October 25, 2006

Ann Coulter And Her Drunken Horse

Last night as I was driving home I listened to an interview that Ann Coulter did with one of the conservative talk show preachers. I tuned in just in time to hear part of her gushing rant against evolution and its defenders. It struck me that she was camping up and quite intentionally mischaracterizing positions she cannot easily or logically argue against. Its the methods and the results she finds problematic, but its people who she attacks. Near the end of the interview the host asked Coulter what she thought of the National Education Association (NEA). Coulter answered shrilly and with much more volume than needed, of course. She said that teachers have told her that teaching and being part of the NEA is "like living in North Korea." She added that some teachers might be underpaid, but that many or most are either well-paid or overpaid. She added that "some of them should pay us for living here."

The host never contradicted Coulter or cautioned her about overstating her case. She was on his show to promote her new book. This is the cold and dark side of American conservative fundamentalism: at heart it is a mean-spirited and sales-oriented fist wrapped in thin velvet. Civil society is its worn-at-the-seams punching bag.

Driving into work this morning I heard Toby Keith's and Willie Nelson's version of "Whiskey For My Men, Beer For My Horses" playing on the radio.

Grandpappy told my pappy
Back in my day, son
A man had to answer
For the wicked things he done.
Take all the rope in Texas,
Find a tall oak tree,
Round up all of them bad boys
And hang 'em high in the street
For all the people to see.

We got too many gangsters
Doing dirty deeds,
Too much corruption
And crime in the streets.
It's time the long arm of the law
Put a few more in the ground.
Send them all to their Maker
And He'll set them on down.
You can bet He'll set 'em down.

You know justice is the one thing
You should always find.
You gotta saddle up your boys.
You gotta draw a hard line.
When the gunsmoke settles
We'll sing a victory tune
And we'll all meet back
At the local saloon.

We'll raise up our glasses
Against evil forces,
Singing, "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!"
Singing, "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!"

Willie Nelson should have more sense than to be connected with this. In some peoples eyes his recent troubles with the law should make him subject to the kind of vigilante justice he's advocating in this song. For that matter, America should have more sense than to be associated with its peculiar history of sexually-charged vigilante terrorism and should be about the business of purgining itself of its racist legacy and making reparations for the harm that has been done in this nation's name.

More to the point, Coulter is saying essentially what Toby Keith and Willie Nelson are saying. She's saying it in a book which will probably become a New York Times bestseller, and she's saying it as she poses as a intellectual, but the message is essentially the same: you may not be wanted here, we determine if you stay or if you go and we're losing patience with diversity and civil society. Keep pushing and you'll end up hanging in the street. This is the highest point attained by right wing intellectuals.

Coulter wears that velvet fist---okay, its a trademark and overused miniskirt used to incite the frat boys, but you know what I mean---but when argument and exaggerated agitation and all else fails they have enough rope and enough trees to handle any problem. When its all over the horses get beer and real men get whiskey.

There is desperation here. The voices would not be so loud and so shrill if the economy were working and the US was winning the wars. Is the reference to "gangsters" a reference to rappers and the subjects taken up by rap? Is the reference to Texas, the President's home, an accident or unconscious, or does it point to the sort of helplessness which takes over as a system stumbles, and maybe even collapses?

Desperate people do desperate things. We should not take these threats to civil liberties and our safety lightly; they are being voiced by alleged intellectuals and prominent cultural actors and so are apparently shared across the spectrum of the right wing. And they think that God blesses their terrorism.

If we read Coulter's remarks and the lyrics to the song after someone was lynched or assassinated we would say, "Of course! Why didn't we see it coming?!" We would connect the dots between the corporate sponsors, the actors, the violence and political intent.

Let's look at this now and connect the dots.

October 23, 2006

Arabic culture celebrated in Salem Oregon!

A local Palestinian solidarity group, along with Chemeketa Community College in Salem, are sponsoring an event that may prove to be the first of its kind in this small but growing town.

The event will be on Saturday October 28 at 5:00 pm. The hope is to build understanding about Arabic cultures. Another hope is that the African American community and the Hispanic community will attend as well as others. We hope that support for and solidarity within this immigrant community will grow.

