Sunday
May222016

The Real Issues in the 2016 Election

There are only three to issues to consider in the 2016 Presidential election and these are tied to the candidates as much as to the issues. Number 1 is whether radical changes, such as Medicare for all and free public college tuition, are possible within the United States, both in terms of passing them in congress and paying for them, over the next 4-8 years (the Bernie Sanders issue). Number 2 is whether a country in which Wall Street and wealth continue to control policy making and our foreign policy remains focused around the idea that the U.S., in the person of its military must take the lead in solving the problems of the Middle East will make any inroads in reducing income disparity or will  make us safer (the Hillary Clinton issue). Number 3 is whether a person who supports bigoted positions, such as banning Muslims from entering the country, who has clearly done little to educate himself about foreign policy and who voices naïve and prejudiced opinions, such as that Oakland, CA and Ferguson, MO (both with large Black populations) are more dangerous than Baghdad, Iraq, can make decisions, as president, that don’t jeopardize the entire country.

In a nutshell, these are the issues of the current presidential campaign and the issues voters need to address in making a decision about for whom they should vote. Of course there are more characteristics of each candidate which may also affect opinions: Bernie Sanders has only a vague foreign policy position, Hillary Clinton has made what many would consider foreign policy blunders with regard to invading Iraq and supporting the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya, Donald Trump does not take human-produced climate change seriously. And there are many more sub-issues. But the stark differences are those listed in the opening paragraph, above.

Despite the clear differences between the three candidates who are still running for president within the major political parties, most of the discussion among voters and by pundits does not relate to these issues. Instead, what happens among the electorate is name-calling, exaggerated and tenuous insinuations about each candidate (Sanders wants to turn the U.S. into a Socialist/Communist country that replaces capitalism and private enterprise with a government controlled economy; Clinton wants to further the gap between the rich and poor and reduce safety net programs in order to please corporate interests, for whom she is only a proxy in their control of the country; Trump is a racist who believes in the White Christian dominance of this country as espoused by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan). Instead of a careful exploration of to what extent the major differences between the candidates would be likely to produce the outcomes people either want or fear if each of them were elected, the debate has devolved into either inside-baseball conversations about whose strong ground game strategy beats whose strategy to appeal to independent voters through large rallies (the mainstream TV pundit conversations) or which exaggeration about which candidate can incite the largest reaction (the internet and left or right fringe media conversation).

The three candidates still campaigning have real differences related to some major characteristics of their approaches that bear close examination and not either affirmation or dismissal with easy to make generalizations that befog the realities of the candidates’ positions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these major differences were examined with seriousness and genuine curiosity to arrive at the truth instead of the political conversations we have at the moment. I don’t see any sign of this on the political horizon.

Thursday
May192016

The New Entitled

A sense of entitlement is a state of mind. There are lots of people who feel entitled in our society and the number is growing. Let’s take one example—the one percent. These are the people who appear to run the country. They don’t just run it economically, being CEOs or executives of major corporations, elite physicians, relatives within the  circle of a family owned megabusiness, superstar athletes and entertainers or just those who have inherited millions from their parents or grandparents. They also run the country politically. The now well-known 2014 study by Gilens and Page, published in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics concluded that “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.” Furthermore, the organized interests that, along with the affluent, controlled policy in this study, were largely business-based, rather than mass-interest based. We have seen what happens when those who think they control the political process are frustrated by the the success of someone such as Donald Trump, himself a member of the one percent economic group and through his business donations in the past, part of the organized business interests. Those who contributed most heartily to Republican campaigns and candidates opposed to Trump—those who have controlled Republican party politics for decades—were dumbfounded and incensed that someone who did not acknowledge their right to choose the next Republican presidential candidate, could successfully challenge them. Their sense of entitlement was revealed. On the Democratic side, a similar challenge to entitled power interests has been apparent in the challenge of Bernie Sanders and his followers to the Democratic establishment, which is as much beholden to the wealthy and corporate interests as are the Republicans.

But those who control the American political establishment with their mostly monetary influence are not the only group whose sense of entitlement has been revealed in this election. Many of the folowers of Donald Trump and former candidate Ted Cruz who are White and Christian feel as if it is they, not non-Christians, recent immigrants, or people of color, who are the rightful heirs to this country. As such, it is their, not others', interests that should come first and whose rights need to be protected. Thus, despite it being a violation of the U.S. Constitution, they want to reverse birthright citizenship, to ban Muslim immigrants to the U.S., and to set up surveillance of their fellow Americans based upon their religious affiliation.

The sins of entitlement of both the rich and powerful and the religiously and racially bigoted have been a feature of America for centuries. The current election season has only revealed how much they still play a role in American life and politics. But there is a new kind of entitlement that has surfaced in this election. This is the sense of entitlement that gives people the right, in their minds, to put their own opinion and their own agenda above, not just the policies of the establishment, but the means by which politics are run in this country. I don’t just mean agitating to overthrow the Citizens United Supreme Court decision or campaigning for politicians who will not succumb to corporate lobbies. What I mean is those who refuse to allow those they oppose to speak. I mean those who disrupt political events so that they cannot occur. I mean those who threaten people whom they oppose or whom they believe are violating their sense of moral justice. This behavior represents a mind set in which one has elevated his or her judgments on issues to a level that, in his or her mind, justifies imposing them on everyone else—what he or she believes is so right that entertaining any concession to an opposite view is the equivalent of a moral failure. The person with this sense of entitlement doesn’t listen to counterarguments and when they are made in his or her presence, this person attacks whoever is making those arguments.

There have always been people with this sense of entitlement among us and in some societies, those people have become a majority that has used its political power to prohibit alternative points of view. Stalinist Russia is an example that comes to mind. What began as a rebellion led by a small group of zealots who were acting upon their newfound belief in a system that would right the wrongs of the cruel and repressive Czarist regime, became a system of equally cruel and repressive monolithic efforts at mind and behavior control. The Russian Communist example is an extreme one, but the Iranian revolution following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 imposed similar control on the population. What we are seeing in America in the 2016 election is certainly less revolutionary and is better conceived as a movement within the existing political structure. But there are stirrings of an ascendency of entitled thinking within some of these political movements, particularly among those that feel they are challenging the power within the existing system.

In Chicago Illinois, and Costa Mesa and Burlingame California, when Donald Trump tried to speak to thousands of his supporters, protesters tried to shut down his speeches and attack his supporters. In Nevada at the State Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders’ supporters threw chairs, disrupted speakers, cursed out the Democratic Chair of the convention and sent her insulting and threatening emails and texts. In both cases, many of those who engaged in such behavior legitimized it as justified by either Trump’s positions on issues such as immigration or on what they viewed as a “rigged” convention system within the Nevada Democratic Party (and whether the processes within the convention were biased remains a matter of debate). Meanwhile, social media sites are filled with hate messages towards leaders or candidates who hold opinions different than the person posting on media and on college campuses speakers are either shouted down or disinvited at record levels (analysis of FIRE’s record of attempted “disinvitations” from 2001-2015 shows that they have not only tripled over that period of time, but that, in recent years such disinvitations from students on the Left are more than double those from the political Right). Young people, in particular, seem to think that their opinions hold a higher moral ground than their opponents' and justify not only suppressing their opponents’ speech, but also threatening them with violence or actually behaving with violence toward them. This lack of respect for the right of everyone to express his or her opinion and the additional view that one’s position is morally superior enough to justify attacking others with violence is a form of entitlement that threatens the process of democracy in this country.

Our political system in the United States is undermined by the influence of money on not just elections, but on government policy making. Those who proffer such money to politicians or spend it on election ads feel that they have earned the right to subvert our democratic processes. Bigotry toward minority races, nationalities and religions has long undermined the processes of democracy in the U.S. and generated protections within the Bill of Rights to our Constitution that, today, are in jeopardy by populist movements of those who feel that their White, Christian backgrounds entitle them to restrict the rights of those who don’t belong to their group. Both of these brands of entitlement, both of which threaten democracy, have been a part of America since its beginning. What is new is the kind of entitlement that imbues many people today—and to be fair, more of them are young and on the political left—with the belief that their moral positions, which they view as superior to those of others, legitimize suppressing the views of others and attacking those who possess them. This too threatens democracy. In America it is a struggle to make our political system work in the way it was designed to work. This struggle is lost at least as often as it is won. But violating the precepts upon which the system was founded—precepts that include allowing free speech, following rules of order to determine group decisions, and not engaging in violence to secure one’s own ends— is not the way to return it to the right track. No one is entitled to do that.

 

 

Wednesday
May112016

The Unabashed Ignorance of Intolerance

We live in a society in which strident assertion of one’s views is proclaimed a value and in which intolerance toward the views, and sometimes the identity, of others has become sacred. The essence of intolerance is the refusal to give respect or validity to what is different from oneself. This includes both personal characteristics and ideas. There is plenty of evidence that intolerance toward people on the basis of their racial, ethnic or religious characteristics is alive and well within the United States. We have only to look at some of the groups that have supported Donald Trump, or the reaction of much of the White populace to the message of Black Lives Matter, or the large (although still a minority) approval of suggestions to ban Muslims from entering the country to see intolerance at work. But I am concerned here with intolerance for ideas and opinions.

American society is a composite of many different groups, often differing widely in values, in the issues important to them, in how they frame their views of the world, and even in how they think about themselves in terms of their primary identification being with their country, their ethnicity, their ancestral heritage, or their religion. From such a kaleidoscope of differences one would expect to find large differences in social and political behaviors and in opinions on different issues. Yet, the tendency for many people is to judge the behaviors and opinions of others by a single standard. Even when a group’s demand is that their own unique circumstances must be taken into account by anyone interacting with them, they often fail to give any credence to the uniqueness of those upon whom they are making this demand.

I’m sure there is a name for the tendency to judge others by one’s own values without regard to the characteristics that make those others different from the person doing the judging. It’s similar to ethnocentrism, but can be related to one’s religion, to one’s race, one’s national origin (if an immigrant), one’s gender identification or sexual orientation, one’s generational cohort, or to one’s political ideology. It’s endemic in our culture and leads to intergroup condemnation and failure to communicate on a wide scale.

Since I’m saying that intolerance is a product of ignorance, then I’m also saying that not taking the time or energy to learn about the diversity within the American culture is a brand of ignorance. Let me give some examples.

Supporters of the Palestinians in their conflicts against Israel include Arabs whose grandparents lived throughout the area that is now Israel as well as the Palestinian territories, who were subjected to rule by the British, pushed by the UN and others toward agreements about partitioning their country, which they had neither authored nor been a party to discussing, were removed from their lands when they did not agree, were made into refugees, and now are subjected to rule by a foreign, hostile force which has robbed them of most of the  rights afforded citizens of modern countries, and which inflicts what nearly everyone in the world agrees are “disproportionate” casualties on them in response to mostly ineffectual missile attacks and horrific and inhumane, but isolated terror attacks on Israeli civilians.

Many Israelis, raised in Israel in the years following World War II, remember the fight for Israeli independence against Arab forces in the late 1940s, conducted by both Zionist settlers and refugees from the holocaust in Europe. They were children, now in their sixties and seventies, and they remember the years when, against UN agreements, they were not allowed to enter the Old City of Jerusalem and when their country was forced to fight the 1967 and 1973 wars against various Arab states that they viewed, with ample cause, as attempts to destroy the existence of their nation. They also remember the years of nearly constant and sometimes massive terror attacks orchestrated by the PLO. Their own children grew up hearing the stories of and experiencing some of these events. A portion of these Israelis of different generations are staunch supporters of Israel maintaining control over formerly Arab portions of Palestine and of Jewish settlements that encroach upon parts of the territory that were agreed at one time to belong to Arabs. Other Israelis disagree with these positions and abhor the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. None of them wants to give up the Jewish State nor cease to defend it.

To tell the story of either the Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs in the United States incites vociferous complaints and often violence by partisans on either side of the issues, who refuse to acknowledge the right of the other side to have a voice in any discussion here in the United States. Neither side shows any real understanding of the histories, often personal, that have led to the current positions of either the Israelis or Palestinians. Donald Trump’s assertion that he would attempt to be “neutral” in mediating any negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a solution to their conflict brought him condemnation by the Republican Party and conservative independents, who claimed he was, in effect, a “traitor” to the U.S. support of Israel. Trustees at the University of California attempted to label criticism of the state of Israel, including support for the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement against Israel, as “anti-Semitic” speech and to ban it from their campuses. At the same time, numerous speakers who were thought to support Israel or to criticize the Palestinians have been “disinvited” from speaking on U.S. campuses or shouted down by protesting students before they had a chance to speak. Such speakers included Basseim Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, who has spent his career identifying human rights violations by both sides of the Palestinian Israeli conflict, but most recently has focused on violations by the Palestinian Authority and has been critical of the BDS movement on American campuses. He founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and was shouted down by protesting students at the University of Chicago this year and had to be escorted from the auditorium “for his own safety.”

To give another example, many White Americans, particularly middle-age and older, have countered the Black Lives Matter slogan with an “All Lives Matter,” reply. These same White Americans are appalled by protests that stop traffic in the streets, disrupt speakers and rallies and seem to want to place the voice of Black people above everyone else’s in the discussion of what needs to change in America. Black activists, including those who support the Black Lives Matter movement are quick to identify such Americans as racist, as ignorant of the realities of Black life in America, as supportive of police brutality and racism and as much a part of the problem of discrimination and violence against Black people in America as are the police officers who shoot, or kill by other means, innocent, unarmed Black people on the streets. For one group, the utterance of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is enough to end any chance of conversation and for the other group, the reply “All Lives Matter,” similarly signals a need for criticism, rather than dialogue.

To say that Whites who say “All Lives Matter” are naïve about the realities of life for many Black people in America, is no doubt true. Not only are arrest, homicide and incarceration rates of Blacks higher than Whites, but for Black America, their life expectancy is shorter (than for any other racial/ethnic group), their infant mortality higher, their educational level lower and their economic situation more dire, including rates of employment and salaries for the employed. In many cases, race is a better marker for disparities on these variables than is social class. This is not, and has not been for decades, if ever, the focus of attention of the U.S. media or the U.S. public. Probably no one but activists and academics are aware of the extent of racial disparities in the U.S. and how they fall along Black vs. everyone else, lines. Certainly almost no one is urging the country to do anything about it. Instead, politicians are discussing the “plight of the middle class,” and wage stagnation among people who have what, in the past were considered, well-earning, substantial jobs. To understand racial issues, most of America needs to be educated.

Very few Black activists have approached the Black Lives Matter issue as an educational one. The real issue could be rephrased, “Black Lives Matter Too,” because most of the results of discrimination against Black people in the U.S. have either never been appreciated or understood or have been forgotten by the majority of the population. Much of the progress that Americans make during times of plenty, has not been felt by the Black community. The shootings and deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement have been going on for years, but no one in the media or among the general public noticed or seemed to care. This would not have been the case if the victims had been White. This is what is meant by “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a plea, or perhaps a demand, for people to pay attention to what is going on. But instead of attempting to educate, many, if not most Black activists spend their energy making accusations and criticizing or protesting against even White liberals, perhaps the group who would be most open to listening. When they hear “All Lives Matter,” it does not signal to them a need for teaching, but a need for criticism and attack. Even attempts by Whites to understand the issues, perhaps by framing them in ways that conform to their own backgrounds and ways of thinking, are attacked for continued use of  “Whitesplaining” or unconscious commitment of “microaggressions,” and their attempt to understand is not corrected, but dismissed in anger and contempt.

