Friday, July 27, 2018

The Age of Accelerations

Last week, I began reading Thomas Friedman's newest book, "Thank You for Being Late", which has a subtitle of "An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations".   While I am only 60 pages in to a book of over 450 pages, a few thoughts already.

First, Friedman seems a good role model for me, both as a writer and as a person.  In his writing,  Friedman does exhaustive research to support his conclusions, taking the reader step by step along the same path he followed so that, despite the complexity of the subject matter, understanding becomes enjoyable.  As a person, Friedman addresses the same topics being debated across America, topics that produce such extensive vitriol and divisiveness, without value judgments.  

Second, I love the title; it says nothing and everything about the book.  When I first unwrapped the book (it was a birthday present), I had no idea what the book was about.  Nice!  But within a few dozen pages, the intent was clear, not because it revealed the topic but because it established a mind set that is contrary to the hectic lifestyle that is so prevalent today.  Thanks for being late is the exact opposite reaction most people receive when they arrive after a designated meeting time, a reflection of the "time is money" perspective that rules all business, hence America itself, and the accepted value judgment that associates being late with improper time management or plain rudeness.

And finally, the reason for Friedman's gratitude to the occasional friend that is late; they have inadvertently provided the author time to step outside his regimented schedule to look around, smell the roses if you will, and/or reflect on his life, his actions, his future.  

One of the most difficult things to do in life is to look objectively at the events which surround us, whether those events are effecting us personally or globally.  It is a very rare ability to be able to recognize the pivotal times of our lives or our society; more likely we don't know the significance of a moment when it is occurring or just as likely, overemphasize a particular event through the prism of ego-centrism or nationalism.  Self reflection is an important tool in this endeavor, but a tool that seems to have been removed from the toolbox in this age of the 24 hour news cycle and ever accelerating forces that are changing everything that is important in our lives.

Thank You for Being Late reminds us of the importance of time without the incessant buzz of a cell phone or the latest viral tweet or the most recent inane facebook entry where we can argue among two choices that have no real relevance in our lives.  And, if I am to believe in its subtitle. will provide me with a positive spin on a world that is experiencing exponential change across a variety of fronts.

Nice!!     


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Muslim Demographics

I misplaced my National Geographic May Edition, just finding it last week.  I began reading it a few days ago, have read through the short one page and less than 1 page articles in the beginning of the magazine, and just began the main articles today.  The first, under the topic of Diversity in America which is a year long series, is an article about being Muslim in America. 

People identifying themselves as Muslim represent about 1% of the total population of America, or an estimated 3.45 million individuals.  They live in cities and on farms, identify themselves as Black, Hispanic, and White, worship in mosques that represent the Sunni, Shiite (pronounced She-ite), and other non-specific branches of Islam, and, if immigrants to America, come from South Asia, Africa and other areas of the world in addition to the Middle East.  Some hold advanced graduate degrees, some did not finish high school.   Some are US born citizens, some gained citizenship during their lives here, others are non-citizens.  There is a diversity within the Muslim culture, just as there is within all immigrant cultures that have contributed to the American melting pot since 1776.

In some ways, Muslims encounter the same prejudices as every other immigrant culture has when coming to America.  Discrimination in the neighborhoods, in schools, in business, when they express themselves in ways which differ from others whether it be in dress, food, worship or language.  And, they are certainly not the first group to experience institutional and legal discrimination.  Travel bans that focus on countries with Muslim majorities are certainly no worse than Jim Crow laws that dictated separate everything, from water fountains to toilets to schools.  From this perspective, I am hopeful that, like the eventual acceptance of most of the immigrant cultures that have come before them, there will be a time when automatic prejudice will become the exception rather than the rule.  That, like the blending of cultures which has given us so much variety in our music, food, hobbies, festivals, and experiences, the Muslim culture will leave its mark on America in some distant time without the negative connotation that follows it today.

Perhaps one way to move the needle forward is to understand how Muslims are the same and different from us.  Demographics is an objective way, statistics without value judgments.

