August 2003

Tales of hope from across the Homeland

klepltolcrat naltion (klep´te krat´ na´shen) n. 1. A body of people ruled by thieves. 2. A government characterized by the practice of transferring money and power from the many to the few. 3. A ruling class of moneyed elites that usurps liberty, justice, sovereignty, and other democratic rights from the people. 4. The USA in 2003.

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The kleptocrats have taken over. Look at America’s leadership today—not just political but corporate, too. Tell me you wouldn’t trade the whole mess of them for one good kindergarten teacher. When I look at any one of them, I can’t help mumbling to myself: 100,000 sperm and you were the fastest?

Yet, they’re in charge! We live in the wealthiest country in history—a country of boundless possibilities, a country made up of people deeply committed to democratic ideals, a country with the potential for spectacular human achievement—but we find ourselves ruled (politically, economically, culturally, and ethically) by a confederacy of kleptocrats.

A couple of years ago, Japanese police discovered more than 400 pieces of women’s underwear in the home of Sadao Ushimura, a fellow who was a prominent official in Japan’s finance ministry at the time. Mr. Ushimura proclaimed total innocence of any possible scandal or perversion, explaining: “I picked up all lingerie on the streets by pure chance.”

We still have our underwear in America, but we’ve been stripped of a garment far more delicate and precious: our democracy. The essence of democracy—our power to control decisions that affect us—has steadily and quietly been pilfered by corporate kleptocrats. They have collected up our democratic powers piece by piece, hoarding them in the privacy of their own fiefdoms. These corporate elites (fully abetted by the governmental elites they have bought) now effectively control the decisions that affect We the People—everything from public-spending priorities to environmental degradation, wages to war, what’s on the “news” to who gets elected.

This would be terribly depressing, except for one thing, which is that one basic has definitely NOT changed in our land: The people (you rascals!) still have that instinctive and tenacious belief in our historic democratic principles. The antidote to kleptocracy is the age-old medicine of democratic struggle, agitation, and organization—and all across our country, the rebellion is on!

What’s possible?

What you and I do with our private lives and the chances we get is one thing. But there’s a bigger accounting to be made of what we as an American people do with the incredible treasure we’ve been given, which is nothing less than the freedom and the wherewithal to advance the democratic possibilities of this great country. Consider some possibilities:

1 What if a carpenter, factory worker, nurse, shopkeeper, student, clerk, or anyone else of modest means had the same chance as a millionaire to get to Congress?

"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower


2 What if the work ethic actually was rewarded so that, say, farmworkers and night-shift cleaning women got premium wages and special treatment in exchange for the extraordinarily hard work they do for our society?

3 What if our rivers and lakes were clean—so clean that our kids could swim in them anytime and we could fish in them with no health worries? What value would this add to the quality of life for people in Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, Austin, Dallas, St. Paul, Albuquerque, Little Rock, New Orleans, and so many other population centers with rivers running through them?

4 What if every child had a computer with regular upgrades, for free, so “no child left behind” was more than a crass political slogan?

5 What if trade deals couldn’t be passed unless workers, small farmers, environmentalists, community leaders, indigenous people, and all others directly affected by them were sitting at the table negotiating as full partners with the corporate and government elites pushing the deals?

6 What if there were affordable housing, health care, college education, child care, transportation, and dignified retirement for everyone?

7 What if [add your possibility here]?
In Thieves In High Places, I’ve tried to focus on the inspiring stories of folks who embrace the What if? spirit. Here are just a few:

Libraries: Check this out

What is it about budget-whackers at all levels—city, state, national—that prompts them to go after some of the smartest, most useful things that government provides—like libraries?

Governors and mayors across the country, for example, face serious budget squeezes, yet they continue to pour vats of their taxpayer dollars into various corporate subsidies and boondoggles, while swiping the paltry percentage of state money that goes to keep libraries open. So branches close, hours are slashed, children’s programs are eliminated, staff is fired—despite the fact that library use is up and the demand for these services is greater than ever.

There’s proud news on the people front, however. Cincinnati planned to close five branch libraries this year. . . . BIG public outcry. . . . Branches still open. Here in Austin, it was proposed to close each branch one weekday to save money. Total savings: $323,000. In a $2 billion city budget. That’s 0.01615%. People swarmed the hearing on the issue, and the branches did not close.

Out in far northeast Washington State, there was a heck of a dust-up last year over the Stevens County Rural Library District.

