Friday, November 29, 2019

Reparations 2: What are Reparations?

By some accounts the United States is the richest country in the world. But it's population clearly is not similarly the richest. The official US poverty rate for 2017 is 12.3% 1 out of roughly 8 Americans is poor. The homeless are not included in this number, neither are persons in the military or in prison. In 2014 more than 20% of children lived in poverty. For families headed by a woman the poverty rate was 33%. The rate for American Indians is sightly higher. More than half of the poor adults worked, often part-time because full-time work was hard to get; the work they did have paid really poorly.
Are these poor Americans whose poverty is the result of not obtaining full-time work and/or being paid properly called "poverty wages"entitled to reparations?
I raise the question in order to ascertain what we mean by the term "reparations."
Currently reparations are under discussion for African-Americans who have traditionally been and still are over represented among the poor in America. But reparations for African Americans are called for not just because they are often poor in spite of working, frequently more than one job, but because African-Americans were enslaved between the middle 1600s and the end of the Civil War. Being the property of white plantation owners, they could be bought and sold at the whites' will. Husbands were sold away from wives, wives from husbands; children lost their mothers and fathers when their owners sold them to a different plantation, often far away. Black family ties were not regarded as valid or important.
Slave children were not only not entitled to an education; it was illegal to teach them to read and write. When the wife of the owner of Frederick Douglass taught him his letters, she was breaking the law.
Legally liberated at the end of that war, African-Americans were subjected to the so-called Jim Crow regime. Southern states passed the properly named Black Codes – laws that applied only to African-Americans, that made them liable to be arrested for "vagrancy" if they were not working, or subject to arrest for not yielding the sidewalk to white persons, or for looking white persons in the eye. Convicted under any of these laws, they were imprisoned. Prisoners were rented out to white enterprises where once again they worked without getting paid – the condition of slaves. Other "freed" African-Americans worked as sharecroppers where they were regularly cheated out of the pay they had earned for a year's crop of cotton.
Why did African-Americans put up with these gross forms of maltreatment and disrespect? In the period after the end of the Civil War they were the targets of a concerted terrorist campaign. Random African-Americans were grabbed, tortured and hanged. A sizable white audience gaped at their killing; no one reached out to help. Sheriffs and police often were in the audience. No white person was prosecuted for murdering an African-American. This terror campaign has not ended to this day. The murderer of Trayvon Martin was prosecuted but acquitted.
Poor Americans deserve help. They deserve living wages, access to good housing, good healthcare and good schools for their children. After almost 365 years of being treated as barely human, African Americans deserve reparations, compensation for centuries of ill-treatment and insult.
But what form should these reparations take? There are different proposals: Some imagine that every qualified African-American would be paid a certain, probably substantial sum of money. Other projects involve affirmative-action measures which enable African-American students to enroll in good schools, even if they might not be well prepared or if they cannot afford the cost which it would be up to the (white) public to defray. African-Americans are much less likely than whites to own their own home, their wealth is a small fraction of the wealth of average white American families. Reparations might be used to remedy these stark differences. White supremacy that forces young black men and women into unemployment, educational underachievement and poverty makes it extremely difficult for them to develop proper self esteem. Reparations might mean programs to enable these young people to learn to value themselves as they deserve to be valued.
But all of these proposals miss the central requirement. As long as whites can construe reparation programs as white people-helping-African-Americans who are unable to succeed by their own efforts, such operations simply continue poisonous racist thinking. Reparations must repair relations between black and white. Repairing Black-White relations means that White people have to change. They must no longer think that being white means being inherently superior to persons whose skin was darker or who have been accepted as white when earlier their status was, at best, in doubt ( and the decision about their status was, of course in the hands of whites.) Reparations must involve the acknowledgment by whites of their brutality towards African-Americans for more than three centuries. If relations between whites and African-Americans are to be repaired, whites need to change. They must surrender all traces of white supremacy. That is the ultimate goal of reparations.
A five or 10 year program will not accomplish that. Racist thoughts and attitudes are deeply embedded in white consciousness even of those people who mean well, who try to inform themselves about the history and suffering of African-Americans and to try to remedy its effects. It will take generations of efforts to make the line of distinction between whites and African-Americans go away, fade and disappear.
In the meantime the House of Representatives needs to vote on House Resolution 40, offered for many years by Representative Conyers to set up a committee to study the question of reparations, to allow everyone to testify as to what reparations might look like. What would African Americans ask for? What would whites – well-meaning and/or racist – be willing to pay for? The process must begin with a public discussion of the question about the nature of reparations.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

I Never Owned Any Slaves”. Who owes reparations?

