Friday, February 9, 2018

Growing up with Joe McCarthy, the 'Red Scare,' and the 'Great Acceleration'

So this is a piece of my own story, a rather significant one. It's a story of context which, when broken down and examined, reveals. In this work of promoting the notion of "new" creation, or the urgent need of it as things really fall apart, we can't really understand that moment at which we have arrived without understanding how we got here, right? The path reveals cause and intention.

But too often in this culture, people want to embrace the destination without knowing how they got there - that is, if the destination is comfortable, privileged, and secure. If what made them comfortable, privileged, and secure was a host of regrettable historical events, well, that was then. Life starts from now - that's the American way.

Senator Joseph McCarthy
I was born in 1949, which is why Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy is at the start of this personal narrative. In 1950, the Senator made the bold accusation that Communists had infiltrated the State Department under the leadership of Secretary of State Dean Acheson. This was the beginning of McCarthy's great anti-communist crusade. In 1952, the GOP won the Senate and McCarthy became chair of the Government Committee on Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations. This became his platform for an unrelenting campaign against anyone McCarthy accused of being a Communist, and for him, they were everywhere, penetrating even into the highest levels of government - inside the Truman administration, inside the Eisenhower administration, the United Nations, the Army, Hollywood, journalists and more. His paranoia was fed by the alcoholism that ultimately killed him at age 57.

He was finally brought down politically in 1954 after the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings [of note: the chief counsel for the subcommittee was Roy Cohn who would later in life be a mentor for one Donald Trump. For a disturbing NY Times article about their relationship, go here].

Why is this of importance in shaping my early life? Well, my father was a friend of Joe McCarthy. They went fishing together on Shawano Lake, as the story goes, before he was elected to the Senate. I have in my possession my father's invitation to McCarthy's wedding in Washington DC in 1953, the first time my father flew on an airplane. I have a foggy memory of seeing him off at the airport when I was four. It was all very exciting. As far back as I can remember, I was given the legend of a heroic guy standing up to the Communists and ultimately destroyed by them and their fellow travelers. The man was revered in my household.

As a young child growing up in the 50s, a huge part of my formation was this era of what was called "the Red Scare," which came to life in the wake of World War II as the world became split into two major Cold War factions: the West, anchored in the post-war economic and military prowess of the United States, and the Soviet Union. Both had "the bomb," and the U.S. had proven its willingness to use the weapon even on civilian populations.

Allis Chalmers factory in Milwaukee - Milw Historical Society
Joe McCarthy. The Red Scare. My generation was hugely shaped - culturally and psychologically - by the fear and paranoia of the time, cloaked in an intense, extreme patriotism which I and millions of my generation bought hook, line and sinker. We inherited that from the tough immigrant generation of men who fought in the war, the generation of the Great Depression, the generation of factory workers who, by way of their unions, found their way into the middle class, owning homes and cars, having access to public education and college degrees, by way of the G.I. bill. My father was a musician, big band leader and music contractor, but my uncles worked in factories like Allis Chalmers, part of the defense industry during the war, then maker of tractors, construction equipment, and other large machines. Industrial expansion after the war grew exponentially, as did the ascendant culture of consumerism.

All of which paved the way for the era some historians and ecologists call "the Great Acceleration." In their book, The Shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, list some of its most notable characteristics: "the collapse of European pre-industrial institutions, a new international economic system of free trade, the technologies that were developed in the Second World War and now applied to civilian economic growth, and the establishment of markets and growth as 'central societal values.'"

These factors gave way to a great ravaging of the planet in the search for resources to fuel the engines of this new era of industrial growth, what these writers describe as "an exponential upsurge in human impacts since the 1950s."

Tar sands industrial site, once boreal forest, Alberta
Carbon "governs" this period, without regard to the environmental consequences that had been known and studied since the 1700s! Coal replaced wood and fueled the early era of industrialism, but oil is what made the acceleration possible. From the first oil well constructed by Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania in 1859, to the Spindletop gusher struck in Texas in 1901, to the exploitation of tar sands bitumen in Alberta made possible by new technology, to the fracking frenzy of recent years, oil became our economic god and master.

My background story - and God bless America!

