Category Archives: Spring 2010 (5/1/10)

Buying and Selling Sadness – Unraveling the Biopsychiatric Knot: the Future History of the Radical Mental Health Movement

There are few things as powerful as identifying the manufacturer’s mark on what we have perceived as our personal demons.

–Aurora Levins Morales

My heart beat fast as I wrote many of these words. I did the research for this article to try and make sense of this story I carry around with me about being someone who is seen as mad, who struggles with what this society considers a serious “brain disorder.” My hope is that by the time you finish reading my words you will have more tools to analyze this hyper-complicated world around you, tools to find points of connection between people you might never have thought you had much in common, tools to tear apart the psychic walls that keep us from understanding ourselves and one another. Part of building a movement, in this case what we might as well call the mad movement, is the conscious telling of our stories and history. This isn’t my personal story, but one that ties together the larger story of psychiatry and economics in all of our lifetimes. The important part to keep in mind is that it is very much a story in progress and that we all are characters in it. My hope is that we can use this knowledge to raise our collective consciousness and to write the next chapter together with brilliant colors and the visionary fire of our growing mad community.

The biomedical model of psychiatry, or “biopsychiatry,” rests on the belief that mental health issues are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. This is actually a very new idea, but in a short period of time it has come to be regarded as common sense by a whole lot of people all over the world. More and more, the belief that our dissatisfaction and disease is a result of our individual “brain chemistry” has been desensitizing many of us to the idea that our feelings and experiences often have their roots in social and political issues. We find ourselves with all this medicalized language in our mouths about neurotransmitters and serotonin that doesn’t actually get to the heart of so many of the problems we see around us. How this change in understanding came about is important to understand if we are going to something about it. In this article I will explain how there were very powerful political and economic forces, here referred to as neoliberalism, which began in the 1980′s, and played a huge role in the drastic paradigm shift in mental health care towards what today is known as biopsychiatry. I will paint a rough potrait for you of the situation, using the example of clinical depression, in the hopes that it inspires you to explore the story further, and I’ll conclude with some ideas about the emerging radical mental health movement in case you want to get involved, or at least know about so you can point others our direction.

1980 Was the Year

1980 is a useful date for understanding the recent transitions in our conceptions of mental health and illness. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association published the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III). The DSM, although it was intentionally written in a style that makes it sound scientifically objective, was a creation of one particular school of psychiatrists at a particular point in history with a particular world-view slanted towards the biomedical model. The 1970s were a socially volatile time: the discipline of psychiatry was under attack on all sides for both being oppressive and “unscientific.” The markers of the DSM packaged it as scientific and neutral, reframing the concept of diagnosis from a loose and vague set of descriptions based on Freudian psychoanalysis to a detailed symptom checklist. Today, with the massive support of the pharmaceutical industry, it is accepted as the “Bible” of psychiatry and used as a diagnostic tool all over the world.

1980 was also the year that Ronald Reagan was elected as President of the USA, ushering in what is known as the “neoliberal revolution.” The older “liberalism” has its roots in the 19th century philosophy that emphasized minimal state intervention and free trade. The horrors of the Great Depression, the spectre of fascism in Europe, and a strong labor movement made the idea of unrestrained free market capitalism less attractive in the 1930s. The period in history from the 1930s to the 1970s saw the rise of welfare states the US and UK, a philosophy that prioritized social security, public education, and welfare. The 1980s saw the liberalization (loosening government restrictions) of trade, business, and industry, massive transfer of wealth from public to private, enormous growth in power of multinational corporations, and the triumph of consumer culture.

Obviously these are huge topics that require much time and space to truly unravel. Right now I’m just going to focus on one example of the way biopsychiatry and neoliberalism united to affect our lives: the shifting understanding of “depression.” As I intend to show, Western cultures and increasingly the rest of the world, are coming to relate human sadness and distress to an individual’s brain chemistry. While there is absolutely no scientific proof that this is the case , the biopsychiatric world view helps enable big business to maintain power and fuels the needs of the market based economy.

The Birth of the DSM: How Sadness Became a “Brain Disease”

Modern psychiatry has its roots at the beginning of the industrial revolution and it can be useful to see it as a response to the massive reorganization of an entire society along market principles which undermined traditional ways of caring for the sick and older support networks and healing modalities , but to tell this part of the story I am actually going to begin in the 1940s. At the end of World War II psychoanalysis completely dominated the field of mental health, providing the leading explanations of mental illness and their treatments. The 1960s were a time of great social and political upheaval that reshaped the landscape of ideas of the self and what health and wellness looked like in society. By the 1970s, psychoanalytic theoretical schools, and different clinicians, had many various ideas about the fundamental nature, causes, and treatment of mental disorders. There was a growing anti-psychiatry movement that accused psychiatry of using medical treatment mainly in the interests of social control. There were highly publicized experiments showing the complete lack of reliability of diagnosis made in mental hospitals (where it was documented across the country that healthy individuals were being diagnosed with schizophrenia.) Psychiatry’s legitimacy as a medical field was seen to be in jeopardy. It was at this point in history that the DSM-III was developed.

The DSM-III was an attempt to create a universal guidebook for psychiatric diagnosis. It was written by a school of psychiatrists who saw it as their mission to rid psychiatry of prejudice and superstition, by turning it into an “objective science.” Their intention was to be scientifically rigorous and “theory neutral,” meaning that it claimed not to presuppose a particular theory or cause of why a patient was mentally ill. The idea was to define disorders on the basis of symptoms and not causes. “It shifted psychiatric diagnosis from vaguely defined and loosely based psychoanalytic descriptions to detailed symptom checklists–each with precise inclusion and exclusion criteria.” But in its attempt to be scientifically neutral, the DSM-III left no room for any ideas of mental distress that were not viewed as “illness” and “disease.” Furthermore, the idea of “scientific objectivity” put the power for determining well being and sanity in the hands of the psychiatrists, using a vocabulary that while sounding “objective,” was in fact culturally based in Western scientific practice. The new “objective” diagnostic criteria worked better if there were defined treatments for the “disorders.” As it turned out, this was very beneficial for the bottom lines of the pharmaceutical companies, as well as opening the door for a drastic shift in the psychiatric paradigm.

Let us now turn to the case of “depression.” The way that the DSM diagnostic criteria for Major Depression was written fails to distinguish adequately between two types of depression: “normal sadness” and “melancholia.” These diagnoses share similar symptoms including “sadness, insomnia, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, lack of interest in usual activities.” But the DSM fails to distinguish between normal sadness that has an outside cause, and a depressive disorder that does not. The unwitting result of this effort was a massive pathologization of normal sadness.

The Prozac Revolution

In the 1980′s the development of Prozac and the ensuing explosion in popularity of Prozac-like SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) antidepressant drugs dramatically changed the landscape of treatment for depression. Almost one in four people in the United States were started on an SSRI between 1988 and 2002. The drugs were marketed and prescribed for depression, but the shifting definition of “depression” left room for many emotional states that once were considered normal suddenly to be put into the category of pathology. The diagnosis of Major Depression, which used common symptoms such as sadness, lack of energy, or sleeplessness as indicators was well suited for the massive expansion of the market for antidepressant drugs, because it encompassed huge portions of the general population!

Meanwhile, for many people the drugs themselves, at least at first, appeared to have positive benefits. This created a situation where the seeming effectiveness of the drugs ended up proving the existence of the “disease” of depression, and generally blurred the lines between happiness, wellness and functioning in society. Suddenly it became easier and more natural to talk about brain chemicals, rather than social conditions or family issues. And this ability to “treat” sadness with a pill was a defining feature of the period. Anti-depressants seemed to quickly work their way into the lives of many people. Whether they chose to try it or not, taking an anti-depressant became a question hanging in the air, a potential option for them to choose.