In recent months there has been a good deal of talk about reparations owed to African-Americans and, perhaps and to Native Americans. Advocates point to reparations paid to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and to had to sell their land and businesses, homes and belongings at bargain basement prices as they were hustled into the internment camps. Reparations, advocates point out, are not an unheard of event.
But many Americans regard the idea of reparations as completely ridiculous. They cannot understand how anybody in their right mind would ask white Americans to provide reparations to anyone. Last June Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, was quoted as saying: "none of us currently living are responsible" for what he called America's "original sin." Slavery he said ended 150 years ago. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.” 
At the same time various news outlets reported that genealogical research showed two of McConnell's grandfathers to have been slave owners who owned 14 slaves, primarily women. That suggests that the family wealth of the McConnell clan derives in part from the unpaid labor of these 14 slaves. If that is the case, if McConnell's family has not in the meantime squandered the wealth derived from these slaves' labor, it is hard to see how McConnell can disclaim any responsibility for the suffering of slaves.
            This story is instructive because it points us in the direction of looking at historical responsibilities. There are many Americans who want to claim innocence of slavery whose property and wealth, and the accompanying well-being, does in part derive from the slaves their ancestors owned.
What is more, many American families who did in fact not own slaves nevertheless profited from the institution. Slaves were mainly employed in the cotton fields. Cotton was a precious product that needed to be transported and traded, that required cleaning and transformation into cotton thread to be then woven into cotton material and tailored into shirts and dresses, sheets and curtains, and many other products. Slaves produced the raw material for a large and complex textile industry. The work of slaves created industries that gave employment and a living to many Americans.
The textile industry was founded in England and grew rapidly thanks to a number of industrial inventions that made it possible to transform cotton into cloth in large factories. Around 1800 some of these techniques were brought to the United States and very soon textiles were the largest industry in the United States. A significant number of whites found work and sometimes became very wealthy thanks to the unpaid labor of black slaves in the southern states. Not having owned slaves does not get any families in the United States or in Great Britain for that matter off the hook as far as responsibility for the exploitation of slaves goes.
What happened to African-Americans once the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were passed? Many Americans do not know the answer to that question. The older among them experienced the civil rights movement. Younger ones are most likely growing up in cities and towns that have a Martin Luther King Blvd. somewhere or some other commemoration of Martin Luther King. But why were they demonstrating and exposing themselves to the violence of southern Sheriff's and attacks by racist gangs?
The answer to that question is complex. Here are some of the pieces. The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery "except as punishment for crime." The Civil War and Reconstruction were barely over when former slave owners used this exception to the 13th amendment. They passed a number of laws, most of which applied only to black Americans. These laws required, for instance, that all African-American men had to have a job. If they were not employed they could be convicted of vagrancy. According to these laws, black persons could not assemble without a white person present. Preaching or speaking to groups of people was not allowed. African-Americans needed to be employed by a white person or "a former owner"; they were not allowed to rent a home in the town where they worked. It went on and on. It gave the sheriff plenty of leeway for arresting and imprisoning black persons. Black prisoners once again were made to work for nothing. Frequently states rented out groups of prisoners to private companies- a practice that still continues in prisons today. Once once again black people were virtual slaves.
In the years after the Civil War thousands and thousands of African-Americans were tortured by white mobs and then lynched. The local sheriff or police looked on and perhaps participated. No one was ever arrested for what was clearly brutal murder. Whites conducted a deliberate campaign of intimidating black persons.
Only against the background of this deliberate campaign of terrorism – because that is what it was – an intentional process of putting the fear into the hearts and minds of persons of color – can one understand what happened to the black sharecroppers. They worked their land all year and at the end of the year they brought the bales of cotton that they produced to the proprietor of the land, of course a white man. They might have brought in six bales and the proprietor counted only four and paid them a small price for them. Year-by-year white people stole from the black farmers and they were too scared of being lynched or their family harmed to object. Once again black labor was not compensated.
White people became well to-do by consistently stealing from persons of color. Those practices did not end until the 1900s. Many white people are comfortably off today because their grandparents cheated sharecroppers or rented black convicts from the local jail. Thoroughly fed up, millions of African-Americans fled the South to move to Northern cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Life up north was still very difficult and remains so to this day. I will cite two brief examples.
            At the end of World War II a grateful nation passed legislation which promised low cost mortgages to veterans and offered to pay the cost of the education. When black veterans took their offer of a government backed mortgage to the new suburbs and Levittowns, they were turned down. No one was going to sell them a house in a white suburb and black suburbs did not exist. Banks would not lend to black applicants; real estate agents would sell houses to Blacks only in specific, mostly urban and decaying neighborhoods-- a practice known as “red-lining.” When black veterans applied to college, southern colleges and universities would refuse to admit them. Schools that would have them mostly lacked any advanced engineering or doctoral programs.
             Their unpaid labor built the Capitol in Washington DC. It built a thriving industrial nation. But they were excluded from sharing the wealth they produced. This Civil War did not bring them freedom or citizenship. The struggle for black liberation still remains to be won.
There are no white Americans who are not complicit in the oppression of African-Americans.

