Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit, Trump and the Power of Fear

The vote by those living in the United Kingdom to leave or stay in the European Union (EU) occurred this past week.   I have read a number of stories about the "Brexit" vote, most of them from the media of the United Kingdom.  A few interesting facts:

Turnout was 71% of eligible voters, the highest percentage for a nationwide vote in almost 35 years. That is over 30 million people!

Younger voters voted overwhelmingly to Remain, while a majority of older voters opted to Leave.   Unfortunately for the disappointed younger voters, those in the 18-24 year old voting bloc stayed home in droves, while older voters chose to participate in their country's future.  Strange, considering that it is the younger generation who will need to live with the consequences, good and bad, of this historic decision.  More than one pundit put the blame for Leave squarely on younger voters using math to demonstrate that had 70% of young voters managed to inconvenience themselves and go to a polling station, Remain may have won the day.

Of the four countries that comprise the United Kingdom, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, voters in two of the countries voted for Leave, England and Wales, while voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain.   The fact that the voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain but, by their inclusion in the United Kingdom are compelled to Leave, has sparked new discussions of an independent Scotland vote (one was just recently held in which voters chose to stay in the UK), and talks of a reunification of Northern Ireland with Southern Ireland which is not a part of the UK.

For more information about the ramifications of this decision, which will effect every aspect of life in the UK as you will see by the breadth of the article, cut and past the following link (from BBC, of course), into your browser.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887

Some of the articles I read in American newspapers, linked the popularity of Donald Trump with the result of the Brexit voting.  While there were a number of reasons proffered for leaving the EU, with saving the money which the UK contributes to the EU for homeland needs, and less onerous EU regulations for business among them, many consider Europe's continuing immigration dilemma to be the driving force behind those who voted to Leave, as one of the tenets of membership in the EU is the free movement of people between member countries. By leaving the EU, Leave proponents promised that the UK would better be able to control immigration and secure its borders from those not welcome.

Which brings us to The Donald.

It seems clear from exiting polls and the various national surveys, that Trump's popularity is limited to white males.  As has been the case for the Republican Party in recent times, many in the white majority vote for GOP candidates based on a negative perception of women, Latinos, African Americans, the LGBT community, and any other minority.  This viewpoint, stoked by the GOP, inflames the fires of its white base by blaming the ills of America on those minorities.  While the GOP establishment may react with outrage at the more openly prejudiced and outlandish of Trump's statements, the path towards an all white party has been laid brick by brick these last 50 years.  At least Trump has the courage to state it out loud, and not pretend, which is why his following is so loyal.  He says what they think, or have been taught to think, about women, blacks, Mexicans and gays, while the politicians who have conspired with the extreme right wing pundits to encourage those biases, downplay them in public to win the votes of those just slightly right or left of center, especially the independents.

Getting back to Brexit, the money which will be "saved" by eliminating the membership fees in the EU, is significant, perhaps 5 to 10 billion pounds.  However, considering that the 2016 spending budget for the UK was 716 billion pounds, we are talking about a 1% savings.

(By the way, if you want to see that budget, revenue and expenses, cut and paste the following link.  You might want to sort expenses in descending order and note where defense falls)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_United_Kingdom_budget

And, as for the business community, most favored Remain, as it enables the free movement of goods across the borders of 27 other countries.  While it is not the best comparison, there was a day when all the states of America levied tariffs on goods which crossed their borders,even from other states. Now, of course, that idea seems ridiculous, but at the time, legislators and businessmen felt the need to protect the business community of their individual state from the dumping of cheap goods from other states.  Membership in the EU grants the UK business community the luxury of exporting its goods to other countries with less monetary obstacles which explains their disappointment in the vote.  Of course, there is some hope that a future trade agreement between the UK and the EU might be forged that will maintain that favored status, but in the meantime, there is uncertainty, and it is uncertainly that the business community abhors, hence the temporary plunge in stocks across the globe.

Which seems to point to the immigration issue as the main reason for Leave votes.  Yet, like the rhetoric of Trump, is this issue driven more by fear than facts?

"Most of them are criminals and rapists" appeals to an already existing prejudice and gut feelings about people with a different skin color and culture.  Yet, most studies indicate that illegals are less likely to be involved in crime for fear of being deported.

"Ban all Muslims", or "Ban all immigration from countries who are our enemies", or any other such phrase gets loud applause at Trump rallies, but has he visited one of the hundreds of refugee camps in Turkey or Greece and seen that upwards of two thirds of these unfortunate people are women and children who have been forced from the homes due to violence and instability?  And what about the fact that most of the 911 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia?  Also, if the next domestic act of violence is committed by a 2nd generation American from Germany, will Trump add Germany to his banned list (after all, they were our enemy in the worst wars in history)?  Or how about France; we don't like them and they don't like us right?

