Friday, May 28, 2010

Empathy for Conservatives

My friend Susan sent me a link to Tikkun Daily at the beginning of last month (April), knowing that I might be interested in the interview with Starhawk about permaculture. Link I was, of course, but I was also taken with several of the other articles being put out at that time, particularly one called 'Empathy from Left Field — A Response to Helen Smith' by Miki Kashtan, which was originally posted in Miki's blog, The Fearless Heart. In turn, Miki's post is a response to a post by Helen Smith called 'How Should Conservatives Deal with the Left’s Disrespect and Lack of Empathy?'.

Miki Kashtan begins by saying "I love a good challenge" and admits that she knows many liberals who do seem to lack empathy for conservatives. Unfortunately, I think that this applies to radicals as well. I think that having empathy for conservatives is a really radical thing to do.

She goes on to point out that " much of the Left media, conservatives are regularly referred to as stupid (at best), backward, uncaring, or unevolved." We stereotype conservatives, make jokes at their expense, and dismiss them as human beings, and then complain about how *they* treat others.

None of this is to dismiss the harm that the institutions that conservatives support do nor is this to say that I believe in 'compassionate conservativism' or any of the other euphemisms often employed to justify oppressive behavior. But we also need to remember that conservatives, even reactionary right-wing conservatives, are human beings, often hurting others because they themselves have been hurt. Loving them, caring about them, and trying to understand them, is important, even while we oppose the damage they often do.

All this being said, the Helen Smith article that Miki Kashtan refers to seems to me to be mostly about branding liberals as insensitive, if not worse. She compares liberals with psychopaths several times in the article, although carefully saying that although liberals are like psychopaths, she doesn't actually think they are psychopaths. But she goes on to use the 'mistreatment' of conservatives by liberals as a justification for "...making sure consequences are dealt out to those liberals who lie and treat conservatives with disrespect." Several conservative sites (two examples) have reprinted it with a prologue that begins "Helen Smith makes some generally reasonable points below but fails to see that hate is what motivates the Left -- so their behaviour is entirely to be explained by that. They hate people who find anything worthwhile in the status quo -- and you don't expect respect or empathy from haters."

Helen Smith cites Jonathan Haidt's article on AlterNet, particularly focusing on where he finds that conservatives have an easier time putting "themselves in the shoes of liberals", than vice versa. That's a sad statement if it's true. The lines I quote about people on the Left being motivated by 'hate' makes me wonder about it, however. But the Haidt article is worth reading on its own because it is so thought-provoking. I may write a post devoted to it at some point.

Miki Kashtan has since written two more articles on working toward dialogue and respect between liberals and conservatives. I admire her persistence. Certainly I believe that listening to each other and trying to understand each other are, indeed, part of social change. And this, of course, means having empathy for conservatives.

Quote of the Day: "Empathy calls on us to open our hearts and imagination to others’ humanity. It’s easy to understand and show care for those similar to us. The challenge of empathy is precisely in the face of differences. How can we show care for others needs even when we say 'no' to what they want? How can we understand and remain open and respectful even when we believe others’ positions are potentially harmful?" - Miki Kashtan

Monday, May 17, 2010

Feeding Each Other

Last week, one of my housemates had a guest at dinner, a young woman who lives and works down south. She was involved with lots of social justice projects, many involving food. At the end of the meal, she made a comment (which I saw as both a reference to the meal and a reference to her work) about how nice it was that we got to 'feed each other'.

Last Friday, I got to be part of helping with a meal prepared by Hearty Meals for All, a group in Somerville, MA, that serves nutritious meals to whomever comes in. Earlier this month, I also helped with a meal prepared by some of the local co-ops for a homeless coalition. I've talked a lot about food as one of our most basic needs. (See for example my posts on Feeding Ourselves in the Future, 7/24/08, and Food (Soil and Seeds), 5/13/09.) Most of my post have been about growing food (most recently Kale, Carrots, and Chard, 3/17/10, and Gardening as Social Change, 5/7/10) but there is something to the idea of just feeding people, particularly those who need it.

