Saturday, August 12, 2017

Statues Don't Get Up and Move

One person is dead and 34 were injured in the wake of a protest that saw Americans parading under a flag bearing the Nazi swastika turn violent, as fights broke out and a domestic terrorist drove a car into the crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia today.

Let that sink in for a moment. Someone was killed today. A lot of your fellow citizens were injured, half of them in a street fight with other citizens and the other half in an act of domestic terrorism. Not Islamic terrorism, which we hear so much about, but white nationalist terrorism. But perhaps the most stunning image of today’s news was not the physical violence or the car assault, but rather young American men proudly marching under the Nazi banner. We fought a war against the Nazis. Thousands of Americans gave their lives fighting for American values and against the un-American, fascist, and hate-mongering philosophy of the Nazis. While, unlike the Nazi regime, America allows free expression of even the most heinous beliefs, anyone who feels the need to carry a Nazi flag through the streets of America should pick themselves up and leave our country. If you’re rallying behind a Nazi flag then this is not your country and those of us whose families have fought and died for America and everything it stands for want you to go.

The violence took place in a city park. I’ll tell you its name later. Ostensibly, the protest was over the removal of a statue. That’s right, someone is dead tonight because of a piece of stone in a park. But it’s not really about the statue, not directly. The removal of the statue is what we can call the inciting incident. This is what attracted the people we’ll refer to as outside agitators. Agitators seize on an inciting incident and use it to promote their own agenda. In this case, we didn’t just have local citizens concerned about a park statue: we had groups, each with its own agenda, on both the far left and the far right. They came to clash; some even dressed in paramilitary outfits with shields and weapons and could easily have been mistaken at first glance for police. Others showed up with torches evoking memories of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses in the previous century. But make no mistake, these agitators were not there because of the statue; they came looking for a fight and they found it.

So we have an inciting incident, local citizens concerned about the removal of the park statue, and groups of outside agitators intent on exploiting the situation and the media presence to further their own agendas. Oh, and one deranged individual who decided to mow down protesters and bystanders with a car. The groups ranged from an anti-fascist organization and Black Lives Matter on the political far left; and the Alt-Right, the KKK, and the neo-Nazis on the political far right. But let’s talk about that statue.

We need to examine both sides behind the inciting incident. Since this matter involves such polarizing groups, many of you probably believe there is only one side. But if that’s what you truly believe, then you’re part of the problem not part of the solution. Yes, the Alt-Right, the KKK, and the neo-Nazis are among the most odious humans scum ever to crawl from the primordial ooze. But that makes it even more curious that anyone, especially so many young people, would literally and figuratively march beneath their banner. The question we must ask is why, and while in some cases, such as those of the outside agitators, it could be summed up as simple hate-mongering, for others it is a matter of societal alienation and disenfranchisement. Far left liberals may be creating their own far right monsters.

The statue commemorates Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee was a great man and a great general who chose the wrong side of the Civil War. I say chose, because both the North and the South wanted him to lead their troops; he was that well respected by both sides. The antebellum South had both a proud history and a shameful one. Beginning with Reconstruction, Southerners were browbeaten over their shameful past and attacked whenever they sought to assert any part of their antebellum culture. Yes, slavery was a large part of that culture, but it’s simplistic to paint the North as good and the South as evil, or to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Southerners must acknowledge the shameful parts of their history but Northerners must also acknowledge Southerners are entitled to their own heritage. Likewise, history is a matter of record and not something that should be changed in an Orwellian manner to suit the political climate of the day.

The statue used to sit in Lee Park, named for Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now it sits in Emancipation Park, named for the freeing of American slaves. No, the statue didn’t get up and move; it’s a statue, they don’t do that. The park was renamed. Gen. Lee’s name was taken off the park (which was then renamed for the cause he fought against) and the city voted to remove his statue. Basically, this was an attempt to rewrite history. It was an affront to Southerners whose families fought and died under Gen. Lee’s command. But more importantly, it was an attempt to erase history. History is important. Monuments and place names are important because they remind us of history. Even bad history. Especially bad history. Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We should not erase historical monuments that represent unpleasant periods of the past, but rather we should preserve them as a valuable lesson for all who come after us.

We should encourage people to visit Robert E. Lee’s statue and read his biography. It should serve as a teachable moment to learn about the man’s conflicted life during a period of our nation’s conflicted history. It should not be discarded, just as history should not be whitewashed.

