Sunday, December 25, 2011
We each fill a stocking for a family member, whose likes and dislikes, and sense of humor, we know well. My job is important: doing the stocking of my niece's fiancé Carl, as he becomes a member of the family. He gets some small tools and a plant, along with a batch of Captain America window stickers, with the motto "Peace and Justice".
After some breakfast, the presents start coming out from under the tree. My youngest niece Jane has been distributing for years, although this year she disdains the Santa hat (she is 25). She thinks ahead, so that we all keep opening until the presents are gone. Around the circle we go, one gift at a time, sharing the receiving and admiring the giving.
My sister-in-law Ann gives her husband a Vega Little Wonder banjo, the same model as her grandfather's banjo. He begins plucking it right away, giving us musical accompaniment all day.
Even as the younger members of the family send Twitter messages to each other and tell Siri in their IPhones what to do, more traditional gifts are exchanged. As always, there are many solid, ink-on-paper books: murder mysteries, political treatises, cookbooks, novels new and old. This year pottery is also a theme, with handmade bowls in rainbow colors circling the group.
Many "gifts" are donations to favorite causes: Doctors Without Borders, the Metropolitan Opera, Take Action Minnesota, OutFront Minnesota (promotes equality for people who are not heterosexual), Heifer International, Fisher House Foundation (provides housing for family of wounded soldiers during hospital treatment). This is a liberal family, which believes in equal treatment for everyone.
Ann gives her sisters and mother a book entitled "Loving Someone Who Has Dementia" to help them all deal with their father and husband, who can no longer participate in Christmas.
I get a chain saw from Liz, my wife. I don't have a truck or a riding mower, but now I own my first chain saw. I can go outside, start a gas engine, cut big things down, and make a lot of noise. I give her an antique mixing bowl. She doesn't have to do the cooking because she's a woman, while I do the manly things. But we are very happy with our gifts.
At the end of the day, we light Hanukkah candles and sing the Hebrew blessing, just as it has been sung for centuries.
There are lots of presents, certainly more than necessary, probably more than we should have bought or received. All of us have good jobs and enough money to indulge ourselves and each other. That makes us lucky this year, and any year. Lucky to have enough, lucky to be healthy, lucky to have each other every day to rely upon. The things are nice and we will wear them and read them and use them in memory of this day of family togetherness. Eventually they will break or wear out, be put in a closet or handed down to another generation. The love will be there year after year, encompassing new family members, mourning those who have left us, keeping us together.
Our traditions fit us well, even as they keep changing to fit an evolving family. We gave up the tomato aspic and chipped beef on toast. Most meals are now vegetarian. I look forward to our family Christmas all year, seeking gifts for each relative when I travel, planning with my children what to give to my wife, anticipating sitting in a circle with people I love.
Every family celebrates this holiday season in a different way. I hope that your celebration, whatever your traditions, was joyous and loving. If we respect each other's very different customs while celebrating our own, and spread the love beyond our small circle of family, perhaps the spirit of the season, which is not restricted to one religious observance, but is about universal love and charity, will spread beyond this one day.
Captain America and I wish everyone peace and justice, the greatest gifts of all.
December 25, 2011
Monday, December 19, 2011
I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to the goodies that Santa gives out. Lately it seems that the least deserving people, the people who already had a lot and then made a lot more while screwing up the economy for the rest of us, have been getting the biggest Christmas bonuses.
Maybe it’s best that Santa doesn’t know so much about us. Even jolly old St. Nick might be seduced by such knowledge, withholding gifts from some people and playing favorites with others, taking bribes, making threats. Pretty soon the North Pole would be overrun with lobbyists, pursuing their own special interests. The elves might break into political parties: Better Goodies for the Good versus the North Pole Equality Party. Lobbyists plus parties mean corruption.
Any systematic peeking into our daily behavior, combined with collecting data about our personal beliefs and desires, would threaten our freedom. We must always be vigilant that government does not spy on us, as it did so broadly in the 1960s, and as the Patriot Act continues to allow today. But we are worrying about the wrong snoopers. Right now we are being spied upon on a grand scale unimaginable a few years ago. Not by the government, but by the real Big Brother, Big Brother Computing.
Facebook collects information about what its 800 million members are doing on their computers, even when they are not on Facebook. The “like” and “recommend” buttons on countless other websites act like little cameras, even if you don’t click on them, recording what you do and sending that information back to Facebook Central.
Until they were caught doing it about a year ago, Facebook collected information from everyone this way, whether they were a member of Facebook or not. Facebook stopped only when this became public knowledge, saying it was a “bug”. That’s for sure – it was a like a billion bugged phones all over the world, listening in on people’s lives.
Actually the “bugs” of Big Brother Computing are far more sophisticated than the little devices that spies put on each other’s phones. I discovered that the first time I tried to use Windows Media Player (WMP), after the newest version of Microsoft’s operating system was installed on my computer. Microsoft recommended that I “Make Windows Media Player the default program for playing media, automatically download usage rights and media information to update your media files, and send usage data from the Player to Microsoft.”
Here is what that means, according to Microsoft’s own “Privacy Statement”. Under the guise of bringing “you the performance, power and convenience you desire in your personal computing,” WMP records “what you play and how often you play it,” among lots of other personal information. Then information from WMP “may be combined with information obtained through other Microsoft Services.” It is all shared among Microsoft’s “subsidiaries and affiliates”, and stored and processed in “any country in which Microsoft or its affiliates, subsidiaries, or service providers maintain facilities.” Your personal information, collected each time you get online, is spread all over the world. Your computer becomes an extension of the Microsoft Empire. It sends them information about what you do and they put information that they create on your computer.
Facebook is even more clever: it not only knows what you do, but what you look like. Facebook has become adept at recognizing faces. If you post a photograph to your page, Facebook will compare the faces on it to its vast storehouse of data, enabling it to “suggest” identities for the people it recognizes. Depending on what the photographs show, Facebook might well know if you’ve been naughty or nice.
The volume of data that Facebook and Microsoft collect would have been unthinkable before recent advances in computer technology. Unprecedented numbers of computers all over the world rummage through gazillions of data bits at unprecedented speed to figure out what you are playing, who is in your photographs, what you have bought, whom you correspond with.
Google might be the world’s spymaster. Google also has +1 buttons that watch our internet activities. Through its “free” gmail program, Google reads the content of your emails, looking for keywords that it can link to ads which will be displayed on your screen. Through photographs of every street, through control of millions of gmail accounts, through YouTube, and through the new services that are constantly being offered, Google can put together in one dossier your name, address, phone numbers, email traffic, and video watching. Google Health will store all of your medical records, prescriptions, and test results in one convenient place. Convenient for you and convenient for them.
Google and the others are just trying to make money. They use your information to sell you goods more efficiently, or they sell the information to others. They promise not to abuse your privacy. But they already have. “Bugs” in their systems, inadvertent releases of data, the possibility of hacking, and most dangerous of all, their greed, have made privacy a thing of the past.
So you better be good.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 20, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011
My friends take their work seriously and consistently put in their best efforts. They do not need lessons in how to work. They need some real help. They could use a safety net.
The economic safety net, to catch families who encounter problems beyond their resources and then to bounce them back on their feet, is a modern invention. European monarchies created property systems to provide cheap labor to wealthy landowners and political systems to protect the rich, in which the poor had no voice. So millions moved to the New World.
