Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality. And in this precipitous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given up reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded

Empire of Illusion

--Chris Hedges

Water

The key is to keep things in the proper perspective, as it is with most things in life. We just came out of a mini-drought, with very little rain at all for weeks, and the rain of the last week has replenished our water supply.

As the forecast worsened, I was confident. I’d just redone our basement work space that had flooded twice before, putting heavy-duty waterproof paint on the floor and up to the ground line and sealing the previously-unsealed holes in the concrete that were evidence of some previous owner’s battle with termites. We were ready with a pump in case it did flood. I’d redone the draining system, the failure of which had caused the first two floods. We were ready.

Sunday morning, though, we found water in the basement. Not much, but a bit. By the time I had gone back upstairs to change into more appropriate attire and had returned, there was noticeably more water. Significantly more water. I scanned for the source, but it didn’t seem to be coming from corner that was the usual source. I soon discovered the breach: one of the termite-poison-injection points had been compromised: water was literally bubbling out of the small hole as if it were a spring. I plugged it with a wine cork and set up the pump, only to discover that the two or so inches of water was not enough to trigger the pump. No fear: we had plenty more water in the crawl space and a shop vac. In the end, I pumped probably seven or eighth hundred or so gallons out of the crawl space at about two hundred gallons out of the work room.

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The nicely-painted floor, though, was a wreck. But the overall damage was minimal, and the situation could have been much worse:

  • We had power.
  • We had a working pump to empty the crawl space.
  • We had a working shop vac to suck up the water that’s too shallow for the pump to draw up, which was basically all the water in the basement — but still.
  • Even if it totally flooded the basement, nothing down there was critical to daily living or irreplaceable.
  • The living area living of our house was highly unlikely ever to flood at all.

By the time we got the basement situation under control, the only real concern was the forest in the backyard. With such saturated ground and such relatively strong winds, everyone was saying that the compromised root systems of trees wouldn’t hold indefinitely. But they all held, and we escaped with no damage to speak of.

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Throughout the day, the routine was the same:

  • Grade some papers.
  • Check the water level in the basement.
  • Hang out with the kids a while.
  • Repeat.

We all knew that the situation was worse the closer one got to the shore. When the pictures of the damage started appearing on the Internet, though, it was far beyond anything we’d expected.

So today, we went about or normal routines, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thankful for the ability to go to work this Monday morning.

Standing in Line

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we recall all the millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, some of whom stood in line for the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Treblinka, at Chełmno, Belzec, and Sobibor. It is something unthinkable for me: why stand peacefully in line? Why not fight? Of course it would be in vain, but why not resist? Of course in the early days, they might not have realized what was happening, for the Nazis went to great measures to hid the fact that they were about to die. Still, rumors spread as the Holocaust continued, as people escaped from camps and told their stories, and many knew what was about to happen. Still, they stood in line for showers that many of them knew were not actual showers. Perhaps they did not want to panic their children. Perhaps they wanted their last moments to be as peaceful as possible. Whatever the reason, many of them waited in line.

Women and children waiting in a small wooded area near Crematorium IV at Auschwitz.

Tonight, I was waiting in line at Barnes and Nobles when I saw the cover of this month’s Atlantic. The cover story is an article by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” It is an article that details the stunning rise in anti-Semitism in Europe. Goldberg writes that “France’s 475,000 Jews represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Yet last year, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews.”

While the article dealt with, for example, the highly nationalistic, ultra-right Nation Front of France and Greece’s openly anti-Semitic Golden Dawn, Goldberg also spends a great deal of time discussing the rise of Islamic anti-Semitism.

Finkielkraut[, a French Jew,] sees himself as an alienated man of the left. He says he loathes both radical Islamism and its most ferocious French critic, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing–and once openly anti-Semitic–National Front party. But he has lately come to find radical Islamism to be a more immediate, even existential, threat to France than the National Front. “I don’t trust Le Pen. I think there is real violence in her,” he told me. “But she is so successful because there actually is a problem of Islam in France, and until now she has been the only one to dare say it.”

