Tag Archives: prosperity

Social License in a Less Exuberant Climate

The things I’ve written on the new mining around Lake Superior — most of which are gathered here — might amount to nothing more than a series of postscripts to my film 1913 Massacre. P.S., then P.P.S, and so on, a long envoi or send off, I suppose, or maybe a recognition that the story we told in our film never really ended, or is about to be repeated — first time tragedy, second time: it’s still too early to say. In any case, I’ve often been struck by the ways that the new mining appeals to the very history (or what people in the UP call their mining “heritage”) Ken and I encountered while making our film, in order to claim social license.

While I’ve focused on developments around Eagle Mine, which is situated on the Yellow Dog Plains just outside the city of Marquette, Michigan, I’ve also been trying to keep track of mining activity all around the lake — the Polymet and Twin Metals projects in Minnesota, the failed Gogebic Taconite project in Wisconsin, uranium exploration on the Eastern shore, and so on; and I’ve tried to emphasize here and when talking about the subject that Eagle along with those other projects constitute the first phase of a Lake Superior mining boom.

With no effective international oversight of the lake — one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world — the mining companies have moved in, facing down what opposition local groups can muster, promising jobs and economic development, exploiting loopholes in state laws, and buying state politicians (as Gogebic bought Scott Walker) or enlisting the services of other lackeys and lickspittles in local and regional government (as, e.g., Eagle seems to have enlisted the services of the Marquette County Road Commission).

A larger commodities boom (or pricing bubble) ushered in this Lake Superior mining boom, and that bigger boom has started to go bust, as Chinese demand for stainless steel, copper and other metals — one of the main drivers of the boom — slows. So the story ripples out way beyond the lake, to developing economies on the other side of the world, and to a larger arena of commodity markets, over which huge commodity traders like Glencore and Trafigura preside, and where the metals mined around Lake Superior are not actually used to make things the world needs (as mining companies want us to believe), but warehoused by the London Metal Exchange and financialized in complex instruments like ETFs or simply as collateral.

It’s unlikely we’ll witness the great unraveling of this global complex that some doomsayers predicted, but the slowdown has already left some miners stranded and made some projects founder or at least become riskier to undertake. Shareholders are already feeling the pain and pressures on companies to streamline operations, discard assets or service their debt will continue to mount. On the ground, these troubles should occasion some reflection on just how closely mining, global financial markets and development are now intertwined; and that volatile combination is likely to make the future for communities around the Lake even more uncertain. How committed are these companies? Whose interests do they really represent, and to whom do they answer? How resilient are they? What happens when things fall apart?

Maybe in this less exuberant climate, all the confident assertions about future prosperity, tributes to mining heritage, promises of responsible stewardship, and bids for social license to undertake mining projects will receive closer scrutiny.

Postscript: after a response from Eagle Mine’s Dan Blondeau, I’ve updated this post with a link to our exchange over my remarks here on the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DNR’s green-lighting on Thursday of Graymont’s proposal to develop 10,000 acres of public forest lands into an open pit and underground limestone quarry is yet another example of Michigan public officials eagerly serving mining companies — or doing their bidding, sometimes without having been explicitly bidden.

A Liturgy of Loss and Hope

I was supposed to travel to Lake Superior at the end of this month. I’d hoped to visit some of the spots R. B. Roosevelt mentions in Superior Fishing, talk to some people along the way, and see for myself the Eagle Mine, the Humboldt Mill and the haul route from mine to mill.

Then I found out that today the Concerned Clergy of Marquette would be offering a community benediction — “a liturgy of loss and hope,” as they describe it, to “mourn” the changes the new mining has already brought to the area, and to invite people to “recommit to preserving what remains of our beloved land and her people.” (You can find out more about today’s two-part event here.) liturgy

The “quiet reverent time” promised by the benediction superseded what plans I had. I changed my ticket and flew to Marquette yesterday.

On the way here I reflected a little on the idea that rituals of mourning (like funerals) are for the living, not the dead. Mourning, which nowadays we so often do in private, can be a powerful social act. Funerals have stirred rebellions; mourning rites can also give communities a chance to heal and atone.

Today’s liturgy on the Yellow Dog Plains was a quiet reckoning, but a reckoning all the same. People spoke from the heart. There were prayers, poems and songs. A fire burned at the center of the circle. Snow graced the ceremony’s end.