Monday, November 4, 2019


Human beings are capable of unspeakable brutality to one another. The survivors of combat, of sexual and other assault carry the scars of these experiences for the rest of their lives. In our time, there are victims of ethnic cleansing, of racial and ethnic prejudices. Innocent bystanders to incurable hostilities between groups flee the violence. As refugees they live for years in camps, often under barely sustainable conditions.
Ineradicable scars are borne by persons caught up in natural disasters--the victims of wildfires in California and elsewhere, those affected by earthquakes or floods, and now the terrible effects of climate change.
Many of them never quite recover from their dreadful experience. They never quite believe that they are safe. In dreams and in waking the memories of their past fright, of barely escaping when family or friends died – killed, starved to death, succumbing to a disease that could have been cured. They are difficult to live with because part of their horrifying experience is always present; the unspeakable is always happening. They are always sad, they are often self-destructive, some talk about suicide, some actually attempt it. For their family or friends or lovers whose lives have been less burdened they remain incomprehensible and not reachable. Their pain disturbs not only them but their families and friends.
My father who served in World War I only once talked to me about being terribly frightened under fire. But he was depressed, sad, uncommunicative for most of the time. There was then, when I was a young person, no name for his condition. It was just who he was. People either avoided him or put up with how he was.
Today there is a name for his condition and the condition of very many people whose experiences exceeded human tolerance. They are said to suffer from PTSD (Post – Traumatic Stress Disorder). It is regarded as an illness. Persons displaying symptoms of the illness are told to talk to a medical person. They should talk to the doctor. It is worth thinking about the implications of classifying the suffering of the bystanders or survivors as a medical illness.
If PTSD were not classified as an illness, the sufferers of PTSD might instead be regarded as odd and more or less annoying individuals who were best ignored and avoided. Or one might subject them to criticism saying: "Look at these young men and women, they returned from the war, the concentration camp, the ethnic cleansing or what have you and they seem to be perfectly okay, they have families, they have work. Why can't you be like them and stop fussing about the past? Everyone has problems, everyone goes through hard times, we are tired of hearing about yours." We could call them self-indulgent, weak and expose them to general scorn.
Instead we treat them as persons suffering from a serious disease. We express sympathy for their continued pain and we try to help them lead as good a life as they can. That seems to be a definite victory for humanity. We avoid the temptation to be incomprehending, judgmental and cruel and, instead, we extend ourselves with kindness and resources to try to help to make up for the brutality of our fellow humans and often ourselves.
It is important to pay attention to these last words. A good deal of the suffering that afflicts participants with PTSD, that leaves fellow citizens of ours suffering gravely is caused by us. It was our government who sent our soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq and still leaves them there after many years of utterly futile and unjustifiable warfare. It was our government that sent our soldiers to Vietnam to die in a humiliating defeat. It was our government that sent Native American children to schools where they were supposed to forget their own culture, their language, their families and their people. It was our government that overthrew properly elected governments in many Latin American countries, in Iran and elsewhere, replacing them with often murderous dictatorships. It was our government who refused to destroy the train tracks that led to the extermination camps of the Holocaust.
These are important facts to remember but treating the suffering that the survivors of these actions still bear every day as a disease tends to make us overlook our own complicity in these events. We do not ask about the people responsible for people contracting a disease. If I come down with a tick-borne illness no one is going to blame me for dealing with the leaves in the fall where the ticks wait to attach themselves to my skin. Whose fault it is is rarely asked when we talk about the illnesses people come down with every day. This person has high blood pressure, that person walks with a limp, another has cataracts or is hard of hearing. People have colds, the flu, and many other illnesses and no one asks why do you have that?
But in the case of some illnesses that question is important. Why do children in Flint Michigan have an elevated lead content in their blood? Why are many children in poor parts of our towns obese? Why is the suicide rate among veterans higher than among the population in general?
And with that question and the realization that the veterans suicide rate in the United States in recent years has been twice that of the population as a whole we return to our question about the causes of PTSD and who is responsible for it.
There are persons who are directly responsible for the incredible pain suffered in the aftermath of experiences that the human nervous system cannot sustain. Immediately they are our leaders – presidents, generals, industries that profit from wars, from incarceration, from climate change, the persons who sent soldiers off to war or the persons who agitated for a war from which they profited. In the end each of us is responsible if we voted, or perhaps did not vote for these leaders or did not oppose with sufficient force their election and selection as leaders.
Everyone knows that we are all connected and here is one more way in which the life of each of us is affected by everyone else. Everyone is responsible in more or less indirect ways for the lives and experiences of everyone else, as they are responsible for ours. We need to step with incredible care through our lives and consider the effects we have on persons often far away, of persons we will never know. We need, where we can, to remedy the harmful effects of our choices or our inaction. Passivity, inaction, excuses are not permitted. It is immoral to witness the suffering of fellow citizens and to turn our backs claiming that we are not responsible.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the most corrupt of all?