For instance, using data from 2017, 60% of Muslims are 39 years or younger, 86% are under 55 years of age.  In other words, they are younger than many other groups, which means that the percentage of Muslims in America will most likely grow in the next few generations.  Good news, in that seeing them in their full expression more often will enhance acceptance; bad news for those who only see terrorism.

In terms of generation, about one out of four Muslims are US born with US born parents.  Very similar profile for many Americans, including myself and my siblings.  Second generation Americans.  Another 18% are US born with immigrant parents which would describe my father along with many of the parents of people in my age group, and also includes our current president.  First generation Americans.  The last group, immigrants, make up 58% of the Muslim population and is one of the origins of the animosity towards the group.  It is very easy to track back in time to read and see how prejudice against new comers to America has been a virtual hobby among the "native" people, even when their parents or grandparents were the newcomers, and victims of the same prejudice.  (Strangely, it was the Americans of the 19th century who reversed that trend and engaged in ethnic cleansing of the real native Americans, slaughtering them in droves, pushing them off their homelands, forcing them to educate their children in ways contrary to their own culture.)

The region of origin of Muslims is only 14% from the Middle East and North Africa, with 20% from South Asia, and 24% more from other parts of the world which means that 42% were born in the United States.  This stat seems in stark contrast to the rhetoric that surrounds the Muslim community.

Ethnicity is also a bit surprising.  Of those born in the US, 15% are White, 14% Black, 13% other which includes Hispanic and Asian.  Of those not born in America, 26% identify as White, 24 % Asian, 6% Black.  I would imagine that those among us that have developed a hatred of Muslims might be surprised to know that 41% of them are white but I guess all they see is their differences, all they hear is the hatred directed towards them.

And, since people with such strong prejudices tend to ignore actual facts, they might also be surprised to learn that 42% of Muslims are US born citizens, while another 40% have gained US citizenship despite being born in other countries, similar to the First Lady.  Which means that only 18% of Muslims are not US citizens.  I wonder whether, if Fox News were to flash that stat every day across the bottom of the TV screens, the breakdown of prejudice would be advanced.

As for education and income, Muslims are not much different from most groups.  62% have some college or above, about 40% have incomes over $50,000.

As I was writing this post, I continued reading the article.  What strikes me most is that so many Muslims who were interviewed came to America so they could practice their religion openly, having been born in countries where religious freedom is not a government recognized right.  And they are glad to be here, despite the uptick in hate crimes against them.  They are active in their communities, identifying with other minority perspectives, building bridges between themselves and those other peoples, recognizing their differences but also their similarities.

At the end of the day though, religion is the elephant in the room.  It seems that Muslims follow the doctrines of their religion more fervently than those who profess to be Christians or Jews.  And, like the fundamentalists of all religions, they are victimized along with those who radical Islamic terrorists harm with their violence and intolerance.  But, unlike the far right Christians who openly advocate the killing of abortion doctors and the rejection of laws that allow gay marriage, Muslims are too often stereotyped by the actions of the minority among them.   

We see this religious prejudice at work in the obstacles that some Muslim communities face when planning to build a mosque.  Currently, there are over 2000 mosques in America, but it only takes one with ties to terrorist training or language to inspire organizations to work against new mosques.  Strangely, many of those groups which stand against new mosques contain the word Patriot or People or Americans in their title.  Can you imagine a group called Americans Against Churches having a following, yet substitute church with mosque and many Americans support the sentiment.

Muslims are among us, doctors and lawyers, engineers and teachers.  They serve in our military, fighting for American freedom in countries where, perhaps, they trace their ancestry.  There are spiritual Muslims who work to unite people of different faiths and perspectives, evil Muslims who preach hate and violence.  They are like us, and are different from us. and it is whether we choose to focus on the former or the latter that makes America great, or just another country.  Assalamu alaikum.
 
 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

History; Study or Forget?