A Mining Renaissance?

On the Almanac program I discussed in yesterday’s post, Kathryn Hoffman cited “42 exceedances of water quality standards” at Eagle Mine to make the point that reverse-osmosis technology isn’t as effective as mining proponents in Minnesota make it out to be. I was expecting some rundown of those exceedances in Codi Kozacek’s January 8th article about Eagle Mine on Circle of Blue; but Kozacek focuses, instead, on the Eagle Mine water-monitoring agreement Rio Tinto struck with Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust two years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Kozacek seems to have traveled from Hawaii (where she’s based) to the UP to do some interviews and take some photographs: it appears she was there in summertime. But so far as I can tell she’s based her article on a “case study” jointly commissioned by Rio Tinto and the Superior Watershed Partnership, a piece of bespoke research entitled Unity of Place: Giving Birth to Community Environmental Monitoring.

In fact, the opening of Kozacek’s article documenting – or should I say celebrating? — this “unprecedented” water-monitoring agreement seems to be nothing more than a loose paraphrase of that publication, which tells the story of how the community around Eagle Mine gained “a measure of power over the mine. And it was Rio Tinto that gave it to them.”

Leave aside for the moment the preposterous idea that that power was Rio Tinto’s to give in the first place: the Unity of Place case study simply asks us to accept that business can and will decide the power society has over it, and Kozacek seems untroubled by the notion. That Rio Tinto sold Eagle Mine to Lundin Mining after descending from the heights to strike this unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the little people living around the mine does not give her pause, or raise questions about the mining giant’s good faith or much-touted commitment to the community around Eagle; and Kozacek only gets around to mentioning the sale to Lundin 28 paragraphs into her 34-paragraph story.

For the sake of balance, she includes a couple of interviews with “skeptics,” people who remain, to this day, distrustful of the water monitoring agreement but express the hope that it will have some good effect. She mentions the uranium leakage discovered at Eagle last year, which she offers as proof of the success of the program in alerting “the public to potential water quality threats,” quoting the Superior Watershed Partnership’s Jerry Maynard (who is also featured prominently in Unity of Place): the monitoring program, he says, “is gaining the trust and respect of the community….We want this to get out there—we want other mining communities to say ‘we want this too.’” But she fails to mention any other exceedances or violations – I guess she missed that episode of Almanac before filing her story — and apparently didn’t bother looking into the new water story now unfolding around Eagle Mine: the renewal of the mine’s groundwater discharge permit. (Michele Bourdieu has that story over at Keweenaw Now.)

My guess is that Kozacek is unfazed by any of these questions and complications, because the real story she wants to tell here is the story of a mining “renaissance”: she uses the word a few times in her article, once as a header and then twice in the body:

The Eagle Mine is viewed as either on the leading edge or the troubling future of a mining renaissance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region that has seen more mining bust than boom in the past 50 years. Just as in the oil and gas industry, improvements in mining technology are making previously overlooked ore bodies economically attractive. Rapidly developing countries, particularly China and Brazil, are driving demand for iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold.

But many of the once booming mine communities in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, operating with a fraction of their historical populations and downtowns darkened by empty storefronts, are eager for a mining renaissance.

Not a return of mining. Not a re-opening of the mines. Not a new mineral leasing, exploration and mining boom (which would have to be followed by yet another bust). A mining renaissance. It’s an odd word for someone writing about water issues to choose. I wonder if the ungainly use of the word “birth” in the subtitle of the Rio Tinto-Superior Watershed case study inspired Kozacek here: with the “Birth” of “Community Environmental Monitoring” advertised on the cover and on every recto page of that pamphlet, why not imagine a rebirth – and wouldn’t the word “renaissance” be so much more elegant? – of mining?

MinersAtVillanders

Renaissance miners, in the early 16th-century stained glass window of the Villanders parish church.

It’s at best an ugly parody of historical discourse, but I take it that it’s intended to give the new mining around Lake Superior a historical stature that it would otherwise seem to lack. In the second of the two paragraphs I’ve quoted here, Kozacek even imagines the area longing to emerge from a kind of Dark Age, or at least “darkened” downtowns, into renewed prosperity.

