Monday, December 27, 2010

Encouraging Anthony Weiner’s role as angry prophet

Encouraging Anthony Weiner’s role as angry prophet

My Congressman, Anthony Weiner, does not need any encouragement to forthrightly speak his mind. Google him, and you’ll quickly discover Weiner's brief but memorable speech from July 30, 2010.  Talking Points memo gives both the background, and a link to the video.

The House was debating a bill last night that would provide up to $7.4 billion in health care aid to rescue and recovery workers who have faced health problems since their work in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The bill ultimately failed to get the needed two-thirds majority, 255-159, and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) was not happy about it. Not one bit.

In a rant that lasted for almost two minutes, a hopping mad Weiner railed against "cowardly" Republicans who claimed they were voting against the bill because of "procedure." Weiner spat: "It's Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans, rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes!"

Weiner attacked those who "stand up and say, 'Oh, if only we had a different process we'd vote yes.' You vote yes if you believe yes! You vote in favor of something if you believe it's the right thing! If you believe it's the wrong thing, you vote no!"

"It is a shame! A shame," he exclaimed.

Political theorist Andrew Bard Schmookler thinks Weiner’s talent for fiery rhetoric can be put to greater use. Schmookler, the creator and author of the website, has a Ph.D. in history, and has written several books on political psychology, ethics & culture. He’s been a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered,” and is a go-to call-in guest on radio shows, in both blue and red states, on the controversial issues of the moment. One of Schmookler’s readers knows that I live in Weiner’s district, and put me in touch with him. After some discussion, I walked a full version of the proposal you’re about to read, in hard copy, to  Weiner’s district office.  

Lately, Schmookler has been musing in his blog about the need for a progressive champion. Ideally, this would be President Obama, but it’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the 2008 appeals for hope and change.  (You can already see where this is going, right?)

Schmookler summarizes a number of his articles here but I’ll put it in a nutshell for you. America’s governing forces and elites habitually lie in ways that reveal “an arrogant and dangerous disregard of the need to respect reality.” These amoral ruling forces are rapidly dismantling the structures that have protected goodness and decency. They have succeeded in deceiving many good Americans. The situation can easily become much worse.

The American people urgently need to recognize and repudiate both the leaders, and those dark aspects of the American culture that they have embodied. Many American liberals have a hard time with that job, because they have a moral blind spot.  Many are unable to recognize that evil is a real concept, and how profound the distinction between good and evil is. Liberals are unable to connect with and articulate their deep moral values.

Schmookler says we need "a prophetic social movement that speaks moral truth about amoral power in such a way as to awaken our traditionalist countrymen from the trance state into which their leaders have put them."

A comeback strategy for progressive champions

When a conflict on some important issue emerges between Obama and the Republicans, Schmookler suggests, the President should challenge to the Republicans to debate the issue on national television. Frame it explicitly in terms of what’s best for the country. Whether the Republicans fail to accept the debate, or defend their position, which will tend to overlap with those of wealthy, corporate interests, the dark reality of so-called conservatism will be revealed. Obama can reissue this challenge over and over. If the Republicans refuse to debate, Obama can give a talk to the nation comparing his and the Republican proposals. Obama sometimes seems conflict-averse, but he is a very good debater, and with solid positions to defend, is likely to do well. As a way of further anchoring the debates to objective reality, Schmookler suggests including a panel of experts, who can instantly respond to disputed matters of fact. The panelists would be selected impartially by the most respected professional groups in their field, such as the National Academy of Sciences, or the American Bar Association.

What if Obama prefers bipartisanship over confrontation?

It’s possible that President Obama might refuse this role as too confrontational, and damaging to his efforts at bipartisanship. In this case, shouldn't progressive national leaders find someone willing to step up, and turn around the momentum for 2012? Rep. Bernie Sanders is capable of the job, but as the Independent (socialist) Congressman from Vermont, can't represent the Democrats on the national stage.  They need someone in a safe seat, with a very aggressive temperment.  Weiner might be the right man for the job. Which is why I paid a visit to his Kew Gardens office last week. 

