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Op Ed

The health care reform law may yet become a historic achievement for President Obama and the Democrats. But that appears less likely all the time.

Democrats had been trying to pass universal health insurance (or something close to it) since at least Harry Truman’s administration. In 2009, with Obama in the White House and a 60-vote Senate majority, Democrats had a chance to provide health care coverage for tens of millions of uninsured Americans, including some six million uninsured Texans. It was the kind of opportunity that comes around once every few decades. And they may well have blown it.

Two federal judges, both Republican appointees, recently declared parts of the law unconstitutional. On Jan. 31, Judge Roger Vinson sided with 26 states, including Texas, that challenged the law’s constitutionality. The key point of contention is the law’s so-called “individual mandate,” the provision that requires every American to have health insurance or face penalties. Conservative legal scholars contend that Congress overstepped its authority by passing the individual mandate because it punishes Americans for simply doing nothing. Vinson agreed with that interpretation and, as a consequence, struck down the entire law. Two other federal judges—appointed by Democrats—have upheld the statute. Ultimately, the law’s fate will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

We’re not constitutional scholars. We don’t presume to know whether the health-care law will survive its legal challenges. But we do find the individual mandate troubling. It represents the first time the federal government has ever required all its citizens to purchase a product from a private company.

There were better, more progressive ways to reform the health care system. We hoped the bill would include a public option or government-run plan that would offer an alternative to insurance companies. The GOP would have thrown a fit, of course, but there would have been no question about its constitutionality. Instead, Democratic leaders foolishly sacrificed the public option in an effort to make the bill more moderate and to appeal to Republicans. And what did it get them? A legal fight that may scuttle the entire legislation. 

If the federal courts overturn the reform law, Democrats will be to blame. They should have followed their progressive ideals. By not doing so, they may have wasted a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

ButtonsWrap-up – The Brand New Texas Observer Rabble Rouser!

The 10th annual Rabble Rouser Round-Up and Fat Cat Schmoozefest shook the halls of the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center on 2/2/11.  It was a true community celebration with outstanding contributions from many. We’d like to thank a few of those who made it all possible:

Our dedicated sponsors: Community Leader Lisa Blue Baron Agitators Alec Rhodes, Sharron Rush and Ron Hicks  Rabble Rousers Gilberto Ocañas, Jesse Oliver, Planet K Gifts; Legislative Sponsors Nancy Alliegro, Lloyd Doggett, Deece Eckstein, Melissa Jones, Susan Longley, Eve MacArthur, Jim Marston, Mary Nell Mathis, Jim Thatcher and Diana Seidel, Kelly White. Venue sponsors Austin City Council members Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison and Randi Shade

Program participants
Genevieve Van Cleve was an outstanding emcee who delivered a program that was lively, insightful, and fun!  Senator Barrientos struck a high note to start the evening with his welcome message.  Jim Hightower was at his Rabble Rousing best, leading the progressive pep rally that lived up to the event name. Austin’s own Representative Naishtat introduced Representative Sylvester Turner who inspired us all with his eloquent look to the future of our state and the challenges facing the Next Generation of Leaders.

GarzaThe People’s Friend Recognition and Award
The Rabble Rouser recognized the 2011 Tyrant’s Foes and presented the $1000 People’s Friend award. Tyrant’s Foes Eddie Aldrete, Ted & Betty Dotts, Nedezhda & Anayanse Garza, Tarsha Jackson, Hilton Kelly, Adan Muñoz, Jr., John Jordan Otte, Israel Reyna, Jamie Schanbaum, Calvin Tillman, and Diane Wilson The 2010 People’s Friend Nedezhda & Anayanse Garza (more at

The 2011 Texas Democracy Foundation Next Generation Leaders
The Rabble Rouser introduced the first class of Next Gen Leaders: Carlos Calle, Sean Chitty, Jennifer Cooper, Brian Dupre, Vanessa Fuentes, Christina Gomez, Anita Grabowski, Trevor Lovell, Angela, Jo Medina, Amaury Nora, Weston Norton, Michael Stapp, Tanya Tarr, Matthew Tejada, Mykle Tomlinson, Glynn Wilcox, Andy Wilson, Alex Winslow, and Curt Yowell. (more at

Rep. Sylvester Turner introduces our 2011 Next Gen Leaders.
Photo - Next Gen Leaders

Food catered by
CinnaMan Desserts, Creative Creations Catering, and Hoover’s. Coffee courtesy of Central Market.