Neither side in the Black Lives Matter controversy respects those who don’t agree with them enough to try to understand what they are saying or what they know or don’t know and both sides are quick to dismiss the other as not worth the time or energy to deserve any understanding. This is not a recipe for solving anything.

Intolerance derives from oversimplifications, from resistance to acknowledging the complexity of issues and, even more, from resistance or outright rejection of the premise that the complexity of humans and their backgrounds requires knowledge and understanding in order for people to converse with each other. Without some understanding, conversation is impossible. And without the ability to carry on a conversation, changing minds is impossible. People just shout at each other.

We used to think of America as a melting pot, in which people from all sorts of backgrounds and geographical locations came together to share a common vision and, over time, became alike. Only if one were a White Christian American of European ancestry would this have ever been true. It certainly was not true for African-Americans or Native Americans, not from the very beginning of our nation. It certainly is not true now. Americans’ experiences are widely divergent. The environments, both physical and social, to which they are exposed, vary enormously. The frameworks within which they interpret their experiences are markedly different. The assumptions they make about each other and the world in which they live are derived from these experiences and the frames of mind they engender. But all of us are prone to gloss over these differences when we formulate our opinions and make judgments about the opinions of others. This is something we can’t afford to do if we want to make progress as a country on issues that are important for all of us. The present atmosphere of self-righteous intolerance for views opposite our own insures that we will continue to split apart as a nation and fail to be able to use the tools afforded to us as a democracy to solve our problems.

 

Monday
May092016

The Cost of Funding Suicide

Although the costs of maintaining the United States’ current nuclear arsenal are not broken out separately in any federal budget, including that of the Defense Department, they are estimated to be between $20-25 billion per year. Additionally, President Obama has gotten congressional approval for a program to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal, and that program does have a budget, which is $318 billion over 10 years, and which the National Defense Panel, appointed by Congress, found could be as much as a $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The U.S. currently has 7,200 nuclear weapons, second only to Russia, which has 7,500. Both the U.S. and Russia, via the START treaty, have agreed to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 and missile launchers (missile tubes and bombers) to half that by 2018 (there are fewer launchers than warheads because one launcher, e.g. a bomber, can carry multiple warheads). The number of non-deployed warheads remains unlimited. Although these numbers seem promising, the fact is that the number of deployed nuclear weapons by both the U.S and Russia is nearly at these levels already and nuclear stockpiles are not touched by the agreement.

Despite occasional calls for their use by some politicians, nuclear weapons are not useful as a strategic weapon in any modern war scenario. One could argue that the only time such weapons were used, in Japan in 1945, they were, in fact strategically useful, but even that is debatable, given post-war reports that Japan was almost ready to surrender, that U.S. losses in an invasion would have been far less than projections given by our government in defense of our use of such bombs, and that Russia was poised to invade Japan anyway (perhaps the real reason we wanted to end the war quickly). At any rate, America’s use of such weapons in 1945 was predicated on the premise that no one else but the U.S. had such weapons and no retaliation in kind was possible. That situation no longer applies. Nine countries are known to have nuclear weapons, and several more are interested in developing them.

The real reason for both our and Russia’s massive nuclear arsenals, as well as China’s, India’s, Pakistan’s, the U.K.’s, France’s, and Israel’s, is as a deterrent to each country’s adversary using such weapons against them. An attack by one nuclear armed country against another would trigger a counterattack in a scenario known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), that is thought to be (and had been) enough to prevent anyone using such weapons.

But mutual assured destruction doesn’t require thousands of nuclear weapons. Estimates are that around a total of 100 such weapons, flying in whatever direction, would effectively cause such damage to both people, cities, and the environment, to threaten all life on the planet. That’s 50 weapons per side in a two-sided conflict. Hopefully, political and military leaders of nuclear-armed countries don’t require planetary destruction as a deterrent to using their nuclear arsenals. With far fewer weapons, massive civilian casualties on a scale never encountered in previous conflicts could be inflicted, undoubtedly on both sides of any such war.

The world would be safer with no nuclear weapons extant. However, a reasonable argument can be made that the mutual presence of nuclear weapons deters not just a nuclear war between two countries, but also an all-out traditional war. The threat is always that whichever side found itself losing such a war would be tempted to use its nuclear weapons to defeat its enemy, even at the risk of it is own destruction, thus even a traditional war must be avoided. This has been the argument for why the U.S. and the Soviet Union endured decades of a “Cold War” instead of a hot one.

Even if nuclear weapons provide a real, although ultimately suicidal, deterrent against active “hot” wars between major powers, the number of nuclear weapons necessary to constitute such a deterrent is small – less than 100 for sure and perhaps less than 50 per side. The “Cold War” began when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had only a handful of nuclear weapons each, but it was enough to deter a hot war. The use of even less than 100 nuclear weapons would still be catastrophic for both the participants in such a war and the rest of the planet, but the cost of their maintenance would be a pittance compared to what the U.S. and several other countries are spending right now.

Billions of dollars and over the next several decades, trillions of dollars could be saved and devoted to civilian projects by eliminating or reducing our nuclear arsenals to less than 100 warheads. This would be true not just for the U.S. but also for Russia and any other country (France, China, U.K., Pakistan and India at the moment), which has more than 100 weapons.

But how would a willing U.S. convince the rest of the world, including Russia and China, who are skeptical of our proposals anyway, to join us in such disarmament? In fact, that is not necessary. If less than 100 (perhaps as few as 50) nuclear weapons assures a country’s ability to destroy its enemy, even in a mutual nuclear war, then more than that many offers no advantage. Thus the U.S. is free to reduce its own nuclear arsenal unilaterally without making us any more vulnerable than if we had thousands of such weapons. By doing so, other countries, seeing our use of our financial resources diverted to enterprises that build our nation domestically, will probably follow suit. Even if they don’t we lose nothing except bragging rights about who has the most nuclear weapons. An excess of nuclear weapons offers no advantage to the nation that possesses it.

In addition to saving billions of dollars and reducing the risk of planetary annihilation, the reduction of nuclear warheads—both deployed and “stockpiled”— to 100 or less and the controlled destruction of the fissionable material that makes up their payloads, would dramatically reduce the risk of terrorists or rogue states getting their hands on such weapons or materials and attacking others with them.

We’ve not seen a serious national discussion about nuclear weapons for a long, long while. In my memory, the last time this issue took center stage in the populace's consciousness was following the release of “Dr. Strangelove,” which brilliantly satirized the issue in 1964, on the eve of the Presidential election. The time has come again for this discussion to take center stage, both for economic and safety reasons. New nations, such as Japan, are agitating for their own nuclear arsenals and some of our presidential candidates favor arming them. The rationale for nuclear arms as a deterrent becomes less clear the more countries that possess such arms, and the danger to humans and the planet increases the more arms there are available.

Someone needs to bring this discussion to the forefront while there is still time to do something to avoid a catastrophe.

 

Friday
May062016

Why "Medicare for All" Can Work

 

We all know the story. Bernie Sanders has proposed a single-payer health insurance program, with the single payer being the Federal government. He has called his plan Medicare for All. The idea is that the successful federally run medical insurance program for seniors can work just as effectively for people of all ages… and much more so than systems involving private insurance.

The refrain from Republicans is that Sanders’ plan is “socialized medicine,” a system that they claim has never been successful in other countries that have tried it. Sanders’ plan may or may not be “socialized medicine.” He has not proposed that the government provide the actual medical services as is done in the U.K. Cuba, Portugal, Greece, Italy and parts of the healthcare system in many other European countries. The model of universal health care used by most countries is one in which the government pays for services and controls fees, but services are provided by private physicians, while hospitals are government run. In the majority of European countries, particularly Scandinavia and the UK, government administration is local rather than national, although all services are part of the national health care system. Virtually all developed countries, except the U.S., provide care for all of their citizens. Sanders plan, so far as he has outlined it, would have the healthcare system administered at a national, rather than at a local level. Services would be provided by a private healthcare service system, while citizens would pay for the services through their federal taxes and the federally administered system would purchase and control payments and determine which services were covered, as in Medicare. Presumably, patients would be able to choose their providers within the system. Presumably also, everyone would contribute through taxes whether they chose to use the federal healthcare system or a private one, which would probably exist for supplemental coverage of services not covered within the federal system, as occurs in many countries. Use of a private system for some services would be an out-of-pocket expense or could be covered by private supplemental insurance (as now occurs with Medicare).

Another complaint about Sanders’ plan is that it would be too costly. Certainly it would require an increase in taxes by virtually everyone except perhaps the poor (who currently receive their healthcare for free via Medicaid). But his system would eliminate insurance premiums. As current Medicare recipients are aware, even supplemental insurance is cheap when it merely supplements extensive Medicare coverage. The American health care system is the most costly, per capita of any in the world. Simply transferring this cost to the federal government and paying for it with taxes would place a costly tax burden on most people. However, one of the reasons that health care is so costly in the United States is that private health care is less efficient at controlling costs than public health care. Those countries that provide services directly from the government, such as Italy, Greece, UK and Cuba have the lowest per capita costs. Those that provide primarily government payment and administration but private service providers, except hospitals, are typically one third to half as costly as our U.S. system (with the notable exception of Norway). Studies by the Kaiser Foundation have shown that healthcare costs in the U.S. that have been covered by the private sector have risen at twice the rate of Medicare costs and five times the rate of Medicaid costs between 1997 and 2013.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, administrative costs in Medicare are only about 2% of operating expenditures, even when these costs include the collection of Medicare taxes, fraud and abuse controls, and building costs. Defenders of the insurance industry estimate administrative costs as 17% of revenue even when these costs exclude marketing costs and profits from their calculation of administrative costs. Additionally, Medicare has a monopoly on services and medicines for the U.S. over-65 population, which gives them enormous bargaining power with regard to both fees for service and drug costs—the same mechanism that drives down prescription drug prices in Canada. Even Medicare Advantage, the program that provides private health care through the Medicare program, using a number of different private providers and insurers, costs 12% higher than straight fee-for-service Medicare. Finally, because Medicare is publicly accountable, it allows us to study what works so that we can improve the health care system.

All of the above considerations prove that Medicare for All would be less costly than our current private health care funding system. With lowering of costs conservatively estimated to be 40% overall, the average tax paid by people to pay for the system would be less than the current average cost they pay for health insurance and co-payments, which of course would be eliminated under such a system. But Hillary Clinton is fearful of introducing a plan such as Sanders’ to a congress that was reluctant to pass Obamacare and has tried to repeal it countless times. She points to the reduction of uninsured in our country to less than 13%  because of Obamacare (but with increased insurance costs and higher deductibles for many)  and doesn’t want to upset the apple cart of this success by introducing new legislation that she says will “wipe out” Obamacare and take us back to the initial battle to try to pass a healthcare bill that serves everyone. This is a fallacious argument. The Republicans have failed to repeal Obamacare even when they controlled both houses of congress. Obamacare is going to remain in place unless we elect a Republican president. Proposing a Medicare for All, single-payer system would not nullify any of Obamacare unless, in fact such a proposal passed, in which case it would replace Obamacare, as it should. I am pessimistic about the likelihood of passing Sanders’ proposed bill in the near future, but that does not mean that such a healthcare system should not be the goal of whomever is in the Oval Office.  Obtaining congressional support for such a proposal is the joint responsibility of the new president and the American public, who, if taught the truth about healthcare, can apply pressure on their representatives and senators to move our country in the direction of a single-payer, government administered healthcare system, just like that found in the rest of the developed world.

Thursday
May052016

American Brainwashing

During the Korean War, a small number of American soldiers, who had been captured by the North Koreans, made public statements in favor of their captors and denouncing the United States. This was labeled “brainwashing” and led to a raft of myths about the “Pavlovian” methods being used by Communists to control the minds of their captors. There were fears that such soldiers could return to the U.S. as “sleeper agents” bent on destruction of America as in the film The Manchurian Candidate. While most of the reports of brainwashing were later debunked, the interest led to some valuable scientific research on how people became vulnerable to having their minds changed to encompass views that were diametrically opposed to what they had formerly believed. One of the most resilient findings from this body of research was that many young Americans in the late forties and early fifties had grown up hearing only one version of the world: a version that painted the American system in nothing but rosy colors and vilified the Communist system. When soldiers had been first befriended by their captors, then isolated from their peers and finally presented with alternative views of America and Communist countries, they had no defense against a viewpoint that was contrary to what they had learned. These findings led to something called “inoculation theory,” formulated most completely by social psychologist William J. McGuire. In essence, inoculation theory says that to prevent a person from being easily persuaded by counter ideas, one must first present some of those counter ideas in watered-down form so that the person can build up arguments in his or her mind against them. In other words, hearing only one side of an issue makes one vulnerable to having his or her mind changed when an alternative is presented.

I’m not worried about Americans being vulnerable to having their minds changed. In fact in many cases I would welcome it. What does bother me is that too many Americans are hearing only one side of issues and are not being exposed to alternative viewpoints. While this could make them vulnerable to persuasion if they were also isolated from their peers, frightened by their environment, alienated from leaders they were familiar with and befriended by someone who wants to change their mind (a situation that may characterize some people who are converted to become “lone wolf” terrorists), this is not likely to happen. In fact, they will continue to socialize and listen to those who agree with them and be influenced by those who push the boundaries of their way of thinking and move their peer group toward an extreme (what is called “groupthink”).

There are two prominent factors affecting how Americans think about their world. First is the relative dearth of real news about the world from our mainstream media. While the bias of the mainstream media is usually exaggerated, its restriction of news is a genuine phenomenon. A great deal of the reason for this is that American media is oriented toward the entertainment value of what it presents because that is what gets readers and viewers, and getting readers and viewers is how they get paid (mostly by advertisers) for what they do. The descent of CNN into a cable network that spends as much time on gossip and celebrity scandal and treats every issue as the occasion to bring in panels of arguing talking heads who slander each other on the air, is a prime example of this. MSNBC and Fox News present biased opinion at many times the rate of actual news and treat news itself as an occasion for criticizing whatever politicians, candidates, or points of view they oppose, employing the most inflammatory hosts and hostesses to present their messages. The network channels, who used to offer dignified coverage of news with personalities such as Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, now spend as much time on feature and human interest stories as they do on news and rarely cover anything that occurs outside of the U.S. unless it involves war, terror events, massive protests, the Pope, or a British prince. How many times have you taken a trip outside of the U.S. and found yourself listening to other countries’ news only to become aware of genuine world issues you had never heard of while in America?

Conventional wisdom is that mainstream media is so weak in the United States because of its control by corporate interests who want to shape what the American audience knows about the world. There is truth to this assertion, but the American news consumer is also to blame for his eagerness to hear information that confirms his opinions and for his lack of curiosity about the world beyond our borders, not to mention his mental laziness.

The second factor that affects how Americans think about the world is the division of much of the American public into opposing factions that occupy positions near the extremes on many issues. We’ve seen what effect this division has on our political process in Washington, which is to make it nearly non-functional. But it has also created groups of citizens who listen only to each other and refuse to consider opinions outside of those favored by other members of their group. Many of these people have given up on the mainstream media and instead read, view or listen to highly biased news sources, many of which put Fox News and MSNBC to shame in terms of substituting opinion for fact. Such sources are full of “revelations,” usually labeled as “what the mainstream media won’t tell you,” and are in actuality either entirely opinion pieces or rehashes of actual mainstream media stories. Conspiracy theories abound and these are easily given credibility by audiences who have only availed themselves of one side on most issues. The extreme opinions gain traction because, just like sensational stories in the mainstream media, they are the most interesting and entertaining. Having exposed themselves to only one side of many issues, the consumers are vulnerable to believing stories that defy reality.

