Monday, September 28, 2009

Kentucky Social Forum: Yes there are ‘alternatives’!

One of the favorite gloats of neoconservatives (and neo“liberals”) especially in the 1990s bore a woman’s name: TINA, for “There Is No Alternative” to capitalism. Perhaps nothing symbolized this notion more fully than the so-called World Economic Forums, whose genesis was in 1971, held each winter in Davos, Switzerland, at which “select” corporate leaders and international heads of state met to discuss the world situation from a very capitalistic perspective.

But by 2001, two years after the glory of Seattle, there was another kind of Forum that began to be held at the same time of year as the “economic” forum, with a much more humane tilt: the annual World Social Forum, with its origins in Brazil and its 75,000-100,000 heads at least partly in the “clouds” of anti-capitalism, even socialism. Each year since, the World Social Forum has “responded” to its self-serving capitalistic counterpart.

Out of the WSF tradition have come several regional Social Forums (the Americas, Africa, etc.) and some national ones as well; but the U.S. did not come on board until 2007 in Atlanta with the first U.S. Social Forum. Another is planned for Detroit from June 22-26, 2010, and, partially in preparation for this national event, some U.S. states have been holding their own Social Forums. Kentucky joined the joyous parade with the Kentucky Social Forum, the first statewide one in the U.S. South, the weekend of July 31-August 2, 2009, at Berea College, some 40 miles south of Lexington.

And nothing could be clearer from the KYSF than that there are indeed alternatives to capitalism—in fact, many of them. The Forum’s statement of its mission said, “We value ALL voices; young, old, poor communities, LGBTQ,” all races and both genders; and it wasn’t kidding. There were workshops on subjects as diverse and various as “The Right to Parent (or Not);” “The Fight for Fair & Healthy Food;” “Reforming Immigration for America—The Kentucky Angle;” “Black and Brown Alliances in Appalachia;” “Pushing the Platform for a Toxic-Free Future;” “Tech Tools and Social Media for Social Justice: An Introduction;” “Let’s Talk About SEX(UALITY);” “Fighting Racism in the Criminal Justice System;” “Food Justice is Social Justice;” “The Economic Crisis and the Solidarity Economy” “Canta Y Llores—Life and Death Around the Borders of US and Mexico;” “The Movement to Eradicate Predatory Lending in KY;” “Human Trafficking, Modern Day Slavery and Immigration: How is It All Related;” “Using Reproductive Justice to Address Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault;” “Theater of the Oppressed;” “Mountain Justice Now!: Activism and Awareness;” “Effective Engagement with Elected Officials and other Government Agencies;” and even “Recess, Free Play and Human Rights” and “Kemet/Ancient Egypt: The Theological Understanding of the Medu Neter.” In addition, there was a “Healing and Spirituality Space” (with coaching and instruction on meditation, yoga, reiki, flower essences and energy balancing, and acupuncture) and a Film Fest that included documentaries on the young black voter, health care, the Middle East conflict, hip hop, and prisons. In short, there was truly something for everyone—except perhaps a Scrooge-capitalist—at the KYSF!

And this is a GOOD thing, for (as the emblematic words of the USSF put it) “Another World Is Possible, Another U.S. Is Necessary” (emphasis added). As the Forum’s mission statement said (for its slogan, it adopted a slight change in the USSF’s: “Another Kentucky Is Possible”), “We see the KY Social Forum as both a platform and a catalyst to bring together diverse populations working to change the political and economic fabric of this state and this nation. We see the process of this Forum as building bridges between communities that have not previously been in contact.”

The main problem, and it was a major one, was that only about 300 people showed up, a result in part of natural disasters (the remnants of hurricane Ike and a severe ice storm) that caused the cancellation of two early planning meetings. For those of us who were there, though, the KYSF was truly a sight to see and an enlightenment to experience--despite the occasional problems with the distances between venues and the lack of elevators in some of the dormitories in which many stayed.

We sampled five of the workshops:

* “Chaos in Coal Country: Mountain Top Removal and Beyond,” presented by a rotation of speakers, mostly students and recent graduates of many Kentucky colleges and universities (for example, EKU and Murray State). A film with the same title as the workshop, the speakers, and the discussion that followed showed that mountain top removal and strip mining annihilate Kentucky ecosystems, transforming the second most biologically-diverse temperate-zone forest in the world into “biologically barren moonscapes.” They also cause depletion of fish stocks (when affected fish are cut open, their insides are black) and cause traditional mining communities to disappear as the number of jobs declines and residents are also driven away by dust, blasting, increased flooding, and the clanging and asphalt-destruction by overloaded coal trucks “careening down small, windy mountain roads.”

