Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Prejudice

I must admit that I had not paid much attention to the story about Ahmed Mohamed, the Texas high school freshman who brought a home made clock to school and was ultimately handcuffed and arrested, presumably because the clock looked like a bomb.  But last night I watched last week's edition of Bill Maher's show, Real Time, during which the story was discussed.


Now, anyone who has read my blog in the past, knows that I enjoy Maher's show immensely.  His favorite political points about the failure of trickle down economics which is a main cause of the income inequality that exists today, the hypocrisy of the far right who will do anything to protect life in the womb while pretending that abstinence alone is a viable sex education plan, and the obscene approach to cutting government programs that always seems to protect the rich while leaving those with less scrambling for crumbs, are certainly grist for my blog. 


But Maher often displays his prejudice against Muslims, and did so again on this recent episode.  Of course, he, and those that think like him are correct in that there is much violence in the world today which is being initiated by young Muslim men whose ideological rigidity inspires them to de-value the life of their "enemies" (and themselves) resulting in death and destruction.  And, frankly, while I certainly believe that the policies of the West, in general, and the United States in particular, has enabled, in part, their hatred for us, I DO NOT believe that past crimes justify future killing.  Revenge, whether it be personal or national, is wrong, and all it does is feed the beast that inflames our anger to hurt others after being hurt.  Bombing a market square after the drone killing of a fellow Muslim is just as wrong as the invasion of Iraq after 911.  Death and violence begets death and violence, and the sooner humankind evolves to the spiritual level of the great prophets, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, etc, who inspired our religions, the better off we will be.


In the case of Ahmed Mohamed's clock, Maher would have is believe that Ahmed should know better than to bring anything that looks like a bomb to school because of the bombs that have been used by those who are like him.  I imagine that Maher would be just as outraged if a while boy was treated similarly due to the Columbine killings and such other instances where young white men did the dirty deed, but I did not hear him or anyone on the panel say so.  One panelist repeatedly brought up the idea that Ahmed himself did not have a history of violence, suggesting that perhaps he should not be held responsible for the crimes of those like him, but his opinion was not give much play.  Mark Cuban, one of the other panelists, suggested without saying it that Ahmed may have had some kind of agenda since in his conversation with him, Cuban found Ahmed very loquacious concerning science, but seemed to defer to his sister when asked about why he did not engage his teachers concerning why he brought the clock to school in the first place.  (It was not part of an assignment).  Or perhaps, poor Ahmed was somehow used by his father or family to make a point, and was quiet because he either did not realize it, or was embarrassed by his role. 


Or, perhaps, if we approach it with an eye towards the theory known as Occam's razor, he was just an innocent kid trying to impress his teacher, and it was all the adults who participated that exploded the situation.  (sorry for the pun)  


Regardless of the why, everyone ran to their corners to defend or condemn the child, school authorities and police.  Even the president chimed in with an  invite to the White House. 


Prejudice is a strong emotion.  As I discussed in a previous post about xenophobia, it can sometime protect us from assuming the best about another person when that person does not have our safety in mind.  But when used to justify the interactions we have with individuals, it is an insidious fear.  Prejudice has a hand in every major attempt by one nation, race or creed to commit genocide against another.  Often, it is based in some truth, but the truth is soon replaced by a fear that all those who resemble or represent the particular nation, race or creed are guilty. 


It is prejudice that helps us justify legal discrimination.  Prejudice that suggests we cross the street when a group of young (fill in the blank) men are walking on the other side. Prejudice that inspires us to go to prison rather than signing a marriage certificate to legalize the love two people feel for each other.  It is prejudice that drives too much of our political campaigns by pointing a finger at those different from us and saying they are at fault for our problems.  Amazingly, even after 78 months in office, there are still those who delegitimize President Obama based on his skin color, masking that prejudice in false claims about his religion and birth country.    


What is truly sad, is that when facts that may be used as prejudice against our own nation, race or creed, it is astounding how quickly discrimination is claimed.  Almost daily we hear of Christians gnashing their teeth over attacks against their religious freedom, while many of the same people are at the forefront of denying marriage rights, or state publicly that they would not support a Muslim who runs for office. 


I would imagine that if all white men were considered a source of potential harm to our children or our financial security because a statistically significant percentage of pedophiles and wall street criminals are white men, the cries of prejudice and discrimination would reach the heavens.  Yet, white men (especially white men with collars) are the source of a large percentage of these crimes.  Should I (being a white man) be judged on the horrendous behavior of some of my cohorts?  Would our white men dominated country tolerate such behavior?


How much of prejudice is learned, and how much innate (as connected with the fear of the unknown, including strangers) is certainly debated.  I would like to imagine that an environment that emphasized personal character rather than group prejudices might produce less discriminatory behavior.  After WW2, I would imagine that some Americans were slow to embrace those of German and Japanese ancestry as American citizens, even if born in America.  Yet today, two generations later, I would conjecture that a very low percentage of Americans still look suspiciously at someone of either of those ethnicities.  You might argue that we have merely replaced them with another group, but I prefer to think that we have evolved beyond those prejudices through everyday encounters with people of those nations.  We treated them as individuals, not as representations of past atrocities. 


Hopefully then, in a few more generations, a similar evolution will occur with today's bogeymen.  While it is more likely that a new group might be labeled to be our enemies, here's hoping that we realize that individuals of any nation, race or creed can be bad, but that most people of all types are good.     


     




Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Cost of Living (today)

In the last week or so, I have conversed with a number of random people (strangers and acquaintances) about the cost of living today versus a generation ago.  I purposefully targeted people who were my age or older in order to confirm what I remembered with others memories.  For instance, I remember house calls by my local doctor, and found most of those I spoke with remembered them as well.  They also confirmed my assumption that they thought those doctors, while perhaps living a bit more comfortably, seemed to share a similar economic standard.  Like other professionals, lawyers, engineers, those in management occupations, these people did not earn 10, 20, 50 times the salaries of their blue collar or small business owner neighbors.  Income seemed more equitable split. 


We also touched on the cost of such items as phone, TV, movies, eating out, and other items that moved from luxuries to the definition of what a middle class family in America expected.  TV, of course, was free.  Phone bills were $10, $20 a month.  I remember going to one or two Phillies games a summer with my dad and sitting in the nosebleed section for 50 cents for kids, a couple of bucks for my dad.  If we ate something, we didn't need to spend $30 for a 3 cokes and 3 dogs.  Fast food establishments were just appearing on the scene, so when we went out to eat it was more likely to a local pizza place where we sat at a table and ate together.  Each of the people I spoke with had their own individual stories and memories, and, while I acknowledge that I was a kid and not fully aware of the cost of things, we all remember the experiences and remember that these kinds of entertainments, while sporadic, did happen.  Paid with cash.


I have mentioned many times in this blog that I believe that since 1980 the middle class has been under pressure, that our buying power has decreased, and that the cost of things considered staples of a middle class life has outstripped our ability to pay for them.  I did a bit of research today to see if I could find some facts to confirm (or deny) this belief.  If found an interesting chart with comments by the author, which is replicated below; here is the link to the entire article.


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http://www.mybudget360.com/cost-of-living-compare-1975-2015-inflation-price-changes-history/


cost of living chart
Source:  David Stockman
This is a very telling chart.  First, let us look at the biggest line item with housing.  A new home today costs $270,200.  That 1975 home adjusting for inflation would cost $209,417.  This is a “real” increase of 29 percent.  A new car costs $31,252 while that 1975 car adjusting for inflation would cost $16,578.  This is a true doubling of cost here.  Public college costs are up over 150% while private college costs are up over 160%.  And you wonder why we have over $1.3 trillion in student debt outstanding.


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What is interesting to me is that everyday items, coffee, milk, sugar, eggs, etc. haven't increased all that much, in some cases they are cheaper, relatively speaking.  But the big ticket items are astronomically more expensive, while wages, minimum as well as median income are lower. 


Some might argue that government intervention in the housing and education market has a hand in this increase.  Since car costs have doubled as well, one might conclude that it is simply a demand issue.  A huge increase in the number of middle class families during the post war decades, families who now believe, indeed, were told incessantly by politicians, social scientists and Madison Avenue marketing execs, that a house, a new car and a college education were the foundation of the American Dream, resulted in a surge in the demand for these items.  And, since the United States was one of the few nations in tact after WW2, we had the labor and resources to satisfy a rebuilding world while paying everyday workers a wage which enabled them to reach their goals of a new home, a new car, and a college education for their kids.  The circle was complete. 


In a previous post, I pointed out that the tax rate for the rich and for corporations was well over 50%.  Those making huge sums of money paid huge sums of taxes through the 1970's.  One might ask if it is a coincidence that the 1960's featured the creation of a widespread highway system which required new roads and bridges, plus the engineers to design them and the workers to build them.  And that our space program went from unsuccessful rocket launches in the late 1950's to a man on the moon in 1969.  Much of the money for these endeavors, and there were more, was provided by federal dollars, taxes in other words.  And everyone prospered.


But then in the 1980's tax rates were adjusted so that the rich and the corporations paid a far lower percentage.  And there is even still more pressure to lower rates for these "job creators".   Also, those poor oppressed billionaires can be seen complaining that they are under attack, class warfare it is called.  Never mind that income inequality has reached a point not seen since the 1920's (just before the great crash), or that through the Citizens United decision they can use their money to buy as many "public" servants as they wish.  Never mind that corporations can earn huge profits by selling their products to American citizens but avoid taxes by "locating" in a foreign country.  Never mind that there are millions of American workers who put in 40 hours a week yet make a salary below $12 an hour (that is $24K a year folks), and need to turn to state and federal assistance programs for health care.  In effect, the rules have been altered to benefit those with the most, while those with the least are labeled "takers". 


Individualism, capitalism, rags to riches stories.  Concepts that have been perverted to reward those at the top, while keeping out those below.  As one of those I spoke with recently said, how much is too much?  It seems, his words, that the rich of the past cared about those around them while the rich of today only care about themselves.  How much can I make, and more importantly, how much can I keep seems to be the new mantra.  Improving one's neighborhood through good medical care or jobs at the local factory or a good product or service for a good price at all the local businesses, seems to have been lost in the rush for wealth.  And, as I have said before, how one makes that fortune, does not matter, even when it is on the backs of others, or when it is via paying low wages, providing little or no benefits, or being able to skirt environmental laws. 


Is there no grading of big corporations in terms of what percentage of their employees make poverty wages?  What percentage require government assistance for basic needs?  What percentage need to return to work immediately after delivering a child because they lack sick time, vacation time, or paid paternity time?  What percentage live in communities more than 1000 miles away from the corporate headquarters? 


And then we have my foster care child.  She lives in Vietnam.  Those in her community are excited because a new school was recently built so the children are no longer worried about getting wet during the rainy season or having no lights when the electricity flickers off.  They are working hard to educate everyone about the hazards of open defecation and are building low cost toilets to provide alternatives.  Their plans to educate parents on better nutrition are reducing the instances of poor health and infant mortality. 


They, like billions of people on our planet are still trying to gain access to clean water, proper sanitation, basic health care and education.  Their daily cost of living includes the possibility of dying. 


There is a solution, of course, and it is not unlike that which we need to embrace in America.  It is not about how much money you are worth.  It is not about how many companies you run or own.  It is about how many lives you improve, and whether the world is better after you are gone.  And, even more importantly, it is about the simple fact that we are all in this together.  Imagine that heaven or hell is an all or nothing proposition.  That we all spend eternity in bliss or no one does.  That judgment day will be about mankind and how we as a species performed, how we treated each other and how we treated our planet. 


       


 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Immigration and the Statue of Liberty

It could be said that resentment against foreigners is part of an innate fear of the unknown.  Those who study spousal abuse find that the abused fear what may happen more than what is happening.  When we find ourselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods, we look twice at people we may not even notice if we were in our own environs.  New schools, new jobs, new relationships create stress in our lives.  We seek the familiar, and in that course we prefer our everyday encounters to be with people of similar color or race, religion or beliefs, political perspective, education level, economic status.  It is easier to relate to people like ourselves; conversely, it can create anxiety when we choose to or are forced into situations in which everything is new, and we are the stranger. 


(Quick note here, way to go Rachel, my daughter, who is in Australia for a semester abroad.  Not everyone is as brave or curious to commit to such a long visit away from home.  Perhaps it is a bit easier for young people, but it still requires a paradigm shift in thinking that is admirable, and a bit scary).


Choosing to travel, to live temporarily, or to move permanently to another place, whether for a job or an education, or a lover, is a difficult decision for most people.  Yet, it is still a choice that can be made or not made for most of us.  And, over time, those that move often or adopt travel and the desire to see the world as a hobby, their perception of the unknown evolves.  For them, and those who seem born without such a strong innate tendency, the fear of the unknown fades with each experience. 


In the era of forced desegregation, busing of children to other neighborhoods, the mingling of the races in public squares, there was considerable backlash.  Generations of indoctrination about the other race, institutionalized bigotry and fear, is not something that can be legislated away with the stroke of a pen.  Yet now, a mere 50 years later, our kids see other kids, not black kids or white kids.  Those that fall in love with someone of another race have a wedding, not an interracial wedding.  And, believe it or not, there will be a day when those that marry someone of the same gender will also call their union a wedding, not a gay wedding. 


Our constructs can and do change with experience.  We can desensitize ourselves to reacting with fear and mistrust, when we adopt a more inclusive viewpoint. 


It is not hard to find vicious attacks in the media of the time against the immigrants that came to America in the early 20th century.  Derogatory slang names abounded.  Areas of cities were "taken over" by those "people".  Signs in some business windows proclaimed that foreigners (not the word used) need not apply or that their business was not welcome.  The natives of the time who themselves were foreigners to the American Indian a few generations beforehand, were besides themselves with concern that the gene pool would be weakened by these non-English speaking groups.  Complaints that these new Americans would work for less, bred like rabbits, and brought customs and culture that might supplant "American" ideals, were rampant.  They were lazy, drank too much, and were mostly criminals. 


Of course, now, the customs and culture of the Italian, Irish, German, Polish, and other immigrants of that era are weaved intrinsically within our understanding of what makes America.  Eventually, our xenophobia was replaced with the realization that the vast majority of those people came to our shores in hopes of a better life.  We celebrate their contributions to our country and its ideals.


Currently, there is a presidential candidate who has adopted the prejudice that was demonstrated 100 years ago by those objecting to many of our ancestors.  He has demonized those that live south of our border in entirety, claiming that their only purpose in coming to America is crime and mayhem.  He has mined that innate fear of others for political gain, appealing to a base, irrational fear that chooses to be blind to the humanity of those who make the difficult decision to leave behind what is familiar and try a new path.  His ploy is not new, it is rife within the party he is trying to represent.  But he has taken it to a new level of malevolence.  His rhetoric belies the progress we made in eliminating the fear of those whose only goal is to seek freedom and opportunity.


The Statue of Liberty has a few lines from a poem written by Emma Lazarus called The New Colossus.  She wrote the poem, in part, to help raise money for the creation of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty where her lines now reside. 


The full poem is as follows


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Such an ideal!  You may say it runs contrary to common sense, "keep ancient lands your storied
pomp, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free".  Certainly a
different perspective than those offered by Ann Coulter in her recent book, and echoed by The
Donald.  I assume both would consider Lazarus's poem just so much liberal nonsense which is
ruining America.  "Wretched refuse of your teeming shore"?  Not on my watch, says Trump.

Immigration, illegal or otherwise is a complex issue.  Sound bites will not solve the problem.  One
country's immigrant is another's refugee, depending on which side of the border you are on.
Xenophobia should not be a policy or campaign platform.  Merging the ideals of the Statue of Liberty
with the practicality of a tide of people that stains the country's resources should be the basis of our
discussion.  If not, then perhaps we should melt down Lady Liberty (the Mother of Exiles) and stop p
pretending that we are the greatest country on earth.  

Can you imagine how we would handle a real immigration crisis like that which is occurring in
Europe?  Literally, millions of people are fleeing the war torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan, and
Iraq, flowing into Turkey, Greece and other border countries.  Talk about your "homeless, tempest-
tost"?   Those countries that are accepting these refugees must figure out how to shelter them in
extreme weather, provide water, food and sanitation, find host families within their country and the
rest of Europe, and then coordinate travel to those places.  

Those people, whose only crime was to be born in the wrong country in the wrong time are looking
for a place where 
"..our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning"

As a nation, do we prefer to epitomize the ideals behind The New Colossus, do we wish to make
concrete a "world-wide welcome" that Lady Liberty represents?  To say "I lift my lamp beside the
golden door" or are we content to be a nation hiding behind a closed gate with a machine gun? 


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Religious Freedoms

The recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, or more precisely, the recent Supreme Court decision which ruled that denying the opportunity to marry violated the Constitution of the United States, has prompted a backlash of Americans claiming that their religious freedom is being denied.  We witnessed this with the Hobby Lobby case whereby the Court granted religious freedom protection to the company, allowing its owners to be exempted from the requirement in the Affordable Care Act which provided for access to and payment for contraception.  As I have mentioned before, the Roberts Court has made some surprising decisions, some which inspired the ire of those advocating a liberal perspective, some the conservative viewpoint.  I would prefer that they stick to considerations that focus on individuals, and not have crossed the line of elevating a corporation to the status of an individual, but at least some of the decisions used logic outside the realm of religious bias.


A few days ago, the Court refused to hear the case of Kim Davis, a Kentucky court clerk who is refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples because it goes against her religious teachings.  Again, it seems that the Court understands that Ms Davis has every right to her opinion, can certainly choose not to marry someone of the same gender, but cannot, as it is her duty as county clerk, decide who can get married and who can't.  At this point, she is granting no licenses to anyone, straight or gay.  I am not sure how long she intends to refuse to do this function of her job, how long the citizens of her county will allow her to deny their right to marry, or how long other public servants of Kentucky, state reps, governor, etc, will allow her to decide which public functions she will execute and which she will not, but from what I have heard, as an elected public official, she cannot be fired.  Impeached, perhaps but that could take a while since the Kentucky legislature doesn't meet again until next year.  Recalled, maybe, except that would require a special election and certainly take months to organize. 


My hope is that someone will offer Ms Davis an accommodation.  (I don't believe she has asked for one, currently standing firm that it is her right to decide who can marry).  This accommodation could take the form of an alternate granting marriage licenses.  Obviously someone legally able to do so, but someone, perhaps court or governor appointed who can grant the licenses while she performs the other duties of her office.  I would like this accommodation to include the stipulation that she not run for office again, but if that sounds too draconian, perhaps the additional cost of this alternate clerk can be passed along to the tax payers of the county who can then decide if they wish to pay for her religious freedom, or elect someone else the next time.     


In one of the articles I read about Davis, a supporter claimed that they (meaning gay people) want Davis and those agreeing with her to understand and accept their beliefs, but don't accept the religious beliefs of those opposing gay marriage.  I guess if the situation were reversed, and gay people were pushing for laws that denied marriage equality to heterosexuals, this supported might have a point.  But the fact is, those opposing gay marriage aren't asking for the rest of us to respect their beliefs, they are asking us to not exercise our freedom to marry who we love because it offends them.  Oh, and because their god, the highest authority as Davis likes to say, is also against it.


Obviously, we can debate whether God will send all gay people and those who participate in their marriages to hell or not.  We can debate whether gay people are just as much God's creatures as heterosexual people because they are born that way.  We can even debate whether a person living in America, land of the free, has the right to any lifestyle choice that makes them happy, as long as that choice doesn't interfere with someone else's lifestyle choice.  What should not be debated however,  is that the religious beliefs of one group of people, even if that group of people represent the majority of the population, should dictate the opportunity for a minority of the population (in this case 2-4%) to fall in love and get married.  It is a freedom that we sing about when we praise the benefits of life in America, a freedom that we send our young people to war to fight and die for, a freedom that should be sacrosanct in a land that is filled with radio and TV pundits who daily call our country the greatest history has ever seen.  Fortunately, at every legal level, Ms Davis has lost her case and has been ordered to issue licenses.   Not because she is being denied her religious freedom, but because her rights do not supercede the rights of others, especially since she is a representative of the government, not a deacon at her local church. 


I heard a lawyer on the radio comment on this case by citing her own personal situation.  She is against the death penalty, and so will not run for any type of office, or take on any type of case whereby she would have to recommend the death penalty as she knows she could not, in good conscience, make such a recommendation.  Yes, a lawyer with a conscience!!  (I apologize to those lawyers who might read this, as it is not fair to lump you all into the same category as ambulance chasers or hit men defenders or corporate lawyers who stretch out liability cases to the point where wronged individuals can't afford to continue the battle).  


Did Ms Davis know she might one day be tasked with granting a license to a gay couple?  Since she was just elected within the past year and it was no secret that the Supreme Court would soon rule on gay marriage, one might say yes.  Perhaps then she should not have run for county clerk.  I imagine that when she took office, and was sworn in, she was asked if she would perform all her duties, not all those duties that conform to her religious beliefs.  In the future, should all public servants be asked during the election cycle if they would serve all those who elect them or only those whose religious beliefs are similar?  Only support the laws of the Constitution that are in accordance with their religion?


It is common practice today to quote a founding father when one wants to make a point.  Perhaps surprising to some, that is quite easy to do because this amazing group of men advocated viewpoints that ranged all over the political spectrum.  For instance, it is easy to find great quotes from the founders to back either a belief in a strong federal government or more broad based states rights as this was a hotly debated topic amongst them.  As for religion, while most were from a Christian background, they have routinely been referred to as Deists, meaning they believed that the universe had a creator.  I like to think of them as more spiritual than religious, because we must remember that these were the elite of the time, businessmen, land owners, educated and/or well read.  Their cause was as much economic as political, but for good measure they realized that it was important to have an amendment to the Constitution, the Establishment Clause, that prevented the government from both establishing a state religion (like they had in England at the time) and, just as importantly, favoring one religion over an another.   It appears that Davis and her supporters would prefer that their religion be granted such favorite status.


When I encounter someone of that thinking, I like to ask them if, by showing preferential treatment, one religion over another, wouldn't that be the same as denying someone their freedom of religion?  The beauty of government neutrality is that Americans can pursue their faith without fear of being arrested.  (Of course, I have heard some say that we shouldn't allow Muslims their religion because it is anti-American or a bastion for terrorists so clearly those people do not believe in the Constitution or Bill of Rights).   I also like to ask them if they would allow a town in America with a majority of people who practice Buddhism the right to "vote" for a referendum or pass a law that prohibits all other houses of worship.  Most of course, say no, this is America, yet some would still deny Muslims their religion when presented with these two scenarios.  Religious belief can sometimes be a very blinding force to what is right.


The right to practice your religion is an important part of our democracy, our rights and our freedoms.  But with great rights, come great responsibilities.  That is why our system of government and our way of life can be so difficult and why our politics so rancorous.  It isn't easy.  But its rewards are awesome.


Let's hope that Kim Davis and those that will follow her by challenging the legality of gay marriage, are able to someday distinguish between a nation of laws, the nature of religion, and the importance of a separation between the two so that all Americans are granted the opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.