Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Thu, 30 Jul 2015 14:15:24 -0400 en-gb The Coming-Out Memoir That Became a Hit Broadway Musical http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32145-the-coming-out-memoir-that-became-a-hit-broadway-musical http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32145-the-coming-out-memoir-that-became-a-hit-broadway-musical

In a Democracy Now! special, we look at the acclaimed Broadway musical Fun Home, which swept the Tony Awards last month. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female duo to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score. Fun Home is also the first-ever Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. The musical is based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The memoir is a poignant exploration of family, memory, first love, coming out and a daughter's relationship with her father. The title comes from the Bechdels' nickname for their family business: a funeral parlor. Throughout the memoir, Bechdel - the artist and protagonist - sketches out her hazy memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her sexuality as she tries to make sense of her father's suicide. Her father was secretly gay and took his life shortly after Bechdel came out as a lesbian. We speak to Bechdel, Kron and Tesori, and air highlights from the Broadway musical.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a Democracy Now! special, we turn now to the acclaimed Broadway musical Fun Home, which swept the Tony Awards last month. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female duo to win a Tony Award for best musical score. Fun Home is also the first-ever Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. This is a video montage from the hit performance.

SMALL ALISON: [played by Sydney Lucas, singing] I wanna play airplane
I wanna play airplane
I wanna play airplane
I wanna put my arms out and fly
Like the Red Baron in his Sopwith Camel
No, wait
Like Superman up in the sky
'Til I can see all of Pennsylvania

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone] Caption -
My dad and I were exactly alike.

SMALL ALISON: I see everything!

ALISON: Caption -
My dad and I were nothing alike.

[singing] Maps show you what is simple and true
Try laying out a bird's eye view
Not what he told you
Just what you see
What do you know
That's not your dad's mythology?

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris, singing] I guess I'm older.
And it's harder when you're older to begin
Peeling plaster,
Sagging roof,
Two missing stairs,
A buckled wall.
I'm fired up to do this,
But on my own for it all
So much damage,
Broken windows,
Pipes are [bleep],
Crap veneer.
It's hours later,
Jesus, I'm still standing here.

SMALL ALISON: [singing] Your swagger and your bearing
and the just right clothes you're wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.
And your keys oh
Your ring of keys.
I know you
I know you
I know you

AMY GOODMAN: The musical is based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The memoir is a poignant exploration of family, memory, first love, coming out and a daughter's relationship with her father. The title comes from the Bechdels' nickname for their family business: a funeral home. Throughout the memoir, Alison Bechdel, the artist and protagonist, sketches out her hazy memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her own sexuality as she tries to make sense of her father's suicide. Her father was secretly gay and took his life shortly after Alison came out as a lesbian. Incidents are told and retold in light of new information, each panel painstakingly drawn in black line art with a grey-green ink wash. In the musical, Bechdel is depicted by three actresses at different stages of her life. Before Fun Home, Bechdel was best known for her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Last year, she won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant."

Well, Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed Alison Bechdel, along with Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who adapted the memoir for Broadway. I started by asking Alison Bechdel to talk about her life story as she tells it in Fun Home.

ALISON BECHDEL: It's my story of my childhood, basically, growing up in Pennsylvania with my dad, my closeted father, and realizing that I was a lesbian, realizing that I was this different kind of kid, growing up. It was a story that felt - I felt like I could not tell that story for a long time, because it was revealing these very intimate family secrets. People didn't know about my father's sexuality. People didn't know that he had killed himself. And actually, no one is absolutely certain it was a suicide; we just - the family sort of feels that's what it was. He was hit by a truck. So those felt like very problematic things to make public. And I had felt for a long time like this was a story that was somehow important, to me, personally, but just also a culturally important story somehow, because it just - it showed how differently my generation of gay people could go on to live their lives, as opposed to my father's generation, who - you know, he came of age in the '50s, on the other side of this great watershed moment of the Stonewall rebellion. And I came of age on the other side, and I got to be out, you know, have a sort of whole, happy life. And my father didn't get to do that. So it's kind of a book about those different historical paths.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you understand that your father was gay?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, that was the strange part, was I didn't find out until I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was in college. And my mother told me. My father never really had a very direct conversation with me about it. And this all happened in a very condensed little period of time. I came out to my parents in February, and in July my father died. So there was a lot of upheaval in my family, in my personal psyche. And the book is a way of going back and trying to sort out that incredibly confusing time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think the different things are, to the extent that you can identify them, that led you to decide to make these things public? I mean, you say, which is true, that it's culturally a very important story, but the work that preceded this one, to what extent were you preparing yourself to make more and more revelations, as it were, about your private life?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, yeah, I think that I was, in some sense, preparing to tell this story over the course of two decades of writing my comic strip. I made a decision soon after I got out of college to draw this lesbian comic strip. I liked drawing cartoons. I was coming out as a lesbian, getting very involved in the feminist and lesbian activities and stuff here in New York City. I lived here in New York in the early '80s. And I started publishing these cartoons about people like me and my friends. And -

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you call it Dykes to Watch Out For?

ALISON BECHDEL: I can't even remember. It was just a - just something that came off the top of my head. I had this friend in college who I would write letters to and started drawing some of these early prototypes of the comics. She somehow inspired this certain kind of silly mood. And I just labeled one of these crazy lesbians "Dykes to Watch Out For, Plate Number 27," even though I had - that was the first one I had drawn, and I didn't have 26 other ones. It just struck me as funny. And, you know, I like it's got a double meaning. It's like, oh, look out for them, they're great, and look out for them, or you'll get in trouble. You know?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also said, in another interview, that in writing Fun Home, you wanted to give your father a, quote, "proper funeral."

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. I mean, when my father died, it was under the cloud of all these misunderstandings. You know, I felt like people didn't know who he really was, what his life had really been like. And we had this bizarre, very conventional funeral for him in our family funeral home, which felt just wrong to me. I mean, I don't know. I had grown up in the funeral business, and we would always kind of joke about, I don't know, just how kind of bizarre American mourning rituals are, that they really are not very helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's turn to a clip from Fun Home, "Come to the Fun Home," from the musical. You and your brothers perform this.

SMALL ALISON: Fun Home commercial. Take seven million billion thousand.

JOHN: [played by Zell Steele Morrow, singing] Your uncle died
You're feeling low
You've got to bury your momma
but you don't know where to go
Your papa needs his final rest
You got you got you got to give them the best
Oh

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [played by Sydney Lucas and Oscar Williams, singing] Come to the Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] That's the Bechdel Funeral Home, baby

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] The Bechdel Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] Next to Baker's Department Store

THREE KIDS: [singing] In Beech Creek!

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] The Bechdel Fun Home

JOHN: [singing] We take dead bodies ev'ry day of the week so

THREE KIDS: [singing] You've got no reason to roam
Use the Bechdel Funeral Home
What it is, what it is
hoo hoo hoo
What it is, what it is now, baby

SMALL ALISON AND CHRISTIAN: [singing] Sock it to me
Sock it to me
Sock it to me

AMY GOODMAN: "Come to the Fun Home." That's from the musical, Fun Home, and we're going to speak with the women who wrote the book, who wrote the music, the lyrics and the music. But right now we're talking to Alison Bechdel. Now, this - is this very far from what you did? I mean, reading the tragicomic, reading Fun Home, you guys did perform.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, we certainly played around in the funeral home. I mean, it was this, you know, funny stage set, in a way, like always waiting for a funeral to happen. And we had carts that we'd push around and play with, that the folding chairs went on. And, you know, it was a fun place to play. And when Lisa Kron wrote the play, she focused in on that really fun aspect.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let's go to another clip from the song, "It All Comes Back," from the musical, Fun Home.

ALISON: [played by Beth Malone, singing] There's you.
And there's me.
But now I'm the one who's forty-three
And stuck.
I can't find my way through.
Just like you.
Am I just like you?

BRUCE: [played by Michael Cerveris, singing] A sign that he was here
And made his work.

ALISON: [singing] I can't abide romantic notions
Of some vague long ago.

BRUCE AND ALISON: [singing] I want to know what's true,
Dig deep into who
And what
And why
And when
Until now gives way to then.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was a clip from "It All Comes Back" from the musical, Fun Home.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Alison Bechdel. Now, tell us about your dad. When it comes to his secret gay life, it was more than that. And talk about the young men he'd bring into the house and what you understood.

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, my father - my father was a high school teacher, and I later learned that he was carrying on with some of his underage students, you know, kids in like 11th grade or something. And he'd almost gotten in - he had got arrested once for buying a kid a drink, but really I think it was an issue of him, you know, having some sexual stuff going on with this boy. So there was always this threat that it was going to become public. And what would happen to my family and my mother?

AMY GOODMAN: He was charged?

ALISON BECHDEL: He was charged just with the underage drinking, not with anything else. So my mother was living with this constant anxiety that somehow this was going to become public, and there was just a great deal of strain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let's go to the song about your mom. And maybe you can weigh in here before we turn to this. Your mother isn't a - is not the pre-eminent figure in the play, in the musical, but you ended up writing a book about her, Are You My Mother? It's not - she's not the main figure in Fun Home. So before we talk about this really revealing song, which is the highlight for the figure who's your mother, talk about her.

