusion of Lavalas, Haiti’s largest political party. They agonized a bit about sponsoring an election that would exclude the majority party from participating, about “emasculating” the country, but decided to push through the sham election because so much was invested already in the neocolonial relationship with Haiti.

The US embassy noted that Haiti would save $100 million a year under the terms of  the Caribbean oil alliance with Venezula, called PetroCaribe. The savings would be earmarked for development in schools, health care, and infrastructure. US Ambassador Janet Sanderson immediately set out to sabotage the deal. She noted that the embassy started to “pressure” Haitian leader Préval from joining PetroCaribe, saying that it would “cause problems with [the US.]” As major oil companies, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, threatened to cut off ties with Haiti, Sanderson met to assure them that she would pressure Haiti at the “highest levels of government.”

Haiti garment workers

Haiti garment workers

Meanwhile, contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked closely with the US Embassy to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian garment workers. In a June 10, 2009 cable to Washington, Ambassador Sanderson argued, “A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control.” After Préval negotiated a deal to create a two-tiered minimum wage—one for the textile workers at $3/day and one other industrial workers at about $5/day, the US Embassy was displeased. David E. Lindwall, deputy chief of mission, said the $5/day minimum “did not take economic reality into account.” It was just a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about this when you buy underwear or jeans. The artificially low price you pay, which killed the North American textile industry, goes to pay for shipping, marketing, high executive salaries, and industry profits, with practically nothing for the people who slave to make the clothes. But if you live in the EU or especially in the US, you can know that your government continues to work to maintain those low prices, and resists appealing to the “unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about the manipulations of the democratic process in Haiti when people ask why the rest of the world fails to see the wisdom and the glory of Western democracy.

Think also about how much of this has been covered in your local newspaper, or on television and radio news.

Costs of war

As rightist ideologues push the US towards a debt crisis in order to maintain tax breaks for the rich, it’s worth reflecting on the costs of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A sizable chunk of the $14 trillion owed by the US government comes from those wars. Costs of War, a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University (directed by Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz), estimates the cumulative economic cost of the wars as up to $4 trillion.

What has this spending accomplished? While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy, both Afghanistan and Iraq continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom and high in rankings of corruption. US-supported warlords continue to hold power in Afghanistan and Iraqi communities are more segregated by gender and ethnicity than before the war.

The project’s findings show that the $4 trillion is only one of the costs:

  • A conservative count of war dead, in uniform and out, is 225,000. The armed conflict in Pakistan, in which the U.S. funds, equips, and trains the Pakistani military, has now taken as many lives as the one in Afghanistan.
  • Almost 8 million people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The ripple effects on the US and world economy have been significant, including job loss, interest charges on the national debt, and cuts to funding for scientific development, education, and health care.

Alternatives to war were barely considered. A Rand report on 268 groups using terror tactics (How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki) showed that several approaches have been much more effective than military responses at eliminating future attacks. 40% of the groups were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods; 43% ended their violence as a result of peaceful political accommodation; 10% ceased their violent activity because they had achieved their objectives; and only 7% were defeated militarily.

The lesson here is not that we should default on the debt because much of it was money we shouldn’t have spent. Doing so will just misery to misery. Instead, this is a time for a compromise on the budget that includes acknowledging what’s already been spent, cutting future spending, eliminating dysfunctional tax deductions, and implementing truly progressive tax rates. In a stagnant economy, there is a strong case for increased spending, not on wars, but on infrastructure and jobs that would actually reduce the debt in the long run.

But whatever other lessons we might draw about the budget, there is a lesson that resorting to violence costs everyone in the end.