Category Archives: Telling the Truth

Creating S***hole Countries

I’ve continued to think about the comments made last week by the President of the U.S.  Even though he later denied some of the words attributed to him, and two of his most ardent supporters stated that they did not recall his use of the words, there seems to be little doubt about what was actually said and why.  The entire episode was astonishing to those with any sensibilities, regardless of political affiliation.

But my own reflections on the matter shifted to the countries in question, the ones which were denigrated so graphically by the leader of the free world.  What’s the possible basis for such demeaning remarks?  Are these nations really so awful?  And if so, why?  I suppose that, by comparison, Nicaragua might be one of those countries which the U.S President had in mind: it’s the second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere (next to Haiti), has a history of internal conflicts and dictatorships, contributes to both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. and has sustained a strained relationship with U.S. administrations for decades.  With that in mind, I considered the circumstances that might have led countries like Nicaragua, Haiti and the African nations to be held in such contempt by the wealthiest country in the world.

At least in the case of Nicaragua, the beginning of their modern-day difficulties date back to the 1850’s invasion of that country by invasion from the U.S.  Over subsequent decades, the North American neighbor alternately funded insurrection, invaded with U.S. Marines, supported a generations-long dictatorship of oppression, illegally funded a war against a duly-elected Nicaraguan administration, ignored a World Court penalties of $6 Billion for their illegalities, consistently and forcefully interfered in elections and has recently threatened legislation to eliminate U.S. remittances to Nicaragua families.  In sum, it has been an excellent recipe for the creation of a troubled existence.

In Haiti, the early troubles inflicted by the U.S. were quite similar to the incursions in Nicaragua.  On July 28, 1915, American President Woodrow Wilson ordered  U.S. Marines to occupy the capitol.  Forces were instructed to “protect American and foreign” interests.  The U.S. also wanted to rewrite the Haitian constitution, which banned foreign ownership of land, and replace it with one that guaranteed American financial control.  To avoid public criticism, the U.S. claimed the occupation was a mission to “re-establish peace and order… [and] has nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past or the future.”  Within six weeks of the occupation, U.S. government representatives seized control of Haiti’s custom houses and administrative institutions, including the banks and the national treasury. Under U.S. government control, a total of 40% of Haiti’s national income was designated to repay debts to American and French banks.  For the next nineteen years, U.S., government advisers ruled the country, their authority provided by the United States Marine Corps.  The U.S. retained influence on Haiti’s external finances until 1947.  It was a good way to subdue a culture, an independent economy and self-determination and to ensure their third world status.

For the African continent, the litany of U.S. interventions and self-serving intrusions is far too long to even summarize here.  Africa is a big place, and nearly every one of its fifty-four countries has experienced U.S. interference at one point in history or another.  But the following description of cause-and-effect, excerpted from an article by Mark Levine at provides some context for current reality:

Traveling across Sub-Saharan Africa it becomes a truism—but nonetheless in good measure true—that the areas where the region’s much-celebrated recent growth is most evident are precisely where people are able to create local markets largely outside the control of corrupt government and private elites. But the large-scale and still expanding militarisation and securitisation of US policy makes the development of such truly free-market mechanisms that much more difficult to realise, precisely because the strengthening of capacities of militaries and security/intelligence sectors invariably strengthens the power of elites and states vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, exacerbates economic conflicts and inequalities, and strengthens the position of those groups that are violently reacting to this process.

The poverty which continues to envelop much of the continent is the result of far more  than just the meddling of the United States.  But the U.S. footprint is present in both actions taken and assistance NOT rendered; if these constitute s***hole countries, perhaps they are perceived this way because we in the U.S. have chosen to see them and respond to them in that way.  After all, no less than the U.S. President has identified them as such.  (I think the President is unaware of the fact that earliest humans emerged from Africa.  Not Europe.  Not North America.  Not Norway.  But Africa.)