Certainly, immigration, illegal or otherwise, is a difficult issue.  But there are two sides to immigration, the side that admits that when you allow millions of people to enter your country, there will be some bad apples, and the contrasting viewpoint that immigration is good for a country by providing new ideas, new cultures, a new source of labor.  Do we paint all people of a certain nationality or religion with one broad brush or acknowledge that most immigrants are everyday people trying to improve their lives and the lives of their children?  And, with that acknowledgement, fashion immigration policy that recognizes that a structure to identify and remove those with evil intent must include a path for those, like our own ancestors, who are good people in search of work and safety.  Just as all Italians were not deported when the Italian Mafia plagued some of our bigger cities, all Muslims or Mexicans need not be barred from America because of the actions of the minority.

Unfortunately, as long as there are politicians and news organizations that prosper from populist movements that rely on fear mongering, decisions to retreat into a shell, to blame anyone not like us, and to vote with out regard to facts, will remain with us.  

       

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Repeal 2nd Amendment?

Quiet, relaxing morning allowed me to read the Sunday Inquirer, and gave me the inspiration for today's post.

The sports section first, my fluff reading so to speak.  Fluff because while I enjoy watching sports, I don't get as excited as some "fans" who live and die with the city's sports teams.  

Then right to the lead story in the Currents (Opinion) section which featured pro and con arguments for gun control.  Unfortunately, nothing new there, nothing we haven't heard ad nauseum after each and every mass killing, which is the really sad and terrible part, that there have been so many of these horrific acts.

At the back of Currents, an interesting letter to the editor in which the writer encouraged religious leaders of all faiths to preach a repeal of the 2nd amendment.

Finally, the Local section which included a summary of the higher profile votes taken by our elected officials in Washington this past week.  But before I reached that page, I found a thought provoking article by one of the staff writers concerning the everyday anguish that occurs in America as a result of senseless violence, both mass killings like in Orlando and the less publicized but more common violence that happens all too often in our neighborhoods, especially in those of our big cities.  At the end, the writer asks the frequently asked question which is voiced after all such mass killing events - When will this end?

Then, finally, back to the votes on Capitol Hill.

In the House, a vote to block a floor vote on a bill (shelved in the GOP controlled Judiciary Committee since Feb 2015) which would prohibit the sale of firearms or explosives to individuals on the FBI's Terrorist Watch List.  That's right, the GOP controlled house is against such a bill in its current form.  Although to defend those GOP representatives, the House did pass by overwhelming majority an anti-terrorism package that among other things, requires better cooperation between law enforcement agencies and requires the Department of Home Land Security to more effectively counter ISIS recruitment propaganda.  Pretty bold move, eh?

And, of course, the House passed a $576 billion military appropriations bill (the Senate's version is $602 billion).  Sadly, the House version stripped out funding for the president's directive to the Department of Defense (DOD) to identify and assess the impact of climate change on national security (classic head in the sand thinking), and voted to refuse to consider a new round of military base closings despite the DOD's own estimates that it has a 22% surplus in its domestic facilities.

Finally, the GOP controlled House voted not to limit surveillance currently authorized under the Patriot Act.  Among other strategies not deemed illegal, are the ability of the government to coerce businesses to build security flaws in their products that would facilitate searches by law enforcement agencies, and the necessity of the NSA to obtain warrants for the surveillance of American citizens' overseas communications as is required for domestic communications.

So, to be succinct, the GOP controlled House is more than eager to weaken pretty much any of the amendments to the Constitution when it comes to fighting terrorism, except the 2nd Amendment. Can you say NRA influenced, GOP controlled House?

Still, at the end of the day, it is not fair to blame those men and women.  In reality, we all share the blame via the culture of violence that permeates America.  It is not about having a weapon that can mow down multiple targets, it is about the belief that it is OK to use violence to resolve disagreement and conflict.  And, it is certainly not about the 2nd amendment right to self defense, as other military only weapons, bazookas, tanks, napalm, etc, are illegal for sale to everyday citizens, just as assault weapons and guns with the ability to fire multiple bullets in seconds should be.

But again, will such a ban eliminate killing in America?  Not as long as we believe in the Hollywood shoot em up movies and lessons derived from such, that good people with guns always do the right thing.  And the mistaken mantra of the NRA that more good people with guns will deter the bad people from both committing crimes, and may even stop those acts in process, and that new gun laws will only keep law abiding citizens from owning guns.

Which brings me to a query?

What do you call a person the day before they kill one of more people with a legally purchased gun?
A law abiding citizen.

Unfortunately, good people do bad things.  Sometimes in the heat of passion, sometimes during the fight or flight adrenaline rush that evolution has provided for us, sometimes as a reaction to difficult times, stressful situations, mistreatment or merely bad luck.  While I would like to think that we are evolving towards a time when violence will be the last choice of conflict resolution, not first, in the meantime, perhaps it is time to consider that the technology to harm each other has surpassed our sense of morality that prevents such harm.  And that in our current state of fear which is whipped up daily by those who profit from our anxieties, it is even more critical to limit access to tools which are meant for one purpose only, to mete out easy and efficient death.

Repeal the 2nd Amendment as was so bravely suggested?  No chance.  But restrictions on the type of guns that can be owned, regardless of the "goodness" of the owner, can be created that would limit availability of such weapons while still providing recognizing that responsible gun ownership needs to be supported.  