But in the first of those paragraphs, I must admit, she does a pretty good job of spelling things out. New extractive technologies have made it not only possible but “economically attractive” (read: highly profitable) for large multinational players to mine previously neglected or abandoned ore deposits, extract oil from tar sands and drill for natural gas by fracking. Chinese urbanization and rapid development in the BRIC countries continue to drive and raise demand for minerals and fossil fuels, as economic power shifts away from developed, Western economies.

Communities in the Upper Peninsula and all around Lake Superior are now feeling the pressures of these bigger changes. Whether they will bring renewal — or more boom and bust, or just catastrophic demise – is another question altogether.

Labor Day, 2013: Will Big Mining Do Better This Time Around?

On Labor Day, I’ll be in New York City, so I won’t be able to see the television broadcast premiere of 1913 Massacre on Twin Cities Public Television. How many will tune in? How will the broadcast cut of the film look and play on TV? Above all, I wonder, what connections will the Labor Day TV audience draw between 1913 and 2013? My comments here run this holiday weekend on MinnPost.

Many people Ken and I met in mining towns around Lake Superior while filming 1913 Massacre urged us to see the positive contributions the mining companies had made to the region. Some insisted that the Woody Guthrie song that had introduced me to the story of the Italian Hall disaster and brought me to Calumet and the Upper Peninsula in the first place had gotten it all wrong. The greedy bosses, company thugs and violent social strife that Woody sang about in “1913 Massacre” did not fit the story they knew. “We all got along just fine,” they protested.

When the mines were running, the towns thrived. The big department stores downtown were open. The churches (and the bars) were packed to capacity. Everybody worked hard and the work was sometimes dangerous, but on Saturday nights, the streets were jammed and the atmosphere festive. The company put a roof over your head then sold you the house at terms you could manage. The copper bosses built libraries, sidewalks and schools, gave land grants for churches, and even furnished luxuries like bathhouses and public swimming pools. The men who ran the mines weren’t just robber barons from Boston; they were public benefactors.

But there were limits to their benevolence. The mining captains regarded the immigrant workers – Finns, Slavs, Italians — as charges placed in their paternal care. They knew what was best for these new arrivals. They discouraged organizing. Faced with strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 or on the Keweenaw in 1913, they adamantly refused to negotiate, brought in scabs to do the work and Waddell and Pinkerton men to deal (often brutally) with the strikers. Even after the tragic events of 1913, Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would not recognize the union for decades.

The Keweenaw miners were on strike again in 1968 when C & H made a calculated business decision to pull out. No more jobs, pensions cut short; the good times were over. They left the waters poisoned and the landscape littered with industrial wreckage and toxic mine tailings.

The companies driving the new mining boom around Lake Superior these days promise to do better. They are dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They practice “sustainable” mining, tout their environmental stewardship and declare their respect for human rights. They have community outreach programs and promise to make substantial, long-term investments in the economic development of the regions where they come to mine. They work closely – some would say too closely – with regulators to create environmental impact statements and plan for responsible closure of their mines. They are eager to gain social license.

For the most part, these big multinationals operate with the support of organized labor and politicians who want to create jobs — and what politician doesn’t want to do that? But the high-paying, highly-technical mining jobs are unlikely to go to local residents; and the new mining is likely to have detrimental effects on local economies, as the economist Thomas M. Power has shown in studies of Michigan and Minnesota. Mining may provide some short-term jobs, but it can also drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers, destroy entrepreneurial culture, diminish quality of life and damage long-term economic vitality.

So promises of good times and plentiful jobs need to be treated with circumspection. Polymet has repeatedly scaled back its job predictions for its huge, open-pit sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, and the company’s own figures suggest that only 90 of the promised 360 jobs – just 25% — will go to local communities. Local is, moreover, a relative term. Mine workers today tend not to live in mining towns; they will commute an hour or more to work. And hiring will always be subject to swings in metals prices, which are now dependent on two new factors: continued Chinese growth (and urbanization) and the entry of big financial firms into metals warehousing and trading.

There are limits to big mining’s benevolence as well. The last time I flew into Marquette airport, a glossy Rio Tinto poster advertised the company’s commitment to “build, operate and close Eagle Mine responsibly.” Nobody had bothered to take the sign down after Rio Tinto had done an about-face and sold Eagle, a few months earlier, to Vancouver-based Lundin Mining for dimes on the dollar. Rio Tinto’s commitments lasted only until it was time to flip their property. Overnight, Eagle Mine had become a “non-core asset” and the surrounding community none of Rio Tinto’s responsibility.