Anyone who is over 60 in this country was shaped by these enormous economic and ecological upheavals - and the upheavals in values that made this era possible. In the mythology of my youth, all of this manifested our national superiority and exceptionalism. We ignored the underside - the rise in poverty and oppression as the inevitable cost of this economic prowess, the racism that protected the greatest benefits for white people, the long lists of military interventions in other countries that included support for brutal dictatorships. In my part of the world, white people moved into the newly built suburbs, away from the foul air and crowded neighborhoods of inner urban areas, and many of those communities, like the one in which I grew up, were zoned for "whites only." [For more on the history of Milwaukee's racial segregation: Reggie Jackson on Milwaukee's Segregation]
1967 Fair Housing March - Milwaukee

Yes, in the north this happened, too. And that current of racism - controlled by laws, legally binding property contracts, or socially enforced boundaries of segregation - formed my childhood culture as well, fiercely so. I can still feel that current deep inside me before I was able to finally turn to it, in the face of the civil rights struggles, and see it for what it really was - is.

Okay, I ended up a child of the late 60s and early 70s. I did indeed turn from that history, often in a rage of moral and righteous indignation, feeling that I had been deceived and lied to. Joe McCarthy's disgrace was not only deserved but there was some poetic justice in the fact that it was the alcohol that finally took his life. My father's interpretation was that he "died of a broken heart."

The story of my life and times changed as I grew older, went to university, began entering the world in a period of great dissent and turmoil. It took me out of that formative culture when I realized - with my ever-deepening descent into its reality, daring to open my eyes to its cruelty, its unjust economic and political structures, and its savage assault on the natural world that I revered - that the national myths were based on belief systems that simply did not match reality, but which acted as social and cultural enforcers of those systems.

Ask me if that journey of discovery was a hard one...over decades...years of choosing to go to places where I could see it, see what injustice looks like from the other side of the privilege in which I was raised. Not wealth. We were never wealthy. But privileged - warm, safe, secure, upper middle class suburban - and white.

Everything has changed since then. The planet is already not the one into which I was born. The ravaging of the planet is leading us to multiple ecological crises all coming at once, climate change being only one of them. Here in the U.S., our political culture is in rapid decline, we are fragmenting into volatile and hostile silos based in tribalism, class, fear, and a deep sense of displacement. This is not because of an election cycle or even James Comey. It is much, much deeper than that. It is an empire at the end of its era and we are not doing well with it.

I grew up in the era of America's post-war rise, into a culture of domination over other peoples, nations, and of the natural world. The hubris that is now part of our national character is little tamed by the crises, disasters, and shocks of the past 20 years. None of us - not a single one of us - knows where this is headed. I'm in a narrative which climax and ending has not yet been written, and some of the possibilities are truly terrifying.

Saved for posterity - Ha!!
It's not what I thought would happen when I was a passionate Barry Goldwater follower back in my high school days, fighting a loud lonely battle to defend his anti-communist credentials there at Holy Angels Academy in downtown Milwaukee. The nuns tolerated me (except for the one that called me "white trash," which didn't help), but it took stepping out into the world and giving reality a good look to shed those influences that shaped me in those early years.

I do not turn away from those roots. I continue to explore them, to penetrate them, to look ever more deeply into the origins of them, why my parents saw the world as they did, what about the real U.S. history shaped our national blinders - slavery, genocide, trauma, displacement and uprootedness, which we have romanticized as people seeking freedom, but which was in reality mostly people fleeing trauma in their countries of origin. This was certainly true for my immigrant ancestors, who fled famine, feudal servitude, and diseases that wiped out whole families and villages back in the 1700s to 1830s.

The denial of who we really are gave birth to many of the influences that shaped me and my generation. Looking at this truth - finally, at long last - may help us shed the false myths and give us a chance, before it's too late, to come to terms with who we really are. The new science of epigenetics reveals that trauma can impact our DNA and that this altered DNA can be passed down to the next generation (see some of the research here). If we could truly grasp what this means, we might be better able to understand some of the troubling ways in which these pathologies are expressed in the social and political culture of our time. I know this challenges that mystical belief that we are all in control of our own destinies. But maybe the proof that we are shaped without our knowing by a human history loaded with violence and trauma of all sorts might help us come to terms with those destructive tendencies, remove judgement and tribalism as responses to them, and make it possible for us to heal them at the source.

Maybe we could learn how to change our own DNA in a way that could help save the planet. Our personal histories hold a boatload of wisdom - if we care, or dare, to go there.