In 1997 the FDA approved the use of direct-to-consumer drug advertisements, and suddenly daytime and evening television was flooded with “ask your doctor” drug ads. “Prozac was one of the first of the new psychopharmaceuticals to sit uncomfortably between a treatment and an enhancement, between a medication and a mental cosmetic.”(Brad Lewis 125)

The pharmaceutical industry became immensely powerful during this period, and not just financially. It became a force in determining how we think about ourselves and our happiness. The example of depression is an important one. The influence of the pharmaceutical industry extends deep into patient and family advocacy groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), groups that promote the view that depression is a chemical deficiency that requires the use of their drugs. There are now widespread educational campaigns such as National Depression Awareness Day that offer free screenings for depression in universities and hospitals. The pharmaceutical industry sponsors much of the clinical research on depression. Industry-academic collaborations are becoming an increasing source of funding for universities, academic medical centers, and hospitals. Never before has this “biopsychiatric” culture, which defines our health and happiness in terms of brain chemistry, been so heavily promoted through the mass media, become embedded in central institutions and embraced by policy makers.

Rise of the Neoliberals

During this same period, an equally complicated paradigm shift was happening in the world of economics and politics. The 1980s saw the rise of neo-liberal economic ideology: the privatization of public enterprises, the reduction of wages by de-unionizing workers and eliminating workers’ rights that had been won over many years of struggle, the elimination of many health and environmental regulations, and the dismantling of social services such as health and education and welfare. The consequence of these policies: massive unemployment, underfunded schools, overcrowded prisons and the shrinkage of our social and economic safety nets. Along with all of these political and economic changes, has been the transformation of poverty from a social problem to an individual failure.

Similar to the ideology of biopsychiatry, neoliberalism uses scientific sounding language that talks about “free trade” and “self-regulation of markets” that on the surface appears to be neutral, but masks an ideology which benefits the powerful and already wealthy; and the two systems work seamlessly together. The notion of a chemical imbalance in our brains easily plants the seeds of doubt in our minds about our own happiness and wellbeing. One of the driving forces of the market economy is dissatisfaction – the market place would not function without a consumer culture that operates on feelings of inadequacy and lack of personal fulfillment. But what if it is actually the society itself, and the toxic world-views we have inherited, that are driving us mad and making us depressed?

“A society that is increasingly socially fragmented and divided, where the gulf between success and failure seems so large, where the only option open to many is highly demanding and low paid work, where the only cheap and simple route to carelessness is through drugs, is likely to make people particularly vulnerable to mental disintegration in its many forms. It has long been known that urban life and social deprivation are associated with high levels of mental disorder. Neoliberal economic policies are likely to further increase their pathogenic effects. By medicalizing these effects, psychiatry helps to obscure their political origin…The social catastrophe produced by neoliberal policies has been washed away and forgotten in the language of individual distress.” . (Joanna Moncrieff 251-3) Meanwhile, both the biopsychiatric model and neoliberal economics are global. There is a lot of evidence that, with the help of the DSM and the pharmaceutical industry, the biopsychiatric paradigm is rapidly spreading throughout the world. From Hong Kong to Tanzania to Sri Lanka, Western ideas of mental illnesses — depression, schizophrenia, anorexia, and PTSD are growing, with the resulting, loss of traditional forms of knowledge and understanding of health and wellness.

A Growing Movement at the Intersection of Social Justice and Mental Health

So the question becomes: what can we do to change this situation? One of the reasons it is so difficult to discuss is that the situation itself lies at the intersection of all these different fields: from biology to neuroscience, cultural studies, economics, history, and politics. It is very challenging to untangle the social, political, and economic hijacking of what is considered mental health and illness, when these are states we tangibly live with and have to navigate on a daily basis. What is inside us and what is outside in society? How does the language and diagnostic categories that we use to talk about each other affect our understanding of ourselves? It is a multi-layered knot of enormous proportions.

If we are going to do anything to change the mental health system we need to begin by simply acknowledging how fundamentally flawed the current model is – how little room it leaves for alternate views of health and wellness, how it privileges the knowledge of scientists and experts, and belittles the resources of local communities, families and alternative health care practitioners. We need to draw a clearer distinction between the usefulness of some modern psychiatric medications, and the reductionist biopsychiatric paradigm that reduces our emotions and behavior to chemicals and neurotransmitters. We need to talk publicly about the relationship between unhealthy economic policies, the pharmaceutical industry, and our mental health. We need to start redefining what it actually means to be mentally healthy, and not just on an individual level, but on a collective level, community and even worldwide. We need to move away from the ideology of disease and its treatment, to that of public health and disease prevention. We need to look more closely and critically at the root causes of our mental distress, because it is likely that many of the causes come from the same ideology that offers the current biopsychiatric solutions.

When I think about solutions to this mess, I envision a vibrant social and political movement made up of a coalitions of locally based community groups and professionals in the field – people who understand the importance of economic justice and global solidarity and the critical need for accepting mental diversity and not falling into the trap of trying to fit into a society that is obviously very sick. I envision a movement that has the wisdom and reverence for the human spirit and understands the intertwined complexity of these things we call mental health and wellness. I envision a movement that understands the importance of language and telling stories and knowing our history. Because the issues are so confusing and intertwined, I would love to see focus groups of scholars and activists who can help to make relevant theories and histories easier to penetrate for larger numbers of people. I see creative organizing on high school and college campuses to counteract the effects of a popular culture steeped in consumerism and intolerance of difference. I see popular education about depression and the economy: if this article were a theatrical performance or a 3 minute YouTube video, what would it look like?

Fundamentally, if we are going to shift the current mental health paradigm we are going to need a movement that both has the political savvy to understand how to fight the system, and the tools to be able to take care of each other as the world gets even crazier. I think some of the answers are going to come from revisiting the useful aspects of counter cultural movements that were questioning the mainstream models of mental health in the 1960s and 70s. From humanistic and Jungian psychology to encounter groups and gestalt therapy, from the Feminist consciousness-raising groups, to the more radical aspects of the “human potential movement,” there were many powerful ideas that came from the intersection of Eastern spiritual philosophies and Western psychotherapies and that were informed by the political charged atmosphere of the times and in the 21st century seem to have been virtually eliminated from the dominant dialog in psychiatry and psychology. While clearly there were flaws in those young movements that seemingly got crushed in their tracks or channeled into a watered down capitalist friendly New Age market, I think it would be quite a worthwhile project to identify which of their aspects and tools would be useful to embrace in a contemporary radical mental health movement.

I find a lot of inspiration looking at the emergence of the growing community around the Icarus Project. I was one of the people that started it back in the day, but now I just watch in awe as it continues to grow and develop. Icarus began as a website in 2002 as an attempt to create an alternate space where people struggling with seriously mental health issues could talk about their struggles and organize local community. It has its roots in the anarchist networks of North America and although it has branched far and wide, the project has maintained it’s radical analysis and is still geared towards those of us engaged in social justice struggles. For those of us who see the critical importance of a radical analysis in understanding mental health, Icarus is an oasis of mad sanity and community. These days Icarus is run by an organizing collective and has many thousands of members all over the world. If you are looking for others to talk about these issues with, organize with, build community with, I suggest starting here: theicharushproject.net The Icarus Project is also having their first national gathering this summer at the US Social Forum in Detroit. Icaristas from near and far will be gathering at the US Social Forum in Detroit this summer, June 22-26. You can join in the planning discussion on the forums or check out and join the monthly community conference call. Mad Love, Sascha scatter@theicarusproject.net.

Fabrega, Horacio Jr. “On the Postmodern Critique and Reformation of Psychiatry” Rev. of Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, and the New Psychiatry. Psychiatry 71(2) Summer 2008: 183-196. Print

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization Vintage, 1967. Print.

Giroux, Henry A. “Beyond the Biopolitics of Disposability: Rethinking Neoliberalism in the New Gilded Age”

Social Identites Vol. 14, No. 5 (2008) 587-620

Horwitz, Allan V. and Wakefield, Jerome C. The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Kripal, Jeffery Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion University of Chicago, 2007. Print.

Lewis, Bradley. Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, and the New Psychiatry: The Birth of Post-Psychiatry

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. Print.