American democracy was designed to promote more fairness: “All men are created equal.” But the political democracy of the Founders was not enough. All men and women were not born with equal chances. In 19th-century America, riches and poverty were considered judgments of God and thus the poor were undeserving. Slavery, prejudice against ethnic minorities, child labor in factories, and systematic discrimination against women were all pieces of the more general rigging of the American economic and social system in favor of the rich, against the poor. The minority who escaped poverty proved that the majority deserved it.
In the 20th century, Americans changed our laws to create an economic and social safety net. Social Security and unemployment insurance in the 1930s, and Medicare in the 1960s were elements of an evolving structure, which offered public help to those without resources. The safety net represents an American consensus that the poor deserve systematic public assistance, not just individual charity. This expression of social solidarity is a statement about American values.
Lately prominent political voices argue that we must take apart the safety net. The calls to flatten the income tax, to eliminate welfare payments, and to repeal regulation of industry are about going back to an earlier America, where the rich and powerful could use their advantages without hindrance. Behind these destructive policies lurk the uncharitable beliefs about the poor that all modern nations have left behind: the poor are lazy and shiftless, don’t know the meaning of work, have frivolous ambitions, depend on handouts, will never amount to anything.
These political leaders don’t like the newly compassionate America. They disdain people who have less than they do. They think the riches of our nation belong to them and their well-connected friends. They offer nothing to my friends.
I admire the way my friends keep going, keep smiling, and keep working. Their burdens are neither kept secret nor broadcast in public. They are shouldered, not avoided or passed onto others.
Are their burdens my burdens, too? I can choose my answer. Are they our burdens? We choose our answer together. Those answers are signs of our friendship, our compassion, and our values.
If we take care of our family members, we do no extraordinary thing. We do what Americans rightly expect family to mean in a good society.
If we take on our friends’ burdens, offer some help, even if not much, we do a less common thing. Americans place a high value on such offers, and offer praise to those who give.
What about a stranger’s burden? What about all those people you haven’t met and never will, who suffer more than you know, who happen to have no relatives or friends with the resources to help? Outside of the drug store, the Salvation Army volunteer rings a bell: “Won’t you give a few coins to help people you don’t know?” Our religions powerfully demand that we help those in need near and far, that we not tailor our compassion to our self-interest.
What kind of family member one is, what kind of friend one is, and what kind of society we are all come from our answers to these questions. If our state, the only organization to which we all belong, in which we all have an equal vote, is not compassionate, if it caters to those with wealth and power, but does not care for those with too little, then how can we pose as an exceptional nation? Among wealthy nations we would be exceptionally hard-hearted.
It is ironic that the public defenders of Christmas have waged a war on the moral value of public compassion, have offered so little to those with little, except condescension. They expound theories to prove that those who have much deserve it all, that their good fortune is our collective salvation, and the rest should just work harder. For them, a “bleeding heart” is a weakness.
If your family has run into hard times, if your unemployment insurance has run out, if your baby does not have health insurance, if there’s never quite enough food on the table, the defenders of Christmas have a message for you.
From the Mitt Romney family, the Newt Gingrich family, the John Boehner family, and all their friends, the warmest Christmas wishes for a happy holidays. They made it, and so can you. As a token of their own values, they’ll make sure that Santa leaves a mop under your tree.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 13, 2011
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
But Herman Cain was never a viable candidate. Even if he had been a model husband, Cain should never have been discussed seriously as a possible President.
Herman Cain worked himself up from poverty to enormous wealth, he was hired by a national organization to lobby their interests, and he became a popular spokesman for conservative causes. Those successes are admirable, but not sufficient qualifications to be President.
An American President must understand business and the economy. The most immediate issues facing our nation right now are macro-economic: increasing poverty and inequality; persistent unemployment; an unwieldy tax system; uncertainties about investing; global competition; a housing crisis. No simple plan will be sufficient to deal with the complex, interrelated issues of our changing world economy.
Cain never showed any ability to oversee a national economy. The utter simplicity of Cain’s “9-9-9” economic plan attracted a lot of attention. But he didn’t understand his own plan. When he talked in October with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd about it, Cain produced nonsense. He said about a family of 4 with an income of $50,000, “Today under the current system, they will pay over $10,000 in taxes assuming standard deductions and standard exemptions.”
In fact, using those assumptions, such a family would pay under $800 in income taxes, and about $3800 in payroll taxes, under normal circumstances. Since the SS withholding tax rate has been temporarily lowered from 6.2% to 4.2%, that family’s payroll taxes would be only $2800. Under Cain’s plan, their federal taxes would be $4500, and their sales tax payments would be additional thousands. This is exactly what economists of the left and right have agreed: most people would pay more taxes and rich people much less.
Cain’s “9-9-9” plan would represent a radical change in our economic system. No more deductions for mortgages, no more exemptions for children, and an unprecedented federal sales tax would fundamentally shift economic policy. Cain never demonstrated that he had any idea what his plan really means. “9-9-9” is not a serious policy; it is an advertising gimmick with untried ideas, a marketing slogan for the brand “Cain”.
If Cain at least looked like he had something to say about the economy, he couldn’t even maintain that pretense when the subject went beyond the US borders. He worried about China developing a nuclear capability, when they have had the bomb since 1964; he couldn’t figure out what to say about the Libyan revolution when interviewed at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and then a couple of days later, talked about the Taliban in Libya; at the so-called national security debate among the Republican candidates, Cain said nothing about foreign policy that a high school student couldn’t have said.
How did this happen? How could someone so unqualified to lead our country become a front-runner, even for a day, among Republican Presidential candidates? Cain could talk the ideological talk of the right wing. After years of giving motivational speeches for the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, he could say the correct phrases and repeat the correct slogans. He just needed a script, prepared and paid for by others, that he could deliver with enthusiasm, in exchange for a lot of money.
Is that enough to be President? Are the simple ideas that Herman Cain has been offering over the past few months so impressive that anyone who can say them deserves to be President?
We have seen this all before. Sarah Palin made an enormous splash as a national candidate, because she too made an attractive spokeswoman for sound-bite versions of conservative ideas. She could speak the average person’s language. Then it turned out that she couldn’t speak any other language. She didn’t know anything about Russia, which she could see from her porch, much less about Africa, China, or the euro. She didn’t read and didn’t care. She figured, as Cain did, that a couple of months of tutoring by some “experts” would give her everything she needed to know, in case she was faced with a revolution in multiple Arab countries, the possible bankruptcy of European nations, or a nuclear Iran.
Palin and Cain are not foolish. They recognized that the elemental ideas of the Tea Party supporters could be exploited by slick slogans and political gimmicks. And like the other right-wing favorites, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, that’s all they had.
The rest of us deserve more than self-promoters and their gimmicks. We need serious candidates.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 6, 2011
Monday, November 28, 2011
I am not trying to market their brands or advertise their virtues. I represent my own party of one, which is what I believe an opinion columnist ought to do. Being published in my own community is a great privilege, which I hope to earn by talking straight with my readers about my own thinking.
Unlike so many of the people who talk and write at us these days, I am not trying to make a buck or get a vote. I am free to tell the truth, as I see it. I don’t have to make up lies about other people, who don’t share my views. I don’t have to pretend that what I know is true is false, and what I know is false is true.
I am also proud to say that I am a part of these institutions, by my choice. I share their values, I wish to see them prosper and grow, and I promote their programs and people with my own time, labor, and money.
That is why I can represent them when they want me to wear a badge with their name. If I meet prospective students on campus, university administrators in Japan, or scholars at a conference, I identify myself with Illinois College. Over my signature on Sino-Judaic Institute letterhead, messages about membership, dues, grants, and finances leave Jacksonville. I am proud to write local homeowners about designating their houses as local landmarks, in the name of the Historical Preservation Commission.
