Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Trump vs Clinton

After yesterday's Northeast states primaries, it is becoming more and more likely that the next President of the United States, will be either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.  For some, these choices are painful.  Both score high in negative impressions by the electorate, higher than most recent candidates for president, winners as well as losers. 

Trump is perceived by some as a bully of the highest order, chauvinistic and narcissistic, with an ability to identify the basest fears and prejudices of the voters and play upon those fears without apology or shame.

Clinton is the penultimate politician and opportunist, parlaying her marriage to an infamous albeit popular president into a lifetime of employment in the public sector. 

While this will be a momentous decision, effecting the course of the United States for the foreseeable future, it masks the importance of whom we elect to serve in Congress.

There is very little chance that the GOP majority in the House will change in the fall.  Worse, this majority includes a powerful minority of representatives that lean extremely right.  This minority will continue to hold this chamber hostage, blocking every compromise that might become law unless more Dems are elected and can join with the moderate GOP reps to work together to govern.  If we continue to allow this half of Congress to be populated by people whose only goal is to eliminate the federal protections in place that keep our air and water clean, and protect the rights of minorities and women, while allowing the continued misguided interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to swamp America with guns and the violence that follows, and failing to properly check employer abuse of workers through non living wages, and reduced benefits, America will continue to see a stalemate in  Washington.  This body has voted time and against income and marriage equality, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and to limit the powers of the EPA and other environmental agencies to reign in those businesses who pollute our planet.  We need to send a message, just as clear as that which will elect the new president, that we expect the House to compromise when necessary to govern America, not merely say NO.

Just as essential, we need to take a hard look at the Senate, currently consisting of 54 GOP, 45 DEM and one Independent.  (No, not Bernie since he changed parties to run as the Democratic nominee).  Thirty four seats are to be determined in November, of which 24 are held by Republicans, a result of the 2010 midterm backlash against Obama's 2008 election.  Of these 34, depending on whose analysis you read, 20 of the seats are "secure", meaning little chance of a change of party.  This leaves 14 seats that might see a switch in party and twelve of those are currently held by the GOP.  Simple math says that a net gain of  4 seats (assuming the independent leans democratic as is usual) will result in a 50-50 split, and if Clinton wins, a Democratic controlled Senate since the
vice-president breaks ties.  A net gain of 5 seats means in won't matter who wins the White House, the Senate will lean left. 

Since many political pundits consider 5 seats a toss up (4 currently GOP), and two of the GOP  seats leaning left, a return to a Dem controlled Senate is not only possible but critical, especially if we remember that Trump is not accustomed to losing.  While I would expect that Clinton might have a chance to work with a GOP controlled Congress, especially if she wins by double digit percentage points, Trump's decisions as to which crazy proposals which emanate from a GOP dominated Congress he agrees to, makes me wince, not to mention his own wacky ideas in regards to Mexicans and Muslims which the right leaning immigration phobic members of the House will love to enact.

Trump vs Clinton.  Who would have thunk it.  Just remember, when you enter the voting booth in November, you are also voting for the body that is charged with enacting our laws, in addition to our next president.  Do your research so that the eventual winner will have the best people to work with, those most interested in governing America, and representing all Americans.     

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Discrimination in a Christian Nation

One might expect the phase "discrimination in a Christian nation" to be an oxymoron, yet it seems increasingly clear by the recent spate of "religious freedom" legislation that has been signed in states such as Georgia and North Carolina, that discrimination is alive and well in America.  What is ironic is that those in support of such blatantly discriminatory laws, believe they are doing God's work, protecting children from gay, lesbian and transgender perverts, as is their perspective.  Even more ironic, is that many of these same people watch in horror at the news of the atrocities committed in the name of god by Islamic fundamentalists, not seeing how much like them they are in their intolerance for others.

It might be wise for those who support such seemingly anti-freedom (anti-American) laws to review the work of Utah, yes Utah, in this area.  While the Utah law is not perfect, is was created with the cooperation of the LGBT community, including one openly gay state representative.  Cooperation, as opposed to last minute legislative meetings with only one political party represented.  A law that addressed the concerns of both sides, found common ground, and was supported by both sides, even though no one was completely happy.  Adult compromise concerning a very difficult issue.

