Monday, April 20, 2015

Unbiased News

I recently watched most of the movie "Good Night and Good Luck".  The title reflects the sign-off phrase used by Edward R Murrow at the end of his shows.  I know I have seen the movie before, in its entirety, but only caught the last half this time.  The main thrust of the movie details the shows which Murrow ran (along with his producer, Fred Friendly played by George Clooney who also directed the film) about Senator Joe McCarthy and his hearings to unearth and publicly out communists working in the United States government. 


In retrospect, we have the advantage on knowing that while McCarthy may have found a few communists hiding in our midst, his bullying tactics, his use of accusations without proof, and his apparent belief that only through denying Americans the freedom to choose their political affiliations could America be free, did more harm than good, ruined countless innocent lives, and even led to the suicide of people who were either not guilty of being traitors or were guilty of making foolish choices in their youth.  In the end, McCarthy did become famous, or perhaps infamous, but not because he saved America from an internal nest of communists, but through the term McCarthyism defined in Wikipedia as "the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. It also means "the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism". 


While many still argue that the Communist Party in America in the 1940's was controlled by Moscow, and that there were indeed Communist spies in our country, it may be said that McCarthy's use of guilt by association to detect those individuals, did far more damage to America by diluting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  And, while comments such as that made by then president George  W. Bush in regards to the fight against terrorism - "you are either with us or against us", make a good sound bite, and are great fodder for rallying around the flag, I believe that most Americans realize now that the strength of our country is our ability to recognize our differences, to accept that true freedom means acknowledging the rights for others' to express opinions contrary to one's own, and that the more repressive we become to shut out constructive criticism of our country and our policies, the less free we all become.


Which brings me to the point of this post, unbiased news.  First, one may argue that there never has been such an animal, that all news is biased, first through the actual choice of what is reported upon, and second through the presentation, i.e length of time, tone of reporter, background of the story, etc.  That being said, one might counter that the heyday of responsible journalism may have begun during the time of Murrow, and perhaps peaked in the 60's and 70's when the abuses of government and business were revealed through the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon papers, and the release of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. 


Are there more news sources than ever?  Yes, certainly.  But are the breaking stories fact based, important, incisive, or more gossip than news?  And, are the sources legitimate journalists or a one issue fanatic typing away in his basement?  In a previous post, I mentioned Edward Snowden, and a story perhaps just as important to American freedom than those mentioned above, yet coverage of Snowden and the abuses of our individual privacy as legalized through the Patriot Act seem at best ignored, at worst presented as one man's traitorous act against the United States. 


So where can one go for news, that is, the reporting of events without opinion.  I have mentioned more than once that, in my opinion, most shows presented on the Fox channel as news belie the term.  Even the business news which one might think would present facts such as low unemployment, record stock market, strong US dollar, one of the strongest economies in the world, instead presents guest after guest and one statement after the other by Lou Dobbs about how horribly President Obama has run the country.  And, on the other side of the coin, most shows on MSNBC, while not presenting themselves quite as news programs, still lean heavily left and present opinions and stories that reflect well on the president and the Democrats a large percentage of the time.


In the past, major network news anchored by the likes of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and respected  newspapers like the NY Times and Washington Post were trusted sources of news for the general public.  Again, biases existed via the topics chosen to be broadcast and printed, but the news was less colored by opinion, more dependent on fact.  With the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and the desire to be first with a story, facts seems less important than the presentation and the salaciousness of the story.  Also, and again, I am sure it has always been true, there is a real effort being made by some pseudo-news organizations to present lies as truth, using repetition as a way to increase the likelihood that the lie will be believed.  How many people still believe that President Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya?


Of course, as I have always said, much of the blame lies in us, the public.  If we are dissatisfied with the news we are getting, we must remember that networks, newspapers, radio stations, magazines, etc distribute such news to make money.  If no one watched, listened or purchased the products, they would not exist.  We get the news we deserve, I guess, and if the news is full of half truths, opinion based "facts", slander, and fluff, then I guess that is what we want.  Add to that the fact that so many of our media sources are owned and operated by corporations and individuals who are wealthy and have an agenda of their own that may or may not coincide with the truth of the news of the day, and it is very easy to understand why so many people do not know Edward Snowden, do not know the vast amount of money being spent on corporate welfare, do not know just how close we are to the tipping point for our environment to change dramatically, do not know how many people our government has killed and continues to kill in the guise of the war on terror, do not know that a scary percentage of our laws are written by lobbyists, and do not know just how insidious our financial system is in regards to providing advantages to those with, and locking out those without. 


Or perhaps, we prefer not to know.  They say that knowledge is power but with power comes responsibility.  Perhaps our problem is that by not knowing we can more easily look to blame.  And, since those controlling our news are very eager to tell us who to blame (and deflect the blame from those truly responsible), then, I guess, the circle is complete.  We prefer to know who the next American Idol will be, and who hates America, and who thinks the cat is going up the stairs rather than down the stairs, but avoid news about serious subjects or subjects that require reflection and thought.  And, as for the most critical problems of the day for which there are no simple answers, well, there is no money in trying to address those issues through a series of programs, and besides, who has the attention span for that anyway?


