The Melian Debate: One of the Great Organizing Exercises

Discurso_funebre_periclesLittle Rock  In a brilliant essay in the New York Times “Stone” series on philosophy, the moderator and a professor at the New School, Simon Critchley, decided to spit in the wind on Easter Sunday of all days, the miraculous day of hope for Christians taking the giant and glorious leap of faith in believing in the resurrection of Christ, the son of God, being raised from the dead so that we might have eternal life.  Rather than going toe to toe with the Christians, he summarized the classic Melian Debate, reported by perhaps our first historian, Thucydides, which was a staple for many years of ACORN’s annual one-week long, introductory “new” organizer training sessions, and a touchstone for many community organizing networks.  We had first appropriated the Melian Debate into a training role play, after Madeline Talbott, our field director at the time, monitored some sessions done by the Gamaliel Foundation with Greg Galuzzo and his team in Chicago, and adapted it annually thereafter to the joy and sometimes chagrin on each new crop of promising community organizers.

You can easily understand why from Critchley’s summary from Thucydides:

In “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides, the sober and unsentimental historian, describes a dialogue between the representatives of the island of Melos in the Aegean Sea, which was allied with Sparta, and some ambassadors from invading Athenian military forces. The ambassadors present the Melians with a very simple choice: Submit to us or be destroyed.

Rather than simply submit, the Melians wriggle. They express hope that the Spartans will come to rescue them. The Athenians calmly point out that it would be an extremely dangerous mission for the Spartans to undertake and highly unlikely to happen. Also, they add, rightly, “We are masters of the sea.” The Spartans had formidable land forces, but were no match for the Athenian navy.

The Melians plead that if they yield to the Athenians, then all hope will be lost. If they continue to hold out, then “we can still hope to stand tall.” The Athenians reply that it is indeed true that hope is a great comfort, but often a delusive one. They add that the Melians will learn what hope is when it fails them, “for hope is prodigal by nature.”

What we need in the face of a hard factuality is not hope, but courage in the face of that reality.

With consummate clarity and no small cruelty, the Athenians urge the Melians not to turn to Promethean blind hopes when they are forced to give up their sensible ones. Reasonable hopes can soon become unreasonable. “Do not be like ordinary people,” they add, “who could use human means to save themselves but turn to blind hopes when they are forced to give up their sensible ones – to divination, oracles and other such things that destroy men by giving them hope.”

At this point, the Athenians withdraw and leave the Melians to consider their position. As usually happens in political negotiations, the Melians decide to stick to exactly the same position that they had adopted before the debate. They explain that “we will trust in the fortune of the Gods.” In a final statement, the Athenians conclude that “You have staked everything on your trust in hope … and you will be ruined in everything.”

After laying siege to the Melian city and some military skirmishes back and forth, the Athenians lose patience with the Melians and Thucydides reports with breathtaking understatement, “They killed all the men of military age and made slaves of the women and children.”

And, as Critchley, so aptly states, almost as if acting as a trainer in our long ago summer sessions, “Thucydides offers no moral commentary on the Melian Dialogue. He does not tell us how to react, but instead impartially presents us with a real situation. The dialogue is an argument from power about the nature of power.”  We would leave our organizers to work out their own response to the Melian Debate as they played their roles in the exercise with enthusiasm, and I leave you to work out your answers to this age old debate about how to face hard reality with the best mixture of will, courage, and, yes, even some hope.

Shoot to Learn

IMG_1136Little Rock    At dusk we rode to an abandoned area miles from people and highways and placed targets on old logs nestled up against a large hillside berm.  The uncle and brother-in-law had been a gun safety instructor in the National Guard, and carefully explained to each one of the novice shooters who had never fired pistols and hardly ever touched a shotgun, how to load, where to carry the firearm, and how to work the safety, before they pointed down range and took their shots.   Later, across a patch of indented valley, everyone took shoots at the skeet, until they were able to hit one in the air.  And, everyone learned something, including how much of living and dying is luck, and, let’s tell the truth, they all thought it was both fun and exhilarating.