I often say that mankind is evolving in a positive direction, intellectually, socially and spiritually.  I also frequently lament the backlash that can occur following a step forward, usually with the comment that sometimes progress is two steps forward, one step back.  That being said, it should not be surprising that with marriage equality the law of the land, there would be some people who are not ready for such change, and would therefore respond by circling their religious wagons to establish some kind of buffer between themselves and these changes. 

Hence, religious freedom laws that allow for the righteous to refuse service to those with different sexual orientation or gender identification.  Not straight, sorry, no wedding cake for you.  A different gender identification, no job for you.  The only thing missing would be straight and gay public water fountains; after all, perhaps the gay disease can be transmitted orally, through saliva!  (I am sure I read that on the internet, so it must be true).

I no longer affiliate with any religion but I would like to think that the priest that says mass at my mother's church would speak out against this kind of intolerance.  I know that if he didn't, my mother would not be happy.  Unfortunately, I am sure that there are people with religious influence that do not share that sense of intolerance.  They are the first to scream discrimination when they cannot have a manger scene on public property, but yell the loudest to restrict those with different viewpoints from those same facilities.  Even worse, they fail to see the inherent evil in teaming up with local businesses to justify who can be served and who cannot, who can be hired or fired, based on their narrow perspective.   I guess the lesson of World War 2 when so many minorities were persecuted, is lost on them; they forget that intolerance has no boundary, and no consistency, and today's purveyors of discrimination might well be tomorrow's victims.

If I may be so bold, the stories I have read about Jesus recount a man who spent time with the outcasts of his era.  If we are to believe that he was The Christ, son of God, conceived immaculately, sent to earth to provide an example of how to live, and who died for our imperfections so that we might live eternally, the founder and reason for all that is labeled Christian, then perhaps we should act us such. 

Some say there is too much religious influence these days, too many people who so passionately believe the tenants and dogma of their particular religion, that they are blind to the possibility that other sets of beliefs may be just as viable.  But perhaps, in fact, there is not enough religion, where religion is defined by the spirit of its founder, as opposed to the rules created by men to control the believers. 

To me, there is no room for discrimination in a Christian nation, therefore there is no room for discrimination in America.  One might even go so far as to say that anyone who supports such laws is not only not Christian, but not American as well. 


Monday, April 11, 2016

Death and Taxes

Last day of my 6 days off in a row from work.  Didn't miss work in the least.  Did some reading, checked off a bunch of items from my To-do list, finished our taxes and submitted (this will be the third) posts to my blog.  If this is how retirement will be, plus some travel I hope, it cannot come too soon.

I actually finished our federal taxes, and received our yearly refund last month.  First year without my son as a dependent but still receiving the education credit for my daughter's college enrollment.  Unfortunately, we owe some state and local taxes this year due to my wife's out of state job, hence the delay is finishing those forms. 

It seems strange to me how much anger is directed to the various local, state and federal agencies by most people when it comes to paying taxes.  I imagine is it a manifestation of the "me first " attitude that permeates our society.  We agonize over local taxes, usually school taxes, even directing our anger at the teachers who are often perceived as "those who can't, teach" people who get every summer off in addition to a bunch of holidays.  As if they are merely overpaid babysitters.  Yet, when most people are looking to raise a family, they generally move to an area with good schools.  They know the difference a good education can make for their children, yet still grouse over school taxes as if there is not a correlation between cost and results.  What is even more frustrating is that some of those same people will yell and scream at their local sports team for not spending enough money to attract the best athletes!  I guess it is easy to spend other people's money. 

As for state spending, again, education is such a huge percentage of where our tax money is spent, yet we prefer to focus on the politicians (an easy and deserved target) as if their salaries represent that much of our taxes.  Some people forget that when the state does not do its part in funding education, the burden passes back to the local school districts, hence an increase in local taxes.  And, when it is time to send your child to college, those states that do not adequately fund their state universities mean that the parents must borrow even more money for college, or worse, pass the debt burden on to their children resulting in most college graduates facing at least $25,000 ($300 a month for 10 years) in education debt on day one. 

