An ode to old white liberals (OWLs)

February 25, 2017


for David Rakoff (I ask that the reader channel the gentle cadence his voice humming softly in their ear)
and Phil Ochs (for obvious reasons)
to honor the youth (that they may one day similarly smote my mole hill of praise upon the mountain of their triumph)
in memory of Toby Hemenway’s beautiful vision of direct action toward collective liberatory struggle.

Ye Olde Whyte Liberals
the literally self-appointed gatekeepers of progress
the practice of Deep Green Navel Gazing, or
the weighty philosophy of the Practicality Police
(choose either one to)
sandwich yourself between:

a Salem Sustainability Circle Jerk
(not even the courtesy of a reach-around)
i crash the celebration of mediocrity
(how’s your relationship?  sustainable? meh…
but even still, mediocrity is a better goal than what we currently have, so)
I’m glad you all agree, what do you plan to do about it, though?

while comfortable, pampered straight middle class white men
tell me what “we” can get (who is “we?”)
without any discussion of what we, the people, need
because justice for the homeless, and
clean, breathable air, and drinkable water are impractical.
Sanctuary and respect for the rights of (migrant) workers is impractical
(someone might slap our wrists).
Women who want the vote are impractical.  They got their wrists slapped.
Abolishing slavery is impractical.  Sorry, are “we” being too uppity?

Are? Were?  I fail to see the distinction between
Yesterday and today’s guardians of the status quo
self-styled “allies,” the first enemies of justice,
and the first to (pro)claim victory whenever it prevails.
In spite of, not because of their participation.
But not according to history, as they write it:
white-washed, man-washed, class-washed
clean and pure
in a rich, soapy lather of unexamined privilege.

Liberal?  conservative, with a small “c.”  But only if “we” are (were?) lucky.
Otherwise, reactionary.  Like the rest of the establishment types:

I pledge allegiance
To the Status Quo, and
the injustice for which it stands.
One Pyramid Scheme
Under Fraud
With Liberty and Justice
For OWLs
In the State of Denial.

“State of denial?”
their reproachful echo arrives on-time
almost gasping with well-practiced confusion
at the mere suggestion of imperfection
yet the condescending correction inevitably comes with dough-eyed precision:
“Dearheart…this is Oregon.”

Why the Salem Food Co-op failed

February 24, 2017

Ten Lessons from a founding member (steering committee and founding board member 2010 – 2014)

This piece results from reflection on several factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Salem Food Co-op (SFC) project. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, to help articulate and clarify my pathway forward. I share it in hopes that it will help others in their community development work, by aiding in the identification and avoidance of red flags to fight self-sabotaging project failure and individuals’ unwitting participation in such self-sabotaging processes, ultimately to better respect and render effective time and energy spent toward building a better community.


1) First, the food co-op started with limited outreach to white godless middle class liberals. Note that I don’t use the phrase “white godless middle class liberals” as a pejorative. Rather, it is only a very limited demographic group (one that includes me). We might more accurately substitute “secular” for “godless,” as, the initial outreach did not include churches, nor did it include minority or marginalized populations and related local organizations (SKCE, NAACP, SLF, etc).

Such a narrow initial frame for the project compounded later problems. Project leaders assumed that whoever showed up as a result was “the community” and thus (yet again) erased people of color, ESL speakers, and others from the possibility of engagement and participation unless it was completely on the terms of the narrow white, middle class godless liberal frame. I fit that same narrow demographic group (which is probably why I became a founding member), and even I found the space to be unnecessarily conservative and restrictive — to the point of being claustrophobic, with constant subtle and passive-aggressive social norming to separate outliers from the “in-group.”

See Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement” for more on this topic. De facto discrimination and segregation can look more like passivity than active prejudice. For example, by putting all outreach materials in English only, by reaching out to primarily-white institutions and groups, this projects a coded message to community members who don’t fit that demographic that, “this is another white people project.” It also projects a coded message to white supremacist community members and institutions that the status quo supports their prejudice, which intensifies racism, etc in the community as a result.

2) Second, the core founding group (which later became part of the steering committee and the founding board) started and stuck with a very narrow, naive and inflexible idea of what a food co-op was. They were stuck in the romanticization of the food cooperative movement of the 70s, and wanted to transplant that through time and space into the contemporary Salem economy. They did not do research into the full breadth of cooperative possibilities, and thus could not imagine — let alone communicate — anything beyond, “I want a member-owned version of LifeSource” [the local privately-owned friendly, well-staffed and well-managed “natural foods” store] to the community, which sounded redundant to most folks. LifeSource already effectively fills that economic niche, and does a solid job at it.

In contrast, the founding group did not care to learn what other problems, needs and thus opportunities existed in the community around food issues. They did group work to move the project forward, but their participation in part served to retain control of this narrow vision and prevent broadening of possibilities. Some even said they would leave if the group even considered other possibilities than what they wanted (a brick and mortar granola store). The presence of such manipulative and threatening behavior in the early group formation itself is a huge red flag that I ignored — especially because many of these people stayed on-board!

3) Third, the board did not listen to or follow the advice of experts — such as the Food Cooperative Development Initiative and the NW Cooperative Development Center and local seasoned business owners and the local SBDC. The few cooperative projects that withstand the test of time treat the strategic planning, research and outreach process seriously, whereas key members of the SFC board just dismissed the process as redundant or even threatening to their vision. They payed lip-service to these fantastic (and freely-available) expert resources, but did not actually want to follow through with the planning process, for example, treating the business planning process as a mere “formality.” As a steering committee and board, we did not take the time to understand what the actual community (and all its participants) really wanted or needed, and where, when and how a co-op project might meet those needs, let alone whether it could at all. Other participants did not seem able to see through their narrow blinders in interpreting the information offered (so everything became about building a “brick and mortar” store).

Starting a co-op is a lot like building an intentional community, and it takes a lot of time and energy building and solidifying the (often-invisible) foundations for success. Most successful co-ops (and intentional communities) don’t start operations until several (often 5-7) years of intensive development and planning work, which includes lots of research and evolution and even complete reboots and changes in direction.

4) Fourth, we prematurely started and expanded operations (vs intensive planning and development, which the above factors short-circuited). Unwilling to give the development process the time, energy and respect it deserved, the founding members jumped at the opportunity to just “start doing it,” nevermind that we did not yet have a clear vision of what “it” meant, and that most of Salem did not share the specific implementation of the larger vision that certain members of the board insisted on. This lead to SFC naively taking over a private bulk food buying club (a very different operation than — albeit potentially part of — a cooperative effort), whose founding leaders wanted to step back. Seeing this only as an opportunity (rather than a more complex situation that included significant threats to the project), we just “started doing it” without having a clear understanding of what it is we were doing, or how we were doing it, or what the risks were. The project soon found itself in a vicious operational cycle of paying off its increasing liabilities via operations that reaffirmed the existence of those liabilities. Planning and development work all but stalled.

5) Fifth, we imposed ourselves on the community. Unwilling and unable to research and understand the full scope and potential of this project, we tried to shoehorn a narrow and exclusive vision into the Salem economy, ignoring available economic niches while trying to establish ourselves in highly competitive, well-developed ones. When we took over the buying club, we destroyed it. The buying club emerged to fill a need. Rather than letting it continue or fade on its own terms, we tried to co-opt its membership for our purposes. The SFC board forced the change from a buying club to a co-op, raised the prices, made the process more complicated, and then said it was all “for the best” without even first developing a relationship with the club’s members. It resembled a hostile takeover. Lo and behold, member participation dropped off sharply in a few buying cycles, leaving SFC with a bad public reputation (from people who might otherwise have been our core supporters and membership, no less!) and an operational burden. Such tactics only work with virtual monopolies — and besides, is that really what SFC was going for?

6) Sixth, we exploited participants. By prematurely jumping into operations, we struggled to perform even basic operational tasks. Management each order cycle was a frantic, stressful mess. There weren’t enough volunteers to help, in part because of an over-reliance on volunteers. Board members vetoed any serious consideration of hiring paid staff (at any level), even when we finally had the budget for it. Similarly, board members mired in endless operational obligations every order cycle began questioning the motives and commitment of the few board members trying to stay focused on overall project management, planning, research and development in order to pressure them to “help out more,” as if the development even of operational policies and procedures and critical path planning wasn’t “helping out.” This created more internal board tension. We misused the resources available to us, then ironically wondered why we didn’t have “enough.” The project started to become a black hole for time and energy. Overwhelmed board members began co-opting the time of friends and family.  Cue the burnout!

7) Seventh, we got sucked into pettiness. Rather than fostering partnerships and mutual development with other local and artisan food projects, we saw other local markets and producers as competitors for the same small demographic group of people who buy their food from local producers and markets (or even a small subsection of that demographic group). The local and artisan food movements compete mostly against the industrial food system. Through our passive contribution to and participation in petty infighting instead of active leadership, we undermined our ability to compete and intensified the competition over a small sliver of the overall potential market. This is another reason why SFC struggled financially, and the stress and desperation of the volunteers began to show. In the end, the food co-op even placed blame on the community with a backhanded comment about them not “embracing this opportunity.”

