Thursday, July 12, 2007

Excerpt from an unfinished essay (7-12-07, Knoxville)

This essay was begun in the days following the deadly conflicts in the city of Cochabamba, between campesinos and members of the extremist (and inherently racist) civic committees who identify primarily with the lowland political and landholding "Eurocentric" elite. On the 11th of January, 2007, three people were killed and literally hundreds hospitalized with severe injuries. The conflicts were/are about race, class, land reform, indigenous sovereignty, the decolonization of Bolivia's constitution (the Constituent Assembly), and oil and gas resources. To put all this into context, please take a look at an article written by Boilivia-based Mexican journalist/activist Luis A. Gomez:

More soon, from beneath the Killing Floor,




“ A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just’. It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”


“Next to money and guns, the United States idealist turns up in every theater of the war; the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer. Such men define their roles as service. Actually they frequently wind up numbing the damage done by money and weapons, or seducing the ‘underdeveloped’ to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement.”


We, as activists, as American “do-gooders”, mostly continue to compartmentalize our understandings of economic justice. In our decades-long efforts at dismantling racism and building class solidarity we rarely touch upon the fact that economic growth demands cultural uprootedness and the dis-value of vernacular, indigenous wisdom. Nor do we even come close to identifying that that uprootedness is what allows us to become economized, what forces us to become competitive, violent individuals, mere consumers; what Ivan Illich earlier referred to as Homo Economicus, later as Homo Miserabilis. I am not trying to be tricky or vague here. The industrial era has grossly crippled us. We are ensnared in the web of the market, the global economy, and have traded off our commitment to place for a truly dizzying array of goods and services. Economic growth cannot permit conflictive allegiances. So, we spin things by correlating “liberty” to the uninhibited acquisition of more comforts and luxuries, and then will send our sons to war to protect this “right”. We no longer know what the good life, la vida dulce, might look and feel like. There is no functioning social fabric where one experiences such intangibles as care, solidarity, reciprocity. All these acts have been transformed into commodities. We’ve been duped into thinking that cultural traditions, place-based wisdom, the holistic and harmonious, the small and simple, - manifestations of the indigenous, and the vernacular-are impediments to “progress”. There is a radical analysis shared by certain intellectuals and activists that, before certain nations’ began violent colonialist and imperialist expansion/ subjugation of "the other", their own citizenry had to be colonized mentally. Uprooted from the land; ties severed, allegiances subsumed, convinced that the land based practices and communal responsibility practiced by our relatives were backwards, embarrassing. We had to be “individualized”, reduced to the lowly titled of “consumer” and, every few years, “voters”. This is what it means to be “economized”.

We are in a minefield. There are craters all around us. Certain words and notions are grenades. Pick one up: “Progress”- bam! “Poverty”-boom! “Development”, “Modernity”, “consumer confidence”, “Production”, “Industrialization” “First World”, “Third World”, on and on. Could this cruelty-uprootedness, placelessness- that we are all being subjected to be the source of our ethnic, race, gender, and class violence, not even mentioning the most obvious; the violence wrought upon the earth!?! From southern Appalachia to the war-torn factory towns of the rusted-out iron belt, from the mono-crop soy fields of the Amazon to the Nigerian oil fields, would it not be completely justifiable to don black ski masks and revolt, Zapatista-style? If neoliberalism is the common enemy we all share, maybe we can help steady one another as we walk away from that mine field. Maybe in the silence, back out in an untainted field of some sort where children can run freely out of our eyesight, a word, notion, or sentiment of some sort might pass across all of our lips; something akin to…regeneration. Maybe then we can begin to slip the trap of all of these polarizing identities and these cruel and mutually debasing hierarchies. Remember, CEOs with nine figure incomes are “offing” themselves too. Of course let us keep in mind that the powerful, the political elite, might choose to take the whole ship down as opposed to admitting their grave errors, joining hands with indigenous campesinos and working-class folk, and working together to regenerate our communities. So yes, when it all shakes out, we’ll have to reckon with our own lived experiences, and the sides we did or did not take. Race, class, age, gender, and geography (First World/Third World, underdeveloped/developed, North/South, Capitalist/Communist) will continue to be used to divide us, to turn us against one another. Our current capitalist global economy is literally fuelled by inequality. An American writer/political philosopher by the name of C. Douglas Lummis put it this way; “The world economic system generates and it runs on inequality. Just as the internal combustion engine is propelled by the difference in pressure above and below the piston, the world economy is propelled by the difference between rich and poor.” (“Equality”, in The Development Dictionary, Zed Books, 1992). When coal company gun thugs beat down the door of Florence Reese’s Appalachian home, looking for her “union man” husband, she knew which side she was on. After they left, furniture turned over and drawers emptied out, Mrs. Reese picked up a pencil and began to write on the back of a calender; “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” A Harvard-based Palestinian radical educator by the name of Munir Fasheh, in a letter penned to the Pope, put it this way; war is being enacted upon communities, plain and simple. He wrote, “The real struggle through history has been between people and communities on the one hand, and those who want to rob and control them on the other…The main issue is choosing between being on Caesar’s side or on people’s side; it is between people/communities and power, control, winning, and greed”.

