Gregory Stephen's Weblog
Sunday, May 02, 2004
 
PROJECTIONS AND ERECTIONS
By Gregory Stephens

As soon as I got home internet access the sexual spam began: endless ads offering pills to enlarge my penis, and varieties of black market Viagra and latter-day rhino horn potions. There was also the occasional ad offering various means of increasing breast size.

One ad I’ve gotten over and over cracked me up, and then got me to thinking. It began with the direct pitch that if you were not a superstud, your woman might leave you for an Alpha man. Women were insatiable creatures (so goes this sexual mythology), and only men who could perform like professionals in bed could hope to keep their women at home.

This was the tease that initially tickled my funny bone:
“You can be a sex machine. Finally available to the public. The supplement that made sex stars famous. Make love to her like no other man can. Over and over again, All night long!
Before she can catch her breath, mount her again and again
Pleasuring her AND YOURSELF orgasm after orgasm after orgasm.”

In the real world, if Bubba became such a sex machine, his lady would soon show him the door. And all that goes up must come down. If Bubba wouldn’t come down in bed, his boss would bring him back to earth, after he crashed from exhaustion at work in a few days.

But we’re not talking about the natural order of things here. As this ad says:
“Porn stars shoot an entire movie in just ONE DAY having sex
Many times with many different women! THEY WEREN’T BORN THAT WAY!”

You got that right: we weren’t born that way. But this is only a more direct statement of a persistent message of our culture: so that “YOU TOO WILL BE IN DEMAND,” you must buy (into) whatever it takes—pop pills, go under the surgeon’s knife, subscribe to the latest diet craze, buy the latest beer or car or makeup that makes us super virile and super attractive.

This ad made me think about my son Samuel, who was so fond of his penis as a toddler that he would grab it and hold it out in front of himself proudly as he scampered around the house. Leading with his penis, as it were.

Boys-to-men seem to do this naturally—point their penis at the world and assume that everyone else will be just as impressed as they are. Or bow down before it. What is it that drives us to create, or imagine, bigger penises, bigger weapons, and bigger Gods, in order to keep our women, and our enemies, from straying from their assigned place?

The personal is still the political, I thought, while watching the hyper-macho posturings in campaign 2004. This ad came to mind when a columnist scoffed at the notion that the media or the Republicans could create a caricature of Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal: "That won't work with Kerry. He has actually killed people in the name of the U.S. government, and has the medals to prove it." You can’t call me soft when I’ve killed for my country!

But the highest honor of all is killing for our God, and in this, the good Christian soldiers of the U.S. are all too similar to their enemies. Lt. General William Boykin, a self-described member of the “Army of God,” told church groups about the moment he confronted a Somali soldier. He had the blessed assurance that “my God was bigger than his.”
Fill in the blank: “My ___ is bigger than your ___.”

I am convinced that all this phallic inflation links up: big ego, bigger penis, biggest God, a military erection that just won’t quit, and the size of our enemies that we keep inflating.

What do we expect our underpaid soldiers to do in foreign lands, pumped up with a belief in American pre-eminence, holding the world’s biggest arsenal, convinced that the biggest God is on their side, their ears full of the hatred for foreigners that can be heard from all too many preachers, politicians, and media bigots?

Now we have the photos: American and British soldiers urinating on their captors, forcing them to masturbate, to simulate oral and anal sex. Lest we pass this off as just a male problem, women got in on the fun too.

This state of affairs put Kim Antieau to meditating on the “uncomfortable parallels” between the Bush administration and Islamic fundamentalists. “They are both fanatical in their belief that they are right, they are guided by the divine, and those who disagree with them are the enemy,” she writes. On both sides religious and political beliefs are about the same. Now our soldiers are becoming like what we hate, torturing prisoners, and apparently going even further than soldiers of the jihad, sodomizing detainees.

When we demean others out of hate or anger, we often unwittingly describe ourselves. This is projection—what bothers us about others is something that everyone can see in us, except we ourselves Thus you have the spectacle of Donald Rumsfeld condemning Arab media: "We are dealing with people who are willing to lie to the world to make their case." Or President Bush saying resistance to the American occupation comes from those who “hate freedom”: “It's going to take a while for them to understand what freedom is all about."

