Requiem for the Commons? Part II[1] : Prelude to Progress

EJ Tangel

I know nearly nothing about Australia.  Though many seem captivated by the distant continent—the land, the culture, its bountiful and diverse flora and fauna—I’ve always thought of the place as the prison colony it once was now crassly packaged and commercialized, just for us, here in America.   I never wanted anything to do with “firing up the ‘barbie’”, or drinking Foster’s too-big can-o’beer, or least of all, an Outback Steak.  And except for an occasional empathic embrace of Indigenous movements attempting to redress that ignominious birthing of colonization (is there any other kind?), I basically ignore the place.  And truthfully, my concern for the native population there has been intermittent, at best.  The first time was in the eighties when Midnight Oil released their hit single, Beds Are Burning.  It was such an impassioned polemic for aboriginal rights that I found myself dancing extemporaneously in my living room like a white man set free to participate in the service of human rights.  Everywhere.  The lead singer Peter Garrett, a veritable white giant—long-limbed and gangly, bald headed with a hard-chiseled face—could be seen on MTV leading the band with pounding feet and flailing limbs in an ecstatic dance that was altogether an emotional appeal, a prayer, and a demand to recognize the rights of aboriginals in their own land. [2] “How can we sleep?” he asks when we’ve done such harm to the people and the planet.  That’s a tough question, but only for those whose affective, specifically empathic, ability remains intact.   The remedy, as unsurprising as it is necessary, is to right the wrong.

The time has come                

To say fair’s fair

To pay the rent

To pay our share                        

Peter Garrett by Paul Natkin RS Mag

Peter Garrett by Paul Natkin RS Mag[3]

A fact’s a fact

It belongs to them

Let’s give it back [4]

The album was a result of ethnographic research, aka, the “Blackfella/Whitefella Tour” in which the band travelled the Outback to learn about the indigenous population and their struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile manmade environment (social, political and natural).  Unsurprisingly, again to those who can feel, the band was moved by “the great pride and resilience of the Indigenous people and embraced their stories,”[5] and the people as their own.  It turns out the western desert lives and breathes, just like the rest of us, but out there in forty five degrees (centigrade mate).

A few years later I was excited to read accounts of the band parking a flatbed semi-truck in the heart of Manhattan right in front of Exxon’s headquarters to perform a demand that the giant global oil company take full responsibility for the Exxon Valdez’s egregious fouling of the Prince William Sound. [6] It was part of their Blue Sky Mining tour, a continuation of their increasingly globalized work for social and environmental justice.   Peter Garrett, though now diminutive at the foot of the Exxon edifice, rose to dance as a righteous Odysseus, come up from Down Under, thrusting himself into the eye of the shameless hegemon to demand restitution, penance and forbearance from Polyphemus, a prevaricating pleonexic[7] giant, hell-bent on the for-profit wanton destruction of the Earth.  Fair’s fair.  Cheers all around!  Of course, Exxon would have just as soon eaten the little rover bastard—or have him arrested—but the NYC cops were reportedly taken in by both the band’s audacity to do such a thing (in NYC, chutzpa) and their music, and so the band played on making headlines for the cause of civil society everywhere. [9]

Today I find myself rooting for descendants of the colonists, good people by all appearances and accounts, against an insatiable intruder who won’t take “no” for an answer.  McDonald’s wants to build one of its indelible “restaurants” in Tecoma, Victoria at the edge of the Dandenong Mountain Range—a place beautiful and precious to many—and no doubt sacred to some.  But to an insatiable global corporate giant it is a place lacking the mark [10] of development, the homogenized yellow shit-stain of a Maccas, which is what the people Down Under call McDonald’s unmistakable “Golden Arches”.  It is a heraldic flag that signals, well conquest.  According to the people of Tecoma, their home is a place,

…where Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs meet the mountains and forests.  Protected parklands and National Parks preserve the beauty of this area which includes valleys and hills covered in thick temperate rainforest and dense ferny undergrowth.  It’s a bushwalking and cycling paradise with extensive trails through lush vegetation…the surrounding villages offer boutique accommodation, galleries, markets, beautiful gardens…The Puffing Billy steam train runs between Belgrave, Emerald and Gembrook, taking in the scenic landscape of the Dandenong Ranges…tourists visit the Dandenong Ranges…to experience life away from suburbia, away from mass development, noise and pollution.  Locals live there for the same reasons.  [11]

Wow!  Such a lovely, and diverse, nature-culture mash-up; maybe I’ve been wrong about the place.  And such a shame the descendants of the colonists are now being colonized themselves—this by yet another giant with no shame.