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has drawn the line between company and community much more starkly, with help from a paramilitary firm called Bulletproof Securities. Black-masked guards, dressed in camouflage and armed with semi-automatic weapons, protect the mining company’s property from trespassers and environmental protesters. Imagine what they might do in the event of a strike.

gogebicguard

Bulletproof Securities patrols Gogebic Taconite’s property in northern Wisconsin.

All Clear for the Mining Boom in Michigan’s UP, Unclear What That Portends

Just before the holidays I wrote a short post about the one-two punch that Michigan legislators delivered during the 2012 lame duck session. They rushed through legislation to make Michigan a “right to work” state despite widespread protests and they passed Emergency Manager Legislation in defiance of voters.

Most of the news coverage of these bills focused on the action in Lansing and effects this legislation might have in the Detroit auto industry. I wondered aloud (or at least on Twitter) what implications these bills might carry for towns and working people in the Upper Peninsula.

There’s a new mining boom underway in the region, with global giants like Rio Tinto and Orvana exploring, leasing, and re-opening old mines.

This map [pdf], put together by the Lake Superior ad hoc Mining Committee, shows all mines, mineral exploration and mineral leases in the Lake Superior Watershed as of 2010.

Mining-Activity-Lake-Superior-2011

The map merits some careful study. As you can see, there is already significant activity in the Upper Peninsula. On the Canadian side, especially around Thunder Bay and further north, there’s been a leasing boom. Lots of gold on the eastern shore; copper and nickel as you move further west. They’re also exploring for uranium in at least two places.

The new mining is going to put enormous pressure on the Lake Superior basin. There are the usual environmental hazards associated with mining — subsidence, toxic runoff, acid mine drainage. Mining puts the waterways – the Lake and the streams and rivers that feed it – at risk. And then there is the infrastructure that’s going to be built to support all those mines. Access roads and haul roads, like the proposed CR 595 in Big Bay, roads to get to those roads, gas stations to fuel the vehicles that run along those roads, housing to shelter the people who drive on those roads to get to work and haul the ore from the mines, and so on.

Governor Snyder and his cronies in the Michigan legislature are doing everything they can to encourage this new activity. Just before the holidays, the Governor signed a third lame-duck bill, addressing the taxes that mining companies operating in Michigan will pay. The new bill, brought by outgoing Republican representative Matt Huuki, relieves mining companies of up front costs.  Indeed, they will pay no taxes at all until they start pulling minerals from the ground. Even then, companies will pay only 2.75 percent on gross value of the minerals they extract. So a million dollar sale of Michigan’s mineral wealth on the copper exchange will yield the state a paltry $27,500 in taxes.

35 percent of these so-called severance taxes will go to a “rural development fund to support long-term economic development opportunities.”

A number of things aren’t clear to me. What, exactly, is meant by “economic development” here? What’s the best course of development for a rural region, and for the Lake Superior region? How will fueling the boom benefit the region over the long term? How much if any of this money will go to alleviating the environmental impact that all this new mining is bound to have? How is it possible to talk about rural development without taking responsible stewardship of the environment into account?

It’s also unclear what sort of working conditions in the new mines the “right to work” legislation might allow, and whether the Emergency Manager bill could be used to limit community oversight.

For now, at least, it looks like the big mining companies are running the show in the UP, and the vague promise of economic development — whatever that means — has trumped all else.

Are the Seventies Finally Over?

Adam Nagourney had a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Review about the changing political allegiances of the Sunbelt and how those changes might signify “an era’s end.”

The Republican Party has grown used to having “a lock” on the region stretching from Florida through the south, and to Western states like Arizona, Colorado Nevada and California; but with the nomination of Frostbelt candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the region looks up for grabs.

“Pummeled by the collapse of the housing market,” the Sunbelt suburbs have “soaring” poverty rates; and that, according to Harvard’s Lisa McGurr, “will transform the ability of the Republican party to appeal to suburbanites with private, individualistic solutions.”

What’s more, the Sunbelt’s demographics are changing – to illustrate, Nagourney mentions Latino and Asian “enclaves” in Orange County, and Latinos moving in large numbers to Texas and Arizona – even as Republicans have been pushing an anti-immigrant agenda.