Why don’t those who have fallen into extreme camps on either side of issues modify their opinions when confronted with information from the other side? The answer is that the groups into which people have aligned themselves, in the classic method of groupthink, punish any deviation from or questioning of the group’s positions. Let me name a few positions for which dissent or even questioning is now allowed: If you are a conservative—that Obamacare may have some positive factors that will allow us to overcome real flaws in our private healthcare system; that Israel may be pursuing some policies that are unethical with regard to the Palestinians, that there is room for debate on the issue of whether a woman has a right to choose abortion, that man-made climate change could be a real phenomenon, that unfettered capitalism is causing such a concentration of wealth in such a few that it needs to be regulated. If you are a progressive—that GMOs may offer solutions to some our the world’s food problems, that Israel has legitimate reasons for some of its actions in the Palestinian territories, that there could be a legitimate philosophical debate about the morality of abortion, that trade agreements may be a necessary way to do business in the world, that extensive social programs may have done damage to several European economies.

It is not just that neither conservatives nor progressives agree with the positions I mentioned respective to each, it is that NO DISCUSSION ON THESE TOPICS IS ALLOWED. Furthermore, to debate or disagree on these issues within either group is to get one attacked as disloyal, a “traitor” to one’s side and excluded from further discussions. The result is that not only does the American public become further divided into opposing groups, but also the positions of those groups become more and more poorly informed about anything except their own point of view.

This is what I call the brainwashing of America. I am stymied as to a solution to it. Any attempt to bring sides together meets with hostility. However, America is still filled with reasonable people and they just need to speak up and resist the pull to one extreme or another. I don’t mind extremes when it comes to taking action (so long as it is nonviolent and does not violate anyone’s rights), but the current situation with regard to the American conversation is deplorable and marred by strong and poorly informed opinions held by absolutely closed minds. This is not good.

Wednesday
May042016

It's Not Republican vs. Democrat, It's Establishment vs. Anti-Establishment

Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, likely to receive enough pledged delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, even before the party convention. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is acting as if and is being regarded as though she is also the presumptive nominee for their party. But Hillary only leads Bernie Sanders by slightly more than 300 pledged delegates. Her large margin in the unofficial delegate count is due to her overwhelming lead in superdelegates, those who could vote either way on the first ballot. Sanders has a chance to close the gap in pledged delegates even further, given his current lead in West Virginia, and a virtual dead heat in Oregon, although Clinton continues to lead in the large delegate count states of New Jersey and California. The path to the nomination for Bernie Sanders is, in his own words, “narrow,” but it is not yet closed.

A Clinton-Trump contest in November will be historic in that it may be the first time that two candidates with disapproval ratings well above 50% in the general population face off against each other for the presidency. Each of them has been nominated by their respective bases and their bases are wildly different and neither may represent the majority of voters in a general election. Donald Trump has garnered support largely from disaffected white male moderately conservative voters who are angry at Washington politics and who view the United States as having failed in both foreign and economic policy under Barack Obama, and for many of them, also under George W. Bush. They care less about traditional conservative social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage and more about getting jobs back and making the country safe from terrorists. They see Trump as a can-do type of candidate who can accomplish both of these goals. Their view of their candidate’s ability to do these things is based much more on his rhetorical skills and charismatic personality than on any particular plan he has offered for achieving such outcomes.

Hillary Clinton’s support comes from a varied group consisting of women, who see her move into the Whitehouse as a historic gender victory, of Blacks and Latinos who are familiar with both she and her husband, but not Bernie Sanders, and who (rightly or wrongly) regard the Clintons as historical champions of rights for minorities, and of the Democratic party establishment, which consists of lifelong party functionaries, elected officials, union leaders and deep pocketed lobbyists and donors representing corporate America (a similar group to those who supported the unsuccessful candidacy of Jeb Bush on the Republican side).

The two groups which are not well represented by either candidate are establishment Republicans and anti-establishment, progressive Democrats. In the primaries these two groups have been represented by the “Never Trump” coalition and by Bernie Sanders, respectively. They have been outvoted. Some of them refuse to follow either Trump or Clinton as their party’s candidates, although the number who will do so in the election is unclear and many of them may change their minds by November. But Hillary is hated not only by most Republicans, but also by a sizeable portion of progressives. And Trump scares not only Democrats, but also many, including many vocal leaders, within his own party.

In a Clinton-Trump election, the two groups opposing each other may well be moderate, center-of-the road Democrats, plus Blacks and Latinos, but minus a large group of young or progressive voters VS. anti-establishment Republicans and independents minus a small group of war-traumatized supporters of establishment foreign policy positions. It is not clear which of these groups will be larger.

The danger of a Clinton-Trump election for Democrats is that it may easily end up becoming an establishment vs. anti-establishment election. If so, the large cadre of Bernie Sanders supporters who voted in the Democratic primary may simply stay home. During the primary process, Bernie was able to push Hillary to the left as she tried to entice his progressive supporters to vote for her. Without Bernie, she will no doubt move further toward the center, her main argument being that she represents a tradition, implemented by the Obama Administration of which she was a part, of staid, neo-liberal policies that have secured an economic recovery, attended to the environment and kept the U.S. safe. She will say that Trump represents an economic policy that has an anti-trade, protectionist stance that doesn’t fit the global economy of which we are a part, that he wants to go back to a health care approach that failed a significant percentage of Americans, that he and his supporters favor draconian and bigoted approaches to immigration, and that his head-in-the-sand anti-science disregard of climate change will lead to disastrous consequences for the planet’s future. With regard to foreign policy she will claim that Trump’s reckless abandonment of traditional bulwarks of our foreign policy, such as staunch support for NATO, and uncritical support of Israel, is dangerous, if not blasphemous and she and Trump will each try to outdo each other on who is the most capable and most aggressive in being able to construct a military policy that will destroy ISIS and other sources of terror. The issues of income disparity and the control of wealth over our political process, perhaps even the issues of over-incarceration and racism in the law enforcement establishment and its practices may disappear as topics in the campaign.

Hillary and the Democratic party are already pivoting to the center. The leading candidate for her running mate, favored by the Democratic establishment, is reputed to be Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia, whose politics are less liberal than Clinton’s. It seems unlikely that politicians who might solidify the party’s progressive credentials, such as Elizabeth Warren, will be chosen for the Vice Presidential spot.

Clinton will be a gigantic target for Trump’s claim that his candidacy represents a battle between the political establishment that has been running this country (into the ground, according to him and his supporters), and a new breed of action-oriented, America First, non-politicians who are the only ones who can save the country from the disastrous path down which it is going. This is a message that has resonated in the primary campaign amongst Trump Republicans, Sanders Democrats and independents. Additionally, for every flaw that Democrats can point to in Trump’s personal and business history, he can point to an equally damaging political misstep, or failure to be truthful or forthcoming in Hillary’s long political career.

Bernie Sanders presents few of the vulnerabilities to a Trump campaign that Hillary presents. His greatest weakness will be his claim to be a socialist and his past flirtation with support of leaders such as Fidel Castro, both of which easily arouse a knee-jerk negative response in political conservatives, none of whom would vote for a Democratic candidate anyway. His personal life and senatorial credentials are impeccable (even his votes against gun-control bills is not a vulnerability against Trump), and he is stoutly anti-establishment. His foreign policy naivete is more than matched by Trump’s and his opposition to American military adventurism not only plays well with most Americans, but is not too different from Trump’s own less clear position. His focus on increasing wages, taxing the rich, offering government-paid-for health care for all and paying for free public college tuition are all popular with a wide portion of the electorate. They are very different from Trump’s positions, but Trump’s economic plan, which appears to hinge upon his personal flair for negotiating favorable trade deals with other countries, presents no coherent alternative. Sanders must just convince the moderate middle of America that his vision of creating a Scandinavian-style modern democratic socialist  country in which the government guarantees a quality life for all of its citizens (but does not own the means of generating income as in true socialism) is the direction America needs to go.

The greatest danger of a Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic Party is that he would be unable to convince the large body of support coming from Blacks and Latinos, which Hillary now possesses, to invest in his candidacy. They are not likely to support  Trump either, but without them, the Democrats lose a substantial portion of their base. Appeal to these groups has not been Bernie’s strong suit, but campaigning for him by Hillary and a sagacious choice of his vice presidential candidate could alter his appeal.

Bernie Sanders is a long-shot. On the other hand, national polls have consistently showed Bernie beating Trump by a wider margin than would Hillary. I support Bernie because of his progressive values, but also believe that he can offer a stronger opponent to Donald Trump than can Hillary Clinton. We’ll see what happens.

 

Tuesday
May032016

Cell Phone Privacy, "Hate Speech," and Freedom of Speech

Recent incidents involving police officers, most notably one in San Francisco and one in L.A., the latter being a high ranking L.A. Sheriff’s department official, texting racially insensitive messages have led to widespread condemnation of such texts and their presence on either department-owned or private cell phones of the officers in question. With regard to privacy, the two incidents are different, since the L.A. case involved use of a department cell phone and the S.F. case a private cell phone. The Supreme Court has ruled that messages sent on employer-owned devices are the property of the employer and not the individual using the device and thus legally subject to scrutiny by the employer. In the L.A. case, the texts were sent on the officer’s private cell phone and only uncovered “by accident” during a warranted search of that cell phone as part of an investigation of the officer on sexual assault charges. However, the messages were then made public, both by his employer, the S.F. Police Department, and the media, who obtained extensive copies of them. Neither officer was fired because of the texts, but both have resigned.

Both cases raise issues with regard to free speech. In the case of the L.A. official, most of the texts did not originate with him (though some did), but he forwarded them to other members of his then department, the Burbank Police Department. In the case of the S.F. police officer, a First Amendment lawyer has claimed that the texts were private communications of his personal views and that the issue should be whether the subject behaved in a racist manner on the job, not what his personal views are. According to the lawyer, an employer has no grounds for disciplining an employee whose on-the-job behavior does not show evidence of racial bias.

These are difficult issues to sort out and I find it disturbing that, while there has been a justifiable public outcry against these two officers and the attitudes they have expressed in their texts, there has been no similar concern over their privacy or free speech rights. Even those individuals and groups who have been most vocal with regard to privacy intrusions under the Patriot Act or violations of privacy by social media corporations, have been silent. When the issue of free speech has been raised (and it has only been raised by lawyers sympathetic to either of these defendants rights, not by the public), it has been answered by the claim that such “hate speech” as is exemplified by the two men’s texts, is not protected under the First Amendment.

The perception by much of the public that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment is wrong. In the first place, there is no agreed upon legal definition of hate speech. Secondly, only speech that incites imminent violence or creates a hostile environment leading to evident discrimination when used within the workplace (a difficult issue to prove) is an exception to the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The L.A. case could conceivably fall into this latter category. Otherwise, people are free to be as hateful as they wish to whomever they wish in the things they say.

Racism within police departments is a curse that unfortunately affects many departments across the United States and leads to horrific injustices for many African-American and Hispanic citizens. A good case can be made that speech that denigrates particular racial, ethnic or gender identity groups, made within the confines of a special workplace such as the police department, does, in fact, lead to a raised likelihood of violence toward members of those groups. While the effects may or may not be “imminent” (a crucial issue with regard to free speech definitions), the fact that police officers carry guns and wield enormous power, needs also to be taken into account. But the issues raised by these recent cases also include privacy and free speech issues, particularly with regard to outside of the workplace speech using personal communication devices. To make such communication unprotected from privacy considerations or the subject of considerations regarding the adequacy of a person’s job performance or even his or her right to hold a particular job, is to remove guarantees of liberty with regard to ideas and speech that should scare all of us. We need to defend these rights to free speech as fiercely as we condemn those who offend us when they exercise their right to engage in such speech. America is almost unique in allowing nearly unfettered freedom of expression and this has been a right that has been under attack since the Constitution was written. If we value this freedom, we need to vigilantly protect it and not join the chorus of those who would oppose it in instances in which it offends them.

 

Monday
May022016

The Weakness of Strength

We admire strength of character, which is exemplified in those special individuals who hold to their beliefs, to their goals, against all odds, in the face of not just defeat, but of undermining doubt, an emotion to which they seem immune. Our legends and myths are filled with such characters: Achilles, Ulysses, Henry V, Joan of Arc, “Stonewall” Jackson, Patton, Gandhi, Mother Jones.  These are people who seemed to have never doubted themselves, who believed in something and acted upon their belief without reservations. Away from battlefields and the international scene, we see such people in everyday life, sometimes on the sports field, sometimes in politics, as business and governmental leaders, often as religious leaders.

A lack of self-doubt can be a powerful source of strength. It need not be arrogant, it may even be quiet. But above all, it is a character trait that eliminates the kind of questioning of the rightness of one’s motives, of the need for certain actions, and of one’s own strength to persist, whether successful or not, that causes lesser beings to dither, to procrastinate, to hesitate and to become irresolute when perseverance, toughness and endurance are called for. It is difficult to defeat such persons.

But absolute clarity of vision and goals is not something that is naturally presented to us by the world in which we live. It requires a certain blindness to alternatives that might divert us from the path we have chosen to take. Such blindness can come from several sources: stubbornness and singleness of purpose seems to be a character trait of some people. Others use a particular set of beliefs, often religion, to gird themselves to resist diversion from the path indicated by those beliefs. Still others align themselves with a person or institution to which they devote absolute allegiance.

We often think that we need such strength of character, defined in this sense of supreme confidence in oneself and one’s beliefs, in our leaders. The truth is that is probably a more valuable trait in followers than in leaders. Studies of successful CEOs, for instance, have shown that, compared to less successful CEOs, they are more willing to re-evaluate their decisions and are ready to change direction when what they have chosen to do looks wrong. Some of our most successful presidents, such as Bill Clinton, have distinguished themselves by their willingness to compromise. Hitler, on the other hand, famously persisted in his advance into Russia, even when winter was approaching and all the signs were that he was sending his troops into disaster. Religious fundamentalism, regardless of the religion, is often characterized by its rigidity and its refusal to consider alternative beliefs or evidence that its worldview may be flawed. Its leaders are sometimes willing to lead their followers into situations in which they must violate the most basic human values to preserve the purity and hegemony of their beliefs. Even within families and communities, we see those who question the prevailing belief system ostracized; we see instances where daughters or sons who violate rigid religious or cultural prescriptions  are attacked by members of their own families.

