Friday, December 11, 2015

God On Our Side

A burst of interest from Russia this past week.  Hard to tell which post has generated the increase but I have seen an overall jump in hits on my 2011 post called Assisted Suicide which I wrote to mark the passing of Jack Kevorkian.

I recently began borrowing CDs from our local library.  Among last week's bunch was Bob Dylan's 1964 effort called The Times They Are A-Changing.  Of course, the song of that same name is very interesting, a symbol of the intensity of the 1960's in terms of social change.  But the song that struck me the most is titled With God On Our Side.  I had never heard it before, but strongly believe it is worth, not only discussing in light of today's issues, but also worth replicating the lyrics.  See below.

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
l’s made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side

I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side

Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

PA Budget

No chance to post last few weeks.  Sorry.  Working extra shifts and family obligations.

Just wanted to make a quick comment on the continued gridlock in Harrisburg concerning the next yearly budget.  Apparently a framework for agreement had been established and agreed upon by the principle negotiators, but was rejected by a small but vocal coalition of GOP reps.  They do not seem to believe that any compromise is needed.  As I recently said to a friend of mine, it is admirable that many in the GOP feel strongly about their principles.  There are times when I wish for such tenacity in the actions of the Democrats. 

However, when the electorate chooses a new governor, historically rejecting the reelection of a sitting governor as was done in the last gubernatorial election, then it may be incumbent for those elected in the House and Senate to understand that the public wants a new approach, and that the same old tired policies are not acceptable.  Certainly, no one expected that newly elected Tom Wolf would get everything he wanted in the new budget talks, but it seems that some members of the GOP have decided that he should get nothing, as if his election did not matter.

So, 5 plus months into the new financial year, funding for our schools, and public institutions which provide needed goods and services for the disadvantaged is still on hold.  Whether a new budget accord can be reached by Christmas seems doubtful which means that while our public servants in Harrisburg spend the holidays with their family and friends, enjoying all the benefits that their job and their citizenship as Pennsylvanians provides, thousands of our fellow state citizens will struggle through the holidays without the services and benefits that they need to survive. 

I would suggest that we deny our governor, state representatives and state senators an enjoyable holiday season by withholding their paychecks, or closing their homes due to the budget impasse, but that would just make me like them, public servants who have forgotten their duty to make the best, sometimes tough choices for all of us, but who prefer to swim in a pool poisoned with ideological blinders.  And spiteful to boot.

What is truly galling in all this, is that while, as I have said before, the window of opportunity to gain some much needed revenue from the natural gas industry is rapidly closing, we still could have provided a base tax, which, should the industry gain traction again when the current oil glut recedes, it has been clearly indicated by the GOP in our state that no additional tax shall be enacted.  Better we continue to rank in the bottom fifth of all states in terms of our contribution to public education, and that our infrastructure continue to fall apart.  

I am not sure when the GOP joined in lock step with the business community to decide that taxes should only be paid by individuals, but it seems clear that our democratic system of decisions made for the benefit of all citizens has been hijacked by those with the most money.  Capitalism, for all its benefits, is no better than any other economic system, if all the benefits flow to a small percentage of the population.  As a nation we seem captive to the influences of big money flowing from big business, and particularly in Pennsylvania, we are hostage to the belief that anything that helps the business community helps the state.  It doesn't seem to matter if by giving the business community a pass on their responsibility to share in the cost of life, we burden everyday working people with additional taxes, it only seems to matter if they provide jobs not withstanding if in providing those jobs they pollute our environment or pay such low wages that the citizens need additional local, state and federal assistance to survive thereby increasing the need for more revenue which results in higher taxes for the working class again. 

Like a noose around our neck, this cycle is strangling the middle class while our reps in Harrisburg argue over how much more they should tighten the rope.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Attack on Paris

While all the details are still not in, it seems clear that the recent bloodshed in Paris was the work of individuals either directly affiliated with or supportive of the terrorist group known as ISIS.  Yes, terrorist group, as I don't have a problem labeling them as such.  To me, using fear and actively killing civilians to make a point, political or otherwise, classifies a group as terroristic.  However, I agree with those who avoid using the label radical Muslims, not necessarily because it is untrue as many of the young men involved in these type of murderous attacks have been radicalized by some claiming to teach Islam, but because there are too many people who take the next step in believing that all Muslims are haters of the West and that the entire religion is itself a call to war against our way of life. 

This type of thinking is apparent in the many books written by various icons of the conservative world, and even present in the rhetoric of some of the GOP presidential candidates on the perceived absurdity (in their small minds) of electing a Muslim to office or allowing any Syrian refugees to immigrate to our shores, both of which have been broadcast incessantly on Fox News.