Interesting article in the July/August Smithsonian concerning one man's obsession with developing a way to read ancient papyrus scrolls that heretofore have been unreadable due to their condition, or are destroyed in the attempt to read them.  Juxtaposed against this fascinating story is the report I recently read about a proposed change to the content of AP World History courses, a proposal that would only require the courses to cover world history from the year 1450; nothing previous to that time.

First, the Smithsonian article is about Brent Seales, an American scientist who has been experimenting with various levels of X-ray technologies combined with intricate algorithms to "read" ancient scrolls, especially those damaged in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which covered the area around Pompeii in 79 AD.  Specifically, these scrolls, discovered in what is thought to be the palatial home of Piso (father-in-law of Julius Caesar) in the resort town of Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, represent the only known intact library from the ancient world.  Unfortunately, due to the sheer magnitude of the explosion, they are no more than lumps of carbon, the layers fused together.  Over the centuries, various methods have been devised to "unfurl" the scrolls, but none remotely successful enough to apply to the majority of those that still exist.  The situation is not unlike discovering an artifact which appears to be non-terrestrial but with no way of opening it or deciphering its lettering.

Seales has been at it for more than a decade, battling setbacks related to the technology he is inventing, the curators who oversee the scrolls and guard them zealously despite the fact that they cannot read them, and government agencies who mix politics with history when making such decisions.  At this point, there is real optimism that Seales can apply his most recent technological mix of X-ray technology, laser beam bombardment and advanced mathematics, to actually decipher the scrolls providing an incredible amount of information to our knowledge of ancient history.

To me it is an important endeavor, yet perhaps seems a waste of time if we are to believe that understanding world history in high school should not delve any further than the 15th century.  Why such a contrast?

For some, it represents the need to provide an education for our young people that is practical.  Let academics worry about ancient history, let's focus on what makes sense for today.  Certainly, there is some merit to that thought as there is only so much time in a day of education, and hard choices must be made to make the best use of that time.  Unfortunately, there sometimes exists a bias in those hard choices.  Do we ignore ancient history because it reflects people that do not exist today, such as the Mayan or Aztec?  Do we skip those histories because they are not European in origin?  Or because they do not reflect a Judeo-Christian based religion?

Also, these kind of arguments are also used to justify the elimination of art and music classes, or studies of cultures which represent minority perspectives.  I often hear from people who express opinions against a class which emphasizes contributions to the history of America made by women or African Americans or Mexicans, yet are easily irritated when they hear of a college or university that is de-emphasizing a history which is important to them.  Doesn't understanding all sides of a story enhance our lives and create an environment where we become more tolerable of those that are different than us?  It saddens me that it seems so easy to stoke a populace to dehumanize people that come from a different country, have a darker skin color or worship a different version of god, yet so difficult to excite people about learning about cultures that differ from our own.  It makes me wonder if, when we are at last visited by an alien being, will we welcome her to learn about the universe or destroy her out of fear that such knowledge will challenge/threaten the foundation of our beliefs?

On occasion when I watch a Nat-Geo or Discover or History channel program about ancient Egyptians, it is striking to realize that so much knowledge about this time is lost or hard to uncover, not just because of the ravages of time, but because some generations purposefully destroyed information to eradicate the previous pharaoh or family or culture from history.  While we abhor the treatment of Nazi Germany of the people that they labelled sub-human, they at least spent a lot of energy to accumulate vast caches of art and historic treasures.  For money, probably, but at least they understood the importance, unlike stories of ISIS soldiers who wantonly destroy ancient sculptures and statues which do not reflect their fundamentalist version of religion.

Such hatred of people or perspectives different from their own is a black mark on all of us as it takes our own conscious or unconscious xenophobic tendencies and puts them into action.  On a slightly less insidious scale, it seems to shed a light on our current president's clear agenda in reversing everything created by the previous president.  In his case, I toggle between the ideas that he truly believes that only policies created by white people are worthwhile, and the utter egocentric nature of a man who truly believes that only he can solve all problems.  Alarmingly, President Trump takes it even further, right to the present minute, declaring what is real and what is fake news based on his own personal perspective, and what sheds good and bad light on his life.  Ugh!

