Saturday, July 29, 2017

Back in the Saddle

So ....

I've been missing from the blogosphere for a bit. Seven years, actually. Last time I posted was back in April 2010. How do I explain my absence?

A big reason was a season in addiction recovery. Helping first myself, and then others, to discover the wisdom in working the Twelve Steps. More about that, another time.

Another? Facebook. Everyone I knew ended up over there, and unless your Blog was, well, famous, one's polemics, heresies and nonsensical musings were more likely to be seen and possibly even read there than tucked away in a Blog somewhere.

So, Mike, you're back. Given the above, why?

Reason #1: Facebook is like living in New York City. In my neck of the woods, in fact, it's like living just off Times Square. Crowded, loud, sometimes distasteful, and full of vendors hawking their wares. Vendor advertising, designed to look like Facebook posts, often charming and entertaining or geared to inform, warn or educate, crowds the airwaves. At least a quarter of what shows up on my Facebook page is paid for.

Reason #2: It's often deeply divided in its politics, its religious affections (and lack thereof), and in nearly every other way you can think of. On almost any topic, a denizen can post on Facebook a comment that asks, advocates, objects to or merely questions almost anything under the sun and then get attacked, sometimes very unkindly, from nearly every other possible point of view.

Reason #3: When it's not like #2, it's sometimes the opposite: an unreserved love fest, in which everything one says (or, often, borrows and reposts), no matter how poorly thought out or ill-conceived, is applauded, veritably rejoiced over, reposted and applauded.

Reason #4: Like most writers, I find the din of the marketplace distracting. Lately the tone of that din has been, well ... somewhat depressing. I've spent less and less time in the Facebook world, because it's difficult to find my true friends on the crowded streets of that Big City. For a number of months — almost a year — I've posted almost nothing at all on Facebook.

But I'm interested again in writing. And I've wanted to get away somewhere a bit quieter to do it. In the old days, a writer would take off to the mountains, and live in a borrowed cabin, and peck away on an old Royal typewriter. I wanted the digital version of that mountain getaway. An online cabin.

That's when I remembered my old Blog, Embracing the Shadow. 

Honestly? I had almost forgotten it. But revisiting it this week has been like coming home. Or rather, to keep the metaphor going, arriving at a borrowed cabin near Grand Lake, Colorado, the stars shining, the air cool (it is actually 2 a.m. as I write this) and ... breathing.

I'll visit Facebook's Times Square to let folks know they can visit me here. But this is where I'm spending the majority of my writing time. Those who come here will have to expend that extra bit of effort to (figuratively speaking) negotiate the mountain roads to my cabin in the sky and pay me a visit. Digitally speaking, that won't mean much more than bookmarking my Blog. But those who do will have made the journey none the less. My true friends will no doubt manage it. And for that, I'll be grateful.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Burqa Battle

The French government is working hard to outdo Swiss legislators in mistaking ethnic uniformity for national unity, crafting laws that are blatantly anti-religious and should, by any who truly value their religious freedoms, be opposed. As America watches this newest miscarriage of justice, it would do well not to imitate it.

The Swiss government's latest anti-Muslim volley banned construction of new minarets, but French President Sarkozy is getting a bit more personal about it by attempting to ban the wearing in public of the burqa, the head-to-toe covering worn by a very small number of Muslim women.

It's important to understand that France has a tortured history in terms of religious freedom. More than any other state in the European sphere, France has striven to be free from religion, at least in its public sphere. Indeed, its cathedrals are mostly museums, relics of a not-so-pretty past in which church and state, priest and provincial governor, ruled hand-in-hand. Even devout church historians have had to admit, belatedly, that it was a bloody bad marriage. The Reformation, at least in part, was an attempt at an amicable divorce.

The roots of official French intolerance reach far into its past. What is now France was once the de facto seat of European power during the Crusades. At the behest and with the blessing of a succession of Popes, French antecedents led the vast armies that marched to the Middle East to wrest the "Holy Land" from Muslim control.

Until the the crusaders arrived, Christians, Muslims and Jews had, for the most part, shared Jerusalem and the surrounding territories, traded with one another, and managed to live in relative peace. You wouldn't know it to look at the world today, but 'tis true: Muslim rulers, in obedience to the Prophet's declaration that Muslims, Christians and Jews were all "People of the Book," managed to be a bit more tolerant than either the modern-day French or Swiss.

That relatively peaceful epoch, of course, went out the window after European Christians swept like waves of locusts over the Middle East, killing not only Muslims, but Jews and fellow Byzantine Christians as well. The problems we live with in the Middle East now, we owe to those faithful churchmen who forever made the word infidel into an epithet. Europeans led by pre-French royals — not the Muslims — ignited the holy war that still rages in Palestine.

The Crusades were only the most spectacular of the many excesses of a wedded church and state. Secularists in France, seeking to undo the damage done, did what people often do when confronted with extremes: They had an extreme reaction. It's culmination was the French Revolution, every bit as bloody and mindless as the Crusades (albeit confined to France). Although the public thirst for the guillotine waned, that reactive mindset is still a foundational characteristic in French politics. France, above all, seeks its security, and French identity, in a profoundly secularist worldview.

That's the background for the current "ban the burqa" crusade. Polls indicate that only one-third of the French public actually supports such legislation. Another one-third favors a less restrictive law, in which, for security reasons, a burqa-clad woman might be required to unveil her face to abet proper identification. That means that another third oppose the restriction or have no opinion (see, for example, this article in the The Washington Post). But the total ban has the ardent support of the far right in France (political descendents of those who marched on the Holy Land and, frankly, those who accommodated Hitler in Vichy France).

