Economics Salon, Day 2: Progressive Influences

When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. ~ 1 Cor. 13:11

(This post continues the memoir that I begun in Day 1: Introduction.)

The beginning of a new, green lifestyle.

The beginning of a new, green lifestyle.

I lived at home for most of my undergraduate education. On the day after Christmas, December 26, 2001, during the winter break before my final semester at Temple University, I moved out of my parents house in Northeast Philadelphia and into an industrial flat in Manayunk with three flatmates. I intended the move to be a six-month trial, but after my replacement had backed out, the move became semi-permanent. I lived in Manayunk until October of 2005, when the remaining flatmates went their separate ways. During these years away from the supervision of my parents and among the camaraderie of like-minded flatmates and friends, I felt more free to explore and express my liberal progressive tendencies.

By far the most influential of these friends was Nik, who nurtured my interest in environmental responsibility. Nik attended the same high school I did, but we did not become close friends until our years at Temple together. He ran a computer lab on the third floor of Temple’s engineering building, and I spent much of my free time with him in his office, philosophizing and sharing musical discoveries. He was into nature, and if he wasn’t tending to his plants in the stairwell, he was monitoring the earthworm compost under his desk. He introduced me to the principles of organic, sustainable living, and I did my best to apply these principles at my new home and in my new life. 

As I recall now, Nik gave me a gift membership to Co-op America, which has since renamed itself to Green America. I would receive regular newsletters from them, which were all essentially how-to guides on environmentally responsible, ethical consumerism. Searching for environmentally responsible, ethical alternatives to mainstream foodstuffs and household items became a labor of love and a point of pride.

Is it organic? Is it fair-trade?

Is it organic? Is it fair-trade?

Naturally, Fresh Fields, which later merged with Whole Foods, became the supermarket of choice. (Later, the market of choice would become the Weaver’s Way Co-op in Mount Airy.) From the magazine racks at Fresh Fields, I often purchased the latest copy of Adbusters magazine, which set the tone for the next few years of my political philosophy. In a phrase, I’d describe Adbusters as a magazine as a magazine for the politically and culturally disaffected. A high school friend of mine, Tim, introduced me to Adbusters some time previously, and I appreciated not only the message, but also the artistry with which that message was presented. My flatmate, also named Tim, also appreciated Adbusters. He’d buy some issues, I’d buy others. They’d stay out on the coffee table until we each had a chance to peruse them.

Adbusters was a staple around the flat.

Adbusters was a flat staple.

Television, by and large, was a forsaken intellectual wasteland, but it was not without oases. Nik and I would occasionally watch hard-hitting investigative documentaries on cable’s Drexel University Television (DUTV). I remember one particularly nauseating expose on uranium-tipped missles used in the first Iraq War and their probable link to Gulf War Syndrome, not to mention a dramatic spike in birth defects among Iraqi children. Later on, through channel surfing at my parents’ house, I discovered satellite television’s equivalent to DUTV, WorldLink TV (now LinkTV). I stopped there for Nusrat: A Voice from Heaven, but I stayed for the hard-hitting progressive documentaries on politics, environmentalism, and globalization. I probably discovered my favorite daily news hour, Democracy Now!, through LinkTV. One LinkTV documentary in particular, McLibel, stands out as a primary influence on my decision to go to law school. I had discovered by then that my calling in life was to defend the meek against the encroachment and bullying of the powerful. Another documentary I found to be highly influential in the progressive, anti-capitalistic vein was The Corporation, from 2003, and a similarly influential book for me was Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.

I indulged in LinkTV privately, for the most part. Open enjoyment of such leftism in my family’s conservative household was an act of defiance of sorts, and often led to heckling. My younger brother, for example, called it “StinkTV”. I’d watch when I was home alone. When I’d turn on the television, I’d take note of the channel that would appear. After indulging in an informative session of Link on DirecTV channel 375, I’d try to remember to return the television to its original station before turning it off. When I’d forget, earfuls of disapproval were often forthcoming.

WorldlinkTV for music and documentaries.

WorldlinkTV for music and documentaries.

I did donate once to LinkTV, satellite television’s only station that accepted that accepted to government grants or corporate donations. As a gift for donation, I received a baseball cap, which I proudly wore to the restaurant where I worked as a dishwasher.

Besides these two television stations, radio was my primary sources of day-to-day news and current events. In the wake of the Dot Com Bust, after failing to find work that made use of my new degree in mathematics, another great friend, Nik’s future wife, Anya, got me a job as a stable hand for Monastery Stables in Mount Airy. This sort of open-air work left me free to consume audio media for five hours straight while I earning rent money. Normally, I’d prefer to listen to music from my eclectic collection, but Anya had slowly turned me on to talk radio. WHYY was the talk radio station of choice, and Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane was on during most of my work shift.

