Dispatch from Prison: How Strong Is Hope?

In my daily prayer book, the morning antiphon for today said: “The Lord chose these holy men for their unfeigned love …” The men referred to are Saints Phillip and James, whose feast day it is today. But as I return from a writing workshop at one of Maryland’s federal men’s prisons, the phrase takes on a fresher meaning.

This week I’m the visiting humanities scholar inside the “big house.” There were about 20 men in class today. I think they are all from Washington, D.C. When the federal prison at Lorton, VA, closed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, D.C. federal prisoners were shipped all over the U.S.– sometimes very far from their families.

Hope House DC was established by Carol Fennelly in 1998 to help keep those D.C. families with someone in prison together and keep incarcerated fathers active in the lives of their kids. Hope House also works to reduce the isolation, stigma, and risk families experience when fathers and husbands are imprisoned and raises public awareness about prison issues and this at-risk population.

Carol Fennelly invited me to participate in this program – funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. – and made it possible for me to come teach these classes as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program. The book that D.C. has chosen to read and that we are discussing in these workshops is Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, which takes on the question: Knowing we are going to day, how should we live?

The guys are discussing the book and writing about their own experiences. I was impressed that every single man had read the book in advance. From the depth of our discussion I think some had read it multiple times. One man quoted sections from memory and cited the page numbers.

We talked about the characters, their motivations, the setting in rural Louisiana in the 1940s. We talked about what makes a character — and whether a character always has to be a person or can it be the landscape or even an experience that looms large in the story line. The men struggled with each other over whether the main character “Jefferson” was a “victim of circumstance” or “did he make a bad choice” that ended with him on death row.

We talked about the preacher that peddles hope on Sunday mornings, but the hope fades by sunset and never leads to changing the systems of oppressions. Just how strong is hope? And how weak is optimism? We discussed how very small acts or things can be used to dismantle an overarching system — the weapons of the weak can take apart dehumanizing systems. But they only work if they force the oppressors and the oppressed to recognize their shared humanity.

At one point our conversation shifted. One man said, “We keep saying that Jefferson was simple or retarded or slow or stupid and that’s why he did those things that ended him up in jail. But WE did the same things! We made the same choices. And WE aren’t stupid or simple or slow.” Then each one began to wrestle with who he was in the story and the choices that he had made and how hard it is to build up enough strength to make new choices when the same old situations arise on the outside.

I won’t say that anyone in the workshop – myself included – is “holy” in a morally righteous sense. But instead “the Lord called these holy men” in the sense that holiness also means moving toward becoming a whole and healed human being. And even in this first day, I can stand as a witness to their “unfeigned love” – especially when they talk about their kids or show pictures of their families. Tomorrow we’ll work on a number of writing exercises and end with a reading from their work and a graduation certificate.

On another note, it turns out that “Casino Jack” Abramoff was also at this facility, on the minimum security side. He’s getting released to a half-way house this month just in time to see Alex Gibney’s newly released documentary about his life called Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Suffice it to say, the range of “bad choices” made by men in Washington, D.C., is wide-ranging.

Who Lit The Fire Under the Right-Wing ‘Populists’ Against Healthcare Reform?

obamacareBy now, we’ve all seen the angry “regular Americans” who are rising up to resist health-care reform. They are demonstrating loudly at town hall meetings. They are holding rallies. They are e-mailing all their friends and family about the absolute horrors that will accompany any gov’t run program of Obama-Care.

Who are these people? Where did they come from? Is this really how Americans feel about healthcare reform?

I started digging a little into organizing strategy behind this “grassroots” movement and found … wait for it … Ralph Reed!

You remember Ralph from the Christian Coalition, right? He was the political strategist for the far-right Republican wing and handed the political far-Right a “faith-based” cover for their political agenda. More recently, he ran for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia in 2006 but lost due his involvement in the Abramoff Indian gaming and Congressional bribery scandal. In 1997, Ralph started Century Strategies, a political consulting firm for Republican candidates and causes. His clients have included Enron, online gambling companies, Indian gambling firms, and the cable industry to fight decency standards proposed in Congress.

So, when far-right political operatives and insurance industry giants wanted to defeat major health-care reform, who did they call? Their old buddy Ralph Reed.

Ralph’s friend, and former Century Strategies’ business exec, Tim Phillips, was tasked to head up Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing PR firm funded primarily by Koch Industries (global energy firm that runs coal plants, agribusiness, major oil refineries, etc. Papa Koch was a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society, according to BusinessWeek). AFP is part of a handful of corporate industry front-groups that are leading the propoganda campaign against health-care reform. AFP’s health-care targeted subsidiary is called Patients First. PF is launching bus tours against health-care reform right now. It’s AFP who brought you “Joe the Plumber,” the “Drill, Baby, Drill” rallies, the “tea-bagging parties” (ahem), and most recently the “Survivor” TV ad with the Canadian woman who had to sneak into the US to get her cancer treated, because “in Canada, treatment is delayed or denied.” Wrong.

Here are a few of the groups: Club for Growth is a right-wing lobbying organization that represents the Wall Street elite.  RecessRally.com is the network getting people out to the townhall meetings. It’s a subsidiary of the American Liberty Alliance, whose excutive director is Eric Odom, a far-right media strategist and president of Strategic Activism, his online political strategizing company. RecessRally is networked with American Majority, a right-wing non-profit that is staffed primarily with conservative Christians who came out of the Bush administration and the Generation Joshua project (a Christian youth league training students in conservative activism).

So, that’s a rough roundup of who’s leading the so-called “populist uprising.” As Rachel Maddow said in her excellent expose, “Corporate interests do this ‘fake grassroots’ movement as an industry. This is a professional PR campaign to line their own pockets. It is professional, corporate-funded Republican PR  and should be named and reported as such.”

I recommend reading Lee Fang’s article Tim Phillips, The Man Behind The “Americans For Prosperity” Corporate Front Group Factory. And, in the interest of full disclosure, Fang works for the Center for American Progress, a think-tank full of operatives for the Dems. But Lee is a really good researcher. Here’s a bit of his article:

The rate at which the Koch Industries funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) churns out front groups to promote its right-wing corporate agenda sets the organization out among similar conservative “think tanks.” This week, AFP created their latest front group called “Patients United Now,” an entity set up to defeat health care reform. Patients United follows a familiar pattern AFP has used for their other front groups: create a new stand alone website, fill it with lines like “We are people just like you” to give the site a grassroots feel, and then use the new group to recruit supporters and run deceptive advertisements attacking reform.

Access to adequate health care is a human right. Human rights generally are antagonistic to corporate interests. As people of faith we are called to stand up for human dignity and human rights. Now would be a good time to go ahead and shine the Light on these corporate con artists, especially the one’s masquerading as Christians.