Goldberg goes on to give numbers: “Violence against Jews in Western Europe today, according to those who track it, appears to come mainly from Muslims, who in France, the epicenter of Europe’s Jewish crisis, outnumber Jews 10 to 1.”

Yet for secular, left-leaning Western Europe, there is a problem: Muslims are seen as victims just as much as Jews. Scratch that: more so: “’People don’t defend the Jews as we expected to be defended,’ [Finkielkraut] said. ‘It would be easier for the left to defend the Jews if the attackers were white and rightists.'” Even Goldberg seems to see the problem with Islamic anti-Semitism as a question of social injustice rather than a theological component of Islam itself when he explains that the “failure of Europe to integrate Muslim immigrants has contributed to their exploitation by anti-Semitic propagandists and by recruiters for such radical projects as the Islamic State, or ISIS.” One only has to look at imams’ comments coming out of the Middle East to see the prevailing contemporary view of Jews in the Islamic world.

As I stood in line, though, not having read the article, I was initially taken aback: I thought for a moment it might be an extreme leftist anti-Zionist diatribe, and not just one that skates close to anti-Semitism but that openly embraces it. I decided I must read it when I got home, though. I looked down at the book I was purchasing, ironically about Auschwitz, then glanced around the shop. A covered Muslim woman was approaching with her uncovered husband and son. I glanced at the book in my hand, glanced at the Muslim family, glanced at the magazine cover, and wondered at the irony of the moment.

Seeing You in Them and Them in You

Dear Terrance,

You did some work today. It’s a rare occurrence, to be honest, and most of the time you seem more interested in drawing attention to yourself by any negative means necessary. But today, for some reason, you worked.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it many times again, but the only substantive difference between you and the folks in the class you call “the smart class” is that they work as consistently as you disrupt. But if you could start to see them in yourself, perhaps we could start making some real progress.

However, I worry. I see you in another group all too easily. Perhaps you heard about the lynching that occurred in a Brooklyn McDonalds, where seven or so girls ganged up on a single girl and beat her unconscious while onlookers cheered, laughed, and filmed it on their cell phones. Sadly, it’s not too hard for me to imagine you among them, cheering the girls on, holding your cell phone while eagerly thinking about what you’ll tag this with on Twitter. Not a single patron stepped in to help the girl, who ironically is now bragging on social media about the fame she has. Twisted world, Terrance, and sadly, as I said, I can somehow see you in that crowd. It’s not hard to imagine.

But after seeing you work today, it’s not hard imagining you being in an entirely different group.

The choice is yours, I suppose, but I wonder if it hasn’t already been made through fourteen years of habituated behavior. I hope not, because the future of people who stand around and cheer while someone is getting assaulted is not a bright one. You deserve better, so choose better.

With a glimmer of hope,
Your Teacher

Boston Balloon

In footage likely to become as iconic as the shots of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, we can see all we really need to understand, at some gut level, what happened in Boston today. Shortly after the first explosion, shortly after the smoke and dust begin to rise, we see them.

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Three balloons suddenly drift up from smoke and dust, lost balloons that drift away from the carnage almost effortlessly. I didn’t notice it the first time, but, as on 9/11, the networks showed the same footage again and again and again. Finally, I noticed them. And shortly after that, I shuddered at the implication. In all likelihood, someone was holding those balloons, and the jolt and jerk of the explosion caused whoever was holding the balloon to let go.

And then I thought of who usually holds balloons.

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We’re all like that hypothetical kid holding the balloon, the kid who might very well be this boy. Or the three-year-old who sustained significant, possibly life-threatening injuries. We hold on tightly to the little bits of comfort we’ve found in life until something like this jars us, makes us wonder whether it’s all about to float away like ether.