          Americans pride themselves on being different from other nations and of course they are. But so are other nations different from each other and from us. Each has a language, a culture, a history. Each has an official story about itself that is most likely pretty mendacious, and a more honest story that is not often heard. Our being different from others does not make us different from them.
          But, of course, we also think that we are better, although in many ways that is not true. Other countries provide better healthcare for less money than we do. Other countries do a better job educating their children. Other countries have made greater strides in the treatment of indigenous peoples or in reducing greenhouse gases. We are not as good and certainly not as superior to others than we keep telling ourselves.
          These observations come to mind in connection with a great deal of publicity of corruption in Ukraine. A colorful collection of Americans of the impressive moral caliber of Rudy Giuliani go back and forth to Ukraine ostensibly to help them overcome the threat of corruption. That's worth a chuckle or two, not only because Rudy Giuliani is not a model of the upstanding citizen with remarkable integrity, but more importantly because corruption pervades transactions in our country just as it does in the Ukraine.
          Corruption may be different here. It has certainly changed. 50 years ago when a Chicago policeman stopped you for a traffic violation you would hand him your driver's license wrapped in a $20 bill and that would take care of it. Petty bribery – and not so petty bribery – were daily events. Corruption today is somewhat more sophisticated and not quite as blatantly public. But corruption is a problem here as it is in most, if not all, countries of the world.
          Our court system employs judges, and magistrates who deal with lesser problems. Both of them are appointed by the governor of each state assisted by a Governor's Council and appointments do not only depend on the merit of the candidate. Being the friend of the governor or of the Lieutenant Governor definitely helps. In some cases it is said to be more important to be well-connected than to be a competent lawyer.
          Local government, state government, and the federal government all spend large amounts of money purchasing supplies from pencils and erasers for the schools to battleships and sophisticated military planes that cost multiple billions of dollars. Often these purchases are made without proper bids from competent suppliers. A friend of the city, the county, the state, or the Feds gets the contract. There is good money to be made by connecting suppliers to buyers. Multiple suppliers will rig their bids so that everybody will get a part of a lucrative contract.
          In the United States approximately 160 million people are in the workforce. Full-time or part-time, they go to their jobs and get paid by the hour or by the job. Merit alone does not determine who gets hired or fired from a job. Recently a story circulated of a person who had worked in a funeral home for 20 or more years before she came out as a transgender woman. She was promptly fired in spite of having done an outstanding job for many years. The customers, according to the employer, would not have patronized a funeral home where they negotiated caskets and wakes with a transgender woman. The employment history of African-Americans is a more striking example of how little merit matters in getting a good job. The same of course is true of all women who are still being excluded from many excellent jobs.
          In many countries it is well known that corruption is a serious hindrance to economic development but the government does not take action, presumably because it is complicit in the corruption. The United States is no different. Goldman Sachs and other banking firms are widely considered responsible for the 2007 – 2008 economic crash that did enormous damage to many working families who not only lost their jobs but also their houses and what little wealth they had managed to accumulate over many years of hard work. Goldman Sachs and the complicit enterprises have been investigated by the government. But nothing ever happened. They have been investigated since then for domestic and international suspicious dealings but nothing ever happened. If your financial transactions are complex and large enough and if members of your firm circulate in and out of government, you can operate pretty much with impunity. The many families who lost their homes were not responsible for the crisis. The financiers who were received bonuses from the banks where they worked.
We could go on and on pointing to corrupt practices. Healthcare of poor people, of people of color is not as good as healthcare of people with money. The education offered to poor black or Hispanic children is not all of the same sophistication and excellence as the education of white above middle-class children. Opportunities are not distributed equally. The oft repeated claim that our society is a meritocracy is a blatant lie and everyone knows it.
          Patriots, or better pseudo-patriots, will insist that corruption in the United States is not as profound as in, say, India. That may well be true but is surely totally irrelevant. Are we really going to continue tolerating and encouraging corruption on all sides in the US until the people in India clean up their act? Are we going to keep bragging about our meritocracy, which does not actually exist, until all transactions in the Ukraine are beyond reproach? That is obviously a silly question.
          Whether we are more or less guilty of corruption is not interesting. What is worthy of being said loud and clear is that integrity in politics, in business, in many other areas of our society is sadly lacking. The problem is in some ways more serious than it is in Ukraine or India where the existence of corruption is generally accepted. Our political leaders, our candidates for public office, rarely if ever target corruption. It has not become a public issue yet except in the polemics between opposing political parties.
There is no hope for ever cleaning up our economy or society so that everyone will truly have an equal chance as long as we are not willing to acknowledge how corrupt our current practices are.