The unfortunate truth for many struggling nations is to be found in the poor-man-crawling story:

A wealthy man was walking on a city street, preoccupied with cell phone and important connections.  His preoccupation resulted in a collision with a somewhat disheveled and homeless man walking in the opposite direction.  The poor man fell down, momentarily stunned by the contact, but immediately reached out to gather up several of his belongings which had been knocked from his hands.  The wealthy man, perturbed at the mishap and the dropping of his own phone, retrieved it brusquely and then observed the poor man on hands and knees, salvaging his few possessions.  As he walked away indignantly, the wealthy man observed, “It’s disgusting to see the way these vagrants crawl our sidewalks.  The police should do something about them, to make the streets safe for respectable folks.”

Where there is hunger and thirst, need and distress, poverty and injustice, there are reasons for it.  And sometimes the reasons lie at the feet of those who are not thus afflicted.  S***hole countries, if they actually exist, may well be the result of outsiders who have created them….

What Lies Beneath

I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.”  I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and  the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative.  (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)

The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies.  (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.)  Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort.  (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?)  It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.

“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at.  We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones.  Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”

Wow.  I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us.  Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?).   Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem.  But, within our own circle of family and friends?  (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)

The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be.  Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes.  Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself.  I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise.  But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext.  (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.)  Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?

I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.”  If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives.  There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it.  It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced.   (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)

But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to.   When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it.  Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away.  (All lies should be marked as spam.)  They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment  and loss.  Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth.  And those erosions hurt.  A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth.  The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching.  (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)

We each have little in this world that is truly ours.  (What about my guitars?)  Material items come into our lives, and then they go.    The people in our lives enter and exit.  Always.  We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success.  It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.

I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.”  But like any nagging habit, we can work on it.  We can make it better.   Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….





What’s the Matter With Kids These Days?

We had an update from the Indigenous youth of the north on my most recent trip to Nicaragua.  Meeting with this group is always an excitement.  They can be as shy as their parents’ generation can be, especially during first-time encounters, but there is an underlying energy and freshness about the youth.  Maybe it just goes with being somewhere between 16 and 30 years of age.  (I really hate to even write that suggestion down, because if it’s true, where does it leave someone like me?)

There are lots of things to like about the members of NUMAJI:  in addition to the aforementioned energies, they are organized, they take their organizational responsibilities seriously, they are constantly seeking ways in which to grow- both organizationally and personally- and they are undaunted by the societal forces which seem to conspire against their quest for independence and preservation of Indigenous tradition.  It’s easy to root for underdogs.

Like their young brethren in most other countries, the members of NUMAJI carry a bias toward “rebellion.”  Not physical confrontation, but a desire to go their own ways as compared to their elders.  The irony for this Indigenous group of youth is that their rebellion is aimed not at abandonment of past ways but at preservation of their heritage, “the Indigenous patrimony.”  It’s in danger of extinction due to passage of time, loss of youth to technology and migration, local and national governments which prefer not having to deal with the reality of Indigenous traditions and rights, and other Indigenous voices which speak about the artifacts of their heritage as being for sale.

This group of young people has been through a lot.  They first came together under the recognition that they needed and deserved a structure in which their voices might be heard by their elders; sometimes elders have a difficult time ascribing value to their eventual successors.  Next, they waded into the swamp of forming themselves into an association, a process which is as long as it is daunting, and especially for the uninitiated.  They face the scorn of many elders who view the association as too inexperienced and too young to be of importance.  They battle the entrenched and politics-driven agendas of some Indigenous and municipal community “leaders,” for whom an association of independent thinkers and actors constitutes a threat to established order.  In short, there are few resources on which to rely as they defend their heritage and birthright.

