Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump

I was fortunate enough to have time today to relax at home and read the Sunday paper.  I was hoping that I would encounter something that inspired me to post.  As is usual, I found a few interesting articles in the opinion section, one concerning ex President Jimmy Carter and one about presidential candidate Donald Trump.  (There was also two opinion letters from readers about Trump; what an amazing range of responses does he generate!!)

In 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president, I was just graduating from high school.  During his term, I experienced (in no particular order) a trip to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, a semester of college at LaSalle, my first full time (40 hours) job at McDonalds, and my first attempt to live on my own.  While many of my friends went off to college, I eschewed what I considered another four years of droning, and made a number of cross country trips, some via bus, some via my thumb.  I earned my travelling money by working a variety of jobs in manufacturing and retail.  In retrospect, one might say I was "finding myself". 

The country too was experiencing change.  Interest rates were high, as was unemployment.  Urban unrest marked the evening news.  The Iranian hostage crisis was endless.  Recurring energy crises  revealed our vulnerability to foreign countries interests interfering with our own. 

At the time, many considered President Carter the worse president in a hundred years, perhaps ever.  Certainly, the events of those four years, especially his perceived ineptitude in returning our hostages, did not contradict such a harsh appraisal.  If there ever was a four year time when both the domestic and international situation was so negative, it would be hard to find one.  Consequently, it didn't take a rocket scientist to predict that Ronald Reagan would defeat Carter in the 1980 presidential election. 

And, it could be said that had Carter disappeared into historical oblivion (as it seems that George W. Bush has), no one would have blamed him.  But, as the article I read about him indicated, Jimmy Carter was a humanist first, president second.  He believed that as president, one of the most important aspect of his job was to make sure that all Americans, especially those with the least, had a voice in government.  As president, he took his responsibility, what he might call his Christian responsibility, to work for those "on the margins" very seriously even to the point of taking on corporate interests.  While it is certainly debatable that the ills of America in the late 1970's were all his fault, there is no question that he continued his work to provide for those with the least once his days as president ended.

With the revelation that Carter has cancer, and the knowledge that his time on earth is drawing to a close, we may soon see a reevaluation of his presidency, but more importantly, a celebration of his life and his work for humanity.  Perhaps the importance of the Camp David accords will be revisited, especially in light of the continued unrest in the Middle East.  Certainly his work in Africa to combat malaria will be praised.  I know that whenever I saw him on TV, he always seemed to be espousing understanding rather than war, discourse rather than violence. 

Was he a good president?  Perhaps not.  Was he a good human being?  I expect he would be more concerned with the answer to that 2nd question, and I expect that his legacy will confirm that answer to be a resounding yes.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.  I have watched some of his TV interviews, read some of his campaign speeches and proposals.  Perhaps I am biased, but he seems merely a caricature of a candidate.  A created persona designed to attract a certain voter who perceive that there are serious problems, but expects simple answers.  Someone more interested in placing the blame, usually on "them", rather than forcing Americans to look in the mirror and face our faults. 

I recall that, on one point in his presidency, Carter went on national TV and told us in no uncertain terms that we needed to change the way we consumed energy.  That we needed to rethink our relationship with oil.  That we needed to conserve and sacrifice.  His new policies were a failure, in that he was not able to inspire Americans to reduce consumption nor was he able to work with Congress to develop an overall energy policy.  When Reagan offered another opinion, that we were the greatest country ever and that the Soviets were the evil empire, we embraced the shift of blame away from our mirrors. 

As it turned out, Carter was wrong when he predicted that we might run out of oil in the 21st century.  Since 1976, the adjusted for inflation cost of gas at the pump has risen and fallen drastically, but we still debate energy policy, whether to drill in the Arctic, whether to require more stringent coal emission standards, whether to force more transparency regarding the "fracking" cocktail being used to energize the natural gas industry.  But one might wonder what America might be like today had we listened to President Carter and embarked on a national energy policy to find alternatives to the fossil fuels.  Solar panels on every home?  A middle east policy that did not require the defense of oil fields in its computation? 

Donald Trump would have us believe that we need to reevaluate the 14th amendment granting citizenship to anyone born on American soil.  That we need to pass the sins of the parents onto those born of foreigners.  That we need to charge all our institutions, government, education, business, with the job of identifying those here illegally and removing them.  Sort of like a national network of snitches.  That border states and cities should be able to suspend the fourth amendment and conduct illegal search and seizure operations against those who may be foreign born.  And that all these illegal, dark skinned, immigrants come here to take our country away from us, despite overwhelming proof that they come here for a better life for themselves and their children. 