Connections

Nightjohn tells the story of a young slave girl, Sarny, who surreptitiously begins learning how to read — an act that is utterly forbidden for a slave. She and John, her teacher, face potential whipping and worse in scratching out letters in the dust of the slave quarters. It’s a vivid example of the power of education and literacy, and the two classes of mine that are reading it have become utterly engrossed. So when I was munching on peanuts during my planning period, taking the ten minute news break I allow myself, and I read the story of Malala Yousafzai, I knew I had to incorporate her story into our unit.

Malala Yousafzai in her hospital bed

Yesterday I had students read an article from the Washington Post, practicing some literacy strategies we’ve worked on this year to make sense of the difficult passages, then had students write a brief compare/contrast paragraph about Malala’s situation and the dangers Sarny faces in the book. The parallels are striking: both girls are risking death for an education; both girls are being denied an education because of xenophobia; both girls defiantly stand up to the xenophobia; both girls suffer because of their courage — the list could be virtually endless.

Today, the students came into class talking about the story.

“I watched it on the news. The article we read said she was shot in the neck, but on the news, they said she was shot in the head,” one girl explained.

“Yeah,” another added, “but I heard she’s been moved to another hospital and should be okay.”

They continued this way for some time and were excited when they discovered the bell ringer included passages from Yousafzai’s diary.

At the end of the day, when my first period comes back for the final thirty minutes of “flex time” (which doesn’t seem to be as flexible as the name would indicate), a girl who often seems disengaged and occasionally even refuses simply to do anything in class came in excited to tell me that the Yousafzai story was featured on the daily kids news show students watch in social students.

“Mr. Scott, she wasn’t shot in the neck,” she explained. “She was shot in the neck and the head!” She, who sometimes would sleep through class if I allowed it, was excited, engaged, and eager to discuss it — one of those moments that make me realize what a blessing it is to be a teacher.

Interrupted

“I’ll just head out now, while the rice is cooking,” I called out to K, keys in hand, heading out for a quick run to the grocery store. I pulled out of the drive way, and as I came to the intersection, I saw something odd: a police car blocking the road at the next intersection — my destination. I continued, thinking there must have been an accident and planning on taking a back route. I glanced down the blocked street and saw a sight one doesn’t see often except on the news: dozens of men running around in hazardous materials suits.

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What to do? Go back for the camera and tripod.

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I was the only one with a camera — other than the local Fox affiliate crew — but there was a small crowd gathering. The officer blocking the road replied, “Hey, I’ve got no idea myself,” to all queries, but we all knew.

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With that much haz-mat protection, it could only be one of two things. Neither is something you want in your neighborhood.

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“The coroner hasn’t arrived yet,” laughed one of the spectators, “so we know it’s not a pile of dead bodies in the basement.”

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“And we know they weren’t growing a little grass in the basement,” another added. The group consensus: meth lab.

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And sure enough, it was. Odd and rather creepy to think that I passed a house every day for several years where such nefarious, lethal behavior occurred. Most chilling: I’ve seen children playing in that yard.

Coincidentally enough, there was another drug bust in our little town on Friday.

Post-Post-Democracy America

Twenty-four hours and I’m changed. Not radically, and not necessarily in a more optimistic direction, but thoughts have settled and I’ve reached some conclusions, as well as realized additional concerns.

If the issue was purely freedom of expression, the court had no choice but to make the decision it did. The First Amendment is just that — the first. Prima. It’s the basis of all the other amendments and freedoms we enjoy. If one is going to shut down a corporation’s right to free speech, what about newspapers, which are also corporations? There’s no sensible way to draw the line.

All of this leads me to a deeper concern. The idea has crossed my mind before, but Citizens United is making it seem all the more relevant: our eighteenth-century constitution is not always ideally suited to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

One of the most famous, if not most eloquent, pleas for freedom of speech is Milton’s “Areopagitica,” yet that excellent example of persuasive writing is deeply flawed. I’m not simply referring to the narrow freedom of speech for which Milton argues: “Papists” are denied the right as if it were as natural as denying free speech to boulders. Instead, I’m referring to Milton’s contention that there was no censorship in classical times. He’s right, but what was there to censor? There was absolutely no means of mass communication in Socrates’ Athens: he was many centuries removed from a printing press. Thus, it is disingenuous of Milton to make a comparison between the age of Socrates and seventeenth-century England. Regarding communication and potential censorship, there are almost no similarities between the two ages. Specifically, there was virtually nothing to censor in classical Greece compared to Miltonian England.

