Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Obama Goes to War

“Barack Obama is one of the worst things that has ever happened to the American left. The millions of young people who jubilantly supported him in 2008, and numerous older supporters, will need a long recovery period before they're ready to once again offer their idealism and their passion on the altar of political activism. If you don't like how things have turned out, next time find out exactly what your candidate means when he talks of "change." – William Blum
Find out more about Libya, Obama and the Holy Triumvirate – US, NATO and the EU – in William Blum’s latest Anti-Empire Report.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Vermont: Memorable Moments from the Past

From the Independent Republic in 1776 to Bernie Sanders' Mini-Filibuster...a list of memorable events from the state's past...

Restless Spirits and Popular Movements

Coming in 2012

The Struggle for Africa's Soul

From the Persian Gulf to Capetown, religious ideals have long fueled cultural confrontation and political combat. In Northern Africa, a center of Islamic civilization for centuries, fundamentalist sects have pressured national elites to create a social order based on the Koran – or face violent consequences. Throughout the Christian and Animist south, meanwhile, both independent churches and traditional religions have struggled against state repression and clerical imperialism.
The independence movement, which decades ago led nations like Ghana out of colonial domination, did not complete the process of emancipation. Kwame Nkrumah, the ardent pan-Africanist who led Ghana's movement and inspired others, noted that national liberation was merely a step in a long revolutionary process. In a multipolar world, that process pits nationalist states against religious values and aspirations for freedom.
As dictators fall, will Islamic "radicals" roll back the secular modernization of Muslim states? Can Christian churches resist the marginalizing of faith by one-party governments which impose a "development" model geared to foreign powers? Must "traditional religion" be sacrificed on the altar of "progress"? Is an endless string of "holy" wars avoidable?
We need only consider Iraq and Iran in the 1980s to see the fate that could await many African states. These two Muslim societies, at war for most of a decade, sacrificed several hundred thousand lives in a battle over conflicting concepts of humanity. In most of the reportage about United States' involvement in that Gulf War – arms to Iran, intelligence data to Iraq – the reason for the fighting was lost. Simply put, Iran's radical Shiites saw moral decay in the gradual secularizing of Arab societies. They rejected Arab nationalism and wanted instead an Islamic revolution. The Iraqi approach, based on Arab unity and cultural diversity, was simply unacceptable to the Shiites.
In one of few honest attempts to unravel the Iran-Iraq war at the time, Milton Viorst, writing in Foreign Affairs, noted that, "By the standards of Iran's revolution, Baathism (Iraq's dominant philosophy) has made of Baghdad not a model for the future but a den in which the virtues of Islam have given way to modernist corruption." Viorst was clearly too kind to Baghdad, which he described as "debonair" and westernized, but he did at least acknowledge the religious underpinning of the war.
Although the Shi'a are a minority in the Islamic world, and tend to split into rival groups, they have spurred a revival of Muslim militancy that deepened conflicts in Muslim-dominated states such as Egypt and Sudan. Islam is still the main religion in Northern Africa – from Senegal on the Atlantic to Somalia on the Red Sea. In most Muslim countries ruling regimes claim to follow the essence of Islam, but beginning in the 1980s militant groups, looking to Iran as a model, saw societies "corrupted" by Christianity, Jewish “Zionism” and Communism. For some of them, humanity consisted of non-believers and believers, and holy war was inevitable.
It is nevertheless unfair to portray Islam as a fanatical faith spread by barbaric zealots. That approach, taken by historians and orientalists such as Bernard Lewis, has distorted Muslim beliefs and its historic capacity for tolerance and accommodation. One contribution by Lewis to public misinformation, Semites and Anti-Semites, attempted to shield Israel from criticism for its own ruthless acts by degrading the entire Muslim civilization. At least Lewis admitted elsewhere that Sunni Muslims – dominant in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Somalia, among other states – were more open to accommodation, and that even the Shi'a have a "pragmatic" faction prepared to settle for Shiism in one country. Most tracts about the Middle East and North Africa play to deep prejudices.
In several North African states, the Muslim crusade also put Islam on a collision course with Christianity in the period prior to the US war with Iraq. Sunni Muslims in Egypt considered Coptic Christians Trojan horses, opening the door to secularization and raproachement with Israel. And in Sudan, fundamentalists, dominant in the North, fueled war with the Christian/Animist South. After the imposition of Islamic law (Sharia), Sudanese Christians weren't even free to pray in church. The excesses, which deeply alienated southern provinces and fueled guerilla war, eventually led to a military coup. Even if Sharia was rescinded later by the more moderate new regime, considerable damage had been done. Archbishop Paolina Lukudu, who led a 1987 Christian peace delegation in Sudan, charged that Blacks faced the threat of cultural extinction due to the Islamization promoted by the Arab world.
Until the 15th Century, the Islamic world was a cordon between Europe and Africa. But eventually British, French and assorted other colonizers began to bypass North Africa to reach the continents' riches. Although native African religions dominated, Christian missionary movements spread along with colonial crusades.
These movements, designed to uplift and "civilize" as well as to exploit, created an evangelism rooted in repressive ideology. Despite independent missionary efforts, Church expansion was essentially an aspect of Western colonialism. Cameroonian theologian Jean-Marc Ela concluded in African Cry that, "For many generations, Christianity would be a religion of whites. It would propagate a manner of being Christian that was foreign to local cultures."
But Africa has experienced a new, indigenous missionary movement in more recent years, an attempt to find a way to real emancipation. Independent sects and churches, often in defiance of mainline churches, have attempted to reaffirm African identity. According to Rev. Maxime Rafransoa, general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), nationalistic movements and liberation theology have promoted changes in African religion. The challenge of the future will be to develop theologies that "respond to the needs of the continent."
The World Council of Churches has attempted to take part by tackling problems such as human rights and refugees. One Council declaration stated that "our liberation remains the most fundamental issue." Yet Ela noted that Christianity remains primarily an ideological tool of foreign capitalists, promoting a developmental model at odds with the deepest aspirations of black peasants.
