Sunday, December 4, 2016

Until the recent presidential campaign, the Alt-Right was just one more fringe group unknown to most of us. But the campaign rhetoric of the President Elect has encouraged these far right wing groups and brought them to the attention of the general public.

Unlike more familiar conservatives, the members of the Alt – Right are not terribly interested in defending the so-called free market, or reducing the size of the federal government. They are mainly interested in issues of racial identity. They believe that whites, what they call the "white race," are superior to all others. They also believe that this white race is in danger of being submerged in waves of persons of color, of Jews and other "inferior" races. They lay claim to a "scientific" theory of race and dedicate themselves to the preservation of the white race.

Such a hard-edged position of white racism appears very far from what most Americans believe. There is no such thing as a biological race. There is no evidence that groups of people who look different from other groups of people regularly inherit superior or inferior characteristics – different competencies, different character traits, different social relationships.

In addition, many Americans believe in diversity as an important value. In 2008 and 2012 Pres. Obama was elected with a convincing majority. The people who voted for him did not believe in the inborn superiority of the white race.

And yet……

It seems quite clear that the passionate opposition to Pres. Obama by large sectors of the American electorate has racial overtones. His black ancestry is not irrelevant to the blind hatred of many Americans. Many whites, I think, are in some way humiliated by having a black president. Many white Americans believe that black people are getting special consideration from the federal government while they themselves feel unsupported in the midst of economic crises. White males especially feel abandoned by their government while they have to lower their standard of living because the good jobs have been moved outside the country (by Jews?). They believe that they need to work harder than ever to make a passable living, while women and men of color are receiving special favors from the government and can afford to live off welfare and other social programs. In plain English, white men feel done to. That is not only unfair but it is more than unfair because they, the white men, deserved better because they are, after all white men.

The Alt – Right is unambiguously committed to a belief in the superiority of white men. A lot of Americans reject that talk about a white identity and the inferiority of people of color or of women. But most Americans, perhaps all of us whites, are ambivalent about race, about superiority and inferiority. Many white Americans – however you decide who is white and who is not – will surprise themselves when they find themselves making definitely racist assumptions.

A few blogs back I published the newspaper story of the black woman physician who offered to help out when a passenger on an airplane was taken ill. The airplane attendants refused to believe that she was a doctor because she was a black woman. These airplane attendants were probably very much like you and me, white Americans who rejected racism but every now and then surprised themselves, and shamed themselves by discovering that they too in some secret place of their mind harbored ideas of white superiority.

Most of us, unlike the Alt – Right, are ashamed of those remnants of racism we harbor. But we should resist the temptation to think that the beliefs of the Alt-Right are beyond the pale and that we have completely emancipated ourselves from this inheritance from America’s racist history.

We must forcefully reject the Alt – Right and everyone who refuses to join that rejection. But we whites must also continue to monitor closely our own racist impulses and correct ourselves wherever necessary.

The white superiority doctrine of the Alt-Right is sick, but most of us whites are infected by the same virus. We may speak with conviction about pluralism and diversity in America and how all of us are human beings and thus the same in important respects. We may undergo sensitivity trainings and participate in discussions about race. We should be justly proud of these actions to combat racism. But we need to remain watchful because we too are affected by the American disease of racism.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Someone gets rich from your polluted drinking water

 Gen. George Washington had his headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y. Ever since, this town on the Hudson, an hour north of New York City, played a role in American history quite disproportionate to its small size. But in recent years, it has fallen on hard times. Its industry has disappeared. Its population is impoverished and crime-ridden. And now, on top of everything, its water supply contains carcinogenic chemicals. PFOS is an ingredient in fire fighting foam used extensively for training purposes at a nearby military base.

Newspaper reports usually focus on a single event. The drinking water woes in Newburgh, NY are reported without mentioning last year's drinking water disaster in Flint Michigan. In each case the story seeks out the guilty parties for this particular problem. In each case it is not too difficult to find the city or state officials or the bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency whose negligence seriously endangered the health of the inhabitants in different cities and towns.

    But then you see a small notice that harmful chemicals are found in the water supply in other small towns in New York State where plastic plants are being blamed for polluting water supplies. That raises an interesting question: is the pollution of drinking water a widespread problem in our country? 