Sarkozy has attempted to "sell" the law on the pretext that it protects women. Let me make clear that there is something to that argument. It is no secret that some groups within Islam would like to see all women forced to wear them. This same sort of group was behind the throwing of acid in little Afghani girls' faces because they had the audacity to want to go to school (one important reason why America and its allies are involved in the country — something those who oppose our efforts there as a "lost cause" conveniently forget). It is no doubt true that some women wear the burqa or other hair covering out of fear — fear even of their own husband's physical punishment. But it is also true that these groups do not make up the mainstream of Muslim opinion. And Mr. Sakozy's argument ignores the fact that a growing number of educated and otherwise fully empowered Muslim women are electing to wear head scarves and even the burqa as a religious duty — nay, as their freely adopted sign of devotion to Islam.

While the French government might rightly seek to help a Muslim woman escape from a burqa she is forced to wear, it must also, if it claims to safeguard freedom, affirm a Muslim woman's right to choose the burqa. One does not need to be a fan of the burqa or Islam to see the essential rightness of this in a free society. Any law that does not affirm and accommodate both realities is doomed to fail and is certain to further divide the nation that seeks, by that law, to be unified.

Sarkozy is right to oppose the oppression of women. But he is wrong to assume that the burqa is, by definition, an instrument of oppression. The reality is much more complicated, as reality almost always is. When we simply react, and seek no means to temper our fear and anger with wisdom and perspective, that with which we are angry ultimately controls us. In savage irony, we become what we oppose. We substitute tyranny for tyranny. A blanket anti-burqa law becomes, in its effect, just a bloodless and "civilized" attempt at what, in the Balkans and Africa, we might label "ethnic cleansing." And it is sure to be seen as such by Muslims now resident in France.

Indeed, despite Sarkozy's attempts to veil the burqa legislation in "women's rights" cloth, the law is actually one thread in the far right's overall mission: to more narrowly define what it means to be French. In the 2oth Century, Arabs, Persians and Palestinians were welcomed to France during prosperous times, to do the jobs French citizens preferred not to do. The French were glad to have them, and the newcomers were glad to accept better jobs than they were likely to find in their troubled home countries. Many, indeed, sought citizenship and planted deep economic and social roots. But by the 1990s, a faltering economy in France had dried up many of those jobs and, as displaced peoples are wont to do when they are suddenly poor and marginalized in their adopted land, many latecomers returned to the religion of their youth for comfort and security. The resulting unrest and the return to Islam alarmed the French far right, and the burqa has been politicized as a symbol of what is not French.

It's not difficult to make application to the current American political scene. It is easy to latch onto a simplistic view of national life ("America is a Christian nation," for example) and thus stir up the fears and encourage the anger that undergird the current "populist" uprisings. Fueled from the American far right by a litany of groundless and overblown fears, a growing number of Americans want simple answers to complex questions, and thus imperil the very foundations they seek to protect. (Obama as a"closet" Muslim, is groundless, for example, while the fact that "whites" soon will be out-numbered by so-called "people of color"— as if the latter were some kind of white-hating monolithic voting block — is an example of overblown.)

Those who call themselves Christians (I am among them) would do well to study Europe's past and present errors, and then resist the populist impulse to press (again) our own simplistic template of uniformity over the vast and complex diversity of American life — a template that ultimately includes only those who agree with "us" and excludes those who don't. It's the very stuff of the world's troubles — many of which our crusading Christian ancestors authored. And troubles that, history tells us without exception, are ultimately self-destructive.

If we insist on a Christian America (particularly a "white" one), and cannot regard those with whom we share the Scriptures — and those who read other "holy books" or have none at all — with not only tolerance, but love as well, then we have already lost the battle. To glimpse our future, we need only tour the empty cathedrals of France.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Obamacare Will Land You in Jail!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OK, now that I have your attention, let me first say that the above is absolutely not true. Sorry, I know its a cheap trick, but had I written, "Let's Take a Calm Look at Health Care Reform," you probably wouldn't be reading this. I'm hoping that those attracted here by that sensational headline will let the intended irony sink all the way in and then do themselves the favor of reading further.

The Republican party and its de facto media wing, FOX News — no strangers to cheap-trick headlines — took one of their own to task this week — Republican Senator Tom Coburn — at a recent town hall event in Oklahoma. Coburn had the temerity to say something reasonably respectful about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and got booed). Then, when someone asked him about the possibility that people could be imprisoned for not buying health insurance under the recently passed Obama plan, he compounded his sin by trying to dispel the persistent rumor.

“The intention is not to put anybody in jail," Coburn explained, adding, "That makes for good TV news on FOX, but that isn't the intention.” If you're not familiar with the event, see this. Coburn, of course, paid dearly in the right-leaning press for his effort to disengage from Party of No rhetoric, after his FOX comment hit the airwaves and the Internet. And FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly categorically denied that anyone had ever said such a thing on a FOX program.

In this article, however, TIME magazine online blogger Kate Pickert reviewed FOX transcripts and found that, indeed, FOX personalities had given the "go to jail if you don't buy insurance" rumor plenty of exposure on several occasions. (Pickert also point out, for the record, that the new health care law specifically forbids jailing anyone who refuses to buy health insurance.)

To me, the most astonishing thing is not that right-wingers are so intent on misrepresenting the law, but that they are so upset by the idea of compulsory insurance in the first place. Opponents of "Obamacare" frequently appeal to the U.S. Constitution, claiming that the idea is a violation of their inalienable rights. But here in Colorado, if I want to own a car, I must buy auto insurance and that insurance must adhere to certain coverage standards. When I register my vehicle, I must sign a statement on the back of the registration certificate, which is preceded by warnings about the penalties established by law for noncompliance.

"Motor vehicle insurance is compulsory in Colorado," it declares at the top and then goes on to warn in bold type, "Non-compliance is a misdemeanor traffic offense. The minimum penalty for such offense is a five hundred dollar fine. The maximum penalty for such offense is one-year imprisonment and a one-thousand dollar fine [italics mine]." Further, I must sign a statement, declaring that I swear or affirm, on penalty of perjury (a separate offense that also can carry jail time), that I have purchased said insurance.