Let us be careful not to side with a mere illusion; “I’m on ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’s’ side!”, I hear some growl. “I’m for ‘progress’, ‘development’, and ‘the end of poverty’ I hear the well-schooled argue. The great, almost-forgotten, U.S. working class poet Kenneth Patchen wrote, “I’d rather take a nothing I love to my grave/ Than a something I have every reason to hate.” I personally take this to mean that the intangible solidarity and spirit of “crianza”, or nurturance, that I share with my Quechua neighbors means infinitely more than a steady career, material trappings, and a slow dance of concessions with capitalism, neoliberalism, or whatever you choose to call this…”structural immorality ”.

It almost doesn’t translate, this dignified life in the foothills of the Andes and a notion, an ethic/principle/ value really, such as crianza. In the Quechua language, “to nurture” is uyway”. I’ve heard it described as the capacity, the sensitivity and attunement achieved between the myriad communities of people, nature, and the spiritual for the sake of regenerating one’s locality, one’s lived world. It, “crianza” or “uyway”, is the closest you’ll get in the Aymara and Quechua languages to the concept/word “work”. But it rose up clearly before me one late afternoon, shortly after settling into this village. I had just started forging a friendship with don Ramiro- Quechua farmer, father of twelve, lumberjack- and his wife Ilda, running a chicheria out of their home. I strolled down to purchase and share a small jar of chicha with whoever might have been gathered there at the time. Upon entering the small dirt floor courtyard, ringed by children and chickens of various sizes, a fellow campesino/woodcutter stood up and greeted me, literally, with open arms. Upon being introduced to me, what he said roughly translates into English as this: “My friend, welcome! There is no such thing as a stranger here. It is ALL about friendship, and nurturance!” He then brusquely kissed the knuckles of one of my hands. I instinctively did the same with his hand, then sat down to pass around the hollowed out half gourd cup of the fermented corn brew with a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. That’s the side I am on. If the power elite- or those of a certain class who are tricked into denigrating that dignity as a trade off for more power, privileges and “comforts” for themselves- strike a blow, physical or psychological, against such a man, such an act, it’s the same as beating down my door, guns loaded, looking for my loved ones. Again, I find myself humming a few bars of Mrs. Reese’s class war anthem. I recall John Dos Passos’ rebel confession/utterance in the trilogy USA, worth including here in its entirety, the way it appeared on the page:

“they have clubbed us off the streets they are stronger

they are rich they hire and fire the politicians the newspaperedi-

tors the old judges the small men with reputations the collegepresidents

the wardheelers (listen businessmen collegepresidents judges

America will not forget her betrayers) they hire the men with guns

the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons

all right you have won you will kill the brave men our

friends tonight

America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have

turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our

fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul

their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their

feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant

of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the


they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to

throw the switch

all right we are two nations

-from the trilogy U.S.A.,

John Dos Passos

Albert Camus wrote, in The Rebel , “Economics, in fact, coincides with pain and suffering in history.” In that same book he also wrote, “The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” Some say that when Jesus entered the temple to drive out the sullying presence of the moneylenders he wielded a whip. The severity of our current situation cannot be denied. I’m consciously calling upon our collective legacy of rebelliousness here. We can derive much strength from it. Hell, my great grandfather, Jacob Nisula, was a Wobbly. As a young Finnish immigrant arriving through Ellis Island, he ended up in near indentured servitude in the silver mines of Montana. Somehow he escaped and wound up in the waterfront town of Ashtabula, Ohio, delivering produce, and organizing/agitating in the great labor struggles of the early 1900s. As a father now though, living in this little farming village in the foothills of the Andes, I see that our western notions of justice are not enough. By extricating ourselves from the traditional political struggles for more rights and more justice, we by no means forsake our shared legacy of rebellion, resistance, and struggle. We honor it by arcing towards something more profound; something along the lines of the regeneration of place-based wisdom, the re-valuing of the vernacular, the spirit of crianza. It is indeed a defiant act of rebellion in these days of widespread dehumanization. It is revolutionary, but in the realm of culture instead of the corrupted, broken-down spheres of “Nation-States”, two party politics, and representative “democracy”. Illich and King were both what one might call “cultural revolutionaries”. We are not alone in this struggle.

The lines in the sand are abysses really. When we peer down into them we’re often frightened stiff by a sense of vertigo. Though if we are genuinely committed to a larger struggle for liberation and the recuperation of dignity we must not only look unwaveringly into them. We must, in a sense, rappel down into them, down to rock bottom. There we can shine a light and identify the institutions, political structures and social constructs that dis-value (meaning, rendering something nonexistent, as opposed to simply placing it at a lower place on a hierarchy) the vernacular, the dignity of subsistence-oriented communities and, as Dr. King noted, place “profits before people”.

From the essay-in-progress, "Lines in the Sand, and Reading Between Them; Reflections of Race, Class, and Crianza" by Jack Herranen

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