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency "threats to drinking water are increasing." The experience of people in Newburgh, NY or Flint, MI are not isolated events. Similar experiences with drinking water pollution are common all over the country.

    Are there common causes of drinking water pollution in these different locations? We can answer "Yes and No" to to that question. In Newburgh NY it was the National Guard training ground for firefighters that used excessive fire fighting foam and thereby polluted the town's water supply. In Flint Michigan corrosive water flowing through old lead pipes raised the lead levels in the drinking water. In a small town in Pennsylvania, Dimock, drinking water wells exploded because the water was polluted with methane from nearby fracking operations. In other places agricultural fertilizers are the pollutants. Elsewhere chemicals from plastic factories show up in drinking water. From place to place, the sources of pollutants differ. Each case appears to be different; each needs to be considered on its own.

    But all these different failures of drinking water systems have a common element: money. If fracking is done properly with all the requisite safety measures in place, drinking water should not be affected. But again and again the drillers, in order to save money, skip a step and therefore chemicals and flammable gas escapes into water supplies, wells and even into basements. Sooner or later drinking water is polluted and wells and even houses explode. Associations of large farmers put serious pressure on the government not to enforce regulations that would make farming more costly. Authorities supposed to oversee the maintenance of drinking water wink at violations. Congressional representatives in order to please local industries submit legislation in Congress that exempts local polluters from government surveillance. The money of the industries speaks louder than the citizens’ votes.

    Conflict over the preservation of clean drinking water pits government agencies and environmental preservation groups against the lobbies of agriculture and industry. Run-off from large farms is blamed for a good deal of drinking water pollution, as are the effects of industry and drilling for oil. In the struggle over clean drinking water for all Americans the well being of all citizens is threatened by private financial interests. 

    Many Americans believe that our economic system, largely run by for-profit businesses serving the private interest of those businesses, is the best there is. But when we consider the widespread pollution of drinking water with chemicals as well as harmful organisms, we can see that the private pursuit of profit may be good for farmers and owners of industries but is harmful for ordinary citizens. The pursuit of private profit is often harmful for the majority of Americans.

    Reporting on individual instances of drinking water pollution as isolated events deliberately conceals the fact that each case of pollution is due to the pursuit of private profit. In order to enrich a small number of owners, the rest of us drink water laced with lead and other harmful chemicals that threaten to shorten our lifespan. If we consider the pollution of the air we breathe, and the degradation of the food we eat, also for the sake of private profit, we can see that this economy--often touted as so beneficial to everyone--demands a very high price from us – years of our lives.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Standing Fast at Standing Rock

On January of this year Ammon Bundy and a small gang of like minded people occupied The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. They demanded, among other  things, that the Federal Government cede control of public lands to local authorities. About 40 days later they were arrested. The Feds charged them with criminal conspiracy.  A week or two ago a jury found them innocent.

By coincidence, Law Enforcement officials in riot gear chose the same day that the men in Oregon were acquitted, to fire bean bag rounds and mace at protesters in Morton County, ND. The protesters, mostly Native Americans, are protesting the construction of a pipeline which, they say, threatens their water supply on the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and interferes with sacred burial grounds.  150 protesters were arrested.

Observers in North Dakota noted that the  seriously armed occupiers in Oregon were left unmolested by authorities and were arrested only upon leaving Malheur to attend a meeting. The mostly Native American protesters, unarmed and non-violent, in North Dakota bore the brunt of violent attacks by police and massive arrests. The difference in treatment of armed white Oregonians and unarmed, non-violent Native Americans in North Dakota has attracted a good deal of comment.

But the Oregon and North Dakota protests differ in other ways that are important to notice. The occupiers of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were, to be frank, a small group of crackpots trying to protest Federal control of public lands. Except for one person in this group, no one was a rancher, or lived off the land. They were city folk in cowboy boots and Stetsons demanding local control of Federal lands.

The issue in North Dakota is very different. It concerns the construction of an oil pipeline to move oil produced by fracking to a terminal in Illinois. As planned the pipeline will will cross 209 rivers, creeks and tributaries. It will destroy more than one Native American burial ground.

