I almost set fire to the American flag a half dozen times as I spoke to my Liberation Brew TV audience year after year, asking the question, ”Why would someone want to burn the American Flag?” As I dangled the miniature flag in my hand, just out of reach of a candle flame, I would list the dozens of good reasons why someone might like to destroy this symbol of American power. I would also speak of the many reasons that people want to honor it. The United States represents a beacon of hope and perceived freedom to many around the world. Unfortunately, it also represents some of the worst oppression and genocide in the history of the planet.

How many millions have we enslaved? How many hundreds of thousands have we slaughtered? How many countries have we threatened or invaded? How many governments have we overthrown? Ask the Africans, the Native Americans, the Latin Americans, the Iraqis, The Haitians, the Cubans, The Iranians, and all the others our government and military have violated. They may be able to tell you.

Though I still have the TV show on local cable, I haven’t done a threatened burning in a while now. In part, that’s because I haven’t been inspired to. Perhaps a little history is in order here. Beginning in the late nineteenth century states passed anti-desecration laws primarily in response to the over commercialization of the flag. All kinds of companies were using it to link their products to patriotism, and a lot of people who considered themselves real patriots, didn’t like it.

There was little trouble and there were few incidents regarding desecrating the flag until 1963 when a man responding to the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers was arrested for burning a flag. In the years following, as the Vietnam War unfolded, flag burning incidents and arrests became a common feature on the TV news, and were occasionally reported after that. Finally, in I989 the Supreme Court, citing the First Amendment, declared all laws against desecrating the flag unconstitutional. Even though local governments have found ways to charge people who burn the flag with public safety violations, that’s not been good enough. Between 1990 and 2006 our congress tried seven times to pass a constitutional amendment that would make desecrating the flag no longer protected speech.
While my little flag burning theatre was in response to these misguided legislative efforts, I am still tired of the reflexive flag waving that goes on now. I know it feels good to experience ourselves as a community. “USA! USA! We’re number one! We’re Number One!” It’s natural for people to want to belong, but nationalism is a sick concept that divides the world community. And the principle of “American Exceptionalism” which leads us to believe that The USA is always right and good is sicker still. Come on, shout it with me, “USA! USA!”

So, when are we going to face the truth: The United States is not the greatest country in the World. It certainly has the most powerful military, and at present, it is still the mightiest economic powerhouse. That sounds good, but what does it mean to the average American citizen, and how does their life compare to the life of citizens living in any one of the other industrialized democracies of the world?
Somehow, all the other industrialized democracies, outside the old soviet sphere, have managed to develop national cradle to grave health care systems that provide superior affordable health care to virtually all their citizens. And guess what? It has not destroyed their economies.

The United States may be the greatest country in the world for the wealthiest 1% of the population. It may be the greatest country for a handful of fossil fuel energy companies, corporate farmers, and hedge fund managers, who all get major tax breaks. However, according to The Social Security Administration nearly 40 percent of all workers in the country made less than $20,000 last year. That’s below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four and close to the line for a family of three. On average, these workers earned under $18,000. According to U.S. census data, half our population lives in poverty.

The old myth of the American Dream has been revealed for what it is. International surveys show that over a half dozen countries make it easier for a citizen to rise up economically than our nation does. In fact, studies show that in this country the greatest predictor for what economic class a person will be in when they die, is what class they were in when they were born. A survey by The Associated Press reports that four out of five adults struggle with joblessness and near poverty at some point during their lives. “USA! USA!”

On average, according to The World Health Organization, The United States has a homicide rates about seven times higher than the other industrialized countries. No country in the world locks up as many of its citizens as ours does. We have the highest documented incarceration rate, and we have the most people locked up. That’s about one in every one hundred adults—three times the rate of the next highest country. Come on, shout it with me “We’re number one! We’re number one!”
We are the only developed nation that doesn’t have legally mandated paid vacation. Our country is one of only five countries in the industrialized world that have no mandated paid family leave.