At the end of "Good Night and Good Luck", parts of Murrow's speech at a news organization function are recreated.  He admonishes the crowd to encourage those in TV to use it as a way to educate, enlighten and entertain Americans, not merely to pander to their most base instincts.  He sees it as a tool, and like all tools, it eventually will be defined as being used for good or bad, and, ultimately, as a way to define the society itself which used it thusly.  I wonder what Murrow would think, specifically of TV now, and in general, the news media as a whole.  I sometimes fear he would say "good luck" but with a sad shake of his head and downcast eyes.  






           






 



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Secrecy and Trust

I don't believe I have mentioned this before, but my wife and I enjoy the weekly HBO show hosted by John Oliver called "Last Week Tonight".  In addition to touching on the news of the previous week, his discussion topics are almost always relevant and interesting, especially considering his style; irreverence mixed with humor.  (I believe he cut his teeth on Jon Stewart's Daily Show).


This past week Oliver spent the majority of his show discussing the upcoming renewal of some of the more insidious sections of the Patriot Act, specifically, those sections dealing with the incredible power to collect personal information which was granted to organizations like the NSA.  Amazingly, Oliver punctuated his show with an interview in Moscow with Edward Snowden.  For those of you who don't know Snowden (and according to Oliver's random questioning of people in New York City, that is most of you), Snowden, while working as a consultant for the NSA, discovered then leaked large amounts of information pertaining to how the NSA can, and does, collect personal information from United States Citizens without their consent or knowledge.  In what I thought was some very pointed and specific questioning by Oliver, Snowden discussed his motives, the price he is paying for his revelations (he has been charged with violations of the Espionage Act so will be arrested upon entering the United States), how some of the information he leaked did harm to United States interests, and detailed how (using Oliver's sarcastic dic-pic scenario), the NSA can attain and retain pictures of a man's genitalia through any number of legal means without requiring any specific hint that said man's Johnson is a threat to national security.  While seemingly a silly example, the point is that any and all correspondence generated by US citizens are subject to retention under the various auspices of the Patriot Act.  (I assume that since my blog is viewed overseas, many of my posts may have been netted at some time in the past).


Notwithstanding the sheer scope of this intrusion, I find it interesting how, in the name of protecting freedom and liberty, we allow such violations of both our freedom and liberties.  Of course, it is fear that pushes us to these kind of seemingly contradictory decisions.  Clearly, the events of 911, sent shockwaves through the American psyche which, like a never ending scab, can be picked at and reanimated with the perception of a new threat to our way of life.  How far we will go to protect ourselves from our enemies, how much freedom we will sacrifice to be free, is still to be determined. 


Which brings us to the reauthorization date of June 1st.  Fortunately, through Snowden, organizations like the ACLU, and even comedians like John Oliver, there has been some public discussion on this issue.  Unfortunately, I am convinced that with news reporting that emphasizes the negative events in the world (especially Fox network which then blames the president for all those negative events), many Americans are convinced that this kind of spying is necessary.  I expect to hear any number of people saying "I have nothing to hide so I don't mind".  What many people don't realize is that the government uses companies like Google and Facebook as their deputies, and that while the average American might not have anything to fear when it comes to international espionage, we all have little secrets and indiscretions that we might not want to be made public should the info be dispersed in an unexpected way. 


To me, the bigger issue is who do we trust?  Currently, distrust of the United States government, fueled by the Fox Network's hate the president campaign, has resulted in an unprecedented rise in gun purchasing and ownership, as well as new laws, some proposed, some passed, which allow guns in our schools, public parks, and public rallies.  Some people seem to trust no one, yet somehow believe that if everyone had a gun thereby honoring the 2nd amendment, we would all be safer.  In some circles, we still trust business to do the right thing (through reduced regulations), yet there has also been a meteoric rise in background checks by perspective employers which includes credit checks and review of social media content.  We guard our financial info and identity by (rightly refusing to give out SS numbers over the phone) but routinely purchase products online despite the rash of big time hacking that has compromised many data bases of some large retail companies.   


To me, the interesting thing will be how our elected public servants choose to vote when reauthorization is addressed.  Republicans love national security issues but will be voting for extended powers to a government run by a president they do not trust.  Democrats know in their hearts that these privacy violations are serious but do not like to disagree with the leader of their party.


Curiously, with all this talk about security, a number of Republican lawmakers signed a letter sent to the leaders of Iran advising them that President Obama could not be trusted to comply with any kind of deal which limits Iran's capacity to create a nuclear bomb.  One would think that any treaty, even one with a party that we are reluctant to trust, which would limit the growth of nuclear weapon capability would be universally accepted as a positive step. 


Perhaps, in their constant fear state, some people think it best to allow the proliferation of nuclear weapons while reducing the privacy of American freedoms.  Or they just want to "nuke the bastards", thereby proving to Iran that we couldn't be trusted after all. 


               

Monday, March 30, 2015

Senate Budget Votes

Last week the US Senate voted on S Con Res 11, the Republican drafted budget for fiscal years
2016-2025, plus a number of amendments to that bill.  Of course, this is not the final budget for those years, as it would need House review and Presidential agreement, but it certainly reflects the current thinking of those elected to this Senate, specifically the Republicans who drafted the bill.