It is too easy to say that those who refuse to understand history are doomed to repeat it.  It is a saying far too simple to apply to the larger cultural tendencies and even the very nature of our DNA which still provides us with the energy to fight or flight when under duress.  And, of course, history is generally only appreciated or embraced as we age; it is not a young person's game. 

But that makes it even more critical that our institutions support the study of mankind's history, even that which presents us with a different perspective, or information not to easy to swallow.  Nothing bad ever happened in America is a nice talking point for a right wing radio host, and might make a certain person of pale skin feel better about our slaughter of the indigenous culture or slavery or some men's obsession with controlling a women's right to choose, or the plight of a family which makes the most difficult decision possible to flee their war torn or violent country only to have their children separated from them because of an artificially created line in the ground, but perhaps a study of history might teach us otherwise. 


 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Freedom vs Security

In my last post I touched on the concept that we routinely sacrifice personal freedom for various benefits.  For instance, we regard freedom of speech very highly, but accept the restriction that we can't maliciously lie about another (libel), or cause a panic in a closed setting by yelling Fire.  Our freedom of speech is regulated by more important societal needs, especially when those overall needs are related to preventing anarchy and/or lawlessness.

In fact, one might easily argue that there are/have been legal exceptions to every amendment ratified to the Constitution (except perhaps the third), either due to an temporary emergency or to preserve a freedom (or prevent a larger, more far-reaching public catastrophe) or simply because interpretations change as societal norms change.  In other words, no right is absolute.

As indicated above, all speech is not protected under the first amendment; hate speech being another example.  And the separation of church and state which has evolved from the notion that government must not establish a religion is continually being challenged by those who believe that we are a Christian nation which somehow grants approval to discriminate those of non-Christian beliefs whether by making laws that ban travelers from "Muslim" countries, or justifying even worse behavior against those of this faith due to the horrible actions of a few who adhere to a fundamental/radical version of the faith. 

The 2nd amendment does not (to my knowledge) allow for the ownership of tanks, bazookas, or other weapons deemed unfit or unsafe in the hands of non-military persons. 

The 4th amendment has been strengthened or weakened by Supreme Court decisions over the years, depending on the liberal or conservative leaning of that particular Court.

The 5th amendment was routinely ignored in police interrogation rooms before the Miranda ruling of 1966. 

The 6th amendment which guarantees a speedy trial by an impartial jury might be considered one of the most violated of the amendments if you count the current backlog in many judicial courts, and the history of lynchings in the South in the early 20th century. 

The 7th amendment is one of the few parts of the Bill of Rights not to be incorporated (applied to) the states which probably means that it is the least used and useful of the amendments. 

The 8th amendment has been used to sue against over-crowding in prisons and the use of the death penalty, but since both still exist, it is not an absolute. 

The 9th amendment, which states that there are other fundamental rights not enumerated in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, has been used to overturn state laws forbidding contraception as an infringement of marital privacy, as a basis for Roe vs Wade which overturned a Texas law which made it a crime for a woman to obtain an abortion, and a Pennsylvania law that made it a crime to obtain an abortion without spousal consent.  Obviously, this amendment will be under scrutiny in the coming decade with the appointment of a new justice of the Supreme Court.

The 10th amendment, which can be referred to as the states rights amendment, will also be more in the spotlight should the new dynamic of the SCOTUS lean towards a more traditional interpretation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  How far will it go to allow states to pass laws that other states find illegal, and which freedoms will those states attempt to restrict will depend on how far right the Court turns, especially in the areas of privacy, workers' rights, and the separation of church and state.

In the end, the real question is not what freedoms are we willing to regulate, but how far should we regulate them, who should we allowed to decide the breadth of those restrictions, and, most importantly, which freedoms are we willing to trade for enhanced safety and affluence.