This being said, I will repeat the necessary message that all Americans should remember, in that terrorism inspired by religion can be traced to all creeds, and that terrorism itself is a matter of perspective.  I am sure the colonists of the War for Independence were labeled as such by the establishment of England, just as those who drop bombs on villages in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan may be labeled similarly by those living in those villages.  However, I will also say that there appears a difference between my ability to say the above, ideas that some of my fellow Americans may vigorously disagree with, and the lack of admonitions emanating from the vast majority in the Muslim community.  Perhaps it is a testament to the degree of freedom that we still enjoy in these great United States, perhaps an indication that the Muslim majority who would prefer to condemn this atrocious behavior lack the will or fear the repercussions of such statements, or perhaps, like the majority of moderate Republicans who know that men like Trump and Carson would make horrible presidents, those who stay silent do so because they somehow believe they can use this group to attain a goal or make a point that they believe essential, similar to those in the GOP who have used the tea party movement to increase their majorities in Congress and various state houses.

In some ways, allowing an ideology to prosper, even if by silence or lack of calling it what it is, makes everyone a party to its horrors.  For that reason, I call on those who represent Islam as a religion of peace to stand up to those abusing your faith.  American intervention in the Middle East through our addiction to oil, and our misplaced belief that our way of life is the only way, has certainly been a factor that has led to groups such as ISIS.  But standing idly by while that kind of violence is justified as a response to our indiscretions will not solve the problems of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, nor convince the West that the people of that region can solve its own problems and improve the livelihoods of the vas majority of people who live there. 

Which brings us to our response to these horrific acts.  Of course, it is easy to seek revenge for such instances of violence.  Perhaps even human nature.  But will revenge killing lead to peace or more revenge killing?  Is it our desire to bring peace to the world, or just to kill those who are responsible for the attacks in Paris, and who threaten more attacks?

I know it is easy to say we need to seek a path of forgiveness and love when I am sitting safe and sound in my upstairs bedroom while listening to Supertramp, Crime of the Century on my computer.   Would I think the same if my daughter had been studying abroad in France and been killed while eating dinner at a cafĂ©?  Would I think the same if the attack had occurred in my hometown, or the nearest large city, Philadelphia?  I would like to think so, but. unless faced with the situation, we never know our reaction to insane acts.  But, if not, then are we to blame those who live in places where their lives seem hopeless, where those in authority teach them that only through violence can they gain hope, and where their enemies bomb and kill their family and friends because they are called terrorists by the leaders of the West?

There is certainly a simple reaction to the killing of innocent people.  More killing.  Of course, we cache our killing in the belief that we are killing only the guilty, conveniently ignorant to the fact that there is no way to guarantee only the guilty will die when drones drop their bombs.  Collateral damage it is called in the war rooms where such decisions are made.  A dead wife or child is what is it called on the ground.

Those who plant the seeds of terror in the minds of the young men who join groups like ISIS are the real enemies of humanity.  It is those men who we need to root our and expose to the light, for once their true motives are revealed, power and money usually, all their grand ideas of God and justice wither and die.  But let's also keep a sharp eye out for those among us with similar goals.  Those who use prejudice and hate to further their careers, pad their bank accounts, gain favor with the uneducated or easily swayed. 

At the end of the day, the end of our lives, we will come face to face with the truth about whether we encouraged violence or understanding, joined the mob seeking revenge or said nothing while the mob did its dirty deeds.

Perhaps I am wrong, in that we do need a surgeon leading the way.  A surgeon able to save the body of man through the precise targeting of those who promote violence as a way to resolve our differences, regardless of creed or nationality, as opposed to the crude brutality of killing anyone with a different race, religion or perspective.  A surgeon who reinforces words of love and God with actions of a similar nature.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A White Man's Game

I am someone who interprets the history of America from 1940 until 1970 as a time when everyday Americans beheld a bigger picture and, as a whole, lived their lives for the betterment of their country and their families.  That greatest generation, as it has been labeled, sacrificed, not only young lives during World War II, but the comforts of life in the form of rationing of gas, meat and sugar (among other items), and, even more importantly, participated in vast numbers in the drive to recycle metals to build the necessary war vehicles needed to win that war.  It was a national effort.  This is not to say that some Americans took advantage of others' willingness to give, nor does it excuse the leftover racism that resulted in the continuance of Jim Crowe laws, and the scientific experimentation that was inflicted on men of color. 

My point is that, the country rallied around the common goal of defeating Nazi Germany, and willingly paid a personal as well as a national price to see that job through to its end. 

(Perhaps that is why we still have such a fuss made about whatever enemies there still are in the world, even though those enemies, Ebola, ISIS, etc, are not in the same league as the Third Reich.  The belief that only through a common fear can we unite.)

I am also someone, although of the minority in this category, who believes that a next greatest generation will occur, sometime soon.  This generation to come will take on the issues of today, but will solve those issues, not by looking back in time for solutions that are rooted in hatred and fear, but will embrace the changing dynamics of America.  It will be a generation that removes the remaining obstacles for those not born with pale skin and male genitalia.  It will be a generation that realizes that it was the diversity of the United States, fueled by the immigration of hundreds of thousands of men and women during the early 20th century, that set the table for the great achievements of the years 1940-1970, and it will be this generation that understands the power of today's immigrants to provide new blood, new ideas and a new version of the American melting pot.