Blind confidence, interpreted as strength of will, is not relegated to one or another end of the political spectrum or to one or another religious or philosophical point of view or to one or another vocation. It can be found, and is, in fact, celebrated everywhere. It gives people confidence to follow leaders who display such a trait and it makes them feel insecure if their leaders are prone to change their minds. A recent and famous example is President Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had presented as an ultimatum to Bashir Assad if he used chemical weapons in Syria. When the evidence suggested, and Western opinion overwhelmingly favored, the conclusion that Assad had, indeed used chemical weapons on his own people, Obama declined to punish him with military force, as he had strongly implied he would do. Instead, he negotiated with Russia to pressure Syria to give up its chemical weapons, which they did. Obama reasoned that air strikes could not destroy the weapons themselves, as they would produce a catastrophic release of the chemicals. Alternative targets would leave the chemicals intact. Even the evidence that Assad had used the chemicals was sketchy and remains so, as recent findings have suggested that it may have been the rebels themselves who used captured chemical weapons to try to discredit the Syrian regime and bring in American air strikes. But American and even European reaction to Obama’s “dithering” has been uniformly negative. The consensus is that he showed “weakness” by “backing down” from his threat. A leader, it is claimed by many, needs to show, above all, strength of purpose. To many, such strength is shown, not by thoughtful consideration of outcomes, but by plunging ahead at all costs to demonstrate a willingness to carry out promises, even when they seem, in retrospect, to have been ill-advised.

We seem to be in the midst of a public furor to see the world in black and white terms, despite the fact that half of us see it as white and the other as black. We demand leaders who slavishly follow a doctrinaire path of values and of decision-making. Attention to nuances is seen as weakness, both in our leaders and in each other. Thoughtful evaluation of both sides of issues is regarded as either disloyal or muddled thinking, something perhaps appropriate for the “ivory tower” of academia, but not for the real world. The result is a dumbing down of our national discussion of almost anything and the emergence of leaders who compete for leadership of the extremes on positions that should be thoughtfully dissected before decisions are made. Slogans have replaced ideas. Dissenters, or even those who question accepted wisdom, are regarded as traitors to whatever the cause and viciously attacked and not welcomed into the ranks on either side of an issue. The loudest voices with the simplest arguments and who favor the most direct action are carrying the day in our society’s attempt to find its way amidst immensely complex issues of climate, trade, economics, and military conflict. We regard those voices as strong leaders and anything less as too weak to lead.

This is a point of view that can lead to disaster.

 

 

Friday
Apr292016

Globalization and the New Nationalism

Many liberal pundits (and American allies) were alarmed at Donald Trump’s recent use of the phrase “America First,” reminding them of the American isolationism of the 1930s. In fact, Trump’s message contains a mix of foreign policy isolationism and economic imperialism. But the core of his appeal really is a sort of isolationist nationalism, which says, in effect, “we’re not going to be controlled by anyone else, we’re going to do things our way and make our decisions based on what’s good for us, not for anyone else.” This message is combined with a suspicion and distaste for immigrants and even for American citizens who appear too different from the majority of white Christians.

Trump’s sentiments and those of his supporters, are being echoed throughout much of the developed world. In Europe, what is being called “New Nationalism” is on the rise. According to British academic Ruth Wodak, this movement in Europe can be divided into four groups: "parties [that] gain support via an ambivalent relationship with fascist and Nazi pasts" (e.g., in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France), parties that "focus primarily on a perceived threat from Islam" (e.g., in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland), parties that "restrict their propaganda to a perceived threat to their national identities from ethnic minorities" (e.g., in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom) and parties that "endorse a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda" (e.g., in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria).

Recently, China has reversed a policy of welcoming Western businesses and other types of organizations to China to one of requiring non-government organizations to have a Chinese sponsor and register with Chinese law enforcement before carrying out any activities in China. Chinese president Xi Jinping cited resistance to “Western influences” and a belief that foreign nongovernment groups are “black hands” working to undermine one-party rule in the country.

What is happening that is causing the world, or at least the world of more developed countries, to pull back into their nationalistic shells and to attempt to reaffirm their unique ethnic and social backgrounds in ways that reject influences from outside their own countries?

Globalization is a force that has given the impression that it is sweeping the world in an inexorable fashion. The three most prominent arms of globalization are 1) internet-based social media, which brings outside cultural influences into a country, 2) global business, which not only spreads cultural influences (e.g. Apple, Starbucks, Alibaba and the NBA) but links economies to one another, taking control away from the interests of a single country, and 3) the reach of war, which has brought both terrorism and refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries to Europe and to a lesser degree the United States. The changes brought about by climate change, which include increasing droughts and rising ocean levels, will increase both wars and migration in the future.

Many countries are reacting to globalization by retreating into their own pasts, or at least into what they believe their pasts stood for. This is the reaction of a developed world that feels threatened. Although the players who pose much of the threat—business leaders, military-linked business and government leaders, techno-media giants—are regarded by many as in control of what happens in the world, ordinary people only understand what they feel as a threat from ideas, cultural practices and people with physical appearances and languages that are foreign to them. They view these people as the problem and want to be rid of them, to wall them out, and to put the old, familiar faces and cultural practices back to the forefront of their societies.

It is simplistic to say that the isolationists will lose because globalization cannot be halted, even though that is true. But in the immediate future, the isolationists can win. The result will be a greater cultural divide between countries, a stronger feeling that those cultures that are different from one’s own pose a threat and must be stopped, even if that means by military means (which will always be labeled and even seen as “defensive,” as in the U.S. war in Iraq and against ISIS), and probably, trade wars that exaggerate recessions and recoveries differently for different countries, bringing further unrest within those countries which struggle economically. Meanwhile the developing world will be shut out. Since the only overtures to them will be to use them as military bases or to exploit their resources for the benefit of developed countries, while using them as a market for goods (at the expense of their own indigenous industries), a situation most developing countries are already familiar with from years of history, they will not only disintegrate further but direct more and more of their anger at the developed world. Within these countries, religious zealots and power-hungry dictators will rise to the top. A global approach to the major issue of our times, climate change, will be impossible.

Both liberals and conservatives within the U.S. embrace some version of increased nationalism. For conservatives it is the Donald Trump brand of xenophobia. For liberals and progressives it is resistance to any kind of Free Trade Agreement. Everyone has his or her own brand of “America First.” But globalization is inevitable and forward thinkers need to formulate policies that allow the United States and other developed countries to address this inevitability without losing national identity or becoming pawns of global business interests.  I don’t know how this is done, but knee-jerk suspicion of anyone different, of religions that are foreign to one’s country’s history, or to any kind of international trade cooperation is not going to work in anyone’s favor. 

Wednesday
Apr272016

Bernie Shouldn't Quit and "Bernie or Bust" is Wrong

After another “super Tuesday” string of victories for Hillary Clinton among Northeast states, there is a lot of talk about the need for Bernie Sanders to drop out of the presidential race and allow Hillary and her money to become focused on beating the Republican candidate, most likely Donald Trump. At the same time, the “Bernie or Bust” movement is urging Bernie to remain in the race, or perhaps mount a third-party candidacy, and most of this group has vowed not to vote for Hillary if she is the Democratic Nominee.

Both of these positions are dead wrong.

Bernie should not quit

During the primary elections, it is usual for candidates to take positions on issues that are more extreme to the left or to the right in order to gain support from the committed and ideological base of their parties. Once the nominations have become fixed in place, candidates usually move toward the center in an effort to secure votes from independents and those not fully committed members of the opposite party. Famous cases where this has not occurred have been Barry Goldwater, who did not soften his conservative rhetoric after his nomination and George McGovern, who continued to oppose the Vietnam war and aim his message at the left. Both men were beaten soundly in the general election, providing a lesson to future candidates that has not gone unheeded.

Despite the claims of the conservative media, Hillary Clinton is no left-wing ideologue by any stretch of the imagination. Like her husband, she is a center-establishment candidate, falling in the camp now labeled with disdain from the more radical left, “neo-liberal.” During the primary campaign she has moved to the left in order to compete with Bernie Sanders. This move has caused her to reverse herself on issues such as the Keystone pipeline and the Trans Pacific Partnership, both central causes of the left. Her position on the federal minimum wage, although wildly different from that of Republicans, is too meek for Sanders’ supporters and, indeed the base of her party, and it has gotten her considerable flak from Democrats. Similarly, her position on health care, which is to continue expanding Obamacare until everyone is covered, is not favored by many, if not most independents and more liberal Democrats, who much prefer Sanders’ single payer, Medicare for all plan. Her rhetoric on the Middle East conflict has had to be toned down from the aggressive positions she has historically taken in order not to alienate the large anti-war side of her party. The concessions she has made have been in response to Bernie’s candidacy. If Bernie remains in the race and his supporters continue to grow and remain vocal on the issues they support, Hillary may make further concessions. Bernie himself has said that, even if he doesn’t get the nomination, he hopes that he can influence Hillary and the party to accept many of his positions, using the evidence of his support as a tool to influence the candidate and the party. Even after the election, if Bernie’s progressive army of supporters can continue, as a group, to push for more progressive policies, they can continue to influence both Hillary and other elected representatives.

For all of these reasons, Bernie Sanders should remain in the presidential race right up to the nomination.

 

“Bernie or Bust” is wrong.

A sizeable group of Sanders supporters have vowed not to support Clinton if she is the nominee of the Democratic Party. They plan to either not vote, to vote for another third-party candidate, or to push for Sanders himself to become a third-party candidate. Among this group are many who have virtually demonized Hillary as a “right-wing fanatic,” a “tool of wall street,” a “racist” and a “war monger.” They view her as no worse nor even different than the front-running Republican candidates, Trump and Cruz. Such characterizations of Hillary have become fashionable on the left.

Hillary’s positions on foreign policy are known to have been more aggressive than Obama’s and certainly more aggressive than many, if not most, Democrats. Without going into the list of “regime change” positions she has supported, beginning with her famous vote on Iraq, she continues to support the administration goal of deposing Assad in Syria and refuses to admit that the U.S. support of the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya has resulted in a totally destabilized country. She supports a No-Fly zone in Syria, which will get the U.S. further, involved in that conflict and perhaps provoke more conflicts with Russia and Iran, both of whom have planes in the air over Syria. None of these positions is defensible so far as the left is concerned. They are an extension of a U.S. foreign policy that has emphasized military action as a method of extending U.S. influence and of attempting to control events in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are positions that many of our allies, who share a similar mindset with our leaders, have supported. Nevertheless, they are beyond the pale so far as those who oppose U.S. involvement in wars are concerned.

Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy needs to be modified. There is no question about this. Since she is the most likely person to be elected as our next president, those who oppose her foreign policy need to have some mechanism to affect her views and decisions. Rousing public opposition to military adventurism, to confrontation as a major tool for dealing with Russia and Iran, to arming insurgent groups whose aims we scarcely understand, and to further build-up of our own military at the expense of funding domestic programs, is a necessary activity prior to and during a Clinton presidency. Clinton is much more amenable to pressure from her constituency on these issues than would be either Trump or Cruz, who have made confrontation with Iran, blind defense of Israel’s policies, and build-up of our military, centerpieces of their candidacies.

Foreign policy is perhaps the single issue on which Clinton may differ from not just the radical left wing, but also the majority of her party. This is not true of the Republican Party. The radical left who oppose fracking, who vilify Monsanto and oppose GMOs, who view the collusion between Wall Street and government as not just the way a money-influenced political system works, but as a genuine conspiracy, and who want to dismantle government and start over from scratch, are a minority in this country. When their issue coincides with the majority, or when their voices are able to influence the majority to agree with them, they can cause changes in the system at large. But those changes will only occur when they are on the same page as a majority of Americans and when the government lends a friendly ear to their arguments. A Republican president and a Republican-controlled congress will not listen as readily as will Democrats, whose base is already on board with issues such as increasing friendly relations with Iran, stopping the expansion of NATO, reducing nuclear proliferation, urging reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, and ending U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Allowing Trump or Cruz to win the next election may satisfy Hillary-haters, but it will not further the likelihood of any of their causes being successful.

On the domestic front, the distance between Hillary and either Trump or Cruz is a chasm and efforts to deny this are blind to reality. Hillary wants to stop arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who have not committed any crime in the U.S., she wants to increase the minimum wage, she supports gay marriage, she is in favor of a woman’s right to choose to have or not to have a child, she wants to assure that Muslim Americans are integrated into our society and are not scapegoated, she wants to continue and expand the food stamp program and Medicaid coverage, she promises to use the power of the attorney general’s office to try to remove racism from our criminal justice system, she wants to reduce our rate of incarceration, she believes in climate change and supports efforts to curb carbon emissions and reduce ours and the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Neither Republican candidate nor the Republican base supports any of these positions.

Hillary’s opponents among Bernie supporters like to point their fingers at Hillary’s support of the 1994 Crime Bill, which continued the pattern of mass incarceration in the U.S., of her former support for the Keystone pipeline and the TPP, at her reluctance to support a federal $15 per hour minimum wage (she favors $12 per hour) and her financial support from Wall Street, fossil fuel lobbyists, and the pharmaceutical industry as evidence that she is not different from the Republican candidates. But these issues, on some of which she has changed her position, are minimal compared to the general mindset that characterizes how she views the role of government in supporting social and economic programs for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the discriminated against elements of our society compared to the Republican candidates.

If those who genuinely are opposed to further reliance on fossil fuels, of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, of discriminatory immigration policies, of the gutting of our government funded social safety net, of privatization of our social security system and of returning our health care system to its pre-Obamacare condition in which large segments of the population had no health insurance at all, and of the diversion of billions of our tax dollars from domestic spending to military spending are serious about these issues and not just interested in spouting leftist slogans to each other and feeling self-satisfied that they hold purist viewpoints while the rest of the misguided country doesn’t, then they will continue to support Bernie Sanders up to the nomination and, if Hillary wins that nomination, they will support her.

 

Monday
Apr252016

Three Things that Aren't Going to Happen

There has been a lot of talk during this election season about the need to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, about the need to protect our borders to stem the tide of illegal immigration as well as restrict legal immigration, and for the need to to abandon the election process entirely in favor of a "revolution" of direct actions that bring the direction of the country back into the hands of the people. I don't think any of these things will happen and below are my reasons why.

 

Most of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost to China, Mexico, Vietnam, etc. will never come back to the United States.

Loss of lesser skilled manufacturing jobs to third world countries is a function of globalization and a higher standard and cost of living in the United States. So long as there remain vast differences in wages between the United States and countries in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, assembly-line manufacturing jobs will continue to drift toward the lower wage countries. Only stringent protectionism would alter this process, and then only for the short term as other developed countries, such as Britain and Germany, which allow freer trade, continue to outsource their manufacturing and produce products that are cheaper than those made within the United States, leaving us isolated in the world market.

 

As the cost and standard of living in other countries, such as China and Vietnam increases and automation and robotization of assembly-line manufacturing improves and becomes more widespread, the jobs themselves will disappear, regardless of where the workers live. Whoever retools its workforce and alters the sources of its GDP growth to meet this changing manufacturing scene will be the economic power of the future.

 

A better solution to the American loss of manufacturing is to improve the educational and skill level of our workforce so that the hundreds of thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs in the U.S. that now go unfilled for lack of workers can be filled by Americans. Fighting against Free Trade Agreements, and blaming them for the drain of manufacturing jobs is a misguided and fruitless mission. It is a battle against globalization that is doomed to failure and a movement toward economic protectionism that will isolate the United States from a world that needs to figure out how to be connected in better ways than have been figured out up to now

 

Massive human migration is not going to end.

While Americans and American political candidates focus upon the almost static flow of Mexicans and Central Americans across our southern border, Millions of dislocated Africans and Middle Easterners are fleeing war and drought to move into more stable Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, or into Europe. As climate change raises sea levels and wreaks havoc with rainfall levels throughout the world, Asia and Africa will be disproportionately affected. Many of the most low-lying countries in the world are in Asia, and Africa is already drought-ridden in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Senegal and others.  These climate-related catastrophes will have both direct effects in terms of loss of land mass and arable land and indirect effects in terms of increased wars and political unrest.