ALISON BECHDEL: Oh, my mother was an amazing person. I keep thinking, what would it be like for her to see this play? She died two years ago, just before it opened at The Public. And I think it would have been very, very painful for her to see the play. But my mother was also an actress. Like that was - she was a high school teacher by profession, but her passion was for acting. And she would often be doing summer stock as I was growing up. So it's funny to me that she's become a character on the stage. You know, I think she would have gotten a big kick out of that, in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask a second part. It's to do with how your mother related to your father in raising the three of you, because, in a sense, she was a counterforce. She knew there was something wrong.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. Oh, I don't know. I feel like I could probably write 17 more books about my family and what exactly was going on. But my mother, yeah, she knew about my father's relationships with these boys and men, and, I think, considered leaving at some point but couldn't. You know, she had three kids. She consulted with the family doctor, with her priest, and everyone said, "Oh, you've got to stay, stay with your husband." So, she was a very dutiful person, and she did that.

AMY GOODMAN: Though didn't she tell him she was going to leave him a few weeks before -

ALISON BECHDEL: And finally, part of this crazy constellation of events in this few months between when I came out and when my father died, one of those things was my mother finally decided she had had it, and she asked my father for a divorce. So, that's part of why we think that he probably intentionally stepped in front of the truck. It's just suddenly striking me as very unseemly that I'm going around talking about my family like this, even though I've written a book and now they're in a play. But somehow it's still - you know, it's very painful, intimate stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: I think that's why it is so powerful in your book, Fun Home. I mean, the way you convey it in - I mean, and I don't think you're insulted by this - in cartoons, in a graphic novel, is so powerful. It changes the whole medium. Speaking of which, even the song, the song about your mom, "Days and Days." Let's go to a clip.

HELEN: [played by Judy Kuhn, singing] Days and days and days -
That's how it happens:
Days and days and days
Made of lunches
And car rides
And shirts and socks
And grades
And piano
And no one clocks the day you disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a minute.

HELEN: [played by Judy Kuhn, singing] Days and days and days -
That's how it happens:
Days and days and days
Made of posing
And bragging
And fits of rage
And boys - my god, some of them underage!
And, oh, how did it all happen here?

Don't you come back here.
I didn't raise you
To give away your days
Like me.

]]>
News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Working for the Man: A New Way to Build Community Economy http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32144-working-for-the-man-a-new-way-to-build-community-economy http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32144-working-for-the-man-a-new-way-to-build-community-economy

A timebank is a system of mutual credit, where a member provides a service to someone else in the timebank and gets credit, which they can redeem for that same amount of time to get something they need from another person in the network. Timebanks capture our imaginations and allow us to replace some of our financial pressures with community supports. Engaging in timebanking lets us enhance our social ties, stretch our budgets in this money-based economy, and free up our time. Timebanking works beautifully for growing informal community economies, where people used to meet their basic needs before they were swallowed up by the monetary economy.

But timebanking can't do everything. It's great for exchanging the abundant resources of caregiving, creativity, civic engagement, and community building - many of the things that tend to stay in the informal community economy and are often un- or undervalued. But we also need ways to help support local businesses in the face of global competition, and for some things we simply need money. Perhaps even more, we need to rebuild our commons and re-learn how to share.

Now we're working to redirect competitive economic dynamics by designing and developing a more cooperative, decentralized alternative to help resources flow within and between our communities. We can supplement timebanking and enhance its impact by forming cooperatives around a common purpose, like cooperatively managed pools of money (community savings and investment pools) and other forms of mutual credit and shared resources. We're calling this cooperative framework Mutual Aid Networks, or MANs.

The mission of MANs is to create the means for everyone to discover and succeed in work they want to do, with the support of their community. We can be the job creators. By redesigning our own work lives and working together, we can make the economy work for us and our needs. Instead of going out and finding a job - working for "the man" - we want to create a situation where you can design your ideal work life, as a whole human being, working for the MAN. With timebanking helping to identify and catalyze the exchange of people's time and talents toward a common purpose, the additional common resources enable people to save their money together, invest it, and then choose how they allocate funding to accomplish common goals.

We help people in the local network figure out how to rely on each other, pool existing resources, and leverage them to hire their friends and community members to make their own dreams and projects a reality. For example, you could form a MAN for a specific purpose such as food security or a specific issue such as racial disparity or disability inclusion, by connecting with other people who already are working on the issue. A MAN can form at any scale, for any purpose, as long as it upholds our core principles.

A real-world example from Dane County in Madison, WI, involves a neighborhood called Allied Drive that has been dealing with many challenges, including poverty, food scarcity, and incarceration. Several activities in this neighborhood are linked to the Dane County TimeBank. Different timebank projects have been addressing a variety of these needs, including poverty and diverting youth out of the school-to-prison pipeline. A local cooperative and the very first local MAN, called the Allied Community Co-op, has been created by residents and neighborhood organizations in partnership with the timebank. It has organized community wellness activities, a small store, and garden projects.

The co-op also began a project called PowerTime, where we partnered with our local utility company to train a number of neighborhood people to do energy consulting, for which they earned timebank hours. These energy consultants worked with neighborhood families to make small, energy-saving changes. On average, households participating in the energy consultations reduced energy use by 10%.

The vision for PowerTime was to build participation in the co-op and energy project and have the participating families track the dollars they saved on their utility bills. A percentage of these savings would be pooled for cooperatively managed projects. In the case of the Allied Drive neighborhood, the goal was to generate a mutual savings pool to get better transportation for youth and people with medical needs, and obtain good food in an area with no grocery stores. Everyone in the neighborhood benefits when local assets are pooled and leveraged for the common good.

Allied Co-op has since shifted gears to respond to a growing shortage of food resources, but the energy project will continue. The next step for the Allied Co-op is to create a neighborhood resource center, which includes our timebank store, space for all the community organizations and projects, shared computers and sewing machines, joint working space, and a buying club for food. It will also include a neighborhood college where neighbors propose and teach the classes, earning timebank hours.

We're currently working with people around the world to establish 15 MAN pilot projects, sharing all of our learning so we can determine what works best under varying local conditions. Most pilot sites are starting from an existing initiative like a timebank, a local currency, or a co-op - whose members want to add another piece of the MAN framework and experiment with how these collaborative exchange strategies can support each other to address a specific community goal.

In service to this learning and sharing, we have established an umbrella cooperative with global membership, called the Main MAN. The Main MAN, incorporated here in Wisconsin where we have excellent cooperative law and history, connects local projects and global supporters. We are experimenting with member dues and rebates. We are also creating an egalitarian and inclusive decision-making process to determine how money gets allocated.

It's actually a way to play with the community savings pool model. In a co-op, you collect member dues and you can provide member rebates. But in our global co-op, we will base rebates on many different kinds of contributions, not just monetary. Ours will be based on such things as work on local projects and training initiatives. This mechanism for distributing resources helps get them where they are most needed.

Please join us! We're offering a web summit, an online learning series. We're also inviting people here to Madison, Wisconsin, on August 20-28 for a MAN Up Summit. We'll host trainings, collaboration sessions, work sprints, learning games, and a launch party. Come be with us and/or help us fund others to get here!  

To start a timebank or a MAN project, or to learn more, visit our website at www.mutualaidnetwork.org or contact Stephanie Rearick at info@mutualaidnetwork.org.

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Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
California's Drought and the Politics of Inequality http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32143-california-s-drought-and-the-politics-of-inequality http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32143-california-s-drought-and-the-politics-of-inequality

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in April, mandating urban centers to reduce water usage by 25 percent.

His announcement came after Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sounded the alarm that California water reservoirs and groundwater supplies are dramatically contracting. The state has only one year left of Mother Nature's ancient aquifers if climate change continues and the state doesn't curb usage.

Since Brown's announcement, the situation has worsened. Mountaintops in California barely received a touch of snow in the spring, and rainfall hasn't yet made up for the last few years of below normal precipitation.

California is four years into an intense drought, and scientists have calculated that this year will be the driest in more than four centuries. A record number of fires have burned across the state after brief rains produced sprigs of greenery that quickly dried up, becoming starter fuel. Cal Fire reported that it reacted to 1,100 fires so far this year, almost twice as many as usual for the same period.

The ecology of the state is in deep crisis. Photo essays have captured the apocalyptic drama of boats resting close to the bottom of once full reservoirs and old ghost towns that were once submerged reappearing. Farming continues to suck groundwater at deadly rates, and various parts of the California are sinking by a foot a year. This isn't just affecting agriculture fields in the Central Valley, but big infrastructure, like bridges.

Walking around working-class neighborhoods, one can't help but notice brown lawns and dying plants, which shows how seriously people are taking the task of water conservation.Opinion polls show the water crisis and drought has become the number-one issue for Californians.


What's striking is who's willing to conserve - and who isn't.

Forty-eight percent of wealthier homeowners with incomes above $100,000 a year say it would be "difficult" to conserve water. While many people with more modest means have replanted with indigenous and drought-tolerant plants, the well-to-do appear to be resisting with vigor.

Conservative talk show host Steve Yuhas is a case in point. He recently ranted on social media that rich homeowners "should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful."

Later, he said in an interview, "We pay significant property taxes based on where we live. And, no, we're not all equal when it comes to water."

That's true, unfortunately. We aren't "all equal" when it comes to access to vital resources, like water - or food or housing, for that matter. Rancho Santa Fe, where Yuhas lives, is a gated community with multi-acre estates, country clubs and ranches. There, water consumption has gone up by 9 percent since Brown's mandatory 25 percent reduction went into effect.