As we have been celebrating our political independence, driving over roads and bridges that are in greater disrepair than at any time during the last half century, can we face that we are not looked upon by international election observers as a model of democracy either? They all know that the presidential election of 2000 was stolen. That is not a “liberal” or “conservative” observation; it’s an objective one by independent observers. Come on, “USA! USA!” They know too that state and congressional districts have been gerrymandered to deliberately avoid having a simple one person one vote democracy, and that racist restrictions are being renewed to discourage large segments of our population from voting. “Okay, all together now, “We’re number one! We’re number one! USA! USA!”

Does anybody have a spare flag? I think I’ve got a lighter around here somewhere.

River Smith has been co-producer and co-host of Liberation Brew, a satirical news show in Northeast Ohio for about 20 years. A former local NPR commentator and talk radio show host, he also ran in the only all vegan democratic congressional primary, with Dennis Kucinich in 1998.

0908151254aSo I woke up this morning with another day of boys killing boys, boys killing girls, men killing men, men killing women, men killing boys and girls, and I cried. I cried because I felt the terror in a child’s, a father’s, a brother’s eyes. I cried because I felt the horror, the absolute impossible devastation as a mother’s heart sinks to unimagined depths. I cried when I thought of each conscious woman who has to contain or bury her fear that she might be next.

Whether it’s a block in Cleveland or a California street, whether it’s an Afghan village, a Nigerian home, or an Oregon college, hearts are breaking, lives are destroyed. Something is wrong. Something is wrong that we are the only species on the planet that so frequently murders its own. Why can’t the love we feel prevent this? Why can’t the moral codes of all the world’s religions prevent this? Why can’t all our preaching about peace and understanding prevent this?

The thing is, this isn’t exactly a human species problem. All humans aren’t out there killing their own. Over ninety percent of these daily killings are committed by men and boys. Over ninety percent of physical and sexual assaults are committed by men and boys. Not women. Not girls. Yes, they kill and maim, too, but not at these epidemic proportions. Overwhelmingly, violence is a man problem.

So, is there something in our DNA? Are human males destined to create this havoc, this ongoing tragedy? That’s not likely. Then, what’s the story? There are theories about bullying, or the existence of too many guns, family problems, isolation, poverty, and so on. Each of these may contribute in some way to the senseless slaughter, but none of them can account for the comprehensive violence that accompanies boys’ and men’s lives. The cause appears to be something much more fundamental.

Over the last four thousand years most cultures on the planet have developed what researcher and author Riane Eisler calls a dominator philosophy, rather than a partnership one. The original dominator cultures all followed a pattern that included the development of strict ruling hierarchies, rigid gender roles establishing women as inferior, wide differences in wealth, and spirituality that celebrated domination and the demeaning of the feminine divine. These cultures were convinced the world was a dangerous, fearful place. They tended toward violence, authoritarianism, with all freedom subject to those with the power to physically coerce or harm others.

Unfortunately, our own society is a direct descendent of these cultures. From the moment a boy is born he is being groomed through a thousand daily messages innocently passed on about what a boy, what a man is supposed to be. These messages create pressure for boys to perform in certain ways that identify them as deserving members of the male group. Boys that don’t fit are ostracized. We are taught to funnel our natural energy and occasional exuberance into focused aggression, e.g. war games, football, the armed forces, etc.

While this epidemic of men’s violence affects almost every society, our culture exemplifies the problem. We celebrate violence twenty-four hours a day through television, movies, video games, and much of our music. It is not an accident that over the last fifty years The United States has averaged the most murders per capita of any industrialized country. It is not a coincidence that our yearly defense budget is larger than at least the next twenty nations’ budgets combined. We are a nation that almost worships “justified” redemptive violence, celebrates warriors, and uses the language of violence to describe almost any competition. We are by far the most militarized democracy on the planet.

This mentality drives the man-as-warrior persona that permeates boys’ training, cautioning them, at almost all costs, not to act “like a girl.” This dominator ethic fuels our distorted attitudes toward women, ourselves, and the planet, causing everything from battering to global deforestation.
It is difficult to change all of this. It will continue to be a mighty struggle. As part of that we must face that our definition of Manhood must radically change. We need a manhood for the new millennium; one that makes us allies to women, children, other species, and the earth. If we fully face the hard reality of the sick, hurtful manhood we have been born into, then, together, we can create a new one.