~ Margaret Swedish


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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Peering into 2018 from the vantage point of 2017

We hear about this all the time now, this notion of "story," how stories shape our world, our human need to create them, and how crucial it is to change our stories, as if this alone can transform the world. They can't, but they are important. The stories we tell ourselves, whether true or untrue, that shape "meaning" for us, tell us a lot about why things are the way they are, what we fear, loathe, believe, care about, how we SEE the world.

What happens when the stories we tell ourselves fail us?

This is not a small question. This is a really big one with lots of consequences. We live out of the stories we have told ourselves, or that have been told to us, the ones that shape meaning and beliefs, the ones that form an overarching framework for our lives, how we place ourselves in the world, our reasons for getting out of bed in the morning, for having and raising our children, for the ethics and the priorities by which we live.

What happens when those stories fail us?

I don't believe that stories come first, as so many writers and speakers insist these days. I think they emerge from how humans experience life. They are what humans create to make sense of their experience. Stories come second. The experience comes first - and you can't avoid "experience," raw and real and honest, if you want to create a story that can help us understand who and where and why we are (though the "why" will never be answered or resolved no matter how hard we try, or how much we make myth and story into dogma).

Genesis: Hubble Space Telescope
Thus, it is crucial that we get the "experience" part right. Humans used to live in the rawness of reality before we became economic beings and, even more distancing, technological beings. As the planet changes, as it shifts into overdrive, accelerating the pace of those changes because of how we humans have lived, it is sad, even tragic, to watch most people still clinging to the stories that have failed us. And I mean especially those narratives based in a linear view of progress or salvation, whether progress in terms of ever-advancing wealth and comfort, or salvation within a historical narrative centered on some final second coming that will resolve everything and "end" the world, however that is defined (and only for humans, despite the fact that humans will be long gone before the universe expands into some destiny we cannot know). As human knowledge of the vastness, the depth and breadth of the universe, has expanded, our world visions upon which many great myths and religions have been based (that small cosmos with Earth and humans at the center of God's plan for creation) are exploding. Despite this, to ward off the anxiety and fear that comes from a change in consciousness that is that fraught and consequential, many cling even more to them. This is perfectly understandable.

Once boreal forest. Alberta tar sands industrial site
But what happens when the stories fail us - not the little stories of this moment in the culture but the really big stories about the evolution of the cosmos, or about the ecological destruction of the Earth's living systems from which no God will come to save us? These two insights alone are blowing up much of what humans have believed in the world's major (and competing) belief systems for a few thousand years. And I don't just mean traditional religion either. I also mean things like faith in salvation by way of technology or ingenuity that will help us figure out how to save ourselves without having to surrender our way of life.

What do we do when the old stories fail us, fail to give us an accurate description or view of what's really going on in this world right now? I'm pretty sure the point is not to remove ourselves from the drama, to simply sit down and write a new story. Before we write the story we have to engage the truth of our situation, of our lived experience. We need to look reality square in the face, open the blinders wide, or, better, remove them altogether. We have to stop trying to remove the splinter when the beam that blinds us has blocked our view.

Do humans have the capacity for this? It requires entering into the terrifying existential unknown, to strip ourselves at least for a while of all the constructs we humans have made that led us to this moment when we are facing real ecological catastrophe, to do that so that we can look at them quietly, searingly, honestly, without prejudice, and try to figure out what went wrong.

And so, I try to peer into 2018 from the vantage point of 2017.

I mean, 2017 had a story, didn't it? From the point of view of our planetary crisis, that story was fairly dramatic, with big tragic scenes, plenty of destruction, human emotion, disruption of social life. If we were looking for signs of the times, well, yes, 2017.

Harvey, Irma, Maria - mega-hurricanes with enormous and widespread damage. And while the culture has mostly moved on, a lot of people are still suffering, especially our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Hurricanes, record rainstorms elsewhere, major flooding in this country and many others. For some people it was an exceedingly wet year.

In other places, it was another exceedingly dry year.

Thomas Fire - Source: KTLA
Firestorms: from Oregon down to northern California, the Bay Area, to Los Angeles, and to Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties - millions of acres burned, thousands of homes and other structures, forests and vineyards - destruction hard to wrap one's mind around. In this now rainy season for the L.A. area, December-February, it is still not raining. Without their seasonal rains, get ready for the next fire season, which firefighters will tell you in reality is pretty much all year round now.

