Thursday, April 30, 2015

God given rights

Protesting against various government actions or laws is nothing new.  In fact, you might even call it  tradition in America, part of the founding of our country.  From marches organized to shed light on a problem, to demonstrations against established policy, to specific reactions to specific instances, Americans have exercised our civil rights to free speech and to assemble since before our founding.

As is true of all people who observe protests without participating, individual reaction and the reporting of these events, depend greatly on one's own perspective of the group and its method of protest, and the actual topic of dissent.  Clearly, the recent reaction in Baltimore to yet another death of a black man at the hands of the police, is viewed by most people, including myself, as an inappropriate response to a tragic situation.  We acknowledge the right of people to be angry at police abuse, but disagree with violence as the vehicle to express this anger.  As is so often the case, a legitimate complaint is overshadowed by the reaction, hence the root of the problem is not addressed.

Perhaps I am wrong in saying this, but it seems that during the Obama Presidential years, there has been an increase in the sentiment that our rights originate from God, not the government.  Whether the upsurge of this belief is related to the misinformation that the president is a Muslim, or merely that, like all Democrats, he is portrayed as proponent of BIG government, especially as it is perceived that BIG government functions by chipping away at our rights, it seems that this sentiment is much more pervasive now than during President Bush's 2 terms, even though provisions of the Patriot Act, which was enacted during his presidency, are considered by some as the most blatant example of infringement of our right to privacy in the history of our country.  

I do not mean to say that the phrase God given rights, or inalienable rights as they are referred to in our Constitution, is something new, only that its use seems to be on the rise.  Clearly, should you have the time and the inclination, research on this topic would produce information and input ranging beyond Aristotle to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, through the Middle Ages when the Magna Carta was used to combat the "divine" right to rule, and culminate in the Age of Enlightenment when minds such as Luther, Locke, Hobbes (among many others) postulated on the concepts of legal rights, natural rights, the difference between them and their source. 

At the end of the day, the question seems to be, what commonalities can be found among this large volume of information.  And, in practical terms, what are we willing to sacrifice in terms of our rights in order to function in a society which includes a myriad of interpretations of what those rights are and what they mean.

For instance, once born, the right to life seems universal.  By definition then, any version of slavery should contradict the right to life as someone under the yoke of slavery does not have the freedom to conduct his life as he wants.  Yet, many of our founders were slave holders.  They considered their slaves as less than human, hence not covered under the inalienable rights they declared existed.  (Or, to be cynical, they knew that slavery, while inherently wrong, was an important ingredient to the economic well being of the times). 

Assuming though, that we have moved on (evolved?) on slavery, the next common tenet seems to be the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, i,e, doing what you like.  Contrary to what might seem obvious, doing what you like is a great responsibility, because it assumes that in doing so you do not impinge upon someone else's rights.  I want to listen to loud music late at night, yet I understand that my neighbor has the right to a good night's sleep, so either I sacrifice my right to loud music at night or I move to a home without neighbors.  This might seem like a simple example, but imagine how this thinking pertains to marriage laws, gun laws, acts of discrimination that one's religion seems to uphold, what to teach our children, how to form our government.  It is so much more complicated than holding a sign at a rally.

Frankly, I am both a huge believer and complete non-believer in the concept of rights as given by God.  A huge believer in that I advocate the least amount of restrictions on one's time on earth to understand our uniqueness, and common ancestry with all other earthlings, to understand how we can optimize our talents while helping others do the same, and to figure our what it takes to be the best person possible while leaving the earth a better place once we are gone.  If there is a creator, I would like to think that philosophy would be acceptable. 

But more likely, we have been left to our own devices.  The rights we create to live for and live by, are our own creations.  Aligning them with god, generally results in rights that are parceled to those who follow a particular religion, or worse, away from those whom that religion has determined to be outside their god's circle of love.  

And, as for our rights not coming from government, but from God, it would be comical, if it weren't so commonly misquoted.  During the vast majority of our history, most humans have existed at the whim of the person, family, or group with the money, power and might.  They were ruled, at best, where ruled denotes some measure of consideration to their needs.  Remember, while philosophers may have grappled with the concepts of freedom and liberty through history, the idea of a government formed with those tenets as its base, is very new to humankind.  You might even say we are infants in terms of our experience with the ideas.  Does that mean that god decided to wait a couple hundred thousand years before deigning us with those rights, or more likely, did it take our species that long to arrive at the point where we were civilized enough to recognize the truth?

