Tuesday
Mar062018

What Democrats Can Learn From Europe

In 2016, a variety of factors combined to provide Donald Trump a victory. Among these were a political message from Donald Trump to (mostly white) voters who felt they’d been left behind by the system, both political and cultural, that has been running things, a fear of immigration and the cultural, economic, and safety issues it represents, and fractionation within Democratic ranks between Clinton and Sanders supporters as well as Stein supporters and those who boycotted the election because they felt that no one represented them.

Democrats must address the issues that led to their loss in 2016.

A feeling of being disenfranchised by a system run by the rich and powerful, fear of immigration, and fractionation within Democratic ranks are still major issues for Democrats to deal with if the expect to reverse their fortunes. Europe has something to teach about some of these issues.

The fear of immigrants and that they bring with them crime and an upending of traditional cultural values is still present within many people in our country, although not as strongly as in much of Europe (particularly, Italy, Poland, Hungary, but also other countries, including France and Germany). Our immigrants are mostly from Asia, Mexico and Central America rather than Africa and the Middle East and their numbers, relative to our population, are miniscule compared to many of the European nations. Religious differences between immigrants and residents are less than in Europe, as are other cultural differences. Nevertheless, strident voices on each side of the immigration issue can propel it to the front of the election debates.

The immigration issue is the dominant issue in European politics. In general, it is an issue that strengthens the right wing elements in European countries, even to the point of electing right wing leaders and parties. Donald Trump attempted, and partially succeeded, in making it a central issue in our last election and there is no reason to think that won’t happen again. Democrats need to mount a significant and sustained platform to address immigration without resorting to calling those who favor greater restrictions bigots and calling all of their arguments, fears, and proposals racist or prejudiced. Doing so will only alienate voters who might agree with Democratic Party principles on other issues. The reality is that Americans need to feel secure that their borders are protected, but they also need to be convinced that the addition of immigrants strengthens our country, maintains its tradition as a new home for people from all over the world, and poses little or no threat to our way of life, while at the same time enriching it. These truths are not self-evident and Democrats can’t preach them at reluctant voters, they must work with them to see how much of this message can be made to resonate with those voters’ values.

The fractionation of the Democratic Party among its actual or potential supporters is probably the greatest danger the party faces.  In Europe, it has been the young who have been most reluctant to work with those with whom they disagree. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union secured a coalition with the more left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), but the coalition was opposed by the Young Socialists in the SPD, who have given up on the “business as usual” lack of progress on socialist and progressive issues of previous coalition governments. But the Young Socialists remained within the SPD and stayed true to their pledge to uphold the majority vote of their larger party. The coalition itself represents a merging of sometimes radically different visions of what Germany should be like, but they have united for the sake of achieving a victory over more conservative major parties and an ever-strengthening reactionary right-wing subgroup, who mostly are alarmed by immigration and cultural issues.

A parliamentarian government can merge opposing factions into a government more easily than a government led by a president and, especially one with only two parties. Parliamentary governments dole out ministerial positions to members of the opposing parties within their coalition. We don’t do that in the U.S., so it is the spirit of coalition and compromise that we have to learn from the Europeans and apply to our own system. A presidential candidate from one faction of the party and a vice presidential candidate from another is one way to do this. A party platform that includes planks from all factions (perhaps in proportion to their representation within the party) is another. Vocal agreements and compromise and less demonization and name-calling by the candidates and party leaders can bring people together. At the foundation of maintaining a unified party are the grass-roots leaders and supporters who have to be committed to not only achieving their own goals, but just as importantly, preventing their real opponents from achieving theirs. This always means that, in some circumstances, one must choose to support the lesser of two evils in order to avoid being subjected to rule by the greater of the two evils, as we find ourselves right now.

As in every other region of the world, the Internet  (and in the U.S., the television and radio media) magnifies our divisions and the voices of people on the extremes. The result is that the middle divides and moves toward those extremes. People form into groups that attack any of their members who articulate opposing viewpoints. (The Russians have taken advantage of this and promoted such divisions in order to make our nation’s politics even less functional). As a nation and as a Democratic Party, we are becoming dysfunctional in terms of either solving national problems or maintaining civility. The end result will be a democracy that ceases to work. All of us play a role in this dysfunction and we need to change what we’re doing or we will lose our country.

 

 

Thursday
Mar012018

Inequality is Real

In today’s New York Times, former Oklahoma senator, and professor emeritus Fred Harris and president and chief executive of the Eisenhower Foundation, Alan Curtis published a scathing assessment of our country’s progress on reducing racial inequality since the publication of the Kerner Commission Report in 1968.  School segregation has returned, income disparities remain, wealth disparities have increased and incarceration rates of members of the Black community have far outstripped increases in crime rates. Their conclusion is that any progress on reducing inequality in our country was temporary or nonexistent and the disparities in quality of life among our people, based on race, remain as stark as ever. Previous reports by the Center for Investigative Reporting have revealed that some of the housing differences between races are due to blatant discrimination in the mortgage industry, and a great deal of the de facto segregation is due to income, wealth, and employment disparities. The authors recommend solutions and identify solutions that have failed to work or in fact, exacerbated inequalities.  One can debate their suggestions, but it is difficult to contradict their findings, which don’t even include some other striking differences between races in terms of health services, preventive healthcare, infant mortality and lifespan. Fifty years ago the Kerner Commission identified these issues and recommended attempts at their solution.  We have made little progress since that time. One can argue that every American has an equal opportunity to succeed and achieve health, wealth, education, safety and a quality, comfortable life, but the data show that for many Black children, born in poor families, in communities in which a disproportionate percentage of the males are absent because they are in prison, where the schools are substandard, and where both income and wealth disparities and outright discrimination make it difficult to leave, the playing field is not even and their uphill struggle is steeper than for White children. The article, which bears reading, may be found here: The Unmet Promise of Equality.

Tuesday
Feb272018

Fortress EuroAmerica

Most progressives, and I would say, most informed people, believe that the greatest threat to our world society is climate change. With climate change and global warming we expect rising ocean levels, increased droughts and increased extreme weather conditions (hurricanes, floods, blizzards, extreme hot and cold spells), as well as changes in the flora and fauna of our planet.

There is a second threat that is just as severe and immediate and partially, but not wholly a result of climate change and global warming. This threat is the intensification of extreme harsh living conditions in certain regions of the world, which will lead to increased migration and immigration pressures on the more developed regions of the world.

Because of war, poverty, malnutrition, drought, and soon, rising ocean levels, some regions of the world are becoming so hostile to human life that the inhabitants of those regions have no choice but to attempt to leave. Below are a few examples. The first is a world map of poverty based on per capita purchasing power parity (ppp). The second is a world map of child malnutrition, sufficient to result in often fatal “wasting” of children under age 5. The third is a world map of wars and armed conflicts.

 1.Worldwide Poverty

 

2."Wasting" Malnutrition in Children

 

3.Worldwide Wars and Armed Conflicts

The point of the above maps is to show that poverty, malnutrition, and war affect generally the same regions and therefore the same populations. Some, although not all, of these regions are the same ones most severely affected by extreme weather conditions, such as hurricanes, monsoons and droughts, or are low-lying regions susceptible to rising oceans.

Our human society is organized into countries and our system of world order is based upon national boundaries and governmental structures, along with national and international laws that regulate the behavior of people and the nations they comprise. In some cases, as in the Middle East and some African or even Asian nations, the national boundaries, most often because they were drawn by occupying European empires, are not coincidental with historic tribal regions, leading to ethnic or religious clashes within the boundaries of a single country or alliances across borders that are stronger than national ones. With some exceptions (e.g. the Balkans), European and New World boundaries have a substantial history and most of the residents within a country share a common history and culture (this may be least true of the United States, because of its long history of increasing its population through immigration).

As disparities between regions become more stark and international travel becomes easier, migration from the harshest living conditions to those where life is better and, in fact, more sustainable, is inevitable, but that puts a strain on legal, economic and cultural conditions in the countries to which people want to immigrate. After an initial period of acceptance of refugees from the Middle East and Africa by European countries, cultural and economic stresses within those countries, resulting from the presence of large numbers of immigrants, has led to resistance and in many cases, extreme rejection and even deportation of new arrivals in order to preserve what the long-time European residents feel is their essential culture, values and safety. A similar phenomena, although less intense because the introduction of immigrants has not been so sudden or massive, has occurred in the United States.

It’s easy to either criticize or sympathize with the European response to massive immigration into its borders. The issues are real, and they involve both preservation of cultures and institutions threatened by uncontrolled immigration and prevention of humanitarian disasters if the refugees are rejected. No one has arrived at an adequate solution, but emotions are running high, and are mainly along the lines of preventing immigration. The high emotional tenor of the arguments against immigration are spurred on by racial, ethnic and religious bigotry reminiscent in some cases, of Nazi or Fascist sentiments, but so far this is a minority, and even sympathetic, unbigoted citizens of European countries recognize that there is a problem. In the United States, the cultural and safety issues, despite claims by our president and other political leaders, are minimal, but the  issue of how to meet the needs of refugees and immigrants has split our nation into opposing cultural camps, much as it has done in Europe.

