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.