Jun 042013
 

Finding and living The American Dream

You used to hear people mention “The American Dream” all the time. Not so much anymore. Now, what was that idea really all about anyway?

Frankly, there is no single definition, but it frequently includes ideas such as fair opportunity, hard work, overcoming adversity, personal success, getting ahead, and passing it on those who come after. It involves sufficient faith in society to expect general freedom and opportunity. It is all about hope and moving forward.

The American Dream is not about “every man for himself,” a big enough hole to hide it, and enough guns to defend it. The American Dream is not about working for the rich man on the hill or across the tracks and scraping by with the help of a few stolen chickens. The American Dream is not even about steady factory jobs and a chicken in every pot. We dream about having the opportunity to turn our hard work into growth and true advancement.

In order for The American Dream to work, it needs to be available to anybody and everybody. We know that not everybody will even try to actually get rich. Some people are content to pray each day for that day’s bread. Some people are happy to be able to provide ongoing comfort and security for their family. Some people dream of winning the lottery, striking the mother lode, finding fame and fortune, or making a killing on risky investments.

There is a problem; these last four things involve paths OTHER THAN The American Dream. One path relies on exploiting natural resources. However, cutting trees or mining minerals goes too-quickly from one guy quietly chopping wood or panning gold to clear-cutting forests, scrapping off mountaintops, and removing (or exploiting) anyone who is already there. The other path also relies on exploiting other people. In gambling or investing, the only way to get money is if someone else loses money; it is a “zero sum” game.

We can admire and envy the lucky gambler or investor who walks away rich, but we don’t have to be told that, unlike The American Dream, their business model can’t work for everyone. Other people have to lose in order for them to succeed. Everybody else has to leave the table poorer, wondering what they are going to say to (or how they are going to feed) their families.

And this is no way to run a country, either. When the financial bubbles burst, a lucky few get to scoop up their winnings. The rest of the country gets to wake up and discover that they are a little bit (or a lot) poorer – and that The American Dream is a little bit (or a lot) more “only a dream.”

My point is this: Trickle-Down Economics hasn’t worked and it never will. Actually working hard creates new wealth and well-being that has never existed before. Like growing crops, a miracle happens and anyone can end up with more than they had when they started. This NEW wealth can be put into circulation in a game of virtuous cycles where everyone wins.

The alternative is selling your hours for money – often for less than a fair or living wage. Too many people simply let some master exploit them, use them up, and keep them down. And, that is NOT The American Dream.

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Jun 022013
 

Family Values

Captain Chan Huy Gan stood before his assembled crew and spoke to them with conviction and urgency:

“It has been a full season since our sea-barge and its company of four hundred ran aground on this shore. There is no doubt that we shall not see our former homes and families again without being discovered by another expedition, and we know that no other such expedition was planned to explore these unknown far reaches. Therefore, our ship’s governing council, with the consensus agreement of our accompanying Scholars, has determined that we must put all consideration of return behind us. We must commit ourselves to permanent residence in this place. Further, we must commit, not only to our continuing security, but to extending our prosperity and our progeny for all time henceforth in this land.

“We have met with hostility from the native peoples. But our fortifications hold strong and they will be further strengthened and expanded. You have submitted well in transforming from a ship’s crew to a community of farmers, herdsmen, craftsmen, and guardians. Many of you have been humbled to necessarily forget your royal lineages and government appointments. We have only survived by all willingly doing what is needed, in service to our common good.

“We bear no ill will to the natives beyond our walls and protected fields. Yet, they do not approach us kindly and will not tolerate us to approach them. Sadly, it is only by experiencing the superior strength of our weapons that they have been persuaded to give us some distance and a measure of peace. We have not even been able to unravel the mysteries of their speech. We have taken some from among their raiding parties captive, but they are proud and strong; they refuse to speak or even eat and, by so doing, they give themselves up to their gods.