Six feet of snow in Erie PA, several feet in other bull's eyes for Lake Effect Snow. Why these record snowfalls this year? Because the Great Lakes are warming. Here in Milwaukee on Dec. 4 it was 64, just before Christmas near 50. Then came the cold. Then came the bitter cold. Warm water means more evaporation means more humidity, and when the cold air arrives, that lake effect machine gets going, feeding off those warm waters. On my side of the lake, a dry dusting from time to time. On the other side? Snowmegeddon!

Extremes of weather. Climate change. Exactly as predicted. Here's another story. The melting of the Arctic Ocean waters is now considered to be irreversible. Get ready for even bigger changes, greater extremes, more dramatic weather events.

Video of Arctic sea ice loss - NOAA

There's a story for you from 2017! Here's one that accompanies it - our political institutions and government agencies are now in the hands of climate change deniers (or liars, more like it) and leaders of fossil fuel industries. This is the part of the narrative when everything looks pretty bleak.

So let's peer into 2018 from that vantage point. We have a political year in front of us, and this one may be the most tumultuous yet. Expect that very little of the heart of this story, the central drama, will get a lot of attention. I mean, if firestorms and mega-hurricanes destroying major urban areas don't do it, what will? What will make us see, finally, the real protagonist of this story - US, we humans, we consumer humans, we technological humans, so alienated from Nature now that we are unable to FEEL our predicament. We are too attached to technology, cultural noise, status, ambition, acquisition, and comfort that we appear to have lost our ability to know when we are in biological/ecological trouble.

The view from here into 2018 is not encouraging, except that...

So, here's another part of that story. That more people are engaging in what amounts really and truly to a struggle for survival. Whether that is fighting fracking and pipelines, defending our waters and land (including our public lands like National Parks and National Monuments), building resilience and solidarity within the human community, especially among the marginalized and discriminated-against, learning again how to raise our own food and prepare it deliciously, engaging rituals that put us back into relationship with Nature rather than into religiosities that create distance from it, going back to learning basic skills working with our hands, the work of cultural creatives - art, poetry, story-telling, music, and more, the ones who hint at the new future emerging from all this destruction and denial, the ones who tell us the truth, put up the inescapable mirrors -- these are also stories that are coming out of actual lived experience, out of despair, out of desperate hope against all the evidence, and then past both hope and despair to new visions for how to live, even while everything is falling apart.

We don't write or tell a story and then change. We live, and then we write stories about living. But those stories are only truthful, prophetic, visionary, profound, if how we live is in sync with the truth of our predicament. If we start with the fires and hurricanes, with the humans living through these events, if we pay attention to the "signs" instead of trying to provide false comfort with the stories we tell, then our stories can really help us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Here Comes Santa Claus - Guest Post

by Libby Comeaux

We survived Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the Christmas-shopper prompts blistering our screens since Halloween.  Prepare for a commercial version of skin cancer – superficial in appearance but portending serious intervention.

I remember my little-girl shock when my mother pulled me aside to break the news that there really is no Santa Claus. No guy like the one in the Coke commercial who came down the chimney while we slept, left presents for us and ate the cookies we set out for him. No Santa?

File:Jolly-old-saint-nick.gifWhat shocked me was that I never guessed it was okay for anyone to tell the truth about Santa Claus. Astutely childlike, I knew all along he was not real. I had internalized a cultural norm that we had to keep our mouths shut and go along with the snow job that was Santa Claus. And all this in a pious, God-fearing family.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Ingredients necessary for the renewal of life

Resilience (because the road won't be easy)
Sharing (to replace lives steeped in a culture rooted in individualism)
Compassion (which also includes patience with one another as we learn)
Creativity (bringing out the best from each of us)
A Sense of Humor (you know why)

Most every example of a story involving new creation, meaning new ways of being, involve these five elements. Of course there are others, but these seem essential.