Monday, September 30, 2019

He, She, They

Many especially younger persons insist that we not refer to them as he or she but as "they.” Never mind the grammatical oddity of using a plural pronoun to refer to a single person, calling a person "they" is an important way of opposing the dominant idea that there are two genders only and that every human being belongs to one or the other.
          This seems to be a very odd and eccentric conflict but it is not. At issue is the dogma that many, especially evangelical Christian Americans cling to that every human being is either a man or a woman. One significance of that insistence comes to the fore when we face the inevitable follow – up question: what kind of man are you and what sort of woman are you? It is not enough that I am classified as an unambiguous man but that classification places me under pressure to be a particular kind of man because all the alternative versions of manhood are considered unmanly or “not a real man.” Am I the one who makes decisions in my family, does my word stand and is not to be questioned? Am I the one who deals with mechanical things and mows the lawn where as the females in the family not only have to do the housework but also are in charge of emotions. They have to bring a casserole to the neighbor when their parent dies or their child is injured. They have to maintain social relationships. I don't do either of those things; it is not manly to do them. (Obviously, this is an extreme version of the patriarchal family.)
           To put this bluntly: the insistence that every human being belongs to one of two genders is an unvarnished defense of male supremacy, of the role of man as more powerful, as in charge, as the person who wears the pants in the family.
There have always been gay people. In classical antiquity they were openly acknowledged and, at least, men loving men was ordinary and accepted. Then for a long time homosexuality had to go underground persecuted by Christian churches whose Christianity happily persecuted different groups, homosexuals among them.
In recent years homosexuality has come into the open once again and with it the conflict about its legitimacy has reignited. It is not difficult to see how homosexuality is a threat to the patriarchy.
           If my wife, who plays second fiddle to me in the family and whose sexual needs and desires are not as important in our marriage as are mine, can find sexual satisfaction in a relationship to another woman, it turns out that I am unnecessary and my claims to dominance are empty, even slightly ridiculous. If women can have marriages and can raise happy and promising children, I am not needed at all. Patriarchy crumbles.
          If my son can live lovingly and become a generous father in relationship to another man, all the lessons I tried to teach him about being a real man turn out to be irrelevant. The ideology which I followed and wanted him to follow of true manhood and male domination suddenly has become pointless. No wonder that ‘real men’ are extremely hostile to homosexuality in whatever form it may manifest itself.
          Being man or woman takes many different forms and young persons as they grow up must find the kind of man or woman they are suited to be or they may be the kind of person whose gender is variable and expresses itself in different forms in different situations, and different company, at different stages of their life.
           Every person should be as fully as able to be the person that it suits them to be. Every person should be accepting of the choices about their gender identity and their sexuality made by other persons and the reasons they might give us for those choices.
          The author of Genesis who decreed that the first two members of the human race where one man and one woman got it quite wrong.
           (That author also got the gender of God quite wrong. Gender identity is always a limitation. If God were a male would he not be limited in his sexual expression?)
It is high time that we stop to tyrannize ourselves and others by demanding prescribed forms of sexual expression. What matters is that we avoid harming others and defending patriarchy by, for instance, voting in laws that define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Without any doubt that does serious harm. End sexual oppression by trying to legislate gender and sexual identity!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Neighbor Love and Punishment