Auto insurance is, in fact, compulsory in most U.S. states. Many prescribe revocation of driving privileges and potential jail time for those who don't comply.

Now, I don't know where the Party of No and Tea Party folks were when their states took away their "right" to be uninsured drivers, but they can't blame that one on President Obama. And the fact that their home state government might put them in jail if they let their car insurance lapse ought to give the states-righters among them reason to rethink the secessionist rhetoric.

But the point is this: These U.S. states have made auto insurance compulsory because the costs imposed on society by uninsured drivers were very high. Those who responsibly insured themselves ended up shouldering the cost, in the form of higher rates, of the property-damage, medical and accidental-death judgments that their insurance companies were unable to collect from the uninsured. Because it was both unreasonable and unfair to penalize the responsible for the actions of the irresponsible (something a Teabagger really ought to resonate with), these states enacted compulsory auto insurance laws. Having every car owner in the insurance pool keeps rates down and ensures that all are protected against financial devastation when accidents happen. Does this argument sound familiar?

It should. This is the simple, sensible solution to high costs that Congressional health care reform advocates have sought for decades. What some see as a "government takeover" of health care is merely a long-overdue effort to regulate it, just like car insurance is regulated. The concept is neither new nor radical nor socialist — it's hard to make a case for it being "unAmerican" when so many Americans already dutifully comply with such a law every time they write that car insurance check. And in the case of health insurance — despite what the rumormongers still insist on telling us — there's no threat of jail time. So ... why all the angst?

Here's an idea: Let's take a calm look at health care reform.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Contract From (disaffected, white) America

The NY Times reported the results of a poll, yesterday, indicating that those who identify with the "Tea Party" movement are predominately well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class Americans. They also are predominately white, male, Republican (not a surprise) and married.

In the same issue, the NY Times reports on a new Contract From America, an allusion to the Newt Gingrich-led Republican effort called the Contract with America, which the G.O.P. took to the electorate in 1994 and recaptured control of Congress. Unlike the Contract with America, the Contract From America, as its name implies, is described by its compilers as coming "direct from the American people," rather than from elected officials in Washington. More precisely, the Contract actually comes from a segment of the American far right: The document was reportedly developed by polling some 450,000 Tea Party adherents.

The new Tea Party-inspired Contract asks candidates for public office — those who want Tea Party votes, anyway — to sign off on all of the following ten CFA planks (you can read the Contract at www.thecontract.org):

1) Tea Party candidates must seek to pass legislation that would require the authors of each bill before Congress to identify the "specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to do what that bill does." This one was supported by 82 percent of the CFA surveyees. Tea Partiers need to take another look at the Constitution's Section 8 before they get to excited: "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States ... (italics mine)." Two centuries of U.S. judicial review have, of necessity, defined this "general welfare" clause in terms of our country's people (the government is, of course,"of the people, by the people and for the people"). And the trend has been to apply general welfare provisions to all its people, thus, landmark pieces of civil rights legislation. That clause includes the possibility that the federal government might want to help out with things like health care for people who cannot afford it. It's important to note, also, that there is nothing in the Constitution that specifically mentions (let alone favors) free-market economics. In fact, the "Powers" section specifically gives Congress permission to impose and collect duties and other taxes designed to control market activity. The Constitution, from the get go, was not a "free-market" document. We've never had "free-markets." In fact, the Constitution implies just the opposite, that there need to be some government controls. I'm no socialist, but there also is nothing in the Constitution which prohibits socialism, should the American people so choose it. Americans are free, of course, to oppose socialism. But it's not (sorry, Ms. Palin) specifically "unAmerican." Plank #1 really won't change things much. According to the Constitution the Tea Party folks are so anxious to protect, the Founding Fathers they revere anticipated questions of constitutionality and built into our system of government a mechanism for testing it. It's called the federal judidiary at the pinnacle of which sits the Supreme Court. (Also see plank#7).

2) Pols who want Tea Party votes must "reject cap-and-trade regulation of climate-warming gases." The CFA sees cap-and-trade as a strategy that will increase unemployment, raise consumer prices, and weaken U.S. global competitiveness, while making little difference in greenhouse gas emissions. CFA says 70 percent of the respondents called for this one. But even if Tea partiers are right and climate and environmental scientists who actually have done research into this are wrong, the job losses Tea Partiers predict from cap-and-trade enactment are unlikely to be anywhere near as severe as the unemployment epidemic that will follow combined action on planks 3, 6, 7, 9 & 10. Cap-and-trade actually is a very good way for companies that responsibly reduce the carbon footprint to reap a windfall by selling their carbon credits to those who don't, and cover the costs of doing so. It introduces a competitive advantage for those who act responsibly. Capitalism at its best.

3) Tea Party candidates must seek to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget and require a two-thirds majority in Congress for every tax increase. Has anyone been watching the fiscal circus in California the last two years? Taxpayer initiatives in this and a number of other states, have tied the hands of legislators during the downturn, precipitating cuts to and shut downs of vital services, among them public security and education. Tea Party people apparently see this outcome as a good thing, and want to (sorry, I can't resist) californicate the whole country (also see plank #5).

4) Candidates must press for a "simple and fair single-tax system" that can be described in a document no longer than the Constitution (a little more than 4,500 words). Cute, and frankly, I'm OK with this, personally. Most years, I could fill out the 1040EZ anyway. My life is not very complicated. But will well-to-do Tea Partiers really consider "fair" a tax code devoid of the myriad personal and corporate tax shelters and loopholes to which they and their armies of accountants have become accustomed? And think of the devastation this will wreak on said bean counters, who owe their profitable livelihoods to our current IRS code?