By pledging allegiance to certain institutions with whom we want to identify, we don’t give up our rights to think about, talk about, even preach about contemporary issues. We simply must accept the responsibility to be clear about how, and especially when, we represent those institutions. Inevitably the line between being true to oneself and representing larger institutions gets fuzzy, since we cannot separate our public and private identities, as citizen or employee.
Right now I’m at home, my mother is in the next room, and my music is playing. The responsibility for what gets published here in my name is entirely mine.
If some authority comes after me because they don’t like what I say, no institution will protect me. But I’m still safe, because I am shielded by a power greater than institutions, the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Still the determined efforts of those who don’t want me to talk at all have surprised me. Because the internet offers virtual anonymity and unparalleled access, anyone who speaks out is yelled at, in every violent, disgusting, hateful way. It’s much worse for women who are attacked both for their views, and as unworthy of having any views. They are threatened with graphically violent sexual violation. Maybe that’s because the nastiest people in the blogosphere are angry men.
The freedom which enables me to write is really based on you readers. The First Amendment was adopted in 1791, but many times in our history that freedom did not effectively exist. I was born at the depth of the Cold War political hysteria, whipped up by conservatives of both parties, symbolized by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but encompassing Presidents and Congress, FBI agents, labor leaders, and newspaper editors. Civil rights leaders, pacifists and feminists, who voiced ideas uncomfortable to the defenders of a racist, sexist, and militaristic status quo, were routinely deprived of this freedom.
The reinvigoration of our constitutional freedoms in my lifetime came from below, from ordinary citizens, from readers who wanted to end censorship by the powerful. I feel the protection of today’s readers, not just the few who agree with me, but the many who believe in my right to write. Surrounded by the shield of a free readership, opinion writers across America can do our work.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 29, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
How did that happen? The conservative answer is very loud and certain: “It’s the Democrats’ fault. We need Republicans, the more conservative the better, to clean up that monumental mess before it overwhelms us.”
That’s the part that seems puzzling. Over the past 30 years, Republicans have controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress for 6 years, and either the Presidency or both houses of Congress for 20 years. In those 30 years, the only time that more than 2 out of 9 Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democrats has been the past 2 years.
If Washington is a mess, then the Republicans have been making that mess, too, for decades. So how do they avoid taking any responsibility?
Well, when was the last time a politician took responsibility for anything wrong? That’s a bit of bipartisanship we would all like to get rid of.
But blaming the Democrats is not just typical political hypocrisy. What the conservatives hate is mainly due to Democrats, but not entirely. They hate the 1960s.
Republicans avoid talking about their leadership and power in Washington for the past 30 years, because they are fighting to undo the changes in our political system that came earlier, during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Conservative Republicans want to do away with the environmental protections that have safeguarded our health since the 1960s. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1963,and the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act set the first standards for vehicle emissions in 1965. The Environmental Protection Agency, that Rick Perry says is a “jobs cemetery”, was proposed by Richard Nixon and created in 1970.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that protects citizens from dangerous products, was created in 1972. The Energy Department was created in the 1970s, because the oil crisis of 1973 made us realize the need to consolidate energy policy.
The movements for equality that conservatives are so angry about, the women’s rights and gay rights movements, grew out of the popular recognition in the 1960s that inequality was rooted in American laws and customs. Roe v. Wade affirmed women’s constitutional right to control their own bodies; it was decided by a 7-2 vote, with 5 of the those affirmative votes by justices appointed by Republicans. The Office of Economic Opportunity was created in 1964 to administer new programs designed to reduce poverty in America, such as Head Start, VISTA, and Legal Aid. Republicans are now trying state by state to reverse the expansion of the franchise to poor people that developed out of the voting rights protests of the 1960s.
Conservatives lost the battles in the 1960s to stop these reforms from being put into place. They have tried for decades to obstruct, weaken and defund them. They point to every problem with programs that they have been in charge of for most of the time. Their message is not, “We failed.” It is, “These programs can’t ever work. Let us get rid of them.”
One person symbolizes everything that conservatives hate about the 1960s. Barack Obama, son of a foreigner, community organizer, black, and liberal, could not have become President, if it hadn’t been for what the American people accomplished in the 1960s, over the vocal objections of conservatives.
But they won’t succeed. The revolution in American politics that was won by American voters in the 1960s and 1970s still commands majorities. A September Harris Poll showed that 51% of Americans support same-sex marriage, 56% support stricter gun control laws, 64% support abortion rights, and 75% support stricter environmental protection. Even after the poor and the immigrants are excluded from the polls, even after the relentless bombardment of billionaire-financed TV ads, most Americans want the rights, the freedoms, and the securities for us and our children that the 1960s brought.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 22, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Cain actually used the word “brainwashed”. That makes me think of Frank Sinatra tracking a robotic Laurence Harvey in the “Manchurian Candidate”. We all know that brainwashers are our enemy. In the film, Russian and Chinese intelligence agents and a Commie-loving traitor, Laurence Harvey’s mother, terrifically overplayed by Angela Lansbury, will stop at nothing to attain their evil ends.
Could there be a good brainwasher? Some corporation, or some government, or some alien offers eternal happiness right here on earth, in the form of pills, or surgery, or radiation. Wouldn’t that be nice? No. From “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” back to Orwell’s “1984”, back further to Goethe’s “Faust”, the cultural message is clear. There is always a sinister motive behind this gift of the good life. The bad guys want to rob your freedom in exchange for some fleeting and ultimately worthless promise of fame, fortune, and good-looking playmates. It’s the Devil’s pact. All brainwashing is bad.
Herman Cain wants to be taken seriously. Let’s listen to exactly what he said. “Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol, simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it's just brainwashing and people not being open-minded, pure and simple .... For two-thirds of them that is the case.”
The brainwashers are the usual Republican devils: liberals or Democrats, if there is any difference. According to Cain, most African Americans are unable to escape the mind-control black magic of those long-time political criminals, led by their Brainwasher-in-Chief, Barack Obama.
A slightly different metaphor comes to the lips of another black conservative, Rep. Allen West from Florida. He compares the Democratic Party to a modern-day “plantation.”
West told Laura Ingraham on FOX News that he is the “modern-day Harriet Tubman“ and that he wants to lead fellow African Americans away from the “21st-century plantation.” Only this time, unlike 19th-century slavery, African Americans voted eagerly for their slave masters. Dumb.
Are Cain and West actually trying to appeal to African Americans by calling them dupes? Certainly. That’s no different than the message proclaimed by all the Republican Presidential competitors. The new line, once put out only by celebrity radicals, like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, but now standard fare for serious Republican politicians, is that liberals are not simply wrong, not simply bad for the country, but determined to ruin America. Bad for blacks and whites, if only they could see it.
The evil deeds of Obama Democrats, like the hoax of global warming, the death panel threat to Grandma, and the betrayal of Israel, are so obvious, that the only explanation for their legions of avid supporters is brainwashing.
These European-style socialists constantly repeat their big lies through the dishonest liberal media. Using techniques perfected by Joseph Goebbels, the American media bombards the public with so many “facts”, that only conservatives have not been put into a trance.
Sounds like “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man,” as Joseph McCarthy said long ago.
Herman Cain is just repeating normal Republican campaign rhetoric. But there is still a difference. White American is pretty evenly divided, with the edge to the right-thinking conservatives. But Cain’s two-thirds of black America, which is really 90% of black voters in 2010, blindly votes for Democrats.