Martinez, Elizabeth and Garcia, Arnoldo “What is Neoliberalism? – A Brief Definition for Activists”

Corpwatch.org 1996. Web. 1 April, 2010 .www.copwatch.org/article.php?id=376

Moncrieff, Joanna “Neoliberalism and biopsychiatry: a marriage of convenience” Liberatory Psychiatry: Philosophy, Politics, and Mental Health. Ed Carl I. Cohen Cambridge University Press, 2008 235-55. Print

“There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed” The Century of the Self By Adam Curtis. BBC 2002 Television.

Thomas, Philip and Bracken, Patrick. “Challenging the Globalization of Biomedical Psychiatry.” Journal of Public Mental Health. Vol 4 Issue 3 (2005) 23-32. Print.

Watters, Ethan. Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print

Zine review: 16th and Mission

Picking up where the first issue left off, the second volume of “16th and Mission Comix” is a treat for the eyes and a shock to the system with its stunning visuals and drug-addled, often off-color sense of humor. In “The Writer,” Christopher Forsley tackles the issue of writer’s block with Cameron Forsley’s heavily shaded, underground comics-influenced illustrations adding a frantic absurdity to that universal feeling of dread that only a deadline can bring. Ryan Yee’s “The Stem,” by contrast, has a more meditative feel, augmented by beautiful tones and ethereal, almost painterly lines. David Chacon’s “Wank Wank”, by contrast, is a rip-roaringly entertaining mess of gross-out humor and freneticism. All these stories, in addition to the three others printed are imbued with a sense of outstanding wildness that only underground comics can provide.

Admittedly, “16th and Mission Comix” is probably not for everyone. The gritty, sometimes disturbing realism of even the more lighthearted stories may prove too much for those who prefer the glossy productions generally released by major comic companies. Likewise, the more adult nature of many of the themes and the graphic nature in which they are portrayed (most notably, the use of penises as weapons in “Wank Wank”) may distract more sensitive readers from the beautiful artwork, emotional truth and many other delights that the comic has to offer. However, those with the stomach and an appreciation for visually striking underground comics will not be disappointed by “16th and Mission Comix”.

DVD review: cheap is junk – if it ain’t cheap, it ain’t punk

The new DVD about the southern grassroots music label Plan-It-X Records has its place in your collective house, but after watching it I’m sure that place will be the free box. The prospect of spending an evening with it seems to be promising at first. The colorful package niftily displays the combined efforts of two long running organizations asking us to pay attention. Both Microcosm and Plan-It-X have run with and in some ways improved upon the models they copied. Plan-It-X fulfills the void created in the late 90′s that should’ve been filled by such labels of catchy and intelligent Pop Punk such as Lookout or No Idea Records. But within a half hour of turning it on I had watched with agonizing interest as the video went through the motions of modern day documentaries covering modern day counter culture music. Not brave enough to turn it off–fearing I would miss something, what I got was another incentive to make people think I am an utter asshole.

But watching this from beginning to end I had to wonder if the makers of this doc actually considered just who their intended audience is. If it’s “The PUNKS”, the insiders and fans of the label’s respective bands and deeds, the viewer doesn’t get much depth into their favorite acts. They’re a good selling point though–live footage and interviews from Against Me!, Spoon Boy, This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, Kimya Dawson, Defiance Ohio….and a whole legion of good spirited bands. The screen time of live bands is on average 30 seconds–usually there to illustrate some point or tell the story of the label. On the other hand, if the intended audience is the uninformed, then that would explain the doc’s tactic of spelling everything out before getting to the meat and bones of seeing young freaks get all freaky and shit. If that is the case, then this doc has its place on those satellite networks that show programs catered for liberals and progressives. I can see the good intentioned Americans waiting for Democracy Now! to come on watching the phenomenon of deformed gawky white people in Bloomington IN. as they would with the interest of tribal people in Sudan. For the people in between, those who know about the label and who want to learn its story and all the sordid details–how can they stand to give it repeated viewings? Maybe they’re in it, or one of their friends is in it. If I sound harsh it may be due to giving Microcosm a chance before to delight me visually and intellectually–only to be hoodwinked into giving up an hour of my mind and life to subculture navel gazing such as their docs of Portland bike lanes and the game of Risk. I guess given the reality of today’s YouTube, such projects can safely exist to reach the few out there who need this kind of stimulation. But frankly, I wish they hadn’t created the plastic product that would quickly find it’s way to that artificial island in the Pacific.

It is not an accident that I viewed this work the day I heard the news of Malcolm Mclaren’s passing from this world. Malcolm was instrumental in the explosion of the Sex Pistols and hence punk’s first years in the public consciousness. Arguably every thing associated with punk can trace roots to Malcolm’s outlandish ploys for attention. He is in death just as intentful as he was on upstaging any contenders to his legacy. They worked by the way. Just watching a few minutes (again) of the movie of the Sex Pistols USA tour called DOA, it is simutamously seedy and inviting. The makers of “If It Ain’t Cheap” could learn something from this film and another one called “Decline of Western Civilization,” which likewise spends time explaining the L.A. Punk scene, but gives the viewer a feel and personality lacking today. But maybe that’s the problem–television. The people in the late 70′s early 80′s had sought to go out and do things besides being glued to some screen waiting for inspiration. The doc on Berkeley’s Gilman St. music club is pretty much as vapid and predictable as this new work. Though the people and scene we have today as seen with the Plan-It-X doc are on the right track at times, they largely have their integrity more intact than Mclaren and Decline’s maker Penelope Spheers. I guess we should get it straight when presenting ourselves to the straights; should we define ourselves in painful detail, or should we fascinate and shock them into attention?

Book review: pushing boundaries in mental health

Recently, two exciting small press books were published that discuss mental health and self-care from radical perspectives. Firewalkers: Madness, Beauty, & Mystery – Radically Rethinking Mental Illness was published in February by VOCAL, a non-profit based in Virginia that is made up of people in “mental health recovery”. The seven different personal stories in this collection speak to the deep transformations that can occur through a mental health crisis. It is reminiscent of the Icarus Project’s Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness as well as my ‘zine, Counterbalance in terms of the personal and candid style in which each tell their stories. The stories in Firewalkers are told through interviews with the women who share their stories of mental health struggle, but this book is really about the transformation that comes from making it through these struggles. What is extra exciting to me about this book is that these women are talking about a whole new way of relating to mental health, seeing these struggles as more of a transformative journey than an illness. To quote from the book, “firewalkers redefines mental illness as: emotional turbulence and altered states; visionary meltdowns and spiritual breakthroughs; ecstatic visions and crazy blessing”. After the personal stories, Firewalkers turns to a section called “Burning Questions” which explores topics such as: “What is in your wellness toolbox?”; “What if you could change one thing about the mental health system?”; “Can mental illness be learned?”; “What’s the hardest thing to get people to understand about mental illness?” and more. What I may have found most interesting about this book is that these folks do not seem to be coming out of a political or radical community – they are not your (stereo)typical Slingshot reading punks or activists – they are people who have come to a radical way of experiencing their mental health struggles – I find this quite intriguing.

The other small press book came out in January on Feral Book Press (this is their first book). Living in Liberation: Boundary Setting, Self-Care, and Social Change does come out of the punk and activist community. The author, Cristien Storm, is a long-time Seattle activist who co-founded Home Alive, an anti-violence, self-defense non-profit established in 1993 after the rape and murder of Mia Zapata, singer for The Gits. Storm is now a therapist, writer and performer. Storm’s writing style is clear and direct, personal and even funny and beautiful at times. This book is about boundaries, a topic I feel I know little about and personally struggle with a lot in my life; Storm goes deep into this topic – exploring how we define them, set them, and what our intentions, goals, and objectives are around them. She encourages us to be authentic and really be accountable for ourselves and the context of our boundaries, what she calls “taking ourselves to task” – Storm delves into how racism, privilege and issues of invisibility play into boundaries. Living in Liberation also explores how we create support systems and this whole idea of liberation or how we get stuck in wishing things were different, rather than accepting things as they are (which to me really speaks to Buddhist ideas that are close to my heart). As Storm says, “There are things in life that are unfair, painful and devastating. Accepting those sucky things does not mean we don’t work to change or avoid what we are able to do.” Storm also discusses how boundaries and all the above connect to self-care (e.g. “Self-care is boundary setting.”), connection and community. This book is a practice I will come back to over and over. Isn’t it interesting how things that often seem so right, clear and even obvious, are the hardest things to really deeply know and act from consistently? The topics in Living in Liberation are hard work, work we can all benefit from – Storm closes the book with exercises to work with and resources as well.