So far, after an initial welcoming response from most of Europe, the response of the Northern-hemisphere developed world has been to place severe limits on the numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and develop procedures for returning them to the Middle East. America has taken a thimbleful of refugees from the Syrian conflict and further plans to admit more refugees are in severe political trouble. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are inundated with refugees. With regard to Syrians and Iraqis, a solution to the current conflicts may allow return of refugees who didn’t want to leave their countries in the first place. However, the chances of new conflicts breaking out are high, and the facts of climate change almost mandate that the number of refugees seeking asylum in safer countries (safer from war or from ecological disaster) will swell in the future. Refusal to accommodate these refugees is no long-term solution.

I suspect that the United States and European countries will continue on a path of nationalistic protectionism with regard to their countries’ borders and populations. I cannot see this working as a long-term solution. What is more likely is that such activities will further inflame third-world countries against the West and lead to more terror attacks, if not international conflicts. Some new kind of relationships between the haves and have-nots of the world needs to be developed. To develop such relationships we need not just leaders who are outward and forward-looking into the world of the future, but a change in world perspective for ordinary people who are currently tied to nationalism as their chief source of identity.

 

There will be no successful revolution in the United States except one that works through the existing political system.

Bernie Sanders has called for a “revolution” to support his presidential candidacy and said that, even if he is elected, such a revolution will need to continue in order to persuade politicians in Washington to pass legislation to implement his proposals. Sanders’ proposals are striking and progressive, but his use of the word “revolution” is metaphorical. The mechanism by which he hopes to change America is via the ballot box. Mass demonstrations in favor of a single payer health care system, against fracking, in favor of a more progressive tax system, or against Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United all would have the aim of pressuring elected officials or demonstrating the public’s sentiments to the court.

There are some, perhaps many, Americans who have abandoned the ballot box as a means to solve our country’s problems. “Direct action” in which those who oppose a government policy or corporate action do their best to stop that policy or action from being implemented is seen as a more effective strategy, given the role of wealth and corporate interests in controlling what happens in America, especially at the governmental level. Their view is that by engaging enough people in these actions, they can start a movement that enables circumvention of governmental policy making and the execution of policies in favor of carrying out the will of the people directly. Besides these revolutionaries being a definite although vocal minority within the country, direct action as a method of controlling government activities in general, is a bad idea. Our government is designed to carry out the will of the people. Sure, this aim has been circumvented by those with money who control politicians and the political process through campaign contributions, lobbying, and an “old boy network,” which cycles the same people between corporate leadership positions and appointments as government officials, but circumventing this aim by having the most vocal minority control government policies is not better. While the result could be beneficial in some cases, as a routine method of making and implementing decisions that affect all Americans, it would result in chaos. Using the force of public action instead of public opinion invariably leads to confrontation, if not between the public and the government, then between different factions of the public. The same groups who now oppose each other at the ballot box would oppose each other on the street.

“Direct actions” are a valuable method of raising public awareness or demonstrating the public will. For them to be effective and not just divisive and leading to chaos, there needs to be a working democratic system that responds to them. They are not a replacement of that system. That is why the real “revolution” needs to be in mobilizing the electorate to get money out of politics, to oppose corruption and  policies that favor a small group of wealthy Americans at the expense of the rest of us and especially those most in need of government assistance, and to express our collective will in demonstrations and in active support and opposition to the people who are elected and the policies they enact.

Thursday
Apr212016

How Dangerous is Free Speech?

We live in a society in which the freedom to express one’s opinions is increasingly being challenged. Given our democracy, its history, and the principles upon which it was founded, protection of free speech should be the priority in all cases where the right to express an opinion is called into question. Protection of the speaker’s rights must come before protection of the feelings of those who listen to such speech. Considerations of public protection must require substantial evidence of plausible threat to the safety of citizens before they are allowed to be the basis for restricting or intimidating free expression.

Laws related to free speech are concerned mostly with protection from government interference in speech that is critical of or  antagonistic to the government’s programs, its philosophy, or its own words. However, universities, which, if they are public, are extensions of government, may enact policies, which while not laws, can have the same effect as laws do on students’ rights. Many of these policies, labeled as anti-hate speech or anti-harassment policies prohibit speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. But, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.” In fact in numerous cases, federal courts have ruled that speech codes enacted by public universities violated students’ free speech rights.

The University of California has been one of the leaders among public universities in adopting measures that seek to protect students from statements that are deliberately racist or could be construed as such. The Daily Beast highlighted some of the more extreme of these measures, such as cautioning faculty not to use phrases such as “America is a melting pot,” or “There is only one race—the human race,” because they deny a person the dignity of identifying with his or her own race or ethnic group. Even “America is the land of opportunity” was labeled as having a racist component since it was supposed to imply that “People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.”

The above examples would seem comical if they did not represent a trend across campuses and, indeed across the country in which a) any speech that offends demands an apology if not a prohibition and punishment, and b) refusing to allow those whose opinions you find offensive or abhorrent is being used as a protest tactic.

Last August, Black Lives Matter activists wrested a microphone from Bernie Sanders as he began to address a crowd in Seattle. They spoke briefly to the crowd, which did not receive them well, and refused to return the mike. Sanders left the event without completing his speech. The action served to bring the Black Lives Matter group more into the spotlight and even got Sanders to sit down with them and discuss their issues. But what about the rights of those who came to hear Sanders speech? And what about Sanders own right to speak? Do the ends justify the means in this case? Many progressive activists, even some who support Sanders’ bid for the presidency, celebrated the Black Lives Matter action. I did not.

I ordinarily support nonviolent protests. Passive or even active resistance that may violate a law but does not remove someone else’s rights is OK by me. What the activists did in Seattle was to use force to elevate their right to speak above Sanders’. He was forced either into asking officials to forcibly remove the demonstrators or he needed to walk away, which he did. Politically, Sanders did the right thing, as I think he did by meeting with representatives from the group afterward to better understand their issues. But the right to speak without interference is a sacred one in America and in this case it was lost. What should the Black Lives Matter people have done if they felt they were not being given a forum to express their views? They could have asked to speak at his rally, held their own rally, brought signs to Sanders’ rally, passed out leaflets to the crowd, demonstrated in front of the Sanders campaign headquarters—anything that did not rob Sanders of his right to address the crowd in Seattle.

Another demonstration, celebrated by many progressive activists, occurred in Chicago where crowds of anti-Trump demonstrators attended a Donald Trump rally on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the days prior to the rally, both students and faculty at the university had pleaded to cancel Trump’s appearance on their campus because, as they said in a letter to their administration, “the Trump rally is an anathema to the mission of U.I.C.” Inside the arena, protesters argued with Trump supporters as they did outside in the line snaking into the arena. A few physical clashes took place. The candidate called off the rally because he was afraid that violence would occur. When violence did occur between protesters and supporters, Trump was blamed for it because of his previous comments seeming to approve violence used against those who disrupted his rallies.

How can the expression of opinions, even ones that many find distasteful, even harmful, be “anathema to the mission” of a university, in which the free discussion of ideas and opinions should be one of its main purposes? I believe the faculty of UIC (the University of Illinois at Chicago, which I attended on a fellowship), were mistaken in their belief that voicing values that the majority of the university’s students, faculty and administration abhor, should not be allowed on their campus. A university’s mission should be to generate informed discussion, not to silence points of view.

Silencing voices that do not represent the dominant values of a university has become a popular form of protest at many private and public universities. In a well-publicized instance, students and faculty at Rutgers University protested against former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking at their commencement because she had been in favor of the Iraq war and worked for George Bush. She decided not to speak.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education listed 212 attempted “disinvitations” of campus speakers that occurred across the U.S. from 2000-2014. Seventy-six of these resulted in either the college canceling the speaker’s engagement or the speaker withdrawing in the face of such protest. Another 12 speakers were not allowed to complete their speech because of the actions of protesters at their event. The majority of those targeted for disinvitation have been conservatives or people associated with organizations the left opposes (e.g. the International Monetary Fund, the state of Israel), but they have also included an LBGT activist, a female Muslim who has led a campaign against genital mutilation, a famous atheist, hip-hop artist Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, Carol Spinney, the voice of Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street and Fred (“Mister”) Rogers. Leading the list of disinvitees are George W. Bush (6 disinvites), Condoleezza Rice (4), Ann Coulter (3), and Ben Carson (3), all conservatives, but also Ward Churchill (4 disinvites) the University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor and Native American activist who was terminated from his position at his university after calling some of the victims of 9/11 “little Eichmann’s” because of their role in what he called the U.S “ongoing genocidal imperialism.”

Students and faculty have argued that they have a right to choose who speaks at their schools. But in their minds, this right seems to extend only to the majority and not to those students and faculty who favor a point of view that is in the minority on their campus. Again, it seems to me that, universities being a strong bastion of the free exchange of ideas, deliberately restricting those ideas to ones that the majority favor is inimical to the purpose of providing a broad education.

The issue of free speech on campus is an old one. It was an issue in the fifties when professors were persecuted for leaning toward Communism; it was an issue in the sixties when students wanted to protest against the war in Vietnam; it was an issue when students of color tried to gain a voice on campus and uncloak university racism. Now it is an issue when speakers who have supported positions different from the majority of students and faculty try to have their voices heard. But in some respects it has always been the same issue: in an institution dedicated to opening minds to the varied knowledge that is available within the world, is it legitimate for a university to limit that knowledge to only what its students and faculty approve? I don’t think it is. In fact, I think it is a university’s obligation to do just the opposite: to do everything within its power to guarantee that all voices and ideas have a chance to be heard within its walls, so that students learn not to fear or suppress ideas, but to study them and challenge them. I also think that, even when the issue is free speech off of a university campus, “shutting down” a speaker through protest is wrong. It is a cowardly way of addressing ideas and opinions you dislike, instead of challenging those ideas and opinions with ones of your own.

Monday
Apr112016

The Day I Found Out I was Going to Die

The Day I Found Out I was Going to Die

Casey Dorman, Editor

 

When my cell phone rang it was my urologist on the other end of the phone, calling me to report on the CT scan I had just had after a particularly vicious urinary tract infection. I stood in the middle of the kitchen, my ear to the phone, while my 11-year-old niece whom I had been helping with homework waited patiently at the kitchen table and my wife bustled about the kitchen fixing dinner. “Your bladder and kidneys are normal,” the doctor said, “but the scan found a large mass in your pancreas.”

Pancreatic tumors are fatal, everyone knows that.

“It’s about 3X4 centimeters and takes up the whole head of the pancreas,” the young Vietnamese doctor went on. “Your primary care doctor will be calling you to tell you the next step.” I closed the phone and walked over to my wife and put my arms around her and pulled her close.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“The CT scan found a large mass in my pancreas.”

She looked up at me, alarmed. “Are they sure?” 

“That’s what he said. My regular doctor is supposed to call to tell me the next step.”

“What’s a mass in the pancreas?” my niece asked. 

“Never mind,” I answered. It’s just a medical term. Everything is OK.”

All I could think of was how my wife was going to handle losing me. I’m 14 years older than she and I cursed myself for being so selfish that when we’d married I hadn’t thought about the years of loneliness she would have because she’d married someone who inevitably would die well before her. I was 73. I knew I was in that age range where something was liable to happen to end my life, but I’d thought I had at least 5 years – my father died of cancer at 78 years of age.  I didn’t expect to live forever, despite being in probably better than average health and physical condition for my age, but I hadn’t expected to die now.

The phone rang again. It was my PCP. He repeated the same information that the urologist had told me with the addition that the mass was of “mixed texture” and that I should call to set up an MRI as the next step.  “It’s most likely cancer isn’t it?” I asked. “That’s a concern,” was all he said. I called immediately and set up the appointment for the MRI. The earliest they could arrange was two weeks away.

For the next five or six days, my wife and I clung to each other and tried to reduce our anxiety. She voiced the hope that the CT scan was just wrong, or perhaps they’d mixed up someone else’s with mine. Both of us went to the internet to see what we could learn—it was all bad: the best predictor of the malignancy of a pancreatic mass is its size. 3X4 centimeters is enormous, verging on inoperable. The likelihood of  5-year survival with a tumor of that size is about 1%; most people die within a year. Surgery, if possible is painful, dangerous, and not usually successful in curing the cancer. The more each of us learned, the more depressed we got. “But I have no symptoms,” I kept saying.

“It’s possible to have no symptoms, despite a pancreatic tumor,” my wife answered, reading from her smartphone.

After 5 days or so, my outlook changed. There were things I had to do. I got out all my retirement plans and my life insurance policy, read each carefully, and then called each to ask what steps my wife would need to take after I died to receive the payments she would need to support herself (although she still worked and repeatedly told me not to worry about such things right now). I prepared a list of instructions with phone numbers for her to call for each plan and policy. What worried my wife most were the publishing ventures in which I had become involved since my retirement. I had gone from self-publishing my own novels, to publishing novels and books of poetry by others and I was publisher and editor of a literary journal, which I had started 7 years before and which had become quite successful and received multiple submissions daily. The next two quarterly issues were already in place in terms of choosing the poems, stories, art and essays for each. The authors had already been informed. My wife knew nothing about how my publishing or journal businesses worked. If I died, wouldn’t there be legal complications, lawsuits from upset writers who expected to be published, royalties owed to authors, she asked.

My wife was right. I wrote every author, poet, artist and essayist whom I had told would have his or her work published in my journal and told them I was ill and closing the journal and would not be publishing their work. With one or two exceptions, they were understanding, even concerned about my health. I announced the close of my journal everywhere that it was advertised. I canceled my appearances at a large literary conference and two upcoming book fairs. I transferred the books I had published back to their authors and arranged to have all the proceeds from the books go directly to them. I had each sign a termination of my contract with them. They were gracious and more worried about my health than about their books. Then, given that it was March, I prepared all the year’s taxes. I was too busy to worry about my health and I felt good about getting so much done in so short a time.

After the MRI there was a week-long wait to hear from my PCP that the mass was present on the MRI but that it was confined to my pancreas, did not seem to be blocking any ducts or vessels and my blood tests had indicated no interference of function either in the pancreas or my liver. He told me to set up an appointment for an endoscopic ultrasound and probably a biopsy of the mass with the gastroenterology department. They gave me an appointment for two weeks later.

It had now been three weeks and lots of things were going on in my head and between my wife and I. We decided that, if we only had a short while before I either died or was incapacitated by surgery or chemotherapy, then we should do some things we’d never done before or wished we could do more often. We took day trips: to Venice Beach one day, to Santa Monica Pier another day, to Beverly Hills for   lunch. We walked on the beach in Newport Beach, where we lived, and in Laguna Beach, down the coast. We went to dinner; we went to my favorite sports bar and watched the NCAA tournament. We followed the presidential primaries on CNN and we found a TV series (Mr. Robot) of which we’d been unaware and watched all ten of the first season’s episodes in one week.  I had recently completed a novel and had sent it to a number of agents and small presses. I really liked the novel and I decided that I couldn’t afford to wait until someone accepted it, given I had no idea how much longer I’d live, so I decided to self-publish it. Then I resumed work on a new novel I had abandoned when I first got the news of the mass in my pancreas.

