Friday, April 24, 2015

The Hypocrisy of Race

A student group at Canada’s Ryerson University recently held an event entitled “Building an Anti-Racism Community on Campus” for the stated purpose of “awareness-raising for a more inclusive campus.” The group then barred two white students from attending the event.

Racism, like ice cream, comes in all flavors and colors. Sometimes the perpetrators are white, but they can just as easily be black. The perpetrators in this case rationalized the exclusion of two white students from an event at their own university’s student union funded in all or part by their own tuition fees, by labeling the event as a “safe space”.  According to the author of the piece in The Huffington Post, Canadian edition, a safe space is a place where racially “oppressed” and “marginalized” minorities can gather to “share their common struggle” where no one of “power” and “privilege” may enter.

“The presence of any kind of privilege puts unnecessary pressure on the people of colour to defend any anger or frustrations they have, to fear the outcome of sharing their stories,” Aeman Ansari, a journalism student at the university and The Huffington Post contributor wrote.

Frankly, the notion that black college students need an emotional support group to deal with being black is insulting to black people. To rationalize excluding people of color, when that color happens to be white, from an “inclusive” event on their own campus paid for by their own tuition fees is pure hypocrisy and racism. And to further rationalize such racist action with the excuse that the white students exercise some imaginary and unique “power” and “privilege” shows an impressive ignorance on the part of any who would make such an assertion. As a former white college student, I can attest that when I attended journalism school I had no more power or privilege than any other student – white, black, or purple – among the 32,000 students at my university. The power and privilege rested in the hands of the professors, the deans, the alumni… anyone but the students, regardless of their color.

Ansari wrote: “The two students who tried to enter the RSC meeting said that they were embarrassed when they were asked to leave and that the group was being counterproductive in sectioning themselves off. Similarly, some of the comments on the piece written about these students speaks (sic) to the idea that excluding certain people from these events, this dialogue, is encouraging racial tension. Their embarrassment isn't as important as the other issues involved here.”  She added: “Instead of focusing on why those students were asked to leave, we should be thinking about the history of oppression that makes these kinds of groups and these kinds of places so very important.”

Ansari has it entirely ass backwards. Her “analysis” uses all the right words in all the wrong places. If she knew anything about the history of oppression (and simply being born black does not instill such knowledge nor is it acquired through osmosis), then she would realize that we should indeed focus on why those students were asked to leave. It was because of their skin color. And contrary to Ansari’s contention, their embarrassment is as important as the other issues involved here. It’s the same embarrassment black people felt 60 years ago when they had to use the rear entrance of public buildings, sit at the back of a bus, drink only from the water fountains labeled “Colored”, and be turned away from public swimming pools filled with white people. It’s the embarrassment that comes from reading a sign that says “Irish Need Not Apply” or “No Jews Allowed” and realizing the words are directed at you. It is the embarrassment of discrimination and racism. It is as important as it is relevant to the topic. And the “idea that excluding certain people from these events, this dialogue, is encouraging racial tension” is not only correct but disingenuously misleading, because it does more than encourage racial tension… It practices racial discrimination.

“Racism is not personal, it is structural,” Ansari wrote. This smacks of someone who has never experienced racism firsthand. Allow me to enlighten you, Miss Ansari. Racism is always personal. It is deeply personal, both on the part of the racist expressing it, and on the part of the individual on the receiving end. Sometimes it is also endemic to an institution, and where that is the case, the structure of the institution needs to be modified. But there are few things in life that one may experience that are more personal than racism. And it won’t disappear by constructing “safe spaces” like an ostrich sticking its head in a hole, anymore than it will by practicing it in reverse.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Race to the Bottom

I usually stick to one or two themes in each of my columns, but no fewer than five distinct themes comprise this week’s column. I’ll be addressing America’s peculiar institution, and by that I don’t mean a euphemism for slavery, although matters of race and racism are certainly pertinent to today’s topic. Our country’s other peculiar institution is that of the position of First Lady of the United States. It’s an odd institution because it’s been with us in one form or another since the founding of the Republic, yet, unlike the presidency, the role of the First Lady is neither defined nor even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The First Lady is not elected and the position brings with it no official duties. Usually, but not always, the role is filled by the wife of the president. The First Lady is granted her own staff, which includes a chief of staff, press secretary, and White House social secretary. She has an unofficial ceremonial role organizing domestic, and attending international, state functions alongside, or in place, of the president.