I am afraid that “many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die” before a majority in this super-inflated superpower stop lying to themselves, and to the world. It may take an environmental catastrophe like that predicted by the Pentagon, or dramatized in the film The Day After Tomorrow, before Americans come to terms with what freedom costs, when we keep trying to foist our own unsustainable lifestyle on the rest of the world.

I think about that soldier, with his weapon in his hand, who imagined that the greatest gift we could give to the Iraqi people would be to construct shopping malls and fast food outlets, from Basra to Baghdad. And I wonder about the self-absorption of people who do not understand why not everyone wants to live like we do, or worship God by the same name, or submit to the fierce urge to mount someone over and over again.

“Seek good, not evil, that you may live,” said the prophet Amos. If we want to live, we must undergo “a complete revolution in worldview,” re: our tendency to seek out enemies, and to live beyond our means. To survive, we must “refuse to be God,” as Camus remarked. We have to learn to “recognizes limits,” Robert Jay Lifton writes in The Super Power Syndrome. The limits of our bodies, and the limits of the earth we live on, for starters. And if God is great, and created us all, then surely we should learn to admit the limits of our understanding of the Creator, who is certainly capable of revealing His or Her will through more than one nation, language, or species.

Friday, April 02, 2004
 
CONNECTING THE DOTS IN THE BARBER SHOP
By Gregory Stephens

While the insularity of Oklahomans does sometimes drive me nuts, there are benefits to living in my birth state. One is that I get an up-close view of just what conservatives in mid-America really think. Having lived in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, Austin, and Chapel Hill, I know how most progressives tune out this troublesome reality.

On April Fool’s day, I went to my local barbershop in Capitol Hill, where for three years I’ve been paying $5 to cut my hair. This area is almost completely Mexican now, but the barbershop is still frequented primarily by old-timers and “rednecks.” I like to compare the news they tune in to, with what I hear from on-line and Spanish-language sources.

There is a storm gathering outside the U.S. media echo chamber. The degree of truth coming out about “spiritual wickedness in high places” is causing a sea change. I saw this commentary on the Bush regime in an April 1 Buzzflash editorial: "These are people who think that their lying and abuse of our government is ‘heroic’ because they believe that they are imparted with some elitist notion that they know what is best for this nation."

I have a relationship with the people in this barbershop. They have given me moral support and clothes for my children during a custody battle. They know I was a bilingual teacher at an elementary school a block away, and they share my view of the dismal state of public education in Oklahoma.

Jocular asides about family affairs are the order of the day here. I let it slip that April 1 was my daughter Sela’s 10th birthday, and I was soon going to have to buy a gun. A man in a cowboy hat told me about making his daughter memorize some Bible verses before he let her begin dating at age 16.

On TV we watched the footage of American mercenaries being fried in Fallujah. "They're building schools in Iraq,” I observed.

"I guess they need it,” said my barber. “Most of them are probably illiterate."

He clearly was not making connection between building schools in Iraq, and closing schools and laying off teachers in the U.S.

Then Pat Robertson came on and began ranting that John Kerry was clueless about the rise in gas prices. “Somebody needs to do something about the price of gas,” said my barber. Again, I held my tongue. Even the right-wing Oklahoman was discovering the connection between “the incredible 80 million barrels of oil per day” the world was now consuming, and declining production of oil. But arguing that “gas is too cheap as the Age of Oil nears empty” would be political suicide even among most liberals. In my barber shop, I was not going to be the one to observe that we paid far less for gas than Europeans (those unmanly pansies!) which was why we had little mass transit—and a major reason why we were watching footage of American mercenaries being brutalized during an American occupation of an oil-rich foreign nation.

Pat Robertson was saying we had to give free rein to oil companies. Ah, the essence of faith for Bushian Christian conservatives! 67% of regular church goers support Bush, after all. Just as my barber finished my hair, I said, in as neutral a tone as possible: "Pat Robertson says God told him the election will be a cakewalk."