Invitation, program and poster artwork
The incomparable Libby Farris.

Outstanding photographer Alan Pogue.

Rabble Rouser committee
These outstanding supporters were tireless and we are tremendously grateful for their extraordinary effort.  Hats off to event chair Sharron Rush, silent auction chair Cherry Kugel, registration chair Kate Fain and the entire committee: Nancy Alliegro, Carlton Carl, Rachel Farris, Molly Moore, Susan Morris, Laurie Payne, Abby Rapoport, Sharron Rush, Eric Scott, Luba Sinclair, Betsy Thaggard, Viviane Tondeur and Nancy Williams.

Our fabulous auction donors
The ACLU of Texas, All Things Considered, Jeanne Arquel, Austin Film Festival, Brenda Berstis, Sarah Bird, Carlton Carl, Cinnaman Villa, Candace Duval, Alison Eden, Face the Nation, Ty & Kate Fain, George Farris, Gordon Fowler, Fresh Air, Barry George, Ellen Gibbs, Malcolm Greenstein, Ann Hartley, Ann Herbage, Jim Hightower, Allan & Louise Hirst, Jim Holland, Inn Above Onion Creek, D’Ann Johnson, Janet Eager Krueger, Cherry Kugel, Dick Lavine, Dick Leverich, Laura Maclay, Vivian Mahlab, Phil Mathis, Glen Maxey, Davis McLarty, The Melancholy Ramblers, Miles of Chocolate, Betsy Moon, Elliott Naishtat, The Natural Gardener, Nancy Neavel, Paula’s Texas Spirits, Alan Pogue, Amie Rodnick, Ben Sargent, Diana Seidel, Barbara Schlief, Sleeping Dogs Studio, Paul Stekler, Sarah Stevens, Ellen Sweets, Taylor-Made Tutoring, Tesoros Trading Co., Texas A&M University Press, Texas Healing Arts Institute, University of Texas Press, C.D. Weaver, Witliff Galleries, and Doug Zabel.

Until next year, keep Rabble Rousing and fighting to fix the world…and have fun doing it!

If humans were smart, we would bet on our ignorance.

That advice comes early in the Hebrew Bible. Adam and Eve’s banishment in chapters two and three of Genesis can be read as a warning that hubris is our tragic flaw. In the garden, God told them they could eat freely of every tree but the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This need not be understood as a command that people must stay stupid, but only that we resist the temptation to believe that we are godlike and can competently manipulate the complexity of the world.

We aren’t, and we can’t, which is why we should always remember that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. It’s true that in the past few centuries, we humans have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the world works through modern science. But we would be sensible to listen to plant geneticist Wes Jackson, one of the leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, who suggest that we adopt “an ignorance-based worldview” that could help us understand these limits. [Wes Jackson, “Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview,” The Land Report, Spring 2005, pp. 14-16. See also Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson, eds., The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008).] Jackson, cofounder of The Land Institute research center, argues that such an approach would help us ask important questions that go beyond the available answers and challenge us to force existing knowledge out of its categories. Putting the focus on what we don’t know can remind us of the need for humility and limit the damage we do.

This call for humility is an antidote to the various fundamentalisms that threaten our world today. I use the term “fundamentalism” to describe any intellectual, political, or theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris—overconfidence not only in one’s beliefs but in the ability of humans to understand complex questions definitively. Fundamentalism isn’t unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in mistaking limited knowledge for wisdom.

In ascending order of threat, these fundamentalisms are religious, national, market, and technological. All share some similar characteristics, while each poses a particular threat to democracy and sustainable life on the planet.