8) Eighth, the board participated in chauvinistic magical thinking. We believed for the most part that if we just started offering a few local products from local farmers and mostly bulk options (creating a market penetration redundant to LifeSource and existing farmer’s markets) that people would just “flock” to the co-op and ask to become members. We thought that the co-op would boom without years of careful planning and outreach and niche research and strategy. Without a carefully-crafted vision that was well-communicated to — let alone shared by — the community. We just assumed that the vision was shared, the need for it “obvious,” and ultimately that the community wanted or needed whatever SFC felt they wanted or needed. We did not even listen to ourselves when “the brick and mortar board members” said they really just wanted “a community space” — something very different than a food co-op (although some overlap can exist). We had no concern for developing management and operating policies and practices and procedures, expecting those to “just arise” out of the process. We also thought that a new software system or website would solve many of these problems and more.

9) Ninth, the project evolved from being passively classist and racist into being actively-discriminatory. Several people who became central founding members of the board even openly expressed insecure animosity toward religion and churches at board meetings, as if open animosity toward and exclusion of religious participation was necessary to maintain the co-op project as a secular space. They even did this when new potential board members showed up, as if to “vet” such potential members. The fundamental fear and insecurity behind such practices also led toward a patronizing and negative attitude toward the Salem community they ostensibly sought to serve.  I believe that much of this happened because those of us who disagreed nonetheless chose to remain silent while others publicly spouted strong negative opinions.

10) Tenth, we did not accept accountability or feedback. We failed to recognize all the myriad red flags and question whether we were doing anything wrong, or whether we had gotten our priorities mixed up. Desperate and disorganized operational concerns for current order cycles pervaded and co-opted board planning and retreat spaces, increasing internal tension. When the project inevitably shattered and broke, the remaining members were so burnt out that we could not even consider a reboot or a change in strategy or direction. We lacked flexibility and adaptability in pursing the vision and mission we claimed to represent. Whatever we did was “right” and “correct” and if it didn’t work, then it wasn’t because we did things wrong or poorly, but because “Salem didn’t step up to this opportunity.” We blamed others for our mistakes — even, ironically, the very people we claimed to be “serving,” e.g., for not “buying enough.”

This isn’t to say that the board did everything wrong, or that there weren’t other external mitigating factors. There were. But those factors always exist — the difference between success and failure falls with whether and how people acknowledge and address those factors, or whether they ignore or dismiss them. Although we can never guarantee success, we can guarantee failure by sabotaging ourselves (regardless of the reason or motives for doing so). While the above list is not exhaustive, it does unfortunately comprise a solid recipe for failure.

I had a lot of hope for this project, which is why I began participation early in the steering committee and became a founding board member. Participation in this project ultimate became very stressful and time consuming, which I shrugged off as an inherent aspect of project work. But I refused to ignore many red flags, perhaps due to the sunk cost fallacy (I’ve already committed countless hours, I can’t back out now!). The other red flags I only addressed as isolated issues rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of attitudes and behaviors sabotaging the integrity of the project. It’s always difficult to evaluate such circumstances when you are immersed in them, especially when you really want things to go well and you’ve already invested hundreds and hundreds of hours.

Ultimately, I learned a lot from my participation. In addition to the lessons above, I conducted a lot of research, and developed considerable expertise on cooperative structures (even compiling a resource used by NWCDC). Still, I wish I had the clarity of mind to step back earlier than I did. My sin was not in failing to see red flags, but failing to connect them together. My own wishful thinking kept me captive to the belief that I could make a difference if I just tried harder, put in a few more hours, etc. Instead, my continued participation only further enabled the pathological process and delayed the inevitable demise of the project.

Cooperatives are interesting structures. They aim for the best, but can ironically bring out the worst. I still believe they have a lot of potential for community building and economic empowerment, but only in recognizing and addressing two large challenges of our society:

  1. The fact that our legal and economic and cultural systems often exhibit open hostility toward — let alone near-complete lack of support for — such projects, and
  2. We all bring baggage into cooperative project spaces — both individual and institutional (e.g., colonizing processes and participation in imperialist structures of the larger society).

If the participants can’t acknowledge and deal with that baggage, then it sabotages the project, which can even provide a platform for and amplify the impact of pathological process and behavior. This baggage looks like both structural and internalized oppression: classism, racism, sexism, dogma (including secular dogma!), etc. In the very least, such baggage, left unaddressed, impedes our ability to overcome or navigate the first challenge (lack of support from a hostile establishment). If this becomes people’s experience with cooperatives, then they might actually start seeing cooperatives as a “bad thing,” which is unfair both to the cooperative movement and to them inasmuch as cooperatives, when well-executed, can be fantastic forces of community building and economic empowerment.

I’m not the only one soured on cooperatives.  Austrian agroforestry expert Sepp Holzer wonders out loud of farmers emprisoned in cooperative contracts that hold the market hostage, force financial losses, and prevent both farm and market innovation and evolution in his book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture:

How long will it take for farmers to free themselves of the shackles of cooperatives and make their way to independence?

Cooperatives are not inherently good or revolutionary, but are socioeconomic tools.  Like any tool they can be used to exploit others.  Or, ideally, we can use them to create the beautiful human economy of the sort that luminaries such as EF Schumacher envisioned.

I still think there’s room (even need and demand) for an entire network of cooperatives in the Salem economy that truly help people meet currently-unmet or poorly-met needs: childcare, urban food production, affordable housing, food distribution (esp. to food deserts), time banking. But such projects need to start with a fundamentally-different ethic than the status quo: open-minded, inclusive, exploratory, responsive, accountable. Until then I have promised myself the integrity to abstain from participation in projects that exhibit any (especially several) of the above red flags, because doing so ultimately wastes time and energy, enables more oppressive pathology, and harms the participants and the larger community.

Salem, the awkward middle child of urban Oregon

February 22, 2017

An alienated insider’s guide for those who have never been, those who will never be, and those who will never leave.

written 082915, dedicated to the memory of David Rakoff

Geographically, the desertifying lump of civil concrete we call Salem sits in between Portland and Eugene, the other two largest concrete lumps of capital accumulation in the once-lush Willamette River Valley of the Pacific Northwest. Neither the largest nor the smallest, Salem seems to disappear comfortably somewhere in the cozy middle of nowhere. People arrive in Salem for two main reasons: 1. They are passing through on their way north or south along the I-5 transportation corridor, and perhaps hope to find a serviceable gas station bathroom and sandwich shop that doesn’t serve as a front for a child sex trafficking operation or 2. They have economic or political business with the State or its minions.

We might call Portland the eldest of three siblings. While New Yorkers call Portland a “quaint little town,” Oregonians know it as the Big City of Oregon. Rose City, Rip City, P-town, Stumptown, PDX, Pornland, it has more nicknames than some of the most renowned narcissists in the annals of history, and wears them with ironic — if solid — pride. Eugene, the southernmost of the metropolitan siblings, serves well as the youngest of the three, right on down to its liberally-entrenched sense of baseless entitlement to everything Portland has and more.

Eugene is the seat of the University of Oregon, the second-largest of six state universities. Eugene finds much of its cultural and economic footing in the College Town trope. Hip, cool, perpetually young. Likewise, Portland houses the most-populous Portland State University, while Corvallis (a fourth, adopted child of Oregon we will not concern ourselves with in this essay) houses third-largest Oregon State University and as such will forever play second fiddle to Eugene.

In contrast, Salem itself has no large university. A malnourished Western Oregon University cools its heels rather quietly on the inconspicuous outskirts of the Salem Metropolitan area, in a suburb known as Monmouth. Instead, Salem houses Willamette University, a small private liberal arts college that every year attracts into the crystal clear waters of its cozy little pond a new school of well-funded (if deliberately under-dressed) “middle class” Big Fish who, as a general rule, throw four years’-worth of their parents’ ample money and misguided attitude at Salem before they inevitably migrate north to the cooler waters of Portland, whereupon they find that they fit in better with others who share their dialectical mix of disaffected optimism disguising a deep-seeded sense of personal discomfort (for all their feigned classlessness, Willamette graduates don’t dare stay in Salem, with its affordable rent, for as every trendy new Portlander surely knows, if you can afford to live there, it’s probably not worth it).