And, to answer the question of when will it end?  Perhaps when all our leaders, government and religious, and all those who have influence will preach love, understanding and restraint rather that hatred, ridicule and violence.




Thursday, June 16, 2016

Pacifism, and Murder in America

Another mass killing event recently.  Possible anti-gay sentiments, probable anti-America sentiments (even though he was a native American), most assuredly mental instability issues.  As soon as the story hit, the predictable sides were formed.  I sometimes wonder if in 50 years, historians will shake their heads at the NRA, and wonder how they were allowed to exert so much influence on our elected public servants, as well as those citizens who mistake self defense for the right to kill.

As a consequence of this most recent mass killing, there is a push to make it illegal for anyone on the FBI's watch list for terror suspects to purchase guns.  Apparently, the Orlando killer had been on that list, but was removed after a 10 month investigation.  Sounds like common sense, to deny 2nd Amendment rights to anyone suspected of terrorism, yet I thought the entire argument for no new gun laws was that if a criminal wanted a gun, they would get it despite the law.  So, how does this law prevent anything?

In fact, how does any law prevent a criminal from breaking that law if the fear of incarceration or punishment does not exist in their minds?  I guess laws are only for the law abiding citizen because he/she is afraid of getting caught, not because the act is wrong or immoral.

Oh, but wait.  Without a law and its consequences, when someone does commit a crime, there would be no way to punish them.   I guess that means that the penal code exists, not just to deter crime, as those who argue for the death penalty cite, (funny how some of the very same people against gun laws are advocates of this line of thinking in relation to capital punishment) but to have a mechanism to punish those who violate the laws that have been established to protect the vast majority of citizens.

Ah, the two sides of a civil debate on the necessity of laws which establish right and wrong, the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment which allows for the right to self defense, but not necessarily the right to own military weapons that can only be used for mass killings, and the facts that indicate that America has a love affair with vigilantism, and a completely blind belief that guns owned by good people will only be used for good.

Oddly, I published two short stories on Amazon earlier this week.  They are The Pacifist and The Massacre that Changed America, combined under the name Pacifism, and Murder in America.

Copy and paste the link below to access information to purchase this most recent effort.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H0S5TQY


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Government VS Business

Recently I have come to realize the obvious; we need more cooperation between the business community and our government leaders to solve our nation's problems.  I say obvious, not necessarily because it is an obvious topic of discussion on the airwaves, in print and on social media, but because if one is to look back on most of the great successes which have occurred of late, it is through cooperation that success has been attained.

How did America progress from a country just emerging from the Great Depression to help defeat Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2?  Cooperation from the business community in diverting energy from domestic to war time products as well as the cooperation of the American public to sacrifice a little for the war effort.  And afterwards, when the men returned from war?  Cooperation between the government and educational system to provide skills to the veterans, and then cooperation between government and businesses to provide jobs for those same veterans.

One might say that the explosive growth of the middle class after WW2 was due in large part to such cooperation.  Most people forget that individual and corporate taxes were astronomical by today's standards, yet, whether by design or happenstance, this level of taxation enabled the government to invest in the people of America via education and jobs.  Businesses still thrived, despite the lower profits and individual wealth, because those working employees and customers alike, had money to spend via the education that opened new doors and the livable wages being earned.  I like to call it bottom up economics, a drastic departure from the trickle down theories that became popular in the 1980's.  Certainly there were rich people and poor people, some of that due to the racial and gender discrimination that still existed in the 50s and 60s, but by most measures of quality of life, America reached its apex in those decades following the Great War.

Currently, it would not be fantasy to suggest that the United States is still the best place in which to live and raise a family.  However, by most quality of life standards, education, income, health, life expectancy, etc, we have fallen down the list.

What has changed?

Too much success too fast?  Some might argue that our role in freeing the world from the clutches of evil, and our eventual victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, left us no where to go but down.
Or perhaps we just forgot how we got there?  Cooperation.

To me, the creation of the corporation, that ultimate legal instrument that provides the benefits of success without the responsibilities of failure, began the decline.  Of course, at first, it provided a boon.  Initially, it seduced even those who knew that double digit growth was not sustainable. Cheaper products manufactured off shore produced a bump in revenue, with less labor costs.  The fact that real people were losing their jobs, people who previously purchased the products and services of the corporations, seemed lost on those making the decisions.

The allure of the stock market, and the ability to "earn" millions of dollars just by giving money to those corporations via stocks, again worked for many, became a cog in the evolving wheel that defined the American dream.  But those corporations and the value of that stock was controlled by individuals more interested in making the stock more valuable.  Responsibility to the stock holders was priority one, responsibility to the employees, their families and the communities where they lived fell by the wayside.  

Or maybe, we were cognizant that cooperation was necessary, but forgot that the end result of that partnership was supposed to be the good of all Americans.  Some might say that our current tax system, even the current state of our political system, has resulted in too much cooperation between Big Business and our government leaders to rig the economic system in favor of those holding the cards.  Big trade agreements open up markets, and provide more competition and choice, but are used to justify even more job outsourcing.  New laws that aim to provide health insurance for those who face bankruptcy or death when they get a losing hand in the birth lottery, are used to justify reduced hours for employees by employers who refuse to do the right thing, and then given a pass by the some public servants who should hold them accountable but prefer campaign donations.