Over the last few months, investigative reports have shown the disparities in household consumption. These stories have given voice to the people who don't live on estates like Yuhas.

One such article in the New York Times juxtaposed those living in two very different neighborhoods. According to the Times, stay-at-home mom Alysia Thomas lives in the working class city of Compton, California, and "tells her children to skip a bath on days when they do not play outside; that holds down the water bill." Lillian Barrera, a housekeeper, serves dinner to her family on paper plates to conserve, because it saves money.

Pediatric neurologist Peter L. Himber, however, lives in Cowan Heights, and decided to stop watering his vast estate, even though he had "spent $100,000 to turn into a green California paradise, seeding it with a carpet of rich native grass and installing a sprinkler system fit for a golf course."

Another resident of Cowan Heights, John Sears, a retired food-company executive complained, "If we cut back 35 percent and all these homes just let everything go, what's green will turn brown. Tell me how the fire risk will increase."


Concerns about the drought have motivated many Californians to conserve water, but it's also important to underscore the fact that the economic situation facing working people had already forced them to conserve, even prior to mandatory restrictions.

One example from the Bay Area: The historically Black and working-class city of Oakland uses 57 gallons per person per day, compared to Diablo, an elite community a 30-minute drive away, where use is at 345 gallons per person. Examples like this run throughout the state and show that the owners of multimillion-dollar homes and estates haven't blinked an eye at Brown's proposed fines of $100 for consuming too much water.

Ordinary people are often blamed for consuming too much, but the reality shows that poorer Californians are often the first who are forced to conserve - due to their limited paychecks.

California has become one of the most unequal states in the US The vast majority of people in California are living paycheck to paycheck. They are faced with skyrocketing rents and housing costs. Research now shows a family needs to earn $26 a hour to afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment in California - an hourly wage that is largely out of reach for most residents.

Rising class inequality and, along with it, different perspectives on water consumption have also shown up in gourmet "water tasting bars" in Los Angeles that charge $50 for a sampling.

The focus on the consumption of the rich should be extended to the heads of corporations that continue to make a profit by stealing and/or polluting the majority of the water consumed in California. Brown has refused to place limits on the expansion of oil and gas production using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which consumes tens of millions of gallons of water. Meanwhile, the byproduct waste is being pumped into aquifers to dispose of it, contaminating billions more gallons.

The cold hard facts about water usage show that the bulk of California's water is going to big agriculture and commodity food production, not individual consumption. According to one report, of the 12 million acre-feet of total water lost yearly since 2011, roughly two-thirds are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley.


How corporations and the rich consume this vital resource in order to make a profit at the expense of ecosystems and ordinary people points toward the much bigger systematic and structural changes that need to be made if we are going to stop California from being bled dry.

For one, this brings up a much-needed discussion about how our food and energy need to be produced sustainably, and why commodity-based food production for markets is a dead end.

Technological fixes being pushed as solutions today avoid looking at how water is being polluted by hydraulic fracturing or wasted by big agriculture. Some Kern County farms are reportedly using "refurbished water" from oil and gas production to water their fields - without knowing the potential consequences.

There also is discussion about expanding the development of costly desalination plants. But in addition to consuming vast amounts of energy, there is so far no sustainable method for disposing the salt-waste byproduct from large-scale desalination.

Ultimately, California's water crisis is a social and a political problem that touches on how we need to conserve precious resources - something that the profit system doesn't take into account. Meanwhile, the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels is increasing CO2 emissions and climate change, which is causing hotter climates and severe droughts. A recent record heat wave in India killed 2,500, and Pakistan is facing a similar heat wave.

This increasing crisis is a deeply human issue - not only in terms of the effects of climate change and related disasters, but the human labor used in the process of creating profit for the rich. As the drought was making the national news, farmworkers in Mexico went on strike over working conditions and abysmal pay. In California, migrant and low-wage workers in the agricultural industry face the same conditions and issues, not to mention higher unemployment now due to the drought.

Just under the surface of the politics of water in California is a history of incredible injustice and racism. Water rights in California were established during the Gold Rush eraas part of the colonial history of the state alongside a genocidal war against indigenous peoples. Aspects of water usage became privatized during an endless drive for profit based on land- and resource-grabs as the state was gobbled up by the US

The "first in time, first in right" doctrine - a legal precedent that those who first use a resource are given the right over others to use it in the future - continues to impact indigenous communities alongside our ecosystems.

Indigenous rights and self-determination are therefore also intertwined with a fight for a more sustainable California. In discussions surrounding the drought, indigenous tribes in California have called for treaty rights to be upheld in order to protect fish, waterways and our ecology. In the words of Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, indigenous nations:

deserve some benefits from the water projects that have already been built, and we deserve a stronger say in how water is allocated and stored. If tribes are given a real place at the decision-makers' table, we can help guide California's water system back to a place where we can withstand a few years with low rainfall. Trees, wolves, beavers, delta smelt, salmon and a beautiful estuary are necessary for California's healthy water system.

The stakes are high: This crisis is severe and goes well beyond the drought in the Golden State. Due to global warming and climate change, not only are California's aquifers being bled dry, but according to NASA, the world is running out of fresh water - with 21 of the world's 37 largest aquifers having passed their "sustainability tipping points."

Big solutions to solve the ecological crisis are what are needed - system change, not climate change.

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News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Money Primary http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32142-the-money-primary http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32142-the-money-primary

In this exclusive election, Jeb is way out front of the GOP pack with a record haul of $100 million, while Hillary has bagged $45 million to lead among the Dems.

Hold on. Here come the Koch brothers from out of nowhere, overwhelming all the other campaigns with nearly a billion dollars for their secretive effort to put the presidency under their private control.

Thanks to the Supreme Court's corporate-friendly Citizens United ruling, running for America's highest office in our democratic republic has been perverted into a gold rush. Candidates shamelessly grub for cash, molding their policy proposals to fit the narrow interests of plutocratic elites.

The donors and political sycophants involved in this obscene corruption of the system are playing with dynamite.

By using money to shove the vast majority of people out of the democratic process, they're mocking America's essential egalitarian ideal that we're all in this together, destroying their own moral legitimacy, and fueling an explosive fury among alienated voters.

Some 84 percent of Americans tell pollsters that money has too much influence in elections, resulting in policies that favor the donors. The majority also rejects the Supreme Court's coddling of fat cat donors, with three-fourths of the people wanting limits on how much any donor can give and demanding that "dark money" front groups reveal the sources of their money.

Of course, the aloof political-money class won't stop their own corruption, but We the People can. And we must. To help, go to www.DemocracyIsForPeople.org.

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Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Four Ways the GOP Wants to Attack Planned Parenthood http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32141-four-ways-the-gop-wants-to-attack-planned-parenthood http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32141-four-ways-the-gop-wants-to-attack-planned-parenthood

We are on week three of what has been hinted at being a 12 week long media blitz attacking Planned Parenthood, and GOP politicians have been responding beautifully to the prompts provided to them by the anti-abortion movement. What has in the past simply been an annual (failed) push to defund the reproductive health care provider has instead turned into a frenzy of investigations across the country, led by some of the most anti-abortion, anti-birth control legislators in the country.

As the anti-abortion group "Center for Medical Progress" releases yet another new (and this time graphic) Youtube video, attacks on Planned Parenthood (and even independent abortion providers, too) continue. Here are just four of the latest ways the anti-abortion movement hopes to close them for good.

1.) Arrest Some Doctors

Some politicians are so completely convinced that what they see in the videos is illegal, they are already calling for the police to step in and throw providers in jail. "Top Republicans in Oklahoma are launching a campaign to boot Planned Parenthood from their state and shut down the abortion industry's leading player, arresting its doctors," reports WND.com, a rightwing news site. But Randy Brogan, the Oklahoma GOP chairman, is going beyond caring if tissue was donated or sold, and instead believes that the state should ignore Roe v. Wade and arrest doctors for performing abortions in the first place. "'As Chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, I call on the Governor and legislators to completely end the practice of abortion in Oklahoma,' Brogdon wrote in the email, adding that the state should '[s]hut Planned Parenthood down immediately for their illegal actions, and prosecute the abortion doctors who violate their oath to 'do no harm.'" Side note: Planned Parenthood doesn't perform abortions in the state of Oklahoma.

2.) Hack Their Websites

At first it sounded like a total scam, but allegedly one or more abortion opponent claims he or she "hacked" the Planned Parenthood website and got access to employee data. "Anti-abortion activists have hacked Planned Parenthood's website, gaining access to its online database and employee information, according to the group," reports the Christian Science Monitor. "The organization has turned to the FBI and the Department of Justice for help with its cybersecurity issues. Meanwhile, the hackers, self-proclaimed 'social justice warriors' are threatening to release the company's internal emails, the Daily Dot reported." Planned Parenthood hasn't been able to confirm their claims, but says if it is true it could put employees at risk of harassment or worse.

3.) Get Them Out of Schools

From Kansas to Arizona, a number of states already blocked Planned Parenthood workers (or even volunteers) from being able to offer sex ed or other resources to local schools, but now there is a push to get them out of all of the states. "Valerie Huber, president and CEO of the National Abstinence Education Association, told EAG the shocking footage, the second clip of which was released Tuesday, could convince parents not to allow the group to teach their children about the birds and the bees," reports FoxNews.com. "'We have long advocated that any group that normalizes or encourages teen sexual activity should not have access to students,' Huber said. 'That applies to (Planned Parenthood) and other groups, so this new revelation does not change our stance. (But) it strengthened our antipathy to their fitness as role models for our youth. Regardless of one's stance on abortion, this footage creates a visceral reaction to our sensibilities and humanity.'"

