Letter From New York #32

July 25th, 2012 by Jane Sloane.

The shooting at the Aurora, Colorado premiere of the Batman movie Dark Knight Rises exposed violence like a tripwire. Moviegoers watching a graphically violent film were gunned down by a Jokerman who’d been studying mental disease before dropping out of his PhD program and accelerating his intake of drugs and slugging alcohol.

While we look to the guy with the gun, we’d do well to think about the conditions that gave rise to what happened. Watching an interview that Bill Moyers did this week with journalist Chris Hedges was illuminating. Here’s my very crunched down version of what Hedges says. The full transcript is here

In talking to Bill Moyers, Chris Hedges calls areas where individuals have no power “sacrifice zones.”

The political system is bought off, the judicial system is bought off, the law enforcement system services the interests of power. You see that in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia. By the time they left, there’s just a wasteland. Nothing grows. Some of the richest soil, some of the purest water, and these are the headwaters for much of the East Coast, You are rendering the area moonscape. It becomes inhabitable. And you’re destroying the lungs of the Eastern seaboard. It’s all destroyed and it’s not coming back.

That violence is visited on these communities. You see it played out. I mean, Camden, New Jersey, which is the poorest city per capita in the United States and always, the (top) one or two in terms of the most dangerous, it’s a dead city.  There’s no employment. Whole blocks are abandoned. The only thing functioning are open-air drug markets, of which there are about a hundred. And you’re talking third or fourth generation of people trapped in these internal colonies. They can’t get out, they can’t get credit.

What that does to your dignity, your self-esteem, your sense of self-worth. At one point in the 50s,(Camden) was a huge shipyard that employed 36,000 people. Campbell’s Soup was made there, RCA used to be there. There were a variety of businesses and they attracted, in that great migration, a lot of unskilled labor from the South, as well as immigrants from New York.  Because without an education, it was a place that you could find a job. It was unionized, of course, so people had adequate wages and some protection. And then — everything went down.

With the flight of manufacturing overseas, it’s all gone. Nothing remains. And that’s why it’s such a stark example of what we’ve done to ourselves, without realizing that the manufacturing base of any country is absolutely vital to its health. Not only in terms of its economic (health), but in terms of the cohesion of a society because it gives employment. And it really is about the maximization of profit, it really is about the commodification of everything, including human beings.

Hedges talks of a tiny village in Nebraska two miles from Pine Ridge called Whiteclay with four liquor stores that dispense the equivalent of 13,500 cans of beer a day with estimates of alcoholism as high as 80 percent and contributing to early death.

You build a kind of dependency which destroys self-efficiency. I mean, that’s what the old Indian agencies were set up to do. You take away the livelihood, you take away the buffalo herds, you make it impossible to sustain yourself, and then you have lines of people waiting for lard, flour, and you know, whisky. It’s a form of disempowerment. It’s a form of keeping people essentially, at a subsistence level, and yet dependent on the very structures of power that are destroying them.

We are watching these corporate forces, which are supranational. They have no loyalty to the nation state at all, reconfigure the global economy into a form of neo-feudalism. We are rapidly becoming an oligarchic state with an incredibly wealthy class of overlords.

Later, when Moyers asks Hedges about his effectiveness in his actions, Hedges says:

I look less on my ability to effect change and understand it more as a kind of moral responsibility to resist these forces.  And to fight to protect, preserve, and nurture life. For those who seek the moral life, there will always come a time in which they have to defy even institutions they care about if they are able to retain that moral core.

We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods of human history if there’s not a radical change in the way we relate to the ecosystem that sustains life.

The state is not responding in a rational way to what’s happening. If they had, they would’ve gone back and looked at Roosevelt. There would’ve been forgiveness of all student debt, 1 trillion, there would’ve been a massive jobs program targeted at those under the age of 25, and there would’ve been a moratorium on more closures and bank repossessions of homes.

And those banks and financial institutions that helped create the financial crisis would have been held accountable.

There seems a lot of truth in what Hedges is saying and yet I’m looking for a female voice and so I turn to Arundhati Roy, who affirms much of what Hedges says while analyzing NGOs and other organizations that are also influenced by capitalism and compartmentalization. In a piece called  ‘Capitalism, a Ghost Story’ Roy says,

In the NGO universe, everything has become a “subject”, a separate professionalized special-interest issue. Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS – have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos with their own elaborate and precise funding brief.

Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could. Poverty too, like feminism, is often framed as an identity problem. As though the poor have not been created by injustice but are a lost tribe who just happen to exist and can be rescued in the short term by a system of grievance redressal, and whose long term resurrection will come from Good Governance…

It’s true, I think, that the approach of many institutions, including many NGOs, can further reduce our wholeness and humanity by attempting to focus on an issue or a sector and thus inevitably compartmentalizing issues and lives.   We need to honor a holistic approach to movement building and to reclaiming the vitality and impact of citizen action.

One of my favorite new journals is called Democracy, A Journal of Ideas, edited by the brilliant Michael Tomasky. However, even in this journal, where women’s voices are regularly heard,  the Journal’s Board of Advisers includes only one woman and, of its 14 person editorial staff and editorial committee, only a couple are women. We’re only skating around the edges if we give gender a fragmented voice without embedding it in the structures and decision-making.

In these last few months I’ve been struck by three wise women doing their own great work in different parts of the world – India, Afghanistan and Kenya – and each advocating for the complimentary practices of gratitude, love and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.

Dr Kiran Martin is the founder of ‘Asha‘, which means hope in Hindi, as an organization working with slum dwellers in India to support them to achieve a better quality of life. irrespective of their background, caste or religious beliefs. Kiran’s latest newsletter is on the importance of practicing gratitude which she defines as “receiving a tangible gift or a gesture of kindness. As she says, “Gratitude is a way of life, a fundamental orientation.

It’s a conscious choice to focus on life’s blessings rather than on its shortcomings. We recognize sources of goodness as outside of ourselves, coming from others. There’s a distinction between a short term feeling, and saying that someone is a grateful person, someone who habitually looks at life with a gratitude focus.”

Forgiveness and love
Dr Sakeena Yacoobi, founder, the Afghan Institute of Learning and Board Member of the Global Fund for Women was so convinced about the power of love and forgiveness that she convened an International Conference on Love and Forgiveness in Afghanistan dedicated to these two practices and particularly celebrating the work of Afghan poets and musicians, especially Mawlana (Rumi).

Since 1995, the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) has been helping Afghans to lift themselves above the devastation of war by providing education, training, health care, and health education. While delivering these services, the Institute has also been able to promote critical thinking skills and model and teach human rights, women’s rights, peace, democracy, and leadership in order to empower Afghans and to give them hope.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Rumi

Peace and Reconciliation
Dr Jennifer Riria, CEO of Kenya Women’s Finance Trust and Chairperson of the Tuvuke Initiative says this initiative was created to ensure there is a peaceful General Election in Kenya with over $2 million raised to support initiatives to make this possible. In her words

“Every Kenyan has a responsibility to work towards healing the nation, building national unity and cohesion, collectively, within and among communities and even within every homes.  Kenyans may not be in a position to affect change of political nature such as power, equity and governance, however, they hold the key to creating a cohesive society by respecting our differences … women were the most affected by the post-election violence, however, they are often excluded from conflict management and transformation initiatives …

There is need to proactively create a platform to…bring about reconciliation, national healing, peace, cohesion and integration in the country. We can make peace the currency for the 2013 General Elections.


These three women remind me of the words of my wonderful mentor, the late Dr Stella Cornelius, who said “Women are great peacemakers.”  Stella, who founded the Conflict Resolution Centre in Australia with her daughter, Helena, spent many years working on campaigns such as ‘Work for all who need it’ because she said it was a human rights issue – the right to the dignity of work. And so that shooting in Aurora is our invitation to ‘kairos’, a Greek word that refers to a time when conditions are right for accomplishing a crucial action: the opportune and decisive moment.

In contrast, what we’re seeing now is what Hedges has termed ‘the primacy and violence of materialism and profit over human dignity and human life. The exploitation of human beings accompanied by exploitation of natural resources.’

Aurora is the goddess of the dawn in Roman mythology and so let us embrace a new day with those qualities of love and forgiveness and peace and reconciliation and gratitude at the fore.

And let us also carry the fierceness of Chris Hedges and Arundhati Roy whose deep love for the world motivates them, as it should us all, to rise up for a better world and for the sanctity of all life.

If we are to find hope, it’s not enough to find it in the heroic actions of others, it must be in our own response to a call to fundamentally change the way we live our life.

This is kairos time.

Jane Sloane

One thought on “Letter From New York #32

  1. Elaine Nonneman

    I’m delighted to learn of your new position with GFW! Your quotes and what you’ve written here capture the horror of the Aurora killings as much as what we feel witnessing our national descent and the corporate world order. Where I find reason to hope is in the hearts and minds of people who ‘get’ intersectionality and work accordingly, and especially in the promise of women and girls.

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