I found out about this in a most amusing way.  Several weeks ago I was flipping through the pages of the Chicago Tribune and came across a half-page add with a headline addressed to McDonald’s directly: “Sorry McDonald’s, You’re Not Welcome in Our Town” it said, ever so politely.   The ad featured a picture of an elderly gentleman in a dark jacket, distinguished and proud, with Anglo and Indigenous features, a light scarf knot round his neck, head tilted slightly, stern grimace and a piercing straight-ahead look in his eyes.  This guy had seen some shit and wasn’t having any more of it.  Visible behind him was a softly blurred crowd holding images of Maccas overlaid by a circle with a diagonal slash-line, the universal symbol for “No”.   The ad took the form of a letter.   The salutation, “Dear McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson,” was personal and proper, and the text remained civil yet firm throughout, while disclosing that “McDonald’s continues to try to bully and intimidate us with lawsuits and bulldozers,” even though they have amassed “almost 100,000 signatures asking [McDonald’s] to stop this development.”

Signing the document, “Sincerely, The Community of Tecoma, Australia,” continued the townspeople’s exemplary manners and civility.  All of which multiplied the impact of urging Tribune readers to:

“Sign the petition at—www.change.org/burgeroff”! [12]

A "kindy" is a grade school! bugeroff.org

A “kindy” is a grade school! bugeroff.org

Well I love a good pun as much as I dislike a bad one—so this one had me laughing out loud, both for its slight vulgarity, but especially for the chutzpa to say such a thing in a newspaper!  And the ad wasn’t just a gratuitous Monty Pythonesque fish-slap in the face.  It was an announcement that a delegation of Tecomaians were on their way to Chicago bearing those 100,000 signatures under their “Burger-Off”  banner to stand face-to-face with the corporate giant in its headquarters to demand they do the right thing, the civil thing: to not force themselves where they weren’t wanted; to have the common decency to burger-off.[13]  Is that too bloody-much to ask mate?

And note: this group represented no small minority of hippie-dippie castaways, animal rights folks, peaceniks and women with nothing better to do.[14]  No sir.  Nearly everyone, 9 of 10 of the 2085 residents of that fair hamlet, does not want the burger monster in their town—and the entire city council voted unanimously that McDonald’s please move on.[15]

burgeroff.org

burgeroff.org

Well, McDonald’s didn’t and won’t.  The company appealed their case to the regional Victoria authority—which in a stupefying perversion and inversion of “democracy” ruled that the “overwhelming objections of the local community [were] ‘irrelevant’, and granted McDonald’s planning permission,” which, as you might imagine, really pissed people off.[16]  Hell the rights of the Maccas supersede the rights of people?  Excuse me but, huh?  The good people of Tecoma love their diverse nature-culture mash-up, and know creeping homogeneity when they see it.  And they object to the junk McDonald’s sells as food.  Can’t they do that?

Apparently not, for a couple of reasons: first global proliferation of the idea that development, as defined by the biggest developers, is an unadulterated good.  And this is undergirded by the similarly viral “principle” of creative destruction—which in grand irony springs from an observation by Marx portending the end of capitalism—capitalism will destroy itself, he argued.  And so the idea was creatively co-opted by the 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter and brought to a contra-Marxian and oxymoronic conclusion.  By some magical self-referential transubstantiation—capitalism is good so what it does is good—destruction becomes a good thing…so let’s have at it!  Nowadays, development and creative destruction are built into our laws and “regulations” at all levels of government.  These are more accurately understood as rent-seeking rules that privilege development and developers.  Since it is the “developers” who are doing the destruction in the name of creation, they “are gifted the ability to receive concentrated benefits through government actions, the costs of which are dispersed throughout the whole of society.” [17]  This is, in short, how government works.