The main bill which passed 52-46 (I guess no need for 60 votes for this kind of bill), included the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, increased military spending, decreased spending on entitlements and domestic programs, a prohibition on tax increases, converting Medicaid and food stamps to state-run block-grant programs, and required an unspecified reform of the tax code.   Not sure why they think the American public still supports spending more money on overseas conflicts and less on our crumbling infrastructure, poverty among working class Americans, and the stagnation of the income and buying power of the middle class, but perhaps the Fox media propaganda machine's ability to inflate the threat of whatever foreign evil they pick for that week actually works in Washington.


One interesting amendment would have enabled the 30-40 million students with interest rates in the 6-7% range to refinance to a more reasonable rate.  While I am sure that most Senators would have liked to pass that amendment, it was to be paid for by a tax on those with at least $1 million in income from salaries and/or investments.  I imagine that the 53 Senators who voted against this, felt that the newest generation of college graduates earning $20-100K per year didn't need the break as much as those earning $20-100K per week.


Another interesting vote adopted an amendment ensuring that all legally married same sex spouses would have access to spousal social security and VA benefits, even if their state of residence did not recognize same sex unions.  Not sure why the 43 Senators who voted against thought that the most loved people of the elderly and men and women who risked their lives for our country didn't deserve such consideration, but I assume their religious beliefs had something to do with it, although I imagine those beliefs do not include the lessons involving "do unto others..".


No surprise that the Senate voted to give the Republican approved budget the authority to prohibit federal taxation of carbon emissions.  I imagine the 58 Senators who voted for that believe that it is OK for the coal and fossil fuel industries to pollute our environment as long as they provide jobs that eventually kill the employees, and contribute large quantities of funds for said Senators election campaigns.


One slightly surprising vote concerned road repairs.  A Democratic amendment sought to allocate $478 billion over the 10 years to road and bridge repairs.  Frankly, I haven't heard anyone, Democratic or Republican, that hasn't admitted that our infrastructure needs major league attention, and fast.  Ah, but how to pay for it?  The defeated amendment, 52-45, would have offset the increased spending by eliminating certain corporate taxes.  Perhaps, since so many of those big corporations have headquarters and offices overseas, they managed to convince those 52 public servants who voted against the plan that they don't use the roads and bridges of America so they don't need to participate in the repair and maintenance. 


In essence, it appears that the current edition of the US Senate, continues to absolve the fossil fuel industry from its involvement in the changing climate and its responsibility to participate in the solution to this problem, values the profits of corporations over the standard if living of the middle class, thinks there religion grants them an excuse for discrimination, and prefers spending obscene amounts of money fighting the devil du jour rather than improving the financial and physical states of the everyday Americans they were elected to serve.


Sadly, the good news is that the Senate budget and votes seem sane compared to the lunacy passed in the House where a 10-year plan that seeks a balanced budget that not only rules out tax increases, but offers additional tax decreases along with massive spending cuts, details of which will be decided in the various House committees and involve literally trillions of dollars.  Yea, like that is a good, solid, specifics laden plan.  The really maddening, craziness of this "plan" is that the House Republicans probably applauded themselves after passing it, as if they actually did something useful.  


 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

More on Swindle and Fraud

A few more thoughts as I read the spring edition of Laphams.


An essay from PT Barnum's Humbugs of the World, addressed the topic of the wide variety and seemingly endless supply of humbugs, Barnum's word for all those schemes and deceits that have been perpetuated on men by their fellow men.  From religion to medicine, business to literature, he cites example after example of ways in which men gain power, money and fame through trickery.  But, at the end, his final example, the biggest humbug of all, he saves for the "man who believes - or pretends to believe - that everything and everybody are humbugs." 


It is his opinion that while certainly there are schemers, plotters, and tricksters among us, and that some of the more successful of humans are those who have schemed, plotted and tricked better than most, it is the utmost fool who sees and expects the worst in everyone, sees wolves behind every tree, and casts doubt upon every plan and invention put forth by his fellow man. 


And this from a man who made his fame by rounding up all manner of the odd shaped, then embellished those unusual characteristics to create a circus of the macabre, all the while collecting money from those who preferred to believe the exaggerations.  It is as if he looked in the mirror, recognized the fake for who he was, but also believed that without the goodness of men, those like him would have no platform upon which to succeed.


What also strikes me about this essay, is that Barnum calls himself out, but also separates himself from those who pretend to believe in the evil of men, and those who actually believe.  I fear the former more than the latter, as the former know the truth but use the continuation of the lie to further his agenda, while latter may some day learn the truth and perhaps alter his perceptions.  Sorry to point a finger here, but it reminds me of the so successful Fox propaganda machine that is controlled by people who are certainly smarter than the fiction disguised as news that they propagate, but purposefully hire those who do actually believe some of the nonsense, mixed with those that know the power of the lies and choose to perpetuate them for their own benefit. 