“We continue to give honor and gratitude to our few precious Scholars who, although being women and our guiding council, have, like every man of the crew, sacrificed for our company’s survival into the future. Remembering that they were born as women, they have, each one, consented to lay aside their veils of mystery, submit to a man among us, bring forth progeny, nurse, and nurture children. However, it has become obvious that, to increase our numbers sufficient to survive and prosper into future generations, we cannot continue to rely upon only these women who traveled with us. We must also take wives from among our neighbors.

“We shall prepare new homes inside the innermost walls. These will be comfortable as befits the most honored guests. Necessarily, to prevent the possibility of these girls giving themselves to their gods, the homes will be secured. Open central courtyards will be provided for access to sun, gardens, and if fortune smiles, the raising of children and the entertaining of friends. As they mature into women, these girls shall discover that they are honored for their service and welcome as citizens of our community. They shall receive the better portions of our goods, whatever education their aspirations allow, and our reciprocal service in caring for their needs and responsibilities. To the extent possible, we shall embrace them as our privileged own.

“We will begin immediately to spy-out villages and fields in our region. Teams will observe the age, health, vigor, and emotional disposition of girls. They will not select over-many from any single village. Nor will they select any who are known to already be mated. But, at an appointed time, as many as possible of these selected will be brought back to join our community.

“In time, the girls will be introduced to men from among our crew. Our Scholars will exercise their best judgment in deciding these matings and their circumstances. All related matters will be at the sole and exclusive discretion of the Scholars. We intend that the girls will be allowed to select temporary or permanent mates to the extent that they choose to cooperate. All crewmen will be expected to comply for the benefit of our community and without concern for their individual preferences.

“It has been decided.”

Twelve years later, Chief Banimbu stood before his gathered warriors and spoke to them with conviction and urgency:

“Your tribe needs you and so I have commanded that you assemble here in advance of an important raid. For years, the intruders on the coast have taken our land, taken our children, and murdered those of our people who approached them. Their vile weapons have given them the power to slaughter our best warriors. We have, in the past, been forced to retreat. Now, we have an opportunity to take our revenge. You men are the knife edge destined to spill their blood and reclaim our stolen fields.

“Our spies have weakened one of their walls in a neglected area and we are ready to break through, catch them unawares, and repay justice for their evil. We will form into teams, enter their houses by first-moon dark, and kill them in their beds. May the gods of earth, water, and sky bless your blades and strengthen your strong right arms.

“I grieve with you for the loss of our kinsmen and the theft of your daughters. You, Yalkan, gave your firstborn son in an early valiant raid on their walls. You also had a beautiful daughter taken while harvesting bushbeets in the eastern fields. I still feel the sting of tears for my beloved Jasitan, taken in the firstyear raid. I often wake at night, remembering the way that she would stand and stare with adoration into deep behind my eyes. Not just me, but so many of you have suffered such losses and endured such painful memories.

“This outrage is not to be permitted. We must defend our children and grandchildren against all threats. Why should we give our fertile lands to loathsome strangers? Why should we allow our daughters to be stolen and sacrificed to their gods? We see that they do not keep but a very few women. It is men who work their fields, bending their backs and knees as women should. It is men who walk their streets.

“Surely the bellies of their gods must cry for the blood of women. We cannot tolerate the outrage of our daughters being taken as sacrifices to call forth blessings from their gods. Why, they must surely also give our daughters to even call forth curses upon us! Raise your voices now and join as brothers in taking vengeance for the evil done to us these past years. Raise your swords, for we shall spill their blood to run back into the sea from which they came! Let none remain; execute justice to the last man, woman, and child!”

The next evening, Chief Banimbu led his fourty men to the intruders’ village. They finished boring through the wall and dispersed to do their work. They walked with stealth and struck with well-planned deftness. They did not shout out their victories, but kept the silence of unpleasant duty and honorable labor.

In the third house that Chief Banimbu entered with his team of four, his lieutenant opened a sleeping chamber door, only to draw back quickly with a quiet gasp and the glistening of fresh blood on his forearm. Chief Banimbu could see the form of a women outlined in the door. She wore a beaded gown with a sash of rank. She brandished a small dagger and stood protectively in front of a small brood of children. She suddenly froze where she stood, staring with adoration into deep behind Banimbu’s eyes. The lieutenant, his surprise and pain turning into anger and outrage, raised his sword to run her through. The Chief knocked the sword aside and stepped into the doorway, ready to defend his child and grandchildren against all threats.