This district had only been created in 1996, designed specifically to meet the needs of the small-town and rural folks who live in this remote, poor, forested, and isolated corner of Washington, spanning some 2,400 square miles and reaching from the edge of Spokane all the way to the Canadian border. Nine libraries were scattered through the county, and the people flocked to them like the libraries were dipping out free ice cream cones.

When I say “libraries,” we’re not talking here about the marble classic of New York City or some of the fine Carnegie buildings, but about utilitarian facilities. One has washers and dryers in it so locals can do their laundry while browsing the shelves. One’s in the Onion Creek General Store, operating on the honor system, with a visiting librarian coming up the mountain with a load of requested books once a week. Another shares space with a state liquor store—“Books ’n’ Booze,” they’ve nicknamed it.

Modest as they are, after four years of operation, these homegrown libraries had become fixtures for the Stevens County community—which is why folks were stunned last year to learn that a group of anti-taxers had gone around and quietly collected enough signatures to try shutting down the entire rural library district by referendum.

The real motivation behind this library assault was not the taxes (which average only $38 a year per household), but the very idea of public service. But the anti-taxers didn’t count on a challenge from We the People. November 7, 2002, rolled around and the vote was taken on the question of “Shall the Stevens County Rural Library District be dissolved?” NO! said 65% of the voters.

Walt Kloefkorn, a chicken farmer from Springdale and a trustee for the library district, says that the two-to-one victory is more important than just saving the libraries, though that’s a big thing. More important, he says, is that the people squarely faced this basic question of whether the egalitarian ethic of the common good ought to prevail over the ethic of separatism, which boils down to: “I got mine, you get yours.”

The separatists were richer and noisier, but they’re a small minority. The best result of all, says Walt, is that “The people of the community came together and got to know each other better than before this fight,” and he’s thinking they’ll stay together and work on other issues of public need.

Whose town is it?

Do Wal-Mart and other big-box stores like Home Depot, or formula chains like Starbucks, have any inherent right to storm into your neighborhood or town, destroying the local identity, engaging in predatory pricing to force out local competitors, busting the middle-class pay scale?

No.
You have the rights. You’re still the sovereign in this country, not corporations. It’s your town, not theirs.

Kathleen Lewis was stunned to learn in 2001 that her community of Glendale, Arizona, was about to be Wal-Martized. It was a sneak attack. A local developer in Glendale, a middle-class suburb of Phoenix, had earlier announced its intention to build a “neighborhood shopping plaza,” promising that it would be a “visual oasis” of shops and restaurants. Sure, okay, said the city council, and few folks paid any attention, until . . . KA-BLAM! With the deal sealed, the developer finally dropped the bomb: The anchor “shop” in the development was to be Wal-Mart.
Not a mere store, either, but a SuperCenter. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of these things, but they are to big what Enron was to naughty.

Kathleen Lewis considers herself conservative, a Republican even, and certainly a supporter of free enterprise. But this wasn’t free enterprise—it was corporate bullying. “One thing I know,” says Kathleen, “is the difference between right and wrong. And this was wrong.”

Around their kitchen tables, Kathleen and other mad-as-hellers, who had not previously considered themselves to be rebels, organized the Glendale Rebellion.

Kathleen’s local shop, the Headlines Styling & Barbering Service, became the headquarters for their new group, the Glendale Citizens for Responsible Development. And thanks to their grassroots agitation, the city council withdrew its zoning approval for the project, citing the obvious fact that it had been lied to.

“Unfair!” screeched Wal-Mart operatives. And, in a remarkably obtuse bit of irony, the autocratic behemoth demanded something it had already denied the people: democracy. It called for a citywide referendum on the project, hired a lobbyist to direct its campaign, and proceeded to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into slick ads, a special five-minute video mailed to 20,000 homes, and other campaign tactics, including the mudslinging denigration of opponents.

Everybody does better when everybody does better.

Wear it like you mean it.
T’s, totes, mugs, and more in the Lowdown store.

Against this show of corporate firepower, the Glendale group had only $8,600 to spend, but it mustered a wealth of people power and democratic determination
As Election Day approached, Wal-Mart got goosey about its chances and rushed to court to demand a postponement. Yes, a postponement of an election that it had set.

But the court nixed the ploy, the election was held, the turnout was twice what it usually is . . . and Wal-Mart was stunned that the tally wasn’t even close—Glendale voted 60 to 40 against being Wal-Martized.

