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The Quagmire of Affiliation
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

SELF DEFINITION is one of the things humankind depends on to create boundaries and safety nets for itself. In America, if asked what is most important to us, God, country and family is the default answer, although perhaps not in that order. We have some wiggle room in deciding which of the three is most important. We have been schooled in this nation to consider 'all men created equal' and yet there is still tribalism at work in our consciousness, and a sense of our separateness as defined by race, gender, religion, heritage, class, and political affiliation.

n these past few years, that has stood out in stark relief and it underpins what drives the factions in our electoral process today. Our Republic has been a grand experiment in the principals of equality and yet now that it appears ready to collapse upon itself, tribalism is back, reflected in our current governance, our strident religions and our struggling class system.

Our affiliations with groups of like mind is very comforting, it gives us a platform from which to assert ourselves into the social fabric. It provides a shortcut to talking points and an ease of self definition that is apparent in little children; there's our mirror.

If you poll kids on their likes and dislikes regarding how they relate to others, what foods they favor, how they deal with aggression or even political affiliation, you will find that they are happy little reflections of their personal tribe, their family. The average parent, should they ponder this, would probably be pleased to have produced a little cookie-cutter replica of themselves.  A thoughtful, and to my mind exceptional, parent would instead do everything in their power to expose their child to diversity and teach them to think for themselves.

Years back, I was a paraprofessional in education, working with primary, middle and high school students. In primary grades, children relate to their immediate classroom and teacher, filtering their experience through their family worldview. In middle school, the little darlings have come to a sense of community -- this appears to be, more than any other growth period, the 'lemming years' when they have detached themselves from the beat of the family drums and passionately embrace the communal values of their peers (as defined, most often, by pop culture. Think Britney, think spandex and belly rings.) By the time our students get to high school, they have begun to seek their own identity and value system. They will continue on this quest for the rest of their lives, long after they've been thrust into the reality of making their own way in the world -- and again and again, when the going gets tough, they will retreat back to some form of tribal identification.
In the last thirty or so years, our educational models have failed in teaching our children critical thinking skills such as how to embrace differences, how to problem solve logically and to understand the principals of conflict resolution. Young minds are fertile and adaptable, and yet we seek to conform them from their first steps -- and here's where politics rears its ugly head. What they will know of the world will be what they are fed; if we are not giving them truth, they will base their lives on a carefully woven construct of convenient lies and tribal mythologies. And surely, if we define nationalistic enemies as great hulking boogey-men that want to gobble them on sight, they will run to pull the covers over their heads rather than engage in a process of discovery to create themselves as rational citizens of a global community.
It isn't difficult to divide the world's nations by the same criteria that I laid out in the grade school description.  The Middle East is certainly more the elementary school model, self limiting to family and tribe. The United States, at least lately, has suffered the Stepford mentality ascribed to middle school students. Europe is more the high school model, although self-limitation comes and goes for all of us. We are all in the process of coming to consciousness, and the more we know about ourselves, the easier our transition into a global awareness and right-action.
I have a bumper sticker that says, "I love my country, but I think we should start seeing other people." A nation that is confident in their convictions and principals does not have to prove their worthiness by stepping on the necks of others.

I was amused by an editorial that Fidel Castro published a few days after his retirement indicating that since he is now a private citizen, he would be putting out regular opinion pieces and he'd instructed the newspaper to only run them on the second page. Fidel is still in charge, directing how he will deliver his message. I suppose many Cubans will find this preferable to being forced to sit through the hours long tirades infamously reported during the more vibrant Castro years. Still, Fidel is not gone and, page two or not, certainly not forgotten. His brother, Raul, is now leading the country and speculations about change will circle the drain for awhile.

Fidel is the Father of his country as it is currently drawn, a political hodgepodge of socialist communism and dictatorship that he still refers to as 'the Revolution', fifty years after the insurgency that swept him to power and ousted Batista, the brutal dictator favored by America. It's interesting to note that wildly romantic Argentine physician, Che Guevara, played a pivotal role in Fidel's decision to embrace not democratic socialism, but dictatorship (those who die young often become wildly romantic in the public mind and end up on t-shirts, as did Che.) In its constant quest for resources not it's own, the United States has a long history of undermining and toppling populist political experiments that allow the native people a voice. Che and Fidel decided American interference would endanger their vision of a socialist utopia, so their idealistic compassion became the stuff of passionate and repressive dictatorship. Funny how the mind works, isn't it? Not so funny how difficult it is to retain a moral center. But certainly interesting that the political adventurism and interference of this nation, more than any other factor, created it's longest and most reviled 'enemy'.