The First Lady is generally accorded public respect, in part because she is a lady, in part because of the respect due to the office her husband, the president, holds, and because she represents the face of the United States, at home and abroad. When I was a boy, it was considered disrespectful and a sign of ill manners and poor upbringing to insult or denigrate any woman, let alone the First Lady of the United States. In fact, viciously insulting the First Lady would have been viewed as unpatriotic and downright un-American.

Things have changed in my brief lifetime. For one thing, the tone of civil discourse has completely devolved into gutter sniping. We had heated arguments in my day, but we disagreed respectfully and politely. Our arguments were based in reason and not anger or prejudice. We argued with passion, not hatred, in our hearts. Democratic and Republican senators could wage fierce debates on the floor of Congress and then retire together to the local watering hole to quench their parched throats. No more. Today, the animosity spawned by the arguments remains long after the words have faded into silence.

This phenomenon now occurs not only in the hallowed halls of Congress, but throughout American society, around water coolers and dinner tables. Nowhere is it more evident than on the World Wide Web. The Internet is another peculiar institution: a public forum cloaking its speakers with anonymity or pseudonymity and completely lacking in accountability. Civility is stripped from the tone of civil discourse because the speakers feel no accountability for their words, hidden behind screen names and located many miles from the people who hear them. Few would be shameless enough to say such things in a face-to-face setting.

I came across a Facebook group page this week that posed this query: Laura Bush was a First Class First Lady... Do You Agree? Considering that the First Lady is an unofficial position with no official duties, I would say every First Lady would qualify as first class unless they were observed stumbling drunkenly through the White House halls. Granted, some First Ladies have exemplified class and grace. While Jackie Kennedy brought youth and unprecedented glamour to the White House, the nation was awed by the 34-year-old’s inspiring display of grace under pressure as she led the country through the period of mourning and transition following her husband’s brutal assassination, which had taken place as she sat beside him. Unlike Mary Todd Lincoln before her, Jackie Kennedy lived in the age of television, which broadcasted to the entire world every moment, from the shooting itself to the burial and its aftermath. Yet the First Lady maintained her grace and dignity throughout the most difficult circumstances imaginable. But sure, I would agree that more Laura Bush was a lovely First Lady.

“She was a true American patriot first lady,” Mike King wrote on the Facebook page. Yes, I agreed; but then, haven’t all First Ladies been patriotic? Isn't patriotism an attribute that attaches to all of those married to a nation’s leader? Could not the same be said of Eva Braun? Yet, as I read the comments in response to the question, I discerned a disturbing trend. A majority of the responses insisted on contrasting Laura Bush with the current First Lady, Michelle Obama. I’m reprinting a sampling below, unedited. I feel cleaning up the respondents’ poor grammar might aid in legitimizing their demonization of the woman who is presently our country’s First Lady. Likewise, I’m attributing their quotes to their Facebook names because I believe individual should take responsibility for their words. I’ll return in a moment with my thoughts, but first, a sampling of responses to “Laura Bush was a First Class First Lady... Do You Agree?”:

Aniano Enrique: “She's a classy lady. Michael Obama on the other hand...”

Charles Johnson Jr.: “And michelle is a low class low life piece of garbage first lady”

Delma Lehnert Pearce: “We went from CLASS to TRASH.”

Reuben Hart: “She is also a female. Something the present first freak can't claim with veracity.”

Sharyn Bell: “I wish we still had a 'lady' in the White House but sadly we have trailer- trash lottery winners there now.”

Sheila Prong: “Unlike the lipstick wearing pig there now”

Lynn Yocham: “Not one single pic of her with hatred spewing from her with her face all twisted in anger. On the black slut you never see a smile always face twisted up in hate.......”

Val D'Gal: “A 1000 times yes, unlike the ghetto rat currently defacing the Peoples' House!”

Cherie Roy: “Absolutely. So was Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy. This one now is a total disgusting mess. She acts like and dresses like she is fresh from the hood.”

Phil Chiachetti: “Not like the ape in the White House now.”

Skip Klinefelter: “Absolutely!! And now we have something that even reporters refer to as an ape!!”

