The real-world test of Ayn Rand's theories

Here's that moment when we realize--thirty years on--that an ideological icon was actually a sellout. 

When I was in college Ayn Rand was huge. Everyone was obsessed with her work and her insistence that people should never ask for or accept help from society. She equated even the most conservative "social programs," such as Social Security and Medicare for retirees, with "slow rot" and stepping stones on the road to Soviet-style communism.

Her theory was that if your disability or illness is so great that you can't be completely independent, you simply "lack value." And implicitly you should allow yourself to die without complaint.

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Yet unknown to us at that time, Rand had already accepted social help to cover medical expenses. Her poisonous theory is still spread as gospel and she never publicized the fact that she realized she was wrong in the end.

A social worker revealed in an interview that Ayn Rand was brought to financial hardship toward the end of her life due to huge health care costs for lung cancer--almost certainly linked to her life-long addiction to cigarettes.

Though the social worker said Rand resisted the decision for some time, she eventually gave in and accepted Social Security and Medicare as a means to keep her household afloat. She never publicly admitted this or recanted her public shaming of those who made similar decisions. She also never rescinded her vehement denial that cigarettes cause cancer. 

If you delve deeply into Rand's theory you find that her main objection to Social Security and Medicare as well as other social programs is the fact that they are considered a right. She repeatedly labeled all those who accept any sort of mandated social assistance as "parasites." While she agreed that charity is possible and not evil in and of itself, she insisted that anyone in need must simply wait for random charity and no one should ever be given sustenance simply because they are a human being.

Your ability to "produce" was to Rand the entirety of your "value."

In some ways, Rand may have been naive. While she experienced some hardship early in life, the period of misfortune was brief and not marked by illness or disability in her family. In fact, she rarely addressed the issues of illness or disability in her writing. On one rare occasion she wrote only, "The small minority of adults who are unable rather than unwilling to work, have to rely on voluntary charity;"

One reason Rand's theories are still so popular today is that they have a cohesive internal logic. If you accept the tenets of her theory--that only humans have any value as living beings and that all people of value can produce enough to satisfy their own needs despite any difficult circumstances or discrimination against them--then the theory is well-laid out and seems to lead to inevitable conclusions.

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

One thing Rand never seemed to understand, but perhaps finally did grasp as she lay receiving tax-payer funded cancer treatment is that there is no great difference between government road construction and Medicare. Sure, the Medicare beneficiary is an individual receiving something, while a road seems to be something everyone benefits from all at once.

But when you get right down to it, the individual driver driving down that road is only different from the Medicare recipient in that a car can drive over anyone who stands in the way--for instance, the men, women and children who stood on the roads in Honduras asking for tips from drivers for having filled in gaping potholes after Rand's theories were explicitly adopted in that country and no "social program" was around to fix the roads.. 

Had Rand simply written some books and been quoted by some intellectuals this might all have been something to laugh about, but her influence has been far reaching. Companies--such as Sears--have adopted her philosophy as a management blueprint and been devastated within a few years. Whole countries, including Honduras, have been brought to poverty and devastation by her theories.

I cannot count the times  I have seen Rand's theories used to shame or dismiss people facing disability or illness, environmental concerns or racial prejudice. Over the past twenty years, since my college days, Rand's theories have migrated from upper-middle-class intellectual circles to the halls of power., especially in the United States. 

Representatives Steve King (R-IA), Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Allen West (R-FL) became her devotees. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promoted her book on the Senate floor. Alan Greenspan slipped her theories into economic policy. The list of senators and representatives--mostly Republican--who give Rand credit for inspiring their careers is long and she has in no small part inspired the current right-wing take-over of that party..

The most dire problems of the United States--from climate change to authoritarianism and vast economic inequity--stem directly from the lifestyles and corporate policies of the wealthiest ten percent (or even one percent) of the nation. For many years, this group considered Rand's philosophy to be a kind of secret pleasure--a way to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness and yet something that probably shouldn't be widely circulated to avoid embarrassment.

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Rand tantalizes young adults with the dream that satisfying momentary whims and ignoring burdensome ethics can be considered heroic. She still gifts college students in expensive liberal arts schools with an imagined identity as guardians of virtue and justifies a moralistic way to look down on people who take a long-term or interconnected view. 

Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The continuing influence of Rand's work and her lack of openness about her own use of social programs takes her beyond hypocrisy into another realm entirely.  She took the benefits and allowed people with disabilities and illnesses to be ridiculed and humiliated in her name for decades (and likely generations) to come. Today it is difficult to say how much suffering has been caused by policies she inspired. 

That said, there are days when I wish the wealthiest one percent who largely control corporate policies in the United States would take a closer look at her theories. If we are to take Rand literally, she would have us believe that her theory is not wrong but her actions were a mistake. She should have saved more of her wealth earlier in life in order to be able to cover her medical expenses or she should have invested in better private insurance. Her concept is that selfishness coupled with forethought and intelligence will always lead to the best results.

