What People Want to Hear About in Austin, Texas

Sunday before last I attended two different political/educational events, one an anti-war event at the Unitarian Church, the other, an author book signing at the local independent non-corporate bookstore. Left both events feeling disturbed, for different reasons, for what I saw and heard at each.

The event at the Unitarian Church was a tour-stop for the Labor Against the War Tour. Some of the brighter lights of the US labor movement sponsored a lengthy US tour in 2005-6 for a dozen or two Iraqi labor leaders. One of the tour guides for these Iraqi visitors was speaking and showing the 26 minute long documentary movie made by the US labor leaders about the tour.

The movie was well worth watching. Ordinary working people were shown as themselves doing political and social activities, which is something that Hollywood doesn’t ever do. Watching the folks interact with the Iraqis was an object lesson in the fundamental decency of so much of working America. The focus was on the importance of labor solidarity across national boundaries, and the similar problems of worker solidarity against globalization, not so much on the politics of the war. Even with the war on the back burner, the message from the Iraqi labor leaders came out loud and clear–the US needed to leave Iraq NOW. Nobody in the movie from the US side ever disagreed with them either, which again shows ordinary working Americans as smarter than their political leaders.

What bothered me most about this event was what has been bothering me about the anti-war effort here in Austin, and I suspect nationwide as well, for some time. First, the attendance stank at this event — maybe 50 people attended. This was the first anti-war event in at least six months in this town, and that’s all who turned up. Second was the audience demographic, which was pure retiree age, entirely Caucasian, in this city, Austin, a young-demographic city that is almost majority-minority. I’m 50 this year and except for two other attendees I was the youngest person there. At every single educational anti-war event I’ve ever been to in this town, and I think I’ve been to all of them, I’ve been almost the youngest person attending. Every single educational anti-war event — movies or lectures, save those on the UT campus–has had these same problems of crappy attendance and a geriatric demographic.* The UT student events of course have a student demographic but still have crappy attendance and are very rare in occurrence and basically haven’t occurred at all for the past two years. I am not sociologist enough to answer why things are like this, but part of it might be a generational shift in how curious people are. Myself I don’t think that many Americans are all that curious about the world around them, and just aren’t interested in movies and lectures about Iraq, or anywhere much else in the outside world. Evidence of this might also come from the non-answer I got to my question I asked the US labor leader/tour guide in the Q & A afterwards. I asked him what the Iraqis thought about America, Americans, and American society after seeing it close-up for the first time ever. He had no answer. Apparently no one had asked the Iraqis this ever in all the months they were here.

I went from there to the local independent bookstore, BookPeople, for a talk and booksigning by Mohammed Yunus, Nobel Prize winner, founder of the Grameen Bank, and pioneer of microlending to the rural poor in the Third World. I got there early enough to get a front center seat. Very large turnout — I’d guess around 400–which makes this the third most attended booksigning I’ve ever seen. (Jimmy Carter pulled in 2000, and Sonny Barger {ex-president of the Hell’s Angels} pulled in 600) The demographic was better — a much younger and more representative audience, basically an Obama audience, except no blacks or Mexicans. The only color came from a sizeable turnout of south Asian students there from UT.

I was prepared with a good impertinent question for Dr. Yunus, which was:

“Dr. Yunus, everyone who wants to improve rural lives wants land reform, returning land ownership to its tillers. But everyone in the know about land reform knows that an essential part of it is credit reform, too, establishing new modern credit and banking institutions, because rural land disenfranchisement and underdevelopment has mostly occurred from usurious rural lending practices. Dr. Yunus, why is it that your 36 per cent interest rate microcredit loans are going to promote rural development when historically those same interest rates destroyed small farmer landowning and turned yeoman landed farmers to landless peasants?”