The National Rifle Association, the fabulously right wing NRA, and politicians of the same persuasion were highlighted recently for running raffles to harvest names of potential supporters by giving away tricked up shotguns, and then using the names of the losers to launch their foaming at the mouth fundraisers.  There’s nothing illegal or unethical about that.  My brother-in-law, sometimes sympathetic to their pleas, has never swallowed that bait or joined the NRA, not trusting what might happen, and that’s probably smart as well.   I was a gifted member as a boy, given a membership free for a year after having taken a gun safety instruction at Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in New Mexico when I was 13 years old.

Watching one movie after another and TV series of every description, guns seem like toys and part and parcel of some kind of magical realism, where death becomes more colorful than real.  In our cities,  the OG’s, rap culture, guns blazing, is part of the constant comment.  Wildly, various legislators want to arm teachers and pretty much anyone and everyone else wherever they are and whatever they were doing for reasons unknown with abilities untested.

How do we put all of this together, rationally?

People need to understand how dangerous guns are.  Simply being afraid of them isn’t enough.  They doesn’t quite dispel the exotic or teach the respect, and defeat the mystery, which can be compelling and attractive.  People need to feel the kick, and reckon with the fact that they have so little control on the course and direction of the bullets, even in the best of situations.

And yet, the issue for the gun folks is the desire to either carry a concealed weapon or to brandish one openly.  What warped romanticism imagines in a modern, high tech society that an atavistic, Thunderdome world of armed and dangerous people would make anyone safer?

Wilderness skills, hunting and gun safety, and similar competencies are invaluable, but our mothers were right, “there is a time and place for everything,” and contrary to the fear deep in the heart of so many, that’s not in either cities or public places, where the armed, become mainly the dangerous, and the truly dangerous are perhaps still able to distinguish the amateurs from the professionals, and life and death are important to keep very separate in harmony and balance, none of which works down range.


Sprawling Roads to Nowhere


LONG GONE: Ninth Street in its heyday.

Little Rock    These days planners and speculators would be hard pressed to imagine that they could figure out a way to easily intersect cities with ribbons of concrete dividing rich, poor, black and white, which is not to say there aren’t some still trying, but the public purposes are so obscure and the self-interest so palpable, that it’s simply a degree of difficulty that would stagger even the superrich.  Their imaginations have to build castles in other skies, though the dominance of money as the political currency will predictably lead to other white elephants roaming on their fields of dreams that the rest of us will also inevitably end up having to clean up later.

All of this came to mind recently as I read a fascinating master’s thesis prepared at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that focused on the history of ACORN and our allies efforts to prevent the final construction of the Wilbur Mills expressway in Little Rock over 30 years ago.  The paper focused on the extensive delays in constructing these few miles that would run from downtown to the western suburbs leading to final completion not occurring until 1985.  Originally promoted by business and so-called civic leaders more than 50 years ago, the road was to be the East/West Expressway.  Needing more money, the local Congressman Wilbur Mills, who was also the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was able to pork chop the expressway that became his namesake into the interstate system as a short leg connection between a city bypass I-430 and I-30 running on to Dallas. 

The “what” rather than the “why” was the subject of the paper.  Driving the Wilbur Mills the other day, from front to back, it took me 8 minutes in the early afternoon with a steady traffic flow.  At rush hour in the rain, driving at the posted speed of 60 mph (though few others were of course), the same trip took me 9 minutes.  One of the studies that ACORN won established that the time savings on this expressway would only be 3 or 4 minutes, so frankly, we are talking about a highway dividing the city of Little Rock in half over the fact that a commuter might drive 8 or 9 minutes rather than 11 or 12 minutes. 

A rare story in 2011 in the weekly, Arkansas Times, noted after almost 30 years that, damn, ACORN was right:  the expressway would cause inestimable damage and divide the city permanently on racial and income lines.   The curtain call and the ability to say, “we told you so,” was hardly worth it.  So, why this Wilbur Mills folly?

Civic nothing, this was all about the financial and political dominance of the real estate industry in Little Rock and the way to create huge paydays for speculators and developers buying land 20 miles form the city’s downtown core.  Thirty years ago, the radio station we built, KABF, began broadcasting from the first tower built on Chenal Mountain in rural Pulaski County, more than 20 miles away from our studios near downtown.   Now if you stand in front of our transmitter and look down the valley at the bottom of the mountain there is a community of McMansions and they are strung like diamond baubles on a necklace all the way back to I-430 and the Mills, miles away. 