Similarly, there are very few similarities between twenty-first century America and colonial America. Communication with the entire citizenry now is instantaneous; in the Framers’ day, it took days. There was nothing like the “too big to fail” corporations that exist today, and with the possible exception of some trading companies, multi-national corporations were nonexistent.

Had such things been the eighteenth-century reality, would the Framers have created the same constitution? Most probably not. And it might be a good thing that the internet and General Electric were not the reality: the Constitution is remarkable for its brevity, and I highly doubt modern politicians could match it, or even come close.

Still, that brevity is due in large measure to the relative simplicity of the times. Occasionally, I think it comes back to haunt us.

We have an option: the Framers were wise enough to see the need for an evolving document. We can pass new amendments but those are few and very far between. Peter Shane at the left-leaning Huffington Post has already created a first draft for just such an amendment:

Sec. 1. Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, Congress may prohibit or otherwise regulate political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any federal office.

Sec. 2. Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, States may prohibit or otherwise regulate political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any state or local office, or for any state or local referendum or initiative, within their jurisdiction, and may delegate such regulatory. (Huffington Post)

Amending the First doesn’t seem wise or even feasible. But what about a 14th-Amendment style definition of personhood? The Fourteenth Amendment was designed, in part, to overrule the Dred Scott decision of 1857. It sets forth the very broad conditions of citizenship:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Couldn’t we do something similar? After all, every contract in America begins by defining all the terms in the contract. Shouldn’t the Constitution have something similar?

Post-Democracy America

It might be a little too early to begin carving the tombstone, but SCOTUS made a valiant, naive effort to destroy American democracy and prove everything George Carlin said about corporate America absolutely valid.

Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission might very well go down in history as the most significant change to American democracy since the ratification of the Constitution.

Elections will soon become a shower of cash and attack ads. Candidates will be unable to keep up with corporate spending, and in an act of self-defense (the name of a populist political party in Poland, ironically enough), campaign spending limits will disappear and an election, even more so than now, will be a question of capital.

How many Americans know about this decision? “Who won last night?” “What happened on Idol last night?” “Have you seen that new iPhone app?” These are the concerns of the average American; SCOTUS rulings generally go unnoticed by everyone but law school professors, academics, and attorneys. We pay attention to the tube, and while we might notice an increase in political ads, who is going to notice who is paying for those ads? Who is going to think critically about what the advertisement’s financial backer gains by our buying into that interpretation of this or that politician’s stance or legislative plan? Swift Boat showed how effective an ad campaign can be. We’re sure to see more of it — exponentially more.

The SCOTUS has sold us out, in short. Our voice is no longer heard because our fiscal contributions — and let’s face it: that’s what gets you heard today — are insignificant compared to Big Tobacco, Big Insurance, Big Unions, Big Everything.

Big Capitalism; Little Us.

It’s not just the outcome that’s disturbing: equally troubling is how this case played out.

The court elevated that case to a forum for striking down the entire ban on corporate spending and then rushed the process of hearing the case at breakneck speed. It gave lawyers a month to prepare briefs on an issue of enormous complexity, and it scheduled arguments during its vacation. (NYT Editorial)

There is hope for remediation: the legislature could require share holders to approve of a corporation’s political activities, for example. Whether that would that survive an inevitable challenge is a question I’m in no position to answer.

I do know that I haven’t felt this pessimistic about this country’s future in a very long time. Crony-capitalism and democracy went head to head: our democracy has one knee on the mat, and corporate America is sitting in a dark corner of the arena with a smug grin.

Opportunity Lost

Not many people have a chance, a clear-cut chance, to be magnanimous. Obama had one today, and he blew it. By his own admission he doesn’t deserve the Nobel prize, yet he accepted it, leading to countless howls from the right and some raised eyebrows on the left.