4.) Ban "Remains"

As someone who has actually read all the transcripts from the first two videos, the thing that stuck out the most to me was the point in which Dr. Nucolata suggested to the biofirm that if they would simply offer to take clinic's bio remains - all of them - the clinics would be more than happy to let them keep whatever tissue was usable, because they have such a difficult time disposing of it. They then began to discuss the problems of disposing of products of conception, from finding firms who are willing to an inability to dispose on their own because of regulations. Now, Americans United for Life is hoping to leverage that crisis by creating a model bill that will make it even more difficult to dispose of remains, hoping that clinics will then be forced to stop doing abortions all together. "[Dan]McConchie, of the AUL, told the Guardian the group had drafted a model 'Dignified Final Disposition Act' and was tweaking it in response to the clandestine videos. 'We're working with legislators. There's a lot of interest,'" reports the Guardian. "The proposed law would mandate that fetal remains be cremated or buried. If cremated, they would have to be cremated separately from medical waste and a county medical examiner would have to authorise the cremation."

Three weeks, four new tactics. And just think, we still have weeks to go.

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Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Why We All Need to Learn the Word "Anthropogenic" http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32139-why-we-all-need-to-learn-the-word-anthropogenic http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32139-why-we-all-need-to-learn-the-word-anthropogenic

The wettest rainforest in the continental United States had gone up in flames and the smoke was so thick, so blanketing, that you could see it miles away. Deep in Washington's Olympic National Park, the aptly named Paradise Fire, undaunted by the dampness of it all, was eating the forest alive and destroying an ecological Eden. In this season of drought across the West, there have been far bigger blazes but none quite so symbolic or offering quite such grim news. It isn't the size of the fire (though it is the largest in the park's history), nor its intensity. It's something else entirely - the fact that it shouldn't have been burning at all. When fire can eat a rainforest in a relatively cool climate, you know the Earth is beginning to burn.

And here's the thing: the Olympic Peninsula is my home. Its destruction is my personal nightmare and I couldn't stay away.

Smoke Gets in My Eyes

"What a bummer! Can't even see Mount Olympus," a disappointed tourist exclaimed from the Hurricane Ridge visitor center. Still pointing his camera at the hazy mountain-scape, he added that "on a sunny day like this" he would ordinarily have gotten a "clear shot of the range." Indeed, on a good day, that vantage point guarantees you a postcard-perfect view of the Olympic Mountains and their glaciers, making Hurricane Ridge the most visited location in the park, with the Hoh rainforest coming in a close second. And a lot of people have taken photos there. With its more than three million annual visitors, the park barely trails its two more famous western cousins, Yosemite and Yellowstone, on the tourist circuit.

Days of rain had come the weekend before, soaking the rainforest without staunching the Paradise Fire. The wetness did, however, help create those massive clouds of smoke that wrecked the view miles away on that blazing hot Sunday, July 19th.  Though no fire was visible from the visitor center - it was the old-growth rainforest of the Queets River Valley on the other side of Mount Olympus that was burning - massive plumes of smoke were rising from the Elwha River and Long Creek valleys.

By then, I felt as if smoke had become my companion. I had first encountered it on another hot, sunny Sunday two weeks earlier.

On July 5th, I had gone to Hurricane Ridge with Finis Dunaway, historian of environmental visual culture and author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. As this countryside is second nature to me, I felt the shock and sadness the moment we piled out of the car. In a season when the meadows and hills should have been lush green and carpeted by wildflowers, they were rusty brown and bone-dry.

Normally, even when such meadows are still covered in snow, glacier lilies still poke through. Avalanche lilies burst into riotous bloom as soon as the snow melts, followed by lupines, paintbrushes, tiger lilies, and the Sitka columbines, just to begin a list. Those meadows with their chorus of colors are a wonder to photograph, but the flowers also provide much needed nutrition to birds and animals, including the endemic Olympic marmots that prefer, as the National Park Service puts it, "fresh, tender, flowering plants such as lupine and glacier lilies."

Snow normally lingers on these subalpine meadows until the end of June or early July, but last winter and spring were "anything but typical," as the summer issue of the park's quarterly newspaper, the Bugler, pointed out. January and February temperatures at the Hurricane Ridge station were "over six degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average."

By late February, "less than three percent of normal" snowpack remained on the Olympic Mountains and the meadows, normally still covered by more than six feet of snow, "were bare." As the Bugler also noted, recent data and scientific projections suggest that "this warming trend with less snowpack is something the Pacific Northwest should get used to... What does this mean for summer wildflowers, cold-water loving salmon, and myriad animals that depend on a flush of summer vegetation watered by melting snow?" The answer, unfortunately, isn't complicated: it spells disaster for the ecology of the park.

Move on to the rainforest and the news is no less grim. This January, it got 14.07 inches of precipitation, which is 26% less than normal; February was 17% less; March was almost normal; and April was off by 23%. Worse yet, what precipitation there was generally fell as rain, not snow, and the culprit was those way-higher-than-average winter temperatures. Then the drought that already had much of the West Coast in its grip arrived in the rainforest. In May, precipitation fell to 75% less than normal and in June it was a staggering 96% less than normal, historic lows for those months. The forest floor dried up, as did the moss and lichens that hang in profusion from the trees, creating kindling galore and priming the forest for potential ignition by lightning.

That day, I was intent on showing Finis the spot along the Hurricane Hill trail where, in 1997, I had taken a picture of a black-tailed deer. That photo proved a turning point in my life, winning the Slide of the Year award from the Boeing photography club and leading me eventually to give up the security of a corporate career and start a conservation project in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As it happened, it wouldn't be a day for nostalgia or for seeing much of anything.  On reaching Hurricane Hill, we found that the Olympic Mountains were obscured by smoke from the Paradise Fire. Meanwhile, looking north toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Salish Sea, all that we could see was an amber-lit deep haze. More smoke, in other words, coming from more than 70 wildfires burning in British Columbia, Canada. As I write this, there are 14 active wildfires in Washington and five in Oregon, while British Columbia recently registered 185 of them.

So if you happen to live in the drought-stricken Southwest and are dreaming of relocating to the cool, moist Pacific Northwest, think again. On the Olympic Peninsula, it's haze to the horizon and the worst drought since 1895.

A Rainforest in a National Park

For visitors to the Olympic Peninsula, it seems obvious that a temperate rainforest - itself a kind of natural wonder - should be in a national park. As it happens, getting it included proved to be one of the most drawn-out battles in American conservation history, which makes seeing it destroyed all the more bitter.

Two centuries ago, expanses of coastal temperate rainforests stretched from northern California to southern Alaska. Today, only about 4% of the California redwoods remain, while in Oregon and Washington, the forests are less than 10% of what they once were.  Still, even in a degraded state, this eco-region, including British Columbia and Alaska, contains more than a quarter of the world's remaining coastal temperate rainforest.

In the era of climate change, this matters, because the Pacific coastal rainforest is so productive that it has a much higher biomass than comparable areas of any tropical rainforest. In translation: the Pacific rainforests store an impressive amount of carbon in their wood and soil and so contribute to keeping the climate cool. However, when that wood goes up in flames, as it has recently, it releases the stored carbon into the atmosphere at a rapid rate. The massive plumes of smoke we saw at Hurricane Ridge offer visual testimony to a larger ecological disaster to come.

The old-growth rainforest that stretches across the western valleys of the Olympic National Park is its crown jewel. As UNESCO wrote in recognizing the park as a World Heritage Site, it includes "the best example of intact and protected temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest." In those river valleys, annual rainfall is measured not in inches but in feet, and it's the wettest place in the continental United States. There you will find living giants: a Sitka spruce more than 1,000 years old; Douglas fir more than 300 feet tall; mountain hemlock at 150 feet; yellow cedars that are nearly 12 feet in diameter; and a western red cedar whose circumference is more than 60 feet.

The rainforest is home to innumerable species, most of which remain hidden from sight. Still, while walking its trails, you can sometimes hear the bugle or get a glimpse of Roosevelt elk amid moss-draped, fog-shrouded bigleaf maples. (The largest herd of wild elk in North America finds refuge here.) And when you do, you'll know that you've entered a Tolkienesque landscape. Those elk, by the way, were named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt who, in 1909, protected 615,000 acres of the peninsula, as Mount Olympus National Monument.

Why not include a rainforest in a national park? That was the question being asked at the turn of the twentieth century and Henry Graves, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, answered it in definitive fashion this way: "It would be great mistake to include in parks great bodies of commercial timber."

Despite the power of the timber industry and the Forest Service, however, five committed citizens with few resources somehow managed to protect the peninsula's last remaining rainforest. "They did it by involving the public," environmentalist and former park ranger Carsten Lien writes in his Olympic Battleground: Creating and Defending Olympic National Park. He adds, "Preserving the environment through direct citizen activism, as we know it today, had its beginnings in the Olympic National Park battle."