A respectable tradition of angry prophets

Maybe I should have asked Schmookler about this.  How accurate is the sterotype of the Old Testament prophet as full of rage on behalf of God against the moral decline of the people, calling for repentence? Wikipedia suggests it's right on target:

In his book The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the unique aspect of the Jewish prophets as compared to other similar figures. Whereas other nations have soothsayers and diviners who attempt to discover the will of their gods, according to Heschel the Hebrew prophets are characterized by their experience of what he calls theotropism — God turning towards humanity. Heschel argues for the view of Hebrew prophets as receivers of the "Divine Pathos," of the wrath and sorrow of God over his nation that has forsaken him.

He writes: "Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words. (The Prophets Ch. 1)"

We have a lot to be angry about.  Some of us are capable of channelling prophetic anger on a regular basis, in an inspiring, effective way.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are able to hide their anger in a matrix of humor. 

James Howard Kunstler blogs about peak oil and the collapse of the funny money economy.  He's darkly funny, although without Stewart and Colbert's  extraordinary comedic gifts or capacity for mirth.   I go to his site every Monday morning. 

Some contemporary versions of the prophetic archetype - eloquent, very angry, and not funny at all - are Keith Olberman and William Rivers Pitt from Truthout.  So are Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and Anthony Weiner.  They perform a valuable function, and as Schmookler points out, we need to crank up the volume on our societal prophecy speakers.  So please support your favorite prophets, your local prophets, and your own call to prophecy, whatever it may be. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The role of grassroots sustainability organizing

Summary: After the midterm election, selling climate change got even tougher than it was before. Since the NYC sustainability discussion is mainly framed as climate change response, civic and business leaders should expand it to include the more marketable concepts of increasing resilience, and preparing for higher and more volatile energy prices. Those price changes are coming in the next five years, acccording to sources including the US military and the International Energy Agency, but NYC isn't talking about them, let alone preparing for them. In this post and the next, two parallel strategies to change that are set out, based on the time-honored principle of WIFM - "what's in it for me?" First, highly targeted outreach to networks of thought leaders, on how their fields will benefit from initiatives that conserve energy, lower costs and build local resiliency. Second, outreach to NYC civic networks on behalf of appealing sustainability projects that offer something to all participants. Volunteers and collaborators will be invited.


The role of grassroots sustainability organizing

Changing the sustainability discussion is important, as a means of getting people involved in practical, effective efforts to make their communities more sustainable. Discussion must lead to action. Otherwise, mere talk, no matter how well informed and well intentioned, is cheap.

Many activists responded to failure of national and international climate change legislation by turning to decentralized grassroots action. Joining the invitation from  to a global work party on 10/10/10, people at over 7,000 events in 188 countries, got to work on the climate crisis. By digging community gardens, installing solar panels, planting trees and more, they aimed to send a message to political leaders: “if we can get to work, so can you!”

This is clearly informed by the Transition method of community organizing, now being applied in many UK towns and cities, as described in the New York Times. Neighbors educate themselves about climate change and fuel depletion, envision their community having successfully adapted twenty years in the future, and then work backward, planning what needs to be done to make that future possible. Collaborating on local projects, participants begin creating that future piece by piece.

In large cities, environmental and sustainability groups organize presentations and films all the time, but without recruiting partners who live in close proximity, and who share permanent social networks. However, many city residents are very involved in neighborhood concerns through countless civic groups.

Seeking happy attractors

Can sustainability initiatives be distributed through well-established local networks? Perhaps – if one can find initiatives appealing enough to inspire different sets of volunteers, who usually operate in different realms, to collaborate. What initiatives might fill this role? What initiatives offer enough benefits to be easily sold, implemented, duplicated and expanded? What will motivate environmental activists, neighborhood leaders, and additional volunteers and partners? The initiative must:

- inspire climate change and sustainability activists to volunteer themselves and promote it to others;

- offer clear cost benefits or savings, without considering environmental benefits;

- be easy to understand, describe, and see as positive;

- must be quick, inexpensive, and simple enough so volunteers can dive in and successfully accomplish projects, inspiring others to follow; and

- must offer enough public relations benefits to local partners and civic groups so that they have an incentive to expedite these projects.