But, in the meantime, it is incumbent upon me to touch on the white man, at least from the perspective of American history.  Since the discovery of the new world, a statement in itself that pretends that Native Americans did not exist before our arrival, the tale of land acquisition is sordid at best, criminal at worst.  Clearly, the Europeans of the 16th and 17th century discounted the rights of those already living in the Americas, more often than not with (in their minds) the blessing of their God.  By slaughtering the native populations either actively through battle or inactively through disease and relocation, the European settlers "civilized" the North American continent. 

Once the country took its great leap at Independence, and its economy and industry began to develop, men of color were imported to provide the labor.  Fortunes were made, Americans prospered, and the idea that this country was better than the Old World began to take shape.  When the light of the idealism of our democracy mingled with the belief that our new governmental system came from on high was focused on the evils of slavery, a great Civil War ensued.  Despite the Union victory however, the South still held on to its notions of black and white, and it took another 100 years before new laws were created that reminded us of the power of that first declaration, that all men are created equal. 

Now, despite the more equal footing that women and minorities have been granted, our economy and government representation continue to be dominated by the white male, who, not only still occupies the bulk of CEO positions and state senate seats, but has managed to create some backlash laws that protect him against discrimination, as if the white male doesn't already hold all the cards. 

What is truly sad about such behavior, is that the freedoms of which we brag, the great democratic experiment which was forged in war that we hold on high, is not a process that we readily acknowledge others to follow.  Consider that when the urban riots occurred in the 1970's, much was made of the horrible violence yet is that not the way our forefathers reacted to the restrictive laws and mores of 18th century England? 

Or, when judges rule in favor of affirmative action or gay marriage, it is with a sneer that some white males discuss these "activist judges".  How dare they rule to provide equal protection under the Constitution for people different from me?

Paradoxically, many white males, so entrenched in their belief that they are made in God's image, no other race or gender, are enamored with the all that makes America great yet believe it to be so simply because of the contribution of those who share their race and gender.  As if "all men are created equal" assumes the word white in that phrase.  And so, when statistics of higher incarceration rates for black males are discussed, it is without the idea that those same crimes are being committed by white males, but that justice in those cases is not meted out in the same way.  (There is certainly an economic factor here as well, but the phrase white trash usually provides the way out).

Sadly, and this is sad, while America is still a great country, those who claim it to be the greatest now, or greatest ever, do so without the statistics to back them.  Mortality rates among children, death by violence, obesity rates, longevity, life satisfaction, education level; there are many ways to gauge "the greatest country" and America frequently falls short in those categories.  Yet the white male sings on about its greatness, I think, because they believe that America, by and large, was created by the white male and any acknowledgement that there might be cracks in our foundation must be ignored for those cracks indicate a flaw in the white males ability to create, and improve America, its greatest achievement. 

Is there hope for the white male?  Surely, once he realizes that being part of a great team (America) can be just as rewarding as being the leader of that team.  And, that by sharing the leadership and vision that will enable America to solve its problems, the white male can make an even greater contribution, because it will demonstrate that they place the betterment of their country and their families above the need to prove they are the superior race and gender.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Climate Change

When the news broke a few months ago, that one of my reading staples, National Geographic, had been purchased by Rupert Murdoch, an avid climate change denier, I was concerned that the integrity of the magazine may be harmed, and its message influenced.  A bit more research caused further anxiety as it seems that the impetus for the deal was an influx of cash to enable the magazine to continue its work, especially as carried out via its cable TV station.  At this point, it bears watching.  National Geographic, through its magazines and TV shows, is a wonderful outlet for information about the natural world, and man's influence on the environment and our planet.  Unfortunately, to provide those services it takes money.  Let's hope that, unlike our current political system, money does not corrupt the message or the players.

In the meantime, this month's edition, labeled Cool It, is an amazing presentation of the facts about climate change, some of the signs already present, a look at how nature (the animals and plants we share the Earth with) is being and may be affected, how we can eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels, and the incredible tools that are being developed and applied by scientists world wide to measure, map and define the changes as they occur.

As an eternal optimist, one who is hopeful not just for the future of humanity, but for the continued evolution of our spiritual selves, I found Cool It to be sobering, yet full of hope.  Clearly, our climate is changing.  Even the most ardent deniers generally accept this fact.  But even more clearly, change is occurring at a rate totally unlike what has occurred in the past.  And, based on the detailed work of the environmental scientific community in the past few decades, this accelerated rate appears to be linked to human actions, both active via the burning of fossil fuels, and as a byproduct of other actions such as the clear cutting of our forests for agriculture and manufacturing which releases methane gases.