If this week’s Republican convention marks the end of an era, it’s the end of an era that began in the 1970s. Then, a demographic shift from the industrialized Frostbelt to the Sunbelt precipitated the political realignment now on the wane. The northeastern liberal elite lost its exclusive hold on power; the liberal state came under assault. And when the barbarians arrived at the government gate, we gleefully let them in. All across the country, Americans were fed up with taxes, had lost faith in government, and began to disengage from public life. By the end of the 1970s, writes Bruce Schulman:

Americans not only accepted that markets performed more efficiently, but embraced the previously outlandish idea that they operated more justly and protected freedom more efficiently than government. The entrepreneur became a national hero, and suspicion of business, a mistrust of unregulated corporations that had anchored American politics since the 1930s, all but vanished from American political discourse. (The Seventies, p. 249)

Those were the days when Milton Friedman assured us that business had no greater obligation to society than to “maximize shareholder value”. This doctrine went hand in hand with Friedman’s hostility to the liberal state, his contempt for the inefficiencies of government, and his contention that free enterprise, unfettered by regulation and unburdened by taxes, would deliver political freedom and prosperity. What’s most striking is that by the end of the Seventies the majority of Americans had enthusiastically came around to that point of view. We all but abandoned the commons:

The slow march of privatization had pervaded the entire Seventies. It complemented all of the decades’ changes in attitudes: impatience with taxes and centralized authority, experimentation with new forms of community [including self-taxing private entities like homeowners’ associations and Business Improvement Districts, which supplanted and suborned municipal governments], Sunbelt self-reliance, and the fiscal crises that deepened municipalities’ reliance on private funds. (249)

The push toward privatization and “Sunbelt self-reliance” in the Seventies was also a retreat from the idea that we rely on each other – a retreat from the idea of “society” itself.

Hurricanes like Katrina or the one bearing down on the GOP convention this week don’t just threaten Sunbelt serenity; they are crises that heighten and exaggerate the shortcomings of the Sunbelt ethic. The same could be said for the financial tsunami that overtook us in 2008, and forced many people in the Sunbelt from their homes. (Foreclosure rates are high throughout the region.)

Despite the impending hurricane and the financial storm most Americans are still weathering, it’s unlikely anyone on stage in Tampa this week will speak about the limits of Reaganesque self-reliance or the things markets cannot do. But we have obligations to each other markets sometimes threaten, and sometimes simply cannot help us meet.

I’d at least like to think that with the Sunbelt’s eclipse more than the electoral votes of a few states are in play. Maybe, just maybe, the Seventies are finally coming to an end.

O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

To Prosper We Need More Than Jobs

I’m always thrown by attempts to measure prosperity purely in terms of economic growth or high employment figures. Those measures are too restrictive, and they are also disorienting. Politicians who offer jobs leave me cold, and do us all a disservice. As I’ve written several times, the country is, or ought to be, more than a workcamp.

There’s an opportunity to reflect on that last point in Close to Home, the documentary Ofra Bickel made for Frontline about the 2008 financial crisis. In Chapter 4, we see Rob, a human resources executive who has “been out of work for a year,” attending a series of “networking functions.” He has found the job search an “insurmountable” challenge, and he hopes – in vain – that these networking events will help him get over the hurdle.

We see Rob and his fellow networkers – all of them out-of-work middle management types — exchanging business cards, practicing their pitches, learning how to introduce and present themselves. It’s an endless rehearsal for a debut that never comes, and Bikel finally decides to give up on Rob and on the networkers: it’s pretty clear none of this is going to pay off.

As Bikel realizes, there is something pathetic in their efforts. There is something ridiculous — and telling — here as well: a gathering of able-bodied, educated, smart American adults, all in dire economic straits, and all they can think to do is to practice for their next job interview. It never occurs to Rob or any of his fellow networkers to do something together, to join efforts and start something, to create something where there is nothing. In a word, they never really build a network. They simply want to get back on the corporate payroll. It’s disturbing to think that that’s all they know how to do.

