to change a light bulb?
None. Because voters can't change anything.
We 'westerners' have much to learn from the world's intellectual treasure trove of indigenous cultures. Although I couldn't refrain from titling this note with the anarchists' scornful little 'joke' about the social impotence of all the faithful ballot-casters who doggedly cling to the liberal myth that voting and representative democracy are not to be questioned, the truth is that this note is really "Straight talk 5, being truly human", a continuation of the discussion/debate associated with Israel Shamir. But that title wouldn't grab anybody. It's just not sexy enough.
The fact is that we human beings are fucking up the world with the incredible speed that our technological skill makes possible. It is insanity of the highest order -- a mass collective insanity based on the most destructive system of values that ever governed humanity. Almost two years ago I lamented, "[T]hese are difficult days. Everywhere the forces of fascism seem to be in ascendency. Yet I know the world is full of good people who, like me, abhor the wanton destruction of so much that is wonderful about our species. How can it be, we must ask, that humanity has evolved a set of institutions that is ripping apart the very biosphere on which all life depends? And destroying hundreds of millions -- even billions -- of people's lives. I think we must somehow manage to get together, to understand deeply enough what the trouble is, and to figure out what to do in order to turn history around. And then, above all, we must act! Because time is running out."
Time is running out -- time to do the basic thinking and acting we need to do. The ceaseless flood of catastrophes is seizing all the attention of those of us engaged in the larger social struggles. We are being turned into so-called 'news junkies', not only by the still-dominant mass media but by the new and burgeoning independent popular media. Right now, for example, one of the potentially most important developments is the striking self-mobilization of the bulk of Honduran people seeking to defeat with non-violent opposition the anti-democratic military coup supported by the privileged sectors of society. My very close friend Jonathan Treat has two inspiring reports on the coup opposition, both in the Narco News Bulletin:
These reports, and the many recent articles in Narco News by Al Giordano on the popular opposition to the coup in Honduras provide a tonic of hopefulness -- precisely contradicting the dismal mass media projections. I think there is no doubt that one of the major responsibilities the ruling class owners assign their mass media is to demolish our hopes that we can do anything effective to make the world better. They want us to believe we are impotent and that they have all the power to control events. Cultivating and maintaining our ignorance is essential for their continued control. The mass media continue the process begun by the compulsory schooling that was imposed on us when we were small children, the process John Taylor Gatto calls Dumbing Us Down. The "leadership role" of the privileged classes in promoting mass ignorance is also a favorite target of my good friend Joe Bageant, a part-time escapee from the U. S. of A. whose down-to-earth writing, I'm glad to say, is attracting many readers.
That's where I should start--by trying to overcome my own ignorance. This is neither false modesty nor a false admission of inadequacy. Each of us is of course limited in the range of skills we possess and the areas of knowledge we encompass. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. No two idividuals are identical in all respects, even so-called identical twins, who invariably develop personalities that differ from one another. Despite the multitude of differences among us, each person is a human being whose individuality ought to be respected. Each of us can contribute to the well-being of the social group in which (s)he lives. One of the features I think we ought to emulate, a feature I've seen in some indigenous groups here in Oaxaca but not in 'western' cultures is the acceptance of people largely 'as they are', free of commercialized homogenizing pressures so prevelant in the U.S.
As examples of living indigenous groups from whose values I think we westerners could learn, I'll tell a bit about two rural communities I visited. Cerro Tepezcuintle is a Mazateca village about 80 miles north of Oaxaca City as the crow flies, north of the Sierra Norte range, close to the state of Veracruz. Santiago Tilantongo is a Mixteca village some 40-odd miles west of the City in the Mixteca Alta area. Each is hours away by driving. Aside from their different mother tongues they are in regions that differ profoundly from each other in topography, weather patterns, soil and rainfall. Cerro Tepezcuintle is in lowlands where water is plentiful, I would say in surplus. By contrast, in Santiago Tilantongo, every drop of water is precious. Naturally the availability of water influences the way the groups adapt their ways of living.
In 2002 I went with two practical on-the-ground ecologists to several communities in northern Oaxaca. On April 19-20 we were in the village of Cerro Tepezcuintle, population 780. The town official chosen by the community's general assemby to direct community agricultural practices, Eusebio Salvador Celestino, gave us a tour of communal lands. "Here all the children work", he remarked as we approached a field where his sister, a niece and a nephew were harvesting, shucking and bagging well-dried criollo (native) corn, the bags of ears to be carried to the
Shucking corn in Cerro Tepezcuintle, Oaxaca 20 April 2002, photo by G.S.
dwelling area. It seemed quite evident that the children had no sense that their labor was being 'exploited'. In fact they were enjoying their activity, as though they were playing. Perhaps we 'westerners' might ask how it is possible for a little girl to be happy without a Barbie Doll (with or without accessories). This kind of culture encourages people to be humble in the sense of not having 'puffed up' opinions of themselves, and at the same time to be dignified even if they are living very modestly in terms of income and material possessions.