Cynthia Zelene Velasquez: “How about she is a real lady not a transvestite like Michael!!”

Bob Pruyne Sr.: “Real class vs ghetto trash”

Dan Johnston: “As opposed to the pig we have in there now...”

Chatty Kathy: “Unlike the classless piece of crap in the WH now!”

Rebekah Bennett: “The difference is having a lady in the White House or a manly thug.”

Gerardette McCarthy: “yes she was!! not like the black pig!”

Bernie Milot: “WAY better than that ghetto pig shemale we have now!!..”

Jennifer Snyder: “now we have the ghetto infesting OUR WHITE HOUSE. Send in Terminex to get rid of the awful infestation”

Randall Hughes: “What about chewbacca's hairless sister?”

Josh Diles: “I would never call our First Lady an ape.......apes deserve way more respect”

I’m back. Let’s review: “low class low life piece of garbage, trash, first freak, trailer- trash lottery winners, lipstick wearing pig, black slut, ghetto rat, fresh from the hood, an ape, pig, classless piece of crap, manly thug, black pig, ghetto pig shemale, ghetto infesting…” Do you see a trend here? Not a single respondent criticized Michelle Obama for anything she did in her role as First Lady. All of the attacks were personal, filled with racial epithets and vitriol. This isn't about politics. This isn't about Democrats or Republicans. I can’t imagine any partisan making these comments about any previous (i.e., white) First Lady. This is about racism. It’s about bigotry and bigots. It’s about people who wear the American flag as a mantle of their alleged patriotism yet display the ugly racism that is anathema to the precepts of American democracy. What’s worse, is that in doing so, they are attacking their own country’s First Lady, America’s representative to the world. What could be more unpatriotic than that?

I grew up in an era of overt racism, amid segregation, integration, and race riots. I watched our society and our culture change. Black faces appeared in greater number on our television screens and in our neighborhood schools, and the overt racism faded. While there would always be scattered pockets of hatred and bigotry, it appeared as though racism no longer existed. I associated with other progressive, well-educated individuals and in these circles there was no racism to be observed. But the overt racism had become covert; it had never really gone away, it was simply confined to discrete groups and individuals in whose circles I did not travel. Since I rarely encountered it, it appeared to me and others that, except for a few fringe outliers, racism had been banished to the history books along with the KKK, cross burnings, and lynchings. But the Internet allows us to travel outside our circle of like-minded friends and acquaintances, and to see the rest of our society. By cloaking its speakers with anonymity or pseudonymity while simultaneously removing any notion of accountability, the Internet has both enabled and exposed the ugly racism so prevalent today in America.

The new generation of Americans poised to inherit stewardship of our society’s culture, politics, and laws must address this racism, as well as the lack of decorum in public discourse. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Magic Pill

A generation ago, dozens of terrible diseases and medical conditions caused untold suffering that often led to disability or death. Through the miracle of modern science, all of these particular illnesses are now treatable or curable through newly discovered medications. So if you were to succumb to these illnesses today, a pill exists that could alleviate your sickness and disability, and prevent your death. But even though these magic pills exist, if you’re unfortunate enough to need them, you’ll probably be unable to obtain them. Here’s why.

These specialty drugs, as they are called, were developed to treat chronic or complex medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis, among others. While all drug development entails expensive research and development costs, pharmaceutical companies find it difficult to recover their costs on specialty drugs that are taken for a finite period and alleviate or cure the underlying condition. It is far more profitable to market a drug like aspirin that consumers will take continually over the course of their entire lives. So while the drug companies have created these wonder drugs, they feel they must charge an exorbitant amount to recoup their investment of time and resources.

Notice I didn't say expensive; I said exorbitant. Let’s look at some examples. The drug Soliris, used to treat to specific life-threatening blood diseases, costs patients $440,000 per year. How many of us could afford nearly a half-million dollars a year for the magic pill to stay alive? Solvaldi cures 90 percent of hepatitis C cases – which left untreated can lead to liver damage, cancer, and death. More than three million Americans have hepatitis C. The 12-week treatment costs $84,000.

