The John Browns Of Our Day

July 24, 2013

The only way to break out of the paper bag philosophy is to avoid the narrow and shallow thinking that characterizes it. In other words, we must constantly seek a depth and breadth of knowledge and experience. And few historical figures cause us to stretch our minds more than the abolitionist John Brown.

John Brown

Not to be confused with the (in)famous RI slave trader and Brown University founder of the same name, John Brown led an unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 to free enslaved African Americans. His failed attempt inspired generations of civil rights leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, the author of a 1909 biography on Brown that I recently finished reading. It seems the more I learn of Brown, the more my ideas about politics are reshaped. Here is a white man who resorted to violence against the state in order to try and put an end to the state-sanctioned violence of slavery. He defies the type of knee-jerk responses we’re accustomed to hearing in the age of 24-hour news cycle sound bites, which is why I’m starting to realize my initial assessment of him was wrong.

One man’s terrorist

My first impression of John Brown was that he was a terrorist. However the DuBois bio, as well as family vacations to Harpers Ferry and Washington DC, have given me a more nuanced view. Brown actually compares favorably to other national heroes. If using violence against the state to resolve conflict makes a citizen a terrorist, then the founding fathers deserve that title too. But at least Brown was consistent in his actions. Is there anything more hypocritical than signing a declaration of independence that claims “all men are created equal” while owning slaves?

Another man’s freedom fighter

Earlier this week, professor and civil rights leader, Dr. Cornel West, called Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning “the John Browns of our day” for blowing the whistle on some serious crimes by the US government. While I don’t agree completely with his analogy, since neither Snowden’s nor Manning’s actions caused any physical harm, it does show how out of whack the system remains to this day… Thanks, in part, to the paper bag philosophy.

Neither liberty nor safety

Political wisdom is never more mono-cultural than when it comes to issues of security. Unfortunately, but predictably, the decisions made inside these tiniest of paper bags to supposedly make us safer have had the opposite effect. Like when tech companies built in back doors to their software so the government (and presumably any hacker) could snoop on the activities of law-abiding citizens. What’s worse is when civic-minded individuals attempt to sound the alarm on these types of misdeeds, they, much like Brown, are treated as terrorists… Allowing the real villains to continue to benefit from their crimes.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable

Want to know what separates the good guys, be they violent or non-violent, from the bad guys? Morality. And the more we stay confined to our paper bags the more we create the false moral ambiguities (e.g. choosing between liberty and safety) that enable the villains to do as they please. As a peace activist who believes in Kingian non-violence, I don’t endorse what Brown did. But he’s no terrorist. Like Snowden and Manning, he is among the most tragic American heroes of his time.

The Paper Bag Philosophy

July 24, 2013

Paper Bag Philosophy

Hard problems require thinking outside of the box, getting out of comfort zones, walking a mile in someone’s shoes, and lots of other clichés that I’m too inebriated at the moment to list. But don’t expect politicians to do any of these things (I mean other than maybe getting tipsy on occasion). They, like most of us, are in the bag.

The paper bag philosophy is a wrinkle on the notion of group think. Each group member’s paper bag is unique, varying in size according to his or her willingness and ability to understand old concepts and grasp new ones. Unfortunately, the combined contents of all group members’ paper bags tend not to span enough of the realm of political thought to result in positive, long-term solutions. It usually doesn’t even matter how educated or experienced group members are. If their paper bags are deep but narrow or wide but shallow, as is typical, a sort of ignorant magnanimity can take hold that is hard to challenge. And, since no two bags are the same, it can be awfully difficult to convince members that they’re falling victim to group think.

Beware of the Paper Bag Philosopher

As someone who has volunteered in several local organizations, I’ve seen the paper bag philosophy play out way too many times. It’s sad, but no doubt the worst case occurs at the national/global level. With the help (wittingly or unwittingly) of paper bag philosophers, the system has been thoroughly gamed by the 1% and a false moral ambiguity muddies just about every issue, essentially allowing government, on behalf of big business, to do whatever it wants, however it wants, whenever it wants… Need an example? Okay. But it’ll have to wait for another day. Drinking and blogging is a bad mix!😉

The Power Of Suggestion

June 30, 2013

After the last Bull Raker post, a loyal reader wondered:

Can we assume that in your next blog that you will address the injustice the IRS did to Marina Peterson by auditing three years of her tax returns following the 2009 July 4th parade?

