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.     

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Discrimination in a Christian Nation

One might expect the phase "discrimination in a Christian nation" to be an oxymoron, yet it seems increasingly clear by the recent spate of "religious freedom" legislation that has been signed in states such as Georgia and North Carolina, that discrimination is alive and well in America.  What is ironic is that those in support of such blatantly discriminatory laws, believe they are doing God's work, protecting children from gay, lesbian and transgender perverts, as is their perspective.  Even more ironic, is that many of these same people watch in horror at the news of the atrocities committed in the name of god by Islamic fundamentalists, not seeing how much like them they are in their intolerance for others.


It might be wise for those who support such seemingly anti-freedom (anti-American) laws to review the work of Utah, yes Utah, in this area.  While the Utah law is not perfect, is was created with the cooperation of the LGBT community, including one openly gay state representative.  Cooperation, as opposed to last minute legislative meetings with only one political party represented.  A law that addressed the concerns of both sides, found common ground, and was supported by both sides, even though no one was completely happy.  Adult compromise concerning a very difficult issue.


I often say that mankind is evolving in a positive direction, intellectually, socially and spiritually.  I also frequently lament the backlash that can occur following a step forward, usually with the comment that sometimes progress is two steps forward, one step back.  That being said, it should not be surprising that with marriage equality the law of the land, there would be some people who are not ready for such change, and would therefore respond by circling their religious wagons to establish some kind of buffer between themselves and these changes. 


Hence, religious freedom laws that allow for the righteous to refuse service to those with different sexual orientation or gender identification.  Not straight, sorry, no wedding cake for you.  A different gender identification, no job for you.  The only thing missing would be straight and gay public water fountains; after all, perhaps the gay disease can be transmitted orally, through saliva!  (I am sure I read that on the internet, so it must be true).


I no longer affiliate with any religion but I would like to think that the priest that says mass at my mother's church would speak out against this kind of intolerance.  I know that if he didn't, my mother would not be happy.  Unfortunately, I am sure that there are people with religious influence that do not share that sense of intolerance.  They are the first to scream discrimination when they cannot have a manger scene on public property, but yell the loudest to restrict those with different viewpoints from those same facilities.  Even worse, they fail to see the inherent evil in teaming up with local businesses to justify who can be served and who cannot, who can be hired or fired, based on their narrow perspective.   I guess the lesson of World War 2 when so many minorities were persecuted, is lost on them; they forget that intolerance has no boundary, and no consistency, and today's purveyors of discrimination might well be tomorrow's victims.


If I may be so bold, the stories I have read about Jesus recount a man who spent time with the outcasts of his era.  If we are to believe that he was The Christ, son of God, conceived immaculately, sent to earth to provide an example of how to live, and who died for our imperfections so that we might live eternally, the founder and reason for all that is labeled Christian, then perhaps we should act us such. 


Some say there is too much religious influence these days, too many people who so passionately believe the tenants and dogma of their particular religion, that they are blind to the possibility that other sets of beliefs may be just as viable.  But perhaps, in fact, there is not enough religion, where religion is defined by the spirit of its founder, as opposed to the rules created by men to control the believers. 


To me, there is no room for discrimination in a Christian nation, therefore there is no room for discrimination in America.  One might even go so far as to say that anyone who supports such laws is not only not Christian, but not American as well. 


       

Monday, April 11, 2016

Death and Taxes

Last day of my 6 days off in a row from work.  Didn't miss work in the least.  Did some reading, checked off a bunch of items from my To-do list, finished our taxes and submitted (this will be the third) posts to my blog.  If this is how retirement will be, plus some travel I hope, it cannot come too soon.


I actually finished our federal taxes, and received our yearly refund last month.  First year without my son as a dependent but still receiving the education credit for my daughter's college enrollment.  Unfortunately, we owe some state and local taxes this year due to my wife's out of state job, hence the delay is finishing those forms. 


It seems strange to me how much anger is directed to the various local, state and federal agencies by most people when it comes to paying taxes.  I imagine is it a manifestation of the "me first " attitude that permeates our society.  We agonize over local taxes, usually school taxes, even directing our anger at the teachers who are often perceived as "those who can't, teach" people who get every summer off in addition to a bunch of holidays.  As if they are merely overpaid babysitters.  Yet, when most people are looking to raise a family, they generally move to an area with good schools.  They know the difference a good education can make for their children, yet still grouse over school taxes as if there is not a correlation between cost and results.  What is even more frustrating is that some of those same people will yell and scream at their local sports team for not spending enough money to attract the best athletes!  I guess it is easy to spend other people's money. 