As for federal taxes, well, education is not as big a percentage, although if you lump it in with other "social" programs, welfare, social security, health care etc, it is a large number.  But still, not anywhere near the $600 billion a year, we allocate to defense.  The next time you complain about ISIS and terrorism, and fear, and clamor for more bombs, and more guns, and "boots on the ground" it may be wise to remember that it is those costs that make your tax burden so high, if you believe it so.  It is easy to generate applause when you promise to cut taxes, but much harder to make the math work when you want to build a wall, or bomb our enemies back to the stone age, or continue to provide businesses with tax breaks to create jobs, or make sure our elderly can choose to live where they want and eat healthy food, while managing their bills on a fixed income. 

Paying taxes can certainly be distasteful, and it is certainly just as important to question how our money is spent while paying our fair share.  But let's not pretend that we can be the policemen of the world, maintain our roads and bridges, provide a safety net for those who deserve it, and encourage the business community to provide jobs, and not pay federal taxes. 

Just as certain, as they say, is Death.  Sure, we can buy the latest in home exercise equipment, take the most recent supplement that defies aging, eat right, reduce stress, etc, but eventually death will make a visit. 

This month's National Geographic has an interesting perspective on death, a viewpoint totally at odds with the predominant societal view.  In a remote corner of Indonesia there is a culture in which the corpses of the dead remain a part of the family long after life has left the body.  The Torajan people consider death as a process, not a moment.  A process that includes (after mummification) time with the body before burial, and even, often many years later, time with the unearthed body.  Funerals, which can be months after death, are celebrations much bigger and festive that even weddings.  And, if you are ready to dismiss this as a tradition for backwards, or isolated tribes, the Torajan are a modern people with cell phones and computers.  Their funerals are as much family reunions and community events as ceremonies for the departed as, family members who have left the islands where they were born, travel thousands of miles to be a part of the event. 

In some ways, this kind of practice, where the person is still a part of the family even after dying, is played out in western hospitals where people who are "brain dead" are kept alive through artificial means for days, weeks, even months after brain activity has ceased,.  It is not uncommon in these most advanced of hospitals for the care givers and the family of the comatose to greet those in coma, talk to them as they care for their bodies' needs, just as the Torajan still talk to, bring food for, dress, and interact with their loved ones once dead.  It makes me wonder if this kind of advanced science, where the body can be kept alive even after the person has gone, has brought us full circle to a time when death was an everyday part of life, and that recognition of the dead was as important as acknowledging the living. 

When the Torajan are questioned about the origins of their death practices and traditions, it is not easily discovered.  Much of their lore was of an oral nature until the 20th century.  But perhaps, as the author suggests, the better question is how our current death practices came to be.  It wasn't that long ago that wakes were held in the parlor of the home of the deceased; my house, built at the end of the 19th century, had two front doors, the second one being wider than the first to accommodate a standard size coffin.  Yet, just a few generation later, the thought of having a dead person in one's home is repugnant to most of us, and so often closed caskets are preferred so we don't have to see how the recently departed has degraded, how time has taken its toll. 

It is all well and good to remember those you love as strong, vibrant people.  I much prefer to remember my father as he was when I accompanied him on his route, the wind in his hair, the smell of freshly oiled knives all around us, the new day's sun rising in the distance as we began the day's deliveries.  He was strong, alive, my example of what it was to be a man.  But just as critically, although perhaps not as pleasant, is the sight of him as he lay prone on a slightly too small bed in the hospice that last week.  He was slowing leaving us, his essence easing from earth to the next plane.  Yet, he will always be with us, in myself, my brothers, my son, my nephews and nieces, and their children and their children's children.  Perhaps, like the Torajan, we would be more comfortable with death, less afraid of its inevitability, if we treated death as just another phase of life, part and parcel to being born. living and experiencing, and aging. 

And, if it is immortality we really seek, well we have that to, in our DNA, each of us the result of all our ancestors combined, each or us an ancestor and part of all those who will follow.