In 1938, the national monument was converted to Olympic National Park and a significant amount of rainforest was included.  As Lien would discover in the late 1950s, however, the Park Service, despite its rhetoric of stewardship, continued to let timber interests log there. Today, such practices are long past, though commercial logging continues to play a significant part in the economy of the peninsula in national, state, and private forests.

A Fire That Just Won't Stop

Once the fire began, I just couldn't keep away.  On a rainy July 10th, for instance, listening to James Taylor's Fire and Rain, I drove toward the Queets River Valley to learn more about the Paradise Fire so that I could "talk about things to come."

At the Kalaloch campground, I asked the first park employee I ran into whether the rain, then coming down harder, might extinguish the fire? "It will slow down the fire's spread," she told me, "but won't put it out. There's too much fuel in that valley."

The next morning, with the rain still falling steadily and the fire still burning, I stood at the trailhead to the valley thinking about what another park employee had told me. "The sad thing," she said, "is that the fire is burning in the most primitive of the three river valleys." In other words, I was standing mere miles away from the destruction of one of the most primeval parts of the forest. As Queets was also one of the more difficult locations to visit, less attention was being given to the fire than if, say, it were in the always popular Hoh valley.

In a sense, the Paradise Fire has been burning out of sight of the general public. Information about it has been coming from press releases and updates prepared by the National Park Service. Though it is doing a good job of sharing information, environmental disasters and their lessons often sink in most deeply when they are observed and absorbed into collective memory via the stories, fears, and hopes of ordinary citizens.

I had breakfast at the Kalaloch Lodge restaurant, not far from the Queets, while the rain was still falling. "When will the sun come out?" an elderly woman at the next table asked the waitress as if lodging a complaint with management. "The whole weekend we've been here it's rained continuously."

"I'm so happy that finally we got three days of rain," the waitress responded politely. "This year we got 12 inches. Usually we get about 12 feet. It's been bad for trees and all the life in our area." In fact, the peninsula has received over 51 inches of rain, mostly last winter, but her point couldn't have been more on target. "It has been so dry that the salmon can't move in the river," she added. Her voice lit up a bit as she continued, "With this rain, the rivers will rise and the salmon will be able to go upriver to spawn. The salmon will return."

I asked where she was from. "Quinault Nation," she said, citing one of the local native tribes dependent both nutritionally and culturally on those salmon.

"The Queets, the largest river flowing off the west side of the Olympics, is running at less than a third its normal volume," the Seattle Times reported. "[B]ad news for the wild salmon runs, steelhead, bull trout, and cutthroat trout." In addition to the disappearing snowpack and severe drought, the iconic glaciers of the Olympic Mountains are melting rapidly, which will likely someday spell doom for the park's rivers and its vibrant ecology. According to Bill Baccus, a scientist at the park, over the last 30 years, those glaciers have shrunk by about 35%, a direct consequence of the impact of climate change.

After breakfast, I took off for the Hoh Valley. At its visitor center, a ranger described the battle underway with the Paradise Fire. Summing up how dire the situation was, he said, "Our goal is confinement, not containment." Normally, success in fighting a wildfire is measured by what percentage of it has been contained, but not with the Paradise. "Safety of the firefighters and safety of the human communities are our two priorities right now," the ranger explained. As a result, the National Park Service is letting the fire burn further into wilderness areas unfought, while trying to stop its spread toward human communities and into commercially valuable timberlands outside the park.

For firefighters, combating such a blaze in an old-growth rainforest with steep hills is, at best, an impossibly dangerous business. Large trees are "falling down regularly," firefighter Dave Felsen told the Seattle Times. "You can hear cracking and you try to move, but it's so thick in there that there is no escape route if something is coming at you."

Besides, many of the traditional means of fighting wildfires don't work against the Paradise. Dumping water from a helicopter, to take one example, is almost meaningless. As an NPR reporter noted, the rainforest canopy "is so dense that very little of the water will make it down to the fire burning in the underbrush below." Worse yet, as the Washington Post reported, the large trees and thick growth "make it impossible to effectively cut a fire line" through the foliage to contain the spread of the flames.

With the moist lichens and mosses that usually give the rainforest its magical appearance shriveled and dried out, they now help spread the fire from tree to tree. When they burst into flames and fall to the ground, yet more of the dry underbrush catches, too. In other words, that forest, which normally would have suppressed a fire, has now been transformed into a tinderbox.

"Few people in our profession have ever seen this kind of fire in this kind of ecosystem," Bill Hahnenberg, the Paradise Fire incident commander, told his crew. "The information you gather could be really valuable." He didn't have to add the obvious: its value lies in offering hints as to how to fight such fires in a future that, as the region becomes drier and hotter, will be ever more amenable to them.

So far, the fire is smoldering, but as the summer heats up, the Seattle Times reports, "there is still the potential for a crown fire that can spread in dramatic fashion as treetops are engulfed in flames." According to several park employees I spoke with, the Paradise Fire is likely to burn until the autumn rains return to the western valleys. As of July 23rd, it had eaten 1,781 acres, which sounds modest compared to other fires burning in the West, but you have to remind yourself that it's not modest at all, not in a temperate rainforest. It also poses a challenge to the very American idea of land conservation.

Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American environmentalists passionately fought to protect large swaths of public lands and waters. The national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and wildernesses they helped to create laid the basis for a new American identity. Nationalism aside, such publicly protected lands and waters also offered refuge for an incredible diversity of species, some of which would have otherwise found it difficult to survive at the edges of an expanding industrialized, consumerist society. Today, that diversity of life within these public lands and waters is increasingly endangered by climate change.

What, then, should environmental conservation look like in a twenty-first century in which the Paradise Fire could become something like the norm?

Tankers and Rigs

"This is not an anthropogenic fire," the ranger I spoke with at the Hoh visitor center insisted. In the most literal sense, that's true. In late May, lightning struck a tree in the Queets Valley and started the fire, which then smoldered and slowly spread across the north bank of the river. It was finally detected in mid-June and firefighters were called in. That such a lightning strike disqualifies the Paradise Fire from being "anthropogenic" - human-caused - would once have been a given, but in a world being heated by the burning of fossil fuels, such definitions have to be reconsidered.

The very rarity of such fires speaks to the anthropogenic nature of the origins of this one.  After all, a temperate rainforest as a vast collection of biomass and so a carbon sink is only possible thanks to the rarity of fire in such a habitat. According to the World Wildlife Fund, "With a unique combination of moderate temperatures and very high rainfall, the climate makes fires extremely rare" in such forests.

The natural fire cycle in these forests is about 500 to 800 years. In other words, once every half-millennium or more this forest may experience a moderate-sized fire. But that's now changing. Mark Huff, who has been studying wildfires in the park since the late 1970s, told Seattle's public radio station KUOW that in the past half-century there have already been "three modest-sized fires" here, including the Paradise, though the other two were less destructive.According to a National Park Service map ("Olympic National Park: Fire History 1896-2006") in the western rainforest, during that century-plus, two lightning-caused fires burned more than 100 acres and another more than 500 acres.

If, however, fires in the rainforest become the new normal, comments Olympic National Park wildlife biologist Patti Happe, "then we may not have these forests."

A team of international climate change and rainforest experts published a study earlier this year warning that, "without drastic and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and new forest protections, the world's most expansive stretch of temperate rainforests from Alaska to the coast redwoods will experience irreparable losses." In fact, says the study's lead author, Dominick DellaSala, "In the Pacific Northwest... the climate may no longer support rainforest communities."

Speaking of the anthropogenic, on our way back, Finis and I stopped in Port Angeles, the largest city on the peninsula. There we noted a Chevron oil tanker, the massive 904-foot Pegasus Voyager, moored in its harbor on the Salish Sea. It had arrived empty for "topside repair." Today, only a modest number of oil tankers and barges come here for repair, refueling, and other services, but that could change dramatically if Canada's tar sands extraction project really takes off and vast quantities of that particularly carbon-dirty energy product are exported to Asia.

That industry is already fighting to build two new pipelines from Alberta, the source of most of the country's tar sands, to the coast of British Columbia. "Once this invasion of tar sands oil reaches the coast," a Natural Resources Defense Council press release states, "up to 2,000 additional barges and tankers would be needed to carry the crude to Washington and California ports and international markets across the Pacific." All of those barges and tankers would be moving through the Salish Sea and along Washington's coast.

And let's not forget that, in May, Shell Oil moored in Seattle's harbor the Polar Pioneer, one of the two rigs the company plans to use this summer for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea of Arctic Alaska (a project only recently green-lighted by the Obama administration). In fact, Shell expects to use that harbor as the staging area for its Arctic drilling fleet. The arrival of Polar Pioneer inspired a "kayaktivist" campaign, which received national and international media coverage. It focused on drawing attention to the dangers of drilling in the melting Arctic Ocean, including the significant contribution such new energy extraction projects could make to climate change.

In other words, two of the most potentially climate-destroying fossil-fuel-extraction projects on Earth more or less bookend the burning Olympic Peninsula.

The harbors of Washington, a state that prides itself on its environmental stewardship, have already become a support base for one, and the other will likely join the crowd in the years to come. Washington's residents will gradually become more accustomed to oil rigs and tankers and trains, while its rainforests burn in yet more paradisical fires.

In the meantime, the Olympic Peninsula is still wreathed in smoke, the West is still drought central, and anthropogenic is a word all of us had better learn soon.