Still, I read articles on an almost daily basis about government and business cooperation that results in change for the better.  From fighting malaria in Africa, to providing safe migration routes to true wildlife in western America, there is much to celebrate when government and business cooperate for a positive reason.  And lets not forget the simple tax break which allows charitable contributions and helps millions of Americans attain food, shelter, and medicine when they draw a losing birth lottery hand.

It is all well and good to use eminent domain to justify the removal of poor people from their homes so that a sparkling new casino can be built, if those displaced people are provided with a better opportunity and that community prospers via jobs, improved schools, and safer streets.  But it does not benefit America when the vast majority of the income from that casino finds its way to too few pockets.  Not to mention when the casino fails and the American taxpayer gets the bill via bankruptcy laws that grant forgiveness to the corporation's principals.

As in all partnerships, there should always be a certain amount of tension.  Stories of successful athletic teams with individuals who fought off field abound.  Businesses should be free to manufacture and market products without regulation which strangles incentive, but they also need to be aware that without some restrain, there are those in business who will violate any and all common courtesy for others.  Will do anything, say anything, for money.  The American people need to be protected from these sharks, and so business profitability may suffer a bit in the short run but will be the better for it when those who value money above people are prosecuted.

Conversely, government officials, especially well meaning ones, need to stay focused on regulations that target specific behaviors and actions, and remember that top down approaches should only be the answer in extreme cases.  Regulations that work in New York may not work in Colorado.  Perhaps it would be better if the word "guidelines" came back in vogue.  Leave the specifics to the state and local lawmakers as much as feasible.

I guess, in the end, it is about cooperation that helps others, not just ourselves.  Cooperation that recognizes that sometimes short term sacrifice results in long term productivity.  Cooperation that raises prospects without harming a segment of the population without voice or recourse.  Cooperation that presumes the sharing of power, not exclusivity of it for one side or the other.

  



Monday, June 6, 2016

The Passing of Muhammad Ali

The passing of Muhammad Ali over the weekend has generated a huge amount of news coverage, both in the established media outlets of print, TV and radio, and on the the social networks of twitter, facebook, etc.  While certainly not surprising considering his multi-decade fight against Parkinson's Disease, it is still a shock when a sports hero of such fame and accomplishment leaves us.

For me, Ali was always the foil against Joe Frazier, perhaps more so than for most people as I was born and raised in Philadelphia and its suburbs.  I can still remember my disappointment when Ali was victorious in the Thrilla in Manilla, that iconic battle that will be forever remembered in boxing history.  Ali personified the outspoken athlete in those days, dancing and taunting his opponents until he surprised them with his strength and punching power.  Frazier won with grit and guts, relentlessly taking the best punch his opponents could muster until unleashing one of his devastating hooks to the jaw.

For me, Frazier was the man of the people, Ali the braggart, the showman.

Later, as an adult, I realized that while Ali's career as a boxer was and will always be legendary, his stature as a man was even more heroic.  I was a bit too young to fully understand the ramifications of his suspension from boxing for failure to report for military duty.  My perspective was mostly colored by the adults in my life who condemned him for his perceived lack of patriotism, at best, cowardice at worst.  Perhaps that is part of why I rooted against Ali during the years after his suspension was overturned by the Supreme Court.  I can distinctly recall listening to the fight in Zaire, and being crushed when Ali beat George Foreman so easily.

But as time passed, I was able to gain a more adult perspective of Ali's resistance to enlisting during the Vietnam War.  Clearly, like any protester, Ali was well within his rights to express his opinion that the war in Southeast Asia was morally indefensible.  But what is most impressive, is that unlike the vast majority of Americans protesting that war, Ali put his money where his mouth was.  He was at the peak of his manhood, late 20's, looking at many more chances to earn a lifetime of money, and cement his legacy as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, yet he walked away from it.  How many of us would do the same today?

What is most striking to me about that time in history, is that Ali was not the only athlete or person of fame who converted to Islam.  Others, not as famous, but still in the public eye did the same, many of those also to the detriment of their careers.  The teachings of Mohammad, and the spirit of Islam motivated those people to swim against the stream and embrace a religion that was not considered American.  How Ali lived his life during those times, and after as his mind began to betray him, only he and his god know for sure but the multitude of stories I have heard seem to indicate that his public demeanor as the "greatest", included the willingness to be among the public, the everyday men, women and children who he encountered.

Now, of course, Islam is perceived in an entirely different light.  Where we once scorned those who chose that religion over a Christian one, as cowards, only fifty years later we now perceive many of that faith as terrorists.  I imagine that, as is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between.  But one thing is for sure, the persona created by Muhammad Ali, the incredible combination of killer in the ring and gentleman outside it, will never be repeated.
 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day!

According to Wikipedia, Memorial Day has been observed in America for almost 150 years, beginning after the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day established by an organization of Union veterans to honor Union soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers.  As time passed, the day evolved into one in which all veterans of all wars were honored.