As for state spending, again, education is such a huge percentage of where our tax money is spent, yet we prefer to focus on the politicians (an easy and deserved target) as if their salaries represent that much of our taxes.  Some people forget that when the state does not do its part in funding education, the burden passes back to the local school districts, hence an increase in local taxes.  And, when it is time to send your child to college, those states that do not adequately fund their state universities mean that the parents must borrow even more money for college, or worse, pass the debt burden on to their children resulting in most college graduates facing at least $25,000 ($300 a month for 10 years) in education debt on day one. 


As for federal taxes, well, education is not as big a percentage, although if you lump it in with other "social" programs, welfare, social security, health care etc, it is a large number.  But still, not anywhere near the $600 billion a year, we allocate to defense.  The next time you complain about ISIS and terrorism, and fear, and clamor for more bombs, and more guns, and "boots on the ground" it may be wise to remember that it is those costs that make your tax burden so high, if you believe it so.  It is easy to generate applause when you promise to cut taxes, but much harder to make the math work when you want to build a wall, or bomb our enemies back to the stone age, or continue to provide businesses with tax breaks to create jobs, or make sure our elderly can choose to live where they want and eat healthy food, while managing their bills on a fixed income. 


Paying taxes can certainly be distasteful, and it is certainly just as important to question how our money is spent while paying our fair share.  But let's not pretend that we can be the policemen of the world, maintain our roads and bridges, provide a safety net for those who deserve it, and encourage the business community to provide jobs, and not pay federal taxes. 


Just as certain, as they say, is Death.  Sure, we can buy the latest in home exercise equipment, take the most recent supplement that defies aging, eat right, reduce stress, etc, but eventually death will make a visit. 


This month's National Geographic has an interesting perspective on death, a viewpoint totally at odds with the predominant societal view.  In a remote corner of Indonesia there is a culture in which the corpses of the dead remain a part of the family long after life has left the body.  The Torajan people consider death as a process, not a moment.  A process that includes (after mummification) time with the body before burial, and even, often many years later, time with the unearthed body.  Funerals, which can be months after death, are celebrations much bigger and festive that even weddings.  And, if you are ready to dismiss this as a tradition for backwards, or isolated tribes, the Torajan are a modern people with cell phones and computers.  Their funerals are as much family reunions and community events as ceremonies for the departed as, family members who have left the islands where they were born, travel thousands of miles to be a part of the event. 


In some ways, this kind of practice, where the person is still a part of the family even after dying, is played out in western hospitals where people who are "brain dead" are kept alive through artificial means for days, weeks, even months after brain activity has ceased,.  It is not uncommon in these most advanced of hospitals for the care givers and the family of the comatose to greet those in coma, talk to them as they care for their bodies' needs, just as the Torajan still talk to, bring food for, dress, and interact with their loved ones once dead.  It makes me wonder if this kind of advanced science, where the body can be kept alive even after the person has gone, has brought us full circle to a time when death was an everyday part of life, and that recognition of the dead was as important as acknowledging the living. 


When the Torajan are questioned about the origins of their death practices and traditions, it is not easily discovered.  Much of their lore was of an oral nature until the 20th century.  But perhaps, as the author suggests, the better question is how our current death practices came to be.  It wasn't that long ago that wakes were held in the parlor of the home of the deceased; my house, built at the end of the 19th century, had two front doors, the second one being wider than the first to accommodate a standard size coffin.  Yet, just a few generation later, the thought of having a dead person in one's home is repugnant to most of us, and so often closed caskets are preferred so we don't have to see how the recently departed has degraded, how time has taken its toll. 


It is all well and good to remember those you love as strong, vibrant people.  I much prefer to remember my father as he was when I accompanied him on his route, the wind in his hair, the smell of freshly oiled knives all around us, the new day's sun rising in the distance as we began the day's deliveries.  He was strong, alive, my example of what it was to be a man.  But just as critically, although perhaps not as pleasant, is the sight of him as he lay prone on a slightly too small bed in the hospice that last week.  He was slowing leaving us, his essence easing from earth to the next plane.  Yet, he will always be with us, in myself, my brothers, my son, my nephews and nieces, and their children and their children's children.  Perhaps, like the Torajan, we would be more comfortable with death, less afraid of its inevitability, if we treated death as just another phase of life, part and parcel to being born. living and experiencing, and aging. 