Remember that even today, 2015 years since the demarcation of time from BC to AD, tens of thousands of years since the great civilizations of the Far East and the Americas, there are governments that still divide its citizens into those with rights and those without.  Understanding that only through the rule of law where the law protects the weak, the disadvantaged, those without resource and influence, and through the creation of governments which uphold those laws, can our rights as citizens of a society, and as individuals within that society, be granted, and more importantly, defended.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Happy Earth Day

I know I am a day late with this post, but yesterday was one of those days where I worked my full time job (1:00-915 PM) then went straight to my part time job (10:00-3:00AM).  In fact, I apologize again in that I know I often comment on the state of the earth, especially in regards to those who choose to not see the damage we have wrought, but I did not see a label for any previous post that referred to Earth Day specifically, or even the environment, in general.  Hopefully this post will make up for that oversight.

Before I begin, I did a bit of research on Earth Day.  I was looking for the environmental factors present in the 1960's that inspired the first Earth Day in 1970.  Of course, as I have previously mentioned, Rachel Carson's 1962 release of Silent Spring which detailed the widespread damage that had been caused to multiple levels of the food chain and the environment from the use of the pesticide DDT could be argued as the starting point.  But a quick "google" of environmental disasters which occurred post World War 2, includes, but is in no way encompassing, such problems as the Centralia, PA mine fire (still burning today), mercury poisoning from industrial dumping which caused Minamata disease in Japan, dangerous smog levels in most large US cities, including one particularly dangerous episode in New York City in 1966 which killed about 80 people, and the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River in 1969 in Cleveland from unstable chemical effluents.

If the 1960's was a decade of environmental awareness coming to a head, the 1970's might be classified as the decade where activism began.  Environmental regulations passed in the late 60's were now being used to identify polluters and hold them accountable.  Groups such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Greenpeace saw their memberships skyrocket, as their visible confrontations with polluters became national headlines.  Also, the iconic picture entitled the Blue Marble, taken by the astronauts of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, focused attention on the beauty of our planet, the concept that it is our only home, and the fragility of its existence.  

Of course, opposition to this movement was also galvanized, funded in large part by the polluters themselves.  One interesting item I read involved the Communist connection to the environmental movement that was touted by those against these defenders of the earth, as the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin.  It should come as no surprise then that even today, those advocating for the health of the Earth are sometimes portrayed as anti-American and anti-capitalism.  Nor should it come as any surprise that the "debate" over climate change is being waged with science and environmentalists on one side and the fossil fuel industry on the other.

Unfortunately, many of the gains of those early years, were softened during the Reagan Administration, and the uncertain economics of the time.  Jobs became the focus, and the mantra that the job creators (big business) needed less regulation, along with the belief that everyone would prosper if the large corporations prospered (trickle down economics), ruled the day.  (The fact that the  30 plus years since has demonstrated that allowing big business to prosper resulted in a shift in economic strength from the middle class to the rich, is a sad byproduct to all those years of ignoring our environmental responsibility).  The further efforts that continue to be made by our public servants in Congress today to weaken federal environmental laws, fueled by big monied interests and that insidious Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, speak poorly of a generation whose parents recognized the havoc we were causing and erected barriers to reduce that damage. 

Still, all is not lost.  While the forces that would have us continue to rely on fossil fuels for our energy have an advantage, there has been a proliferation of both new environmental organizations, and membership in those groups.  Those under 25 years of age, when surveyed, demonstrate a strong concern for the Earth and a safer environment.  Even the financial industry, historically a bastion for the make-money-however-you-can crowd, has mutual funds for people who care about how their money is invested and are willing to sacrifice returns to support environmentally friendly businesses and innovators. 

And the Earth itself, while certainly bloodied is not bowed.  She has recovered from the ignorance of the original Industrial Revolution when we spoiled air and water for the sake of our mass production businesses.  She took a shot to the chin with the detonation of WW2 nuclear bombs in Japan, and nuclear waste fires and a nuclear plant meltdown in Russia but has managed to recover much of her glory in Japan, and some in Russia.  And, even when she lashes out against us with dangerous storms and tectonic spasms, she always follows up with the promise of a new spring.

So, Happy Earth Day.  For those of you who acknowledged the celebration, thanks.  For those of you too busy to break from your hectic lives, take a look around the next time you are driving past a meadow, or visit a local park.  The grandeur is there to see, if you have eyes to look. 

And, for those who prefer to live in denial, stop cleaning your home, leave the garbage accumulate, dump toxins in your back yard.  Eventually, it may occur to you that, just as poisoning your home environment is not sustainable, neither is poisoning our global environment.  Perhaps then you might alter your view of Earth and see it as our only home, a big, beautiful, blue marble floating in space.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Unbiased News

I recently watched most of the movie "Good Night and Good Luck".  The title reflects the sign-off phrase used by Edward R Murrow at the end of his shows.  I know I have seen the movie before, in its entirety, but only caught the last half this time.  The main thrust of the movie details the shows which Murrow ran (along with his producer, Fred Friendly played by George Clooney who also directed the film) about Senator Joe McCarthy and his hearings to unearth and publicly out communists working in the United States government. 