I don’t believe the answer to this dilemma can lie in a hardening of national borders. On the other hand, I also don’t think that our cultural institutions are strong enough to withstand unlimited immigration of people who don’t share the same traditions, are inexperienced with democratic institutions, and who have very few resources other than their own work ethic and desire for themselves and their families to survive.

Not being able to withstand unlimited immigration doesn’t mean not being able to withstand limited immigration, somewhere in between the massive influx of refugees and immigrants that landed in Europe over the last few years and the more meager steady supply of immigrants that has characterized most developed countries in the past. The answer needn’t be severe restrictions. But it makes no sense to try to address the problem simply in terms of whether or not to accept immigrants into developed countries. The conditions causing people to leave their historic homelands need to be addressed, not just by them and their local governments—which are usually resource-strapped, often corrupt, and often at war with someone—but by the developed world that is enjoying great economic prosperity which these people are not able to share.

If we want our world to progress and not to devolve into chaos, then we need to address the underlying issues that are causing whole populations to try to migrate from one place to another out of dire need. In the meantime, we also need to learn how to broaden our own cultures and institutions to be more open to diversity and less protective of our own narrow traditions, so we can accept more of these people without fearing we are losing our cultures. This is a delicate balance and one that is not easily attainable and never attainable completely. Our solutions will be flawed, not matter what we do. But we must address the problem. One thing that seems crystal clear to me is that supplying arms to warring factions in the ongoing conflicts, sanctioning nations in ways that deprive people of food and medicine, or failing to come to the rescue of starving populations, not to mention failing to deter climate change when the developed countries are disproportionately causing it, are not solutions. Neither is simply fortifying our borders and hunkering down inside of them.

Friday
Feb232018

The Demise of Critical Thinking

Listening to NPR today I was treated to an interview with playwright and actress, Anna Deveare Smith, discussing her one-woman show, Notes from the Field. She presents herself in the personas of a host of people she interviewed while examining what is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a trajectory followed by many, particularly poor, young people. Most telling was her interview (she presents herself on stage in the person of the interviewee) with a teacher describing the out of control behavior of an 11-year old boy, who, while normally cooperative and personable, could erupt into violent anger within seconds. The child had been removed from the home of drug addicted parents as a toddler and was found to have been sexually and physically abused. He then was placed in foster care. Whether he will follow the pipeline to prison is unknown, but his circumstances raise the issue of how much one’s early environment shapes their personality in ways that are difficult to change in later life.

The story about the young boy got me thinking about how we conceptualize the behavior of people in our society who come from very different backgrounds. This boy had two strikes against him before he was kindergarten age. His behavior, no doubt a conditioned reaction to situations that ignited his memories of trauma, was largely determined, but there are also young people out there who were faced with similar tragic circumstances and behaved differently. What determines who behaves one way or another? There are scientific data, both case studies of individuals and statistical studies of large cohorts, that provide some suggestions of the answers—even brain scan studies of how the young brain is affected by adversity and trauma—which shed some light on the issue. But people like this young boy grown older are everywhere, even in the news, when they either defy the odds and achieve success or follow a more usual pattern and fail to live up to society’s behavioral standards. And those such as myself or you, the reader, or other ordinary citizens, voters, and pundits, are prone to make pronouncements about the cause of such behavior. One group blames society for failing to rescue and rehabilitate the child and the other blames the child, as he grows up, for making the wrong decisions. And of course the answer lies in some mixture of these two, as well as many other explanations. But thinking only along one track—it doesn't matter which one—and gathering information, not to answer the question but to buttress our beliefs, is the opposite of critical thinking, and it cannot lead to answers.

I only cite the story of the young boy as an example of the failure to think critically that plagues our society. The same pattern of thought and debate characterizes issues such as guns and violence, immigration, the relationship between capitalism and democracy or justice, racial bigotry—in other words, all the issues facing our society. Anyone who has delved into social science research, either as a researcher or a consumer of such research, knows how seldom answers to social questions are simple ones. Every social behavior is multidetermined, with different factors affecting behavior differently depending upon a myriad of circumstances. But the answers that we, as a society—or more often as factions within a society—come up with are not complex, not nuanced, but simplistic, straightforward, and contrary to at least half of the existing evidence on most issues. I’m not just talking about the answers given by those who denigrate “egghead” social scientists or the “elites” who read them. Both sides on nearly every issue do the same. People who have exquisite educations and think at lofty, abstract levels about issues within their professions, abandon all semblance of critical thinking when it comes to social issues that arouse emotions.

Take gun control as another issue. The data on the success of gun control legislation to curtail gun violence is anything but straightforward. Yes there is a general relationship between stricter gun laws and fewer gun deaths and yes, across nations, there is a relationship between less gun possession and fewer gun deaths, but there are also striking exceptions. An honest appraisal of different approaches to America’s high gun death problem would look at all the data, both broad statistical correlations and the exceptions, both data that show fewer gun deaths with less guns and data that show the value of gun possession in preventing crimes. A critical approach to the questions would try to understand the nuances of the data, not obscure or deny them. It would look at data both favorable to one’s positions and unfavorable. It would also examine the constitutional issues from the perspectives of esteemed scholarly jurists who have argued for both sides of gun restriction.

None of the above happens in our society, not even in our media, and increasingly, not even within our universities. Instead, we take intellectual merit as consisting of the ability to defeat one’s opponent in an argument, despite the fact that, increasingly, people don't make their arguments to their opponents, they are content to make them only to those who agree with them. What should be a call for more information and evidence about how such information was collected, instead becomes a call to demonize the character of those who disagree with us and prove that they have disqualified themselves, not on the basis of making faulty arguments, but because of some other behavior or opinion they have espoused.

Nine tenths of the arguments made by either private individuals or public personalities on any particular issue confronting our society follow the patterns I have described above. They are mostly devoid of fact—other than specific instances that support their position—and they rarely consider either the existence of data that contradicts their position or the mitigating conditions that limit the generalizability of their own data. Even more often, they ignore data and argue about the personalities of their opponents. This is no way to solve problems and it represents a dangerous failure to use our intelligence to address the issues that currently threaten our society.

Thursday
Feb222018

What it Means to Honor Freedom of Speech and of the Press.

I read the most remarkable and thoughtful discussion of freedom of speech and the press today that I need to pass it on. I will say little, except that, as a defense of the New York Times—and a statement of what the role of such a newspaper should be—it is elegant. It is not an attack on partisan media. There are publications whose legitimate role is to beat the drum for one or another faction on the political scene. This is a time-honored role for partisan media, and nothing for them to be ashamed of, as they have a part in getting out a partisan message. However, the New York Times and other true news organizations who don't identify themselves as partisan should not play such a role. Their job is to present the issues, the news, and, when it is discernible, the truth. Bret Stephens, the author, rightly points out that those who criticize news organization (or a college speaker, for that matter), for not upholding their biases, do not understand the role of the mainstream news media, nor do they often understand the role of universities in providing a variety of scholarly analyses of current and historical issues, rather than being mouthpieces for only one point of view.

The best quotation from Stephen’s speech, and one I will remember and use whenever I can, is "The answer to a politics of right-wing illiberalism is not a politics of left-wing illiberalism. It is a politics of liberalism, period." In this context, liberalism means an open attitude toward the expression of ideas and points of view.

That’s enough of my commentary. I encourage you to read the whole article/speech It can be found at “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort.”

Tuesday
Feb202018

America’s Abdication of Leadership 

The world we live in is a dangerous one. While climate change may still be the single most dangerous factor threatening the human race, as well as one that requires superhuman collaboration and self-sacrifice to solve or even mitigate, other more solvable dangers are more immediate and, for many people in the world, more threatening. The nuclear threat of North Korea, and, less obviously, of errant possessors of nuclear weapons causing massive destruction out of malicious zealotry, is one that looms large. For people living in the Middle East, and parts of Africa, constant wars threaten and destroy lives, homes, and the infrastructure of civilization. Other nations, either indirectly involved or bystanders, suffer from their own cultures and infrastructures being challenged by the influx of refugees from the countries affected by such wars.

America’s abdication of leadership in combating climate change is obvious to the world and appears to be fueled by both skepticism of the opinions of the scientific community and corporate greed, which is makes our country averse to any regulations of industry that limit profits. We are not only not participating in worldwide efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, we are gutting our environmental protection and emission reduction efforts here at home. Countries that are moving toward renewable energy sources, electric cars, and water conservation look askance at America’s short-sightedness, while they, without our leadership, march forward toward fossil fuel independence and strict environmental  and emission regulations.

In the realm of Middle Eastern conflicts, America continues to disgrace itself by choosing sides in longstanding national, religious and cultural conflicts, rather than by offering diplomatic mediation and incentives for moderation, as has been at least part of American tradition in the past (although we have, for decades mounted either overt or clandestine help to one side or another in most conflicts, and often, as is the case today, sold arms to virtually all participants). Our hands have rarely been clean, but today we don’t even pretend to play the role of neutral mediator.