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Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 10:28:36 -0400
Pesticides Are Killing Greece’s Bees: Honey Industry Suffers Amid Broader Economic Turmoil http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32138-bees-in-greece http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32138-bees-in-greece

 

 Even as unemployed Greek youth turn in desperation to beekeeping, Greece’s honey industry is suffering the effects of systemic pesticides. More than 1,000 studies confirm that pesticides disorient the bees, making it more difficult for them to navigate, forage for pollen and reproduce in the hives.

The hot topic across global financial markets at the moment is Greece. People there are experiencing monetary woes, but it seems like their honeybees aren't doing too well either. Systemic pesticides are increasingly causing bee losses, and many would argue that the country now suffers from colony collapse disorder as well.

The air smells of smoke and lemons, and the cicadas chirp steadily as I come upon 16 beehives clustered together in a dry field. What I've just discovered is mere steps away from Demokritos, the National Centre for Scientific Research in Athens, the largest multidisciplinary research institute in Greece. Every so often, pagoda, pine and olive trees sway gently in the breeze, but overall the climate in Attica, the historic region that encompasses the capital, is hot and arid.

The scent in the air is coming from lemon balm leaves, which associate researcher and apiculturist, Dr. Sofia Gounari, has placed in her smoker to calm the bees. It's an attractive aroma to the virgin sisters of toil because it's similar to the secretions they give off when communicating with one another, she explains. No wonder lemon balm's official name is Melissa officinalis; Melissa is Greek for "honeybee."

"In the past, beekeepers added lemon juice in melted wax to attract swarms," says the 52-year-old. Working at the Institute of Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems, Gounari has agreed to rendezvous with me as I explore the state of bees and beekeeping in Greece. It's the day of Greece's ultimately pointless referendum, and Gounari remarks that it's actually good to be in the bee yard today, thinking of nature rather than the country's future and the terms of Greece's EU bailout deal.

When I ask her if we can look at the bees, she expresses concern about my attire: a casual combination of shorts and a tank top. But I assure her that I will be fine with only a veil and actually welcome a sting or two as I regard the venom as medicinal. I just don't like getting stung in the face since my face swells up beyond recognition. With the help of a hive tool, she pries a few frames out so we can observe the capped brood and honey flow. She gestures for me to try some honey and before I gently poke my finger in the sticky wax, I silently thank the bees.

Unfortunately Gounari, who has been beekeeping for three decades, didn't harvest much honey this year due to bee losses.

"We've had a lot of problems with pesticides these last two years in all of Attica, mostly in the south," says Gounari, who also transported another 10 beehives on fir trees in Menalo Mountain in Central Peloponnesus. Incidentally, this year's crop from Menalo, near Tripoli, was the worst in many years, due to the poor weather in the mountains.

"Because of systemic pesticides?" I ask. She nods. The pesticides are just one of the challenges troubling beekeepers in Greece, who are struggling to carry on the country's ancient legacy of apiculture in the face of modern toxins.

Honey for the Gods: The Ancient History of Beekeeping in Greece

Apiculture in Greece dates back to antiquity and is part of the country's legacy.

Legend has it that the Greek god of apiculture, Aristaeus, was the son of Apollo and the huntress Cyrene. According to Greek mythology, Aristaeus was born in the palaces of Libya, North Africa, where nurses dropped nectar and ambrosia on his lips, turning him into an immortal. Nymphs taught him useful arts and mysteries like how to curdle milk for cheese and tame the Goddess' bees to stay in hives.

In the ancient city of Knossos a sign reads: Pasi Theis Meli - "Honey Is Offered to All Gods." Honeybees were so revered that they were even etched on Greek coins.

In 322 BC, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist, was the first person recorded as having studied bees, and it is said that Pythagoras and his followers used honey as their main source of food. Meanwhile melikraton - a thick mixture of milk and honey that's been mentioned in the Odyssey - was viewed as sacred and imbibed on special occasions. The carved stone that channeled the vapors of the Oracle of Delphia was dome-shaped like a beehive, and legend even asserts that the second temple at Delphi was constructed entirely by bees.

Contemporary beekeepers in Greece are keeping alive the country's reverence for honey and hives. There are a total of 1.5 million beehives in all of Greece. In fact, the country ranks second in the world (after Hungary) when it comes to apicultural density: about 11.1 beehives per km. Meanwhile, golden liquid flows in abundance in this country, free of genetic modification and gleaned from vast, uncultivated lands. All Greek honey is, by default, GMO-free, given that genetically modified crops are prohibited from being grown in the country.

And, I'd venture to say that every Greek home has honey. Greeks consume the largest amount of honey per person in all of Europe - 1.620 kg per year. The country produces about 15,000 to 16,000 tons of honey annually, making it the second-largest honey producer in Europe, after Spain.

"Honey is part of the Mediterranean diet," said Katerina Karatasou of the Federation of Greek Beekeepers' Associations. "It's a superfood with many advantages for health."

In Greece, more than 60 percent of the honey comes from pine and fir (pefko and  elato), and what is fascinating here is that an insect called Marchinalia hellenica feeds on the trees by sucking the sap, and then the excess sugary substances that are produced are then collected by bees (honeydew honey). Once processed by the bees, it is almost indistinguishable from other honey, apart from the ratio of different sugars, plus it has a stronger taste and darker color.

Another 10 percent of the country's honey comes from thyme, which is rich in copper and boron and considered to have tonic and antiseptic properties, wonderful for the prevention and fighting of infections from peptic and respiratory diseases. The rest comes from chestnut, cotton, heather, oranges and a great variety of wild herbs and flowers. The aroma, the taste, and the viscosity of Greek honey are superb.

An Unexpected Effect of the Athens Olympics: Bee Deaths

Back in 2004, as Athens prepared to host the summer Olympics, organizers decided to go all out by importing Canary palm trees from North Africa for decoration and shade. Unfortunately, the red palm weevil - an insect that slowly munches on the palm until it kills its host - hitched a ride to Greece as well. Soon after that a horticulturalist spotted the first unfamiliar weevil in a palm tree all the way in Hersonissos, Crete. By 2006, the red palm weevil had infested palm trees across Greece, from Crete to Rhodes to Attica and beyond.

As a result many hotels and municipalities went mad and started spraying chemicals at will, including neonics, Gounari said.

Eventually all the trees died, including many of the indigenous palm trees like the endangered Cretan Palm. But it got worse: The neonicotinoids also caused huge bee losses, especially to honey producers in the region of Attica. The die-off cost local beekeepers losses of around 50 percent.

"I lost many beehives from the spraying of palm trees with neonicotinoids in the area around the institute," Gounari said. "Now that all the trees are dead, there's some relief from the toxins directly in the city."

Greece Says "Oxi" to a Ban on Neonics

It's 2012, and based on an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority, the European Commission decides to temporarily restrict the use of three neonicotinoids - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, which are considered harmful to bee health. At the time, 15 member states - including France and Germany - vote in favor of the restrictions, four abstain and eight vote against the ban, including the UK, Italy, Hungary and Greece.

"The Greek vote was a major disappointment to us and we fail to understand it," stated the Federation of Greek Beekeepers' Associations, which is made up of about 65 beekeeping associations.

According to Andreas Thrasivoulou, a professor of beekeeping at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, the Ministry of the Environment was informed of the damage due to the use of the harmful pesticides by both professional and scientific organizations, as well as ordinary beekeepers and political parties.

"The ministry was fully aware of the problem," says Thrasivoulou. "However, instead of listening to us, they preferred to listen to the companies that produce the pesticides."

Undoubtedly, the decision had to do with dollar bills and keeping the pharmaceutical companies happy, says Gounari. Meanwhile, honeybees and human beings are defenseless victims of the profiteering of large agricultural companies.

"Not banning the pesticides does not help agriculture. It does not help biodiversity, it does not help humans and insects. No one benefits from bees dying," says Elena Danali of Greenpeace Greece.

To defend their position, sources from the Ministry of Agricultural Development maintained that the European Food Safety Authority report did not contain sufficient data and that a mass extinction of bees, due to the use of the specific systemic pesticides, had not been registered in Greece.

As far as data: Based on the results of more than 1,000 international studies, scientists with the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides have concluded that neonics are a major factor in bee mortality. The pesticides disorient the bees, making it more difficult for these flying insects to navigate, forage for pollen and reproduce in the hives.

In the end, a ban was instated for the treatment of seeds, soil (granules), and foliar applications for a period of two years on corn, cotton, sunflower and rapeseed, but not including individual use in gardens and orchards, e.g. oranges. It expired in December of 2014. Ironically, manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta are now suing the European Commission and asking for reimbursement for lost profits. (Because apparently a gazillion dollars just isn't enough.)

"We are also trying to defend our reputation, which was significantly harmed, particularly considering the significant investments we have made over a number of years in bee health and sustainable agriculture in general," added a Bayer company spokesman, defending the use of legal action for a temporary measure that has since expired.

Still, many groups are hoping to renew the ban, this time attempting to restrict all six systemic pesticides rather than the aforementioned three.

Unemployed Youth Turn to Beekeeping

Greece has an estimated 25,000 beekeepers; about 1,500 of them make their living solely from the trade while about 85 percent use it to supplement their income. Meanwhile, about 7,000 beekeepers own more than 150 hives.

According to Gounari, there's also been a wave of young adults taking up the profession, as of late.

"That's great," I respond with enthusiasm.