Who can blame them? Whatever the bottomless soul of the consumer-citizen desires, Portland claims to have it (as the kombucha capitol of the country, in some parts of the city you can spy small gentrifying neighborhood collectives cooperatively raising goats and chickens in lieu of children). Portland, in its manic-depressive attempt to be Everything to Everyone(1), sprouts coffee shops at densities approaching one per caffeine-addicted resident (this much-romanticized colonial drug commodity trade manages to avoid a clash with Portland’s self-styled counter-culture couture in large part through enthusiastically ubiquitous ejaculations of signage everywhere proclaiming, “local brew!” which, if we take in their sum totality at face value, apparently means that the coffee plant somehow now grows somewhere in the the Pacific Northwest! Why aren’t there more people talking about this revolutionary breakthrough in plant breeding and post-colonial economic practice?). This constant flood of caffeine mixes with tattoos and irony to provide ample chemical and social fuel for arm-chair politiking and micro-entrepreneurial efforts to further subdivide already severely-dissected market niches: If enough people continually throw themselves at bad ideas, then those of us outsiders who watch with an air of overwhelmed confusion will inevitably miss their stale crash and burn after a few months (normally) or years (for the relatively successful ones), buried somewhere amidst the endless incoming torrent of newly-minted bright-eyed, bushy-tailed micro-entrepreneurs fresh off the printing press. Collective failure starts looking like a grand success in the apparent-absence of unexamined attrition rates. Suddenly, someone’s childhood dream (from three weeks ago, fueled in equal parts by caffeine and disaffected desparation) of opening a Micronesian Tex-Mex “ethnic fusion” grocer catering specifically to smartphone app-wielding ride-thru bicyclists might not seem like such a bad idea after all…A specialty store focusing specifically on salts and chocolates? Sure! What the casual, outside observer might call a grab-bag collective of random mishmash specialty trends, the Portlander affectionately refers to as, “inspiration!”

Portland contains PDX, that is to say, the Portland International Airport (whose abbreviated name the city took for itself during a period of narcissistic identity acquisition). If you, Dear Oregonian, want to fly anywhere else of “significance,” you have to go through PDX first. The bus and train run through Salem, though. Economically, Salem is neither really rural agricultural nor mercantile nor based on the presence of a large education institution nor culturally hip. Not even Burgerville, a local staple of the northwest fast food landscape with the odd outpost in rural Monmouth(!) and Albany(!), will bother with Salem-proper. Instead, Salem possesses the unique political burden of housing the State capitol of Oregon, including many of its State administrative offices (the rest reside deferentially in Portland because…well, “it’s Portland”). That is to say, Salem’s economy depends almost entirely upon the State administrative class, that is to say, upon pedantic rules, their robotic followers, their eery enforcers and the bureaucratic hives they inhabit for the exact equivalent of eight hours five days a week minus vacation and sick days. Lobbyists of both well-funded private and unfunded public interests also play a vital role in the nested parasitism of the State political economy.

While Salem may lack the “higher” (than thou) educational institutions of its younger and bigger siblings, it does not generally lack in the presence of state-run educational institutions per se. Salem serves as the bed and breakfast for nearly half of Oregon’s euphemistically-labeled “correctional” facilities (Mill Creek Correctional [sic] Facility, Oregon State Correctional [sic] Institution, Oregon State Penitentiary, Santiam Correctional [sic] Institution, Hillcrest Youth Correctional [sic] Facility, and Oak Creek Correctional [sic] Facility) as well as the Oregon State (psychiatric) Hospital, housing well over a quarter (27%) of Oregon’s total inmate population.(3) When the convicts and mental patients get released, they find their way into Salem first and foremost, alongside its similarly-disproportionate slice of the growing homeless and discarded veteran populations. Strategic on their part as social outcasts, for in the shadow of the government, they will forever remain the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the general populace.

The anglicized word “Salem” comes from Hebrew/Arabic “Shalom”/”Salaam,” meaning “peace.” So we might accurately (and redundantly) call Salem the “City of Peace.” While I don’t dispute this label, I will probably quibble with the exact vision of “peace” that Salem supposedly pursues.

On the one hand, the municipal corporation of Salem itself exists in the shadow of the State capitol, creating a perennial “mini-me” Napolean Complex for those who, if we wish to believe the bumper stickers, “give a shit about Salem,” and want to “Make Salem Awesome.” If we see the cities as siblings, and the State as their parents, then Salem and her inhabitants become the pitiful Offspring Who Never Left The Nest, remaining intimately mired in all the familiar baggage that drives the other siblings to keep their distance. In return, Salem residents receive the dubiously over-funded services of eerily-reliable, empowered Meter Maids and enthusiastically-zealous Code Compliance Officers who role out of bed every morning with a smile on their face as they start another day of diligent and rewarding work to make the City of Peace the “most compliant place on earth.” The host City, after all, must remain friendly to the State parasite.

On the other hand, when the State collapses, so will Salem’s economy. Call it a co-dependent, love-hate relationship, and you might be right. Nevermind its independent history before the rise of the state — Salem now exists, in large part, as an empty shell, a host for the bureaucratic parasite, although sometimes I question exactly who parasitizes whom.

Both Portland and Eugene have well-established and well-hyped reputations and identities. They have branded themselves: hip(ster), young, trendy, green(washed). “Sustainable.” “Progressive.” Tattoo’d. Spectacled. Unwashed. Gentrifying. Bereft of Adult Supervision. This branding has infected the minds of their youngest, whitest, trendiest inhabitants, many of whom brought the infection with them in the first place. Both cities have proudly developed proprietary rebrands of pseudo-radical politics, something they seem to pull off quite effectively given the glows of admiration and glares of derision they receive from the political left and right, respectively. The ruralites tend to stay away from these places, except to do reluctant business with them, giving only occasional pause to wonder where the money of their more cosmopolitan counterparts actually comes from (nevermind legality or inflation — is it hip and trendy enough for Portlanders to print their own?).

Many people in Salem reject these trends in conflicting fits of ironic jealousy. “We want those things…we just don’t want to work for it.” In all fairness, trendiness entails an awful lot of work — more weekly work than most of us want to do, already exhausted from six days’ worth of oiling creaky gears and hinges and servicing the stiff pistons of the State apparatus all the while feeding its busy (if not necessarily productive) worker bots and bees. The willful self-exploitation of micro-enterprise is sexy right now, and Salem is simply not hot enough to pass muster after a hard day’s work. Instead, Salem’s philosophy of “peace” may rest more in a spiritually-cynical faith than raw, material sex appeal. Those trends that Salem finds unavoidable, thanks to an endemic “Me, too!” chorus of Napoleonic Mini-Me’s, receive a particularly half-assed implementation of the “too little, too late” variety. Food carts? Sure, we’ll do those. Days late and dollars short, Salem and the suckling State will milk a few food carts for all they are worth (or maybe it’s vice-versa) before the trend (and perhaps the economy itself) collapses completely.

A peculiar pathology of a more mundane sort infects the minds of Salem residents, encapsulated in the Krishnamurti quote, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Many of us exist mired in and subservient to myriad State bureaucracies and their municipal minions and Mini-Me’s. Others want to (sort-of) do the awkward “me too’s” of trendy Portland and Eugene. And a well-trained semi-professional militia of yawning mouths stands ever-ready to meet, patronize and sabotage any earnest effort (no matter how small or slight) toward optimistic change, even those of the “too little, too late” sort. Mental patients and convicts take note: the inmates run the asylum. It seems salient that I found some solace in a famous sociology study entitled, “On being sane in insane places,”(2) upon moving to Salem so many sleepy years ago.

Cities entice us through a Mumfordian Magnificent Bribe. As centers of accumulation (in Portland’s case, specifically the accumulation of trends), they offer us the potential of access to copious resources (people and stuff), but only if we accept the myriad shitty downsides as well. The City looks down at us, folds its arms and says, “All or nothing.” When we see cities as bodies of sorts, then we might recognize the Religion of Urbanism as a particularly repressive form of Catholicism treating “that icky stuff coming out the other end” with fear, shame, loathing and disgust. Yes, everybody poops. Cities like Portland and Eugene ignore, minimize and externalize their shit (City of Roses, you say?). Deep Green Navel Gazing and other so-called “sustainability” practices help as cities pimp themselves into positions of ever-greater accumulation in their willing pursuit of All. Show me a city that offers you All the benefits yet None of the drawbacks, and I will show you a perfect marketing lie immersed in the inverse magic of low expectations (How’s your marriage? Is it “sustainable,” as well?). This strategy works for a time but, as every good Catholic knows, it catches up with us eventually. Things seem great, then suddenly you find yourself neck-deep in the mountains of shit (yours and others’) that you can no longer ignore and should have dealt with years ago. While Portland and Eugene make vain-but-valiant Johnny-come-lately efforts to hold their nose and compost their new-found (and growing) backlog of excremental output, Salem takes a different approach to this same problem: As realistics, we take the All or Nothing resolution for granted, and err on the side of Nothing. We don’t want to deal with the shit, so we just won’t eat. Less accumulation, less opportunity, but also, in the long run, less icky stuff comes out the other end for us to deal with down the road. Nutrient cycling be-damned.