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Jun 022013
 

Ayn Rand and the real parasites
Have you swallowed the big fat lie?

Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, promotes the idea that, “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him. … The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.” Really? And, are the richest businessmen the real “job creators?” No, and you’ve been told a whopper. Over and over, you’ve been told a big fat lie.

Do you remember company towns and company stores? Do you believe that the company was just creating jobs and looking out for the best interests of their employees? Do you believe that your niece, struggling to pay her bills with a part-time minimum-wage job, is too stupid to do any better? Is she so ignorant, irresponsible, and inept that she is incapable of contributing to the welfare of her family and community?

Do you believe that feudal lords or plantation owners were the praiseworthy “job creators” for the serfs and slaves of their time? Do you believe that the character of those who acquire money and power with no sufficient end has changed recently? Of course, we all have the responsibility to work hard and do our best. Some will always do better than others and they should be able to keep a healthy cut of their earnings. But, there is no excuse for perpetually enriching yourself by increasing the burden and misery of others.

As communities, and as a nation, we all have the duty to pay a fair share of taxes. Ideally, we pay according to our sufficiency. In turn, we all receive benefits from our government that are intended to enable us to prosper and protect us from exceptional loss. We expect fair laws and just courts. We expect a clean environment, fairly-priced utilities, and for good schools, roads, parks, and other public commons to be openly available. And, according to our need, we hope for the temporary support that may be required to lift ourselves out of difficult circumstances.

In America, it is a foundational belief that God loves all of his children and that all men are created equal. We believe that, as fellow citizens, we should all have access to a fair position in our society from which to climb and to earn the reward that is due for all of our hard work. In practical terms, we believe in fairness under the law. It is just wrong to buy justice, privileges, and exemptions. So why do we tolerate such unjust gain by some of those among us?

Even worse: Why do we embrace those who maneuver to drive us increasingly down? Why do we accept this mushrooming inequality and embrace the authority of tyrants? Why do we act against the best interests of ourselves and our children? Have we simply failed to recognize the big fat lies that we are now choking on?

Our danger is not from government itself. The proper function of our representative democracy is to enable and protect all citizens fairly. Our danger is from those who would take control of our government from us (the public) in order to privately enrich themselves at our expense.

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Aug 092012
 

John Dean referenced Bob Altemeyer’s work extensively in his 2006 book, “Conservatives without Conscience.”

A 27-page condensed and abstracted version is available on this site at: http://sociodynamics.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Bob-Altemeyer-The-Authoritarians-Abstracted.pdf 

To read the complete 254-page original, your link is http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Also, I have found an audio CD, read by the author at: http://cherryhillpublishing.com/Bookstore/en/nonfiction/14-the-authoritarians-cd-audio-9780972329880.html

Altemeyer explains: “This book is about what’s happened to the American government lately. It’s about the disastrous decisions that government has made. It’s about the corruption that rotted the Congress. It’s about how traditional conservatism has nearly been destroyed by authoritarianism. It’s about how the “Religious Right” teamed up with amoral authoritarian leaders to push its un-democratic agenda onto the country. It’s about the United States standing at the crossroads as the next federal election approaches.”

“The feedback I’ve gotten from those who have read The Authoritarians enables me to give you the major reason why you might want to do so too.   “It ties things together for me,” people have said, “You can see how so many things all fit together.” “It explains the things about conservatives that didn’t make any sense to me,” others have commented. And the one that always brings a smile to my face, “Now at last I understand my brother-in-law” (or grandmother, uncle, woman in my car pool, Congressman, etc.)”

Ever since John W. Dean published his Conservatives Without Conscience in 2006, much interest has been vested in the research of Dr. Bob Altemeyer that was so prominently featured in the book. In CWC, Dean set out to learn why modern conservatives seemed to think and behave in ways diametrically opposite the righteous and moral values they so publicly espoused. What he discovered was an existing body of scientific research tracing back to the cinders of the Holocaust. This research focused on the Authoritarian Personality, which social scientists believe was the enabling element within German society that was so deftly exploited by Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.  Bob Altemeyer’s research on the Authoritarian Personality, summarized in this book, won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Prize for Behavioral Science Research.