What: Arab Cultural Awareness Celebration
When: Saturday, October 28, 2006 - 5:00 PM
Where: Chemeketa Community College, 4000 Lancaster Dr NE, Building 2 (Student Center), Salem, Oregon
Description: Join us to learn about and experience daily life and culture in the Middle East through food, songs, explanations of customs and religious traditions from guest speakers, and more.
Sponsored by: Salem Palestine Solidarity Group for Peace & Justice; Chemeketa Cultural Form; and Chemeketa Institutional Effectiveness

Guest speakers include: Imam - five pillars of Islam; Hala Gores - Culture of Christians in Arab Lands; Tom Nelson - American convert to Islam.

October 21, 2006

Race, Gender & Class Intersect In Salem, OR.

On Thursday some of us participated in a small protest at the Chevron station on Lancaster Drive. We weren't picketing the station; we were protesting on behalf of janitors who are set to strike in Houston who work for building cleaning contractors with contracts in Chevron-owned buildings. This was part of a nationwide action.

We closed our action by taking a photograph of our small group. The photos came out fuzzy and out of focus because we used a cheap plastic throwaway camera. An African-American friend who was in the group later said to me, "Before you take my picture next time you white people need to learn how to photograph Black people."

I instantly got defensive about the "you white people" remark because I don't know how to fit into the very peculiar definitions of race we use in the United States. I took only one of the photos and I wasn't thinking about race. Later, the remark and my defensive posture came back to me. I started thinking about how white people--whoever or whatever we are in this complex situation--really don't know how to look at Black bodies and Black people. We don't see the textures of color and skin, we don't see the sensuality and we don't know how to contrast ourselves with people of color. This (lack of an) aesthetic has a political corollary, of course. Maybe it helps explain why Lady Day's "Strange Fruit" stays with us after all of these years.

I made a point of apologizing to my friend and he told me that he was only kidding. I knew that I needed to be accountable to him for my feelings and, more importantly, for my reaction to what he said. I don't doubt that there was a joke there, but I began to learn something about myself and society also. Sometimes humor is a great teacher, regardless of the intent.

Today I went out to visit with workers about a political race that should be very important to us. One candidate--the Republican incumbent--clearly represents reactionary policies and a pushback against the progress unions and social movements have been making. The other candidate represents a left-liberal, democratic approach that is friendlier to workers and he has proven this through some community and labor activism. His roots are in the working class, although today he is a small businessman. If he wins, workers advance.

I visited with one worker who I interact with regularly. She has always seemed a bit odd to me, distant and even hostile to her union. I had a picture of her as a mean and selfish person and a fairly right-wing Republican.

This woman lives in a complex of crowded duplexes just off Lancaster Drive. The neighborhood smells like a cat litter box. There is no grass in sight and no real shade. Her son, an obviously angry teenager, answered the door and held back an ageing and growling dog as he called for his mom. The duplex was a mess.

The woman seemed pretty out of it while we were talking. She's probably on anti-depressants, the drug of choice for state workers. She stood in her doorway and tried to hold back the dog as she told me that she really isn't interested in politics and probably won't vote. If she does vote, she will vote for the Republican and against her class interests. Something in her eyes flickered vaguely. She gestured nervously. There was a pleading in her voice. When the light caught her at a certain angle she didn't look prematurely old and worn out.

After that visit I started thinking about how I had misjudged and misread her. Of course she's "a bit odd...distant and even hostile..." She's a single mom living in substandard housing and trying to raise a teenage son. They probably bought that dog as a way of smoothing over a bad divorce and the anger and alienation which goes with it. It was once a cute puppy. Her son was once a sweet baby. She was once a beautiful young woman looking forward to a brighter future. Somehow so much has been taken from her.

All of the other homes I visited today were pretty much the same. If someone seemed to be doing a bit better or a bit worse, it seemed to be because of the accidental ways in which race, class and gender intersect with opportunity in Salem, and in America generally. A drive down Center Street east of Lancaster Drive and through the adjoining neighborhoods is a drive through working class America.