I would imagine that should Carter and Trump debate, Trump's bombastic responses would be more popular than the thoughtful approach that Carter would offer.  Perhaps even that many would consider Trump a better president.  But I can't imagine that anyone would view Trump as a better human.  And it makes me wonder why it is that being a better human does not seem to be a highly valued trait in today's politics. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Gay Catholics, and other odd labels

I haven't thanked my Norwegian friends lately.  While my blog has been getting a steady audience of 60 visitors a day, more than half are from Norway.  This has been a trend for almost a year now.  I have no explanation, don't see a pattern in terms of topics that are attracting this interest, and have not received a comment from a Norwegian (to my knowledge) as to why they are attracted to my posts, but I am still grateful. 

Somewhat along that line, I recently had a conversation with a relative in which he said that he was thinking of ways that he could bring new meaning to his life, or more precisely, justify his existence.  While he is certainly not old, he is closing in on retirement age, and seems to be thinking more about life's meaning, his life's work to date, and whether he has given back enough compared to all that he has received.  (As a side note, I can imagine that the entry into heaven may depend on whether one has given more than one has taken).  A question occurred to me after this discussion with him, a question as to whether it is worse to wonder if you should be doing more, or if, while engaging in an activity that you deem worthwhile, wondering if you have made a difference in that effort.  I occasionally question whether anything I write here matters, or matters to anyone but myself, but the discussion mentioned above, coupled with the Norwegian connection I seem to have made, help me to get over such self doubt...mostly.

The Inquirer had an article this past Sunday about a split in the gay Catholic community.  In a nutshell, it was detailing a difference of opinion about addressing gay issues within the Catholic religion, especially in light of Pope Francis' statement about not judging others, and the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.  You see, the World Meeting of Families, which is occurring in Philadelphia in conjunction with the Pope's visit, is a time for the Catholic family to get together and discuss the issues which concern it the most.  The controversy surrounds the lack of meetings being held to address issues important to the gay community; more precisely that out of dozens of events only one, one-hour session is planned. 

Now, one might say, hey, you can't be gay and Catholic.  The lifestyle conflicts with the teachings of the religion.  I am sure that there are Catholics who feel that even one session is one too many. 

I recently spent an evening with someone with whom I was acquainted but had never spoken with at length.  At one point during the visit, he and I had a span of one-on-one time.  During that time, we delved deeply into one another's religious views.  He was very clear in his dismissal of religions, even to the point of having a negative opinion of the current pope.  But he was aghast at my recent effort "An Atheist for Christ", in that he is fully convinced that Jesus died for our sins to enable us to live in eternity with God the father.  For him, nothing else mattered other than believing Christ died on the cross.  At one point he called my life hopeless, because all I had was my life on earth while he expected eternal life due to his belief in why Jesus lived and died.  He seemed surprised that I would not want to live forever, to see again all those I loved who had passed, and to be comforted by the thought that I would see again all those still alive that I love once I die.

If one cannot reach heaven by good works only as I have heard said, if the litmus test for eternal life is believing that Jesus died for our sins as virtually all Christians are taught, then one's gender preference is not important.  It seems to me that Christians who believe that those in the gay community commit sin when they express their physical love, or wish to marry someone of the same sex, are also expressing a belief that Jesus only died for some sins, but not all sins.  That his death only cleansed sins that they deem forgivable. 

Are there other sins that Jesus's death does not cover?  Pedophilia?  Killing one's own children? 

It seems to me that once we assume that Jesus was the son of God, his death, as commanded by the Creator of all things, would be powerful enough to cover the gamut of man's indiscretions.  Perhaps that is why so many people have become lost in their religion, have become victims of the dogma of religions, have enabled the term religious war to not only have meaning, but be waged on a moment by moment basis.   They have lost touch with the true point of Jesus' life and death.  Rather than focusing on the BIG idea concerning Christ, they get ambushed by the little things and choose to focus on superficial traits and preferences that only exist to show the wide variety and combinations that God uses to create the individuals that make up humanity. 

It seems such a shame that the true glory of God's creations, the wonderful differences among us, are used by religions to create wedges between us, to separate us into the saved and unsaved, the forgiven and unforgiven. 

Finally, as I have said before, perhaps we can only understand the true nature and meaning of life without the stone of religious dogma in our eyes. 


Thursday, August 13, 2015

The GOP debate

The first GOP Presidential debate occurred last week while I was on vacation.  That particular night, I was by myself, so while I watched much of the debate, I didn't see it all as I was free to channel hop.
Afterwards, while discussing the debate, a friend of mine asked me if I was going to post something about it.  My first reaction was negative, in that, while it was certainly entertaining (Trump may not bring much substance to the proceedings but he sure brings interest), there were few statements beyond what we already knew of the participating candidates.   