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Jul 312012
 

I would like to have one more go at the effects of the core philosophies of the elites among us. I have described those working from an early “Puritan Ethic” of community betterment and their opposite, those working from an early “Plantation Ethic” of being above the law with the freedom to control and exploit others and their property at will. How is this playing out in 2012?

The Republican Party seems to have been seized by elites with the Plantation Ethic during the past few decades. They love their money and privilege and will do anything to protect their private advantages. They have been preaching a host of destructive circular arguments. Here are a few examples:

They describe government as being out of control and being the root of all evil. They say that government needs to be slashed, reduced, and killed. No joke. Grover Norquist, the lobbyist and conservative “No Taxes” activist said, “… I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Then they work to systematically cripple government so that it has trouble doing the good things that government is supposed to do. Finally, they point at this damaged government and say, “See, government really is worthless.”

They describe our government’s financial, pollution, and safety regulations as being out of control and the root of all evil. They say that government regulations are preventing businesses from making a profit and so there are fewer jobs. They have been working to systematically cripple important regulations so that financial, pollution, and safety issues pop up more often. Then they point at these preventable problems and say, “See, government really is worthless.”

They describe our public schools as being ineffective and the root of all evil. They work to underfund schools and lay-off teachers while burdening them with mountains of paperwork. With teaching becoming a thankless struggle against parental and community apathy, overwork, and buying your own books and supplies, good teachers give up. Then the elites point to these problems and say, “See, public education really is worthless.”

What is their alternative? Well, of course: contracts for private companies to provide services that were previously provided by public employees. Now, do you think that a corporation with these private contracts will actually work in the best interests of their employees and of those they “serve?” Or, will they work to maximize profits? Color me real skeptical. I absolutely believe that there are some things that public agencies and public servants are better able to do, and one of those things is caring for neighbors. The “public sector” isn’t just some big anonymous bureaucracy; it’s your neighbors and mine. When was the last time that a big multinational corporation brought you a casserole or tutored your child for free after class?

And, have you forgotten that “the love of money” is named as the root of all evil? While our economy is still struggling to recover from the last big private adventure in financial risk-taking, corporate profits are at a record high and employee wages, as a proportion of our economy, are at an all-time low. Yeah, tell me that the “job creators” need more tax cuts so that they can create more jobs. We’re fools to keep on thinking that the moisture we feel is the start of trickle down from the corporations who love us. I don’t think its trickle down; I can tell when I’m being pissed on.

© 2012, David Satterlee

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Jul 312012
 

Last week, I talked about the inevitable presence and place of elites in American Society. While we believe that all men are created equal and certain of their rights are unalienable and should never be threatened, we understand that some of us have advantages and abilities that others do not. Nonetheless, we hope that our children and grandchildren might yet find exceptional success for their efforts.

America has continued to struggle to define, expand, and guarantee our liberties. American slaves have been granted the rights of citizenship. Their descendants are increasingly able to vote freely, serve in the military, and sit, as free people, on any free seat on any bus. Women have been given the right to own property, vote, earn equal wages, and use birth control. Recently, more of us have received additional health care protection so that we don’t face the choice of staying healthy or dying quickly.

Nonetheless, America has always faced groups determined to twist government to favor their private wealth, power, and industry. In the years before World War I, this was called “The Gilded Age.” Corruption was open, corporations organized violence against their workers, stark poverty ravaged the lives of the poor crowded into tenement housing. If you were hurt on the job, you could consider yourself fired before you hit the ground.

The “Panic of 1893” was the result of corporate corruption and embezzlement on a massive scale. They even got the US Army to intervene in labor disputes. The “Great Depression” preceding World War II was triggered by the collapse of unregulated financial speculation by financiers. The Financial Collapse of 2007 was also the work of bankers and financiers trading in fabricated instruments derived from bundled lots of high-risk investments. Greece, other countries, and banks bought these investments, thinking that they could lower their own interest payments. The inevitable collapse shook the finances of not just Europe, but the entire world.