In Christianity, Judaism and Islam the faithful are enjoined to live in peace with their neighbor, to treat them kindly or even to love them. This command has its secular equivalent when a peaceful world, a world free of war and cruelty is set as a goal of political action.

This injunction to universal kindness is pulled up short in the face of cruelty when neighbors oppress neighbors. We are reminded that this is the hundreth anniversary of what is known to historians as the "Red Summer" when white mobs burned black churches, often with their congregations still inside and then went on rampages of lynchings in which hundreds of African-Americans died. One of those burned churches was rebuilt. It was burned down the gain in 2014. In 2016 several black churches fell victim to arson attacks in Louisiana. The cruelty of 100 years ago continues to this day. The advocates of peace and reconciliation are facing serious challenges today.

Dedicated to a world of peace, whether for religious reasons or following secular political principles, how shall we treat the arsonists, the lynch mobs, the murderers?           At this moment, in Togo, a small African country that only very recently emerged from a brutal dictatorship, maintained by murdering often innocent citizens, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission encourages citizens to confess whatever terrific part they played in the past and for the victims to try to reconcile with the guilty parties. The assassins will not be tried in a court of law, they do not face long periods of incarceration or even death. The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to reunify a population divided for many years between the henchmen of the dictatorship and the victimized population at large. Here is one way in which the religious and secular political injunction to practice kindness to all is actually being applied.           Not everyone is satisfied with this interpretation of neighborly love. Surely, they say an important part of loving your neighbor is to respect them. One form of paying respect to human beings is to hold them responsible for their actions. You disrespect them if you do not pay attention to their actions, may those be acts of heroism or self-sacrifice or maybe they be deceitful acts or acts of violence. Refusing to acknowledge what a person has done, how he lived his life, whether she contributed to the well-being of our community or acted to destroy it is to deny respect to the perpetrators of civil oppression and war, the recognition that is an important element of respect. If you forget how a person has lived his life, how he injured neighbors he did not even know, you refuse the person the respect and thus the kindness or love you are professing.. The forgiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission denies genuine respect to the persons offered forgiveness.          Can one forgive and respect a person guilty of exceptional cruelty? It is a question that is not easy to answer. The truth is that forgiveness may be respectful, fully horrified by the action of the person before us, or it may be as it were absent-minded, unthinking and more or less mechanical. In that case it clearly denies the person forgiven the respect they are entitled to. Respectful forgiveness makes difficult demands on the person trying to forgive.          But punishment as it is demanded by the enemies of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions continues the cycle of brutality. It inflicts pain on those who inflicted pains on others. Now they are aggrieved and the cycle of victimization is being continued.          However heartfelt our desire for peace and an end to inflicting pain on those who have inflicted pain on others, that end remains unattainable unless we practice what we preach and forgive. Punishment as the response to breaking the peace will never allow us to restore a more durable peace than we have accomplished so far.          Fully aware of the misdeeds of those who supported and practiced violence against their fellow citizens, we need nevertheless to allow them back into our community in order to try to heal it and allow it once again to come together and to create as much harmony as it can. That is the true meaning of the injunction to love our neighbor, to befriend our neighbors and to be genuine promoters of peace.