Fidel is a commie; for many reading this today, that means very little. You will not clutch your heart or think nuclear obliteration, but that is the response your parents or grandparents may have at the mere mention of the word Communist. Indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 60's, a tug of war between Castro and Jack Kennedy, was about as close to a mushroom cloud this planet has ever been. Today, that's a mere blip on our historical radar. The Chinese are Communists and we play patty-cake with them continually at the Wal-Mart check-out stand. The Vietnamese are Communists but we trade with them and visit now like we're old friends, as if we didn't spend years dropping napalm at will on their women and children. Time has healed many wounds, but Fidel...Cuba...remains the psychic wart that America will not forgive, and even as the old man enters his dotage he is still demonized for the repressions and tight-fisted control of his island population. He is tyrant, he is torturer, he is revolutionary. He is, well...Communist dictator. He is an ideological monster, personified.

And all of that is true. He did not allow his people to think for themselves -- the artists, the intellectuals and the dissenters were quickly rounded up and either killed or imprisoned. There would be no idle thoughts to corrupt the pristine virtue of socialism in Cuba; there would be no possibility of cultural intrusion on the grand experiment. Fidel declared war on opportunistic capitalism and America shrieked like a little girl. Embargos were put in place and remain to this day. It would have been a grander experiment, to my way of thinking, to see what could have been accomplished in Cuba without them.

What Fidel did manage to accomplish, given his limitations in stabilizing his economy, is astounding. He turned his attention toward education and health care for his people, determining that every one of them should have full benefit of the states resources. Under Che's direction, accessible public health and preventative medicine became a priority. Because almost half of the doctors fled the country during the revolution, the University of Havana medical college began an intense period of training to replace them. Today Cuba has twice as many doctors per capita as does the United States and healthcare has been written into their constitution. It has one of the lowest global incidences of HIV and AIDS due to compulsory testing and early sequestering of AIDS patients in the '80's.  The UN protested and the patients were released, with Cuba beginning the production of generic, and inexpensive, anti-retroviral drugs. The Cuban National Center for Sex Education keeps everyone informed. And even though the fifty-year embargo has limited their ability to thrive, especially since they no longer receive Soviet subsidies, Cuba continues to provide free health and dental services to its entire population.

This came to our attention in Michael Moore's documentary, Sicko, Moore decided to take a group of people suffering from exposure to the 9/11 Towers site to Guantanamo Bay to see if they could receive some of the stellar health care the government had assured everyone that Gitmo detainees were receiving. When he was unable to rouse a response, he turned his little boat toward the big island and partook of the free health care his group of American citizens had been denied in their own country. The American government was not pleased with Mike, and I'm sure Fidel saw this as a PR coup for his Revolution. If you haven't seen Sicko, I unhesitatingly recommend that you do.  In these days of debate over the dangers of 'single payer' health care, the revelations Moore offers us regarding our own corporate profiteering as compared to the health care systems of other free nations put to bed the mythology of America's commonwealth as the 'be all and end all' cradle of democratic privilege.
Even before Sicko hit the video stores, as we all watched the unthinkable tragedy of Katrina on television, scanning the desperate faces of people left adrift in chaos, and feeling outrage and shame at our governments seeming inability to provide help, Fidel Castro and his little island, ninety miles off the coast of Florida, stepped up. Castro offered multiple health teams to assist in the catastrophe days before Bush finally responded with National Guard. Castro put his own resources on alert; whether he did this for the PR or was influenced by the racial connotations, or even if he simply responded to a humanitarian outcry from the goodness of his idealistic old populist's heart, El Comandante was ready, willing and able long before our own government intervened. I'm pretty sure we never responded one way or another -- and I'm quite sure we didn't offer a thank you note, Castro being a commie boogey-man and socialist wart.
Now, before you ask, I'm not a proponent of unrestrained communism or socialism -- I'm not a proponent of unrestrained political anything, and most certainly not capitalism, a condition we suffer today. I prefer looking at the game as a whole, and keeping the checks and balances in place so the board doesn't tip to spill the players off into a bin labeled 'collateral damage'. In studying history, I've yet to see a 'pure' ideology work, certainly not communism or socialism, and we've seen what neoconservativism has given us these last years, a political conviction both deaf and blind to criticism or oversight. But if we are smart enough to put tribal distinctions and nationalistic rhetoric behind us, we can create from the vast pool of social experiments a bit of this, a bit of that and incorporate it into our working democratic model.