"Who, Bush?" he responsed, with some doubt.

"Yes, Robertson said God told him so."

There was an uncomfortable silence as the employees and customers chewed over the possibility that the enemy was among them. Now, I would never criticize Bush OR a preacher in that environment. Nor would I repeat barbs such as the columnist who recently asked: If Kerry wins the election, will Robertson become an atheist?

I heard televangelist John Hagee in San Antonio proclaim “Thank God for Fox news!” Here in Oklahoma City, locals—Anglo, English-speaking locals, at least—are not likely to hear much beyond the worldview of preachers who claim divine blessing for the invasion of Iraq, and that Bush is going to cakewalk over Kerry. I can’t challenge that directly. But just repeating Robertson’s claim made them uneasy.

Here in the heartland, a lot of people do instinctively feel that, yes, lying and abuse of government is heroic, because government is evil to begin with, and lying to do God's will is the only way to keep "liberals" from destroying this country.

I have been chewing over the undigestable reality that my Christian family hates people like me. They love me, of course, but they listen to voices who vilify my kind. When I connect the dots, it leads me to realize that, in political terms, my family is my enemy.

How would I ask my kin to contemplate this scenario?--“the notion that some radical zealots in the Bush Administration deliberately ignored the threats of a terrorist attack… in order to receive the mandate to invade Iraq, seize its oil and install permanent military bases (14 to be exact). And that Iraq was meant to be only the first step in a plan to expand our military reach, force regime change in nations that resisted U.S. influence, and seize natural resources wherever possible.”

Those aspirations for world dominance were openly proclaimed by the White House and the Project for a New American Century years ago, after all. So independent-minded people, having connected the “factually verifiable dots,” must at least consider the worst-case scenarios about the “messianic militarism” of those currently holding power.

Too much truth has come out to stop this sea change, I suspect. But the world-view of my family and other true believers will not change. We will still listen to different muses; we will still be political enemies; and we will still treat each other with respect, and love.

Sunday, March 14, 2004
 
WE HOPE YOU GOT THE MESSAGE
(A Warning to the Nations: Terrorism is a Two-Way Street)

by Gregory Stephens

The rush to assign guilt for the Madrid bombings shows how easily any news connected to the "war on terror" can be politicized. But the people of Spain have given us an inspiring example of how to throw out leaders who try to twist the truth for political gain.

Watching Spanish CNN coverage of the Madrid bombings March 11, it seemed doubtful that this was the work of ETA, the Basque separatist group. There was the scale of the carnage, and that date again, the 11th, 6 months from September 11. And the location, Madrid, spoke of President Jose Maria Aznar's unflinching support for the American invasion of Iraq, against the will of the Spanish people.

Yet the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP), with elections scheduled for March 14, immediately blamed ETA (an acronym for “Basque Fatherland and Liberty”). It was in the interest of the Aznar government to finger ETA. If ETA was seen as responsible, this would help Aznar’s successor Mariano Rajoy, as the PP had adapted the hardest anti-ETA line. If Islamic militants were involved, then the socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero would benefit. This scenario would indicate blowback for Aznar’s support of the invasion of Iraq, against the opinion of 90% of Spanish citizens.

Within hours of the bombing, opposition parties in Spain accused Aznar's government of withholding information for political reasons. According to a report in El Pais, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio wrote this memo to PP officials: "You should use any opportunity to confirm ETA's responsibility for these brutal attacks, thus helping to dissipate any type of doubt that certain interested parties may want to promote.”

Politricks.

But police began leaking information about why ETA responsibility was doubtful. There was the abandoned nearby van with detonators, and tapes of the Koran. There was testimony about and a videotape of three Arabic youths running onto the train with backpacks. There was a denial of responsibility by ETA, which previously had given prior notice to the press for its public bombings. And the Spanish press reprinted an email claiming responsibility from a group called Brigade of Abu Hafs al Masri.

