Rural Routes/Margot Ford McMillen

Summer Reading 2005

It's that time again. The season to seek out that perfect balance between work and leisure and maybe, this year, to learn how to pack in everything on your list, at least as long as the daylight stretches from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The most important element for a great summer is, of course, the book list. Since the kids are out of school, it's an appropriate time to find out what they did all year. Pick up Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto for a quick read -- 100 pages -- on the modern educational system.

According to Gatto in this recently-reissued 1992 classic, it doesn't matter what curriculum the teachers follow because the school agenda is steadfast. Schools teach kids confusion, class position, indifference, dependency, "self esteem" and life under constant surveillance. If you have ever looked at a friend and asked, dumbfounded, "How did America ever get to this point?" you'll find your answer here. Modern education teaches kids that Wal-Mart has everything they need. Read this, and you'll seriously consider home-schooling.

After Gatto, you're in a good position to understand What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, a book I cannot summarize in one or two paragraphs. I resisted reading it at first because of the accusatory title, and the spirit of the title develops into the thesis. In this book, adolescent rants morph into truths and half-truths but always end up thought-provoking. Bottom line: Kansas votes against its own self-interest because the population is full of religious wackos, racists and anti-intellectuals. I've read it twice now, and will go back for another try, but I don't want to help pay for this guy's displaced, anti-midwestern attitude. My advice: Read this book, but borrow it from the library.

Here's one to buy, even if it's only available in hard-copy: If you read nothing else this summer, dig into John Perkins's Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. It moves like a suspense novel, but claims to be the true-life story of a fellow who worked in the 1960s and '70s for American businesses hoodwinking foreign governments into buying huge projects like hydroelectric dams that put them into breaking debt and never paid real benefits. The money diverted into the American companies made their stocks rise and paid their investors well. The culture of secrecy and militarism also nurtured the CIA.

If this spooky book with its cast of well-trained, compliant females and suave Ivy Leaguers is true, and it certainly has the ring of truth, it explains a lot. Among Perkins's jobs was skewing data to make it seem that the modernizing dams, buildings and highways, built by American businesses, were democratizing and problem-solving. Instead, though, the projects were large beyond any practical scale. They displaced people, disrupted economies, changed cultures and created rage that often led to war.

Perkins was a fairly innocent fellow at the beginning, but the truths crept up on him and even though he quit, the effects of his work will go on for generations. And we cannot deny that we are beneficiaries of this cruel system. For one thing, disruption in one nation means emigration to a place where things may be better. So America benefits from a steady influx of desperate people who come here to do our most difficult and disagreeable jobs.

For those who begin in Mexico, the trips to their motel cleaning jobs and tomato fields takes them from their villages and through uncharted desert. Luis Alberto Urrea has documented the journey of one group of migrants toward the border in The Devil's Highway. Their journey begins in hope and ends in death, but Urrea makes it clear that for each death there are hundreds who will try again. Urrea concentrates on the journey, telling about each wrong turn in painful detail, but readers understand that nobody would leave home to make a treacherous journey unless conditions at home were hopeless.

The effects don't begin and end on this continent, of course. Arundhati Roy has written about American culture in India for several years and her latest collection, An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, refers frequently to dams and building projects and their effects on her people and democracy. While these essays are highly critical of "Imperial Democracy," Roy maintains that power rests not in the mega-corporations but in the people and insists that we learn from the best of us -- Ghandi, King, Mandela.

And so what will we do to celebrate those legacies? Mike Hudema's An Action A Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away is full of ideas. From radical cheerleading to mock awards to letter-writing campaigns, some of the strategies are new and fun and some are old reliables. Hudema gives pointers that even the most experienced tablers and marchers can use.

The point is that, by engaging people on lots of levels, we can change the rush toward the loss of freedom. It takes constant vigilance, yes, but we can prevail. Add an action a day to your list and see how many recruits you can bring into the tent this year.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

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