A small-but-committed group of Salem residents seem to see opportunity and resilience within this self-imposed austerity. This phenomenon manifests as a mutual refusal to feel well-adjusted to the profoundly sick urbanizing rat race. Many of these people seem to have strong spiritual foundations grounded in the material realities of everyday life. And therein lies the realist promise of Salem: less shit than Portland and Eugene. Salem’s promise lies not in its race toward utopia, but toward the potential it has to avoid dystopia (inasmuch as we can find any meaningful difference between the two). Salem lives not with a longing gaze toward the Heavens of Unlimited Possibility akin to ambitious sister cities Portland and Eugene, but in an abject aversion to Hell, perhaps because those who live here feel like we’re already there. Whether Salem will live up (or down, as it were) to this potential remains to be seen…but if cities must exist, I like the apathetic odds of Salem better than the even fates of Portland and Eugene, cities that thrive in denial even as they drown in the shit they produce while trying to keep their heads above the rising tide of shit (that they produce).

“Salem” may mean “less awesome” when projected through the insecure eyes of her more ambitious siblings, but it also means, “less shitty.” I propose a new bumper sticker for Salem, more suitable to the city’s tendencies: Keep Salem Sleepy. To Hell with Municipal Ambition. I say, abandon the rat race, coddle the state parasite if we must, embrace the awkward self-conscious confusion and get rid of the self-imposed Napolean Complex confining Salem to the lumpy whims of Portland, Eugene and the predictable grind of the State machinery. Salem will survive in some manner and find its salvation in a special form of sloth representing its strategically-cynical resistance to the shitty pathology of Urban Optimism. When cities the world over finally fall apart in the coming years of the apocalyptic collapse of pretense that eventually consumes every civilization, Salem will yawn, pull the covers up and promptly return to the pleasant dream it was enjoying before something so rudely disturbed its peaceful slumber. Salem will not fall into the abyss and break, because it’s already at the bottom. Salem, like The Dude(3), abides.

The author resides in an unremarkable place approximately 45 miles south of Portland, where they enjoy spending time outdoors burning large stacks of Portland Monthly magazines in effigy as part of their small effort to make the world slightly less disgusting.

(1) Except black people, homeless people, or especially, homeless black people, of course
(2) Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Science, 1973
(3) data from Wikipedia
(4) (of the Cohen Brothers’ eponymous Big Lebowski)

Civilization or “human nature?”

November 13, 2016

View story at

This article contains interesting political analysis that I don’t disagree with. The way this article is framed, however, makes it complete bullshit, and it’s a shame that it’s getting shared widely like an expert opinion. Social darwinism and aside, it’s also a great example of the narcissistic chauvinism inherent in the historiography of civil society:

“So zooming out, we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another. This handy list shows all the wars over time.”

Nope, it only goes back to 1200 BC, well within the scope of colonizing, bloody, brutal exploitative civil society, which is the same failed model of human culture that modern civil societies use. This article says nothing about human nature, but chauvinistically projects one specific, bloody human culture that tends toward exploitation, belligerence and ecological collapse upon all humanity and human cultures. Civil society says very little about humanity as a “species” through time and space (and very little of that is anything good).

Let’s go back 6,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 years (still a blink of the eye), or look at contemporary cultures who do not base themselves on the insane model of annual agriculture and patriarchy, and compare notes. Anthropologists also describe this divide as “desert” and “forest” cultures. Toby Hemenway makes this point in his summary analysis “How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but not Civilization” (lecture given at Duke University Nicholas School of Environment):  The Alice Walker poem “Democratic Womanism” makes the same point: we have been mired in patriarchy and civilization for thousands of years, and have been working as long to evolve past it, with increasing sophistication and effectiveness (even as civilization spreads its tendrils to threaten every corner of the planet).

In general, Toby Hemenway’s work on the problem of civilization provide a much better “birds’ eye” zoomed out perspective on the problem than the article that prompted this post, which talks about civilization as if it’s the only form of human social structure that has ever existed or will ever exist. In addition to the above lecture, you can listen to Toby’s talk on Liberation Permaculture ( for a bit more of a constructive, actionable (vs critical and disempowering) analysis.

Maybe a Trump presidency isn’t that bad.  If it took a Trump presidency to slap all these comfortably numb white and/or male and/or middle class folks awake, activate them and leave them without much of an excuse to fall asleep again, then maybe some net good can come out of all of this compared to a Sanders or Clinton presidency.  It won’t be pretty.  Already kids are getting attacked at their school simply for having Spanish-sounding names and darker skin, and male supremacists are calling for death squads and concentration camps.  If you aren’t satisfied with Trump, then the best way to protest his presidency is to get active and involved with the working class, gender and race struggles within your community, in solidarity with those who have struggled long before Trump ever got elected.  And start building a different system.  Starting with you and your relationships.

Pictoral and Poetic Perspective on US Politics

November 10, 2016

Perspective of Picture:


Perspective of Poetry

“Democratic Womanism” by Alice Walker, from

You ask me why I smile
when you tell me you intend
in the coming national elections
to hold your nose
and vote for the lesser of two evils.
There are more than two evils out there,
is one reason I smile.
Another is that our old buddy Nostradamus
comes to mind, with his fearful
400 year old prophecy: that our world
and theirs too
(our “enemies” – lots of kids included there)
will end (by nuclear nakba or holocaust)
in our lifetime. Which makes the idea of elections
and the billions of dollars wasted on them
somewhat fatuous.
A Southerner of Color,
my people held the vote
very dear
while others, for centuries,
merely appeared to play
with it.
One thing I can assure
you of is this:
I will never betray such pure hearts
by voting for evil
even if it were microscopic
which, as you can see in any newscast
no matter the slant,
it is not.
I want something else;
a different system
One not seen
on this earth
for thousands of years. If ever.
Democratic Womanism.
Notice how this word has “man” right in the middle of it?
That’s one reason I like it. He is right there, front and center. But he is surrounded.
I want to vote and work for a way of life
that honors the feminine;
a way that acknowledges
the theft of the wisdom
female and dark Mother leadership
might have provided our spaceship
all along.
I am not thinking
of a talking head
kind of gal:
happy to be mixing
it up
with the baddest
bad boys
on the planet
her eyes a slit
her mouth a zipper.
No, I am speaking of true
regime change.
Where women rise
to take their place
en masse
at the helm
of earth’s frail and failing ship;
where each thousand years
of our silence
is examined
with regret,
and the cruel manner in which our values
of compassion and kindness
have been ridiculed
and suppressed
brought to bear on the disaster
of the present time.
The past must be examined closely, I believe, before we can leave
it there.
I am thinking of Democratic, and, perhaps
Socialist, Womanism.
For who else knows so deeply
how to share but Mothers
and Grandmothers? Big sisters
and Aunts?
To love
and adore
both female and male?
Not to mention those in between.
To work at keeping
the entire community
fed, educated
and safe?
Democratic womanism,
Democratic Socialist
would have as its icons
such fierce warriors
for good as
Vandana Shiva
Aung San Suu Kyi,
Wangari Maathai
Harriet Tubman
Yoko Ono
Frida Kahlo
Angela Davis
& Barbara Lee:
With new ones always rising, wherever you look.

You are also on this list, but it is so long (Isis would appear midway) that I must stop or be unable to finish the poem! So just know I’ve stood you in a circle that includes Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Goodman, Sojourner Truth, Gloria Steinem and Mary McLeod Bethune. John Brown, Frederick Douglass, John Lennon and Howard Zinn are there. Happy to be surrounded!

There is no system
There is no system
now in place
that can change
the disastrous course
the Earth is on.
Who can doubt this?
The male leaders
of Earth
appear to have abandoned
their very senses
though most appear
to live now
in their heads.
They murder humans and other
forests and rivers and mountains
every day
they are in office
and never seem
to notice it.
They eat and drink devastation.
Women of the world,
Women of the world,
Is this devastation Us?
Would we kill whole continents for oil
(or anything else)
rather than limit
the number of consumer offspring we produce
and learn how to make our own fire?
Democratic Womanism.
Democratic Socialist Womanism.
A system of governance
we can dream and imagine and build together. One that recognizes
at least six thousand years
of brutally enforced complicity
in the assassination
of Mother Earth, but foresees six thousand years
ahead of us when we will not submit.
What will we need? A hundred years
at least to plan: (five hundred will be handed us
when the planet is scared enough)
in which circles of women meet,
organize ourselves, and,
allied with men
brave enough to stand with women,
men brave enough to stand with women,
nurture our planet to a degree of health.
And without apology —-
(impossible to make
a bigger mess than has been made already) -—
devote ourselves, heedless of opposition,
to tirelessly serving and resuscitating Our Mother ship
and with gratitude
for Her care of us
worshipfully commit
rehabilitating it.