And, if it is immortality we really seek, well we have that to, in our DNA, each of us the result of all our ancestors combined, each or us an ancestor and part of all those who will follow.






 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Disaster

The Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly arrived a few weeks ago.  I have read about a third of it to date.   The first section (of three) is called Premonition, and includes essays from people who have written about the possibility of impending disaster, some natural, some man made.  One which recounts the days and hours leading up to the Challenger shuttle disaster was of particular interest in that a number of scientists from the company which manufactured the O rings that failed were aware of the potential problem which cold temperatures might produce, tried valiantly to convince their managers and NASA administrators to cancel the mission, and were ultimately surprised, not by the explosion but by their lack of success to preempt it.  (I have since heard an NPR segment which detailed the guilt felt by these very same engineers, who blame themselves for not forcing those decision makers to listen, and the anger some still feel on being ignored).


Similarly, the seemingly American hobby of discounting certain science, specifically science that contradicts religion (evolution deniers), and science that threatens certain industries (climate change deniers), is recalled both in the above example where NASA pride trumped caution, and in the opening article which details the ongoing research being conducted in the Greenland ice sheet which undoubtedly demonstrates the potential for disaster that will result in rising sea levels from ice melt.


But these strains of thought are not new to me. 


What is most interesting to date, were the essays taken from the writings of George Marsh and Sigmund Freud.


In 1864 (yes, during the Civil War), Marsh published Man and Nature, one of the earliest texts which argued that human activity could have significant and lasting effect on the environment.  The essay in Lapham's, touches on the destruction of the forests to harvest its wood for houses.  Marsh calls it a Want of Foresight, in that he observes how temperatures in cities are a few degrees warmer that in the surrounding countryside, how removing the trees exposes the ground to faster flow of water, which can remove the ground soil, or what he calls the vegetable mold, making it harder to grow food.  He talks about how these man induced changes, effect the ebb and flow of rivers and streams, the existence of tidal pools and marshes, all changes which effect the flora and fauna of the area.  He observes without the bias of monetary gain or loss, or religious edict.  Strangely, and I say this in light of the occupations and concerns of most of today's politicians, Marsh was an elected United States Congressman for the state of Vermont, and a lifelong conservationist who used his position and knowledge to further the cause of environmental awareness at a time when the Industrial Revolution was first changing America.  Talk about swimming against the stream!!


But the most illuminating essay was from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.  My familiarity with Freud was mostly focused on his Interpretation of Dreams, a topic which I investigated most seriously (and enjoyably) as a young adult, the ability to experience lucid dreaming being one of my earliest pursuits.  And, of course, as a my interest in Psychology blossomed, Freud's creation of psychoanalysis was studied and debated.  But whether I avoided his darker theories on man, or purposefully ignored them, I was not as aware of his contributions in this area.


In this edition of Lapham's is Freud's discussion of the battle between what he calls the instincts of Eros and Death.  Without getting too involved in this theory, he basically boils it all down to our all encompassing instinct of aggression, and the "civilized" concepts we use to counter that instinct to create an orderly less violent society.  What is fascinating is that he turns the basis of Christianity, original sin and the need to be saved through Jesus Christ, on its head by acknowledging that we are in fact, flawed (original sin being our aggressive and destructive nature), and proof is in the need to be saved and to adhere to the basic message of that savior, love one another.  In other words, we need to be told to be good, to have institutions that teach goodness, even to have the carrot of ultimate happiness, eternity with the creator, in order to counter our natural aggressiveness, our natural destructiveness.  Wow, talk about negative!! 


Oddly, Freud died in 1939, before the atrocities of World War 2 occurred.  I would imagine he would have silently nodded his head with the knowledge that the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the incessant bombing of England, the firebombing of Germany and the ultimate use of atomic weapons in Japan, would have proven him right, especially in light of the fact that all of these barbarous acts were committed by people who thought such acts were the beginning of a better man,  or blessed by a righteous God, or the only way to combat those that were evil.


Want of Foresight seems even more at work now than ever.  We continue to make decisions based on short term outcomes, whether those decisions be in the business or political world, or on the battlefield or in the election booth.  And we abhor the violence of others while clamoring for our own righteous version of violence against our enemies. 


Still, there are signs that we might choose to act to prevent disaster, and that we might choose to reject aggression in favor of love.  Hopefully, the tipping point will come before we have gone too far down the wrong path.


         
   

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Working Together

Like many other sports fans, I watched the NCAA Men's basketball final a few nights ago.  Of course, in addition to being a fan of March Madness, I was eager to see if Villanova, a team from a suburb west of Philadelphia (I live in a northern suburb of the same city), could knock off another number 1 seed and perennial college basketball powerhouse North Carolina.  It had been an impressive run to the final game for Villanova, who rolled over 4 of the five teams it had played, including a record setting 44 point victory in the Final Four semifinal, while also beating the overall number 1 ranked team in the tournament, Kansas, in a thriller last weekend.


My feeling before the game was that North Carolina had the better players, but that Villanova was the better team.  As it turned out, this was true.  While there are a few players on the North Carolina team who will eventually play in the NBA, there are most likely no players on the Villanova team destined for the pro league.  Yet, Villanova won the game in story book fashion on a 3-point basket as time expired.  Their swarming defense in which all five players on the court worked as one, kept North Carolina from playing their game, and from showcasing their better athletes.


As is so often the case in sports, the team with the best players sometimes wins the championship in a given year, but more often loses out to the team which is playing the best.  (As the NHL playoffs approach, let this be a warning to the Washington Capitals, arguably the team with the best players in the National Hockey League).  Of course, a team needs excellent players to succeed.  But the ability for those players to meld into an effective unit and create a team greater than its parts can lead to success even when the individual players are less talented.  A good coach or a good scheme can create the framework, but in the end, the players themselves must "buy in" to a coach, or to the concept that they can win by playing as a team even when the other team has superior players.  ,


Which brings us to politics, and governing.  As any one knows who has read my posts, I am not a fan of the current political bipartisanship, and particularly not a fan of the current political philosophy of the GOP.  While both parties have lost sight of the goal, to govern so as to improve the daily life of the majority of Americans, the Republican party seems to have taken spitefulness to a new level, most recently as reflected in their refusal to hold hearings and vote on the president's nominee for the Supreme Court. 


As I mentioned in a previous post, this election cycle pits an establishment candidate against a "change" candidate in each party.  Without overstating the obvious, when the actual presidential candidates are chosen at the respective nomination conventions this summer, it will be the "team" that pulls together its players which will win the White House.  It won't matter for the Democrats if it is understood that Hillary Clinton is the better presidential candidate, if those who support Bernie Sanders don't work together to elect her.  And, even more critically, it will result in a landslide DEM victory, if the those behind Donald Trump don't work together with the candidate that emerges from what will surely be a brokered nomination process.  Teamwork that emphasizes the stark differences between the overall party platforms, regardless of who represents that party, will win the day, just as teamwork enabled Villanova to win on Monday night.


All this being said, one might say, DUH, Joe, all you say is obvious.  Yet is it so obvious that cooperation is the best process for success?  Especially when a component of cooperation, compromise, is such an evil word in today's politics?  Whether one uses the example of immigration reform which was agreed to by the president and the GOP leadership then scuttled by the extreme right wing members of the House, or the recent example in Pennsylvania when newly elected Governor Wolf had a budget agreement in place with the GOP leadership of that state only to have it rejected by a small but vocal minority of GOP reps and senators, it seems that the "my way or the high way" mentality has become a rallying cry for those who have decided that the opinions of the electorate are only to be honored when those opinions have put them in office, not someone of a different viewpoint or political party. 


Make America Great Again is a wonderful slogan, not withstanding the fact that when pressed for an answer most Americans would rank the United States as the best country in the world, and not forgetting when President Obama was taken to task by radio and TV pundits for answering a question about America's "excellence" by saying that most people in every country think their country a great place.  But if we agree that America was at her greatest in defeating Hitler, and in the few decades after WW2 in our efforts to rebuild Europe, create a thriving middle class, and truly making those words, "all men are created equal" be more than a platitude, we might want to remember that cooperation was at the root of that success.  Opportunity was abundant, whether through government programs like the GI bill that enabled millions of veterans to advance their education without debt, or the rise of small businesses which were community based, and which assumed fair pricing so all in that community could afford the services and products offered.  It was a time of doctors making house calls, athletes having an off season job, and entertainers, politicians, and business owners living a good lifestyle without the trappings of obscene wealth. 


If it is true that we will be judged by our treatment of the least among us, then wall building, ID cards to prove citizenship, institutionalized racism in our justice and penal systems, marriage discrimination, and ever increasing income inequality will not only impede our goal to make America great, they will prove just the opposite.  Cooperation is inclusive; remember that when you next watch a presidential debate, or enter a voting booth,


    


The American Dream was never abou 


     



Monday, March 21, 2016

Freedom, Cigarettes and Abortion

You may have seen an anti-smoking commercial recently, as I did, which portrayed an extremely saddened mother who had smoked during her pregnancy, and whose child was born premature with various health issues.  While it is possible that some of the child's maladies could be blamed on other sources, it was clear in the commercial that the mother believed that her smoking while pregnant caused much of the damage, and it has certainly been proven by science that smoking is ill-advised for pregnant women.


The commercial spurred a number of thoughts in my mind.


First, it was clear that the baby was a victim of its mother's poor choices, and while smoking while pregnant is not against the law, many (including the mother) might blame her in part for the baby's poor start in life.  I would expect that most people would certainly not blame the baby for having poor health as a result of its mother's decision to smoke.  Yet I also imagined that many of those who would look upon the child with pity, are the same people who prefer to blame some children for their parents' crimes, when it comes to the illegal immigration issue.  Proposed laws such as the DREAM Act, that would provide a path to citizenship for children whose only crime was to be brought to America illegally, have failed in Congress due to the efforts of those in the GOP who prefer to lump all illegal immigrants into one category; criminals.  Punishing children for the sins of the parents is not reflective of the American spirit of compassion and caring, and certainly not a trait of a Christian country. 


One wonders if, as some would like, a fetus were to be granted the rights of an individual, and therefore protected against abortion by the same laws which make murder illegal, would mothers who choose to smoke also be subject to prosecution for cruelty to their unborn children?  Would they be put in jail?  Lose their rights to the child, once born?  Is the father subject to conspiracy charges since he likely knew the mother to be was smoking?  How about the smoker's mother, or siblings, doctor,  friends or co-workers, all who knew the smoker was torturing her unborn baby?


And, since a woman might be pregnant yet not be "showing" for a while, or not even know it for 6,  perhaps 8 weeks if her cycle is not normally regular, perhaps all women who smoke of child bearing years should be "watched", just in case they are harming a potential child.  Perhaps be marked, maybe a "P" for potentially pregnant ala The Scarlet Letter?  And, if we are going to hold mothers accountable for potential damage to a fetus, certainly anything done to a pregnant mother that is detrimental to her (and the baby's health), say by a business that dumps refuse into a local river, or excess pollution into the air, must also result in action against that business.  I would imagine that, once laws protecting the rights of a fetus were enacted, then the EPA would have to be infused with  new money and power to protect the health and well being of the fetus against industries that spew pollution into our environment.  What strange bedfellows that would make, the anti-abortion movement and the environmental movement joining forces to protect the right of the fetus!


From there, one could imagine that drinking and drug use would be next on the list of activities not appropriate for women of child bearing age.  Perhaps even over exercising.  Marathon running.  How about dieting? 


Men controlling what women could and couldn't do, just like the olden, golden days.  It would certainly bridge the gap between our contempt for how women are treated in the Muslim religion, subject to the control of men who are only protecting them (and our future children) from harm. 


I know, you are thinking that I exaggerate.  Certainly, no one wants to take away the freedom of women to make their own choices.  It is only in the case of life and death. But isn't that like giving carte blanche to those that engage in activities that result in damaged babies, whether that activity is personal (the mother) or industrial (a polluting business)?  If aborting a fetus is immoral, how close on the scale of immorality is destroying a local environment?  Or moving a business off shore which results in the unemployment of hundreds of families, which results in less money for food, shelter and education?  


Freedom, real freedom, is not an easy thing to have and maintain.  It means more than just parading with a flag that says don't tread on me.  More than wearing a pretty pin on one's lapel.  Freedom is a huge responsibility, because it includes, not exempts us from considering how exercising our freedom effects others.  Driving through red lights, playing one's music at high decibels late into the night, bombing the citizens of another country to kill a terrorist, is not excusable because it expresses an individual or national freedom.  It is merely a selfish act by someone or group of people who are less free than self-centered.


Freedom, the rights of the individual, the power of the government to curtail some rights in the name of security or protection, all BIG concepts that need serious discussion.  Please remember that when you hear simplistic answers offered by radio pundits and politicians.  And, especially remember it when the founders are invoked because they struggled with these same concepts as well, did not always agree, compromised to move the needle forward, but still had reservations even when creating those wonderful documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.






  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Candidates: Establishment VS Change

It has probably been said by someone already, but I felt it worth repeating how interesting and unusual the race for president has become from the standpoint of the candidates being labeled as establishment versus change.


In the Democratic party, the race quickly became a Clinton vs Sanders affair.  What is odd is that Hillary Clinton, a woman, is the establishment candidate.  She is favored by the party chiefs as is clear by her overwhelming lead in "super" delegates, a fact which doubles her lead over Sanders. 


Without getting into a discussion of the origin and purpose of the super delegate in the Democratic party (there is no such thing in the GOP), suffice it to say that it is a concept not foreign to the founders belief that direct election of the president by the people may not be desirable.  At the time, it was thought by some that a regional candidate might overwhelmingly win a minority of the states, and should those states make up a majority percentage of the population, then such a candidate could win the presidency even though a majority of the people in the remainder of the states were to vote against him or her, thus spawning the creation of the electoral college.  Similarly, the super delegate was fashioned with the idea that party officials, elected Democratic candidates and other long term party supporters should have a say in the nominee, in addition to their actual vote.  Sounds a bit undemocratic, on the face of it.  In real terms, it conveys the idea of a safety net, just in case the democratic electorate seems bent on picking a candidate that may be popular but not viable as the presidential nominee. 


In the meantime, Bernie Sanders, an old white male who is a career politician, is the candidate for change.  One might argue that someone who has held elected office in some capacity for over 30 years might not qualify as a change candidate, yet Sanders has done a great job of stating and defending his voting record while maintaining limited ties to the financial industry, probably something more easily done when you are a Senator from Vermont as opposed to being the wife of an ex-president and ex-Senator from New York where some of your constituents are those very same behemoths of the banking and financial world.


As for the GOP, their establishment candidate appears to be Ted Cruz, a man without a United States birth certificate (take that all you birthers from 2008), while the "change" candidate is a billionaire who has spent his life using his identification with the status quo of power and riches, his white maleness, while at the same time, using his money and influence to bend the rules of our democracy to fit his needs.  Of course he supported some Democratic candidates in the past as claimed by his Republican detractors, his support was all about greenbacks, not party affiliations. 


The real question is, when all the wrangling is over, which party will be able to rally its members to vote for the candidate that has been chosen. 


If Sanders is the nominee, will the Democratic establishment be loyal enough to the message that we need a Democratic President to counter the GOP dominated House, and to successfully nominate and appoint a liberal leaning Supreme Court justice so that the gains of the recent past (marriage equality, health care insurance expansion) are maintained, while attacks on abortion and voting rights are repelled?


If Clinton is the nominee, and with the same big picture goals, can the Democratic party ignite the base to vote for a more centrist, but perhaps more electable candidate, while adjusting the party platform to include some of Sanders more popular ideas?


If Trump is the nominee, will the GOP establishment turn its attacks on Clinton and away from Trump's more obnoxious talking points effectively enough to turn the voters, the young, the female, and the minority, who they need to win the White House.  Additionally, can they sell Trump to their base with just the thought that he will be better than Clinton or Sanders, considering Trump's limited past support of making abortion illegal and turning back the clock on marriage equality?


If Cruz is the nominee, the base may be happier, but Trump's popularity with the voters (he has won most of the primaries where actual voting has taken place, as opposed to caucuses), means that barring a complete turnaround, he will go into the convention with more delegates than Cruz.  A brokered convention, perhaps the only way for Cruz to win, may not sit well with the GOP voters, and certainly, as I mentioned in a previous post, will not sit will with the bully Trump.


Oddly, is seems that the GOP would benefit from the super delegate system that the Dems have, in this case, perhaps demonstrating the need for such a system, as undemocratic as it seems. 


Whatever the outcome, we are certainly in for an interesting 4 months before the conventions in July.


Buckle up!!