Eusebio's comment about the children working was straightforward, neither apologetic nor defensive. It simply affirmed an obvious fact about the life of his community. Its survival would not be possible without the active efforts of everyone. That is probably true in most of the world's money-poor indigenous communities. Cerro Tepezcuintle is in the County of San Miguel Soyaltepec, a county that the Mexican government classifies as marginalized. The National Institute of Statistical and Geographical Information, INEGI, uses three degrees of marginalization among its classification levels, but individual towns are not classified. I don't know which level Tepezcuintle is in, though it is clearly a marginalized community.
The day before seeing Eusebio's niece and nephew harvesting corn I saw a group of Tepezcuintle youngsters returning home from the field in the late afternoon. Immediately after snapping this picture I showed it to them on the camera's tiny
Youngsters in Cerro Tepezcuintle carrying things home from the field.
19 April 2002, photo by G.S.
monitor. On seeing the image of themselves they erupted in a burst of joyous laughter. They quickly and eagerly put down their loads and assembled for a posed picture. From work to play in a moment! And then, when they couldn't cajole me into taking more pictures of them, they picked up their loads and continued
The same group, eager to pose for picture after picture.
19 April 2002, photo by G.S.
homeward. The physical and mental health of the children seemed excellent. This might at first seem surprising in a community governmentally-designated as marginalized. I asked Albar Ríos Sánchez, one of the two people with whom I visited Tepezcuintle, about it. Albar responded that the community produced about 90 per cent of its food on its own land by its own physical efforts and the use of animals. Albar is a trained practical ecologist who ititiated and leads an agro-ecological consultation group CONSERVA. His specialization is in integrated forest use. He had been working with Tepezcuintle for a number of years to recuperate its forests' diversified timber and various valuable rare indigenous plant species. A CONSERVA ornithologist Ramiro Aragón and I were visiting Tepezcuintle for the first time. Both Albar and Ramiro are graduates of the Agricultural Technical Institute of Oaxaca (ITAO) in Oaxaca City.
Compared to people who are materially richer, the people of Cerro Tepezcuintle lead a more rigorous and, in my opinion a physically healthier life. The surefire indicator of poor health is always the state of the children. I saw no infants or little boys or girls with bloated bellies, nor any children who looked fat or evidentally undernourished. Interestingly, the general census in 2000 showed that of the 780 inhabitants, 738 were without health insurance. I don't know how they deal with emergency medical needs. I had hoped to make a second visit with a pediatric surgeon who is a friend so that he could see whether the children's health was indeed as good as it seemed to me. That return visit unfortunately never happened.
In September 2008 I visited this small community during three days. The extended family that hosted us is working to reclaim land that was fertile and forested until the Spanish invasion half a millenium ago deforested the hills, which led to erosion of perhaps three to five meters of topsoil with the accompanying loss of ground water beneath the remaining barren rocky clay surface. A stirring account of the decade-long learning experience living in another Mixtecan community--San Isidro, Tilontongo--offered an American couple still living and working there (Kathy and Phil Dahl-Bredine) is in the book referred to in Note , well worth reading. Here I will mention only one striking fact about San Pedro, Cántaros, having to do with its available water.
Each of these two indigenous communities, the Mazatecas of Cerro Tepezcuintle and the Mixtecas of San Pedro, Cántaros, is engaged in an inspired effort to live in harmony with the natural environment of their locale. They use their natural human intelligence and the accumulated knowledge of their communities to shape their social behavior. One of the most dramatic revelations to me, as a privileged westerner, came from a quote in Phil Dahl-Bredine's book about Santiago Tilantongo, "We don't have much water. But we don't need much because we don't have a sewer system", said Jesús León. The very idea of living without a sewer system simply never crossed my mind as a viable mode of life. I'm quite confident that practically all the people I correspond with would be equally uncomfortable with the idea. Could it be, for example, that we should all give serious consideration to living without flush toilets?
If we accept, as Israel Shamir maintains, that the ethnicity of a group is in part determined by its natural environment, which does of course influence aspects of its social behavior, then the difference in availablility of fresh water in Tepezcuintle and Tilantongo would, by itself, have been enough to make them ethnically distinct even if, which is not the case, in all other respects -- language, genetic makeup, marriage customs, religion, etc. -- they had been indistinguishable. To me that seems to be stretching the notion of ethicity, perhaps somewhat unreasonably, but it would be insignificant if not for the use of perceived ethnic differences to generate hostility between two such groups. Until now Shamir has not acknowledged that the (mis)use of ethnic differences between groups to foster a mentality of 'us' versus 'them' has been a destructive practice made possible by the notion of ethnicity. The Ottoman Turks misused it against the Armenian minority, the German Nazis against the Jews, the Zionist Jews against the Palestinians, and all colonial regimes against the subject peoples.