My wife had her work to distract her and I went back to my routines of gardening, taking long beach walks, lifting weights and helping my two nieces, one in grade school, the other in college with their academic assignments. Every time I started to think about my health and what would come next, I reminded myself that I probably had less than a year to live and might begin debilitating treatments after the next exam and biopsy, so I needed to be sure and complete everything that required me having full use of my capacities while I still possessed them. Dwelling on the possibilities with regard to my health was useless and actually provoked more anxiety than ignoring them.

Prior to my retirement and entry into the field of literature, I had been spent more than forty years as a clinical psychologist. Despite the emphasis in my field on the usefulness of talking about issues and examining the feelings associated with them, I never had bought into that philosophy as a coping strategy. I’d always felt that just slogging ahead and only thinking about what bothered you in order to figure out how to combat it made more sense. My wife coped differently. She continued to pore over medical sites on the internet and wanted to share what she had found with me. Since most of what she’d found was about the bleak outlook and eventual pain associated with my condition and its various treatments, I didn’t want to hear about it. I told her I preferred to accept the fact that I had a limited lifespan and wait until the doctor told me what my options were. Going through the options based upon what we could learn on our own, even if it was accurate, was disruptive of my coping style of not dwelling on my condition. I’m afraid that my reluctance to talk about my condition or to listen to her thoughts about the various directions the illness could take, gave my wife no outlet for her anxiety. She had to cope more bravely and silently than she should have. Thankfully, she had some good friends, one of them a doctor, with whom to talk.  What my wife and I did share were our mutual feelings about needing to weigh the advantages of possible interventions in term of extending my life, with considerations about the quality of that extended life. Both of us agreed that a shorter, but less incapacitated life was preferable to a longer one with little gained except more months of pain and incapacity.

I found that I was rarely anxious, although every time I started to feel too good, I reminded myself that I most likely had a fatal tumor growing inside me and that I would not live much longer. Nevertheless, my typical coping style of thinking about the present and what I had to accomplish as well as my sense of humor, which I seemed unable to suppress, kicked in and served me well. I remember telling some colleagues, who were aware in a general way about my health issues, that so far I’d made as much money publishing this far into the current year as I had all of last year. “Of course, it’s still not enough to live on,” I said. Then thinking about what I’d said, I added, “of course that depends on how long I live, so on second thought maybe it is enough to live on.”

I did have a couple of epiphanies during these weeks of waiting for the final verdict on my health, and life. First, it was absolutely clear to me that nothing mattered as much as the peace of mind and future security of my wife. Our relationship was more central to my life than any of the writing, publishing or anything else with which I had occupied myself for years. Second, I was satisfied that my relationship with my grown children was solid and they were both in good shape with their own lives. One thing I was finding was that every interaction I had with those I loved was deeply satisfying to me. I was lucky to have no rocky relationships at this time in my life. Finally—and this was a total surprise to me—I found that my Atheism, my lack of belief in God or an afterlife was a comfort to me. I’d either progressed rapidly through, or skipped entirely most of Kubler-Ross’ stages of dying. I realized that this was probably because of my Atheism. The denial stage had been short-lived, if present at all, although my wife had certainly gone through it at first. I never did feel any anger. That’s supposed to be the “why me?’ stage or the “this isn’t fair” stage. I just felt that it was me because I was human and I was 73 years old. I hadn’t tried to bargain for my life (who would I bargain with?), I hadn’t prayed for a miracle (Who to? I’m an atheist, remember. Besides, I figured that would be useless and might give me false hope). It’s not a Kubler-Ross stage, but thinking about what would happen to me after I died was also not something I spent any time on either. Nothing would happen to me, except I wouldn’t exist and the important thing was to make sure those I cared about were taken care of. I had been depressed (the fourth stage) for the first several days, although my anxiety had been more prominent and I remained aware of making an effort to keep my anxiety in check. So far as I could tell, my anxiety was almost entirely related to two things: my wife’s well-being after I died and the threat of having false hope. I found acceptance of my mortality easy, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the peace it gave me by grasping at straws that would turn out to be nothing but wishful thinking.

What I did do with my time and my thoughts was to think about what my wife and I wanted to do most with whatever time I still had. We both embraced the idea of planning a short vacation, making an assumption that, since I was still symptom-free, my demise was not going to be immediate and I might even have time before or between any treatments, should I have them. We decided that we’d go to Ireland, where she promised to join me in drinking in the pubs and visiting the theaters and university areas (she does not drink at all, so this was a major concession on her part). If we wouldn’t have time to take a trip to such a distant destination, we discussed all the California coast locations we’d like to visit for a weekend.

The time had come for my gastroenterology procedure. It had been   5 weeks since the phone call that had informed me of the pancreatic mass. This was to be the ultimate diagnostic test: a closer visualization and a biopsy. They would do this by running a tube down my throat into my stomach and somehow making an ultrasound recording of my pancreas (and other organs) and snipping off a bit, if necessary. The gastroenterologist first came in to explain the procedure to me. I reminded him that I really wanted the mass biopsied. He told me that he’d looked at the CT scan and it didn’t look like a mass to him. It just looked as though the head of my pancreas was larger than normal. I was shocked. This was different than anything I’d heard so far. But my good sense kicked in and rather than hope, I just thought, “let’s do it—do the procedure.”

They did it. It was painless, as I’d been told it would be. The sedation knocked me out. When I woke up in the recovery room, I was told that the doctor would be in shortly. I asked them to bring in my wife so she could hear what was said. I was still a little groggy from the sedative. My wife came in and then the doctor appeared. He told me that there was no tumor to be found. My pancreas head was larger than normal, but that didn’t seem to be a problem and there was an enlarged duct within it, but that too was benign. He hadn’t biopsied anything because there was nothing to biopsy. I could go home, I was normal and I didn’t need any more tests. Three days later my PCP emailed me the same information. My pancreas he said, “is NOT a concern.”    

My wife and I were stunned by the turn of events. In a matter of hours, I’d gone from being completely prepared for death (but who really knows?) to being given a clean slate of health. I’m still 73, so a clean slate of health is relative. I felt like I needed to thank someone, although I wasn’t sure what to thank him or her for. After all, my fatal illness had actually never existed. I had a strong urge to thank God, despite my Atheism, although I told myself that such thoughts were a reflex from my religious childhood and would be addressed to no one but a holdover corner of my own mind. But after an experience such as this, I felt as if I had to thank someone. I thanked the doctors, although they hadn’t actually cured anything and in fact, the whole experience was based on a misinterpreted set of test results. But better to have followed up on suspicious test results than to have ignored them, so I was still thankful to them. I also felt thankful to, and I hope I remembered to thank each of them, those who wished me well and even those who prayed for me. Their prayers may not have changed my medical condition, but such concerned care certainly made me feel better during my time of stress.

It’s taken some adjustment to get used to not having the blade hanging over my head anymore. My wife feels the same way. We both keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. There was a certain freedom in thinking that I only had a little more time to live so I should do what pleased me most. We both agree that, although there is no longer any specific reason why I will die soon, I might… or she might. Life is fragile and unpredictable, and at a certain age (probably younger than either of us is now) the best thing to do is to enjoy whatever is available to enjoy and bring as much fun and satisfaction into your life as you can… right now.  The trick is not to be so caught up in daily tasks that we forget this lesson. I made the decision not to  resume publication of Lost Coast Review, my literary journal, since I was enjoying the freedom of being relieved of the duties associated with it, and I wanted to be able to focus on doing things with my wife. She was happy with my decision. I will still write, but my publishing career, except for self-publishing, is at an end.

And by the way, my 11 year old niece, whom we tried to shield from any further discussion or worry about my health, and to whom we never mentioned the word cancer, for fear of worrying her, was simply told “Uncle is not sick anymore” after we got the good news. She nodded and said that was “good.” Later in the day, when she brought her friend from next door over for a snack, she said to my wife, “Oh, I told my friend that my uncle doesn’t have cancer anymore.” 

 

 

Friday
Oct162015

Our Pushcart Nominations for 2015

Our Pushcart Nominations for 2015

The Editorial Staff

 

Each year we have the opportunity and challenge of nominating six of what we consider our best poems and stories for the Pushcart Prize. The decision is a difficult one. Every poem, story or essay published in Lost Coast Review is exceptional and has only been published after having been chosen from among hundreds of other submissions. Our poetry acceptance rate has dropped below 15% and our short story acceptance rate is below 10%. These numbers are getting even smaller with each passing year, as we receive more and more submissions to fill a limited amount of space in our journal.

Despite the difficulty of choosing among many outstanding publications, we have to make a choice. This year we first narrowed the field to 15 poems and 5 stories. From this list, 4 poems and 2 stories were chosen. We will first list our 6 nominations, and then the 14 honorable mentions, which gave each of our nominations a run for its money.

Pushcart nominees: (in order of publication)

Poetry:

“Singular” by Len Krisak

“It was Late and We Stopped Talking but We

Didn’t Hang Up” by Mark Jackley

“When You Were Gone” by Mark Burke

“Your Keys” by Heather Browne

 

 Short Stories:

 Family Honor by Frank Pray

 Stephen Crane & the Mentor by Tom Tolnay

 

The other poems and stories, which were nominated by staff but did not receive enough of our combined votes, included:

 

 Poetry:

 “Cleansing the Haunted House” by Anca Vlasopolos

“Fresh Air” by Michael Mark

“Beautiful are the Turtles and Snails” by Alex Hughes

“Mailbox” by Mark Jackley

“Levon Helm Reborn as a Snapping Turtle” by Mark Jackley

“Scenes Out of Childhood” by Barbara Lightner

“Sunday Drive” by Georgia Tiffany

“Autumn Loss” by Joseph Lisowski

“Mid-November” by Joseph Lisowski

“A Peppermint” by Hadley Hury

“Untitled (Still Life)” by Gayane Hovsepyan

 

Short Stories:

Jackpot by Bethany Snyder

Need by Robin Wyatt Dunn

You Can’t Lose Them All by Penn Javdan

 

It goes without saying that all these decisions are subjective and another group of editors would have made different ones. Congratulations not only to our Pushcart nominees and to the runner-ups, but to all who achieved publication in Lost Coast Review in 2015.

Thursday
Jul162015

Sexism in Literary Editing and Publishing

Sexism in Literary Editing and Publishing

Lost Coast Review Editorial Staff

 

 

Each year since 2010, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has conducted the “VIDA Count,” which assesses “thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.” In 2014, as in previous years, the “count” revealed a field dominated by men. This finding unleashed a storm of controversy in social media, either affirming the validity of the count as “meaningful” or castigating it as trivial and “meaningless.” As observers of this controversy, we at Lost Coast Review asked ourselves about our own gender biases, a question that raised a more basic question as to how to assess if such a bias existed. We asked each of our editors to take a stab at identifying how to determine if sexism exists in a literary magazine or publisher’s actions. Here are four of our staff’s answers:

 

 

Casey Dorman—Editor in Chief: Male

There is gender bias in literary editing and publication if the percentage of one gender in either field is disproportionate to the percentage in the population of those who are eligible to enter that field. In the U.S., those possessing entry qualifications, at least in terms of education, are, in fact, disproportionately women, both in terms of college degrees and specifically degrees in English or journalism. Thus any lack of female representation in literary magazine editing or publication rates represents a bias operating within the profession itself. The 2014 VIDA results substantiate that there is a lack of female representation. Some will argue that just looking at employment or publication numbers is not a fair assessment of gender bias, since it is only a surface indicator and does not necessarily reflect such things as attitudes, but it certainly reflects job opportunities and earning power, so I believe it is a fair metric, though not the only one.  Still relying upon numbers, a brief look at the most prized literary awards, such as the National Book Award, reveals a similar disproportion. Since its inception in 1950, the National Book Award for fiction has been awarded to only 16 women and 9 of those have been in the last 20 years. The NBA for poetry has fared no better. There have been only 14 women winners since 1950, and half of those have been in the last twenty years. Things have gotten better in the last 20 years, but the disproportion still exists. I will leave it to others to suggest an explanation for these facts.

 

Jasmine Romero—Intern: Female

Sexism in the publishing industry is apparent in the way editors judge content and genre based on an author’s gender. Female authors still feel the need to abbreviate their own name to appear more gender neutral, so that more people will pick their book off a shelf without making assumptions about the content. There is also the related issue of a woman’s Science Fiction or Fantasy novel being categorized as a Romance, rather than the futuristic adventure that it is, simply because it contains a love story within the plot. However, the real issue is that because a woman’s story contains romance or sex, regardless of the rest of the plot, it is often regarded as trash that is ruining the genre for the “good” male writers. Yet, there are Science Fiction and Fantasy stories written by men that include sex, rape, and treat women as objects, that aren’t being discussed in a negative light—at least not enough to invoke large scale change. The publishing industry is still a boy’s club. Rather than focusing on content and the diversity of the characters—the important pieces of a good story - editors make an author’s gender a determining factor in whether a story is worthy of being printed. This might be one of the reasons women are currently top-ranking in the self-publishing industry. No one is telling them they aren’t good enough, and people are buying their books for the content. It’s not about who they know, but what they can write—which is what publishing should be about in the first place. 

 

Diane Rogers—Short Story Editor: Female

When there’s an elephant in the room, asking “how big” is a rather pointless exercise. Emphasizing the size of the problem shifts the significance of inquiry away from the more important discussion, namely the impact and risks imposed by the elephant’s presence. 

As literary editors, our job is to steer clear of reductionistic debate involving the quantification of bias. We serve readers best by engaging in an honest exploration of the effect of gender bias on society and our role in it. Such a conversation begins by shamelessly opening our editorial kimonos to expose the soft underbelly of our individual literary preferences. Revealing the grounds on which we make our literary selection means getting up close and personal with the narratives that shape our thinking. 

Bias is defined as the systematic preference of one group at the exclusion of another. In literature, this translates to the prejudicial selection of singular style or voice. In her groundbreaking TED Talk, Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that limiting perspectives in literature leads to “critical misunderstanding” of gender and culture. 

Although some studies on gender bias suggest that male characters outnumber female characters more than two to one, it is the impact of gender portrayal that has social scientists most concerned. Peterson and Loch (1990) suggest that social attitudes are shaped by literature. Beginning in childhood, reading has been shown to influence self-concept as well as perceptions of gender roles. As attitudes are guided by what people read, editors have a duty to expand the chorus of voices to include a broader range of perspectives and gender depictions in literature. 

The editorial journey away from gender bias involves three steps. It begins by evaluating our selection criteria. Do the stories and poetry we choose reflect a variety of perspectives? Are gender portrayals stereotypical? Have we dared to venture outside the dominant narrative? The second editorial responsibility is to ensure that we explore a chorus of social and cultural themes and narrative voices. Offering a variety of material fulfills a third editorial function, education. The world is diverse and literature has a role in educating the public through contrasting viewpoints.

The elephant never goes away on its own. Neither will gender bias. Removing bias (and elephants) is best handled by exposing its presence, exploring its impact and educating ourselves on how to coax it out from the public domain.