By March 13, a day before elections, Spanish investigators were "99% certain" of "la pista islámica." But government officials were still fingering ETA. Yet in a remarkable series series of developments, a day after 11 million Spaniards took to the streets to express their grief and anger, thousands of protesters surrounded PP headquarters the evening of March 13. They demanded that the Aznar government tell them the truth. Rajoy went on TV, incredibly, to call these demonstrations “illegal” and “anti-democratic."

But the outrage of Spanish people may have forced the government’s hand. That evening, interior minister Angel Acebes, who had stubbornly insisted on ETA’s probable guilt, held a press conference to announce the arrest of three Moroccans and two Spaniards of Indian descent. They “could be connected to Muslim extremist groups,” Acebes admitted. Acebes was then forced to backtrack yet again in the pre-dawn hours, when he announced the receipt of a video from an Arabic man with a Moroccan accent, claiming al-Qaeda responsiblity for the bombings, and declaring pointedly: “This is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies."

Now that the elections are over and the truth is coming out, readers may want to look at the letter from Brigade of Abu Hafs al Masri, which was sent to the London-based Arabic-language Al Quds al Arabi. PP leaders tried to cast doubt on its authenticity. Yet the editor of Al Quds noted its similarity to a letter published March 2, denying responsibility for attacks in Baghdad and Karbala that killed more than 200 Shiites. "We strike the American crusaders and their allies," that letter insisted. The email also echoes a tape released by Osama bin-Laden in October 2003 that mentions Spain as a target. And it is similar to the videotape left in a trash can for Spanish intelligence officers in the pre-dawn hours of March 14.

There have been only fleeting references so far in English-language forums to the Abu Hafs letter. So I have translated some key passages from the letter, as it appeared in La Voz de Galicia 3-12-04 under the title:
"El grupo terrorista Abu Hafs al Masri se atribuye el atentado"

* * *
When we struck the Italian troups in Nasiriya we sent a warning to the agents of America: withdraw from the alliance against Islam. But you didn't understand the message. Now we put the dots over the i's. We hope you understood the message.

We do not become sad over the death of civilians. Is it legitimate that they kill our children, women, old people, and youths in Afganistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Kashmir, while it is a sin that we kill theirs?

Take your hands off us, free our prisoners and leave our land, and we will leave you in peace. The countries allied with the United States should force their governments to end this alliance with the war against terror, which means war against Islam. If you cease the war, we will cease ours.

This is a warning to the nations: do not come near to the civil or military installations of the American Crusaders or their allies.

* * *
The videotaped message is even more explicit: "If you don’t stop your injustices, even more blood will flow, and these attacks will seem small compared to what can happen with what you call terrorism.”

Hard truths to digest, these. But beneath the sound and the fury, once again, a voice whispers in my ear that this is another case of chickens coming home to roost.

There is no justification for such terror. But there is also no escaping a certain moral equivalence here: the number of civilians killed by "Islamic terrorists" is miniscule compared to the number of civilians killed by the Americans and their allies in the countries named above.

This "warning to the nations" could not be more simple and direct: "Take your hands off us, and we will leave you in peace." The Spanish people have gotten the message, much more clearly than North Americans: terrorism is not just something "they" do to "us," as innocent victims. It is also something our leaders do using our money, in our name.

It is the voice of artists who most often cut through the static. An older song from the Police runs through my head: "There is no political solution/to our troubled evolution."

And a timely anthem called "Bomb the World" by Michael Franti, from his album "Everyone Deserves Music":
"We can chase down all our enemies
And bring them to their knees
We can bomb the world to pieces
But we can't bomb it into peace."

We may not like the messenger, and we should rightly abhor the way the message was delivered. But it is probably only by coming drenched in blood that this uncomfortable truth could break through our tremendous self-absorption and sense of entitlement.

The truth remains: we the people most force our governments to end their alliance with THIS INTERPRETATION of the war on terror.

The roots of terror are intolerance, and structural inequality. Most of us in the West are implicated in these terrorist attacks, whether we want to admit it or not, through the consequences of our unsustainble lifestyle, or through our support (whether explicit or by default) of our own politics of intolerance.

Now is the time to look in the mirror and do some hard thinking about our privileged way of life, and our assumptions that we can and should export this lifestyle to the rest of humanity. At gunpoint if need be.