One comparatively simple way to lower the City’s air conditioning use in the summer happens to fit all these requirements. It is a happy attractor: there is nothing distressing about it; it is empowering, patriotic, and it distributes goodies all around with minimal cost. It offends no one, has no enemies, and is welcome at parties. It is a great conversation starter. If you can think of other programs like this, please let us know immediately!

Painting roofs white

Black surfaces absorb more of the sun’s heat than white surfaces. Each summer, NYC’s many flat, black tar roofs can get up to 100 degrees hotter than outdoor air temperatures, increasing the amount of air conditioning required to cool the building below. This means more energy used, more carbon emissions, more pressure on the City’s already strained electric grid, and higher risk of blackouts. By radiating that heat to their surroundings, black roofs contribute to the heat island effect, whereby urban areas can reach temperatures up to 15% hotter than surrounding rural areas.

White roof coating projects are an important part of NYC’s climate change response, with the NYC Cool Roofs program.   “Reflective rooftops are a simple yet powerful tool in the fight we have been leading against climate change,” said Mayor Bloomberg, and a means to channel “the power of our volunteers to address some of the City’s greatest needs.” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has called for “white roofs everywhere” to help fight climate change.

In the fall of 2010, inspired by’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party, several groups collaborated with NYC government agencies to paint the roofs of four nonprofit facilities white: the Bowery Mission, Harlem’s Democracy Prep Charter School, Fountain House in midtown Manhattan, and the SCO Ottillie Campus in Briarwood, Queens. Organizers and volunteers came from StopOilNYC, White Roof Campaign, White Roof Project, Manhattan Young Democrats,, Greenpeace, OxFam, NYPIRG, and New York University student environmental groups.

Projects like these will not only make real improvements in lowering energy use, but can help recruit more partners and volunteers, and set up other local sustainability initiatives. To find potential nonprofit facilities with roofs to paint in 2011, we’ll start with the Council Members we contacted who were eager to refer us to nonprofits in their districts.

The matter of paying for the paint creates an opportunity. Instead of seeking corporate donations, we’ll work with the nonprofit to organize winter events to raise the money locally. Besides gaining local supporters and media attention, these projects allow environmentalists from outside the neighborhood to wield rollers and brushes alongside volunteers from within it.

For the full proposal for neighborhood leaders, and flyers from the City Cool Roofs program, go to or Beyond Oil NYC

Green neighborhood Trojan horses

With positive relationships already established between organizers and the nonprofit contacts seeking to fund their white roof project, we can introduce the next stage of the project. What are the overlaps between community needs, and the green services that are already available in the City but not adequately distributed? Usually centered on promotion of energy efficiency programs, government agencies regularly set up panels at which representatives pitch several programs to neighborhood leaders and residents.

- Are energy bills too high? Con Edison and NYSERDA, the State agency which incentivizes energy efficiency retrofits, offer a number of cost-cutting energy efficiency upgrades for homes and businesses.

- Do neighbors want more fresh fruits and vegetables in local stores? Green markets? Many nonprofits offer gardening classes, and want to help residents convert lawns and yards into vegetable gardens, and set up community gardens and composting areas.

- Are there complaints about inadequate mass transit service? Let’s find the advocates and alternatives who can address this community need.

- Job training providers, for both green and conventional programs.

- Food assistance and public health programs for those in need.

White roof project organizers can introduce community leaders to these other programs, making their outreach efforts easier, and reinforcing the new green network forming within the neighborhood.

This might work something like a Transition initiative. Here, the organizing process would start, not with a common education process around climate change and fuel depletion, but with unthreatening projects that have something to offer a broad range of participants. Should the ingredients come together – and external events reinforce the importance of more sustainable and resilient neighborhoods – the project may be able to recruit more volunteers, develop a network, and evolve in other productive directions.

Some questions on which you might like to comment:

Would you like to intern, volunteer or collaborate with a white roof project?

Are there happy attractors and green Trojan horses better than white roof painting?

Or ones that you like better that you would like to collaborate on with us?

What's going on with Transition initiatives in the United States, and what can we learn from them about how to make NYC more sustainable?