Except in the case of their work.  As we listened to the issues faced by the youth- many of whom are still in their teens- I was struck by the content of the proposal they made for association work in the coming year.  I wonder where else I might hear youth discussing issues like: internal and foreign migration; the need for development of greater emotional intelligence as a personal development strength;  the impacts of “adultism;” confronting child abuse; writing the statutes and administration of a legal association; or preserving and protecting archaeological sites when municipal and national authorities demonstrate little interest in doing so.  These are not matters of pop culture or social media, but rather, the very real issues of an entire Indigenous people being met head-on by their youth.

It’s an uphill battle, at best.  Maybe NUMAJI will be able to sustain itself through sheer force of wills; young people often have that capacity.  Alternatively, the obstacles may prove to be more than even an energized group of committed youth can withstand.  But either way, this group has educated and experienced itself in ways that will serve its individual members well in the future, whatever that may hold.  Good character and personal courage are qualities that are always in demand and short in supply.

When we left the meeting, I noticed that I actually stood a little straighter, taller than when I walked in….



The “Poverty” Here at Home

 Most folks with whom I talk about Nicaragua know very little about it, neither its history with the U.S. nor its current status.  The country is seemingly just too small and insignificant to bother about. But every once in a while, I encounter someone who has read about it or traveled there, or perhaps completed some sort of service work among the poor.

When acknowledging my own work with Winds of Peace Foundation, it’s among that latter group that I might detect a certain condescension about the plight of Nicaraguans, and especially their government.  The general impression of many is that the poverty in Nicaragua is the by-product of a corrupt and self-serving government, and that if more democratic principles were followed, Nicaraguans could be better off than they are today.  To that view, I most often respond with, “It’s complicated.”

So when I read the following article, I immediately thought about those who would over-simplify political realities anywhere, and maybe especially is a land called the United States of America.

Recently, I’ve been rereading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” In this political season, William L. Shirer’s mammoth history of Hitler’s Germany seems a useful guide to how a skilled demagogue can seize and destroy a great nation.

Hitler’s rise, as narrated by Shirer, was the triumph of an unlikely messiah — “the man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache, who had been a down-and-out tramp in Vienna in his youth, an unknown soldier, the somewhat comical leader of the Beer Hall Putsch, this spellbinder.” How did this preposterous upstart bend one of the most cultured of nations to his will?

He did it partly through the ballot box. In the early 1930s, Hitler’s National Socialist Party, the Nazis, rose through a series of free elections. It never won a majority in any of them, but emerged as the strongest of several parties in the Reichstag, or parliament. Hitler then connived his way to the office of chancellor, or prime minister, playing on the vanity, foolishness, ambition and greed of non-Nazis to outmaneuver them all.

“No class or group or party in Germany could escape its share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler,” Shirer wrote. “The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it.”

Hitler never got more than 37 percent of the vote. “But the 63 percent of the German people who expressed their opposition to Hitler were much too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger which they must have known would overwhelm them unless they united, however temporarily, to stamp it out.”

 Hitler’s rise owed everything to the 1929 stock market crash and the global Depression that followed it. Under the Republic, Germany had begun to recover from its defeat in World War I. Then, suddenly, “millions were thrown out of work. Thousands of small business enterprises went under.”

According to Shirer, Hitler “was both ignorant of and uninterested in economics. But he was not uninterested in or ignorant of the opportunities which the Depression suddenly gave him. The suffering of his fellow Germans was not something to waste time sympathizing with, but rather to transform, cold-bloodedly and immediately, into political support for his own ambition.”

Hitler played on this in the 1930 election, when the Nazis became the second biggest party. “To all the millions of discontented, Hitler in a whirlwind campaign offered what seemed to them, in their misery, some measure of hope. He would make Germany strong again … stamp out corruption, bring the money barons to heel (especially if they were Jews), and see to it that every German had a job and bread. To hopeless, hungry men seeking not only relief but new faith and new gods, the appeal was not without effect.”