In the perennial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, where we have made notable efforts to broker peace accords in the past, we now have chosen the side of Israel and fanned further flames of conflict by announcing support for Jerusalem as the country’s capital. We have colluded with Israel in reducing humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, both directly from the U.S. and through the U.N. There is no obvious upside to our position. While it could be argued that such measures may force Palestinians to come to the bargaining table with Israelis, in fact the measures have emboldened Israel to move further right toward an eventual goal of greater encroachment into Palestinian-claimed territory and less support for a viable Palestinian state.

Nikki Haley, America’s UN Ambassador, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which she chastised Iran for smuggling missiles into Yemen for use by Houthi rebels. She pointed out that such missiles have been launched into Saudi Arabia and threaten to widen the war. In her words, “The world can no longer claim ignorance or skepticism of Iran’s role in fomenting instability in the Middle East.” I’m not sure than anyone other than Iran itself claimed that Iran wasn’t fomenting instability with its support of groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, but her inflammatory comments failed to mention the massive U.S. support in military hardware, including fighter planes and bombers, to Saudi Arabia, which is directly fighting for the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi government, a government elected in a one-candidate presidential election that chose the former vice president to replace the 33 year dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. A civil war followed and soon became also a sectarian religious fight between the Shia Houthis and the Sunni Hadi supporters, with Sunni Saudi Arabia supporting one side and Shia Iran the other. More recently, the supporters of the government have split into factions with one group seeking independence of Southern Yemen from the rest of the country, so it is not even clear who the true government would consist of (Hadi himself resides in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the moment). The war itself has caused catastrophic destruction of life and property, but Saudi blockades of food and medical supplies have caused the “worst famine seen in modern times” within Yemen. In this context, the U.S. response has been entirely one-sided, with American officials such as Haley and President Trump using Iran’s supplying of missiles to the Houthis as an argument for invalidating the Iran Nuclear Deal (although neither has anything to do with the other) using such statements as “Die-hard defenders of the Iran nuclear deal don’t want to hear it because it proves, once again, that the Iranian regime can’t be trusted.”  Ambassador Haley went on to say, “…we have the chance to rein in Iran’s behavior and demand that it live up to its international agreements that discourage conflict. But if action is not taken, then someday soon, when innocent Saudi civilians are killed by Iranian weapons, the chance for peace will be lost.”

The chance for peace? The United States, which is supplying the weapons used by Saudi Arabia and virtually ignoring that country’s famine and epidemic-inducing blockade is doing nothing to promote peace. We are using the conflict as a chance to build a coalition against Iran and to strengthen the military might of Saudi Arabia, while further demonizing Iran. This is not leadership. It is collusion with those we deem to be on “our side” in promoting war as a solution to international problems.

America has abdicated its role as a world leader.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Feb152018

The Ugly Truth: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Wealth in the U.S.

Data released by the Federal Reserve in September of 2017 reveals stark disparities between the wealth held by families of different races and ethnicities in the United States. With wealth defined as the “the difference between families' gross assets and their liabilities,” the following table shows the median and mean net worth of families of different racial/ethnic backgrounds in 2016.

 

Note that for each group, mean net worth greatly exceeds median net worth, indicating a skewed distribution of wealth within each group, “reflecting the concentration of wealth at the top of the wealth distribution.” White wealth exceeds Black, Hispanic, and “Other” (a designation indicating Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, other race, and those reporting more than one racial identification).  In fact, median White wealth is nearly 10 times that of Blacks and over 8 times that of Hispanic families.

Further analysis of wealth disparities found that they are much greater than differences in income. Median White income of $61,200/year is less than twice that of Blacks at $35,400/yr. or Hispanics at $38,500/year. The differences in wealth are primarily found in home ownership rates, possession of retirement accounts and other types of equity.

One finding reported by the Federal Reserve was that education is a significant predictor of both income and wealth: a college degree increases a family’s wealth by about five times. This is true for all races and ethnicities, but the actual incomes and wealth attained by those with a college degree differs widely among the racial/ethnic groups. A White family whose head of household has a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn nearly six times that of a Black family whose head of household has a bachelor’s degree (which is actually an improvement over 2013, when Black families with a head of household with a bachelor’s degree earned 1/10 of what White families with similar education earned). Hispanic families with a bachelor's degree curently earn 1/5 of what White families with a similar degree earn.

A study conducted by The Center for Investigative Reporting gives us some insight into to the sources of the disparities between Whites and People of Color in wealth. As the Fed study found, house ownership is a major difference separating Blacks and Hispanics and even “Others” from Whites in determining a family’s total wealth. The study included “all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.” The findings were shocking: “Black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three.”  In other words, racial discrimination in application for home mortgages continues to exist in America, despite federal laws prohibiting it, and makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible for families of color to obtain loans to buy houses, one of the most  important determiners of differences of family wealth in our country. The study found that, although laws passed in the Carter administration were supposed to prohibit so-called “redlining” of areas where minorities would be denied mortgages, “The disproportionate denials and limited anti-discrimination enforcement help explain why the homeownership gap between whites and African Americans, which had been shrinking since the 1970s, has exploded since the housing bust. It is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.”

The conclusion is clear: deliberate discrimination against people of color within the United States limits the financial attainments of Blacks, Hispanics and others, and results in wide wealth disparities. Those who argue that such disparities reflect different work ethics, different educational attainments, different culturally-based ambitions, are ignoring what the data clearly show. It is racial and ethnic discrimination, ingrained in our economic and social system, that results in the disparities we see in our current society.

Wednesday
Feb142018

Who’s Responsible for Russian Meddling?

Of course it's the Russians, because they are doing it, either as a direct or indirect action of their government. Hacking into our voter registration rolls or, much worse, hacking into our voting machine tallies, is tantamount to cyber warfare and undermines both confidence in and the results of voting—the ultimate act of free citizens. I am in favor of our government doing everything in their power to protect our voting process from influences that could invalidate it.

Russian meddling extends far beyond trying to directly alter the record of cast votes. We have learned that they have provided fake news reports, used “bots” to promote fake news via sharing and liking on social media, and have promoted, via bots and real accounts, posts, memes and news stories that are likely to divide our nation. In the last election, according to FBI reports, Russian interference was partisan and favored Trump over Clinton. This has led to speculation and investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The jury is still out on this issue, but it has led to some very strange outcomes in our political scene: liberals, who have historically promoted cooperation over confrontation with the Russians have become Russian hawks, taking every opportunity to vilify Russia and Vladimir Putin and cast negative accusations at any Republicans who suggest cooperation with Russia. Conservatives, who have always stood for law and order and praised our federal law enforcement, have become suspicious of the motives and even the patriotism of our FBI and Justice Department, while liberals, who have often been suspicious of law enforcement overreach, have claimed that criticisms of the FBI and Justice Department threaten “the very foundations of our rule of law.” It seems clear to me that opinions on these issues are shaped primarily by the perception of political advantage and not facts, and thus can be disregarded as demagoguery on both sides.

Putting the issue of collusion with the Russians aside, the evidence of Russian attempts to shape American political opinion are ominous. Our political system is nearly broken and its ability to enact legislation or policies that benefit our country is stalemated by partisan disagreement and extreme positions that don’t allow the kind of compromise that is necessary for a democracy to work. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard, and the authors of How Democracies Die have argued, “The lessons of history are clear. Extreme polarization can wreck even established democracies. America is no exception. As long as Americans do not overcome their deepening partisan animosities, democracy remains at risk…” Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that constitutional democracies, our own included, contain the seeds of their own destruction by including mechanisms that allow either a leader or a congress to exercise its total power using what Mark Tushnet, another professor at Harvard, calls “constitutional hardball—exploiting the letter of the law to undermine its spirit.” They are talking about such actions as a president packing the courts or a congress cutting off government funding—both of which are legal and both of which we have recently seen in the U.S. The engine which fuels the use of such techniques—which effectively undermine our democracy so that it ceases to meet the people’s needs—is extreme polarization of the citizenry. This is what Russian meddling seems to be aiming for. It is also something for which we, as Americans, are responsible.

Fake news is believed because people suspend their critical sensibility when they encounter information that confirms their biases. We believe fake news because we want it to be true. When we are duped, it is our own fault. It’s also true that we have allowed ourselves to splinter into entrenched and antagonistic camps; not just Democrats and Republicans, although those are the two largest, but progressives, liberals, conservatives, anti-fascist militants, neo-nazi militants, feminists, LBGT, liberal or conservative “preppers”, various ethnic divisions, etc. The language we use against each other is derogatory, accusatory, demeaning and intolerant. Our groups are cohesive and exclusionary. Within a group, people only talk to each other, except to make attacks on non-group members or members of rival groups. As a nation, we view our fellow citizens with suspicion, sometimes with horror. Most of us cannot fathom how others maintain the views they do and end up attributing it to some kind of character defect, lack of intelligence, biased upbringing, or brainwashing from the “fake media.” The idea of finding common ground is equated with a cowardly surrender of principles.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, a democracy only works if its members exercise “mutual toleration” and “forbearance.” They say, “when mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.”  Forbearance is “self-restraint in the exercise of power…  In politics, it means not deploying one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it’s legal to do so.” Forbearance means not playing the kind of  “constitutional hardball” that we increasingly see our politicians playing. They are doing so because they are being urged on by polarized supporters who regard winning their point as something worth risking bringing down the system. At the extreme, they see the system as already broken, and any concession to preserving it, if it requires compromise, is a failure to stand up for the moral principles their position espouses. If the system stops working, either because a dictatorial president is able to nullify the influence of those who oppose him (or her), or because an uncompromising congress refuses to allow the government to function if its programs are not enacted, then so much the better. At least one has not given in on his or her principles.

