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By Eric Weltman

  • Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns (non-fiction)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, Michael Deipert (non-fiction)
  • Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, Linda Melvern (non-fiction)
  • When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, Peter Godwin (non-fiction)
  • Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country, Tim Butcher (non-fiction)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson (non-fiction)
  • Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, Terry Golway (non-fiction)
  • Congo: The Epic History of a People, David Van Reybrouck (non-fiction)
  • First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Peter Eichstaedt (non-fiction)
  • Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder (non-fiction)
  • The Best of Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power, James Traub (non-fiction)
  • Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (non-fiction)
  • The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, Marci Shore (non-fiction)
  • Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War, Ben Rawlence (non-fiction)
  • Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre (non-fiction)
  • They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The true story of three Lost Boys from Sudan, Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (non-fiction)
  • Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong (non-fiction)
  • Tears In the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman (non-fiction)
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The Power of Community to Prevent Climate Catastrophe

Sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

Thank you for this tremendous honor – I’m really grateful to Jim, Elaine, AnneMarie, the Green Sanctuary Committee for this opportunity.

Again, my name is Eric Weltman, and I’m a senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect our most essential resources. I work from our office in Brooklyn.

I believe that climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity.

And I believe that our ability to prevent climate catastrophe hinges on our commitment to the institutions that are the bedrock of our society – in fact, that constitute much of society itself.

I’m referring to unions and political parties, churches and community organizations, libraries and public schools – and, perhaps first and foremost, government.

These institutions are the glue that bind us together. Enable us to pool resources. Collaborate. Share. Work towards and achieve common goals and advance mutual interests. And overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.

Historian Tony Judt has argued that our most important task may be reminding people of the essential role that government has played in keeping our society from collapsing.

For example, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Germany’s government, undermined by anti-social and authoritarian movements, was unable to accomplish things and lost credibility, contributing to the Nazi’s rise to power.

In the United States, in stark contrast, the government successfully put people to work, met social needs, built public infrastructure, and sustained faith in our shared purpose and identity. The New Deal strengthened our social solidarity and our democracy.

Of course, we live in a country where some people believe the solution to gun violence is more guns – and for each of us to own one.

That cowboy mentality – the frontier, go-it-alone, every man for himself, lift yourself up by your bootstraps myth – that cowboy mentalitymay be uniquely prevalent and powerful in the United States, but it’s present elsewhere.

Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister, once famously said, “There’s no such thing as society; there’s only individuals and families.”

And she set about to make that cynical sentiment a reality by attacking her nation’s unions, public transit and health systems.

It’s the atomization of our nation into competing individuals that we must resist as we build communities that nurture, support and sustain each other and enable us to strengthen our capacity to challenge the clout of the oil & gas industry.

Ultimately, we must leverage that people power into pressure on our government to use its resources and its authority to make a transition to 100 percent clean energy.

Of course, here in New York, it’s sadly easy to be scornful about government, with our elected officials getting arrested on a regular basis.

And, more fundamentally, the obscene amount of influence in politics wielded by wealthy individuals is absolutely poisonous to democracy.

I’m sort of reminded of a quote by another British prime minister, Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

But we must resist cynicism and, through our activism, make government more responsive to our interests, more active in fulfilling its obligations and much more bold in exercising its authority – because the fate of our planet is at stake.

Indeed, the Pope, in his recent encyclical, acknowledged that we cannot rely on free market solutions to prevent climate catastrophe, with his condemnation of pollution trading.

We need our elected officials to ban extreme methods of fossil fuel extraction, we need them to stop subsidizing and supporting dangerous forms of energy production, and we need them mandate a rapid transition to 100 percent safe energy.

And we need look no further than our own state for inspiration for how this can happen.

As you’re aware, we achieved a stunning, historic victory here in New York, winning a ban on fracking.

It was result of literally thousands of people who contributed their time, energy and money to the cause, bringing immense amount of pressure to bear on Governor Cuomo, who had the authority to decide whether or not to allow fracking in New York.

It was a vast – truly vast – coalition that enabled us to take on the oil & gas industry and win and this institution was an important part of it.

Shelter Rock has been literally a home for the anti-fracking movement on Long Island. Where we meet. Where we hold movie screenings, forum, vigils and other events and activities.