Some got rich, while the rest of the city is still in rehab on the other side of a moving, high speed, wall of concrete apartheid that is a monument to sprawl and depopulation.  Let’s hope someone somewhere is still working on the part of the paper that covers, “lessons learned.”

The Inequality Dividend: The Rich Against the World

budget-2013-fm-announces-extra-tax-for-super-richLittle Rock   Among the unforeseen consequences of the perversion of tax rates and the massive shifting of wealth to the one-tenth of one percent, is that now rather than the superrich just building hospitals, buying sports teams, getting university lecture halls named after them, and supporting the local symphony and arts museum, which most of us might have easily ignored or at least adopted a form of causal, “live and let live” indifference, their new newfound passions and playthings are too often in the area of public policy and politics.  Too many of them have twisted the old sayings into a new perversion.  It’s no longer a case that, “hey, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”  Now, tragically, too many of them think that because they are rich, that also means they are smart.   I find this worrisome whether I agree with their new concerns are not, simply because they have created a cynical marketplace based on their ability to disrupt public life and attempt to define the agenda of citizen concern, simply because they are able to buy the time.

            Take Michael Bloomberg, the multi-billionaire, recent Mayor of New York, who is both the best and worst example of the breed.  Unlike so many, he was at least committed enough in the political process to stand for election, win, lose or draw, rather than being the puppet master, Koch Brothers style.  But reading how flippantly he throws around a commitment of $50 million to mobilize voters around gun control issues is scary even if I agree that guns are out of control.  His notion that he’s buying his way into heaven “without an interview,” as he argued, I also found every bit as creepy as the way the Koch Brothers manipulate religion to polarize opposition to the Affordable Care Act. 

            Applauding Tom Steyer, the Bay Area hedge fund billionaire, and his willingness to leverage his fortune to try and raise $100 million to force climate change front and center, would logically also force me to say that John and Laura Anderson are dandy folks for trying to dilute public employee pensions and push workers into 401k’s or look the other way at David Welch’s big bucks financing of unlimited lawsuits trying to end teacher tenure around the country, supposedly in the name of lower income and minority children in public schools.  I can’t do it.

            All of this just seems like elite attempts to purchase personal billboards in the public space, and none of that advances democracy, no matter whether the cause is worthy or warped.  Equally disturbing is the way that these mega-million money drops might also further monetize social change, and tilt the work towards the paymasters and away from the people.

            Not that this problem is new or that the Rockefellers were somehow better than the Facebook and Googlers.  Elite efforts to divert and coopt social change or to create client constituencies fill up whole book shelves in the libraries of political scientists and social movement theorists. 

            Old or new, the sheer enormity of the sums involved now, $50 million here, $100 there, and money is no object, are quickly creating a climate though where everything has a price and all issues are on offer and listed for sale with people just pawns to be manipulated every election day.

Games Allstate is Playing on National Flood Insurance

allstateNew Orleans   If you live in the mid-section of the United States, on top of a mountain, somewhere in Canada, or elsewhere in the frozen north, then you probably yawn a bit while reading about climate change, but if you live anywhere within 100 miles of a coastline, you have been following the efforts to boost the price of flood insurance after the twin disasters of Katrina in the Gulf and Sandy in the Atlantic hammered the funds.  The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 was supposed to fix the problem, but the hikes were so huge and sudden that politicians from both parties were tripping over themselves trying to postpone or lessen the rate hikes, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, one of the act’s namesakes.

            None of that says that companies have to play fair though or that any of them were happy about the partial rollback of the rates.  Getting a letter from the giant Allstate insurance company which handles my coverage was an excellent example of how a big insurance outfit can manipulate the “choice architecture,” as experts call it now, in order to trick and scam their customers into paying 25% more per year on their premiums for second homes – or what the company calls “non-primary residences,” until they are paying the full package, regardless of the Congressional compromise.

            None of this is illegal.  It’s just unethical, because every bit of what Allstate is doing is designed to fool their customers.  Let me make it clear how Allstate is doing this, because they sure don’t want you to know how they are doing it.

      ·      First, they say the “default option” is that if they do NOT hear from the policy owner, Allstate takes silence as affirmation that the      policy is not covering your primary residence, so bam, up go your rates.

·      They demand to hear from you within 30 days of the date of their letter, or May 6, but the letter is several pages long, sent by regular mail, and never actually says specifically that May 6th is the deadline, and of course includes no return envelope, which usual correspondence from them would include.