So, each person should save (i.e. conserve) according to their possible future needs. It should follow that a person should conserve other things besides money. If trapped on a desert island, Rand would surely advise conserving one's resources of food and fresh water. 

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

However, today corporate leaders continue in a spending spree--throwing money, fuel and non-renewable resources into the system as fast as they can in order to generate momentary wealth without regard to the disasters of debt, resource depletion and  climate change they are creating for themselves. 

Rand made it known in no uncertain terms, that she didn't believe in anything like "the common good." She stated several times that she didn't believe environmental concerns were very serious. Once she wrote, "Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death."

At the time when she wrote this, the wealthy could easily pay more to live far from environmental pollution and Rand would no doubt have considered that to be the ethical response. But just as lung cancer caught up with her, climate change is now catching up to the wealthiest in our world. The internal documents of large oil and coal companies, when leaked, have shown that those who set corporate policy know the truth, even while they fund denialist campaigns to spread disinformation to the public. 

It is eerily similar to how tobacco companies hid scientific proof that cigarettes contribute significantly to the risk of lung cancer but denied such knowledge to the public in Rand's day. Rand was fond of saying that knowledge is key to exercising good self interest and many tobacco leaders at the time realized smoking wasn't in their best interest, while Rand herself believed their propaganda. Knowledge was in that case a viable defense. 

But today even the wealthiest have little hope of escaping the effects of climate change, which are unlikely to be as simple as a gradual trend of warming in which buying real estate further north might be considered a solution. It is in things like this that Rand's theory begins to unravel.

The one percent know of--or at least their hired scientists have documented--the threats to their own security posed by climate change, and yet their self-interest does not goad them in the right direction. Similarly no purveyor of Rand's theories--not even Rand herself--is willing to die of preventable causes rather than accept Medicare to pay the  bills.

When these tenets of the theory fall, the internal logic disintegrates and each part of it falls in a line of dominoes. Self-interest does not lead to the good of the individual, and the good of the individual is inextricably interconnected with others. 

Randism has been proved to be a false and hollow economic theory as surely as Marxism. And if Karl Marx can be blamed for a host of horrors brought about by those who used and abused his theories, then by the same token Ayn Rand leaves a similar legacy. to that which she most despised 

In the spiral toward Fascism: White resentment and identity crisis

When Donald J. Trump spoke of "the forgotten men and the forgotten women" of America the morning after the election, I sensed instantly that he was dividing the country based on race. 

There was plenty in his campaign to lead both supporters and opponents to the conclusion that his message is intended to separate people along racial lines. He often protested that he has "a great relationship with the blacks" or that he loves Hispanics. Yet he made statements describing Mexican immigrants as a group of criminals and rapists and he depicted black neighborhoods as unending hells of crime and poverty. He argued that a Hispanic-American judge shouldn’t hear a case involving Trump businesses simply because of the judge’s background.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

A professor at the University of California Irvine by the name of Michael Tesler decided to take a statistical look at the racial trend of Trump's support in the summer of 2016. He compared the voting preferences of Republican primary voters in 2008, 2012 and 2016 with the voter's scores on a "racial resentment" survey. The study found that the more  resentment against people of color a voter expressed, the more likely that voter was to vote for Trump in the primary. Interestingly these same voters had mostly voted for failed Republican primary contestants in 2008 and 2012. They had simmered with resentment and frustration because even the Republican nominees who lost to Barack Obama were unsatisfactory to this group.

Despite his protestations that he is "the least racist person," the terms and focus of Trumps speeches make it clear that there is a norm, which is white and Christian. Trump's repetitions of the slogans "America first!" and "Make America great again" are placed so as to imply white America. 

It has become fashionable in intellectual circles to contend that support for Donald Trump stems primarily from economic, rather than racial, tension. Yet an analysis by USA Today's Brad Heath shows that Hilary Clinton lost most unexpectedly in counties where unemployment had fallen during the Obama administration. And now everything Trump actually does harms the working class and enriches a handful of the wealthiest.

If it was about class, Trump's appeal would be very thin indeed. His support comes primarily from the frustrations and identity crisis of a group that is defined both by race and by class--that is the white, mostly Christian core of small town and suburban America.

If we want to call this group "working class" we have to reassess the term. "Working class" tends to evoke images of coal miners and line operators, but that isn't the mainstay anymore. If you look at the income distribution graphs for the US, the "working class" could conceivably be considered everyone who is not in the bottom ten percent (the very poor) and not in the top ten percent (the extremely rich). 

That gives you 80 percent of the nation, a group of people in which the top 10 percent is only ten times wealthier than than their poorest group members. That may sound like a big internal difference for a group, but in the scheme of things--when compared to the astronomical wealth of those Americans who are too wealthy to be in the group--this middle 80 percent really is a class in itself and largely they are people who actually work in one form or another for a living--thus working class. 