Unfortunately, also per Wikipedia, there are plenty of war deaths to honor; approximately 1.5 million fatalities, in addition to another 1.5 million wounded or missing.  Interestingly, while many more American lives were lost during the American Civil War (upwards of 750,000, compared to 400,000 in WW2), there were more military lives lost in combat during World War 2, about 300,000 compared to the Civil War (a little over 210,000).  Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, twice as many Americans lost their lives during the Revolutionary War outside of combat (17,000) as in combat (only 8,000).  Of course, we don't note method of death on our veterans graves, don't separate those that died from gunfire from those who died of starvation or disease. 

One can easily conclude from a quick perusal of the death and injured charts, that we have seen a tremendous advance in our ability to treat and save the lives of our injured warriors.  Up until the 20th century, more deaths occurred in war than injuries, presumably because the injured died of their wounds before treatment or transport to medical facilities was possible.  During the World Wars, more were injured than dead, and by the Korean and Vietnam Wars that ratio grew to 3 to 1.  Now, statistics from our latest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate just how advanced our in-field medical technology has advanced as only one in nine injured soldiers die of their wounds.

Of course, the scale of wars America has been involved in has no comparison today than during our very worst war, against ourselves, and in the World Wars of the 20th century.  Literally hundreds of deaths occurred to Americans per day in those conflicts; over 400 per day during the Civil War, and almost 300 per day during the World Wars.  Imagine that, each and every day for years at a time, hundreds of American families lost a loved one.  Perhaps the good news is that only 11 or so deaths occurred per day during Vietnam, yet those deaths spurred everyday Americans to question the legitimacy of our involvement in that conflict.

At this point, many people forget that the Iraq-Afghanistan is the longest running war in American history recently surpassing the Vietnam War.  Perhaps because ONLY 1.5 soldiers have died in the years since 2001 during this war, and only dozens in that last few years, we seem to have forgotten that we are at war at all.  Sad that, except for the occasional politically driven headline about the state of our VA hospitals and the care being given, we also seem to have forgotten about the 50,000+ injured men and women that have resulted from our excursions into those countries. 

While our ability to wage war has increased dramatically, as evidenced by our use of drones to target those we have determine should die, we, at least as of now, are limiting the number of boots on the ground in the Middle East.  Perhaps America has lost her taste for continued deaths of our citizens overseas.  Perhaps we tire of being the world's policemen. 

Still, it is apparent from the recent success of the two presumptive presidential candidates, that use of force is not still attractive when dealing with our enemies.  Hillary Clinton, whether due to the pressures of needing to seem tough in order to get elected as a woman, or whether she truly believes in the use of force, is certainly no dove.  And Donald Trump seems to have never met a reason not to bully or strike back, or a weapon not to be used, when dealing with an adversary he doesn't like or an idea not his own.  

While we wring our hands over the prospect of a nuclear Iran or a North Korean spasm, we applaud certain statements that seem to suggest that we will use force, any force, we deem necessary to stop evil.  What is truly sad is that in 2008 when President Obama was elected, we were knee deep in military deaths.  We elected someone who sought diplomacy before conflict, who seemed to value the lives of those who chose to serve in our military by NOT sending them to die in foreign lands.  For his efforts, he is now accused by some to have made America impotent in the face of ISIS and the various other crazies like them.  Strange that they blink past the needless money and American lives that have been wasted in the Middle East, seeking to double down by spending even more resources and wasting even more lives.  All while we vote with flag in hand and patriotic pin on lapel to spend over $600 billion dollars a year on our military while our public schools strain to pay the bills, and our college graduates face tens of thousands of dollars in debt once they leave school. 

Memorial Day is, and should be about honoring those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for America and for its citizens.  But I hope that there might come a day when it also reminds people of the strength and sacrifice it takes to NOT use violence to solve one problems, whether those problems be personal or national.  To honor those who have died for our country by resorting to violence only as a last resort, not first thought.  To make the meaning of Memorial Day more than remembering those who died but about preventing those deaths in the first place.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Making America Great Again

Clearly, the call for a return to when America was great has inspired the popularity of both "change" candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, that common thread being that the politicians in Washington have been doing the bidding of Big Business/Special Interests at the expense of everyday Americans.  Whether one points to the outsourcing of jobs, tax laws that provide too many loopholes for the rich, or the stagnation of the standard of living for American workers, both change candidates blame Washington.  One might argue that Trump's solutions lean heavily on the demonization of illegal aliens and Muslim terrorists while Sanders pointed to the evil inside America as represented by corporations buying our elected servants, the dysfunction of Washington was the common denominator.  "They" let our borders soften allowing illegals to stream into America, "they" let Big Business move manufacturing jobs overseas where labor was cheap, "they" did nothing to stand up for America in the face of China's growth as an economic power fueled in part by American businesses, currency manipulation, and unfair trade practices.  "They" sold out America for short term profits and long term employment in the public sector.


