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Think Global, Act Local: Rinse, Repeat, Die

Think Global, Act Local: Rinse, Repeat, Die
The fun, fraud, farce and fury of local activism


By Daniel Patrick Welch

Think globally, act locally—this has been the mantra of activists worldwide since at least the 1970s, so much so that it has become cliché, coopted, and corporatized as much as any slogan or phrase since “the American people,” or “my good friend.” The point, of course, is well taken. It is useless to fight far flung battles while ignoring evil and injustice in one’s own backyard. I remember European friends who scoffed at the notion of US high school students writing to free political prisoners through Amnesty International, while the US’ death penalty remained one of AI’s top human rights abuses. Moreover, the path toward change is often only possible when localized organizing creates unstoppable momentum to challenge global forces, as is happening now in Venezuela and Bolivia.

That being said, of course, much of the decision-making, funding and power apparatus lies far from any local struggle, and it goes without saying that the efforts of local groups are often ineffective without ties to larger movements. And I’m sure I’m not the first to say this: local activism sucks. Okay, that may be harsh, but putting ideals into practice in your neighborhood can often mean some pretty uncomfortable things. The first dash of cold water is that all the infrastructure and drama of a larger struggle usually applies in the microcosm: all the players, the pimps, the shills for developers and corporations, the kiss-ass toadies…are all—of course—local, which means you probably know them. And they know you.

And let’s face it: despite the glamour of the power couple analogy, no one wants to walk around town like a local Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, about whom David Letterman quipped: “Uh-oh, here they come, and you know they’re pissed off about something!” Yet, for better and for worse, local struggles embody almost all the characteristics of larger ones: the powerful vs. the powerless, alliances built on expedience and shortsighted gain, manipulated data, unscrupulous villains, overreaching, expansionist institutions, and tons of regular people who just go along to get along.

In fact, the geography is often largely irrelevant: here in “liberal” Massachusetts, for example, the problems can often be worse, where all parties like to cloak themselves in the guise of doing good. Yet, particularly in this case study, Massachusetts is one of the worst offenders, gobbling up open space at 40 acres a day—seven times the rate of population growth, gleefully sprawling toward our own inevitable gridlocked demise. But everyone’s a Democrat—and some of them are gay!—so they must be well-meaning, sensible people.

But the logic of expansion, of corporate and institutional “thinking,” is essentially the same as it is with Congress or the White House, IBM, or any other behemoth that wants to get its way. Dissenters who don’t want to see the last sliver of wetland paved over to make tennis courts face the usual coterie of experts in suits, who guarantee that their pet project will have no negative impacts whatsoever, and in fact will leave everyone smarter, richer, happier and better dressed. The only difference, as I said, is that you know most of them. The local college president, surrounded by a troupe of consultants and study-mongers, was my grade school principal. She calls me by name at meetings where I dare speak out: “Geez, Dan, I should think you’d be glad to have tennis courts there.” Or dismisses concerns about the flood plain with “Yeah, I have water in my basement, too.” And “Don’t chew gum in my school!”

Okay, that last one may have been a flashback. But I’m a pretty accomplished guy: I speak five languages, made it through my teen years without getting arrested, have written scores of articles and been translated and published in two dozen languages, am recognized at a rally in DC by random people I’ve never met; run a business in town for the better part of 20 years. All this not to toot my own horn, but just to show how local politics work, here and, I assume, everywhere else. You can’t often be taken seriously within 100 miles of where you were born. When I show up at these meetings, I’m essentially the impudent little twerp from grade school. My wife once actually overheard me referred to as “Little Danny Welch,” the moniker I had growing up. Local relationships and longstanding ties are supposed to help pave the way (sorry) for ignoring the fact that half the city is built on a swamp, and that just maybe we should think twice before filling in every remaining square inch.

In a strange way, the notion of “outsider” plays a role here, as it does in all politics. Most old cities are fairly insular: ever since the new rabble from Ireland, Poland, Russia, Canada—wherever—seized power from the blue bloods, they have been careful not to relinquish it to anyone else. I was shocked recently to find that Salem is only 15% non-white according to the last census, actually below average. I say shocked because my own interracial marriage and my work forces me to see things through a different lens. We run a school which serves a high proportion of low- and moderate income families, and have almost constant contact with the newer Caribbean, Asian and African immigrants who make up our circle, most of whom have no voice in the future in which they will be a majority. We toggle, fairly easily, or so I thought, between the 15% and the other world, the Irish middle class in which I grew up. I could have sworn it was more balanced, but when I go to local meetings, caucuses or hearings, I am quickly snapped back to reality.

And of course, it can be relatively easy to meet in huge groups to denounce government policy at a rally, or even to deconstruct Dick Cheney’s house of cards when it comes to secrecy and underhandedness. On the local level, again, this means confronting your parents’ neighbors, employers, and a host of others with truths that everyone wants to ignore. The corporation which controls the land in question has been chided by the state for its lack of transparency, but like every other developer, is interested in cultivating a different perception of itself. College big shots play a leading role in a local neighborhood association, yet such a glaring and egregious conflict of interest doesn’t seem to matter.