Little long of a question, but dammit I couldn’t think of a way to make it shorter and have it understood by the average ignorant American. You see, for all the PR about microlending, at its core all it is is another go-round of extortionate lending to the rural poor, mostly targeting women instead of farmers this time, done by the Grameen Bank instead of the local landowner/jefe. Grameen doesn’t lend money in India at less than 24 per cent interest, a lot at 36 per cent, and some at even higher rates. Unlike your credit cards, interest is calculated over the whole of the loan, not on the remaining balance, too. On the other hand, if you are an affluent upper class Indian, you can borrow money from the big commercial banks at 8 per cent to buy a new (imported) Mercedes-Benz. (And then burn up lots of imported petroleum, too, once you have it–another excellent use for scarce foreign exchange dollars.) While there are success stories from Grameen Bank’s files, they are proof of nothing but the desperate crying need for capital in the third world rural sector. That anyone can make a go of things with money borrowed at those rates shows how badly starved for credit the rural third world is. The drawback to microcredit is that the historical record shows these rates in aggregate over time are horribly destructive. Microcredit’s track record is short; history’s is long. And nobody smart bets against history.

I listened to Yunus tell his story of how he came to start Grameen Bank, and how the important thing now was that he was doing things to promote businesses with a social objective. He was more than passing weak on explaining what exactly the latter concept is and how it is supposed to work. He managed to get a dig in against his apostates in Mexico who had gone commercial, with immense success, using his methods and charging even higher interest rates.** Not too much was said, nor was any said with any verve, either. At the conclusion, one of the store staff announced that Dr. Yunus was going to take exactly three questionns, no more. I shot my hand up, and got noticed, but Yunus wound up picking three good-looking women instead of me. They all pitched him softball questions, which he was happy to give the usual predictable answers to. Most all of the crowd hung around to get their books signed.

Yunus has definitely tapped into something in the American psyche, in particular the well-intentioned white educated younger demographics. Yunus has gotten a lot of publicity, all of it highly favorable, in the US newsmedia, for about the last decade. [Not here on CounterPunch cockburn10202006.html and pollin06252007.html Editors]

Yunus’ praise of individualistic capitalism certainly is a message that suits the stone hearts and tin ears of ruling elite America, and that accounts for much of his stateside PR. Publicity alone doesn’t get you that big a crowd, though–Yunus is hitting some deep chords in these people’s hearts with his message of third-world salvation via microcredit. That’s why they showed up in numbers on a bright warm and sunny Saturday winter afternoon.

Yunus is telling us a wonderful fairy tale about how capitalism actually works if done right, and how if done right in the rural Third World it will save those people from underdevelopment and lives of hardship and misery. People want to believe the propaganda they are surrounded with, even if their own experience tells them otherwise; it is just so much easier that way. Yunus’ fable of capitalist success yielding a saved third world allows people here the luxury of believing in the fairy tale we know consciously as adults is mostly false. It saves us all a great deal of cognitive dissonance, which after all is hard work. It may not work here that well, but Yunus tells us it will work THERE, a far-away there that we know not at all, and we are happy because of it.

On the other hand, any documentary or lecture about the war shoves our noses in the painful obviousness of American failure, arrogance, and institutional corruption. Harder still to face is how Iraq shows us and our society’s brutality and ugliness. They also compel us to ask why we ourselves aren’t doing anything, and point out our individual helplessness in the face of corporate America’s ruling elites’ control over our country’s government and our own individual lives as well. Yunus’s fable, which requires us to do nothing more than some well-intentioned nattering, suits us well, and we like it. We mostly all choose to ignore the war.

That is us, and who we are, today.

*Attended three Iraq movies at the Dobie Theater, which is immediately adjacent to UT. The War Tapes–7:00 opening Friday showing, attendance 13. The Ground Truth–promoted through the alt newsweekly, with guest speakers from IVAW– Friday opening show’s attendance 20. My Country, My Country–7:00 Sunday opening week showing–attendance 12. Attendance at other showings throughout the week ran in single digits. Sum total of attendees younger than me–5. They are all good movies; you should all see them all.

**The founder of this bank is happy to quote his grandfather the cheap furniture magnate’s saying: “If you want to get rich, sell to the poor.” Their interest rates are around 100 per cent.
And a big tip of the hat to Sudhirindar Sharma for his research assistance and encouragement.

DANIEL WHITE can be reached at: louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com







Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.