Folks in Tecoma were so taken aback by such an unjust ruling that four days later “600 local residents united to ‘Reclaim Tecoma’ and planted a Community Garden on the proposed site,”—which I thought was an absolutely brilliant idea.  And this was followed by a “24 hour peaceful vigil” in which residents sustained themselves, at and in the garden for a month until they were evicted by the police. [18]  Sound familiar?  It should.  I have no idea whether these folks were influenced by Occupy, but I’d find it hard to believe they weren’t aware of it—even down there, in a place I ignore.  They were simply, Occupying a space—presently an act of civil disobedience, but like Occupy, may wind up being part of a movement towards political disobedience in which the whole system is reveled as incorrigibly corrupt.[19]  In any case, the attempted colonization of their little bit of land by a mega-corporate giant has these new-natives more than restless.

It has them feeling like a community.

Photo by John Weeks at burgeroff.org

Photo by John Weeks at burgeroff.org

Building the community garden.    http://www.burgeroff.org/

Coming soon: Part III


[1] See Tangel: Of Black Holes and Alternative Universes: A Requiem for Commons?  EC August 12, 2013

[3] Picture credit: Peter Garrett, by  Paul Natkin in Rolling Stone magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/midnight-oil-photos-20001207/gallery3-midnight-oil-69951990

[4] Beds Are Burning lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC http://www.lyricsfreak.com/m/midnight+oil/beds+are+burning_20093267.html

[5] http://www.midnightoil.com/biography

[6] Midnight Oil performs John Lennon’s Instant Karma at Exxon protes in Manhattan May 30, 1990  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMyQSeOoYDw

[7] Pleonexia, often translated from ancient Greek as “greed” is better understood as “insatiability” that moreover leads to injustice.  See Hesiod, Plato and Aristotle; and Jesus Christ.  For some excellent contemporary analysis see the work of Arthur Nikelly, PhD, a recently deceased professor of psychology at the Univ. of IL. The Pleonexic Personality: A New Provisional Personality Disorder, Nikelly, Arthur G.Individual Psychology: Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, Vol 48(3), Sep 1992, 253-260.

[9] Interview: Midnight Oil vs. Exxon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1HWripf6zE

[10] This is a wonderfully useful word.  As a verb it means to “make a visible impression or stain) on” something, or as a “symbol…typically for identification”…which can be a means to “separate or delineate”; it can threaten, as in “’you mark my words!’” and it can “honor, celebrate,” and of course it could flunk you out of school, etc.   http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/mark

[11] Website…. http://www.burgeroff.org/  and they have a tab for “Humor”!!! (Under “Story So Far”)

[12] I can’t seem to find a link to the ad online but it appeared on page 15 in the Chicago Tribune, Section 1; Thursday, September12, 2013.

[13] Indigogo Thanks: Video of spokesperson in Chicago, “These people have no ethics whatsoever.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vd9HmEjahw&feature=youtu.be (0.1.33)

[14] The phrase, “Women with nothing better to do” is quite intentional.  My activism experience is rife with industry, government and institutional representatives denigrating citizens’ groups in just this way.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Adler, Jonathan H. Clean Politics, Dirty Profits, from Political Environmentalism: Going behind the Green Curtain, T.L. Anderson editor. pg. 4.  Hoover Institution Press 2000 (and it is ironic that I’ve used his quote).  And for Schumpeter reference see:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_destruction

[18] http://www.burgeroff.org/  Please do check out their website, click around, lots of good work on display there.  Really, these people are really something!

[19] For an enlightening distinction between the two, see U of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt’s essay Political Disobedience in Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience, University of Chicago Press 2013

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by | November 25, 2013 · 18:06

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