Monday, September 2, 2019

About Elections

We recently hosted an event in support of one of the candidates for the local School Committee. This young person was born in Africa and came to the US as a child and went through the entire public school system in my town. She knew at first-hand what it was like to be a public school student in our town as a person of color. Since there had been a good deal of controversy recently about the treatment of African-American and Latinx students in our school system, run by white persons almost exclusively, supporting her campaign seemed important. Add to that, we came to like and respect her as we got to know her better.
Most of the members of our school committee have had their position for a long time. Their names are familiar but I have never met any of them and have a very hazy idea of any of them. I am not clear what they stand for when it comes to educational policy and I do not know them personally. I do not know to what extent to trust their campaign statements and whether one could rely on them to act on the principles they profess.
Well, you say, that's the way it is in a large country like ours. But that is of course totally beside the point. I have the same problem of not knowing what candidates I vote for in the town I live which is not a big town by any means. More importantly, we say that in our democracy the people have the ultimate power over the government and that they exercise that power by selecting representatives of their choice. But a population voting for representatives they often do not know and who are, in fact, different from the voters think they are does not strike me as a population that is in control of its government or society. The choices we make, most of the time, are rather sightless. Rather than making thoughtful, well-informed choices, we yank the lever of an electoral slot machine. Our choices tend to be pretty random.
Is there a way of remedying that problem? Suppose in each neighborhood where people know each other or live close enough together to meet and talk, the citizens meet to select someone who is familiar with the school committee and knows the persons who are running to join that committee. Perhaps that person was a member of the committee some time ago and thus knows the personalities of the current membership and the functioning of the body. Suppose further that each neighborhood selects one such person well able to make an informed choice with respect to members of the School Committee. The representatives of each neighborhood will meet and choose the requisite number of persons to serve on this committee. The committee membership is picked by persons who know each candidate and have some judgment as to who may be the best person to help the schools. In this way the problem of citizens voting for more or less unknown candidates has been circumvented.
You may object that this indirect vote for school committee members puts a great distance between the individual citizens and the organs of city government. But that distance exists already. There is a large gap between me and institutions whose members are elected but are on the whole unknown to the people who vote for them and therefore cannot really be said represent those people. If voters under our present system of direct elections of members of the School Board or the City Council wanted to be familiar with the persons they vote for, they would need to spend a great deal more time to meet the candidates at different forums or when they volunteered to work for a candidate or another. Most citizens do not have the time available.
Counting up the number of votes that different candidates get from voters that do not know them strikes me as an irrational way of electing a government. The jobs we elect people for are important. It makes a great deal of difference for us how well those jobs are done. We need the best candidates available. We don't get those as long as we respond to campaign literature written by professional campaign strategists that often are only faintly related to the ideas and practices of the candidate.
We need to elect persons as electors we know, whom we can trust that they will do what they promise us. That means we should choose persons in our neighborhood who are familiar with the office we are voting for and familiar with the candidates. They can choose the one who will do the best job for us.
This is, I believe, a good project. But Is it realistic? In many places in the United States citizens do not live in stable neighborhoods where neighbors know each other and are thus able to choose the right electors for local as well as national elections. Many neighborhoods are unstable in that people move in and out constantly. Think of neighborhoods with large student populations or neighborhoods of poor people who are regularly getting evicted because they are unable to pay the rent. In areas surrounding military installations, families move regularly when their members in the military are transferred. There are parts of many towns populated by young people on their way up who will leave when they get promoted and their pay goes up. Others leave because they lose their job in times of economic instability. In short, the picture of areas with stable populations does not seem to apply to significant parts of the country.
But many folks in these highly mobile populations may not participate in elections, especially not in local elections because their ties to the locality may be very weak. They may also remain aloof from elections because they do not feel at all included in the political system. Candidates do not seek them out or mentioned there needs and problems in their campaign speeches. Feeling overlooked by politicians they may well stay aside when elections come around.
Choosing the electors we do know instead of candidates we don't, is a realistic project that deserves serious consideration.