My garden plot in August
I think of Alice's Garden, the urban farm where I rent a garden plot, the farm I wrote about here a few months ago [Making New Creation On An Urban Farm]. The hundred or so people engaged in growing food there have a common responsibility to care for this space, which grows spirit and community, as well as food. We don't all know one another, and the levels of engagement certainly differ. We are African-American and Hmong and Hispanic and Chinese and White, and probably more. And we are a presence in a neighborhood that sees more than it's share of the impacts of poverty, segregation, racism, and trauma.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Stories of new creation - how we go about transforming the world from the bottom up

Margaret Wheatley writes that we have arrived at a time when more and more of us have come to realize that we cannot "change the world." The crises we face, all that has gone horribly wrong in our world, the large picture we see every day full of war and poverty, the collapse of the political system, resurgence of racism and xenophobia, and ecological devastation - we cannot possibly take on that big picture and think we can alter its trajectory, not without collapsing in exhaustion and despair.

However, we CAN begin to kick the foundations out from under it, one brick at time, by choosing to live a different way. We can choose to break our ties of co-dependence with a western capitalist system built upon fierce individualism and self-interest, that has put us in the role of super-consumer, a role that is helping create profits and power for corporations while ravaging the Earth at the same time in order to feed that system.

We can decide to wrest free of it and work instead to create a world of resilient communities bonded by care for one another and the common good we all share, to create local economies based on creating wellness and happiness for the good of all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What it means to "defend the sacred"

It means defending what is sacred. And increasingly people of deep faith and spiritualities of all sorts are rediscovering that it is creation itself that is sacred - the entirety of the Web of Life on this planet from which we emerged, of which we are part, in which we participate...

...and which we have horribly abused.

More and more around this country we are finding stories of what it means to people to rediscover this sense of "place," this truth of what creation is, what holds it together, that it is by its very nature "community", a community of interrelating beings and dynamic energies evolving over billions of years from which emerged human beings with the capacity to gaze out into the world and find beauty in it.

I don't think we always realize what that is - the capacity to experience beauty. But it is one of the most important sensors we have to seeing our world and knowing, in the most intuitive aspects of consciousness, what makes us alive, and even more, what makes life worth living, or worthy of living.

Help keep the stories coming - to donate
And so what we want to do on this blog now is just bring stories of where this capacity is being best expressed in the defense of what is sacred. More and more I believe that it is this kind of commitment and action that can change the destructive dynamic of industrial capitalist economies, of seeing the Earth as a vast resource to be exploited for human pleasure and enrichment, for economic growth, for the sake of the GDP. Restoring these most fundamental relationships puts us in the front lines against the corporate exploiters. From these stories, we can find inspiration  and examples of how we organize to create a new and different culture that puts us back in sync with the living systems and healing powers of the Earth.

And so this story - the sisters who took to the cornfields of their land in Pennsylvania to defend it from a natural gas pipeline. As you will read in these articles, they were invited to this action by local activists, and now those local activists are in the field with them, meditating and praying, while the struggle goes to court where the pipeline company is determined to take their land via eminent domain - pitting the powers of the fossil fuel industry against the witness of these sisters.

Catholic nuns in Pa. build a chapel to block the path of a gas pipeline planned for their property 

Adorers of the Blood of Christ take pipeline protest to court 

Statement from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, U.S. Region



Lancaster Stand

"No you can't do this, and we are the ones who are going to stop you ourselves." 

We invite you to take that charge to heart. Look around the places where you are and see what needs defending. Join with others already engaged in defending the sacred space where you live. And if such groups do not yet exist - start one.

Think Standing Rock and the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota [Mni Wiconi: The Stand at Standing Rock], and the gutsy, determined community activism in Iowa to try to stop the pipeline there [for example: 32 Arrested After 200 NODAPL Protesters Dismantle Security Fence in Bid to Disrupt Pipeline Drilling]. Think the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been resisted with tremendous creativity in Nebraska and beyond. Think of the DAPL resistance in Louisiana, or the Kentucky campaign to stop the Bluegrass Pipeline, inspired in large part by the refusal of the Loretto Community and the monks of neighboring Gethsemene Abbey to allow it to cross their thousands of acres of "Holy Land." Think Winona LaDuke and Honor the Earth building resistance to Enbridge Line 3 in Minnesota.

I could go on. In each of these cases, not only are the land and waters being defended and protected, but community is being created, and a movement is beginning to look unstoppable.

~ Margaret Swedish

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Making new creation on an urban farm

In the growing movement around community gardens in the heart of many of our cities, we find that something more than food is growing. What we find being planted are seeds of the new way of life we keep talking about, the seeds of new human communities and cultures that will not only survive the coming turmoil, but are likely to thrive.