Coming back into town you drive through the Oregon State Hospital. Could the lesson be more vivid? Lose your hopes and your connections, land in a neighborhood which smells like a cat litter box, have your meds run out or get too expensive or lose your job and you're likely to end up at OSH. Finally you will have some shade and a green yard. Our people drive through there and back every working day. What are they thinking about as they drive through the OSH complex?

Its not inevitable that people end up at OSH, of course. We do have choices and accountability. Some of us do resist.

But sometimes this country breaks your heart and makes you crazy, doesn't it? There is a Black man who cannot be photographed by whites and share on some fundamental level the full comradeship of his friends because of complex issues of race and racism. There are people living in substandard housing and seething with anger, or suppressing anger with meds, because they can't get a job and maintain connections which will provide a better life for them. There is a single mom struggling to raise her kid right and against all the odds. She's voting against her interests because she can't focus and because we aren't making our case well enough. There are people sitting in OSH and OSP because they couldn't take it anymore. Working class life is a series of narrow corridors leading nowhere for most people most of the time. Those corridors narrow even more--and the claustrophobia gets much worse--the darker your skin is.

So much of the entertainment and sports industries exist solely to convince us that these people and their experiences aren't real. So much of our religion exists to either downplay what these people go through or to soften the pain. So many of the politicians campaign as if these people and our experiences don't matter.

As I was driving from visit to visit I kept an oldies station playing in the car. As each house visit seemed to drive home in deeper ways the intersections of race, class and gender the stupidity and selfish anger in the songs became more apparent. None of the songs gave women their due and dignity, only one talked about race and none talked about class. Our daily experience is almost invisible. Take that to its (il)logical conclusion and you will start acting out to prove to yourself and to others that you are a visible and real human being, one with sense and sensuality. Its that acting out which lands some people at OSH and OSP or, far better, in social movements.

These people--we ourselves--are real.

Those corridors--the ones you and I live in--are real.

Anyone who tells you anything else or who tries to minimize the impact and damage done daily to workers and people of color is lying to you.

We are complicit in our own oppression to the extent that we buy in to believing that daily life for workers and people of color is not ultimately a desperate struggle to prove our own existence and make our own history.

October 15, 2006

Latin America to Oregon

Economic refugees from Mexico, Central, and South America have been left with no choice to survive but to leave their homes and go north. "Free trade" agreements have been a major cause of this exodus.

It is interesting to note, however, the exodus would not have been over a national border at one time, before the "US annexed almost half of Mexico's territory and instantly made 100,000 of its inhabitants citizens of the United States." (1)

Leaving ones' home is difficult - and having to endure extreme hardships and danger getting here, then sometimes poor working and living conditions, often low pay and a virulently growing right-wing racism and scapegoat-ism in the US --- how to understand these experiences and take effective action? We can educate ourselves by reading, by listening to Latin american workers who have become economic refugees.

We should ensure there is a place for immigrants' stories to be told.

Artists provide us these places - through images or sounds that enhance our understanding - through paths that build upon knowledge gained by the written or spoken word. The committment to the struggle for a fundamental justice can become stonger through art. We have current opportunities engage with this here in Salem.

Paulina Hermosillo, now living in Salem, was born in Mexico City. She is a photographer with a range of subjects from Zapatistas in Chiapas to playful pop culture portraits. A current photo documentary showing in Salem Oregon is at the Bush Barn Art Center until November 1. This exhibit is called "Snapshot of Exodus", documenting hispanic immigrants in Oregon. These photos emanate rich color. Many are are candid portraits: a line of 5 or 6 Mexican men relaxing in Independence, an older woman standing next to a rotting and mossy farmworkers' cabin, a woman holding a framed photograph of a loved one gone. And many more. When Ms. Hermosillo spoke after the showing of a film ("Portrait of Artists as Latino Immigrants") at the Bush Barn on October 12, she stated that it is increasingly difficult to document the lives of immigrants here because of concerns about their picture being taken. Here, in this state and region, where there is an active group of "Minutemen," and where many politicians running for office have jumped on the "immigrants are the enemy" bandwagon and other variations of that train of thought, it is understandable.

We are fortunate to have this chance to deepen our understanding of the experience of our immigrant neighbors by viewing this exhibit and learning more from this artist and other artists.