In retrospect, we have the advantage on knowing that while McCarthy may have found a few communists hiding in our midst, his bullying tactics, his use of accusations without proof, and his apparent belief that only through denying Americans the freedom to choose their political affiliations could America be free, did more harm than good, ruined countless innocent lives, and even led to the suicide of people who were either not guilty of being traitors or were guilty of making foolish choices in their youth.  In the end, McCarthy did become famous, or perhaps infamous, but not because he saved America from an internal nest of communists, but through the term McCarthyism defined in Wikipedia as "the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. It also means "the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism". 

While many still argue that the Communist Party in America in the 1940's was controlled by Moscow, and that there were indeed Communist spies in our country, it may be said that McCarthy's use of guilt by association to detect those individuals, did far more damage to America by diluting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  And, while comments such as that made by then president George  W. Bush in regards to the fight against terrorism - "you are either with us or against us", make a good sound bite, and are great fodder for rallying around the flag, I believe that most Americans realize now that the strength of our country is our ability to recognize our differences, to accept that true freedom means acknowledging the rights for others' to express opinions contrary to one's own, and that the more repressive we become to shut out constructive criticism of our country and our policies, the less free we all become.

Which brings me to the point of this post, unbiased news.  First, one may argue that there never has been such an animal, that all news is biased, first through the actual choice of what is reported upon, and second through the presentation, i.e length of time, tone of reporter, background of the story, etc.  That being said, one might counter that the heyday of responsible journalism may have begun during the time of Murrow, and perhaps peaked in the 60's and 70's when the abuses of government and business were revealed through the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon papers, and the release of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. 

Are there more news sources than ever?  Yes, certainly.  But are the breaking stories fact based, important, incisive, or more gossip than news?  And, are the sources legitimate journalists or a one issue fanatic typing away in his basement?  In a previous post, I mentioned Edward Snowden, and a story perhaps just as important to American freedom than those mentioned above, yet coverage of Snowden and the abuses of our individual privacy as legalized through the Patriot Act seem at best ignored, at worst presented as one man's traitorous act against the United States. 

So where can one go for news, that is, the reporting of events without opinion.  I have mentioned more than once that, in my opinion, most shows presented on the Fox channel as news belie the term.  Even the business news which one might think would present facts such as low unemployment, record stock market, strong US dollar, one of the strongest economies in the world, instead presents guest after guest and one statement after the other by Lou Dobbs about how horribly President Obama has run the country.  And, on the other side of the coin, most shows on MSNBC, while not presenting themselves quite as news programs, still lean heavily left and present opinions and stories that reflect well on the president and the Democrats a large percentage of the time.

In the past, major network news anchored by the likes of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and respected  newspapers like the NY Times and Washington Post were trusted sources of news for the general public.  Again, biases existed via the topics chosen to be broadcast and printed, but the news was less colored by opinion, more dependent on fact.  With the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and the desire to be first with a story, facts seems less important than the presentation and the salaciousness of the story.  Also, and again, I am sure it has always been true, there is a real effort being made by some pseudo-news organizations to present lies as truth, using repetition as a way to increase the likelihood that the lie will be believed.  How many people still believe that President Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya?

Of course, as I have always said, much of the blame lies in us, the public.  If we are dissatisfied with the news we are getting, we must remember that networks, newspapers, radio stations, magazines, etc distribute such news to make money.  If no one watched, listened or purchased the products, they would not exist.  We get the news we deserve, I guess, and if the news is full of half truths, opinion based "facts", slander, and fluff, then I guess that is what we want.  Add to that the fact that so many of our media sources are owned and operated by corporations and individuals who are wealthy and have an agenda of their own that may or may not coincide with the truth of the news of the day, and it is very easy to understand why so many people do not know Edward Snowden, do not know the vast amount of money being spent on corporate welfare, do not know just how close we are to the tipping point for our environment to change dramatically, do not know how many people our government has killed and continues to kill in the guise of the war on terror, do not know that a scary percentage of our laws are written by lobbyists, and do not know just how insidious our financial system is in regards to providing advantages to those with, and locking out those without. 

Or perhaps, we prefer not to know.  They say that knowledge is power but with power comes responsibility.  Perhaps our problem is that by not knowing we can more easily look to blame.  And, since those controlling our news are very eager to tell us who to blame (and deflect the blame from those truly responsible), then, I guess, the circle is complete.  We prefer to know who the next American Idol will be, and who hates America, and who thinks the cat is going up the stairs rather than down the stairs, but avoid news about serious subjects or subjects that require reflection and thought.  And, as for the most critical problems of the day for which there are no simple answers, well, there is no money in trying to address those issues through a series of programs, and besides, who has the attention span for that anyway?

