By Matthew Rothschild on November 26, 2010

I went to the library the other day to return an overdue book of poems by W. S. Merwin, our current poet laureate.

I felt guilty because I’d been depriving other people of his wisdom and his art.

I felt guilty because I was hoarding a public good, part of the commons.

But the very idea of “the commons” is under assault these days from Republicans who want to privatize everything, and from the likes of Rand Paul, who denies that the commons even exists.

We need to reassert our claims to the commons, and we need to restore the concept of the public good.

And one excellent way to start is to get hold of an insightful new DVD called “This Land Is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons.”

It’s narrated by David Bollier, a brilliant longtime activist and writer, and it’s produced by the Media Education Foundation in Northampton (www.mediaed.org).

Bollier traces the historical roots of the commons, and its American roots, as well. He quotes former Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, “If you steal $10 from a man's wallet, you're likely to get into a fight. But if you steal billions from the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice."

Too many of us haven’t been noticing.

Bollier shows how the mineral and oil companies have ripped off the public lands, how the media companies have exploited the airwaves, how the bottling companies have seized our water, and how knowledge itself is being privatized.

In a telling segment of the film, he juxtaposes Dr. Jonas Salk saying that “the people” own the patent to his polio vaccine with the drug companies telling the South African government that it can’t make generic drugs to fight HIV/AIDS.

Bollier argues that “extreme privatization” and “market fundamentalism” took off with Reagan and Thatcher, and was then helped along by Bill Clinton. In reality, he says, it’s “crony capitalism,” as well-connected businesspeople make off with “piecemeal theft of the commons.”

He shows contemporary rightwing ideologues ranting against the idea of communal rights. And he has a clip of Glenn Beck deriding advocates of social justice, as Beck holds a swastika in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other.

But Bollier also talks, inspiringly, about the new movement to reclaim the commons, both here and around the world—and how you can join.

“This Land Is Our Land” is an urgent little film. Please check it out.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Lower, Not Raise, Tensions over North Korea."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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