These irreconcilable differences and the emotional energy maintaining them are the bulwarks of the kind of polarization that Levitsy and Ziblatt say eventually bring down democratic governments. We are not at that point yet in America, but we appear to be heading toward it, with most people happily contributing to our dysfunction. It is this fallow ground upon which the rain of Russia’s meddling falls. Their goal may be to impair or even destroy America’s ability to function effectively, but their success is based upon the vulnerability we have created among ourselves.

Footnote: Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D.”How Wobbly is our Democracy?” New York Times, Sunday Review, JAN. 27, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Feb132018

What the World Could be Like: Lessons from the Olympics

Here are the things that impress me about this year’s Winter Olympics:

1.     The variety of events: the inclusion of what were once known as “extreme sports,” such as various snowboarding and freestyle skiing events represents a flexibility in allowing a traditional activity to incorporate modern styles of sport and remain relevant to both older and younger generations.

2.     The acknowledgement that, while Russia’s doping behaviors were apparently sanctioned by its Olympic authorities, many Russian athletes did not participate in such doping, and allowing them to join the Olympics as Olympic Athletes from Russia, is a model of applying sanctions where needed but not with such a broad brush as to penalize the innocent.

3.     The ethnic diversity of the American team, although some ethnicities remain underrepresented, is a testament to the central role that immigrants and their children play in our society and even in our view of who we are and what we can be proud of.

4.     Almost miraculously, given recent tensions between North Korea and South Korea as well as North Korea and the United States, the ability of both North and South Korea to choose to emphasize their common heritage over their differences and form a “unification” team,  is a model for how to put  the value of sharing a common humanity above local pride and fear.

5.     The beauty and skill of the performances.

Americans, and probably people all over the world who are paying attention to these things, have widely divergent opinions on the value and meaning of the North and South Korean rapprochement over the Olympics. Even within South Korea, the welcoming gestures of President Moon Jae-in have gotten mixed reviews, with a sizeable portion of the South Korean population being critical of his actions. The main issues for those who oppose such cross-border cooperation have been that they lend legitimacy to a repressive government that violates the human rights of its people and that they are a ruse by Kim Jong-un of North Korea to distract the world from his rogue nuclear program and to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.

In an article I wrote for Civil American, called “Humanizing Monsters,” I made the argument that it is a mistake to fail to see the common humanity in those to whom we attribute horrific intentions and deeds. I was arguing against an interviewer’s question of whether it was dangerous to “humanize” those who belonged to terror groups such as ISIS. I argued that it is more dangerous not to humanize them, because the behaviors they show and that we despise are ones of which we are all capable, and the motivations that lead to those behaviors, are ones to which all of us could, in the right circumstances, fall prey. But those human attributes that lead us not to participate in such horrific behaviors nor even to sympathize with them, are also attributes of those who do, and to change them, we need to bring this side of their humanity to the fore. For South Korea to join with North Korea  in a mutual endeavor, such as a joint women’s hockey team, or in singing a common popular folk ballad from their mutual heritage, or for South Koreans to join the North Korean “cheerleaders” in a chant, signals a recognition that people on either side of their border are not that different from one another. As a sixteen year old South Korean student said, after watching the North Korean cheerleaders, “…being this close to them tonight has made me really understand that we are the same people.” South Koreans, and everyone else in the world are perfectly capable of keeping in mind the crimes against their citizens that characterize the Kim Jong-un regime, while realizing that the people they are sometimes urged to fight are very much like themselves—something that can be said for most of the people engaged in wars with one another in this world.

But aren’t both South Koreans and the rest of the world, including many naïve Americans, being duped by North Korea’s “charm offensive”? Does anyone really believe that friendliness at the Winter Olympics or the charm of a smiling and polite woman ambassador to the games (Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong) confuses the rest of the world about the nuclear intentions and threat of North Korea, or their repressive government policies? North Korea’s willingness to talk to South Korea and to engage in a mutual endeavor, such as the Olympics, are real, not sham gestures, which despite the odds being against them, at least have some chance of reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and, perhaps—just perhaps—allowing South Korea to influence the behavior of its belligerent northern neighbor. We can be suspicious, but the potential gains from such a reduction in tension far outweigh the dangers of being fooled by the North Koreans. Deciding to talk to one’s adversary is a necessary step in resolving differences. It does not need to entail lowering one’s guard against their real threat to either their neighbors or the rest of the world.

The 2018 Winter Olympics have been a breath of fresh air in a pessimistic, fearful and dangerous world. Let’s not let our own cynicism and paranoia, disguised as "realism," cause us to miss seeing the positives that are right before our eyes, even as we acknowledge their limitations.

 

 

 

Saturday
Feb102018

Why I'm Not For America First

I’ve always thought of America as one of, if not the world’s leader on many important issues, not the least of which have been such things as freedom of speech, wealth, democratic processes, values of fairness and justice and of course, military strength. Until I visited some Scandinavian countries for the first time  in the late 1980’s, I thought the American standard of living was above everyone else’s.

My view of America was based on the normal doses of history, propaganda, and real news to which I was exposed as a person born during WWII, such as the Korean war, the Berlin airlift, the Berlin wall, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Then came Vietnam. My innocence regarding the nobility of American foreign policy was shattered. There were two sides to the arguments about the war, but some things were certain: having "the most powerful military in the world" didn't mean you won every war; our leaders didn't always make wise decisions; and the view our government was providing its citizens was a distorted one. Then came the civil rights movement and for me, a sheltered, white, northern small town person, a greater realization of the inequalities that existed within our country. Issues of world peace, of economic disparities, of military strength being used to shore up wealth and power, rather than to protect liberty, became more salient for me, and I realized that the most cogent voices on such issues were often not American ones. Much of the rest of the world—in Europe, in Africa, in South and Central America, in Asia—was grappling with the same issues and seeking reasonable and fair answers, just as were many of the most learned and statesmanlike Americans. I developed  a sense that we were all in this together and  that the this, was  becoming more and more a global issue: racism, nuclear proliferation, inequality, population health, and more recently, climate change. Survival of the things I valued was a worldwide issue, not just an American one. Our country was not an island and the beacons of light I once thought we alone stood for, had become multiple beacons of light from sources around the world, but ones that were in danger of being obscured by clouds of protectionism: protection of cultural idiosyncrasies, of possessions, of wealth, of  local resources, of privilege and of power.

The problems confronting the world are ones that require collaborative solutions. The climate is changing and to slow the process and perhaps one day reverse it, requires a global effort. In the meantime, rising oceans and extreme weather, plus water shortages, are producing increased migration. To regard one’s own country as “safe” from these scourges and thus not to cooperate in fighting climate change and instead close our borders to immigrants who are victims of these forces is like sticking one’s head in the sand. Areas of the world have become almost permanently at war. The issues causing such wars are myriad and include protecting oil wealth, religious disagreement, extreme economic disparities, rising cultural and economic expectations among the dispossessed, and drought and famine. Whole populations are becoming refugees and moving into other countries’ territories. Military solutions, particularly those that rely on nuclear threats are no solutions at all and increase the dangers they are trying to solve. In our richest countries we have drug usage that supports gangs and cartels becoming more powerful than governments in places as disparate as Afghanistan and Honduras, which in turn, provokes enough violence to cause ordinary people to leave those countries for safer lands, or for those ‘safer’ countries to send in the military in what almost always turns out to be a futile effort to try to eradicate the problem and stabilize the country where it resides.

None of these problems can be solved by a protectionist policy of putting our own country first. The world is simply too connected—by climate, by travel, by the internet, and by global business—to allow one country to thrive while others sink below the surface. And for me, ever since my epiphany during the Vietnam war, I cannot think of a reason why the success and survival of my fellow Americans is more important than the success and survival of any other humans with whom I share this planet. We are one human race and we sink or swim together.

Casey Dorman, Editor

Thursday
Feb012018

The Future is Here: The Lesson of Cape Town

In 2015, Cape Town South Africa won the C-40 Cities (a “network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change’) award for “Adaptation Implementation” because of its  Water Conservation and Demand Management (WCWDM) Program. Cape Town was a model for water conservation, but in April of this year, Cape Town will run out of water. Three factors seem to have been at work in Cape Town: 1) a three-year drought, 2) a rapid, sustained population increase, and 3) an emphasis upon water conservation while failing to find new sources of water. When the taps are shut off in April, people in Cape Town, a city of  3.75  million people, will have to stand in line to obtain containers of water from limited and restricted supply depots. No one knows how orderly this process will be. Extreme economic inequality, which exists in Cape Town and its surrounding region, will produce extreme water access inequality, with rich neighborhoods already drilling  and accessing additional wells and hording water in families’ personal water tanks (some families with multiple giant tanks on their property).