In passionate prose, Ela bared the poignant choice confronting Christianity: "The church cannot allow itself to rest content with the privileges accorded it in the area of worship. In the one-party regimes that are spreading across Africa, the ideal way of divesting the church of its critical function in society is to restrict it to the sphere of the religious. At most it is allowed a place in education and health, where its activities hark back to a tradition of charitable works. But the poor in the one-party states may be deposed chiefs, a silenced and socially disenfranchised elite, ethnic minorities serving as scapegoats, outlawed opposition movements or pressure groups under close official surveillance and control. How can one testify to basic values of the gospel before this new category of 'poor'? The answer can only come if the church refuses the false security it is promised by the powers that be on condition it accept the privatization and marginalization of the Christian faith."
Cedric Mayson, a British minister who spent 30 years in South Africa before his expulsion on charges of high treason in 1983, made much the same case in A Certain Sound: The Struggle for Liberation in South Africa. Although churches in this most avowedly Christian of African states engaged in anti-apartheid struggles, Mayson documented that most church thinking equated Christianity with the capitalist way of life. Contact with the liberation struggle was usually secondhand. Most whites and even some blacks upheld traditional principles or opposed political activism. It was among grass roots people that Mayson found the clearest understanding of the gospel as a blueprint for fundamental change.
The crossroad to which Christianity had advanced could be seen quite clearly in Kenya, independent since 1963 yet dominated by a corrupt elite that continued to govern in the colonial style. In the 1980s, church leaders began to challenge President Daniel arap Moi and his ruling party. Ministers urged free national debate about Kenya's future, and opposed Constitutional and election "reforms" that would further consolidate state power.
One of the most objectionable developments was abolition of the secret ballot. In future primary elections, voters would have to line up behind the candidate of their choice, a change ensuring that no opposition leader would be elected. Pastors and bishops joined the Kenyan Law Society in condemning the new procedure. The government responded by blacklisting churches for "subversion" and banning open air religious meetings and prayer – unless the group obtained a permit. Moi also pressured clerics to resign or stay out of politics. The Kenyan government was prepared to go quite far in muzzling the churches of this predominantly Christian land, forcing them to weigh the full consequences of becoming a formal part of the "opposition."
In the struggle for Zimbabwe's independence, nationalist politics joined forces with ancestral religion to create a powerful movement which drew heavily from spiritual beliefs. The key to the relationship between guerillas and local mediums of the Shona religion was a shared mission: protection of the fertility of the land. The guerillas promised to return the land to the peasants; the mediums "represented" ancestors who had once controlled it. Traditional religion provided an idiom within which the legitimacy of resistance could be expressed.
After winning independence, the government continued to make use of Shona images, and the Shona, a large and autonomous community, managed to survive, retaining their central belief in the existence of life after death. But in most of southern Africa, where a majority of the people remain animist, these traditional beliefs have been under severe attack.
In African Cry, Ela wondered whether "traditional religion" is really the obstacle to progress that most modernists suggest. Although animist beliefs often do act as a brake on social changes, he noted that the same traditions provide peasants with "reasons for rejecting a developmental model that generates an economic surplus to be divided up by foreign capitalists and local bureaucracies. Their religious life has even enabled African peoples to fight foreign economic, political and cultural domination."
Promoters of development label ancestral religions as the source of most African woes. This is "organized mystification," wrote Ela, designed to deflect criticism of continued European-U.S. exploitation. In truth, African traditional religion is an assertion of the sacred which has much in common with ecology's cult of Mother Earth, a search for harmony with nature and the past.
Some indigenous African churches have incorporated aspects of traditional religion. According to Kofi Asare Opoki, professor of Religion at Zambia's University of Legon, "This development is rather new and is by no means complete, but it at least points the way." He noted that the clash between the two belief systems stems from the West's interpretation of Christianity, but that the Biblical and African world view often agree. Courses in various schools attempt to overcome misconceptions and the persistent ridiculing of traditional beliefs.
In the long run, nevertheless, the most crucial struggle will not be between tradition and modernism, animism and Christianity, or even between church and state; it will be the conflict between domination – by foreign beliefs and interests – and the liberation of Africa's living culture.
The map of Africa has changed dramatically since 1957, when Ghana became the first colonial territory south of the Sahara to regain its independence. One by one the colonial powers surrendered or lost control, eventually leaving South Africa as the last bastion of overt racism.
However, the emergence from direct colonial oppression produced a new set of problems. The economies of the new nations remained dependent on foreign financial interests, and in many places nationalism became the excuse for cultural and political repression. In the North, Muslim radicals persisted in a "holy" crusade that could damage or destroy minority cultures. In the South, one-party rule permitted little opposition from "dissidents" who found inspiration in Christian faith and, as Cedric Mayson puts it, wanted "God's will to be done in the world." And throughout the vast continent, followers of traditional religions – still the largest single group – faced condescension, censure and the virtual extermination of their cultures in the name of science and progress.
These clashes persisted long after the political struggle in South Africa was resolved. In truth, they are much more intractable than any oppressive regime. They can only be settled in the souls of women and men, in the gradual emergence of a unity that transcends religious boundaries, through a process of cultural emancipation – the real liberation of the oppressed.
This was my first article as editor of Toward Freedom. The original version was published in January 1987, Vol. 36. No. 1.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Next Phase & The Vermont Way