Ben Franklin, on his way from the Constitutional Convention, was asked by a citizen what the national model had turned out to be -- "A Republic, if you can keep it," he replied. We have barely been able to hang onto it, these last seven years. It's not dead yet, but it could sure use some of Fidel's freebie health care. It could use some new ideas and committed populist leadership. It would benefit enormously from a left-turn away from politics as is, and a return to 'common good' and class equality, if it's to survive. And it's imperative that the rampant consumerism, corporate capitalism and international adventurism that frightened Fidel Castro into lockstep with repressive Marxism be policed, supervised and contained.
I wonder, what Cubans...their country repressed and systemically denied modern influence for generations yet amazingly well educated and enjoying health benefits not usually available in 'third world' countries...are eager for. I'd suspect it would be the ability to visit friends and family, many inhabiting the Florida coast. I'd presume they are hoping for an easing of the Revolution's isolation and an increase in goods and services, an end to economic prohibitions. And, frankly, as millions cry for Cuba to become democratic I worry what a big dose of capitalism might do to what they've already achieved. How quickly they might be able to transition out of their frying pan of isolation and right into a big confusing, and largely unrestrained, political fire. I would, in fact, watch in horror if GM and Monsanto and Citibank arrived on Cuba's shores with glad-hands and big promises. It feels as if we're damned if we do, damned if we don't -- and the little island out-of-time looks like a sitting duck.
Fidel was wrong, he was right; he was brutal, he was humane. He was the Big Daddy of his country and he micromanaged it as a preeminent authoritarian. He was a wart on American influence, and he was, as are boogey-men everywhere, a complex amalgam of human response and experience, affiliated to his own version of tribal excellence even if it meant brutality and repression. Clearly these kinds of political experiments are becoming more and more anachronistic, no longer welcome in the 21st century -- we are hungry for a bigger view, a cooperative exchange and a collaborative solution to the problems that plague the planet. Nationalistic mythologies are being exposed as hollow at an accelerated pace, and we cry out for integrity and relief. We want to mend our systems and our fences, and we're not afraid to be good neighbors no matter what the Bush administration suggests. Education is the key to our progress; diverse, inclusive and non-ideological education. If we are to survive the coming years, we need to invest in a new generation of diplomats and scientists, altruistic artists and teachers, health care professionals and shamanistic healers. We need generations of bright, motivated peace makers.

A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reflects a movement beyond tribalism. Religion in this country, for good or ill has long been a major factor in the way in which it sees itself, its tribal function. The poll indicates that Protestantism (long the largest religious group) is declining, while the Roman Catholic Church has lost the most influence. The newest group sustaining growth considers themselves 'unaffiliated', now the fourth largest religious grouping. I see that as enormous growth, the result of those long years when Pluto was in Sagittarius and we got to see all the warts on the body of religion. We're ready, now, to discover more of them on government and structure as Pluto moves into authoritarian Capricorn.

I think it's pretty clear, if we're to join those nations in high school, then we need to redefine our values without the tribal drums of nationalism. We've recently discovered that we don't 'know it all', and that should be something of a relief to us. We're looking now to clean up our own back yard, and that should be a relief to other nations that don't want us in theirs. We're growing up but we still have a lot of work to do. For instance, Americans have the capacity to be generous to a fault, but according to one sociologist I saw interviewed recently, we're not so good at forgiveness. We'd better learn that vital lesson -- we have warts of our own to tend to, don't we? We are capable of continuing to grow into our promise, of searching out our uniqueness in our brilliantly conceived Republic...if we can keep it. We need to make sure our affiliations are confined to our commonality with freedom-loving, peace-making people everywhere, and let the rest go -- God/dess will bless America as she blesses others. It's time to move along. The world is waiting.

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