Most scientists agree that Cape Town’s water crisis is a consequence of climate change, combined with unusual weather conditions and soaring population pressures. Such conditions are not unique to South Africa and in the U.S., California has experienced similar drought conditions in recent years. Africa, where droughts are common and where climate change effects are likely to be accentuated by normal extreme weather conditions and underdeveloped infrastructure amidst metropolitan population surges, is the bellweather region of the world for crises related to our warming planet and increasing population. Even with the world population growth rate decreasing since it peaked in the 1970’s, the raw number of people living in the world continues to rise, and more so in some of the most vulnerable areas of the world.

Climate change, extreme weather events, population growth and regional disparities in vulnerability, resources, and infrastructure are all contributing to a precarious situation. As in Cape Town, most of the solutions for meeting water supply needs in California, one of the most vulnerable areas to water depletion in the U.S., have been on the side of manipulating water usage, rather than searching for new sources of water. A 2014 report by The Pacific Institute suggested that water needs in California over the next several years can be met by increased efficiency of use, reuse and recycling of water, and increased capture of local rainwater, particularly storm runoff. The same Pacific Institute is studying efforts at constructing and running desalination plants, but is cautious about them because of costs, emissions, and harm to marine life. Desalination efforts in California have actually decreased since early in this century, with 21 projects scheduled in 2006, lowered to 19 in 2012, and reduced to only 9 by 2016. Only two plants have actually been built since 2006 making a total of six such existing plants, mostly along the central and southern coast.

Cape Town should provide a wake-up call to the rest of the world and particularly, here in the U.S., to California. Efforts to find new water resources are vital and, because most of them are costly and time-consuming to construct, can’t be put off until, like Cape Town, a severe water shortage causes us to need them.

Among the possible solutions, the final one will require multifaceted approaches to water shortage, tuned to different environmental and societal situations. Desalination must be considered as a long-term fix for some of our fresh water problems. So far the downsides to this have been its cost and its environmental impact. Solar powered desalination is being implemented in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Chile, both countries with large deserts that border the ocean. The emission problems of desalination plants are a result of using fossil fuels to power them. Harm to marine life is also an issue, but not one that can’t be mitigated by technology and a rational balance between marine life issues and water needs. Concerns about cost must be weighed against the dangers of running out of water. There are other approaches to increasing water supplies without harming the environment,  related to catching rainwater and even mist. Greater access to groundwater systems is possible, but groundwater levels in many parts of our country as well as other countries have sunken and further mining of water runs risks to the ground surface above it.

The main lesson from the plight of Cape Town is that preparing for water shortages cannot rely only on conservation of resources, it must include a large focus upon securing new sources of fresh water. This focus must be coordinated with an emphasis upon decreasing fossil fuel use, which only hastens climate change, and has to be eliminated as a source of power for things such as desalination plants. Finally, we must view water scarcity as a global, not a national problem. Already, droughts have contributed directly to immigration from Africa to Europe and America, and indirectly by fostering tribal and international conflicts in areas affected by drought and famine. A world in which one half of the population enjoys enough water to sustain its way of life while the other half endures dying crops, famine and severe shortage of drinking water is not a world that can survive peacefully.

Tuesday
Jan302018

It's Time to Inspire

As election time in 2018 is on the horizon, and 2020 only two years after, Democrats who wish to unseat Republican control of congress and the presidency need to stop talking only to each other and to their rabid progressive constituents and face some truths. First of all, the economy is booming and, if public opinion holds to the same course it has in the past, the party and president in power will receive the credit for this. Even if the truth is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are falling further and further behind, the vast middle class will be seeing lower taxes and finally some increase in wages. Consumer confidence is high. Complaints about income inequality and tax policy biases toward the rich are going to fall on deaf ears when they are heard by the broad middle-road Americans who are not savvy about or interested in the topic of inequality as long as they, themselves, are doing better. Second, never underestimate the percentage of the population that listens to FOX news. Ratings at the end of 2017 indicated that FOX News was the most watched Cable News network for the 190th straight month, and Hannity was the most watched news/opinion program in its time slot. Why is this important? Because the day in and day out drumbeat against Donald Trump and about indications of possible collusion with the Russians in the 2016 election that characterizes CNN and MSNBC news reports and the conversations of Democrats and Progressives, is not a feature of FOX News broadcasts. Instead, FOX and its viewers will be buzzing about the FBI and DOJ conspiracies against Trump and the violation of privacy allowed in pursuing Trump associates while allowing Hillary Clinton to skate on her email server faux pas. THIS is what a large portion of Americans will be talking about as if it’s the true reality and one which overshadows more fact-based, carefully conducted investigations by Robert Mueller or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“My conspiracy is truer than your conspiracy” is not a rallying cry that will attract undecided, independent or new voters, especially if many of them will hear much more about the FBI conspiracy than the Trump campaign conspiracy because they watch FOX News. “Republicans are in the back pocket of Wall Street” will be met with a “who cares?’ response or “name me a Democrat who isn’t.” What is needed is an inspirational message.

The tragedy of America right now is that we are losing the environmental regulations that have improved our water supply, the air that we breathe, and preserved natural parts of our environment. We are ending restrictions on emissions that at least have a chance to slow climate change. We are not cooperating with the rest of the world on climate change. We continue to have a health care system that is ranked as one of the worst in the developed world, while being the most expensive. We have more of our population in poverty than almost any other developed country and our national average lifespan, which is already below other developed countries and on a par with many countries in the third world, is declining for large segments of the population. Although everyone is making more money and gaining employment, good jobs, educational attainment, and family wealth for Black Americans is woefully behind that of Whites. These are things that most informed, caring, Americans are concerned about. These are issues that cry out for solutions. These are problems that the policies of the current administration and the Republican congress that backs it, exacerbate.

What we need are leaders who can address the issues that need to be addressed in this country in a way that inspires people to believe that they can be solved. Some of the solutions involve reversing current policies, but others, such as healthcare and the state of America’s Black population are issues that require innovative programs and new solutions. A truly inspirational leader will make the rest of us (and so far undecided voters) believe that these problems, even if they don’t impact each of us right now in our daily lives, are important and urgent if we are to remain or once again become the country we hoped to be—a world leader, a compassionate nation, a haven for diversity and individual freedom.  This is the kind of inspirational leader(s) we desperately need right now.

Sunday
Jan282018

The Great American Dream

The American dream is that one can escape tyranny, entrenched class distinctions, religious intolerance or deadly civil strife (war or criminality) and arrive in America where everyone, regardless of their background, has an equal chance to thrive. Those without resources, but with grit and intelligence will rise to the top of society, those who simply want to pursue a dignified vocation, raise a family and hope for a better future for their children can achieve that through diligence and perseverance. America is the perfect even playing field for immigrants who arrive with nothing but their own dedication to moving forward and achieving a satisfying life. Generation after generation of immigrants who arrived on our shores with only their spirits and their immediate possessions, and then have pursued this American dream, have become us—the present generation of resident Americans.

Now there are those among us who want to lock newcomers out, who want to restrict the total number of new immigrants and to limit those who are let into our country to only those who already have financial stability, educational attainment, vocational, technical or scientific skills that are needed by our country. Such immigrants don’t need a level playing field, for they will already be on the upper slopes of the field when they arrive. What is the need that generates this desire among some of our fellow citizens? We certainly want to attract the technical, academic and scientific elite from other countries and we are in competition with the rest of the developed world in doing so. But attracting such people to America has nothing to do with limiting the entry of those who don’t fit such a category. There is no difficulty at present for such people to obtain a visa and enter the U.S. to work (except if they are on a country that is currently on an exclusion list). Admitting less skilled, less educated and less talented people does not jeopardize the chance of a whiz-kid computer programmer from India becoming a member of the American society.

Many argue that less skilled, less educated immigrants are taking jobs away from resident Americans who themselves are unskilled and poorly educated. While this can occur in some cases, the majority of the jobs such people take are not ones sought by resident Americans. Others argue that the poorly skilled, poorly educated immigrants often become criminals, members of ghetto gangs and funnelers of drugs into the country. While it is true that some hardened criminals are among the immigrants to America and when they get here they attempt to extend the influence of their criminal organizations into American life, this characterizes a very small percentage of new immigrants and those people are easily identified when  they arrive. Numerous studies have shown that new immigrants are actually less likely to engage in criminal activity than resident Americans. Others argue that new immigrants bring with them cultural and religious traditions that are foreign to American culture, and which undermine the traditional American way of life. There may be clashes between the religious and cultural practices of immigrants and the majority of resident Americans, but this country was founded upon the idea of giving safe haven to those who wanted to practice a minority religion but were not allowed to do so, except in America. And some of the “minority” religions, such as Catholicism, Calvinism, Quakerism, were relatively mainstream in some areas of the world, but not in the colonies or the new American states when they became United under one flag. Tolerance for these “minority” religions was part of the great American tradition. Is this the tradition people fear is being threatened by non-Christians arriving in our midst?