Religious fundamentalism is the most contested of the four, and hence is the one most often critiqued. National fundamentalism routinely unleashes violence that leads to critique, though most often the critique focuses on other nations’ hyperpatriotic fundamentalism rather than our own. And as the prophets of neoliberalism’s dream of unrestrained capitalism are exposed as false prophets, criticism of market fundamentalism is moving slowly from the left to the mainstream.

Religious, national, and market fundamentalisms are frightening, but they may turn out to be less dangerous than our society’s technological fundamentalism.

Technological fundamentalists believe that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Those who question such declarations are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects—predictable and unpredictable—on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly extensive. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which give us the ability to travel considerable distances with a fair amount of individual autonomy. This technology also has given us traffic jams and road rage, strip malls and smog, while contributing to climate destabilization that threatens the ability of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a system geared toward private, individual transportation based on the car, with more attention to potential consequences. [Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (New York: Crown, 1997).]

Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of industrial, commercial, and household applications, including in air conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the 1930s—non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression.

But wait, the technological fundamentalists might argue, our experience with CFCs refutes your argument—humans got a handle on that one and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. True enough, but what lessons have been learned? Society didn’t react to the news about CFCs by thinking about ways to step back from a developed world that has become dependent on air conditioning, but instead looked for replacements to keep the air conditioning running. [Stan Cox, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer (New York: New Press, 2010).] So the reasonable question is: When will the unintended effects of the CFC replacements become visible? If not the ozone hole, what’s next? There’s no way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question and sensible to assume the worst.

We don’t have to look far for evidence that our hubris is creating the worst. Every measure of the health of the ecosphere—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity—suggests we may be past the point of restoration. As Jackson’s example suggests, scientists themselves often recognize the threat and turn away from the hubris of technological fundamentalism. This powerful warning of ecocide came from 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about. [Henry Kendall, a Nobel Prize physicist and former chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ board of directors, was the primary author of the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” 

That statement was issued in 1992, and in the past two decades we have yet to change course and instead pursue ever riskier projects. As the most easily accessible oil is exhausted, we feed our energy/affluence habit by drilling in deep water and processing tar sands, guaranteeing the destruction of more ecosystems. We extract more coal through mountain-top removal, guaranteeing the destruction of more ecosystems. [Naomi Klein, “Addicted to Risk,” TEDWomen conference, December 8, 2010.] And we take technological fundamentalism to new heights by considering large-scale climate engineering projects—known as geo-engineering or planetary engineering, typically involving either carbon-dioxide removal from the atmosphere and solar-radiation management—as a “solution” to climate destabilization.

The technological fundamentalism that animates these delusional plans makes it clear why Wes Jackson’s call for an ignorance-based worldview is so important. If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed—out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology—I doubt any of us would ever get a good night’s sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for thousands of years, most dramatically in the twentieth century when we ventured with reckless abandon into two places where we had no business going—the atom and the cell.

On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe—such as fossil fuels and, eventually, uranium—is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through traditional selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene—the foundational material of life—takes us into places we have no way to understand.

These technological endeavors suggest that the Genesis story was prescient; our taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil appears to have been ill-advised, given where it has led us. We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation to determine how to recover from our most dangerous missteps.

A good first step is to adopt an ignorance-based worldview, to heed the warning against hubris that appears in the most foundational stories—religious and secular—of every culture. That would not only increase our chances of survival, but in Jackson’s words, make possible “a more joyful participation in our engagement with the world.”


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

You’ve no doubt heard a lot about Texas’ $27 billion budget shortfall. And you may have read about Gov. Rick Perry’s attempts to distract everyone by declaring
eminent domain, sanctuary cities and voter fraud as “emergency” issues for the Texas Legislature’s 82nd session. What should really worry you are the issues you haven’t heard about. In a saner world, Perry would have put forward the real emergency item—insurance reform.

Insurance reform isn’t sexy. But, besides the budget, no piece of legislation this session will affect more Texans than the bill to reform the state Department of Insurance. Texas has the highest homeowners’ insurance rates in the nation. We reclaimed the top spot in 2010, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Texas homeowners pay an average premium of $1,460 a year. That’s double the national average.