Alternative means having a choice. In the media, it’s often the choice to look for answers outside traditional institutions and systems. As many of us know, it doesn’t get any easier in an era of wall-to-wall news distractions, corporate concentration, mounting calamity and perpetual spin. But we do want we can.

What I am doing is continue as a maverick, writing, publishing and working with friends and allies on issues that matter. Response to my work over the past few years has been exciting, even the occasional criticisms. Maverick Media was launched in March 2008 after I returned from Berkeley and Pacifica Radio. Since then articles have appeared on dozens of websites, often spawning healthy dialogue, and in print publications around the world. I’ve appeared regularly on the radio and dug into issues like immigration hysteria, Obama myths and realities, cyber war, Al Jazeera and Lockheed Martin in Burlington, the prospects for progressive politics, Pacifica Radio, and, of course, perception management.

Since returning to Vermont last summer I’ve been focusing mainly on state and local politics, military and environmental issues, and lessons of the past. Next year, The Vermont Way, a popular history of Vermont I have been developing for many years, will be released. Between now and then I’ll distribute a series of short thematic essays to newspapers and websites on some of the turning points in state history – from its birth as an Independent Republic to legalizing same sex marriage – as well as some of the people who have played pivotal roles.

I have also noticed that some of my earlier books were becoming basically unavailable or hard to find, and so I’ve been working with Amazon and other publishers to make them more available, in print and digital form. One result is that Maverick Media is also becoming an online storefront for previous and new title sales, along with other collectible media, in association with Amazon. That makes it easy to order Vermont’s Untold History, a collectible 1976 people’s history published by Public Occurrence and The Frayed Page Collective, as well as Uneasy Empire, released by Toward Freedom in 2002, and my novel Spirits of Desire.

In April we’ll add The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, which was first published in 1989. All copies ordered via Maverick Media are new and signed.