Hitler needed money and he turned his charm on the “politically childish men of the business world.” Communists and socialists were strong and feared by business leaders. “They may not like the party’s demagoguery and its vulgarity, but on the other hand it was arousing the old feelings of German patriotism and nationalism. It promised to lead the German people away from communism, socialism, trade-unionism and the futilities of democracy.”

One of these “futilities,” Shirer wrote, was a polarized and paralyzed parliament, “breaking down at a moment when the economic crisis made strong government imperative.” Even the democratic government had begun ruling by decree.

 Actually, the Republic had pampered the businessmen, bankers and landowners. Despite this, “with a narrowness, a prejudice, a blindness which seems inconceivable, they hammered away at the foundations of the Republic until, in alliance with Hitler, they brought it down.”

Hitler also courted the army, still stung by its defeat in the war, and promised it new power in exchange for its support.

In this way, Shirer wrote, Hitler, “a leader of the lower-middle-class masses, rallied, in addition to his own followers, the support of the upper-class Protestants of the north, the conservative Junker agrarians and a number of monarchists.”

In 1932, Hitler ran for president against the octogenarian Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. “He flew from one end of Germany to the other. In the first campaign, he had harped on the misery of the people, the impotence of the Republic. Now he depicted a happy future for all Germans if he were elected: jobs for the workers, higher prices for the farmers, more business for the businessmen.”

“In the Third Reich,” he promised, “every German girl will find a husband.”

 He finished a strong second in a three-man race. Then, in a parliamentary election, the Nazis became the largest party, with 230 out of 608 seats. From this base, he played his enemies against each other and then persuaded the weary Hindenburg to make him chancellor.

Shirer wrote: “In this way, by way of the back door, by means of a shabby political deal with the old-school reactionaries he privately detested, the former tramp … became chancellor of a great nation.”

Shirer, who published his book in 1960, was a Chicagoan and former foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He was writing about Germany, not his own country. Because, as we all know, it can’t happen here.

(Richard C. Longworth, a former chief European correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.)

It’s an article worthy of our undivided attention, a perspective reflective of the truth that there is more than just material poverty that can infect the human condition….


My Close Personal Friend

I have a friend who is very close to me.  He reads every one of the observations posted here and has done so since I began the practice in 2007.  Sometimes he likes what I have written and sometimes he does not, but he is never shy about letting me know what he thinks, one way or another.  Thus, there are days when I’m glad that he reads my reflections and other days when I’m not.

I guess I experienced one of those latter occasions last week.  He challenged me on my tendency to write these essays in terms of “we” and “our,” whether referring to Winds of Peace or to the population at large. He wondered if I shouldn’t make my challenges more personal.  “Not everyone is the same,” he reminds me, as if I didn’t already know.  I responded by defending my practice in the name of anonymity and inclusiveness: if readers might be touched in some way or possibly see themselves in the words, they can choose to take them to heart or not.  If they don’t identify with what I have to say, they can at least understand that I haven’t attempted to indict or accuse anyone.  If the shoe fits, it’s to be worn.

Of course, my friend raises the idea from the perspective of one who might not recognize himself as someone who could benefit from greater introspection.  If he did so, he’d be grateful that I write for the broadest audience in order to preserve anonymity.  But taking his challenge to heart, I decided to offer some observations about his own circumstances, to be as direct and personal as I can be.  Naturally, I will not go so far as to use his name.  That way, maybe others will identify with my descriptions of him, while at the same time his privacy will be preserved.

He is a generous fellow, kind to family and friends and quick to offer smiles and greetings to strangers.  Yet  I think he has adopted a rather miserly perspective when faced with bigger issues, like homelessness or global and local hunger.  He gives, but given his circumstances, he could do so much more.

He can be moved to tears and express emotion at injustices and will often rail loudly against the powers and circumstances that conspire to marginalize vast segments of the world’s population.  But I have noticed that he is equally quick to turn away from such realities in an effort to insulate himself or numb the emotions.  He can become curiously inert.  He is an eager onlooker but reticent participant.