And if you take that middle 80 percent and divide it by race, singling out the white Christian majority of it, you have the group targeted by Trump's message. They work, they struggle, they look at the boggling wealth of the wealthy and feel the fear and the siren's pull of the mostly non-white poor. They have been told in a myriad ways in recent years that they have no culture or that their culture is shallow and silly. They have been told that they once had a divine destiny, but that was deemed morally wrong and now they are not special, not ordained in any way. They live reasonably well but feel stifled and frustrated.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

I doubt Trump or even his speech writers looked much into the historical references of the "forgotten men and forgotten women" phrase, but I did. The first widely known figure to use "the forgotten man" gimmick was William Graham Summer in 1883. Summer was a social Darwinist, meaning that he promoted the idea that survival of the fittest should dictate which humans get to survive to adulthood in society. It was kind of a precursor to eugenics I suppose, the idea that they could breed "better" humans by letting the weak die of hunger and disease. 

In a speech titled "The Forgotton Man," Summer made a case that could easily have been a template for Trump's campaign strategy, claiming that hard-working people needed to be freed from the dead weight of useless poor people. 

Summer divided society into the hard-working "forgotten man" type and the "nasty, shiftless, criminal, whining, crawling, and good-for-nothing people." The second category was supposed to be that bottom ten percent that Trump degrades as well, but like Trump, Summer inflated it to appear much larger and more threatening without actually including his target audience in it.

Since Summer's day, several American presidents have played with the rhetorical concept that there is some group of Americans who do not complain, who work hard quietly and ask nothing of society, a mythical deserving class. Reagan's "silent majority" was one of the more blatant but that never reached the level of Trump's appeal to white people in small towns and suburbs to see themselves as the unsung victims in society. 

One world leader did go this far and built a fast-rising, brilliant and brutal regime based on exactly this concept. He started it with a book entitled in translation "My Struggle," which sought to teach his fellow white citizens to see themselves as wronged and to instill a righteous thirst for revolutionary vengeance.

That was, of course, Adolf Hitler. And while I'm sure,. you've probably seen Trump compared to Hitler so many times in the past few months that you find this predictable and even boring, I want to call your focused attention to something that is NOT merely a rhetorical comparison, using exaggerated connections. 

I have been watching the reactions of white Americans and others of similar Caucasian-Christian background around the world with growing unease. 

A year ago, it was a dull throbbing drumbeat, occasionally mentioned but generally ignored. Since the election it has been steadily ramping up. That is the modern concept of white people as silent social victims. And it is not limited to the United States.

Last year I might have seen a comment along the lines of, "You say 'prejudice' but you're just virtue signalling," once every week or so.  Now a day doesn't go by when I don't run across some version of the argument: "So called 'white privilege' is an quitter's excuse. When you get right down to it everyone has some sort of disadvantage. The only question is who tries harder." 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

The trend is easily observable both on-line and in the real world. Even my ESL students in a small Bohemian backwater have heard the arguments and some nod along with them and say that Trump has finally allowed people to say "what everyone was thinking all along."

On a few occasions, I joined one of these discussions and laid out the host of facts demonstrating that white privilege is alive and well. I cited statistics showing systematic disadvantages that still plague people of color. I gave my own personal experience as a white woman with a significant disability. I have experienced both sides of the privilege paradigm. I know what it is like to not have the privileges of others. And I have seen white privilege work even for me in many situations, including when I fervently wished it wouldn't.

I never see any indication that my reasoned arguments sway anyone who has already fallen under the spell of this rhetoric. And I rarely go to the mat over it anymore, though I do make a point of speaking up against it. The eventual exhausted silence of people who know better is one of the the things this kind of propaganda counts on. 

But the other thing it counts on is our lack of understanding for the identity crisis of the white working class. I am certainly not going to subscribe to a doctrine that says they are the victims of the past fifty years of domination by mythical "liberals" and people of color grabbing all the hard-earned spoils. But they do have grievances against the corporate-tilted economy which leave them vulnerable to scapegoating propaganda.

Across the board, that middle 80 percent of Americans have lost wealth and income in recent decades. Even the top bracket-the 80th to 90th percentile of the US economy, the people just poorer than the top ten percent of all Americans--has declined in wealth. Their financial strength has seeped toward the wealthiest ten percent.

To say this may seem like whining. The top half of this middle 80 percent is not suffering terribly in material terms. They have large homes, on average several vehicles, security, travel, health care, college education...

Why would they complain?

Because their fortunes are declining, not growing and the American ethos is all about growth and making sure one's children have it better and easier than the current generation. And for decades that has clearly been impossible for the middle 80 percent... especially for those who are white.