The Vermont Way will be published in 2012. It is intended to be an engaging, provocative and accessible study of Vermont’s political, economic and cultural evolution and influence. It tells the state’s unique story from the time before European settlers to the present day, with the emphasis on movements and memorable people. In some cases it re-interprets well-known events and trends; at other points it presents fresh information based on original scholarship, interviews and observations. It is a popular history and an exploration of the qualities, contradictions and traditions that have shaped Vermont’s path.

Readers and reviewers are currently being asked for feedback and reviews prior to publication. If you know organizations, bookstores or other venues where a talk about Vermont would be welcome, let me know.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s progressive movement had a birthday on March 3, just a day before I turned 64. Here’s a short essay, as it appeared on the state party’s website:

Vermont’s Progressive Era Turns 30
In April a series of excerpts from The Vermont Way begins with The Path to Marriage Equality. Then...

May: Voting equality (one man-one vote) and the Hoff Effect
June: When the first Mormon ran for president
July: How Vermont went Republican
August: A progressive censors Red Emma
September: Vermonters go to the White House
October: From boom to bust in company towns
November: Burlington's public power story
December: The parkway that never was

The Maverick Storefront
Please let friends know how they can order these books. Just click on the title:

Spirits of Desire

A romantic mystery of the paranormal, set in Vermont during the spiritualist craze of the 1870s, that explores the hidden powers of nature and the human mind.

Like E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, Spirits of Desire is a story that plays out against a tapestry of social, intellectual, religious, political and scientific forces.... Because this is a novel -- and a good one- - I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Mr. Guma has done a fine job of bringing these characters and their fascinating epoch to life. -- Joseph Citro, Vermont Public Radio

Vermont’s Untold History

A groundbreaking radical history, including Labor and Capital in the Green Mountains by Robert Mueller and Greg Guma; Beyond Midwifery and Motherhood by Jo Schneiderman; and Labor in Barre by Roby Colodny. Illustrated with an index. The 1976 edition released by Public Occurrence and The Frayed Page.

Reign of Error

Illustrator Dan Florentino explores the hot issues – everything from drugs, crime, privacy, fundamentalism and climate change to media madness and the global power plays that drive us crazy. Featuring more than 100 illustrations and the insights of 47 authors. A graphic guide for anyone who cares about the state and fate of the earth. And it’s easy on the eyes.

Uneasy Empire

A manifesto that exposes the hidden agendas behind desperate domestic and international policies, and their devastating impacts on much of he world. Published by Toward Freedom in November 2002, it explains how an international establishment has used fear of socialism, communism and, more recently, terrorism to justify repression and a massive military establishment. It also examines the goals and strategies of the de facto world government that currently dominates countless economies. Pointing past nationalism and corporate empire, Uneasy Empire combines a radical critique with hopeful solutions and a vision of democratic globalism.

Available Soon
The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution

The first comprehensive analysis of Bernie Sanders’ mayoral years in Burlington and the progressive movement in Vermont during the 1970s and 1980s. Published by New England Press in 1989.

A fast-moving description that illustrates one of the great efforts at innovative government of the past fifty years… -- Pierre Clavel, Cornell University

A treasure house of first-hand information and perceptive, if often controversial analysis of great value to anyone concerned to explore realistically the possibilities for combining third-party electoral politics with other methods of working for justice, peace, environmental sanity and genuine democracy. – David Dellinger, author/activist

If you are at all interested in Vermont and Burlington, and public policy, get this book. – Phil Hoff, former Vermont Governor

Other Recent Stuff
Up in Arms (research for a Seven Days feature)

Doomsday Obsessions: Imagining the End (from the blog)
Selected Web Articles

On the Radio: Pacifica & Progressive Politics

That’s it for now. Keep in touch and stay a Maverick.


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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Vermont’s Progressive Era Turns 30

Church Street Peace Demonstration, Burlington, 1979. Photo by Greg Guma

“It’s time for a change...real change.” That was Bernie Sanders’ slogan in his 1981 campaign for Burlington Mayor. The race had begun as a long shot, but Sanders had turned his shoestring operation into a real challenge. Nevertheless, even on Election Day, March 3, 1981, the incumbent and his Democratic old guard still predicted a decisive victory. After all, Ronald Reagan had been elected President only four months before. Sanders was no threat, they assumed, nothing more than an upstart leftist with a gift for attracting media attention.

Sanders wanted open government, he said, and new development priorities. He opposed an upscale Waterfront project and an Interstate access road to downtown. He supported Rent Control. “Burlington is not for sale,” he proclaimed. “I am extremely concerned about the current trend of urban development. If present trends continue, the City of Burlington will be converted into an area in which only the wealthy and upper-middle class will be able to afford to live.”