5) This one calls for a Blue Ribbon panel that will audit all federal programs for constitutionality, effectiveness and waste. Actually, this is mostly a good idea. But Mr. Obama had the idea first. Minus the constitutionality thrust (which is covered by the judiciary; see plank #1), he ran on this idea, remember? But both the Party of No and his fellow Democrats nipped that idea in the bud. Politicians and their constituents only want the other guy's programs cut (see plank #9). And who's to sit on this panel, anyway? Who picks these folks? The U.S. Senate can't even approve people to head minor government agencies or sit on a federal court bench without some Senator sitting on the appointment for six months or threatening a filibuster. What makes the Tea Party think there's a chance in the world that such a panel will ever be formed, much less that its members could actually agree about a program's merits?

6) Tea Party candidates must also impose a cap on the rate of government spending growth. This provision will be unnecessary if the Tea Party passes its balanced budget amendment. Since one-third or better of the economy is currently dependent on government spending, cuts to government programs will make the 2009 recession's and the Great Depression's unemployment rates look like good times by comparison. The effect on the economy will be immediate and devastating — just as it has been in California, where taxpayer-driven balanced budget initiatives (noted in plank #3) and forced cuts have helped drive California unemployment to levels far higher than in the rest of the country). Tax revenues will plummet, and the government spending will have to plummet along with the plunging revenues. Costing more jobs, of course. We'll all lose our shirts, but we'll have a balanced budget. The only way to reduce the budget deficit without running everyone's life in the process to grow the economy by encouraging job creation, collecting the increased tax revenue, carefully ratcheting back on costs (via such measures as health care reform, which concerns another 30 percent of the GDP) and, sorry, by raising additional revenues. If you're not willing to raise revenues, then your only other choice, if you truly want to balance the budget and keep it under control, is to go after Social Security. Like that's going to happen.

7) Tea Party vote getters must also "defund and repeal" the recently passed "government-run" health care legislation and replace it with an "open, competitive and transparent free-market" health care system and an insurance system "unrestricted by state boundaries." First off, the government didn't run it before, and it doesn't run it now. Second, Tea Partiers favored, in a recent poll of 2012 Presidential hopefuls, none other than Gov. Mitt Romney, who championed a health care plan very similar to the Obama plan in his home state (no one, to my knowledge, not even newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Brown, has yet proposed a repeal). Beyond the inaccuracy and inconsistency of Tea Party pronouncements on this subject, the more serious flaw in Tea Party reasoning here is that, apart from the state boundary limitations, what they're proposing is essentially what got us into the current health-care crisis in the first place. Are Tea Partiers really willing to go regress to a scenario in which insurance companies could cancel the policies of those who actually use the insurance, and exclude the most needy from coverage? If the Tea Party gets its way, insurance eventually will be accessible only to those who can afford to pay for most of their health care straight up, and largely unavailable to those who most need this social safety net. Here's what I don't understand: In the last century, state governments enacted laws that forced all car owners to carry insurance. Why? Because the costs imposed on society by medical and property damage claims involving a growing number of uninsured drivers were rising and becoming unmanageable. The costs of carrying the uninsured were ultimately laid on taxpayers (or added to public debt, which is the same thing) and therefore negatively affected Tea Partiers, whether they were aware of it or not. There were no mass protests when auto insurance was made compulsory. And those who do not comply don't just pay a fine (not a tax) but they also lose their driving privileges. And those laws have kept insurance rates remarkably stable. There is no difference whatsoever between that and requiring that all people who want health care buy some kind of health insurance. Including everyone in the insurance pool is the only way to control the individual's insurance costs. The risk must be spread over the broadest possible cross-section of society. No issue before the Congress in recent years has better met the Tea Party's test for "constitutionality" than health care reform. If the rising costs of health care and the fact that 47 million people have no insurance aren't matters of "general welfare" then nothing is, and the Constitution becomes a piece of brittle parchment full of hollow promises.

8) Tea Partiers want Congress to authorize exploration of "proven energy reserves" to reduce dependence on "foreign energy sources from unstable countries" and "reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation." Since this sounds a bit like something written by one of the folks that makes up the so-called Washington elite, I'll translate: "Proven energy reserves" means oil, presumably oil within U.S. borders. "Foreign energy sources" means imported oil. "All other forms of energy creation" include coal and nuclear. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have actively supported (not just removed barriers to) alternative energy sources (solar, wind, bio-fuels) and Mr. Obama recently stepped up to support both new offshore drilling for oil and nuclear redevelopment. No major hydroelectric project has been prevented by regulatory barriers that I know of. The U.S. has been bullish on hydropower (a pro-hydro agenda that dates from President Roosevelt's (another socialist, by Tea Party standards) Depression Era Works Progress Admin. The Tea Party is strong in Nevada, but apparently has forgotten that Nevada owes both its water and its electric power to a socialist project, the Hoover Dam. (Ironic, eh?) So what we're left with is leaves coal, the other big polluter, which is what this is really about (revisit plank #2).

9) The Tea Party also wants a moratorium on Congressional earmarks until the budget is balanced and thereafter, earmarks require a two-thirds majority. This one made me laugh. Congress has recently passed bills designed to create jobs in the wake of the recession, and that has obscured for the moment what Tea Partiers don't seem to get: Congress has always been about the business of job creation. That's what pork is for. I wonder how many of those Tea Party folks have yet to realize that their reasonably secure jobs depend, at least indirectly, on the earmarked government dollars that their Senators and Representatives bring home to their state or district? If we cut all the pork projects tomorrow, a lot of Tea Party folks would find that their jobs — the ones they have been so worried would be shipped overseas — would simply disappear into the ether of Congressional inaction and gridlock. While we're on the subject of job protection, I'd just like to point our that in the Tea Party's free market, shipping your job overseas is something your employer is, well ... free to do, right? Either the market is free, and employers and Wall Street bankers can do whatever they think is necessary to increase profits and reduce costs — and we live with the bubbles and the bursts from their unrestrained greed — or the market isn't free. You can't have it both ways. Tea Partiers want to be free-marketeers only when it's someone else's job on the line.