He has spoken loudly in criticism of the power of the wealthy and the inordinate influences that such people exercise in nearly every venue of life.  I have frequently reminded him, however, that on the “global wealth continuum,” for every person on that scale above him at whom he points in judgement, there are many more looking up and pointing at him, as well.

He speaks often about the disparities of education, opportunity and material success.  I have even heard him speak to audiences on such topics; he can make a convincing case about the dire impacts of such gaps.  Yet from my own perspective, his life is one that has been earmarked by education, opportunity and success, realities undeserved but which he has never eschewed.

He is a “green” guy, having embraced lots of evolving technologies for renewable energy in his home and transportation.  I admire that in him, but the size of his home(s) and the comforts with which he has surrounded himself perhaps belie the depth of his commitment. More modest accommodations might be more convincing.

He attends church regularly.  I think that’s a good sign, one that suggests a search for grounding and meaning beyond himself and the unknowns which characterize life.  I also happen to know that he is relatively inactive in church affairs beyond the weekly service itself, perhaps another expression of insulation and independence, or maybe just another symptom of a stingy soul.

Well, I have been more than personal in my reflections here.  I could say more but I do not intend injury with my comments.  In responding to him in this way, I simply want to offer a juxtaposition of perceptions regarding someone I care about, a fellow who, like most of the rest of us, tries but falls short of who and what he could be.  I’m sure that I’ll be the first to know his reactions to all of this.  I suspect that he will mirror my own observations.  And I’m sure he’ll have some words for me….



Violent Disguise

There was another shooting last week, this time in Louisiana.  The location doesn’t really matter, though, as these random acts of violence can and do occur anywhere and at any time.  Strictly by the number, this one wasn’t too bad: “only” two dead, plus the gunman and we don’t seem to count the shooters much.

I’ve also been reading about episodes of violence in Nicaraguan society.  Nine police officers are charged with the murder of citizens without cause.  Two young men are arrested in the brutal deaths of two women.  The confusion and outrage in Nicaragua seems to be identical to what we read and experience in the U.S.

Our responses to such events are predictable by now.  First there is shock at the act itself, as though we still held onto a belief that such barbarism should not take place within developed societies.  Then there are the questions.  Regardless of the location of these acts, the questions in the aftermath are almost always the same: What kind of a person could have done this?   What was the motivation?  Shouldn’t it have been prevented by authorities?  We feign surprise that it could happen here.  (This week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said,  “We never would’ve imagined it would’ve happened in Louisiana or Lafayette.”)  Amid the almost-weekly incidents that now haunt our morning news broadcasts, how could we not imagine such an incident happening anywhere?  And finally, we engage in never-ending hand-wringing about what can be done to end the acts, or at the very least, to provide greater protection to the rest of us.

Like most people, I cannot but help thinking about the causes and preventions of the violence.  I think about the proliferation of unimaginable  weaponry and too many people who are unfit  to access them. I wonder about the mis-firing in the brain sufficient to convince one to destroy the lives of other human beings.  I try to analyze the societal conditions that exist to lead us to this point in our evolutionary journey.

With great frustration and a sense of hopelessness, at times, I realize that there are no simple or singular answers.  But I have recognized at least one reality that bridges my experiences between life in Nicaragua and in the U.S. and which may offer at least one dimension to this conundrum.

The killing of a fellow human is predicated on a lack of belief in the sanctity of life.  To terminate the life of another requires a disconnect from empathetic or personal feelings about the victim.  Whether conjured from the depths of mental illness or from some malignant ideology, the malefactor has no affect toward the victim, no recognition of the target’s worth, value, or essential place in the cosmos.  The absence of any such feeling allows the indiscriminate taking of life without the burden of conscience or remorse.

The circumstances which nurture such an emotional and psychological void and which foster uninhibited violence might seem to be infrequent.  But reality is that such ambience has become part of our everyday existence.  We are bombarded daily with news and messages which, like the relentless drip of water torture, numb our sensibilities and caring about life itself.  Eventually, we lose understanding of the sanctity of life.