One of the more alarming aspects of climate change, is it effect on water on our planet.  On one hand, as glaciers melt, water levels rise placing those who live in coastal areas at risk for loss of home and livelihood.  Depending on your definition of proximity to the sea, upwards of 40% of the world's population lives by a coast.  One recent study claims that about 10% (over 600 million people) live close enough to an ocean to be effected (meaning will have to move) by rising sea levels in the next few decades.  

Yet on the other hand, as temperatures rise, access to fresh water will decline.  Again, depending on your definition of access to potable water, currently upwards of 16% of the world's population does not have running water in their homes for drinking or sanitation.  That's close to a billion people folks!  Less access to fresh water, in addition to the obvious problems of dehydration and death, also increases the likelihood of disease, and the spread of infectious diseases (pandemics).

Water, and access to its benefits, already generates local and regional conflicts as those harnessing water upstream effects the access of those living downstream to those same benefits.  And, when there is no fresh water, through prolonged drought or manipulation, people have no choice but to leave their homes.  It is easy enough to see how mass migrations of people leads to all sorts of problems by watching news coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe.  Imagine if climate change caused a portion of Central America to be uninhabitable, and the United States was faced with millions of refugees looking for new homes?  Or if the shoe was on the other foot, and our southern states became so hot that a large portion of people needed to move to the northern states or to Canada?        

The good news?

There are many brilliant people with innovative and detailed plans for us to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels to provide our energy.  One man, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson, has developed a plan which could make America carbon free by 2050.  This plan, specific for each state, uses wind, solar, water and geothermal energy to replace that provided by coal, natural gas and nuclear.  Is it ambitious?  Certainly.  But it is no more ambitious than the plan developed and in process by Germany which already generates 27% of its energy from renewables (12% in America) and is about on pace to attain an 80% rate by 2050. 

Of course, there is a HUGE difference between the German effort and that in America.  In Germany, roughly 90% of the population supports the move away from fossil fuels, while in America upwards of 30% of the people don't even believe in climate change, not to mention that ZERO of the GOP candidates for president acknowledges the need to address climate change. 

For this reason alone, we need to continue the wonderful work of our scientists who, in conjunction with our government, has deployed many new satellites in space to monitor and help predict the effects of climate change on our water tables, crop yields, and potential drought susceptible areas.  By continue, I mean voting for people, generally liberals and progressives, who acknowledge this serious issue and will continue to provide money and resources to those who will keep the United States on the forefront of this research.  Perhaps, when Americans finally understand the gravity of the situation, we will have established the ground work which is providing information and solutions to those who are already listening.

In the meantime, perhaps the words of a woman living in a Pacific island chain that is among the many such locations that may be underwater within a generation or two may be appropriate to hear.  While the carbon emissions of her country is very low compared to that of the industrialized nations, she acknowledges that there is a role for her and those of her nation to play in decreasing their carbon footprint.  It is a role we can all take part in, by walking, biking or taking mass transit more often.  By purchasing vehicles with better miles per gallon rates or which do not use gasoline at all.  By investing in solar panels, and other ways of generating electricity for one's own use.  By holding accountable those companies who do not use resources responsibly by shopping elsewhere, or by changing one's investment strategy to not include fossil fuel companies, or to actively include those businesses and individuals who are developing the technologies we need to be more green. 

Each of us needs to acknowledge our role in the stewardship of our planet and its environment.  Once we open our eyes to this responsibility, once we create the individual and community will to confront the challenges of climate change, I truly believe that we can succeed. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

American Exceptionalism

The phrase "American Exceptionalism" has been a staple of those wishing to convey their patriotism for many decades, but became a rallying cry for certain conservatives who used it during the 2008 presidential election as a way to extend the belief that then candidate Barack Obama was not American born because he implied that America was not the greatest country by saying that everyone believes their own country to be the best. 

Interestingly, the concept of American exceptionalism seems to have first been noted by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville who used the word exceptional to describe America in his early 19th century work Democracy in America.  The phrase was subsequently linked with the concept of Manifest Destiny which justified America's expansion west of the Mississippi, sometimes through legal purchases such as the Louisiana Purchase, but more often by "claiming" the land from the American Natives who originally lived there. 

As I discovered on Wikipedia, an interesting note on its use occurred in the early 1920's as the world experienced Communist revolutions.  In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, described America's economic and social uniqueness.  He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country's "tremendous reserve power"; a strength and power which he said prevented Communist revolution.  In 1929, then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism", the first time that the specific term "American exceptionalism" was used.  The subsequent Great Depression after the collapse of Wall Street in 1929, seemed to underscore Stalin's argument that American capitalism did not preclude our susceptibility to the economic laws of Marxism.  One might wonder if the recent economic meltdown of 2008-10, was again a reminder that capitalism, despite its advantages, does have flaws and that is an exceptional economic system  only when applied for the advancement of the majority as opposed to the benefit of the 1%.