10) Finally, the Tea Party wants a "permanent repeal of all tax hikes scheduled to begin in 2011." Let's look at the recent history on that. Politicians from both parties were so fearful of offending voters in the last two decades, that leaders of both parties have consistently proposed and approved tax cuts. this was done during an economic bubble when, presumably, they could have raised taxes a bit without too much pain and done something about controlling the then much smaller yearly budget shortfall. Far from favoring the poor, those cuts benefited most those who need tax cuts least, those in the upper middle and $200,000+ income circles in which many well-educated, successful Tea Party folk travel. Now that the bubble bash is over and we're struggling to pay the bills for the free-market excesses that got Tea Partiers where they are (and also brought retribution when the bubble burst), they want to repeal the Obama Admin.'s comparatively mild efforts to match taxation to our economic reality?

Tea Party folks may be well-educated in their narrow fields of endeavor and experience, but they appear to lack "big picture" knowledge of the political systems they hope to reform. They represent a conservative slice of the U.S. population that, unfettered by impediments such as unusual national or religious heritage, skin color and/or English as a second language, have established solid careers and settled lives in the predominant white establishment. They, therefore, have had little contact with the negative underside of public policy until recently, and, therefore, little real interest into looking into it (a common refrain among Tea Partiers is that, until recently, they "haven't paid much attention to politics"). While their recently piqued interest in the political sphere is laudable, there is a regrettable gap in their knowledge that explains, in part, the vagaries and inconsistencies in the CFA platform.

But lack of knowledge doesn't explain it by half. Let's forget the uncomfortable facts: that a vocal segment of the Tea Party movement supports the formation of citizen militias to "protect" them from their own federal government, that Tea Party adherents applaud secessionist rhetoric, and that Tea Party folks privately admit and sometimes publicly proclaim that their dislike of President Obama, in particular, goes beyond policy and politics and is rooted in race. It's no secret that white America is soon to become an American minority group. Under the veneer of Tea Party anger lies a vast reservoir of fear. It's what's left after all that is stripped away, however, that really is the crux of this matter. The fact that the CFA document was drafted for presentation on April 15th says it all: The Tea Party, for all it's concern about budgets and proper government function, is really motivated by the thing that motivates their "free" markets. Money. They believe that the current administration favors the poor and discriminates against the middle and upper income folks. It's my money. I earned, and I want to keep it. I don't want it to go to people who didn't earn it.

The Tea Party faithful want their government to work on a balanced budget, but have no intention of paying for it with any of their money. They want to safeguard their jobs in an ailing economy, but want to slash or kill government programs that support jobs and underpin a large portion of that economy. They want to tie their government's hands with two-thirds majority requirements that will stifle their government's ability to govern and will certainly prevent any action to alleviate the devastating financial and human costs that will certainly follow in the wake of the next economic bubble, which will surely come and burst spectucularly, if the Tea Party's "free" market becomes a reality.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The (not-so) Great Reversal

The Main streeters who propelled Mr. "with all due respect ,it's not the Kennedy's seat or the Democrats' seat but it's the people's seat" Brown into the late Sen. Kennedy's former seat in Massachusetts put the fitting capper on a week that will surely go down in infamy.

They will now have to deal with the fact that it is not their seat, but a Republican seat, and that, in the wake of the Supreme Court's latest piece of rampant judicial activism, that seat ultimately will belong to the corporate interests most interested in keeping the gambling casino we call Wall Street out of the range of their populist anger.

Within a few days of the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court, this time a bare 5-4 conservative majority, has perpetrated on the American political landscape one of the worst cases of judicial activism on record, second only to Roe vs. Wade itself. Deeply ironic, in that it comes from jurists steeped in anti-activist court history. I can only wonder what rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, the poster boy for Republican strict constructionists, might say?

As it did in 1973, the court has taken a small case, on which it could have ruled narrowly (and by all that is legally right, should have, given 100 years of legal and judicial precedent) and has overturned an entire body of law that, until this week, prevented corporations from directly funding political campaigns. The parallels with Roe vs. Wade should make it one of the most astonishingly and unexpected political reversals of this century, just as Roe vs. Wade was in the last.

What we now have is this unspeakable dichotomy:

A human, because it is alive and kicking but has the misfortune still to reside in its mother's womb, is not a person, but a corporation, which is a legal fiction for tax purposes, is. A corporation is now accorded full constitutional rights as a human being.

That "person" is now free to spend other people's money (the investors' cash) to promote a politcal agenda without having to ask the investors. Republican Newt Gingrich, with a logic that is best described as tortured, was thrilled by the decision. He defended this state of affairs by saying that all we need is to have corporations report on the Internet how much they spend and for what, and that that would make it fine. Never mind how that would make it fine. Mr. Gingrich imagines a world that will never be. Who will require this of them? The Supreme Court decision makes no mention of reporting obligations. More important, Who would oversee such reporting, ensuring that it is accurate and complete? Any liberal attempt to make the U.S. government the watchdog on corporate political contributions will be shouted down by Mr. Gingrich and his anti-Big Government cohort.

It would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic. And what makes it sooooo tragic is that this is a common sense issue that any preschool kid could rule on: Put before a four-year-old a mother with child and a stack of incorporation papers. Ask the child to examine both. The child will be delighted to put its hand to the mom's belly and feel the strong kicks of the little life within. But she or he will be briefly puzzled, at best, by the stack of paper, in part, because the child can't read, but also because that little pile is so obviously ... lifeless. Asked which is a human being, the baby not yet born, or the corporation represented by the stack of paper, could there possibly be any doubt about what the child will say?