Texans pay so much to insure their homes because of varied and complex reasons. Our weather is part of it. Hurricanes and tornadoes batter the state and cause millions of dollars in damages that insurance companies must recoup.

But Texas also has high rates because the state has continually refused to regulate the homeowners’ insurance market. Large companies such as State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance and USAA have virtual free reign. They can raise rates whenever they want without permission. They simply have to notify the Department of Insurance that prices are going up. If the rates are too high, regulators can ask insurers to lower them or can take them to court. Those mechanisms have rarely worked. State Farm, the state’s largest insurer, has defeated state regulators in court repeatedly since 2003, when the Legislature last attempted insurance reform.

This session, the Insurance Department is up for sunset review—a process in which the Legislature studies and reforms state agencies every 12 years. Consumer advocates are pushing lawmakers to strengthen regulation of homeowner policies and require the commission to approve rate hikes before they take effect. That seems a common-sense reform. But Republicans in the Legislature have consistently opposed it, yielding to intense lobbying by the insurance industry.

That pattern must change this session. GOP lawmakers have repeatedly opposed tax increases because, they argue, Texas families can’t afford it. If Republicans genuinely want to save Texans money, they should impose stricter regulation on insurance companies.

Isn’t it nice to know that whenever America faces a big issue, Americans can count on members of Congress to be there? For themselves.

Take health care. Corporate-funded front groups churned out a mess of lies to foment public opposition to Obama’s modest insurance reform, demonizing it as a “government takeover” of our health care system. It was no such thing, but that hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers from making a theatrical show of trying to repeal Obama’s reform and “save” the people from the horrors of socialized medicine.

Yet in all their blathering, none of them has offered to save themselves from the horrors of taxpayer-provided health care. Congress critters get Cadillac coverage at our expense, plus they have their own in-house bevy of government doctors. Why don’t they vote to eliminate this privileged bastion of socialism?

Then there’s the horror of gun violence that exploded most recently in Arizona. In response, members of Congress rushed forward with creative solutions. It’s all about public safety, they exclaimed—by which they meant saving themselves from the public.

Republican Rep. Peter King of New York showed what he’s made of by introducing legislation making it a federal crime to carry a gun within the vicinity of a congressperson. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, proposed an emergency job-creation program that would consist of sealing off the House gallery with bulletproof glass. A couple of members took a bold stand for individual responsibility by announcing that they would henceforth show their respect for constituents by packing pistols when going out amongst them.

Don’t they do enough damage shooting off their mouths? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think members of Congress should be trusted with real guns.

When I first got involved in left/radical political organizing in the 1990s, I don’t recall any of us referring to our efforts as “phone activism” or calling ourselves “fax activists.” A friend who started organizing in the early 1960s assured me that he never heard the term “mimeograph activism” in those days. We used telephones, fax machines, and mimeographs in our organizing work, but the machines didn’t define our work and we didn’t spend a lot of time arguing about the implications of using them.

Today the terms “online activism” and “internet activist” are common, as are discussions about the positive and negative effects of computer-mediated communication (CMC) on left/progressive political organizing (See interview with Joss Hands on “Activism in a digital culture.”  Is CMC so dramatically different, or is the left simply caught up in the larger culture’s obsession with life online? I will start with observations that likely are not controversial, and then step back to frame the question in ways that may not be widely accepted.

Two basic points:

First, CMC makes possible the distribution of information to a larger number of people at lower financial cost than previous technologies (though the ecological cost of a communication technology that creates highly toxic e-waste and consumes enormous amounts of energy may make this technology prohibitively expensive in the long run) and allows for easier and faster feedback from the recipients of that information.

Second, while the technology is too new for definitive assertions, there is a seductive quality to CMC that leads some groups and individuals to spend too much of their time and resources online, even when there’s ample reason to suspect that expense of energy isn’t productive.