The continuing episodes of genocide in the world barely capture our attention these days.  The unlawful and wanton bombing of neighborhoods almost anywhere in the Middle East are far enough away as to not generate much discomfort.  The realities of undernourished, unemployed, uneducated peoples who are without shelter or prospect have become too commonplace for care.  (Indeed, where we have demonstrated any emotion to care, such expressions have taken the form of anger and opposition.)

We have collectively allowed ourselves to be pulled into an increasingly deepening hole of disregard, marginalization, disinterest and heartlessness towards an enormous portion of the world’s population.  And to the extent that we choose not to care, they are branded as expendables, as ones whose lives really do not matter.  If lives are so cheap as to be expendable anywhere, they are potentially worthless everywhere, even in anonymous movie theaters, shopping malls, military bases and, yes, even churches.

The erosion of the hallowedness of human life has gradually permitted our insensitivities  about social violence against the poor and the sick to transform, for some, into utter disregard and contempt toward our own neighbors.  If we can learn how not to feel at-large, then we are increasingly capable of unfeeling individually.   We become increasingly capable of great inhumanity.  We know it from history, and we are reminded of it daily.

So I continue to be rocked with the frequent headlines of sudden violence brought down upon innocent and unsuspecting, undeserving victims.  But I absorb the shock, in despair at times, as simply a different manifestation of a larger thoughtlessness toward others that rarely warrants the morning news….




Crossing the Line

Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent.                                                                -Washington Post, June 14, 2015

So now the line has finally, openly, been crossed.  No longer do such feelings reside in unspoken thoughts or in dark corners of consciousness.  Someone has finally come out to state the perspective of many affluent “one per centers” around the world: when it comes to human essentials like water or food, we are not equal.  In other words, one man’s green lawn should take priority over the very lives of others, as long as he can pay for it.

This may not come as a surprise to everyone.  After all, in a world which produces sufficient food to satisfy the entire world’s hunger, we allow more than 795 million people to struggle with insufficient food access, even today.  We seem content to live with that fact, so maybe this class perspective with regard to water is simply more of the same. (Whether people elsewhere die from starvation or dehydration is of little importance, I suppose.  As long as I have mine, who cares?)

But somehow, the attitude reflected by Mr. Yuhas, above, has an additional callousness and arrogance attached to it.  His attitude might be more easily overlooked if it pertained only to poor people in far-off countries; after all, we find distance an immense comfort to conscience on such matters.  But in this case, his disdain is aimed at fellow Californians, fellow Americans, his neighbors.  It represents a purity of narcissistic selfism to claim that his non-essential desires for water use should take precedence over others’ essential water needs, just because he is capable of paying for them.  In a just society, citizens espouse prioritization on the basis of human values, not cash in hand.

In a country which loves to tout its sense of rugged individualism, we would do well to remember that the privilege of that individualism is not without boundaries.  Nor was that privilege attained by virtue of single actors creating that reality.  We became a vibrant society by virtue of collective effort and actions, deferring to the greater good when the larger goals dictated it, forging collaborations and reaping the rewards of that cooperative spirit over generations of self-sacrifice.  If the elitist point of view from California is any indication, those lessons would seem to be lost.  If an elected leader pleads for citizen participation and pain-sharing, the better response is apparently to behave even more wantonly.

We reside, together, on a finite planet.  None of us own any of it.  We are merely stewards of its resources and beauties for a limited time. That stewardship includes the degree to which we ensure that sustainable human life takes precedence over golf greens and that, indeed, we are all equal when it comes to the rights for water….