Public relations and spin are commonplace, just as they are in the White House press room. “We’re bringing back the marsh,” is a kind of worry stone for the college president, apparently referring to the fact that the toxic swamp she inherited came with the obligation to continue the legally mandated restoration. Like most landowners, this one has actually done less than required and ignored mandated plans for years, despite having acquired the land at a huge discount which was supposed to help ease the cost of restoration.

So, effectively, the meme performs a sort of alchemy: from legal dereliction of duty to environmental heroism. Now that is impressive—basically turning shit into gold. But beyond the minutiae of wetlands preservation—and here again, the analogy to huge companies, governments or corporations holds true—a simple statement of partial or arguable truth is belied by an enormous overarching reality. Anyone looking at the area can see how massive development over the past few years has all but destroyed the borderlands necessary for true wetland health. We have watched from our own backyard as the wildlife have fled, the storm runoff has risen and even the wind marches unchecked across dewooded meadow, and over cars parked on newly paved ground. The road salt, leaking brake fluid and motor oil are all, apparently biodegradable. Not to worry, as the suits reassure us. I can’t help but feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck as the radio drifts in and out of my consciousness, a government source insisting that “force-feeding at Guantanomo is being carried out in a humane and compassionate manner.”

This may all seem small potatoes, what with the horrors of war and occupation and Wal-Mart filling in lakes and so on. But my point is that the local really is a microcosm of the global. Cities are stuck in the same cycle as everyone else, looking for any development possible to help make ends meet. The problem in both arenas is that people swallow the fallacy that development and progress are one and the same. We sit in gridlock, breathing in carbon monoxide as we welcome the increase in traffic new development will bring. Applauding the prospect of jobs as family incomes shrink, while the waters rise around us, we may all too soon see the irony of Zippy the Pinhead’s stock phrase: “Are we having fun yet?”

In the local setting, which is often where it counts most, these old fallacies are hardest to dispel. It’s as if we never moved beyond GM Charlie’s famous line, “What’s good for business is good for America.” Well maybe it was GE Charlie or Calvin Coolidge, but the point is that so many people are still holding out hope for that nod from tycoons who have more than we ever will. And, presumably, what they want is what we all want, on this Fantasy Island where everyone is mesmerized to identify upward. So it ruffles no feathers that the college president was voted businesswoman of the year (because education is a business? Or because business and academia have finally merged? Who knows?). Again, like most local struggles, this one has universal echoes. When state and business merge, watch out. Mussolini once complained that fascism should rightly be called corporatism, since it features the perfect merger of state and business interests. I’m not sure when he said this, but I’m pretty sure it was before he was hacked to death by his own people.

Local municipalities are trapped in this deadly cycle. And in this trickle-down corporate paradise, the Ponzi scheme works like this. Cities have no money because of state cutbacks. States have no money because of federal cutbacks. The Feds have no money because we have to fund a half-trillion dollar Pentagon budget that exceeds the combined military spending of every other nation on earth. And there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza. So, because cities have no money and are on the front lines of the economic insanity wrought by federal policy, they respond by grabbing at every shitty development scheme that just might put an extra few bucks in the till. In essence, the Iraq war, and other adventures like it, are not only poisoning the world with uranium dust for generations to come, not only poisoning the prospects for our grandchildren to live in harmony with the community of nations, not only bankrupting the federal treasury for a lifetime; but they are also forcing people to make ridiculous choices in their daily lives, selling their souls, their heritage, their environmental integrity, and their very health and well being, all for the privilege of watching their kids sent off to war and their future evaporate before their eyes. We privatize war and make dirt poor people pay for water—now that’s progress! Of course, in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, locals had finally had enough of choosing between food and water: they rose up, brought down the government, and told Bechtel where to go. We should be learning from them.

Neoliberals and neoconservatives everywhere conspire to whitewash the free-market nightmare that has plunged the world into the abyss—like the proverbial smearing of lipstick on a pig. When everything has finally been privatized, outsourced, or partnered off, the job will be complete. In the US, unchecked growth and privatization means corporations write the laws. In Bolivia it means it's you’re a criminal for collecting rainwater for your own use. The rate at which we are going to hell is accelerating along with Greenland’s ice sheet melt rate. I guess we’re supposed to just shut up and enjoy the ride...wheeeeeeee! Comedian George Carlin has long held that as a species, we’re not a dangerous as we seem, beyond the obvious ability to kill off our own species. The earth will bid us good riddance one day and never look back. He may have been right with his own, typically blunt assessment: The planet is fine—the people are fucked. Big difference.