What happened to that can-do spirit? American gumption? Bootstraps? Independence? Entrepreneurialism? Nowadays, over 90 percent of adult Americans are regular employees (as opposed to self-employed people); whether they have jobs or not, most Americans can think of themselves only as employees. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time, before the industrial era and the great waves of immigration it brought, when the majority of Americans did not have a “job” and wouldn’t take one unless they had to. “Being an employee was considered a form of bondage, only a step above indentured servitude,” as John Curl puts it in his history of American cooperative movements. “One submitted to it due to economic hardship, for as short a time as possible, then became free once more, independent, one’s own boss.”

We still like to pay tribute to the freedom from wage slavery we once enjoyed, or lament its loss. Take another film, this one from 1961: The Misfits, directed by John Huston, written by Arthur Miller and starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Gable plays Gay, an aging cowboy who thinks that most anything beats “working for wages” and sees employment for what it is – a loss of freedom.

Gay’s tragedy is that he has outlived the possibility of that freedom. The Wild West has become nothing more than a rodeo show; the cowboy life Gay leads is “like roping a dream. I just gotta find another way to be alive, that’s all,” he realizes, “if there is one anymore.” In the film’s closing scene, Gay, bloodied and defeated, drives off toward a new life, or at least what’s left of his life, with his friend Guido yelling after him: “Where’ll you be? Some gas station polishin’ windshields? Makin’ change in a supermarket? Try the Laundromat! They need a fella there to load the machines!” That’s all that’s left for cowboys in Miller’s postwar America.

The most important thing to realize is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to succumb to the despair of another networking meeting or turn in your cowboy hat for a Walmart greeter’s cap. And you don’t have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Few people can or ever have. Throughout our early frontier history and well into the industrial era, independent Americans relied on altruism, mutual-aid societies and cooperative working arrangements to build houses and raise barns, protect one another from fires or other losses, or “to accomplish their liberation from wage slavery.” That’s the story Curl’s book tells — a side of the American story we don’t usually acknowledge, but ought to understand and appreciate if we hope to prosper, together, with or without jobs.

Is Occupy Wall Street the Real Values Voter Summit?

If it accomplishes nothing else, Occupy Wall Street creates an extraordinary opportunity for a conversation about American values. This became clear to me yesterday morning as I was reading about the Values Voter Summit and tweeted:

#OWS 99% are value voters, too. #vvs

My thoughts had drifted from Values Voters to voters’ values, from the “Premier Conservative Event of 2011” at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC to Zuccotti Park, where people have been gathering to protest a whole multitude of outrages. Some are ridiculous and confused; some are dead serious. All, however, are pretty unanimous in their denunciation of greed – which is as good a place as any to start a conversation about the values we need to promote, embrace, recognize and celebrate in order to prosper. This is, I believe, a conversation we need to start now, and continue long after all the protestors have left Zuccotti Park.

Minutes after my tweet, someone named Dan Gainor (who, I have since learned, is a right-wing flack) shot back:

@lvgaldieri #OWS supports the WRONGvalues. #OWS #VVS

And that’s how the conversation started. When I asked what values he thought were being promoted by the Occupy Wall Street movement, Gainor said the protestors were intent on “crushing Wall St. and wrecking capitalism”:

@dangainor well how do you suppose they are going to accomplish that? And capitalism regularly wrecks itself without much help, doesn’t it?

@lvgaldieri Well Anonymous has vowed an attack on stock exchange. So perhaps they intend terrorist acts. Ask them.

Huh?

so for @dangainor, OWS = Anonymous =Terrorists? Have you informed DHS yet?

@lvgaldieri I think they know already.And yes, making threats against the US economy and govt are acts of terrorists.

Had I previously heard of Gainor, I might not have been surprised by this exchange. Instead, I found myself heading down a rabbit hole, and through the right-wing looking glass. On the one side, American capitalists; on the other, the terrorists: which side are you on?

In playing the terrorism card, Gainor was referring to unconfirmed reports that Anonymous plans to take down the New York Stock Exchange today, October 10th. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the group has even been using Twitter “to solicit ideologically dissatisfied, sympathetic employees from within institutions in the financial sector.” But, a BusinessWeek report is quick to add, they haven’t found any: everyone within the financial sector is, I guess, ideologically satisfied.

A posting on Anonnews.org says the NYSE takedown, which surfaced in a Department of Homeland Security memo, “may or may not be a false flag operation initiated by authorities in order to discredit Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street”; as of this posting, a fire in a Mahwah, New Jersey data center seems to be the only source of technical trouble on the NYSE – a fire without ideological affiliation, I presume.