Two corollary cautions:

First, political information is not political action. Being able to distribute more information more widely more quickly does not automatically lead to people acting on that information. The information must be presented in ways that lead people to believe they should act, and there must be vehicles for that action.

Second, what appears to be wasting time online is not always a waste of time. Just as we solidify bonds with people face-to-face by chatting about the mundane aspects of our lives, we sometimes do that online. Political organizing — like all of life — includes such interaction.

So, it’s true that the things we do with a computer online are often like the things we do, or did, with telephone calls, faxes, and mimeographs; the question is how to most effectively apportion our time, energy, and resources on these machines as part of a larger organizing strategy. In that sense, deciding whether to focus on an email or a door-knocking campaign is a straightforward calculation about resources and the likely outcomes of using those resources in different ways.

It’s also true that we should be more critically self-reflective about our use of computers for political organizing, lest we be seduced by how productive we imagine we are being online simply because of the speed and reach of CMC. Because an email campaign can reach more people quickly, we are tempted to believe it will lead to the more effective outcomes, though the patient work of door-knocking may yield better long-term results if it builds deeper support that endures.

As our organizing tools change rapidly, these calculations of the likely success of different tactics are not always easy to make, but they are relatively simple questions to formulate. Much more vexing are questions about the complex changes in the world in which we are organizing. We like to say the internet has changed everything, perhaps in as dramatic a fashion as the printing press changed the act of reading. But the world of the 15th century was not changing at anything like the speed that the world is changing today. We need to think about the “everything” in which our email messages are bouncing around. We need to be clearer about the scale of the problems we face, the scope of the changes necessary to address the problems, and the time available to us for creating meaningful change. To illustrate these issues, I’ll talk about the state of the ecosphere.


Scale of the problems

For many years activists focused on “environmental problems,” offering ways that humans could adjust the way we live to cope with problems of dirty air, dirty water, and dirty land. The assumption behind those projects was that an environment consistent with long-term human flourishing was possible within existing economic, social, and political systems.

That assumption was wrong, and evidence continues to pile up that the ecosphere cannot sustain billions of people when even a fraction of them live at First-World levels. Look at any crucial measure of the health of our ecosphere — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity — and the news is bad and getting worse. And we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of oil with no viable replacement fuels. And we can’t forget global warming and climate instability. Add all that up and it’s not a pretty picture, especially when we abandon the technological fundamentalism of the culture and stop believing in fantasy quick fixes for deeply rooted problems.

Our troubles are not the result of the bad behavior within the systems in which we live but of the systems themselves. We have to go to the root and acknowledge that human attempts to control and dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves.


Scope of the changes

So, we either abandon the industrial model of development based on the concentrated energy in fossil fuels or we face a significant human die-off in a grim future that is within view. Abandoning that industrial model means a sudden shift in human living arrangements that would be unprecedented in history. We have to redefine what it means to live a good life, dramatically lowering our energy use and reducing our expectations about the material goods we consume.

That means that we not only won’t be getting a new flat-screen television, but that we won’t be amusing ourselves with new Hollywood movies and TV. It means not only that we won’t be able to buy an SUV, but that we won’t be using cars for routine personal transportation. It means a whole lot less of everything, and such changes in living arrangements are impossible within capitalism. While capitalism is not the only unsustainable economic system in history, it is the system that structures the global economy today, and it has to be scrapped. If a transition to a sustainable economy is possible, it also means we will have to abandon the nation-state as the primary unit of political organization and find functional political systems at a much lower level.

These changes in economic, social, and political systems mean significant changes in how we understand the nature of the self, the relationship to other humans, and the human place in the larger living world. When we redefine what it means to live a good life, we will be defining what it means to be human.


Time available

No one can predict the trajectory of a full-scale ecological collapse, in part because it is complex beyond human understanding and in part because how we act in the present can affect that trajectory. But even without the capacity to predict with precision, we have to make our best guesses to guide our choices in organizing. The best-case scenario is that we have a few decades to accomplish these changes. The worst-case scenario is that we are past the point of no return and that the systems in place will exhaust the ecosphere’s capacity to sustain human life as we know it before we can adjust.