It seems to me that a better tactic to win black votes might be to offer more than insults, such as jobs (African Americans had 13% unemployment in 2010) or health care (44% of black adults have no health insurance). But not one Republican politician has repudiated Cain’s and West’s characterization of black Americans.
Perry and Romney and all the rest agree that African Americans are less able than whites to resist the clever techniques of the liberal brainwashers. Born that way, I guess.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 15, 2011
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The JDC has played an integral role in the history of Jacksonville. In 1847 the state legislature established the Illinois State Asylum and Hospital for the Insane, which opened exactly 150 years ago this month. This new public hospital was based on an innovative idea: the state would assume the costs of treating and caring for “the insane”.
Since then, this hospital has undergone significant changes in its name and functions. In the 1970s, care for the developmentally disabled was added to the hospital’s mission. Later in-patient treatment for the mentally ill was eliminated, hence the final name change to the Jacksonville Developmental Center.
While the type of patient has changed, the original idea has not: the state, representing all the people, assumes the medical challenge and financial burden of caring for citizens who cannot care for themselves. That is an expensive undertaking. At the public hearing in Illinois College’s Bruner Fitness Center on October 24, administrators from the Illinois Department of Human Services estimated that the annual cost at JDC is about $200,000 per patient. With nearly 200 patients, the total cost is about $40,000,000, or about $3 per Illinois resident per year.
The JDC is in bad shape. It is heated by outdated coal-fired furnaces, several of which no longer function. Years of inadequate budgets have left an estimated $100 million in deferred maintenance of buildings and roads. In 2010 the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency which administers these programs, nearly decertified JDC due to life safety code violations. Perhaps because of these problems, the JDC is the most expensive among similar Illinois state facilities in per capita cost.
The public hearing revealed conflicts that go beyond budget issues. The Illinois Council for Developmental Disabilities, a state agency which advocates for the developmentally disabled, and the Department of Human Services agreed that institutional care for these patients should be replaced as far as possible with community placement in smaller facilities. They believe this will not only be considerably less expensive, but better for the patients.
The closing of JDC inevitably hurts our local economy. It is one of the largest employers in the area and its 400 staff will not be able to easily find equivalent jobs. The economic ripples of shutting JDC down will extend beyond the employees to businesses which supply food, clothing, materials, and transportation.
The consensus that JDC had outlived its usefulness has developed over many years. This issue has been thoroughly studied, debated, and restudied before the Department of Human Services, following the best medical diagnosis, decided to move its support away from large institutions to smaller facilities.
That is the way we want such momentous decisions about our fellow citizens to be made. Instead the elected leaders of state government, Democrats and Republicans, just wielded an ax to deal with the state budget mess. Jacksonville has to defend our right to survive against hasty partisan decision-making. Closing JDC without sufficient time to allow the staff to prepare the residents for a life-changing move, to allow the community to develop the proper homes to accept so many new residents, to allow staff to find jobs, is incompetent politics.
The crisis at JDC is a small part of a much larger crisis in American political morality. The decision by the young State of Illinois in 1847 is being questioned – should the state, that is, all of us, take care of those who can’t take care of themselves? Or is it too expensive?
On March 15, the New Boston Tea Party was clear about why they want to eliminate most social programs: “The locusts are eating, or should we say devouring, the productive output of the hard working taxpayer.”
At the moment, the developmentally disabled at JDC are the locusts. In other places, it’s the unemployed, the homeless, the immigrants, the poor. Conservatives don’t say that the US isn’t rich enough to care for such people; they say all the time that we are the most prosperous nation ever. They say they don’t want to pay for them. That’s why I’m not a conservative.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 8, 2011
Monday, October 31, 2011
In 1945, Kyoto was selected as a possible target for an atomic bomb. A special Targeting Committee picked four cities as targets, with Kyoto at the top of the list. The Targeting Committee report stated: “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon.”
Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb, brought the proposed list of targets to Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s and then Harry Truman’s Secretary of War. Groves later told an interviewer that when he presented the list to Stimson, Stimson immediately replied, “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.”
Stimson had celebrated his honeymoon 40 years earlier in Kyoto. He did not oppose the use of atomic weapons on civilian targets in Japan, because, like many other American leaders at the time, he believed that the shock of instantaneous mass destruction would force the Japanese to surrender and thus save many American lives. But he worried about the consequences for the US of this potentially devastating bomb. Just two weeks earlier, Stimson had written to Truman, “The reputation of the United States for fair play and humanitarianism is the world’s biggest asset for peace in the coming decades. I believe the same rule of sparing the civilian population should be applied, as far as possible, to the use of any new weapon.”
In fact, Japanese civilians were not spared in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More civilians died in World War II than in any previous war, possibly more than in all previous wars combined. The Nazis killed millions of eastern Europeans, the Japanese killed Chinese, British and American bombers killed Germans and Japanese. The human tragedies of the war in Europe and Asia are unfathomable.
But Stimson’s decision did spare a millennium of Japanese culture. Bombing Kyoto would have been a further tragedy for Japan, and it might have made Japan’s eventual recovery and its renunciation of war as a national policy much more difficult.
After the war, the newly formed United Nations initiated several projects to preserve threatened treasures of human civilization, such as the Egyptian temples, which would have been flooded by the Aswan Dam, and the unique architecture of Venice, slowly sinking into the water. A White House conference in 1965 developed the idea of a World Heritage Trust to preserve “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.” In 1972 the world’s nations agreed to a UNESCO treaty, which prohibits “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples”.
The list of World Heritage sites includes the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. The concept of the World Heritage list is that we all have a stake in preserving the achievements of our history. Cahokia and Kyoto are not just national creations, but international treasures, which help to define the best of the human race.
Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto houses the Museum for World Peace, established in 1992. The exhibits center around the Japanese attack on China, especially on the massacre of perhaps 200,000 civilians in and around the city of Nanjing in 1937. Like Holocaust museums and monuments in Germany, the Museum of World Peace represents a profound apology for a people’s destructive actions in war. It promulgates the lesson that war destroys the fabric of human civilization, that starting war solves no human problems, that those who seek to conquer others may lose their own humanity.
The Japanese and the Germans, nationalist aggressors in the 20th century, are now two of the world’s most peaceful nations. They have regained their places of world leadership through economic development rather than through military force. They have become good friends with their former enemies, even with the US, which helped to destroy their cities.
Kyoto is a Japanese treasure, and a monument to the development of human culture. In shrines and gardens hundreds of years old, an American tourist can experience the common human striving for understanding, for beauty, and for peace. Stimson was right to insist that Kyoto not be bombed.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 1, 2011
Monday, October 24, 2011
This example of scientific censorship comes on the heels of the firing of Georgia’s state climatologist, David Stooksbury, by the Republican Governor, Nathan Deal, who apparently did not like his acceptance of the scientific consensus that human activity has contributed to global warming.
Herman Cain said in June, “I don't believe global warming is real.” In August, Perry said in New Hampshire that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a “substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data”. The Republican candidates for President often say that government should be run like a business. Yet businesses take a very different attitude toward the science of global warming than Republican politicians.
Insurance companies across the world have built warming into their rate structures for years. In 2006, Marsh, the world's largest insurance broker, sent a 36-page “risk alert” to clients that said: “Climate change - often referred to as ‘global warming’ - is one of the most significant emerging risks facing the world today, presenting tremendous challenges to the environment, to the world economy, and to individual businesses. Businesses - if they haven't already - must begin to account for it in their strategic and operation planning.”