 

Hadley Hury—Film Review Editor: Male

The more I’ve thought about this question the more challenging becomes the effort to make useful comment. I agree with an observation by novelist Cheryl Strayed in “Bookends”, Book Review section, May 17 issue, The New York Times: “I don’t think there’s a secret commission of readers and editors dedicated to the mission of keeping women writers down. I think we live in a patriarchy , which means that everything we observe, desire, and consume is in some essential way informed by gender assumptions that privilege men.” So it does not surprise me that some research now suggests that the majority of literary review editors and contributors are male. If this majority of male editors and contributors is reliably verified by more than one or two studies with valid research methods—assessing all U.S. literary reviews and journals longitudinally over an appropriate time—then the question has an answer. The number is irrefutably what the number is and, in the most quantifiable and probably most unarguable sense, one need look no further for an answer: it’s a physical tally of male or female bodies holding “x” number of slots as editors or contributors.  That said, the question seems loaded with other interesting and more-difficult-to-assess questions. For instance, since much progressive thinking is agreed that feminine/masculine intellectual, psychological, and emotional traits, interests, talents, and propensities do not exist exclusively within physical gender but along a highly fluid continuum, can “sexist bias” be proved conclusively by a body count? What do I make of the factor that, in surveying my reading (in all genres with the possible exception of drama) over the past few years—and, I’m fairly certain, throughout six decades of a reading life—there is an observable bias toward female writers that I might estimate to be as high as two-thirds to one? Or that many male readers, on surveying the most memorable and influential fictional characters in their lives, may find more women than men? Or that in my own personal professional experience I have more often worked with, and been influenced by, female leaders rather than male? Having considered myself a stalwart male feminist, or “liberated male”, for many, many years, I am not trying to dodge the fundamental issue of numbers in this question any more than I would the incontrovertible fact that American women continue to earn on average only 78% of their male counterparts. What I am is hopeful that in assessing possible male bias in the world of literary magazines one can reasonably suggest that any conversation be rich enough to include other aspects of the question that may fit less easily into an empirical matrix.

 

 

 

 

Friday
Apr102015

Religious Freedom or Religious Folley?

 

Religious Freedom or Religious Folley?

            The Editor-in-Chief

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in the 1990’s is a law that places the burden upon the government to prove that restricting someone’s freedom to practice his or her religion is necessary for the public’s protection. Under that act, a person can fight the government in court if that person believes that the government violated his or her religious rights. When the law was passed in 1993, it was meant to preserve the rights of Native Americans to continue using land that they deemed sacred for religious ceremonies, such as burials, despite government efforts to use such lands for public projects. It also protected the rights of Native Americans to use peyote in some of their rituals, despite peyote being a substance banned from use by the government. Its most relevant provision asserted that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” meaning that a federal law does not need to be aimed at a particular group and can apply to the general population, but if it “substantially burdened a person’s exercise of religion” it can be set aside for that person or group. Only in cases of “compelling government interest” can the RFRA be overruled. However, it only applies to federal laws, which is why twenty states have their own versions of the law.

Now, both Indiana and Arkansas have enacted their versions of the RFRA, causing an unprecedented furor among both LBGT anti-discrimination advocates and many private businesses. Initially, defenders of the new state laws claimed that there was no difference between their states’ laws and the federal law, which had been sponsored by Democrat Chuck Schumer and passed by President Bill Clinton with strong bipartisan support (including support by then-state senator Barack Obama). Opponents within the two states cited the motivation behind the passage of these new state laws, which they claimed was the desire of conservative religious groups to find a legal reason to discriminate against gays and lesbians. They also pointed to the fact that the laws concerned the religious rights of businesses, rather than individuals, as in the federal law, and that they allowed use of the law in defense against lawsuits by private individuals, not just the government, as the federal law stipulates.

Both sides in the debate were being disingenuous. While it is true that conservative religious groups were the main supporters of these new RFRA laws, it is not true that the federal law only applies to the religious freedoms of individuals. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which was about the federal RFRA made it clear that closely-held private businesses have the same religious rights as individuals with regard to the federal law. The Indiana and Arkansas laws simply reflected that decision. But that did not make the Indiana and Arkansas laws carbon copies of the federal law.  The federal RFRA still cannot be invoked except in the case of a government regulation restricting the religious rights of either a person or a private corporation, while the state laws allowed them to be used against a lawsuit brought by an individual or private group. This remained a difference between the federal and these two states’ RFRA statutes and it is an important one, since it meant that businesses which assert their right to refuse service to someone on the basis of religious freedom need not fear that that person can bring a civil lawsuit against them.

The United States prides itself on being a pluralistic society with regard to religion. Our founding fathers were particularly sensitive to the interference of the government in religious matters. We have no state-sponsored religion and all religions are equally protected under our laws and our constitution. The RFRA is part of the fabric of laws that protect our religious freedom. In France, it is illegal for school girls to wear headscarves to school, because that is a sign of affirmation of the Muslim faith, which many Frenchmen feel creates an unhealthy division within their society. No such law could be passed in the United States. Even if it were argued that having unique clothing styles among different religious groups undermines national solidarity and erodes social capital, the RFRA would not allow such laws as were passed in France to be put in place in the United States. Neither can Jews be forced to remove their kippahs or Amish to shave their beards. So before urging the government to throw out the RFRA, we need to think about the reasons it’s there.

On the other hand, a new wave of “religious freedom” seems to be sweeping across parts of the United States. Indiana and Arkansas passed their own versions of the RFRA, which extended the law in states in which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals are not included in anti-discrimination laws—states such as Indiana and Arkansas.  Fourteen other states have had similar legislation introduced to be voted on during the next year. By itself, this is not new and can even be applauded. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal law does not apply to states, so each state must pass its own law in order to have the same protection for religious freedoms ensconced in the federal statute. Twenty states have already done so. But taking a cue from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, Indiana and Arkansas are now including private businesses as well as individuals in terms of the definition of “persons” practicing their religions. In addition, in these two states the new laws allow the state’s RFRA law to be used as a defense in a legal suit by an individual, rather than in a defense against a government entity, which has violated a person’s religious freedom. This last difference, which is found elsewhere only in the Texas RFRA,  further raised peoples’ fears that the law could be used to defend discriminatory practices in business (note that at the time of this writing, Governors of both states were seeking to change the laws to make them less able to be used to discriminate against anyone).

Governors in both Indiana and Arkansas, aware of the backlash their proposed laws created across the nation and within their own states’ business communities, demanded that anti-discrimination guarantees be added to their RFRA statutes. While this is not “too little, too late,” as some have claimed, that the governors had to defy their own state legislatures to force such alterations in their laws is an indictment  against the mindset of conservative religious groups.

Although discrimination against a person on the basis of his or her religion was one of the main reasons anti-discrimination laws were developed in the United States, with the gradual liberalization of attitudes toward race and sexuality, some religiously minded people have come to feel that having to accept legitimization of practices to which they feel their religious beliefs are opposed, has become a violation of their religious freedom. This has included, at first, such things as integration of the races, then interracial marriage and now contraception, abortion, and same sex marriage.

Given that there are some people who disapprove of same sex marriage, or of the use of contraception or of abortion on the basis of their religious beliefs, it certainly seems valid that no one, either the government or their fellow citizens, has the right to force them to accept such practices for themselves (it is not clear what this could even mean with regard to same sex marriage). But what about in the public sphere? Does their religious freedom extend to how we treat people in our business dealings? According to the Supreme Court it does.

But isn’t observing one’s religion a personal behavior? Even if it involves observing holidays not observed by the majority of citizens, or restricting one’s eating habits, or dressing  or speaking in a certain way (some Quakers still say “thee” and “thy”), these behaviors seem more personal than refusing to serve someone else, or providing her some types of healthcare. When does observing one’s religion slide over into imposing that religion’s  values upon someone else? Sure, there are always other places to work, or to buy wedding cakes or flowers, but that argument begs the question. And the question is—when does observing one’s religious beliefs in one’s business practices become discrimination?

In the case of the Hobby Lobby decision, although it is clearly an instance in which personal religious beliefs are being allowed to determine how a business owner treats his or her employees, there appears to be no case for claiming discrimination. Not providing contraception in a health care plan applies equally to everyone and is not a decision made on the basis of characteristics of the employee (except perhaps that it applies to women not to men, but then that’s true of lots of medical services. Medicare does not pay for medications to treat erectile dysfunction, but that’s not discriminatory against men even though the rule applies to men only.) But in the case of providing services to someone whose personal behaviors violate one’s religious beliefs, e.g. gays or lesbians, this certainly appears to be discriminatory because the same services are being provided to others.

So something is wrong. In what sense can providing a service to someone else—a service that one feels perfectly fine providing to others—compromise one’s religious rights? In what sense can refusing to provide that service to someone on the basis of his or her sexual orientation not be discrimination pure and simple? In fact it is discrimination and no one’s religious rights are being compromised by providing such services. The real reason for enacting such a law as Indiana first enacted and Arkansas almost enacted, was to send a message about conservative religious groups’ disapproval of gay, lesbian and bisexual behavior, including marriage. That’s a message that was already quite apparent. What these groups wanted to add was punishment to those in the LBGT community who want to be open about their sexual preferences and practices. The message now was “If you’re LBGT and you want to live in our community, you are going to live uncomfortably.” In other words, you’re not welcome here.

Is this the kind of message that religion teaches us to send to our fellow Americans?

Tuesday
Jan132015

Trolleys, Terrorists, Torture and Truth

Trolleys, Terrorists, Torture and Truth

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program

The Editor-in-Chief

 

Most of us are aware of the philosophical dilemma posed by what is known as the “trolley problem.”  A runaway trolley is moving along its track and there are five people tied to a stretch of track ahead. You are able to pull a switch that will divert the trolley to an alternative track, on which one person is tied. Should you pull the switch and deliberately kill the one person to save the five? Nearly seventy percent of professional philosophers say you should. Saving the lives of many is worth sacrificing the life of one.

A Department of Justice Legal Counsel agrees and  offered a similar argument to the White House in the case of defending CIA Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs):

 

"It appears to us that under the current circumstances the necessity defense could be successfully maintained in response to an allegation of a Section 2340A violation... . Under these circumstances, a detainee may possess information that could enable the United States to prevent attacks that potentially could equal or surpass the September 11 attacks in their magnitude. Clearly, any harm that might occur during an interrogation would pale to insignificance compared to the harm avoided by preventing such an attack, which could take hundreds or thousands of lives."

 

So the argument in favor of using torture (EITs) is that it is necessary in order to save countless lives. Much of the debate concerning the senate report on CIA interrogation methods has focused on whether or not such EITs did, in fact, save countless lives. The evidence cited in the report strongly suggests that such techniques were not instrumental in thwarting any real terrorists plots or capturing any dangerous terrorists. Citing CIA and other law enforcement agency documents to buttress their claim that the senate report is inaccurate and that the EIT program was effective, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and six former CIA Directors or Deputy Directors writing in the Wall Street Journal, challenged the senate report.  However, they provided no new evidence on the issue themselves.

It’s interesting that in the trolley problem, while many people would agree that diverting the trolley to kill one instead of five by pulling a switch is moral, far fewer agree that accomplishing the same outcome by pushing a fat man off a bridge over the tracks so that he stops the trolley but dies in the process, is a moral thing to do. Apparently, deliberately pushing a man to his death seems less moral than pulling a switch. Similarly, it could very well be that the type of torture involved might alter the morality of using torture to obtain information to save lives (would it be moral to bring someone’s children in front of him and kill them one by one until he gave up his information? How many people would need to be saved to make this a moral act?). Probably, most people would agree that using the least amount of torture that is necessary to obtain the information is the most moral thing to do.

So what did the CIA do? The senate report, based as it is on mostly CIA internal documents, makes it quite clear that CIA interrogators and indeed, CIA officers and administrators, did not use nor even recommend using the least egregious torture methods necessary to obtain information. Instead, many of the out-of-country detention facilities were set up to routinely institute sensory deprivation, altered diets, 24 hour loud noises, limited clothing (if any), cold temperatures, and lack of toilet facilities to all detainees as soon as they were incarcerated (some of the detention sites did not include either heating or plumbing. One detainee died of hypothermia while chained to a wall overnight without clothes). High value detainees (HVDs) such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were, contrary to CIA claims, not questioned at all prior to instituting torture. In the case of HVD Abu Zubaydah, even when FBI interrogators, using rapport-building methods, were extracting valuable information, they were brushed aside by the CIA who immediately resorted to coercive EITs to try to force more information (apparently unsuccessfully, by their own internal reports), from Abu Zabayhah.

And what were the EITs used by the CIA on Abu Zubaydah? Such coercive EITs included "walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation"—continued in "varying combinations, 24 hours a day" for 17 straight days.” He was “subjected to the waterboard 2-4 times per day.” Abu Zubaydah “spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet.” During some of this time insects (of which he was deathly afraid) were placed in the box with him. Abu Zubaydah was described as "hysterical" and "distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate." Waterboarding sessions "resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms" and "hysterical pleas.” In at least one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” He remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled "copious amounts of liquid." Other detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were subjected to “rectal feeding” as a punishment for not giving information.

Even for those who defend torture because it saves lives, if a moral defense entails using the least amount of torture necessary to obtain the crucial information, the CIA flunked the test. And the CIA flunked even more ethical tests. Its own documents indicate that the CIA lied to the president, to congressional committees and to administration officials about the extent and the routinization of its use of EITs. They lied about the intelligence such techniques were producing. They lied to congress and to the American public about how many detainees were held in overseas detention facilities. They claimed that some of their detainees posed an imminent threat or had knowledge crucial to foiling such a threat (criteria which were required  to be met in order to satisfy the memorandum of understanding that allowed them to conduct the rendition program, which set up the foreign prisons), when they had no evidence or even a suggestion that such was the case. On more than one occasion, detention sites were established in countries without informing the U.S. ambassador to that country or deliberately lying to the ambassador about the presence of the site. And of course they destroyed over a hundred videotapes of interrogation sessions, which might have proved one way or another how harmful to their prisoners their interrogation techniques were.

So the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program flunks the ethics test and probably the effectiveness test. What about the administrative test of being run in an orderly fashion? The CIA we see depicted in the movies may be unethical and cruel, even conspiratorial, but it always runs like clockwork, with a relentless precision that cannot be denied by terrorists, by lone-wolf zealots, or even by Jason Bourne. The CIA depicted in the senate report operated more like a malevolent branch of the Keystone cops. No one in the organization knew exactly how many detainees were being held in the overseas program, or who they were. According to the senate report, “The CIA maintained such poor records of its detainees in Country (X) during this period that the CIA remains unable to determine the number and identity of the individuals it detained.”

Many of those involved in the program were either inexperienced or had questionable service records, or both. When the CIA instituted a training program for interrogators, they refused an offer by their own counsel to oversee selection of trainees … an offer that was made on the basis of qualms expressed by the counsel regarding those selected for training.  When the Senate Committee reviewed CIA records related to several CIA officers and contractors involved in the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, most of whom conducted interrogations, they  identified “a number of personnel whose backgrounds include notable derogatory information calling into question their eligibility for employment, their access to classified information, and their participation in CIA interrogation activities. In nearly all cases, the derogatory information was known to the CIA prior to the assignment of the CIA officers to the Detention and Interrogation Program. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”

And then there were the two psychologists, whose use of “learned helplessness” research with animals led to their theories of how to create helpless dependency upon the interrogators by breaking down the detainees’ ability to control the almost constant punishments issuing from their prison environment. Neither of the two psychologists who were the architects of much of the torture program had had experience as interrogators or in real-life detainee situations. However, they were not only given the task of evaluating the mental status of the detainees, but of prescribing and, often in the case of waterboarding, carrying out the torture (for which they received $1800 extra pay per session). The two, who were consultants rather than CIA employees, became so central to the EIT program that they formed a company to supply guards, interrogators and expertise to the CIA overseas prisons and obtained a $180 million contract with the CIA, about half of which they were able to collect before their contract was suspended by Obama’s termination of the program. However, they are insured legal assistance from the CIA until 2021 in the case of any future lawsuits or criminal prosecutions against them.