We have been asked to leave lands where we have no sovereignty. Now the i's have been dotted, and soon the t's will be crossed.

"How much blood have to be shed before we rebel?" (Ziggy Marley)

"Power to the peaceful."



POSTSCRIPT: ABB HAS A NEW MEANING
[March 15, 2004]

After the news came in that the Spanish people had indeed kicked their lying leaders out of office, I realized that the ABB movement is "double-voiced" now.
Not just Anybody But Bush, but also the order in which Babylon walls will crumble:
Aznar, Bush, Blair.

I have my doubts if the news will register with the true believers who suffer from a terminal case of American Myopia. But Zapatero certainly laid down the gauntlet the day after he was elected, confirming that he would indeed pull out 1300 Spanish troups from the "disastrous" occupation of Iraq:

Zapatero said Bush and his main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, need to engage in "self-criticism". "You can't bomb a people just in case" they pose a perceived threat, Zapatero said in statements just five days before the first anniversary of the March 20 start of the war.

"You can't organize a war on the basis of lies," he said, alluding to Bush's and Blair's insistence the war was justified by their belief -- so far unfounded -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat.

"Wars such as that which has occurred in Iraq only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate," he said.

* * *
OUR PRESIDENT engage in self-criticism?!

Not when he's got people like Pat Robertson announcing that God has told him that Dubya will win in a cakewalk!

Andy Rooney got in a good one:

"My own question to Pat Robertson is this: The election looks as though it could be close, certainly not a blowout. If George W. Bush loses the election to a Democrat, will you become an atheist?"

As Bob Marley said,
"Come we a chant down Babylon one more time."

GS

Sunday, January 11, 2004
 
GETTING MILKED TO DEATH
By Gregory Stephens


“The river of milk in America brings with it a river of ground beef," wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg in the wake of the Mad Cow Disease scare. That quote has got me thinking. That the river of milk and beef and the people who consume them almost all run on concrete is troubling, if you really stop to think about it.

Mr. Klinkeneberg, author of The Rural Life, notes that the image many of us have of milk cows grazing in deep pasture is far removed from the way most milk is produced. In fact, only poultry and pig farms are a more concentrated form of agriculture in America than dairy farms. Many milk cows spend their lives indoors, on cement. Bred with super-udders the size of large men, their feet and legs often break down after a few years of trodding on concrete. Their peak productivity, during which their life centers around milking machines, only lasts three or four years. When their production begins to decline, they are culled for slaughter.

Now, I have been a vegetarian since 1978, but only in the last year have I finally sworn off milk. My children still drink milk, though, as I cannot easily find soy milk here in Oklahoma City. But I can no longer pick up a gallon of milk without being aware of my complicity in the slaughter of the creatures that provide my children with this cheap protein. Large-scale animal agriculture, it is becoming ever more clear to me, is not good for human beings, much less for the animals that North Americans slaughter at the rate of 10 billion a year.

I am suspicious of extremists who say that milk is inherently bad for humans. (The high rate of lactose intolerance among Native Americans and African Americans does give me pause, however). There are many cultures around the world that thrive in relation to their dairy cattle. Are we to tell them their way of life is wrong?

As a Southwesterner raised in the country, I don’t oppose drinking milk or eating eggs from cows or chickens that actually walk on the earth, rather than living their lives in concrete barns, or in cages smaller than a piece of typing paper. In principle, I can’t criticize hunting creatures that live in the wild, as opposed to, say, shooting birds released out of a net, as Vice President Cheney did recently. If my life depended on it, you can bet that I would hunt.

But there is a problem of scale. Those rivers of milk and beef are almost impossible to adequately inspect, as many credible observers have been warning us for years. The U.S. only tests about 1 out of every 18,000 cows slaughtered, a system that has been described as “Don’t look, don’t find.” By contrast, Switzerland tests one out of every 60 cows. Ireland tests twice as many cows in one night as the U.S. tests in a whole year.