A report last month by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners discussed a 2010 survey of 88 major US insurance companies: “the survey revealed a broad consensus among insurers that climate change will have an effect on extreme weather events.”
Some forward-thinking businesses see opportunity in global warming. During the last 10 years, the polar ice sheet has shrunk by about one-third from its previous size. The Norwegian Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program estimates that within 30 or 40 years the entire Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer. Now that the Arctic ice is melting, companies in Russia are taking advantage of new sea routes and fishing areas, as is Exxon Mobil, who hopes to drill for oil. Planning ahead is just good business.
But for Republican politicians, it’s bad politics. They have worked hard to convince their base that global warming is a fiction dreamed up by evil liberals. Now they have to shut up the scientists, who keep producing inconvenient evidence.
So here is a plausible scenario. Perry is elected President. Someone in the CIA, who knows about Russia and about foreign policy, especially security, wonders what will happen when more ice melts and the sea route from Russia to North America opens up. No problems yet, but she combines the latest global climate science, with measurements of Arctic Ocean ice, and business data from Russian shipping companies and ship manufacturers, and thinks that in 20 years world naval strategy will be transformed. Since new navies for new challenges in Arctic waters take decades to develop, she wonders why anyone hadn’t caught on to this before. She’s proud of herself.
Perry has demonstrated no capacity to understand, much less deal with complex scientific and foreign policy issues. So he relies on his closest aides. His science advisor knows how to handle this situation – the same way they dealt with the specialists who measured the rising water in Galveston Bay. We can’t admit that, because then we would have to admit that the world was getting warmer. We would have to explain to the American people what our futures might look like, very different from today. We would have to consider how much our modern industrial society contributes to the warming, and then explain what steps we would take to reduce that. We would have to admit that we were wrong, wrong for years, wrong when all the evidence showed we were wrong, wrong because of politics, not science.
As Staples says, “That was easy.” A true no-brainer. We’ll just shut her up in whatever way works best. Eventually the truth will come out, but by that time we’ll be long gone. No need for moral qualms. All the other Republican candidates would have done the same thing. Obama wouldn’t, but would we want to support anything he does?
Sorry for the depressing fairy tale. Perry won’t get elected. But some Republican might, and they already control the House. How can we make sure that this scenario remains a fiction? How can we prevent politics from trumping science, and our security?
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 25, 2011
Monday, October 17, 2011
The Japanese are very polite. Repetitive bowing, waiting for others to go through doors, and saying “thank you” are physical expressions of the cultural importance of deferring to others and pleasing guests. In the train, the conductor takes off his hat and bows to the entire car before collecting tickets. This politeness also includes some physical distance. The hand shakes, mutual hugging, and cheek-kissing common in Western cultures are absent.
The Japanese place a premium on cleanliness. Removing one’s shoes at the entrance to residences and the provision of hot hand towels with meals are well known manifestations of this concern with order and neatness. The absence of litter on city streets, paired with public recycling programs, make urban spaces welcoming. Even on long train rides, I saw no trash in abandoned lots near the tracks, a common view out the windows of American trains.
Space is a necessary concern in a country of 127 million people squeezed into an area the size of Montana, with 10 times the population density of the US. Houses nearly touch each other and rooms are small. But a feeling of being crowded together is avoided by the efficient and thoughtful use of space. Although the typical home has a tiny yard, these small spaces contain beautiful gardens. It is no accident that the Japanese developed bonsai culture, compressing trees into table-top gardens.
These behaviors are varied expressions of a culture which emphasizes cooperation and the welfare of others over self-regard and individual striving. To an American, these traits can feel constraining, even stifling. But they provide important social advantages. In the wake of the tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the resultant loss of nuclear power generation, the whole nation was asked to reduce power usage by 15%. The Japanese people accepted reduced air conditioning and many other daily inconveniences of lowered energy consumption in order to collectively meet this goal.
Another aspect of this cooperative model is a much flatter distribution of wealth. The Japanese think of themselves as a middle-class society. Along with the Scandinavian countries, Japan has the world’s lowest level of wealth inequality. The ratio of the pay of CEO’s to average workers is 11 to 1; in the US it is more than 200 to 1. Private home ownership is nearly as high as in the US.
Certainly the economic “miracle” of Japanese postwar expansion shows that this cultural model can succeed in global competition. For decades Japan had the world’s second largest economy. Recently the Japanese economy has appeared to sputter, with very low growth rates. Many Americans saw this as proof of the superiority of our more individualized model.
But our economy has now entered a prolonged period of decline, and our position as the world’s leader is in question for the first time in a century. Other models, like the Chinese centralized command economy, threaten to displace us from global leadership. A Goldman-Sacks study done before our great recession estimated that the Chinese economy would pass ours by 2030. If the US enters a long period of stagnation, our stark social inequalities may become less tolerable, as both the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations already show. More egalitarian Japanese society may be better placed to deal with lack of growth.
I am speculating here, from little evidence. I am just beginning to learn about Japan. For a week I observed a vibrant, efficient, modern, and friendly nation, whose people look forward, but see something different than we Americans do. Their ideas and customs are neither better not worse than ours. Observing the Japanese can teach us much about ourselves.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 18, 2011
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
The near depression beginning in late 2007 hammered all sectors of the economy. Since then corporate profits have returned to record levels. The stock market, although volatile, has regained most of its losses. The demand for luxury goods has reportedly returned to pre-crisis levels, so the rich must be doing just fine.
But jobs have not come back. Unemployment remains at 9.1%. The long-term unemployed are having great difficulties finding jobs. In order to protect their profits, global corporations are still slashing their work forces or sending jobs overseas. While the economic situations of corporate managers, hedge fund brokers, and major stockholders have stabilized, the incomes of millions of middle- and working-class Americans are still missing.
Republican candidates for President talk incessantly about how many jobs they have created in the past. Mitt Romney claims to have personally created jobs when he was in the private sector, although he never mentions how many jobs he helped get rid of when Bain Capital was buying and selling distressed companies. Rick Perry claims credit for all the growth in employment in Texas since he has been Governor.
Do Republican politicians offer solutions to our jobs crisis? Mitt Romney released his jobs plan last month. He proposes to cut federal domestic spending by 5%, reduce the corporate income tax rate, increase oil drilling, implement free trade agreements with Columbia, Panama, and South Korea, and eliminate estate taxes on inheritances. In the most optimistic projections, assuming that tax cuts really do stimulate the economy, this would create no new jobs besides a few in oil exploration until these measures work their way through the economy. Meanwhile cutting spending means cutting public sector jobs, such as teachers and firefighters.
My own Illinois Congressman, Aaron Schock, is similarly uninterested in any proposal that might create jobs now. He sent out a “Your Opinion Matters” card to constituents, asking us to let him know which topics concern us. The card lists 10 subjects, but no mention of jobs. His 3-page letter on economic issues is about the debt ceiling and cutting domestic spending, but not a word about jobs. On his website “Jobs and the Economy” is listed under “Issues”, but there, too, all we see are the familiar Republican proposals to cut domestic spending, reduce taxes, and repeal regulations. No new jobs.
Republican spokesmen have been clear about why they have adopted this position. Right after the 2008 election, Rush Limbaugh expressed his hope that Obama would fail to improve the economy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed the highest legislative priority of his party in October 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Congressional Republicans have opposed the two proposals by the Obama administration which offer some relief to the unemployed – extension of unemployment benefits and creation of construction jobs in the latest jobs proposal.