In the background looms the entire issue of our national energy policy. Oil companies continue to drill wells and build pipelines as if they had not heard of the environmental crisis. Government co-operates instead of redoubling its efforts to reduce the use of petroleum. The protesters at Standing Rock are not merely standing up for Native American rights to their land and their water supply. They are standing up for all of us and for future generations, my children and yours, and the children they will bring into the world. Will future generations be heirs to a livable environment or will they be tormented by wild storms, excessive heat and drought, by farmland turned into deserts? 

The answer to that question depends directly on what this generation does about global warming. If the energy companies have their way, the outlook for the future is gloomy. If the Standing Rock protesters get their way, we may have a chance to survive.
But as the attack by Law Enforcement and the arrest of protesters suggests, the government is solidly on the side of the energy companies. With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress the outlook is gloomy indeed.

There is, then, another pressing issue at play: saving our democracy from utter corruption by the monied interests, large corporations, financial firms and the politicians who call their corruption “realism.” In the face of urgent need to have the government adopt stringent policies to reduce fossil fuel use, the energy companies can bribe the government to foster expanded oil exploration. Our government is no longer for sale; it has already been sold.
As we have seen in the electoral campaign: politicians have little to say, but money talks very loudly. It talks so loudly that we cannot hear the message from Standing Rock: energy use must be dialed down TODAY. Extraction of petroleum must be reduced. No more pipelines, no more fracking, if we want future generations to have an inhabitable environment.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

 How We Can Get Along Together

In her latest book, Arlie Hochschild, author of a number of interesting and exceptional works in sociology, looks into the question of why voters who understand very clearly that the ruling groups in this country do not care for them or their discomfort, nevertheless return the advocates of ruling groups to Congress year after year. Observers say: here are people who are not voting their best interest but are in fact voting to support their enemies. Often explanations of such behaviors imply major criticism of these voters. They are said to be uneducated and not thinking clearly and rationally. They are said to be uninformed. Implicit in those criticisms often is the accusation of being unintelligent. They are duped by the ruling groups in this country and made to believe that their enemies are their friends. We – the intelligent liberals – see-through propaganda but they cannot.

Hochschild is not convinced of this analysis simply because she has spent a long time in Louisiana talking to people who are supporting conservative candidates. She's impressed how aware these conservative voters are of the injuries done to them by the large chemical and oil companies that dominate the state and the state's government. Hearing the complex analyses these voters give of their own condition, no one would accuse them of being either unintelligent or ill-informed. They are not people who are easily duped.

But they still support conservative candidates who love big business more than their small time voters. How can we understand that?

Some of the people Hochschild interviewed are perfectly well aware of the tensions between their appreciation of their own condition and how the people with money and power look down on them and do to them whatever they can while they continue their political support for these very people. But they don't know where to take this. They are looked down upon, ignored, maltreated by their state government and by the large companies that are dominant in that government. But they have no hope that the liberals and the people on the left will look down on them any less, or will put great effort into saving them and making their lives better. In the last eight years they have seen no evidence of that.

So they find themselves really angry for being maltreated, for being underpaid, for making the same wages they have made for a long time. What they have left to hold on to is their established religion and the way of life that goes with that, which has no truck with gay marriage, or gender change. It has no truck with pity for girls getting pregnant at 14 and having abortions. What keeps them going in a world which they experience as hostile are their traditional values and beliefs, and that means support for the people they have always given their political loyalty to.

Here is Hochschild's conclusion from all these observations: don't look for rational arguments from poor voters. Don't in fact look for rational arguments from any voters. In the end, we are all inclined in different ways because we have different emotional attachments and pre-judgments. Whatever arguments we give are anchored in these original emotional attachments.

Other recent work in psychology suggests that people who have been powerless and suddenly experience an increase in power tend to be harsher on other people. If they newly acquire power they use it often destructively because before they did not have any. One might adapt those ideas to an explanation of why the victims of conservatives nevertheless support them at the polls. Given power, by being able to vote, conservatives will support the candidates who share their conservative values and punish the liberals who advocate abortion on demand, gay marriage and other novel social values.

The precise explanation remains to be given. What matters is the insight that people vote as they do because of their anger, their fear, their sense of loss, their lack of hope and many other emotional conditions.