When I lived up in Brattleboro a few years ago, I was part of their annual tradition of preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone in the town who wanted to come. Homeless folks wandered in and I've heard that former Bratt residents drove in from New York in their Volvos and Saabs. Volunteers brought meals to housebound folks as well as people (like police and firefighters) who needed to work that day. I enjoyed every minute of it.

I have been inspired by two groups that combine a radical (pretty much anarchist) analysis of society with the work of serving others: Food Not Bombs (the Boston Chapter is having its 30th anniversary celebration soon) and the Catholic Worker Movement (our local affiliate is Haley House). Few people would lump these two groups together but I see them as very similar in spite of the fact that one is a secular group and the other is very spiritually oriented.

I believe that we need to make sure that everyone is getting their real needs met and one of the most basic of those needs is food. Growing food is essential, but feeding each other is wonderful.

Quote of the Day: "There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help." - Jan Schakowsky

Friday, May 7, 2010

Gardening as Social Change

One bored day last month, I did something that I haven't done in a long time. I opened the paper and read the comics page. And I almost dropped it. I'm talking about The Boston Globe, a fairly mainstream paper. And there on the comics page is a character trudging water to his garden, muttering "No more fast food! No more processed junk! No more factory farming! No more corporate monopoly!" (Jimmy Johnson, Arlo & Janis, 4/13/10) I couldn't have put it better myself.

When most people think about gardening, they hardly see it as a radical activity. It's often viewed as a harmless way to get a little fresh food. But it is also a direct counter to the food industry, a way to move from supporting Agribusiness to growing our own and taking care of ourselves. And, if the peak oil folks are anywhere near correct, it's preparation for a future where we will all be growing our own food.

Richard Heinberg predicts that there will be 'fifty million farmers' in the future. (See my post on Peak Everything, 7/20/08.) Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton have written a book called A Nation of Farmers that argues the only way we will be able to keep our families from going hungry as food crises continue will be by growing food. They further argue that any real equality can only come about when we live simply, and that means (among other things) growing our own food.

This is why I have been writing posts on Permaculture (see my posts of 7/22/08, 11/19/09, and 12/24/09 for more on Permaculture), Biointensive Gardening (see my post, Biointensive, 2/10/10), Soil (in my posts of 5/13/09 and 3/13/10), and even Kale, Carrots, and Chard (3/17/10). Food is one of the most basic of our needs. Someone needs to grow the food, since we need food to live, and the question is--will it be Agribusiness or you? I strongly believe in supporting farmers, in CSAs and Farmer's Markets and Food Cooperatives, but I think that soon we will all need to contribute to feeding ourselves--and others. It can start with a little plot in the backyard (if you have a backyard), or at a community garden, or even doing container gardening, but we might as well all get started gardening now. This is a small but important step toward a future where we feed each other. And, I think it would be good to begin learning now, because if there is a food crisis coming, that is not going to be a good time for learning.

Quote of the Day: "...most rich world denizens would prefer not to live in a society with a high degree of equity, since this means a major shift in their wealth. Most Americans, quite reasonably have no desire to live on $2-$5 per day with 9 billion other similarly poor people. Now that $2 a day figure is a bit misleading—it can cover a surprising range of life situations, from the hellaceous to the pretty comfortable. ...if you live on a small farm and grow almost all the food you eat, produce the heating and cooking fuel you need and need just a little money, you might not have such a tough time." - Aaron Newton and Sharon Astyk

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I am slowly making my way through Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (aka Seven Habits). I've decided that I will write periodic posts on my take on each of the habits. (If you want Stephen Covey's take, read the book. Honestly, it's a really useful read.)

I wrote about the first habit, being proactive, in my post on Deciding (2/19/10). This post is about the second habit, which Covey calls 'Begin with the End in Mind'.