As it was, our conversation was limited to the exchange between Governor Christie and Rand Paul about the balance between providing our intelligence agencies with the tools necessary to fight terrorism and our rights of privacy as citizens.  Strangely, at least to me, Christie seemed to have won that brief exchange, despite the fact that most Americans as well as our elected officials in Congress, are not happy with the extensive spying on American citizens that was authorized under the Patriot Act, and carried out by the NSA.  One might say that Christie's perceived advantage in that exchange proves either that Rand Paul is not ready to be president if he cannot come out ahead when debating a topic for which he represents the majority opinion, or that a good politician can turn an unpopular position into a plus for him if he/she is loud and on point.  Or both.

A topic that I did not discuss with my friend was the statement by Scott Walker (I believe) that he would support the use of the Constitution to defend the rights of the unborn.  In essence, that a fetus should be given the rights of a person, at the moment of conception.  (If I misunderstood this position, please, someone, correct me.).  I found this very disturbing.  Imagine a world where the unborn can sue his mother for smoking a cigarette or running a marathon.  Or a world where the accidental death or murder of every child bearing aged woman, would require an autopsy to check for the presence of a fetus, to add that entity to a wrongful death case or a murder charge.  While I am sure that Walker believes that abortion is murder, his perspective falls dangerously close to a belief that a mother is merely the vehicle for bringing a new life into the world, and that the new life is the more important part of that equation.  It is bad enough that so many conservative pundits label birth control as a way for sluts to avoid conception, have much to say about out of wedlock babies being the fault of the mother with very little comment on the man's role, and support aggressive anti-abortion tactics that mandate intrusive medical procedures to "show" the fetus, and restrictive laws that make providing an abortion very difficult, now we see the true nature of the woman's role in this conservative world, a role more akin to the barefoot and pregnant stereotype, as opposed to a role where a woman has control over her body. 

But I digress.

I thought I would wait to comment on the GOP debate, as there are so many yet to come, and the field so vast that it seems futile to find any meaning in this first one.

But today I finished the Philanthropy edition of Lahpam's Quarterly, and in reviewing all the great essays, I remembered one written by Peter Singer from his book Practical Ethics.  In a nutshell, Singer argues for "effective altruism", the notion that people should do the most good they can by helping the ill and desperately poor.  But he goes further than just encouraging active assistance.  He believes that those who do not help are murderers by default, for not helping.  What he terms, the moral equivalent of murder.

I thought of the GOP debate in this light, not because I am a liberal and a registered Democrat, as I know that once one starts down the road of condemnation by acts of commission and omission, no one, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, religious and atheist, is blameless.  But what made me make the connection was what was not discussed at the debate. 

Did I expect a question about global warming?  No, but when the vast majority of scientists agree that the climate is changing, when record highs and lows, record rainfall and drought, extreme weather of all types are happening on almost a weekly basis, yet the top contenders for president are not asked about climate change, even if it is a hands up, do you believe it exists, do you believe it is caused or being accelerated by man, and what if anything should we do, then that condemns millions of poor people in the world to death by starvation or disaster. 

Or income inequality.  Do the wealthy in America control more of the economy than they should?  Do they have more access to our political system than is safe?  Strangely, Donald Trump has made the point that since he is so rich, he won't have to take money from big donors and grant exceptions to those with the most.  He even made a point to confirm that he has given large sums of money to candidates from both parties in the past to "get what he wanted".  Yet, he wants us to believe that if he is elected he will stop playing the game that he has played all his life.  Does he also offer ways to eliminate everyone else who is elected from playing the game?  Campaign reforms that give all potential candidates a set amount of money to campaign with, no donations from other sources, no spending personal money?  Or an executive order reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling?  After all, Trump will run the government just like a business, whatever he says goes.  King Donald.  Will he call a meeting with all the CEO's of the biggest corporations and command them to raise wages or "your fired".  No, no real solutions.  And, when he made his comments about politicians being at the beck and call of the rich, there wasn't much blow back from the other candidates.  To be sure, income inequality will not be addressed, and by that omission, millions of working Americans will continue to struggle with poverty wages. 

How about the effect that our military spending has on our national debt?  At least I heard some comments about balancing a budget, every governor on the stage said he had done it, even though all states require a balanced budget by law so all they did was obey the law.  I guess I must be electable too since I obey all the traffic laws.  But all of them (except Rand Paul, and we all know he is soft on terrorism now), want to increase military spending.  More boots on the ground in the middle east.  It is not enough that we spend more than any other country in the world, over $600 billion a year, on "defense", more than the next 19 (I think it is 19) countries combined, most of the GOP candidates think our current president leads from behind and is not respected by our enemies.  So, of course, lets bomb some more people to get their respect, and place more American lives at risk to show we are the world leader.  In the meantime, since more military spending means less spending in other areas, our transportation infrastructure will be neglected, our schools will continue to produce mediocre talent, more tax breaks will be given to big business while less money will be spent on the American people who are suffering, and again, the needs of millions of United States citizens will be neglected.