River Smith
Dr. Smith is a psychologist, former co-chair of The National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). He blogs at troublemakingpunk.org.

Yes, not all men harass women, but in so many sick ways, most men gain from that harassment because it decreases women’s comfort and flexibility when it comes to making choices about work and shifts, etc. Thank you so much for writing this. I want as many people as possible to see this.

I have so many thoughts on this, but I’m not ready yet to comment much. I really appreciate the earnestness and effort to sort this all out.
Just a quick note: I grew up in the lower end of the working class as a white male with almost no chance to attend college. I was mentored by a man of color with two masters degrees. I felt very far from upper middle class and rich white people.

Izzy In a Tizzy

I mentioned earlier that two weeks ago I went to an anti-racism training and my white privilege went unchecked for awhile. But ultimately I was able to (mostly) check it and I had a great experience that I am still processing and pondering and trying really, really hard to stay in this place of processing and ambiguity. Because I think an important truth is that learning is a process, not an end game. Wow that sounded cliche. But that’s how it’s felt for me and it’s felt great.

Since the training, I’ve been thinking a lot about how complex oppression is and how contextual and multifaceted oppression and privilege are. I’ve been doing some good old internet searches and the closest thing I’ve found to describe this complexity is kyriarchy. But even that doesn’t quite cut it for me. Not right now. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a…

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As I awakened this morning, the four young people shot down, and the others whose lives were changed by wounds at Kent State University 44 years ago, were on my mind. Their sacrifice carries meaning and a message across the decades. I have to admit, however, that I was surprised at the level of shock and outrage expressed by so many people at the time of the attack.

As someone who was beaten, harassed, and threatened with deadly force by police on the streets from the time I was thirteen years old, as someone who knew the feeling of being locked away in solitary confinement by an all powerful government, as someone who had friends victimized by the Chicago police riot of 1968, as someone who knew people who “committed suicide” while in police custody, I evidently had a different kind of knowledge.

As someone who knew about the lynchings and the government sanctioned, sponsored, or accepted murders of scores of civil rights and labor activists over the previous 150 years, as someone who consciously lived with the genocide of slavery and the near extinction of the First Peoples by our government, I was as saddened by the reaction of many around me, as I was by the shootings at Kent.

Over and over again in my head the words reverberated, “What in the world did we expect?”  I too was outraged by the National Guard’s actions, but not because the shooting was exceptional. It was because it was “one more time.” Within days Black students were murdered by state police at Jackson State University. The reaction to that incident never seemed to resonate with the intensity of the ongoing outrage that continues to be expressed at the Kent State shootings. Why? That is a discussion we need to continue to have.

I was saddened then because it seemed that those who were so uniquely outraged by the Kent State shootings were either oblivious to our history or had somehow not been able to see themselves in the lives of all the activists who had been murdered, beaten, maimed and tortured by our government right up to that very moment. I recognized an irony at the time that just 84 years earlier (exactly 128 years ago today) the “Haymarket Square Massacre” had taken place. The Chicago police marched into a labor rally that had been protesting the police killing of a striker. A small bomb was thrown that killed a police officer. The police then opened fire, shooting down seven of their own and a number of the rally participants. Who was held accountable for these killings? The police? Not a chance. Seven local labor leaders and a man who was known to have made bombs were arrested and charged. After a sham trial, four of these men were hanged. The bomb maker blew himself up, and three went to prison. None of them was proven to have had anything to do with the bomb. “What did we expect?” 

Our government has always maintained the right and the power to harm its citizens. The students at Kent were no exception. It is sad and it should always be outrageous that any government will attack its own citizens. Our government may not do it as often during some periods as it does in others, but we must never forget that, almost whoever seems to be in power, they will use it against us if they choose.

It is our job to know our history and to fill the streets with our humanity when necessary, trying hard not to forget that, “The people united, will never be defeated.”  See you at the barricades!