For more information on Firewalkers go to www.thefirebook.org; for Living in Liberation go to www.feralbookpress.com. For the Icarus Project or Counterbalance go to www.microcosmpublishing.com and the www.theicarusproject.net. Contact the reviewer at counterbalance@riseup.net.

Good Morning Class

The news item on the radio in early Spring was buried as always under a gauntlet of ulcers. The dreaded “No Child Left Behind” policy of the Bush Presidency would be struck down. Like so many of the Obama Administration’s deeds this was a mixed bag–usually the devil being in the details. No Child Left Behind is being discontinued in name only. It seems that this new policy will continue the work of destroying teacher’s unions and school boards nationally, school boards being the way citizens have access to the way schools are operated. But also part of the plan is for mass closure of schools that are deemed “underperforming.” The public schools then will be converted into charter schools. The emphasis of class time placed on students processing information and testing. The young people under pressure will someday resemble the hang-ups given to them. Like most people, I have turned away from the depressing details of today’s news stories, as I mostly turned away from the state of schools today. I particularly associate it with the dread of my own school years that I would wish to leave behind me.

As protests over education cuts heated up locally and I attended planning meetings to help in the resistance, I dreamed for a moment of making a one sheet flier to hand out. A veritable Berkeley Rant–one I used to see across public walls and telephone poles throughout my youth. In my one moment of fame I would hand out my collected thoughts to the crowd, some of those disgruntled UC Berkeley students likely one day to become part of the managerial class of our society and therefore more influential in policy making than little old me. My rant would be rather utopian–assuming that we can make it thru this psychic hump created from the unnatural gasses of the economic bubbles that seem to span decades. Admittedly, some of my ideas would be informed by the anarchic thought of 60′s counter culture; present day schools using the business model, or the assembly line production model of instruction are damaging to the budding person. The idea is added to in Peter Watkins’s movie La Commune. In it there is a scene where a woman decries the over stimulation that happens in schools. She urgently implores the audience in a tone that seems to run the movie’s 3 hour running time, “What we need to teach children is how to read, how to write, and how to count. All the rest of the things schools do to children are harmful.”

RANT

My own two cents look more at what we are doing right. I agree with the theory of shaping the curriculum to the needs of the student, which almost necessitates a smaller class size. But more precisely, we need to change the quality of the little Americans who are being shaped. The counter culture loves to speculate that the system tends to breed a nation of conformists, as if the punks are striking up a chorus with Malvina Reynolds in a replay of “Little Boxes.” But I feel what is really being rendered in schools is a vicious attitude of competitiveness, with a companion effect of dependence to the system–which I will get to later.

The recent fight to stop UC Berkeley from cutting down native Oak trees to put up a dubious (and undoubtfuly ugly) sports training building signaled to me the preference the mother culture in America gives to competitive frames of life. The way that testing is used as a measure of achievement supports this. The better you do the better your school does. Team spirit. Or rather your social group needs to be better than your neighbors’. This practice helps to rationalize the invasion of other countries for such reasoning as “protecting our freedom”.

For me what is recyclable about American public schools is the mixture of peers spending time together experiencing events and problem solving together. There is a remarkable opportunity there with the mixing of little people across class lines, gender, ethnicity–people who haven’t fully formed attitudes and practices of bigotry. With this in mind I would structure class time to have a significant foundation in time to Share and Tell. Have this time to replace the practice of devouring information for the sake of regurgitation in the form of testing. Teach active listening and breed respect in people’s differences. Have students bring in aspects of their home life to engage their classmates–stories of their ancestors, a song that is sung in the house, a dish of food they subsist on. Then once a week, students from a nearby school would visit the school and tell of the customs they practice a few miles away. Then once a month kids from the school visits a far away region to share their customs.

MY OWN SCHOOL DAYS

This Friday’s quiz you have 10 minutes to complete the questions. Those of you who take longer will have to make it up during your lunch hour. Remember no talking or looking at your phone. Bathroom breaks will not be permitted.

A) If Mark Yudoff, whose salary is more than President Obama’s, is speeding in his car 12 miles over the legal limit from his office in Oakland to a lunch party in Sacramento but first he has to stop off at his other office to fire 13 janitors, 21 teachers, raise tuition in 7 schools–discontinue 14 classes, and help usher in a dozen new construction projects….when will he hit the wall?

Most people talk of the nightmares they have of school and you hear the standard of being naked amongst classmates. But isn’t this a hangover of the realities of the prudish 1950′s. What of the waking nightmares that are being practiced daily today? My own conversion to disliking school occurred in Jr. High school. I know several other people who really started to develop “problems” with their education at this time. Before Jr. High I used to enjoy the material and atmosphere of the classroom. A clear example of the institutional bummer was in my 7th grade math class. A crowded classroom trying to tackle a complex subject was not helped by the authoritarian teacher. Such emphasis placed on being seated by the ringing of the bell, having pencil in hand with book out mirrors the emphasis to performing high in tests and doing homework. The Filipina teacher who was always angry probably had a justified need to be so heavy handed–a large class of angsty kids being forced to contemplate an abstraction does not go so smoothly.

This was the Reagan 80′s, and even as an adolescent I could sense that the people in control were intentionally fouling the future up. But it was becoming evident that I was being weaned to take on heavy loads of “work” irregardless of its meaning for me, and to seek reward in abstract letter grades and numbers. Because of this time I went from being spiritually fed by learning to being attracted to dropouts. The heavy metal kids or comic book collectors seemed to use imagination and took a self-defined path that appealed to me more than the honor role robots or the sports heroes. My own nightmares of school would resemble the panic of trying to get my locker open before the second bell screams for all to be seated and ready to work.

I wish people would wake up sweating thinking that the children are being exposed to cancerous toxins from being located near freeways and areas with heavy traffic. That reading has become an aversion to most who go through school because they are forced fed antiquated authors with no relevance to their world today. That tiny growing bodies are being denied rest and then reprimanded for not being able to sit still, stay awake and be quiet. That the solutions for their squirming has been to put children on drugs and create rigid rules that help to exclude those who can’t conform. That the failure to put our resources into civil society is directly related to the emphasis placed in developing war, and war industries. I’m sweating now over the prospects of this kind of practice.

MOTHER/DAUGHTER

Popular slogans one sees in the Left’s commentary of reality is, “Capitalism is the Crisis.” Well I contend this may only be slightly agreeable to common people especially, say a single parent of a teenager. For them the crisis is around their child and mitigating the demands of reality they encounter.

As an adult, many people I know either became parents and/or teachers. Suddenly I had to identify with the people who I once thought of as implementing oppressive policies. To boot, I also started to associate groups of rowdy youth as disruptive and violent. If anything, they gave me reason to accept the long hours that kids are kept locked up in schools. But I know this isn’t the solution. I know quite a few parents who have home schooled their kids well aware of what’s in store for them in the public schools. Those parents also know that what’s missing from home schooling, which is the one thing I purpose salvaging–the schools as a space of socialization.

The other day, I hung with a mother and daughter who did home schooling and asked them if they thought they gained anything avoiding high school. They clued me in that their relationship had changed since her daughter was no longer being shipped off to what is essentially day care for most parents. Normal parent/child relationships contend with an institutional alienation robbing them of their best years together. The daughter also related how important life skills are not taught in schools. Like learning to build our own homes and fix them, or growing our own food. These ideas made me think we also need skills to problem solve and have tools to express our emotions throughout the various challenges of our lives. When she was telling me this I realized we are intentionally NOT taught these skills. Not because they are useless skills in the modern world–but not knowing them makes people helpless through their whole life. Therefore we will have to go through corporations and the state to mitigate our needs in society.