Democracy Now! is still the best news hour you'll find.

Democracy Now! is still the most informative news hour you’ll find.

The discovery of podcasting sometime in the mid-2000s was the dawn of a new epoch in my intellectual development, which I’ll speak about more in the next installment. Through this medium, a variety of other radio shows supplemented Radio Times, starting with my favorite Democracy Now!, and WBAI New York’s progressive civil rights program, Law and Disorder, which features the legal commentary of attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, and Amnesty International. At my most progressive, just as I was beginning law school, PhillyIMC was my web browser’s homepage.

These people and programs were the lenses through which I came to see and understand the world, and my world was a rather interesting place back in the early 2000s.

* * *

As I mentioned in Day 1, the botched 2000 election attracted my political attention. But, as it had for so many others to the point of cliche, the events of September 11, 2001 changed everything. One of the first things it changed at a national level was the law of terrorism, under the Public Law 107-56 of October 26, 2001, better known as the USA PATRIOT Act. The law caused an uproar in the progressive media, while my conservative parents seems unconcerned. Media reports conflicted, so I thought I might get to the bottom of the confusion by reading the USA PATRIOT Act for myself. I purchased a copy, but it was no light read. At 130 pages, it was filled not with new laws, but rather with references to existing laws with instructions to strike a sentence or two here and add a paragraph over there. The law caused so much confusion because the average citizen could not hope to make sense of it.

My weathered copy of the USA PATRIOT Act, which I purchased online from a public computer terminal at the Roxborough Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

My weathered copy of the USA PATRIOT Act, which I purchased online from a public computer terminal at the Roxborough Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

This did not stop me from trying. The Unites States Code was available online as plain text documents through the government website uscode.house.gov, so I spent many nights reading a section of the USA PATRIOT Act and it’s corresponding references in the United States Code. I uncovered some misconceptions. For example, I recall it having been said that the USA PATRIOT Act redefined the term “Domestic Terrorism” so that activists such as those working with Greenpeace, and perhaps even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could potentially have been classified as domestic terrorists. I found this to be untrue. In fact, the USA PATRIOT Act took only the existing definition of “Act of Terrorism” and split it into two parts: “International Terrorism” and “Domestic Terrorism”. Any activist who could have been prosecuted as a terrorist after the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act could just as easily have been prosecuted as a terrorist before it. In that regard, the USA PATRIOT Act was merely a wake-up call.

As I blogged about what I read in the USA PATRIOT Act, I blogged about it on a personal website that I hosted on the webspace that came along with my subscription to the EarthTones internet service (which, incidentally, I discovered through Co-op America’s Green Pages business guide). The EarthTones home page looks exactly as I remember it looking a decade ago; it may have completely frozen in time. My own blog, which I dubbed A Fine House after a short story I had written, no longer exists on the site, but I may have the files for it stashed away somewhere. (I subsequently titled this blog site A Fine House before renaming it to its current Mind Your Business.) Of course, I never did finish reading the USA PATRIOT Act. I believe I got only through titles II and VIII before my attention shifted to other interests.

After this I remember the drumbeat leading up to the Iraq War. I remember listening to accounts of George W. Bush’s pre-war belligerence and thinking that, by any reasonable observation, the U.S. Military, under Bush’s leadership, was clearly the aggressor. If Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army did attack the America with his alleged weapons of mass destruction, I felt that it would have been justifiable self-defense. I watched aghast as the evening news broadcast the first bombs that exploded over Iraq during the American military’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. I felt in those moments an animosity toward the American government. I felt betrayed.

I watched “Shock and Awe” from my little bedroom at Manayunk.

Hating George W. Bush became a pastime among my friends. In the wake of his aggression abroad and his rollback of civil liberties at home, such documentaries as Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The War in Iraq:

and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911:

influenced and educated us progressives against our common enemy. For me, personally, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me would become an inspirational example of citizen journalism and press freedom.

As the Weapons of Mass Destruction scandal became the Abu Ghraib scandal, and as the Abu Ghraib scandal became the Guantanamo Bay scandal, and as the Guantanamo Bay scandal became the warrantless wiretapping scandal, I recall musing late one night over a jar of Jif how easy it was for us to prattle off ten things we hated about George W. Bush. The original list has been lost to the ages, but I tried to recreated the list with him a few months ago in preparation for this memoir. Here is what we came up with:

  1. Signing statements
  2. Pen registers/Wiretapping
  3. The “Bush Doctrine” of Pre-emptive War
  4. USA PATRIOT Act
  5. The Dick Cheney “Energy Task Force” of oil companies secretly writing our nation’s energy policy
  6. Global warming denial and suppression of science
  7. Gitmo and the torture memos
  8. Unprecedented government secrecy
  9. “Free Speech Zones”
  10. “Extraordinary Rendition”, and, for good measure and a little foreshadowing:
  11. Raids on California’s medical marijuana facilities.