The truth is, there is not a rational reason for limiting immigration to those who can contribute to American society because of qualities they already possess and the fear of immigrants is greatly overblown, with blame for countless defects and deficits within our society laid at their feet. Some people see racism as the source of this opposition to immigration. There are those who dread the moment when white Americans become less than the majority in this country. Those people are in fact racist. But many who do not place race at the center of their opposition are also opposed to immigration as we have been experiencing it (and I mean legal, not illegal immigration). Those people’s opposition is lacking a basis in reality and even more so, it violates the American tradition and the Great American Dream.

Thursday
Jan252018

America's Real Disgrace

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winning American economist, makes a point that extreme poverty is a very real issue in the United States. He points out that 3.2 million Americans live on less than $1.90 a day, the World Bank criterion for poverty. More importantly, if the cost of living is taken into account (the World Bank figure takes into account differences in prices, but not availability of necessities such as housing, heating, etc.), then the per day income below which one is in “absolute poverty,” is, in the United States, $4.00 per day. In America, 5.3 million people fall within this criterion level, making the percentage of our population in poverty 1.7%. In absolute numbers, the U.S. has about the same number of people in poverty as Senegal, in Africa and more than Sierra Leone or, in Asia, Nepal. In terms of percentage, the U.S. has a smaller percentage than Spain, Italy, Portugal or Greece, which are still suffering from massive unemployment and government debt, but more than double (and sometimes five times more) the percentage of other EU countries or of Australia, Japan, or South Korea.

What is ironic, is that, of the countries with more than 1% poverty rates, only the U.S. is among the top 15 richest countries in the world. We continue to lead most other developed Western countries (except Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland and San Marino) in per capita PPP income level, but also in poverty levels. This is what income disparity is about.

In Orange County, California, where I live, our Sheriff’s Department is in the process of moving about 1,000 homeless people from their encampment alongside the Santa Ana River, near the stadiums for the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, the Anaheim Ducks hockey team and within a few miles of Disneyland. Orange County, home of several of the richest cities in the United States, has nearly 5,000 homeless people living on its streets.  A 2017  United Way study found that the homeless in Orange County are predominantly U.S. citizens, 90% U.S. born, mostly long term residents of the county (more than 10 years) and more than half of them 50 years of age or older. They are our own people who are failing to get by in the county where they have lived for years.

The argument made by Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton is that Americans should be turning their attention to poverty here at home instead of only in foreign countries known for their high levels of poverty. But perhaps more to the point is that our national attention ignores the levels of poverty in America, as well as the declining lifepans, particularly in areas of America such as Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta where, as Deaton points out, the lifespan is shorter than in Bangladesh or Vietnam. While we ignore what should be an American crisis, our leaders debate how much to increase our swollen defense budget—the highest by far of any country in the world—and worry about the effects of our national debt on our grandchildren—who, for a whole segment of the population are already growing up in poverty and ill-health. We talk about the deterioration of our roads and bridges as a national disgrace, but ignore the homeless who line our city streets. We talk about government assistance programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps being “unsustainable” because of their high cost, when they are the only thing keeping millions of Americans from dying or starving.

Decades of policy decisions that have favored the wealthy have contributed to economic disparity in the United States that has reached a level of crisis and national disgrace. This is not the subject of political debate at a national level in this country. Instead we worry about losing our competitive economic edge with China, about new immigrants not contributing to our country, and about whether we have enough battle ships and fighter planes. And we cut taxes, which should be the source of funding for safety net programs for those at the bottom of the income scale.

 

Tuesday
Jan232018

The Big Picture

David Brooks recently wrote a provocative column titled, “Democrats Go for the Jugular! (Their Own). ” He pointed out that, historically, every attempt to use the shutting down of government  as a vehicle for gaining acquiescence on an issue has failed—leading to greater unpopularity of the party that uses the strategy. Americans don’t think it’s fair and, by its very nature, it can’t work. Eventually it makes the party doing it look as if they are trying to hold the whole country hostage to their own agenda.

Just as importantly, Brooks pointed out that focusing on DACA as the issue on which to draw a line in the sand was self-defeating for two reasons: DACA was never going to be a direct part of the budget reconciliation bill anyway, and it makes the subject of identity politics, divisive as it is, remain front and center in the debate between both the Democratic and Republican parties. As Brooks points out, some Democratic progressive leaders, such as Kamala Harris were furious that Chuck Schumer “caved in” without a stronger commitment on DACA from the Republicans. So keep the government shut down longer? Another shot in the foot.

Extension of DACA and a path to citizenship for Dreamers is supported by a majority of Americans. Making that absolutely clear in the congressional debates when the bill comes up is the way to pressure Republicans into supporting it—after all, their voters support it. Making DACA a point of division and the property of only one party may satisfy Republican haters, but it won’t get a bill passed. There are plenty of other issues in immigration reform that will show the differing points of view of the two parties.

What Brooks’ column brings up, and something the Democrats need to address, is that if identity issues are the central issues in a Democratic campaign that tries to unseat Republican control of Congress and eventually the presidency, they are going to satisfy only the more extreme of the progressive wing of the party and not address issues important to the considerable number of Independents and disgruntled Republicans who are fed up with Trump and Trumpism  and whose votes Democrats will need  in order to get rid of Republican control.

The current Republican led government has de-regulated environmental protections, financial sector protection for the public, and health-care protections via Trump appointments and executive orders. Nearly every one of these de-regulation actions presents a clear and present danger to our country. Our immigration policy has been hijacked to meet racist and business-oriented goals, creating a picture of America as selfish and greedy to the rest of the world. Our foreign policy is frankly incoherent and dangerous and no longer pays any attention to human rights issues. Government pull-back from scientific achievement and addressing climate change is clearly destructive toward our long-term survival and leadership in the world, and our trade policy is short-sighted and one that will hurt us in the international marketplace in the long run.

All of the above are real issues. So are discriminatory police practices, hunger, poverty and increasing economic disparity within our country. These latter issues adversely affect Black and Brown Americans more than others. These need to be addressed too. A vibrant and effective Democratic Party will strive to reverse the directions that the present administration, with the votes and blessings of the rest of the Republican Party, have taken. Democrats need to focus on this big picture and address it with a comprehensive plan instead of hinging their entire efforts on attaining Pyrrhic victories on identity issues. 

Thursday
Jan112018

Our Next President

Last year I wrote a book called 2020, in which nonviolent resistance forces within the United States revealed governmental malfeasance and organized a movement to elect a new president. It was a work of fiction and based on fanciful circumstances, and on the opposition between evil and saint-like characters. Some readers and reviewers saw it as a portent of our country’s future. But it isn’t.

Unfortunately, too many of us share the view of my novel, which is that the choice of leadership of our country is a battle between good and evil, with the telling characteristic being the leader’s personality or character. It’s easy to arrive at this conclusion, given our current president and his history of lying, of sexual predation, of shady business practices, of intellectual laziness, of infantile public feuding and name-calling, and his demagogic ability to touch the prejudices and fears of his constituents in order to gain their support. But the real disaster of the Trump presidency is not the ineptitude of an ill-prepared and ill-informed president at the helm, but the policies enacted by those he has appointed, and those legislative programs he has supported, which are stripping away our decency toward immigrants, undermining our fight against environmental degradation, hastening the likelihood of further climate change, perpetuating a health-care system that performs more poorly but costs more than that of any comparable country’s, widening income and wealth disparities, and sowing the seeds of international conflict by siding with one faction over another in the Middle East and selling weapons to whomever is willing to pay for them. One maniacally narcissistic president has not been able to do this on the strength of his personality or even of his depravity. His policies represent a political stance, which, as New York Times columnist David Brooks is wont to point out, is more coherent than listening to his tweets would imply.

An alternative president must not just embody a grown-up, liberally informed, honest and fair character, but must be able to lead the country toward a reversal of Trump era deterioration of the progress, albeit shaky, toward the progressive view of what our country is to become. Barack Obama had the right character, but he was a lousy negotiator with congress. His foreign policy was muddled, both in giving international business control over framing agreements such as TPP and in figuring out when and whether to support insurrections in the Middle East. And let’s face it, under every recent administration, Republican or Democrat, income disparity has increased and progress for Black and Brown Americans has stagnated.

Our next presidential candidate must be charismatic—after all, he or she will have to defeat Donald Trump—but must also be an informed, intelligent, savvy and crafty politician with a world view that is progressive, that sees the disparities in our country—between Black and White, between men and women, between rich and poor—and has a view of how to reduce them. And he or she must be someone who understands the forces shaping the world—climate change, international commerce, emerging women’s rights, concentration of wealth in a minority of people, religious fundamentalism, and nuclear proliferation. He or she cannot be a demagogue who creates zeal among his or her base and hatred toward the opposition, who refuses to compromise or understand the motives of those who don’t share his or her image of the world. He or she must, like Abe Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, be able to negotiate with the opposition.

Where do we find such a person?

I’m not sure. For all the attractiveness of Oprah or Tom Hanks, I doubt that the world of entertainment is the place to look. That leaves politics, public service, academia, and grass roots organizing as potential sources of a candidate. We have some promising politicians, young and old, some able civil servants and statespeople, some very well informed academics and, like Barack Obama once was, some ambitious and charismatic grass roots organizers. We need to find at least one who could be our next president.