Mayor Gordon Paquette was a working class guy from the “inner city” who had grown up delivering bread and started his political career in Vermont as a Democratic alderman in 1958. By managing a patronage-based coalition known as the Republicrats, he had reached what turned out to be the pinnacle of his power as Burlington mayor from 1971 to 1981.

People knew him as Gordie, a street-smart political operator who figured out how to satisfy the Irish and French Canadians while cutting deals with the business elite. Comparisons with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley were not uncommon. But his willingness as mayor to demolish an old ethnic neighborhood near the Waterfront and a “master plan” to replace it with an underground mall, hotel and office complex had made him some enemies.

Throughout the 1970s cracks in the fa├žade of public calm slowly had opened up. Speculation drove up land values and rents, deepening a chronic housing shortage. A restless youth culture emerged. Despite decent commercial growth, revenues couldn’t keep pace with the need for services. And the next steps in the city’s “urban redevelopment” vision would be disruptive – a highway into the center of the city, private waterfront development, and a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown. The total cost, including public and private funding, was projected at more than $50 million. The local atmosphere became nervous and unsettled.

In January 1981, Paquette was nominated after a caucus fight for a fifth term. He had frequently run unopposed. Afterward, the owner of a popular local Italian restaurant who he defeated, bolted the Democrats to run as an Independent. Since Paquette was still a Republicrat at heart Republican Party leaders decided not to oppose him and banked on his re-election.

Thus, his main opponent became Sanders, a former “third party” radical running as an Independent who opposed Paquette’s proposed 10 percent increase in property taxes and promised to work for tax reform. The recently formed Citizens Party, which had backed environmentalist Barry Commoner in the 1980 presidential election, ran three candidates for the City Council, also known as the Board of Aldermen. The incumbents generally tried to ignore them, assuming that a rag-tag bunch of activists had no chance of upsetting the status quo.

But Sanders was hard to ignore, and local leaders of both major parties had underestimated the growing influence of neighborhood groups, housing and anti-redevelopment activists, young people, the elderly, and the city’s countercultural newcomers. They also shrugged off the possibility that some of Paquette’s past supporters might want to send him a message.

By the time Sanders and the mayor finally faced each other over a folding table at the Unitarian Church tempers were hot. Sanders exploited rising local anger by linking the mayor with Antonio Pomerleau, the white-haired godfather of Vermont shopping center development. Pomerleau was leading in efforts to turn Burlington’s largely vacant waterfront into a site for commercial and condominium development.

“I’m not with the big money men” Paquette protested. Frustrated and desperate to counter-attack, he warned that if Sanders became mayor Burlington would become like Brooklyn. He looked honestly shocked when people hissed at him.

On March 3, with a few thousand dollars, a handful of volunteers and a relatively vague reform agenda, Sanders won the race by just ten votes. Burlington had a “radical” mayor, a self-described socialist who was determined to change the course of Vermont history. Citizens Party candidate for the City Council Terry Bouricius became the first member of the party elected anywhere in the country. In an odd twist, Bouricius won in Ward Two, the same place that had given Paquette his first term on the City Council 23 years earlier.

The next three decades proved just how much the political establishment underestimated Sanders’ appeal, not to mention the potential for a progressive movement in the city and across the state. Prior to Sanders and the Progressives, Burlington was a cultural backwater run by an aging generation, unresponsive to the changing needs of the community. If you attended a council meeting the first question was, “How long have you lived here?” Political competition was the exception. Clannish Democrats and compliant Republicans made the rules.

In 2011, the Queen City is nationally known for its radical mystique and “livability,” transformed from a provincial town into a cultural mecca, socially conscious and highly charged. Over the years Burlington’s progressives not only consolidated their base in local government, they challenged the accepted relationship between communities and the state, and helped fuel a statewide progressive surge. They also weathered the storms of succession struggle.

Burlington has had three progressive mayors in the 30 years since Town Meeting Day in 1981. Although Democrats again dominate the City Council today and a future Republican mayor is a distinct possibility, a multi-party political system has changed Vermont’s political landscape, and as Sanders himself once said, “It’s not just a one-man show, it’s a movement.”

Happy 30th Anniversary to all who helped make it happen and the many who were inspired!

Greg Guma has been based in Vermont since the 1960s, was a candidate for the City Council in the March 1981 election, and subsequently wrote The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. This article is adapted from his upcoming book, The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements.