Monday, April 30, 2012

Trayvon and George

I read an article in this past Sunday's Inquirer concerning the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent arrest of George Zimmerman.  This particular column was a direct poke at those "reverse racists" of our age, and those who are anti-gun ownership, and anti laws such as the "Stand Your Ground Law" that exists in Florida.

In the column, the writer cites various bits of information that might lead one to conclude that Mr. Zimmerman acted in self defense and should not have been arrested.  Of course, like all bits of information, it is common for someone wishing to make his/her point to only choose to emphasize that info that agrees with their position, or interpret the info available in a biased way.  So, in the case of the author's claim that Mr. Zimmerman had head wounds as a result of his confrontation with Mr. Martin, the author assumes that Mr. Zimmerman HAD to defend himself as he was losing the fight.  The possibility that Mr. Martin may have attacked Mr. Zimmerman because he was afraid for his safety, or that Mr. Zimmerman may have started the fight specifically because he knew he was armed and was then more likely to be the victor, or simply that Mr. Zimmerman may have inflicted just as many wounds on Mr. Martin before shooting him, all evade the author.  What is really sad is that the author is a former state and federal prosecutor who seems to have unilaterally declared Mr. Zimmerman innocent before all the facts have been disclosed.  The very thing that upsets him the most, that Mr. Zimmerman has been painted as a hater, guilty of murder by those who see the facts in the light of their biases, drives the author to conclude the exact opposite.  His behavior mirrors those whom he disparages for their knee jerk reaction. 

Sadly, while both sides choose to defame the other, no one wants to discuss the very real problem of our national belief that might makes right.  In our personal relationships, we assume that "victims" will always use their guns responsibly.  In our international relationships, we assume that our killing is justified even when those that are dying are innocent of the crimes of their government. 

When killing the bad guy is our yardstick, then we first must paint the newly dead as "bad".  Trayvon Martin must have been guilty of something or he wouldn't have been killed in self defense.  The fact that, perhaps, neither person involved in this tragedy was "bad", seems beside the point.  We need to paint someone as the bad guy so we can justify our love affair with violence as the solution to our problems.

Since the Inquirer, when they publish letters, do so only when the letter is short, I condensed my thoughts into the following response.

To the Editor:

I would like to add a few more questions for George Parry to consider after reading his latest column. What prompted Mr. Zimmerman to consider Mr. Martin a suspicious character worthy of following? Did Mr. Martin act in self defense (his side of the stand your ground mentality) in response to being followed by Mr. Zimmerman? Did Mr. Martin know Mr. Zimmerman was armed? Did Mr. Zimmerman's injuries come as a result of his aggression towards Mr. Martin?

Mr. Parry is correct in suggesting that much evidence remains to be disclosed. Only two people really know what happened that night, but unfortunately, one side of the conversation will never be heard. The arrest of Mr. Zimmerman seems to be the logical result of a tragic death with so many unanswered questions. As a former state and federal prosecutor one would expect Mr. Parry to see the difference between "racist hysteria" and a desire for justice and truth in regard to this awful situation. The truly sad aspect of this story is that it appears that two law abiding citizens were placed in a difficult situation because of Florida's Stand Your Ground Law which encourages its citizens to use violence first, logic, restraint, and compassion second.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Debate

In honor of the progress that has been made in the past 50 years, and as a reminder to those that have used religion to suppress the rights of minorities of all races, creeds and preferences, I re-submit a story I wrote a few years back which described the struggle surrounding another, perhaps future debate regarding rights, in this case marriage rights.

                                                                    The Debate

The debate had raged in the streets and in the Senate for the past 6 months. Parties on both sides of the issue had dusted off their tried and true arguments while painting the position of the other side in an unflattering a picture as possible.

While the specific point of the law was new, the nature of its meaning was as old as humankind itself. Those in favor cited progress, the evolving nature of society, compassion for everyone and the obvious as well as hidden discrimination that the law would eliminate. Those against the pending law cited tradition, values and the very real possibility of the end of the human race.

On Intervision, from the driest of business shows right on down to the trashiest talk shows, representatives from both sides of the issue could be seen on a daily basis, sometimes cajoling, sometimes imploring the viewing public that the bill must or must not be defeated. Every institution had weighed in, every level of political agenda was heard from, every citizen-based organization was involved. Finally, after 6 months of posturing and propaganda it was decided that today’s session in the Senate, in the presence of the world ruling counsel and with what was expected to be the most watched Intervision broadcast on record, a decision would be rendered.

At 10:00 the Senate was called to order.

The pending law was read aloud, simultaneously translated into all the languages of all the world’s peoples. Immediately, both sides as represented in the Senate scrambled to position their speakers in a beneficial sequence, as the tradition of alternating presentations would be followed. This pattern of speeches, one for, one against the new law, continued for 4 hours as was the custom. As the end of the 4 hours neared, tension in the room began to climb as did worldwide viewership of the preceding.

At exactly 2:00, the last speaker was cut off, her final words inaudible to both those in attendance and those on Intervision. All eyes turned to the seven members of the ruling counsel.

Surprisingly, counsel member #3 stood up. He was a very old Senator; in fact, his exact age was not completely known. He was not known for his speaking abilities; in fact, no one present could remember the last time he spoke publicly. But it was known that his influence was great and that his opinions, invariably made known behind closed doors, often ruled the day. The air was still, all eyes were upon him as his voice, quiet yet clear and strong, spoke these words.

“My fellow humans. Today we make a decision that will change the very course of human destiny. It is not a decision to take lightly but not unlike similar decisions made years ago by our predecessors. I know of what I am speaking because I was present for some of those momentous choices.”

Counsel member #3 paused. He looked at each of the other six ruling counselors, then gazed out at those in attendance, and finally his eyes locked on the nearest of the Intervision transmitters.

“Just as it was decided a dozen generations ago that marriage between the races of our world should be recognized, just as it was decided 2 generations ago that marriage within genders should be supported, now it should be our decision to pass this law legalizing marriage between sentient species.”

And so, in the year 2060, the people of earth and the beings of Vega officially became the first in the universe to legalize marriage between their inhabitants.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How great is the United States?

As an American citizen, I feel very fortunate to have been born in this country.  In virtually all the conversations I have with friends and family, this same sentiment is expressed.  On most talk shows, regardless of political persuasion, we count America as a great country.  In fact, one might even say that some of our most deepest disagreements revolve around how to continue our greatness.  Patriotism does not seem to be an issue in our country today, even when waving the flag is done in an attempt to prove one's politics or perspective is more patriotic than another's.

If we all love our country then, what exactly do we love about it? 

First and foremost, freedom.  Certainly our form of government allows for freedoms that are non-existent for those living in the various authoritarian and dictator lead countries in the world.  We can express our contempt for our government without fear of "disappearing" in the middle of the night.  We can demonstrate openly to have our grievances addressed.  We can choose to worship, or not worship, within the framework of any religion of our choosing.  We can even burn the very symbol of our country, the flag, if our passion against a particular injustice compels us to do so.

We are also proud of America and its accomplishments, both within our borders and as a global neighbor.  We believe, despite some occasional setbacks, that we represent good in the world.  We remind the world of the pivotal part we played in defeating evil during World War II, and our struggles since to bring our treasured form of government to the oppressed throughout the world.

One might even say that some of our problems are the result of our greatness.  Jealousy on the part of some can lead to a blind hatred resulting in terrorism, unprovoked attacks, and even the killing of Americas who are trying to help those who do the killing.  Desperate families seek freedom so deeply that they cross our borders illegally so they can give their children a life not possible in their home country. 

While it may not be our national slogan, it could be said that we have a storied history based on the presumption that anything is possible in America, both individually and collectively.

But greatness is a difficult trait to maintain for long periods of time.  And, despite my pride in my country, I wonder if we will be the first generation to fall short of that description.

It is always easier to rally the citizens to a common goal when the perceived threat is external.  World War II and most recently, the horrible events of 9/11 prove this point.  But how do we come to a solution for a problem that is internal.  When the problem is you and me?

The current debate over the health care reform legislation seems very curious to me from this perspective.  Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe that most Americans believe that all of us should have access to health care, regardless of our ability to pay.  We know in our hearts that truly debilitating diseases, unforeseen disabling accidents, birth defects, and the difficulties of old age can bring any one of us to our knees, medically and financially.  We know that if we are serious about our perception that we do what is right, we cannot continue to have a system that allows our sick to become bankrupt at best, or to die through lack of means at worst.

Yet, our current debate is more about money than doing what is right.  We have concluded that we cannot allow the government to go bankrupt by providing health care so we must divert the burden to the citizens who are unfortunate enough to be struck with a serious health issue.  We have decided that rather than all of us take a hand in paying the price for an aging population and an inefficient health care system, we will let the chronically sick face their problems alone, and hope that our own family is spared their fate. Strangely, of course, we also know that if a huge number of Americans continue to go bankrupt, their unpaid medical bills will push providers, insurance companies, and eventually the government to the same fate.

Perhaps then, solving our health care crisis is our chance to prove we are as great as we imagine.  We should not be debating who will go bankrupt, the government or the citizens, but rather how we can pay for the health care that we all know we will require sometime in our lives or loved ones' lives.  We need this to be the challenge that marks our generation as great just as the victory in WWII marks that generation.  

The good news is that we are not threatened by some outside force, nation or idea.  In this case, we have met the enemy, and he is us.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Why are we so polarized?

Two items.

A TV ad for a Republican candidate, for Senate, I believe.  He claims to be pro-family and pro-life.  No comment on these as they say nothing.  Who is anti-family and anti-life?  His last comment was that if elected he would never vote to raise the debt limit.  Really?  So this gentleman, if elected, will vote for no budget regardless of who submits it as there is NO WAY we can have a balanced budget in the near future.  Even Rep Ryan's recent budget proposal has a projected deficit of $800 billion dollars for fiscal 2013.   The problem is that some voters will see this ad and say YEAH, I am voting for this guy.  Doesn't matter that his statement has no basis in reality.  We get the government we deserve??  Should we not demand political campaigns that actually discuss the issues.  In this case, what exactly will this Senator vote to cut?  Social security benefits?  Defense spending?   A quick glance at the details of our federal spending shows that we could cut ALL discretionary spending, and still not have a balanced budget.  Or we could spend ZERO money on defense, and still not have a balanced budget.

The reality is, we will continue to have deficit spending in this country until we face the hard truth that we need to devise a plan that cuts spending, increases revenue, and confronts the very real issues which are the result of an aging population.  We need cooperation, not confrontation. Less meaningless pledges and rhetoric, and more adult discussion and problem solving.  

Second item was a story about recent polls of New Jersey voters which reveal a small majority of support for Gov Christie so far.  They also support President Obama by a similar, small majority.  A GOP Governor and a Democratic president, both with positive reactions.  It suggests that fiscal conservatism resonates in even "blue" states, but that, perhaps, social conservatism, does not play as well.  So, if this is a reflection of more than just New Jersey, then why are there no candidates running with just such a platform?  (See my answer below)

A companion piece on Gov Christie suggested that he would be the Republican nominee for president in 2016.  (I assume that statement assumes an Obama victory in November).  Does that mean that an Obama victory will be the reality check that the Republican party needs to escape from its domination by its far right wing?  One could say that the nomination of Mitt Romney is the first step in that direction.  If Rick Santorum can't even win his own party's nomination, then clearly he could not have won in November.  So, the extreme "right" members of the party, the minority, have not "won".

And, despite what some Republican pundits might tell you, President Obama has governed much closer to the middle than his far left supporters were expecting.  So again, the extreme members of his party, the minority, did not get the administration they wanted, did not "win".

Many of my discussions about politics include the sentiment that while we are free to vote, we have limited choices of whom to vote for.  Choices driven by the two political parties, both of which are driven by a desire to win elections, not necessarily govern for the betterment of America.  Yet, my above observation suggests that neither party's "base" has the upper hand, and that a more moderate version of the man who won the 2008 election and a moderate republican nominee will be competing for the presidency in November.  Are they then, the candidates we deserve because they reflect the precise dichotomy of perspective that exists in America today? 

Will the winner in November then, be the candidate who strikes the best balance between the competing extremes of the electorate.  The candidate who is able to win the votes of the middle 20% of voters who reflect the attitude that neither party has all the answers, that neither party is 100% wrong or 100% right.  The candidate who might actually be the best choice, at this time, for the United States?  The candidate that neither the extreme left or right, which is afterall, the source of all the polarization, supports whole heartedly.  Perhaps then we do have two candidates whose core beliefs reflect a "consrvative" approach to our fiscal problems mixed with a "liberal" perspective on our social issues.  Middle left and middle right, the exact place where the battle of paradigms and philosophies should take place.

Always the optimist!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Friend or foe?

I have often commented that is seems that some politicians, especially republicans at the moment since there is a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, consider the United States government as an obstacle to freedom.  I have often heard many Americans speak of our government in less than friendly terms, again, especially when their political perspective differs from those representing us.  Many have actually said that the government should not be considered a friend of the people.   Clearly, Uncle Sam is not universally looked upon as a benevolent relative.

Is this a recent phenomenon or have Americans always been wary of their government? 

I have read enough of our early history to know that our founders did not trust the institution of government.  The fact that they openly rebelled against the English crown is certain proof.  And the checks and balances that they embedded in the Constitution further illustrates their distrust.  No branch should be entrusted with too much power.  Further, one might say the founders didn't trust the people all that much either.  I believe many of them would be horrified at the prevalence of popular referendums to create laws.  The fact that the constitution specifies that the electoral college, not popular vote, decide presidential elections confirms this view and explains why we have had three presidents, most recently Geroge W. Bush, elected president without winning the popular vote.  

We seem to grant our government the authority to govern while keeping an eye open for indications that those in power are not serving the public, or worse, have become corrupt.  From that respect, I give full support for those who maintain that watchful eye, even when they are watching (and criticizing) a government that I support.

But is the government a friend when your party is in control and a foe when controlled by those you did not support?  Is that the definition we can conclude from the partisanship that embroils us today? 

How then can we divorce our personal likes and dislikes about the direction and policies of our government to objectively judge a particular administration or congress?

And, even more importantly, how do we marry our instinctual distrust for the government (or any authority figure) with the real need for laws and policies and programs that advance, improve and empower our nation?
If our form of government is based on those first three words of the Declaration of Independence, We the People, then is a distrust of government really a distrust of ourselves?

Ultimately, I believe we must consider our government our friend.  And like our friends, we should criticize, constructively, when we feel it has gone astray.  Through communications to our elected officials, public and private debates, and our precious right to vote, we tell our government we trust them, and are watching them as well. 

Like our friends in need, we support our government through the tough decisions when the right or wrong choice is not obvious or is not universally accepted.  As we treat our firiends, we take our government's side when problems are revealed by those outside our circle, but work to correct those very same problems knowing that it is more important to get it right.

To me the, we MUST consider our government our friend because the only alternative is to treat it like the enemy. 