River Smith is a trouble making punk who was locked up as a teenager, and after all these years, he still can’t keep his smart mouth shut.

 Last week some old, white cheating cowboy fraud said publicly what he has probably said over and over to his friends. Another super rich white bigot’s private words were reported too. In many ways this really isn’t news. 

We live in a racist nation that has perpetuated derogatory stereotypes and promoted discrimination against people of color throughout most of its history. Thankfully, we have seen some hard fought changes occur, but do we really believe we can eradicate three hundred years of bigotry and ignorance in a couple generations? I heard a TV commentator say today that our nation “needs to have a conversation about race.”  Really?

“What do you get when you send a racist to college?”  My friend and mentor, Will Nichols used to ask that question of his Black History students at Cuyahoga Community College forty years ago.  A year earlier I met this decorated World War II veteran, who had worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. He was teaching philosophy part time then, while working full time at the post office.

As a full time history instructor Will Nichols quickly became involved as faculty sponsor for a number of African-American student organizations, and he developed the Black history courses into ones that would require senior level work of junior college level students. His rationale was that he wanted the Black students in his classes to be able to perform at a level far higher than would be required of them elsewhere.  At the time, I thought it unfortunate that as a white student in his class I had to do this extra work too. 

As we groaned over doing 50 page research papers, Nick used to say, “I won’t do it for you, but I’ll wade in my own blood waist deep to help you up so you can do it.” True to his word, he was available 24 hours a day for consultation, inviting our study groups to his apartment on the weekends to work on our papers together.

There was no Martin Luther King Day then, no Black History Month, just the same clear need in our culture to have an ongoing dialogue about our nation’s shameful history and continued behavior of racist oppression. I wonder what Will Nichols, who’s been gone a few years now, would have to say about the often repeated notion that Americans need to have a conversation about “race.”

I believe he’d say that it was an important issue, but as he smiled, waiting for the answer to his original question, he’d tell us that the crucial conversation had to be not about race, but about racism. We Americans have still not fully engaged that dialogue.

Our primary problem isn’t about misunderstanding each other’s cultures (we’ve all been guilty of that at times); our primary problem is about facing the ongoing reality of systemic discrimination. It’s about recognizing the rationalizations and denial that occur in all situations of oppression.  When your culture does something that is unacceptable, such as kidnapping someone and imprisoning them and their descendants for hundreds of years, there is only one way to feel okay about living with that.  You must justify it.

The Romans justified their domination and enslavement of Europeans and others by depicting them as animal like. The British justified their control of the Irish by depicting them as savages or sub-human. Europeans, Chinese, Euro-Americans, and other colonizing cultures all depicted indigenous peoples around the world as savages or scary beasts. The Nazi death machine depicted the Jews and Eastern Europeans as sub-human.

The opinion maker apologists of each offending culture argue that because of some flaws in the victims’ humanity, the imprisonment, enslavement, or extermination of these “others” is in the best interest of everyone involved. Stereotypes are shaped and reproduced broadly, reinforcing the perceived inferiority of the oppressed group.

The stereotypes used to justify the enslavement of African-Americans early in our history were so deeply imbedded in the psyche of white American culture that many of them continue right into the present. It is not some random accident that independent study after study show that housing, job, and justice system discrimination is still rampant in our society.  Our rationalization and denial still keep us from addressing the reality of our culture’s racist legacy.

 So what was the answer to Nick’s question?  When you send a racist to college, “You get an educated racist.” It doesn’t matter what’s put in front of our eyes to see, if we refuse to open our eyes to see it.

We can change that if we as a culture continue to find the courage to face the reality of racism and its terrible consequences.


River Smith is author of the book, A Conspiracy To Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power, and co-author with Victor Lee Lewis and Hugh Vasquez of The Color of Fear: A Teacher’s Manual.

So, I just heard on the radio that authorities are finally looking into sexual assault charges against a Florida college star athlete for an incident that took place last year. Over and over again I’ve seen sexual assault cases against star athletes conveniently swept under the rug. You can bet the teenaged athletes who, at a 2012 party, assaulted a young teen girl in Steubenville, Ohio, have seen it too.