Saturday, April 9, 2016


The Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly arrived a few weeks ago.  I have read about a third of it to date.   The first section (of three) is called Premonition, and includes essays from people who have written about the possibility of impending disaster, some natural, some man made.  One which recounts the days and hours leading up to the Challenger shuttle disaster was of particular interest in that a number of scientists from the company which manufactured the O rings that failed were aware of the potential problem which cold temperatures might produce, tried valiantly to convince their managers and NASA administrators to cancel the mission, and were ultimately surprised, not by the explosion but by their lack of success to preempt it.  (I have since heard an NPR segment which detailed the guilt felt by these very same engineers, who blame themselves for not forcing those decision makers to listen, and the anger some still feel on being ignored).

Similarly, the seemingly American hobby of discounting certain science, specifically science that contradicts religion (evolution deniers), and science that threatens certain industries (climate change deniers), is recalled both in the above example where NASA pride trumped caution, and in the opening article which details the ongoing research being conducted in the Greenland ice sheet which undoubtedly demonstrates the potential for disaster that will result in rising sea levels from ice melt.

But these strains of thought are not new to me. 

What is most interesting to date, were the essays taken from the writings of George Marsh and Sigmund Freud.

In 1864 (yes, during the Civil War), Marsh published Man and Nature, one of the earliest texts which argued that human activity could have significant and lasting effect on the environment.  The essay in Lapham's, touches on the destruction of the forests to harvest its wood for houses.  Marsh calls it a Want of Foresight, in that he observes how temperatures in cities are a few degrees warmer that in the surrounding countryside, how removing the trees exposes the ground to faster flow of water, which can remove the ground soil, or what he calls the vegetable mold, making it harder to grow food.  He talks about how these man induced changes, effect the ebb and flow of rivers and streams, the existence of tidal pools and marshes, all changes which effect the flora and fauna of the area.  He observes without the bias of monetary gain or loss, or religious edict.  Strangely, and I say this in light of the occupations and concerns of most of today's politicians, Marsh was an elected United States Congressman for the state of Vermont, and a lifelong conservationist who used his position and knowledge to further the cause of environmental awareness at a time when the Industrial Revolution was first changing America.  Talk about swimming against the stream!!

But the most illuminating essay was from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.  My familiarity with Freud was mostly focused on his Interpretation of Dreams, a topic which I investigated most seriously (and enjoyably) as a young adult, the ability to experience lucid dreaming being one of my earliest pursuits.  And, of course, as a my interest in Psychology blossomed, Freud's creation of psychoanalysis was studied and debated.  But whether I avoided his darker theories on man, or purposefully ignored them, I was not as aware of his contributions in this area.

In this edition of Lapham's is Freud's discussion of the battle between what he calls the instincts of Eros and Death.  Without getting too involved in this theory, he basically boils it all down to our all encompassing instinct of aggression, and the "civilized" concepts we use to counter that instinct to create an orderly less violent society.  What is fascinating is that he turns the basis of Christianity, original sin and the need to be saved through Jesus Christ, on its head by acknowledging that we are in fact, flawed (original sin being our aggressive and destructive nature), and proof is in the need to be saved and to adhere to the basic message of that savior, love one another.  In other words, we need to be told to be good, to have institutions that teach goodness, even to have the carrot of ultimate happiness, eternity with the creator, in order to counter our natural aggressiveness, our natural destructiveness.  Wow, talk about negative!! 

Oddly, Freud died in 1939, before the atrocities of World War 2 occurred.  I would imagine he would have silently nodded his head with the knowledge that the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the incessant bombing of England, the firebombing of Germany and the ultimate use of atomic weapons in Japan, would have proven him right, especially in light of the fact that all of these barbarous acts were committed by people who thought such acts were the beginning of a better man,  or blessed by a righteous God, or the only way to combat those that were evil.

Want of Foresight seems even more at work now than ever.  We continue to make decisions based on short term outcomes, whether those decisions be in the business or political world, or on the battlefield or in the election booth.  And we abhor the violence of others while clamoring for our own righteous version of violence against our enemies. 

Still, there are signs that we might choose to act to prevent disaster, and that we might choose to reject aggression in favor of love.  Hopefully, the tipping point will come before we have gone too far down the wrong path.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Working Together

Like many other sports fans, I watched the NCAA Men's basketball final a few nights ago.  Of course, in addition to being a fan of March Madness, I was eager to see if Villanova, a team from a suburb west of Philadelphia (I live in a northern suburb of the same city), could knock off another number 1 seed and perennial college basketball powerhouse North Carolina.  It had been an impressive run to the final game for Villanova, who rolled over 4 of the five teams it had played, including a record setting 44 point victory in the Final Four semifinal, while also beating the overall number 1 ranked team in the tournament, Kansas, in a thriller last weekend.