This does not mean unconditional trust.  But is does mean support even when your perspective is not shared completely by those we elected.  Certainly, criticize and seek to change what you consider wrong.  But find common ground as well, solutions that are shared rather than focusing on whose fault it is or how that side is wrong and your side is right.  Remember, our current government was chosen in the elections of 2008 and 2010, and does reflect the majority will.  Until the next election.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Hunger Games

I saw the movie "Hunger Games" this past weekend. I have not read the books, so I don't know how true the movie is to the first book, but it was certainly an entertaining flick. Without getting too in-depth, the story is about a futuristic society that is "at peace", due to the ruthless governing from the Capitol which includes a yearly ritual in which one male, one female, from each of the 12 districts is chosen at random to compete to the death for all but one participant. As the truly creepy and malevolent President as played by Donald Sutherland says, they control the citizens by fear and hope. Fear of the military forces of the rulers, and hope that through the "games" someone each year can be victorious and gain all the riches and material comforts one can imagine.

Of course, there are parallels to today's world. The fact is, we also send our young into battle, to die, or worse, to return scarred for life. Yes, they volunteer now, but I doubt that when our children are signing those papers that commit them to military service, they are cognizant of the possible death or debilitating injury that may befall them. The young are invincible, and so we take advantage of that by promising "adventure" and skills for future employment. At least in this fictitious world, the one winner is showered with material pleasures although it is clear that the winner portrayed by Woody Harrelson is far from happy with his winnings. Still, so many of our soldiers come home to an unemployment rate double the rest of society, broken families and foreclosed homes, in addition to the mental anguish that war can create.

I was also struck by the name given to the selected individuals - tributes. Isn't that what we do when we want to demonize or make less than human our enemies? We call them japs or nazis, fanatics or zealots, godless or barbarians. Of course, they have names for us as well, very similar names, and so we continue the cycle of hate and war, and continue to educate our children to hate and kill as we were taught. In this case, tribute is used to emphasize the sacrificial side of the games, the fact that each district demonstrates their sorrow for past uprisings against the government by "voluntarily" choosing to send these children, these tributes.

As I watched the movie, it became obvious that the peace described as permeating the society was not peace at all, but a lack of war, the difference being that the people themselves were not at peace, were not happy with their lives, were not thriving as a people would be if they were truly free from the horrors of war. They were just unable to fight against the forces that enslaved them. In this sense, one might say that the movie was also a warning to those among us who think that man can create a world without conflict. That any utopia created by man may not be all that grand.

In any event, regardless of whether you have read the books, go see the Hunger Games for yourself.

Speaking of games, this past week there was an interesting trio of votes taken in the House of Representatives concerning the federal budget.

The first vote approved a GOP sponsored budget, 228-191. As there are currently 242 Republican house members, I assume that some voted against their own party's budget, perhaps some tea party members. I say this because the budget, while reducing the annual deficit from 2012 levels, still projects an $800 billion deficit for 2013, which will require another vote to raise the national debt. I think there are many in the tea party who want a balanced budget so will vote against anything not balanced. Our "local" reps, those from Pennsylvania and New Jersey voted along party lines.

The second vote rejected a Democratic budget, 163-262. This time it appears that some Democrats opposed their own budget. Perhaps because the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires would be allowed to expire. (Tough to vote to raise taxes, even for those most well-off, in an election year). Again, all local reps voted along party lines.

Finally, there was a thrid vote. This vote failed miserably, 38-382. It was bipartisan in that this budget used a mix of tax increases and spending cuts which would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years. It was patterned after the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. In this case, of the 38 yes votes, 6 came from local reps, 4 Dems, 2 GOP. My hat off to those brave individuals. So interesting, and so sad, that the one plan that required everyone to do their part, was so easily defeated. Are we that selfish that we can't see that only by finding common ground, by working together, can we solve our financial problems?

I don't necessarily blame the reps in this case. Their votes reflect both the national split on the solutions to our financial predicament, and the lack of respect for other's perspectives that one issue special interest groups help exacerbate. My way or the highway is a nice line in a movie but not a way to operate in a democracy.

So, the games surrounding our deficit and debt continued. And will continue as there is no chance that the Democratic controlled Senate will support the House GOP budget. It will probably never even get a vote.