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Sunday, March 21, 2010

What Gets Heard By Marc Polonsky

The New Cacophony

The Supreme Court handed down a ruling recently that may destroy our democracy.

The tricky thing about free speech is that if everyone is talking at once, only the loudest voice gets heard. If you have a room with, say, eight to ten people, and they're trying to discuss a subject or resolve some issue, and one individual has a megaphone and yells into it nonstop, drowning out everyone else, is this an exercise of free speech?

The John Roberts Supreme Court seems to think so, and they just gave big corporations an overwhelming megaphone, reversing over 100 years of federal (and state-level) campaign finance law that had been upheld repeatedly by previous Courts.

The effects of this ruling will manifest over time, very possibly this year. For example, it may help to defeat long-time Democratic senators Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, both of whom stand for reelection.

In the meantime, most of us have other things to pay attention to.

The Cry of Pain

I feel hurt by the Supreme Court ruling. I want to cry out, like those idiot Tea Party protesters: "I want my country back!"

Meanwhile, my friend David in Atlanta has responded to a different cry, the cry of pain from Haiti. Just giving money to the Red Cross felt too easy, so he put out a call for donations of real goods--shoes, clothes, canned foods, medical supplies, tools, toiletries, gloves--and he promised to somehow get it all to Haiti. At first he invited the general public to bring donations to his own front porch, but the area in front of his house was quickly inundated. He eventually needed to partner with City Storage in Atlanta, and secure the help of "some of Bill Clinton's people" to arrange for the transport of goods. (For more information, see

Another friend said she heard on the radio about orphanages in Haiti and it was "killing her"; she is in the process of arranging to go there, to help care for the children.

The images and reports from Haiti are being heard, and people are responding, some with money, others with direct action. The response has been raw, visceral, and authentic.

(The stories keep coming. Today I heard from yet another friend that a seafood buffet restaurant in Daly City, CA donated all its revenue for a day--including tips--to Haitian relief efforts. This restaurant, which seats over 500, saw waiting lines out the door all day long.)

Other Distress Calls

I recently read the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, which disputes the idea that being a vegetarian can help save the planet. Ms. Keith points out that, apart from anything else (and there is much else), human agricultural practices have been inexorably depleting our topsoil for centuries, and this process has greatly accelerated with the introduction of petrochemical fertilizer mere decades ago, rapidly squeezing out every last ounce of productivity from our remaining fertile ground.

Keith offers no hope. If you read her book and believe her research--which is amply footnoted and quite impressive--then you must agree that the number of humans alive has already exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity multiple times over; "green technology" is a fairy tale that cannot save us; and we're headed for a massive crash very soon.

Currently, perhaps as a tonic to Keith, I'm reading Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Friedman recognizes the same crises that Keith does, yet holds out hope of possibility for a sustainable future. (I haven't reached the hopeful section of the book yet, so I don't precisely know what price Friedman envisions we must collectively pay, but I trust he won't prescribe easy answers.)

The cry of our planet--the decimation of species, the slaughtering of forests, the draining of aquifers, the depletion of life-sustaining resources everywhere--is, I think, for most of us, a constant background noise. We hear it, but we're so used to it that we don't respond.

Selective Listening

We are intelligent enough to imagine the pain that we don't see, pain that is not right in front of our eyes, such as the suffering of the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince. We are even sensitive enough (most of us) to feel compassion for nonhuman life; few of us would lack sympathy, for example, for an injured dog keening in pain.

Yet most Americans habitually consume the carcasses of animals that have been tortured, subjected to misery beyond imagining in the commercial concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they were raised to become food for humans.

Similarly, very few of us pay attention to the cries of pain from the wilderness, the displaced and immiserated creatures, the clear cutting of trees, the disappearing plant and animal species.

If we were to let all this into the field of our awareness, how exactly might we respond?

No Business As Usual

A group of political activists in the San Francisco Bay Area have, over the years, staged protests entitled "No Business As Usual," to bring dramatic attention to wars and other ongoing atrocities. Occasionally, NBAU protesters have succeeded in, for example, holding up traffic for hours on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The net effect of their efforts has been to infuriate and alienate a lot of people.

"This can't go on!" is their message.

"Get a life!" is the general response.

Listening to Fear

I think many people hear more than they realize. I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people have been haunted by vague fears, free-floating anxiety, stemming from who-knows-where.

Perhaps unwisely, I deliberately seek out the voices of fear, because I want to know the truth, and the truth of the human condition is very scary right now. (Maybe it always was.)

Listening to Faith

An old pal once put it like this: "I believe absolutely that the spiritual realm has things under control, even if I don't understand what the spiritual realm actually is."
To paraphrase: my friend believes that as awful as things appear, and despite all the terrible things that are happening and have already happened and have yet to happen, existence is not random, there is a benign undercurrent pervading the universe, and in the words of T.S. Eliot, "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

What more could anyone possibly wish to believe?

The Long, Long View

I attended a presentation recently, put on by a group called the Pachamama Alliance, which focused on the planet's ecological crises and diminishing resources, and traced the situation we're in to historical patterns of greed, exploitation, and mushrooming population.

However, they also examined what is known about the origins of life, the miracle that we are here at all, the vast cosmological forces that had to conspire to bring human beings into existence. Taking the longest view possible, they put our current dilemma into an epochal perspective, from which it is possible to feel not only great awe but also boundless hope, even optimism.

The Pachamama Alliance does not prescribe a specific program for action. They don't claim to know what any individual should do. Their only directive is "Don't go back to sleep." Apart from that, they offer suggestions about educating ourselves, getting involved in policy discourse and community organizations, and engaging others in "this conversation." (For more information, see

What Are You Hearing Now?

The facilitators at the Pachamama event suggested that we look inside and listen to our own deepest wisdom to tell us what we, as individuals, need to do now, how we need to "plug in."

Who could dispute such advice?

Then again, who can follow it? Presuming you can discern a "voice" inside yourself, how can you tell if it's the voice of wisdom, as opposed to, say, the voice of vain hope, or self-deception, or your parents' judgment, or deeply imbedded institutional logic?

Still, whatever truth there is to be found inside us cannot be drowned out by advertising or propaganda, regardless of how pervasive the noise is, or how broad the Court's ruling.

Our collective response to the Haitian earthquake seems to indicate that, at the very least, there yet lives an honorable American spirit, capable of responding to the plain truth of others' suffering.

Namaste. Peace. God bless America.

Marc Polonsky
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