"No, it's not great," she interjects. "We have an economic crisis, and people think they can earn money easily because they've seen beekeepers go on TV, saying that you can collect 30 to 50 kilos of honey and sell it for 10 to 15 euros per kilo. Beekeeping is not easy and it's not for everyone. Money is not a reason to become a beekeeper."

Currently, the unemployment rate for Greek youth hovers around 53 percent, so naturally, some are seeking solutions in more creative ways, said Karatasou of the Federation of Greek Beekeepers' Associations. She tells wannabe beekeepers that they can't be allergic, they can't be afraid, and most importantly, they can't expect to make any money … at least not for the first three years in the business.

Beekeeping is indeed not easy. In Greece, beekeepers have to move their hives four to six times a year following the nectar or honeydew flow and the harvests are poor: 12-15 kilos on average, nothing near the 30-40 kilos we hear in other European countries.

Are Bee Deaths the Beekeepers' Fault?

Systemic pesticides, especially Gaucho (imidacloprid), have been used in Greece mainly on cotton, sunflower and oranges for the past five or six years. While varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attacks honey bees, is certainly an issue, many contend that nicotine-based pesticides are the main problem, compromising the bees' immune system so that they cannot fend for themselves. (Incidentally while Greece's economy is anchored in tourism and shipping, its main exports are fish and cotton).

"We never had losses of more than seven to 10 percent, which is considered acceptable. But now with the advent of neonics, the losses have increased considerably, and they are high in specific periods of the year, not only just after winter," explains biologist and researcher Dr. Fani Hatjina of the Division of Apiculture, of the Hellenic Agricultural Organization DEMETER. Hatjina has been studying the effect of pesticides and bee losses since 2007. Together with other researchers, she has concluded that imidacloprid in sub-lethal doses has a significant detrimental effect in different aspects of bees' physiology, behavior and health (e.g. in orientation, respiration, cardiac rhythm, food glands' size, thermoregulation, immune system and hygienic behavior).

Since the country has lost bees due to neonics, I asked whether beekeepers have witnessed colony collapse disorder (CCD).

"No, we don't have CCD, we have bad beekeepers," insists Gounari. While she agrees that neonics are slowly killing bees, she believes that the main issue is overworking the bees and abusing hives by treating them as a commodity.

Another beekeeper I spoke to claims Greece doesn't have colony collapse disorder because the country is still void of genetically modified foods.

This idea that beekeepers - rather than colony collapse disorder - are to blame for the rising losses in the bee population was also prevalent in France, circa 1995, and the United States, circa 2006. When bees in those countries first started dying en masse, the first culprit was the beekeeper.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Many beekeepers and scientists don't agree with Gounari about the cause of bee deaths in Greece.

"It's easy to assume that it's bad beekeepers, but there are signs of CCD. No doubt about that," says John Phipps, editor of The Beekeepers Quarterly. In 2010, Phipps went from 40 to 28 hives and has witnessed very unusual bee behavior as well as "typical signs of CCD," like abandoned hives, with only a small batch of brood left behind and sometimes a queen.

Hatjina has also gotten increased reports of colonies disappearing and the life spans of queen bees dropping to as low as two weeks, instead of two to three years, and these events are increasing year after year. However due to being short-staffed, she is unable to keep tabs on the losses. Her studies have also shown that when bees come into contact with neonics, they are more vulnerable to diseases such as Nosema and AFB.

One significant difference is that the failing hives in Greece can recover more easily than those in the United States because they can be easily moved to areas without poisons. Keep in mind that only 29 percent of Greece land is farmed. Greece doesn't have huge monocultures, so wild flora around the contaminated cultivations acts as a sort of 'saver' for the bees; therefore, sometimes the adverse effects are diluted. Hatjina's new research also shows that the colonies are trying to detoxify themselves. Their success depends of the dose of the neonicotinoid used.

With all this said, beekeepers can do a better job of keeping bees. While an increasing number of young and old beekeepers use nontoxic oxalic acids and essential oils against miticides, many others still use toxins such as pyrethroids, even though varroa mites have grown resistant to it. They are advised to follow proper instructions and only treat during brood-less periods, but still even limited use of the toxins filter into the wax and honey. Meanwhile, Phipps has noticed that many Greek beekeepers buy Chinese wax, because it's cheap.

Raising Consciousness on the Importance of Bees

During the last 10 years, official beekeeping seminars have proved very helpful in passing new knowledge and methodology to Greek beekeepers, says Hatjina.

Meanwhile, organizations like the Federation of Greek Beekeepers' Associations, the Division of Apiculture in Chalkidiki, and Greenpeace Greece are also actively attempting to link farmers with beekeepers and teach them about the detrimental effects of neonics and the importance of honeybees. But unfortunately, many are not so sympathetic to the cause. They don't realize the extent of the damage because the effects are sub-lethal.

"Unfortunately not all of them can hear that bees are the solution and not the problem," says Delani. "Some farmers, the more conventional ones, don't like bees or don't understand their vital role in pollination. … Of course, there are also organic and progressive farmers that are making positive contributions."

Greenpeace Greece also has a current campaign that aims to educate people about the importance of bees and the dangerous repercussions of systemic pesticides.

So it's not just about farmers and beekeepers.

"I think that people in Greece are aware that the honeybee is a central pillar of the ecosystem," says Karatasou.

It seems that Greek people have a place in the colony collapse disorder puzzle, too. Will the country befriend the bee? We'll have to wait and see.

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News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Georgia Is Moving Children With Disabilities Into Schools Used During Jim Crow http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32137-georgia-is-segregating-children-with-disabilities-in-schools-used-during-jim-crow http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32137-georgia-is-segregating-children-with-disabilities-in-schools-used-during-jim-crow

(Photo: Empty Classroom via shutterstock; Edited LW / TO)(Photo: Empty Classroom via Shutterstock; Edited LW / TO)

Georgia has been illegally and unnecessarily segregating thousands of students with behavioral issues and disabilities, isolating them in run-down facilities and providing them with subpar education, according to an investigation by the US Department of Justice.

Some of the students in the program were schooled in the same inferior buildings that served black children in the days of Jim Crow. The investigation found that many of the buildings lack gyms, cafeterias, libraries, labs, playgrounds and other amenities.

"It's a warehouse for kids the school system doesn't want or know how to deal with," a parent told the Justice Department of the program. The Justice Department detailed its findings in a letter earlier this month to Georgia's governor and attorney general.

Federal law mandates that schools educate students with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment" in which they can learn and thrive. More broadly, public entities must serve people with disabilities in the "most integrated setting."

But what the Justice Department found in Georgia is something that persists across the country: Schools continue to inappropriately segregate students with a range of behavioral needs and disabilities.

Children are often placed in more restrictive settings because traditional public schools show little flexibility in working with students who may need more support.

In Georgia, schools were quick to move children out of mainstream classrooms, the Justice Department noted. In some cases, students were recommended for placement after a single incident or a string of minor incidents, such as using inappropriate language with a teacher. Parents reported feeling pressured into agreeing to the placements.

In fact, many students who were placed in what's called the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS, didn't actually need to be there, the Justice Department said. Most could have stayed in their neighborhood schools if they'd been given more behavioral or mental-health support. "Nearly all students in the GNETS Program could receive services in more integrated settings, but do not have the opportunity to do so," the letter said.

What's more, because the state has set up a system that tilts toward providing services in segregated settings, the letter said, Georgia "undermines the availability of these services in more integrated settings."

A spokeswoman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal referred questions to the Georgia Department of Education, whose spokesman referred questions to the Attorney General's Office. Daryl Robinson, counsel to the Georgia Attorney General, told ProPublica, "We don't have any comment at this time."

This isn't the first time that the GNETS has drawn scrutiny. In 2010, a state audit found that the programs "are not held accountable for student performance" and questioned their cost effectiveness. Earlier, in 2004, a 13-year-old boy in the program hanged himself while held for hours isolated in a room.

Advocates have long been critical of the quality of services offered by the network.

"We have seen many, many clients whose behavior gets significantly worse in GNETS," said Leslie Lipson, an attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office. "We've seen kids who are significantly behind their peers for no other reason than lack of instruction. We've seen students who are great football players or involved in student government or band who are sent to GNETS and have no opportunities to be part of their community."

The Justice Department threatened the state with a lawsuit if the problems are not corrected. It called on the state to redirect services, training and resources to move students with behavioral challenges back into general-education schools.

In particular, it suggested increasing access to mental health services by locating mental health clinics "at or near schools" to provide services to students who would otherwise be at risk of being referred to more restrictive, segregated settings.

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News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Surveillance Bill in Cybersecurity Clothing http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32136-a-surveillance-bill-in-cybersecurity-clothing http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32136-a-surveillance-bill-in-cybersecurity-clothing

Almost every day, Americans learn about how some major institution has been hacked. The privacy of millions has been compromised. Now the Senate is poised to consider a bill that purportedly will enhance protection, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act ("CISA"). Don't let the name fool you. CISA is a surveillance bill masquerading as cybersecurity reform.

First, CISA sets vague criteria for private companies to determine when a "cyber threat" exists. Companies can share user information with any federal agency when they believe there is a threat. Federal agencies, in turn, must immediately share all cyber threat information with the National Security Agency ("NSA"). Because this sharing occurs instantaneously, there is no attempt even to remove consumers' sensitive, personally identifiable information. The law also explicitly supersedes existing privacy laws that limit the government's collection of citizens' data, some of which were past responses to earlier governmental abuses.