There are many things to be said on how people have adapted to accept an absurd reality. We know we are on the brink of a new reality–a new world unlike the one we’ve been living in. Whether it’s the world of Rightwing think tanks, leftist collectives, or what not will need your input. Just remember the Right has a way of inserting ideas in your head and then you think you had them. An idea I had when experiencing children in the subculture is that the structures and ideas I showed them was taken as matter of fact. I helped create the foundation for reality. Just as I grew up with pot growing in the backyard and thinking the White House was full of criminals, despite the rules of the outside world. I have learned that what we do and say around the youth will help to usher in those practices when they fully take the world. But in the mean time the thing kids gotta do is have a good time–if not with our help then without our interference. If we provide a reality structured on joy and peace then they will seek to create those aspects when they are the adults. We are losing these basic principles by people who advertise “Never Ending War”, then make sure that is what goes down in places like schools. To free us from this path has to be a collective effort.

Coda

What 20th century meeting of leftists occurred without an opening or closing song? Since I referred to Malvina Reynolds already let us sing one of her compositions as we go out. Not “Little Boxes”–how tacky and American(!) to only sing the most popular tune. Yet this is the land of tinsel and tin men. I’m sure there is some who would tolerate her song “The Money Crop”, if it were only sung by a dude in aggressive punk type pounding ripping agony. But for now we’ll part with the way she recorded it. The singing wizened and old, therefore delicate — as it conveys the brave words telling truth to power. In this case let us dedicate it to the bureaucrats who wish to persuade us in compromising what we have in things like the environment, or what we will someday will give to the world–that being our children, in order to feed the…

THE MONEY CROP

Well money has its own way,

And money has to grow,

It grows on human blood and bone

As any child would know.

It’s iron stuff and paper stuff

With no life of its own,

And so it gets its growing sap

From human blood and bone.

Many a child goes hungering

Because the wage is low,

And men die on the battlefield

To make the money grow.

And those that take the money crop

Are avid without end,

They plant it in the tenements

To make it grow again.

The little that they leave for us

It cannot be a seed,

We spend it on the shoddy clothes

And every daily need,

We spend it in a minute,

In an hour it is gone,

To find its way to grow again

On human blood and bone,

Blood and bone.

Words and Music by Malvina Reynolds.

Copyright 1966, Schroder Music Co.

You’re pretty powerful when you’re 16. Even if the world doesn’t recognize this.

Toxic Byproduct – hydro-fracturing: Finger Lakes town gives gas drilling the finger

In the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York — a beautiful, wild part of the country, dotted with farms and homesteads — activists are fighting to keep the five lakes free from byproducts of natural gas drilling. Natural gas, which is being touted as “clean, green energy,” is far from it. Gas is a fossil fuel that emits C02 when it is burned to generate electricity or for residential uses, contributing to global warming. Getting gas out of the ground requires a tremendous amount of resources and the drilling creates toxic byproducts.

In the tiny village of Pultney, which overlooks one of the Finger Lakes (Keuka Lake), residents were able to block a proposal to dump bi-products from a natural gas drilling process known as hydro-fracturing, or “fracking” for short. Fracking is a technique used to create fractures in shale, tight sand or coal beds in order to retrieve more oil or gas from the ground. According to Earthworks.org “Typically, in order to create fractures a mixture of water, proppants (sand or ceramic beads) and chemicals is pumped into the rock or coal formation. Eventually, the formation will not be able to absorb the fluid as quickly as it is being injected. At this point, the pressure created causes the formation to crack or fracture.”

The use of fracking to extract natural gas from Marcellus shale — black shale bedrock in parts of New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — is expanding rapidly as gas consumption expands and other sources of gas dry up. Fracking requires some pretty nasty chemicals to break up the shale to get to the natural gas. In some parts of Pennsylvania, for example, Chesapeake Energy is responsible for multiple spills of hydrochloric acid, one of the chemicals routinely pumped with water into the ground as part of the “fracking” process. Other chemicals used include: volatile organic compounds, such as BTEX formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, metals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury, hydrogen sulfide, and diesel fuel, as well as many others.

Most of the chemicals used to frack stay in the ground, and may eventually seep into ground water. But about 2 percent of the contaminated water seeps back up and has to be put somewhere. Since Pennsylvania, the area where most of the drilling is occurring, passed laws keeping Chesapeake Energy and other companies from disposing of their waste water there, they’ve turned to New York to look for places to put it. They decided the best way to dispose of the polluted water is to truck it to other wells they have drilled that have either “dried up,” or never produced much, pump the toxic waters into these wells and then “cap” them. Supposedly capping the wells will keep the toxic sludge underground and in the wells.

But this makes no sense. How can anyone believe Chesapeake Energy when they claim there will be no leaking of these toxins into surrounding water? Essentially, they are creating little fault lines in our bedrock, which makes it very easy for water to seep from one place to another.

The well in Pultney that residents were most concerned about was only about a fourth of a mile from Keuka Lake, which remains one of the cleanest of the Finger Lakes. Chesapeake Energy wanted to send three trucks to the well per hour, filling the well with 180,000 gallons of toxic water per day for ten years! Residents of Pultney pointed out that the roads leading to the well are mostly seasonal, in some cases dirt roads, so the possibility of a truck turning over and toxic waste spilling was very high. Chesapeake Energy sent letters to town supervisors assuring them that their truck drivers where careful and that such accidents would be quickly handled by HazMat professionals. But the nearest city with a HazMat facility is nearly a two hour drive. By the time a HazMat team would be able to respond to a spill, chances are most of the toxins would be in the lake.

Luckily for Pultney and other residents of Keuka Lake, both human and nonhuman, area-activists swiftly responded to the proposal and got Chesapeake Energy to back down, at least for the moment. Chesapeake Energy sent a letter to Eric Massa, claiming they didn’t need that well anymore anyway, because they “have significantly enhanced our produced water recycling program and, as a result, we are no longer actively pushing for the resolution of our local permit request.” How long they stop actively pushing is anyone’s guess. Most of Pultney’s residents fear this isn’t the end of the battle. They continue to be diligent and keep their eyes on the activities of Chesapeake Energy, preparing for what some fear will be a long-term battle with the energy giant.

Meanwhile, gas drilling is expanding across the region, spewing toxic waste and prolonging addiction to earth-destroying fossil fuels. What can we learn from Pultney’s small victory and how can we expand it to thousands of towns and villages across the globe?

Check out: www.un-naturalgas.org

War is Peace – Obama expands nuclear power & weapons for . . . disarmament?

“Is there any man or woman–nay, any child–who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is commercial and industrial rivalry?” — President Woodrow Wilson, September 1919

Unlike some gullible chaps who have faith in electoral politics as a representative democracy, I did not experience a yawning chasm of disappointment or abandonment upon the realization that Obama is not the messiah who will rid the world of all pestilence, trickery, and wrong. To this day the mainstream media is touting Obama as a great conciliator and philanthropist in his single-minded quest to rid the world from the threat of mutually assured nuclear extinction. But the more you unravel Obama’s political alliances and network of election financiers, the more you come to understand how deeply beholden the President of the United States is to the nuclear energy industry as well as nuclear weapons development.

Obama made his way into office at the hands of corporate financiers, who are heavy hitters in the financial industries as well as “essential services” such as the nuclear power industry.

They helped elect him, they were thrilled to death when he won, and his cabinet is no stranger to the business of building new nuclear power plants.

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, had a previous position with nuclear energy firm Exelon to win public support for rate increases. Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was instrumental in the creation of that company, which went on to become the nation’s most valuable nuclear utility based on market value.

His nuclear family close at hand, he pledges to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.” In his climate change policy, Obama openly embraces nuclear power as a carbon-free alternative to petro-energy. The government plans to subsidize the construction of over 30 nuclear reactors in the coming years. While the carbon imprint is less than coal or natural gas, there is no known method of safely storing or disposing of the spent fuel rod waste from nuclear reactors. Each one has a half-life of 10,000 years, which means any facility built to store them must last at least that long.

Creating deadly poisonous waste and stockpiling barrels of it along fault lines at seismically unfit facilities is ecological suicide. But so is the government’s nasty habit of dumping this waste on Native reservations and sacred sites, often targeted for their “sparse levels of human habitation”.