Granted, some of these specialty drugs may be covered under insurance plans, but those plans rank drugs into tiers. Drugs in the specialty tier require the highest co-pay, often as much as 33 percent. For example, the price of Stelara, a specialty drug developed to treat a disabling form of psoriasis, zoomed out of reach of most patients’ pocketbooks. The co-pay (the amount patients have to pay out-of-pocket that their insurance plan will not cover) first jumped to $1,578 per injection and then to $2,728 per shot, bringing the out-of-pocket cost of the average patient’s treatment to $10,912 per year. That’s the patient share; the insurance company forks over the other 80 percent.

Specialty drugs made up two-thirds of the drugs approved by the FDA in 2013; by 2020, they’ll represent a $400 billion market – about 9 percent of projected total US healthcare expenditures. The pharmaceutical companies have patient assistance programs to help certain qualifying individuals receive discounted medications. But many do not qualify for such assistance, especially those who are often the neediest: the elderly living on fixed incomes. These patients rely on Medicare, which astonishingly forbids drug manufacturers from offering Medicare recipients any co-pay assistance or financial help. Another quirk in the Medicare law also prohibits the program from using the same economies of scale that private insurers use to defray drug costs. In other words, despite the incredible bargaining power of having so many millions of people enrolled in its program, Medicare is forbidden by law from using its strength in numbers to negotiate lower drug prices the way private insurers do. Thus, federal law mandates the government and Medicare patients each pay top dollar for the same drugs.

Congress can change this. Congress can amend the law to allow Medicare to negotiate with drug manufacturers. Congress can repeal the rules forbidding pharmaceutical companies from offering Medicare recipients any co-pay assistance or financial help. And Congress can establish a federal R&D program to defray the research and development costs associated with specialty drugs so that the burden would not fall entirely on the pharmaceutical industry. After all, the primary purpose of government is to promote the health and welfare of its citizens.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Matter of Trust

Trust lies at the basis of all human relationships. Friend, lover, business partner … All are bonded to you by trust. You willingly enter into such relationships based on the belief that the other party will not misuse, or use against you, anything you share with them. This is the essence of trust. It is a belief in the good faith of another. It is so strong a belief, that in America, we have even inscribed the words “In God we trust” on that which we value most, our money.

Whom, other than God, should we trust? We live in the Information Age, and the most valuable commodity of the Information Age is information. For Corporate America, indeed, for the multinational web of corporations, personal information about consumers, especially potential consumers of their products or services, is the most valuable asset in existence. They seek it out with the tenacity of a vampire constantly foraging for fresh blood. Unfortunately, consumers are often faced with no choice but to provide their personal information to corporations to receive products or services. But are these corporations asking for more information than they need to provide such products or services? Are they seeking additional information for future marketing purposes or to sell to third parties? Remember, information itself is a valuable currency. Once a consumer has provided personal information to a corporation, can the bloodsucking corporation be trusted?

The legal definition of trust is a relationship in which property is held by one party for the benefit of another. In this case, the corporation is holding in its databank a consumer’s property in the form of his or her personal information, ostensibly to provide the benefit of services or products. Does it breach this trust by using the information for other purposes, such as marketing or resale?

When I insured my home, I had to provide the insurance company with all sorts of personal information, including my Social Security number and my financial information. I did this for the sole purpose of receiving homeowners insurance. Likewise, when I applied for a Mobil credit card, I was required to provide the same information simply to be able to purchase gasoline with a credit card. In both cases, I had to provide far more information than should have been necessary for the limited purpose. But like most consumers, since I had to have insurance and credit cards, I complied. But can I trust these companies with my information?

This week, I received privacy notices from the insurer and Exxon Mobil, informing me that as a consumer, I have the right under federal law to control whether they share my personal information for marketing purposes. The problem is that these notices are opt-out notices: if I don’t want the corporations to share or sell my personal information, which I have entrusted them with for the sole purpose of providing me their product or service, then I must complete the form and return it to them (or, in the case of Exxon Mobil, phone them). The burden is placed on the consumer to proactively prevent the sharing of the entrusted personal information with strangers.

We as consumers should not have to do anything to stop corporations from breaching the trust we have placed in them and misusing or selling our personal information. Instead, corporations should be required to send consumers and opt-in form asking our permission to distribute the information we have provided them. This is a problem that must be addressed by Congress, and it is more imperative now than ever because the more personal information is spread amongst corporate databases, the greater the potential for that information to be stolen by hackers and used against the very individuals who provided it.