Final Thoughts

Alice Walker wrote Democratic Womanism about the 2012 election.  But considering its large-scale, long-term scope on the Six Thousand Year (and maybe longer) Struggle against the patriarchal basis of civilization, that’s really just a blink in time.  Trump, Clinton and Bernie don’t change things much, for a lot of reasons — not in the least that change has to come from us, the people.  We have to manifest it in the way we think, act and relate to the rest of the world.  Electing figureheads into an inherently corrupt system won’t do much, one way or the other.  The advent of civilization saw a sudden and drastic move far to the right, to the patriarchal roots of corporatocratic society.  We have been moving little bits and pieces left back toward real democracy since then, slow and steady.

Democracy:  rule of the people by the people for the people with the people.  “People” includes but not limited to all humans.  Without an inclusive definition of “people” it’s not democracy.  Democracy requires an intact social fabric.  If we don’t have the capacity to listen, empathize, understand, talk to, love and support one another, to the entirety of the world around us, then we can’t have democracy.  If we have horizontal violence, we can’t have democracy.  As long as property exists, we will have horizontal violence.  As long as we have objectification, we will have property (and horizontal violence).  If we can’t relate to one-another of mutual trust, love, respect and solidarity, then we can’t have democracy.  Democracy requires of humans an animistic, process-based worldview.

Regardless of how they voted, how many people voted out of fear, anger or hatred as their driving motivation?  How many people vote(d) out of love, solidarity and courage as their driving motivation?   That matters more to me than any electoral result.  Likewise, what we do and how we act before or after the election matters more to me than how we vote.  So, let’s get to the root of it, and get back to the work that needs to happen regardless of who gets elected — the long Thousand Years’ Struggle for Liberation.

Patriarchy and Permaculture: The Long and Short

September 16, 2016

As usual, I get on the internet, get distracted, click on click bait I hope is at least informative and uplifting, and I don’t get very far before some really stupid and mean (and bonus points for ironic) behavior smacks me in the face as a bystander with a big fat ball o’ bullshit.  This is why we can’t have nice things, and why I don’t get on the internet much.  Enjoy the rant.  For your convenience, it has both short and long versions.  The short version is complementary to rather than an abstract of the long.  So join me, will you, for a fun-filled fifteen minutes of puns, novel abbreviations, colorful language and  ample sarcasm?  And maybe an interesting point or two.

The short:  Toxic leaders

Here’s a brief summary of what I’m about to rant about.  Jack Spirko is some sort of minor celebrity in permaculture circles, I guess (ooh, I know, right?).  He did a blog post and a podcast, in which he basically describes unschooling without calling it that.  Then PRI distributed it.  Then this happened…[paraphrased for brevity]

Jack Spirko:  Ten tips on how to raise resilient kids in a world full of wussies [note: basically, ten principles of unschooling]
Woman 1:  Nice tips.  I’d like to share them if you please use a different word than “wussy,” since it refers to female genitalia.
Jack to woman 1:  Your parents raised you to be a wussy.  Learn to control your emotions.
Jack’s Deep Green Mini-Me’s to woman 1:  Here’s my overwrought rationalization on how you are what’s wrong with permaculture.  I’m basing all of it on the untested negative assumption that you’re just combing the internet for things to complain about to be a PC police troll.
Woman 2:  I felt triggered when he said it, too.
Jack to woman 2:  You’re a wussy.  Plus I got my wife to agree with me and she told me to tell you she thinks you’re an idiot and so is anyone who has a problem with the word wussy, so there.
Woman 3:  Whoa.  I appreciate the original post, and also find the word “wussy” problematic.  I’d like to engage you in good faith to discuss some of the dynamics occurring here.  First off, some background:  wussy is a portmanteau of “wimp” and “pussy” coined by a jerk in the popular movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and many women from my era have a really negative relationship with that word, even if it has lost some of its offensive meaning with young whippersnappers.  Second, that word is also used to control and bully men.  Third, we need more respectful dialog.  There’s no need to respond with such hostility, and this is a learning opportunity for social permaculture.
Jack:  So basically, you’re a wussy.

HOLY SHIT.  I don’t care who you think you are, Mr. Spear and Co.  Either treat people with basic respect, or get the fuck out of the public sphere of discourse, because your behavior is stupid and counterproductive and toxic and immature.  It hurts people, and no matter what you think you have to offer, and what you actually have to offer, it ain’t worth it.  You, like all of us, are completely replaceable.  And somewhere, there is someone who knows more than you, and who does what you do, but does it better.  And in the process, they treat people with respect, and model emotional and social maturity.  Especially in disagreements.  Hell, they even understand the difference between observation and premature (let alone baseless knee-jerk negative) interpretations, and they use this capacity to observe to learn from this experience and build greater understanding rather than perpetuate the shitty status quo.  Such people respond to these situations by a. doing nothing (this is the easiest and least costly), oro b. learning more about the context they’ve suddenly helped create, which includes accepting feedback (sound familiar?  It’s a permaculture principle or something) and c. interacting appropriately based on this new knowledge and feedback about their context.

Maybe you’re capable of taking your own advice to “admit to and learning from your failure” so you can grow and become more resilient and do better next time around.  If all you can manage is ironic and hypocritical ad-hominems when someone dares to <gasp> provide a marginal or diverse perspective (another principle), you can take your fragile fevered ego elsewhere, because you’re just acting like any other establishment tool.  The permaculture (and any) movement is better off without this sort of shit.


<ranty ethan exits stage left, a more calm and collected ethan enters stage right, and picks up the mic>
Would you believe me if I said I actually wrote the short-version rant last?  I even edited out some f-bombs (mostly for clarity, though I do lament the loss of alliteration).  Anyway, here’s a more detailed analysis including exciting things like male privilege and rape culture, culminating in social permaculture principles at the end.  Because I just know you’ll read straight through to the end, won’t ya?

The Long Version:  Deep Green Bullshit

(does that still sound ranty?)

A masculine-type “survival-prepper” with a foot in the world of permaculture recently posted on how to raise resilient children in a world full of “wussies.”  He made ten great points, such as let them have adventures, teach them to interact safely with dangerous tools / equipment, let them fail or get hurt, reward them for trying, incentivize self-directed learning, make them take responsibility for their own emotions and behaviors, etc.    He basically co-opted unschooling without reference to that practice and boiled it down to ten key points (the apparent lack of reference to unschooling a separate issue that needs addressing).

Then a woman who liked the article voiced concern about the use of the word “wuss,” and asked if that word could change due to its reference to female anatomy.  Then SHTF, which is prepper-speak for SNAFU, which is military speak for fuuuck, why these dicks be trippin’?  A few women said, “meh, doesn’t bother me.”  The administrator had a somewhat-thoughtful dialog with the woman, and refused to edit the article and rejected the “obsolete” meaning of the word.  Several men — including the original poster — jumped down the woman’s throat, accusing her of being wrong (wussy doesn’t relate to pussy, apparently she’s just another hysterical woman!), and then they ironically called her a “wussy” representing “everything that’s wrong” with today’s society as already discussed in the original post.  Wowsa.

Another woman openly said she felt triggered where and how the original poster said “wussy” in his podcast.  More men jumped down her throat.  The original poster started handing out the word “wuss” like bite-sized candy at a Halloween party.  He said all woman were wrong because his wife agreed with him (wow, his wife can speak for all woman?).  A few mini-me men worked overtime to rationalize the womens’ “irrational” behavior.  One commenter accused women of “combing the internet looking for things that offend them.”  HA!  <sarcasm>Yeah, that’s a rrreeeall parsimonious interpretation of available data, dude…</sarcasm>

A third, brave woman tried to mediate and explain how the original woman was technically correct.  Ironically, on an etymological level, the original woman was right:  “wuss” comes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where the main character calls meek men “wussies — a combination of wimp and pussy.”  It’s an insult that objectifies and weaponizes the female anatomy to target and pathologize “abnormal” male behavior.  And it has been used since then to confine men into narrow and rigid patriarchal gender roles, and contributes to the social destruction of women’s personhood in the process.

But no one wanted to learn or accept that fact. Ironically, we ended up with a bunch of adults — including the original poster — acting exactly like the immature, whiny little children the original post was supposed to help prevent.  I had had enough of this Deep Green Bullshit, so ironically, I stepped my foot smack-dab in the middle of it.  SPLAT.  Time to get our social permaculture on.  That’s not shit hitting the fan, by the way.  It’s compost.  At least, for those of us who actually leverage permaculture, it is.

Permaculture deals in appropriate technologies:  it’s both a toolkit of patterns as well as a when, where, how, what sort of guide.  What makes something appropriate is “context.”  We can’t understand context without observation, and we can’t observe effectively unless we understand the difference between observation and interpretation.  You simply can’t use permaculture effectively as a design tool if you can’t understand and operationalize this distinction.  An observation is an acknowledgement of an event or circumstance — the “what.”  An interpretation is an assumption or assertion about meaning, or the “why.”  It’s an observation to say, “whoa, that person asked me to change the language I used.”  It’s an interpretation to say, “that person doesn’t have a good reason to be upset [how do you know???] and therefore is just going out of her way to harass me and is a wussy.”