It was pointed out, too, that the TVA, the largest electricity producer (and thus user of coal) in the area is perhaps equally to blame with the coal companies. So, the presenters said, use less electricity!! In making these points, they (and discussion participants) related many personal experiences.

* “Single-Payer Healthcare.” The crucial-but-simple basics of single-payer’s amazing benefits were laid out convincingly: how it would cover everything for everybody without interfering in any way with one’s right to choose his/her doctors, hospitals, clinics, and dentists (and how Canada already has such a system without “wait times” longer than in the U.S.—the “evidence” for these wait times is all anecdotal); how the pursuit of profit, reflected in ever-increasing private insurance “fees” here in the U.S. plus the hidden costs of the refusal to insure because of “pre-existing” medical conditions and cover expensive but needed medical procedures wrecks lives (and causes deaths) in our country; how the U.S. is the only developed country without a national health program, which causes it (for example) to have the highest per-capita medical cost in the world (England, with socialized medicine, is lowest) but rank, according to the World Health Organization, 35th in infant mortality and 37th for overall medical quality; how 76 percent of the American public (and even 59 percent of M.D.’s and 70 percent of nurses) support health care reform; how, in the U.S., 59 percent of all bankruptcies are medically-related; and so on. Fortunately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised a floor vote on Rep. John Conyers’ HR 676, the main single-payer bill, this Congress. It may not pass this time, said speakers David Johnson and Dr. David Bos, but the people’s day will come! Phone, write, e-mail, even visit your representative!

* “The Need for the New Black Panther Party in the Black Community in the 21st Century.” At this workshop, three members of the Black Panthers were expected but could not attend; after about half an hour of waiting most attenders left. But those who remained had a very productive session, discussing the Black Panther movement, especially in Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1970s, when it was very, and nonviolently, active (and not only among Black males)—especially in the years before many of those who were Black males were arrested and/or killed; and noting with interest the fact that there is a nascent, new Black Panther movement in its formative stages, with objectives similar to those of the 1960s and 1970s.

* “The Idea of the Common Good: Is it Capitalist or Socialist?” This workshop answered its question most emphatically in favor of socialism, although most attenders spoke predominantly of small, partial steps toward that overarching system. The official KYSF workshop description summed up the main point well: “The U.S. Constitution is structurally biased to promote the interests of the wealthy, property-owning class and it was intentionally [so designed] at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The common good, despite the preamble to the Constitution, has never been an objective of the ruling class. Once one understands these concepts, [one can properly] evaluate legislative proposals and policies at all levels of government. Further, socialism is a viable, workable alternative to capitalism and is the form of government that has the concept of the common good as a fundamental principle.”

* “Organizing in the Age of Obama.” This was a participatory workshop (as many at the KYSF were) which noted the wild enthusiasm with which many greeted President Obama—2.5 million people (!) attended his Inauguration, after all—and focused on three aspects of organizing for progressive and radical causes in the new Age: “what’s working,” “obstacles,” and “solutions.” One of the main organizers of the KYSF, Attica Scott of Kentucky Jobs with Justice, an attender of this workshop, said that one thing that is working is coalition-building (relationships); Kentuckians for the Commonwealth representatives, relying on their experiences especially in the areas of tax justice, voting rights for ex-felons, and mountaintop removal, spoke of people “expressing themselves” and of improved communication (especially via computer: e-mail etc.). An attender from the SEIU spoke of using the many techniques pioneered in the 2008 elections, while one from the FOR suggested, using programs in counter-(military)recruitment and another training teachers in solutions to all forms of violence as examples, that youth might be a common denominator. Grass-roots organizing, rather than “inside the Beltway” things, seemed to be generally agreed to be the main source of recent successes; and it was pointed out that the millions of youth who were mobilized to vote in 2008 will have important beneficial effects for “us” for decades to come. Obstacles to our success that were discussed included the fact that many Bush appointees and hires are still on the job (and many cultural habits in enforcement etc. haven’t changed); overly hopeful expectations of Obama; special-interest lobbying and campaign money; entrenched (often old) politicians; the lack of training of good people to replace those politicians; a lack of organization; and racism. Solutions to these problems, meanwhile, focused on training and mentoring new politicians and activist leaders; focusing on the local-grass-roots level; and perhaps above all unity among people from various specific movements who agree on (only) most things: don’t fight each other, or focus on, single issues!

That last point might serve as sort of an expression of the watchword for the entire Kentucky Social Forum of 2009: accept diversity not only of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability level, etc., but even of the primary issues on which your organization focuses as compared to what other progressive/radical groups emphasize. The TINA idea is nonsense—there are many and various alternatives to capitalism (and conformism)—and there is much more that unites than divides us. Remember that!!

-- Eustace Durrett, Dr. Peggy Kidwell and Ike M. Thacker IV

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