Shelter Rock has sustained, nurtured, and supported Food & Water Watch and our community in ways that words can barely express. And we are very grateful.

I’m a big believer in institutions and organizations.

Organizations are essential to accumulate, target and sustain the power needed to reform our energy system – which the threat of climate change so clearly necessitates.

I’d like to talk for a moment about my favorite civil rights leader: Ella Baker.

Baker’s civil rights work began with the NAACP starting in the early 1940s, but she was instrumental – key – in the formation of two of the great organizations of the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

When a young Martin Luther King was chosen to head the Montgomery bus boycott, he was picked by all the older ministers in town precisely because he was a newcomer and none of them wanted any other minister to be the leader.

After the boycott, King’s intention was return to his original plan of just being a minister.

It was Baker, along with Bayard Rustin, who helped persuade him to launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – and she helped run it.

And when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was formed, there were only two adults – Baker and Howard Zinn, the historian – invited by the students to participate in the meeting that gave birth to the organization.

Baker nurtured leaders; Baker fostered community; Baker built organizations.

One of my favorite quotes is by Baker: “Martin didn’t make the movement; the movement made Martin.”

The point is: History isn’t made by famous individuals – it’s made by movements, the collective power of individuals, families, and communities, motivated and sustained by our shared values, shared goals, shared aspirations and shared interests.

And organizations are the means by which we organize, focus and direct that power, accumulate resources, and create a more permanent and growing base of power.

Shelter Rock – and so many other institutions like it across New York, the United States, the world – are a vital part of the web that binds us together, in our mutual and shared love and respect for life – for nature, ourselves, each other, all of creation – for our families, our community, our society.

In the weeks and months ahead, we have important opportunities to make progress in the struggle to prevent climate catastrophe. Stopping the Port Ambrose liquefied natural gas facility off of Long Beach. Encouraging New York State to divest from fossil fuels. Calling on world leaders to ban fracking and transition to renewable energy at the Paris climate change negotiations in December.

And, every step of the way, with every rally, movie screening and petition drive, we will be strengthening our community, and fulfilling our capacity to care for ourselves, nurture the best in humanity, and create a more loving, compassionate, and sustainable society.

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Making History

We must make history to prevent climate change catastrophe.

Don’t believe Margaret Mead’s famous quotation, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Social change is made by wielding the power to overcome those defending the status quo. For most of us, that power comes in the form of people – and more people equals more power. The hard work of building that power is how we make history.

Social change is made from the bottom up. Civil rights pioneer Ella Baker got it right when, speaking of Martin Luther King, she asserted, “Martin didn’t make the movement, the movement made Martin.”

In fact, the seeds of social change are planted decades before they fully bloom. What may seem like spontaneous outbursts of activity are the product of generations of agitation, experimentation, and the germination and spread of ideas. From this cauldron, leaders emerge, strategies take shape, public opinion is transformed, and movements are forged.

Baker would know: She began training civil rights activists in the 1940s, including Rosa Parks, years before her celebrated bus ride.

In fact, the history of social change contains numerous miscalculations, failures, and bold tactics that break ground for the future. For example, the 1960 lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina caught fire, inspiring similar demonstrations throughout the South. But previous sit-ins, going back decades, did not.

History is full of setbacks, persistence, and the painstaking work of movement-building. It took many decades for women to win the right to vote in the United States. This struggle was replete with evolving strategies and tactics, bitterly opposed factions, and the slow alignment of forces in favor of women’s suffrage.

History is made by unknown heroes. These are people who clear the path, lay the groundwork, and carry out the day-to-day work. For every prominent leader like King, there were thousands of women and men producing leaflets, canvassing their neighbors, and organizing meetings and demonstrations – people without whom there would have been no Civil Rights Movement.

There’s nothing inevitable about social change. We live within systems – economic, political, cultural – with rules and structures that may appear or feel “natural.”  But these are all social creations, made and maintained by people despite the harm they may do. Too often, we are not conscious of these systems, nor do we recognize the possibility of changing them, or know how to change them.

But sparks of awareness can culminate in the creation of new possibilities. Acts of tolerance, courage, and creativity that inspire and motivate others. The sharing of information and ideas. Making connections, creating relationships, building networks. All of these actions, big and small, help create the conditions and produce the resources necessary for social change.