In addition, when companies share information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), they receive protection from legal liability. This means that individuals whose information is revealed have no ability to challenge the data collection and distribution. Moreover, federal agencies and law enforcement are not limited to using the information for cybersecurity and national security purposes. Instead, they may use the data for any purpose, including ordinary criminal prosecutions, thereby bypassing both legal and constitutional protections.

Finally, CISA gives private companies the ability to engage in defensive tactics called "countermeasures" to combat cybersecurity threats. Under the proposal, companies have essentially free rein to undertake these aggressive maneuvers as long as they are technically confined to their own systems and do not "intentionally" destroy other entities' systems. They may, however, still have significant effects on other networks, further undermining cybersecurity.

For instance, cyber attackers often hide behind innocent bystanders, masking their true identity. CISA would allow a company that has been hacked to hack the attacker back. If the hacker is posing as an entity on a different network - for instance, a hospital or an emergency responder - the private company could damage the innocent network. Normally, this behavior would be against the law, but CISA amends current law to allow for these defensive operations. Because the defensive attacks would exploit system vulnerabilities and create new ones, CISA makes the Internet infrastructure less secure, not more.

If the government truly wanted to increase cybersecurity, it could start by mandating that federal agencies practice expert-recommended cyber hygiene. Even basic measures that cybersecurity experts consider necessary are not discussed in CISA. For example, most experts recommend Internet users update software regularly, a piece of advice that is usually disregarded. Users can encrypt data, which makes it less valuable to hackers. They can also set strong passwords and use multi-factor authentication systems for sensitive data, which requires additional steps to access the data. These strategies, which slow hackers down and make hacking targets less attractive, could prevent 80 to 90 percent of cyber attacks. In fact, such measures could have prevented the breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and several other attacks.

CISA threatens personal liberty and makes the Internet less secure. The law encourages private entities to share vast troves of consumer data with federal agencies with no net gain for cybersecurity. Instead, consumer data will be more vulnerable to attack, particularly since there is no guarantee that the federal government will be a better custodian of consumer data than OPM was with employee data. The Senate should recognize CISA for what it is: a surveillance and privacy-killing bill in cybersecurity clothing.

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News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Blowing the Whistle on ALEC's Little Brother ACCE - for Local Officials http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32135-blowing-the-whistle-on-alec-s-little-brother-acce http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32135-blowing-the-whistle-on-alec-s-little-brother-acce

ALEC created the American City County Exchange (ACCE) in 2014 as a separate organization for municipal officials. ACCE's founder Jon Russell intends to double membership every year and sees the potential to exceed ALEC's since there are more local officials than state legislators.

(Photo: Silver Whistle via Shutterstock)(Photo: Silver Whistle via Shutterstock)

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This is the first in a series of reports by Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, author of Becoming a Citizen Activist, coming out this January by Sasquatch Books.

A Progressive Democrat Joins the Right-Wing ALEC

It's true. I plopped down my $50 and became a member of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), dedicated to the three principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. This is the basis of a right-wing movement in America to repeal existing government legislation that promotes social justice and economic equity, and stop any future such legislation.

However, while these three words are blazoned across their brochures, the literature inside says, "The goal of ALEC is to foster efficient, effective, accountable and transparent government that respects hardworking people." Heck, I've always campaigned supporting these goals and I don't know anyone right or left who wouldn't. So I was intrigued by how such commonly shared goals could lead to such divergent paths toward a more democratic America.

I know the shorthand explanation. Nick, don't be gullible, the corporations run ALEC and their members are ignorant ideologues or, at best, are being honestly mislead by corporate propaganda. I had to meet these people. I've met ignorant ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. Did the right wing have more of them because corporations spend gobs of money on deception?

There was one problem in finding out - ALEC is open only to state legislators or private-interest parties, i.e. corporations or business associations. Being neither, I wouldn't be able to get into their conference. A break came last year when ALEC formed ACCE (the American City County Exchange) for city and county public officials. It was to take ALEC's organizational approach of helping these elected representatives pass laws that could cut taxes, limit government and promote free markets (i.e. turn over government services and functions to businesses).

I had assumed that this was a closed association, and that I would be required to take an oath or be screened and approved for admission. There have been democratic state legislators who experienced difficulty in getting admitted into ALEC meetings. But in the end, they were admitted. Why? Because ALEC is a 501 (c) (3) organization, which means that it cannot discriminate based on political beliefs if it wants to retain its advantageous tax status. The door was open, all I had to do was step through it and pay the admission charge. There I found that things were not as open as it might have appeared, but I'll deal with the mechanics of how ALEC/ACCE operate in a later posting.

When I started tweeting (@nickjlicata) and posting on Facebook during my three days attending the joint ALEC/ACCE conference, the initial responses I received were of shock and bewilderment. What was I doing there? It was said that I had crashed this event. But as I point out it's not about crashing it, since they legally can't stop an elected from attending. Nevertheless, it does take some nerve to enter into a conference where everyone there has an adamantly different worldview and most likely will see you as the enemy.

The challenge for me, and in a way it is for all of us, is to get around seeing individuals as enemies. Yes, we have different strategies for protecting our democracy but we must listen closely to the other side to understand just how they hope to accomplish that, even when it turns our stomach because we can see how it will most likely cripple our democracy. You cannot sharpen a blade without grinding it against a tough stone. We have to do the same with our minds. If they are not challenged they become mere echo chambers for slogans.

In the following posts, I will introduce the people and leaders I met. I will let you know what they said during the meetings and afterwards. I will describe how ALEC and ACCE operate and how they have begun to reshape this nation to conform to their vision. I will reveal the divisions that exist within them and how those conflicts present an internal challenge to achieving their own goals. And I will talk about how the corporate interests shape these organizations and also how the most conservative elected officials complain about how those same corporations are corrupt.

Meet the Folks Who Want to Tear Down Government

If yesterday's far left wanted to overthrow the government, today's far right would just as soon get rid of most of it. The term "far right" implies a small fringe group, wanting to shove most of the federal apparatus into the dustbin of history, as Marx would say. However ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), is not a small fringe group, they claim to have a quarter of all state legislators as members.

Who are these people? They are not like the Occupy Movement's youth who pitched tents in parks. They are more like their parents, who stayed at home and watched TV. But make no mistake, they are organized and well funded to carry their ideas forward.

About a 1,000 ALEC delegates and lobbyists attended their largest meeting at the San Diego Hyatt last week. I eyeballed three separate clusters at different times at the conference and the highest percentage of people of color I could count was 8 percent. Women delegates faired better at 20 percent. A handful of youthful interns from the Heritage Foundation kept order, although there was no rowdiness.

ALEC created ACCE (the American City County Exchange) in 2014 as a separate organization for municipal officials. I assumed ALEC's corporate members initiated ACCE. That may be too simplistic a view, at least from what ACCE's founder and Director Jon Russell told me.

Russell is a councilmember from the township of Culpeper, Virginia, with a population just under 20,000, which is 52% white, and 32% black. It would seem to be a city in need of federal assistance. The last census showed males had a median income of $28,658 and 27% of the population was below the poverty line. Russell, a father of four children, is white, as are all nine councilmembers there.

Despite the differences in our politics I found that we had a similar past in organizing. Both of us started national networks of municipal officials to promote our political views. Jon had connections with about 20 other local politicians from his conservative advocacy work, and I had a similar number from my progressive national work.

I helped launch Local Progress in 2013 by calling together about 30 politicians, community organizers, and non-profits. The following year Russell walked into ALEC and told them he wanted to start a conservative national network of municipal officials to carry out ALEC's mission. They hired him as director and devoted their ample resources to building it. Since his elected job is part time, he retained his seat. Meanwhile, the non-profit Center for Popular Democracy agreed to host Local Progress. The members raised money to pay for a CPD staff person to act as a part-time director and I served as chair.

Today Local Progress has 370 elected officials as members, and ACCE has 312, but they also have over 200 private interest partners. If those businesses pay separately to join ACCE, that would give Russell's group well over $200,000 in annual income just through corporate membership fees. Although we are currently limiting our membership to cities, ACCE includes counties. We have no membership fees and do not charge for attending our annual conferences, while their fee is $50 per elected official and they charge anywhere from $200 to $700 to attend their meetings, depending on when one registers.

Russell told me that they give out limited grants since many of their members are from smaller towns that do not have budgets to support attending such conferences. I suspect there are a large number of such grants or corporate scholarships provided to those that they would like to see attend.

Russell intends to double his membership every year and sees the potential to eventually exceed ALEC's since there are thousands more local officials than state legislators. Given the funds being poured into ALEC by corporations and foundations like the Koch Institute, not to mention access to ALEC's 40 plus staff, ACCE could become a major player in shaping municipal policies. Their presence may not grow in the larger democratic cities, but there are thousands of smaller cities that could feel their impact.

Throughout ACCE's second annual gathering, I sat in a small room with two-dozen members, all white like myself and mostly men, discussing how to limit government's influence. Russell told the group, "We are looking at our work as pioneers of the future, not prison guards of the past." Their first publication outlining that future comes out later this year, to be followed by white papers on federalism and local control best practices.

In my next installment I'll share what I saw of corporate participation in the Conference.

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Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400