A few minutes after my initial exchange with Gainor, when some others had joined the fray and started exchanging insults, I tried to re-set: “no need for all the profanity. My original point: we should be having a conversation about values.” No reply.

I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that Gainor may not be terribly interested in pursuing that topic outside the confines of the Values Voter Summit – where people have the right values. I have come to think that he is a hacker in his own right, a social hacker, out to sabotage civility — in this case by making lots of noise around Occupy Wall Street, and tarring all the protestors with the terrorist brush.

Why? Perhaps because he thinks of himself as a great defender of the American way, but more likely because he wants to prevent or undermine any genuine, thoughtful conversation about values that we might have — in the street, in our living rooms, in bars and in offices, in malls and barbershops and coffee shops.

And this is, unfortunately, a tack others have taken, and on much grander scale. The major news media continue to wonder what Occupy Wall Street is really all about. What could be the trouble? The Wall Street Journal dismissed the protestors as a bunch of “ne’er do wells.” Cries of class warfare and ominous warnings from the likes of Representative Peter King have only compounded the fault.

Those who demonize or mock the Occupy Wall Street protestors for some of the more naïve-sounding and inchoate demands issuing from their midst– or for the sheer lack of demands – do us all a disservice.

The demonstrations on Wall Street and in cities around the country – like those in cities around the world — are a distress signal. SOS. We ignore it at our peril.

China Has the Bomb

There’s a character in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light who loses his faith in God (and, ultimately, the will to live) after reading in the newspaper that China has The Bomb.

Or at least that’s what his wife says. Jonas Persson himself is a quiet man, despondent, broken, unable to articulate the cause of his despair. Or, more precisely, he’s never given a chance. Even when Jonas comes alone to see Pastor Tomas, the priest doesn’t listen: Tomas himself is so broken-hearted by the loss of his wife and so crushed by God’s silent indifference to his suffering that he lashes out angrily at the poor man and drives him away. So we have to take the wife’s word for it: it’s the Chinese bomb.

How far we’ve come since 1963. Nowadays we are more likely to be driven to despair by the thought that the Chinese have all our money. Have we grown more used to God’s silence, or inured to the threat of nuclear annihilation? Or is it that in witnessing the ruin of our financial markets we detect something very much like what Jonas saw and feared in Red China’s acquisition of the Bomb? Are we seeing into the abyss?

To be sure, the fear is out there, powerful and real. Just the other day, while reading the paper on the subway, I myself had an experience of dread (that’s the right word) as I read the details of Hank Paulson’s cozy relationship with the Chinese. I have been trying to explain it to myself ever since. “America is in an all-hands-on-deck emergency that’s as trying as war,” Frank Rich (no alarmist) writes in today’s column. He feels the dread, too: “the abyss is widening,” he writes; we are in the grip of an “economic terror”.

But what is the content of that terror? When I learned, for instance, that Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet committed suicide after Madoff’s scheme was exposed, I assumed that he took his life because he, too, had been exposed and disgraced. But now I am not so sure, and I wonder if he might have seen in his own financial ruin something about himself, about humanity or about God, even, that was too hard to bear. Unfortunately, Monsieur de la Villehuchet did not favor us with an explanation or an Eli, Eli before he parted this vale of tears. He was no Job — debating, reasoning, praying and pleading in sackcloth and ashes for some insight into the mysterious ways that had led him from riches to ruin.

We may consider wealth a hedge against the radical contingency of our earthly existence, but why react with despair, terror, dread or animal fear when we learn that the hedge — or the hedge fund — collapses? You can tell me that it’s because we have our priorities all wrong, because we are easily lulled into a false sense of security, or because our limited ideas of happiness and well-being leave us ill-equipped for the real uncertainties of life. I won’t argue.

Nor am I trying to be deliberately obtuse about the whole thing. Paulson lets the Chinese dictate terms to him; I might feel outrage because I think he’s acting recklessly and putting the country in hock to our former Cold War enemies, but — really — why dread?

Maybe it’s the fear that we’ve crossed some threshold or point of no return, and that the world as we know it is about to pass. The easy ride is over; the long march of long-suffering humanity is about to begin — again. We may have silenced God, but we have not secured ourselves a place outside of history; we are exposed and we will shake against the wind.