And when widespread awareness is paired with mass action, possibilities can become new realities. The pain of unfulfilled needs and wants, the demands for fairness and justice, can be stifled no longer. And the tidal wave of power can overwhelm those trying to hold it back.

In recent years, we have experienced immense changes in the United States, including the election of a Black president and the growing legalization of same-sex marriage, all of it the result of years of slow, hard work against forces of resistance.

Unfortunately, the threat of climate change requires us to adopt a new timetable. We do not have decades to bring about rapid societal transformation. External events – albeit, with human causes – such as hurricanes and other weather-related catastrophes may help create the awareness necessary to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

But history has taught us this: Change is not inevitable. We must create the movements, nurture the leaders, sustain the organizations, and build the power necessary to overcome those whose interests are opposed to us. We must make history.

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A Necessary Conflict

In the wake of November’s elections, a chorus of voices is calling on President Obama to return to a “post-partisan” vision for governing.  But here is what’s needed: an honest clash of values and interests, a debate revealing to Americans who really gets helped and who gets hurt by progressive and conservative policies.

The reaction reflects an aversion to conflict in politics that dates to our nation’s founders, who sharply criticized “factions” and went to great lengths to paper over differences among the original colonies, such as omitting the word “slavery” from the Constitution while still protecting the infernal practice.

Of course, the tension could not be contained and only 70 years later erupted into civil war.  Yet, on one of its bloodiest battlefields, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address defiantly declared Americans to be one people with the immortal phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Once again, we face a decisive moment, a brewing conflict that will define our nation and what it means to be an American.

To some degree, the question has already been decided by the tides of immigration. Demography is destiny in a democracy and by 2050 the United States will be majority nonwhite, according to Census projections.

But we live in an imperfect democracy, growing ever more so.  Our system is poisonously imbalanced by the skyrocketing concentration of wealth and the opening floodgates to corporate contributions to political campaigns.  A lopsided conflict is being waged with the interests of the rich organized, well-funded, and winning.

But you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric of right-wing demagogues, such as Sarah Palin, calling for “real Americans” to “take this country back.”  The world is, indeed, a scary place with terrorism, war, and economic dislocation threatening our lives and livelihoods.  But the right-wing has defined the culprits as immigrants, Muslims, gays, and other marginalized groups.  In doing so, conservatives have enlisted many working and middle-class Americans in opposing their own interests.

Progressives need to fully enter this fray, and they need to do so with an ideology, one grounded in facts and values, telling a coherent, compelling story that explains our problems, describes solutions, and fosters solidarity among those sharing genuine interests.  Both progressives and conservatives are drawing from the same well of discontentment, confusion, and fear.  Progressives must direct these sentiments against those attacking programs and policies, from Social Security to public education, that help the vast majority of Americans, regardless of color, ethnicity, or other identity.

Progressives must also uphold rules of engagement that reflect and reinforce our nation’s greatest values.  These include respect for free speech and the rule of law.  Perhaps most importantly are a commitment to non-violence and respect for the humanity of others.  The right wing’s paranoid worldview, populated by enemies and “un-Americans,” undermines these fundamental principles, fraying the fabric of society and weakening democracy.

Finally, progressives must struggle with every resource they can command.  The most powerful are organizations – unions, political parties, community groups – that unite, engage, and mobilize.  However, the right wing is attacking these institutions, destroying the anti-poverty organization ACORN and assaulting public employee unions.  Insidiously, they are promoting non-partisan primaries which will weaken parties, empower wealthy self-financed candidates, and promote a homogenous political landscape that obscures conflict.

It’s time to loudly proclaim the right wing as advancing the interests of the few against the many, promoting second-class citizenship, and undermining the foundations of society.  Progressives can win the hearts and minds of the American people, but only if they fully engage in this necessary conflict.

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Empathy and Our Nation’s Future

By 2050, the United States will be majority non-white.  Latinos, Blacks, Asians, and other “minorities” will constitute approximately 54 percent of our population, according to Census projections.  We must decide what kind of society to create from this diverse mix: separate and unequal, or integrated and equal.