What does this mean? It appears that Republicans do not want the economy to recover over the next 12 months. They do not want unemployment to come down and more Americans to get jobs. They believe that continuing high unemployment will bring Obama down, so they want to preserve what they feel is their winning card: a bad economy. None of their prescriptions would go into effect until after their presumed election victory in November 2012. Then these proposals, taking the most optimistic view, would percolate slowly through the economy, as the rich, with lower taxes and bigger inheritances, allow their vast wealth to trickle down to the middle and working classes.
So the Republican prescription for the jobs crisis in America is – wait. Wait for another year, while we prevent the Democrats from reducing unemployment and improving their chances of election. Wait for another year, even if your unemployment benefits run out. Pay your mortgage or rent, but don’t expect any additional help with heating costs. Buy food, but expect less help through food stamps, as we demand further cuts in federal spending. Just muddle through somehow.
Then elect us and we’ll cut corporate taxes, reduce environmental and safety regulations, and boost the fortunes of the wealthiest Americans. Then wait again until the promised economic recovery finally lifts your little dinghy. Bon voyage!
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 10, 2011
Monday, October 3, 2011
So surprising that in one day the story spread across the world, from the New York Post to FOX News to the London Daily Mail to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Then a few skeptical people decided to check it out. Nobody could find a Jewish voter who believed Bachmann was Jewish, although New York Magazine did encounter a Jewish scientist who likes Bachmann, because the Democratic party is “destroying our free society and pushing the U.S. on the road to widespread misery and eventual dictatorship.” Even he knew Bachmann wasn’t Jewish.
This clumsy attempt by Romney’s campaign to use alleged Jewish gullibility to knock his opponent isn’t about Jews at all. It is part of a larger effort by conservative Republicans to use Jews to win Christian votes.
Every candidate argues that they are better for Israel, and thus better for American Jews, than the rest. What is unusual now is that all the Republican candidates for President say our President and his administration are deliberately bad for Israel. In May, Romney said, “President Obama threw Israel under the bus,” and the next day Herman Cain repeated it.
The Republican candidates have no plan to solve the world’s most dangerous crisis. They don’t even propose policies. Perry, Romney, Cain and the other conservative Republican politicians are not advocating any peace process nor seeking Jewish votes; they are appealing to fundamentalist Christians, for whom Israel has become a religious obsession. They support the most fanatical settler organizations, who plan to make war forever with the Palestinians. In September Rick Perry explained why he advocates continued Israeli building of settlements on the West Bank: “I also, as a Christian, have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it's pretty easy.” That “directive” comes right out of fundamentalist end-of-the-world dogma. For the Rapture they eagerly await, Jews must return to the Holy Land before the worldwide disaster of Armageddon breaks out.
According to a June poll by the Pew Center, about half of evangelical leaders across the world believe that establishment of the state of Israel was a crucial step on the path to Jesus's second coming and that Jesus will return in their lifetime.
The most vocal conservative Christian supporter of Israel is John Hagee, pastor of a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, and founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Although John McCain rejected his endorsement in 2008, appearing arm-in-arm with Hagee seems to be a requirement for today’s Republican Presidential candidates. Hagee is so concerned about the safety of Israelis that he proposed a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran at CUFI’s Washington conference in 2007.
And what does Hagee think about Jews? In his 2006 book, Jerusalem Countdown, he wrote: “It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God's chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day... Their own rebellion had birthed the seed of antisemitism that would arise and bring destruction to them for centuries to come.... it rises from the judgment of God upon his rebellious chosen people.”
Antisemitism is the Jews’ own fault, for rejecting Jesus, exactly what Christian antisemites have been saying for 2000 years. Hagee said in a sermon in 2005 that Hitler and the Nazis were divine agents sent by God to chase Europe's Jews towards Palestine. With friends like Hagee, who needs enemies?
Peace in the Middle East is not the goal of CUFI and other fundamentalist Christian organizations who focus on Israel. They are looking forward to Armageddon.
The peace process, or lack of it, in the Middle East concerns all Americans. Both of our unending wars come out of the international tensions which focus on the borders of Israel. Only a minority of the young men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan were Jewish. Only a fraction of the billions of tax dollars we have spent fighting in Asia for the past 10 years came from Jewish households. Decisions about American policy toward Israel are not a matter for just Jews to be concerned about.
The only way that we as Americans can influence the state of terror alert under which we live every day is to elect the government which has the best ideas about how to find a solution to the state of mostly cold, but sometimes hot, war in the Holy Land. Just as Hagee and his Republican followers hope, standing with the settlers could bring on Armageddon. You had better hope you are in the elect.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 4, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Because they spew playground epithets, it is easy to dismiss them. But they are worth listening to. They have something to say about America, although it’s not what they think they are saying.
The ranters possess an absolute faith in their versions of the truth. This faith cannot be shaken by mere facts, because anything which contradicts their cherished beliefs couldn’t possibly be a fact. Anyone who expresses contrary ideas must be part of a world-wide conspiracy. Any news article which contains unwelcome information can be attributed to the biased media in the hands of the enemy. No credential can affirm the worthiness of any expert’s ideas, if those ideas don’t fit preconceived categories. So saying something like this, in response to one of my articles, can make sense: “You, along with scientists, don't have one iota of a clue about global warming.”
Most of the ranters are white men. They are stuck in a simpler world, an idealized version of some long ago America. There was no talk of racism, because there was no questioning of white supremacy. Men were men and women were in the kitchen. The whole world worshiped America, with good reason, since we were the most powerful and most virtuous nation ever. Religious and secular schooling, popular culture in all its forms, and legislation at every level, reinforced those ideas.
In the last 50 years, that vision has been shattered. Life became less comfortable for white men. Not hard. In every comparison of earning power and occupational prestige, white men are at the top. White men have half the unemployment rate of black men at every educational level, just as it was 20 years ago. However badly white men may be faring at any moment, even when the economy has been run into the ground by rich white men, they are better off as a group than anyone else.
But their comfortable position at the top of the social pyramid is under attack. Every time one of those anti-American professors publishes one of those government-funded studies about racism or poverty, the liberal media shoves it down everybody’s throat. Then they turn around and fawn over some foreigner, as if they might be nearly as good as Americans, talking about their Canadian health care or their German labor system or their Chinese economy.
The whole pyramid may be threatened by changes in the earth’s atmosphere that nobody can see or feel, claimed by those same government-funded ivory-tower liberals, who are also socialists, and they say it will cost us gazillions to stop.
It’s tough to be told that you should recycle cans, eat less meat, buckle up, wash some dishes, and accept all those other people as your equal.
The ranters don’t want to talk about white privilege, because it doesn’t exist. They don’t want to talk about global warming, because it doesn’t exist. They don’t want to talk about Muslims in America, because they shouldn’t exist.
I would not call them losers, because ranters occupy all segments of our population. Some of them have billions to help fund other ranters. Some of them publish carefully crafted essays and books that other ranters can read to prove again to themselves that they are right.
How many ranters are there? In the New York Times/CBS News survey last week, 12% said that there is no global warming. Amazon.com lists Ann Coulter’s “Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America” in the top 1000 among all books. Rush Limbaugh’s 3-hour radio program is carried by 600 stations across the US. 23% in the 2010 Gallup poll said that only creationism, not evolution, should be taught in public schools. There’s a ranter in your neighborhood.
Are they dangerous? The ranters are generally not in positions of leadership in our communities, because their closed minds and disdain for what others think make it unlikely that people would follow their lead. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for their outsized anger – nobody will listen. For them the world is filled with dupes and hypocrites, people who just can’t see the truth.