Why do I say "especially for those who were white?" Again, I'm not talking about the poor white victims.

The white people were in that middle 80 percent and they lost ground. But with the growth of populations of color as well as civil rights laws and expanded educational opportunities for two generations, some people of color have seen improvement in their circumstances over the past few decades. Not the majority of people of color, but a few.. It isn't improvement of their wealth bracket but rather that some individuals have climbed the ladder of wealth brackets to take their places along side those white members who were already there. 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

White people did not lose ground to people of color. The white middle 80 percent lost ground to the white top 10 percent. But if you're living in a suburb where you can't see the top 10 percent and you can see the newly well-off black people next door as well as your own slowly eroding security, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. 

Add to that several harsh generation gaps that have cut white Americans off from cultural roots and created a sense of empty identity. Pile on top the misinterpretation of integrated history to be a litany of white collective guilt. And there is a recipe for resentment, anger and frustration that we are now seeing rise like an unstoppable chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar.

Trump has been elected and some have taken his election as a sign that it is now more possible to vent racial resentments. But instead of releasing tension this has only intensified the tenor of the frustration. In the end, we may find that Trump is the least of our worries and that a much greater danger threatens the nation and the rest of the western world. 

In the study of ethnic conflicts around the world, it has becomeclear that violence between ordinary people stems most often from the resentment of a privileged portion of the society when it sees its monopoly on power slipping. According to a paper in World Politics in 2010, a statistical analysis of 157 cases of ethnic violence--including that in Chad, Lebanon and the Balkans in the 1990s--showed that the decline of privileged groups is highly correlated to extreme violence.

Most unfortunately Trump is only a symptom of a disease--one that has spread well beyond the borders of the United States. It is past time, we acknowledged this. Simple suppression of racial tension and resentment will likely result in a more explosive reaction. It will take much more to avert violence and strengthen our open, multi-racial society to meet the challenges of climate change and resource shift. 

It is time to listen to one another. It is time to seek allies across racial lines. If Trump and his ilk wish to divide us by race, that is the first thing we must resist. 

The good things about hard labor

The sun's going down through the budding trees on the ridge. It's nearly time for a well-deserved break. Come join me for a cup of tea--mint, wild oregano, maybe a pinch of echinacea smelling of last year's honey bees.

The last rays dazzle gold through the greenhouse walls. I pat the final arugula starts under the rich soil. Then I lug a full watering can from the rain barrel to sprinkle the seedlings, greens and herbs. The last frost may not have come yet and it is still just a tad early for the drip lines.

Public domain image

Public domain image

My steps are slow. My arms and legs feel like heavy weights. But the animals are fed and the rest of the starts watered. The only thing left is to read a story to the kids.. This evening we read a story about a rain forest frog and several poems on cats as the light fades in the sky.

My hands are dry from the soil. Lavender, pine and sage salve with olive oil is good for that. I sit rubbing it on in the dim kitchen. The only light comes from my husband's video screen, a Beltane candle in the shape of a leaf and the dying light of the sky.

I have to handle my mug carefully now--with hands slick from a thick layer of salve. A sip of tea, then another. Relaxation flows down my back.

Spring days are long, filled with digging in the earth, hauling water, separating fighting kids and cooking meals. My neighbors largely don't live this way. They are exhausted too, but more likely from screens, meetings, offices and shopping. Not a day passes when I don't hear someone question my different way or call it some form of "extreme."

Extreme? To cook one's own meals? To grow a garden for food and medicine? To insist on food made from raw materials? To expect that children's play should mostly be active? Even to insist that children have tasks to help with at home? 

In some places people love the idea of "the simple life," but rarely do more than make token passes at it. It isn't simple. Not that I've seen. But neither is it extreme. 

It is a conscious way of living, a choice to make--not once but in every moment of every day. You have to know why you're doing it each moment. Otherwise, how can you keep making that choice?

Here are some few of the advantages of the conscious life:

  • Self-respect
  • Moments of beauty
  • Less chemicals
  • The ability to take the problems of the world less personally
  • More healthy days
  • Satisfaction of the primal instinct for food security
  • Muscles that ache in a good way
  • Happy taste buds
  • Confidence and competence 
  • A sense of the ground beneath your feet as living being
  • Peace within

There is nothing quite so good as that moment of peace at the end of a day that was as much physical as intellectual, where a job with modern technology is balanced by the sheer physicality of growing one's own food and medicine and where physical labor is balanced with space for creativity. It is too easy to take the world's brokenness personally, unless  you have your own grounding.

A spring in dry country: Should we saddle our kids with the burden of saving the world?

I was fourteen when I went on my first overnight wilderness trip without an adult. And my only companion was eleven. We were unlikely best friends--an awkward, socially failed, legally blind teenage girl and an relatively normal eleven-year-old boy. But I like to think we had more fun than most.