You have to be an adult, and apparently also a Republican, to see it the other way around.

Even John McCain, was moved out of lockstep with his fellow Republicans. He briefly took up his "maverick" persona (so quickly jettisoned after his election defeat) to express worry about the effects the decision will have. Good luck with that. Now the corporate political contribution, like abortion, is a sacred right, protected by the First Amendment, any new law you pass will be struck down as unconstitutional.

You Teabaggers? Guess what? The moneyed fat cats just did an end-run on you. While you were electing your truck-driving, pretty-boy Republican (whose previous claim to fame was that he posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine), his Republican pals on the highest court were hijacking the electoral process, using the same tactics they've loudly opposed since 1973.

In one 10-day period, the already remote possibility for any meaningful health care reform and the likelihood that any truly meaningful reform of Wall Street banking practices were struck mortal blows by one local election and a single court decision. Gone with them is the likelihood that Main Street can ever again (if it ever could) count on Mr. Brown, Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama or any other politician to truly represent their individual interests.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You're the same folks who sit everyday with your faces glued to your TV screens, letting the Sean Hannitys, Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks and other talking heads — show-business personalities, for God's sake — define and dictate the terms of public policy debate. You're the same folks who consider Conan O'Brien, who is walking away a very, very fat cat, with his $30 million severance from the Tonight Show to add to the millions he's already made on late-night TV, a folk hero.

Hell, people, don't you get it? Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Conan O'Brien — they're all rich people. They're not Main Streeters. They have a vested interest in keeping money and power to themselves.

Do you really still think that the Republican party cares a fig what you think?

This is the party that controlled Congress and, for eight years, the White House, during the time that your Main Street jobs were exported to Mexico, China and Malaysia by corporations.

This is the party that resisted with all its might any effort to develop alternative energy technologies that could be creating millions of new jobs right now had President Reagan not defunded the research back in the 1980s. ("Drill, Baby, drill" was the "maverick" Republican position in the last Presidential election, so we can only guess what diehard Republicans and their oil & gas corporation pals might have been shouting). Oil companies are among the largest of the corporations that will hugely benefit from the Supreme Court's decision!

This is the party who calls the Obama Administration's extensive and largely successful effort to encourage an effective multi-lateral campaign, so far, against the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan "soft on terror." President Bush, for all his trying, couldn't do even that in eight years.

This is the party that, for those eight years under Mr. Bush, quietly privatized a good deal of U.S. military capability. Blackwater (recently in the news because several of its operatives were suspected of murdering civilians in Iraq) and other private contractors now conduct roughly half of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. These corporations now collect billions of dollars from the U.S. defense budget. (You didn't know that, did you? Sorry, it's quite true.) Anybody care to guess what might happen if some of those billions are spent influencing the electoral process? Do we really want a political process in which the military (public or private) can buy an election?

This is the party that still believes Republican President Herbert Hoover's "do-nothing" economic policy would somehow have prevented the Great Depression when, in fact, the banking crisis of 1932 (just like the banking crisis of 2008-2009) was a direct result of government inaction?

This is the party that has made its single policy goal in 2009 the failure of the American presidency.

This is the party that, this month, finally betrayed its true allegiance for all to see, using one of the most egregious examples in American history of what it for so long rightly decried as "legislation from the bench" not to protect your interests, but to sell them out to the folks you swore in Mr. Obama just one year ago to oppose. How convenient. What a self-betrayal. It's truly stunning. One cannot overstate the enormity of it.

Now corporations won't just control the elected officials with its phalanx of lobbyists who bribe, blackmail and sleep with Senators and Representatives inside the Beltway. They'll control the elections themselves. The beauty of it is, they don't even have to control them all. As Mr. Brown's victory this week in Massachusetts demonstrates. they just need to make a few examples. The insurance industry, for example, could go after a single high-profile U.S. senator favorable to a provision they didn't like. They spend a pot of money to fund thier own candidate and drown out the incumbent's campaign with attack ads. They only need to take out one long-standing committee chair. A Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi. A John McCain. The rest of the Senate gets the clear message, and votes accordingly.

And if you remain as guileless and gullible as you are now, my Main Street Teabagger friend, they'll control you, too.

One thing's sure. Things are looking up:

Your taxes will go up, because the corporations aren't going to be too wild about shifting the tax burden from you to them.

Your health insurance premiums will go up, and the number of uninsured will continue to climb, probably at a much faster pace, because corporations will make sure they're unburdened from the trouble of supplying you insurance as a benefit.

The number of companies "too big to fail" will go up, because the larger the corporations become, the easier it will be for be for them to dictate state and local legislative changes that will tip the competitive playing field in their direction. Ultimately, inconveniences like anti-trust legislation will go by the boards. If the corporate execs can't get Congress to overturn it soon enough — in the very unlikely case that some legislators actually grow backbones and oppose them — they can always just hit the delete button with a first amendment ruling from the high bench. How soon we forget that had it not been for populist legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act, we'd long ago have had the corporate hegemony that the Supreme Court just made possible. (Teabaggers claim to be following in the footsteps of a great movement in U.S. pre-history, but precious few of them seem to be at all acquainted with that history.)

The cost of the next bailout will go up, and there will be one, because there will be nothing to stop Wall Street from designing inventive ways to tempt investors to gamble with money they can't afford to lose and corporations who were too big to fail this time will be even bigger. The bubbles will continue to come and burst, and you Main Streeters will foot the bill for the clean-up, one way or another.