And, it is easy to get excited by the prospect of finding blame, rooting out the guilty, and marching forward, flag in hand, towards a better day when America is great again as is evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of both Trump and Sanders in the past year. 


But we seem to have missed the answer to an important question; who is responsible for electing these horrific public servants?   Sadly, of course, the answer is the American electorate.  We are responsible for the "mess in Washington", and rather than take credit for our poor record of choosing those we elect, we prefer to divert the blame, and then run into the arms of anyone politically smart enough to realize our greatest weakness; the inability to look in the mirror to place blame.


Even sadder, when the time to vote rolls around, we stay at home in droves.  Over 225 million people were eligible to vote in 2008, yet only 131 million (58%) actually voted.  In 2012, about 235 million people were eligible, yet less people voted than in 2008, dropping the percentage to less than 55%. 
When compared to the voting rates in the "developed" countries, we perform abysmally. 


http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/06/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/
 
Now, one might make the argument that more people voting won't necessarily mean better results, but at least the elections would reflect the opinions of most of the people, not half.  Some of the better performing countries have passed mandatory voting laws.  Can you imagine forcing Americans to vote?  I wonder what kind of play demonstrators against forced voting laws would get on Fox News?


However, an even bigger question regarding making America great, is how one defines great?  Do we harken back to WW2 when America saved the world from Hitler?  Does that translate into saving the world from ISIS today?  Muslim fanaticism?  Communist China?  What great protagonist do we need to identify (or create), so we can defeat it and become great again.  And, is this greatness dependent on others' agreement, or can we anoint ourselves as great without third party opinion?


Perhaps greatness is having the biggest economy or strongest military.  Check and check.  But do we use those assets to their best advantage?   If you listen to Trump or peruse his ideas, we should be more forceful in the use of our assets to gain advantage.  Economic pain first, the use of force if necessary.  After all, what good is having such might if it is rendered impotent?   Is a country or a person great because they are the strongest and force their will on others? 


Some might postulate that greatness can be reflected in the freedoms granted to all people.  Are Americans the most free people in the world?  We certainly have a history of not allowing all people to enjoy the benefits of our country.  Our treatment of Native Americans and African Americans is not exemplary.  Marriage equality, while finally the law of the land, has created much backlash in some circles where the right to discriminate is religiously based.  I would argue that we are near the top of the list in terms of freedom, yet I suspect that too large a strain of the current push to make America great includes restrictions on some people based on nationality, color and religious affiliation, not expanding freedoms. 


Is greatness a reflection of education?  When I Google "Best Countries for Education", the United States generally ranks in the top 10, frequently top 5 depending on the criteria.  While we do not spend the most per child, we do gain points for having some of the best universities in the world.  I would think that it is a no brainer, given the fact that the next generation of leadership is currently enrolled in our public and private schools, a focus on education might be wise.  Yet I do not see education on the top of the list by some touting American greatness.  In fact, at times, educated people are ridiculed for being smart, while certain scientists in the fields of climate change and evolution are considered anti-capitalist at best, godless at worst.


Perhaps greatness can be defined simply as taking responsibility for one's actions whether individually or as a group.   If we want to believe that American Democracy is one of our greatest inventions, then we must participate, knowingly, in the system.  And, if we are to set the goal of becoming great, or adding to our greatness, then perhaps we need to eschew those definitions that include bullying, extortion and killing, and embrace the concepts of equal opportunity, a more equitable income distribution system, and freedom for all, not just for those that look or worship like ourselves.












   























Thursday, May 5, 2016

Final thoughts on Disaster

Took advantage of my day off yesterday to finish the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly.  A number of essays towards the end inspired this post.


The first was excerpted from William James' "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake", concerning the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  James was in Palo Alto at the time, studying at Stanford University, where the earthquake was felt, albeit at a much lesser degree as Stanford is about 35 miles from San Francisco.  James' essay recounts how his experiences surrounding this disaster confirmed his belief that man can do extraordinary things when faced with difficult circumstances.  His observations centered around the cooperation that was exhibited by the survivors, how so many everyday people stepped up to assist where assistance was needed. 


Similarly, an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell", expounds on James' beliefs, as Solnit recounts the response by those effected by numerous disasters.  Her conversations with the survivors of all types of natural disasters, led her to posit that the best of humanity is often displayed at the worst of times.  In fact, she goes further in her thinking that such disasters break us out of the modern lifestyle that corrals us into limited contact with our fellow man; the use of computers and cell phones rather than face to face conversations.  And, when forced to renew our social contacts, man reacts admirably, for the most part.  In essence, she uses the best of our reactions to disaster to contradict the prevalent belief that men are fragile, in need of professional help to navigate the perils of the world. 


But it is one thing to rejoice in the altruistic and honorable behavior of the survivors of disasters, and another thing when considering the victims of those same tragedies.  In Svetlana Alexievich's "Voices From Chernobyl", the story of Lyudmilla Ignayenko, and her husband, who was one of the firemen from the first fire brigade to arrive at the crippled power plant, is recounted.  What was striking to me was the juxtaposition of the day before the reactor's meltdown and everyday afterwards, until the death of Luydmilla's husband from radiation poison.  As it is when any story is retold, as it would be if we were to read about the day before activities of any of the 3000 people who died on 9/11, those stories include birthday parties, news of recent engagements or pregnancies, vacation plans, and a myriad of everyday events, going to school or work or church.  And that is the rub.  One day, life is normal.  The next day, everything has changed, forever. 