If ecological collapse is either coming soon or already in motion, then traditional organizing strategies may be obsolete. The problem is not just that existing economic, social, and political systems are incapable of producing a more just and sustainable world, but that there isn’t time available for working out new ways of understanding our self, others, and the world. There is no reason to assume that the non-human world will wait while we slowly come to terms with all this; the ecosphere isn’t going to conform to our timetable.


Where this leaves us

Though I made no claims to special predictive powers, two things seem likely to me: (1) All human activity will become dramatically more local in the coming decades, and (2) Without coordinated global action to change course, there is little hope for the survival of human society as we know it. When I offer such as assessment, I am routinely accused of being hysterical and apocalyptic. But I don’t feel caught up in an emotional frenzy, and I am not preaching a dramatic ending of the human presence on Earth. Instead, I’m taking seriously the available evidence and doing my best to make sense of that evidence to guide my political choices. I believe we all have a moral obligation to do that.

As a result, I have recommitted to local organizing that aims mainly to strengthen institutions and networks on the ground where I live, rooted in a belief that those local connections will be more important than ever in coming decades. At the same time, I try to maintain and extend connections to like-minded people around the world, hoping that those connections can contribute to the possibility of coordinated global action. In short, I am trying to become more tribal and more universal at the same time, recognizing there is no guarantee that of a smooth transition or success in the long run.

In these efforts, I engage in a considerable amount of computer-mediated communication. Whenever it’s feasible, I favor direct human communication in face-to-face settings, on the assumption that local networks will be strengthened by such communication in ways that CMC cannot foster. I also use CMC to reach out beyond the local, both to learn about global initiatives and to contribute to such initiatives. I try to take advantage of the opportunities offered by CMC without being seduced by illusions of easy organizing through the send button.

So, a summary that likely isn’t controversial: These days almost all left/radical organizers will communicate online, but the social justice and ecological sustainability at the heart of left/radical politics isn’t going to be achieved online.

It’s tempting to leave the discussion at that level, but the questions about scale/scope/time aren’t addressed by that easy summary. With a larger focus, the trouble with CMC — with all the time and effort it takes to learn new programs, keep up with the constant changes on the internet, think about the role of the virtual world in real-world politics — is that it keeps us stuck in the past.

That may seem paradoxical; we’re used to talking about the people who don’t embrace computers as being the ones stuck in the past. After all, isn’t the internet the key to the future? Not if the future is going to be defined by less energy and less advanced technology. If the changes outlined above are an unavoidable part of our future, then we would be well advised to start weaning ourselves from the high-energy/high-technology world, not only in our personal lives but in our organizing as well. That doesn’t mean immediately abandoning all the gadgets we use, but rather always realizing that our efforts to make the most effective use of the gadgets in the short term shouldn’t crowd out the long-term planning for a dramatically different world.

That different world may well impose changes on us before we have been able to face them ourselves. Novelist/poet/critic Wendell Berry captures this when he writes, “We are going to have to learn to give up things that we have learned (in only a few years, after all) to ‘need.’ I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to escape my bondage to the machines.”

The task is daunting, but it is our task nonetheless. Berry is not optimistic about the future, but he concludes with our charge:


“Nevertheless, on every day left to me I will search my mind and circumstances for the means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.”


When we lack answers to difficult questions — or even a way to imagine finding answers — it’s easy to put the questions aside. Better, I think, to let the questions continually disturb us.

Every time I touch the keyboard of my laptop to write an essay that will be posted on a web site, which I will send to editors via email, my thoughts are troubled.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

Lessons From Tucson

It didn’t take long for the Tucson shooting to become just another point of contention in the endless shout-fest between liberals and conservatives. Lost amid the partisan bickering was a lesson that states like Texas should heed: Lack of mental health care leads to tragedy.

On Jan. 8, a 22-year-old former community college student named Jared Loughner snuck up behind Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords while she was greeting constituents in a supermarket parking lot and shot her in the head. He then fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and wounding 13 others.