And your cost of living will go up, because, of course, corporations have to protect their investors by showing profitable quarterly reports, so you'll soon see those few corporations that gobble up their weaker competitors and come to dominate the economic landscape inch your prices up, ensuring that you're ever in debt — and more to the point, in their debt.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Climate Change Conundrum

In one sense, I'm neutral in the climate-change debate. I have no access to the data, so I don't "know" what is true. But in the run up to the Copenhagen conference on global warming, I followed the news frenzy surrounding it with great interest, because I'm convinced that at no time since the Cold War's period of nuclear brinksmanship have the stakes for humanity as a whole seemed higher on a single use.

Based on geological evidence and climate data (temperature and other measurements recorded around the world since 1850), a large majority of climatologists have come to two stark conclusions. First, that we are in a period of global warming. The primary cause for this warming, they say, is an increase in "greenhouse gas" (primarily carbon dioxide or CO2) levels in Earth's atmosphere. Second, although geological evidence indicates that our world has been subject to periodic warming and cooling cycles, climate experts say this particular period of warming is, to some degree, fueled by carbon dioxide emissions generated by human technology coupled with human destruction of natural carbon storage mechanisms, such as rain forests.

The pace of warming and the degree to which the resulting climate change might alter our world is a matter of scientific conjecture — enlightened and informed conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless. We have no human record of another time like this in recorded history. Therefore, we have no precedent to which we can appeal. Hence, we face a conundrum.

People don't like conundrums, they prefer certainties. So as a political issue, global warming is proving to be difficult to manage in the public square. Those for and against the climate-change theory have drawn some predictable battle lines:

A large group of about 30,000 scientists and environmentalists (including a few tree-spikers who would rather see a lumberjack than a tree cut down) now believe that climate change is primarily the result of human agency. They point out that the average global temperature has recently, if I heard correctly, risen by one degree. Although that single degree sounds like "not much" to the lay person, these same scientists warn that a couple of degrees higher, on average, is likely to raise the ocean levels several meters and radically alter the climate. Some even predict utter disaster, spinning scenarios of domino-effect environmental crises — drought, famine, huge displacements of animal (including human) populations, pandemic disease, and finally, massive extinctions of plant and animals — that will lay waste to the planet's ecosystem and human civilization as we know it.

On the other hand, some scientists, inside and outside the climatology community (including a few funded by those most likely to lose if the battle goes the wrong way, such as oil companies) have cried foul, claiming variously that global warming is a fraud or, at best, a misreading of the data. Many attempt to discredit climatologists' climate-change research and/or discredit their conclusions. They have been joined by a motley crew of self-styled populists, including right-wing politicians and pseudo-libertarian TV performers, who add climate change to a long list of items that Liberals, Big Government and Obama have foisted on Main Street.

One of the roots of the debate is whether or not humans have the right to consider themselves more important than the other species in earth's ecosystem. For many environmentalists, our ecosystem is fragile, and its delicate balance must be maintained. To many of them, humans are the villains, aggressors who upset that balance and are to blame for most of the eco-ills we now face. Things for some have taken on the tone of a religious crusade: For the radical environmentalist, it's only a matter of time before Gaia herself rises to smite we human transgressors in just retribution if we do not radically change our ways. A smaller number, much like the most radical Islamists, aren't waiting for Gaia to do her work. They're ramming Japanese whaling vessels and performing other acts of eco-terror. No surprise, then, that some global warming apologists call those who disagree "deniers" — an obvious, calculated effort to set those who doubt climate-change science alongside those who doubt the reality of the Holocaust.

For naysayers, the earth is not so fragile, but is instead an ever-shifting, adaptive system that readily adjusts to what they argue is inevitable change. They cite a growing number of instances in which scientists have been wrong: Famously, the snail darter, a point of contention between eco-protectors and naysayers a while back, did not suffer extinction as eco-scientists predicted but instead flourished when their native habitat was "ravaged" by a hydroelectric project. These folks argue that Nature herself uses catastrophic change in positive ways: Notably, the lessons learned by foresters in the great Yellowstone Park fire. Foresters now use "planned" burns and "thinning" techniques to preserve the health of forests. Evidence such as this, the naysayers contend, shows that the eco-saviors are often wrong, and therefore, their "science" cannot be trusted.

What is undeniable is that global warming conundrum is a global issue. Representatives from more than 190 countries attended the Copenhagen congress — a meeting most who were there now admit was an almost abject failure. But the attention paid to the event, alone, indicates that the issue of global warming is the 21st Century's first great cause celebre. As in all such instances, the publicity surrounding it has directed outsized attention not only to those who compiled the data and published the conclusions on climate change but also to those who promote and castigate those results. There are papers to publish, speaking tours to negotiate. Talk show appearances. Egos and reputations are on the line. And, yes, there are paydays. Climate-change proponents and naysayers together have spawned a huge industry. It has generated books, TV programs, movies and become the substance of political careers.

There is considerable pressure to fan the flames of controversy when there are so many careers and dollars at stake. Controversy sells newspapers, and hype boosts the ratings of TV news organizations (their editors are desperate to save media models that in the Internet age might have outlived their utility). That does not make the climate change theorists or their detractors right or wrong, but it does whip up more than a little crusading zeal among the partisans. All this should prompt us Main Streeters to consider carefully and weigh with some skepticism the claims made on both sides.

The naysayers got a bit of a boost from the recent revelation of e-mails and other documents (3,000 or so, in all) hacked from the computers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. The hacker's timing couldn't have been better, with Copenhagen just around the corner.

I find it particularly puzzling that no one seems to be interested in finding out who released those e-mails. You'd think the people whose e-mails were exposed would be howling for an investigation. Hacking is a crime. And discovery of a "denier" behind the hack would help level the public-relations playing field for the beleaguered e-mailers, two of whom have had to temporarily relinquish their posts pending investigations into their conduct by their respective universities.

The two gentlemen appear now to be in a bit of a pinch. The e-mails suggest there was an effort to evade requests for data disclosure under Freedom of Information laws in the U.K. and U.S. Refusing to honor a properly filed request under the Freedom of Information Acts also is a crime. I've begun to wonder if the "hack" was actually the work of a climate-change insider, (a disaffected climatologist?) who might be portrayed by "deniers" as a whistle-blower. Time will tell.