I have said more than once that capitalism is the worst economic system except for every other one.  (Not my original idea).  Like all man made concepts, it can be perverted to limit opportunity and distort the rules to advantage those already with the most, blocking out access to those with the least.  (This is the crux, in my opinion, of the problem, in that some people believe capitalism to be a divinely inspired economic theory that cannot be questioned, just like Manifest Destiny was used to justify all sorts of horrific crimes because it was the will of God that we "civilize" the West).

The simple fact that a significant percentage of the wealth in America is controlled by only 1% of the population, and that that percentage is growing, indicates that the current version of capitalism is not an indicator of our exceptionalism, but more an indicator of the strong taking advantage of the weak, a concept that Americans claim to loathe, yet which is used to justify our interminable activities on foreign lands where we take resources in the guise of business opportunities, and alter political regimes based on ideological differences.  To me, the biggest indicator of American exceptionalism gone awry is the obscene amount of money that we spend on our military every year, a number that by itself exceeds the GDP of most of the countries on earth.  This juxtaposition of good intentions and self perceived Christian values with the sheer volume of violence and terror that our military industrial complex represents, along with our obsession with guns and the theory that guns in the hands of good people will make the world right, is a huge warning signal that American exceptionalism has been hijacked and has wound its way down a road where no happy ending is possible.

Yet, and I am sure that by now you will be surprised at this statement, I believe in a version of American exceptionalism.  I believe that our understanding of real freedom, even for those who are different from us, has greatly advanced race relations, evidenced by the simple fact that white only water fountains existed in the 1950's while less than 60 years later a black man was elected president.
And that this understanding has resulted in the recent Supreme Court ruling that the application of the right to the pursuit of happiness intrinsically includes the right to marry whomever one loves.  Yes, it is true that there is some backlash to both advances, but that is expected, and, in fact, is the normal progression of all great societal and cultural shifts.

I believe that our scientific and technological communities also represent American exceptionalism in action.  Everyday, new medical research moves us closer to solving the secrets of how diseases begin, new technological advances bring information about the world into the palms of our hands, and new scientific research opens alternative methods to feed our growing population, and satisfy our energy needs while preserving the beauty and purity of Earth's natural resources. 

Unfortunately, it is our current political system that interferes with tagging America as a truly exceptional country.  It is this polarized system that actually interferes with certain medical and scientific breakthroughs and revelations, by injecting outmoded religious and social beliefs into the dialogues concerning the issues of the day.  We (and I mean the electorate) have allowed our two party system to run rampant across the land, altering voting maps to guarantee successful reelections, while placing too much emphasis on what is good for the party as opposed to what is good for America.  (Not to mention creating obstacles to our right to vote).  Additionally, by breaking the remaining bonds on the caps on political donations, we have set the table for one issue super pacs to fund one issue candidates who align themselves with a one issue minority of the populace to effectively place blinders on our perspective, and the laws we create to maintain our freedoms.

There are those who like to say that freedom is God given, not derived from government.  One can't argue that a belief in a superior being should include the idea that She would want freedom for her children.  But a quick glance through history, a quick glance at the trouble spots in the world today, and it is also easy to conclude that a strong government, based on laws that respect all its citizens regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual preference, is the best place to live. 

To be an exceptional country, we need an exceptional government, and for an exceptional government to work we need strong leaders.  I don't mean bullies whose only platform is that they will get the job done, or whose popularity is based on a lie about our current president, and an even bigger lie about people who live south of the border.  I don't mean a leader who claims favoritism from their god while generating hate for those who believe in a different version of god.  I don't mean leaders who use their myopic perspective to block the work of organizations who actually serve the poor as opposed to those with large bank accounts.

We need leaders who see that there is a looming crisis, and it cannot be defeated with guns or bombs.  A leader who understands that a species which gobbles up all the resources of its environment without regard to the damage it is doing is a species with a limited life expectancy, not to mention a species with a huge bill coming due.  A leader who has a strong personal faith which inspires them to create a better world for all people, not just for those who agree with their particular version of faith.  A leader who represents the everyday people who do all the living, working and dying, without fanfare, and whose work if removed, would collapse our economy, and our way of life.  A leader with the vision to lead even when leading means less popularity. 

But even more so, we need an electorate who places more importance on their vote than on their football pool or their knowledge of who won The Voice.  An electorate which demands the opportunity to vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation, and in all elections, primary as well as in November.  An electorate that gauges candidates on their actual voting record, not their rhetoric.  An electorate that holds those elected accountable, by removing those who do not improve the nation, or enacting term limits to help them rethink their candidates every 8 years.

American exceptionalism is only a phrase if we do not raise the bar of what it actually means today and stop pretending that past demonstrations of its meaning carry through forever.  It should be the ultimate what have you done for me lately.  And lately, our exceptionalism seems limited to a broken political system of gridlock, a democracy heading towards a plutocracy, a misplaced belief that Christianity means killing those with other faiths and denying freedoms for those with different perspectives, and the complete disregard for our hand in altering the climate of our planet.                       