My feeling before the game was that North Carolina had the better players, but that Villanova was the better team.  As it turned out, this was true.  While there are a few players on the North Carolina team who will eventually play in the NBA, there are most likely no players on the Villanova team destined for the pro league.  Yet, Villanova won the game in story book fashion on a 3-point basket as time expired.  Their swarming defense in which all five players on the court worked as one, kept North Carolina from playing their game, and from showcasing their better athletes.

As is so often the case in sports, the team with the best players sometimes wins the championship in a given year, but more often loses out to the team which is playing the best.  (As the NHL playoffs approach, let this be a warning to the Washington Capitals, arguably the team with the best players in the National Hockey League).  Of course, a team needs excellent players to succeed.  But the ability for those players to meld into an effective unit and create a team greater than its parts can lead to success even when the individual players are less talented.  A good coach or a good scheme can create the framework, but in the end, the players themselves must "buy in" to a coach, or to the concept that they can win by playing as a team even when the other team has superior players.  ,

Which brings us to politics, and governing.  As any one knows who has read my posts, I am not a fan of the current political bipartisanship, and particularly not a fan of the current political philosophy of the GOP.  While both parties have lost sight of the goal, to govern so as to improve the daily life of the majority of Americans, the Republican party seems to have taken spitefulness to a new level, most recently as reflected in their refusal to hold hearings and vote on the president's nominee for the Supreme Court. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, this election cycle pits an establishment candidate against a "change" candidate in each party.  Without overstating the obvious, when the actual presidential candidates are chosen at the respective nomination conventions this summer, it will be the "team" that pulls together its players which will win the White House.  It won't matter for the Democrats if it is understood that Hillary Clinton is the better presidential candidate, if those who support Bernie Sanders don't work together to elect her.  And, even more critically, it will result in a landslide DEM victory, if the those behind Donald Trump don't work together with the candidate that emerges from what will surely be a brokered nomination process.  Teamwork that emphasizes the stark differences between the overall party platforms, regardless of who represents that party, will win the day, just as teamwork enabled Villanova to win on Monday night.

All this being said, one might say, DUH, Joe, all you say is obvious.  Yet is it so obvious that cooperation is the best process for success?  Especially when a component of cooperation, compromise, is such an evil word in today's politics?  Whether one uses the example of immigration reform which was agreed to by the president and the GOP leadership then scuttled by the extreme right wing members of the House, or the recent example in Pennsylvania when newly elected Governor Wolf had a budget agreement in place with the GOP leadership of that state only to have it rejected by a small but vocal minority of GOP reps and senators, it seems that the "my way or the high way" mentality has become a rallying cry for those who have decided that the opinions of the electorate are only to be honored when those opinions have put them in office, not someone of a different viewpoint or political party. 

Make America Great Again is a wonderful slogan, not withstanding the fact that when pressed for an answer most Americans would rank the United States as the best country in the world, and not forgetting when President Obama was taken to task by radio and TV pundits for answering a question about America's "excellence" by saying that most people in every country think their country a great place.  But if we agree that America was at her greatest in defeating Hitler, and in the few decades after WW2 in our efforts to rebuild Europe, create a thriving middle class, and truly making those words, "all men are created equal" be more than a platitude, we might want to remember that cooperation was at the root of that success.  Opportunity was abundant, whether through government programs like the GI bill that enabled millions of veterans to advance their education without debt, or the rise of small businesses which were community based, and which assumed fair pricing so all in that community could afford the services and products offered.  It was a time of doctors making house calls, athletes having an off season job, and entertainers, politicians, and business owners living a good lifestyle without the trappings of obscene wealth. 

If it is true that we will be judged by our treatment of the least among us, then wall building, ID cards to prove citizenship, institutionalized racism in our justice and penal systems, marriage discrimination, and ever increasing income inequality will not only impede our goal to make America great, they will prove just the opposite.  Cooperation is inclusive; remember that when you next watch a presidential debate, or enter a voting booth,