More stunning was that this was the tenth time in three years that local coalitions had come together in various Arizona cities and stopped new Wal-Mart stores. Arizona!

Nothing all that unique about Arizona, either, for people coast to coast have been standing up
to Wal-Mart projects . . . and winning.

Charlene beats the bankers

In 2001, Charlene Nelson, a stout believer in the Fourth Amendment, learned that a cabal of bankers, legislators and the governor of her state of North Dakota was trying to undo a good state law requiring banks to get permission before selling their customers’ financial data. The cabal claimed that this pesky permission provision had to be altered to bring North Dakota into compliance with federal law.

Nelson, a mother of three young boys who lives west of Fargo, considers herself a conservative; she had never been much of a political activist, but she knew political horse manure when she sniffed it—and this claim was seriously stinky.
In fact, the bankers lied. Federal law does not require states to conform. Offended by the lie, Charlene wrote her legislators, assuming they would respect the wishes of citizens like her. They didn’t. “I was just stunned when it passed,” she says, and she went from angry to activist.

About a dozen friends and neighbors met, came up with the punchy acronym POP (Protect Our Privacy), decided to petition for a binding referendum to reverse the legislators’ action, and set out to collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

POP hit the streets, the phones, and the talk-radio shows, creating quite a stink of their own. They rallied hundreds of volunteers to collect signatures and shocked the cognoscenti by getting more than enough signers in only six weeks—unheard of in North Dakota.

The bankers put up $150,000 (five times what POP could collect), hired professional flacks, and launched a television assault. First, they tried to buffalo voters with the odd assertion that North Dakota banks don’t sell their customers’ information, so there was no need to worry.

North Dakota might be a rural state, but the people aren’t rubes—if bankers don’t plan to sell people’s privacy, why did they change the law?

After all that cash and a campaign of misleading television commercials, the bankers got what they deserved, which was an old-fashioned drubbing from the voters, who sided with POP by 73% to 27% in last year’s election.

By daring to stand up, Charlene and her grassroots rebels tapped into a public anger that is seething all across our country. The privacy thieves think they’re getting away with it, but they are despised by the people (polls consistently reveal 70% to 90% opposition to their various tactics and thefts), and whenever people are given the chance to pull a lever, as Charlene gave the people of North Dakota, they respond in huge majorities.

Don’t be an idiot!

The greatest offense against our society these days is not any one law or a particular assault on our freedoms. Rather, it is the persistent, insidious effort by those who shape our culture to reduce the American citizenry to idiots.

By “idiots,” I’m referring to the original Greek word idiotes. It referred to people who might have had a high IQ, but were so self-involved that they focused exclusively on their own life and were both ignorant of and uncaring about public concerns and the common good.

Such people were the exact opposite of the Athenian democratic ideal of an active citizenry fully involved in the civic process, with everyone accepting their responsibilities to each other and all of humankind.

This is the ideal that Jefferson and Madison built into our own nation’s founding documents, the ideal that Lincoln embraced when he spoke of striving for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” the ideal that Justice Louis Brandeis was expressing when he wrote that “The most important office” in our land is “that of a private citizen.”

Far from calling on you to measure up to this high democratic ideal, however, the Powers That Be quite prefer that you be an idiot.

Be an involved citizen? Forget about it, Jake. Don’t waste your time. Get a job, keep your head down, play the lottery, don’t be different, take a pill, watch “reality TV,” buy things, play it safe, live vicariously, don’t make waves, pre-pay your funeral.

Oh, and on those big questions—such as economic fairness, going to war, “rebalancing” that liberty/security equation, and the shrinking of democracy itself—don’t hurt your little gray cells by focusing on them, for there’s not a lot you can do about them, we know more than you do, and don’t worry . . . we’ll take care of you. Go about your business—be a good idiot.

The opposite of courage is conformity, not cowardice
Come on, America, that’s not us! Don’t let BushCo, the Wobblycrats, and the Kleptocrats steal our country and trivialize We the People as being nothing more substantial than passive consumers who can even be made to cower in duct-taped “safe rooms” whenever the governing authorities shout “Code Orange!”

America wasn’t built by conformists, but by mutineers—we’re a big, brawling, boisterous, bucking people, and now is our time!

Our democracy is being dismantled right in front of our eyes—not by crazed foreign terrorists, but by our own ruling elites. This is a crucial moment when America desperately needs you and me to stand as full citizens, asserting the bold and proud radicalism of America’s democratic ideals.

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