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Strength of Diversity

I recently heard an interview with the head of the Peace Corps on NPR.  The focus of the discussion was the newly revamped application process.  As detailed by Hessler-Radelet, the new director, the application itself was found to be one of a number of obstacles to those seeking to volunteer for the Peace Corps.  By trimming it down from a process that could take many hours, along with offering the applicant an opportunity to select the country he/she wished to serve, applications to the Peace Corps had reached an all-time high last year.  Yes, for those of you who have determined that today's young adults are lazy, self-centered, etc, even more of them have applied to the Peace Corps than in the years after its formation, the 1960's, when idealism was purportedly at an all time high.

But that is not what struck me about the interview.  What inspired this post was Hessler-Radelet's statement that the process of selecting peace corps volunteers had also been tweaked to guarantee more diversity among the volunteers.  Traditionally, recruitment and selection had created an almost all-white corps.  As time passed, this focus became an obstacle to providing this wonderful opportunity for service and travel to minorities.  It wasn't that minorities were not qualified, it was more that they were not recruited, whether that be on minority college campuses or inner city high schools.  Additionally, an all white corps belied the actual diversity of young adults in America, presenting those who benefitted from the corps' work the perception that either there were no minorities in America, or worse, that those who were non-white did not volunteer. 

Hessler-Radelet went even further than acknowledging that the Peace Corps was more representative of America, she opined that there was strength in this diversity.   And, consequently, this stronger corps conveyed a stronger opinion of America and its youth.

Strength in diversity.

Contrast that viewpoint with what appears to be a common thread among the GOP presidential candidates who believe that all our troubles can be blamed on those with different skin color.  That merely rounding up and deporting those that are different from us, while keeping out future people who wish to take advantage of America's benefits, is all we need to make us "strong" again.  Sadly, when strong is code word for all-white, it is easy to see through the rhetoric.  Even more sad, when a statement that all (fill in the blank) people are criminals is not only not questioned, but cheered, it makes one wonder which side of the issue the ancestors of those who agree were on when the Irish (all drunks), Italians (all in the Mafia), Russian (all communist), Polish (all uneducated) were labeled and ostracized in the early 1900's.  I would bet most were on the receiving end of these prejudices, yet their progeny seems to have forgotten that sad lesson of discrimination.

Curiously, nature offers a strong objection to a lack of diversity in species.  Animal populations that have limited exposure to a diverse DNA pool, are frequently beset with gene defects that lead to sickness and reproductive woes.  When the gene pool of a species becomes too narrow, extinction often follows.  Diversity produces multiple family lines, offering the process of natural selection to work its magic as to which line will prosper and which will die off. 

What is really funny is that all men, regardless of current race, have DNA that can be traced back to the birth of our species, Africa.  We all have some percentage of African DNA, yet there are those who spend much of their time and effort to prove the superiority of their race.  There was one particular group of people who took that belief to extremes and tried to purge its country of those it deemed were inferior.  Fortunately, a cooperative effort among nations and people of different ethnicity managed to defeat the Aryan party.

Imagine a world where there was only one breed of dog or only one type of fruit.  Sounds kind of boring, not to mention monotonous, and is something I am sure would be unwelcome.  Yet there are those among us who believe that only one race, or one religion, or one ethnic origin or one version of who we should love is the ideal.  That if everyone was the same, life would be perfect.  Those who think this way may want to read The Point by Harry Nilsson. 

It is not by making everyone the same that we will create a utopian society, but by understanding that it is this very diversity that makes being human so amazing, and that only by embracing the wonderful diversity of mankind will we attain a world full of love rather than hate and peace rather than war. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Another mass shooting, ho-hum

A week ago today, nine people, eight students and their teacher, were killed by a fellow student at a community college in Oregon.  As the details circulated, reaction was typical on both sides of the gun control issue.  Since there have been so many mass shootings, almost one a day depending on your definition of the number that equates to "mass", I guess it is easy to "react with horror and sadness" when one occurs then dive effortlessly into your particular rote sound bite.  At this point, a mass shooting is no longer an event that hits us in the national gut, or makes us rethink our priorities or policies.  It merely equates to more meaningless rhetoric, or worse, an attitude that one probably soon to be non-presidential candidate expressed, "stuff happens".

For those of you who continue to deny that the proliferation of guns is a significant part of the problem, there are many statistics that you should review.  The United States is number one in the world for gun ownership, almost 90 for every 100 people.  The next highest is Yemen with 55 per 100.  The US accounted for 90 mass murders in the past 50 years where mass murder was defined as killing more than four people, a figure that represents 33% of those events in the entire world, and is 5 times more than the 2nd place country.  In terms of firearm deaths per 100,000 people, the chart with link below (you can sort for each category, high to low), demonstrates that the United States leads all other western nations handily at 10.64 deaths per 100,000 people.  Compare that figure to a couple of countries with very strict gun laws, the UK (.26) and Australia (.86); that is less than one per 100,000 for each, fully 10 times less than for America.   