No. Given the overwhelming number of problems in the world, I’m not sure how “we” can confidently assume which topic will follow the preceding one. And, in practice, the Bull Raker Blog doesn’t take requests (well, actually, I don’t recall ever getting a request before), but since I was asked so nicely I will oblige. Fortunately, if I happen to make an “ass out of you and me”, then I can’t be entirely to blame this time.

The question above is a great example of the power of suggestion. In fact, it contains multiple suggestions, only one of which — the desire for an article on the IRS targeting of certain tax-exempt groups — may be obvious to the casual reader. A couple of underlying suggestions must also be addressed (and debunked) in order to fully grasp and effectively tackle the issue.

Underlying suggestion #1: The IRS only looked at right-wing or tea party organizations.

This was not the case, as newly surfaced documents show. The terms “progressive,” “Israel” and “Occupy” all appeared on so-called “be-on-the-lookout” lists used by IRS employees reviewing applications for tax-exempt status.

Underlying suggestion #2: The IRS had no reason to suspect any of these organizations of wrongdoing.

The IRS scandal made headlines for days. Far less attention, however, was given to the roots of the crisis. After the 2010 Citizens United decision, when the court ruled social welfare organizations could raise unlimited corporate money without disclosing donor information, there was a spike in tax-exempt status applications under tax code Section 501(c)(4). Several of these groups, like MoveOn and Crossroads GPS, have claimed to be social welfare organizations while spending 50% or more of their funding on political operations — which is against the law.

Were Marina and the East Bay Patriots unfairly targeted? Maybe, and they probably weren’t the only ones. The IRS was clearly wrong to focus on some groups based on perceived political affiliations. But an improper attempt to address the vast amounts of dark money being spent, tax-free, to illegally influence elections should not prevent a proper investigation into such criminal activity, especially since it could have an enormous impact on the future of our democracy.

You asked for it

Ever wonder why it’s so difficult to untangle ourselves from the various messes we’re in? Could it be, at least in part, that we constantly seek answers to questions that are simply not good enough (NGE)? I think so, which is why my next post, regardless of any reader requests to the contrary, will be about a type of NGE thinking that pervades society. I’ve dubbed it the paper bag philosophy, as in can’t-think-my-way-out-of-a-paper-bag philosophy. It’s not as harsh as it sounds, but it applies to just about everyone. Fortunately, I can offer a practical way out of the paper bags we’re trapped in… And I’m a firm believer in the power of suggestion.

Foul Ball

May 1, 2013

I’m sorry. I can’t help it. When I see an injustice, I just have to speak up. Below are slightly edited excerpts of an email sent to the president of King Philip Little League (KPLL).

I’m an assistant coach for the AA Durham Bulls and I noticed on the flyer for the Pitch, Hit & Run competition that girls aren’t allowed in the baseball division. Apparently, this isn’t a league rule but is coming from the event sponsor, Major League Baseball (MLB).
Do Boys and Girls compete separately?
Yes. Boys and girls will compete and advance separately throughout the competition. Girls will compete in a softball division and boys will compete in a baseball division.
Back to my email:
As a coach of three girls (and father of one of them), I intend to challenge this blatantly sexist rule — hopefully with the help of KPLL. No little league should support such unsportsmanlike conduct. If MLB was attempting to discriminate based on race, the event would have been shunned immediately. How gender-based discrimination has been allowed to go unchecked is beyond me.
I think KPLL should tell MLB and Little League Baseball that the rule be changed to allow all baseball and softball players to compete in their chosen sports, and until it is changed (I doubt either organization will listen right away), KPLL should openly defy the rule or refuse to participate altogether. Otherwise, expect my daughter to be in the baseball division of the competition next year.
I know the girls on the Bulls would more than hold their own in Pitch, Run & Hit and I bet the same is true across KPLL. But that’s not the point. The point is if we want our players to become good teammates and citizens, we need to be good role models ourselves. Thousands of girls play baseball across the country and it isn’t fair to deny any of them the chance to compete.
Let me know your thoughts and how KPLL plans to proceed.
Stay tuned for updates!

Living In La La Land

April 25, 2013

If RI were a little bigger (okay, a lot bigger), it could be the crony capital capitol of the world. Because we got the crony part down cold. I mean, when it comes to sucking up to big money, we really suck.

You’re a former pro athlete who wants to start a company that’s bound to fail? Here, have 75 million dollars!

Or maybe you’re a film star who wants to promote parent trigger laws designed to destroy public schools and usher in the corporate takeover of education? Please, step up to the mic!