There have been many calls in this campaign for national unity, for Americans to "come together" and to once again work together. What we learn here is that Americans will not come together as long as they identify themselves as the intelligent rational beings and their opponents as the emotional, uneducated ones. All of us are moved by deep-seated feelings and we will not come together unless we take the feelings of others seriously. We need to have and show respect for the feelings of others. We need to honor them, even in cases where they seem really repugnant.

Should women honor the feelings of rapists, of men who dishonor them by objectifying their bodies? Surely not. Should they say these men are ignorant swine who should not be allowed to live? Surely not. What sort of respect, if any, does a rapist deserve? Not an easy question to answer.

Obviously calling for "respect" for other people's feelings is easy. Practicing it is often extremely difficult and none of us should be criticized for saying that they cannot respect the feelings of this are that person. But the effort to respect the feelings of others rather than condemning them by some aggressive epithet – as we hear daily in this electoral campaign from all parties – is essential if this country is to heal.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lethal Police Practices

Police killings of Black men continue to be in the news. Nevertheless it came as a shock and surprise to me when I learned that so far this year police have killed 708 persons. If they continue at this rate there will be close to 1000 victims this year.

Something is seriously the matter when the police kills so many citizens. The first surprise is that these numbers are compiled by private organizations. The Washington Post  began keeping track of reports of police killings after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO after they found out that the government does not record these events. The FBI has some statistics but they are admittedly very incomplete.

Different organizations come up with slightly different numbers. All of them are much too high. A government that does not even track police killings, clearly is not terribly interested in the safety of its citizens. 

There is widespread agreement that white citizens are killed at a much smaller rate than citizens of color. In some reports the number of deaths of African-American and Hispanic citizens together is about the same number of white citizens killed. 

Police officers are thought to be frequent victims of lethal attacks. But in 2015, 46 police officers were killed on duty in the United States. That is roughly 5% of the number of citizens killed by police officers.

Americans take these numbers for granted. But comparisons with police killings in other developed countries should make us sit up and demand an explanation. England and Wales with roughly 1/6 of the population of the US had 55 police shooting in the last 24--yes you read that right, twenty-four-- years while we had 59 fatal police shootings in the first 24 days of 2015. Comparisons with other European countries are equally startling. Iceland--a very small country--had 1 police shooting in the last 71 years. Germany with 1/4 the population of the US had 15 police shootings in the 2 years 2010/2011. We may well have 1000 police shootings in the present year.

I have written in past blogs that the high rates of violence are to be seen as results of the violent history of our country in which we fought a war with Native Americans every ten years and have been a warlike country in the world since the middle of the 19th century. That opinion has widespread support. But when we look at police shootings, in countries that have similar histories of taking their land away from previous occupants, Australia and Canada, we see that our numbers are still extraordinary. We have fifteen times the population of Australia. Our police kills 1000 citizens a year. If Australian police killed their citizens at the same rate that our police kills us, they would kill about 70 citizens each year. Instead Australian police has killed 94 citizens in the 20 years between 1992 and 2011. Canada, with a population of 35 million as compared to our 316 million has 25 police killings a year as contrasted to 1000 in the US. Compared to these and other developed countries, our police is spectacularly indifferent to killing civilians. 

Thanks to Back Lives Matter and similar organizations, the huge disproportion between Blacks and whites killed by police has finally received public attention. But that phenomenon cannot be fully understood unless we also understand the context of police forces that are extraordinarily lethal for all citizens compared to those in many other countries. The public has so far accepted these numbers of 1000 civilians killed every year and hence there are exist few careful studies of this phenomenon.

How can we explain this discrepancy between numbers of citizens killed by police in the US and elsewhere?

Comparisons with Australia and Canada show that the history of killing indigenous people is not a cause. But some people have argued plausibly that, compared to other developed countries, police in our extraordinarily violent society,  have reason to expect violence on the part of people they are questioning. They may therefore be more trigger-happy than their colleagues in other countries.

In some European countries (Netherlands, Norway and Finland) police officers spend three full years at the Police Academy before they hit the streets. Many American police officers are trained for five months; many for shorter periods. European officers receive much more elaborate training in how to deal with people who are seriously distressed, who suffer from mental illness, or are under the influence of drugs. Many American officers have little or no comparable training.