 As a man who committed what I consider attempted sexual assault more than once as a teenager, I have watched the events unfolding over the last year and a half in Steubenville with great interest and much sadness. Whether we examine the cultural training and influences for boys like me a half a century ago or for those in the present, media messages and unequal power relationships that promote objectification of women and sexual aggressiveness of men abound. Sexist stereotypes and rape fantasies are reinforced day after day. 

The films of my grandparents’ time and the films and television shows of mine promoted rape and sexual assault, too. The heralded 1939 film, Gone With The Wind has a celebrated scene where Scarlett has made her disdain clear to her husband, Rhett. He attacks her, picks her up against her will and takes her upstairs to … what? The next scene we see Scarlett lying in bed, smiling. What does that mean? What’s the lesson drawn?  When, fifteen years later, Marlon Brando, in the acclaimed film, On The Waterfront, violently attacks Eva Marie Saint, and the viewer sees that she evidently wanted him to do that, what does it mean?  What does a thirteen year old boy learn from that?  When three or four decades after that Nicholas Cage does the same to Cher in the award winning, Moonstruck, and she decides she loves him, what in the world is the movie maker telling boys about women, and about how men should behave?  So called serious films continue to perpetuate this image of the heroine waiting to be taken by the strong, impetuous hero. The scores of comedy films made over the last ninety years that have implied that it is a good idea to ply women with alcohol to “loosen them up” also continue to provide lessons today. 

When most video games marketed to teen boys depict women as either helpless damsels who must be saved, or strong, evil women who must be vanquished, what is the message the boy gets?  When thousands of rap songs constantly label women as “b***ches” or “hos”, or as their body parts, who simply are there to please the males, what does the eleven year old boy learn about girls and women? What messages do the girls get about themselves? 

We live in a patriarchal, sexist culture where women hold less than 20% of our elected offices on average, less than 5% of CEO positions of our largest corporations, less than a quarter of the top positions in our cultural institutions. Most film directors, most video producers, most advertising executives are men, while single mothers are the largest group of adults in poverty. These conditions help determine whose vision defines our world—what’s valued as important, what’s not. 

Over one-third of teen girls report violence from their male partners.Thousands of women each year are raped or battered by guys they know.  In one survey it was reported that 23% of women who served in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars were victims of at least one attempted sexual assault by their male comrades. At the same time, the markets for violent pornography and sexual slavery are at all time highs. 

This is the environment in which these teen boys committed horrid crimes of violation and degradation against an innocent young woman. This is the environment in which a community of youths and adults supported and tolerated those crimes.  It was a similar environment almost a half century ago when my friends and I crossed similar boundaries, and were not held accountable.  As bad as it is now, it was worse in some ways then. The voice of women could barely be heard. That was before brave women came together to create rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, before women rallied to challenge “the problem with no name,” and demanded liberation for women and the right to control their own bodies.

The voices are getting louder, but it is still hard to be heard over the cheers for a game winning touchdown catch or the dissonant noise of one more porn video or Hollywood flick that swallows the landscape.   

As I write this and you read this, women in our country are being battered; women in our country are being raped; women and girls in our country are being sexually harassed, and boys are being taught that either it’s okay or it doesn’t matter that much. We’re also not being taught that this is not simply a “violence against women” problem, but something even bigger.  We are not being taught that this is an inevitable result of living in a patriarchy. We are not being taught that until we fully challenge the distorted masculinity that comes from living in a dysfunctional patriarchal system, we will never reach the roots of the violence.  In the meantime, we do what we can.

As power relationships slowly change, sexist images are challenged, and women’s voices are heard, perhaps we can hope that, even if we haven’t yet stopped the sexist violence, it goes unacknowledged and unpunished a little less often.  A small victory, but a critical one.   

River Smith is former co-chair of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), former coordinator of Men Against Violence (a community centered feminist-based batterers program), and author of A Conspiracy To Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power.