No? Perhaps you prefer to stay in the shadows and help run the whole racket? Oh, that’s great! See, we need someone to replace one of our cronies… Er,  this Corso fella. Don’t get me wrong, he’s fantastic at what he does. Convincing the state to give huge tax credits away to Hollywood producers so they can make their movies here was no easy task. I’m surprised he didn’t win an Oscar for pretending that it would be good for the local economy. It’s just, I don’t know, now that he’s been exposed, something doesn’t feel right. The whole crony capitalist gig seems kinda slimy all of a sudden. It was so much better when those of us “in the club” were the only ones who knew we were members.

The next thing you know, we’ll start getting invited to those living room conversations about how government and business are too chummy. Well, I sure as hell ain’t talking! Not without 75 million dollars and a film crew.

Keep Your Enemies Even Closer

April 14, 2013

As the handful of regular Bull Raker readers already know, we chose to send our daughter to private school in part to avoid what we felt was the pending collapse of the Bristol-Warren public school system. The district is in the process of losing close to a million dollars in state aid each year for 10 years, starting when Quinn entered kindergarten. After fighting about as hard as we could (short of the physical kind of fighting) and being unable to convince enough neighbors to push back against the attack on public education, we decided to send her to a school that was less vulnerable to corporate education reform… you know, the type of place where corporate education reformers send their kids!

It should come as no surprise then to learn that some of the school’s alumni, parents and trustees are Teach For America – Rhode Island supporters, including a pair of venture capitalists and the executive director of TFA-RI herself. Looks like we have our work cut out for us!

The Feeling Is Mutual

January 15, 2013

Rolling Jubilee

The first time I heard the term “mutual aid society” was when it was used to describe the Rolling Jubilee, a project run by an Occupy spin-off called Strike Debt, that buys debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, abolishes it… creating, in their own small way, a bailout of the people by the people.

For the last few holiday seasons, the Bull Raker clan has donated to worthy causes in the names of our extended families, and I chose Rolling Jubilee this time around because I was won over by the creativity and efficiency of the project.  For each dollar collected, Strike Debt is able to abolish $20 worth of debt, thus highlighting the failures of our current economic and political systems. In a time when our elected followers are led by big money interests into crisis after pre-fabricated crisis (Or should I say cliff after fiscal cliff?), the Rolling Jubilee shows us how arbitrarily high debt can be and how utterly incapable our government is in assisting people who really need the help.

While mutual aid societies may not always be scalable (e.g. as successful as the Rolling Jubilee is, it can’t possibly abolish all bad debt on its own), they empower citizens to find creative solutions and build a better world. Now that’s something 99% of us should get behind!

Good Eats

Here’s an idea I have for a local mutual aid society:

It’s similar to but, rather than customers purchasing on-line coupons through a for-profit marketing company, they can buy them from a non-profit that would funnel its earnings into food banks and soup kitchens. This would create a system where those who are more fortunate can help feed the hungry, while saving money too. Do you have an idea for a mutual aid society? If so, please share!

High Stakes And Low Standards

January 14, 2013

Still wondering what public education may look like if the ed deformers get their way? Then just take some of the many computer-based tests available through billion-dollar digital learning companies, who not coincidentally are playing a big role in the push for standardized testing in K-12 schools. I recently did and what I learned (or didn’t learn) was disturbing.

In preparation for my Linux+ certification exam, I took a pricy week-long on-line training program, which consisted of hours of boring lectures via videoconference. In other words, rather than using technology to teach concepts in innovative ways, as the ed deformers often claim will happen in public schools, the training company went the cheaper route… both in terms of cost and educational value. As the days wore on, I found it harder to focus on the person blindly talking to me on the screen. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, I passed the certification exam with flying colors.

How was I able to do it? Easy. Each night, we were given practice exams and asked to take them over and over again until we achieved a score of 85% or higher. It wasn’t very difficult since, after each attempt, we were given the correct answers. It was simply a matter of memorizing multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank responses. Despite misgivings of several of her students, our instructor assured us that by utilizing this strategy we were almost guaranteed to pass — as evidenced by her 95% success rate. Not until I sat down to take the certification exam at the end of the week did I realize why she was so confident, as nearly every question was identical to one we covered in a practice exam!

Standardized testing is one of many ways teachers evaluate their students. It’s not meant to be the only indicator of student performance nor is it to be used as an indicator of teacher performance (e.g. while 95% of my instructor’s students pass their exams, I doubt they retain much knowledge). The incentive to cheat or teach to the test is too high when so much money is at stake. So let’s hope the education policy-makers can find a good tutor and, unlike this standardized test taker/Bull Raker, make some informed choices!