Casey Dorman is editor of Lost Coast Review and the author of the recent political novel, 2020, which can be found on Amazon by clicking HERE

Tuesday
Dec192017

Stop Starving People

Americans are horrified that the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, aimed at defeating Houthi rebels, is causing mass starvation. At the same time, United Nations sanctions, as well as those imposed unilaterally by several countries, are contributing to starvation and lack of medical supplies in North Korea. The United States fully supports such sanctions, and in fact, has asked for more. Our claim is that Kim Jong Un “starves his own people,” by diverting money to his nuclear program. While there is truth to this claim, it is also true that absence of medical supplies and a shortage of money, business opportunities and food is a result of our sanctions and that these sanctions have not stopped Kim Jong Un from building his nuclear program to the point that it now directly threatens the U.S. and many of our allies, but have contributed to mass starvation and limited health services in his country.

The argument is often made that “sanctions worked in Iran,” since Iran came to the table and negotiated a nuclear agreement with the U.S. and other countries. There is considerable truth to this, but the election of a moderate president in Hassan Rouhani, to replace the belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made an even greater difference in Iran’s willingness to negotiate, as did the election of a willing leader in Barack Obama in the United States. Notoriously, decades of U.S. embargo on Cuba resulted in almost zero movement toward U.S. and Cuba rapprochement or the expansion of human rights in Cuba, while severely hampering health care and conditions for the poor in that country. During the U.S. embargo of Haiti in the early 1990’s those who suffered most were the poor of that country who both starved and died of disease.

Various international agreements, including Chapter IX  of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child assert that all people living in the world have the right to adequate food and to freedom from hunger and to the provision of medical assistance and health care.

Studies of the effects of sanctions indicate that those imposed on the financial systems and export of goods such as oil are the most effective. It is possible to reduce or eliminate the role of embargoes of medical supplies and to increase the likelihood that food supplies will be less affected in designing sanctions. It’s not always possible to stop a dictator from diverting resources to arms at the expense of the well-being on his people, but those who impose sanctions must not contribute to the denigration of health and well-being of a country’s people—since it is always the poorest who suffer the most—and must do everything possible to insure that their sanctions do not have this effect.

War is not humane. Neither is it humane to conduct an international action that deliberately starves or prevents from getting adequate medical services, the people of another country—no matter how evil we consider their leaders. An essential part of U.S. foreign policy, which ought to be endorsed by leaders of all political parties, must be to protect the well-being of all people in this world and to do nothing to jeopardize that well-being through our actions. We must stop starving people and harming their health, and our citizens must protest this egregious behavior as unrepresentative of our values and a crime against humanity.

 

 

Friday
Dec152017

Imagine...

The onslaught of bitter words and violent actions, on both sides, after the United States announced its support of the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel caused me to wonder about the entire human tendency to divide ourselves into tribes and the accompanying sanctification of territories, of beliefs, of traditions and of racial and cultural heritages. Such a tendency is obviously a central part of being human, since it appears to be ubiquitous and to exert a powerful influence on our behavior, and  it has done so since the beginning of recorded history. But then, so is the tendency to kill one another; so being ubiquitous and powerful is no indication that something is either healthy or necessary. In fact, it may be just the opposite. What may have been rewarded by nature, because at one time it contributed to the survival of ours and our relatives’ genes, could, like the appendix, have outlived its usefulness and become a liability.

Human beings around the world and throughout history have fallen prey to believing that their own group’s traditions, possessions and characteristics are hallowed, and their values, even if not shared by others, are still universally true, which makes defending them both moral and necessary. In our modern world, we have every nation valuing its own culture, every religion its own beliefs and sacred figures, every race its own history, physical characteristics, and traditions.

The differences we now see among the peoples of the planet are the result of both separation, mostly caused by geography, and intermingling, mostly caused by migration, immigration and war. But even when cultures represent, as most do, hybrids—products of historical interactions across national, racial, ethnic, religious and cultural lines—they are regarded as sacred, as worthy of preservation and, from a moral point of view, needing to be defended.  As a result, we are a world at war over territory, religion, preservation of culture and over ethnic and racial differences.

Wars are not new. Clashes between religions or cultures are not new. Separation of populations based upon race or ethnicity is not new. Two things are new: the extent of connectedness among people across the world and the threats to our planet and our species that pose global dangers. Our connectedness is a result of global businesses, interconnected financial networks, and internet communication. Residents as far apart as Lagos and San Francisco may communicate with the same digital devices, designed in the U.S. or Japan, built in China, and on which they search for information using Google and stay connected with friends through Facebook. They may initially use them locally, but eventually, they will be discovering information and sharing with friends from each other’s countries. They may even make purchases using a common currency, such as bitcoin. Their investments, if they have the means to make them, are subject to global financial influences. The collapse of a housing market in America or in China can devastate an economy in Europe. Even insulated cultures, such as Saudi Arabia are pushed to lower their religion-borne barriers to entertainment and lifestyle in order to take advantage of the global economy in ways other than through producing oil, and because the young people in their population are learning about a wider culture through the worldwide web.

At the same time that we are experiencing global connectivity, we are faced with a triumvirate of global threats caused by climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics. None of these threats can be mitigated by one country, one region, or one population alone. America can reduce greenhouse gases, but if China and India, or Brazil do not, the planet will still warm. There is no such thing as a localized nuclear war: both international treaties and the drift of radioactive material insure that any nuclear war becomes a worldwide catastrophe. The Black plague  in Europe was spread by travelers following the Silk Road from China. Ebola is spread by travelers in airplanes crossing all the borders of the world. Huge human migrations caused by drought and rising oceans resulting from climate change, as well as refugee immigrations due to war, present an ongoing mix of populations that will make containment of deadly viral outbreaks impossible.

We no longer live in a world in which we can afford to maintain our separateness. Cultures, nationalities, ethnicities, races and religions rub up against one another constantly. Our problems are ones that are global and their solutions require global actions. In the midst of this situation, our insistence upon respect for our differences creates conflicts that are insoluble. To make our greatest moral commitment be a quest to explore and honor our differences rather than our commonalities is a recipe for disaster.

In the case of Israel and Palestine,  we have two cultures whose ethnic and cultural histories provide credibility for each group’s claim to the same piece of land. Wars in the Middle East and drought and famine in Africa have caused a massive influx of refugees and immigrants into Europe. They bring with them traditions and cultural practices that Europeans feel threaten their own historical traditions and current culture. Violence and poverty in countries below the border of the United States causes individuals, families and children to flee north and cross the border, where their language and cultural differences cause panic among residents who are frightened that such newcomers will consume resources and dilute the national character, which they feel is based upon a Western and Northern European heritage.

All of the above conflicts are insoluble from a perspective that chooses the preservation of cultural differences of people living side by side as its primary moral viewpoint.  Contrary to what opponents of multiculturalism have asserted, the idea of “assimilation” into the dominant culture in which people find themselves living is no solution to such conundrums, because each of those dominant cultures is, in reality, just another culture that happens to be dominant in a geographical region and is just as irrationally insistent upon the sanctity of its traditions, its pride in its accomplishments, and the greater humanness of its people, as are the cultures in the regions next to it or from which its immigrants came.

Rather than diverse allegiances to different identities, we need to acquire a single identity to which all people belong. We are all members of the species homo sapiens; we are all inhabitants of the planet earth. Our problems are global—they affect all geographic regions of the planet and all of its human inhabitants. The fact that they do not affect us all equally is a result of geographic differences (e.g. vulnerable low-lying islands, drought-prone semi-desert regions, fire, flood or hurricane prone regions), or what falls under the rubric of economic disparity, but which may equally reflect political or economic oppression. In the long run, we all have to cope with global problems and figure out how, as one planetary race, we solve them. To do this, we must forego a primary identification with any identity other than a pan-human, pan-global one.

What is being recommended is that members of groups, no matter what their basis for membership—national, racial, ethnic, cultural, religious or political—should stop using such membership as their primary identification. In order to solve today’s problems, which are globally based, people must identify, first and foremost, as members of a global community. Other identifications can exist, but they must not supersede this primary identification, because other identifications always contain comparison and competition with other groups, which often interferes with solving common problems. As members of a global community, not only do many solutions require global efforts, but the problems of one segment of the community are the problems of the entire community. No longer can a refugee problem in one region of the world be met by turned backs in another part of the world in order to preserve the latter’s culture, traditions, or way of life. No longer can one group of people be allowed to starve or die of disease while resources are hoarded by another part of the world, which feels as if those resources are designated for “their own people.” A war between group members is everyone’s business, because the participants in such a war are members of the same human group as the nonparticipants.

Such identification with all of humanity, rather than a more restricted part of humanity requires some sacrifice of control—over laws and territory in the case of nations, over behavior in the case of cultures and religions. The cardinal rule should be that no one’s laws or behaviors can cause harm to other members of our human society. Obviously, this would be difficult to define and difficult to achieve and necessitate a massive alteration in how people see their lives being governed and by whom. International bodies would gain power at the expense of local governments.