He should have declined to accept it. There’s precedent: Lê Ðức Thọ was awarded the Peace Prize (along with Kissinger) in 1973, but he did not accept it, explaining that there was still no peace in his country. He’s the only person to decline it, and it shows a certain honesty that is rare.

Obama should have said, “I am humbled by the honor bestowed upon me. However, I feel I do not deserve it; therefore, I respectfully decline to accept the award.”

What could anyone, on the right or the left, have said about that? Amid the inevitable cries of “political posturing,” a reasonable person could only, however begrudgingly, admit that it was a magnanimous decision.

Magnanimity

BalanceI try hard in my class to keep my political and religious opinions hidden. When students asked me, “Who’d you vote for,” I simply replied, “That’s not a topic I feel is appropriate for the classroom.” Some students asked why; most seemed satisfied.

In today’s political climate, though, I’m not so much worried about students determining my political beliefs as much as I am concerned at the prospect of them thinking they have sorted out my political views — and then discussing that with their parents

We were working on Greek and Latin roots and affixes today in class, and we came to the word “magnanimous.” We went over the meaning, and as an example of magnanimity, the name “Obama” floated into the room.

To say I equivocated (another of today’s vocab words) would be an understatement. I was, for at least three to four seconds, speechless. Running through my head were concerns with how to avoid even an appearance of bias and a bit of paranoia about what might happen if I couldn’t succeed in the attempt.

“Sure,” I said haltingly. “Especially when he speaks. Most presidents seem magnanimous when they’re addressing large groups.”

Why couldn’t it have simply been “Sure?” Even if there weren’t all the political frothing at the mouth about Obama’s recent address to students, I would have been uncomfortable leaving it politically unbalanced. But I wouldn’t have briefly panicked about it.

Later in the day, in going over a new selection, we were discussing when it was morally permissible to defy a law, and the general conclusion hovered around the idea of unjust laws. We made a list of people in history and literature who’d done this: Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Thoreau. Someone mentioned Robin Hood, and I replied, “True — robbing the rich to give to the poor.”

From the back row comes a distinct, unsolicited comment: “Just like Obama.”

I let it slide, choosing not even to acknowledge it, which I think was the right decision. Still, that panic returned. “If I let it stand, will I look like I agree and that my class has a political bias? If I mention it’s inappropriateness, even if I say that the real problem was not the content but the method of delivery, will I look like an Obama defender?”

And then I thought, “I’m worried about appearing to defend the President of the United States?”

It’s not that I’m concerned about some McCarthy-ian consequences. I couldn’t lose my job about something so trivial. But in this time of heightened sensitivity toward anything connected to Obama, particularly here in South Carolina, where many folks view Representative Wilson as a hero, I find myself thinking, “You can never be too careful.”

Constantly thinking about the political implications of student and teacher remarks makes for particularly effect pedagogy.

Intellectual Walls

Mis (Teddy Bear)

Mis (Teddy Bear)

Many people were concerned about Obama’s speech, and some conservatives were voicing fears that Obama would try to indoctrinate the youth. Concerned conservative groups urged parents to keep their children at home, to shield them from the insidious message of socialism. “Parents have a right to decide what their children hear!” they protested, “And we’re only trying to protect our children.”

The irony is, in trying to shield their children from a perceived socialist threat, they were engaging in behavior that historically has been most commonly exhibited by — surprise! — socialist regimes.

One of the most frightening features of the Soviet Union and its satellite states was the complete control they had over information. Orwell’s 1984 had the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, which altered historical documents to create the appearance of Big Brother’s omniscience. The Soviet Union, in many ways, did the same thing.

More importantly, though, anything and everything from the corrupt West was censored. The capitalist message was so insidious that it might indoctrinate the happy citizens of the Soviet Union and lead to the downfall of the the most perfect civilization on Earth. Capitalism was bad, so bad that even to think about it was deadly.