Covey starts by talking about the difference between leaders and managers. He thinks that they're both necessary--and each of us needs to be able to lead and manage, at least in regards to our own life. To illustrate what he is talking about, he pictures producers (the ones doing the work) as cutting their way through a rainforest with machetes. The managers are the ones who make sure that they are well supplied with sharp machetes and anything else they need in order to do their work. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree and surveys the land around them. And sometimes the leader realizes that the situation is not right and yells, "Wrong jungle!" And Covey claims that the managers and producers, more often than not, yell back, "Shut up! We're making progress."

The first step in remaking your life, is to be proactive, but once you have decided to be proactive, the next step is to figure out what your goals are. Without doing this, you can make lots of progress, but still be in the 'wrong jungle'. It reminds me of when someone wanted me to join a revolutionary organization and I wanted to know what their aims were. I didn't care what great actions they were doing as much as where they were headed. I feel the same way about intentional communities--I want to know what they want to achieve. I've made the comparison to getting on a bus; I wouldn't board a bus in the city before I checked its destination.

So what are your goals? How do you know what you want to be doing? What are the key values that you live by? Covey suggests making a 'Personal Mission Statement' to make sure that you have your direction clear. I found this useful to focus on what I find most important and to shape my life from there. (Yes, corporate executives write Mission Statements, but I suspect their missions are quite different from mine. I think anyone could benefit from trying to figure out what is important to them and using this to organize their lives.)

He further talks about 'Roles and Goals': what roles do you play in your life and what are your goals for each of those roles? The point is to have all this in line with what you see your mission as.

I first read Seven Habits years ago, but I wasn't ready to focus my life at that point. Now, with a clear sense of mission in my mind, with my life's goals in front of me, I am able to focus myself on accomplishing what is important to me. Before I try to start accomplishing things, I look to see if I am in the right 'jungle'. The next step is to begin the work.

Quote of the Day: "How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and, keeping that in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and to do what really matters most." - Stephen Covey

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Life and Love

Once again, May begins. As I have written in the past, this is Beltaine, one of the pivot points of the pagan year, along with Samhain (aka Halloween). Where Samhain is about darkness, decay, and death, Beltaine is about light, life, and love. This is the time when everything is in flower--high spring as it were.

As someone who would like to see us return to a more natural, organic way of life, more connected to our world, our bioregions and ecosystems, the changes in the seasons are important to me.

Industrial society seems to pretend that we can divorce ourselves from the life around us. When we pave the earth with concrete and asphalt, and live in buildings where we are sheltered from the weather--and the natural environment--in wood, glass, brick, and steel cocoons, we lose touch with true reality. When we live our lives from numbered grids on pieces of paper, claiming this is the day, the month, the year, we lose touch with the true seasons. Meanwhile, the earth changes around us. We get inconvenienced by 'weather events'--rain, snow, and hail put crimps in our plans. We can try to avoid this by traveling in steel and glass enclosures such as cars, buses, taxis, trains, and planes, and, indeed, there are people who enter their vehicles in enclosed garages, drive to somewhere, pull into a parking facility, and never have to experience the 'outside world' at all.

However, our activities are beginning to have repercussions. There seem to be a lot of 'extreme weather events' happening--hurricanes, tornadoes, rapid cycles of 'unseasonable weather' that many believe are linked to climate change. I'm even wondering about all the earthquakes and volcanoes that are occurring. Mother Earth does not seem happy with us.

We have lost our connection with the earth, we have lost our connection with nature, and I fear that we are losing our connections with each other.

It's time to rebuild those connections. Time to let in life and love, to touch the earth and the people around us. Time to be physical, sensual, organic, connected. Time to spend some time in nature. Time to get away from the artificial world constructed around us. Time to spend time with those you love. I can't think of a better way to begin May.

Quote of the Day: "All things are interrelated, and a change in one entity ultimately affects all others, however spatially distant.
"The interrelatedness of all things in a living, organic universe implies the need for humans to be sensitive to the rest of the natural world in order to maintain its harmony." - Judith Todd