But more nuclear reactors responsible for more nuclear waste only promises to kill people slowly, over time. Obama’s investments in the nuclear arms industry is more distressing. With an arsenal bulging upwards of 10,000 nuclear warheads, Obama ordered large increases to pad the budgets of the National Nuclear Security Administration (13% raise) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, up 22% from last year.

This funding increase to the National Laboratory in Albuquerque is to begin construction of the innocuously named “Chemistry and Metallurgy Building Replacement Project”, a multi-billion dollar laboratory capable of manufacturing over 200 plutonium pits per year, a crucial ingredient of the nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is making strides towards the world’s first “subcritical” warhead. It’s for projects like these that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, formerly of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, proclaims we must train and recruit a new generation of nuclear scientists to build a new generation of warheads for America’s arsenal. It’s these lab managers, nuclear scientists, and military planners who create livelihoods from sowing the seeds of political instability the world over.

How can you pay lip service to a nuclear free world (see his magnanimous “Yes, we can!” speech in Prague) one moment and up funding to the nuclear laboratories to build MORE bombs the next? We have 24,000 plutonium pits in the arsenal, only half actively deployed in weapons. We have 50,000 warheads in the world and enough enriched uranium for the production of over 200,000, enough to blow to smithereens every man woman and child on Earth. With so many avenues of annihilation already available, why must we produce more under the banner of arms reduction?

This leads us to a few possibilities concerning Obama’s intentions. He might be a hypocrite, a political flip-flopper, or a mastermind of Orwellian inversion, most poetically displayed when he asserted the necessity of war while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with absolutely no hint of irony. Anyone who believes Obama is truly interested in ridding the world of the threat of nuclear warfare hasn’t studied history hard enough. The American economic empire is predicated on perpetual warfare and the threat of warfare as an engine of commercial growth. Ultimately, we need to blame the free market system that rewards this sociopathic and genocidal behavior, but that doesn’t remove Obama’s personal culpability in constructing a dangerously deceptive nuclear policy in a supposedly post-Cold War world.

Local Action worldwide

The struggle for liberation is going on all around us, all the time, in communities around the globe large and small, in a huge variety of ways — and yet it can be invisible. It is easy to get discouraged feeling that time is stalled, that individual people can’t make any difference, and that we’re doomed. I know I feel stuck like that a lot — watching endless traffic roll by, everyone marching off to work, stores full of shoppers and junk. Will people ever wake up? And yet, there are encouraging cracks pushing through the concrete.

While we were finishing up this issue, I kept searching for the “one big protest” of 2010 — some upcoming direct action or protest that would symbolize resistance to the corporate-industrial machine that is stealing our lives and killing the earth. But I decided maybe it would be better to adjust my focus and not get caught up in the same mega-thinking that is causing so many problems.

Centralization, gigantism and trying to reduce complex human interactions to alienated symbols are all part of the problem. Our minds and our activism have been polluted by the same thinking that creates multi-national corporations, huge media celebrities, global computer networks, and faceless government bureaucracies. To create grassroots radical change, we need to tackle the global problems on a local level as well as a global level and we need to realize how our local problems are connected with global issues. From this perspective, it is incredibly inspiring to see all the local campaigns going on all over — yet with common goals.

It seems to me that the process of social transformation invites us to work on a bunch of different levels all simultaneously. We can work on an internal psychological level to free ourselves from the cop in our head, our learned powerlessness, as well as our inability to appreciate ourselves, those around us, and the here and now unfiltered by corporations, consumerism and technology. We can struggle in our families and our communities to build alternative structures to meet human needs outside of unjust structures like the market system, the state, and the patriarchy. And at times, we can join with others to confront the systems that are killing the earth and constricting our freedom — using direct action and protest to target the activities, technologies, social institutions, companies and governments that serve the system.

There are so many folks resisting the machine this summer — here is a short list if you want to join in a particular action or organize your own action as part of an on-going campaign. The struggle for liberation is do-it-yourself — to the extent this list misses a lot of potential direct action targets, that is an invitation for you and your buddies to start something. Go for it.

• Mountain Justice Summer continues to use direct action to defend Appalachian forests and streams from destruction by coal companies that use mountaintop removal strip mining. There is a training camp May 27 – June 6 in Kentucky. www.mountainjusticesummer.org

• Campaigns and actions against police brutality and murder are ongoing all over. In Portland, there was a spontaneous riot March 22 after police shot and killed Jack Dale Collins. On April 8, Bay Area folks occupied a subway train to protest the transit police murder of Oscar Grant. Grant’s killer is going on trial in Los Angeles and the trial is sure to be met with continued protest. And folks are participating in Copwatch groups all over that monitor and videotape police interactions on the streets.

• The 2010 G8 meeting of the world’s most powerful leaders is set for Huntsville, Ontario, Canada June 25 – 27. Whenever a few governments get together to figure out how to divide the worlds resources between multi-national companies, direct action in the streets is the inevitable result. (Even when they locate the summit 2 hours from the nearest city to limit protests . . . Did anyone hear an Ewok up in those trees?)

• Croatan Earth First! in Virginia has been waging an on-going campaign against Duke Energy’s plan to construct an 800-megawatt coal fired generator at the existing Cliffside Power Plant. The generator would operate for the next 50 years, emitting 312 million tons of CO2 over its lifetime. Direct action has included blockades of construction activities. stopcliffside.org

• Critical Mass bike rides continue across the globe — a monthly direct action that reclaims streets for human uses. These spontaneous actions require no organizational energy and are even fun. In many cities and towns the ride happens the last Friday of the month.

• Grassroots protest network 350.org has declared October 10, 2010 (10/10/10) a global work party to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They are inviting folks to plant trees, harvest gardens, create bikepaths, insulate homes, and take other concrete actions to raise the question: “we’re working on this, what are the social institutions doing?” There will also be protests at the next United Nations meeting on climate change in Mexico in December.

• Guerilla gardening is a direct action in which a group seizes a vacant piece of land to build a garden — often over a weekend — so that it becomes too beautiful to remove without looking like a heartless bully before anyone notices what is going on.

• Direct Action in Humboldt County, California to preserve old growth redwood trees continues with an on-going tree-sit. See efhumboldt.org

• Numerous states (Utah, Nebraska, Oklahoma) have recently passed laws making it more difficult and unpleasant for women to get abortions. Seems like this opens up a lot of direct action / protest opportunities.

• Everglades Earth First! is engaged in a continuing struggle against Florida Power & Light’s construction of a gas fired powerplant. www.evergladesearthfirst.org

• Gay Shame creates a direct action each year during Gay Pride week to reject the “commercialized gay identity that denies the intrinsic links between queer struggle and challenging power.” www.gayshamesf.org

• Along the US/Mexico border, there is direct action to protect immigrants from armed right-wing “minutemen” groups and question the whole idea of borders. immigrantsolidarity.org

• Squatting and eviction defense is particularly relevant with millions of people losing their homes to foreclosure. Why are so many buildings sitting vacant when people need a place to live? www.homesnotjailssf.org

• Oh yeah, and there are still two wars going on! Code Pink has been conducting a campaign against the use of drone airplanes to kill people by remote control half a world away. They are also carrying out citizens’ arrests of war mongers at (paid) speaking events around and about. Almost everyone lives near a military recruiting station or weapons supply corporation so its up to us to protest the ongoing carnage. Codepink4peace.org

• Alberta, Canada is ground zero for the rapidly expanding and environmentally destructive oil sand industry — another last gasp effort to keep the fossil fuel system flowing while climate change looms. Efforts to block it are possible. oilsandstruth.org

• In British Columbia, Canada, there could be direct action to save a stand of unusually twisted old growth cedar trees named the Avatar grove that are scheduled to be logged. www.ancientforestalliance.org. There’s also action underway to stop the multi-billion dollar Gateway highway project in BC. gatewaysucks.org

• In Chiapas, Mexico there are actions to defend the rainforest.

• Outside North America, there is an on-going direct action campaign against coal in Mainshill, Scotland. There is community resistance in Rosport, Ireland against a Shell gas terminal that threatens to ruin the coastal environment and wildlife habitat. Forest defense continues in Tasmania. Folks in Iceland are struggling to block construction of a dam. In Catalonia, Spain there is direct action for forest defense and against BP fossil fuelishness.