Within hours of the attack, some left-leaning commentators were linking the shooting with the violent rhetoric emanating from some right wing and Tea Party activists. The problem with this theory is that it lacks a basis in fact. As of this writing, it appears Loughner had no affiliation with any conservative political group. In fact, it’s not clear he had any coherent political ideology. His online diatribes are the jumbled ramblings of someone with severe mental illness.

His classmates at Pima Community College reported that Loughner frequently made “irrelevant and nonsensical comments in classes,” according to TIME. The Washington Post reported that Loughner had written on a recent exam, “Eat + Sleep + Brush Teeth = Math.”

The more you learn about Loughner, the more it seems the shooting wasn’t politically motivated. We’ve found the violent tenor of recent political rhetoric truly dispiriting. But the Tucson rampage seemingly has little connection to anything Sarah Palin has been saying.

If anything could have prevented the shooting, it was probably better mental health care. Arizona, like Texas, has received low rankings from mental health advocates in recent years. The state slashed mental-health funding by 37 percent in 2010 to fill a state budget gap.

Texas should learn from this. The state already ranks 49th in per capita spending on mental health. With a $27 billion budget shortfall, Texas will likely reduce our meager mental health services even further. Severely mentally ill people who don’t receive treatment can become violent, and Texas has seen its share of horrific examples. That includes Otty Sanchez—the schizophrenic San Antonio mother who decapitated her infant in 2009.

We may soon see more tragedies like the Sanchez case. They won’t be as high-profile as the Loughner shooting. But reductions in mental health care will surely lead to loss of life.

One thing is clear from November’s election results: Those new, tea-infused Republican lawmakers are going to end business-as-usual in Congress. As incoming Sen. Rand Paul so plainly put it: “We’ve come to take our government back.”

Ah, yes, a government “of the people,” at last! But as one corporate lobbyist said of the fresh-faced newcomers, “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

Well, it didn’t take long. Just days after their election, even before they had been assigned office space at the Capitol, dozens of these so-called “citizen legislators” were holding lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers at various swank watering holes around Washington. They glad-handed and grinned as such special interests as ExxonMobil, Delta Air Lines and Wall Street bankers welcomed them by slipping thousands of dollars into each of their pockets.

Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was one. Back home, he was pledging to change Washington. Only two weeks after winning a House seat, however, Washington was changing him. He held a “debt retirement breakfast” at the Capitol Hill Club, gleefully greeting corporate influence peddlers who paid up to $5,000 each to curry favor with him. Exchanging winks, the lobbyists knew that business-as-usual was alive and well.

Then there’s Andy Harris of Maryland, a doctor who won a House seat on November 4 by denouncing Obamacare as socialized medicine. But six days later, Andy was in Washington asking, “Where’s mine?” At a briefing for newcomers, Harris was incredulous to learn that the socialized health coverage that Congress critters get wouldn’t kick in until four weeks after he took the oath of office.

Tell me again how this bunch is different? They’re not even in office yet, and they’re already playing the insider game like old pros.


Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work–and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown–at

Perhaps, if Martin Luther King, Jr. were to write a letter on the holiday set aside for him, it might go something like this, albeit more eloquent:

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Forty-seven years ago, in August 1963, while imprisoned in the Birmingham jail for nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, I wrote a letter in longhand to eight religious leaders.  They had criticized me for moving too fast on issues that didn’t concern me, and saw me as an outsider from Atlanta, Georgia.

I reminded my religious colleagues that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

Today, as I look about, I am bewildered by the many political leaders, who assemble each year to commemorate me.  They almost seem to make me a saint.  It is as if many of them never heard my message.  These leaders forget about my unrelenting challenge to this country’s economic structures that leave so many people in severe poverty.  Do they remember I was assassinated while trying to help low-paid Memphis sanitation workers raise their salaries? Do they not hear my lament about the racial barriers in education? 

Instead, they focus only on the “safe” part of my life, not my voice lifted in prophecy against war and poverty, for which I was severely chastised.  How can they not answer those contradictions I spent my life laying bare about the United States?