For instance, we all believe in innocence until proven guilty, but we routinely relinquish that right by having to disprove our guilt by taking a urine or drug test as a pre-condition for employment.  One's word that he doesn't take illegal drugs is not sufficient, regardless of whether that person has a history of drug use or not.  We are guilty, until we prove otherwise. 

History provides many examples of a populace willing to deny basic freedoms, especially to those considered to be "others", as a way to establish blame for their national problems, or feel better that those problems are being addressed.  Then, once the screw is turned, another group is labelled undesirable, then another, and pretty soon no one is immune from potential condemnation, whether by physical evidence, mere association, or lack of adherence to the laws which demonize the scapegoats.

But what about trading freedoms for a truly better outcome.  I wrote a story called The Archives (http://wurdsfromtheburbs.blogspot.com/2010/06/archives.html) which depicts a world at peace but a peace based on a lie.

Remember, there have been 17 more amendments to the Constitution since the original 10, one which reversed the ruling of another (prohibition), one which granted the right to vote for women (before that, most states did not allow women to vote, but some did), one which limits the president to two consecutive terms, one which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and a number of others which we may take for granted today but which represented illegal activities before their enactment.

Would we be willing to sacrifice the rules which hire most government employees without respect to political affiliation, so that a new government could truly change policies?

Or end the lifetime appointment of certain justices so new courts can be established with each new administration?

Or term limits for Congress or no term limit for the president?

Or the requirement that there be a presidential election, even in times of national crisis?

Or the restriction of the press to publish news not sanctioned by the government?

How readily would a nation, weary of tough times, or convinced that tough times, real or imagined, could be fixed by giving up just a bit of freedom, succumb to such a proposition if the advocate packages such a proposal using phrases which engender patriotism and loyalty only to each other, while establishing black and white choices as to who is US and who is THEM?

It wasn't that long ago that a great nation of proud people make such a choice, creating the worst scourge of death in modern times.  Civilized people, tempted by easy answers to complex problems, national pride, and conscious and sub-conscious prejudice by a visionary with all the answers to all the problems. 

Who knew that freedom was so complicated?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Rule of Law 3

This will be the last post on this topic, at least for now.

First, there were a few more amazing essays in the Lapham's spring edition called Rule of Law.  One was by Joan Cocks, professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke College, called Immune From the Law? and the second by Ralph Nadar called Land of the Lawless. 

Cocks essay discusses various outlying organizations that reject the most basic understanding of our society and the rules which have been established by society, which admittedly, attempt to balance the level of individual freedoms with the need for laws that limit such freedom.  She details a few of these organizations using history to describe other times when tectonic shifts in society created an environment that produced philosophies and reactions similar to that which we are seeing today in light of the growing fear of globalization.  As I read my summary, I realize I am not giving her essay true justice, but found it extremely fascinating and helpful in understanding the wave of nationalism (populism) that exists in the world today.

Nadar's essay focuses on what I can only label as a rebuke to the belief that America operates under "the rule of law" and that "nobody is above it".  Again, an enlightening piece, notwithstanding the possible scenario should Robert Mueller subpoena President Trump.  Nadar delves into many examples of how the rule of law is skewed most severely to benefit those with resources which the average person does not have access to, resulting in laws that do more harm than good, if good is measured as the most benefit for the most people. 

As a connection to this essays, and perhaps, a way to illustrate how the points made by these two thinkers can be linked to current events, I did some research on illegal immigration.

First, are you aware that President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)?  And, that this law, among other things, required employers to attest to their employees immigration status, made it illegal to hire and recruit illegal immigrants as workers, legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants, and (hold on to your hats) granted amnesty to about 4 million illegal immigrants who had entered America before 1982, lived continuously in America since then, had committed no crimes, admitted their guilt of illegal entry, paid a fine, and possessed a minimal understanding of English and American history, etc.  Then, as a follow up to address the children of said illegal immigrants, signed an executive order in 1987 legalizing children whose parents qualified under IRCA, thereby creating a blanket deferral of deportation for these children.