This just scratches the surface of direct actions and protests going on around us, and there’s no way to know about all the amazing internal transformations and struggles at the interpersonal, family, or community level. Enjoy your 2010 summer!

Thanks to the Earth First! Journal for information about on-going eco-actions world-wide. Check out earthfirstjournal.org.

Entheogens & You – awakening radical activism through Psychedelics

“Not all drugs are good… some of them are great.” – the late great psychedelically attuned comedian Bill Hicks

After backpacking around North America and the Pacific for several years, searching in part for a more entheogenically aware community, I had settled down in Berkeley just as the tree sit protest was reaching its climatic peak. I was visiting the oak grove in question frequently in the summer of ’08, so a lot of the UCB students were away, but of those who remained on campus, I observed that most who walked by the longest running urban tree sit ever did so without giving it any attention whatsoever, acting like those in the tree and those supporting them on the sidewalks didn’t exist.

Was this a symptom of a student populace that felt, “Ho hum, another radical protest in crazy hippie Berkeley,” or was something else going on? So I asked one of the ground crew who was distributing flyers and pamphlets about the Oaks, “How many UCB students, out of ten, stopped by your table and informed themselves of engaged in dialogue about the latest news in the trees?” She looked at me sort of incredulously; “Your question should be more like how many out of a hundred or even a thousand, care to notice what is going on here.”

I was taken aback (as only a newly arrived East Coast transplant/outsider could be, I suppose): How had the legendary radical student activism of the 60s deteriorated to such an apathetic funk? That these students walked like zombies with blinders, uncaring, wasn’t something I could easily comprehend.

As the protest progressed, I visited the grove more and more, as well as the campus at large, talking with a diverse cross section of people, trying to find an answer to that question and to come to terms with it (though by this time I was developing a sneaking suspicion). Eventually, I came across an old-timer who was a student at UCB in the 60s, and he told me tales of those wild radical days of yore. He even drew parallels to the protests around People’s Park of that time; how the park was also surrounded by armed police and chain link cages, but on one coordinated day, the students banded together and united, tore the fucking fences down and reclaimed the Park for the People.

Where was that kind of radical student activism now, I asked. “Well, there was a war on then,” was the weak response, as if he was not ready to critique the blight of modern student apathy. There are wars on now; there has to be something else, I probed. He gave a couple of other minor ideas, but I got to the point. I believe that the main reason for the lack of student activism is the absence of a psychedelically and entheogenically informed student body (and mind and spirit).

… I remember hearing a story like this: In the height of the 60s, there was a pretty square but very gifted science and math student at UCB whose journey on the straight and narrow had put him at the top of his classes and fields of research. His routine of going from his dorm to the lab and back was occasionally interrupted by people with flowers in their long hair, marching in the streets with signs and banners, protesting something or other; it seemed to be a new cause every week. Finally, one day, upon seeing his lab occupied by students demanding justice or some such thing, he asked one of these long haired dudes (it was easier to visually identify the radicals back then) “So, what’s this all about anyway?” And in one of the more profound moments of hippie wisdom (top five, anyway), instead of proselytizing about Marxism or socialism etc, or shouting slogans at him, the long haired dude replied, “Here man, find out for yourself,” and handed him a tab of LSD.

Well, the student took the acid and in the course of a twelve hour psychedelic experience, things like social justice, power to the people, nature’s splendor (etc to infinity) no longer were abstract concepts to him, but felt realities. The walls of culture promoting plastic conformity dissolved to open up to the colorful organic interconnected beauty of the world and universe at large. And far from toeing the unofficial hippie party line, when this student turned on, he used what he had tuned into to propel his scientific studies into new stratospheres of theories, eventually making him a world renowned scholar.

This kind of experience was repeated millions of times to millions of people and was the catalyst of revolutionary times, I believe. The flashing headline point then would have to be: Nature is Alive, and psychedelics (particularly entheogens) help you realize this in rather profound ways in the course of life changing visionary epiphanies, in the space of mere hours. A psychedelically enlightened mind can not continue to close its eyes (all three of them) to the destruction of the earth, the razing of our forests, the poisoning of our seas, and the influence of over two thousand years of unchecked dominator culture which uses hegemony, monotheism, monotony and monogamy as honed weapons of mass suppression and destruction of the free people of the planet.

Entheogens are our birthright, yet this most important rite of passage has not been passed down effectively to today’s students, to the sorrow of the world and the apathy of youth who do not know any better because the language of the dream hasn’t been spoken to them.

The use of psychedelics and the way they have been expressed culturally has fluctuated plenty in the past forty or so years, but to my mind, even the youth at the height of the “Just Say No” era in the 80s didn’t have such a profound disconnect to psychedelic awareness as do students today. In the 80s and 90s, the use of these plants and chemicals became more socially discreet, but their influence and impact were profoundly felt worldwide: specifically in the field of computers. Ralph Abraham, a mathematics professor at UCB and UCSC in the 60s turned on quite a number of his colleagues and students to LSD, and whose own experiments with DMT led him to be a leading developer in the fields of chaos math and dynamical systems theory for decades saw first hand how the use of some certain mind expanding substances inspired many in the computer and software industry. He describes a tale of a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in the early 90s set off to disprove Timothy Leary’s theory of psychedelics interconnectivity with the burgeoning field: “She went to Siggraph, the largest gathering of computer graphic professionals in the world, where annually somewhere in the United States 30,000 who are vitally involved in the computer revolution gather. She thought she would set this heresy to rest by conducting a sample survey, beginning her interviews at the airport the minute she stepped off the plane. By the time she got back to her desk in San Francisco she’d talked to 180 important professionals of the computer graphic field, all of whom answered yes to the question, ‘Do you take psychedelics, and is this important in your work?’” —Ralph Abraham, In “The Evolutionary Mind—Trialogues at the Edge of the Unthinkable” by Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham, 1998)

Yet as the years passed, the discreet underground psychedelic culture of the 90s became more and more unknown. The Rave Generation’s message of ecstatic dancing harmony and PLUR (Peace Love Unity Respect) has, due in part by the passing of some harsh anti-rave legislation in the past decade, now largely been assimilated by boozy nightclub ass-grabbing hookups. Burning Man (where the leading psychedelic scholars, artists, writers and all-around proponents of entheogens have presentations within the city), every year becomes more and more watered down by hipsters and tourists who want to play freak for a week and not engage in radical community possibilities.

All is not lost. The most psychedelic mainstream piece of art I’ve seen recently is the movie Avatar. The film captured not only the apex of where computer generated art has taken us, but combined that with a moving entheogen inspired story with epic themes of nature versus avarice. A Burning Man acquaintance of mine whom I saw the picture with jokingly made the comment, “Man, I wish I saw that movie on mushrooms!” Having just reacquainted myself with an old ally, cannabis, specifically for viewing Avatar after a long break, I found the synergy of the herb, the film, and myself an amazing otherworldly experience, I kind of scoffed at my friend’s remark. “I don’t know what kind of experiences you have, but when I have a committed mushroom experience, screw watching it in a theater; I AM Avatar! I’m on Pandora, taking that journey, feeling the epic themes of unbridled corporate/military greed versus nature and Her allies, reverberating through my entire being.”

In fact, I saw (and see) Avatar as an ayahuasca parable. The trees of the soul on Pandora, the vines of the soul in the Amazon where ayahuasca originates, the tribal consciousness and the aforementioned themes (not to mentioned the kaleidoscope of fluorescent colors and the 3D were nice touches/parallels) were all so prevalent in my ayahuasca journeys, I knew that writer/director James Cameron was giving the world more than a wink and a nod to the most powerful entheogenic tea. Terence McKenna, a psychedelic pioneer, had this to say about it years ago: “In the Amazon and other places where visionary plants are understood and used, you are conveyed into worlds that are appallingly different from ordinary reality. Their vividness cannot be stressed enough. They are more real than real, and that’s something that you sense intuitively. They establish an ontological priority. They are more real than real, and once you get that under your belt and let it rattle around in your mind, then the compass of your life begins to spin and you realize that you are not looking in on the Other; the Other is looking in on you.” That sounds a lot like what Cameron was trying to convey with the Navi on the living planet Pandora. And this is all but confirmed with the director’s latest activism. Cameron recently traveled to the jungles of the Amazon River and met with the indigenous tribal leaders and proclaimed his solidarity with the peoples in their fight against the Brazilian government and corporate interests in building a dam that would effectively destroy them, which mirrors the plight of the Navi in his film.