Water is of course absolutely required for our lives, drinkable water that we may safely consume, and water in which to wash ourselves and essential items. But the Mixtecas of Santiago Tilantongo show that using clean water to flush toilets is absolutely unnecessary, and that such toilets are themselves superfluous. Nevertheless, people in the privileged classes are as a rule culturally conditioned (I would say malconditioned) to prefer them. At first you might think, What does it matter? If someone prefers a flush toilet (and a daily hot shower, what harm does it do? However, a consequence of such cultural values is that the privileged sectors of a society may commandeer water for their own use, inflicting harm on other people. Several examples: 1) The Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts, about 62 miles west of Boston, is that city's principal source of water. Four towns were destroyed to make this engineering project possible. The political power concentrated in Boston prevailed over that of the local people, and dispossessed (a euphemism for stole it from) them; 2) Throughout the area controlled by the Zionist state, as we know, Palestinians are being deprived of their naturally available water by the Israelis, who are commandeering (another euphemism for stealing) it; 3) And in India, to give one other example, the giant project of damming the Narmada Valley has, I recall seeing in an article by Arundhati Roy, made of the order of fifty million people, the poorest of the poor of course, destitute as their homes, fields and villages were permanently submerged.
In each of the three cases mentioned a rich and powerful sector of a society acted to take away from a poor and weak sector its access to a natural resource. In each case, and I think this is always the same, those in power and their servants seek to justify the obvious harm done to other people by asserting that the action taken is or was necessary 'for the greater good'. Always, so far as I can see, it amounts to an attempt to rationalize wealthy and/or powerful groups stealing from relatively poor and/or weak groups, i.e. to give a cloak of legitimacy to class or national or tribal warfare. My belief, as an anarchist communist, is that the destructive, terrible results of such behavior are not a result of humans being a genetically defective species but of an evolved system of values that is implacably destructive. As mature rational people, we can understand the historical process that led to this impasse, and challenge and change the accepted system of values.
The challenge to begin making the needed changes is immediate. Starting with myself, I am one of the world's minority of privileged people. Specifically, in the year 2008 my gross income was a bit over $80,000. In large part because of a fairly stable income near that level, my life is much more comfortable and secure than those of the great majority of the world's population. Of course I want to continue living without fear of being hungry or homeless or unable to afford medical care. Everyone wants to live without such anxieties, but the brutal fact is that in today's world only the sufficiently privileged enjoy such security, and in order to maintain it we must rely on oppressive force of governments to prevent poor people from seizing a larger share of the social wealth. Whether we like it or not, we are among the immediate material beneficiaries of the forces that maintain our privileged status. In the earlier essay to which  above refers, I headed one section Fascism can be comfortable – for us, we privileged people. The idea that our gains come at the cost of other people's forced deprivation is offensive to those of us who want to believe we are enlightened and of liberal humanitarian persuasion. Many of my friends with whom I've tried to discuss the connection between massive global impoverishment and their own lifestyles either refuse to consider it or maintain that with better social arrangements everyone could enjoy the same benefits that are now available only to privileged people. I believe that is not true, although with better social practices some improvements could be managed, even within the present system, but not the major changes my friends claim. I think that argument is simply an attempted rationalization to allow them to indulge their greed without feeling a sense of guilt.
I have tried over the years to find ways to withdraw even the tacit support that my participation provides the dominant, oppressive system. A brief sketch of some of my efforts and thoughts is in a piece I wrote in January 1997 for the RESIST newsletter, at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Anarch/Cal2Res.htm. The main idea has been to redirect as much wealth as possible away from the U.S. government and corporate system, and to use that wealth for building a popular truly grassroots infrastructure. To reduce the amount of federal tax to the Internal Revenue Service I contribute, mainly to tax-exempt groups, year in and year out. For example, for 2008 I was able to take as my total charitable deductions $37,462.76. My federal tax was $4,373.00. If enough of us were to think seriously about what we might do with the resources over which we have legal contol, as I have been trying to do, and then act, I think we could have a significant impact.
This is the most difficult part of my 'pitch' to get people to take seriously. The psychological barrier to relinquishing a pleasurable activity is simply enormous. Even when that activity is clearly harmful to other people. My impression is that the overwhelming majority of privileged people are conditioned to believe that they are entitled to all the privileges they enjoy, and they don't really 'give a shit' about the world's suffering majority. They are, it seems to me, totally self-centered, models of the opposition that exists to building a world of communality as Cerro Tepezcuintle and San Pedro, Cántaros are seeking to achieve. My dismal view of the majority of well-to-do people was just reinforced by the reaction of all the moneyed classes to the coup d'etat in Honduras. In despair, I joked with my friend Jonathan Treat who had just returned from reporting in Tegucigalpa (the capital) and Catacamas (the president's home city), "The only solution is to kill all privileged people." As though I had abandoned my belief in militant non-violent struggle. The truth, I believe, is that they must be dispossessed of their disproportionate wealth. The coup was their response to president Manuel "Mel" Zelaya's modest attempts to ease, ever so slightly, the excessive burdens of the poor majority with, e.g. an increase in the legal minimum pay for workers. "Nothing doing", said the rich, and unleashed military repression to protect the profit margins of banana and pineapple barons, the sector that thrives on the exploited labor of 'the others'.
Alan Hart's focus is pretty much the same as mine, though his scope is much broader. His impact is, as it deserves to be, far greater. I wrote him,