Far left liberals need to stop creating opportunities for far right agitators to seize upon. There should never have been an inciting incident in this case. By renaming Lee Park and removing the statue, the message being sent to Southerners was not that slavery was wrong but rather a total repudiation of their entire heritage, both the good and the bad parts. . They feel they are being marginalized in their own country or in their words “replaced.”The reaction of many is naturally to become defensive  -- the young particularly, because they are seeking their own sense of identity, and are therefore easily brainwashed into becoming fodder for the far right groups.

We must see that there are two sides and rather than discounting one side’s views or grievances entirely, or allowing ourselves to become indoctrinated by the extreme left or the extreme right, we should approach inciting incidents with an open mind and a willingness to learn the history behind them and to use that as a teachable experience. Understanding each other, where we are each coming from, and why we believe as we do is the first step toward conflict resolution. Failing to do this invariably leads to the violence we’ve witnessed today.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Girls Have Cooties

Now that the fires of the Fourth of July barbecues have cooled to embers and the previously unfurled flags have been folded and placed back into storage for another year, it’s time to consider the dangers of patriotism.

Patriotism is like ice cream: A little bit is a wonderful thing, but too much leads to bad consequences. Patriotism is defined as proudly supporting or defending one’s country and its way of life. It sounds reasonable until you realize the “Us versus Them” mindset lies at its foundation.

From the time we were children, we’ve been indoctrinated with the “Us versus Them” dichotomy. The world is divided into two groups and you must pick your side or be assigned to one camp. Boys to the left, girls to the right. School sports captains divide the physical education class into two teams. Students at large cheer for their school against the competing team. At Sunday school, children form new groups based on religion. It’s always “Us versus Them” whether it’s gender, sports, or religion.

The obvious problem with the “Us versus Them” dichotomy is we always have to be better than “them”. Boys are better than girls. My team is better than your team. My god is the real one. When you divide the world into two competing groups, no one wants to be on the losing team. The first problem with patriotism is that it can lead to nationalism: excessive or fanatical devotion to a nation and its interests, often associated with a belief that one country is superior to all others. In America, we call this “American Exceptionalism”: the belief America is the best country in the world because it chose a different and better path than any other nation.

Nationalism leads to two even more dangerous propositions: jingoism externally and xenophobia internally. Jingoism is extreme patriotism expressing itself in hostility toward other countries. Unscrupulous leaders will often play on jingoism, whipping up public fervor to take their nation into war. After all, it’s “Us versus Them”. Their very existence poses a threat to our way of life, so such leaders ask Us to Rally-‘round-the-Flag and march into battle against Them. While on the home front, such leaders or political aspirants will stoke the flames of Xenophobia: an intense fear or dislike of foreign people, their customs and culture, or foreign things. This targeted hatred of “Them” often quickly turns violent, taking the form of physical attacks on individuals, pogroms, or genocide.

Perhaps more insidious is the subtle effect of nationalism: the devaluation of the life of anyone who is not one of “Us”. I found the answers to these two questions from an online quiz to be illuminating. The first question was “Are some human lives worth more than others?” Overwhelmingly, the response was ‘no’. I disagree. Each individual makes a positive or negative contribution to society, so those who contribute positively are of greater value. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Plato, Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare: their lives were more valuable than those of Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler. If Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden, and Mother Teresa are on a sinking ship and there's room in the lifeboat for only one of them, who would you choose to save? If you answered 'no' to the question, then we'll flip a coin to decide who lives while the others go down with the sinking ship.

Yet, what I learned from the quiz answers was most people say, if not believe, all lives are of equal value. But that’s when weighing individual lives against each other. The second question was more revealing:“True or false, the life of one of your fellow citizens is more valuable than the lives of 10 foreigners.” Once again, an overwhelming majority placed me in the minority by answering ‘true’ to this question. The same people who thought all lives were equal added the corollary that  "our lives” are more valuable than “10 of theirs.”

Why would one human life be worth more than 10? I would argue it might depend on the individuals: say, one foreign humanitarian vs. 10 American convicts; or one American murderer vs. 10 foreign schoolchildren. But the respondents weren’t balancing individuals; they were comparing groups, looking at “Us versus Them” and concluding “we” are always far more valuable than “them”. The insidious effect of nationalism is the devaluation of the life of anyone who is not one of “Us”. We see examples of this constantly in news reports where “129 people were killed, including three Americans” implying the American lives are somehow more valuable than those of the other unfortunate people. 

Girls have cooties. Your team sucks. Your religion is false. I am better than you.

Divisiveness is destructive. It’s one thing to take pride in America because of the democratic beliefs on which this country was founded but we must be careful pride does not become hubris that leads us to believe we are better, or our lives more valuable, than anyone who by happenstance was born somewhere else.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An Independence Day excerpt from My Book

And now, on this Fourth of July, an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.