On this particular occasion, we hiked to the top of Mount Emily on the western side of the Grande Ronde Valley in northeastern Oregon. The steep mountainside happened to extend directly from my friend Ethan's backyard 2,500 feet into the air. We did ask permission to do the overnight hike, but none of our parents believed we would go through with it... until we were gone.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

We climbed the mountain and emerged  on the breathtaking ridge line topped by a dusty road around midday only to find a water jug tied to a forlorn trail marker with a note from our mothers on it. They had driven the significant distance winding around the back side of the mountain to try to find us once they realized we were serious. We joyfully guzzled the water and walked giddily through the sage brush to the massive overlook rocks and sat swinging our legs over hundreds of feet of empty space. 

Then we headed for the campground. Ethan's eccentric artist/scientist father (the only adult we had really consulted with very much) had promised that the campground would have more water. When we arrived, we found the campground long abandoned and the hard, semi-desert rocks bone dry in the afternoon sun. A broken pipe was the only evidence that water had ever come to the surface there. We had not rationed either our original water supply or the gift dropped off by our worrying mothers nearly as much as we would have if we had known there was no water at the deserted, so-called campground. 

Now we had only a few swallows left, the afternoon was long and hot and we hadn't seen another human since we started up the trail early that morning. Quickly we scanned the outline of the mountain around us, looking for the tell-tale  dip of the horizon that could signal a water source... in theory at least. As I recall it, we spotted several dips and settled on one more or less at random. Then we set out for it, walking another forty-five minutes or so toward our selected goal. 

When we reached the place where the dusty wilderness trail we were following crossed the dip, we found to our relief and joy, a damp patch of mud and moss. We scrambled off the trail and up the shallow draw until we found a clear trickle of water that became "our spring." It was a moment of triumph, almost a coming of age for mountain kids. We had gone into the wilderness alone, encountered difficulty and found water in the semi-desert of northeastern Oregon. We had proved our survival skills and were elated and empowered. 

We camped at the spring that night under the stars. And returned home conquering heroes the next day.

But when we told adults about our water troubles and the spring we had found, someone callously mentioned that the spring would soon be dead and dried up, just like the water at the campground. There was a clear-cut logging project planned that would decimate that little draw and the mountainside around it. In this dry country, the spring, which was already no more than a seasonal seep, would almost certainly dry up.

I was shocked but still newly empowered by my experience. I grew up in an activist family and had already been to several anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s as a child. So, I got out paper and pen and wrote a letter of protest to the local newspaper. In many situations that would have been the end of it. But in this case, someone wanted to prove a point. A few months later, I found myself back at the little draw on the mountain in the company of two Forest Service employees. They had invited me along to view the aftermath of the logging.

I'm not sure what they meant to prove. They said they wanted to show me that I was wrong and that the clear-cut was fine. But clear-cuts are never pretty and this one was no exception. We never could find exactly where the seasonal spring had been. The landscape of devastated branches and torn top-soil was distinctly depressing. It was late summer by then and there was no water, but there wouldn't have been any water, even without the logging. The question was more about whether it would return the next spring. 

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

I knew I had lost that round. I was a kid and they were adults. I was just one individual, and they represented a state agency. They wanted me to prove there had been a spring or else be quiet.

For the moment, I was quiet... but I learned and I remembered.

Today I'm a mother and I have my own kids to bring up. In the years, since my first activist letter to the newspaper, I have immigrated to a new country, led a national anti-war movement there, participated in a Greenpeace blockade camp that successfully stopped a foreign military installation in a traumatized country, made a anti-racist documentary film, organized and negotiated with political parties and activists of many stripes from all over the world, and written thousands of articles and letters. 

I've seen a few small successes in my time. The Greenpeace camp and the campaign that surrounded it was a highlight. But I've also seen a lot of passion and work go for naught--or so it seemed. My kids are astute--apparently more so than I was--and they ask me if writing letters and going to protests works. 

We pick up litter in our little town. I volunteer at the school to do inter-ethnic coexistence workshops in an area with a lot of racial tension. I still write letters and have sign building materials on hand. Recently I published Shanna and the Water Fairy, a children's book for earth warriors and water protectors. The book essentially takes my experience as a teenager trying to defend a vulnerable spring and gives it a better ending. It's still realistic though. It could have happened that way.

Sometimes we do win. But mostly we don't win quite so overtly. 

There are some today who argue that I shouldn't even tell my children about social justice and environmental issues, that it is unfair to fill their heads with a desire to make a difference and supposedly "save the world." In my generation it was more common for parents to teach their children these things. Today in the twenty-first century, we are supposed to be beyond all that--a savvier,  brainier generation focused on kids being "gifted" and learning rare martial arts and musical instruments at younger and younger ages.  