The law was intended to address the illegal immigration problem by focusing on one of the main reasons people were entering America - jobs - with some of the onus placed on the employers who, it was thought, would significantly help stem the tide of illegal immigration if they stopped hiring the immigrants.

That law is still on the books.  It is still illegal to hire an undocumented worker, or help an undocumented worker obtain false identities so as to obtain work.  And, since then, E-Verify has been created, which is an internet-based system that compares information entered by an employer from an employee's Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to records available to the US Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment.

Unfortunately, the law is unequally enforced.  The recent images which were splashed all over the media, while embarrassing the president to back off the separation of children from their parents did not change his belief in a zero tolerance immigration policy.  After all, those people were breaking the laws his supporters are all too eager to note.

But what about the employers who are hiring undocumented workers?  Most estimates put the number of illegal immigrants working in our country at 8 million individuals.  How many of those employers are in jail today, separated from their children?  Where is the zero tolerance policy on them?

You see, the law was not meant to punish employers.  There were some years under Bush (1) that an aggressive approach to identify businesses was employed, but the simple fact was that some industries are dependent on employees who will work long hours for low pay and no benefits.  And, of course, some of those industries have friends in Congress so the actual working of the law only requires a "good faith effort" by employers.   If someone produces a SS card and driver's license and is willing to work 12 hour days in the blazing heat or close quarters of a meat processing plant, the employer can quite easily avoid the  responsibility of checking the employee's eligibility to work by blaming the employee who presented false documents, especially since there has been no federal law passed to make E-Verify mandatory. 

President Trump does support E-Verify, and has indicated he would sign a bill making it mandatory.  Such bills have passed through committee, but as far as I can tell, have never received a floor vote.  Democrats have resisted its passage without addressing a path to citizenship for those who have lived and worked productively in America for multiple years, without criminal activity, and those children who were brought to America illegally by their parents.  Similar to the handling of illegal immigrants by President Reagan and Congress in 1986.  I am not sure why some GOP representatives do not support it, but could conclude that their votes are effected by campaign donations from industries that depend on undocumented workers to turn a profit.  Or perhaps they represent the constituents in the states whose economy is more dependent on undocumented workers.

Why our elected officials can't do both, help stem the tide of illegal immigrants by removing one of their main reasons for entering illegally, while also establishing a path to citizenship for those who have proven themselves to be productive law abiding people since their arrival, speaks to the essays mentioned above.  The fact is, there is a small but vocal minority of Americans who wish our country to be white again, and resist granting citizenship to so many brown skinned people, while there is even a smaller but far more powerful group of people who have lined their pockets via the sweat and blood of workers who allow them to avoid paying certain taxes (or worse, collect the taxes from the workers but don't turn them in), that there are far too many Americans who seek simple answers to complicated questions, and too many politicians, who are more concerned with getting re-elected, or making pretty speeches, than they are with actually solving the immigration problem.  And, sadly, that a partisanship wall has polarized our country into an us vs them mentality.  It is as if cooperation has become a bad word.

So, employers are generally immune from the law while undocumented workers and illegal immigrants are treated with zero tolerance.  Our President calls for cooperation from the Democrats while demonizing them personally, and ridiculing them at every turn for their past efforts.  And, those with the most continue to reap the benefits of our great country as demonstrated by the recent tax reform effort and the ongoing attacks on programs that help the least fortunate.

Certainly, justice has never been blind, and perhaps will never be as long as humans are in charge of the system which determines right and wrong.  And, if my choices are having a system of rules and laws that are followed by most people, at least most everyday people, rather than no system, then I choose the former.  Thankfully, we have people who will continue to remind us that the Rule of Law is a concept that requires fairness in the creation and execution of the laws which encompass it, and that we need to be always on guard when our body of laws tilts too far in one direction or, worse, viewed as a method of controlling the populace while rewarding those in power.