There would be fewer ranters if responsible people, who actually know better, did not encourage them for temporary political gain. For example, how many Republican politicians denounced the birthers as mistaken, or criticized any of the ideas I listed above? But that’s America today, ranters and their enablers against the rest of us.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 20, 2011
Monday, September 12, 2011
Perry has been trumpeting one of the notable features of the Texas economy: the large number of new jobs in the state since 2009. In a stagnant national economy struggling to emerge from a disastrous near-depression, the growth in jobs in Texas is significant. Rick Perry will cite this growth thousands of times, until he is defeated or elected President.
Perry wants us to know some other facts about his long record as Texas Governor. His website is proud of his economic policies: “Texans enjoy one of the lowest tax burdens in the country and one of the lowest government debt burdens per capita”; he “cut taxes on small businesses and delivered a historic property tax cut”; he “protected the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which currently has $6 billion set aside for future needs”.
Here are some things that Perry never speaks about. Texas has the second highest poverty rate among the 50 states, behind only Mississippi. It has the second highest percentage of population without a high school diploma. Texas leads the nation in the percentage of people with no health insurance, over one quarter. It is tied with Mississippi for having the biggest percentage of workers paid at or below the minimum wage.
These facts are just as significant a part of the Texas economic model as the growth of jobs. Low taxes and low social services mean high poverty and poor education. As Governor, here is what Perry has done to deal with these problems. To maintain a balanced budget during the recession, the state just cut $4 billion from K-to-12 public education, about 6% per district. Although unemployment has risen and remained high in Texas, as across the country, Perry refused to accept $555 million in stimulus money for unemployment insurance. Perry has protected his Rainy Day Fund by not using it to help the millions of impoverished Texans.
But this is not an article about Rick Perry. The policies and attitudes I have described in Texas are no invention of his. They are the staple ideas of conservatives around the country: governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey; think tanks in Washington and New York and all over virtual space; Tea Party organizations of American citizens and of billionaires and political operatives; fundamentalist religious organizations; people in every town and city in America. The Republican Party has made these ideas its official creed, and it subjects anyone who thinks differently to withering criticism, even though Republicans themselves have promoted very different ideas in the recent past, often the same Republicans.
None of these conservative talkers mentions the poverty rate in Texas, or anywhere else. It’s embarrassing. If the great state of Texas has so much poverty, with all of the natural and political advantages that its boosters constantly boost, and poverty there has increased since 2000 just as fast as in the rest of the US, then what are we to make of the Texas economic model?
Republicans don’t mention poverty, because they don’t plan to do anything about it. The millions of poor Americans are invisible to Republican politicians. They pretend that trickle-down economics will reach the poor, but it hasn’t and won’t. During the economic disaster of recent years, Republicans have voted against extending unemployment benefits, have demanded cuts in food stamp programs and Head Start, and have ganged up to criticize the first attempt to offer health insurance to all Americans.
For conservatives, poverty is not our collective social problem. It is the individual problem of the poor themselves. They have bad habits and insufficient motivation. They have become willing dependents on welfare programs. They are not really poor, according to the Heritage Foundation, because some of them have TV sets. They don’t count anyway, because they tend not to vote and are disproportionately minorities.
If you try to talk about poverty or inequality, conservatives bring out their litany of curse words: promoter of class warfare, bleeding heart, socialist. Here’s a phrase I wish was in their political vocabulary: social conscience.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 13, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Rick Perry laid out his ideas in his 2010 book, “Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington”. Here is what he says about our climate. Global warming is “one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight”. The world’s scientists are promoting a “hysteria of global warming”. In fact, “we have been experiencing a cooling trend”. Perry sticks to these claims. In New Hampshire in August, he claimed, “I think we're seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists that are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”
In Fed Up, Perry offered his belief that Social Security is unconstitutional, created “at the expense of respect for the constitution and limited government.” Since then he made headlines in August by saying that Social Security is a “monstrous lie”, “a Ponzi scheme”, and reiterated that it is unconstitutional in an interview with Daily Beast’s Andrew Romano.
Perhaps less well known, now that he puts himself forward as a President for all Americans, is Perry’s comment in 2006, after a sermon attended by dozens of political candidates, that he agreed with the minister, John Hagee, that non-Christians will be condemned to hell.
Michelle Bachmann used similarly strong language on climate in 2008: “The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” Like Perry, Bachmann does not believe in evolution and promotes the teaching of creationism in public schools. When asked, however, on a radio call-in show in 2003 about evolution, she displayed remarkable ignorance about the science that she dismisses, thinking it is the same as “spontaneous generation”.
Bachmann’s comment in Sarasota last week about recent natural disasters has been widely reported: “I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'” God, like the Republicans, was demanding spending cuts.
Her belief that God would throw a calamity at America to promote conservative causes echoes what John Hagee said in September 2006: “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans. New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God,” because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.”
I think these comments by leading Republican candidates are significant windows into their core beliefs. Perry has had plenty of time to consider the positions he took in his book, about which he says, “I haven't backed off anything in my book.” Bachmann has been consistent in her comments about science. Both Perry and Bachmann are completely wrong about climate and climate scientists. There is no cooling trend: the 2010 report on global climate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that the 1980s were the warmest decade since measurements began, but then were topped by the 1990s, which are now topped by far by the 2000s. Scientists who were skeptical about global warming have been moving the other way as evidence has piled up.
Bachmann’s use of the word “hoax” tells us how she will treat overwhelming scientific evidence that she doesn’t like. Perry’s description of Social Security as an economic hoax, a fraudulent Ponzi scheme intended to cheat the American people, as Bernard Madoff did, provides insight into how he might deal with the necessary discussion of how to insure Social Security’s solvency in the future.
Perry’s and Bachmann’s links to John Hagee, their agreement with his beliefs about Christians and non-Christians, show what it might mean to bring their versions of fundamentalist religion into the White House.
I have focused this essay on some Republican politicians. I believe that Republican voters might well not share these ideas or approaches. Most Americans believe that the main issue facing the country is jobs. Republican Governor of Florida Rick Scott said last month, “Whoever has the plan for jobs is going to win.” Displaying scientific illiteracy or telling disaster victims that their suffering is God’s punishment won’t create one new job. Scaring Americans about Social Security, the most successful social program in American history, won’t improve economic confidence. The fundamental beliefs of Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry make them unsuitable leaders for our country.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 6, 2011
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
President Obama offered a different view at a press conference in 2009: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Perry in “Fed Up” comments sarcastically on this statement, and says, “America is unique in its greatness”. Romney also criticized Obama’s statement in his book, saying it means that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all. For conservatives, only Americans can rightfully be exceptionalists.
Throughout our history, Americans have claimed exceptional status for our country. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader, thought of his version of America as a “City upon a Hill”: the Puritans of New England would serve as a model for the rest of the world. As a conscious creation of settlers from many countries, a new nation with an unprecedented Constitution, the US was a exceptional nation. But what about now?
Last week I happened to be taking 11 international students to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield and thinking about what American exceptionalism might mean to them. I have been trying to explain my homeland to Africans, Asians, and Europeans. The US is very different from their home countries: for example, our farms and cars and houses are enormous compared to what they are used to. In those ways, every country is exceptional, with different languages, customs, history and economy. When does exceptional mean better?
As we might expect, the stronger the statements about America as the greatest nation, the more ignorance or disdain is displayed about the rest of the world. It is much more difficult to proclaim that the US is best after getting to know another country. Living elsewhere confronts you with two uncomfortable truths.