But there is an emptiness I feel in my children's generation, something beyond the regular angst I knew as a child. Sure, I suffered because I championed lost causes. I cried over my little spring. But it never set me back. It is only as an adult that I have ever considered whether the struggle for a better future is worth the sweat and heartache of activism. As a child, I knew that it gave me hope and that was enough.

And so I tell my kids activist stories and show them little things we can do. I shield them from graphic images of violence and despair to some extent, but I do tell them about the horrors of today in terms that a six-year-old and an eight-year-old can grasp. I live my values in the small stuff as well as the big issues and that will have to do.

Ten real reasons for hope

You get a rare evening off but fall asleep before you can do anything fun. Then you wake up in the morning at the beginning of a predictably rugged week with the beginnings of a headache. 

Will it never end? Will nothing ever get easier? They used to tell me it would, when I was a kid. They lied. Now they even admit it was just to keep me going.

Creative Commons image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Photostream 

Creative Commons image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Photostream 

A morning like this--that's the time to think of the real reasons for hope. Because on mornings without the strain, the crying kids the headache or the harsh world news it's too easy to think of unicorns and rainbows with fluffy white clouds on both ends.

Those things don't last and we need something a lot more substantial than Wheaties to carry us through. That's why I'll take advantage of a heavy morning to write out the reasons for hope that still have some power at times like this.

It's an exercise I encourage you to try. Consider it to be one of the uses of adversity. Hard days have the potential to help you differentiate between fantasy and what truly gives you sustenance. 

Here then are some of my "real reasons to hope" from one too many mornings:

  1. When technology goes berserk, it helps surprisingly often if you speak gently, reassure the device and give it one solid whack on a corner. It doesn't always work of course, but the times it does save a lot of headache.
  2. Even when I'm ready to strangle my kids, my hormones still work their magic. Even without the ties of genetics--I am ready to try again to be endlessly patient, once I have been out of their presence for at least six hours.
  3. After chemical spills and other ecological disasters, many natural ecosystems recover faster than scientists predict and the first plants to return are usually medicinal herbs. For example, while ocean corals are dying due to global warming, scientists have found that if temperatures are brought back under control, coral has a remarkable capacity to bounce back from near death experiences, if it is not entirely killed. 
  4. I argue with my closest family members and we'll never agree on some things, but we always keep coming back, working through hurt feelings and continuing the relationship. It isn't a lack of conflict that makes a strong family. It is the coming back afterwards.
  5. Even though animals were once thought to be all about draconian survival of the fittest, scientists have found that compassion and empathy are integral to many species. It isn't that difficult to capture on film instances of an animal aiding another animal in distress, even an animal of a different species.
  6. No matter how many times I've been hurt or disappointed, I still feel everything intensely. I am still not numb.
  7. Despite all the hype about borders and ideologies, rural people from different countries can still understand one another without words. When I worked on a subsistence farm in Zimbabwe for a week, I didn't always know how they did things, but having grown up that way myself I did understand the values--the thrift, the work, the hard playing, the bonds that make family more than just about genes.
  8. If you cut an apple in half horizontally, it has a five-pointed star (or a magical pentacle) inside.
  9. I am never bored. I always have something necessary, useful, interesting, beautiful or helpful to do. I may have to do quite a few boring tasks but not for boring reasons.
  10. The earth turns. Everything in the universe makes a circle. Everything dies. But new life is always born, somewhere somehow. Life will out.

Why I'm wary of inspirational quotes

According to the going social media trends in inspirational quotes, everyone is responsible for their own actions, you should never put off until tomorrow the fun you could have today, the worst mistakes in life are made by being too cautious and good parents are those who stick around and provide unconditional love.

I get the impression that our western social standards are schizophrenic. 

I sometimes wonder what other cultures think of these western social ideals. Take my Vietnamese relatives and the Vietnamese shop keepers down the street. They would give short shrift to ideals of seizing the day and following your heart's desire for the sake of you-the shining individual.

In fact, women, especially young women, in many cultures seem to get the brunt of collective and long-range modes of thinking. 

In many cultures, it is a person's ultimate duty to stand by their family and create stability. Beauty is found in these cultures, but it is often the beauty of elegance and home. This may be seen as an old-fashioned and oppressive worldview by modern westerners. But it is at least a coherent one.

I'm not actually advocating the oppression of women or the suppression of individuality. But I'm not certain that our own cultural norms offer us the healthiest possible alternative. 

We as western women (and men too actually) are told that we are simply uninspired and lack gumption if we are not out fulfilling our dreams of creative work, travel and romance. But at the same time, in the same culture and often in the next meme, we are told that we bear full and merciless responsibility for our every impulsive action. And heaven forbid, we have children and then decide that our heart's desire and creative passion isn't devoting our every waking moment to molding our children into prodigies. 

The cultural ideals in some places may be restrictive. Ours are crazy-making. And I think we can do better.