But, of course, as I have said many times before, statistics can be used to prove anything.  I am sure there is a statistic out there that compares the homicide rate by firearm for, say North Dakota, to that of Michigan, in which more guns per person (North Dakota) equals less murders.  This is the basis of arguments by certain politicians and NRA spokespeople who propose more guns on school campuses, more guns on planes, more guns in the hands of the good guys to counter those in the hands of the bad. 

Curiously, the bad never seem to be defined.  Criminals, of course, although per most of the GOP candidates, criminals ignore laws so more laws won't matter.  The mentally ill?  Who is ready to define that Pandora's box?  Those who have seen a psychiatrist?  Those on certain psychiatric drugs?  Those who have been forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward?  And, if the latter, is it a lifetime ban, or is there some kind of sanity test that one can pass to regain the right to be armed?

(I hesitate to say it here, since it seems so obvious, but even harder to define is the good guys.  One comment I heard in response to a call for stricter background checks is that the Oregon shooter would have passed those checks, that, in fact, there were numerous weapons found in his home, all purchased legally.  So, when did he cross the line from good to bad?  The answer seems to be, the moment he killed, which explains why upwards of 60% of people are killed by someone they know, not strangers.  So, you have to ask yourself, if a gun was not on the scene, how many of those people would not have died?)

Just to return to the idiocy of the statement, more gun laws won't matter because criminals don't obey laws, why is that theory not applied to other areas of law enforcement?  Harsher pedophile laws won't matter because pedophiles don't obey laws.  Or the death penalty doesn't matter because crazies ignore laws.  Or even the far more damaging but rarely fatal to those who break them, insider trading laws don't matter because greedy people don't care about society.  Can you imagine the fallout if any politician made any of those comments, yet hours, no minutes after a mass shooting, many of them line up to get their chance to bow down to the NRA. 

Anyway, all this is merely window dressing.  The real issue is our belief that guns mixed with individuality and the fight for freedom is the basis of our great country and that any restriction of the right to purchase a firearm violates the 2nd Amendment: 

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. 

This is certainly not the place for a drawn out interpretation of what the founders meant by the above phrase.  Since it was a time of armed insurrection against England, and owning a gun was a necessary, everyday tool for the majority of the colonists of the day, it seems obvious to me that they were compelled to mention that the oppressor (England) should not make laws denying the colonists both a tool required for everyday existence, and a method (militia) to protect the freedom of the burgeoning country.  Whether they could anticipate the urbanization of America where guns were not needed to acquire ones food or shoot four legged predators, the sheer size of its military whose sole purpose is to protect our freedom, and the use of violence (through guns) to address the problems of everyday society is debatable. 

But that is the rub.  The philosophy that violence solves problems, where violence is defined as righteous war against our enemies, vigilante justice, or merely the right to defend one's property. 
We were born out of violence, believe that violence won our independence, confirmed its use in World War 1 and 2, and hold dear the philosophy that using a gun to solve a problem is a valid answer.  Perhaps even God-given if you can wrap your head around that one.

So, in some ways more gun laws may not provide immediate relief to our problem of violence as an accepted method of problem solving.  Clearly, mass shootings, even of our children, didn't inspire us to rethink.  It will take a change in our way of thinking, both about what we think the United States represents, and about how we foresee the future for our children, grandchildren and so on.  And, if I may be so bold, whether we wish to stop pretending we are a Christian nation, but actually embrace the teachings of Christ.  Love thy neighbor as thyself does not include using a gun to make a point.
Turn the other cheek is not reflected on bumper stickers like Keep Honking, I am Reloading. 

In the movies, the good guys win, sometimes by outsmarting the bad guys, but more often than not by outgunning them, even when outnumbered.  Luckily, in the movies, the bad guys are bad shots and the good guys have perfect aim.  In real like, good people make poor choices, act out of rage, do things they would never dream of doing.  Having a gun at hand sometimes exacerbates that poor choice resulting in the death of a spouse, family member or friend.  Just like it is best not to smoke a cigarette or create a flame near something flammable, the proliferation of guns in America has helped create criminals out of good people who lost their temper, had a bad day, or were tired of being bullied, laughed at, isolated from the good things our culture has to offer.  They turned to violence to act out their anger, express their displeasure or hurt someone else after being hurt. 

People kill people, and they use guns to do it.  Lets address both parts of the that equation, the why we resort to violence, and the ease in which we can acquire a gun to multiply the amount of violence we inflict.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why we should defund Planned Parenthood

My home town, Perkasie, is a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Two weekends ago, Pope Francis visited Philadelphia, and during his visit I was fortunate enough to have had a "secret" meeting with him.  It did not last long, minutes at best.  While disappointed with the title of my recent literary work, An Atheist for Christ, he was pleased with the meaning of the work, and encouraged me to continue interpreting the teachings of Christ in light of present day issues.  I left with his traditional blessing, a lightness of heart, and a firmer belief both in the power of the message of love and the goodness of humanity.