The reality however, is that everyday is the last day of normal life for thousands of people in our country.  Some die from a fatal disease that has sucked the life from them for a while, some from complications to a medical procedure that may have extended their life, but did not.  Some are killed instantly in accidents, vehicular or gun related.  These people and their families did not have the warning of a fatal disease diagnosis, just one day there, the next day gone. 


What is strange is that the odds are, we won't die tomorrow.  So we pretend we are temporarily immortal, and spend too much of the time of our life engaged in petty arguments.  We fight over possessions, land, minerals, knowing we can't take them with us, but fighting all the same.  We ignore the knowledge that while we may not die tomorrow, there will be a two day span sometime in the future where life will be normal one day, over the next. 


Perhaps ignoring that inevitability is good for the mind, keeps one from falling into an existential morass.  Perhaps.  But maybe acknowledging our immortality is what inspires the actions of those who survive calamities.  They experience death through others, are grateful to have not been a victim, and find their eyes are reopened to the wonder of being alive.


Do we cry when a loved one dies for them only, for the fact that we will never see them in this life again, or also because we know that day will one day arrive for us too, and we worry that we might not experience all that we want before that day comes.  Or do as much good as we could.


I would like to think that James and Solnit are correct in their belief that disaster brings out the best in us, because it assumes that the best is already there, waiting to show itself.  Now, if we could only demonstrate those higher qualities without the need for catastrophe. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Barbarism

Getting to the end of the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Disaster.  Just finished reading one of the ending essays, by John Gray.  Very thought provoking, and challenging to both the prevalent world view which is dominated by Western thinking, and my personal perspective.  If interested, the link below will take you to the essay.


http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/disaster/anomaly-barbarism


In a nutshell, Gray uses the current bogeyman of the day, ISIS, to rebuke the basis of, not only our generally accepted foreign policy, but the entire set of beliefs that equate the movement towards a modern society with the eventual elimination of barbarism.  He states that barbarism has long existed as part of man's nature, but rather than decreasing as man's sense of civilization has evolved, it has merely changed in its form of expression as technology has changed.  In other words, the simple slash, pillage and burn mode of conquering that was prevalent for literally thousands of years, has been dramatically altered with the advances in weaponry.  He cites the many 20th and 21st century examples of barbarism as proof that our ability to be cruel and savage has been multiplied by our ability to create nuclear bombs, kill from miles above the ground, and present our atrocities to the world via social media and instant access to information.  He in no means defends ISIS, but he does cite the many examples of those who went before ISIS using those same techniques.


Gray often mentions in his essay how it should be no surprise that a group such as ISIS has arisen in the Middle East, considering our disastrous actions to destabilize the region.  We remove the structure, however distasteful we may find it, and leave a vacuum of power that is instantly filled by those very same forces that were being restrained by that structure.  He scoffs at our naiveté in thinking that by liberating a people from a dictator, the West would be greeted with open arms, and a democracy would quickly follow, when the people of that area had no recent experience with democracy.  Gray reminds us in no uncertain terms, that our version of freedom, runs contrary to a population where religion is more important, and divisive, than in the West.  At one point he quotes a high ranking official who was prescient in stating decades ago that drawing lines in the sand to create countries where no national allegiance exists would need strong leadership rooted in suppression and restriction, not freedom.  Finally, he warns that continued destabilization in Syria would exacerbate the problem, not solve it. 


I think that the following quote best illustrates Gray's mindset.


"Civilization is not the endpoint of modern history, but a succession of interludes in recurring spasms of barbarism".


This is his main disagreement with the liberal mind in general, me in particular.  I believe that man is evolving intellectually, socially and spiritually.  That as time marches past, instances of terrorism will lessen, both on the individual level and group level.  Gray asks the question, why do we wonder why some European born men leave their homes to fight for ISIS?  He seems almost amused that we can't get our mind around why someone would depart from the freedoms that exist in most western nations to join an extreme group marked by utter control of the individual.  We ask how did they come to be "radicalized", yet forget that an entire nation turned to barbarism against those deemed less than human during World War 2.  We are baffled by the hundreds from Europe who join ISIS, without remembering the millions who followed Hitler and his policies of genocide.


Gray condemns the reluctance of western leaders to unequivocally call a spade a spade, and commit to a unified policy of defeating ISIS.  On that front, he agrees with the hawks among us who want to eradicate the ISIS threat.  Yet, at the same time, he rejects the notion that democracy and capitalism are the answer.  It is as if, he has determined that we need to court the lesser of two evils by supporting strong arm dictators like Hussein, Khadafy and Assad, and hope that their lust for power will remain regional, and not spill into "our" world.  He is willing to condemn all those people whose only guilt will be to be born in the Middle East, to a life under the rule of a psychopath.  To me, it seems like a short term answer, yet understandable if one believes that man is more evil by nature than good.