I've seen plenty  of these inspirational quotes, but today's rant was sparked by this little gem, "The greatest mistakes we make are the risks we don't take. If you think something will make you happy, go for it, so that you don't live your life asking 'what if" and telling yourself 'If only.'"

Before you nod compulsively to this seemingly wise and motivational statement, take a closer look: "If you think something will make you happy..."

Indeed? Happy for how long? For five minutes? For five days? For as long as it takes to raise the resulting child, break the resulting addiction or pay off the resulting debt? 

Okay, I sound like an overcautious curmudgeon there and I have taken more than my share of hair-brained risks in my day, so I really shouldn't be championing the conservative side of whatever argument might be perceived. 

It isn't even just the poor phrasing, of this quote that got way too many glowing comments and adoring likes on social media for my stomach. It is merely the hypocritical social expectations of our times. 

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

If a friend asked me for advice when weighing whether or not to take a risky leap (though I assure you no one has asked me), this would be my advice or my version of feet-on-the-ground inspiration:

Periodically we come to crossroads in life where we have a choice. In fact, we pass through more crossroads than we usually realize, missing possible turn-offs, detours, dead-ends and short cuts due to forward momentum and habit. Often we don't know how major the crossroads is even when we do stop to take notice. We only know that in retrospect.

I remember one such crossroads I encountered, when I was about to graduate from university. The president of the university called me into his office. I had never personally met him before and had no family connections, so this was really kind of a big deal. I was graduating first in my class, but I didn't know that at the time.

Anyway, he sat me down and tried very hard to convince me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford with the backing of my university. I turned the opportunity down on the spot, politely enough I recall, but not really with an understanding of how major it was to be asked to do this by the president of the university. I was twenty-two and pretty darn naive.

Oh, it was tempting. I loved universities and I can get lost in academic inquiry. I had romantic visions about the ivy-covered walls of Oxford. And I did want to travel. 

Still, I turned down the chance to continue my education debt free in a wonderful environment because I wanted to be an international journalist. I saw opportunities slipping through my fingers and I wanted to enter the world of work NOW.

I got on a bus to New York City and from there a plane to Prague and a train over the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Kazakhstan. In the next ten years, I made two shoestring documentaries, wrote for national newspapers and magazines, covered a small war, traveled in 30 countries, lived on 5 continents, led a successful protest movement against a needless military incursion into one small country and wrote my brains out.

After ten years, I was broke, still almost entirely unknown, without any graduate degree and without a stable job or career. I had kids and I'm still without a stable job or career. I write and teach English and have a pretty mundane life. Journalism has changed and the kind of international stringer work I did in 1999 pretty much no longer exists.

If I had taken the Rhodes opportunity, which was more tempting than I wanted to admit at the time, I would have missed the end of a journalism era--a time when freelancers really could go out, grab a story, pitch it and write the national headlines.

And what I did I give up? I really don't know what wonders I might have found on that other road, but I still love research and universities. I probably could have really done something cool at Oxford if I had tried for it and won the scholarship (not a certainty but I had a good shot). I probably would be a lot better off today and have a lot more prospects for my future.

But the experiences and work that made me who I am? How could I give that up? 

This is the thing. If you ask me "what if" or tell me "if only," I can sometimes feel almost sick that I didn't take certain chances or in some cases didn't let other chances lie. Knowing what I know now, I might just go for the Rhodes scholarship. Knowing that journalism as we knew it would be over by 2004. I had only a few years to do that anyway and I had to give up... well, everything else really. My brief journalism career came at the expense of all the glowing opportunities of my twenties.

And if I knew what I would have gained on that other road--which I don't even now--I might well want to go back and change the past. BUT I didn't know those things. I stood at the crossroads and knowing only what I knew then, I still stand by that decision.

You have to take the best shot you can at happiness and a fulfilling life.

Sometimes you can't take certain opportunities. Sometimes being an ethical person means you stay and take care of a sick person or a child and don't pursue your dreams of travel right then. Sometimes caution causes you not to quit your job and sell your house to become an artist and go eat, pray, love for a year. Sometimes the leap of faith you take may land you in a situation much more restrictive than the one you left. And sometimes... just sometimes a completely illogical and incautious risk leads to the most wonderful results.

And you can look back and think "Oh, I should have listened to those inspiration quotes and taken the plunge." (Or if your hardships came from listening to inspirational quotes, you can cry, "Oh, if only I hadn't listened to such drivel and taken such risks?")

Alternatively, you could look back and say "I did the best I could with what I knew at the time."

And if that statement is really true and you weren't making decisions under the twin spells of fear or delusion, you've got nothing to regret. 

Put down your burdens and breathe in the spring

The first day when the vibrant green of new grass shows through, the first moment when the sun really warms your back again--it may be unseasonably early but spring is still good.