In light of this encouragement, and after listening to and following the meetings on Capitol Hill regarding the funding of Planned Parenthood, it is clear to me that we must not provide any more federal money for this group.  Yes, clearly, the amount of taxpayer money flowing to this organization is only 1/100 of 1% of the total federal budget ($300 million out of $3 trillion, if I did the math correctly).  And, despite its detractors claims, we know that the vast majority of the services Planned Parenthood provides are in the areas of testing (for diseases), preventive exams (like mammograms) and contraception.  It is even illegal for any of the federal money given to Planned Parenthood to be used for abortions (thanks to the Hyde Amendment), although we all know that is just numbers on paper and surely some of it goes to fund abortion, even if it is only one or two percent.  The fact that people with money will always be able to get abortions while those in the lower income brackets depend on organizations like Planned Parenthood for this medical procedure, may seem a bit hypocritical but is not the point.   

Despite these facts, and the final fact that it is organizations like Planned Parenthood that operate beyond the hypocrisy of those who deplore abortion while also working tirelessly to condemn birth control and demonize contraception, I still believe we should defund Planned Parenthood, simply because an abortion ends a life.  Sure, data suggests that over 50% of abortions are performed in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy when the fetus is a small group of cells, and roughly 90% before 12 weeks when that baby bump first develops.  And, that late term abortions (those occurring after 24 weeks) account for about 1% of abortions, and are almost exclusively performed when the mother's life is in danger.  Still, all abortions take a life, and tax payer money, especially the tax payer money of a Christian country should not be spent to kill a person, or potential person.

Whew, that was cathartic.

So, now that we have established a policy of not providing money for organizations that participate in the taking of life, where else can we apply that money saving and life affirming tool.

A little research indicates that only 19 of the 50 states have abolished the death penalty.  That means that we can stop funding 31 of the states with federal tax money.  Sure, they might say that they use most of the money for roads and schools and such, but we all know that some of it is used to buy the drugs or electricity to kill another person, so no more money for those states.  There are some states that receive 3,4, even $5 in federal tax money for every dollar their citizens pay in federal tax.  We are talking billions of dollars here.  If those states want to continue to kill American citizens, let them pay for it on their own with no federal assistance.

But organizations providing abortions and states that kill their citizens are no match for the biggest American agency in terms of spending money to kill people; the department of defense.  While the Planned Parenthood committee meetings were all the rage last week, Congress approved funding in the amount of over $600 billion for this entity without so much as a peep as to why so much.  $600 billion is fully one out of every 5 dollars of the federal budget, and about one out of every 3 in discretionary spending.  In other words, we choose to allocate 33% of our tax money to an organization whose sole purpose is to plan, organize and execute the killing of other human beings.  Yes, I know, they claim it is for defense.  But, depending on whose data you believe, the United States military operates 800 overseas bases in 60+ different countries.  Now, when I consider home security, an alarm system, or a big dog, comes to mind. For some, perhaps a gun.  But I don't export my "defense", dog or gun.  Clearly then these bases qualify as staging areas for future conflicts so that the military can kill other people for less cost. 

And it doesn't end there.  That is just the overt or obvious cost.  What of the subterfuge, or secret funding that trains and deploys overseas agents to infiltrate and/or kill those we deem our enemies.  Or the funding we provide for other countries so they can kill other people.

Clearly then, we have come upon a solution for not only slashing the federal budget, reducing the tax burden on hard working American citizens, and releasing much needed federal dollars to improve our education system and infrastructure, but we have the perfect plan to proclaim to the world that the United States of America is a Christian nation and as such will no longer provide federal dollars for any activity that kills another human being.

Come on Joe, you might be saying.  There is a difference between killing an innocent blob of cells and a person who has committed horrible crimes or is an enemy of our country.  You are right, many of those on death row have perpetrated horrific crimes against other people.  But since the death penalty is recommended, granted and carried out at a higher percentage against people with lower economic status or darker skin color, one might argue against the fairness of its use.  And since collateral damage and death is routine in war, it is clear that our military efforts kill and displace just as many innocent people as real enemies. 

Still, just to make sure I am on the right path here, I checked the Ten Commandments.  I was surprised to find that there are a few different versions of this set of laws but all versions listed
"thou shalt not kill", which, if one takes literally, probably means DON'T kill.  I looked for but didn't see an asterisk that may have granted an exception for an unborn child, death row inmate or enemy of the state.

So, here we are then.  Pro-life.  Our choice is obvious.  Defund all groups, private or public, which engages in the taking of life.  Now if we can only find a candidate to reflect such a Christian viewpoint. 


Wednesday, September 23, 2015


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.


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.


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.