Another interesting thought came to me from an excerpt from The Secrets of the Great City, by James Dabney McCabe in which is described (2) methods of robbery employed by street walkers and an associate.  In the first, a girl brings a john to an apartment which has a fake wall with a sliding panel.  The pigeon's clothes are placed on a chair near the wall, and while the man is otherwise occupied, the associate slides open the panel and rifles his clothes for valuables.  The second method involves the street walker asking for the money up front, but before the act can be begun, her "husband" arrives home unexpectedly.  The poor girl begs the john to leave by a side exit promising to fulfill her side of the transaction the next night.  Of course, that meeting never happens. 


Each has their advantages.  The second scheme saves the girl some energy, but she must now avoid that victim in the future so it limits her opportunity for standard business going forward.  The first plan allows for future transactions, but probably not a future robbery.


Expanding that analogy, I imagine that the real experts at fooling mankind, have multiple level plans to address the various level of fools that they must victimize.  Those that can be fooled only once, must be approached differently than those who can be fooled over and over again.  When I see the same phrase used by various pundits to describe the same false perception, I wonder if they are addressing the first type or second.  Is it enough to repeat a lie over and over again to make it be true, or do you need a willing ear to believe it as well?  And, can you prime that ear enough, give it just enough small truths so that when the big lie is stated, it is unrecognized by that trained (or untrained) ear?


Ah, yes, indoctrination.


The process by which we are all trained to accept myths and half truths as facts.  Trained by our parents, our religion, our country.  Trained for our own good, trained to protect us, trained to keep us on the path that will lead to our happiness.


But this excerpt from "Secrets.." also inspired this thought.  While reporting on violence, mayhem and wrongdoing seem the basis for so much of our news, the reality is that crime has decreased in America.  Especially violent crime.  Of course, this could be a blip, and could be attributed statistically to any number of causes, but (as I have said before) I believe it is due to the continuing evolution of mankind's spiritual nature.   But what if crime is down because people who historically had to turn to crime, the poor, the homeless, the shunned, now have a modicum of security through the various social nets that have been created in the last 60 years?


Social security, medicare, welfare, unemployment, disability income, etc, are frequently portrayed as examples of the nanny state where people are no longer required to fend for themselves.  Cradle to grave security which suppresses creativity, persistence, self reliance.  Is that the yin and yang of those programs?  Less crime, less violence, less desperate acts, to the detriment of strength of character, self motivation, independence?


Survival of the fittest sounds good, makes a great sound bite, but what about those that are less fit?  And do we all not experience states of less fit multiple times throughout our lives?  Infancy?  Sickness?  Accident?  Old Age?  It is easy to scoff at death when one is 24 with perfect abs and a clean colon, but that time is fleeting.      


When I first saw the title Swindle and Fraud, on this edition of Laphams' Quarterly, I thought it was a strange choice.  Now that I am reading it, I find it one on the most interesting and thought provoking topics yet chosen.     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fraud, Swindle and Truth

Last week I found myself out of reading material.  I had finished the March editions of National Geographic and Smithsonian, and mentioned in a previous post that I had completed the Winter 2014 Laphams quarterly.  And, of course, I had finally published An Atheist for Christ, which was the project I had hoped to complete via my built up vacation days from work.  Fortunately, the Lapham spring 2015 edition arrived in the mail.  Good timing, good topic; Swindle and Fraud.


About 30 pages in, I encountered The Importance of Being Deceptive, taken from The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.  I would imagine that most people have heard of Machiavelli although he is probably also one of those writers that many people think they "know", but have not actually read.  I include myself in that statement, as I do not recall ever reading The Prince, but have described various people and/or policies as Machiavellian.  So, spent a few minutes on Wikipedia reading about the man; for those also curious, here is a link.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli


I imagine that most people, were they to be asked if Machiavelli was a good person or bad person, might assume the worst based on their understandings of, and the connotations associated with, the term based on his last name.  It may surprise many people then, when they read that he was an historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher and humanist.  That he is considered one of the founders of modern political science, more specifically political ethics.  And, that he also wrote comedies, carnival songs and poetry.  In short, he was an accomplished, erudite thinker, and exerted much influence in early 16th century Florentine, which means therefore, he was an important figure during the Renaissance.  


That his greatest work, which includes his views on the importance of a strong ruler who is not afraid to be harsh with his subjects and enemies and less truthful than wise, may be more a result of his living during the time of strong but warring Italian city-states which were vulnerable to the other unified nation states, particularly France.


In other words, his philosophy was as much influenced by his place in time as his personal beliefs.


So far, I have only read about a quarter of Laphams Swindle and Fraud edition but I am beginning to see a pattern.  Regardless of the time, 1200 BC Troy or Rome, 16th century Florentine or London, or 20th century Nuremburg or New York, there have always been those who use fraud and deception to gain power, fame and riches, for, as it was so notably quoted, "there has never been a shortage of sheep to be fleeced".


(Note here.  If indeed, there have always been a subset of men who spend their days looking for pigeons, always finding them with ease, doesn't that mean that most men therefore are honest?  And isn't that a good thing?)


Today as I was walking the dog, I wondered what Machiavelli might think of the United States of America today.  Would he nod approvingly? 


Is not our entire advertisement industry based on deceit?   What product or service is not touted as the best?  And the pharmaceutical industry has created a whole new category of advertisement deceit in which they invent a disease, create a pill, then, via small print or an overdubbed voice tell you that their product might kill you.  All the while showing happy people who have been cured.