Today, self-serving business interests seem to have seized the reigns of the Republican Party. This goes far beyond the conservative or liberal dispositions of voters. They are dismantling needed regulation of finance, pollution, and labor practices. They are undermining and trying to privatize public workers including teachers, law enforcement, and even the military. They are outsourcing and cutting jobs while reducing wages and benefits for those who do still work. They are making it harder for most students to get or afford the college degrees that are demanded for entry into everything but minimum-wage service jobs. And, they are even trying to eliminate the minimum wage.

Today, well into our struggling recovery from the collapse of their economic house of cards, corporate profit margins are again at record highs while U.S. wages, as a share of our economy, are at record lows. If there is “class warfare” going on, they started it. Income inequality is stunning and it is getting worse. I believe that Americans of both parties need to push back against those who are intent on compounding their private wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.

© 2012, David Satterlee

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Jul 312012
 

You have seen me struggling to make sense of the differences between conservatives and liberals, the balance between personal liberties and public responsibilities, and persistent class differences in America. Today, I read an article that suggested a difference between American elites that fills in a gap in my thinking. Naturally, I’m excited and want to share.

Despite our belief that all men are created equal, we have always understood that some of us have advantages of education, wealth, connections, and influence that are not shared equally. And, as a competitive capitalistic society, we mostly accept these class differences in the hope that someday we, or our children, might get rich and powerful too. We expect to always have our elites.

 

The thing that got my attention was the idea that, in America, there are two major background philosophies among our elites. Some derive their life-views from Puritan thought while some get their thinking from Plantation attitudes. This makes a difference in how a person of privilege thinks about what they do with their wealth, what responsibilities they feel for others, and how they define liberty and freedom.
The Puritan ethic emphasizes community and the conviction that those having wealth and power also have the responsibility to use some of it to improve their societies. Historically, they typically responded to an inner call to community service and doing good for others. They have endowed universities and public libraries. They have endorsed government policies that improve the lot of the common man. The Roosevelts and Kennedys have fit this mold. People like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are determined to use their fortunes for good.

Holders of the Plantation ethic are very much different. Sara Robinson’s article describes its origins in the West Indian slave states and its “…utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain “order,” and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God.”

David Hackett Fischer further describes Plantation Elites that, “…always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press… they… sank their money into ostentatious homes and clothing and pursuit of pleasure – including lavish parties, games of fortune, predatory sexual conquests, and blood sports involving ritualized animal abuse spectacles.” They held themselves to be unaccountable and above the law.

In the Puritan Ethic, both liberty and authority reside with the community. Individuals are expected to balance their personal desires against the greater good and occasionally make sacrifices in behalf of others. This kind of support maximizes each citizen’s liberty, dignity, and potential. In the Plantation Ethic, one’s sense of liberty depended on their God-given place in society, and gave them the freedom to “take liberties” with the lives, rights, and property of other people. This results in their feeling the right to dominate, exploit, and abuse others and their property with impunity. This defines them, in their own eyes, as “free men.”

What sort of elites do you want writing your laws and running your government?

© 2012, David Satterlee

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Jul 282012
 
The following list of 20 characteristics was developed by psychologist Robert Hare and have been noted as defining criteria to identify a “certain 1% of the U.S. population.”One can use this list as a quick and informal identification guide if desired. Ideally, however, it will be more accurate if the individual and his/her acquaintances are interviewed. In this case, each item would be graded as:

0 – Does not apply
1 – Partial match or mixed information
2 – Reasonably good match

Interpersonal relationships

  • Glibness / superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative

Observable behavior

  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotionally shallow
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Lifestyle

  • Need for stimulation / proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsibility

Antisocial Behavior

  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Early behavioral problems
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility

Other items

  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior

Do you personally know someone in the 1% of the population who might score 25-30 out of a maximum of 40? If so, they might fit the “gold standard” PCL-R assessment for psychopathy. (They may be a “psychopath” – lacking empathy, prone to being self-serving and insensitive to the needs of others.) In other words, these are typically amoral people who lack, or are indifferent to, a concern for others.