A recent University of Michigan study is a call to action for those seeking the latter.  Researchers found that college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts from the 1980s and 1990s.  Present-day students are less interested in the perspectives of friends and are less concerned for the unfortunate.

Empathy is the ability to recognize, appreciate, and respond to the feelings of other people.  It is a fundamental building block of a healthy society.  Empathy helps us understand our differences and our common ground.  It enables us to go beyond the superficial to identify shared interests and accomplish collective goals.  In an increasingly heterogeneous society, empathy is essential for cooperation and social cohesion, and the pursuit of our nation’s highest ideals, including fairness, justice, and equality.

The Michigan study joins a growing body of research that has found Americans growing more individualistic and isolated.  Other studies have documented intensifying narcissism among college students since the late 1980s.  Our society is becoming more disconnected and lonely, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, Harvard psychiatrists concluded in their book “The Lonely American.”

A number of factors may contribute to this trend.  The rising use of electronic social media, such as Facebook, along with email and other digital communication fosters shallow contact lacking the emotional texture of face-to-face interactions.  Longer commutes, more time watching television, and isolated suburban living reduces social connectivity, as Robert Putnam described in his book “Bowling Alone.”  And following 9-11, the Bush administration’s “us versus them” dynamic fostered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility towards “others.”

Yet the need for understanding, compassion, and solidarity – for empathy – has never been greater.  Barack Obama’s election lent some credence to the notion that we live in a “post-racial” society.  But huge disparities in opportunity persist for poor people, immigrants, and people of color, with injustices perpetuating poverty and other social ills.  Black men are 6.5 times more likely to be in prison than white men.  Income inequality is at an all-time high.  Fifty-six years after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, schools are becoming more separate and unequal.

Today, California, Hawaii, Texas, and New Mexico are already majority non-white, with millions of immigrants changing the face of our nation.  This diversity provides conservatives with a tool and opportunity to construct their vision of society – one that is separate and unequal – by tapping into anger and frustration to pit Americans against each other.

There are alternatives that harmonize with our nation’s values.  The empathy decline is a social phenomenon with social solutions: policies producing awareness, understanding, and solidarity among all people – and doing so by fostering meaningful interactions, nurturing connections, and creating an environment of mutual trust, respect, and need.  Chief among these are housing and education policies to promote integration.

Martin Luther King’s assault on segregation was rooted in awareness that separation produces ignorance and stereotypes.  Unfortunately, our communities are growing more divided along racial and class lines.  A major contributor to the problem, notes Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin, is the parochialism of local governments and their power to exclude poor people and people of color.  Municipalities can use zoning and other regulations to restrict affordable housing, while school districts achieve segregation as effectively as Jim Crow.

Policies to foster residential integration include effective enforcement of fair housing and lending laws and providing more housing vouchers to low-income families that break up concentrated poverty and enable greater mobility.  The use of inclusionary zoning should be broadened, requiring new developments to contain low- and moderate-income units.  In education, we should create additional magnet schools for students across district lines and increase programs allowing urban students to attend suburban schools.  And, perhaps most significantly, urban and suburban municipalities and school districts should be merged, breaking down barriers to sharing resources, broadening access to opportunity, and helping students navigate our changing nation.

In 2008, Barack Obama, then candidate for president, marked Martin Luther King Day with a speech decrying our nation’s “empathy deficit.”  He described our “inability to recognize ourselves in one another” and called upon Americans to see that, in King’s words, “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”  Indeed, whether that destiny is one of shared, sustained prosperity may depend on our ability and willingness to understand, identify with, and care for each other.

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Defending Society

“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” is how Thomas Hobbes described life in the absence of society. His conclusion, 350 years ago, that society is necessary to maintain civilized relations between people reverberated in March, when Tea Partiers attacked a disabled man during a health care reform protest. With anti-social forces tearing at our connective fabric, it is essential to understand the value of society and to defend it.

Society is a network of institutions and relationships, from churches to public schools. It encompasses physical infrastructure, financial mechanisms, and social norms and behavior, as well as the legal system that supplies essential security and stability. Members of a well-functioning society are bound together by respect, trust, and need.

Society enables us to pool resources, share risks, and create opportunity. It provides safety to its members, an environment for social relations, and the non-violent resolution of differences. In doing so, society allows us to accomplish things we couldn’t as individuals, families, or communities.