Politics?  Just today I saw a 2016 presidential candidate announce that he will be shopping for his health care insurance via the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, the day after he proclaimed that if elected president he would repeal every single aspect of said act.  He is not above taking part when it suits him, nor is he troubled by castigating it when talking to his base.


Perception is the most important thing, substance a distant second, if that.  Obama is a socialist whose policies will wreck the American economy.  You can hear someone saying it on Fox and in many American homes every day.  Yet, since the peak of the recession, say around 2010, the US economy has not only rebounded, but it may be argued is as strong as any, in the world.  Unemployment is under 6%.  The stock market flirts at record highs every other week.  Corporation war chests are bursting with cash.  And, even better (or most likely even worse), the 1% have continued to realize a bigger portion of the pie than ever. 


The rich people club of America could not have written a better script; paint the president as anti-business, label equal pay for equal work, and higher minimum wage proposals as socialist, weaken unions, and allow jobs and assets to be sent offshore where lower wages, and taxes can double and triple profits.  And, oh yes, encourage the GOP to continue tossing out losing presidential tickets and far right candidates with limited agendas and intelligence, so that the rich can continue to feed the lie that big government is the enemy. 


At this point, one has to wonder if truth is even possible.  Would we buy a product that advertises that it is as good as the rest?  Or that it is cheaper because it is not quite as good?  Would we vote for a candidate that tells us that we can't be the world's policeman, without expecting blowback from those that we kill and displace?  Or a candidate that tells us that we can't pay for the benefits we expect without paying our fair share of taxes? 


Is the truth, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?


If so, then Machiavelli it is!!


  


  


 









Sunday, March 1, 2015

Immigration

Past readers of my blog know that I began the Winter edition of Lapham's Quarterly, entitled Foreigners, about a month ago.  Today I finished reading it.  In light of the fuss over funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I thought it relevant to post about immigration and our current perception of "foreigners".


First, as I have said so often, the Lapham's quarterlies offer a wonderful collection of essays and perspective on a given topic.  In this edition, comments about foreigners from the vantage point of encounters, customs and hostilities were presented.  Additionally, as history is so often written by the victors, Lapham's attempts to bring light to those whose side did not win the day.  An essay from the perspective of an Indian during the century of their losing their birthright, thoughts from a woman on trial for daring to vote, or the point of view of any of the countless (and usually nameless) victims of the various land, resource, and power grabs that occurred over the centuries by those who conquered  "new" lands to the detriment of those who already lived there. 


Second, compilations like Laphams reminds us that we are all descended from immigrants, and that the majority of those outraged by the influx of immigrants today, are the progeny of immigrants similarly degraded and spat upon yesterday, who themselves were considered as foreigners by those who resided in the land when they first arrived.  Unfortunately, rather than treating those that migrate today as we would have liked to be treated, we tend to view them with suspicion and fear.


And, as understanding promotes tolerance and acceptance, fear promotes intolerance and rejection.


So it appears that despite the great strides mankind has made in our perception of those different from us, we experience situations like that which transpired in the United States Congress this past week.
On one side is a party who feeds the fear and biases of its base who have been told over and over again about the evils of those from a different country, or who believe in a different religion.  A party which is supported by a media outlet that blithely declares we are involved in a religious war.  A mindset that labels everything they disagree with as unpatriotic or anti-American, even when an opinion contrary to theirs is presented by other Americans, especially when that American is a president that they despise. 


"How can we face those who voted for us in November", began a current US Senator, "those who voted for us to fight the recent executive decisions on immigration by the president, when we have failed to overturn those decisions".  Perhaps the honorable Senator from Pennsylvania should have explained to his constituents, those whose fears he chose to inflame rather than calm, that actually removing the 10 million or more illegal immigrants from our country is not only not possible but will require huge sums of money to even attempt.  That the president's decision to act unilaterally was necessary precisely because Congress prefers to ignore the facts of the situation, preferring instead to get elected by pandering to an electorate that loves to rail against an overreaching government but fails to see that it would take an even more intrusive government to root out and find the 3% of our population that is here without documentation.  That the best way to make Americans out of those without validity, is to include them in the benefits of America, not exclude them simply because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary national border.


But I digress.


What is truly funny (in a sad way) is that in the battle for funding for DHS, the fear of ISIS was stronger that the fear of illegal immigrants, so republicans were forced to backtrack from their plan to allow funding to expire unless Obama's executive decisions were overturned.  It makes one wonder if those at Fox who have elevated ISIS to the level of a global threat to our very existence, realize how that hype contributed to the failure of the republicans to overturn the president's executive orders.  It also makes one wonder when the next "most evil" group will be presented to us by Fox so that ISIS can be dropped down a notch or two.


Who knows, maybe Fox will turn its spotlight of righteousness onto the employers who hire all the illegals, thereby giving them a reason to cross the border, and, just coincidentally, allowing those employers to save on labor expenses and avoid paying certain taxes.


