Transforming the Way We Think and Live

I was born during World War I above my father's Chinese-American restaurant in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. This means that through no fault of my own, I have lived through most of the catastrophic events of the 20th century -- the Great Depression, fascism and Nazism, the Holocaust, World War II, the A-bomb and the H-bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cold war, the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War and, now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the "taking the law into our own hands" response of the Bush administration. Eighty million people have been killed in wars during my lifetime.

But it has also been my good fortune to have lived long enough to witness the death blow dealt to the illusion that unceasing technological innovations and economic growth can guarantee happiness and security to the citizens of our planet's only superpower.

Decades from now I hope that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be celebrating the first decade of the 21st century as the best of times because it was the decade when we, the American people, were finally forced to look in the mirror by catastrophes like 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, global warming, Katrina, massive housing foreclosures, and the bailout crisis.

It was the decade when we recognized that "It is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings." (This quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was a favorite of my late husband Jimmy Boggs).

The decade when, slowly but surely, we recognized that our catastrophes are not acts of Nature but the consequences of our own ideas and actions. Therefore we can bring an end to them by transforming the way we have been thinking and living.

With both the Obama and McCain campaigns claiming the mantle of change, we need a deeper discussion of the times in which we live and the kind of changes we need to make -- in our way of life and in our politics.

Our times are promising because the presidential candidacy of a visionary African American has energized a new generation of youth and millions of Americans who for centuries have been left out of the American Dream.

But our times are also perilous because it will take more than vision and liberal politics to win over or at least neutralize some of the social forces being energized by Sarah Palin. Overwhelmingly white, suburban or small-town, these Americans are, understandably, increasingly insecure because of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our tanking economy in hock to China, and people of color becoming the majority in many cities.

That is why this "pit bull with lipstick" and a girlish voice is now being deployed by Steve Schmidt, McCain's head strategist, to serve as an "attack dog." Schmidt has been trained by Karl Rove, whose dirty tricks and rousing of the Christian Right orchestrated Bush II's rise to power. Before Palin spoke, the GOP delegates were confused and uncertain. But after she ridiculed Obama's community organizing and lauded McCain as a "war hero," they were on their feet shouting "Fight, Fight, Fight!" and "Drill, Baby, Drill!"

There is no quick solution to this increasingly dangerous situation. We must be mindful of the catastrophe of the "Good Germans," who, humiliated by defeat in World War I and needing a wheelbarrow of marks to buy a loaf of bread, turned to a World War I vet for salvation. We can begin by acknowledging that the main change we Americans now need to make is in ourselves. As Martin Luther King Jr. warned in his 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech over 40 years ago, we need "a radical revolution of values" against "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism."

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, self-described conservative Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University Professor and Ret. U. S. Army Colonel who lost his son in the Iraq war, reminded me of this MLK warning when he pointed out that "Our major problems are at home, not out there somewhere."

"We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they may happen to be, to drive wherever we want without having to think about whether or not the books balance at the end of the month. What neither Obama or McCain can do is persuade us to look ourselves in the mirror. So we rely increasingly on the projection of American military power around the world to try to maintain this dysfunctional system."

Since the Vietnam War period, Bacevich warned, the U.S. has become an "empire of consumption." "We refuse to live within our means. So we rely on our military power. We can't expect Congress to change this situation because "the imperial presidency" is its creation. It has thrust all power on the executive branch and now exists primarily to assure the re-election of its members.

Now we must also realize that the massive housing foreclosures destroying whole neighborhoods are the result of the sad reality that on Main Street as well as Wall Street we have created a casino economy by assuming that we can live endlessly on credit.

By recognizing our own culpability instead of putting all the blame on and demonizing others, we can discover the power within each of us to change the world by changing ourselves. One way to begin a new conversation, not only with Obama supporters but with those leaning towards McCain, is by providing examples of how we would be safer and happier if we lived more simply so others could simply live.

What we need are not stopgap measures like the bailouts concocted by George W. Bush and his Wall Street Secretary of the Treasury. What we need instead is a paradigm shift toward a bottom-up economy whose foundation is the production and exchange of goods and services that we and our communities really need.

Like the activists who sparked the first American Revolution in December 1773 by throwing overboard crates of tea on British-owned ships in order to declare their independence from English colonialism, we need to burn our credit cards to demonstrate our independence from the casino economy. At these rallies we need to declare our commitment to creating local economies based upon new principles and ethics of real work.

This movement to create a new economy, based on new ethical principles and an appreciation of one another and of the needs of the earth, has already started with the urban agricultural movement which is the fastest growing movement in the U.S.

In Milwaukee, it is spearheaded by Growing Power, the tiny two acre urban farm started by Will Allen, the former pro basketball player, which not only supplies food for hundreds of Milwaukee families but helps them create their own gardens as a base for rebuilding their neighborhoods, and also conducts workshops for urban agriculture pioneers from all across the country, Last week Will Allen received a MacArthur Genius Award.

In Detroit, we have been forced to endure an exodus of jobs, plummeting housing values, and financial crises for several decades running. In response, a growing number of local residents are beginning to view deindustrialization and devastation as an opportunity to rebuild, redefine, and respirit Detroit from the ground up as a "City of Hope." We are growing our own food in hundreds of community gardens, planting fruit trees, and creating a new kind of public high school where pregnant teens learn biology not mainly from books but by gardening and caring for farm animals.

On the west side we are establishing centers like Hush House where young people and returning prisoners rediscover and rebuild their human identity. On the east side, a district like Hope District where local residents grow not only food but their souls by weaving new dreams and doing work that serves the needs of the community.

By these diverse means we are embracing the power within us to create the world anew, thereby freeing ourselves from our elected officials in Washington who disempower us by promising solutions that encourage us to think like victims dependent upon them for crumbs.