They ignore the many times I called America to task for using war against perceived national security threats?  Then, it was Vietnam.  Now, it is Iraq and Afghanistan.     

When will Americans heed the vision of Isaiah to transform our weaponry of death into tools for peace to end world poverty? 

Terrorists build off social inequality, lack of education, poverty, and a perverted view of the United States, which they perceive as materialistic and militarily aggressive.  War, the killing of innocent people, and destroying social infrastructure provide them with recruiting opportunities they would not otherwise have.

What if the United States had used the $1.3 trillion it has spent on the wars to build schools and hospitals in foreign lands? Or starting farming coops?  Those would have yielded more success in our common struggle against terrorism.  And the world economy would have been better off.

Instead, 7,000 troops have died – not to mention the tens of thousands now disabled, and a hundred thousand or more non-combatant men, women, and children in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I also lament the attacks on immigrants in our country, people who have migrated here to support their families.  Perpetrating discrimination against them because of their national origin or religion will come to justify discrimination against others, an alarming regression in the hard-fought victories we won so painstakingly.

As Leviticus reminds us, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”

When you get together on my birthday holiday, don’t just celebrate the strides we have made – for many more remain to you.  Organize to end injustice, anywhere and everywhere.   

Your brother,


Harrington is a civil rights lawyer and professor in Austin.

At noon on Tuesday, not long before Tea Party villain Joe Straus was re-elected as House speaker, a woman from the King Street Patriots—a Tea Party-ish group from Houston—stood alone on the south steps of the Capitol, handing out bright orange King Street stickers to anyone who would take one.

Quietly passing out stickers seemed a small tactic for a group that, since diving into the whole politics thing, has become the target of three lawsuits, had a showdown with the New Black Panthers in Houston, and instigated a county voter-irregularity investigation. Basically, King Street Patriots has attracted national attention for just about everything it has done since cranking up in the summer of 2009.

Members and supporters of the group turned out for the first day of the Legislature in big numbers; they estimated about 300 came from Houston by bus or car to the Capitol. If it wanted, King Street could have charged into Austin with bullhorns blaring, cannons blasting, pushing any right-wing message it wanted.

Instead, it went with stickers.

“The time for saber-rattling has come and gone,” King Street founder Catherine Engelbrecht said. “If people can get comfortable and past the fact that we’re conservative, they’ll understand that our objective is not partisan.”

King Street is pushing two issues this session: voter identification and election code reforms. While Voter ID, which would likely suppress some minority and elderly votes if passed, is partisan in some respects, King Street isn’t tackling hot left/right topics like immigration.

Engelbrecht swears she’d like to work with Democrats—if, of course, she was not named a defendant in ongoing lawsuits from Texas Democratic groups.

In the middle of Tuesday’s Tea Party rally at the Capitol, after former state Rep. Rick Green finished yelling about America’s “massive march to socialism” getting turned back by a “tsunami of red, white and blue,” he added that everyone should back the King Street Patriots.

“Get on board with their efforts,” Green pleaded to the people. The people responded with a chorus of cheers.

Engelbrecht, however, stood near the back of the crowd, mostly unnoticed, and quietly said, “Wow. I’m surprised to get a shout-out.”

And so it goes with King Street. In a state still grappling with the Tea Party Question, King Street remains one of the few Texas Tea Party groups that has actually accomplished something tangible. But it also remains to be seen if King Street, and Engelbrecht particularly, has the desire or stomach to continue the journey, full throttle, into state politics.

After one of Engelbrecht’s afternoon meetings landed her at a Starbucks, for example, and everyone seemed to know everyone – the inveterate network of good ol’ boys – she noted, “I’m all about getting a job done, but I can do without everything else.”

Engelbrecht, however, also promised that King Street will grow, in some form or fashion, and everyone still at the Capitol late in the afternoon on Tuesday probably noticed that everyone else had a bright orange King Street sticker plastered to their coat jackets, business shirts or rear-end of their jeans.

Paul Knight, a former staff writer for the Houston Press,  is a freelance writer based in Austin.

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