It’s more than just a case of art reflecting nature; the themes should be becoming more and more obvious to our counter-culture. To this end, I’m holding a space via the East Bay Free Skool, facilitating a weekly discussion to help continue espousing these ideas, namely that the realities reflected in Avatar (and in so many other fine works of art) are available to all of us, if not but for a cultural convention that would have us passively consume light beer and blue jeans. So that the next time students see activists living in trees, fighting for the survival of nature, instead of being apathetic to it, they can personally feel the themes and be more connected to that struggle. Ergoat ergoat@ergoat.com

High time to legalize

It is great that California may finally legalize recreational use of marijuana this year by passing a ballot measure in November — The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 — even though the world needs more than just getting rid of silly drug laws so that legal drug companies can replace illegal drug dealers. Beyond legalization, we need to change the passive way we interact with drugs, the world, our consciousness, and each other.

It is too easy to relate to drugs as just another thing you can buy, sell or ingest — a social interaction that can easily be integrated into the dominant society with a legalization law without undermining the dehumanizing power relationships that are killing the earth. How can we remove drugs from the market economy, figure out cooperative, do-it-yourself production and distribution models, and harness the altered states of consciousness that can be associated with drugs to undermine and corrode mainstream institutions and cultural values? And why does it often feel like excessive pot use is actually holding back alternative communities a lot more than liberating us?

While the ballot measure permits personal cultivation for personal use meaning that people could theoretically create pot on a do-it-yourself, local basis outside the market, the last 15 years of experience with legal medical marijuana in California indicates that rather than promoting more activity outside the market, most people are going to want to buy their pot rather than grow their own. California medical cannabis patients have overwhelming sought to purchase, rather than grow, their medicine. In fact, the November initiative was put on the ballot by Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University in Oakland which is the flagship of the highly profitable medical marijuana-industrial complex that has developed to sell pot since medical marijuana was legalized.

Much of the text of the ballot measure is about figuring out the rules for the new market, including taxation of pot sales to help fund local governments. This is one of the marketing points on which proponents of the initiative hope to base their electoral campaign — that legalizing pot can raise money to pay for local governments starved for funds by government preoccupied with prisons and tax cuts for the rich.

That the ballot measure is really about creating new legal markets and products is sad but inevitable — the capitalist market system swallows everything within its reach. Word on the street is that some pot growers and dealers are against the measure because they know it will put them out of business. Residents of pot crop-dependent Humboldt County may organize a “no” campaign.

It’s up to radicals to set up alternatives in every social realm — housing, food, education, transportation, drugs and recreation — based on cooperation, sharing, production for use not profit, and meeting human needs not corporate greed. Turning fancy strains of pot into a new Napa Valley wine industry — complete with pesticides, low-paid un-documented workers, and fat-cat yuppie owners — is a likely but unpleasant picture of the future.

Clearly, drug prohibition is a bad joke that should be abandoned immediately. Laws against pot haven’t made it difficult to get. Rather, they have been a price support system and a tax on users, keeping prices high and promising super-profits to people involved in the trade. Billions of dollars have been wasted on police and prisons, pointlessly ruining lives. A few groovy hippies have been able to live rural lives growing weed, and a few corporate-style drug gangs have run a profitable business.

Average users pay an inflated price. Perhaps it can be a bit more fun to use an illegal drug than a legal drug like alcohol. Ultimately, people are going to decide what to do with their bodies no matter what the laws say and an awful lot of people seem to like smoking dope. So it is silly for laws to try to hold back popularly accepted cultural behaviors.

The ballot measure, if passed, would be the first state law to outright legalize pot for recreational use, rather than hiding behind medical uses for marijuana or past legal reforms aimed at “decriminalizing” pot by making possession and use a minor infraction, while keeping strict laws against selling and growing.

Under the proposed law, individuals over 21 years old could “possess, process, share, or transport” up to one ounce of pot “solely for that individual’s personal consumption, and not for sale.” Those of age could also “cultivate, on private property by the owner, lawful occupant, or other lawful resident or guest of the private property owner or lawful occupant, cannabis plants for personal consumption only, in an area of not more than twenty-five square feet per private residence”. That is enough space to grow an ample personal supply — perhaps 25 ounces every three months. The law bans smoking pot in public, while using a motor vehicle or “in any space while minors are present” as well as providing marijuana to anyone under 21.

The law would permit each “local government” including a “city, county, or city and county” to either ban the sale of pot within its jurisdiction, or regulate and tax up to one ounce sales by “persons . . . lawfully authorized”. Local governments would be permitted to regulate not just the sale of pot, but also who would be licensed to produce, process and distribute it. They could pass zoning rules to regulate the location, size, hours, advertising, public health and environmental impacts of marijuana production, sale and consumption within their jurisdiction.

The lack of a statewide standard could create a confusing patchwork of “dry” areas and legal areas, determined by local voters. Perhaps a few cities would emerge as drug supply hubs for the state, with potheads driving to the local dope supermarket, dominated by a few companies that were “authorized” because of their close connections to local government officials. Some cities could pass lax laws with low taxes and easy rules to become an “authorized” dealer, while others might opt for very high taxes and strict rules. There is no way to know what might happen but companies wanting to cash in on the marijuana market would be likely to heavily lobby local governments to earn potentially huge profits. The emphasis on local regulation appears to invite corruption.

Of course any petty corruption under the law is likely to be better than the status quo, which criminalizes huge numbers of people for their private decisions and spawns various levels of criminal activity, from benign to violent, throughout society. A friend who works trimming pot during harvest in Northern California described the creepy, power-tripping, paranoid dynamic that the constant fear of getting busted breeds amongst workers in the illegal pot industry. Everyone is wondering if there is a government spy in their midst.

The drug war — like the war on terrorism — gives the state endless excuses to intrude on individual liberty and privacy. This dynamic creates a corrosive, authoritarian atmosphere of expanded police budgets and authority. Ending the war on drugs is what I think of as a non-reformist reform because it opens up more liberated social conditions — space for people to build autonomy and community.

Opponents of legalization have always claimed that more people would use pot if it was legal but it’s hard to see how this could be true since weed is already so easily available to anyone who wants it. To the extent more people use it, this could be a good thing. Pot is a quick and easy way to alter one’s consciousness in an interesting way that can potentially help people question mainstream values of consumerism, human control, hierarchy, etc. When you’re stoned, social dynamics that normally seem natural or mandatory can sometimes be called into question. We need to conduct more hands-on research on this point . . .

On the other hand, there are a lot of ways to alter and expand your consciousness — meditation, playing music, extreme exercise, rioting, therapy, working on Slingshot, starting a guerilla garden or plugging into other participatory, social, interactive activities. Pot can be a lazy, passive high — a cheap trip to higher consciousness that can dull the mind, inhibit spiritual development and hold people back. When pot is just another product, users are just consumers. We need a world where we’re more engaged with each other, ourselves and able to address social contradictions — another way to check-out from reality heads the wrong direction.

Some of the harder, more do-it-yourself, non-chemical mind-altering experiences can be pretty deep. While I’ve had amazing moments feeling like I was floating on air while riding my bicycle stoned into the sunset, I’ve also noticed how I get depressed for about a week after each time I try pot. Each drug works differently for different people, at different times, and has different costs and benefits. Hopefully folks will try a lot of ways to expand their consciousness because too much of any particular pathway becomes boring.

Just legalizing pot isn’t the end of the story — the social and cultural struggle about how we use marijuana and other drugs (legal or illegal) will continue indefinitely. Hopefully, once pot is legal and “out of the closet” it will be easier to have a more complex and interesting dialog, and there will be one less absurd excuse for police to bust people.