The first is that other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own. The Germans and the Chinese have better train systems. The Dutch and the Scandinavians are far better at teaching languages to school children. Many peoples are more hospitable to strangers and we have the highest per capita rate of murders with firearms of any industrialized country. To say “America is the greatest” begs the question, “At what?”
A second truth is that Obama is right: each people sees their own country and culture as exceptional and exceptionally good. It makes no sense to argue for American exceptionalism with a Nigerian or a Swede. They might agree that our buildings are taller or our per capita income higher, but then ask, “So what?” Any claim that we are better people, more moral or more happy or more just, will provoke an argument without end.
American exceptionalism is dangerous. The desire to proclaim superiority leads to stupidity, such as Perry’s claim in “Fed Up” that the US has “the best health care system in the world.” It leads to attempts to hide any possible flaws, especially the most embarrassing ones, like our violent denial of Constitutional rights to black Americans through most of our history or our enormous prison population. Exceptionalism of the “We are the greatest” variety is an adult form of the elementary school boast, “My father can beat up your father.”
Leaving arrogance and ignorance aside, it is worth thinking about what is exceptional about the US. Our exceptional flaws should provoke us to seek corrections. Our exceptional virtues, such as our ability to challenge authority, our free press, our system of higher education, and our wide variety of good beers, can be sources of pride.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 30, 2011
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
But the Libertarians can’t win. The two big parties have so entrenched themselves behind a wall of laws and practices, that the rise of a popular third party is nearly impossible. Among 7300 state legislators across the country, less than one-third of 1% are from other parties. Only in Vermont has a third party had any success: 3% of state representatives belong to the Vermont Progressive Party, which was founded to support US Senator Bernie Sanders.
Most people who lean libertarian don’t vote Libertarian. Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate for President in 2008, received less than half of 1% of the votes, although national polls show as many as 20% of voters with libertarian leanings. Like most people who don’t like either big party, they choose the lesser evil, rather than vote for a third-party candidate who can’t win.
So what’s a libertarian to do? The Republican anti-government mantra, including no tax increases on the wealthy, less regulation of industry, less consumer protection, and smaller social programs, seems to look good to those with libertarian leanings. The various groupings that call themselves Tea Parties are not really parties; they explicitly campaign as and for members of the Republican Party. Ron Paul acts like a libertarian, but runs as a Republican. But it would be a big mistake for libertarians to vote Republican.
The Republicans are by far the most dangerous advocates of using government to govern our private lives. George Bush’s administration routinely violated the law by secretly spying on Americans. The whole Republican Party wants to restrict marriage and sex to fit their ideology. If the consensus of scientists or educators doesn’t fit Republicans’ ideological framework, they try to use government to force discredited ideas, like creationism, into public school curricula. Democrats are much less likely to spy on Americans, listen to our phone calls, or tell us whom we can marry. They are, on the other hand, more likely to use government spending to achieve goals of social justice and economic fairness.
Libertarians want to get government off their backs; Republicans only want to get government out of your wallet. The policies that Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders agree on focus on lowering the amount of funds that flow to government and reducing the influence of government in corporate practices. Minimal government, yes, but not maximum freedom. Does the biggest danger to our freedoms come from government? Today corporations in the “free” marketplace are a much greater danger to our privacy and freedoms. When they start to poke around in Americans’ lives, Republicans are nowhere to be found.
In 2010 Google was forced to admit that its Street View cars, besides taking photographs of the world's roads, had also been snooping into unprotected wireless networks. Apple acknowledged that iPhones and iPads secretly record their users’ movements.
For years, cookies implanted on your computer have been tracking your web browsing. The Wall Street Journal wrote last year that “one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on Internet users.” That article is scary – you can read it by searching for “The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets”. Then last week, the Wall Street Journal reported about “supercookies”: “Major websites such as MSN.com and Hulu.com have been tracking people's online activities using powerful new methods that are almost impossible for computer users to detect.”
So who is going to protect us from the real danger to our freedoms? The corporations who help us stay connected are following our every move. This is exactly where the two parties offer diametrically opposed policies. Republicans attack all government regulations and restrictions on business activity. They want to free big business from public oversight. The Republican dream is a libertarian nightmare – the “free market” is free to watch you all the time. Big Brother isn’t a government camera. It’s a corporate cookie right in your computer.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 23, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
The recent news out of Washington tells of an epic disaster of government. Across the world America looks like a dysfunctional society. But that’s the wrong way to see the collapse of our democracy’s ability to function as a political system. The real story is that a Republican Party strategy initiated decades ago has been crowned with success.
During most of the 20th century, the two parties vied to use American government to promote their differing political philosophies. Democrats were more activist in their domestic policy choices than Republicans, but there was fundamental agreement about the importance of governing.
The Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon represent this basic consensus between the parties. Johnson’s Great Society programs to attack the social and economic legacy of discrimination and poverty were an obvious expression of Democratic Party beliefs about the proper role of government. Nixon used government to fight inflation with wage and price controls, to enforce desegregation of Southern schools, and to create the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ronald Reagan’s Presidency demonstrated a major shift in Republican philosophy. In his 1981 Inaugural Address, Reagan said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He specifically targeted the national debt as “out of control”.
During the turbulent 1960s, conservatives had jumped on any American who criticized our government as a traitor: “Love it or leave it.” In the 1980s Republicans began to claim that real patriots should criticize the idea of government itself.
Reagan’s revolution in Republican public ideology was not a significant departure from traditional party policies. He continued the long history of Republican opposition to government regulation of business and to the use of social programs to deal with economic inequality. Under the label of the New Federalism, Reagan appointed administrators who tried to dismantle major government agencies: Anne Gorsuch at the Environmental Protection Agency and James Watt at the Department of the Interior.
The Reagan “revolution” was more verbal than real. Over his presidency, he tripled the national debt, signed the largest corporate tax increase in history, and expanded the number of federal employees by 60,000. But he bequeathed to Republicans a new political mantra that they have been repeating ever since.
Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” led Congressional Republicans to use a shutdown of the federal government in 1995 to try to put their economic policies into effect. Gingrich’s failure did little to change the Republican message. George Bush never tired of repeating how important it was to reduce government, even as he presided over an unprecedented increase in government spending and in our national debt. The elections of 2010 were an remarkable display of Republicans trying to get into government by running against government.
And now in 2011 this Republican strategy has been crowned with total success. They have managed to make the US government into a laughing stock, a global symbol of incompetence. Public confidence in government is at an all-time low, according to Gallup polls.
Republican rhetorical success is American political failure. By attacking government in general without identifying specific programs or policies that are working poorly, Republicans have reduced Americans’ confidence in our collective ability to deal with national problems. All of the current Republican candidates for President repeat the anti-government mantra, but none of them offer any specific discussion of what it would mean to cut particular programs now. That is because every poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of each expensive program – Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, Head Start.
The Republican anti-government message has confused many Americans, who want to keep the government programs, but also have come to believe that government is the problem. The Republican message has been successful in winning votes, but disastrous for governing. Over the past weeks, stockholders have lost about 3 trillion dollars, our government’s debt has been downgraded, and confidence in government has been further eroded.
No American has been harmed by the size of our national debt, but 45 million Americans need food stamps to eat. No American will have to do without their Social Security checks, but 14 million Americans are unemployed.
So who will solve our problems? The rich, whose wealth Republicans in Congress are desperately trying to protect? The corporations, whom Republicans want to free from public regulation?
Only we the people can solve our problems, and that is why our government was created. Only government represents all the people, collectively deciding what our future will be. With government hobbled, the rich will get richer, corporations will run the marketplace, and we will be “free” to watch from the sidelines.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 16, 2011