There is a problem with sustainability. Milk and beef are typically shipped thousands of miles to consumers. From cows to consumers, one long river flowing on concrete spreading ever wider. The methane gas produced by cattle is the second largest contributor to the greenhouse effect. The carbon dioxide produced by transporting them to market is immense, but hard to measure. Together, oil addiction and over-consumption of meat are the main reasons why, if we do not quickly change our way of life, over the next 50 years many large coastal cities will be flooded, and more than a million species will be wiped out.

Then there is the waste. North American livestock raised for food produce an astounding 87,000 pounds of excrement per second, polluting our waters more than all other types of industrial pollution combined. And there is, long-term, a problem of feeding grains to livestock instead of people, an extremely inefficient system that filters about 15 calories into animals for every calorie that comes back to humans. Yet the fad of the moment, the meat-centered Atkins diet, is a model that, like our car-centered lifestyle, the entire world cannot possibly follow.

But above all, I feel there is a problem with the hypocritical way in which we consume these products. “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarians,” as Paul McCartney says. You can be sure that we would eat a lot less chicken if every child learned in school how those chicks that turned into Chicken McNuggets actually lived. I still remember my grandmother wringing the neck of chickens we ate for dinner. I’m not suggesting we can return to that approach. But having some minimal relationship with the animals we eat, and the people involved, is the only way to make that system healthy and accountable, after all.

Beyond our self-interest, there is a larger moral question. To the surprise of some, this is being advanced by Christian vegetarian and animal rights advocates. Slavery was a system in which one group advanced its self-interests at the expense of a group lacking in power. Many religious leaders and ethicists are now suggesting that we need to begin thinking about our relationship with animals in similar ways. Former Bush speech writer Matthew Scully argues that animals are “a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship.”

Who will tell us the truth about the true dangers, and the immorality, of the regimes of oil, and industrial beef? It certainly be won’t anyone in the Bush Administration, which is over-populated with oilmen and cattlewomen. Alisa Harrison, spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, who has been reassuring the world that American beef is safe, was previously director of public relations for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. In that capacity she criticized Oprah Winfrey for raising health questions about American hamburgers.

In the interest of business as usual, we will be encouraged to continue driving through fast food chains to pick up our hamburgers. We will ignore all the research that makes clear that link between beef consumption and a variety of national health epidemics, including cancer. When we travel, or invade other countries, we will carry with us preconceptions that this is the natural order of things. When we think about reconstructing a nation like Iraq, we will dream of building shopping malls and fast food restaurants, from Basra to Baghdad.

So I look for truth on the margins. “It is perhaps instructive to think of America's working people being herded like so many cattle between school and work," suggests Seth Sandronsky. Our minds might collectively reel from being compared to the animals we slaughter. But humans as well as cows mostly live on concrete now, hooked to a machine that milks us to death. When we are no longer sufficiently profitable, we are culled from the system. And like a lamb being led to the slaughter, the passive majority dares not open its mouth.


SOURCES

Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Holstein Dairy Cows and the Inefficient Efficiencies of Modern Farming,” New York Times 1-5-2004.

Anti-milk extremists, Robert Cohen, Milk: The Deadly Poison (Argus, 1998).

Cheney’s pheasant slaughter and canned hunts: “Cheney the Bird Hunter,” International Herald Tribune 12-15-03; http://www.iht.com/articles/121538.html; Wayne Pacelle, “Stacking the Hunt,” New York Times, 12-9-03.

Jeffrey A. Nelson, “USDA Mad Cow Strategy: Don’t Look, Don’t Find,” 4-2-01; http://www.vegsource.com/articles/bse_usda.htm

Methane gas, excrement, Robyn Landis, “Mad Cows in a World Gone Mad,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1-9-04.

Geoffrey Lean, “Global Warming: Melting Ice ‘Will Swamp Capitals’,” Independent 1-7-04. Species: Sir David King, Tony Blair’s chief scientist, writing in Science, quoted in Steve Connor, “US Climate Policy Bigger Threat to World than Terrorism,” Independent 1-9-04.