As I said, however, those of us on the left share the blame as well.  When we bemoan the fate of the poor, yet purchase the biggest jar of mustard ever created only to throw out a third of it when it turns bad, when we decry the oil industry for polluting our air, yet drive everywhere, even when we could walk, when we shed a tear over the latest small, neighborhood business to close, yet brag about the one stop shopping we did yesterday at the big box store, when we live our lives without a notion of the consequences, we contribute to our shared ills just as those who actively suppress wages, pollute our environment, and engage in unethical business practices.

And lets not forget how we invest for the future.  It is easy to condemn a particular industry's negative practices, but not as easy to move our money away from those profitable companies and accept less return in our portfolios.

The GOP debate and the moral equivalent of murder.  I am looking forward to episode two, as well as the Democratic version when it begins later this year.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Almsgiving, Charity, Assistance

When I turned the page and found the next article in Philanthropy to be written by Andrew Carnegie, my perception of him via his association with the “barons of industry” in the early 1900’s, led me to expect a viewpoint that might be derogatory towards the concept of philanthropy.  But, again, Lapham’s surprised me.

While it is certainly true that Carnegie gained a portion of his wealth by unscrupulous business deals, government favoritism, and poor wages paid to his employees, it is also true that he made good on his belief that, should one accumulate great wealth in this life, he should engage in an active, planned effort to leave this earth with a significant portion of that wealth having been spent in the pursuit of improving the condition of the public.

So, while his view of almsgiving, which might be defined as money given without any strings attached, was that it was not only non-productive, but actually bad for the receiver, he was also just as harsh in his perception of the man who dies with great stores of wealth, never having used any to advance the cause of men.

In essence, the foundation of his belief was that no one is better to decide how great wealth should be spent, as the man who earned it himself.  His disdain for public as well as private charity that handed over money as if the receiver earned the right to it through his/her misfortune was clear.   It wasn’t that he was against all forms of welfare, or almsgiving as he might define it, but that he was judgmental of the actual good such giving provided. 

He was just as negative about leaving great fortunes to one’s children or future family as to charities or causes run by foundations or bureaucrats, who were more likely to spend the money with little appreciation of the work entailed to earn it (family), or who would disperse the money with little consideration for the priorities of the benefactor. 

For Carnegie, providing a little extra money, whether via better wages or direct payments, was of limited use as, in his mind, those with the least were in that predicament due to poor decisions or an inability to think productively.  In effect, he recognized, even embraced his responsibility to ease the pain of mankind, but thought it best that he decide how best to ease that pain.

In that vein, Carnegie funded the building of thousands of public libraries where he thought that all men would be able to access the knowledge to improve their condition in life.  He also encouraged other wealthy men of the time to follow suit by funding parks and other types of recreation areas to benefit man’s spirit.

And charity, where it occurred, should always take the form of assistance that is directed to those that will help themselves.  Again, to harken back to a previous post, charity in the form of helping a man learn to fish rather than merely giving him fish to eat. 

I am less antagonistic towards charity as almsgiving as Carnegie.  I believe there are times when giving without expectation of a return is acceptable, even when that return might be the receiver improving their situation on their own.  I would, however, prefer such charity to have a definitive end, whether it be public welfare in the form of a check, or private charity in the form of food or other such material gifts.  In effect, yes, you need help with no strings attached, but such help, assuming no permanent disability is involved, will end at an appointed time.  While I generally abhor the easily labelled “takers” that the far right loves to demonize, I do agree that generational welfare where those that might benefit as children whose parents get assistance, expect the same assistance in adulthood, must be ended.  Especially when such generational almsgiving permeates an entire community. 

To me, if more people of wealth accepted their responsibility to improve mankind’s condition, as Carnegie did, the world would be better.  Conversely, if more people of want considered charity as assistance as opposed to almsgiving, there might be less need for charity, and more desire to be charitable by those who perceive there is appreciation rather than entitlement.  And best of all, when someday our attitude towards the rich includes a judgement based on how one attained wealth so that those who abused the environment, or mankind to gain riches are considered pariahs as opposed to role models.

But make no mistake, all of us have and will most likely again, experience a time of need and dependence on our fellow man.   Whether from infancy when our parents fed, clothed and protected us, or our teachers who presented the lessons of life, or the mentor who showed us the ropes, or the investor or bank who believed in our vision enough to provide material resources, we all require the aid of others.  Wouldn’t it be that much more sweet if success was less defined on a person to person basis and more defined in the aggregate, whether that aggregate be local, state, country, hemisphere or planet.