At the end of "Good Night and Good Luck", parts of Murrow's speech at a news organization function are recreated.  He admonishes the crowd to encourage those in TV to use it as a way to educate, enlighten and entertain Americans, not merely to pander to their most base instincts.  He sees it as a tool, and like all tools, it eventually will be defined as being used for good or bad, and, ultimately, as a way to define the society itself which used it thusly.  I wonder what Murrow would think, specifically of TV now, and in general, the news media as a whole.  I sometimes fear he would say "good luck" but with a sad shake of his head and downcast eyes.  



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Secrecy and Trust

I don't believe I have mentioned this before, but my wife and I enjoy the weekly HBO show hosted by John Oliver called "Last Week Tonight".  In addition to touching on the news of the previous week, his discussion topics are almost always relevant and interesting, especially considering his style; irreverence mixed with humor.  (I believe he cut his teeth on Jon Stewart's Daily Show).

This past week Oliver spent the majority of his show discussing the upcoming renewal of some of the more insidious sections of the Patriot Act, specifically, those sections dealing with the incredible power to collect personal information which was granted to organizations like the NSA.  Amazingly, Oliver punctuated his show with an interview in Moscow with Edward Snowden.  For those of you who don't know Snowden (and according to Oliver's random questioning of people in New York City, that is most of you), Snowden, while working as a consultant for the NSA, discovered then leaked large amounts of information pertaining to how the NSA can, and does, collect personal information from United States Citizens without their consent or knowledge.  In what I thought was some very pointed and specific questioning by Oliver, Snowden discussed his motives, the price he is paying for his revelations (he has been charged with violations of the Espionage Act so will be arrested upon entering the United States), how some of the information he leaked did harm to United States interests, and detailed how (using Oliver's sarcastic dic-pic scenario), the NSA can attain and retain pictures of a man's genitalia through any number of legal means without requiring any specific hint that said man's Johnson is a threat to national security.  While seemingly a silly example, the point is that any and all correspondence generated by US citizens are subject to retention under the various auspices of the Patriot Act.  (I assume that since my blog is viewed overseas, many of my posts may have been netted at some time in the past).

Notwithstanding the sheer scope of this intrusion, I find it interesting how, in the name of protecting freedom and liberty, we allow such violations of both our freedom and liberties.  Of course, it is fear that pushes us to these kind of seemingly contradictory decisions.  Clearly, the events of 911, sent shockwaves through the American psyche which, like a never ending scab, can be picked at and reanimated with the perception of a new threat to our way of life.  How far we will go to protect ourselves from our enemies, how much freedom we will sacrifice to be free, is still to be determined. 

Which brings us to the reauthorization date of June 1st.  Fortunately, through Snowden, organizations like the ACLU, and even comedians like John Oliver, there has been some public discussion on this issue.  Unfortunately, I am convinced that with news reporting that emphasizes the negative events in the world (especially Fox network which then blames the president for all those negative events), many Americans are convinced that this kind of spying is necessary.  I expect to hear any number of people saying "I have nothing to hide so I don't mind".  What many people don't realize is that the government uses companies like Google and Facebook as their deputies, and that while the average American might not have anything to fear when it comes to international espionage, we all have little secrets and indiscretions that we might not want to be made public should the info be dispersed in an unexpected way. 

To me, the bigger issue is who do we trust?  Currently, distrust of the United States government, fueled by the Fox Network's hate the president campaign, has resulted in an unprecedented rise in gun purchasing and ownership, as well as new laws, some proposed, some passed, which allow guns in our schools, public parks, and public rallies.  Some people seem to trust no one, yet somehow believe that if everyone had a gun thereby honoring the 2nd amendment, we would all be safer.  In some circles, we still trust business to do the right thing (through reduced regulations), yet there has also been a meteoric rise in background checks by perspective employers which includes credit checks and review of social media content.  We guard our financial info and identity by (rightly refusing to give out SS numbers over the phone) but routinely purchase products online despite the rash of big time hacking that has compromised many data bases of some large retail companies.   

To me, the interesting thing will be how our elected public servants choose to vote when reauthorization is addressed.  Republicans love national security issues but will be voting for extended powers to a government run by a president they do not trust.  Democrats know in their hearts that these privacy violations are serious but do not like to disagree with the leader of their party.

Curiously, with all this talk about security, a number of Republican lawmakers signed a letter sent to the leaders of Iran advising them that President Obama could not be trusted to comply with any kind of deal which limits Iran's capacity to create a nuclear bomb.  One would think that any treaty, even one with a party that we are reluctant to trust, which would limit the growth of nuclear weapon capability would be universally accepted as a positive step. 

Perhaps, in their constant fear state, some people think it best to allow the proliferation of nuclear weapons while reducing the privacy of American freedoms.  Or they just want to "nuke the bastards", thereby proving to Iran that we couldn't be trusted after all.