Atkins diet, Marty Bender and Stan Cox, “Warning: This Diet is Not for Everyone,” 12-11-03; http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1211-15.htm

Christian vegetarian and animal rights groups: http://www.christianveg.com; http://www.compassionatespirit.com; http://www.sentientbeings.org

At the expense of powerless groups, Ronald Sklar, “Animals Always Pay,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 5-23-03; Marjorie Spiegel, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (Mirror Books/IDEA, 1997); Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002).

Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St. Martin’s, 2002). “Test of character,” quoted in Jim Motavalli, “Rights from Wrongs: A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals is Gathering Force,” Emagazine March/April 2003; http://www.emagazine.com/march-april_20030303feat1.html

For an overview of “animal interests,” in the secular context of moral philosophy, see Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation at 30,” New York Review of Books 50:8 (5-15-03). Singer, like many writers on this subject both religious and secular, centers on the concept of speciesism, which like racism or sexism, is seen as an artificial boundary that prevents an inclusive (just and sustainable) sense of kin or community. See Joan Dunayer, “English and Speciesism,” English Today 19:1 (2003).

True dangers, John Stauber, “Mad Cow USA: The Nightmare Begins,” 12-30-2003; http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=17466. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (Common Courage Press, 1997).

Re: Alisa Harrison, Eric Schlosser, “The Cow Jumped Over the U.S.D.A.,” New York Times, 1-2-04. See Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Re: the stranglehold cattlemen have had on American politricks, see James Ridgeway, “Slaughterhouse Politics: Ranchers Fought Rules That Might Have Prevented Mad Cow,” Village Voice (12-30-03).

“Fast Food from Basra to Baghdad”: part of the chapter “Driving Up the Cost of Freedom” from my book-in-progress Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. The quote is adapted from Sergeant Michael Sprague in James Meek, “Marines Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds,” Guardian 3-25-03; http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,921356,00.html.

Seth Sandronsky, “Mad Cow and Main Street USA,” 1-5-04, http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0105-10.htm

Thursday, December 11, 2003
 
Spreading Our Wings: The Cost of the "Regime of Oil"
by Gregory Stephens


Many people have been asking recently: What country do we live in? The answer came to me in the dream life of the culture, a television ad for a Cadillac SRX. A young couple is driving this fleet SUV up a mountain road, the sunroof open, not another vehicle in sight. They put their hands out the windows and begin mimicking an eagle floating on air currents. "Spread your wings," the narrator says.

On Thanksgiving Day just after this ad ran on CBS I saw Boomer Esiason and other football commentators giving thanks to the troops in Iraq for protecting our freedoms. You have to read between the lines in the full-time fantasy league of Media America to realize that the freedoms we promote and defend are very selective. Driving a luxury SUV like the SRX that costs about $50,000, weighs 4,300 pounds, and has a "stealth fighter aesthetic," as one critic wrote, is one of those freedoms. Peaceful protest, apparently, is not.

Recently $8 million of the $87 billion budget for the Iraqi occupation was spent terrorizing protesters and non-embedded journalists at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. This Miami Model showed that if the Bush administration and its supporters have their way, America will be a country in which political protest is marginalized and criminalized. "The war is coming home," as Naomi Klein wrote. It is "open season on dissent," concluded Robyn Blumner, writing in the St. Petersburg Times. Our tax dollars have been put to work occupying foreign nations, sending out hit squads, and criminalizing dissent at home. Is this America?

Suppressing dissent in the United States out of the same budget used for military occupation is part of the cost of enabling this nation to live in colossal denial. When we want to fly like an eagle, or get away for a close encounter with nature, we can do it enclosed within two or three tons of steel. Car ads teach us why the American way of life is so great that it can never be challenged, as our national leaders have proclaimed. True to the denial of addicts, these ads almost never show another vehicle on the road, or hint at the over 3,000 traffic fatalities per day in the world, or per month in the U.S. No one is asked to intuit that all those people trying to get away are not moving towards paradise, they are helping pave it. There is no suggestion that the white lines of the freeway are wiping out the eagle's habitat.