In any case, when the stakes in the debate are so high, it is tempting to bend the rules and plot the demise of the opposition — a temptation I think might have been too much for the scientists behind the e-mails. The paydays, influence and accolades continue only so long as the data support your conclusions. Scientists who are critical of current climate science are not being unfairly critical to suggest that there might also have been attempts to deny other scientists the right to publish. The quality of scholarship that results from a peer review process is, like anything else, dependent on the honesty of those who control the process. I think obstructionist activity in peer review should give all of us pause.

The e-mails made abundantly clear that the climate-change folks aren't interested in making their data public. Why? What possible harm could come from releasing all the raw data to anyone who requests it? If the raw facts, such as temperature measurements, support the claim that we are, indeed, warming, that would only help their cause. Right?

Well, maybe. Trouble is, the old saw, "Let the facts speak for themselves," is an attractive maxim, but has little basis in fact. In the real world, facts are just facts. Consider the recently hacked e-mails: The various news reports and commentators quoted identical texts of an e-mail verbatim but from there, it was difficult to believe they're talking about the same data. Some saw a plot to deceive the larger scientific community and us plain good folk on Main Street. Others saw nothing more than the crass side-comments of good scientists who privately betrayed that they, too, are human and can make bad decisions under duress. Each group found what it was looking for.

Add to that that much of the raw climate data is just ... numbers. I've had several friends who have been forced to take statistics courses in college. They've each told me the same story. Day one, the statistics prof stands up and says statistics are just statistics. They don't say anything. They must be interpreted. And often can be interpreted in many ways. The science of statistics is, well, actually a very difficult art. Thus, there are, as one e-mailer noted, "tricks" to help hide inconvenient statistical truths.

Just as the pols and pundits drew different conclusions from the data the hackers unearthed, so scientists have drawn different conclusions from the statistical climate data. We shouldn't be surprised by this: It's inevitable when folks come to the fray with political, social and, yes, metaphysical predispositions that no doubt cloud objectivity.

On that note, I am puzzled by a paradox of no small proportion: A number of religious folk have aligned themselves with the doubters, primarily out of a general distrust for science and anything else that smacks of "secular humanism" or is tainted by Darwinism, while many atheists are numbered among those prepared to call for unprecedented sacrifice to prevent a holocaust that in no way impacts an eternal future in which they don't believe they'll have any share. I would have imagined it the other way around. I continue to ponder this strange reality with awful wonder.

Although there are the deniers — those who refuse to believe we're warming at all, there is a growing group of naysayers (Ms. Sarah Palin is one), who don't deny that global warming is a fact, but insist that humans aren't the primary cause. Oddly, Ms. Palin and friends aren't telling us that we could survive three degrees of temperature change without some sort of catastrophe. Given that the dire predictions go unchallenged, Ms. Palin's assurances that I'm not the cause would be small comfort. If warming is simply the inevitable result of an unavoidable global cycle — something we cannot control — then my great grandchildren could be dead no matter what I do. Neither a happy thought nor a very tenable political position. Frankly, the possibility that we are at fault offers some hope, because it leaves us humans the option to stop it.

As I've said before, I have no problem with the general populace believing that global warming is a threat and that it is primarily a human problem. Whether global warming is real or not, we can't afford to wait until the conundrum becomes a certainty. It'll be too late. Despite the East Anglia e-mails, its hard for me to imagine that thousands of climate scientists in at least three independent working groups would conspire to use fraudulent data to foist on the world a lie of such frightening proportions just to cash in on speakers fees and become celebrities. Even if the climate scientists are dead wrong, the science that has demonstrated the realities of human-generated pollution and the fact that we are depleting our natural resources is indisputable. And both are reason enough to take the precautions climatologists are suggesting.

Ironically, polls almost universally show that "belief" in global warming is eroding in the U.S., and has been in decline since long before the East Anglia furor. Pollsters are not sure why, but one possibility is that the same short-sightedness and lack of will that brought on our recent massive financial meltdown (which reverberated around the world), and put off meaningful reform of the U.S. health care system — both huge contributors to the massive national debt we will pass on to our children — is now blunting the U.S. population's will to solve a problem to which we have, for most of recent history, been the largest contributor.

If I am a Christian in truth, I need to stop pursuing personal comfort, pleasure, prestige and wealth at the expense of others and our shared environment. And I need to urge those around me to do the same. We do need to care about this Earth, because it is our home and God's creation and because our children deserve better. For those who believe there is Someone beyond this world to whom we must give an account, inaction is the unthinkable option. Any possible avenue that could forestall or reverse such an outcome should be taken.

As a Christian, the health of the community is no less important that my own health. I do not have the luxury to chose between the individual and the collective, for my God affirms and loves both. Jesus Christ sacrificed himself to save his community. That's the standard. So I'd far rather drastically reduce my contribution to pollution, the hole in the ozone layer and the wholesale waste of natural resources and then find out later that I was mistaken. The alternative is to plug my ears, eat, drink and be merry, and then stand before God and answer for my dying great-grandchildren.

Neutrality — even in the face of a conundrum — really isn't a Christian option.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Interesting Article on Prayer

Found this article in the NY Times Magazine on prayer, entitled "The Right Way to Pray?." It's an interesting commentary on our need for "proper technique," as if God were a puzzle to solve, a labyrinth to walk or a secret to discover. Author Zev Chafets, not a religious man, visits with a number of folks who sell a variety of approaches to prayer, and ends his story with a description of his visit to an old-fashioned Assemblies of God church, a place where people simply believe that God is, God is good, God loves them and the people around them and is disposed to respond if they ask (pray is the Old English word for ask) for help.