The Polish cult classic Mis (“Teddy Bear”) has a scene dramatizing what surely happened each and every time a sports team from a communist country traveled West for a competition. The director of the sports club gives the standard speech before getting on the bus:

You’re going to a capitalist country, which might have it’s own, well, advantages. Take care that those advantages don’t overshadow the disadvantages.

The advantages could be so seductive that they could cast their spell even in the midst of post-war destruction: Stalin imprisoned many of the Soviet soldiers who’d been on the far Western front. They’d seen too much; they’d been contaminated. Indoctrinated.

The Soviets didn’t want informed citizens who could weigh the advantages and disadvantages of socialism and capitalism and choose wisely. Big Brother knew very well how seductive the dark side could be, and he took great pains to shield his younger siblings’ eyes and plug their ears.

Pandemic Education

Teaching eighth grade as a pandemic approaches creates certain challenges, especially when a girl passes out in the bathroom and a local high school closes for disinfection.

Thirty Greenville County School District employees wearing gloves and masks started to clean Mauldin High School from the top down last night and will continue to disinfect desks, lockers, doors and bathrooms throughout the day today after up to 18 of 70 students who had attended a band camp at Disney World last week reported flu-like symptoms which led the district to close the school today. (Greenville Times)

Students come running into the classroom, desperate not to touch anything but the bottles of hand sanitizer that they’re most eagerly sharing amongst themselves. They sit down and put their hands in the air as if they’re being held up at gun point. They open doors with their feet and they laughingly refuse to touch the copies of Much Ado About Nothing we’ve been using in class.

A quick look around the room confirms my suspicions: I won’t be able to accomplish anything without dealing with this first. A quick review of how viruses are spread. “You can’t get it from simply touching a desk, even if an infected person has just touched it,” I say. “If you touch that contaminated desk then rub your eyes, pick your nose, and dig something from between your teeth, you might get it.”

It truly satisfied few, but at least there was some semblence of calm afterwards.

Start the Presses!

How to keep dollars local in a global community? It’s not quite isolationism, but it’s a legitimate concern in these Made-in-China times. During the debate — such as there was — about Bush’s first stimulus plan, many joked that we were borrowing money from China to buy Chinese products. Now consumers are more interested in keeping the resources local, and communities are helping out:

A small but growing number of cash-strapped communities are printing their own money.

Borrowing from a Depression-era idea, they are aiming to help consumers make ends meet and support struggling local businesses. […]

About a dozen communities have local currencies, says Susan Witt, founder of BerkShares in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts. She expects more to do it.

Under the BerkShares system, a buyer goes to one of 12 banks and pays $95 for $100 worth of BerkShares, which can be spent in 370 local businesses. Since its start in 2006, the system, the largest of its kind in the country, has circulated $2.3 million worth of BerkShares. In Detroit, three business owners are printing $4,500 worth of Detroit Cheers, which they are handing out to customers to spend in one of 12 shops.
(USATODAY.com)

A few thoughts — mostly questions — about this:

First, this shows how utterly arbitrary cash is. BerkShares or Cheers have value because people agree that they do. Dollars, Yen, and Euros, theoretically, work the same way; more people simply agree that they have value. They were willing to agree because currencies represented something tangible: gold, silver, or whatever. Of course the value of gold only arose — in pre-scientific communities — because people agreed it’s valuable.

This leads to the second question: what backs this money? Indeed, we could ask the same of most world currencies, especially the dollar. Does anything, or is it just a dollar surrogate? Is it just pegged to the dollar? If so, that leads to the final thought.

Third, why do they need to do this? Just to keep the cash in the community? Couldn’t they keep the dollars in the community as well — a well-orchestrated campaign to “Keep the Dollars Here” or some such? Would this be happening if the dollar were actually worth something?

Lastly, what of that 5%? Who covers it? Why are banks willing to sell $100 of BerkShares or Cheers or gls-dollars for $95? (This seems to be hinting at what actually backs these currencies.) Is this debt? Do they get something in return from the business that agree to use these local currencies?