So, we ridicule the Bush Administration for its debacle in executing the Iraq War, yet, perhaps, admire those who thought that the uplifting nature of capitalism and democracy might break the cycle of fundamental religious views that seem to mark so much of the region.  Certainly, and despite my belief that a similar backlash by those who cannot handle the changes now replete in our society are resulting in anti-human laws that seek to find sin and evil in those unlike us, I prefer a naïve optimism over a cynical fatalism.


As someone who has been more recently exposed to History, and the facts surrounding the advanced societies that existed in America before it was "discovered", in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, perhaps we should ask ourselves if, centuries ago when Europe was marked by barbarism and all the advanced cultures were elsewhere, would it have been better had we been dismissed as people who would never change, could never change?


I often remark that violence begets violence, hatred breeds more hatred.  That only Love can defeat evil.  That, in the end, God created man to spend life searching for the line that separates good and bad, and to then choose a side, and that God created humanity to seek a group decision to act to benefit or harm each other, and the planet we inhabit. 


Yet, it is the real world we live in where there is in fact bad people engaged in horrible acts.  And, it seems ever more clear that despite our desire for simple answers, there are no simple answers to such complicated issues.  But perhaps answers will come more readily if we strive to expand our perspective, rather than narrowing it, whether that narrowing is caused by nationalism, religion, or politics. 


When one believes there is only one way, one Truth, one solution for every question, is that the mark of consistency or the burden of intransigence?


Is obliteration the only way to defeat those who engage in Barbarism?  Not if we assume that barbarism is part of our nature.  Does "using all means to defeat one's enemy" move us over the line from good to bad if we use torture to achieve that goal?  When is it time to fight the good fight, and how far removed from "good" is justifiable to fight that fight?


Gray takes on a tough subject.  Strange that his essay appears in a magazine called Disaster.




      

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Trump vs Clinton

After yesterday's Northeast states primaries, it is becoming more and more likely that the next President of the United States, will be either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.  For some, these choices are painful.  Both score high in negative impressions by the electorate, higher than most recent candidates for president, winners as well as losers. 


Trump is perceived by some as a bully of the highest order, chauvinistic and narcissistic, with an ability to identify the basest fears and prejudices of the voters and play upon those fears without apology or shame.


Clinton is the penultimate politician and opportunist, parlaying her marriage to an infamous albeit popular president into a lifetime of employment in the public sector. 


While this will be a momentous decision, effecting the course of the United States for the foreseeable future, it masks the importance of whom we elect to serve in Congress.


There is very little chance that the GOP majority in the House will change in the fall.  Worse, this majority includes a powerful minority of representatives that lean extremely right.  This minority will continue to hold this chamber hostage, blocking every compromise that might become law unless more Dems are elected and can join with the moderate GOP reps to work together to govern.  If we continue to allow this half of Congress to be populated by people whose only goal is to eliminate the federal protections in place that keep our air and water clean, and protect the rights of minorities and women, while allowing the continued misguided interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to swamp America with guns and the violence that follows, and failing to properly check employer abuse of workers through non living wages, and reduced benefits, America will continue to see a stalemate in  Washington.  This body has voted time and against income and marriage equality, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and to limit the powers of the EPA and other environmental agencies to reign in those businesses who pollute our planet.  We need to send a message, just as clear as that which will elect the new president, that we expect the House to compromise when necessary to govern America, not merely say NO.


Just as essential, we need to take a hard look at the Senate, currently consisting of 54 GOP, 45 DEM and one Independent.  (No, not Bernie since he changed parties to run as the Democratic nominee).  Thirty four seats are to be determined in November, of which 24 are held by Republicans, a result of the 2010 midterm backlash against Obama's 2008 election.  Of these 34, depending on whose analysis you read, 20 of the seats are "secure", meaning little chance of a change of party.  This leaves 14 seats that might see a switch in party and twelve of those are currently held by the GOP.  Simple math says that a net gain of  4 seats (assuming the independent leans democratic as is usual) will result in a 50-50 split, and if Clinton wins, a Democratic controlled Senate since the
vice-president breaks ties.  A net gain of 5 seats means in won't matter who wins the White House, the Senate will lean left. 


Since many political pundits consider 5 seats a toss up (4 currently GOP), and two of the GOP  seats leaning left, a return to a Dem controlled Senate is not only possible but critical, especially if we remember that Trump is not accustomed to losing.  While I would expect that Clinton might have a chance to work with a GOP controlled Congress, especially if she wins by double digit percentage points, Trump's decisions as to which crazy proposals which emanate from a GOP dominated Congress he agrees to, makes me wince, not to mention his own wacky ideas in regards to Mexicans and Muslims which the right leaning immigration phobic members of the House will love to enact.


Trump vs Clinton.  Who would have thunk it.  Just remember, when you enter the voting booth in November, you are also voting for the body that is charged with enacting our laws, in addition to our next president.  Do your research so that the eventual winner will have the best people to work with, those most interested in governing America, and representing all Americans.