Free Air

I had the occasion to be driving in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolis this weekend.  The warmer weather tends to spawn a desire to get out under the sunshine in whatever ways possible, and a road trip to the Twin Cities beckoned with success.  In acknowledgement to the early arrival of Spring (I choose to believe that it is here now until the presence of its sister, Summer), I chose to drive our van, which is dormant for most of the winter months.  I uncovered it, checked the oil and tires, made sure that the fuel tank was full and we embarked on a gorgeous Friday afternoon.  But surprises are always in wait, and this one really caught me off guard.

We stayed the night at the home of one of our daughters.  In the morning, we got up early to walk our dog at the brink of yet another beautiful day.  But when we stepped outdoors, I noticed that one of the van’s tires looked a bit saggy, not enough to be flat, but deflated enough that it needed another infusion of air in its tube.  I made a mental note of it, and we went about our sunrise walk.

After our walk and breakfast, I asked my son-in-law if there was a nearby service station where I could fill the sluggish tire, and his response shocked me.  “Well, there are plenty of stations around,” he said, “but up here, most of them charge you for the air.  I’m not sure where there’s free air around here.”

I was transfixed for the moment, not at all certain that I had heard him correctly.  My wide open jaw must have conveyed my disbelief.  “Yes, it’s true,” he said with a shake of his head.  “They actually charge you for air.  I’ve never experienced it before, but it’s pretty common here.”

Now, paying for something that has previously been free is nothing new.  For example, when it comes to the airlines, it’s now the norm.  I pay for my bags to be loaded onto the plane.  I pay for any food I might wish to eat on board that plane. In fact, I’ve even had to pay a fee to assure myself of a seat on that plane, even though I’ve already purchased a ticket!  I used to watch television for free, while I now have to pay a monthly fee to the cable company to bring the signal into my home.  So the burden is nothing new.  But air is the truest commodity, one which is actually needed by all of us for life itself, and the prospect of having to pay for it, even for my automobile tires, well, just jars me to the very core.  Pay for it?  Really?

By the time I wrapped myself around the incredible truth of it, my son-in-law did remember one station where the air is still free, and I carefully noted his directions to the station, as though successful arrival at its pumps and portals was a feat of momentous achievement.  But as we drove to it, I reflected on this troubling trend of modern life.  If air has to be purchased from a hose, how long before someone tries to control it outright?  What might it mean to have to pay for air?

A song from the 60’s envisioned something like that in the tune, “Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell.  One line of the song talks about taking “all the trees, put them in a tree museum, and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to seem ’em.”  I remember thinking at the time that the likelihood of that seemed pretty far-fetched, but in these days, I’m not so sure.  If the big oil companies, who already command profits from their ventures that are beyond imagination, are still seeking ways to further increase their revenues by selling air, then apparently anything is possible, and maybe even likely.

As I thought about the outrageous idea of paying for air (the oil companies would be far better off simply not offering the service rather than charging for it), it triggered some thoughts about similar outlandish realities faced by others.  In Nicaragua, when a rural peasant farmer buys certain hybrid corn for planting, the corn plant bears ears of corn whose kernels are not plantable for the following season; they have been modified in such a way as to prevent their regeneration.  In this way, the giant seed companies hold the farmers hostage year after year, forcing them to purchase new seed annually.  In other cases, hybrid corn is sometimes planted in such a way that some migrates onto a neighboring farm by accident; the seed companies will sue the unsuspecting neighboring farmers for patent infringement, and even win the judgment.   Imagine having to pay for someone else’s error and greed, when you are barely able to feed your family to begin with.

We live at a time when eighty-five of the world’s wealthiest individuals hold as much wealth as half the world’s entire population. It is apparently the case that those who command such wealth are not content with such disparity, and seek to control virtually all of the world’s substantial bounty.  Including the air.  While humans have always lived amidst great differences in wealth and resources, never have we seen inequalities as these.

There is no moral to this story or analogy to be made.  It is simply a report of our further evolution as a species which appears to be intent upon playing the zero sum game of “last man standing.” For the few who play it, it must be exciting.  But in the end, it will be the loneliest of all victories….