In the end, let us hope that intelligent compilations like that which I have just read, attempts to bring sanity to the topic of foreigners, immigrants, and those different from us, will lead us to realize that being a native or a foreigner is all a matter of geography.  And that if we would want to be treated with respect when we find ourselves out of country or out of our element, perhaps we should do the same for those who enter our own domain. 
 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Atheist for Christ

I experienced a large surge of page views on my blog yesterday, again a majority from Norway.  No particular post was accessed, just a disparate group of topics.


Thanks.


Previously, I had indicated that I was hoping to use my time off from work to finish a project I had begun quite a while ago.  Happily, I did so.


As a result, I have published a group of essays, available for use on Kindle and its various permutations.

If interested, here is a link for you to cut and paste in your browser.   The collection is priced
at $1.99.

http://www.amazon.com/An-Atheist-Christ-Joe-Pugnetti-ebook/dp/B00TT3YLHW

To give you an idea as to the topic of this work, I have included the forward below.


An Atheist for Christ
 
Foreword

When I told a friend of mine that the title of this group of essays was to be An Atheist for Christ, she said that it didn’t make sense.  She assumed, like many people, that belief in the teachings of Christ presupposed belief in God.  I joked with her that she was right, I really should have called the essays An Agnostic for Christ, but that just didn’t have the same ring to it, the same pizzazz. 


What I hope to demonstrate to her in this brief collection of thoughts is that in fact one can believe in the teachings of Christ and in the beauty of his message without glorifying it with the connection to God.  In other words, if we don’t shoot the messenger who delivers bad news, conversely, perhaps we shouldn’t deify those who have brought us good news.


 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Foreigners

I believe I mentioned a few posts ago that I was spending more time reading and getting caught up on my favorite magazines.  Towards that end, I started the Winter Lapham's Quarterly called Foreigners.  Interestingly, I thought of this edition while I was watching the movie Good Will Hunting a few days ago.  The movie, if you are not familiar with it, involves a young man named Will Hunting who has an amazing gift for mathematics despite being an orphan, being exposed to a number of abusive foster situations, and having received no formal education in math.  He is "discovered" as a result of his working as an overnight custodian at Harvard where he has been solving advanced mathematical theorems placed on chalkboards in the hallways of the math department as a challenge to the students of the school. 


The scene which reminded me of Foreigners occurs between Will and his psychologist, a wonderful part played by the recently departed Robin Williams.  This is the second meeting between the two, the first having resulted in Will using his ability to hurt (before being hurt) Robin's character (Sean)by analyzing his painting.  Sean, having stayed up half the night thinking about Will's hatchet job, especially as it related to Sean's marriage, takes Will to a local park.  As they are sitting there, Sean admits to Will that he got to him, but then tells Will that eventually a realization hit him, and he immediately forgot Will and fell asleep.


Sean uses his vulnerability to Will's attack to begin Will's therapy.  He tells Will that just as it is impossible for Sean to even glimpse the pain and suffering that Will endured as a child merely by watching Oliver Twist, so it is impossible for Will to really know Sean just by looking at a picture he painted.  He tells Will that only through getting to know him, listening to Will, and by Will being willing to tell his story, can Sean truly understand him.


So, returning to Lapham's Quarterly, Foreigners, there are essays and stories, one after another, which describe how we, individually and communally, circle the wagons, so to speak, to create "we" and "they".   We prefer to read about "they", or even worse, take the word of our institutions who belittle they as barbarians, or worshipers of the wrong god, or cloaked in the wrong color skin. We prefer to act as Will, who uses his skills to reduce everyone he encounters to one dimensional caricatures, as opposed to our own complicated versions of "we". 


Among a number of interesting quotes, there is one by Confucius that particularly struck me.
"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice they get to be wide apart".  I interpret that as the understanding that at birth we are very similar.  But, as our lives progress, we are taught how to identify "they", how to hate those that are different.  If, on the other hand, we were to seek to understand each other rather than accepting a stereotypical version of who "they" are as presented by our governments, our religions, our race, we might be able to remember how we are all the same as opposed as to how we might be different. 


Another interesting section of this Lapham's edition, displayed some maps of the world and how various treaties, laws, pacts either included or excluded other people.  One interesting note was that before the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act which increased barriers and patrols along the border between the US and Mexico, before that Act, upwards of 85% of illegal entrants were offset by returning immigrants; after the law, the number dropped to 10%.  Now, I respect the editors of Lapham's as any reader of my blog knows, and would like to find some corroborating evidence of this fact, but even if it is only mostly accurate, imagine the ramifications of that information being widely discussed and disseminated.  Kind of changes one's perspective of the recent immigration talk that emanates from Washington, and all the talk about increasing patrols and barriers between the two countries.     


Xenophobia is defined as the fear of strangers or foreigners in some dictionaries, the unreasonable fear of strangers or foreigners in others.  I find it interesting that some add unreasonable, as I accept that it is reasonable to be wary of what is different, but attribute so much of the violence in the world to that wariness when it blossoms into fear, then hatred.  As a child begins to understand the world, his mind begins to incorporate all the new sensations, groups them, connects them to known sensations, resulting in less fear and a larger store of experiences through which even more encounters can be less feared, more easily absorbed into that ever growing set of things not strange, things not to be feared.  However, somewhere along the line, our cup of experiences fills, or we decide to shut out anything new that doesn't already live in our set of sensations.  We stop expanding our "we", but even worse, we focus too much on increasing our definition of "they". 