Many European police receive very elaborate instructions in how to deal with potentially lethal situations. They must first give verbal warnings. Before shooting at a person they must make warning shots in the air. They must shoot to disable an aggressive person before they shoot to kill. Not all US police officers are subject to such rules.

These differences between US and European police officers are interesting and suggestive. But we have no satisfactory explanation of the much higher numbers of civilians killed by American police.

Many of the killings perpetrated by US police are called "justified" by police and criminal justice officials. The comparisons with killings by police in other countries suggests very strongly that, on the contrary, many of these American killings are not justified.
American citizens have the right to be safe from their police. Local and national government must make a major effort to understand why the police in our country are such a threat to civilians. They must immediately take steps to study, explain, and remedy this situation.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Debate Over Immigration

Most of the time the debaters overlook a number of important facts that bear on this debate.

The central fact is that policies of the US government are to a considerable extent responsible for the flood of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the rest of the hemisphere.

Our government has always felt free to involve itself in the politics of Latin American countries. In the Mexican-American war, we took a large portion of Mexico and incorporated it into our country. Arizona, New Mexico, California were originally part of Mexico. They are now ours.

For 20 years in the early 20th century, the US occupied Nicaragua. After that, our government supported a father and son team of dictators – the Somozas – until they were overthrown by a popular uprising in 1980. Our government responded by instigating the Contra War kept a secret from  Congress and the American people. We have supported dictators in Haiti and elsewhere. The CIA and other branches of the US government were instrumental in overthrowing democratically elected presidents in Guatemala in 1954, and in Chile in 1970, and recently in Honduras to replace them with hard-line conservatives and murderous dictators.

In 1994 under the presidency of Bill Clinton, Canada, the US, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). One result of this treaty was that American corn growers, who are subsidized by the US government and grow corn cheaply because their operations are extensive and mechanized, flooded the market in Mexico with their cheap corn. Most corn in Mexico was grown on small farms without mechanization. The small growers could not compete with the American imported corn and had to go out of business. Small farmers lost their farms and moved to Mexico City only to find unemployment and poverty there. US policies are largely responsible for the waves of impoverished Mexicans seeking a new and better life in our country.

The drug wars are another cause of undocumented immigration. There are several large drug cartels in Mexico at war with each other for the extremely lucrative drug trade to the United States. The drug wars constituted a serious threat to ordinary citizens; 20,000 were killed in Mexico in the last year alone. The US government has tried to suppress the illegal importation of hard drugs to the US. It has armed police and anti-drug units of the Mexican government. The United States also supplies most of the weapons used in the war between government and drug dealers and between the different drug cartels themselves.

The main cause of these drug wars is of course the demand for hard drugs in the United States. Many of our citizens are drug users. Many of them would like to overcome their addiction but there are not enough beds in drug rehabilitation clinics to help everyone who wants to stop using drugs. Instead of providing more drug rehab clinics, our government is spending millions bringing the drug war to Mexico.

It would clearly be much more useful for everyone to help addicts in the US to break their habits and to stop sending arms and anti-drug quasi-military forces into Mexico. We should do all we can to reduce the demand for drugs in the US instead of fanning the flames of drug wars in Mexico.

Our government and US citizens bear major responsibility for the conditions that drive people to walk through the hot desert into the United States.

What is more, impoverished Mexicans and Central Americans who brave the heat, the lack of food and water, the scorpions and snakes, and hostile American militias to cross the border are subject to inhumane treatment if they are apprehended. They are kept sometimes for more than a year in detention centers where the food is rotting, where they have no access to legal advice, where they are cut off from communication with their families. In recent years our government has instituted mass trials, where as many as 70 persons face a judge at the same time and may find themselves send off to prison in a procedure that takes no more than half an hour. These mass trials are a complete travesty of justice and a serious embarrassment for all of us.

If we want to reduce the inflow of people without documents, we need to seriously alter our policies with respect to Mexico and Central America. We need to support democratic governments, not dictators. We need to end exporting our grain to the detriment of local farmers. We need to provide opportunities for drug rehabilitation in the US and stop fomenting drug wars in countries south of us.

If we want to be able to hold up our heads among the nations of this world, we need to treat the people who come across the border with respect and compassion. If we want to punish them for their border crossing, they need to face courts with the same rights as American citizens. There should be no place in our country for concentration camps and mere caricatures of legal proceedings.