Here are some things I observed in this situation:  I observed a lot of people taking offense at a few people’s expression of hurt over the use of language.  I observed people who posture as permaculture experts demonstrate that they have no fucking clue about the difference between observation and interpretation, and, perhaps more destructively, they don’t seem to much care about social or personal context.

I also generally observe that most women I have ever met necessarily spend a lot of their time and energy fighting for their fundamental safety and bodily integrity, let alone their status as people deserving of consideration and respect.  Which appears to make some of them a bit more sensitive to things that never end up on most men’s radars, because those things have been used as a weapon against them (often but not always by men).  If, for example, you were made to watch while someone bashed your dog’s head in with a hammer, you will probably have a very different, difficult, and complex relationship with hammers for the rest of your life, yeah?  You might jump a bit if another guy whips out a hammer in front of you or Fido v.2.0 for whatever reason.  It becomes a part of your personal context.  And what seems appropriate for one person often feels inappropriate for another.  Hence, the difficulty of repairing the tattered remnants of our social fabric — our ability to relate directly to one-another.  It means weaving together and synthesizing our contexts through observation-based acceptance, learning, bonding, not dominating, homogenizing or marginalizing unique contexts or the diversities emerging from them.

So when I see someone who claims to be a “deep green permaculture” expert ironically going out of his way to create a complicated victim-blaming rationalization from a baseless interpretation that a woman is “going out of her way” to be a pain in his ass, to accuse her of exemplifying “what’s wrong with permaculture,” it irks me on several levels.  It’s ironic, it’s misleading.  It’s patronizing and ignorant.  It is teaching people through structure and process that permaculture is something that it’s not.  Permaculture is not polycultures.  It’s not swales.  It’s not greywater systems.  It’s not forest gardens.  It’s not humanure composting.  It’s bigger than all that.  It’s about whether when and how those sorts of things (patterns) fit together into a diverse, self-supporting and (contextually) appropriate or homogenous dysfunctional whole.  Due to the need to understand context, permaculture is more about listening than lecturing.  <Note I am aware of the irony here, which is why this post is a rant instead of a lecture.  Yeah?>

We can say the same for people in the social fabric.  Social dysfunction is the bedrock of authoritarian control.  Divide and conquer.  People do not need to apologize for their unique contexts — that only leads to dysfunctional homogeneity.  Rather, we need to do a better job of understanding diverse, unique contexts through observation, listening and acceptance of feedback, valuing diversity and marginal experiences and perspectives, and other various permaculture principles that have already been spelled out very clearly for us.

Personal context is not all relative.  In a patriarchy, men’s personal context differs from women’s based on ignorance of women’s experience, whereas women in my experience often have a pretty good understanding of (and sympathy for) the challenges men face in the same society.  Women are often in listening and caregiving roles, already.  However, men have a lot of listening and learning to do to similarly understand the challenges women and other gender/sexual minorities face.  We can say the same for any position of race, class, etc privilege.  But those opportunities do not arise until we challenge the system of privilege that allows (wealthy white straight) men, etc to sneak through life requiring everyone to know about and meet their needs without requiring the same of them.  When we challenge the privilege, the need to listen and learn arises.

Unfortunately, I also regularly observe men throwing hissy-fits when someone dares to suggest that something they did inadvertantly caused someone harm, because it attacks social privilege, which results in very real pain and even fear and panic — fight or flight responses where men with underdeveloped social and emotional capacities are supposed to “use our words not actions.”  It begins to unravel a lie of social inequity.  It upsets and destabilizes the status quo.  I have seen the context of unchecked male privilege (ref. hidden cost of patriarchy) do far more damage to movements than any other form of baggage, precisely because it so effectively maintains the status quo:  a bunch of people trying to get a leg up over one-another through conflict and domination, rather than lifting each-other up through cooperation.  And it reproduces the very thing that so many of these men claim to oppose: social control.  Simply put, we can’t have social permaculture (or other nice things) unless we address social privilege and power differences.

Ironically, everyone in this situation has legitimate points, based on their personal contexts.  The word-in-question genuinely offends some people.  And some guys are genuinely (albeit ironically) concerned about authoritarianism and PC bullying in the movement (and I want to note that here we are talking about the equivalent of male temper tantrums in response to someone calling them on their rhetorical manspreading while real people are dying from situations that permaculture can help prevent).   At some point, if we want to escape this mess, then someone’s gotta abandon their ego, recognize the learning opportunity and bridge the gap to develop greater mutual understanding, grow and move on.

I see men and masculinities regularly block, stymy and undermine this process.  We most need men at the table precisely because we generally lack their participation the most.  Or if you aren’t going to be at the table because you have “more important things to do,” don’t throw a hissy fit when those of us who have been working on this equally important but often devalued problem concerning the fundamental integrity of our social fabric graciously try to catch you up to speed.  Unfortunately, when (straight wealthy white) men do finally come around, usually the last to the table, they often get praised as “leaders getting things done” while the people (e.g., blue collar, women, racial or gender minorities) who worked for years to make this situation happen get ignored or chastized for the “problems” they caused (i.e., they rocked the boat and provoked hissy fits amongst men that eventually set the table for this very discussion, thankyouverymuch).

Social Permaculture Principles

Without exception, the first swales, the first rocket stoves, the first graywater systems all look, feel, sound, even smell clunky, funky and awkward.  The first designs have high rates of failure and low marginal success.  But more important, we keep trying, keep observing, accept feedback, and find things that work in the diverse margins.  And when we keep working with them, the context-appropriate designs evolve increasing levels of sophistication.  We can say the same for appropriate social technologies — they are going to feel weird and have high initial rates of failure (anyone who has uttered an “I feel” statement knows this).  But more importantly, they will work.  And get easier and less awkward and even more fun with time.  Unfortunately, I have encountered many people — mostly men and masculine types — who would rather work with little no appropriate social capacity and depend heavily on male privilege and entitlement than brave the clunky, funky awkward process of exploring emergent appropriate social technologies that might challenge, upset or transform the status quo.  And this creates a socially-toxic situation, far more fundamental than anyone expressing or explaining feelings of hurt or asking someone to modify objectifying language.  That’s one of the ironies of this situation:  the original use of the word and the request weren’t big deals.  The immature and hurtful response to it turned it all into one big stinking vat o’ anaerobic humanure.  If we can’t get it together in good faith and hash things out ourselves, then the authorities will gladly keep intervening in and controlling our lives for us.

Without further ado, I offer an incomplete early list of awkward appropriate technologies (some are patterns with appropriate contexts, some more universal principles) for social permaculture:

  1. Observation vs interpretation:  strive to thoroughly understand context before you interpret what it means; allow interpretations to emerge from prolific observation vs imposing interpretations on scarce or anemic (sometimes even non-existent or imagined) observations.  Accept and use feedback.  Value diversity and the marginal…Crikees, I’m just parroting the standard permaculture repertoire here!  I’ll do better, I promise…
  2. Describe the behavior, not the person.  Smart people sometimes do stupid things.  Caring people sometimes say or do mean things.  Focus on the behaviors, not the person.  This helps with both giving and receiving feedback.  Jack acted like a jerk.  Jack is not (necessarily) a jerk.  That (often) involves too much interpretation to be helpful, and it boxes people into a static identity.
  3. Prioritize impact over intentions.  I often see people of privilege hide behind intentions to avoid accountability for the actual impact of their actions.  Their logic goes, “Well, I didn’t mean to hurt you, so I have nothing to apologize for and nothing to change, and therefore will probably hurt you again in the future as I keep doing what I do.  Get used to it.  Ignore my impact and focus on my intent.”  What a consummate mindfuck.  Imagine if we applied that twisted logic to landscape design!  At the end of the day, only impact matters.  If someone truly intends to do no harm, they will willingly and openly seek feedback and re-evaluate their actions.
  4. Trust early and trust often, until someone or something gives you good reason not to.  Strategic vulnerability breaks the ice, gives others opportunity to reciprocate, creates connection and also protects the vulnerable by giving early warning when people can’t be trusted further, before we accidentally trust them with something that really matters.
  5. Stay with and trust observations more, and question and table interpretations to bring them into balance.  Observations in a design process are like the primary producers and the soil life of an ecosystem:  they need to exist in far greater numbers and diversities in order to reliably support life higher on the trophic chain (consumers; interpretations).  Identify and verify the accuracy of any interpretations before using them as a basis for further interaction.  This allows us to explore a much greater diversity of accurate and relevant interpretations, which expands both toolkit and design possibilities.  It also makes it easier to identify inappropriate decisions, behaviors, etc.
  6. Recently, an argument between the virtues of “calling out” behavior (not people) vs “calling in” (people, not behavior) has emerged in “social justice” circles.  Following and rationalizing the advice of a very thoughtful friend:  It’s not either. It’s both.  Permaculture teaches us that each has its appropriate context.  We need the accountability of calling out people on their bullshit behavior and harmful impacts, and people need to learn to accept feedback (sound familiar?).  Likewise, we need to call each-other in to talk with and listen to each-other more and better understand what people mean.  A lot of room for miscommunication and misinterpretation exists, especially among people who (mistakenly) believe they speak the “same language.”  Even amongst long-term committed trusting relationships, let alone strangers interacting on the intertubes.  Clearly, “wussy” means different things to different people.  Had the original poster the courage to take his own advice, he could have simply called in the women to ask, “what do you mean?” and listened and observed and learned about their context, and in doing so expanded his appropriate social technology toolkit.  He may have found a better word to describe what he means in the process, gotten wider distribution for his piece (pun intended).  Instead, he chose an immediate, unnecessary combative response and interpretive frame, and so lost an opportunity.  The appropriate response to a call-out is often a call-in, which involves a lot of active listening — a synonym for careful observation.  Without thoughtful, protracted observation-based interactions, we quickly fill that empty space with negative, toxic baggage.
  7. Work with what you got (obtain a yield?):  Most of us have plenty of knowledge and social resources.  Rather than spending time interacting with strangers on the interhive, evaluate and prioritize your existing real-world relationships.  Which ones seem appropriate to your context?  Which ones can you work on to strengthen and improve?  What can we do to better optimize our existing tools and relationships and context?  If we are the average of our five deepest relationships, let’s make sure those relationships really count for something.  Rather than complain about what we don’t have,  how can we better engage and proceed with what we do have?  The problem is the solution:  Why didn’t the original poster ask the women, “What word do you suggest I use instead of wussy?”  He could have outsourced the problem to them to find a solution and built trust and goodwill in the process.  If he had deigned to apply permaculture to his social interactions.  Which he did not.  Instead, he tried to impose his “solution.”  That’s a big no-no in permaculture design process.  Someone who values the content could likewise still share it with a caveat and educational opportunity explaining the irony of the use of “wussy” and Jack’s immature reactivity.
  8. Hold clear, firm boundaries against harmful behaviors and impacts, regardless of intent.  Likewise, clearly, accurately and honestly state your needs.  Doing so, along with strategic vulnerability, allows social cohorts to emerge and self-select, without imposition.  Every social cohort will have a shit sandwich, and it becomes easier to determine whether and what you want to stomach.  I personally don’t like drum circles and dancing earthmuffins and holding hands and stuff.  Don’t assume you can change others’ contexts to meet your needs if they don’t already, or aren’t already heading in that general direction.
  9. Focus on process (how), not product (what).  Reward honest, effective, hard work, not some magical definition of perfection.  Let go of perfection.  It’s not whether someone sticks it out, but how.  Not whether they talk, but how.  Not whether they listen, but how.  Not whether we fight, but how.  Disagreements will happen.  People will get hurt.  When we observe vs interpret, listen actively, accept feedback, talk honestly, focus on impact and behavior vs intent, etc on the frontend, we will learn to fight well and acheive effective results in shorter time with less inputs and fewer ouchies on the backend (pun probably intended).  A lot like doing the design work up front.  Make your mistakes on paper.

Many other practices and principles around land care permaculture already apply:  accept feedback, value diversity and the marginal, the problem is the solution, work from patterns to details, etc.  We just need to start manifesting them in our social interactions.  Easier said than done, especially when we still, generally, suck so much at more rudimentary applications on land.  I still see many so-callled “permaculturalists” whose idea of “permaculture” involves a cookie-cutter inappropriate imposition of patterns and technologies onto a largely-unexamined context, as if the patterns themselves had some intrinsic magical power to solve problems and make our lives better.  A lot like calling people who disagree with you “wussies.”  I suppose if all you have is a hammer…

Our egos still often result in rejection of very clear feedback, and likewise prevent accurate, relevant and timely observation.  But our social and ecological capacities mirror one another.  As we get better with one, we will get better with the other.  Likewise, anything that stalls or undermines progress on one will do the same with the other.  Social and ecological relationships are so intrinsically-tied together.  Social permaculture and tedious (or fun??!! anyone…?) discussions of privilege aren’t a distraction from caring for land and people.  They’re an intrinsic part of it.  As time goes on, I see less and less difference between how we relate to the land and how we relate to other humans (or animals) in the landscape.  People who expect the earth to comply with their narrow ideas of how it should behave often leverage the same approach with others.  And then throw hissy fits when, gee, it doesn’t seem to work.

Unique contexts create diversities of perspective and proficiencies.  When we help these diversities emerge and co-exist instead of suppressing them, they can create truly-resilient cooperative social systems based on strong horizontal ties resistant to social control and authoritarianism.  Conversely, when we demonize and discourage unique contexts and reject feedback, it creates homogenous social dysfunction that forms the basis for authoritarian regimes and ecological slavery, which arises both from lack of diversity as well as an increase in the compulsory work needed to maintain the system.  As a result, everyone spends much more energy spinning their wheels in the muck, getting nowhere and feeling worse for the wear.  Sound familiar??  It sure does to me.  Relationships with land or with people (human and otherwise), it’s all hard damned work up front, and it’s totally worth it for the rewards we all reap.

In conclusion, here’s a two sentence summary that no one will ever read because no one ever read this far anyway (I don’t care, I wrote this mostly for myself anyway):  Observation and active listening mandatory.  Interpretive dance optional.


End(stagecapitalism)note:  I really mostly want this post to become a cult classic and most-remembered for coining the two onomatopoetic abbreviations, ZAMD and LAMD.

Bundy, Burns and Malheur: FAQ

February 28, 2016


  1. Why did you create this FAQ?
  2. What does Bundy have to do with the Hammond ranchers?
  3. What did the Hammonds do anyway?
  4. What did Bundy, et al do to deserve this media attention?
  5. How can I help?
  6. So what does Bundy even want, anyway?
  7. Where is all this headed?
  8. How does this situation resolve?
  9. Are you a pacifist?
  10. So the Feds and law enforcement intervened and arrested Bundy. It’s all over, right? Nothing more for us to do?

Why did you create this FAQ?

Because a bunch of people kept asking me what the hell is going on over there in Malheur (a fitting name, since it translates roughly to “Bad time”).  This FAQ represents my current understanding of the Bundy-led opportunistic invasion of Malheur.  It may evolve.  I welcome any factual corrections.  The information presented in this FAQ is readily available to anyone who spends an hour (or, if you’re more internet savvy than me, minutes) learning from sources such as Slate, Salon, OPB, and others and connecting a couple of the dots together with an ample dose of compassion.

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What does Bundy have to do with the Hammond ranchers?

Very little.  He simply exploited legitimate outrage and frustration for the Hammond’s resentencing in order to accomplish completely different objectives.  The Hammonds have said explicitly that Bundy and his ilk do not represent or speak for them.  What Bundy is doing is akin to a white person entering a black group, or a man entering a queer space and “explaining” to them, “Here’s what your real problem is, and here’s how we are going to solve it.”  It’s not supportive at all, likely very exploitative, and even at its best, it is just plain disrespectful.

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What did the Hammonds do anyway?

They committed a couple of cases of arson.  First, they set a fire to cover up the illegal harvest of deer on BLM land (out of season?).  They bullied a few friends and family into silence and nearly killed a few people.  Then they set another unauthorized fire in an attempt to protect their ranching operation from a nearby forest fire, which burned out of control and almost trapped several nearby firefighters between the two blazes.

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What did Bundy, et al do to deserve this media attention?

The media has portrayed this as a sensational “takeover of a government facility.”  The facility is really a remote building which mostly remains unoccupied.  The president of OHSU sets the record straight, saying that he once “occupied” it as a poor student in-between funding and housing opportunities.  He walked in (unarmed), made up a bed, enjoyed the peace and wildlife, and then cleaned up after himself and left when he felt it time to move on.  That’s what it takes to “occupy” the “facility.”  In this sense, the media is complicit with Bundy in how it portrays the “occupation.”  In reality, Bundy leads a group of armed self-aggrandizing thugs who have terrorized and harassed and bullied their fellow country folk.  Some share what they see as Bundy’s sense of righteous outrage.  Others seem pretty upset and traumatized over he and his minions’ behaviors.

Animals bare teeth when they feel threatened.  The armed thugs’ justifications for their unnecessarily-aggressive actions remind me of Eliot Rodgers’ own sense of “aggrieved entitlement,” where they feel a loss of social privilege and are lashing out in an attempt to gain that social privilege back.  They wait for the federal government to make martyrs out of them.  On the other hand, naive liberals calling for immediate (and sometimes overt) violent intervention only play into this narrative of martyrdom.  Such calls also further empower and enable an already-overpowerful authoritarian entity responsible for trying the misguided Hammonds as “terrorists.”   Liberal bloodlust mediated through the centralized authoritarian government, ironically, is exactly the type of response Bundy wants.  It plays into his narrative and emboldens him to continue escalations.  He wants attack.  He wants a shootout.  He wants to look like the embattled victim.