Immoral, ineffective and inept. That seems the best way to characterize the CIA overseas Detention and Interrogation Program. The argument is often made that torture shouldn’t be used because it doesn’t work. While that has been the conclusion of most experts, including the CIA itself in the past, the evidence is inconclusive due to the understandable dearth of well-controlled and conducted studies. In this case, the ineffectiveness of the EIT program was due to the same information being available from other sources or from the same sources when questioned without torture (usually by the FBI or when in the custody of another country), or the information that was forthcoming under torture was fabricated. In many cases, the detainee simply didn’t have any information to provide. And if a prisoner is subjected to torture before being questioned how is one ever to know what he would have said had he not been tortured? According to the FBI interrogators of Abu Zubayah, rapport building, including even holding the detainees hand when he was in pain while recovering from wounds he had gotten when he was captured, produced much more useful information than torture. But we’ll probably never know the answer to this question of the effectiveness of torture separate from the confounding conditions in which it has been applied, such as these CIA operations. What we do know is that applying severe torture without first attempting less severe torture or no torture at all is immoral. Lying to the government and the people who support your organization is immoral. Running a program that deals with people’s lives—both detainees and the innocent civilians they seek to harm— with extreme sloppiness and inefficiency is immoral.

The CIA is guilty on all counts.

 

Thursday
Nov202014

The Pushcart Prize

The Pushcart Prize

The Editors

 

The Pushcart Prize, which claims to be “the most honored literary project in America,” each year publishes its choices of the best of poetry, fiction, essays, memoirs or excerpts from novels published by the world’s small presses. The founding editors, which included Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Bowles and Ralph Ellison have been followed by a virtual who’s who of letters on the Pushcart Prize Fellowship’s advisory board. The collection of approximately sixty selections, dubbed, “best of the small presses” is routinely received with worldwide praise. Its publication has been called,  "A distinguished annual literary event" by the New York Times.

For the first time in our five years of publication, Lost Coast Review is submitting nominations for the annual Pushcart Prize. As a small literary magazine we are allowed to submit up to six nominees and we have selected two poems and four short stories from our 2014 issues, which includes the current one. It was a difficult decision for us to choose among the many quality stories and  poems published this year and our selections were not always unanimous among the editors. By selecting only two poems, we surely neglected several others that deserved nomination. Be that as it may, below are our nominees:

 

Poetry:

 

Autumn Song by Anne Britting Oleson. Vol 5, No. 2, Winter 2014.  This remarkable short poem is filled with beautiful images of the changing of seasons and the sadness of approaching winter as it descends upon a mountain farm and forest. 

 

Dangers of Suburbia by Michael Mark. Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer 2014. In a poem filled with irony, we watch a family search for their lost dog, putting up posters, praying for his return, as we observe that the flight from the bustle of the city to the quiet of the suburbs, where coyotes still roam at night preying on family pets, has its own dangers.

 

Short Stories:

 

Billy Penn’s Hat by Brian Patrick Heston. Vol 5, No. 2, Winter 2104. Billy Penn’s Hat captures the daily desperation of a man, Sam Thompson, down on his luck, enslaved to drink. Sam earns a living in costume, doing impersonations of William Penn in the Philadelphia park dedicated to the Quaker founder of the colony of Pennsylvania. Sam’s job is to pass out flyers for the Old City Tavern across the street from the park. Despite his nearly constant inebriation, Sam is good at his job. He knows Penn’s life story, is able to embellish it to attract a crowd, and enjoys reflecting on the historic personage’s life. But his head is also filled with visions of his lost love, Liz, on whom he walked out, leaving her alone with their child, many years before. Sam spies a young woman who reminds him of Liz when she was young, provoking nostalgic reveries and leading him to drink even more, which succeeds in getting him fired from his job. Broke, drunk, and lying on the street, he wakes up to find a crowd of college students putting money in his William Penn hat and urging him to give his impersonation. At first derisive, they succumb to the fascination engendered by his eloquence on his favorite topic and put more money in his hat.

This is a poignant tale, told with humor, insight, and tenderness. The author, Brian Patrick Heston, is able to bring the middle-aged, dissolute Sam Thompson to life as a soulful, intelligent, caring human, hopelessly ensnared by his addiction to alcohol. While we watch Sam drink away what appears to be his last chance at any kind of employment, we fear for his future.  But fate and Sam’s artistic nature intervene to save him, at least temporarily—fate and Billy Penn’s Hat

 

Soft Ice Cream by Bruce Colbert. Vol. 5, No. 3, Spring 2014. Bruce Colbert is the author of the recently published collection of short stories, A Tree on the Rift (Lummox Press, 2014). Lost Coast Review was lucky enough to publish his short story, Soft Ice Cream in our Spring 2014 issue. Told from the point of view of the main character’s friend, a man recently separated and still feeling the pangs of loss associated with demise of his marriage, it is a tale of Scotty, the friend and business partner who handles his own twice-divorced status with the panache of a man successfully outrunning the law. Scotty tells his partner a tale of how, while one day enjoying a soft ice cream cone, he picked up a striking young woman and successfully bedded her that afternoon at his beach home, only to find that she then demanded $500 or else would accuse him of rape. Using his previously combat tested (in Vietnam) wits, Scotty successfully threatens her with arrest by his building’s security guards on charges of extortion. It is a story told with rollicking good humor, delightful irony and enough suspense to entice the reader right to the very end. All of these features made Soft Ice Cream a natural to be one of our Pushcart nominees.

 

The Prettiest Girls in Roseburg by Bruce Douglas Reeves. Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer 2014. Bruce Douglas Reeves introduces Harry White, “the kid everybody forgot,” who is fixated on twin sisters Phyllis and Charlotte Gerber—‘The Prettiest Girls in Roseburg.” Harry is a dramatic portrayal of deepening obsession, compulsion and delusion. Invisible to the “perfect” twins whom he fervently follows and defines, with impenetrable certainty he sees them in all their beauty as no one else can, but he also imagines that when they observe him, they see others whom they would like more. From within the idealization of his “love” for them, Harry at first watches both of the “perfect” girls from afar, and believed that “in his own way he owned them.” Devoid of their realness, and in contrast to their popularity, beauty, and visibility, inwardly he “kidnapped some of their realness for himself… even though he knew he’d never be part of those lives.”

In a town where, “Only beautiful people, talented people, rich people existed,” where “Harry was none of those…” he stalks and seeks to possess Phyllis, the twin whom he loved more than her sister, Charlotte. He exists within the pathetic and unresolvable conflict of his own isolated, polarized, doubling images and actions, places from where he strategizes the fulfillment of his wish to possess and merge with Phyllis, the idealized object of his love. After his mother dies of cancer, an absence which “didn’t make any difference in his life,”and his father kicks him out, in the  passing years of Harry’s silent, isolated pursuit of Phyllis, he works at menial, back room jobs, enduring rejecting bosses, barely able to support himself in his clandestine quest for Phyllis.

Harry wanders through the cycles of Phyllis’ high school and college, her failure in competition for Miss California, her brief sorority life, her dating and sexual experiences, her dropping out of  college and disappearance, from Roseburg “living with some guy in San Francisco.” Then years later, in a darkened theatre, he overhears Charlotte whisper to a friend that Phyllis was a stewardess flying round trips to and from Viet Nam. Harry has become a mere voyeur, spying on Phyllis from his hiding places, from bushes near her doorways, remembering a young man who years before had embraced Phyllis and, in his apparent passion had ejaculated on her dress, an event that Harry later rapaciously imitates on a San Francisco night when, after stalking her, he forces Phyllis into her apartment, bolts the door behind her, strips her and, in his delusions believing that she loves and desires him as he has for years loved her, reassures her that he would not hurt her. Harry commands her not to scream, “ ’cause nobody’ll come,” because, “People never come.” Then he “hurtled downstairs into the fog.” Two weeks later, after he finds that Phyllis’ apartment is empty, he is told by the building manager to “get lost.” Harry ends prowling the high school and all the places where the twins and “the Homecoming Parade had breezed its way into his memory.” Harry is last viewed “waiting, hoping,” believing that, “They would come back, and when they did, he’d be there.” Thus the child of obsession, compulsion and delusion comes full circle, left alone in despair. A beautiful, complex story, worthy of our nomination.

 

Petite Suite Cybernetique by Robert Wexelblatt. Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 2014 (this issue). The first in this complex of three scenarios  about the internet contains a running series of posthumous blog entries and accompanying reflections, beginning with commentaries by a “self sufficient spinster” grieving over Charles, who had wanted to marry her, an invitation she rejected before he died of an infarction—a  fatal heart attack that “ripped a hole in what I’d thought of as the unbreakable fabric of my life.” She is surprised by the contrast between the deceased Charles’ previously solid, even stolid, down to earth, uninspired presentation on the one hand and, on the other hand, the Charles revealed in these newly uncovered blogs wherein he has supposedly written to her, exploring emotion, relationship and the meaning of living and dying. His blogs and the blogs of others, which accompany her reactions also, become a kind of chat room, a cybernetic litany exposing contrasts between virtual reality and the existential world of authentic, intimate human experience. The ensuing blogs display a seemingly safe internet haven for someone such as she who, wishing to avoid the personal demands of living life fully, is afraid to surrender herself to someone else. She soon discovers that blog entries, which she initially thought were written to her from Charles, in fact are both to and from others. They represent the opposite of the apparent Charles she thought she knew. This newly blogged “Charles” continues his invitation to leave her net of safety, to explore an unknown life of unconstrained emotions. As before Charles’ death, she retreats from the invitation.

         There are three sections in these “chats.” A conspiracy theory of a “Rudolph” and his internet circle in piece #2 is a self-justifying haven away from a lived reality that has an irresistible attraction to Rudolph, which raises a question, not raised in section #1, of the definition of sanity in a world of the esoteric and indefinite, wherein “conspiracies” actually may be quite real in life-as-lived. In piece #3 the internet interlocutors explore the advantages of restricting interaction to an idealized, controlled mode of sharing and being defined by only that which one wants to share—a control generated and sustained by limiting communication to internet posts. In all three pieces the characters opt to withdraw from real person-to-person interactions, each for different reasons, all demonstrating the attraction of the internet as an alternative mode of interface. In his submission, Wexelblatt noted that his story is a “hybrid literary/musical form…a common theme in different movements, like the suites of various French composers, pre-eminently Debussy.” As with the work of Debussy, the story presents an exploitation of dissonance—irregular and fragmented “floating chords” that have no resolution, a shading of innovative harmonies typical of free verse, jazz or the indefinite, esoteric, even mysterious impressions made on the mind by combinations from one color, as with the works by French Symbolists. Thus a loveless woman, despite overtures that might contain potentia a realized élan vitale, continues to take residence in an avoidant cyber distance (a condition corresponding to her drift from grief over the loss of Charles and the loss of self contained in her own unrequited love). Despite the invisible guests who chat voicelessly from the blogosphere, all are finally unconsummated, mere virtual bodies, barely wishes, post human cybernetica, shades of sadness, silent voids cut off from love—wandering, but lost to the meaning of time, memory and the real, mere floating shades.

 

We are excited and honored to have been able to submit these six beautiful examples of writing as our 2014 Pushcart nominees.

 

Saturday
Aug162014

E-Books, Print, and Prices

E-books, Print and Prices

Editor

 

Readers, writers, even publishers, especially Indie publishers (which in today’s world is often a cover word for self-publishers who have formed their own publishing imprints), are mystified by the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette—either mystified or consumed by strong opinion. There seem to be two real issues: first, the question of who can determine the price of e-books, the publisher or the retailer, second, the type of tactics that it is permissible for a retailer to use to bring a publisher into line.

Hachette wants to charge more for e-books from its most prominent authors. Amazon wants to limit e-book prices, making the range of prices smaller and lower. The two companies have to negotiate an agreement and when Hachette has refused to give in to Amazon’s demands, the latter company made Hachette’s titles harder to order on Amazon’s website, either delaying shipment, prohibiting pre-publication orders, or occasionally removing “buy” buttons from titles.

Amazon is able to sell e-books at a loss in order to build up its customer base and compete with other sellers. Doing so cuts into profits for the publishers. Amazon’s argument is that by lowering prices it will sell more books and publishers will still make plenty of money.

Most Indie publishers and self-published writers are on Amazon’s side. For most self-published authors, the goal is to get their books in the hands of as many people as possible. Low prices, even free giveaways, are prime strategies for doing so. Large publishing companies rely on established names, whose books will sell because they have a waiting fan base, which is willing to pay higher prices for its favorite authors.

Without getting into other issues, such as the discounts publishers pay Amazon for advertising their books, or the long-term implications of having one retailer have a monopoly within the book industry, why is this controversy important to anyone other than the big publishers and their best-selling authors? They will make less money, but the bulk of writers and Indie publishers will be unaffected, won’t they?

Amazon owns the lion’s share of the book-selling market, both for print and e-books, somewhere around 65% in each case. Print books still outsell e-books but the numbers are deceiving and perhaps inaccurate (since most surveys don’t include Indie and self-published books), and e-books have surpassed print in the fiction category, especially genre fiction, where Indie and self-published authors now sell more books than authors published by the “Big Five” publishing companies. In fact, Indie and self-published authors actually make more money, not just because there are more of them, all making small amounts, but in nearly all income categories, even the $100,000-$250,000/year range, there are more Indie authors than Big Five authors.

There are lots of platforms available for self-publishing or even real Indie publishing using print-on-demand format and even more for e-book publishing. Amazon’s Kindle and its website have revolutionized sales and its Createspace platform has allowed countless authors to enter the market. Authors who have gone through the agonizing and painful process of being rejected by literally hundreds of agents and publishing houses are rightfully thankful to Amazon for allowing them to finally emerge into print. That is overwhelmingly why such authors are on Amazon’s side in this controversy.

But will lowering the price of best-selling authors help Indie and self-published authors? Probably not. To some extent the success of such authors has been because they have underpriced their works compared to those published by the Big Five. Lowering the price of the latter authors’ works will make them more competitive with Indie and self-published authors’ books.

As  readers, we can all hope that book prices are lowered. Lowering e-book prices further than they now are will perhaps hasten the end of print publishing, at least for fiction titles, the print prices for which are now out of reach for many readers. From most current readers’ and authors’ points of view, this would not be good, but who knows what a younger generation of readers, raised on digital media only, will want or care about? Bookstore owners may soon be in the antique business.

Authors don’t lose when readers choose e-format over print. E-book royalties can be, and usually are higher than print royalties, and sales numbers can be larger.

So for all but a few, the lowering of e-book prices is a good thing.  Those of us who love print books and roaming through book stores and libraries filled with real books, can bemoan the ascendance of the e-book, but like luxury cars, fine wines, craft beers, and movie theaters (and now even drive-in theaters), something that is neither cheap nor functional can survive if there is a market for it in our society.  And as in each of these examples, prices that began high, gradually lowered, as the audience base for them grew.

Even if lower e-book prices are a good thing, there is no reason to force the Big Five to lower the prices for their best-selling authors. Market trends are going to force them to do that anyway. And draconian tactics to force the Big Five to kowtow to Amazon’s demands, especially when such tactics penalize both authors and readers, are shameful and help no one.