·      Interestingly, they say your response can be sent by mail, fax, or special delivery service, but not by e-mail, which is way more common in homes than is a fax machine for goodness sakes. 

·      Your response has to include one of six different types of proof from your driver’s license to where your children go to school, but they say, “submit one of the following” without ever saying that they want a copy and not the original.

All of this is supposedly designed to find out whether or not the policy holder or their spouse, not defined, lives in the home 50% or more of the time, which FEMA has decided establishes a primary residence for buildings constructed before FEMA flood insurance rate maps (FIRM) were determined.  I’ll spare you the fact that despite Allstate probably having literally scores of crack wordsmiths in its communications department that this language was deliberately crafted by an intern likely in its legal department and then rewritten specifically to obfuscate by the communications folks, so that without reading several times the policy holder might think that if the policy is covering their primary home, then they don’t need to respond, which would trick them into a stair-step rate increase of 25% per year.   Ok, you’re right.  I didn’t spare you that fact at all, so I guess I’m learning to write double-speak, just like our friends at Allstate.

What’s the real message from Allstate?  Simple.  By hook or crook, all within the narrow requirements of the letter of the law, and none within the spirit of the law, they want to get as many homeowners as possible, even in their primary residence, to NOT benefit from the exemptions in the legislation, and instead to pay increases of 25% per year until they are at the full level of the new Bigger-Waters rate requirements. 

My message to homeowners trying to keep your coverage at reasonable rates:  immediately copy your driver’s license or homestead exemption and mail it off to Allstate today and definitely before May 6th or the company will absolutely trick you into paying more from now on. 

Caveat emptor!


As station manager for Kabf I get to preview new releases, please enjoy Natalie Merchant’s Ladybird.

Protecting Consumers from Conflicts between Taxes and Healthcare

02262013_Deficit_Taxes_slideshowNew Orleans Income tax filing time is when the old expression comes to mind that the only things we can’t escape are death and taxes.  True that, but, frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable when those things get put too close together and in the hands of big private, profit maximizing companies, specifically the H&R Blocks, Jackson-Hewitt’s, and Liberty tax preparation giants, and I bet money that’s what they are thinking as they look at how to squeeze themselves into the seams of the Affordable Care Act.

We’ve always understood that there was going to need to be a bright, flashing warning light around the enforcement and penalties that come with the mandatory enrollment requirements of Obamacare and the role of the Internal Revenue Service in balancing the books at the end of the day.  No insurance means that the IRS has to collect the penalty, rising in each successive year, from everyone when they settle up every April.  The penalty is only a part of the play, since the other calculations required of the Service will be figuring out whether or not your estimated income, when you enrolled and qualified for potential subsidies and cost sharing benefits, is accurate or not.  Guessing wrong means that you will need to settle that problem with the taxman.  Good economic fortunes like a big raise at work or a new job or whatever, might mean that you could owe big time paybacks on your subsidy even after your refund check is drawn and quartered.

Not infrequently, it will be a tax preparer that is sitting next to you working out the problem before it sails with your filing to the nearest IRS office, and it should be no surprise that that could mean big money for H&R Block and its wannabes.  They seem to get it. Even in stories about healthcare advocates and assisters, many of them are quoted practicing a public service announcement of sorts by reminding people that health insurance is a mandate and they need to get with the program.

Won’t the next step be for them to also start giving – and charging – their customers for advice on what insurance policy to select?  Why not?  And, what prevents them from having interests and agreements with various insurers?  There are no requirements in any law or regulation that would prevent conflicts of interest other than their good intentions, which are often pretty suspect, given some of their past and present temptations around predatory practices.  The big boys might stutter step in this direction rather than leaping into it, because they have so many fish to fry, but the mom-and-pop tax preparers with less training and support will be sorely tempted not to partner with healthcare insurance providers, and what’s to stop them.

I read recently a prominent Obamacare enrollment advocacy group, likely in some spirit of desperation, suggesting that maybe the whole enrollment process should be pushed to align with tax filing time to make it easier to get the help of tax preparers.   Yikes!  That’s a terrible idea!!!

There’s a high, sharp curve in the road coming and we’re barreling down on it without any guardrail or warning signs along the way, but for god sakes we need to look out, because this will be nothing but mess and mischief, unless some protections are put in place, and right now, there are none.