In some ways, this spring feels better than any I can remember. It's partly because I have two functional greenhouses--an investment of two years of physical labor and financial scrimping. Now they are already full of leafy young greens, radishes, carrot tops just poking through and young cucumber vines braving the still chilly mornings. I also have chickens laying smooth eggs that fit perfectly into the palm of your hand and impart a sense of comfort and security. 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

That makes this spring particularly lively and the changing weather gives me reason for a bit of joy. But more than that I am thankful for the contrast from the rest of life. My work necessitates sitting at a computer for hours on. A few more hours are spent in on-line, telephone and graphic design activism to help civil rights and democracy-oriented organizations back home in the US in this difficult time. . 

I'm heartened to see the surge of interest and activism in the United States over the past few months after what felt like decades of apathy and disinterest on issues such as climate change, the undermining of our democracy, structural racism and rule by corporations. But the activist work still often feels insurmountable and i am like a kid getting out of school when I get up for a break and go to work outdoors. 

Old wisdom has it that you often love the time of year in which you were born and I suppose that might explain part of it. But there is no period when the air is cleaner or better than it is in early spring. The coal smoke of fall and winter has blown away on brisk winds and washed away with the gentle, misty rains. Summer dust and heat has not yet come. Now and for the next month and a half, it is delight to take big lung-fulls of the air, even in town. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I know there are people who suffer from pollen allergies even this early in the year. That seems like a particular injustice. And I do mean injustice. Rates of allergies and rates of chemical pollution and use of pesticides are closely correlated. I count my blessings having grown up far from industry and large-scale agriculture. Thus I find myself allergic to almost nothing, except hypocrisy and money (including m own oddly enough).

My hands are a bit cracked and dry from all the digging in garden soil, but I have herbal salves for that. I hung wind chimes on the back deck, so the song of the wind and the soft clucking of the ducks follows me as I water and coax the young plants.  

Meanwhile, on-line there seems to be a campaign to divide Democrats from supporters of third parties or independent options. Many on both sides will defend their perspective at all cost, but the hand of corporations such as social media and internet companies in gleefully promoting the acrimony is also clearly evident.

Even I have been cut out of two of the largest on-line activist organizations, though I refrained from negative comments, never used crude language and only rarely posted articles at all. The official reason given in one group was the scandalous discovery (found by browsing my page and history, rather than through my comments) that I had volunteered to help a local Green Party chapter. I never knew that was against the group rules as it was supposed to be a progressive activism group, and the other large progressive group banned me though I had not made any recent comments, most likely due to shared administrators with the no-Greens-allowed group.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It is actually not that hard to shrug off my momentary resentment at this exclusion from the largest on-line activism groups. It is less easy to banish the fear that wells up inside me. We have this a slim chance to resist tyranny and we seem to be letting it slip away for the most banal of reasons--infighting between those who should be allies. And worse yet, while some of this infighting appears to be organic, some is spurred on by precisely those interests that stand to lose if democracy wins the latest arm wrestle with fascism. 

My heart is heavy after an evening spent on my publishing work and a discussion with the Google content removal department, which despite the filing of official complaints refuses to remove links to pirated copies of my books. Google's official policy continues to state that they will remove such links and no reason was given in their official refusal letter, except that they believe since i published the work, I agreed to its "public" use, despite copyright laws. 

It appears that the corporate behemoths will always flatten you in the end, even when you think you've found a crack in their glass ceilings. My professional work is fragile and completely at the mercy of companies like Google. And if all life was contained in their computerized world, it would truly feel hopeless.

The morning sunshine blazes through my windows, greeted by a wild chorus of birdsong from the tangle of brush in the empty lot next door.. I don't know what the future holds. But for now I skip outside, giddy the way I was hopping off the school bus long ago, and sink my bare hands into the earth. It is a time to put down your burdens, breathe out your sorrows and take time to be one with spring.

Corporate power and free speech

A video interview with author Arie Farnam

This is a repost of the first in a series of video interviews on hope and integrity in a perilous world. This interview focuses on the influence of corporations in society and how individuals respond with integrity. 

While the vast power of corporations often feels indomitable and the manipulation of our culture and media can be demoralizing, understanding of and resistance to tyranny is spreading.

As the progress of the past fifty years in civil, economic and environmental rights is under threat, we come to see that we have come a great distance and have much to believe in and lives worth defending. 

YouTube Link

YouTube Link

This interview also touches on how the struggle for social justice inspired my writing in 2014. The dystopian series that came out of that time is eerily predictive of our waking reality in 2017. That's why I'm reposting the video. As we struggle with immediate danger, we must also remember how we came to this situation in order to prevent its repetition in the future.

I write my stories because I cannot help myself. Writers must write. But I also write them to reach out and wake up the world from the malaise of apathy and despair. Mine are stories of hard-won and authentic hope and these video interviews tell how and why.