Another characteristic with broader echoes is the defeatism that permeates neighborhood opposition to a project. People are convinced that a state agency can get away with doing whatever they want, so it’s not worth fighting. Sounds a bit like Democrats in Congress. And is this little stretch of wetland so important? Our little school has survived everything thrown at it for 25 years; I bet we could survive a few more college kids pissing in our bushes. Along with a few gung ho parents, I had once dreamed of restoring the old riverbed that runs through the area; even approached some land trusts to see how it might be possible. But then the dorms were built and the war started, and so on and so on. It is like the wind has been taken out of our sails: Everyone is so tired of beating our heads against the wall. It is often said that corporations have no soul, but perhaps a greater advantage is that they have no memory. Opponents are forced to re-raise arguments that were made years ago, but apparently forgotten by everyone in the room. And the exhaustion of repeat work only helps them. Add the PR of a fait accompli and your project is as good as built in the public mind—and the regulatory agencies will fall into line.

Actually, Massachusetts once had impressive wetlands protection, but property rights eventually helped gut the meaning of much of it. Now corporations have what they call a Licensed Site Professional on their payroll to tell them how to abide by the law. More outsourcing. Bit of a fox-in-the-henhouse trip, but hey, it beats enforcement. The other development is that conservation is largely left to local commissions with members appointed by the mayor; real estate interests are, of course, usually well represented. Now, I’m sure these mechanisms have nothing to do with how fast we are devouring open space—it’s all one big coincidence.

Cities have few weapons with which to fight, but they still have some. Most developments can’t get so much as a curb cut without local approval, so the democratic process may not quite be dead yet. Easements and paper streets also provide some muscle for local entities to push back against big developers. And some towns are less charmed by the brass ring of tax revenue, realizing that costs often outweigh additional revenue. Next door in Danvers, which maybe by sheer coincidence used to be Salem Village during the witch trial days, the Town Manager was actually elated to be giving up some town space for conservation, knowing that it would save money not having extra houses to pipe water to, kids to school, waste to service, and so on.

Local ordinances are a neat tool, too; in fact, our own city council actually managed, almost inadvertently, to stand up to Wal-Mart, something few locals can boast. Acting on a request from the retailer for longer hours during the holiday season, the Council said, sure, as long as you abide by the rules we set for all retailers: workers can’t be forced to work until midnight; no retaliation for those who don’t work the extra hours; and overtime pay for those who do. Wal-Mart withdrew its application. Score one for the good guys. But big developers just as often pit cities against each other: If you won’t let us fill in your lake, we’ll fill in the lake a few towns over, and they get the tax revenue [add Holy Grail music here].

Without a regional approach, then, it can be pretty hopeless. The college project in question is one of no less than five huge projects along the Forest River watershed, all wanting to be seen in isolation so that they can get quick and painless approval. In case anyone needed reminding, these are depressing times. So why bother? I’m thinking this through as I race in my car toward the only local Post Office open late, another 12-hour day; just a tad bitter about not being able to draw a salary. I am scrambling just to get the school through another winter, and hoping for the best. I’m thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s grim prognosis that nobody gives a damn, and it’s a lifetime of work trying to get someone to care. Fine. Let them build their baseball field on a toxic waste dump and pave the whole place over for tennis courts. They’re just going to do whatever they want anyway.

I bet Noam Chomsky doesn’t waste his time arguing against the traffic plans proposed by Harvard’s latest land grab in Cambridge. Oh, I know, more delusions of grandeur—or of obscurity and marginalization, depending on your perspective. Why don’t I just go home and sit on the couch watching Law and Order reruns? I can comfort myself eventually by filing an amicus brief with whatever family winds up suing the city, state, and everyone else when their kid gets killed by the extra traffic we’ve been warning them about. And it will probably be years before the filling of this last sliver results in a major flood. But of course, this isn’t Chicken Little fantasy: Well, the sky may not be falling, but the ocean really is rising. Somehow, a line needs to be drawn. Chavez and Morales are doing it, in Venezuela and Bolivia. So how can I whine about organizing the smallest bit of resistance in our own backyard?

As I’m struggling with this, the radio clicks back in: it’s Coretta Scott King’s funeral, and some commentator is remembering how she stood up with the garbage workers in Memphis the day after her husband’s death. Did I hear that right? Her man lying cold in the morgue, and she is on the march. Wow. And a quote: “The fact that the things we are fighting for may seem difficult, even impossible, does not relieve us of the obligation to try.” Humbled, I rush home to continue stuffing envelopes. And of course, if things really get as bad as we think, there’s always the Cochabamba option. And never forget Mussolini….

I know I’ve only made passing reference to the outline of these projects, but in the interest of brevity, I will leave it at that, since it’s not the main focus of my column. However, I encourage those interested to see the maps, documents, and photos here: http://danielpwelch.com/0602sscx.htm. Of course, politicians need always need support to take strong stands, especially when powerful interests are involved. And while they usually prefer contacts from their own constituents, this is also part of the problem. Developers count on opposition being carved up and localized; it might not hurt for people to get a fax or two from Sweden or Argentina urging Americans not to ruin the planet we all share.

*************

© 2006 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to http://danielpwelch.com. Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School (http://www.greenhouseschool.org). Translations of articles are available in up to 20 languages. Links to the website are appreciated at danielpwelch.com.

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