Our culture celebrates the ideal of cowboys and others who supposedly “go it alone.” The reality is no one goes it alone. Successful ideas, businesses and people are the products of society, nurtured, protected, and sustained by its rules and resources. As the investor Warren Buffett has acknowledged, “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”

Today, American society is battered by an array of forces. Connections between people have diminished as more time commuting in cars, watching television, and other secluded activities has reduced involvement in civic groups and sports leagues. The growing gap between rich and poor is socially corrosive, with income inequality at an all-time high.

Right-wing politicians have weakened our social institutions, trading public good for private gain. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, declared, “There is no such thing as society,” as she broke her nation’s unions and sold off its railway system. Likewise, in the United States, union decline – fostered by conservative policies – contributes to the waning of the middle class and the increasing wealth gap.

And then there is the poisonous politics of the Tea Partiers. Most alarming is the demonization of their opponents. Whether the target is Obama or immigrants, the “other” is an enemy, the disagreement is a battle between good and evil, and there is no compromise.

The potential consequences of this “with us or against us” mentality are disastrous: the erosion of respect’s most fundamental component – recognizing the humanity of others. The extremes of this are genocide, such as the Holocaust and the murder of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, fueled by one tribe labeling members of another “cockroaches.” Even in less violent forms, it damages the ability to find common ground, identify shared interests, and resolve conflicts.

The rising number of “independent” voters is another symptom of weakening social solidarity. Lacking a coherent political identity or perspective, these voters can be appealed to by personality, won over by attitude, attracted by anger and finger-pointing. The inability to recognize and act upon collective interests can evolve into fear and misguided blame of our own neighbors. Authoritarian government thrives on social atomization, social scientist Francis Fukuyama has observed.

How do we combat this fracturing of society? As historian Tony Judt argues, the most important task may be reminding people of the essential role that government has played in keeping our society from collapsing. At the beginning of the Great Depression, Germany’s government, undermined by anti-social and authoritarian movements, was unable to accomplish things and lost credibility, leading to the Nazi’s rise to power.

In the United States, in stark contrast, the government successfully put people to work, met social needs, built public infrastructure, and sustained faith in our shared purpose and identity. The New Deal strengthened our social solidarity and our democracy.

Our government has just prevented another depression. But we, as a society, still have to prevent climate change, reform immigration policy, and achieve much more. The sooner we recognize our common interests, needs, and humanity, the better off we will be.

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New York City Charter Commission Testimony

New York City Charter Commission

Testimony of Eric Weltman

April 20, 2010

My name is Eric Weltman, and I’m testifying as a Brooklyn resident and concerned citizen.

I would like to briefly discuss several key principles and specific topics.  However, my most fundamental message is this: Please don’t rush the charter review.  Please don’t forgo a fair and deliberative process in order to place amendments on the ballot this fall.  Our city’s charter is too important – and democracy is too essential – for a hurried process.

Government is both a means and an end.  The ends are, of course, fairly obvious: the provision of essential services, law enforcement, and so forth.  But the means are important, too: Government can and should be a mechanism for engaging and empowering people, for strengthening communities, and for sustaining faith in our system.

There are some principles relating to government that I believe we all share, including: public participation, representation, transparency, efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness.

But since power is necessary to fulfill these principles, I believe we need principles for power itself, and I propose at least two: Power should be accountable and it should be distributed – meaning that it should be shared, not concentrated and not removed, checked and balanced.

With that in mind, I would like to touch upon three specific topics:

First, government organization: I believe that we should maintain the position of Public Advocate, as well as maintain and strengthen the authority of the Borough Presidents and the Community Boards.  These bodies serve as important advocates for our communities, as vehicles for both reflecting and responding to neighborhood concerns.

Second, non-partisan elections: This is a terrible idea.  Political parties play a vital role in engaging and informing people, in holding elected officials accountable, and energizing our elections.  Non-partisan elections would weaken our civic capacity while empowering those with the money to buy their own campaign machinery.

Third, land use policy: The charter should contain provisions that promote responsible development and ensure that polluting facilities are fairly sited around the city.  Greens jobs, clean energy, and sustainable development are necessary for both protecting public health and helping prevent climate change.

Thank you for your consideration.

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