In early 2003 a group called the Detroit Project aired TV ads that linked America's oil habit to terrorism. These ads connected the gas nozzles that pump 380 million gallons of gas in the U.S. every day (55% imported), to the loss of freedom and lives in the parts of the world dedicated to feeding our habit. Some stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit refused to air the ads. After all, a fifth of all ads in the U.S., costing around $15 billion per year, relate to cars.

Momentary glimpses of truth in advertising like the Detroit Project, or the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign, were a bare glitch on the radar screen. I ride my bike to the school where I teach, and almost every day, someone asks me: "Why do you ride a bike?" in a tone of befuddled accusation. "Why, do you want me to drive a car?" I ask. "Yes," the students say. This is the only world they know.

I hear a lot of rightly outraged people urging their fellow citizens to "take back America." I know they mean well, but they bring to mind the song lyric: "I went to join the revolution, but I couldn't find a parking space." To take back America we'd have to tear up the asphalt that covers it.

It's a hard truth to swallow, but the regime of oil is following our lead. They are meeting the needs of all of us who, like that couple in the SUV, take the dominion of cars for granted, and imagine that, like the American eagle, we are soaring above the earth, lords of all we survey. How do you take back America from suburban moms, who are the biggest fans of behemoths like the Hummer?

What would it take, I wonder, to break through the self-absorption of "the only nation ever to drive to the poorhouse in an automobile," as Will Rogers once said. In her book Asphalt Nation, Jane Kay Holtz writes: "There is no question that deposing the car from its dominion over the earth is a radical, even revolutionary move." But the design of our cities assures our dependency, and makes wars in oil-rich nations inevitable.

In his book Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, geologist Richard Heinberg predicts that global oil production will peak between 2004 and 2009. In fact, oil production declined from 2001-2003, while the miles we drive continues to escalate--now over three billion a year in the U.S. A rational response to this crisis would be to redesign our cities and our lives. But as George Monbiot observs, "no one ever rioted for austerity."

We desperately need to design more fuel-efficient vehicles, and to build mass transit. Yet Congress has made available outsized tax breaks to Americans who purchase vehicles that weigh over 6,000 pounds, and get 10 miles per gallon or less.

There is no shortage of scientists who recognize the need for a dramatic about-face in our lifestyle and energy policy. Physicist Dr. Martin Hoffert and his colleagues have published essays in Science and Nature magazines calling for "an energy research program on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program." Given the coming disaster of global warming, Dr. Arthur Nozik of the National Renewable Energy Lab insists that our survival is "going to require a revolution, not an evolution" in our development of alternatives energy sources and modes of transportation. Even U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham speaks of the need for "revolutionary technologies" that "transform the way we produce and consume energy."

We cannot have security while trying to spread our wings in an SUV. The earth cannot sustain that, and other nations are increasingly refusing to be co-dependents. But imaging and building an alternative is a challenge without historical precedent. This much is now clear: the current "regime of oil" not only will ignore that challenge, it will treat as "potential terrorists" all those who publicly question our self-destructive path.


[Gregory Stephens is a Bilingual Teacher in Oklahoma City, and a Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Langston University. He has taught Mass Communication and American Studies at the University of California, and was recently a Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of North Carolina. Contact: 405/922-6959; gstephen@email.unc.edu]


ADDITIONAL SOURCES (most references hyper-linked)

Among those who refer to the "regime of oil": Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed, 2002).

Ads as "dream life of culture," Sut Jhally quoted in "The Ad and the Ego," available at http://www.newsreel.org.

Overview of scientists calling for energy revolution: Kenneth Chang, "As Earth Warms, the Hottest Issue Is Energy," New York Times, November 4, 2003; Amanda Griscom, "A Declaration of Energy Independence," 6-30-03; http://www.gristmagazine.com/powers/powers063003.asp?source=mailify

Martin Hoffert et al., "Energy Implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content," Nature 395 (10-29-1998).

Tax breaks for SUVs and 3-ton vehicles: Neela Banerjee, "Pushing Energy Conservation Into the Back Seat of the S.U.V.," New York Times, November 22, 2003.

Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton UP, 2003).

Monday, November 10, 2003
 
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