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Root Shock

Someone I know wrote the other day that his friends in Japan are "getting used to the aftershocks; they've become normal." But of course, "normal" doesn't quite describe what happens when we sustain repeated shocks, becoming inured. What actually happens has more to do with numbing, with defensive insulation, and with the denial or evasion that kicks in when reality seems unbearable.

In the fragmented world of shocks and aftershocks, each assault on the mind or senses seems to be a separate issue, related but distinct, like the individual leaves and branches of a tree. The feeling of being pulled in too many directions engenders a sense of futility that can be paralyzing.

The antidote to that paralysis is understanding how seemingly disparate events are related. That's why I am writing today about an idea that aims for the root our problems in the U.S., the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution, ESRA for short. Click here for an animated introduction to the need and the concept.

The ESRA was created by Rabbi Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel and is being promoted by The Network of Spiritual Progressives. Its three main sections address three huge obstacles to real democracy in the United States. The first undoes corporate personhood, mandating public election financing and eliminating paid campaign advertising, effectively ending the control of big money over our electoral process. The second requires major corporations to renew their charters every five years, subject to grand jury vetting for environmental, social, and ethical responsibility. The third mandates public education to enhance human community and environmental sustainability, reaching far beyond the 3 Rs.

The ESRA is unlikely to pass anytime soon. I'm guessing that if and when it does become viable as legislation, it will be in a shorter form. But as a focal point for a movement to revivify democracy by moderating corporations' role in elections and governance, it surely deserves attention. And as a signpost, pointing the way to the roots of our crisis—rather than busying us with raking the leaves—it is exemplary.

The last couple of weeks have been remarkable for the frequency and intensity of extreme events: Qaddafi's brutality against his own people, followed by the UN and world governments' authorization of military action to stop him; the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, followed by the terrible threat from nuclear contamination in damaged reactors; Saudi troops marching into Pearl Square in Bahrain; peaceful protesters fired on in Yemen; right-wing ideologues in the American Congress exploiting the climate of fear and instability to push an agenda that punishes the public sector for private greed.

It's a pattern described most powerfully by Naomi Klein in her book Shock Doctrine: "using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks—wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters—to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy." Its observable impact on people I know is to fragment consciousness, feeding the type of distraction that makes it very hard to concentrate and focus. Which parts of the news do you follow? How do you respond? How much can you handle before you retract into overwhelm?

Thursday, extreme-right members of Congress spearheaded a vote to cut off financing for National Public Radio. At stake was a trivial amount of money in national budget terms—$22 million—that local stations used to buy national programming from NPR. Most people think the Senate will not ratify this House decision, but that won't put the issue to rest.

NPR's vulnerability factor increased dramatically as the result of a video hoax perpetrated by James O'Keefe, an extreme-right provocateur who has been amazingly successful at discrediting his victims, exploiting commercial media reluctance to question the tactics of anyone whose antics up the ratings.

There's an absurdity to the whole debate: No one really believes it is about the money. Nor does NPR rank high on the list of issues voters care about in this time of epic unemployment. At the best of times, U.S. public media is the most anemic and underfunded of any developed country, the only system shaped by the assumption that commercial broadcasting, driven by the need to sell advertising, can adequately fulfill the public's right to know. But of course, it's not so much an issue as a symbol, as Rep. John Larson, D-Conn has been widely quoted: "Under the guise of saving taxpayer dollars what they're doing is silencing NPR, not because it saves money, but because it is not on the same ideological frequency of the extreme right."

The leaves and branches are distinct, to be sure, but the roots of this shock-and-awe moment connect where entrenched power and entrenched wealth exert control over whole societies, using any crisis as cover to erode the public interest in favor of private dominion. To me, correcting the policies that have left corporations in charge of American electoral politics will be key to any meaningful change in the system. The ESRA is a place to start.

"The world is turnin'," sang Neil Young in "On The Beach," "I hope it don't turn away." This cover version by Radiohead has a haunting sadness that expresses some of the yearning of this moment of fear and possibility.