The term “sociopath” is sometimes used interchangeably. The choice of term often depends on whether one thinks the cause is due to psychological/genetic/environmental factors or due to social factors.

IMPORTANT NOTE – Before I Go On

_This assessment can only be considered valid if administered by a suitably qualified and experienced clinician under controlled conditions._

 

Now that I have taken you here and teased you with a “1%” label, can you think of any other small cluster or class of individuals who seem to lack empathy and are prone to being self-serving and insensitive to the needs of others? These people don’t need to be overtly criminal. In fact, they may be very good at staying just on the safe side of the law. They may be very skilled at finding and using loopholes. They are capable of doing everything they can to get away with serving themselves and increasing their wealth and power. But, in the last analysis, they often don’t seem to care who they hurt in the process.

Addendum:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) does not list or define “psychopathy.” However, it does diagnose “Antisocial Personality Disorder” (ASPD) – based entirely on behavioral observations. ASPD is defined as a ‘…a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.’ A diagnosis of ASPD requires only three out of the following seven specific factors to be present:

  • failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  • deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  • impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead;
  • irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  • reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  • consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  • lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
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Jul 262012
 

Bill Moyers is his old, quiet, direct, and serious self. No car chases. No gun fights. Just the presentation of ideas worth discussing.

“On the Oregon Trail, more settlers died from gun accidents than from Indian attacks.”

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Jul 262012
 

 

“Thievery is what unregulated capitalism is all about.” – L. Randall Wray, UMKC professor of Economics explains:
     “As the Global Financial Crisis rumbles along in its fifth year, we read the latest revelations of bankster fraud, the LIBOR scandal. This follows the muni bond fixing scam detailed a couple of weeks ago, as well as the J.P. Morgan trading fiasco and the Corzine-MF Global collapse and any number of other scandals in recent months. In every case it was traders run amuck, fixing “markets” to make an easy buck at someone’s expense. In times like these, I always recall Robert Sherrill’s 1990 statement about the S&L crisis that “thievery is what unregulated capitalism is all about.”
     “After 1990 we removed what was left of financial regulations following the flurry of deregulation of the early 1980s that had freed the thrifts so that they could self-destruct. And we are shocked, SHOCKED!, that thieves took over the financial system.
     “Nay, they took over the whole economy and the political system lock, stock, and barrel. They didn’t just blow up finance, they oversaw the swiftest transfer of wealth to the very top the world has ever seen. They screwed workers out of their jobs, they screwed homeowners out of their houses, they screwed retirees out of their pensions, and they screwed municipalities out of their revenues and assets.
     “Financiers are forcing schools, parks, pools, fire departments, senior citizen centers, and libraries to shut down. They are forcing national governments to auction off their cultural heritage to the highest bidder. Everything must go in fire sales at prices rigged by twenty-something traders at the biggest and most corrupt institutions the world has ever known.
     “And since they’ve bought the politicians, the policy-makers, and the courts, no one will stop it. Few will even discuss it, since most university administrations have similarly been bought off—in many cases, the universities are even headed by corporate “leaders”–and their professors are on Wall Street’s payrolls. “
     “We’re screwed.”
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Jul 252012
 

I got a lot of interesting reactions today, sitting with a “Christie Vilsack for Congress” sign while about ten thousand bicycle-across-Iowa folks peddled past my front yard in a small, rural town.

RAGBRAI stands for “[Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.” This is not a competition. It’s just thousands of people out for up to seven days in our insane summer heat, enjoying the camaraderie of “the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world.” Christie Vilsack is Iowa’s former First Lady and a Democrat running for the U.S. Congress in Iowa’s  4th District. She is opposing Republican incumbent Steve King, an “outspoken conservative who is a nationwide favorite of tea party activists.” My little town of Dayton, Iowa (population 837) is half-way through today’s 84-mile segment.