The first film of three to be shown was at the Bush Barn on October 12. Two more films focusing on immigration will be shown October 19 ("Home is Struggle", 1991) and October 26 ("Maid in America", 2004), same venue. See Statesman Journal article.

We also know of a group of local musicians/activists that has performed at various events - they may be going by "Bajo Salario"now - they are a multigenerational group that sings songs that demand justice, that inspire the struggle, that are about the beauty and sadness of life - songs that will move you if you are lucky to get a chance to hear them - even if you do not know Spanish.

(1) quote from an article by Dr. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, Oregon State University

Salem Labor Leader To Travel to Colombia And Venezuela

Rosalie Pedroza is Statewide Secretary of the Department of Human Services Local Union of SEIU Local 503 in Orgon. She has been a member of the union since 1987. In November Rosalie will be part of a labor delegation going from Oregon to Colombia and Venezuela. The ten-person rank-and-file delegation will be made up of members of the ILWU, AFSCME, Laborers and Carpenters. The trip will last eleven days. Sponsors of the trip include Portland-area Latin American solidarity groups, Global Exchange and the US Labor Education in the Americas Project.

The trip is significant for many reasons. In the past it has been difficult for solidarity activists to put together labor delegations, and especially delegations of rank-and-file union activists. The AFL-CIO has in the past actively discouraged worker-to-worker contact across borders and cross-border labor activism. In this case, however, it was not difficult to recruit members of the delegation. Rosalie sees her participation as a logical follow-up to having attended the historic Seattle protests and then having gone on a solidarity delegation to Chiapas. SEIU Local 503 is paying most of her expenses.

I asked Rosalie why she is taking part in the delegation to Colombia and Venezuela. She answered, "The door opened. This is where my heart is. I'm going to be a sponge absorbing everything there. We don't get much news from there here in the US. I didn't know or understand the Zapatistas until I went to Chiapas. I'd like to find out in Venezuela what its like to have a government which supports working people." She also told me that she found the video "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" inspiring.

Rosalie and I talked about how the trip may or may not tie into her union work. Rosalie said that she hopes that sharing her experiences when she returns to the US will help her be more receptive to the issues union members bring to her. "When you're able to tell stories from there it should open peoples eyes. There is no other way to do it. Telling real stories from there puts Colombia and Venezuela on peoples radar screens," Rosalie said. "I want the Colombian government and the people in Colombia and Venezuela to know that the whole world is watching. I'm hoping that this trip makes me a more effective union leader."

Co-workers are excited about Rosalie's trip, although the "devil speech" by President Hugo Chavez brought mixed reactions at work. Rosalie used photographs she took in Chiapas to raise money for the state food drive last year. She is already planning a series of presentations when she returns from Colombia and Venezuela.

Rosalie spent last New Years Eve with the Zapatistas and watched a Zapatista-led community forum take place. I asked her if she saw or learned anything there which she has found useful or applicable to her work in Local 503. Rosalie told me that the Zapatistas train people to provide healthcare and also provide basic educational opportunities. These trained people must then take their knowledge to the villages. She connected this organizing method to the SEIU Local 503 campaign to organize homecare workers in Oregon. She believes that the union should also train volunteers to train and equip others with needed knowledge.

We spoke briefly about the connections between her trip to Chiapas, her coming trip to Columbia and Venezuela and the struggles of undocumented workers which have gained so much attention here in Oregon. Rosalie believes that government repression and the free trade agreements have created connections between these efforts. She is active in several anti-free trade labor efforts and worked for a union resolution supporting immigrant rights. The main points of that resoluion were adopted at her union's recent General Council.

Rosalie believes that the proposed Peru free trade agreement may be a significant battle about to erupt. She has been pressuring local Democrats to take a strong stand on labor and trade issues, healthcare and opposition to the war. She believes that workers "can get their hands around stopping trade agreements."

Rosalie first heard about NAFTA from the AFL-CIO. She then participated in the Seattle protests. After that she went to the Cancun protests in 2001 and to Chiapas last year. "This trip to Colombia andVenezuela is about opening minds," she said.