How could such a radical shift in peoples’ attitudes about group membership take place? The very connectedness and global problems that necessitate this change are the vehicles for initiating it. Open internet communication worldwide is a powerful influence in building consciousness of one’s membership in a global community, as is doing business across borders. Unfortunately, international businesses just as often exploit one population in order to serve the needs of another as they bring people together from different parts of the world. International Trade Agreements could be mechanisms for reducing competition between member nations, but the fact that, as in the case of the TPP, they are often drawn up by international corporations with the aim of serving the needs of those corporations rather than the populations of the countries who sign such agreements, has made them unpopular among a large segment of the population in some countries, such as the U.S. This needn’t be the case if representatives of the people took charge of the process of negotiating and writing such agreements instead of turning the process over to private interests. International agreements such as the Paris Climate Accords or the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (neither of which the U.S. agrees to) are early models of how to treat the safety of the planet and its occupants as a priority for all people in a way that supersedes national affiliation. Finally, those who agree that we are first and foremost members of the human race and that our global obligations to each other outweigh our other identifications must identify social or governmental actions that undermine such an outlook and protest against them.

 

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

                        John Lennon

 

Tuesday
Nov072017

The Conversations of Children

When I was a kid I was dumbfounded when I found out that my best friend’s parents were Democrats and were voting for Truman. My parents were Republicans and they “liked Ike” Eisenhower. From the talk I’d heard at home, Truman supporters were something akin to devil worshippers. They and my wonderful parents had nothing in common. So what was I to think? I hadn’t felt such confusion since finding out that another of my best friends actually supported the hated Yankees against my beloved Dodgers in the World Series. Kids don't think very well on an abstract level and I understand why I made such leaps of belief and condemnation when I was 9 years old. But now, 65 years later, I’m feeling those same things all over again, and I’m trying to understand why.

I’m not afraid of Donald Trump, I’m afraid of his supporters. During the campaign I had no fear, since I felt that Trump was a clown who would get so few votes that those foolish enough to support him would see that they were completely out of touch with their fellow Americans. I was wrong, and Trump won. Sure, he didn’t receive the majority of the popular vote, but he came closer than anyone had predicted, and he won where it counted, so he was elected to the presidency. Looking at a map of red vs. blue counties and districts, it was evident that people like me—coastal from the West or Northeast (I’m a Seattle, Boston, California person), urban, educated (I have a Ph.D.) voted as I did. But great bunches of Americans, some from similar backgrounds to mine, but many more from Midwest, rural, Southern or “undereducated” backgrounds, not only agreed with Donald Trump’s message, but saw him as their savior in what turned out to be a culture war.

Exaggeration and hysteria are the enemies of rational thought. Because I believe that, I hasten to say that I don’t equate Trump’s supporters, nor Trump himself with neo-Nazis, or White Supremacists. They may feel that white people are being displaced by Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants who are better educated and given preference for jobs requiring technical skill, or by Mexican and Central American immigrants, who will work for lower wages and end up occupying all the entry-level, low-skilled jobs that used to fall into the laps of less educated white people. They may have a suspicion that Black people have been given preference over them for government positions, such as fire department or police jobs, and/or are poisoning our cities with gangs, drug dealers and welfare moms. They may feel that, as the company jobs in steel-making, coal mining, or clothing manufacturing dried up, it’s been because no one cares about how they were supposed to make a living, or when their pensions and health care disappeared as the company they had relied on reneged on the promises it had made, they were not only powerless, but had no one to go to bat for them. And they may have hated the anti-gun, apparently Godless, pro LBGTQ culture of which they had found themselves a reluctant part, and they knew that their friends felt just as they did and that, until Donald Trump came along, there was no one to take their side. So  Donald Trump became their champion.

My fear is that there are an awful lot of these people. They scare me because I don’t agree with any of their opinions and I don’t know what I have in common with them. I have no idea how to talk to them or to change their minds. When I try to have a conversation, they are going to yell; they might be armed, they congregate together and to face them is to face a group who all agree with one another and disagree with me. My favorite arguments, quoting Bobby Kennedy, Noam Chomsky, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and various columnists from the New York Times, will fall on deaf ears—and probably incite more vitriol.

But of course, those people think the same of me. When they quote the Bible, my ears are plugged and I ridicule their source. I claim their statistics are biased because they heard them on Fox News, while I bring up studies from Harvard and Berkeley, both institutions filled with left-learning faculty. I can dazzle them with references they’ve never heard of and make them feel as uninformed as a pea, despite the fact that they do their best to keep informed by listening to talk radio, reading their local newspaper, and watching Fox News everyday—and they have eyes to see what is going on around them, while the sources I quote are often  books and journals. I’m welcoming to Blacks, although they think they’ve spent as much time around Black people as I have, and they’re not biased in their assessment of them, as I am. I proudly embrace my LBGTQ brothers and sisters with no consideration of how they might fear that their own children will make such a choice if it becomes socially acceptable. I refuse to believe that Islam is hostile to the Christianity they believe in and wants to impose itself on America. On the fringes of my group are the Antifa, who scare them because Antifa and other left-wing protesters feel free to destroy property and commit violence in the name of their beliefs. And as more and more Americans, including their own children become college educated and attend universities, they know they will be subjected to left-wing indoctrination and probably return home despising their parents and their values. To them, I am the embodiment of evil. They are in a fight for the soul of America and I am on the side of the Godless liberal devil.

It’s the same sense of irreducible division I felt when I was 9 years old. But is it really true? I just watched a mixture of liberal and conservative citizens in Houston as they risked their lives for each other, without thoughts about political orientation, sexual orientation or race. They were citizens of one community with a social responsibility to their fellow citizens. I saw a similar coming together in Las Vegas in response to a deranged mass murderer. Saturday Night Live, the sine qua non of left-wing propaganda in the guise of entertainment, brought on a country-western singer to commemorate the Las Vegas tragedy by bringing us all together. Two men in Texas, about whose political affiliation I have no idea, took it upon themselves to risk their lives by confronting an armed killer to try to stop his murdering spree.

As a country, as its citizens, we are better than our national conversation shows us to be. The fault is on both sides. I have some close friends from my elementary and high school days who have diametrically opposite political views of my own. Do I really think I have nothing in common with these people?  I have more in common with them than with many of my political allies. Humans are multifaceted, complex and textured individuals, and we need to appreciate one another, not dismiss those we don’t agree with. For our country to move forward, we need to reclaim the American ideal of a country that solves problems through debate not one that becomes so mired in questioning each other’s values that we never solve anything. 

There is room for disagreement in this country. Only 9 year olds think disagreement means our opponents are evil. We can embrace much that we all agree on and use that as the basis for solving our problems through cooperation and compromise.

I don’t have to be afraid of you and you don’t have to be afraid of me. 

Monday
Nov062017

Empty Words

After Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek terrorist drove a rental truck down a bike path and killed 8 innocent civilians, Mayor Bill DeBlasio said, “we aren’t going to give in.” Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “We’re not going to let the terrorists win, period.” Country singer Jason Aldean, who was on stage during the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people, came on Saturday Night Live and sang Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” After the deaths of 26 people in the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, President Trump said, “"We pull together. We join hands, we lock arms and through the tears and through the sadness we stand strong, oh so strong,"

Surely we need strong and inspirational leadership from our political, community and cultural leaders after a devastating crisis, and that’s what the words quoted above signify. So do the “thoughts and prayers” for those lost and their loved ones after such incidents. I’m not criticizing the words, but I wonder if they actually mean anything.

Not every tragedy, even on the scale of a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, can be avoided. They are going to happen and we need reassurances afterward that our spirits have not been dealt a debilitating blow. But words, especially inspirational ones, don’t solve problems and the adequacy of our society’s response to tragedies should not be measured by how dramatically our leaders voice strength, compassion, or indignation. The creation of terrorists, especially “home-grown” ones, ought to be something our government and our experts on psychology and sociology understand. We should be able to identify who is vulnerable and to learn what kinds of social media or religiously toned messages have convinced them to turn to violence. We should be able to develop counter messages and culturally sensitive ways to present them in order to prevent more converts to jihadism. Although it requires a tightrope walk between insuring freedom of speech and insuring protection of the community, we should figure out how to limit the presentation of violence-inducing messages to people within our country.

Many of the mass killings in the U.S. have involved disturbed and usually angry individuals using semi-automatic weapons to kill lots of people who are together enjoying some benign group activity, such as attending a music concert, a sporting event, church, or being present at a club, a movie or political event. We don’t always know the motivation of such individuals, and in some cases it appears to be heavily tinged by mental illness. It seems difficult to know what it means to “be strong” as a nation following such an event. What it has not meant, has been to address the prevalence and easy attainability of the kinds of weapons used to kill people in such tragedies, although we know that in countries with fewer guns available, there are fewer mass attacks than in America. In these cases, our remonstrations that we are not going to “give in” to mass killers or that we “Pray for all those lost and their loved ones,” seem hollow, given no concrete actions to prevent such happenings in the future. We are left just as vulnerable as before, but with more reassurances that we are strong and more prayers for those lost.

Fighting terrorism or preventing mass murders is not a matter of “not giving in” to something. These words give the illusion that we are doing something and that the issue is a matter of the strength of the American spirit. It isn’t. It’s about the wisdom of the American actions and policies. So far such wisdom is sadly lacking.

 

 

 

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