The list went on, but these were the types of policies that got my friends and I agitated and active about the direction in which our nation was headed. But George W. Bush wasn’t the only source of consternation, another American disastrous policy that has been ongoing for decades, even before George W. Bush’s rampage, raised our ire. That policy was America’s War on Drugs.

* * *

Good reads.

Good reads.

My good friend and inspiration, Nik, and my future roommate, Chris, founded The Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or PhillyNORML back around 2003. I did not use drugs, but many of my friends were casual, recreational drug users whom I felt did not deserve to be prosecuted as criminals. I was interested, therefore, in helping this group in any way that I could. As my passion and talent were for purity of information, so I attempted three projects for the group: A library, a newsletter, and breakdown of the Controlled Substances Act, so that fellow activists would know the laws to which they stood in opposition.

While gathering some few books that I felt might sit well in PhillyNORML’s nascent library, I discovered three books that would become highly influential for me. The first of these was the late Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Despite Mr. Herer possibly exaggerated claims about the potential benefits of cultivating the Cannabis plant, I found the book to contain a very informative history of marijuana prohibition, an incredible appendix with some fairly unbelievable in influential documents and newspaper clippings.

Disturbing reads.

Disturbing reads.

One such clipping described law enforcement’s Civil Forfeiture strategy, under which probable cause suffices to confiscate any property supposed to be either the proceeds or instrumentalities of crimes, without regard to the guilt of the owner. To get his or her property back, the owner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property is not subject to forfeiture. This turns the traditional notion of American Justice, presumed innocence until proven guilt, on its head. A bought a Cato Institute publication written by Republican Representative Henry Hyde called Forfeiting our Property Rights: Is Your Property Safe From Seizure. This publication forever changed the way I would see the American justice system.

Another clipping described the role of Jury Nullification to keep bad laws from ruining the lives of good people. In short, juries always have the power to return a verdict of not guilty, even if the evidence shows the breaking of the law beyond reasonable doubt. The clipping introduced me ti FIJA, the Fully Informed Jury Association, now subtitled the American Jury Institute. Through their website, I purchased Jury Nullification: Evolution of a Doctrine, by Clay S. Conrad.

Jack Herer’s additional research on the film Hemp for Victory inspired me further in the areas of research and journalism. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture produced the film in 1942, it “somehow” did not make entry into the Library of Congress’s computerized card catalog. Jack found reference to the film in the Library’s old hard-copy indexes and submitted it to the library for inclusion in its digital catalog. This event awakened me not only to the power of diligent and thoughtful, but also to the petty unscrupulousness of the foes of liberty in government. I have trouble believing that the library’s omission was an entirely honest mistake.

Inspired by this sort of investigation, as well as Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, I had hoped to become a citizen journalist for PhillyNORML. I did edit and publish the organization’s first, and apparently only, paper newsletter.

For PhillyNORML, I read through the Controlled Substances Act, concurrently with the USA PATRIOT, Act and blogged about them together on my “A Fine House” website. This activity inspired me to pursue formal schooling in law, after another friend of mine, Sean, observed that people might actually pay me to write about laws like this. I started law school in August of 2005. As school conflicted with my ability to attend PhillyNORML meetings, I ceased regular participation with the group while in law school, and returned to them upon my graduation from law school in 2009. All the while, I continued to say informed through various podcasted radio shows.

* * *

Turning to liberty.

Turning to liberty.

I remained politically independent through the early 2000s until my good friend Nik, a self-described former-Communist-turned-Libertarian convinced me to align with the Libertarians. I remember an e-mail conversation with him, which is now lost to the ages. I remember, though, that my main hangup about the Libertarian platform was its opposition to government consumer protections, without which, I felt, the mass of people would be exposed to danger. Nik’s response that quality control is a business in itself was the push that brought won me over to the LP. He gave me a copy of David Bergland’s Libertarianism in One Lesson, and this ensured my vote for Michael Badnarik in the presidential election in 2004, my first vote ever in a presidential election.

My full libertarian conversion did not begin until the next year, when a fellow Libertarian and PhillyNORML comrade, Matt, encouraged me to buy gold. He e-mailed me an article from the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute in support of his gold recommendations. The podcasts of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, above all else, would drive my development as a full-fledged libertarian through the remainder of the decade. The next time my renewed my government-issued non-driver I.D., I had the DMV change my voter affiliation to Libertarian. It has been that way ever since.

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