Here is a hint.  When he hear someone in a public forum, TV, radio, etc.  Listen for how many times they use we and they.  Whether it is to unite or to isolate.  Try to calculate how wide a tent their "we" truly is and how often "they" are blamed for the troubles of the day.  Then ask yourself if you prefer leaders who incorporate a disparate citizenry or only a special subset.  And, finally, if it is the latter you prefer, pray that someday you are not labeled among the "they" when a new group is needed to blame or excoriate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Keystone Pipeline

As I have mentioned before, I receive a weekly summary of all the high profile votes cast in the United States Congress.  The last few weeks have featured a number of votes related to the Keystone Pipeline, a topic upon which I recently commented.


To begin, the Senate passed a bill by a 62-36 vote (there were a few abstainers) that would immediately allow TransCanada to construct, connect, operate and maintain the pipeline, including any revision to the route within Nebraska.  It also would consider the January 2014 environmental impact statement issued by the State Department sufficient to satisfy all requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.  


At this point a number of amendments to the bill were put to vote, amendments generally sponsored by Democrats.  One such amendment expressed the sense of the Senate that climate change is real.  This amendment was voted in favor of, overwhelmingly.  What's that you say, the Senate, a GOP majority body voted almost unanimously that climate change is real?  Finally, sanity has prevailed.  But alas, a different amendment that added the phrase "and that human activity significantly contributes to it" was also brought to the floor.  It also passed, 50-49 with 1 not voting, but by unanimous consent the Senate agreed to raise the requirement for adoption of this amendment to 60 votes.  Ah, so close to the promised land.


Two quick questions here.  One, why is the State Department issuing an environmental impact statement as opposed to the federal agencies empowered to protect our environment?  Could it be because the state department might look favorably on a project that continues to benefit the fossil fuel industry while the EPA might consider potential risk to our water supply?  Hmm.


Also, what happened to the 49 Senators who voted that human activity is contributing to climate change, but then voted to require 60 votes to pass a bill recognizing our complicity?  I guess they figure then can say they voted for it without mentioning the second part.  Can you say spineless?

Then there is the amendment that also expresses the sense that climate change is real, that human activity is partly to blame, and that we should promote an overhaul to our energy system away from fossil fuels towards sustainable energy.  This amendment, sponsored by Senator Sanders from Vermont was defeated 56-42, 2 not voting. 


Two more quick questions.  Isn't is obvious that we need to continue to experiment with, invest in and encourage the development of cleaner energy sources?  That doesn't mean we have to stop all the government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.  Or stop all the drilling in the earth and offshore.  Or even stop poking little holes in the ground and injecting chemicals.  In just means that we recognize the need to think towards the future, think about harnessing that bright ball in the sky that will be shining there for quite some time.  But, I guess if a Senator votes in such a way, even if it is to make the point that we will need to someday get away from fossil fuels, said Senator risks the ire of the Koch brothers, et all, and the chance that a different fossil fuel industry shill will have a Senate seat purchased for them at the next election.


Second, who is not voting?  If my Senator was abstaining from any of these votes, they better be mostly dead.  I would be curious as to what their notes from mommy said as to why they were absent.


Two other amendments were offered that would have addressed the current law that exempts tar sands companies from paying a per-barrel tax that goes into a government fund for oil spill cleanup. This loophole is especially relevant because tar sands oil is harder to clean up than conventional oil when it spills.  TransCanada of course, currently benefits from that loophole.  But, sadly, both were defeated.


All the benefits, none of the responsibility.  Socialism for business is certainly alive and well.


Strangely, a generally favorite tea party issue, eminent domain, was addressed.  But, as usual, the politics of "I voted to protect rights even though my vote was meaningless" raised its ugly head. 
A GOP sponsored amendment which claimed to protect property owners from having their land seized (right now, landowners in Nebraska are being served with eminent domain papers from
TransCanada) was passed, but it appears that the amendment likely won’t do much to protect those property owners from getting their land taken. The language of the amendment states that the U.S. must “ensure private property is protected as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” But,  eminent domain can be used for economic development, and the U.S. Constitution says land can be taken if the company provides “just compensation.”  I would bet dollars to donuts that the company will meet the requirements of just compensation; they will probably even use it as a PR spin and claim they overpaid.  Strangely, the Senate rejected an amendment that actually would have prevented TransCanada from seizing property owners’ land in Nebraska by making it law that private property could not be seized under eminent domain for the financial gain of a foreign-owned company.  Remember, TransCanada is the name.  I imagine that vote won't be part of any GOP campaign anytime soon.


So, what do we learn from this?  The GOP loves to talk citizen rights except when a large company is looking to trample them.  And the DEMS love the environment until it gets in the way of business.
The good news, of course, is that some temp jobs will be created.  Unless someone deep in the heart of Arabia leeks information that a terrorist strike against the pipeline is in the works.  Then, we will have to guard every inch of that pipeline.  Do you think TransCanada will pay for the guards?  Or will that be just another "expense" that the fossil fuel industry passes along to the American taxpayer?