Today was a microcosm of the liberal ideals of community, fellowship, and social involvement. My 1880’s “workman’s Victorian” house was right on the route, just after the downtown events that included food concessions, a live band, and a dunking tank. As the bicyclists accelerated down a 1-block incline and past me, in my wheelchair by the curb with a political sign, I still had plenty of interactions.

Also, because my house fronts Main Street with a shade-tree-packed double lot, dozens of riders at a time stopped to take a break before heading down the long and hot road to Lehigh. My wife, Dianna, sent out a mostly-full pan of yesterday’s brownies. Everybody was so incredulous and thankful that she went back inside, cranked up her oven and made an additional five dozen large Snicker doodle cookies from scratch.

On the street, most riders smiled and waved or added a “good morning.” I figure I got a fair ration of exercise just sitting and waving back. Until the worst of the afternoon sun started taking its toll, most of these folks were having fun and were in an expansive and gregarious mood. You can’t have much of a conversation, passing by at 12 miles per hour, but you can share your good will and wave or call out a “good morning,” “hey,” “great hat,” or “thank-you” as appropriate to the moment.

Only four people in the six hours I was out were negative. It was nothing too strong – just an occasional “Obama is a socialist” or “I hope she loses.” It seemed fair enough; I was actually expecting more. Maybe this crowd was composed, more than usual, of people whose mommas had taught them that “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” You got to where you could see the people who glanced at the sign, clenched their jaw, and just starred sternly and unhappily ahead as they rolled by.

On the other hand, I got a LOT of approving finger-points, thumb-ups, smiles, “thank-yous,” and bell rings. I used to have a bell on my bike in the 1950s but this was unexpected at first. Two dings signal approval and come with a big smile. I liked to respond with a big wave, a big smile, and my own loud “thank-you.”

As the day wore on, there were even more thank-yous tossed my way. The expressions seemed more general than political. Having just enjoyed a church hospitality tent, a cold beer, and/or a dunk in a big water tank, the riders seemed to be taking me as an unexpected final representative of the city’s welcoming spirit as they headed out and onward. They seemed grateful to have someone to let know that they had been treated well and that they appreciated it.

I had a few short political conversations with the people taking a break under my trees. I wanted to stay low-key and didn’t shout out “Vote for Vilsack” or any such thing. Still, when you talk to someone in the grass, the sign suggests an obvious topic.

While I was passing out the first batch of fresh cookies and offering the last one on the pan, the fellow glanced at my sign and then asked, “I’m a Republican. Is it still okay to take it?” I just smiled and let him in on the secret, “Of course. Democrats believe that ‘we’re all in this together,’ that we’re all neighbors, and that we should all care about each other.” Maybe I shouldn’t have rubbed it in so pointedly, but he took his cookie, rolled his eyes, moaned a little, and told me to be sure to tell my wife that they were really, really good.

When the next batch of cookies came out, I took up where I’d left off. The next fellow under the tree, having had some time to think about the situation, took his snicker doodle, turned to the first fellow and said, “This is the kind of thing we’re thinking about when you call us socialists.”

As the day went on, the goodness of community just kept on as well. And, I’m not just patting myself on the back for getting out the water hose or fetching the kitchen trash can (which seemed to be particularly appreciated). People helped each other change punctured inner tubes. Someone made a detour to the first-aid station to get help for a stranger who had been weakened by the heat. People were at ease getting to know each other, telling stories, and exchanging ideas without getting cranky.

I’ve heard Christy Vilsack speak. She likes to tell a story about a small town where she lived. There was a well-used intersection that didn’t have stop or yield signs in any direction. She appreciated that neighbors just slowed down, took in the situation, and waved one or the other on through. Like most stories, it holds meaning and recommends future behavior. Such a story reflects on where her heart is and how she would govern.

I grieve for those who only care to look out for just themselves and for those they see as part of a limited “us.” However, I take heart on days like this, where so many people open an inclusive heart, accepting that we are all neighbors worthy of respect, concern, and support. What kind of candidate do you want representing you? What kind of representative will you vote for?

© 2012, David Satterlee

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