Races To The Bottom

September 11, 2012

I suppose it’s appropriate this year’s primaries are being held on September 11th because it will mark a truly tragic event. Today will be the first time the 50CAN Action Fund has an impact on RI elections. According to Saturday’s ProJo, the 501(c)(4) has raised a $213,000 “war chest” with donations from the likes of NY City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and RI’s own self-proclaimed techie bad boy, Angus Davis. RI-CAN, the RI affiliate of 50CAN, says it has spent around $44,000 to support four “pro-education reform” Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte and former RI-CAN board member Maura Kelly, in their General Assembly races.

Of course, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. You see, non-profits such as 50CAN Action Fund don’t have to disclose their donors. And, ever since the infamous Citizens United ruling, these organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.  So you can bet a lot more is flowing into candidates’ pockets, like perhaps RI-CAN’s former executive director Maryellen Butke.

The Vulture Philanthropists are Circling

What’s that? You say you’re running for office and want in on the action too? Okay. Here’s the plan:

1)      Fat cats, commonly from the tech industry, donate tons to 501(c)(3) organizations like RI-CAN and Achievement First. Think of the funds as zero-risk tax-deductible investments. Well, because that’s pretty much what they are.

2)      These non-profits, run by executives, some with financial ties to the donors (such as Sandra Smith, RI-CAN board member and principal of Catalyst Strategies, whose list of clients includes Davis’ TellMe Networks), take the money and use it to try and privatize public education by building charter schools, creating digital classrooms, replacing highly qualified teachers with unqualified, non-union scabs – anything to reduce costs and increase profits, which unsurprisingly go largely to the donors’ businesses.

3)      The fats cats and non-profits then put some money into a 501(c)(4), in this case the 50CAN Action Fund. And that’s where you come in. Make corporate education deforms part of your platform and you’ll get plenty of dough to campaign against your opponents! Get elected and repeat the process every two years. It’s that easy!

Best of all, everyone makes out like bandits:

The donors can earn 100% off of their initial investments in a few years. The non-profit execs, of course, can do alright for themselves too, with charter management operators comfortably pulling down six-figure salaries. Granted, some of the windfall must be used for political favors but that’s just the cost of doing business, right?  Sure. If you’re a loyal legislator and can keep the taxpayer dollars rolling in, then it’s a bribe well spent! Besides, the donations are anonymous so it’s doubtful this scheme will ever fully be exposed.

As for you, you get the glory as the politician who saves our schools! Plus, with all the campaign cash coming your way, you won’t have to lift a finger. Just sit back, relax and let the consultants do the work. Like we say in RI, now you “know a guy”. Dealing with the angry mobs of students, parents and taxpayers could get dicey once they find out the claims of education miracles are bogus. But that’s to be expected. We both know this has never been about the kids, which is why the PR folks will want you to say the exact opposite over and over again in speeches. Oh, don’t worry; by the time the house of cards finally comes down, I’m sure you could run for Mayor of Chicago or something.

Welcome to the club!

Voting With My Dollars

July 24, 2012

Buying sweatshop free items is very important to me.  Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find things that I like which fall in to this category.  It takes time, research, effort and patience to make good choices especially when it is much easier to race over to a big box store and quickly find similar items (that are usually less expensive too). I liken my thoughtful spending as ‘voting with my dollars’.  One purpose of this blog is to share my experiences and my finds, to make it easier for others to find fair trade goods, and to hopefully convince a few readers to be more mindful in their choices.

Prior to making purchases these are a few of the things I consider:

  1. Where is the item made?  Is it made in a country that treats its employees “fairly”?
  2. What is the item made of?  Is it organic, natural fibers or recyclable?
  3. Is it made locally? How many miles did it have to travel to reach me?

My two most recent purchases involved shoes.  Quinn needed new sneakers and I needed new sandals. After a surprisingly quick online search I found the Autonomie Project’s fair trade, vegan, organic cotton sneakers.  They were reasonably priced and came in many colors.  It took only a few short days to arrive and so far she has worn every day.

The sandals were a bit trickier.  I searched online and just couldn’t find much that I liked.  Luckily, I had remembered seeing some pretty sandals, handmade in Spain, at Berk’s Shoes on Thayer Street.  When I made my way back to the store I found the Eric Michael sandals half price.  My patience had paid off.