Sunday, February 1, 2015

Winning, God and Avatar

Happy Super Bowl Sunday!!


For those readers overseas, and according to my recent stats, there are more of you than from America, I imagine that our celebration of the Super Bowl seems odd.  If so, take solace in the thought that we look askance at your obsession with the World Cup Soccer finals.


One thing we do have in common however, is the desire to win, and/or be a fan of a winning team.  Which brings us to the controversy surrounding the footballs allegedly used by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.  In essence, the league has a rule governing the PSI of the footballs and it appears that the Patriots broke that rule by using under inflated balls.  Of course, the Super Bowl is big money, so, while an investigation may have begun, no one expects any answers until after the big game.  And, if it is determined that the Patriots did cheat, I don't expect the punishment to include the forfeiture of the AFC victory, nor a super bowl victory should the Patriots win today.  It will be another lesson in the classroom of life which regards winning the most important achievement, regardless of the methods employed.  (I predict a Patriots victory, 27-24)   


I do expect however, someone on the winning team to thank god for the victory.  Why the supreme being, creator of everything that has ever existed, and is to exist, the force that was there for the Big Band and will be there for the final whimper, the being older that time itself actually cares about a game of sport being played today is not the point.  Perhaps, if just once, someone on the losing team might blame the devil for the loss at the post game interviews we could at least have some balance. 


But back to winning for a second.  If someone cheats to win, is it still OK to thank god for the victory.  Doesn't that somehow make god a cheater too?  After all, if the winner cheated, and god had a hand in the victory, then clearly god either participated in the deceit, or at the least, condoned it by not taking steps to keep the cheating side from winning.


Of course, man's history is replete with the winners thanking their deities for success, whether personal or national.  There are many Americans that take for granted that their god created the land we currently call the United States just for us.  The fact that there were already people living here is besides the point, especially when we assume that their pagan beliefs did not recognize the Judeo-Christian God that we accept as the best version of god.  Consequently, our slaughter of the Native Americans becomes glossed over in phrases such as Manifest Destiny, progress, modernization.  After all, our one God was more powerful than their multiple gods, hence our success in forcing the remaining American Indian we didn't kill to move to the least hospitable parts of the country, for little or no compensation despite the various treaties that we signed. 


Similarly, the enslavement of the black man from that dark, barbaric continent of Africa must have been blessed by our god.  Why else would western man have been so successful in tearing apart families and using the backs of men whose only crime was to be born in a sunny land, so they could create farms and plantations to feed the country, and their bank accounts as well?


Seems kind of ironic that we look back on the civilizations that appeased their gods through sacrifices, animal and human, as if their beliefs were inhumane, simplistic, while believing that our supplications to God are so much more advanced.  We pray to win, to win at sports, to win money, to win a war not realizing that so many of our prayers, should they be answered, may mean, for another, the loss of a game, the loss of one's possessions, the loss of life.  Is it more inhumane to kill someone, straight out by cutting their throat, or to kill them slowly by denying their heritage, or by poisoning their air and water for profit, or by destroying their homes from above via bombs and drones?


I watched Avatar again last night with my wife.  There was a scene that reminded me of how far we still have to go in our belief in and the purpose of God.  If you remember the movie, you will remember the scene when Jake goes to the Tree of Souls to pray for Eywa's help in the war to save the homeland of the Na'vi people.  At this point his native girl friend, Neytiri, tells him that Eywa does not choose sides, but only acts to maintain balance.  Her people have a strong connection to the land, a strong belief in their god, but not so strong, not so arrogant, that they believe that by asking for help they will automatically receive it, in the way that will benefit them.  As if the victor in every human encounter wins through the grace of god, the loser because god does not favor them.


Unfortunately, Jake's prayers are answered, the animals of the land and air come to the aid of the Na'vi and the humans are defeated.  I say unfortunately, not because I was rooting against the Na'vi, but because their god is portrayed as choosing a side.  And, while we applaud the victory of the Na'vi, we aren't necessarily reminded by the movie that the Na'vi won, not because they were the more spiritual, not even because the humans were portrayed as greedy and violent, but because Eywa maintains balance and it is best maintained via the Na'vi culture.  God does not choose sides, certainly not in sports, and most definitely not in wars where destruction and death are the means to winning.  Perhaps, once we realize this, we might be less celebratory when we cross an imaginary line on the ground with a elliptically shaped pigskin, and less eager to glorify the killing of those with whom we share our planet just because their culture, religion, or skin color may be different.  


Or, to be more blunt, those misguided Islamic radicals who have perpetrated some horrific acts of violence are not tools of a lesser god, the god of Islam, any more than those misguided Christians who slaughtered the Native Indians were tools of a lesser god, the god of Christianity.  The victor in our current global war against terrorism, will not be the side which God favors.  It may be the side with the biggest guns, but that won't make it the side of god, as Avatar teaches us.  Hopefully, It will be the side which harnesses the power that is the root of all religions, the power of love.  And then, perhaps, God can be thanked for a victory that resulted, not because we asked God for help, not because our God was better than theirs, but because we acted as God's messengers have taught us to act and behave.