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How can I help?

The best support we can provide is the exact opposite of what Bundy has done:  ask the townfolk and land of Burns what sort of support they need, and listen, and follow through.  This is what the Rural Organizing Project is helping to do.   In terms of direct action, an unarmed counter-occupation in protest of Bundy’s cowardly stupidity and bullying might make sense ONLY if it’s something the townfolk of Burns would support and safeguards are in place.

Avoid actions that further marginalize or objectify the people and lands of Burns and Harney County, because this replicates both the exploitative grandstanding of Bundy, et al and the heavy-handedness of the federal government.

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So what does Bundy even want, anyway?

From what I can gather from quotes of Bundy in the media, he wants three things:

1. The privatization of public lands and resources.  He has said he wants the federal government to “return” lands to the county.  The county has said it doesn’t necessarily want that responsibility or burden.  The result would be a massive sell-off of public spaces into the hands of a privileged few.  Some people have heard rumors that Bundy’s protest is against uranium corporations trying to pressure the Hammonds to sell their land.  I have seen no credible source for this (only hear-say and rumors).  Ironically, what Bundy wants would deliver these lands that ranchers depend upon into the hands of powerful corporate interests.  This makes Bundy seem either completely naive or deliberately deceptive.  Here, we can start looking at connections and parallels between Bundy, et al and the Koch brothers.

2. Bundy appears to believe that his difficulties stem from people failing to follow the spirit of the US Constitution.  A different (and I think, more rigorous and historically-accurate) assessment of the corporatist origins of the current US Constitution indicates the opposite:  Many of the problems, e.g, with corporate bullying and a heavy-handed federal government, have developed out of and gain their power directly from the US Constitution.  This is because the US Constitution is primarily a commerce document, meant to facilitate commercial activity for the enrichment of a powerful few, patterned after the English Common Law that the people had recently fought and died to rid themselves of!  The framers of the US Constitution did not want liberty — they wanted to replace England with their own rule.  Madison reluctantly wrote the Bill of Rights to quell a post-war human rights movement (which included Thomas Jefferson) seeking to create a Constitution based on inherent and inalienable rights first and foremost (following, rather than diverging from, the Declaration of Independence), giving commerce secondary consideration.  What we currently have is the opposite:  primary importance given to commerce, and secondary consideration given to rights.  In essence, the Bill of Rights — the greatest aspect of the US Constitution — is a token of appeasement, itself depending on the fundamental commerce law for enforcement.  A brilliant tactic on the part of the Founding Fathers, but not one steeped in love for fellow country folk.

Regardless, Bundy wants to “turn back the clock” and get back to the “roots” of the US Constitution as a document that empowers wealthy white male landowners.  Ironically, if he ever succeeded in doing this, he would probably lose most of the legal rights he currently enjoys, as the original post-war US Constitution only protected the wealthiest of landed white men, as its framers intended.  In this sense, Bundy is either a completely naive or deliberately-deceptive corporate stooge.  Until the people of the US create a rights-based supreme law to replace the commerce-based law, significant legal problems will remain.  Reactionary behaviors that romanticize the past, as well as passivity itself, only make the problem worse.

3. He wants to convert the US population into the Church of Latter Day Saints.   The occupation implemented a tribunal to “convict” people of moral trespass against the LDS church or its moral standards.  The group of thugs and other followers then use this process to justify their stalking, harassment and terrorizing of the people Bundy, etc have targeted for persecution, including federal employees.  In this sense, he’s a lot like the Muslim fundamentalists who terrorize their fellow country folk in order to impose religious law on them.  His light skin, Koch brother associations and rhetoric seem to protect him from the label of “terrorist” so far, even though he is much more deserving of the label than the Hammonds (or Black Lives Matter! protesters) ever were.

Underneath all this, Bundy is not a revolutionary.  He’s a participant.  He wants an authoritarian patriarchy (perhaps based on religious law), but he wants to be higher up on the pyramid scheme.  He misdirects his outrage toward “infidels” and country folk and federal employees, and conspicuously seems to have no criticism for the powerful sociopathic elite who run this society (into the ground).  Or if he does, he somehow thinks their center of power lies in the BLM and parks.  Likewise, the powerful elite seem to have no problem with Bundy’s actions, because it only serves their interests in accumulating even more wealth and power into the hands of an elite few.

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Where is all this headed?

Beyond his explicit demands outlined above, Bundy seems media-savvy.  He’s out to get and keep attention, which means in part resorting to absurd spectacles and a roller coaster.  His efforts have attracted unstable people with weapons.  He and others of the core group are carefully and steadily escalating tensions.  It’s hard to ignore the fact that he’s terrorizing a town and wreaking havoc on culturally sensitive land, ruining archaeological research and threatening wildlife.  In this sense, the demands above are only part of that larger plan to provoke a violent confrontation, create martyrs, and gain further recruits and momentum.  Bundy wants some of his men to die at the hands of the government (or vigilantes).   If he succeeds in martyring some of his men, his unethical behaviors up to this point will matter less.

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How does this situation resolve?

With the efforts of non-government people like you and me.  If we do nothing, and Bundy continues unabated, then he furthers the corporatist agenda of the Koch brothers, etc.  Likewise, if we do nothing, it leaves space and creates more opportunity for Bundy to escalate and provoke the Feds to intervene.  The authoritarian federal government will use Bundy to justify subsequent heavy-handed intervention, even ex post facto (e.g., Ferguson, etc) and make martyrs out of them anyway.  If this happens, both Bundy whackjobs and the federal authoritarian system advance their interests and influence.

A more ideal answer, instead, lies with the direct, courageous actions of people like you and me, from a position of love, respect and solidarity for the primary stakeholders in this situation: the lands and people of Harney County.  Involvement must de-escalate and shift attention away from Bundy.  If the situation escalates, it must come from Bundy’s escalating thuggishness and the related actions of increasingly-unstable individuals, in order to further diminish public support for Bundy, etc.  Ideally, direct actions will also prevent, delay or marginalize and diminish Federal involvement, and prevent the development of an empowered casus belli for Federal intervention.

Ultimately, I believe the people of Cascadia have the capacity to resolve this situation without further empowering either party in an ill-conceived dialectic that leaves most people stranded in the middle.  As one report put it, “There are no heroes or villains in this story,” at least so far.  If there are heroes, let them be the people and the land, standing resolute with love and courage in solidarity with one another and the land.  And let Bundy and the Federal government make villains out of themselves and each-other, if they so choose, if the people can frame it in a way that isolates and minimizes the damage of the conflict between two power mongering parties.

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Are you a pacifist?

No.  This answer might not sit well with people who want to see blood spilled either against Bundy and his ilk or the federal government.  Those who seek escalation believe in a fetishized and historically-inaccurate hyper-masculine myth of revolution as a major tumultuous event and shift in power, or the rise of oppositional power.  Such events occur, not as revolutionary action, but as a symptom of the status quo.  Revolution — to those immersed in them — happen in subtle, slow and even boring ways.  Revolutionary actions are not reactionary, do not seek to develop oppositional power.  They develop and support liberatory empowerment.  They have a balanced gender (i.e., more feminine, more room for support and solidarity and love and humility), not a mythologized hypermasculine character.  Bundy does not offer revolution — he promises a package of myths and lies that lead to more of the crap we all want to move further away from in the first place:  control, exploitation, authoritarianism, rigid and intractable social hierarchies, etc.  He will burn brightly as a beacon of the status quo, and then extinguish himself, while the rest of us immersed in revolution continue our slow, steady, subtle and often-thankless work to protect ourselves and each-other as we build a better society out of the self-destructive ashes of the old, current one.

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So the Feds and law enforcement intervened and arrested Bundy and the other occupiers.  It’s all over, right?  Nothing more for us to do?

Arresting Bundy, etc just tests the group structure of the occupation.  Does it rely on a strong central figure?  Yes?  Then it will disintegrate.  If members of the group act in more independent, decentralized and autonomous ways, then Bundy’s arrest will do little to change the overall dynamic, and may strengthen and vindicate the occupiers and their rallying cry.

With the arrest of the remaining thugs, it’s all over for the media, and the general public who considered this nothing more than an infotainment spectacle.  Until more dramatic antics meant to grab their attention appear, either from allies of Bundy, others who want to exploit the limelight for their own purposes (much like Bundy did with the Hammonds), or Bundy himself, during the trial process.  It also depends on public and media response to the death and injuries involved in the arrest process.

For the people of Burns, the land of Malheur, and Harney County in general, it will probably take much longer to recover from this trauma.  Now more than ever, it’s important to offer support in the absence of a media spotlight. The real work begins when the cameras leave, and that work separates the grandstanders from those truly capable of standing in solidarity with the land and people.

Contact the ROP for more info.  I am not directly affiliated with them, but appreciate the work they do.

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